I don't mean law and order, in which we are woefully indigent, but artistic order, the kind created by art and literature. I mean the idea of aesthetic order, as in Wallace Stevens's singer by the sea and the night sky apportioned by the lights from the fishing boats, and what it means to think about such things in a milieu as utterly disordered as ours. How does one make a life in poetry—or poetry out of life—in the midst of such incongruities? And especially, how does one do so in English?
As I put together my first collection of poems, and prepared for its publication in Bangladesh in addition to the US, I could not escape these questions. Like Stevens, I am often drawn to the aesthetic and the abstract rather than being grounded in the particulars of the land. When I do write poems rooted in Bangladesh, I worry about whether it's authentic, or if I'm using the material merely as scenery or props. Readers at home may not find my work Bangladeshi enough, or out of touch, affected, or rarefied. It has to do with audience, too, not just identity. Not just who am I writing as, but also who am I writing for? Do I have a responsibility to write about Bangladesh, as a sort of citizen-poet representing my culture to the English-speaking world? How does one walk the line between being relevant to Bangladesh and relevant to the world? And can the imagination really be free if one has to be constrained by these sorts of considerations?
And perhaps that's why English poetry in Bangladesh hasn't yet found its way into the world. Apart from the singular and stalwart Kaiser Haq, there is basically no one else to learn from or to claim as a poetic forebear. And even there, it's an uneasy alliance, since he's much more a Bangladeshi poet, a poet of Bangladesh, than I am. His is a virile and sinewy poetry of rickshaw clatter and market chatter, of tepid tea-stalls and biriyani bistros. Perhaps I should be grateful—since he's already done it so well, perhaps it absolves me from that responsibility, and frees me up to do other things. Maybe, as the next generation, I don't have to feel constrained after all.
I suppose I would call myself a poet from Bangladesh rather than of Bangladesh. Here in Boston, I recently went to a reading by an Irish poet who has lived in Prague for the past few decades. When asked if he considers himself an Irish poet, he said he's uncomfortable with that categorization, and even the Irish poets he likes tend to be the ones that resist ticking that box. “I'm not an Irish poet; I'm a poet of the English language,” he said. And that, I thought was a wonderful formulation: a poet of the English language. Or of the French language, or of Bengali. Because ultimately, poets find their home in language—or rather, they make their home in language. Because geopolitical boundaries are artificially imposed, and the national identities that develop around them are thus contingent and incidental. But the imagination knows no such bounds, and the imagination cannot be legislated.
The same is true for other markers of 'identity' such as religion or ethnicity. When people ask me in the US, “What are people in Bangladesh like?” I'm always perplexed by the question. Well, they eat, they sleep. They fall in love, they fall out of love. If someone dies, they grieve. In short, they're no different from people anywhere else, except in the incidentals, i.e. the language they speak or the sort of clothes they wear. But that's not what makes us human, is it? We share a common humanity, and we share the same human condition. And that is the province of literature, whether it's literature in English, Bengali, Russian or French. The details of manners and dress are merely incidental.
Of course, I'm aware of the privilege that allows me to claim such universals. The details of race or religion, for instance, are not incidental for cultures or communities that are oppressed, their humanity denied, on the basis of those differences. For them, it is tantamount to an erasure of identity, a form of psychological violence at best, and real violence at worst. I'm aware of the privilege of not belonging to such a group. It's only because these things are relatively untroubled for me that I'm able to consider them incidental.
What I'd like to be is a poet of the English language. But I'm also from Bangladesh, and yet educated in the West. None of this was true for someone like Stevens. His mother tongue and his literary language were one and the same. And yet, I didn't choose English as my literary language. Rather, it chose me. And so I make my home in language, specifically as a poet of the English language, even with all its power and privilege and messy colonial history. So what kinds of ideas of order are available to me? Perhaps ones that more tenuous, self-conscious, shifting, and contingent. Ones that don't make claims to any specific identity, but are rooted only in the magic of words and the power of the imagination
Nausheen Eusuf is a PhD candidate in English at Boston University. Her first collection of poems has just been published by NYQ Books (US) and Bengal Lights Books (Bangladesh).