Where Rivers End (review: The Displaced Children of Displaced Children)

displaced children

The Displaced Children of Displaced Children by Faisal Mohyuddin had a lot to live up to from the word go simply because of its spellbinding front cover. I usually try actively to ignore front covers in order to resist their influence on my reading, but this is impossible of course and sometimes you just want to cut them off the book and stick them on your wall. This one by Edwin Smet for Eyewear is one of those, and it leaps out from everything else published this year in its simplicity, mystery and beauty. Whatever lies behind this battered and torn sepia image of a young woman (I assume Pakistani or Indian) with her young child and overlaid with the startling red title and author’s name in white, had better be good.

Luckily, what lies behind the front cover in this case is better than just good.

Faisal Mohyuddin, the son of Pakistani refugees to the USA, has written a collection of meditations on his physical, political, and spiritual origins; and further meditations on how they relate to his present and his future. On one level it is (with the Partition of India, his parents’ emigration from Pakistan, the death of his father, and the birth of his son) a journey through loss and grief towards an equivocal but clearly defined sense of hope. Ultimately, though, the journey is one towards an understanding or acceptance of the forces that created the poet, an immigrant in an often-hostile country. But Mohyuddin is wise enough not to try and provide answers to the difficult and complex questions his family’s history presents; instead, the book is intended, we learn in his lengthy and generous list of thanks at the back, as a gift for his son, to “help illuminate the stories of those who came before you and guide you forward.”

I could select literally any poem in the book to illustrate Mohyuddin’s process of working through his understanding of characters both public (Bhagat Singh, Jinna) and private (his parents, childhood friends) from the last fifty to a hundred years, his own relationship with his religion, and his present-day working life. But what would be harder to show would be the overall rhythm that the poems achieve as they are read one after the other, the emotional shifts and changes of pacing that keep the reader moving through the collection like the rivers that are so central to its imagery.

I’ll pick out two or three example poems to illustrate some of the book’s particular strengths.

The collection begins and ends (almost) with two ghazals, ‘Ghazal for the Diaspora’ and ‘Ghazal for the lost’. The form is apt as it is itself a relatively recent immigrant to English language poetry, and Mohyuddin uses them to illustrate the progression of thought from near despair at the beginning of the collection (“Tell me, Faisal, with what new surrender can you evade deeper damnation? / Whatever it is, hack away, before your children too become the Lost.”) to something closer to hope at the end (“Do you remember, Faisal, what the elders preached about forgetting? Centuries of grief / Had made them wise, taught them to seek the mercy and goodness of mystery.”). ‘Hope’ may be the wrong word here, but the switch from ‘lost’ to ‘mystery’ as the end-word in the second line of each couplet of the ghazals suggests reorientation, recalibration and ownership (if not acceptance) of the inexplicable.

