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Musings

To Infinity & Beyond!

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Inclusiveness seeks to bridge gaps between peoples and places. Too often our parochial approach in life, leaves us alienated and estranged. But speaking of aliens … in the 2000’s it seems we are at last coming to the point in time where humans will begin to, if not live off world, then visit in greater numbers. Space travel? That’s truly borderless. How exciting to imagine traveling the universe and having our eyes opened to the immense possibilities of space!

Though the elites enjoy space travel, the question remains, will the human race en mass ever truly reach the stars and expand beyond Earth? With this in mind, I posit the following questions;

Is it viable?

Back in the 1950s there was a contagious worldwide fervour to go to space, fuelled by the fantasy of sci-fi writers and films that made this achievement seem imminent. Maybe after the two world wars and the fatigue of poverty contrasted with the hopefulness of better days ahead, we were finally able to dream. In a way, space travel has always been the purview of the dreamer. The Soviets launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957. The competition and fear between America and the Soviet Union no doubt accelerated the development of space exploration during this time. Additionally, the cessation of world wars made this logistically more possible, and the knowledge gained from those wars was utilised to create space worthy ships. The race to get to space was a Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop their respective aerospace abilities and send satellites, space probes, and humans up into space. But the whole world was involved, with astronauts, scientists and researchers working together as much as they competed with each other.

In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin entered Earth’s orbit, in Vostok I, a space craft for one person, becoming the first man ‘in space’. In the 1960s, the US reached the moon (unless you believe that this was faked, in which case, film maker Stanley Kubrick made a faux film of reaching the moon, information on this can be found in the revealing documentary Room 237, by Rodney Ascher made in 2012!). If indeed the moon was reached, it seemed back then, this was just the beginning. There was a palpable obsession with the future. Technology that would get us to space gripped the United States and deeply influenced the cultural artefacts of the time. In 1955, Walt Disney paid consultants who worked on space-related projects to help him design the rocket ship rides of Disney’s Tomorrowland. Songs about space, art and fashion relating to space were all fascinations that beget the drive forward. Stanley Kubrick‘s film The Shining (1980) is supposed to have secret references to the faking of the lunar landing. Whether faked or real, the world believed humans landed on the moon and in a way that’s what counts most — perception.

Then wham! Our predictions of where we’d be by the 2000’s seemed vastly optimistic. For a plethora of reasons, not least, the sheer magnitude and cost of space travel. We were not riding on space elevators or darting around the universe by the 2000’s – so all those old shows predicting we’d be there by now, seemed to be just fantasy. Some people point to the Challenger explosion as the beginning of the end of American at least, space adventure. Cost, danger, the environment, many reasons can be ascribed but do not explain the extreme and total diminishment of interest. Once upon a time people pressed themselves to store fronts to watch old TV’s displaying live rocket takeoffs and now nobody seemed to care if America has abandoned her search for the stars. Was the interest just an epoch in time that has been replaced with other technologies and obsessions? How does this explain other countries who continue to fund and grow their space programmes? How can something as crucial as endeavouring to reach another world, be shelved in favour of the latest iPhone?

Astronauts have spoken out claiming the reason humans have only just returned to the lunar surface since 1973 (China just landed in 2020) isn’t based on science or technical challenges, but budget and political hurdles. This is easy to believe if you consider the American technology that landed them on the moon had less ‘tech’ than a modern-day scientific calculator. I remember going to Houston and seeing the original ‘space control’ and how tiny everything was and wondering how on earth they landed men on the moon and returned them safely. To advance that technology for further space exploration is both expensive, daunting and involves consistent agreement among politicians. Makes you wonder how it was ever made possible! The reason America funded the space race initially was because it was a point of pride (beating the Soviet Union) which as pathetic as that seems, seemed to gear up enough people to make it happen. Without that impetus, politics drowns the scientist and astronauts wish to advance space exploration.

The mother of invention isn’t just necessity, it’s also fantasy. Artists have long influenced inventors – think Star Trek and the low-tech ideas they had, which have been replicated more recently in flip-phones and video-chat. Sci-Fi writers and thinkers have influenced those who seek to go to space as much as anyone else. It could be argued there is no real delineation between fiction and reality in this case, owing to their mutual influence. If we could create a lunar base, scientists believe this base could evolve into a fuelling point for future further-flung missions into deep space. It could also lead to the creation of improved space telescopes and eventually enable us to live on Mars. We need to push ourselves to the next level of exploration – having relied upon ageing technologies that we have not funded sufficiently to advance. Now, billionaires like Elon Musk push for space tourism, rather than chronically underfunded agencies.

