The poems in Zubair Ahmed’s debut collection, City of Rivers, are not exceptional because he is a twenty-three year old engineering student at Stanford; they are exceptional because he is a dedicated craftsman with a developed artistic vision and voice, regardless of age. History has taught us that excellence in poetry can come early in life, or much later (see A.R. Ammons or a more contemporary example in Claudia Emerson). While I imagine one of the reasons readers might find themselves interested in City of Rivers will be due to Ahmed’s relatively young age, such readers will invariably find themselves more interested in exploring the range of his vision and the confidence he seems to have hammered into every one of his sharp, stoic lines.
Speaking of history, Ahmed is keenly aware of his, both domestically and on a global level. Many of these poems explore his childhood in Bangladesh and his adolescent years in Texas. A great many of Ahmed’s poems are short, hovering around the length of a sonnet, and employ a detached observational “I” reminiscent of Elizabeth Bishop (if not as voluminous). In the opening poem, “Measuring the Strength of a Sparrow’s Thigh,” Ahmed writes of Bangladesh as a landscape that “looks like a rotting nail.” He is benevolently haunted by memories of his parents and family to the point that they become suffused in the soil. The larger history of Bangladesh is further explored in poems like “We All Gather to Eat and Watch Television,” though even in then the larger history is always inextricably tied to the familial history:
My uncles discuss politics as Hercules disagrees
With Hera. They smile quietly and talk in detail
About the pieces of Khaled that were discovered in plastic bags
Outside the parliament building.
They wonder whether they should’ve let
The dogs continue eating.
One of the strengths of Ahmed’s poems is his insistence that the reader be the one to annotate and process his observations. He reserves making judgments in order to let information slip by into our ears. This tactic replicates how children eavesdrop with only a dim awareness of the horrors that surround them, as well revealing how casual and commonplace violence was in the margins of this speaker’s young life. The poem closes with the news that “The monsoon rains begin tomorrow, and mark the beginning / Of nothing special,” which almost seems to comment on the regularity and elemental permanence that the social and political forces have on shaping the speaker’s sense of the world.
Another theme Ahmed explores besides—or related to—personal history is the relationship between the body and the spirit. Many of the poems that look at animals, such as “The Forest Coyotes of My Country,” “I Watch the Shadows of Birds Waking at Dawn to Pick the Worms Clean,” and “I Once Held a Quail and Stared into Its Eyes for Eleven Minutes” treat their subjects with philosophical significance and seek to peel back the physical veil in order to make a kind of metaphysical communion. The speakers of Ahmed’s poems tend to be highly perceptive making this collusion of souls the most significant way for the speakers to cease “lying in the ruins of the wind” and act. This exploration of body and spirit, often in the context of the speaker’s father, grandfather, or brother, take on a pithy quality in the shorter poems by aping Charles Simic’s minimalist absurdism. “Minyard’s” ends with a tomato that helps the speaker understand “why / [His] body is a cloud,” while the speaker in “Civil Air Patrol” flies his friend “home / On a paper airplane.” Like Simic, Ahmed never lets these whimsical flourishes overtake the undercurrent of gravity that powers his writing.
While it may be tempting to celebrate his talents in light of his age, writing as assured as Ahmed’s ought to be celebrated at any age. The final poem in the collection, “Concession,” is also one of the most sobering and lyrical. As a young man, Ahmed has the luxury of looking down the road at his future, but the final three lines of the poem are not imbued with youthful optimism or hope. He writes, “I begin to sleep. / My body is music. / I will never have a home.” Ahmed possesses a profound understanding of the nature all poets, young and old, share—he recognizes that the words are a dream, that they haunt the body, and their constant buzzing, their inability to give us solace, keep us moving. Having poured himself through the tributaries of City of Rivers, I look forward to seeing what Ahmed does next.