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Hassanal Al Abdullah, Breath of Bengal
Merrick, NY: Cross-Cultural Communications, 2000.
ISBN 0-89304-268-4. $5.00 paper, $15.00 cloth

Reviewed by Nicholas Birns

Breath of Bengal

The Bangladeshi-American poet Hassanal Abdullah is well-known as an editor and anthologist; this volume reveals his considerable strengths as a poet. Abdullah at once manages to maintain a Romantic confidence in the imagination, a modernist irony as to the imagination’s limits, and a postmodern sense of the imagination as a construct.

"With a Little Cash" anatomizes the tensions between art and commerce and suggests that even the avant-garde conceptions of the artists straddle this line more than their official rhetoric would have us believe:

The world will find my hands in its own
If the crooked line of restlessness
Is wiped away. With some money
I will spend time listening for the bees.

"Poetry, Come Back" begins, with mock plaintiveness — "Poetry, poetry, why have you deserted me" — but, for all its whimsy and raillery, ends with an affirmative sense of what poetry can mean to a poet, and his readers, that is all the more valuable for being dearly won. "Pandora at the Mailbox" similarly succeeds in summoning a jaunty, highly contemporary, yet, beneath it all, reverent sense of what the poetic can be. Included in Abdullah's collection are comic poems ("Rajendra College"), poems of observation ("The Story of Ants"), and meditative poems of deep feeling ("Grey Affliction" and the particularly fine, and stoically emotional, "Colorless Night").

Although as an editor Abdullah is passionately involved in the politics of his native Bangladesh, the most political poem in the volume, "I, Too, Am a Revolutionary," forthrightly assays racial tensions in the United States and takes a firm stand on behalf of the subordinated:

Still, blacks were my favorites.
I am not a white and these whites blindfolded my eyes
And spun me aimlessly, thousands of years gone by like this.

Most ethnic arrivals to the US have historically tried to ’whiten’ themselves, in order to assimilate into the dominant ’white’ mainstream and separate themselves as far as possible from African Americans and other visible minorities, who have been the object of discrimination. Abdullah goes in the other direction, but this is almost as important as an individual poetic gesture as it is a daringly political one. So often, political poetry has gotten a bad name by representing the coercive conformism that genuine political poetry seeks to upend. What is salient in “I, Too, Am a Revolutionary” is the individual determination of the poet, the same determination that, in a very different context, enables him to amicably, if not finally, resolve his longstanding marital dispute with poetry itself:

And then, resting breast-upon-breast
We paint red kisses.
Poetry stays. So do I.

In his diction and his approach to life, Abdullah is not at all a Romantic; in terms of literary history, he is too much the heir of Bengali modernism and American postmodernism to be so, even if his individual temperament so inclined. Yet Abdullah still has a very Romantic dedication to the ideal of the republic of letters — he is a great exhorter and sustainer of poets, no matter where they are from — and he has a Romantic readiness to help make the legislation of poets become as acknowledged as possible.

This slim volume (with English translations by Nazrul Islam Naz on pages facing the Bengali originals) displays, within a short compass, the wide range of expression, and the zestful idiosyncratic enunciation, of which this still-emerging poet is capable. He can well say, as he does in “The Light of the Earth,” “I’ve tasted all the flavors of this world / Time gave it to me and made them crazy indeed.”

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