One of the biggest impediments, is how to pay and guarantee safety. NASA is under-funded and receives a tiny percentage of the overall US budget. Priorities go to the military and other immediate programs that are deemed more essential. Since this is political, it’s up to the public to generate an interest in space travel. Sadly, even when the Apollo program was at its greatest; after Aldrin and Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, only 53% of Americans said they thought the programme was worth the cost, according to a report in the Insider.With politicians changing too frequently to see through long-term investment space projects, this stymies those who believe space exploration should be prioritised. Buzz Aldrin has been strategising to get to Mars for over 30 years, as he lamented the lack of support space exploration receives. Aldrin and other experts agreed it must involve international cooperation: “A US-led coalition would include Europe, Russia, India, Japan and China, as well as emerging space nations the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and Saudi Arabia,” Aldrin said in an article in The Gaurdian. “We can afford to go to Mars but we must have fiscal discipline. We must focus our limited resources on only those things that are really necessary to get to Mars. In my view, we are currently spending over $6bn on programs we do not need to get to Mars. We need reusability, every element of the system.”

It’s nearly 2022 and we’re still not there en mass or reaching further. We’re told it’s possible but technologically there are hurdles to overcome, not least the effect of long-term space travel on the human body, or the effects of uncontrolled radiation from the (belt) or the methods by which we fuel vessels for such long-haul trips. Space radiation is one of the greatest risks for astronauts. “Determining astronaut health consequences following radiation exposure involve very complex processes,” stated Tony Slaba, Ph.D., NASA research physicist in a government website. “It’s difficult to quantify exactly how radiation is interacting with tissues and cells – and more complicated to quantify and determine what long-term outcomes are going to be in terms of the potential diseases and biological system effects.”

And that’s without touching on putting people into statis or some kind of sleep. We have great ideas and history tells us great ideas eventually become reality, but it’s taken us longer than we anticipated back then. Technologies like magnetic and water shielding have only gone so far and need to be prioritised if we’re to live off-planet. Another real threat, alien microorganisms, prions or diseases humans have zero exposure or immunity to. If we imagine what Covid-19 has wrought, it’s easy to see why bringing ‘space-bugs’ back to earth or exposing astronauts to unknown elements, could be fatal. Finding unbreakable ways of protecting everyone will prevent the science fiction horror stories from coming true. But what’s more likely? Thinking about potential dangers being brought back to Earth, or the excitement of exploration?

What does it bring us if we achieve it?

The people who will benefit from space travel won’t be you and I. It will be the trillionaires who can fund projects and much like early explorers they will exploit natural resources and profit from them. Whether they find planets made of diamonds or copper or other expensive minerals it will be they with their reach, who like plantation and slave owners will come out on top. One can argue this is a replication of the exploitation of the Earth, and those people working for the giant industries. I would agree. Does this mean all space exploration is without value? There is always value to reaching further, but it generally comes at a cost and requires exploiting the masses by the few. Pluses could include sending people off world to ease the burden on the planet as we become overpopulated. We might be able to terra form, and create liveable planets that can sustain life, although predictions suggest this would take lifetimes. One idea has been generation ships; where ships are able to manufacture a way to self-generate power and travel for long distances and time. Those in the ship may live their entire lives onboard and it may be their children or grandchildren who reach the final destination. The idea of sacrifice always exists when considering far-flung exploration, and this was often the case when people got into little wooden boats centuries ago in quest of unknown continents.

Can we learn from the mistakes made by early explorers? Or will we repeat history because it’s our nature? If we cannot create planets that are self-sustaining then we rely upon earth to supply those planets with food and water etc. and that’s less sustainable than not going off world. Potentially if we could make this work, it would be years in the future, but might give the human race the opportunity to significantly grow due to increased resources. Without this, we are stymied by the resources of one planet, which we are using up rapidly. Whether it’s a good thing to increase the human race throughout a galaxy or universe, remains unknown. We could be viewed as cockroaches or explorers, that’s up to the interpreter and our choices should we become a race of space farers.

