Shahr-e-Jaanaan. Adeeba Shahid Talukder.
Tupelo Press, 2020. 104 pages, $18.95
Winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize
There is a certain way that those who are between cultures long to write. There is often a nostalgia for the country that shaped you, inspired you, and gave you the values you associate with, despite being fundamentally born and brought up in another land. And yet, because of that fact, there must be a distance, as well as a difference, and it can be observed from the way that you emote, gestate, and, of course, attempt language. One can argue this to be a curse, but to have the language of an eternal foreigner is also a blessed thing.
In Shahr-E-Jaanaan, Adeeba Shahid Talukder melds the ghazals of Ghalib along with the ululations of Urdu into the staccato stutters of English, and to charming results. The first poem of the first section, “when in the dark / my mind brightened,” begins with the declaration, “I realized I could no longer wait to be beautiful.” In order to beautify herself, the narrator “[pushes] bangles upon bangles, rubbing [her] hands raw with metal and glass.” The language remains taut and controlled despite the actions of the narrator growing more manic and violent, twisted and loathing. Despite the amount of self-harm inflicted, the narrator “[watches] the blood…with a grim face, feeling more like a woman.” Much like the narrator’s mother when she wanders into the room, we “[look] into the [narrator’s] eyes with terror.” In such a short poem, in such simple language, Talukder has fully concaved our minds to the hysteria that chasing beauty can often cause us, to the point that we feel just as charmingly misunderstood, lost and yet as determined as the determined would, both stunning and stunned.
The poems tend to vary little in style, either fragments of sentences organized into stanzas, or memories in paragraph form. This is not to take away from the beauty of Talukder’s poems. Far from it. Because Talukder is not necessarily interested in formal innovation, but on the mastery of an individual line or sentence, the beauty of her thoughts shines more. In the poem, “Ah,” Talukder reflects on the beauty of hair. “You have conquered a curl, at last,” she exclaims as she touches an un-identified character’s locks. “Long, how long I’ve traveled your tresses, their black thick as night, forest of tangled twisting thoughts…” From the alliteration of “travel” and “tress,” or “tangling twisting thoughts,” Talukder shows a clear mastery of the sound of language, and how we shake the beauty out of words by shivering them out of our mouth.
Conversely, Talukder can leave a spell with just a simple image or thought. From a toddler’s perspective of birds in the sky, Talukder writes: “Clouds raced out of the square, trailed by pigeons. Their black shadows slipped off the clock tower, then returned, flapping madly.” The toddler cries, “’Birds, please stay! Stay, sky!’” but despite that, the birds “[swoop] under, [circle] twice, then [move] further into the sky.” The language is pulsing with the anxieties that come with watching the world turn and having no control over it. And, just like this toddler, we feel so small, so unbearably, insignificantly small, and as a result, not able to make sense of the outside world.
Talukder wears her influences very clearly, but her subversions of these forms are equally as explicit. The best poem of the collection, “Shahr-e-jaanaan,” is structured as a hodgepodge of sayings, poems, and thoughts from major Urdu poets, while Talukder weaves the narrative of a break-up, and her family’s reaction to it. Reminiscing of her lover David, the narrator “[scissors her] hair so it fell like rain, [smothers her] palms with lotion and talc until they [silver] at last.” Dealing with the pressures of family around her to settle, to be like any other Pakistani girl, the poet remarks with the earnestness of Sylvia Plath, “dying wouldn’t be so bad, if I only had to do it once.” This is a thought then punctuated with the exclamation after: “I am the American Dream. I am the American Dream.” The poem ends with the news that the poet is going to be married off to someone in Pakistan. The poem ends with the narrator imagining her ex, “across the piano, singing, Ten minutes ago I saw you, to another girl.”
Much akin to the writers of ghazal before her, Talukder takes care to punctuate her poems with the right image and leaves the reader’s imagination soaring with her commitment to finding the right word. At the same time, because of her American-influenced sentence structure, the compactness, the directness of thought, she has formed a style of poetry of her very own. To traverse Talukder’s City of the Beloved is much like discovering the rings and tiers of a Medieval landscape painting. And just as if I had spent copious hours peering over an image, looking over each and every corner to peruse the hidden acts of certain characters and the symbolism implicit as a result, I feel rewarded with each of the lines Talukder has taken care to carve in her collection. I look forward to seeing what Talukder’s developments as a writer have in store.
KIRAN BHAT is a global citizen formed in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, to parents from Southern Karnataka, in India. He has currently traveled to over 130 countries, lived in 18 different places, and speaks 12 languages. He is primarily known as the author of we of the forsaken world... (Iguana Books, 2020), but he has authored books in four foreign languages, and has had his writing published in the Kenyon Review, the Brooklyn Rail, the Colorado Review, Eclectica, 3AM Magazine, the Radical Art Review, the Chakkar, Mascara Literary Review, and several other places. His list of homes is vast, but his heart and spirit always remains in Mumbai, somehow. He currently lives in Melbourne. You can find him on @Weltgeist Kiran.