AiW Guest: Rashi Rohatgi
AiW note: This is the fourth in a series of poetry reviews on the New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set from AiW Guest Rashi Rohatgi. You can find the introduction to this series here, and reviews of the first two volumes in the set here and here; look for the last review in this series in the coming weeks.
It takes guts to write about parents – even if not expressing your own – when your own parents are well-known. Saddiq Dzukogi’s father is writer and literary activist BM Dzukogi, yet we have here a chapbook centred on parental relationships. In his preface, Matthew Shenoda writes of Dzukogi that “the complexities of the human body and what it must endure are coupled with the complexities of intergenerational strike, as we see a kind of humility and vulnerability rarely seen in the poetry of many men” (4). And in this day and age where women’s personal lives are explicitly political, it was refreshing to see male personal lives set under the same scrutiny.
As a new parent myself, I was particularly interested in his depiction of fatherhood; it was precise, and lovely. In Flower Room (10) he writes of a father thinking of his daughter:
Before she entered, my heart frowned
at everything, pomegranate water,
family doll. Everything
weighed down my heart
like a flower at the far edge of a house.
reflecting, in ‘Unseen’ (12), a lovely closeness with the speaker’s mother:
my mother’s palm ready to absorb my loneliness
Throughout Inside the Flower Room, Dzukogi writes about the way in which fatherhood has causes the speaker to revisit the still-extant, still-stinging relationship he has with his abusive father, who
…claims all the bones in my body
belong to him,
says everything from my gene is his,
says I am slave and he, the eternal master
(from ‘The Last Time My Father Hit Me,’ 14). We are used to reading about abuse passed on, but the story here is different; in ‘The Pigeon’ (16), we read that
As a father,
I’m learning to wash my grief by bathing my daughter.
The speaker’s memories of his grandmother add symmetry to the relationship, and is one of the most interesting relationships, for its opacity. In ‘Rainbow Baby’ (24-25), Grandmother says
is not a thing that blooms
when you cradle stone to glint,
as if wet…
unforgettably, but unparseably. This poem was one of my favorite, not only because of this strange image and not quite because of its rhythm, but because of the rareness of the topic: about a stillborn sibling.
Father’s demise is a dispersing light
he writes, in ‘Father’s Demise’ (32); but the collection takes a turn, then, away from the light with the poem ‘Child in a War,’ from the perspective of a parent who has lost a child to violence. In this and in the poems that follow, we’re zoomed out of the intricate family structure to a larger, but no less complex national one. Rather than just one dead father, we have piles of fathers (Pardon, 39); each set of familial strife mingles in a field of memoirs.
Rasaq Malik’s No Home in this Land is also the story of internally displaced Nigerians; Nick Makoha writes of it: “the poet… gives agency to those who can no longer speak, or through grief refuse to… Malik knows that by making their story our story we can move past the spectacle to the stories worth telling” (7). He witnesses for us the effects of internal displacement due to Boko Haram, an oft-ignored tragedy.
Malik also writes in Yoruba – he is currently working on a Yoruba novel – and it’s interesting to read the form of his poetry as one which is intentionally like, but distinct from, prose.
His lines are long as often, at first glance, not quite pedestrian but not quite stylized – until we fall into the rhythm he creates, the rhythm that lets us enter into what is happening without thinking of it as something far away or long ago. These lines from ‘Grief’ (19) do a particularly powerful job of enveloping us in the skin of a refugee:
I trace gun wounds on your forehead, plant a flower to
identify the grave of a lost child, carving a homeland out
of the remains of bodies that spread like leaves in a field.
This is not the country in which I want my children to live;
And these from his ‘Elegy for Abu Ali’ (22) a reminder that this world is not as removed for peaceful places as we might think:
Your country will remember you as a beneficiary
of manifold consolatory messages from your kinsmen;
from Nigerians who reside on the virtual world
including, presumably, those who are keeping track from overseas. His last poem seems to foretell our responses, our frustrated tears about reading and feeling unsure of how to proceed. ‘How to Mourn’ says begin (30-31) over and over again, understanding the inertia that comes from being overwhelmed. Begin, the poem instructs, by remembering the girls of Chibok by name, begin
with the people who will never attend the masjid again for fear of being bombed.
Begin with the women arranging the dolls of their dead children
I thought a lot about Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem’ while reading this poem, picturing Malik, in line, answering, “I can.”
Rashi Rohatgi has taught for Skidmore, Kutztown, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of Chicago, and at various London schools. She has served as Reviews Editor at Africa in Words and Fiction Editor at Boston Accent Lit, where she convened the Accent Prize for WOC writers. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Nord University.