A 2018 Pew Research Center poll showed the tide is turning, with the majority of voters saying NASA space exploration is necessary but majority want the skies scanned for killer asteroids. Maybe the way we get to space will change, in that we have to think of modern day, pragmatic methods of funding space travel, even if its in the guise of space tourism or tagging on the back of projects to protect the planet against killer asteroids. Maybe it will take another tragedy like an asteroid hitting the Earth to advance our current knowledge, as this seems to be the only way humans operate. We are less inclined to prevent disaster as to respond to it. Sadly, if the environment continues to be eroded, we may have no choice but to seek off-world options, and we don’t want to leave that option till it is too late to act. With dramatic weather pattern changes throughout the world, it’s never been more essential to protect Earth but we’ve not doing a very good job if the oceans and air pollution are anything to go by.

What are the potential down-sides?

It isn’t possible to talk about this without considering the many side-effects of space travel. Many I’ve already touched on but it’s worth really to reconsider history which has shown the penchant of humans to dominate and disrespect other cultures. Humans often consider themselves the ultimate alpha, the top dog, but in truth they could be replaced tomorrow depending on weather and climate and natural disasters, just as the dinosaurs were. We shouldn’t let our hubris make us forget our responsibility to our planet. Some argue space travel is a waste of resources and money because it’s looking beyond us rather than at what we already have. Shouldn’t we be fixing our home-grown problems before we focus on the skies? Others say we should look at the ocean before we consider space. Home grown issues include the devastation human beings have wrought on Earth, which most of us are familiar with.

Given we are reckless with our inventions. They benefit us but not necessarily the natural world around us. Is it any wonder to guess why expanding the human race can be a matter of concern? I’m not one who believes humans are the apex and that we are entitled to be. I predict one day we’ll give up our throne. But there’s the other side of me filled with the wonder of imagining what is out there. I mean, if space is infinite, which they have agreed upon, that means it never ends, a concept few of us can even understand or relate to. Imagine? Infinity. What does that even mean? When we humans begin-middle-end and everything around us does the same. It’s the true sense of forever, something larger than we will ever be. I’m filled with a fascination for a universe that doesn’t end, how do I wrap my head around that and comprehend the myriad possibilities this entails!

What I do know is if something never ends there literally are eternal possibilities meaning every possible eventuality must occur, because of the law of replication. There are only a certain number of creations that come from a universe containing certain components and those creations if given affinity, will reproduce in varied forms, but also replicate. I think this is where the concept of parallel universes comes from. Rather than a literal slice in time dividing one notion of reality from another similar but not the same version of reality. A universe that has no end, will eventually ‘play out’ every scenario, a little like you could crack any code if you had long enough to go through the permeations – but we don’t have time, so we don’t do that. The universe, however, does have time, infinite, so all that can be created will be, and all that has been created (including us) will be created (again) in shades of similarity. This I believe is where we get the concept of a parallel universe, although that’s not quite what it is.

If we add to this the concept of space and time, how time is not a set notion but rather, a perception based on humanity, the same goes for our understanding of the material world. In other words, we’re limited by our own physical presence and lifespan in our understanding of what is beyond us. For those like Steven Hawkins or Ashwin Vasavada (Project Scientist for NASA’s Mars Rover Curiosity, in charge of a team of 500 researchers), they can see beyond what is literal and imagine like any great thinker, beyond what we know and assume, and extrapolate. This extrapolation includes quantum physics and the breaking away from normal modes of thinking to include things we’re only beginning to understand.

If time is not mutable, if concepts of reality really don’t exist as we assumed they did, then it throws everything into question. Is what we perceive as reality even remotely real? Or just a flawed, human-centric bias? And if the latter, the universe’s secrets are closed to the limitations of our minds? This is why some who have taken psychedelic drugs have said, sometimes the doorways of perception (Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, written about his experiences with mescaline in May 1953) must be opened differently. Huxley was in turn influenced by the poet William Blake who wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Science, logic, mathematics, will probably provide us with many answers but in order for us, as sentient but limited-sentient beings, to evolve perceptively, we may need a further key to elucidate things beyond subjective perception. Some evaluation of psychedelic drugs as facilitators of mystical insight with great potential benefits for science could be that missing link.

Having read a great deal of science fiction, I wonder if I would think like this had the ideas not been implanted by some of those great science fiction tomes and operas. I suspect we build on what we learn, so nothing is entirely original, but in building on others, we may come closer to answers than if we operated in a vacuum. This is also true with making science fiction a reality. But just as our urge is to explore, we should be mindful of past mistakes as a race (human) and not repeat the colonialist model that only caused pain. Otherwise, life could be no more than a petri dish with us experimenter or experimented upon. There is more to life than conquer or absolute knowledge. There is the humility of experience and growing from it, which is something we often diminish. Perhaps spirituality and hard science are not after all, so incompatible.

