Rakibul Hasan Khan discusses Sofiul Azam’s poetry collection Persecution from a postcolonial perspective
Sofiul Azam is one of the most important English language poets from Bangladesh. Persecution (2021) is his fourth poetry collection, which has recently been published by Salmon Poetry (Ireland). His poetry has already appeared in some of the leading poetry or literary journals across the globe, including Prairie Schooner, North Dakota Quarterly, The Ibis Head Review, and Postcolonial Text, to name a few. In Persecution, Azam shows an astonishing poetic talent, offering some wonderful poems on the themes of love, war, and politics, among others. If we read the poems of this volume purely from an artistic viewpoint, we will find most of them as what might be called “perfect” poems, but we may find the same poems somewhat problematic if we read them from certain political perspectives.
The volume has recently come to me travelling a long distance from its publishing house in Ireland to my present residence in New Zealand. This journey, which began in Bangladesh where Azam lives, has covered three different countries of three continents. Such a transnational breadth is the main motivation for writing in English for many South Asians today, who have internalised English as a language of their own for their creative expression, inherited from their colonial past.
These poets capture the complexity and multiplicity of South Asian life with the common thread that binds them all — the language, English. Their expressions are somehow distinctly South Asian. This fact makes Azam stand apart from many of his counterparts in Bangladesh. Very few English language poets from Bangladesh, especially those who were born and brought up there, write such “perfect” poems in English. But Azam’s perfectly written poems in “native” like English with somewhat Western outlook and a poetic expression deriving from Western literary canon make some poems of Persecution incongruous in the South Asian context. In this essay, I will shed light on this incongruity while exploring some other features of his poetry.
The most obvious influences on Azam in this collection are Eliot (1888-1965), Auden (1907-1973), and Walcott (1930-2017). Perhaps, among them his true poetic inspiration is Walcott, who is sometimes alleged to be more an English poet than a Caribbean. This is somewhat true about Azam as well, but his situation is, of course, unlike Walcott. Azam is a self-made poet who has mastered his art of writing poetry in English through reading, overcoming his spatial “limitation” of living his whole life in a Bangla dominant country like Bangladesh where English is no more than a foreign language. Therefore, it would be an injustice not to recognise his extraordinary achievement in mastering the language to write like a ‘native’. But his poetry is not all about language. Azam’s success in Persecution lies in the fact that almost each poem is neatly written, maintaining outstanding poetic and artistic expressions. If the poems were decontextualised from their social, political, cultural, and historical backgrounds, this would be a collection of “perfect” poems. Azam in Persecution is like Walcott – more an English poet than a Bangladeshi! It is, of course, an overstatement, but there are some truths behind this assertion. To illustrate my point, I quote some lines from his poetry:
I tell myself that I can afford to be happy like a grizzly bear only having to feast on salmon moving upstream through shallow creeks to lay eggs and die. I need to act like a hiker does, getting all he needs On the wild shrubbery dense paths in Yellowstone. (“The Capitoline Wolf,” 14-18, pp. 15)
In the quoted lines, no one can doubt the mastery of Azam’s versification. If one is not informed of who is the writer of these lines, it would be hard to imagine these were written by a Bengali (English) poet. Objects and images like “grizzly bear”, “salmon fish”, “hiking” and “Yellowstone” are so foreign in the Bangladeshi or even in South Asian context that they seem to be incongruous in an otherwise perfect poem.
