In a word, Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Kundiman Poetry Prize-winning collection Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved is virtuosic. It sings, thrums with the force of centuries of Urdu and Persian verse. In doing so, it owns the strength of a woman’s voice.
In the title poem, Talukder writes, “At December’s end Benazir died / in a suicide attack…and I read Faiz / in a way I never would // again.” This week, twelve years and two months after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, genocide unfolds in Delhi as I read Talukder.
These are different kinds of grief, not to be claimed from one another. “Men burned // tires, cares, banks, / petrol pumps, and factories, // perhaps in grief,” the poem goes on. Fire is many things: anger, retribution, release. But most poignantly, it is mourning. In Delhi, the peculiar grief of bigots leads to fire. Delhi burns, and grief gnaws at India’s Muslims. And this week, as I mourn for Delhi from New York, it is this meaning of fire as mourning that strikes me.
The city of the beloved is an old concept in the Urdu and Persian idioms on which Talukder draws. The idea flourished from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries in the Indo-Persian realm.
“The exuberant tone and specialized register of the language of love lyric, [is] an essential element of which is to view all the beautiful people of a city in continual dalliance with the poet-narrator,” writes the Urdu scholar Sunil Sharma. He describes not the “shahr-e-jaanaan” but rather the “shahrashub,” which is the city-disturber, or the beloved. With the term “shahr-e-jaanaan,” Talukder places herself within this tradition that Sharma describes. She also reveals her departure from it, taking the technical language of a whole genre and making it unmistakably her own.
Fire is many things: anger, retribution, release. But most poignantly, it is mourning.
While manipulating age-old tropes, Talukder is still a product of contemporary American literary institutions. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, has received the Emerging Poets Fellowship from Poets House, and is a Pushcart nominee and Best of the Net finalist. Before this, she published a chapbook in 2018, What Is Not Beautiful, a classic rite of passage.
And Talukder’s work is important for American literary production. Award-winning poet Ilya Kaminsky relays this in his rave review of the book. “Where would we be without Agha Shahid Ali’s passionate pursuit of ghazal in English, expanding American tradition in ways that no one could have predicted,” he wrote. “Adeeba Shahid Talukder enters this conversation between traditions with elegance and insight.”
Talukder’s writing is no east-meets-west narrative. Instead, as Kaminsky says, she has insight into the weight and depth of what a tradition is and can be: a cross-linguistic idiom Similarly, one of the strongest poems in the collection reads, “Being excluded from a universe, too, is a type of dance. Still, / so often, we write of the moon.” This short, profound poem, titled “On Ghazal Poetry versus Natural Poetry,” feels like an ars poetica, a rumination on the art of poetry. Regardless of their exclusion from the universe of Indo-Persian poetry, “we,”– a collective of women or a royal we that expands beyond the self – “write of the moon.” The moon is a successful claim to the authorship of beauty within a male canon.
In another piece, titled “5 Poems,” Talukder encompasses the whole sweep of expression, restoring agency to women within literary history. “Urdu / A Delhi courtesan adorned to madness / weeping Ghalib,” she writes. The Delhi courtesan is both a poem, per the title, and a language, per the section heading. Her Urdu and Persian form, in English, inhabits the space of transformation between languages even as she translates male titans of poetry. And women unapologetically populate Talukder’s city of the beloved. Aside from Bhutto and courtesans, she brings in her mother and aunt, and the mythic figures Laila and Sheerin, who seamlessly weave into her narrative as counterpoints to the men.
Talukder’s assertion of neurodiversity through Urdu and Persian tropes is a particularly original aspect of the collection.
Moreover, Talukder’s assertion of neurodiversity through Urdu and Persian tropes is a particularly original aspect of the collection. Embedded in reference to these poetic idioms, she manages to sensitively convey the oscillations of her bipolar disorder. When the courtesan is “adorned to madness,” the heights of decoration meld into the heights of emotion. When the language of mental health is so cached in medical jargon, this feels like a radical breakthrough, an exceptionally inventive take on what language and poetry can accomplish.
“The line separating this world from reality would dissolve almost wholly in the grandiosity I experienced through mania – everything in the ghazal world would become literal, become alive,” Talukder says in an interview with Kundiman.
And Talukder’s ability to stretch language and history into reality is eloquently portrayed through the cover of her collection, which features Mughal emperor Shah Jahan with a halo around his head. Shahr-e-jaanaan sounds like Shahjahanabad, the name of Delhi under Shah Jahan. His name means ruler of the world; Delhi was the city of the ruler of the world. We may no longer have Shahjahanabad but we do have Shahr-e-jaanaan.