The title Bring Now the Angels is as much a God-like order as a human plea. Dilruba Ahmed’s new book-slash-summoning-slash-prayer reckons with expanse as painstakingly as it does limitation. Throughout, it takes on health, mortality, and immigration with disquieting force.
The first section of Bring Now the Angels considers the circumstances surrounding the passing of Ahmed’s father. And then the second ventures into the speculative where she writes about children, emblems of futurity, and coming home to a “Foil blanket // from a space museum.” While weaving between the everyday and the profound, Ahmed is never labored. This attribute requires unusual skill – and empathy.
It feels luminous in the way a moon shimmers on the surface of a dark and full ocean. Water sets the tone for the book. Ahmed starts out with a line from Debora Greger, “O Pacific, what good is our grief?” and then accumulates a seascape, invoking the “coastal elk // that once renewed me / on a hike with my love / along the rocky beach.” Towards the end of the book, toxins are “an oil slick: contaminated, cleaned.”
The ocean, though, gives way to the “news ticker” of a hospital machine. Against the American healthcare system, the suggestive infinity of the world shrinks. Although she uses the word but once, “threshold” seems not just like a pulsing refrain, but like a form in itself.
“WellFather was always patient, holding the door for SickDad, wheeling his chair carefully over the threshold’s lip, steadying him with a hand under his armpit as he crouched into sitting,” she writes. This threshold is hardly a passive conjunction. After all, a threshold is the layer between the here and now and a many-shaped beyond. It is the surface that collapses into unknowable depth and stretches language and being. And upon closer consideration, the poem, titled “SickDad and WellFather,” yields more than two sides to her father.
Equally, a threshold conjures limitation. In “$10,000 Pharmakon,” Ahmed inquires, “But to whom / can we address our proof of disagreement, / the limits of maltreatment, our list / of grievances?” “Limits” is both how far bureaucracy extends and how much those on the receiving end can tolerate. When confronted with bureaucracy, you can produce “proof,” a “list.” But ultimately who can we address this to? This is the boundary.
By writing on expanse and limitation, Ahmed poems are thresholds in themselves. They’re matter-of-fact about the way things extend, like a friend that you trust to be practical in hope, whose realism and dreaminess fold into each other.
And just like health, mortality is another threshold in Ahmed’s book. She uses everyday transience as a timeline for a whole life, in a humbling of the self and link to the earthly and material.
In “The Feast,” she writes, “And our lives, // for a moment, are an untouched / meal: perishable, and delicious, one we’ve barely begun to taste.” There’s something about the hand of fate providing an expiry date, combined with appetite, that stirs my mind. I dwell on it with my full yet ephemeral dinner plate in front of me, a bit of poetry slipping into my everyday life – and it makes me think, yes, this is what poetry does.
Food is also about forced alienation. Ahmed lays out immigration as the beginning of a new life and the end of an old one on the same bordered earth. “Zofran” reads, “We found the coconut sweets / you liked but you would not. The insult of their stripes: pink, brown, white— / a flag from a country to which you couldn’t return.” I find out that Zofran, which sounds so akin to my own Urdu zafran, and is akin to Bangla jafarana, is a medication. It is through such couplings and uncouplings, such thresholds, that the reader approaches this distinctive book.
What does it mean to be a threshold? This is an age-old question, one that Ahmed uses to address the status of the human body through medical, earthly, and geographical borders.
And in “Ghazal,” the middle of three poems with this title, she asks, “Will our malnourished hearts ever make a third world above us?” This is one of many lines that removes the breath from me, makes me want to sit down. The “third world” builds on the idea of a threshold to meld the global south with possibility; acknowledging physical and emotional hunger while ultimately reaching to the beyond. Her writing impels a courageous imagination in the reader as well as the writer.
Ghazals, which involve a dialectic with what is just beyond the limits of love, mortality, humanness, this world, work within the threshold rubric. The poem “Google Search Autocomplete,” which follows the second ghazal, imagines the language a computer would offer questions about God. In doing so, it performs the same conversation with the beyond as a typical ghazal, but within a new technology. The threshold is the form that stretches to encompass other forms – both the ghazal and the Google search.
What does it mean to be a threshold? This is an age-old question, one that Ahmed uses to address the status of the human body through medical, earthly, and geographical borders. Does it mean yearning; reaching for something more? No, this book has me thinking it means love, acceptance of life in all its expanse and limitation.