Poetry

“Not Elegy, But Eros,” “The Old City,”
and “Ode to the Joke,” by Nausheen Eusuf

 

Not Elegy, But Eros
            ………………for Xulhaz Mannan, LGBT activist murdered in Bangladesh, April 2016

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.

I went wherever the wind blew me.
I fathomed the fall of that abyss, held
only by the thought of one I loved—

the arch of his brow, the two-day scruff
of his jaw rasping against my cheek,
the pulsing veins of his slender limbs.

I have loved my brothers and comrades.
I have blessed the new year and painted
the town with all the colors of my love.

I have faced the flash of steel, the howl
of unholy voices. But it was their eyes,
their hard unloving eyes, that undid me.

 

First published on the World Literature Today blog.

 

Poet’s Note

“Not Elegy, But Eros” is an elegy for a gay man who was murdered for his activism—he literally died because he was fighting for the right to love. Even though it’s an elegy, it’s also a refusal to mourn, choosing instead to affirm his life. It became the title for the book because the collection as a whole is also about moving beyond grief, and affirming life and the living: Eros, as the life force, as an antidote to Thanatos.

 

 

The Old City

Here are the steps leading down to the lake
choked with water hyacinths crowding
out the lilies, and algae thick as serum.

There is the rusted tube-well that once
drank deep from the earth’s waters,
its handle cranked like a question mark.

A donkey twitches its ears on the dust path
and vendors hawk their wares—hair bands,
hairpins, scarves, bangles, and nail polish.

We have been here before, in this old town
called the city of gold, of muslin spun so fine
that a six-yard sari could pass through a ring.

We have walked among the arched doorways,
the crumbling colonial walls, the moss, mud,
and lichen, the peanuts, popcorn, and candy-floss.

Somewhere nearby, a path leads to the shrine
of some local saint. People pray for answers,
for miracles. They leave garlands of flowers.

We have asked about the eternal pantomime,
about our part among these actors and props.
But no answer came, and we expected none.

 

First published in The Common.

 

Poet’s Note

“The Old City” is set in the old part of my hometown Dhaka. There’s something ancient and sad about the decaying buildings, the choked lake, and the incongruity of donkeys and street vendors selling trinkets among the remnants of past grandeur. But ultimately, the landscape is not external, but internal and psychological.

 

 

Ode to the Joke

A joke is thus a double-dealing rascal who serves two masters at once.

—Freud

A jigger, a poker,
a poker-faced joker,
a two-timing stoker
of fire and smoke,
he cleverly cloaks
what good old folks
would never invoke
—if only the blokes
knew what they spoke:
prudery and lechery
& truckling treachery
tricked out as foolery
& friendly buffoonery.
Praise the jolly joker
who tames our evil
and keeps us civil.
Praise the muckraker
and trouble-maker
for he’s a merry-maker
and peace-keeper, too,
who sees us through
our faking & breaking,
our shaking & quaking
from our first awaking
to our final forsaking.

 

First published in The Southampton Review.

 

Poet’s Note

“Ode to the Joke” came out of studying for my PhD comprehensive exams. I had to read Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, and one particular sentence jumped out at me—which became the epigraph for the poem. I basically took Freud’s personification of the joke and ran with it.

 

 

All three poems are from Not Elegy, But Eros (NYQ Books 2017) and are published here with permission of the press. The book can be ordered here or from Amazon here, and you can read a review by Frank Wilson in the Philadelphia Inquirer here and a review by Dante Di Stefano in the Best American Poetry blog here.

 

 

Nausheen Eusuf is a PhD candidate in English at Boston University and a graduate of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. Her poetry has appeared in The American Scholar, Poetry Daily, Southwest Review, Salmagundi, PN Review, Literary Imagination, and World Literature Today, and has been selected for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2018. Her first full-length collection Not Elegy, But Eros was recently published by NYQ Books (US) and Bengal Lights Books (Bangladesh). You can visit her online here.

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