The Unequal Struggle
by Lee Rossi
Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, Adeeba Shahid Talukder, Tupelo Press, North Adams, Massachusetts, 2020, 104 pages, $18.95 paperback, www.tupelopress.org.
WHENEVER I ENCOUNTER a poet new to me, one of the first questions I ask myself is, what is her tradition? And what is her relation to that tradition? We remember that T.S. Eliot, in his famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," argued that a poet cannot be evaluated simply in terms of his own work or of that of his contemporaries; "he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past." But what if the standards of the past preclude the poet from even opening her mouth? Eliot seems to suggest that the individual poet writes always in tension with the tradition, but he never considers how acute that tension may be for poets who are otherwise excluded from the tradition. What happens when a poet finds herself, not just struggling to embody her tradition but writing in opposition to it?
In Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, the Pakistani-American poet Adeeba Shahid Talukder confronts the damage done to women by the "Urdu poetic tradition." The fact that this tradition is almost exclusively masculine and rooted in a deeply patriarchal culture makes her engagement with it doubly problematic.
Although she tells us that her own poems "are in dialogue with the Urdu poetic tradition," the affinity is not an obviously formal one. Well-wrought ghazals, with their self-contained couplets, insistent rhyming, and a reference to the author in the last couplet, are in short supply. The imagery in the book's earlier sections—with titles like The Wine Cup, The Nightingale, and The Courtesan—will be familiar to readers of Rumi and the Rubaiyat. Despite this imagery, she draws her poetic tool kit mainly from the contemporary American academy, producing jagged, fragmentary poems that leap great distances from one strophe to the next.
Like many other contemporary poets, especially women and poets of color, she invokes the tradition with the ultimate goal of deconstructing it. She manages this mainly by adopting the woman's point of view, de-centering the male Lover in favor of the female Belovéd. In her poems the voiceless Belovéd of the tradition gives voice to her aspirations and longings. The fact that these aspirations and longings are ultimately frustrated speaks to a larger cultural point, the suppression and silencing of women.
The opening sections of the book trace an arc from infatuation with the archetype to despair and disillusionment. "When in the dark / my mind brightened," for instance, depicts her resolve to be a traditional woman:
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
Not surprisingly this resolve, which is figured in terms of self-harm, frightens her mother, who "looked into my eyes with terror," and yet in (the title of) another poem her mother warns her, "You're getting older, and there are such few boys." In this culture there is no place for a woman without a man.
Later we witness the speaker enjoying her power as the woman of her own and her lovers' dreams. Yet, as we see in "Fanaa: End of Self," love itself is a kind of madness. She says, for instance, "Her curls, too / had once fallen on him / like calamity." In the Western tradition she would be Lamia, la belle dame sans merci. It is almost with triumph that she reports her lover saying, "You've destroyed me."
Eventually, however, the lover loses interest. As she tells herself in "Kathak: Dance of the Courtesans":
as glass, will learn:
you were made to break.
Thus, the first part of the book, couched in terms drawn primarily from the tradition, ends with images of shattering, breakage, a metaphoric suicide. In a YouTube reading Talukder discloses that she suffers from bi-polar disorder. It shows. Hers is a poetry of fragility and emotional extremity. In the book's title section, which forms the emotional core of the book, the poet steps from behind the veil. While not completely abandoning the vocabulary and tropes of the tradition, the narrative is more direct, occurring in a recognizable, contemporary world (greater New York). We witness her falling in and out of love and winding up in a psychiatric treatment center.
The occasion for her emotional collapse is the foundering of an important relationship. In a fit of romantic enthusiasm she and a boyfriend perform a private "wedding"; almost immediately, however, the boyfriend recants his vow. (Near the beginning of the sequence, Talukder references the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, as if to acknowledge the reality of men's power, their unwillingness to submit to female rule.) She flees his apartment, seeking refuge with her family and her books. Neither is helpful: she quotes the twentieth-century Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who wrote, "my path leads to the gallows of separation," and overhears her aunt tell her sister:
Now listen closely,
and promise me you'll be strong:
Your sister has gone mad.
(from "City of the Beloved," page 65)
Mad indeed. She winds up in a psych ward where, among other oddities, she encounters a patient who declares: "I am the American Dream. I am / the American Dream." Interestingly this declaration echoes the words of one her heroes, the tenth-century Sufi, Mansur the Heretic, whose blasphemous declaration "I am the Truth" led to his execution. Gradually she begins to question her own values, quoting the Persian-Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib:
Though I lived on your promise,
I didn't think it was real;
or else, wouldn't I have died of happiness?
It is an accusation addressed as much to her culture as to her boyfriend, transforming a lover's complaint into the cry of the Belovéd.
And so she begins to question the stories on which she's been raised, aligning herself with mystics and heretics. In "The Beloved" we witness God, figured as a clay idol, dissolve, replaced by the goddess: "You scatter / as [the Belovéd] bathes in you, // fills in the universe / a God-shaped hole." In the end, ("The Gods of the Age") she adopts a polytheistic, multiethnic, multicultural cosmogony:
we were brimming,
we were multitudes
but they saw our darkness
and named us Dark.
The "they" of course are her parents, her family, her culture.
In Shahr-e-janaan: The City of the Beloved, Adeeba Shahid Talukder presents a compelling critique of her tradition, its misogyny, its assumption of female passivity. If, as Eliot asserts, there is always a struggle between the poet and their tradition, then we can see how relatively easy it was for Eliot, a well-educated Anglophile male, to find a place within his tradition, a privilege not available to Talukder and her non-European, neuro-diverse, gender-nonconforming and female contemporaries. Some struggles are more equal than others.
Lee Rossi's recent poetry book is Darwin's Garden: Studies from Life. His previous collections include Wheelchair Samurai and Ghost Diary. A staff reviewer and interviewer for the online magazine Pedestal, he is a Poetry Flash contributing editor and a member of the Northern California Book Reviewers; his poetry, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry East, Chelsea, and elsewhere. He lives in San Carlos, California.