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Midnight, Dhaka

Mir Mahfuz Ali
ISBN-13: 
9781781721599
Format: 
Paperback
Publication Date: 
Sunday, May 18, 2014
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 Mir Mahfuz Ali is an exceptional new voice in British Poetry. A native of what is now Bangladesh, Mahfuz grew up during the difficult period of the early 1970’s when the region was struck, first by a devastating cyclone, then by a particularly vicious civil war. As a boy, Mahfuz witnessed atrocities and writes about them with a searing directness in poems like ‘My Salma’ and the title poem. But much more than this, his trauma becomes transformative, and his poetry the key to unlocking memories of a childhood that are rich in nuance, gorgeous in detail and evocative of a beautiful country. They celebrate the human capacity for love, survival and renewal.

REVIEWS

Review by Bashabi Fraser, DURA

Thursday, February 11, 2016

We encounter a nation, old yet new, and a rooted recognisable world which witnesses a bloody birth in this collection of forty three poems by Mir Mahfuz Ali. The hurricane, both natural and man-inflicted which threatens to rip the known world apart, subsides to reveal a resilience and bond that mark the spirit of an age captured in Midnight, Dhaka. The title poem opens on 25 March 1971 when the military unleashed an unconscionable war on an unsuspecting and unarmed nation in what would lead to the formation of Bangladesh. The poem captures snapshots of corpses being flung into a truck by soldiers who laugh at a billboard advertising the goodness of Guinness after their grim labour; this is a world where goodness has receded.

This chilling, deliberate violence against women like the character Salma is recorded without mitigating the horror of the acts; what stays with the reader is her courage and resistance

as she fought for the last leaf
of her dignity.

In “MIG-21 Raids on Shegontola”, a boy on a tricycle is the lone witness; he

…sees
his house roof sink [;]

and at its collapse,

White soot descends
and he finds himself
like an apprentice baker.

The horror of the scene is delicately intertwined with a humour that brings home the pathos of unutterable loss and the ludicrous effects of mindless destruction.

In another snapshot, the juxtaposition of startling images is captivating as in “Boy in an Old Photograph”,

He is standing stiff like a pillar
before the rushing stream
of his rolling senses,
muddy meetings of rising waters
in the chaotic city.

The poems sweep across a nation as well as a lifetime. We encounter furtive forbidden love with the Hindu girl, Nandita, under “the little candle of the iced moon” or the protective love of “Our Boowah”, the Garo nanny as

She lulled me to sleep
with her strange songs,
tapped my back
and taught me
not to have nightmares.

In spite of the knowledge of a nation’s agony, Mahfuz Ali embraces and endorses life itself through his humorous lens; he adopts the perspective of a cat as he is lectured to by his horrified mistress about his “brutal ways” and misses her cuddles in “My mistress Grounded Me.” The boy on a bicycle experiences freedom, wheeling away from his anxious mother whose love wills and allows his freedom in “My Child, Cycling”. He turns back for his last reassuring glance at her, though both she and he know that it is bad luck to turn back. Yet her sense of hope is uplifting,

I watch him vanishing uphill towards
the air over the tree line,
where an orange globe
opens like a flower[,]

the promise of his new beginning signalling also the promise of a nation’s vision and the realisation of a dream. A little boy is denied entry into the magic circle of his friends in “My Son Waits by the Door”. When he keeps it open, hoping someone will call him to play, what greets him is “the reckless street/with its smut” where “A long emptiness howls like a hyena”.

When a hurricane blows treasured books of the Koran, War and Peace and Gitanjali away, we know that the spiritual words, the life-affirming words of Tolstoy and Tagore remain woven in the fabric of the work. Ali’s poems portray an epic sweep; in Midnight, Dhaka the East is revealed in poems that resonate with the irresistible call of the nation that has also marked Mahfuz Ali’s compatriot, Jibanananda Das’s poetry.

Bashabi Fraser

Review By David Shook, Wasafiri

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mir Mahfuz Ali's Midnight, Dhaka weaves sensuality and violence into a dark, panoptic menagerie of chidlike memory, set primarily in Bangladesh. Indeed, the majority of the collection's poems are set in the speaker's childhood. The book's presentation and Ali's biography imply that the author himself narrates these poems. The poet uses this to good effect: the child's innocence and lack of context allow for the construction of lyrical imagery without the detachedness that such a technique might otherwise suggest.

