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Book Review: City of Rivers by Zubair Ahmed

City of Rivers by Zubair Ahmed (McSweeny's, 2013)

The Foul Rag and Bone Shop

“Of the heart,” we might say of Zubair Ahmed’s poetry, but it is also decidedly of the body. A morbid mortality insists in each of the poems in City of Rivers, the second publication from Ahmed, a 24 year-old one-time professional video gamer who now studies mechanical engineering and creative writing at Stanford. His scientific knowledge at times clearly informs his examination of the human experience, but he is not afraid to speak of the Big Things using Big Thing words that straddle the border between cliché and profundity. (Let the record show that Ahmed generally falls on the less lame side of that line.) Most of all, his poems are brief and beautiful, with final lines (“The light source is somewhere beyond / The years of my life.”) that should be scratched onto padlocks locked to the Pont des Arts over the Seine.

City of Rivers contains 58 short poems that illustrate the poet’s experiences growing up in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Texas, where he moved after his family won the Diversity Visa Lottery, a program established by the Immigration Act of 1990 with the aim of encouraging immigration to the United States. The poems run the gamut from dusty, sun-drenched memories of playing with his brother as a child to extraordinary, almost supernatural tales from Bangladesh. Consider one of my favorites from the collection, “Sajeed, Who Lost Four Fingers for Lying”:

In his sleep

Someone poured glue

In his eyes.

Sajeed woke up and whispered

“Thank you.”

That poem makes me want to write exclamation points in the margin. It is deception and simplicity in verse, the foundation of which is the unexpected reaction of the final line. “Sajeed,” like many of Ahmed’s poems, is interested in the strangeness of the human animal, an animal that can both desire death and live effusively in his blindness. In the corner of each poem stands a persistent specter under a curtain made of “thread forged by the breeze / That carries my skull into the sky.”

Mortality and aging recur in different dusty iterations, each more striking than depressing. In “Gone Off Alone,” we see Ahmed’s deft juxtaposition of life and death in brief, somnolent stanzas:

I heard your windshield crack

In a dream.

The washing machine churns

With stained bed sheets.

I lean forward, and listen

To the graying of my hair.

From the first poem in City of Rivers, the picture Ahmed paints of Bangladesh is of a city in which death is present constantly, whether in the corpse of the cat left “exactly / Where it died, on the dresser, / Beneath the mirror,” or the body of the dog that appears in what felt like a disproportionate number of poems, or the Ganges River “dense / With dead bodies.” I was reminded of Boris Pilnyak’s “Chinese Story,” in which the narrator is struck by the sheer multitude of rotting corpses in and around the Yangtze River.

Ahmed’s fixation on death is rarely grotesque. Often, as I said earlier, his interest seems to be more in the persistence of life in the face of its omnipresent opposite. He seems keenly aware that our first moment of life is also the first moment in which we might die, and that every extraordinary moment thereafter is a bold postponement of the inevitable. In dreams, however, he wanders:

When I sleep I join the dead

In vast courtyards.

We wait for buses and trains

That arrive exactly on time

But have no windows.

Really extraordinary. This image reminded me of the words of Svidrigailov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is?”

The primary figure who haunts the pages of City of Rivers is Ahmed’s father, who has presumably died. (If he hasn’t, Ahmed has visited death upon his father quite a few times.) His body is treated like Christ’s in Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb: viscerally, with an emphasis on its earthen corporeality. A prime example of this is “A Few Words to My Father”:

Water, pills, gates.

Smoke rushing

Into the stony channels

Of your chest.

The sandals on your feet

Gather moss.

Your eyes

Are the color of limestone

After years of rain.

Nothing I do

Will change anything.

All of the poems in City of Rivers are in free verse; that is, they have no rhyme or rhythm schemes. This is perhaps what keeps Ahmed’s poetry from becoming truly great, although saying that is a bit like saying Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men would be better if the sentences were longer. Still, the moments when Ahmed uses rhyme are high points whose radiance I don’t think would diminish in the context of a collection more focused on prosodic innovation. As his poetry stands, however, it is most reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s Imagism, a germane example of which is his famous, “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” City of Rivers is decidedly Modernist in its eschewal of the pentameter (and, somehow, the iamb), but it should go without saying that that is not a bad thing. Modernism is more wonderful than most things in the world. Ahmed makes exemplary use of his poetic faculties and the influences of his forebears, although he would do well to read all the Yeats he can find. Yeats (from whose poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the title and first three words of this article are taken) was a Modernist through and through, but one who was deeply committed to the virtues of prosody.

In any case, City of Rivers is a treasure you would do well to read. I’ll leave you with my favorite poem from the collection, “The Gift,”which I see as a sign of wonderful things to come from this deeply original voice:

Eighteen years ago I gave you what I thought was a piece of diamond.

Why did you give it back to me in your will?

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