Every revolution is a child grown before fire: Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful by Rohan Chhetri

      For so long I felt he was dead
or so alive I couldn’t bring myself to imagine
his ruined light, & yet there he was, grinning,
the old boy so far inside him, just looking
into his face was a vertiginous drop down
the cool dark of an abandoned well, & him
a thin shade at the bottom among the bones.

                              – from “Sebastian”

Consider the title: Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. The conjunction, or, carries the weight of invitation. And there is much stunning beauty to be found in the work of Nepali-Indian poet Rohan Chhetri, but also a heavy burden of loss and intolerable pain—often shocking in its sudden depiction or in its lingering aural presence. Intensity of images rooted primarily in the foothills of the eastern Himalaya runs up against layers of emotion barely articulated within tapestries that honour Western lyrical traditions. In awarding the original manuscript the prestigious Kundiman Prize, the Judges Citation recognizes that “Chhetri dramatizes and resists the ways language, and its implicit logic, limit what is possible within our most solitary reflections, defining even those ‘vague dreams’ that in the end we greet alone.”

Now this might seem an intimidating brief with which to open this commentary, but for a reader, no matter if their connection to poetry is casual or confident, there is a certain comfort with familiar forms, say an ode or a sonnet, that makes the turns and twists the themes take that much more striking. In conversation with his editor Kristina Marie Darling, Chhetri is asked about his approach and the value of encouraging this dialogue between inherited literary form and modern, experimental techniques. In his response he suggests that:

“my poetic impulse is a baroque one which is well suited to the syncretic, non-linear, anti-neocolonial poetics that can accommodate politics and revolution from the margins, the fabular, folk horror and mythology, the motif of katabatic descent, the marriage of the classical and the local etc. — all of this prismed through the multiple poetic traditions I write out of as a Nepali-Indian Anglophone writer.”

In this one, full-bodied sentence, the poet offers a clear sense of the mood permeating his work and the atmosphere that envelopes the reader travelling through it. His central point of reference is a borderland where many forces meet—literary, historical, lyrical—crossing lines, echoing long standing struggles over land, language and cultural autonomy. It exists on many levels, in the reality, in the imagining and in the documenting. When I look back across the poems in this slim volume I am reminded anew how grim they are, and yet what I remember is a certain beauty, a bone-deep fundamentalness of being. That is, I suppose, why the myths and fairy tales that enchant us also carry so much darkness and shadow.

Sorrow, absence, and death are never far from the surface in Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful. There is a strong sense of ancestral connection to the poet’s Nepali-Indian background, but the lyric voice is not personal until later, enhancing the mythological, even epic, quality of the poems. Time and again hints of smothered brutality give way to moments of unflinching violence—a violence that arises by both natural force and human design. It is a part of the philosophical/literary exercise at hand, but one that is rooted in historical, political and ethnic conflict. As Chhetri explains, in this book:

there is always that implicit tension between language and violence but it also plays out more overtly in a poem like “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution”, which recounts the events of the last iteration of the Gorkhaland Movement in 2017, a hundred-year-old movement demanding self-determination and a separate Indian state for the Nepali-speaking population in West Bengal.

Revolutions—as an extended legacy gifted from generation to generation—run through this collection. The stories of grandparents, parents, and children find expression as choral and individual voices rising in lament. Some losses are intimate and cumulative, others vivid and abrupt:

Another afternoon            a fifteen-year-old boy
Hear the bullet              thud to breast like second heart
pain’s rubbery percussion             the way he looked up
mouth a shucked-oyster wobble                   Alive
in the elongating horror

                          – from “Lamentation for a Failed Revolution”

In such moments, the dynamic relationship between language and violence is realized with such a sensitive touch—just the right phrase, spacing, word—that the impact is simultaneously personal and political. The broader implications of such moments of barbarity ripple out far beyond any border-straddling community, across state, national and international lines, to be echoed afresh in the ongoing conversation between form, content and technique.

