A review of 'Across Oceans'
There is a debate raging regarding poetry in the west, one that has perhaps always raged and will never cease. Self-appointed gatekeepers, comprised mostly of academics whose literary or cultural credentials belie a trenchantly conservative worldview, are determined to keep poetry caged within the confines of rarefied high art, away from filthy troglodytes. Opposing them are practitioners, predominantly young, bold and progressive in thought and writing, who seek to democratize poetry, believing in the inherent virtues of an art form that was never meant to be kept from being popular. The former will only be satisfied when poetry is solely available at paid museum exhibitions, for a limited time only, while the latter want to touch lives at public parks the world over.
Bangladesh has had its own version of this debate. Unable to resist the temptation to talk about poetry in clichés alone, Bangladeshis still adhere to the firm belief that they are all born poets, that poetry is the language of revolutionaries. Yet, the cultural doyens and doyennes have actively worked over decades to take poetry away from the masses. Behind honeyed smiles of promoting culture and feigned determination of pseudo-cultural activism, they succeeded by never entertaining a public debate on poetry – true to form of those in power in Bangladesh. Why debate something when one can be commanded by a higher power to do as one is told? Poetry is the fiefdom of socio-cultural elites, it is so ordered. If the poetry collection, Across Oceans, is to be taken at its words – and the author’s authenticity and integrity evident within the pages of the book are reasons enough to take it at its words – poet Sayeeda T Ahmad, regularly heard at open mics, was not made aware of this diktat.
Across Oceans documents the travels across continents and times of the poet. Carefully, protectively placed within the physical voyages and destinations is the personal journey of a writer unabashedly female, humane and astute. It is an introspective collection, presenting readers with cutting observations revealed in their entirety and a highly attuned sense of self-awareness. These are evident from the very beginning: “I was born nearly bald with a few thin locks / like strings of black ink, and eyes / a shadowy chestnut, but an Indo-European / adored for being the lone ivory-toned / baby in a family of wheat-tinged Bangalis.” (“Infancentric II: Eurasian”). As with life, the debut book begins at birth. More optimistic than life, it ends with a requiem that hopes for, and promises, better. Ahmad has a keen sense of color. Shades spell out places and events on every page, brightening the poet’s memories and solidifying their results – poems crafted with care – to the readers.
Reading a book of poems from beginning to end without pause probably breaks with convention, but that is a compliment rather than a conceited criticism that this volume demands. Written in free verse more in tune with the Bengali literary tradition than its western counterpart, but peppered with universal references from a seasoned traveler, and with Bengali words and customs from an avowed Bangladeshi, each poem is a story, each story tempting the reader to read one more. Birth is followed by the Liberation War, relayed anecdotally in “Subhanalla, or Glory Be to God” (“My mother feeds me glorious God / and religion, nourishes in me, / a moderate path with modest living / the same way my Nana … nurtured her”) and through quiet introspection in “Krishnochura.” It is only fitting for the latter, a flower that has inspired so many of Bengal’s great poets, to make an appearance in an English collection. Sadly, Ahmad’s “… yearly reminder / of the blood of its people in 1971 / drenching the village grounds and fields / drenching the sidewalks and city streets / [r]ows of Krishnochura trees on fire” is a rare instance of the delonix regia, synonymous with Bengal, making an appearance in Bangladesh’s English poetry.
The body, and bulk, of the book is curated with poems set in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait – and the US. “The Highway of Death” and “Travels Across Arbil” are prose poems that echo one another, composed in paragraphs reflecting the thought process of beautiful childhood memories now tainted by melancholy due to the devastation visited upon human beings and their treasured history by thoughtless militarism. Her everyday experiences of growing up – going on family holidays (“SS Kuwait”), learning to cycle (“Cyclical Tumbles”), arriving in the US as a foreign student (“In a Pickle”), finding a slice of home to ward off homesickness (“Jackson Heights”) – are set against the horrors that became a normal part of life in the Muslim Middle East, and the chaos of being a minority in the Christian US. Amongst them is “The Sai,” a remarkable poem that traces the history of a religious ritual that the poet participates in.
Ahmad saves some of her most impassioned writing for the last part of the book, which brings her back to Bangladesh. As aesthetically pleasing as the other poems are, the now adult’s keen observations about life in Dhaka elevate the book. Each of “Homage to Dhaka City,” “The Mutts of Dhaka Are Survivors” and “When the Rubber Meets the Streets” reflect on important issues in the daily battle for life in Bangladesh. In these Ahmad channels the socio-political awareness of Bengali poets and feminists largely absent in the country’s English literary discourse. While “Mourning,” the final poem in the collection, is a hauntingly beautiful piece that traverses the many places on whose soil the author has set foot, it brings the collection to an abrupt end just as the poet’s blood reached boiling point, at home, just as introspection gave way to unbridled searing commentary.
There is a growing compendium of Bangladeshi poets writing in English. The fissure between poetry of and for the masses, and poetry as the highest of art forms, beyond the comprehension and capabilities of commoners, is evident even amongst the offerings of the handful of English-language poets in Bangladesh. Ahmad, eschewing arrogance and pretension, straddles the divide – her poems, embracing honesty and humility, transcend it. These are poems to be read as well as be imbibed as spoken word, but poetry this certainly is, from someone kind and knowledgeable who, respectful of the art, dares to be a poet despite not being one of the cultural elites.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a poet and fiction writer. He also writes essays and reviews books. Yours, Etecetera, his debut short story collection, was published by Bengal Lights Books.