The Game in Reverse: Poems
by Taslima Nasrin

New York: George Braziller: 1995
63 pp., $14.95
ISBN: 0-8076-1392-4

Review by Chris Lott

Taslima Nasrin is a Bengali Muslim, the first of which I know little about, the second only a little more (and Nasrin is a woman, arguably a subject I know nothing at all about). But something I do know is that her poetry speaks to me in a way only a few other "feminist" poets can-- in a direct, beautiful and understandable manner.

In her preface, Carolyne Wright, who is also the principal translator of the volume, outlines the chaotic movements of Nasrin's life and the oppressive results of her speaking out in a society which has little tolerance for it: published bounties for whoever would execute her, constant death threats, a year of hiding before being granted asylum in Sweden and finally winning the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

If all of this is not amazing enough, Nasrin has also managed the difficult task of creating a book that is at once politically charged and of literary relevance. Her poems are fierce without being overbearing, forceful without being uncontrollably bitter:

I'm wasting my days getting up and sitting down.
If I'm dying right now, they speak up-- 'Live.'
If they see me leaving, who knows when
they'll say-- 'Shame on you, die!'

In tremendous fear I secretly go on living.

The tone of each poem is perfectly modulated, a feat of both poet and translator, allowing Nasrin to range from the angry:

Some religious fanatic cowards
think of women as grotesque life-forms
fashioned from men's leftover ribs,
tasty morself offered up for amorous sport.

There'll always be some shit in this world,
some fetid essence.

to the proudly redemptive:

Why would Eve merely suppress her wishes,
regulate her steps?
Subdue her thirst?
Why would Eve be so compelled
to keep Adam moving around in the Garden of Eden
all their lives?
Eve, if you get hold of the fruit
don't ever refrain from eating.

As you've likely gathered, these poems are generally concerned with Bangladeshi Muslim women and the way in which they are oppressed and abused by the males in their society. While many of the details of specific incidents seem almost outlandish to those in the West ("She is sold, / sold openly." Nasrin writes of a young woman, and she is not speaking metaphorically), others gain their power from the fact that they are both mythical and all too real:

They have made Noorjahan stand in a hole in the courtyard,
there she stands, submerged to her waist with head hanging.
They're throwing stones at Noorjahan,
those stones are striking my body.

Because of their power and clarity, though, these poems stand on their own, relying neither on shock value nor any usurpation as metaphors for the position of women elsewhere in the world. Instead these poems are powered by their clarity and specificity: throughout the book are clear, precise details and specific names of people and places where other, lesser poets, might fall back into weaker abstraction or generalization. In the poem just cited, for example, the name "Noorjahan" appears seven times in twice as many lines, creating a kind of mantra of terrible inclusion that resonates long after the book is closed. And this inclusion is not just for or about women, for men are also often caught up in this horrible problematic:

Satipada comes every day, but not today, the news came that
a gang of men with tupis on their heads stormed into Satipada's house,
poured gasoline over everything in the rooms, the tables and chairs,
the beds, wardrobes, pots and pans,
clothing, books.
Then they quickly lit a whole lot of matchsticks and tossed them
in all the gasoline-soaked places.
As the fires flared up, Satipada stood stunned in the courtyard and watched
the black smoke spreading over their Tatibazar, over
Tatibazar's patch of indifferent sky.

Nasrin utilizes abstraction only where it makes good poetic sense to do so, and where the contrast with the otherwise specific nature of the poems gives the instance great effect, such as poems dealing with the ungraspable whole of containment and escape from the institutions which have caused her such grievous pain:

Let the pavilions of religion be ground to bits,
let the bricks of temples, mosques, gurudwaras, churches
be burned in blind fire,
and upon those heaps of destruction
let lovely flower gardens grow, spreading their fragrance,
let children's schools and study halls grow.
From now on let religion's other name be humanity.

Carolyne Wright has done a fantastic job capturing the range of Nasrin's voice and concerns. I don't doubt that much of the natural beauty of the sound-play in Nasrin's language has been necessarily lost, but what remains-- what has been captured and transformed by Carolyne Wright-- is more than enough. I only wish there were more books available in English beyond this single volume of selections from five of Taslima Nasrin's seven books of poetry!

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