Not Elegy, But Eros
by Nausheen Eusuf
NYQ Books & Bengal Lights Books
96 Pages, $14.00
Review by Maximilian Heinegg
With the news of her recent second inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2018, selected by Major Jackson, Bangladesh native Nausheen Eusuf is well on her way to a wider readership. Her first chapbook, What Remains, was published in 2011, and Not Elegy but Eros is her full-length debut. With a title suggesting the book’s themes were no less than poetry’s two greatest, I was eager to see if her efforts were up to the task.
The collection, co-published by NYQ Books and Bengal Lights Books, is split into six sections of equal length; the first two elucidate the title, speaking to the love and affection she has for the people she has lost—her mother, father, uncle, and the tragic deaths of fellow Bangladeshi citizens. The other four sections focus on her loves: learning, travel, animals, and poetry itself. In this way, she moves from responding to “The sorrows of the dead,” who “return to task / the living – a collector at the door,” to feeling freed from that responsibility, and able to devote herself to poetry, “the fluttering pennant of a ship / destined for an unknown port.”
Her elegies to her family are tender but not sentimental. In “Ubi Sunt,” she asks “where are they now, that most / unexceptional, unhallowed pair / whose ordinary sacraments / were all the blessing you required?” It’s a compelling honesty to call them “unexceptional,” but also moving to treat them like priests. In “Shining Shoes,” which recalls Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” she writes,
That summer of my eighteenth year, as I
hungered for new adventures elsewhere,
I found him hunched in the half dark hall
polishing a pair of leather sandals – mine.
Now that he is ten years gone
I recall how
quiet was his love, how mute his farewell.
Like Hayden’s father, actions speak louder than words.
She writes powerful elegies that address political violence, and courageous ones at that. In “A Final Embrace” she takes the challenge to elegize the 1,135 garment factory workers in the Rana Plaza collapse, the worst accident of its kind in the history of Bangladesh. The poem, told from the photographer’s perspective, addresses the complicated position of elegist, who finds the “two small figures in an artless human frieze.” In the poem, each line ends on a word which is repeated next to it, in italics, and these words, followed down the right-hand margin, allow the dead to speak, “Corpses. Rubble. Pictures. What did it matter? Young woman, you will never know our names.” It would have been a fine elegy with only the photographer’s perspective, but this gives the poem heart. It might have been even better had she let the reader discover the message themself. In “How to Mourn the Dead,” an elegy for the victims of the Dhaka cafe terrorist attack, she writes:
Let us honor the spirits
who step lightly through
the garden of our disgrace,
walk always beneath the trees
astonished by the chancel
of branches laced above them,
and the ordinance of birds,
and their bodies stained with light.
It’s an elegant, religious gesture that conveys profound sympathy.
In the later sections, and in poems like “Ode to Apostrophe” and “Ode to the Joke,” she comes across as poet in love with the life of the mind (she’s a career student with multiple degrees). Her poems directly reference or are in subtle conversation with thinkers no less than Kant, Freud, Wallace Stevens, Roethke, Eliot, and, in particular, William Carlos Williams. Her work agrees with his dictum, “no ideas but in things,” and she roots her narrative-leaning poems in the concrete. She often finds herself or her subjects in kitchens, airport terminals, on beaches, or watching movies, as she moves from the familiar to making her larger statements about life in a very likable voice.
However, while titling poems “Ding an Sich,” and “Portcullis,” might raises eyebrows, the heavy dosage of allusions are less pretension than homage, and over the course of the book it becomes clear that she is unabashedly in love with learning. She’s fascinated by MIT studies of curly hair, loves pangolins, wants to wander ruined castles, and is as unafraid of advertising her erudition as her ignorance:
I who see
but do not see. More light, for god’s sake,
By the end of the collection, she has arrived and stands comfortably at these intersections of the living in conversation with the dead, of her loves and her learning, and of shadows in the old discussion of dark and light.