Dilruba Ahmed, selected by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Introduction to the work of Dilruba Ahmed
A keenly observant poet, Dilruba Ahmed is one of nature's intimates who possesses a relentless devotion to language. Whether in the face of a crowded Bangladesh or suburban Ohio, Ahmed can take a memory of a mother or a bazaar that sells glass bangles and render both with something akin to an exquisitely choreographed dance: "See our birthmarks…the map of another/ country. Inkblots marking us/ desirous of everything/ we can see or touch—persimmons/ bursting in alleys, crushed,/ slick with their own juices."
The poems in Dhaka Dust introduce us to a poet who has a special receptivity to beguilement, and this openness to beauty and remembrance rekindles hope—that this is what it means to be alive in this world. From the opening poem, you are transported into a world heart-wrenchingly infused with gorgeous metaphor and grace.
It's impossible to turn down a request for "…the taste of another's prayer/ cool as a coin/ newly-minted on the tongue." Dilruba Ahmed is a stunning talent, a "heart-thief" with "jasmine strands tangled at [her] neck." This collection will burn brightly in your imagination for years to come. World, get ready for the loveliest of poetry debuts.
It's wine I need. Is it a sin to have another?
No harm in merlot, no harm in another.
In Ramadan, we'll break our fast with dates and wine—
Must we pray in one room and dance in another?
Crushed blossoms at the end of the summer: teach me
how to coax nectar from the bloom of another.
Burned rice on the stove again: what's to love
but my imperfections—you'll forgive me another.
Butter by a kettle always melts, warns the proverb.
Heated, greased, we slip one into the other.
When, inexplicably, you enter my prayers,
I hear messages from one god or another.
Me encanta cantar, cuando estoy sola, en el carro.
My mother tongue dissolves. I speak in another.
Heart-thief, enter the fields like a woman in love,
vase in one hand, shears in the other.
I recently encountered the work of a local photographer and became mesmerized by his stunning shots. In some, he had taken portraits of homeless men in Philadelphia, individuals who had clearly faced difficulty and continued to struggle. The photographs were beautiful—somehow they not only portrayed with love the fine details of each person (weathered hands; salt and pepper eyebrows; tousled, dreaded locks; leftover crumbs from a recent meal still clinging to his lips)—somehow, the photographer seemed to have captured a snapshot of each person's essence or soul. A beauty that glints in tired, sunken eyes.
To find what persists in the worn, the weary, the difficult—to re-discover and illuminate the beauty that exists and frame it. As witness to struggle, to strength. What we might otherwise overlook in our everyday lives, on our hurried path to work or to the mini-mart.
My writing process is fraught with uncertainties of endless variety. So writing something that claims to be a poetic statement strikes me, at this moment, as truly fraudulent. When I wrote the poems that appear in my first book, the composition took place in a psychologically more private space. Now, with a book out in the world, there are other voices, other presences when I sit down at the table. I'm no longer staked out in a makeshift fort—sheet draped over chairs, flashlight in hand. I feel drawn into a larger conversation, and honored to enter it.
In my early rounds of writing, I am trying in many ways to ignore these voices. In subsequent revisions, I am attempting in my own way to honor them. Reader, you are on my mind.
I'm currently stuck on a train headed away from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. We are stalled just beyond the station due to switch failure. Wikipedia defines a railroad switch as a "mechanical installation enabling railway trains to be guided from one track to another at a railway junction."
The destination is predetermined, with many stops along the way. But for the moment we have paused in the first stretch of trees to line the tracks, suspended between here and there.
At this juncture in my writing, I fear a kind of poetic switch failure. The destination: unknown. The process: stop and start. But oh, to write the new poems that await. To find my way to them, rather than seeking comfort and safety in writing the same familiar poems again and again, chugging obliviously along the same worn tracks.
Sometimes I offend myself with the preposterousness of writing poetry, my own audacity. Those men in the photos? That my writing could ever have some bearing, some ripple effect on their lives. Sometimes I long to be involved in a medium that does something in a palpable way. What is it that poetry does or can do? How to make some things happen. I call my friend, another writer. I say, let's make some things happen.
I'm trying to keep my work as messy as possible for as long as possible. There's something about the look of a font—any font—that makes even the draftiest work seem... less malleable. Text in fonts seems to say audience, revision, polish, completion. I want to grapple longer with the mess that feels like overturned dirt--something I can touch with my hands. I want to work with lumps of clay, to knead them until they show me their shape, reveal their knots, hint at story or song.
My goal for now? Ink scrawled on lined paper, cheap notebooks from the drugstore—nothing finished, no one watching. The stakes seem lower there. And then, after some incubation: highlighter pen. Sticky note. And then: different colors of ink. And then: loose-leaf paper inserted like a bookmark, something taking shape on white space.
Dilruba Ahmed. "Ghazal," from Dhaka Dust. Copyright © 2011 by Dilruba Ahmed. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota,www.graywolfpress.org.
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"Ghazal" originally appeared in Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts.