The Most Admirable Style
By David Keplinger
There’s style in the writerly sense and then there’s style, the style one achieves as a member of the human family, say, a style Akbar Ahmed has mastered. For there is surely a tone, a voice, a mastery of the grammar of life which lives not only in the pages of his non-fiction, drama and now poetry, but in the way Ahmed has conducted himself throughout his personal history, from being a young delegate of the Civil Service in Pakistan to his arrival here at American University as the Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, and onward to appearances on Oprahand The Daily Show, to being called “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam” by the BBC and “a national treasure” by Dan Futterman, academy award nominee for screenwriting.
Ahmed has written a dozen books, including Discovering Islam, which was the basis for a six-part BBC documentary entitled Living Islam, and he is winner of the American Book Award, as well as many other honors. Since the mid-1960s, his career in the Civil Service led him to Bangladesh and later, the UK, where he served as Ambassador to Pakistan. I was present, a few years ago, when Ahmed and his family were honored at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. So I would add to Futterman’s comment that not only is Ahmed a national treasure but an international one, a man whose life work has been to reach across borders, promoting amity between the most ancient rivalries.
With that it seems fitting that Ahmed’s first book of poetry, Suspended Somewhere Between (PM Press), should seek in its very title to reach not only across borders but to seek the meaning, as Mallarme taught, in the interstice. It was in relationship, the father of the modern prose poem taught, that meaning is achieved: between the words, between the images, and, I would add, between peoples. One’s meaning as an individual does not reside in one’s life or one’s gifts, necessarily, but in the ways one shares those resources.
My life’s meaning comes via my relationship to that to which I cast my glance. Who am I? What is my name? Where am I from? Often we answer these questions in the context of other people. I am of the Keplinger family. My first name has a Biblical origin. I am a citizen of the United States.
But a more mysterious, even mystical sense of meaning and purpose is revealed as the questions assume more metaphysical undertones: why am I here? For what do I do my work? For whom? What shall be my work? Ahmed, as poet, asks questions that increasingly have no answers; or perhaps have only one. Love. Why am I here? Love. For what and for whom do I do my work? For love. What shall be my work? Love.
To place ourselves in relationship to Love, to pay attention to the power of love in all its forms, is to achieve, I might say, this Most Admirable Style, which he embodies in these poems about the ravaged regions between India and Pakistan. He focuses not on macrocosmic abstractions but on individuals, often children, or his own childhood memories as “a small boy/in a crowded train compartment/bathed in dim yellow light/motionless at night/stranded/ in the killing fields of the Punjab.”
Here is compassion for the innocents who are born into a violent world by no choice of their own. They have been born into a litany of terror that stretches across borders and they would be hated, even killed, for the names and meanings others would ascribe to them. The poems are often chillingly violent, but in the power of the utterance a kind of beauty, a kind of song is achieved at their best. In perhaps the strongest poem of the collection, “They Are Taking Them Away,” he writes of the slaughters he witnessed as a young civil servant in “the green lands of Bengal,” 1971:
women, like broken toys,
on the rail tracks to Santahar Junction
bright flags fluttering from their thighs
does it matter now
which side did this
they were playing these games
with death over there in the green lands of Bengal
in the year of our lord 1971
oh the storm that raged
under the blue Bengal sky
and without him,
when rape was relief
death a desire
and killing a kindness.
Mama, hide me in your arms, for
they are taking them away
to the slaughterhouses…
Ahmed’s poems reveal no solutions to global issues. At their best they realign the reader towards love, even forgiveness (“does it matter now/which side did this/or why”), through their language and attention. Our affiliations and borders are erased momentarily; thus he is a poet writing in the lineage of Rumi, Kabir, Ghalib. He knows, as they did, our common name is silence.
Recently, I was browsing the shelves at Bridge Street Books in Georgetown and I came across a copy of Ahmed’s play, Noor, which was performed here in Washington and later published, translated, and is being produced shortly, I’ve learned, by a group of students at The American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. Such connections are the miracle work of art, not politics. Ahmed teaches that there is much to learn in lingering a while with the questions, in these in-betweens where we often find ourselves suspended—that is to say, in our relationship with others. It is there that poetry connects beyond diplomacy, even, and it is there that poets, as Shelley wrote, become the legislators of the world.
(David Keplinger teaches in the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, DC. He is the author of three collections of poetry, including The Prayers of Others . He is also a winner of the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the Colorado Book Award, among other honors.)