As one would expect, the poems that comprise this collection draw much of their energy and atmosphere from rural imagery featuring forests, rivers and a frequent appearance of deer (causing me to think of Trakl for his fondness for the same motif). However, especially in the latter sections as a lyrical “I” begins to appear, the speaker finds himself in New Delhi and Los Angeles. Yet, as in earlier pieces, the environment is reflected from an array of unexpected angles. Set in LA, “The Intelligence of Hunger” finds the poet who was once able to sleep through earthquakes, gunfire and rampaging elephants, newly alive to noise and a fresh urban reality, hot and dry with fires burning in the hills:

Where I live now every sound I make is a half-note
of loss. The bare mountain withstands, drought-
ridden, the Pacific breaking froth at its feet.
The wind rasps through the chaparral & I think
of the fire followers waiting in their late style
of hunger. The giant coreopsis that will bloom
for three bright weeks in April. I wanted to write
about these. If not love. Wildflowers, not grief.

Yet in this landscape so distant from home, his pen still turns to grief, as the end closes in on a sharp imagination of agony and sacrifice. A mood that crosses miles in an instant.

It is difficult to emerge from this stunning collection unmoved. The language and the intensity of imagery speak to something very primal, human and strangely comforting. I find myself returning over and over again to marvel at how the concert of words plays out on each page. Strongly recommended.

Lost, Hurt, or in Transit Beautiful, the third collection by Rohan Chhetri, is published by Tupelo Press in the US and Harper Collins in India with a UK edition coming from Platypus Press in 2022.

A timeless immediacy: Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved by Adeeba Shahid Talukder

At this moment, as the world grapples with a rapidly spreading virus, two contradictory impulses can be observed: borders are being reinforced around nations in the interest of isolation from without and within, while simultaneously, we are observing unprecedented international scientific collaboration. On the ground level, class differences and prejudices can be augmented and yet, to defeat COVID-19, it will be necessary to rise above them.

On the individual level, to get through the difficult months ahead, those who find their regular lives upended are looking to find ways to occupy, distract and comfort themselves. That is, however, not always easy. If some avid readers are finding themselves struggling to settle into a novel or a work of nonfiction, that’s where poetry can offer respite.

But how are we to read poetry in a time of disruption, uncertainty, and exceptional circumstances? Do we look to contemporary voices, or to those from the past—classical themed works that have echoed down the years, the centuries, speaking to love and loss, peace and war, and everything in between?  Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, the new collection by Pakistani-American poet, translator and ghazal singer Adeeba Shahid Talukder, offers, in its own unique way, a blend of both. This collection, reaches across vast distances to call on traditional tales, and iconic Persian and Urdu poetry, and bring it home and into the present day, into the lived reality of a young Muslim American woman’s experience of life in New York City.

New York City. When Talukder composed these poems, and when I first read them, who could have known that before I would write my reflections on this book, NYC would have become the epicentre of a global pandemic? In some ways the altered circumstances imbue certain pieces with a new aura; in other ways, nothing changes at all because so many of these poems deal with those elements of growing up and coming into one’s own that are at once smaller and greater than any global catastrophe.

In her Preface, Talduker acknowledges her influences, a litany of prominent Persian and Urdu poets who have formed and informed the way she views the world. They include Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Allama Iqbal, Mirza Sauda, Noon Meem Rashid, Ibn-e-Insha, Agha Shahid Ali and more. Her intimate knowledge of the literary traditions and poetic forms is evident and effortless, but her objective is broader. She seeks:

to defend and decolonize this universe—its beauty, its grandeur, its intellectual feats. At the same time, I defy the patriarchy of it, the patriarchy with which so much of literature is cursed.

That is an admirable objective—to honour and challenge a world so thoroughly dominated by the male voice. And yet it is that strong modern feminine presence that makes this collection so powerful.

Written over the span of a decade, there is an ongoing theme, developed throughout the course of Shar-E-Jaanaan, of a young woman’s experience navigating the dynamics of her immigrant family and their expectations, coping with questions of identity and self-esteem, exploring sexual independence and romance, and, finally, falling in love with a white, non-Muslim man. While grounded, or often returning, to an urban American setting, she effortlessly draws on the beauty, passion and tragedy of classical imagery and legends, passed down in Persian and Urdu poetry, often writing in response to specific lines or images from the ghazals of Faiz, Ghalib and others. However, rather than being restrained by her benefactors, she is buoyed by their legacy. The result is a work of remarkable elegance.

