Shabdaguchha: Logo_new edited by: Hassanal Abdullah issue: 67/68

Shabdaguchha: Issue 67_68


Poets and Translators:

Kazue Shinkawa  
Rin Ishigaki  
Shinmin Sakamura 
Fumio Kataoka 
Kosaburo Nagatsu 
Jotaro Wakamatsu 
Naoshi Koriyama 
Hal Sirowitz 
Stanley H. Barkan  
Kelven Ka-shing LIT 
Peter Thabit Jones
Mike Graves 
Bishnupada Ray 
Hassanal Abdullah
Dhanonjoy Saha 
Matin Raihan 
Naznin Seamon
Anisur Rahman Apu 
Tushar Prasun 
Shiblee Shaheed

Book Review:
Nicholas Birns  
Caroline Gill 

William Heyen  
Bill Wolak

Cover Art:

Monique Ponsot

New Logo:

Najib Tareque

Shabdaguchha Title: Issue 68


by Nicholas Birns (USA)

Hassanal Abdullah is so well known as a translator from the Bengali and a poet in English that his poems actually in Bengali have been in danger of being obscured. This volume not only negates any possibility of that, but casts Abdullah as a major poet just hitting his stride in midcareer. A diasporic writer has inherent problems to face and not just those of personal dislocation, or being from one place and writing about another, or caring more about a place one is not in than one is—these issues, especially if one defines “place” metaphorically, pertain to every writer-but simply in isolating a subject and a standpoint. From where does one speak? And what does one speak about? Abdullah is an American poet, from Bangladesh, writing in both Bengali and English, and his subject is threefold: daily life, remembered life, literary life. We see the daily life of New York, as in the funny and endearing “West Village”, observing the “neon lights of the city” with the surreal glow of a “lemon-ice evening.” We see beatniks, lesbians, local Indian restaurants, pimps and alcoholics on the street, all observed with just the right mix of humanness and acerbity, defamiliarization and empathy. The tome is gleeful and comic, but the incantatory language underscores the fierce demand that the “human race” fully realize its “growing civility.” But Abdullah does not simply leave Bangladesh behind, and when he speaks of the country of his birth he leaves daily life for remembered life, “A Story of Immigrants” portrays the teeming variety of Bengali life in New York, where people from Bangladesh are “beyond dreams dark doom” (Nazrul Islam Nazi’s translation uses devices like alliteration and assonance with great adeptness), but recognizes that intolerance, in the old land and even potentially the new, lies beneath this, and that the old country’s pain cannot be forgotten. In the 1990s there was a popular intellectual idea that the South Asian diaspora was the future of literature from that part of the world, that the old territories would be left behind. But now we know they cannot be, and the sanctuary diaspora provides is at once recognized by Abdullah but denied a utopian elevation. The Bangladeshi homeland is suffering, yes, but is still important, and its future not only still matters but also is vital for the entire world. The diasporic, in other words, is hybrid and mobile, but not entirely post-national: nor, the poet’s continuing concern for the Bengali homeland indicates, should it be. The third kind of life in Abdullah’s poems is imaginative life, the life we find in books, literature, and culture, that is not organically our own but, by graft and addition, becomes part of our cognitive equipment. “Worship is a poem not about religious but aesthetic experience, where ‘the eloquent hand of poetry touches the mountain peak,” its “impressionist tongue” soothing “the cloud’s silky hair.” But this is not just a surreal pleasure-dome, but a peak whose ascent requires arduous effort by the writer, who must “climb up faster wearing tight shoes," under the judgment of “the age-old/sun.” The poem ends with an injunction to at once enjoy poetry and recognize the inherent danger that comes with its power:

Jingle poetry’s bangles, dance at the mountaintop,
To embrace the flickering fire, simmering and racing up

