Longleaf Press, 2011Sphinx seven striper

Reviewed by Gina Wilson, Richie McCaffery and Emma Lee

Gina Wilson:
This pamphlet relates the loss of the poet’s mother from the several points of view of the deceased herself, her husband and her daughter. It is calm and reflective, a restrained outpouring.

There’s an emphasis on stillness, silence and resignation but beneath the surface passions move, conveyed in arresting images, such as the father checking ‘‘the saucer of pills’’ in ‘Fate’, and recurring sounds, ‘‘rain/ tapping insistently’’ and ‘‘the shrill cry of the crickets’’ in ‘Baishakh’.

The context of the poems in the pamphlet is the poet’s home country of Bangladesh. Now resident in the USA, she returns in memory, and in fact, to the land of her birth, interweaving almost nostalgic reminiscences of childhood with the starker realities of caring for the terminally sick, loneliness, grief.

The use of her mother tongue (unfortunately, not always given a footnoted translation) adds intensity to the backdrop. For example, there is ‘‘kal-baishakhi: violent storms that occur during the month of Baishakh’’ in ‘Baishakh’ and ‘The Seventh Night’; ‘‘namaaz-e-janaaza’’ in ‘Grief’; ‘‘Fatiha’’ in ‘Morning’; and similar intensity is added by references to ‘‘the canopy/ of a rickshaw heading home’’ in ‘To My Father’ and ‘‘the monsoon shrieks across/ the southern districts’’ in ‘Tending the Ill’. ...

For all the sorrows of sickness and grief depicted here, there is a notable lack of rawness. Emotion is controlled and dignified, rather than inventive. Some stanzas feel to me a little too much like prose divided into lines, as in ‘Morning’:

At six, he hears the maid bustling
in the kitchen. He rises, too, and heads
to the bathroom to wash and shave.

Occasionally syntax can be awkward and sometimes there’s a lapse into cliché (“your eyes bright and clear,/ your hands firm and strong” in ‘At the Botanical Gardens, Mirpur, July 1981’).

Three stanzas from the final (title) poem represent the brightness and skill that characterise Eusuf at her best:

The ordinary light of the midday sun,
the day’s wash a necklace of charms,
the rich colors of cumin and turmeric

laid out in trays to dry, the chirrup

of rickshaw bells from the street below,
the jangling keys of a passing locksmith.

And above the rooftops with their potted

plants, a kite soars in the high blue air,
straining to be one with wind and sky.

Richie McCaffery:
Handling this pamphlet, one is both impressed by the quality of the paper and disappointed by the drab cover and its hard-to-read font. The endorsement on the back, from Kim Bridgford, carries a tall claim for Eusuf as “one of the rising stars of New Formalism”. The collection is underpinned with grief for the death of a mother and the slow decline of the poet’s widower father. The poems widely in terms of their success. For example, there’s the pithy ‘The Seventh Night’ with its poignant closing envoi where

The storm heaves
like a laboured

mechanical breath.

And she in her grave
so still, so still.

Then there is the less convincing prose-poem allegory ‘Death’s Visit’ where death is personified, perhaps too predictably, as a sentient, rotting corpse paying a visit to the poet’s mother. The closing line “this was the price of disobeying death” seems unnecessary and spoils the overall effect.

Eusuf ably demonstrates her formal command throughout this collection, particularly in ‘Sestina’. Beyond the technical skill of these poems is a feeling that the poet’s grief is almost ineffable, highlighted in her quest for solid things to hold onto. These always slip away and leave her, as in ‘At the Botanical Gardens, Mirpur, July 1981’:

Entire albums neatly labelled
(to me, this is your enduring gift)
as if you’d known all along
that they’d be all that’s left.

While these poems are often musically and memorably phrased, I feel the poet’s desire to use a certain gem-like word sometimes overtakes the meaning she’s trying to convey. For instance, there are many Latinate words: “impervious clouds”, “motionless submission”, “graceful gray”, “darkly omniscient”, “impish grim”, “comely figure”, “silent splendour” and “murmured susurrations” (the phrase almost tautological). Such words and combinations are cumbersome and can border on cliché, weakening an otherwise fine poem. Some pieces, in trying to capture the poet’s spiritual and emotive rut, fail to rise from the malaise, leaving the reader deflated.

Others, however, like ‘Baishakh’, with its moving and vivid reminiscence of childhood, leave a lasting impression.

Emma Lee:
‘What Remains’ concerns the poet’s mother’s death with hints of regret and reminiscence. For example in ‘Baishakh’, the first month of the Bengali calendar, the narrator watches a boy near her former school as he makes paper boats:

I stop to watch him.
I want to ask the boy
his name, I want to tell
him that I too can make
the paper sailboats.
I try to recall how I used
to make them, and find
that I’ve forgotten.

The tone is clearly one of regret. The second sentence uses enjambment to suggest an urgency calmed by the longer sixth line and caesura in the seventh, the final short line emphasising that rueful note. The use of colloquial, casual words belies the formal skill underlying the poem.

One sestina (simply titled ‘Sestina’) has women asking when their sister is going to tell her daughter about her imminent death, but the daughter already knows the angel of death is watching her mother. I found ‘Evening’, also a sestina, more successful:

Thirty-six years. It seems a lifetime
ago that he had asked for her hand.
He begins to weep in silence,
the sole curator of their memories.
Someone turns out the lights; darkness
engulfs what is unfinished, unsaid.

The poet avoids the sentimental and acknowledges this isn’t just her loss. There are poems for her father too, represented by a banyan tree heavy with rain, yet too strongly rooted to be bothered by it.
The poet also remembers her father as a curator of memories. Thanks to his careful labelling of photo albums she knows where and when each photo was taken. The title poem concludes: “and in the veranda, the sunlit squares/ slope gently eastward, already receding/ into the unknown from whence they came”. There’s a clear sense of time passing and the world moving on.

Nausheen Eusuf seems to me to have a quiet, assured voice, which is confident in approach and successful in creating an elegiac tone. She avoids taking risks or shaking foundations. She is a poet of calm curation and continuance of tradition.