But you know how it is
the threshold—the uncles
the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
– excerpt from ‘Maybe’ by Mary Oliver
When I first read Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘Maybe,’ I was twenty-nothing years old and living in Philadelphia. It was the first time I was on my own, and when I unlocked the door to my empty apartment and stepped through into the dark, I imagined the threshold Oliver was writing about was an American homestead, the uncles and women part of a joint family, the brother always already the brother.
At the time, I had crossed the threshold that almost everyone crosses at some point, where the uncles mutter and the women walk away. Except in my case, it was the aunties muttering, my father sharpening the knife. Point in fact, my younger brother was gentle, centrist, and loving. I had grown up oceans away from my extended family, and when I did see my uncles, they were more likely to take me on secret motorcycle rides and offer me a hit, than mutter about my love life or whatever else was the matter with me. And the women in my life were a multi-generational sisterhood, a found family that eclipsed the boys who had been my best friends through school.
I knew exactly what Oliver meant in ‘Maybe.’ After all, I was an immigrant, a woman, a person of color, a lapsed Muslim, someone often out of place. I knew about thresholds. And there is no race, no age, no geography, no class, no epoch, where the sharpening of knives has not meant precisely what it means. It was an encapsulation of that aphorism about poetry where you’re meant to read it and think, I’ve never seen it put that way, but that’s exactly right.
In a way, I was lucky to come to poetry on my own, to have it as a kind of private pleasure. I say this even though we were a family of readers, bookshelves lining every wall in our house growing up. But poetry, for my Bangladeshi parents, meant Bangla poems and songs, of which they had memorized entire tracts. The great Bengali writer, composer, and Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore was a constant and I learned a few of his poems almost by osmosis. His monsoon song is indelibly linked in my mind to thunderstorm-evenings spent pacing our veranda, listening to my mother singing.
Monomor megher shongi My heart, a companion of the clouds
Uray chole digdig Flies away to far horizons
Gonterro pa-nay High in the boundless void
– excerpt from ‘Monomor Megher Shongi’ by Rabindranath Tagore
But Bangla was a bridge too far for me, growing up in a small town in Nigeria. It was English that I turned to, British English to be specific. I was ten when I discovered a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson called ‘The Eagle.’
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
– ‘The Eagle’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
At the time I couldn’t tell you anything about why I liked it, other than the scudding rhythm of the lines. I would learn years later that it was called iambic. No matter, I was enthralled and I memorized the six-line poem immediately and recited it often, to myself and anyone else who would listen.
It is perhaps unsurprising that a Bangladeshi child growing up in Nigeria in the ’70s and ’80s would fall in love with a British poem published in 1851. We read hardly any Nigerian authors in school, I had even less access to Bangladeshi literature, and nothing was contemporary. None of this changed when I moved to America in high school, other than adding a few American authors into the mix.
Still, it was Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’ that inspired me to write my own poems, which at the time were deeply terrible, deeply fulfilling records of my third culture kid experience (deeply referential at times too, because a poem I wrote as a teenager when my grandfather died was unselfconsciously titled ‘The Eagle’). I kept reading poetry too, finding in it a general yet particular solace unmatched by the classics, fantasy, and young adult fiction that took up my youthful reading life. More gradually, I branched out from the white male western canon, though it’s difficult to do so in the western world. Such endeavors in diversity are always by design, and often lacking.
I spent most of my twenties on the East Coast, steeped in business, both study and work. My writing self had shrunk into a small wrought thing that had produced perhaps twenty-five odd poems over the years. So when I decided to apply to MFA programs in poetry, it was like diving into another world, especially since I would end up leaving Philadelphia’s stately urban decay for the Bay Area’s cypress and sea.
True to the geek side of my brain, I indexed my poems in spreadsheets, and when it came time to choose poems for my application portfolio, I used a multivariable algorithm that over-weighted my ranking among other criteria. This is to say, I knew no other poets, nor even many people who read poetry. This thing I had loved for so long, which had been not quite secret but never spoken, was about to become a public act.
There were more women in writing, unlike the business world I was coming from, yet it was still quite white, the students, the professors, the authors we would read. Though because it was San Francisco, everything was a bit queered. It was my first time living on the western edge of America, but I felt it like a homecoming, this place where most people had come from “back East,” where my own otherness became one of many.
One of the best classes I took was taught by the brilliant professor and writer, Aaron Shurin, though I started off on the wrong foot. In the first class, he passed out a sheaf of photocopied poems, fifteen in all. That night, I took the poems and crawled into bed in my under-heated apartment in the magical toy town of Berkeley. There, under my electric blanket, I discovered that I disliked every last poem. I thought, if this is what real poetry is, then I don’t like it. It made me dread the coming semester.
