Exile Poems: In the Labyrinth of Homesickness
(Bridge & Tunnel Books, 2022)
In one of the great ironies of the Holocaust, most German Jews did not primarily identify as Jews. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, many German Jews—who occupied less than one percent of the nation’s population—“came from families that had been in Germany for centuries” and therefore “considered themselves German.” An eerily similar irony applies to Tuhin Das, a Bengali novelist, essayist, and poet whose Hindu background has made him vulnerable to persecution by an ever-growing Islamic fundamentalist majority. From an interview that follows Das’s new collection of poetry, Exile Poems: In the Labyrinth of Homesickness, the writer says, “I am a Bengali and Bangladeshi first. Some people want to define me by my religion, but I want to be known by my culture, which is Bengali.”
The distinction failed to spare Das from threats of imprisonment and death. On the contrary, his numerous blogs and essays against the dangers of “non-secular thinking,” as well as his subsequent involvement in the Shahbag Protests of 2013, ensured that his continued well-being in the land he still calls home was precarious at best. Through assistance from the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), Das secured a visa for asylum in Pittsburgh, where he currently resides and continues to write. His most recent project, Exile Poems, tracks his journey from the moment of flight to his arrival and existence in a “gray” city of converging rivers, far from “green” Barishal on the banks of the Kirtankhola.
Certainly then, from a historico-political perspective, Tuhin Das’s Exile Poems is significant apart from any literary context, for it provides a valuable public record of the extent to which violence and terror enable intolerant regimes to reject free expression and decimate cultural minorities. Still, the status of the work as poetry is immediately apparent. Presented largely as first-person vignettes that mimic astute journal reflections, Das succeeds in finding an appropriate form for his predicament—and the poems fare well by any literary standard. Whether considered alongside recent works of world writing translated into English, or compared with contemporary English-language poetry published in this country, these sixty-five numbered yet untitled pieces—and Arunava Sinha’s lucid translation of them—deserve widespread attention, not least of all because they convey an inimitable transparency one finds only in the best writing.
Often terse yet frequently direct, the poems in Exile sing with a calm, declarative openness bereft of rhetorical ornament. The plain and placid veneer, however, is deceptive, for beneath it broils an emotional turbulence inferred only through the author’s prudent phrasing and strategic silences. Many moments in the collection initially seem straightforward, but they ultimately hint at as-of-yet unarticulated depths of knowledge and feeling. In this way, Das shares an unexpected resemblance to Constantine Cavafy. Like that famed Greek poet, the Bengali bard pens intimate confidences that withhold as well as reveal. This is a kind of discipline, and it does not stem from fear; rather, it is a manner of self-preservation that produces compelling aesthetic tension: “You will know only as much of me / as I will allow you to know” he admits in poem 11. While true, the very omission pushes the proverbial closed door open, if only a crack.
Exile may have rescued the poet from imprisonment, and quite possibly death, but the strains of displacement inevitably weigh upon the writer’s psyche. Poem 16 demonstrates the extent of this stress through subtle narrative restraint:
Another day of exile.
The oak tree in front of my house
Is a news channel,
like a radar, it captures the wind,
blowing furiously from the distance.
It’s from this tree
I get the first bulletin
warning me of a cold wave of storms.
Committed birds come to the tree
twice a day,
they propose to it for marriage.
I watch in envy while sitting on my stoop.
These twelve lines effectively twine the literal fact of Das’s resettlement with an extended metaphor in which safety and longing coexist. On one level, the news broadcasted by the oak tree may reference local weather conditions, but it also alludes to the political temperature of Bangladesh, now observed by Das at a secure distance. Its additional warning of “a cold wave of storms” predicts meteorological events for Pittsburgh while also forecasting further outbreaks of violence and oppression in his native land. Working on these two levels, the poem’s sly concluding turn infers the depth of the poet’s loneliness while he watches the winged creatures make intimate avowals to the tree. A sense of longing blurs into resentment as he observes the birds expressing their love freely without fear.
