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A brilliant debut poetry collection

  • Published at 06:37 pm December 6th, 2016
A brilliant debut poetry collection
Shehzar Doja possesses, to quote the accomplished poet himself, “the poet’s capricious space.” Whether playing with language (“Look Icarus — he flies —/amaze, a maze?”), with poetry as a whole, or with the reader or proclaiming, albeit in a character’s voice, “My words – settle down/please settle down”). At times he simply utilises humour – “Mustard was the colour of the day.” Doja’s playful brilliance shines through in Drift.

At the beginning of the collection, in the short poem “Distance,” which touches upon spaces and closeness (“Distance, an illusion/our senses take comfort in”), the contemplation ends with “Our prose becomes hyperbole/and poetry — no space for that.” This is not only capricious, but a marvelously humble and unusual way to begin a poetry collection.

When Robert Pinsky, three-time Poet Laureate of the United States, visited my poetry workshop at Bennington College in the Spring of 1995, he said something I’d never forget: “Perhaps poetry lies in the surprising juxtaposition of words.” Doja seems to have gained this wisdom intuitively, using not only those surprising juxtapositions, but the element of paradox. For example:

another morbid morning/looped between austere desires/and bargaining benign craving.” These are mind-bending combinations of not only words, but ideas also.

The masterpiece “Compos Mentis,” which reads like a theatrical monologue -- I had the great pleasure of seeing Doja read it aloud when I had the honour of featuring him at my open mic in Paris. There it became clear that it was, indeed, originally intended to be a theatre piece. The voice of the poem’s speaker came to life – but reading it on the page, I can see how alive it is intrinsically. The poem “Colour Blind,” is, I believe, the collection’s highest moment, which is playful and profoundly serious at the same time: “Thanatos, the all-seeing dog, is my best friend/Thanatos, the all-seeing dog, is my only friend.” Mr Doja also has a rich awareness of his predecessors – mythology, the mystics and the moderns. For example, this wonderful play on Eliot’s “The Waste Land: “The conscientious are departed.” And all the references to mythology, using characters such as Persephone. The tender melancholy of “Autumn’s Kiss” has a gentle joy to it as well – in the meditation on a memory of a loving moment: ”I remembered – the first winter snowflake/began its journey that year/on your trembling cheek.” Another line that particularly struck me with its originality is” waiting for the auburn tears/of autumn to finally well up.” The poem “Foetus,” which begins with the utterly lovely “Let the velvet shade of twilight’s touch…” also has its own “eternal lines to time,” as Shakespeare would say, such as “Life exists like a lingering reverie/trapped incoherently in infinite folds.” Superseding Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Doja has his own brilliant two-line triumph, in the form of the poem “Catharsis” – “Waves, stagnant on these shores, wait – /sometimes they emerge – a lethargic catharsis.” The ending obviously employs, without knowing the quote, that surprising juxtaposition of words that makes the reader have a transcendent experience. I love Drift dearly, and it moves me greatly. I hold its brilliance, ingenuity, capriciousness and grace in its place as high literature. David Leo Sirois is host of SpokenWord Paris and a critic himself.