The Best Poems of Shamsur Rahman-- a book review by Shobha Rao [Parabaas Translation]

More Shamsur Rahman in Parabaas:

Ekhano Nishwas Ni (Bangla poem by Shamsur Rahman)

Tunnel-e Ekaki Shamsur Rahman (Bangla essay by Salahuddin Ayub)

Amader Shamsur Rahman (Bangla essay by Zakia Afrin)

Du:somoyer Mukhomukhi (Bangla essay by Tasnim Ahmed)


To Attain You, Oh Freedom

The Best Poems of Shamsur Rahman

Shobha Rao

The Best Poems of Shamsur Rahman -- A Book Review [Parabaas Translation]</i> The Best Poems of Shamsur Rahman; Translated from original Bangla by Shankar Sen; J. J. Enterprise; Kolkata; 2005; Pp. 170.

It was a wonder to me when, in the middle of a cold, December afternoon in Northern California – far from the balmy afternoon in Dhaka where it was probably written – my husband thrust the open book of The Best Poems of Shamsur Rahman towards me and said, “You must read this.” It was a poem entitled “Face to Face with Evil Days.” Though I am not an avid reader of poetry I was immediately drawn to the intimacy of his words – the words of an old man spoken to a small boy come to distract him from his work. The words felt smooth and conversational, while a little agitated, impatient. As though I’d run into an old acquaintance in a crowded train station. Yes, of course it was a pleasure to see them but there – there is the sound of the train approaching and there – there is the clock, always ticking. It was this agitation in the poem, this pendulous swing between the innocence of childhood and empty demands of old age, that kept me reading.
When the cock crowed
in early winter mornings redolent with the fragrance of magnolia
I used to go to the old woman next door,
whose skin was of bay leaf colour,
to buy pancakes
wearing the yellow sweater knitted by my mother’s loving hands,
you may not remember.
But it wasn’t until the final stanza that I understood the true power of Rahman’s poetry. How words – aligned just so like the planets – can reveal our true selves. An inner universe more turbulent and tragic with each passing day.
I am busy, exhausted, with no respite.
I am like a ghost, who returns drained and exhausted after a soiree
and strolls dejectedly on the balcony.
Yet even now I can bluff with ease and upbraid a friend with relish
in no time; the better part of my days is often spent
in wishing the deaths of close relatives,
I easily manage to forget my own wife
while placing my mouth on the breast of another’s wife.

(—'Face to face with evil days',
from Face to Face with Evil Days)

It was first poem I’d read by Rahman.

Shamsur Rahman, who died in August, 2006, was the fourth of thirteen children. He was born in 1929 in Dhaka, Bangladesh and lived there all of his life. Though he saw and wrote eloquently of Bangladesh’s painful birth and maturation, formerly known as East Pakistan, he resisted the title of “national poet”. He also resisted forces that were reactionary, undemocratic, and fanatical. He nearly paid dearly for his beliefs when, in 1999, three members of the fundamentalist group Harkatul Jihad burst into his home with axes meant to behead Rahman. He was saved only when his wife, Zohra Begum, intervened and stood in their way.

Through his poetry and through his life, one gets the sense that Rahman was a man in love with freedom. Not just the freedom from tyranny and unjust political rule, not just for the liberation of lush Bangladeshi rice fields and the waves that pummel her shores, not only for the right to speak the language of your choice and fly the flag of your dreams, but the freedom to speak, to write, to laze under a fading sun, to nap and to rise and to forget that there is such a thing as freedom.

Freedom, you are
a wife’s thick cluster of loose black hair,
stirred by the wind to wild excitement.
Freedom, you are
the colored jacket on a little boy’s body,
the play of sunlight on the soft cheeks
of a little girl.
Freedom, you are
a room in an arbor, a cuckoo’s song,
the sparkling leaves of an aged banyan tree
and my notebook of poems written just as I wish.

(—'Freedom, you are',
from From A prison Camp)

Still, what resonated most with my reading of Rahman – as I myself approach middle age – were his most personal poems. The ones that deal with longing, with loss, with the passage of time when there are more years behind us than ahead and when memory can no longer recall the exact face of a lover but the texture of their skin is as bright as the sun. It is one of the joys of reading Rahman to follow him into this melancholy; into this land foreshadowed by Rahman’s unique affection for substances that tarnish with time.
The coppery shade of middle age lies clinging to my skin very often like grief.

My cold corpse shall perhaps be found in a city gutter by somebody one day
after countless waves of slimy water had gone down my throat all the way.
At my door, licking their lips eagerly at dusk, appear quite a few
nameless spirits, yet I bathe in the serene, silvery stream of heavenly dew.

(—'Silvery bath',
from The First Song, Before the Second Death)

He is loathe to admit even today that he must lose his sanity
for the sake of poetry, although it is true that some poets,
even suffering from mental ailments, have bestowed on blank pages
the warmth of a bird’s breast, the golden breath of an afternoon,
a somnolent group of singing islands, the footprint of a tiger, a flight of
steps leading to an ancient fort, an angel and the glow of the unknown;
they have imparted the shape of real dreams to life.

(—'Behind the environment',
from You and a Condolence Meeting in Emptiness)

One senses that the broadest struggle in Rahman’s poetry lies in his understanding and his lack of reconciliation with time. Is it that thing that causes decay and obsoleteness? Or is it a source of wonder, beauty, the harbinger of wisdom? As he wrote, “I do not know what happens when my heart floats on streams of blood in one moment and in full moonlight the next.” It is this struggle that consumes him.
What is gone can never come back,
as it was before. My childhood, so like a morning
startled by the flapping sound
of a bird’s wings,
shall not turn back

(—'A ten rupee note and my childhood',
from The Blind Beauty Who Weeps)

Tied to Rahman’s notion of time is inevitably the subject of ruin. Ruin as a consequence of time. Perhaps even greater than time. We will all crumble. We must: “Does God shudder in the colon? Does He crumble like paper in the burning heat of a pot placed on the oven?” But Rahman finds within his poet’s heart the relationship between life and ruin. Life as ruin.
When on your midday slumber you sail,
on your breast a butterfly lands as guest
startled and scared of ruin as well,
I find peace.

(—'I find peace',
from Bare Footfalls Stretching to the Horizon)

It is this finding of peace despite ruin that makes Rahman a poet of our times. A man undaunted by the endless wars waged in the name of god, oil, and the rhetoric of democracy. His poetry carries the scent of possibility. The hope – as we always say but rarely believe – of something more. He was not a man without his demons. He was, after all, a poet:
There is someone called Shamsur Rahman, who is imprisoned
within himself all the time.

(—'Behind the environment',
from You and a Condolence Meeting in Emptiness)

There was someone called Shamsur Rahman, who has set us free.

Published in Parabaas January 20, 2007

Shobha Rao Shobha Rao has written two books, If the Sea Could Dream and Some Kind of Blue, and is currently ... (more)

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