Shahr-e-Jaanaan: The City of the Beloved by Adeeba Shahid Talukder (Tupelo Press 2020)
Reviewed by Leonora Simonovis
Winner of the Kundiman Prize Honoring Exceptional Work by Asian American Poets, this collection is a multilayered imaginary where the author converses with Urdu poetic tradition and poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mirza Ghalib, and Ibn-e-Insha, among others. Talukder is also a translator, which, as she explains in the preface, allows for transcreation “Based on the way the particular verses converse with the themes of my poems.” The interplay is not only between two languages, but also between two –or more– different ways of perception and experience.
One of the most salient features of Shahr-e-Jaanaan is the vivid and sensory oriented imagery that draws the reader in from the very beginning. For instance, the titles for each of the eight parts of the book evoke a concrete object, person, or experience. In this sense, “part i.” is “The Wine Cup,” “part ii. The Nightingale,” and part iii. “In Shackles.” Each of these also presuppose a journey, both physical, and metaphorical, as the speaker explores and re-builds worlds by reweaving the threads of poetic and cultural traditions. One of the goals of the author is to “defend and decolonize” the universe created by the poetic form of the ghazal –denounced by the British as “decadent, immoral, and contrived” because of its images and themes. This act of decolonization also implies challenging the patriarchy and the role of women as creators –of language and of worlds.
The first poem in the book, “When in the dark/my mind brightened,” tells us the speaker “could no longer/ wait to be beautiful” so she “pushed/bangles upon bangles” onto her wrists until some of them break and she “watched/ the blood at my veins/with a grim face/feeling more like a woman.” The speaker takes action to do what she believes will turn her into a woman, to become independent and to break free, but in the last stanza, her mother “looked into my eyes with terror” and “wouldn’t let me leave.” The mother not only does not approve of what the speaker has done, she also upholds the tradition that the speaker is trying to break from. What makes it more difficult is that what is being challenged on the microlevel are the affects and ties to family, especially the role of the mother.
This particular poem is rewritten –“(revisited)” as the title clearly implies– in part “v. The Tearing.”. The first stanza of the poem starts with the speaker pushing the bangles once again and watching the blood. But the third and fourth stanza change because the speaker is waiting “for my mother to turn, to see me/as a bride.” The speaker expresses her desire to communicate what she’s feeling as she experiences pain from rubbing the bangles on her wrists, but also the beauty of looking at the moon outside and feeling the wind. For the first time, we –and the speaker as well– have access to her voice: “The world is adorning itself/for my wedding.” The last stanza remains the same as in the first version of the poem, with the mother staring in horror and holding the speaker back. However, in spite of this ending, we as readers can feel that something has changed and that the speaker has found a way to make herself heard.
Talukder’s poems challenge and question the expectations thrust upon women, like in the poem “You’re getting older, and there are such few boys,” where the speaker’s mother voices her concern for the way her daughter lives her life,
She says I shouldn’t be leaving alone, with no one to care for me when
I get into one of my moods, or have a cold. It gets dark, too, so early,
The poem interweaves the voice of the mother with the speaker’s reflections, and while the first one laments the fate of her –seemingly– misguided child, the second focuses on the ambiguity of her mother’s behavior. She remembers how her mother has “always been too soft” in her beliefs of “how evil was undone,” and how this connects to traditional beliefs. There’s no resentment on the part of the speaker, but seemingly an acceptance of the fact that she cannot change her mother’s beliefs. There is a gap between what she is and what she is expected to become that will never be filled.
The context of these poems is rich with history, literature, mythology and the complexities of translated language, as well as the visceral construction –and/or recreation– of images where the senses are transported by not only the voice of the speaker, but that of other poets whose lines seed these pages as well. Perhaps “The City of the Beloved” is the ghazal itself, with as many rooms to explore as creation and interpretation allow. To decolonize then, is to revisit and re-imagine a world where dialogue among different viewpoints is not only possible, but also necessary.
Shahr-e-Jaanaan prompts an encounter between cultures that intersect at different points in time and space, reluctantly touching one another. I was reminded of Martin Espada’s poem “Alabanza,” which speaks of the terrorist acts of 9-11 as a dance between two “constellations of smoke” where one says in Afghan, “Teach me to dance. We have no music here.” The other responds in Spanish, “I will teach you. Music is all we have.” In a similar way, Talukder writing and characters dance in and out of time, space, and the constraints of the established norms.