‘City of Rivers’ by Zubair Ahmed

city of rivers
  • COLDFRONT RATING: three-half
  • PUBLISHED BY: McSweeney's, 2012
  • REVIEW BY: Benjamin Landry


“Its black eyes look into mine”


What happens when a yearning for what is lost competes with the impulse to fully experience the present?  The answer, in the form of a collection of poetry, must be something like Zubair Ahmed’s City of Rivers, the first full-length collection from this poet born in Bangladesh in 1988.  The remnants of Ahmed’s family came to the United States less than a decade ago, so it makes sense that City of Rivers is concerned primarily with the scarred and sodden landscapes of Bangladesh, a country beset with monsoons and haunted by a history of strife and famine.  It is a beautiful and visionary collection, one that embraces the energy of contemporary poetry and yet—a rare thing these days—is unafraid to maintain focus throughout a poem and complete an idea.

The impetus for much of this collection is the trauma of departure, in which the elective emigration and the loss of family members prior to leaving Bangladesh have become conflated.  The speaker seems to have lost a father, sister and brother in quick succession, and he is literally clothed in the articles of the dead in the collection’s first poem, “Measuring the Strength of a Sparrow’s Thigh.”   He wears his father’s jacket, carries “in [his] left pocket a map given to [him] / By [his] great-grandmother,” and beneath the jacket, wears a loose-fitting shirt belonging to his brother, who “became a mountain.”  The titular allusion to Blake-by-way-of-Gilbert (“Measuring the Tyger”) seems deliberate, and it evokes a lineage of bewilderment and awe in the face of bereavement.  In “We’re Almost There,” the speaker imagines himself sitting on a bus “beside a sleeping man and a dead man.”  He reports, “Outside I see the disappearing forests of Bangladesh / And the gray fingers of my father. // The seats smell like black snow.”  Some of the most stirring lines are delivered in this elegiac mode, as the speaker communes with a lost relative (“Ayon”):

You told me you believed
You were becoming the strokes of a boatman
Crossing the Brahmaputra at dawn,
His hands moving up and down,
Trying to become water
And failing.

While the presence of the departed is a source of strength for the speaker, it also seems inevitable and perhaps occasionally unwelcome.  Dead dogs, horses and birds are continually floating up on the rising monsoon waters, as though to suggest by metaphor that the dead will not remain submerged.  Thus, continents away and years later, the speaker still finds himself connected by “Hang[ing] miles and miles / Of wire / Extending / From [his] father’s chest” (“Power”).

Ahmed counts Bangladesh as part of his departed family, connected as it is to the necessarily unrecoverable state of childhood.  He vividly outlines for us the “churn[ing…] deltas,” the desert, guavas and “two-hundred-fourteen rivers of Bangladesh.”  “Taenarimore” sensually evokes the experience of homeland, as the speaker and a childhood friend “take off [their] shirts / And run into the rain.”

We press our faces
Into the mud to show our thanks.
A bird sits on the far wall.
Its black eyes look into mine
And I smell raw leather.

The epigrammatic style of these lines, the last of the poem, point out the guiding question of City of Rivers: What to do with this loss?

Admirably, Ahmed countermands mere elegy and nostalgia with the act of self-creation, a natural pursuit for a young poet.  In “Stars,” he imagines himself as a new constellation, a “goat / Chewing on the same blade of grass / For decades […]”  But the pull of the past is strong, and self-creation necessarily turns the speaker’s gaze both inwards and backwards.  In “Inventory,” the speaker gives up a chance to visit Dhaka, claiming, “Instead, I chose to stand by the Pacific. / I am driving the car in a forest at night / And the trees are dressed / In my grandmother’s shawls.”  Although the speaker appears to choose a new land, he continues to see the new through the lens of the departed.  It is the predicament of identity amplified by the immigrant experience.

As a first collection, City of Rivers clearly acknowledges some debts to its predecessors.  In “No One,” the speaker reports, “No one listens to the head / Hanging from the tree in my backyard, / Even when it sings beautifully […]”  This image will be familiar to readers with even a passing knowledge of the work of Brigit Pegeen Kelly.  While Kelly likely cribbed the image of the singing severed head from the myth of Orpheus, Ahmed’s appropriation of the image still seems derivative at best.  But perhaps I am being too harsh, and the appropriation is merely a form of flattery.  In the best possible way, this collection positions itself as an inheritor of Simic, Tate and Blake, in its occasional touches of surrealism and the completeness of its vision.  The most considered lines of Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares seem to speak to Ahmed’s experience, but here Ahmed’s water is in the place of Kinnell’s fire.

In a few aspects, City of Rivers feels very much like a first book of poems.  The collection runs a bit long, as some poems duplicate subject matter.  There is not enough formal variation for my taste, and humor—perhaps the most delightful marker of our humanity—is largely suppressed. (“Hello, Brother” is a welcome exception, but alas, it comes too late to provide real tonal variation for the whole of the collection.)  But City of Rivers is essentially a singular work.  Poems from it could well be with us for many years; “Bonfire at 3 A.M.” is one of the most honest and fraught explorations of eroticism I’ve encountered, and “Collecting Bottles, Wittenberg Train Station, Berlin” is a gorgeous and heartbreaking rendering of patrimony.  Read Zubair Ahmed as much for the poet he is as for the poet he is likely to become.