In Love with a Gorgon
reviewed by ALLAN JOHNSTON

Les Editions du Zaporogue, 2011

I worked for a while as a dishwasher and then a cook in an Indian restaurant in Denver, getting to know Sikhs and Hindus and one waiter from Bangladesh who always teased me because of my pronunciation of “water” as “wudder.” He was keen on the sharp /t/ and the clear enunciation of /ah/ in the word, and thought the clarity of pronunciation important, or at least the way I said the word funny and somehow evocative of American mentality. I bring this up because English as a post-colonial language may mean its sharpening as well as its diversification, even if sometimes the resulting structures might seem strange. I should also mention that I am no expert on the dialects developing in the ex-colonies of the world, especially as far as any divergence within the “Queen’s English” and its American variations goes. Thus if the poems in Sofiul Azam’s collection In Love With a Gorgon sometimes strike me as strangely articulated, with their seeming hillbillyish introductions of “ain’t” (as in “I ain’t sorry for putting it that blunt” in “The Clouds of Glory” [113]) and their structures involving contractions in locations where to my ear full development is called for (as in the line “Distanced as I’m by miles,” where my ear asks for full articulation of the subject/verb structure “I am”), this is a case of expectation linked to the conditioned inner ear of the reader. In some of the winding lines of of Sofiul’s poems, one wonders if sense wanders off, or if misdirection is intention. All of which is to say that Azam’s collection houses peculiarities and odd moments, and that perhaps these should be celebrated, because there are also shadows (for me at least) of Blake, Dante, Dylan Thomas, and others in these works, not to mention Tagore, Rushdie, and any number of poets in a whole line of Bengali, Hindu, and other influences I might not be aware of.  

In the title poem of the collection, a mid-life confrontation reminiscent of Dante’s confrontation echoes: “At the time of the sun’s spitting saffron out in the sky, / my life turned into a dazzling Gorgon and smiled.” Who is this Gorgon? Is it life itself? Is it a feminine force? One female figure that emerges occasionally in the collection is Salt Hon — “Tell / / how I can take back bits of myself from you, / Salt Hon” (“Burns and Blisters,” 75); “Salt hon, it’s my life” (“Rhetoric of Errors,” p. 77) — whose name in English suggests the double edge of the salty and the sweet (honey). If life itself is the Gorgon, what does it mean to confront it as this mythological creature most famous for turning warriors to stone? Azam presents a conundrum that may well illuminate the story of Perseus: the secret of the Gorgon is a seductiveness that brings men to look at her, and then freezes them. This aspect comes across in many of Azam’s poems. The Gorgon has “snaky hair and tempting eyes,” and a “smile” that causes the voice to “suffer an eclipse, / frantic to climb the ladder of paramount ecstasy,” a smile that is “like music of pebbles in a stream” (15). The double aspect of horror and seduction becomes a binding element, a force derived from a simultaneity of oppositions that causes paralysis.  

Consider the poem “Ain’t It That Tagore’s Spectre?” (103-105). Azam’s familiarity with the Modernist canon is suggested by his inclusion of an introductory epigram from Ezra Pound’s “A Pact,” a poem in which Pound announces his own grudging debt to Walt Whitman, who towers over Pound’s decision to break meter. Azam makes immediate concession to Tagore; “Yes, I’m indebted to you, Tagore, like some of us / who filched a bit of greenery from your meadows” (103), but also acknowledges the weight of this genius on his creative abilities: 

                                           …often thwarted by your frowns, I stutter 
                                  as does a recalcitrant nipper clothed with scruples.
                                  Even if I tone down the pitch of what I’m going to say,
                                  I ain’t that dyslexic nor ever picked a rapper’s scrawl,
                                  Even though cajoled into a fit of cacophony;

                                  My brain’s not slimmed down, even after I’ve felt
                                  I’m almost rooted out from my ersatz Bengal… (103).  

Claiming he is “not of the lunatic fringe” nor one of “those after smarmy Levi’s and slinky T-shirts” (103), he finally announces himself as “the chronicler of this citizenry’s litany and the spoil”; “Tagore, I didn’t fornicate with your sacred alphabet” (104). He asks that Tagore’s ghost allow him “my ravings of an inner émigré” (104), for he occupies a different landscape: one of “asphalt motorways … blinded by smog” (1104). His final pledge to Tagore is

                                  e-mail my translations of you to publishers and sit
                                  mesmerized long after the singing stops….
                                                            …I won’t blot you

                                  out of my memory, rather sing your songs in spring” (104)

