Unless You Land in Dhaka

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Ahmed’s roots construct a more nuanced Americana, as we follow Ahmed through the industrial American cities where she calls herself citizen (read: “free”), to her always-estranged returns to Dhaka.

“I can forget what I’ve heard and seen. / I can free myself from this glass.” So ends Dilruba Ahmed’s poem “Dhaka Bazaar Before Departure.” The line refers to glass bangles that Bangladeshi women have slipped onto the speaker’s wrist during a trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city. It is an early moment in Ahmed’s debut collection, , one that both creates and dispels the mythology of homeland, Ahmed herself reluctantly “free.” Glass and dust return again and again throughout her book. For Ahmed, a woman of Bangladeshi origins who was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Ohio, they become conflicting agents of visibility, where the material and the immaterial merge in quiet, unsettling ways. Her roots construct a more nuanced Americana, as we follow Ahmed through the industrial American cities where she calls herself citizen (read: “free”), to her always-estranged returns to Dhaka.

The relentless ghosts that haunt these pages weave themselves together in dreams, food, and the stitchings in our garments. The engines of memory seek to imprint upon us their palimpsestic landscapes, at once familiar and alien. Take the first, eponymous poem in the collection, which opens with “Can’t occupy the same space at the same time / unless, of course, you land in Dhaka” and unfolds its Dhaka stuff: rickshaws, a blue-eyed starlet, Heineken boxes, peacocks, plaid lungis, scarves from The Gap, and dust. Lots of dust. We are looking into rich destitution as though it were a busted jewelry box, crammed with gems which glare and dull instantaneously. The poem is as interested in this stuff as a wandering tourist however; within its second person provocations, she says “Other words surface: / sweatshop and abject poverty, and you let them.” The tone here is saucy, invigorated by its own nascent state of mind. As much as the word “you” is accusatory, there is a Virgilian guidance too that inoculates us to the busy scene, especially when we get to the poem’s last utterance: “Dust sifts into your lungs and sinks—feline, / black, to return long after you leave.”

Ahmed’s lyric ear is very good. Not only does she engage with language and nature but also with cities: coarse locales stamp the poems with a grittiness Ahmed chooses to work through in traditional forms. Given the vertiginous nature of her returns, operating through a template makes sense—and so does subverting the form. Take the poem “Return” in its entirety:

City, I’ve tried to love your gray-veined streets
that wind through grayer hills, bits of driftwood
stagnant downstream, steel bridges, your concrete.
I’ve paced hollows, your twisting neighborhoods:
trestles tucked away near mills, now quiet,
plastic bags that sprout like strange white flowers,
an orange haze not quite the sun. Cardboard
houses crushed into hills, slow heat, hours

pressing into me. No town of my own,
just this confluence of leaden waters—
Monongahela: slate. Allegheny: bruise.
Bridges lit up in bright spokes of moonstone
seem to point home, but among splinters,
where in each river does the water move?

We have ourselves a sonnet that is more or less iambic pentameter. The trash she names is ubiquitous, and yet, odic and lush. In a later poem, “Dust Catcher,” she’ll say of herself, “My chest / is a trash heap: copper coils and rail ties, / and so many pieces of flint.” There is an intimate focus on the municipal debris that gathers like dust, one to which she bonds. Until Pennsylvania’s landmarks are named this is any city, anywhere, so we familiarize ourselves only by the aggregate of stuff. Ahmed is able to twist stock images from city and nature (e.g. those strange white flowers) in order to reveal her anxiety of place. There is a love that fails as efforts to imagine home fail, hand in hand, pushed each time by these conditional constructions “I’ve tried” and “I’ve paced.” Because the city is a structure as much as a receptacle, and because cities dilapidate and evolve, the volta is not subtle: As the rhyme scheme loosens and her tone shifts from refusal to apology so too does her faith in place. Her attempts to fall for this city, this city containing classic American industries (mills, steel, concrete) and garbage, do little to allay her rejection of it. Ahmed even casts herself as part of the city wares, becoming one of many “splinters” on a bridge, an idea that seems appropriate for a woman stuck between lands, made to jut ever so slightly from an otherwise smooth surface.

Ahmed switches registers and tones often, her voice pinioned to ideas of motherhood, identity, travel, and the geopolitical. Some of the more alluring poems are ones where she speaks as if from the perspective of an infuriated tour-guide. The poem “The Other Side,” which addresses Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, begins on a not unfamiliar note:

What brings you to a clearing? Our fruit,
our flesh—is it as you imagined?
Ah, but the fruits you paint are brighter, bigger
than any we find here, the blooms bolder
and more varied. This tree, not so dark as black-
skinned avocado; more like green young breadfruit.
Sweeter in the mind than on the tongue, as they say.

