Weekly Prose Feature: “Wherever I Go the Sparrows Look the Same: A Review of Zubair Ahmed’s City of Rivers” by Matthew Zingg

September 6, 2013

Consider the eponymous setting in Zubair Ahmed’s debut collection, City of Rivers, as a monument built atop an ossuary, a letter to home dropped on the killing fields of Rayarbazaar, or a place where rivers run “dense / with dead bodies” and “the sea churns / Into a hundred deltas.” Here in the middle of something—between history and the present, west and east, colonialism and liberation, between death and life—there exists a crucible, an open field where dirt roads intersect, or like “a cup of fresh water / Floating in the sea,” an object whose significance is waged by its negligibility.

In more than one sense, this narrative—of the journeyman, the immigrant, and the bluesman too—is patently American. Having relocated from Bangladesh in 2005 to the States, Ahmed finds himself divided between these two different worlds. His poems, elegiac and persistent, yearn to reconnect, to make reason out of this distance, both literal and figurative, and yet Ahmed’s lyrical exertions, imbued with loss and dejection, resign themselves to the totality of their alienation. He assumes the responsibility of witness, perhaps as a rampart against the void, but faced with a world that resists implication (“Wherever I go, the sparrows look the same— / Small songs that have lost their meanings”), Ahmed, at times, proves to be his own subterfuge:

I am the animal that places a stone
In each ear of the dead

Who are now too heavy
For the stars to carry.

Without question, much of Ahmed’s dialogue centers around dichotomies, but while City of Rivers could easily be reduced into a series of poetic binaries, Ahmed shows that at the core of such dynamics there are the most tenuous distinctions. He considers the work of the poet to be the work of the intermediary, and appropriately, positions himself as the go-between:

I’m sitting beside a sleeping man and a dead man
On this bus heading north.

Outside I see the disappearing forests of Bangladesh
And the gray fingers of my father.

Often the poet finds himself at similar junctions (“When I sleep I join the dead”) or traversing a landscape already falling into memory, a landscape on the precipice of implosion: “Entire trees are vanishing / In the hallways of their bodies.” If anything, this sort of imagery presents an interesting analogue to how Ahmed consistently treats the work and obligations of his poetry, as an elusive means to an end when, in truth, no end exists, just a gradual loss, an inward fossilization of the momentous. Ahmed feels more comfortable, then, existing in the borderlands, in a flux state where memory drops off and artifice starts. But despite his vigilance to maintain a connection, to be, in a way, neither here nor there, Ahmed reminds us of the persistent, widening gap created by distance and the passing of time (“The space between my father and me fills / With grass and snow”), as well as his own limitations. “Nothing I do,” writes Ahmed, “will change anything.”

Though he acknowledges his powerlessness throughout the collection (“I don’t have time, / I have an illusion.”), Ahmed never discounts the depth and possibilities of an interior life. In the poem, “At a Photo Exhibition for the 1971 Liberation War,” Ahmed views a picture of a mutilated child’s body and, in the boy’s eyes, sees, “A field waiting in moonlight, / A village burning in the center. / His mother walking naked into the river.” In one sense, he relies on imagination to fill in the blanks and to cross the dark chasm that keeps him divorced from the externality of history. Conversely, he finds an affirmation of his innate link to a certain place and time. Likewise, Ahmed’s individual narrative becomes something alternately new and age-worn, personal and shared, both an object and an idea:

And in my left pocket a map given to me
By my great-grandmother,
A map of my country when it was not
My country—East Bengal, East Pakistan.

Ahmed, the poet, might be such a trinket, or maybe a conglomeration of trinkets, a collection of hand-me-downs and repeats that resist ownership. He wears the various totems of his family—his father’s jacket, his brother’s shirt, and cotton shoes his mother knit—items that possess purpose but find their true value in figurative representations. Ahmed’s verse deals heavily in symbolism, investing emotional heft in the objects around him (“My father’s pills / Glow like cadavers”), and recalling truisms and platitudes which provide more a sense of finality and uselessness than solace or wisdom: “The value of a bent needle / Placed on the coffin of a weaver.” Similarly, Ahmed ascribes form and meaning where none is found (“I’m driving a car in the forest at night / And the trees are dressed / In my grandmother’s shawls”), perhaps as a defense against forgetfulness, or as a way to confront an un-vexed world. “I wish the lake knew / It was man-made,” writes Ahmed, as if the container, the word lake, were capable of defining water (as if water can define water), as if an identity could be governed by its own artifice.

Among these temporal and linguistic artifacts, Ahmed’s consciousness, like that of any displaced person, experiences a fragmentation: “I believe I can give the city / A third of my heart / And call it home.” Ahmed views his relationship to the world in terms of reciprocal sacrifice, as an exchange not quite complete or mutually beneficial but nonetheless necessary (“I become the animal so close / To extinction it finds peace”). This exchange, perhaps the speaker’s attempt to assert his self as a process of actualization, has the inverse effect of isolating him further, of occluding him from an objective, “Other” reality and thus vitiating his identity:

I don’t understand anything anymore—
The moon walking away from us
Because we’re discovering
Who we really are.