One reason poem 16 is so memorable is Das’s ability to achieve powerful effects without straining the language. Throughout Exile Poems, he relies on a profound lyric sensibility to braid personal testimony with subtle yet complex metaphors. This method, though consistent, is highly flexible. As a result, the collection’s persistent concerns are framed and reframed in a considerable range contexts. Themes in poem 60 may overlap with those from poem 16, but the tone and mood of the two are quite different:
The roads are so silent that
walking along the neighborhood
I am startled by my own footsteps—
I’m fond of solitude, but these days
I’m much more clamorous, I tell myself.
Is this my attempt to arouse with words
the terrible quiet lurking within me?
The haiku-like power of the initial three lines evokes a timeless relevance that transcends politics or geography. Stemmed to this image, the ensuing quatrain voices an intense yet contained psychological anguish that remains unresolved when the poem concludes. The poem’s open-endedness means it may be applied to any number of situations that may be subjectively true for any reader who places oneself in the position of the speaker; and the final pending question allows that some struggles are best faced by wrestling with ambiguity instead of forcing answers.
Indeed, throughout Exile Poems, questions play a significant role in Das’s efforts to maneuver through the labyrinth of his homesickness. Nearly half of the poems feature questions, whereas many more allude to queries not overtly formed as such. The preponderance of questions—be they internal, overheard, or asked by or to others—would suggest Das sees his displacement as an ideal condition for frequent interrogation: “Asking questions from a distance / seems so very simple today,” the poet states in the beginning of poem 7. At a remove of nearly twelve-thousand miles, he wonders about a tree he once planted, the books accumulating dust on his former shelves, and two beloved cats he was forced to abandon. “Will I never see them again?” he asks while wandering through the streets of Pittsford at dusk. Quite possibly he never shall, but there is always hope. For some, such ambiguity would be a source of frustration; others may take consolation in the uncertainty. Two poems later, Das admits: “I often answer my furtive questions to myself / with these words: ‘I don’t know.’” Later, in poem 17, the poet concedes:
I used to fear the darkness of night—
now I trust it.
My friends here tell me,
don’t go out after dark.
But I rely on the unknown lurking in the streets.
If not knowing is, to some extent, a universal condition, it is especially heightened for someone in exile. Beyond any metaphysical questions that may arise when trying to make a home in a strange land, one who has benefitted from asylum must also grapple with the provisional nature of safety: “Thy sky is distinct, bright,” Das notes in poem 6, “but my future is shrouded in darkness— / for my life in exile is dependent / on the politics of this country.” The poet’s unease with such dependency is likely heightened by observing, as he does in poem 18, that the very nation aiding his cause does not support its own impoverished persons:
Some people ask for cigarettes,
some ask for money to pay bus fare,
some stand with signs saying “homeless.”
Yet I’ve found support in this country.
The irony isn’t lost on Das, and perhaps assists him in evaluating his own relationship to possessions:
I am no longer obsessed with collecting art.
The passion for building my library deserted me.
The canvases I discarded, locked away in boxes
twelve thousand miles away, must be covered in in dust now.
The desire to learn origami died over time.
Even the important documents I left behind
have turned useless.
My homeland hasn’t changed much; my life has. (poem 24)
One of the more compelling sub-themes of Exile Poems is how this poet’s transformations force him to reevaluate old notions of home. Poems 26 and 27 from the collection are especially moving in this regard, as they explore Das’s longing to return to a home that is inaccessible and estranged. He may recall his beloved Bangladesh as “A memory like a dusty old photograph” (poem 26) but that very place is being destroyed by fundamentalists. Poem 27 presents an even starker picture:
The police have set fire to the homes of indigenous people.
Will I ever be able to return to my homeland,
where the army has burnt
Romel Chakma’s corpse?
It was not in the newspapers.
