Hold Your Breath
Though centaurs dance in these brilliant poems, all is not well with the world, its deadly rain, its glaring inequality, mindless clashes of civilizations, known terrors and unknown terrors. For centuries – for millennia – man has considered this planet to be home, or somewhere in which we might find a home and live in peace with ourselves and our neighbors. It is the homeless we find very often in these fierce poems, the scorned and the shunned. But, hey, it’s a beautiful world, too, with ‘a promise of love’s first blossoms on the lips’, a world we can call our own, if only as caretakers, in spite of everything: ‘I was born in many lands, ‘ he says, ‘I am living in many dreams’. There are praise poems here of astonishing aromas and textures, as well as deeply touching poems of exile, self-analysis and reminiscences, reminders of our brief stay in this world of shocking contrasts, of unbelievable tenderness and cruelty. Whether writing con brio about his father or a magpie, we feel the ‘warm magnitude’ of the poet’s Whitmanesque presence throughout this highly intelligent volume of poems, poems that rail against the world’s stupidities but remain open to glimpses of shimmering, perfumed grace.
Gabriel Rosenstock, Irish poet, haikuist, playwright, and translator
Waqas Khwaja has not only published his own poems in Atlanta Review, but edited a remarkable Pakistan Issue for the journal in 2014. Deeply steeped in both Eastern and Western cultures, he negotiates the gulf between them as few other writers can. Khwaja’s poetry is unfailingly subtle, witty, and intelligent. And his heart is big enough to encompass the joy and suffering, the tragedies and ironies that our increasingly global civilization confronts us with.
Dan Veach, founding editor of Atlanta Review, author of Elephant Water, editor and translator of Flowers of Flame, winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize
A sustained lyricism with a hard but compassionate look at the worlds around him – a desolate but beloved homeland, a new World, love and violence – Waqas Khwaja, with the range of a magpie mastering both memory and modernity, holds our breath in his hands poem after poem as we listen with wonder to a poet who knows words like us are clay birds that must sing even in the darkness of our Time: “You give them your breath /you give them your voice/it’s almost as if/they stir in your hands.”
Kerry Keys, poet and translator
“Birds struggle/To find shade/Faltering, fluttering/Their ragged dry wings,” Waqas writes. I’d like to think he is perhaps describing the condition of self-imposed exile that I share with him. And in that “shade,” Waqas brilliantly shows our South Asian cultural heritage: for instance, classical music, and Islam. He beautifully exhausts a solitary word, a thought, offering his improvisation, surely, for Jazz, or Opera, or even Rock and Roll. And he digs deep down to its bone marrow the name Abraham, digging deeper to show us more than gold. Hold your Breath sings a solitary unifying song across broken continents. Believe me, the voice is triumphant.
Rafiq Kathwari, the first non-Irish recipient of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award
In Hold Your Breath Waqas Khwaja catches the fleeting nature of love, life and memories, and doing it he takes us on a sublime journey moving back and forth in space and time. Poetry is sound first and his experiments with sounds and syllables, particularly in his poems “piya tore nain” and “Primer” stand out as fresh and innovative.
Abhay K., winner of the SAARC Literary award for poetry
Anger, nostalgia, evocative eroticism and amorphous love for the universal characterize his work. In his short and bilingual poems the poetry comes into its element of play with words, rhythms, images, sensuousness and games of hide and seek. He establishes his identity as a person from the Third World but a poet of universal awareness.
Dileep Jhaveri, poet and playwright, winner of the Jayant Pathek Award for poetry
The modern world may only be confronted with a heart that is heroic and tender. Waqas Khwaja’s Hold Your Breath delivers the perfect poems for this collapsing world, contrasting idyllic memory with contemporary clashes of age, gender, and culture. This tale is not for the faint-hearted, but the message is for every one of us.
Youssef Aloui, Fiercer Monsters
Khwaja’s poems are dirges for the unkind times in which we live. A deep human voice none can pretend to be deaf to.
K. Satchidanandan, poet, playwright, critic, former editor of Indian Literature
Waqas Khwaja’s Hold Your Breath asks the reader to stop, think, and then feel. The language of his poetry has the essence of Sufi thinking, which too asks one to pause, to hold one’s breath for deeper awareness. But the poet is not repeating old Sufi ways of thinking. He recreates them in his own way, in his own philosophy in a very different atmosphere. The inner soul of his poetry borrows its thread from Sufism.
Rati Saxena, poet, vedic scholar, and editor of on-line journal kritya
Waqas Khwaja is a master of his medium. His poems go beyond imagination and incantation. We, his readers, find ourselves inside circles the poet closes just before we catch our breath.
Franklin Abbott, poet, psychotherapist, activist
Compassion, concurrence, and creativity are hallmarks of the poetry of Waqas Khwaja, as it ranges, sometimes bilingually, from his native Pakistan to a new home in America and the world that includes not only Emily Dickinson and centaurs dancing, but also Islamophobia and the blinding effects of living in the land of the Cyclopes. We have to hold our breath with Eric Garner, if we wish to breathe.
Yiorgos Chouliaras, Greek poet and essayist, and founding editor of Tram and Hartis
Khwaja is a committed poet, committed to speaking out against injustice. He may be anywhere, but he will not be silent about injustice, not take refuge merely in his artistic sensibility. For he is not an artist who does not think about his work. Perhaps more than in his previous collections, he has written poems about writing poetry.
M. A. Niazi, Executive Editor, The Nation, Lahore
An urgency pervades these poems by Waqas Khwaja. There is a need to share the ‘one breath stuck in my throat’ before it is too late, even if listeners seem few and far between in a world of mistrust and nameless dread, a world careening towards self-sabotage, where everyone is an ‘other’, a dushman, a potential adversary. Accompanying this is an elegiac sense of loss, reinforced by the splintered cadences of Urdu, for a world where all that is richly various – in terms of faith, culture, language or gender – is imperiled. Here ‘white light vibgyors’ into colour and ‘infects’ the world with the dangers of diversity, and the ‘stubborn’ blackness of the crow seems infinitely safer than the hectic non-classifiable plumage of the magpie. A dark, troubled, unflinching book, shot through with moments of melodic yearning and sudden luminosity.
Arhundhati Subramaniam, award winning poet and artist, poetry editor, curator, and journalist