Midnight, Dhaka is as dark as its title suggests. The violence depicted in the poems like 'My Salma' is visceral and stomach churning. In it, a grown man apologies to his lover for his inability to forget his early crush on Salma, from when he 'was a hungry boy in short'- the beginning of what appears to be a love poem in the Bengali tradition. He follows his apology with a description of Salma's gang rape, presumably by Pakistani soldiers, whose commanding officer 'laughed as he pumped/his rife-blue buttocks in the Hemonti sun'. This, though, is not the end of depravity. Later, searching for Salma, Ali writers in the last of the poem's four sections

I stood in the middle of a boot-

bruised field,

working out how the wind might

lead me to her.

 

Then I saw against the

deepening sky

a thin mangey bitch, tearing at a

body with no head,

 

breasts cut off in a fine lament. 

I knew then who she was, and

kicked

 

the bitch in the ribs, the same

way

that I had been booted in the chest.

 

Here, as throughout Midnight, Dhaka, Ali successfully rides the line between exploitation and witness, ultimately vindicated by the personal nature of his experience(His biographical note asserts that his voice is 'a rich, throaty whisper brought about by a Bangladeshi policeman trying to silence the singing anthems during an anti-war demonstration.')

In another of Ali's darker poems, the pros poem 'Baby Snatchers Hill', the narrator recalls a childhood adventure with his uncle, a vacation to visit the Garco Hills. Following the trail of 'distant[cries] clear as a cricket chrip' they come across an eerie abandoned house, where children are prepared for life as beggars by being 'beaten into the shape all beggars become'. The power of that image, which works on both a physical and metaphorical level, is somewhat blunted by the triter observation that immediately follows, ending the poem: 'Now I knew why my mother was so fearful of the baby snatchers, warning me never to talk to strangers.'

Elsewhere in this collection, a woman returns to the child she abandoned-the reader is unsure if dead or left to die, although the poem's title, 'illegitimate', suggests its undesirability-at a rubbish dump, to see 'the crow burst/ his lip like a soft seed'. In the poem that follows, 'An Open Manhole', what begins, again, as a pleasant childhood memory of children playing in the flooded streets of the city, turns darker when a girl 'with a turtle-round face' jumps into the water over an open manhole and is sucked under and away. Other turns are less dramatic, as in 'The Nectarine Tree', which recounts the story of the young narrator climbing a tree to fetch a ripe fruit for another crush, who 'spread her skirt like a forbidden flag' to catch the dropped fruit. Ali cleverly uses the form of an unrhymed sonnet so that he can emphasise, in its envoi, the lingering unresolved injustices of the Bangladeshi Liberation War: 'That tree is gone now,/ a murderer has built his house on the spot', a blight on his memories, on the country's pockmarked psychological geography, and on the physical plane as well. 

Ali's occasional lapse into prosaicism is redeemed by his ear for the phrase, whether the speaker is a cat 'purring/for the fiesta of her breast' or the subject is Komol's 'wren-boned body'. Throughout the collection, he proves to be a talented imagist, comparing the settling dust of an MIG-21S raid to the floor dressing 'an apprentice baker' and observing 'rice grains thinner than rains/and cattle stouter than cannoniers'. Here is his poem 'Famine', in its entirety,

Last night the moon hung like a 

thin chapatti

before my hungry mouth.

Mir Mahfuz Ali's debut is an accomplished book of poetry, bold and broad enough to resist being pigeonholed by the popularly perceived exoticism of English-language Bangladeshi poetry. Its best poems continue to haunt me and I've already returned to the book to re-read his moving tributes to Salma and to Bangladesh. It is dark at midnight, but the poet offers us just enough light to guide us through-and beyond- the city's misery and beauty.

