Not Elegy, But Eros
By Nausheen Eusuf
NYQ Books. 88 pp. $15.95
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
Elegy derives from a Greek word meaning "lament," typically of the dead, but covering as well a wide range of subjects, both serious and sad. Eros, of course, is passionate love.
Nausheen Eusuf was born and raised in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. Her poetry has appeared in major journals. Her ear for sound and sense is distinctive, and her range of subjects and variety of tone suggest a sensibility in which poetry and being have coalesced. There is much that is elegiac in this debut collection. But at work always is a love of all that we can know only by sight and hearing, taste, touch, and fragrance.
There is a wryness to many of these poems, and some contrive a mordant introspection. Take "Selfie": "If self's the man, she's the wife / who follows, shadow faithful," who in the end is "the past you can't deny, / the fellow sufferer, the portrait / in the attic that you become." Four elegies compose "Elegy for the Family Romance," the first "for my mother, still alive," "who tracks an airplane's progress / for hours across a screen when her children travel, / intent upon a small green dot as if their lives / depended on it"; the second "for her son, age 38," "who never learned to drive, the streets of Dhaka / too treacherous," who "oughta ditch the thick-framed glasses- / she'll bet it's why he doesn't have a girlfriend"; the third "for the man she married," "who wonders daily the when where what / why and how . . . his neurons noncommittal, his synapses / like faulty wiring . . . his engineer's precision dulled"; and the fourth "for my mother's daughter," "a willful child" who "learned the language of the trees, / held court with the birds, and drowsed at noon / with the dragonfly . . .."
That would be the girl, one surmises, who conducts the tour in "Musée des Beaux Morts":
And now, if you'll follow me this way -
careful, madam, not to step on those sandals,
acquired at a noisy bazaar in New Delhi -
we enter the study which doubles as a den.
On the shelves you see her lecture notes (note the penmanship - the confident strokes,
the graceful ligatures, the little flourishes) . . .
The emotional ambiguity of leaving one's homeland for a new one is nicely limned in "Allegiance": "The heat rising off the tarmac, the little men / with orange flags raised, waving good luck! / farewell!" And then, "the captain speaking. Acceleration, take-off, / the plane pointing its nose to the unknown, / the ground falling away, no turning back." And then arrival: "At immigration, bright lights and long lines . . . I have nothing to declare . . . I bent my tongue to new inflections . . . I grit my teeth even though my soul rebelled." In the end,
I renounced, I abjured, I pledged my troth to you.
Did I give myself freely? Did I bear true faith?
I did so not knowing how, so help me God.
Then there is the title poem, which would stand out in any collection. It bears a dedication: "for Xulhaz Mannan, LGBT activist murdered in Bangladesh, April 2016."
"I have heard the summons," the speaker tells us, "and offered myself to whatever it was / within me, calling. Some said don't." He is held, he says, "only by the thought of one I loved":
the arch of his brow, the two-day scruff of his jaw rasping against my cheek,
the pulsing veins of his slender limbs.
He sounds almost serene when he says "I have faced the flash of steel, the howl / of unholy voices." Then he confesses: "But it was their eyes, / their hard unloving eyes, that undid me."
Genuine heartbreak - and genuine poetry.
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer book editor. Visit his blog "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue." Email him at PresterFrank@gmail.com.