For Ahmed, poetic identity, by its very nature, is a vehicle for abandonment. A tense marriage, earnest yet incapable of fulfillment, between the private and public bodies runs throughout his verse. These domains are bound together, inextricable; or, rather, one colors the other like overlapped slides (“The skin of men spread so thin / The world becomes transparent.”). But between these transparencies Ahmed repeatedly finds his own body, alienated (“My skin is a carpet / Abandoned in the street.”) and incomplete:

I am only made of grass,
My body spread thin
Along the colored banks
Of the Brahmaputra River.

Although Ahmed’s consciousness here is ostensibly inert, these excerpted lines come from a poem set on a night train to Munich. In fact, a number of poems in City of Rivers reflect a process of relocation. Over and over again the speaker appears in transit—by train, bus, car, by his own two legs—and not by coincidence. Clearly, Ahmed’s move from Bangladesh to the States in 2005 informs much of the collection, but his narrative isn’t as clear-cut as east and west. City of Rivers is not a fish-out-of-water story. Ahmed’s poems can best be defined as restless. From Dhaka to Berlin to Texas to Lake Tahoe, the shifting locales in City of Rivers serve to deconstruct and rebuild Ahmed’s identity, and in many instances provide him relief, as one can often experience wholeness from being alone. Yet Ahmed, ever aware of the exponential fragmentation created by his travels, seems unable, or unwilling, to reconcile the growing distance between his past and present selves.

As a result, the voice in his poems becomes a somewhat synthetic entity, kinetic and engaging, but always waylaid between two points. In a sense, Ahmed writes from a place that promotes imagination, growth and progress, a place where he can strive. But in another sense, the same place proves to be one of stifling estrangement and torpor. “My right leg looks towards the hilltop,” Ahmed writes, “My left leg will never make it there.” Divided and wandering, with no home, separated from a number of things—family, history, himself—the speaker in City of Rivers tries again and again to return to somewhere, anywhere really, only to be met with frustration. “I will try to remember again,” Ahmed writes, “Where I come from.” Ahmed acknowledges that his question—what makes a house a home, or people who they are—is a longstanding predicament. Instead he seems more curious with what we leave behind, how our presence or lack thereof affects our surroundings:

The sky looks like the dark glass
Of an abandoned home.
People have faces
Shaped like empty riverbeds.

Although the poems in City of Rivers explicitly deal with returning, with bridging an expanse—whether between countries or between life and art—Ahmed realizes that often reconciliation is an act of no consequence: “I start my car, drive south / Until I hit a street / That may or may not exist.” But for Ahmed this uselessness neither justifies nor subverts purpose or intent: “A widow confesses her sins / To a broken wheel.” Ahmed’s work necessitates a mode of expressing the impossible, and demands of itself a circular way of thought that “may or may not” serve a purpose or provide absolution. Here conveyance exists for the sake of conveyance and the process has a somewhat paradoxical effect, akin to a movement in stasis or an ouroboro-esque exchange: “a wide river / Which passes us on both sides / Like someone lost within us.”

Not surprisingly, then, the poet in Ahmed’s collection speaks in contradictions as well—both as journeyman (“I’ve been walking for many nights now, / Heading south in Bangladesh”) and idle observer (“I’ve spent half my life sitting here / Drinking the monsoon rains). His dialectic however is never so straightforward or literal. In the City of Rivers where every map lacks scale, distance becomes negligible, a matter of perspective. Accordingly, time, place, and the poet’s consciousness occur not as determinate vectors but as free agents. “My thoughts walk / Through the streets of Rayarbazaar,” he writes, “I drink from a bucket of dead mosquitos.” But for every poem the speaker finds himself in transit ad infinitum, or in several places at once, so to speak, a fixed corollary presents itself (“I could sit here all night / And chances are I will”). And yet even the work of sitting—of waiting too, perhaps, as one would do in a train or bus station—ultimately represents a passage: “My chair digs into the mud.” Ahmed only asks, What’s the difference? Whether we sit or stand, walk or think, we still pass through some territory, physical or otherwise.

In many ways, Ahmed’s verse—calling upon the language of the displaced, the exiled, and the immigrant—fits squarely into the traditional American experience (the thematic echoes of the blues, arguably the most American music, for instance, are paid homage in Ahmed’s forlorn lyricism and in his sincere, unassuming vision), and as a student of the world, whether by choice or circumstance, Ahmed’s ability to shirk agency distinguishes his work as authentic and refreshing. Despite his young age, Ahmed’s life contains multitudes, his memory shadowed with experience, and his youth permits the reader to indulge in these poems, which make no apologies for their succinct earnestness. While one may question if Ahmed breaks any new poetic ground with City of Rivers, we cannot deny that he speaks on his own terms, without embellishment or pretense, and that alone makes for compelling poetry.

—Matthew Zingg

Matthew ZinggMatthew Zingg’s work can be read in The Awl, Sink Review, The Madison Review, Muzzle, Blackbird, HTML Giant, The Paris-American and The Rumpus among others. He received his MFA from Adelphi University and currently lives in Baltimore where he curates the Federal Dust Reading Series.

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com. 

Previous post:

Next post: