(REVIEW) A Context in Flux: Azad Ashim Sharma’s ‘Against the Frame’
In this review, Maria Sledmere explores the representation of global conflicts and everyday politics of hybridity, identity, xenophobia and experimental poetics within Azad Ashim Sharma’s debut publication, Against the Frame (Barque Press, 2017).
That brings us back to what the ambition of theory may be – what theory desires. That’s difficult to answer, but I think a theory should go beyond illuminating the deep structure of an event, object, or text, should do more than establish or embellish the framing discourse within which this object of analysis is placed. What the theory does first of all is respond to a problem. You look at what you can’t use – you look at the explanations you have for something and you feel that they aren’t translatable, that they don’t adequately illuminate something about another form of thought, or the event of a thought. So you are moved to begin to rethink. — Homi Bhabha
> Azad Ashim Sharma’s collection Against the Frame (Barque Press, 2017) is dedicated in memory of his grandparents, A. B. Kazi and Zainab Ebrahim Asvat. This is a book that speaks to the lineages of the personal as much as the political; to imply some sort of separation between each would be to deny the woven threads of oppression, racism and prejudice as they play out in lived experience. Against the Frame is a book of contemporary Britain in the context of racialised phobias, charged disasters on a global scale, intergenerational traumas and media distortions. Comprising 42 pages of untitled lyric poems, it’s a restrained, brooding navigation of love, solidarity, terror and belonging in all its loaded forms. It lashes when it must, devastates with softer images then cuts to the chase like a certain look exchanged across the platform of a tube station. It works by sequence, contrast, accumulation. Its tone is monochrome, London fog with splashes of scarlet.
> When Homi Bhabha talks of a move towards beginning ‘to rethink’, he means with theory, but that’s not to exclude poetry. For Sharma’s poetry does nothing if not engage with theory, within the fraught realm of a present defined by problematic frameworks of racialised identity, hierarchy and myth. A South London poet of mixed Islamic-Hindu heritage, Sharma is well-poised to unpack these conflicts, as they play out not just in the news, but also in the embodied discourse of the street. Against the Frame engages with ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, portraying the feedback loops of media representation and everyday interaction. The deceptively ‘simple’ form of the short lyric becomes the ideal stage for intervening within our culture of soundbites and throwaway social media posts. Sharma will show up the terrible collage of our hyper-mediated present with an Imagist’s precision:
More white foreskins must preen like satire with human rights to vote offence and make Arab grave for occidental cenotaph spectaculars.
The often deadpan tone serves to heighten the intensity of the subjects presented. It wouldn’t be quite right to simply say Against the Frame is a ‘polemic’; its lyrics are subtler than the term implies; Sharma uses dramatic or explicit images with simultaneous conviction and restraint. Images of body parts detached from bodies highlights an absurdism around questions of definition, the arbitrary ornamentation of all that identifies our heritage, our skins, our moralised standing. Sharma constantly shows up Western hypocrisies through the lens of specific events as they ricochet between the scene of occurrence and their media and political reception back in Britain and/or Europe.
> In a way, what Sharma offers us is shortcuts to these fraught and complicated issues. I mean shortcuts not to sound reductive, but in fact an expansion, a kind of portal to accessing almost unthinkable knowledges, narratives and trauma. I mean shortcuts in relation to the elliptical tension of two lines that offer so much, that speak so much to what we can or cannot know, that gesture towards the deceptively neat tragedies that our sociopolitical systems propagate: ‘Everything has slipped away / into the algebra of the ballot box’. I mean also shortcuts that hold complexity within the torque of discursive ironies:
Precarity has become the buzzword for whiteness. A whiteness so world interior that it mistakes itself for the critique of itself & forces that critique upon us.
There’s the understatement of the ampersand, the sense that Sharma so adeptly shows up the hypocrisies of white logic, the workings of white universalism, via the cutting restraint of what resembles a philosophical argument. Sharma reveals how one accepted, mainstream proposition or assumption can be so easily undermined by its own logic, the way it plays out. Hearing Sharma read, however, these lyrics acquire by their very reasoning, their surprising warmth, a force that touches the compasses of both emotion and ‘common sense’. Live, Sharma reads in a way that is powerful and ‘held’, as well as conversational (his frankly incredible two-and-a-half hour SOAS Radio interview attests to this). There is a voice in these poems: for all their sweep and politics, their ability to comment on a general occurrence, their restrained ‘I’, the voice is there like a current, a charge, a bringing together of specificities. A threading, rather than congealing of experience. The voice responds to a problem, the poems stage the coming towards the event of a thought. Sharma’s ‘We’ is a statement of solidarity, a drawing together of histories of oppression. His ‘us’ is generous, empathetic, vulnerable, potential with united strength. Writing in Threads (2018), Nisha Ramayya argues:
I think of the weaving frame as a context in flux, that may be moved and expanded across spaces and times, that may transgress national borders and rational systems, a potentially unlimited context. I think of threads as parts that frame, as repetitions that enable memory, destruction and recreation, as continuities that loop and accrue meaning.
Being Against the Frame is to be against the frame: the representation that holds in singular, that imposes one narrative upon a plural experience of difference and identity in space and time. Ramayya’s revised sense of the frame is one that catches hybridity in its many woven strands. The way Sharma draws in the dialogue tags of familiar platitudes and wrenches them astray with control and poise feels a bit like weaving, or at least reworking in the sense of a craft, a generative movement towards production, expression, improvisation or inhabited pattern. I can’t help but think also of the work of pace and echo, the soulfulness of honesty, the pass between the ‘I’ and the ‘you’, the double consciousness of the seeing and seen, the collective and singular held within a hybrid identity:
When we look in the mirror we are made to fear ourselves. When you look in the mirror you see the victim, the innocent. And you say these images are easy, simple, don’t experiment with your language enough!
