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‘World English Poetry’ lives up to its name

  • Published at 06:18 pm July 10th, 2017
  • Last updated at 03:09 pm July 12th, 2017
‘World English Poetry’ lives up to its name
When I was approached to write a book review of World English Poetry, an anthology edited by Sudeep Sen and published by Bengal Publications in 2015, I found the prospect of it daunting. How could I not? How could a non-formalist with insufficient stabs at form poetry – one who only writes free verse, since forms terrify her and challenge her like her own personal jabberwocky to be battled and trounced, preferably in the near future, one who does her best to stay true to her voice even as she flounders at uncovering what that voice is – begin to critique a collection of far more established writers? A total of 85 poets are featured in the collection – many of whom are internationally acclaimed and have received prestigious awards, such as Joseph Brodsky, Charles Bernstein, Vikram Seth, Amit Chaudhuri, and Kwame Dawes, whose poems were deftly hand-picked and amassed by Sen. Then there are writers who are not widely known beyond the borders of their own nations, for instance, Mac Donald Dixon of Saint Lucia whose words are also astounding. Then how could I not find it daunting? Yet, once I dived in, my most visceral reaction was of journeying through the book and living through each poem. Reading this book is akin to taking a road trip on paths known and unknown, akin to journeying through memory and space, and different eras and incidents, both real and imagined. Reading about places like the eroded mesas and Wild Rose Pass in Bryce Milligan’s “All That Would Be” and Dooagh strand in John F Deane’s “Sea-Wrack” remind me of all the places I have travelled to and through in my life. I felt like a slave reading the African slave trade in Kwame Dawes’ “Rats,” and was deeply touched watching a story unfold in which a small town man plays the digital negative of every sound in the town to cancel everything out but love in Pat Boran’s “The Inverse Wave.” Speaking of Dawes, my favourite poem, not only of his but of the entire anthology, is “Hate.” The poem, dedicated to Joseph Cinque and the Africans on the slave ship, “Amistad,” is raw and forceful. It arouses in readers hate and disgust for all involved in the slave trade, as also for the slavery apologists. World English Poetry is an excellent anthology of poetry containing both emerging and well established writers from all parts of the world: The Caribbean, South Asia, the United States, the UK and Ireland, Europe, Africa and Australia. It is indeed delightful to see a number of Bangladeshi poets featured prominently in the collection. Kaiser Haq, Sadaf Saaz, Abeer Hoque, Ahsan Akbar and Neeman Sobhan have shared unique stories through their poems. Kaiser Haq is arguably Bangladesh’s biggest English language poet. From his vast repertoire of published works, which include eight poetry collections, Sen chose four poems. I cracked up reading the images of wearing “red underwear on Valentine’s Day” in “Senior Citizen” and the “dutiful canine” obtaining “pleasing release each time it raised a / rear leg to deluge the roots of a tree.” The sarcasm in “The Graffiti Artist” also took me in as it served as a reminder of the privilege that the high society wears like a cloak – “YOU RICH, I AM POOR --- WHY?” Though I had heard of Sari Reams, the debut poetry collection of Bangladeshi poet, writer and entrepreneur Sadaaf Saaz, when it came out in 2013, I admit I hadn’t read her work before. These poems were a pleasurable introduction to her voice and style, especially the titular poem, “Sari Reams.” Enchanting are the river folds of a gold sari, put away lovingly, worn by a mother on her wedding day as seen in a photo, tresses “piled high / Or cascading free and wild,” and the narrator imagining her grandmother and also a daughter wrapped in encircled gold. Nigerian-born Bangladeshi American photographer and writer Abeer Haque's poems have a rawness and candour about them. The author of The Long Way Home, The Lovers and the Leavers and Olive Witch continues to garner worldwide recognition. Of her three poems selected here, “Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar” is my favourite. I was gobsmacked – accompanied with stirring heart strings – at, primarily, “Skin cannot hold the tumescence / Of tendril and trunk / Wandering nasturtium” and, secondarily, “Dragon coiled in the mist / Holding a pearl.” UK-based Ahsan Akbar's poems draw one due to their playful language and out of the ordinary phrases. I find them striking because of the way Akbar plays with words so well, melding Bangla with English. His poetry collection, The Devil’s Thumbprint, was published in 2013. However, Akbar’s Banglish doesn’t make an appearance in Sen’s selections but his clever turn of phrases does. Take “The Divorcee” as an example and note the following lines: “Those ripples on my bed / were caused by my body, / aged somewhere in the mid-thirties.” And the ashes on the narrator’s carpet floor “were born from my Marlboro Lights, / aged somewhere under nine minutes.” Aged under nine minutes – how cool is that! Evocative, lovely, each of her three poems here is a rough diamond. That’s how I would describe the selections of Italy-based Bangladeshi writer Neeman Sobhan. Italy is well-represented in them. In “The Singing Stones: Baths of Caracalla,” the stone remains hoard secrets and conjure up in the readers’ mind ghostly images of “some brief lives, tawdry political / gossip among oiled noblemen.” The stones say to readers, “I keep secrets well, lock my invisible doors / after the singers and the stragglers leave, / and the noisy azalea bushes fall quiet.” To truly appreciate the poems Sudeep Sen has put together into this collection, one needs to delve in and experience each poet, each poem, like one would each artwork in a museum. One has to spend enough time on each word, each line, and each verse. Imagine each scene. Sound out each word. Each a powerhouse in its own way. Sen has been dubbed a major voice in the world of poetry and “one of international poetry’s guiding stars,” and with good reason. His own poems in this book reveal his consummate skill in shaping a poem and rendering it into a work of beauty. He has edited Midnight's Grandchildren: Post-Independence English Poetry from India (2004), World Literature Today: Writing from Modern India (2010) and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry by Indians (2011), among others. His choices of poems underscore the time he has invested in selecting just the right poem of each writer. Each poem is a mini-journey, a story. Exemplary of each writer’s voice and style. In the preface he writes that there are other poets who could not be included due to time constraints and page constraints. Making final selections is always a difficult process. To ensure under-represented voices do not go silent, future editions to this collection should be brought out. There may be other emerging talents Sen may not have come across yet, as they may be known only far within their borders, and are not as well or widely published. We hope more of such under-represented voices would be incorporated in anthologies like this one.
Sayeeda T Ahmad is a poet. Her debut poetry collection, Across Oceans: Poems, was published by Bengal Lights Books in 2016.