Gauguin spent some of his life as an expat in Tahiti, where he painted many vibrant portraits of Tahitian women and landscapes. There’s an exoticism to his painting style that one could compare to Ahmed’s writing, which could suggest that Ahmed dips into a similar exoticism herself; Ahmed’s flits of bitterness, however, tend to occur in the face of the exact kind of misrepresentation of the Other with which Gauguin so effusively engaged. In the poem “Alpana,” she responds to anti-sweatshop protestors in what is no doubt the loudest two lines in the collection: “I either sweat here / or under a stranger’s / weight.”

Ahmed’s tone in these sections seems to indict the reader, presumably American, but to say this is the overall mood of the collection would be missing the point. Motherhood as a trope complicates as it clarifies questions of identity, especially when one considers what ‘country of origin’ actually means for her. Depending on whether motherhood refers to Ahmed’s late mother or Ahmed’s child, the hemispheres of familiarity and comfort shift drastically. The poem “Advice,” for example, captures this flux with the kind of turgid fluidity unique to Ahmed:

            Her children
grew round and gold,

fed by another country’s
            butter. When they, too,
grew heavy

she instructed them
            daily: three full cups
and lots of rest.

To be “fed by another country” has within its conceit an inherent distrust of other countries, a distrust that mollifies to status quo by the time those children are old enough to raise their own. Because of the third person distance, we can better grasp a story that is sine qua non American in its journey from immigrant to citizen. The dust then is what settles from that great rift of obtaining citizenship.

Ahmed pays homage to the late poet Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri American who wrote about this bridge between worlds, often with a touch of remorse, a touch of the sublime. In his poem “Ghazal” Ali writes, “The only language of loss left in the world is in Arabic— / These words were said to me in a language not Arabic.” Ali, being a master of both ghazals and American poetry, wrote this Persian form like hell into the American cannon. It has become a popular form for English speakers; because each couplet is enclosed and re-appropriates its last word it allows the poet to obsessively ripple between states of development and finality. It also enables the speaker to identify herself at last, which is no small task for the transcendentally homeless. In Ahmed’s own ghazal, also called “Ghazal,” she writes “Me encanta cantar, cuando estoy sola, en el carro. / My mother tongue dissolves. I speak in another.” Just as saying “another country” subdues its otherness, so too does the practice of repeating “another” in a ghazal. What remains is what she has inherited.

The irony of both of these poets writing (mostly) in English is not lost. It is, in fact, a crux of Ahmed’s collection: after all, she is American. In “Southeastern Ohio,” she describes a gym-cum-mosque that invites the distractions of a Walkman’s leaking tunes and a disingenuous go at worship. She then tells us,

In another country,
we’d have fasted and feasted in a
month of sunset meals, wearing
gifts of new dresses. Instead,
I took salt in my mouth
with our neighbors, brothers
from Egypt who passed the ball
and dribbled and spit all month
on the court, avoiding
their own saliva.

In so many of her strongest poems, Dhaka exists as a dreamy parable in the same way her late mother does. “I have stumbled—with my faith returned to me like a pouch / of broken bones—I found my face / among the villagers,” she writes in “Fable.” “The trees / are my keeper their rustle / of history yet // I wind one hair / around a knuckle / just as my mother / taught me” she writes in “Jinn.” Ahmed’s mother, who cooked, advised, and instructed Ahmed and her siblings, had become an almost physical embodiment of Bangladeshi tradition, so it’s no wonder that the apparitions in these poems exist not just in letters, but in bay leaves, bootlegged DVDs, and a plate of steaming vegetables prepared for ten years by her father in a dream.

An argument throughout this collection seems to ask: What do you know? Within America, we see her family members arrested for jaywalking, enduring the stress of airport security checks, and being mistaken for a Mexican in a Texas hospital. Meanwhile in Dhaka there are busy markets, smugglers, and the insecurity of being found out as a non-native. Her music helps construct a byway between these two worlds, neither of which can contain within them an authentic home. In the last poem to her mother, she writes, “It’s taken so long to come home.” If Ahmed’s memory allows for such tempered range and insight to continue in future collections, let’s up the dust keeps coming.

Natalie Eilbert is the author of Indictus, winner of Noemi Press's 2016 Poetry Prize, as well as the poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from POETRY, Granta, The Jewish Current, the New Yorker, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is the founding editor of The Atlas Review. She lives and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin. More from this author →