Poetry Porch: Poetics

Not Elegy, But Eros by Nausheen Eusuf. NYQ Books, 2017. ISBN 9781630450502 (paper).

Reviewed by Joyce Wilson

The development of Nausheen Eusuf’s work, from first chapbook to first full-length collection, shows remarkable growth in a young poet. The chapbook, What Remains, which appeared with Longleaf Press in 2011, focuses on the death of her mother in sixteen poems. Through narrative means, we see her mother’s strength of character in her decline, her father’s supporting devotion in caring for her, the emptiness of the house without her. In her next book, Not Elegy, But Eros, Eusuf departs from this concentration on character and memory, and takes a multi-faceted look at commemorating the dead, adding inquiries into desire, the desire to keep living, to live fully, and to craft a poet’s response.

        As she does in her chapbook, Eusuf continues, at first, to write about family members, the roles they assume in her memory, what the older generations have to give and what the younger might owe them. One poem depicts the fidelity of the father as seen in the particulars of a domestic task, polishing everyone’s shoes:

    Weekends, growing up, I’d watch my father
    as he sat on a low stool in the veranda
    surrounded by half a dozen pairs of shoes,
    their laces taken out, each meekly awaiting

    its turn.
            (“Shining Shoes,” 26)

The personification of the shoes waiting to receive their weekly scrub illustrates the family circle, with the father in the center. Appreciation is also expressed in “Prayer to My Father,” in the form of lament. “Someday, father, your harrowed bones/ must forgive the rack we put them through” (35-36). Eusuf addresses her father in old age, at a time when he should be rewarded for his fidelity to his family, but instead suffers a weakening of the body. It is interesting to note that this poem also focuses on an object, the bones, for the person.

        Another poem explores the mother’s conscious exterior of perpetual worry. As she does with the image of the father polishing shoes, Eusuf connects the mother to a household item, that of the storage chest where family members can be contained.

                            She’d like to clutch them close,
    to keep them locked and safe in a wooden chest
    with a clasp that buckles shut, nice and snug.
            (“Elegy for Family Romance,” 31)

But the enclosure only incubates an invasive decay. “All around her, conspiracies thrive like larvae/ in winter clothes.” One might ask, which came first, the mother’s need to possess or society’s tendency to corrupt? With this poem, Eusuf shows not only how a mother’s love can extend beyond reason but also how the outer world can exert pressure on the domestic interior. The end result threatens the structure of the family unit and our perception of the benevolence of its bonds.

        Eusuf incorporates a healthy dose of humor in some of the new poems. For example, one narrator assumes the persona of a tour guide in a museum who leads visitors through the house of the deceased.

    And now, if you’ll follow me this way —
    careful, madam, not to step on those sandals,
    acquired at a noisy bazaar in New Delhi —
            (“Musée des Beaux Morts,” 22)
The title (“ . . . Beaux Morts”) prepares for the parodic with its nod to Auden’s title “Musée des Beaux Arts.” In the perfunctory remarks of a hired clerk, we understand that he cannot convey the feelings attached to these belongings. With the ironic humor that draws us in, Eusuf also dares to suggest that the rituals we depend on after death often come from disappointment, the realization that there is nothing to be done. Belongings assume a state of meaninglessness without their original owners to inhabit them.

        In several poems that reach beyond the domestic interior to address the plight of figures in the public eye, Eusuf expands her attention to people she does not know, whose deaths have become part of public knowledge. In poems that assume a variety of personas, Eusuf presents the perspective of the journalist, the healer, and the witness as she writes responses to deaths from a garment factory collapse, attacks on a cafe, and violence at political demonstrations. The central poem in this group relies on the first person as it creates the voice of Xulhas Mannan, an LGBT political activist who was murdered in Bangladesh. The lines vocalize the bittersweet free-wheeling spirit of Mannan, who embraced the freedoms of a life fully lived in stanzas that begin “I have heard,” “have lain,” “have loved,” and, concluding with the notion that, in daring to embrace the desire that drove me, I perished.

    I have heard the summons. The wind
    tossed my hair and wrestled me down
    to the earth’s amorous embrace.

    I have lain down among the rushes
    and offered myself to whatever it was
    within me, calling. Some said don’t.

The subject of the poem wants to be remembered for the exhilaration found while living. We cannot forget that he was murdered. But what we see is at the poem’s end clinches the reality of this death:

                            . . . But it was their eyes,
    their hard unloving eyes, that outdid me.
            (“Not Elegy, but Eros,” 42)

While the three-line stanzas, after the form popularized by Dante, reinforce the warning note, the ending bypasses the concrete facts of the cause of death and communicates the crushing of the spirit, which came with the realization that those who were against him would never love him, as if this death was not just the end of one life, his life, but of all the experiencing of love. It was the death of love itself.

        Eusuf writes from a strong sense of duty and the ethical. Moving beyond the inclination to commemorate, Eusuf also chronicles the growth of the poet as self. Not long ago, a new word was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary. In a poem about this word, “Selfie,” Eusuf questions the latest obsession to record images in the small camera of a hand-held communication device. She describes the portraits as having a secondary, dependent quality, “If self’s the man, she’s the wife/who follows, shadow-faithful/ through your twilight haunts / and midnight jaunts . . .” (45). The selfie records weaknesses, revels, and despondency, the traits you want to forget. Like a portrait in the attic, the selfie keeps an image of the pathetic person you have become. And thus, the poet becomes the artifact. If the achievement is not as evil as Wilde’s decaying soul in his portrait of Dorian Gray, Eusuf’s self-assessment delivers a cautionary message about creating art based on the superficial.

        Seeking self-analysis, Eusuf retreats and elects a period of inactivity, a remove from the fun-house with its maze of mirrors, distortions, and forced laughter, where the impresario fabricates fear. Returning to the stillness of her mother’s garden, she finds a series of tools connected with water — the faucet, its handle, the tarnished brass — but frozen in time.

    I free-associate, though nothing is free.
            Free, feral, ferrous. A rusty
    outdoor faucet, the one that watered
            my mother’s garden,

    its brass now weathered to verdigris.
            The handle won’t budge.
    A drop of water hangs vestigial from
            the stiff rounded lip.
                    (“The Analytic Hour,” 48)

Eusuf locates the soul and centers it. As she underscores importance of suspension in time and of introspection, she affirms the quest for self-knowledge and the artistic process. But she is wary of putting too much weight on metaphor in this poem. She argues with herself. This placement of the self in the garden is not unique. In an effort not to force the meaning of the things she associates with her mother and the past, she questions the whole process of poetry, especially where the creating of metaphor is borne out of overwrought ambition. In the end, she offers to give away what holds her back, to establish more distance from her subjects, and to learn not to need.

        Too young to devote all her efforts to the elegy, she is still old enough to be wary of eros. In this fully realized collection, she shows how the narrator begins as part of a family unit, expands her vision to the community and the world outside, and cultivates her investment with the self, maleable, flawed, precious.

Copyright © 2018 by Joyce Wilson.