Back to Issue 43_44
Back to Front Page
Shabdaguchha: Logo
Issue 43/44 : January - June, 2009 : Volume 11 No 3/4

Book Review:

Nicholas Birns

Rafiq Azad's Poetry in Translation

Just as American poetry has its Shapiros--Karl and Harvey--Bangladeshi poetry has its Azads-Rafiq and Humayun. Humayun Azad's martyrdom for his anti-fundamentalist principles was one of the devastating losses of the literary world in this decade; how good it is to still have Rafiq with us, active and productive.
The reader picks up this welcome compilation of the best of Rafiq Azad's poetry oriented by the able establishment of the context of his work in Kaiser Haq's brief but cogent introduction, and also aware of Azad's role as a freedom fighter in the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence. It is thus disconcerting and delightful to see the book start off with the funny and quirky "You: Twenty Years Before And Now," a highly personal and subjective poem. The speaker, re-encountering a childhood crush of his, sees her former misuse of language now all cleared up, as she gives an eloquent and seamless feminist oration. He is moved to "simultaneously beocme surprised and saddened" by how the confusion of speech, which had been so delightful, is now smoothed-out to something more conventional. 'Saddened' is one of the words the woman had mispronounced as a girl, so there is a double effect here. The poet, it is implied, also has to alternate sense and nonsense, bold speech and idiosyncratic 'mistakes.' In life and in writing, getting it right all the time loses intricacies. Much in the manner of the 'parapraxis,' or 'Freudian slip', the young girl's getting words wrong was not only cute and winsome but also bespoke the dynamic instability of language (well conveyed by Hassanal Abdullah’s translation).
But it is also a poem about memory, about confronting the past, and the next poem in the book, "Not Very Far Away" tales these issues of memory from the other end, as it pictures a man in the present moment exploring various more entrancing options in life but finding 'bondage' and 'negation.' In a Blakean way, the far ends up being imminent in the near. The "nectar-stream running towards infinity" can inhere in where we stand. "To The Door" also explores issues of presence and otherness, this time with a specifically, if subtly erotic, valence. This strain is then foregrounded in "If I Get Love," whose anthemic line, "If I get love I'll correct my life’s blunders," is winning, if necessarily optimistic. Azad is half-joking here. But some of his love poems, like “Moment Beautiful" are not only pure lyrics but are about love of the created universe and not just a single person. Azad though, goes still further and defies us to separate addressee and milieu, the dancer and the dance, in "When Will You Awake:"

Unknown to yourself you’ve blossomed
In a shady, sunless obscure
damp country house.
You spread in the small, barbed-wire encircled homeland
of a dictator with no sense of smell.
You’re unaware
that no flower is your goddess
In a very wrong place
You are a real blooming flower to yourself unknown!
When will you awake, defying yourself, O flower?

The flower is neither a thing in itself or an allegorical token; one cannot simply say it is a figure for a person. Azad makes clear in "Nature and Culture" that he rejects this sort of distinction; if nature is beautiful, it is because it has been cultured, and if culture resounds, it is because it has attained the grace and magnanimity of nature. Note the title of the volume: Poems On Love Environment and Other Difficulties. There are no commas: it is not "Love, Environment..." but Love Environment" and the compound, spiced up by the mention of "difficulties" seems both more joyous and more complicated than an easier (and lazier) analysis of the two into separate elements.
The line referencing the dictator in "When Will You Awake" takes us into the political poems in the second half of the book, which have about them an unusual range of depth and yearning. "Surrender of a Freedom Fighter," is about both love and war; again, we see Azad not settling for oppositions or allegories, but intent on appreciating how mixed the currents of the world indeed are. "My friend Babatunde" praises as a "Black African." Third World solidarity became, after a point, a meaningless banality, but this poem is moving by being a Bengali celebration of Africa, an affirmation of the choreographer-subject's background and creativity. "Give Me Food, Bustard," is savagely funny, but also is out to show how conventional ideas of partisan politics fade amid the far more urgent politics of hunger. The final poem, in the book, "My Missing Poems," a long, powerfully articulated poem, would make a good 'closing track' on a pop-music album. Set around 1982 or so, it sees the wars and depredations that beset the world as the missing poems of the poet, of bloodshed and suffering as what happens when poems go astray or abscond. This is not saying poetry can save the world--Azad is too experienced both as poet and veteran of political struggle to think it can--but that the groaning of the world connotes poetry's absence.
Yet "My Missing Poems" ends on a wry upbeat, with a hope that "if I retrieve these poems . . . I can publish my 'Complete Poetical Works.'" A grounded optimism is the emotional keynote of the book, the bravado evinced in: "Be Confident Like A Tree" resists the assaults of technology in "Hello, Remote Control." I had hoped "A Few Lines for Hillary" (about Sir Edmund Hillary, not Hillary Clinton) suggests that the poet cannot himself climb the mountain, but is pleased that Hillary could. This epitomizes the selflessness and discipline so characteristic of Azad, which, when combined with his charisma and talent, make him a major voice. We are reminded that there is such a thing as Bangladeshi English when Haq, in his introduction, uses the word 'mofussil' without italics, which I did not know, but which I got from the context as meaning 'countryside.' 'Primoval' forest in K. Ashraf Hossein's translation of "You Want" may be a misprint, but maybe it is just a regional way of saying things; I suspect it is a misprint, but the point is we do not automatically know. This is a book transited by various hands into various Englishes: US, UK, and subcontinent. It is wonderful, and a tribute to the publisher and translators, to have poetry in Bengali translated into English, but it is also a glad tiding that there are so many Englishes afoot in the world, and that the superb Rafiq Azad has been translated into a few of them.

Rafiq Azad, Poems on Love Environment and Other Difficulties. Dhaka: Obyoy, US $20, 100 taka in Bangladesh.

Prof. Nicholas Birns, Eugene Lang College, the New School University, NY


Shabdaguchha, an International Bilingual Poetry Journal, edited by Hassanal Abdullah