Kalpana Chakma was
abducted twenty years ago,
she will never come home either.
As Das reflects upon the respective murder and disappearance of two indigenous leaders with the same surname, their tragedies twenty years apart, the question of his own return is weighed with devastating sadness, for he is, in a sense, longing for a “home” where current power structures would welcome his demise.
In the meantime, there is the business of living in Pittsburgh. Some of the more intriguing moments of the collection come when the poet brings his outsider perspective to bear on details and situations most Americans would not notice. When a male friend shows Das a picture of a woman the man met on Tinder (poem 22), the poet “smiles fleetingly.” Walking past a café door pushed open by an exiting customer, (poem 28), “love songs are hurled onto the road.” In poem 29, Das informs us that the butcher we might pass without acknowledgement at the grocery store is also an asylum seeker, someone who “breaks into sobs when he sees blood / and yet, to earn a living … has to slice meat.”
The outsider perspective is perhaps most powerfully realized in poem 23. There, Das’s presentation of an exchange with an unidentified woman forces him to clarify an unsettling truth, and hold a mirror to her own naivete:
The woman asks me:
“What do you think about love?”
Sitting next to her in the car I try
to understand why she wants to know.
“Humans cannot live without love, I say.”
I can remember the days gone by,
I had love in my life then.
Without it, I’m a skittish rabbit.
I know my journey will end on a planet
where hatred will be entombed forever.
In a brilliant bit of craftsmanship, the break between lines three and four suggest the full complexity of the poet’s response, whereby he is—in terms of the sentence—trying to apprehend what motivates her inquiry, while he attempts—in terms of the line—to express his love to a stranger. The poem deliberately withholds context, so it is uncertain if the woman has met him on a train car, or is a more-than-casual contact beside him in an automobile. Whatever the case, it is difficult not to see her question, however well-intentioned, as potentially patronizing: all humans, regardless of their ethnicity or origin, “cannot live without love.” And yet, even saying this prompts Das to consider the extent of love’s power. If, in fact, it cannot change the persistence of enmity and destruction, then what can it do? It would be easy to assign to the poem’s final two lines a nihilist despair, but in fact, according to the poet, love and life do possess meaning, even if neither is enough to eradicate hate.
Not every poem in Exile Poems is presented as concise reflection. Two comparatively longer pieces focus almost exclusively on the political landscape in Bangladesh. In poem 35, Das writes of a fellow Bengali poet who wakes terror-struck from sleep and exclaims: “assassin.” This poet, who “could have spoken of a singing bird,” or the moon or a lover, has “forsaken the soul, spirits, and divine messengers / . . . [and] summoned God to the courtroom as the accused / to declare, not all emptiness creates space.” In one sense, the fear, anxiety, and alienation this unnamed writer feels has colonized his imagination; nonetheless, the writer’s acceptance of its hold upon him has opened a pathway towards justice. Poem 56 begins “In Bangladesh police stage gunfights,” and exposes the supposed war on drugs which gave the government an excuse to murder masses of people. With the public’s trust in law enforcement eroded, “How will [the law] restore calm” and, more crucially, how will the people save themselves “from the drought of their thoughts?” Taken individually or together, these two poems interrupt the collection’s introspective reveries of a refugee poet making sense of his alienation to foreground the very horrors he has so narrowly escaped. In doing so, Das has, among other things, assumed the role of educator, calling on those who read him to challenge any injustice disguised as the status quo. “Don’t stare blankly,” the poet warns in poem 21:
If you do not speak,
then you do not confront
the tyrant with questions,
or perhaps sing a satirical song about him,
so that he sees his image in the mirror
being deflated like a balloon in a child’s hand.
For Das, one way out of the labyrinth is through continued human rights activism. Another is by inspiring others to cultivate progressive political thought, practice mindful empathy and engage in meaningful dialogue. As Exile Poems shows, one can achieve these goals and make moving, valuable poetry at the same time.