Terror and pleasure are juxtaposed, but this is less than conventional “sublime” than a less premeditated and more spontaneous energy, accompanied by a knowing sense of the perils any artistic endeavor brings. The poem was translated by the poet himself, and not only does “flickering fire” again take advantage of the proclivity (stemming from Anglo-Saxon poetry) of the English language for the alliterative, but in using playful, assonant, yet revelatory words like “jingle” and “bangle,” Abdullah renders the poem not just into contemporary English but into contemporary poetic diction: jingle and bangle having just the right sense of the tangible and palpable, the connotative force t not just describe but evoke, by which poetic language today makes its discursive self-justification. “Under The Thin Layers of Light,” which gives its title to the volume, operates in another mode, not one of contrariety but of contemplation, and of meditative “vital prayer,” a sense of being at peace with nature in which “hornets and bees swarmed in ecstasy” and makes “the young exuberant heart shine in luster. This is reminiscent of poets such as Rumi, or alternatively its might be described as this secular Muslim Bengali poet’s most Hindu poem. There is a great tradition of love poetry in Bengali, epitomized in the past century supremely by Jibadananda Das’s “Banalata Sen.” In the poems selected from the sequence The House on the Green”, Abdullah devises lyrics-whose meter and line, if lacking rhyme, nonetheless resembles the Petrarchan sonnet with its fourteen-line, eight-six structure but which also powerfully exude an intensely Asian atmosphere, giving the reader a window to an alternate tradition of rendering romantic love than in the European tradition. Purnima Ray’s translations bring across the extravagant, ardent, yet diamond-hard intensity of feeling:

White rows of cloud-jubilant and bold—
Swimming at ease, offering as cold air as a gift

These lines conclude a poem which starts with the memorable and hands-on encouraging lines, “Go, go on to offer the golden touch,” by which the poem does not mean a Midas-like death touch but an aureate embrace, a living and mindful celebration of the life of the body and its circumambient joy. The book’s final poem “God is Dead,” is at once playful and deeply serious, and occupies a dual genealogical position, of considerations of God and his presence or absence in American poetry since Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning,” and of the debates between secularism and fundamentalism in Bangladesh and in the Muslim-background world diaspora. The poem’s position is clearly atheist, and assumes a Nietzschean brio in talking about the happiness that will come after God's funeral:

When God is dead
I will swim in the river
I will play football
And get a lot of fans
To cheer for it

But as the poem goes on we realize that this happiness is in fact the impossible, what the poet will not or cannot do, not just play football but “eat a tuna fish sandwich/and five fried cockroaches as a side order” and even “to stop writing poems.” And “be in a bed” with his lover for ”three consecutive days and nights,” never to be separated from her. It is a consummation perhaps devoutly to be wished, but never to be achieved, and thus even as the poem celebrates God’s absence it speculates that the concept of God is yet needed in this world as a measure of possibility. If John Lennon famously observed that God is a concept by which we measure our own pain, Abdullah’s concluding bouncy ballad suggests that the concept of God may be vital, less as a dogmatic given than a measure of possibility-even though, very plainly, the poems’ perspective is secularist and atheist.

That this intellectual complexity coexists with a robust and passionate language and an achieved sense of place and feeling means that we now will have to regard Hassanal Abdullah not just as a major figure in contemporary Bengali literature, but as one of the central poets of his generation. It should be noted that the book's publisher, Cross Cultural Communications, has been publishing global poetry for many years (I first met Stanley Barkan in 1986 at a reading given by a poet he then published, the Romanian writer Nina Cassian) and that Under The Thin Layers of Light is a book of which both author and publisher, not to mention all the translators (including the distinguished poet Jyotirmoy Datta) should be very proud.

UNDER THE THIN LAYERS OF LIGHT by Hassanal Abdullah Translated from the Bengali by Jyotirmoy Datta, Nazrul Islam Naz, Siddique M. Rahman, Purnina Ray, Dhananjoy Saha and the poet. Publisher: Cross-Cultural Communications, Merrick, New York, 2015 (ed. Stanley H. Barkan) Library of Congress Number: 2015931015 ISBN 978-0-89304-788-7 $30 ISBN 978-0-89304-789-4 (pbk.) $15

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