Every week, we learned about a different poetic element (meter, imagery, versification, metaphor, and so on), and we identified the poems in which these elements were active. Each element became a filter, a lens through which to read the poem. By the end of the semester, while I didn’t like anything better, I understood more about each poem’s structure and intent, what each poet was doing. More importantly, it gave me a deeper more complex view of the poems I already loved, and the language to speak about them, and about my own writing.
I had started writing prose at this point, although writing poems was, and remains, my first love. Everything I bring to prose has its roots in poetry, and now I had the words for it. I have always loved alliteration. I find couplets and trios immensely satisfying to read and write. I gravitate towards strict rhyme and swinging meter, as much as free verse. I have come to rely on versification for tension and portent and shape. I believe in compression as a writing principle, in both poetry (of course), as well as in prose. I aspire to startling description and metaphor. The edge details—crooked hands, a sharpened knife—can be the center of things. And one might tell a story by laying out the scene, instead of telling the story. In fact, poems like ‘Maybe’ and ‘The Eagle’ define my writing aesthetic. It may even be too perfect a progression, a plagiarism of prosody.
I wish I had read more widely during this time, more translations, more authors of the Global South and Indigenous peoples, more LGBTQ and disabled perspectives, more people of color in America, more experimental work, always already more women. This would come later, piecemeal and incomplete. But I was so fresh then, so impressionable, I wish I could have applied the authority of everything I was learning to honor a parallel literary world. I wish I could have shifted the parallel to the center.
Our last assignment in Aaron’s class was to pick a poem of our choice and analyze it given the tools we had learned over the semester. I decided to pick a Bangladeshi poet, although I knew none. In my research, I came across Kaiser Haq’s name, among others. He wrote in English and I liked that we shared a similar last name, although I had no expectations of liking anything else. I biked to UC Berkeley’s world-class library, which carried exactly one copy of one of his books, A Happy Farewell. I thought I would flick through the book and pick a poem that had a lot of prosodic elements I recognized. I’d write up my report, and that would be that. Instead, I devoured the entire book from front to back. And then proceeded to violate all the publisher’s copyrights, as well as the university’s photocopy machine rules, by photocopying the entire book for myself.
when suddenly the air
is tinted silver,
through the window a rain-washed garden looks in
like eyes prettified by tears,
on the river beyond a canoe
goes by with a glitter:
it’s that ageless moron again,
the moon. You don’t belong
here, I tell it sharply.
– excerpt from ‘Moon’ by Kaiser Haq
The thing was, I knew at once when I read ‘Moon,’ that Haq was speaking for me, he was speaking to me. His language, his subjects, his sardonic and suddenly sexy turns of phrase, it was all utterly modern and captivating while grounded in the particular landscape of Bangladesh’s civil society.
Another writing professor, Kate Brady, once told me that creating art was serious play. Reading Haq’s poems, I was struck by this, his sense of serious play, an intense and pleasurable cocktail of imagery and irony. And above all, I was surprised and delighted that someone who had grown up so differently, so far away, could describe things in a way that made so much sense to me. Haq was of my parents’ generation, a freedom fighter in Bangladesh’s Liberation War, and a beloved university professor. Still, everything about his poems resonated with me. I would learn the term “creative tribe” many years later, but Haq would prove the first member of mine.
There are thresholds you don’t have to cross to understand them, and poetry is the first place I saw that. There were no mountains or grassy fields where I grew up, no silky sea or glittering river for miles, no wild geese heading home, or lonely eagles falling like thunderbolts. Instead, my childhood landscape featured red earth, Harmattan winds, poisonous caterpillars, and a whispering jungle next to our house—all worthy of poems but missing in the anthologies. I found the same disconnect in the fiction I was reading: no brown people, hardly any black people, and no one with names or faces that were remotely like mine.
In some ways, it is an astonishing, lovely thing that one can relate, vibrate even, no matter how distant the context, how unfamiliar. This is one of the higher callings of art, to fill in the gaps that history, media, and community cannot, to make those spaces known. It is also a despairing lonely thing, that one might not see oneself represented, ever, might not even know this mirroring were possible.
It keeps coming back to me, the strangeness, the rightness of resonance, and how much I owe to ‘Maybe,’ ‘The Eagle,’ and ‘Moon.’ Their quicksilver gifts have shaped my craft and my career. It is left to others and my own experience to fill the rest in, a life-long work in progress. I know Haq and others will continue to inspire generations of readers, some who will discover poems in libraries and bookshops thousands of miles away, hundreds of years later. Some of those readers will become poets. And as the canon of now manifests, these poets may hail from lonelier lands, that is to say, closer to home.
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