Form is important to Mohyuddin, and more than with many poets it indicates a psychological subtext to the words themselves. For example, in ‘Prayer’, the poem’s short four-line stanzas are split mid-line, creating artificial caesuras, and staggered satisfyingly, aesthetically on the page (prayer mats? thought bubbles? almost, in fact, evocative of the repeated patterns of Islamic art) to evoke a background sense of the calm and order that prayer brings to the faithful, opening up the white space to make it a central part of the words’ meaning rather than existing to one side of it (perhaps reflecting also the way Allah is so much more a part of the constituent grammar of the Arabic of the Koran than God is of the Bible’s English). It also has the effect of splitting the meaning of each line into smaller segments, breaking open the stanzas’ content so that they can only have complete meaning when brought semantically together, again reflecting the Believer’s relationship with God. This form is revisited subtly later in the collection in the sixth part (‘What Burns’) of the long narrative poem ‘Denaturalization: An Elegy for Mr Vaishno Das Bagai, an American’, which relates the tragic suicide of a Hindu immigrant whose American citizenship was revoked as a result of the 1923 Supreme Court ruling that all ‘Asiatics’ be denaturalized. As Bagai slowly comes to realise that he will never be anything in America other than a bird “locked up / in a gilded cage”, the short, split four-line stanzas reflect the earlier ‘Prayer’ but in this case they are regimented in lines rather than staggered and the effect feels forced, awkward – and the two ‘columns’ (as in effect they are) do not fit together harmoniously but stand separate, rigidly separated – and all this of course reflects Bagai’s experience of America following the citizenship ruling. In the seventh part of the poem (‘Moral Gesture’), Bagai’s death is signified with a completely ‘formless’ lineation where nouns, verbs, prepositions and prepositional phrases are split right across the page, filling the paper’s whiteness with small units, like floating molecules, as his spirit “migrates / from / the earthy depths / of his broken / body”. And then in the eighth and final part (‘Restoration’) as Bagai meets his old friend Mohammed in Heaven, form returns as the poem’s lines are split into three, creating staggered stanzas which both recall the harmony of the earlier ‘Prayer’ and resolve the ‘formlessness’ of death into something more cohesive. It’s interesting to hypothesise that this three-line structure could be seen as representing the Christian Holy Trinity, while the ‘Mohammed’ reference (and the line “Let’s surrender // to the perfected / beauty of our inner / light”) surely indicates Mohyuddin’s own Islam, and of course the main character is a Hindu, so this end phase of the poem might be suggesting the unification of the world’s three principal religions (“beneath the burning / gaze of the Almighty”) as well as a personal spiritual resolution for Bagai.

Rivers, as I mentioned earlier, are a central image running through the collection, and towards the beginning they stand as a metaphor for the past: the rivers of the Punjab where Mohyuddin’s ancestors lived and worked and which he lost when his father left Pakistan (“Exile begins where rivers end.”); but they also represent a movement towards the future, and in the final poem of the collection (‘Song of Myself as a Tomorrow’), we hear “But erasure – / what can it do when the blood’s trajectory / has forever been about becoming another river, about winding its way / along some other pathway toward survival?” and “I am that tomorrow, lost within the land / beyond where all rivers end”. So, as well as a metaphor for continuity in the poet’s life and between the generations of his family, the river also becomes a symbol for life itself, and so conversely the absence of rivers become the unknowable zones of both ‘afterlife’ and ‘future’, “the barren vastness of an untethered / darkness” which may be frightening, but into which the immigrant and their children must “(knife) new furrows through which their refugee blood / can flow” by taking an ultimately positive stance and saying “Yes / to exile / Yes / to America”.

The associations of Mohyuddin’s language are strong. The words just quoted are the final ones of the book and they echo the positive message (which now seems so long ago) of Barak Obama in his famous 2008 New Hampshire campaign speech: “Yes we can!”. And for some British readers, the linking of ‘rivers’ with ‘blood’ throughout the book also has political associations, with the Enoch Powell ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, in which the Conservative politician used imagery originally from the Aeneid to illustrate his fear that immigrants would overrun and terrorise the nation (“Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’”). This may be unintended, but it could equally be that Mohyuddin is deliberately appropriating the image to keep a sense of unease about the future while transforming its Powellian racism into a powerful metaphor for passing on DNA to the next generation of ‘displaced children’ (the blood in the veins).

Finally, it is in no sense belittling to the collection to say that one of the most moving moments for me was reaching the ‘thanks’ to colleagues, friends, and family (over two pages of them) that the poet includes at the end. I mentioned earlier the message he sends to his son, but it is the note to his wife that really raises the bar for any writer in the future wanting to express familial gratitude with sincerity and eloquence. Tempted as I am to quote it in full, I will resist and simply recommend getting hold of a copy so you can read it for yourself.

For its thoughtfulness, its skill, its originality, its beauty, and ultimately its love, this is a book which deserves the widest possible readership.

The Displaced Children of Displaced Children is available from Eyewear, here.

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