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Foreword to ‘This Path: Selected Poems of Mohammad Rafiq’

  • Published at 05:28 pm November 20th, 2018
book cover

We reflect upon what we read; we relate it to ourselves

Mohammad Rafiq is one of the most distinguished senior poets of Bangladesh, a nation in which—many will tell you and, indeed, many have told me personally over the years—every second Bengali is a poet. That might not be quite accurate numerically, but it suggests strongly the value Bengali society places upon the verbal arts, poetry in particular. Let me cite a partial line out of one of Mohammad Rafiq’s poems included in this collection and to which I shall refer again subsequently: “every son of-a-bitch wants to be a poet” (from “Open Poem”). That sentiment, here in more direct and brutal language, had been implied much earlier in the famous opening line of an essay by one of the most popular, influential, and revered Bengali poets of all time, Jibanananda Das (1899–1954), when he wrote: “All are not poets, some are” (sakalei kabi nay / keu keu kabi).

Certainly one of those included in Jibanananda’s “some are poets” is Mohammad Rafiq. No poet stands alone, neither in his or her own tradition nor in the world at large. John Donne had said as much, in a different context, perhaps, with his oft-quoted, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And Mohammad Rafiq is hardly an exception to Donne’s dictum. In particular, we see Mohammad Rafiq as “part of that main” that includes Jibanananda, and not just Jibanananda but also a whole host of poets within the Bangla tradition. To cite one simple example of this continuity, Michael Madhusudan Datta (1824–1873) introduced the sonnet form to Bangla poetry in the nineteenth century. Bengali poets subsequently have contributed richly to the corpus of sonnets in Bangla. Jibanananda’s sonnet cycle, collected and published posthumously by his brother, constitutes one of his most enduring and beloved volumes, Rupasi Bangla (tr. Bengal the Beautiful). Sonnets from that collection became the poetic statements symbolizing the very essence of land that the freedom fighters were fighting for in the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence. Mohammad Rafiq, a man of twenty-eight at the time, took an active part in that nine-month conflict.

To return to the subject of sonnets, the compendium by Jibanananda, taken as a whole, constitutes a paean to Bengal, to the physical land with its flora and fauna as well as to its folklore tradition. In this collection of Mohammad Rafiq’s poetry in translation, we find a fair number of sonnets (chaturdashpadi, or literally, “fourteen-line lyrics”), most prominently in a section entitled “Kirtinasha,” the individual poems of which are labeled alphabetically, A through Z. Incidentally, Kirtinasha, as a separate book of poetry, was published in 1979 and received the Alaol award for literature that year, named for Syed Alaol, a famous Bengali poet of the seventeenth century. “A” begins with the quatrain:

at the river’s edge ambushing

shadows huddle in the mud

rasping breaths echo in the dusk

it’s only evening, not doomsday

Twenty-six individual poems later—the roman alphabet, of course, has twenty-six letters—“Z,” which is not a fourteen-line sonnet structure but instead a lyric with sixteen lines divided into four quatrains, ends in the following way:

dumbstruck night grips the moorings, villages, towns

these stories of new life are just tall tales, empty talk

mountains, plains, springs, and stretching tamarisk—

is there any other destiny, Kirtinasha?

(Of interest for the non-Bangla-knowing audience, it should be noted that the Bangla alphabet has far more than twenty-six letters; the alphabetical titles for the twenty-six lyrics within the translated “Kirtinasha” section of this anthology do not correspond to the order and number of the Bangla alphabetical titles in the original Kirtinasha.)

It strikes me as important to consider for a moment two interrelated issues: first, the audience for these translations; and second, capitalization conventions. I shall address the issue of audience first. This book is to be published in Bangladesh, initially. It may or may not find its way into the greater world market. I cannot say for sure. But, knowing that it will be published in Bangladesh, I ask myself: who will be the audience? There is a large English-speaking population in Bangladesh. Of that I am well aware. Many if not most of the English-literate population is bilingual, knowing both English and Bangla. There is certainly a segment of the Bangladesh population that knows English but not Bangla. For those in Bangladesh, both Bangla speakers and others, “Kirtinasha” is almost certainly recognizable as the name of a river. I presume the majority of readers will also be aware of the literal meaning of that river’s name, “destroyer of glory,” and the implications of the name as it pertains to the powerful and destructive nature of a river in the Gangetic delta, that delta constituting a major portion of Bangladesh’s geography. The final line in the “Z” lyric, cited above, coming as it does from the cycle titled “Kirtinasha,” suggests that the entire cycle of poems, “A” to “Z,” is an apostrophe, addressed poetically to the river and by metonymic extension to Bangladesh herself. But there is far more in the Kirtinasha collection than the river. We read, for instance, of Behula and the merchant Chand Saodagar from the Hindu-oriented tale that speaks to the power, both deadly and restorative, of Manasa, goddess of snakes. We come across names of people, of places, of rivers, of fish and fruit and flowers, and of months of the year, each in their transliterated romanised spelling, of course. People, places, rivers, and months of the year are capitalized; fish, fruit, and flowers are not. For those in Bangladesh, most if not all ofthose references are intelligible. For the English-reading audience outsideBangladesh, those lexical items might be baffling or simply words or names devoid of any specific meaning. (I shall turn to capitalization a bit later.)

