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

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met Eusuf at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference in 2015—she was a Scholar and I was a Fellow, the first (but I hope not last) visit for us both. A born-and-raised Yankee, I was endlessly fascinated by everything feeding my Midnight-in-the-Garden-of-Good-and-Evil fantasy about the South: Gothic architecture complete with crenellations and turrets, and a staircase that mysteriously granted access to every floor in my dorm except the one my room was on—check; enormous ancient trees, bird-sized insects, cicadas so loud I had to close my windows at night to sleep—check; soft, honeysuckle-scented air, a looming, swollen moon, and an old graveyard on campus—check, check, and check. The faculty and programs were superlative, and the days were packed with wonderful lectures, workshops, and readings. My memories of Sewanee include a long dinner conversation about writing with someone who, until she took the lectern that night, I did not recognize as a famous author. Also, walking back from French House under a sky thick with stars. An elaborately furled fungus, pure white and the size of a basketball. The stillness in the room, and an audience member fainting after Tim O’Brien’s knockout reading from The Things They Carried. “Only connect,” Alice McDermott told us in one of her talks, and I did, at Sewanee.

Eusuf was someone I connected with right away, and she was along for perhaps my best memory of the conference: swimming in the local quarry by moonlight. We mostly hung onto the edge of the dock and tried not to think about water snakes, but I will never forget the way the moon laid wide, white bands of light on the water—warm as a bath—that trailed sparks when we splashed and swam. Eusuf and I hung around together during the conference, and I remember being struck by her quiet intensity and the depth of her commitment to poetry. So, it is with great pleasure that I introduce you to her new book today.

Not Elegy, But Eros is, among first books, unusual for its sophistication and artistry. The relative brevity of today’s poems is representative of the book as a whole in which all but seven poems occupy one page or less; compression and economy of expression is one of Eusuf’s many writing strengths. Another is her knowledge of and facility with the poetic canon and with form. Although most poems in Not Elegy are in free verse, it is a free verse well-informed by poetic tradition. The book contains elegies, odes, dramatic monologues, fiercely restrained couplets and tercets, blank verse, and nonce forms with imaginatively conceived rhyme schemes. All the poems show a splendid mastery of the line, both in control of length and in the breaks.

In a wonderful introduction to the book (“Preface,” pages x-xiv), Bonnie Costello observes that “One of the first charms of the book is encountering beloved phrases from the lyric tradition re-animated in new settings,” and I agree. T. S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, Theodore Roethke, Andrew Marvell, Elizabeth Bishop, Walt Whitman, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, François Villon, Henry Vaughan, Wallace Stevens, Robert Hayden, A. R. Ammons, Paul de Man, and others like Sigmund Freud, Northrop Frye, and Alfred Hitchcock, make an appearance in allusions that never presume knowledge or talk down to the reader. That is, the poem works just as well if you get the allusion as it does if you do not but getting the allusion will deepen the experience of the poem for some readers.

I especially admire Eusuf’s ability to write poems that feel universal and personal—something I’d like to be doing more of in my own work. Her poems show a remarkable range of tone, subject, and form, and draw from a wide and deep knowledge of literature, history, humanity, and the sciences. This quality is evident in today’s poems, one celebrating the life and mourning the murder of an LBGTQ dissident (“Not Elegy, But Eros”), one gorgeously invoking the speaker’s visit to an old city in Bangladesh but also capturing the experience of reliving history in any ancient place (“The Old City”) and another that addresses the broad concept of humor at the same time it uses sparkling word play to pull off its own very pointed series of gags (“Ode to the Joke”).

Speaking of images, Eusuf’s are startlingly vivid, specific, and apt—such as the “algae thick as serum” in “The Old City,” the “two-timing stoker / of fire and smoke” in “Ode to the Joke,” and the “jaw rasping against my cheek / the pulsing veins of his slender limbs” in “Not Elegy, But Eros”—and more often than not, they deepen the meanings of her poems. As Costello says, “Nausheen is no Objectivist in her handling of the image. Simile and metaphor do much of the work of charging things with sentiment and strangeness. She does not inflate feeling with extravagant metaphors; rather she fetches the everyday into the inner life, so that both become mysterious.”

The range of subject, too, is broader than in a typical first book. Yes, there are poems about parents and thwarted love, but these themes are treated with an unusual degree of sensitivity and universality, and the book includes deeply mature poems about existential loneliness, modern political turmoil, and the mysteries of particle physics. Also refreshingly broad is the book’s tonal range, from the laugh-out-loud humor of “Selfie” and “Ode to the Joke” to the sharp pain of the personal (“Ten Months Since”) as well as broad-scale loss in the larger tragedy of human history (“Ubi Sunt,” “A Final Embrace”).

I second what Costello says about Eusuf’s ability to marshal sonic power in her work: “All this immediate speech is scored to compelling and often kinetic harmonies and rhythms, now in ingenious patterns with tight rhyme and meter, now in relaxed and more open forms, but always rich in sonic pleasure.” “Not Elegy, But Eros” and “The Old City” are written in iambic pentameter tercets with no rhyme, and their strong, clear beats ring out a compelling cadence of authority and restrained passion. “Ode to the Joke” employs a remarkably tight nonce (made up by the poet) rhyme scheme, augmented by alliteration (lines 5, 11-12, 14, 19, and 25) that collects and saturates rhyme as the poem progresses.

All the poems show an uncommon amount of mystery, subtlety grace, wit, and intelligence, but many—including the ones offered to you today—make me catch my breath. The work is accomplished and somehow raw and vital at the same time, and editors are evidently in agreement because many of the book’s poems originally appeared in a wide range of nationally recognized journals. Reading Not Elegy, But Eros will enrich your life and might even provide some comfort in these troubled times. As Costello’s says, “there is plenitude as well—not only in vivid memory, but in the music of the street, in the errant path of a dog’s walk, in the “something” that shines in a scientist’s lens, in the fecundity of words, and most of all, in the love that keeps rebuilding the world even as death erodes it or we ourselves try to tear it down.” Trust me, readers, this is a book you will want to own so that you can reread it again and again.


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