But Bangladesh is not untraceable in Persecution, particularly in the part entitled “Heat of Interrogations”, where Bangladeshi landscapes reappear time and again through the poet’s nostalgic recollection of his childhood life in his hometown near the Garo Hill. The hill and a backyard pond in his grandparents’ house are the two most frequented places for the poet to escape from the complexities of metropolitan life of Dhaka where he lives. There is a clear undertone of English romantic poetry in the poems of this section. The quoted lines below may clarify my point:
I grew up picnicking in the Garo Hills. In summer, I saw trees and clustered vines dance in the wind and get covered with red dust. One day we will go there, to see together the rain falling and washing the dust off their green foliage. (“Rain,” 28-33, pp. 17)
This superb poem somehow reminds me of Yeats, especially the early Yeats of romantic phase. I quote some lines from “Coming of Age,” another poem from this part, which casts a shadow over a nostalgic recollection of childhood event through the experienced poet’s realisation of its innocent cruelty:
Even as a child, I did atrocities like floating rat pups in a coconut shell on a pond’s calm water. I hear their sqeaks though I’m not degaussed to such evils yet, drifting far from atonement. (11-14, pp. 12)
Such memories are the backbone of his poetry. In retrospect, he offers a profound insight into his life, which has a general appeal: “What am I but an accumulation of memories, / each of which is surmounted with unsuccess?” (16-17). It is true that every individual is an accumulation of memories.
This is a prominent feature of Azam’s poetry to attempt to give vent to some sad truths of human lives in general terms, especially in this part of the volume. The following lines from “The Pond at Grandpa’s House” may support my claim:
But I Remain tensed like a hyacinth Worrying about the lowering water. (17-19. pp. 19)
This “lowering water” perhaps makes all of us tense, humans whose existence is as uncertain as that of a hyacinth and threatened by the drying up of water – the most vital source of existence. It is more so for Azam who does not want to strike his root in any particular place:
I don’t ever relish the singular idea of being rooted in just one spot; I rather feel like a rhizome branching out new roots from its nodes, trying out its various potential climates for the plurality is itself a self-renewing adventure. Losing faith in those too preachy about the singular, I prefer to be an unpaired jerk lusting for the plural. If I say this planet is where I began and my windows open into the universe, would I be allowed to belong? (“Earth and Windows”, 22-30, pp. 30)
This is an unequivocal statement of Azam’s internationalism or transnationalism, renouncing any specific national identity.
Azam’s preference for a transnational identity is a common choice among many poets and writers of the so-called postcolonial world. It makes them different from the traditional postcolonial poets who usually express their deep desires to be rooted in their lands and cultures. Therefore, Azam’s choice of a transnational identity, against the backdrop of his ancestral home that he often revisits, can be interpreted as the conscious choice of a poet whose writing in an adopted language opens up before him an outstanding opportunity to explore other horizons. But there are scopes for raising questions about the intention of such transnationalism. Is it an opportunity for the poet to make his poetry more presentable to an international audience, since creative writers in English from Bangladesh and South Asia in general inevitably sense the shadow of an international as well as an unknown readership at the back of their minds?
I am aware that I am making a clichéd and contentious claim, and I may even be charged for being a nativist for raising such questions. Therefore, I must clarify my discomfort in coming to terms with the idea of transnationalism, which I think is largely confined to privileged people who can afford to assume multiple identities. This is perhaps a narrow and simplistic view of transnationalism, but it cannot be denied that those who adopt transnational or multinational identities are generally from privileged social positions. However, one particular feature that intrigues me the most is Azam’s romantic recollection of the past often with a profound attachment to nature. It makes him, to me, the last romantic of the post-postmodern age!
Part two of the book, “The Flames of Desire,” also exemplifies his romanticism. It is the spiciest part of this volume, but some of the poems in this part slightly disappoint because they do not fulfil my expectation of capturing the complexities of human relationship that I expect from the twenty-first century love poems. I am quite sure that many readers will differ and I admit that what makes me critical of Azam in this volume is essentially because of our ideological differences; his poetry as a form of art has mostly nothing to do with it. However, an exciting feature of this part is Azam’s experiments with metaphysics. This part brings out the influence of English canonical literature in shaping his poetic sensibility and artistry. On the one hand, the erotic and sensual images that he creates with an abundant use of conceits may remind one of John Donne, on the other, the rendering of the metaphysical elements in a modernist vein will remind one of T.S. Eliot who rejuvenated metaphysics in modernist poetry. The following lines from “Krishna’s Return Home” show evidence of his use of metaphysics:
As I reluctantly walk out of your woolen warmth far worthier than the promise of a kingship in heaven, I see washing on the line under the sky with a few stars peeping like pot-bellied spies through the curtains of dark clouds. (1-5, pp. 37)
These lines, once again, reflect the impressive craftsmanship of Azam who succeeds in matching the poetic talents of the English poets who influence his poetry.