 

User Reviews

Anonymous's picture

Review from Ofi Press Magazine

0
No votes yet

Mir Mahfuz Ali, winner of the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize 2013, talks to us about love, hope and survival in a haunting way in his first full collection Midnight, Dhaka, while describing his trauma in the 1970s, during the war in the country now known as Bangladesh. He is catching and recording the details of horror with his ‘Nicon eye’: a boy (back then) witnesses vanishing houses, rape and beatings. Even the most peaceful situations might turn into nightmare, all the parents’ warnings make sense; but Mahfuz, from the perspective of an adult, finds peace again, writing poetry is his way to heal the wounds.

‘Trees had a breeze on them. I was probably five. A fine cool day.

We travelled on a minibus with my uncles and aunties, our

destination, the Garo Hills, where the jungles were dark below

the eastern Himalayas. We heard the Garoes were tiny black

people, but their hearts were bright. They welcomed visitors with

palm wine.

Night was charcoal. Silence was loud. Fireflies moved like shooting

stars. We stopped for a rest, climbed out of the bus and loosened

our muscles. I thought I heard a distant cry clear as a cricket chirp

and grabbed my uncle Monsur’s hand. He held me tight, hushed us

all, asking us to listen to the sound coming from the depths of the

forest. We stayed all together and followed the cry.

(…)

He had a stout stick the size of a baseball bat in his right hand.

Kept hitting the boy who had more bones than flesh. My eyes

roved around the large room. The house was full of stretchers,

walking sticks, pushchairs made with the wheels of children’s prams.

In another room a set of ten makeshift beds on the wooden floor.

A group sat together looking at the dim flame of the coopi-lamp.

They all had broken bones. The sun had burned their skins.

Some had limbs missing, eyes poked out. I had no doubt it was

the place where beggars were beaten into the shape all beggars

become. Now I knew why my mother was so fearful of the

baby snatchers, warning me never to talk to strangers.’

(Baby Snatchers’ Hill)

Sometimes it is difficult to tell good from vicious, there’s grief and beauty on each side. The cobra is ‘clean-smelling’, the human hands are threatening:

‘A snake charmer came to catch a cobra hiding

inside a water-pot on our rear veranda.

All known miseries strike at his feet when

carefully he rolled the jar over, to force the snake out.’

(…)

‘All that the snake charmer had was his

binagini flute, so he played the note

in that place where tree-wasps dance. The tone

could feel its way between my tongue

and heart – one was too quick and one was

too slow, needing much blood to understand

how the serpent might have been withered by his scorn,

for this cunning cobra had now gone back

to its lair under the bamboo bush. The snake

twitched in the hedge, knew the man

was looking to smash its nest.

His spade was a gleam going to the ground

with a beat not quite matching the reptile’s,

now chiselling away the earth little by little.

And the snake hid under its own coil

where every scale shone grief.’

(A Basket of Sorrow)

Mahfuz’s influences include Rabindranath Tagore and Jibananda Das, he follows the Bengali tradition of telling stories as if they were songs.

His singing poems prove human beings are capable of renewal through a cleansing process, coming to maturity: ‘you have to rot before you ripen’ (Nandita).

Mahfuz transforms suffering into a beautiful read through the fresh, evocative language, the raw emotion and the sensuousness. He has written of his poetry, “I want the taste to linger in the readers’ mouths and on their skin.” And it does linger.

10/10/2014 - 10:17
Anonymous's picture

Review from Wales Arts Review

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No votes yet

When a poet renowned for his performances, his ‘extraordinary voice’ referring to his reading skills rather than his industry on the page, a collection in book form is not always the obvious appetizer. Add to this is a sub theme of civil war, written in a language other than the author’s mother tongue, and pessimism often creeps in.

But Mir Mahfuz Ali, in Midnight, Dhaka, his first full collection of poetry (which includes the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize winning poem ‘MIG-21 Raids at Shegontola’), is just as fluent in poetry-on-the-page as he is in English (which is not just perfect, it is also engaging in content and pleasing to the ear in sound). A chief weakness for spoken word poets is the use of punctuation to add depth to their poems. Ali manages just fine, better than most. There are no jarring sensations, missing question marks or frustratingly misjudged enjambment in Midnight, Dhaka. And while Ali does not make the most of punctuation (not only are there are no cool tricks in Midnight, Dhaka, there is also not a single semi-colon, which, in twenty-first century poetry, is a bit like a football chant without a swear word), his skill with words themselves quickly become obvious.

