In my hands I hold a sleek copy of Nadeem Rahman’s new volume of poetry. The title, One Life Is Not Enough
, captivates me with felt echoes of the labyrinthine travails of the mythic “hero of a thousand faces.” The deceptively simple title resonates with the passion and complexity of a Beethoven symphony: it is spoken poetry incarnate, with its rhythm of a rise and fall of a lung full of air inhaled and exhaled, sighing with dreams and yearnings even in ripe old age. It is suffused with hopes and desires innate to the mortal human struggle, bound in time and space, eternally battling the elemental forces. Allusion to life’s tragicomic journey evokes a subliminal melancholy, an elegiac mood. In defining the state of human existence, it makes me bond with the poet in universal sympathy.
One Life Is Not Enough
, published in November 2016 by the select house of writers.ink, contains sixteen poems which draw us into the creative spiral of the poet’s psyche. The honest confessional mode makes us identify with Rahman in separate stages of his mapping of life’s moments of strife and sweetness. We are led upward and onward through the developing arcs of his growth into introspective middle age. Rahman’s books depict an odyssey spanning thirty years of a mature man’s journey, and this volume is the final arc which completes the circle of poetic self-discovery begun in youthful exploration of lived experience.
One Life Is Not Enough
reveals a man of charm, wit, and piquancy: Well-read, articulate, contemplative, often blasé and ironical, as is the way with men of a philosophical mind. The poems are self-reflexive, and formal unity is maintained by adherence to ritual: Each poem is composed on his birthday. In the prefatory essay, "A Birthday Ritual," Rahman provides an account of the process of composition: “By sheer chance, I happened to write a poem on my forty seventh birthday. I liked it so much, that I once described it as ‘something of a signature tune,’ and I have included it in all my books of poems so far. It’s the last poem in this collection. Since then, equally by chance, it has become a birthday ritual. I have no explanation for this odd occurrence, but it never ceases to surprise me, every year, and is a source of considerable satisfaction to the creative urge in my generic composition. Once a year, I am happily reminded that my dwindling poetic instincts have not yet demised. The candle dims, but the flame still burns. …"
The Romantic sensibility has used the motif of the Wanderer, the questing Traveller to signify the primordial role of the bard-seer, be it the quasi-spiritual poetic scop/ minstrel of Western medieval Courtly tradition, or the Sufi "baul" of Eastern mysticism. Elements of such mystic self-reflection creep into many of Nadeem Rahman’s mature poems
Rahman’s "signature poem" in One Life Is Not Enough
is titled “Our Last Rendezvous”, and was first composed on 17th May, 1991. It is a passionate poem, heroic in its melancholy acceptance of flux and finite existence, yet redolent with the romance of having drunk deep the draught of Life’s immanent spirit. The title and the sublime metaphysical conceit of this poem bring to my mind the lyric eloquence of Robert Browning’s “The Last Ride Together”. Like Browning’s poem, Rahman’s poem is also a dramatic monologue, and has the same quiet intensity and sacred beauty of the image of two embraced souls. Like Browning, Rahman also idealises and apotheosises his beloved: “Let this be our last rendezvous/ when the rivers cease to run/here will you find me/ in this valley of dying stars/ where my songs have fallen, one by one, / and my soul, lies softly crying, …/In my book / of squandered dreams/ and forfeited schemes/ will I haunt you/from the shattered/jaws of time, until/ eternity/ here/ in my heartbeat / of wordless speech,/ will I call you/ to embrace,/ my unrequited/ ghost/ and let my lost hopes/ be the venue, of our last/ rendezvous.”
The Romantic sensibility has used the motif of the Wanderer, the questing Traveller to signify the primordial role of the bard-seer, be it the quasi-spiritual poetic scop/ minstrel of Western medieval Courtly tradition, or the Sufi "
baul" of Eastern mysticism. Elements of such mystic self-reflection creep into many of Nadeem Rahman’s mature poems. For example, in “When I am Dead and Gone”, he writes, “When I am dead and gone/ I will have left one last song,/ …because/ dying is a poem / of the undying/heart.” In ”You Who Think”, Rahman captures the quintessence of mortal desire: “You, who think, that I in my old age/ can teach you nothing of love,/ consider for a moment/ the infant moons that light my path/ are wrought from the nebula of my soul/ -- as true a lover’s gift as any, from/ the black hole of my infernal firmament,/ and the love that burns your blood, is distilled / from stars called hope and disappointment,…” In the 2010 birthday poem, "Today Is My Birthday," Rahman is self-assured and confident, and mature acceptance of personal failures makes it a poem of courageous dignity and not a vehicle for mere braggadocio: “every birthday is a resurrection,/…I am in no hurry, for/ fate to shut the door./ I look into the mirror, and I no longer see / the different faces I have seen before—the curiosity/ the impatience, the anticipation and the wander lust, / …the flamboyant arrogance of youth have all faded …”
Rahman’s poetry betrays the influence of major poets in the English and European Romantic tradition. All writers write under the "anxiety of influence" to some degree, however, and a poet becomes note-worthy when his unique ‘voice’ speaks to us directly through his poems. William Wordsworth’s definition is cogent: “What is a poet?...He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind;…” Nadeem Rahman is such a man. And even though, in A Birthday Ritual , Rahman writes, “I don’t expect to be read even a quarter century from now… it’s enough that I have lived. It’s enough that I have loved ... It’s enough that I leave my poems, like the fragrance of my flesh and blood, the essence of my never-ending dreams”, I am certain that much of his poetry will be read again and again for their sustained lyric power and sympathetic vision.
Rebecca Haque is Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka. A poet, translator, and literary critic, she has published two books of literary criticism, and a book of creative writing. She regularly writes Op-Ed and non-fiction essays for The Daily Star.