The extramarital sexual trysts that Azam accumulates in this part may titillate readers. But while emulating the erotic art of a seventeenth century poet like Donne who is notorious for his misogyny, Azam also falls into the same trap of presenting women as an object of men’s sexual pleasure, without any agency. The poem “Who Doesn’t Want to Make Love to Someone’s Wife?” is a case in point, from which I quote the following lines:
Could I borrow you? I promise you will be returned unhurt to him who’ll know nothing of rain’s work on a taro leaf. (10-12, pp. 47)
This wonderful poetic expression is problematic for its gendered undertone. Although it may sound like making a gross interpretation of a love poem, I cannot overlook the fact that the quoted lines’ that show women are men’s possessions and they can be borrowed like any other objects. It sounds like a very offensive idea to me. Similarly, in some other poems, he compares different parts of a female body with fruits to be consumed by men.
The third part of Persecution, “Embers of Disappearance,” contains the most politically conscious and powerful poems. I enjoyed the poems of this part the most, but some of those are, unfortunately, problematic for being Eurocentric in outlook. One example of Azam’s Eurocentrism or a Western attitude is his treatment of wars, which is a recurring theme of this part. Surprisingly, Azam does not look beyond the world wars of the twentieth century to reincarnate the horror of war, assumably because of his politically apolitical and liberal humanistic Western outlook. Here lies the main incongruity of his poetry, at least from my ideological perspective. I think it is incongruous of a twenty-first century Bangladeshi poet to rely so heavily and uncritically on the World Wars to reflect on the horrors of wars, whereas there are so many ongoing and past wars in his part of the world, so many struggles of the oppressed.
Even his so-called transnationalism and lack of belonging to any particular place perhaps do not justify his stand because there are also many poems in this volume that reflect his awareness of place and time. Therefore, his position is curiously ambivalent in relation to his homeland. This kind of ambivalence is often considered to be a quintessential characteristic of the so-called postcolonial poets, but the paradox is that Azam does not seem to be very keen to identify himself as a postcolonial poet.
Azam’s treatment of wars also indicates the influence of modern English poets on him. The following lines from “Requiem for the Undead” reflect his reminiscence of Eliot’s rendition of the horror of the First World War in “The Wasteland”: “A desert greens with corpses planted as seedlings. / Did dry sands wish to be washed out with blood?” (11-12, pp. 76). In the same poem, Auden’s account of his devastating experience of the Second World War in “The Shield of Achilles” is echoed:
Weary footfalls, the oars knifing the watery flesh. The dreams that linger are burst-out bubbles or hollowed-out conches washed on alien shores. Batons, barbed wares, and the cold greet the future. (21-24, pp. 76)
Similarly, in another poem, he echoes the final line of Walcott’s famous poem “A Far Cry from Africa.” Walcott writes “How can I turn from Africa and live?” and Azam writes “How can I write poems and think of beauty alone?” (“Worries at a Hilltop Resort”, 27, pp. 89). Such kind of “intertextualities” are often intentional. They are undoubtably very artistic and evocative expressions, but the problem is neither the intertextuality nor the art, rather the context of the time and place when he wrote these poems. Do I sound like a nationalist now? I would rather call myself a postcolonialist. However, the influence of classic English war poets like Wilfred Owen or Keith Douglas, or the Cold War period’s poet Boris Pasternak, or the holocaust theme of Auschwitz in his poems indicates not only his inclination to present twentieth century modernist themes but also his Western point of view of meditating on his own experiences and perspectives. In this sense, he is a twenty-first century modernist poet from a postcolonial location, although it is not unusual among the Anglophone postcolonial poets to embrace Western modernism as Jahan Ramzani explains in his comprehensive study on such poets in A Transnational Poetics (2009). The irony is that Azam and many others seem to reject the identity of the “postcolonial,” but that identity persists to hang stubbornly around their necks like the dead albatross.