The stories told in poems such as ‘Dog Seed’ could conceivably be from any country, from any poet with all the competency and grace of any ground-breaking thinker:

A nine-year-old scrambles out of his tin shack
to find two dogs jammed rump to rump –
a gruff mongrel with slashing jaws
dragging another up the street, a third of its size,
yowling at the grip of the knot, from which
it can’t run. As the sun fries the fleas on their backs,
the boy decides to pull them apart.

This is a poem where cute rhyming and subtle rhyming combine brilliantly. As our minds take in run/sun and fries/fleas quite easily, the addition of size in the latter scheme, as well as shack/backs, gives us an overall elegant transition through a vulgar image, letting the tension build right from the scrambling, slashing start until the stanza ends and we are left curious as to what will happen next.

Mir Mahfuz Ali was born in what is now Bangladesh. He has worked as a male model, a tandoori chef and as a dancer and actor, though his past occupations are much harder to detect than his birthplace. Many of the poems in this collection refer to the culture of Bangladesh.

The title poem in Midnight, Dhaka, from the viewpoint of a camera, takes us back to 1971, to the time of the Bangladesh genocide. After some brutal images, the contents of which can spring easily to mind, we are left with a slogan, where humour creeps into the poem, and where both the two worlds of Ali’s poetry and the two worlds of every story, are knitted together:

I click as the soldiers laugh at the billboard on the bulkhead:
GUINNESS IS GOOD FOR YOU

SIX MILLION DRUNK EVERY DAY.

Reviewed for Wales Arts review by Carl Griffin
Read the full review here: http://www.walesartsreview.org/poetry-reviews/

12/09/2014 - 10:21
barbaraecwynn's picture

barbaraecwynn

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No votes yet

Absolutely wonderful. These poems are all seemingly effortlessly evocative and packed with rich imagery, deeply moving. Mir Mahfuz Ali is incredibly talented.

28/05/2014 - 17:39

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barbaraecwynn's picture

barbaraecwynn

0
No votes yet

Absolutely wonderful. These poems are all seemingly effortlessly evocative and packed with rich imagery, deeply moving. Mir Mahfuz Ali is incredibly talented.

28/05/2014 - 17:39
Anonymous's picture

Review from Wales Arts Review

0
No votes yet

When a poet renowned for his performances, his ‘extraordinary voice’ referring to his reading skills rather than his industry on the page, a collection in book form is not always the obvious appetizer. Add to this is a sub theme of civil war, written in a language other than the author’s mother tongue, and pessimism often creeps in.

But Mir Mahfuz Ali, in Midnight, Dhaka, his first full collection of poetry (which includes the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize winning poem ‘MIG-21 Raids at Shegontola’), is just as fluent in poetry-on-the-page as he is in English (which is not just perfect, it is also engaging in content and pleasing to the ear in sound). A chief weakness for spoken word poets is the use of punctuation to add depth to their poems. Ali manages just fine, better than most. There are no jarring sensations, missing question marks or frustratingly misjudged enjambment in Midnight, Dhaka. And while Ali does not make the most of punctuation (not only are there are no cool tricks in Midnight, Dhaka, there is also not a single semi-colon, which, in twenty-first century poetry, is a bit like a football chant without a swear word), his skill with words themselves quickly become obvious.

The stories told in poems such as ‘Dog Seed’ could conceivably be from any country, from any poet with all the competency and grace of any ground-breaking thinker:

A nine-year-old scrambles out of his tin shack
to find two dogs jammed rump to rump –
a gruff mongrel with slashing jaws
dragging another up the street, a third of its size,
yowling at the grip of the knot, from which
it can’t run. As the sun fries the fleas on their backs,
the boy decides to pull them apart.

This is a poem where cute rhyming and subtle rhyming combine brilliantly. As our minds take in run/sun and fries/fleas quite easily, the addition of size in the latter scheme, as well as shack/backs, gives us an overall elegant transition through a vulgar image, letting the tension build right from the scrambling, slashing start until the stanza ends and we are left curious as to what will happen next.

