‘Let’s pile up paradoxes.’ These words from “Cosmogony” signal the enigma at the heart of Published in the Streets of Dhaka by Kaiser Haq, for every feature of this motley collection is offset by other elements that contradict it. Spanning forty years of the poet’s creative life, the poems in this anthology span an immense range of ideas, emotions and experiences, from the intensely personal to the passionately political, the minutely local to the broadly global, the witty to the poignant, the playful to the pensive. From the core of these apparent contradictions emanates the voice of the poet himself, at once rooted in the local context and at home in the world at large. His fragmented persona, dispersed across a profusion of poems, makes it difficult to categorize Kaiser Haq’s poetry with easy labels. In the early poem “Growing Up or Softly Falling” (A Little Ado, 1978) he admits to being
schizoid split between this and that, between my western know-how and eastern wisdom, between that and this, forever falling between two silly stools in a proverb
Years later, the poem “Published in the Streets of Dhaka” (New Poems: 2002-2006) again confronts the question of location:
What are we to do . . . Join an immigration queue, hoping To head for the Diaspora dead-end, Exhibit in multicultural museums?
This time, the text offers a resoundingly self-assured reply:
No way. Here I’ll stay, plumb in the centre Of monsoon-mad Bengal, watching Jackfruit leaves drift earthward In the early morning breeze
Between the two poems, the poet’s transition from an anguished sense of being in-between cultures to a confident acceptance of his place in the world reflects an evolution that is at once personal and global, for it corresponds to the troubled historical process by which South Asian Writing in English has achieved its current international star-value.
Born in Dhaka and educated in Bangladesh and the UK, Kaiser Haq, poet, translator, essayist, academic and former freedom fighter in the Bangladesh independence war of 1971, experimented with poetry in English when most Bangladeshis passionately expressed themselves in their mother-tongue Bengali as a mark of nationalistic fervour. Today, with younger writers like Monica Ali and Tahmima Anam making waves, Bangladeshi writing in English has arrived on the global map. Within Bangladesh too, there is talk of a “movement” in support of creative writing in English. But even in this altered scenario, Haq’s place as the foremost Bangladeshi poet in English remains virtually unchallenged. Yet, such are the politics of language in a country where the dividing line between national and linguistic identity is scarcely discernible, the poet deems it necessary to offer an apology for writing in English, which the Appendix at the end of the volume tries to provide. Such an apology seems unnecessary though, for the poems bridge cultural frontiers effortlessly, to address a multiple audience at home and abroad.
Since 1978, Haq has published several collections of poems: Starting Lines: Poems 1968-1975 (1978), A Little Ado: Poems 1976-1977 (1978), A Happy Farewell (1994), Black Orchid (1996) and The Logopathic Reviewer’s Song (2002). The poems chart the development of his changing sensibility, from the experimental early volumes to the cynical despair of A Happy Farewell and the erotic metaphysics of Black Orchid, leading up to the ironic yet intense self-reflexivity of the later poetry. Haq uses the English language in a nuanced, surefooted and innovative way, rarely sliding into cliché. His academic moorings are apparent in the references and dedications to other poets so liberally scattered through his verse. The influence of Shakespeare, John Donne, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and e.e. cummings may be detected in certain poems, while others bear the imprint of Tagore and Jibanananda Das. The witty, parodic “Four Poems in Subcontinental English”, are clearly inspired by Nissim Ezekiel. Yet Haq’s poems cannot be easily classified as mere imitations of Anglo-American, European or Indian poetry, for they adapt their diverse sources to an idiom recognizably his own. In flavour, detail, ambience and milieu, some of them construct a distinctively Bangaldeshi reality. Take for instance the cityscape in “Windows” (‘Look!/ These buildings are like ghost ships/ In the gathering dark’); or the advent of the rains in “Monsoon Poem with Prose Postscript” (Find yourself a bamboo hut –/ mud floor, tin roof –/ and wait as moist air wraps/ you like a winding sheet); or the adda at the local tea stall in “As Usual” (As usual/ My old friend/ The Sage of the Roadside Tea-stall/ Casually solves a problem or two/ Between sips of semi-viscous tea/ For which, as usual, I am paying). Yet in tackling his recurring themes – love, poetry, time, change and relationships – Haq’s approach remains eclectic and cosmopolitan.