The most ambitious poem of this volume is “Prayers to the God of Jihadists.” In this poem, Azam deals with the issue of Islamic radicalism, which is a pressing concern for the contemporary world, particularly for the West. Azam also writes the poem largely from a Western perspective, which is evident in his use of the word “jihadist” – a popular Western coinage to describe the radical Muslims, and it is sometimes indiscriminately used to label Muslims in general. For many in the West, Islamophobia has ominously led to suspect every Muslim as a potential jihadist, and by writing this poem from their perspective, Azam seems to simplify a complex issue. The poem thus turns out to be a problematic one despite having enormous potentialities to become a great poem.
Nonetheless, there are many poems or short expressions in Persecution which save Azam from doing injustice to his poetic merit. “Persecution” and “The Photographer” are two such poems. In these poems, Azam offers exemplary political consciousness, being fully aware of his time and place. I quote some lines from “Persecution”:
In the wake of the Confederate flags flying o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave! I know brown won’t ever be de-browned to white. I’m a genealogist, cracking the encryption codes of all those suspicions under my critical lenses. Oh, don’t let colour and culture make distance between us. Elsewhere lines of sanity are now increasingly blurred. Erich said Hear, O Israel! A new Holocaust is raging on. So between an anvil and a hammer I stammer: For Jews in Hitler’s war my sad tears drip, Also for kids bombed out in the Gaza Strip. Not anti-Semitic but you know Zionists never get it. (43-54, pp. 93)
Whereas the above lines from “Persecution” express Azam’s consciousness of international politics, the “The Photographer” represents his awareness of national politics. In the latter poem, Azam makes a bold statement about political persecutions in Bangladesh. The photographer in the title of the poem alludes to a renowned photographer and political activist in Bangladesh named Shahidul Alam, who was arrested on the ground of sedition during a time of political unrest in 2018. In the following lines from the poem, Azam asserts his support for the photographer, protesting the repressive political regime that restricts freedom of speech:
I want caged birds to sing their dreams out loud so that captors feel the horror of wings being of no use. Palmyra palm trees, though rooted, make wings of their fronds. And only freedom gets us on the wing. But in this country, rules from their laboratory rain down on us clay subjects and wash away what we made solid with labour. I wonder if they’ll wise up to the light brewing under darkness. Those mute photographs will be vocal soon. (“The Photographer”, 17-27, pp. 104)
Thus, Azam expresses his solidarity with an artist who fights for freedom of thoughts and expressions through photography. This poem of a national subject matter has an international significance, for nowadays persecutions for dissents are very common everywhere around the world. It also justifies the titling of the volume.
In fine, I repeat that Persecution is a collection of “perfect” poems. There are some problematic areas in this volume, but those are hardly because of any artistic weakness of the poems; rather, Azam’s ideological position sometimes weakens his political stance. His over cautiousness with form and expression is probably another reason of his political compromise. There is hardly any contemporary issue that he does not deal with in this relatively thin volume. Though I have not mentioned it in my discussion, his ecological consciousness is another highlight of this book. Therefore, I warmly accept this collection, keeping in mind the way the speaker of one of his poems asks his beloved to accept him with all his imperfections:
I am not requesting you to accept me as a gem you might have lost by mistake on the way, rather as one humanly rife with imperfections. (“Who the Hell Benefit from Denials?,” 51-54, pp. 60)
Rakibul Hasan Khan is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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