Rahat Kurd’s linguistic love for a contradictory world

2367Rahat Kurd. Cosmophilia. (Talonbooks 2015).

In the final poem of Cosmophilia, ‘Married to English,’ Rahat Kurd admits she is indeed wed to the language she has played with & broken up with other tongues throughout this collection. English is unavoidable for a poet born in Hamilton, but it’s a ‘dark fidelity’ accompanying a sense of loss for ‘gorgeous Urdu’s melting afternoons,’ & she has to ask, ‘Pitiless English, what have I become?’ After all, this language she must use is darkly imperial, & so ‘It’s true, I whisper tender Arabic curses / over lies you swore were sterling; I console myself // with half-remembered Farsi endearments.’ All this arrives after a series of poems & sequences that envelop readers in a world resisting much of what English-speakers have done to it, & a vision endowed with a Muslim woman’s understanding. This very rich world of images & sounds offers something of a gift to English-speaking Canadian readers as the poems in Cosmophilia range over history, both public & personal, theology, & family inheritances, especially on the maternal side, from the Kashmir they left behind.

In other words, as the 2nd poem declares, ‘We won’t trace our names on the walls of old Delhi, // we won’t warm our hands on the walls of old Kashan.’ Instead, despite sharing ‘Faiz in Shahid’s English’ with the dedicatee, Usamah Ansari 1985- 2008, who ‘delighted everyone with Faiz in his own Urdu,’ the two of them ‘spent all the time we would ever have // describing borders of suspicion’ & now only questions remain: ‘Who would welcome you, after Burnaby? / What language, broken, avails you now?’ And it is that sense of brokenness, in language, in inheritances, in personal & public politics that haunts the various stories inherent in the longer poems that lie between the two I’ve mentioned.

Kurd has fascinating histories to explore, not least in the title poem, which tenderly takes up & renders into words the history of an old embroidered scarf, made in the traditional Kashmir way by a man, but given unto the women of the family down through the years. It begins with its maker imagining the woman who will one day wear it somewhere far away in a distant future, & follows it through a world of machines that take away the lustre of the hand made yet also render it as ordinary as their product. Where in this world, this & other poems ask, can the aura of the handmade real still be found?

Some poems develop an imaginative connection with older languages: Nastaliq script, for example, transforms into an old woman who smokes too much & tells the speaker stories of her treasured past, ending with ‘You know I lived in the breath, / in the quick movement / of human hands. What else / can satisfy the human heart?’ Others engage traditions of her faith (that may not quite be enough for a strong contemporary woman): the sequence ‘Seven Stones for Jaharat’ takes readers into the history of the stoning of the Jamarat pillars full of devils in the Hajj, but does so with an angry wit directed to both the modernization & commercialization of the event by Saudi Arabia’s rulers & the ways in which women have been marginalized & nevertheless have subverted that marginalization. Its 7 sections ranging over various times & figures makes for a wonderfully rich, sly, & allusive sequence: ‘The stone contains time before rude borders. / The stone outlasts the reign of guns and tanks.’

Many of the later poems speak to a marriage now over, how the grief attached to that loss shifts into anger, neatly turned into an array of metaphors before becoming simply ‘my anger, freezing, flickering, / burning, waiting, spiteful, bereft?’ These poems cover a lot of ground, learning ‘tajwid the art of Quran recitation,’ coming to grips with the world around her, meditating on ‘The Last Seven Minutes of L’Eclisse,’ which ends thus: ‘I tell myself again / how Mecca was founded / in the steps of a woman / frantically running seven times / between two desert hills / named for the daughters of other women, / on a hot day, in search of water.’

Cosmophilia is full of moments like that; they strike to the heart. It’s a rich & rewarding first collection by a writer I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from.

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