The first poem “When in the dark / my mind brightened” opens with a stark confession that sets the tone for the collection that will follow:

I realized I could no longer
wait to be beautiful. Thus, I pushed
bangles upon bangles
onto my wrist, rubbing
my hands raw with metal
and glass.

Each time a bangle broke, I watched
the blood at my veins
with a grim face,
feeling more like a woman.

It ends with the speaker’s mother, facing her maturing, possibly troubled, daughter with terror. The first section, “The Wine Cup” returns to the tension between mother and daughter through a sequence clearly set in Manhattan that closes with a classic maternal concern: You’re getting older, and there are such few boys.

Traditional elements, and poetic influences become more evident from the second section on. Her notes at the end of the book introduce the stories from which she draws inspiration and acknowledge the poetic lines woven into, or referenced, where relevant, so familiarity with Urdu literature is not necessary, but some background would certainly further enrich the experience. She calls on several epic themes, with the seventh-century Arab legend of the ill-fated lovers Laila and Qays notably surfacing in a number of pieces. In this tale, when Qays, a poet, is forbidden to marry his beloved beauty, he takes to running through the streets calling her name and composing love poems. His erratic behaviour earns him the nickname Manjoon, or madman, and he is forced into exile.

Other poems incorporate lines, or images drawn from one or another of her literary touchstones. In the light of the current state of the world, “If It Were (after Ghalib)” seem especially poignant now that I return to it:

The hospital sheets cover my face. No one sees. My eyes are closed, my
hands spread like a hem. The walls white like jasmines.

I sing: I would die happily, if it were once.

The patients’ quarters are hushed but I can hear his breathing, the
way he smiles into my neck and ear. In each room, his bulk rises
and falls beneath the thin blankets. In each room, his face in the blue
light. I scream and scream.

His arrow was half-drawn. The liver aches, anticipating its touch.

The scale cannot measure my weight. I am a goddess; the sickle moon
and East River are mine to feed. I shred all the roses, let the torn petals
fall all over the tiles.

The true context of this poem will later come clear in the titular sequence, “Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved”, the centrepiece of the book . It opens with a reference to the events that followed the assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, on December 27, 2007 and its very personal impact, halfway across the world:

At December’s end Benazir died
in a suicide attack.

                             Men burned

tires, cars, banks,
petrol pumps and factories

Perhaps in grief.

The nights in New York
were clear, cold

and I read Faiz
in a way I never would

again. In Washington Square,
the benches were empty.

What follows is a harrowing account of the speaker’s descent into madness, accompanied in her mania, by God and her poetic saints, culminating eventually in hospitalization and echoing back to the poem I quoted above. It’s devastating, horrifying and strangely familiar, but on my first encounter I did not recognize it for what it really is.

Talukder’s poetry frequently captures the dramatic sweep from ecstasy to despair, an element I read as an attraction to the  heightened intensity of desperate romance, loss, madness, and suicide (real or threatened) that features in so many traditional Asian legends. I could not help, for instance to note how often reference to the story of Laila and Manjoon appears. But until I read an interview with the poet, I was unaware of her own personal bipolar history and her desire, through her writing, to break down some of the misunderstanding and stigma she has faced. Looking back, that explains some of the unspoken level of attraction I felt to these elements in my initial reading, for I, too, am bipolar—this kind of emotional instability is more than poetic for me, it is real. I’ve known madness and hospitalization myself.

This is a collection that came to me, unexpected, through a publisher’s inquiry. The appeal was, first and foremost, to the language and the poet’s connection to Persian and Urdu literature, something my travels and connections in India have started to bring to my attention. The true beauty here, though, lies in the fluid crossing of borders—of language, nation, era and gender—not as an act of re-imagining or re-purposing, but a full-bodied act of translating a rich literary heritage into something new, vital. In this respect, among the illustrious Urdu forebearers of this young Pakistani-American woman, the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali holds special relevance. His body of work spoke to both sides of his life and identity, to both of the homes he knew, but he was able to address that space where the two meet—the hyphen.

The maturity and diversity displayed in Shahr-E-Jaanaan is impressive, a testament to the many years over which it came into being (her first book, What is Not Beautiful was also written and released during this period). In our rapidly evolving new world, Adeeba Shahid Talukder is a poet, and performer, to watch.

Shahr-E-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved is published by Tupelo Press.