A McSweeney’s Books Preview of Zubair Ahmed’s New Poetry Collection City of Rivers.
BY ZUBAIR AHMED
The poems in City of Rivers—the first full-length collection from 23-year-old wunderkind Zubair Ahmed—are clear and cool as a glass of water. Grounded in his childhood in Bangladesh, Ahmed’s spare, evocative poems cast a knowing eye on the wider world, telling us what it’s like to be displaced and replaced, relocated and dislocated. His poems are suffused with a graceful, mysterious pathos—and also with joy, humor, and longing—with the full range of human emotions. City of Rivers is a remarkable and precocious debut.
Today we offer three poems from the collection, which is available now at our store.
For seven years
My father drove me to Ashulia every evening
To watch the sunset.
Back then, Ashulia was nothing,
A long stretch of dirt road
Cutting through a wide river
Which passed us on both sides
Like someone lost within us.
I remember his gray hair,
His missing teeth and spotted skin.
His laughter gave birth to the softness of my skull
And the uneven beating of my heart.
He told me to fold a muslin sari,
Throw it into the river
And watch it float away.
I asked him about God,
Under which rock he hides his mansion.
He told me he found God
On the corner of his cigarette.
Twenty years later, his body floated
Through all two-hundred-fourteen rivers of Bangladesh.
I pick up an earthworm
And you shoot it with a rifle.
Mom screams at us,
But we don’t listen.
She fed us expired milk this morning.
Sometimes in these Bengali summers,
When dust sticks to our skins
And the crows shit on our heads,
We bond like hydrocarbons,
Set mosquitoes on fire,
And eat berries whose names we can’t remember.
We ride our bikes like metal antelopes,
Like drunken sparrows.
We play cricket under the monsoon clouds
And you bowl a perfect leg-spinner.
It starts to rain
So I shoot down a cloud.
We take it back to Mom
Who kisses our ears and pokes our eyes—
She does that.
We get ready for bed
With our usual battles,
And you fall asleep
Not knowing I slid the alarm clock
Under your pillow
Set for 3:17 a.m.
The Water of Lake Tahoe
The sound of water repairs my skin.
I stand inside the wind,
Breathing in the tips of waves
And the branches coated
In pre-dawn ice.
I’m afraid to go anywhere.
I’m afraid of the empty rooms
That await me,
The photos on my table
That must be sorted,
The heaps of paper being folded
By the ghosts who refuse to haunt me.
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