Here, Sharma challenges common Anglo-American critical receptions of BAME poetry, which tend to read work solely by way of the poet’s racial identity, ignoring vital innovations in form within their work. To write of that familiar trope, the glance in the mirror, is apparently to lack ‘experiment’, to write with ‘easy, simple’ images. I can’t think what it is, but those last two lines compellingly echo for me. Almost like a Basho haiku, a spellbinding line from Ariana Reines or a familiar Imagist lyric I can’t quite place. The direct ‘you say’, which speaks beyond the event of the reader encountering this particular poem, and gazes hard at entire histories. In the way that H.D.’s rich and mythical lyrics challenged perceptions and receptions of gender and sexuality in women’s poetry, Against the Frame unravels the myths of racialised experience by forging a space for concrete realities of daily struggle. Sharma defies you to shut down or dismiss that powerful image of the mirror, the duality of terrorist and innocent, inside and outside, held in the self contained by mainstream representation.
> His work is experimental in its suffusion of image, the clarity of sentiment delivered in complex affects which cut across genres, discourses and times. To say this is ‘contemporary’ is to acknowledge the historical context of its occurrence, but also to emphasise the ongoingness of its tensions in the public and private spheres of the mind and the street, the self and the city, the comment section and the television. Some of Sharma’s lines are beautiful and striking in their simplicity, lines that demand to be read again and again like crashing waves, whose interruptions are the fissures we cleave by policy and political gesture:
My drowning nourishes your eyes and in your passivity overflowing all passivity before the stimulation you ban my existence without an apology.
Of course the word ‘ban’ would link me to Bhanu Kapil’s stunning Ban en Banlieue (2015), a strange kind of lyric, prayerful novel which follows its young brown (black) female protagonist home from school in the insurgent moments of a riot. A novel which quotes from Giorgio Agamben, ‘To ban someone is to say that no-one may harm him’. Ban herself ‘is a dessicated form on the sidewalk’. To dessicate is to remove the juices, the moisture of something, often for preservation. The banning of someone’s existence is, Sharma’s poem suggests, an act of self-preservation. What dessicated bodies must we keep on the streets to hold our nation? Sharma asks such questions in the braided turns of an intimate poetics of the body, of the polis, of the everyday. What is staged goes beyond the term ‘micro-aggression’ and accumulates throughout these short lyrics as a scarlet thread of pain, a woven history that binds its heritage to the unfolding contemporary. As with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014), subjectivity in all its tensions is essayed through scenes of daily encounter, through weighted shifts between the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ and the ‘we’. Whose clothes do we wear, whose skin do we share, how does this matter, what language becomes us now?
> ‘This montage is a garb for unfreedom’, Sharma writes. I think of poetic form, and something Lisa Robertson says about how garments are ‘lyric structures’. These poems envelop you, they are a distinctive ‘garb’; they make fraught visibility of their subject in the world. Sharma’s montage of detail is a clustering, held quick in the space of short lyric. You can read all these poems at once, as I did walking through the park on an incongruously bright May day; their sequence demands a sort of anxious thirst from the reader. Yet this imperative is also held on a single page, that space of clearing and tension and dwelling. The way the poet might juxtapose within a line two fraught images: ‘like bullets in a kidney | like mud on an eyelid’, the staged virgule highlighting what can be done in the ‘special now’ of lyric poetry (Jonathan Culler), what comparisons made. One simple trace of mud to weigh up against a bullet shot through an organ. We think about violence, the marks we leave. We think about writing.
> With fresh and commanding expression, Sharma recalls myriad acts of violence, social exclusion, economic oppression and cognitive dislocation within the racialised, xenophobic space we call this nation. He probes ‘ways of knowing’ in the pointed, short-circuited era of ‘gunpoint’ and ‘discount’, the ‘known chaos’ of mass media and its vortex of paranoia and accusation. If the frame is that which stages one event, often anachronistically, in the context of another, then to be ‘against’ the frame is to offer alternative shortcuts to diversity within representation. The work of lyric as the work of the chorus or commons, but also as the work of empathy, a coming towards understanding, a making space for thought. What Bhabha says of theory rings true for Sharma’s poetics: this is a rejection of existing frames for thinking racialised experience, a woven, experimental movement that finds space in its formal poise for translating racialised conflicts, contradictions and the ‘climate of fear’ kept aflame by the hostile temperatures of mass media discourse.
I recently heard Sharma read for the first time at an 87 Press event held at Typewronger Books in Edinburgh, alongside Dom Hale, Callie Gardner and Gloria Dawson. The way he delivered poems from this collection, as well as several new ones, interlacing personal anecdotes, shout outs and apologies for (I’m possibly glossing here) being ‘a South London poet in Scotland, complaining about South London’, marked a warmth and openness that went beyond the space of that bookshop, that Saturday eve. A maturity and sobriety that challenged my own sense of what poetry can do, the conversations and intimacies it might spark, the space and care and attention it holds. Sharma’s SOAS Radio interview is such a trove of musings on personal histories, higher education, politics, philosophies of hybridity and the contemporary poetry scene, not to mention an excellent playlist of UK dubstep, jazz, blues, rap and more. It’s rare that poets get so much radio time, let’s face it, so do have a listen 🙂
Against the Frame is out now via Barque Press and can be purchased here.
Text: Maria Sledmere