Mir Mahfuz Ali was born in what is now Bangladesh. He has worked as a male model, a tandoori chef and as a dancer and actor, though his past occupations are much harder to detect than his birthplace. Many of the poems in this collection refer to the culture of Bangladesh.

The title poem in Midnight, Dhaka, from the viewpoint of a camera, takes us back to 1971, to the time of the Bangladesh genocide. After some brutal images, the contents of which can spring easily to mind, we are left with a slogan, where humour creeps into the poem, and where both the two worlds of Ali’s poetry and the two worlds of every story, are knitted together:

I click as the soldiers laugh at the billboard on the bulkhead:
GUINNESS IS GOOD FOR YOU

SIX MILLION DRUNK EVERY DAY.

Reviewed for Wales Arts review by Carl Griffin
Read the full review here: http://www.walesartsreview.org/poetry-reviews/

12/09/2014 - 10:21
Anonymous's picture

Review from Ofi Press Magazine

0
No votes yet

Mir Mahfuz Ali, winner of the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize 2013, talks to us about love, hope and survival in a haunting way in his first full collection Midnight, Dhaka, while describing his trauma in the 1970s, during the war in the country now known as Bangladesh. He is catching and recording the details of horror with his ‘Nicon eye’: a boy (back then) witnesses vanishing houses, rape and beatings. Even the most peaceful situations might turn into nightmare, all the parents’ warnings make sense; but Mahfuz, from the perspective of an adult, finds peace again, writing poetry is his way to heal the wounds.

‘Trees had a breeze on them. I was probably five. A fine cool day.

We travelled on a minibus with my uncles and aunties, our

destination, the Garo Hills, where the jungles were dark below

the eastern Himalayas. We heard the Garoes were tiny black

people, but their hearts were bright. They welcomed visitors with

palm wine.

Night was charcoal. Silence was loud. Fireflies moved like shooting

stars. We stopped for a rest, climbed out of the bus and loosened

our muscles. I thought I heard a distant cry clear as a cricket chirp

and grabbed my uncle Monsur’s hand. He held me tight, hushed us

all, asking us to listen to the sound coming from the depths of the

forest. We stayed all together and followed the cry.

(…)

He had a stout stick the size of a baseball bat in his right hand.

Kept hitting the boy who had more bones than flesh. My eyes

roved around the large room. The house was full of stretchers,

walking sticks, pushchairs made with the wheels of children’s prams.

In another room a set of ten makeshift beds on the wooden floor.

A group sat together looking at the dim flame of the coopi-lamp.

They all had broken bones. The sun had burned their skins.

Some had limbs missing, eyes poked out. I had no doubt it was

the place where beggars were beaten into the shape all beggars

become. Now I knew why my mother was so fearful of the

baby snatchers, warning me never to talk to strangers.’

(Baby Snatchers’ Hill)

Sometimes it is difficult to tell good from vicious, there’s grief and beauty on each side. The cobra is ‘clean-smelling’, the human hands are threatening:

‘A snake charmer came to catch a cobra hiding

inside a water-pot on our rear veranda.

All known miseries strike at his feet when

carefully he rolled the jar over, to force the snake out.’

(…)

‘All that the snake charmer had was his

binagini flute, so he played the note

in that place where tree-wasps dance. The tone

could feel its way between my tongue

and heart – one was too quick and one was

too slow, needing much blood to understand

how the serpent might have been withered by his scorn,

for this cunning cobra had now gone back

to its lair under the bamboo bush. The snake

twitched in the hedge, knew the man

was looking to smash its nest.

His spade was a gleam going to the ground

with a beat not quite matching the reptile’s,

now chiselling away the earth little by little.

And the snake hid under its own coil

where every scale shone grief.’

(A Basket of Sorrow)

Mahfuz’s influences include Rabindranath Tagore and Jibananda Das, he follows the Bengali tradition of telling stories as if they were songs.

His singing poems prove human beings are capable of renewal through a cleansing process, coming to maturity: ‘you have to rot before you ripen’ (Nandita).

Mahfuz transforms suffering into a beautiful read through the fresh, evocative language, the raw emotion and the sensuousness. He has written of his poetry, “I want the taste to linger in the readers’ mouths and on their skin.” And it does linger.

10/10/2014 - 10:17
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