Reviewed by Dr Faustina Pereira
Title: Not Elegy, But Eros
Author: Nausheen Eusuf
Publisher: NYQ Books (US) and Bengal Lights Books (Bangladesh)
Pages: 88 (NYQ); 94 (BLB)
It has been at least two decades since my university days that I made time to go through a poetry collection as mindfully as I have recently. It is no accident that it is the newly published collected works of Nausheen Eusuf, Not Elegy, But Eros, that helped me emerge out of my doldrums on the poetry front. The title certainly played its part in drawing me to this new work. It was not long before I delved into it properly, that the full spectrum of what was on offer became apparent. Here was a fresh new voice of a global citizen who stirs up emotions against a universal backdrop which nevertheless reverberate at an individualised, atomic and primal level. Who would not be able to identify, in their own way, with, for example, the language of the trees that ‘held court with the birds, and drowsed at noon with the dragonfly’ or marking the passage of time through a thousand moons that ‘fattened and fell’?
Let me clarify at the outset that when I learned that the poet was born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I was intent on picking up deshi points of attachments from the get go. Part I, which barely contained the reference points I was looking for, initially almost disappointed. Then, of course, I came to “Ubi Sunt”, which chants an ode to the ‘ordinary sacraments’ of everyday life that are at once deeply personal and yet inherently universal. A poem woven intricately through shiny red seeds of sandalwood and garlands of jasmine freshly fallen after a night of rain, assures us of a continuity with all those who have gone before us and reminds us that sometimes the answer we are ‘hoping to find, if not what I seek, at least something that might suffice.’ “Ubi Sunt” is quickly followed by other gifts of homely indulgences – from the dining room and its many flourishes in “Musee Des Beaux Morts” to the almost delicious smell of Kiwi shoe polish and the rich feel of stiff-bristled horsehair brushes in “Shining Shoes”. What I found interesting in this particular clutch of poems is a quiet elusiveness of the poet herself. If it is by design, then it is pulled off cleverly – to invite the reader to such an intimate sanctum, yet remaining just beyond the line of visibility.
Part II touches on momentous markers in Bangladesh’s contemporary socio-political reality, from the tragic Rana Plaza factory collapse, the dead and injured in the political violence in 2013, the victims of the Dhaka café attack and brutal murder of rights activist Xulhas Mannan, in 2016. And somehow, looking at how Dhaka has resumed its all too familiar cluttered and chaotic routine after that historic students’ movement a short while ago, Eusuf’s lines from “The Crab Colony at Lewis Pond” take on a different significance, ‘ … and all is still as if they’d never been. What right have we to laugh at them who are creatures of the mud like us, fearful and vain in love and war, parrying with puny claws, then shrinking shellacked into our holes?’
It is interesting that the poet calls her work Not Elegy but Eros, when throughout the collection I was stirred by her repeated use of elegies as a vehicle to carry and capture raw human afflictions. For example, in “Prayer and Lament” for the 507 dead and 22,407 injured in political violence in Bangladesh in 2013, where we ‘Bury the dead with their dreams and dreads, their pain-limned, shrapnel tormented limbs. Return them to the grave and grieving earth and grant this nation new life and breath. Deliver us from our unfinished birth’; or the simmering pain of coming to terms with the reality of a parent suffering from dementia, in “Prayer to My Father”; or on learning the painful art of how not to need, in “The Analytic Hour”, ‘The clock avows the hour. Nothing happens. Nothing ever happens. An exercise in detachment, divestiture. I learn how not to need.’
Yet, the collection is aptly titled in that it can be seen as one long extension of eros, in one expression or the other, applied in its various facets from day to day longings to uplifting summits. This finds expression more fully in the final part of the book. In “At Seagull Beach”, we take pause at the realisation that we are ‘… creatures of water and fire who did not choose each other but were thrown together, or rather, chosen and chastened by desire.’
Some of Eusuf’s turns of expression are particularly delightful. In “A Visit to the Oracle”, we meet a blind man with a staff, with his face toward the sun he cannot see, who carries ‘a knapsack full of errors on his back.’ Again, in “At My Uncle’s Hacienda” we are treated to a glimpse of her uncle’s two rooms with a roof under terracotta tiles surrounded by a moat six inches deep so as to keep marauders at bay; while watching the fish in the moat, she thinks of ‘the boy who peered into wells hoping to glimpse for once then something, what is one or some or then or none for prised and prisoned things?’
All in all, this is an emotive collection and one that covers a wide spectrum of tastes and perspectives. The rawness it evokes is unapologetic, yet far from indifferent. The beauty and human desires it gives expression to are transcendent. Readers coming from various perspectives and a taste for different poetic genres will find it a rich and promising collection.
Dr Faustina Pereira is a poetry lover, a human rights lawyer, and the author of “Fractured Scales”, published by UPL (Bangladesh) and Stree (India)