Intertextuality functions as a strategy for demonstrating both his connectedness with world poetry and his own chosen location within it. Several poems are inspired by, or addressed to, other poets, dead or alive, from other parts of the world. The tone tends to be witty, often irreverent, as in “Lord of a Dark Sun” addressed to Tagore, or “Bloomsday Centenary Poem in Free Verse and Prose”, a postcolonial take on Joyce’s magnum opus. The process of writing becomes the subject of self-reflexive poems “A Happy Farewell”, “Figures of Speech” or “Weltanschauung”. There seem to be two poetic personae at odds with each other here: one, a learned, urbane wordsmith immersed in his craft, and the other, an ironic observer distanced from this entire process, whose sharp, mocking, self-critical gaze undercuts the literary-intellectual pretensions of his erudite double:
Ah, what sonorous syllables, They almost make you forget The heat and stench in the streets (“A Happy Farewell”)
Even in later poems such as “Dear Reviewer”, this capacity for wry self-scrutiny remains one of the strengths of Haq’s oeuvre.
The same unsparing gaze is directed at the contemporary social scene, in poems like “Party Games,” “Welcome, Tourist Sahib!”, “Civil Sevice Romance,” “Surreal Morning” and “Street Incident”. “The Waistline,” “Cosmogony” and “ms bunny sen” make telling use of parody. Yet there are also some poems that are deeply lyrical, despite a disclaimer in the Appendix:
I cannot speak: love Like a fish-bone Stuck in the throat. The moon turns over A page, a new chapter Begins, titled ‘Silence.’ (“Imaginary Love”)
Their overt literariness notwithstanding, the poems do not dissociate themselves from contemporary history:
Poetry May not be the verb In the grammar of dissent But by simply being Itself Bears witness (“Your Excellency”)
A later poem, in memory of Humayun Azad, who was attacked by Islamic militants for writing a scathing satire against them, puts a different emphasis on the link between poetry, history and resistance:
I am not concerned here with Poetry. My subject is Life, and the protest Against the enemies of Life. The Poetry is in the Protest. (“A to Z, Azad”, New Poems: 2002-2006)
Many of the poems are inspired by or addressed to women, and a strong erotic vein runs through them, especially in the poems from Black Orchid. But, surprisingly in a ventriloquist who can expertly mimic so many voices across times and places, Haq rarely experiments with the female voice. In the present collection, I could find only one such poem, “Traces,” disappointingly trite in its focus on female narcissism and fear of ageing (Mirror mirror on the wall/ Make me the fairest of us all/ . . . I review the work of art, my face,/ Prepared according to Mary Quant’s/ Classic tips, pause of a sip/ Of tea the maid’s just brought). More vivid by far is the madwoman in “Battambang’, a composite figure merging Margaret Duras’s unnamed fictional character and a rel-life inhabitant of Dhaka:
With her crazy eyes, her tatty sarong – By the overflowing skip in front of the British Council in Dhaka, boiling rice in a battered pan.
It is when cliché and stereotype are abandoned that Haq’s poetry acquires its most memorable resonances.
Published in the Streets of Dhaka begins with e New Poems: 2002-2006, and then goes back to the poems of the sixties. Thereafter, the writings appear in a chronological sequence according to their dates of publication, concluding with poems from The Logopathic Reviewer’s Song, published in 2002. As this date brings us back to the time of composition of the poems placed at the start of the volume, the book’s structure presents a circular rather than linear view of the poet’s evolution. This circularity suggests recurrence and continuity, precluding closure: an appropriate comment on the creative trajectory of Kaiser Haq, for whom, indeed, “Language/ is a /life-sentence” (“Baby Talk”).
Radha Chakravarty is a translator and academic.