Vallum has been encouraging an international literary collaboration of established and forthcoming writers for a little over a decade. The publication is dedicated to fostering communication in and around its home in Canada as well as with countries that range from Australia to India. This issue features a special focus on Pakistani poets. Pakistan is “often portrayed as one of the world’s most dangerous countries,” and so it is no surprise that a collection from its poets is astonishingly beautiful and powerful.
“Silent Birds” by Zulfikar Ghose opens the issue with a note of quiet grief. Birds are traditionally symbols of instinct—they are the first out if something goes wrong, they fly away from danger, the fly south for the winter, and they caw as a warning for torrential weather. The narrator has made a trip back to his childhood home, as instinctually as a bird migrating to its nesting grounds, to find it an echo of his memory. His words ring of emptiness. Though people aren’t mentioned, the scarcity of birds and their lack of natural sound fills the setting with a gaping hollow feeling. This is reinforced as the words themselves reverberate: “My / family home shook as in an earthquake.” Through simple diction and the barest images, the author expresses his own feeling of emptiness. Even the birds know that something is wrong in their homeland, and yet “the priest shrilly called the faithful / to prayer as if nothing had happened.”
Mehvash Amin also writes about birds in “Crow,” a poem that is deceptively short and simple. It is a reversal of the role of the crow, “Scavengers, we call them.” As an apostrophe poem, it addresses the miss-nomered “scavenger” birds. In simple words, it rectifies the reputation of a scavenger animal. This idea serves as a metaphor. In the opening poem, Ghose used birds as a symbol of instinct and emptiness. Here, they not only make a statement about mankind, but they also represent mankind. The writer justifies, even beautifies a gritty and feral act. The final line solidifies the idea: “Pick bare with grace.” Survival is honorable, and “in a new world,” it is necessary and beautiful.
Tastefully, Vallum also includes full-page spreads of works from Pakistani artist Faiza Butt, courtesy of fine art dealers Rossi & Rossi Ltd. The pieces are bold in their messages and style. They are statements about the culture of the artist, featuring grainy outlines that converge in bold darks and soft lights. Several of the works are plays on traditional-looking eastern figures, intermingled with modern images in an unapologetic statement about the modern and the ancient and the vast area in-between. The final image “I’ll be Safe in my Own Mind” is in heavy black-and-white and showcases subject matter that is, in some circles, inflammatory and all the more beautiful for the risk. The choice to include the artwork in Vallum is effective not only because it provides stunning visual breaks from reading, but because the works couldn’t blend more effortlessly with the overarching idea of the issue: an unflinching showcase and evaluation of the state of Pakistan and the world.
The final section of this issue of Vallum includes the two Vallum poetry contest winners as well as several reviews. Including reviews in a literary magazine changes the experience, and in Vallum’s case was done well. The reviewed works vary from a translated book to a Modern Poetry Book of Pakistan, which couldn’t be more appropriate for the issue and the overarching idea of international collaboration that Vallum advocates. What’s more, the inclusion of reviews, or any type of article in a poetry magazine, brings the reader out of the deep hazy place of contemplation and back to the present world. This natural occurrence couldn’t be better utilized than it is here, as the main idea, shared by the pieces, is a look at the modern state of affairs of the world, especially Pakistan.
One could say that the final reading experience, the journey of deep contemplation and then of rising again to the current moment with clear eyes, is itself a larger metaphor for the ideas presented in each piece and in their collaboration. Well done, Vallum.