Will it actually happen?

The development of nuclear-thermic powered propulsion systems to enable long-haul space-flight is essential to reduce crews journey time and make travel to Mars and beyond realistic. Heat shields to ensure landing is safer on unknown planets, would cut down on landing fatalities. Next generation space suits that are flexible and livable would allow explorers to spend more time in their suits than the suits of old that were not invented for long term use. There would also need to be a nuclear fusion style power system that enabled those landing on planets, to tap into power whilst on planet, and not fear running out. Radio systems used currently, can take up to nine years to send transmissions from say, Mars to Earth, so the development of technology like lasers to send information and communications rapidly would be essential. Scientists like Sharmila Bhattacharya (Director of Research in the Biomodel Performance Laboratory of the Space Bio-sciences Division, NASA) are spending decades researching the effects of the human body in space to understand how to survive, even thrive in space.

I’d love to think our progeny will reach space in a way we have yet to. Why? Because there is something fantastic about imagining us getting off-world and exploring. I think human beings are innately curious but like cats, their curiosity can be destructive. I would like a more utopian future, where we learn from prior mistakes and if we do reach space, we do so ethically. I don’t know if that’s possible, but anything less will be just another belching coal mine, suffocating those who work in it and those who live around it and that is not a dream I share.

Why is going to space so bewitching when we have unexplored oceans that we’re contaminating rather than exploring (Eight million metric tons: That’s how much plastic we dump into the oceans each year. That’s about 17.6 billion pounds — or the equivalent of nearly 57,000 blue whales — every single year. By 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish.). Without the ocean, the planet dies Is space travel selfish when starving people here on Earth need immediate help rather than pouring money into space flights that are at this time, only for the privileged? I think we all share a bigger dream of being ‘more’ than simply Earthlings. If a God exists maybe they don’t want us to go beyond these confines, or maybe they do. If a God doesn’t exist, then it seems obvious we’d want to go as far as we could, because again, this is our nature. It’s how we do it. And if we do it because we’ve ruined this planet, that’s a pretty good determinant that we’re going to make the same mistakes in space.  

Finally, is it necessary?

This is perhaps the most important question because we do a lot of things that are not strictly speaking necessary. Ever noticed how when someone gets money, they spend a lot of it on ‘unnecessary’ things? Why don’t some of these uber-rich people put money into worthy causes with the same intensity as frivolous? Why do those with money often need more? Why is the accumulation of material gain, so addictive? All this relates to a bigger question, a moral question. What is necessary versus what is not? For a rich person they go well beyond what is necessary in an ordinary sense because their wealth gives them more opportunity. Interestingly those who win the lottery are often said to be less happy after winning than before. Perhaps money is a double-edged sword. There is something to be said for adversity and earning our own way in the world, and a realistic measure. A bit like when you spoil and ruin a child because you indulged them and they no longer have a sense of the true worth of things.

We are very entitled when we get into those vaunted positions and perhaps things we think are necessary, are not. So how do we decide? Is it right for us to be a moral judge and tell others their dreams and excesses are not allowed? Realistically we could never control excess, so it’s not an option. There will always be people who live on different levels and have excesses the ordinary person cannot imagine. Those people may use up the resources we have to share, in greater quantity, which is bad. Or they may inadvertently propel our collective aspirations further. By having some of us who are capable of making dreams come true, the rest of us are swept along by the excess and the dream. In this sense, dreams are necessary, as they give us all something to aspire to, even if we may not literally be the one possessing the outcome of the dream.

I think it is necessary to have aspiration and fanciful dreams that aren’t strictly speaking practical or entirely pragmatic. Sometimes we just want to dream bigger than we are, because we know we are all going to die eventually, and we want something astounding. For some of us this may be God, for others it may be space (or it may be both). Without this, we revert back to the star gazers of the past, who probably also hoped their progeny would reach those stars but didn’t have the means to make it come true themselves. If you have the means, maybe you should use them, just as if you have the ability to invent and conceptualise, you do so. Maybe it’s an intrinsic collective wish that we should not neglect, by being entirely sensible. Maybe we won’t save the planet by aiming for the stars, but we might find a little magic.

Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Essay

The Incongruity of “Perfect” Poems 

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 rakib.hasan82@gmail.com.

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