At this point, I would like to bring into this written monologue of mine another voice, that of Billy Collins, who served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. In a 2006 interview, Collins said, “I don’t think people read poetry because they are interested in the poet. I think they read poetry because they are interested in themselves” (www.powells.com/post/interviews/billy-collins-bringing-poetry-to-the-public). I think I understand what Billy Collins is saying in his provocative way. We reflect upon what we read; we relate it to ourselves. I would add that some people, many or possibly most people, read poetry—poetry in translation in particular—because they are interested in the poet’s message and/or the poet’s culture. In the case of this volume of Mohammad Rafiq’s poetry in translation, I am of the opinion that readers of this work, certainly readers outside of Bangladesh, will be looking to understand something of Bangladesh—but also of Mohammad Rafiq himself. 

There are, in fact, some wonderfully rich offerings in this translated collection, poems that give us, or at least appear to give us, insights into just who the poet is. Bookending the “Kirtinasha” poems are two seemingly autobiographical, almost confessional poems, one with the hortatory title of “Hey, Rafiq!” in which the poet presents himself as helpless against a hostile world:

perhaps someday on a crowded street

someone will shout, hey, Mohammad Rafiq!

and pummel me with his fists, leaving me helpless

And, some ten lines later, he concludes, without conclusion:

. . . alone in the indifferent crowd

I’ll stand stock-still for a while, a bit confused, hurt perhaps

Then, on the other side of the twenty-six “Kirtinasha” offerings, we are presented with a poem boldly, or maybe sheepishly, titled simply “Poet,” in which he uses patently offensive language and even has himself called by one of the most crude—and at the same time most common—insulting epithets, “you son of a pig”:

Six youths with kerchiefed faces, carrying

lathis (one grips a gun in his right hand),

climb onto the bus. “Which one’s Mohammad R——?”

“Hey,” as he stands up “hey, you son of a pig, get off.”

He sees no alternative, so he climbs down into the dark.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The road is on his right, a ditch on the left—he stumbles down.

As the swarming darkness pushes him forward, he realizes

that they’re taking him into a field. The smell of damp soil

keeps sticking to his nostrils, wet grass under his feet.

The six strangers herding him along—

had they ever met him before?

Are their eyes blazing with rage, or is it mockery?

“Hey, shitface son of a pig, you’re really a poet?

Over here—and stand up straight.”

As he straightens himself, a sharp shudder runs up his spine

and shoots down again. His legs start trembling weakly.

Our narrator, the poet, survives this encounter. Why he was singled out, and by name, we never know. Is it retribution for something he wrote, something political? Is it just that he is a poet, implying an intellectual? For those readers who lived through 1971 and the Bangladesh War of Independence and who learned later of the plight of the Bengali intelligentsia, the fate of professors and poets, like Munir Choudhury, rounded up and taken to the brickyard in December of that year for summary execution before independence was achieved on the 16th of the month, we cannot help but sense the resonances in this poem. Later in this anthology, Munir Choudhury is mentioned by name, in a poem from which I have already cited a partial line. That poem, “Open Poem,” constitutes Mohammad Rafiq’s most comprehensive political-historical statement of this entire compendium and, moreover, his longest piece. Included we find the quatrain:

how long can this go on? how many years of struggle?

from the twenty-first of February 1952 until today

four million martyrs, three million raped women

moaning, Munir Choudhury’s blood still flows upstream

Let me return to the statement by Billy Collins about why we read poetry, and to my addition to that statement. Those within Bangladesh know full well what happened on the twenty-first of February 1952. Today, worldwide, we celebrate International Mother Language Day on that date annually. But itwas on that very day when Bengali citizens of East Pakistan were marching in Dhaka in favor of recognizing Bangla as a national language—which just happened to be the mother tongue of the majority of Pakistanis as a whole—that government troops opened fire upon the demonstrators. Those killed that day live on as martyrs to what is called the Language Movement, which culminated in the independence of Bangladesh. Seen through the eyes of Billy Collins, the Bangladeshi reader of this poem might reflect on his or her own response to the deaths of those martyrs and to the independence struggle nearly two decades later. For the non-Bangladeshi reader of this very political poem in English translation, the task might be simply to try to comprehend the history so enshrined. Mohammad Rafiq ends this poem with passing mention once again of 1952 and 1971 and, preceding that, with reference to Bagha Jatin. Again, the non-Bangladeshi reader of this translation will have to attempt to understand something of the efforts of Bengalis in British India to throw off British colonial rule, with “Tiger” Jatin being one of the prominent actors in that struggle. And not just with historical figures and events, Mohammad Rafiq, in this poem specifically but in all of his poetry generally, weaves wonderfully folklore and fantasy, both Muslim and Hindu, but above all he depicts poetically a harsh view of reality. That view of reality, at the very least, comes through to each and every reader—Bangladeshi and the non-Bangladeshi alike—of Mohammad Rafiq’s poetry in these translations. 

(Abridged)