Azam lives in a split Bengal: West Bengal was ceded to India by the British, while East Bengal (now Bangladesh) became part of Pakistan, only to secede in 1971. Thus Azam lives in a culture marked by imposed arbitrary divisions: as he notes, “the majority of people both in Bangladesh and West Bengal in India share the same cultural ties if not religious” (105). The cultural split, domination, and fight against control are in many ways central to the collection. It is seen even in Azam’s response to the post-colonial theoretics that dominate much of third world literature. He writes, “I cannot hide, nor ever wish to, that I stink / of the spicy East of cloves and cinnamon / … / I should be miles far from the feel of a Faustus” (“In the Unmeasured Womb,” 106). Yet he is finding “in the tropics … plans set in the West — // a Gorgon’s embodiment of wise-writhing serpents” (106). The West itself is the seductress, with its Faustian demands that simultaneously impose expectations, introduce “clatters / as in a steel-factory” (106), and belittle the values of the East. The toughness of the life comes across in passages like “My growing up in a town / by the Brahmaputra does not make me love rivers / which you see fat like a greedy money-lender / and thin like a starving child” (“And So Farewell, My Country,” (100). In “Ways of Belonging,” a poem dedicated to Homi K. Bhabha, Azam writes, “Sometimes I can’t decide wherever on this planet / my feet belong, for they love to wander free- / instead of an incorrigible destiny on a place” (108). He opposes the way “you / people talk about ways of belonging like that / of a tree rooted in a patch of earth” (108). The inevitable capture and destiny determined by location and by the post-colonial world with its politics of identification and conditioning becomes itself another face of the Gorgon of the west. “You hang History inside out like underpants” (“In a Coaltar-black Jungle,” 96).  

This split is intensified by the remaking of the world he lives in, its removal from tradition. In “Delta of Disasters” (91) he describes how “In childhood my parents told me their parents / did what their grandparents always had done — / ploughing, planting, harvesting.” This ideal, no matter how “Romantic it still is in tales,” is now gone: as he puts it, “My country and I are the same — dyed for centuries / in colours of disasters.” He hearkens back to the literature of his past: the mystic Bengali songs collected in the Charyapada, the folktales of the Mymensingh collection, and the songs of Lalon, from before the division of Bengal (see notes to “Discordant Harmony,” [94]). These celebratory works bring to light even more the “discordant harmony” he hears in himself since he is “a double-born kid … / bristling with tales of grief and torture. // I have seen this world’s lights fade….” (“Discordant Harmony,” [93]—pp. 92-94.  

The poems are not only geared against (or toward) the west as dominant force, but also the west as a dominant “canon that’s full of words and ideas / which you could replace with balls of fire” (“Oh! It’s the Canon,” 89—a poem dedicated to Ngugi wa Thiong’o). Azam’s weapon against this is modern technology:

                                  Distanced as I’m by miles, and almost never
                                               Eased out of the shell I’ve made for myself,
                                  I’ll be emailing you the poems I wrote in grief 

                                  As RTF, Doc. or PDF attachments…. (“Attaching Things,” 90)

The question becomes whether this expresses some type of wisdom: “editors, though not many, say No Attachments / in guidelines; are they wiser than age-old sages?” (“Attaching Things,” 90). As someone in love with the Gorgon, he feels “like Pound at St. Elizabeth’s — certified insane,” though he would have “nullified the stench had I got Persian perfume. / I have seen nauseas serpents slip out of Time’s cunt” (“A Franker’s Journal,” 17). His Bengal is in its own way a Waste Land, as he makes clear in this poem “Summer in the North,” with its epigram from Eliot. The poem starts thus:

                                  Summer, that’s a hard facer
                                  in this tropical heartland’s North
                                  where the Padma’s once-wild flow slugs—
                                  a spineless python dragging its dull

                                  burden into the Bay of Bengal,
                                  where dust’s long maddening wait
                                  for a little moisture seldom ends 
                                  or withered trees’ branching out 

                                  in green again hardly happens.
                                  Anyway, look over there—
                                  a dry man in a dry month slouching 
                                  past North’s thirsty pleading…. (24)

Eliot’s bourgeois ghost haunts in the tone of despair, of “life in a snarl / where often dreams are deported / as if convicts of an old dynasty” (“Somewhere around Despair,” 27). These “nightmares of mimicry … / must have been planted / by the long lineage of my parents” (“Somewhere around Despair,” 26), and they relate back to the sexual element of the gorgon: “As I wait for the return of hopes and grace, / always I feel I shake with fears copulating / with each other faster than atoms in a chain reaction” (“Somewhere around Despair,” 26). This fixation always returns to the interaction of love with life: “I [fell] in love with a gorgon of the stony stare; / it’s love that leaves each and every thing in disarray (“In Folly’s Cocoon,” 70). The woman-serpent connection ranges throughout the texts; as “A friend complains: As I hold tight my wife’s waist, / she springs up like a hooded serpent” (“Tropics,” p. 71). Thus this fascinating collection brings together worlds seemingly separated while at the same time questioning the very forces that have caused separation.

ALLAN JOHNSTON has been publishing poetry for over 30 years, and has had work appear in Poetry, Poetry East, Rattle, Rhino, Weber Studies, and more than forty other journals. Among other awards he has received a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, Pushcart Prize Nominations, and First Prize in Poetry in the 2010 Outrider Press Literary Anthology contest. He has published one book of poetry, Tasks of Survival, which appeared in 1996, and three chapbooks, Northport (2010), Departures (2013), and Contingencies (2015), all from Finishing Line Press. His new poetry collection, In a Window, is forthcoming from Shanti Arts Press. Besides writing poetry, he writes on American literature and other topics, is past president of the Society for the Philosophical Study of Education, and teaches writing and literature at Columbia College and at DePaul University, both in Chicago. He co-edits the Journal for the Philosophical Study of Education and has been a review editor for the SPSE Roundtable. He has also been an outside reader for Word River, and currently reads for r.kv.r.y and the Illinois Emerging Poets Competition.

The Adirondack Review