by Stephen Burt
Hasan’s clear, compact sentences marshal a vast array of referents: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Dune (the book and the film), the protagonists of the Persian epic called the Shahnameh, W. H. Auden’s poetry, and Rohinton Mistry’s prose. “Jose Luis Arenas, / member of the Guatemalan Congress,” and the CIA-backed 1954 coup against Guatemala’s President Arbenz—all inform the Pakistani-American poet’s reflections on the ironies and the cruelties of modern history, supported by brief explanatory footnotes. Arcing over it all, though—and distinguishing his crisply memorable book from earlier, grander verse on historical subjects (for example, Robert Lowell’s History)—is the dual focus on the heroic Shahnameh and on the antiheroes of modern Pakistan. Changes in culture and government, in expectations, and in the built environment—during Hasan’s own youth, before he was born, and again “[s]ince 1979, the year of Bhutto’s hanging” run like ample cables through his poems of explanation, denunciation, exculpation, emigration and return, which ought to wrench many Anglo readers out of our U.S.-centric expectations. Hasan’s proper nouns and plot summaries reduce his lesser poems to a kind of shorthand, but the best are tools by which to re-view the tragedy and the travesty of an always political—but also, always, personal—milieu. One fine sonnet remembers how “lines formed for American movies” in Islamabad; another reviews a James Bond film where “the brutality of the world / enters each cinematic scene.”
This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2016.