Sunday, 5 December, 2021

“Me Before Me and Other Poems” by M. Harunur Rashid

Jainab Tabassum Banu Sonali

Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I always say that “The only thing that interests me is love”. I find the solace of love even in a slice of poem that has been written with sheer love by another mad lover of poetry. That is to say, whenever I read something that elevates my soul, just like the feeling of love does, I fall in love either with the art and/ or sometimes, aesthetically, with the artist regardless of his or her biological sex and socially constructed gender. Recently, I have come across an English poetry book, written by one of the most towering figures of Bangladesh, which has made me feel dozed with its metaphors, stoned with its poetic appeal and absolutely intoxicated with the weaving of the words. As I was going through the quilt of poetry, I experienced a spiritual aggrandizement which I cannot help but share with my dear readers.

I am writing about a poetry book titled “Me Before Me and Other Poems” by Professor M. Harunur Rashid. This is a relatively recent book which was published in 2020 by Shamabesh Book—a sister concern of Pathak Shamabesh. The poet is a very well-known persona in our field as he is the teacher of the teachers. Born in 1939, poet Rashid received his education from Dhaka University and Cambridge University. After teaching at various government colleges, he joined Chittagong University where he became a professor in 1983. He moved to Jahangir Nagar University as the chairman of the Department of English in 1987. He was appointed as the Director General of Bangla Academy where he became its President in 2007. He has written and translated many books. His contribution to the world of education, literature and language is immense.

Me Before You and Other Poems is poet Rashid’s first book of verse in English. This book is dedicated to Habibullah Sirajee, a renowned Bangladeshi poet who served as a President of Jatiya Kabi Parishad and the Director General of Bangla Academy from 2018 till his death in 2021. Rashid’s dedication to another poet has made his work more poetic in an absolute sense. In this book, there are 55 poems which encompass a wide range of themes including love, death, humanity, virtue and spirituality. The title is quite a striking one which sounds more like a book titled Me Before You written by Jojo Moyes. However, unlike Moyes's series, this book is a textual outcome of an “infinite insight of a self-digging philosopher” who has indulged in his own self and dug out the pearls of both epistemological and ontological knowledge of his lived and imagined experiences. All these revelations exploded in his poetic verses have made him not only a great poet but also a splendid philosopher.

The first poem “Remembrance” is syntactically simple, but philosophically very profound. The poet writes in the very first line, “There is music in everything” which he illustrates in later lines. Human beings are born with a metaphysical sense of music as they can respond to music with automatically produced movements. The symphony and orchestra go on in almost all spheres of life. The poet uses chiasmatic lines, “Music is remembrance/ Remembrance is music”, which makes music and remembrance indispensably related to each other. He also writes, “Life and death is a test of music” as both life and death are intertwined in a single symphony. The metaphysics of music cannot be denied. The last two lines of the poems are written in a very casual and postmodern tone as he writes, “If you decline with your heart and ears sealed, / Music, my friend, is not your piece of cake”. When the poet addresses his readers as “my friend”, he becomes an enlightened being who philosophizes on the spiritual liberation of an individual.

Although the poet was born in the late 40s, he is eternally young and evergreen by heart which is clearly visible in his use of vocabulary and also in the execution of modern ideas. In “The Waves Breaking on Youth”, he assures his grandson Rupanto (who was 19 in 2017), that he too felt the rustling storm in the sea inside his youthful blood vessels at his youth. He understood the cluelessness of a growing-up young man who can easily be tempted by the opposite sex due to a sudden hormonal explosion. He assures by saying, “That’s how I felt, / That’s how your dad felt, / That’s how Adam felt, / That’s how they will feel in future”. I really admire his openness and frank way of writing a poetic piece to his grandson. He normalized something that is usually unspoken and unrevealed, but deeply felt and dealt with troubles by the teenagers even of today’s generation. He writes, “You should not be troubled by what others do/ Just stay calm and appreciate the beauty God has created”. Such cool advice from a grandfather to his grandson!

“What is Best” reminds me of what Frederich Nitzsche writes about truth in one of his essays. Nitzsche writes, “Truth is a movable host of metaphors, metonymies and anthromorphisms”. Many people around us think that what they perceive as true is the only truth. Poet Rashid writes, “To each his faith is best, / to each his reason is best”. That is to say, people perceive the world as formed mechanically with sheer reasoning. These are all subjective and man-made truths and beliefs. The last two lines of the poem reminds me of Rumi’s philosophy, “The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth”. The poet suggests that the best resides in achieving something by sheer humility and love for “everything in God’s wide world”. If we can appreciate the entire world around us, we can find the rarest best of all.

Speak of the truth, the lies appear. And the most deceiving lie in human history so far is that all men are equal. Poet Rashid bluntly says in his poem “All Men are Equal?” that “That’s a lie, a damn lie”, because the whites have spoken the white lie, the yellow has learned to speak a yellow lie. However, “the blacks”, as the poet claims, “have no room for lying”. In simple sentences, the poet historicizes the unpardonably cruel history of racism which segregated the world in two major colors and a few more minor pigmentations. The title has a note of interrogation which clearly shows the paradox in the very line. This poem comes with an Orwellian philosophy that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”. It is written in 2017 and published in 2020. Still, it resonates with the truth of Jim Crow law which was abolished from the US in 1965, but remains in the ideologies of many people till now.

The poet writes English poems, but beautifully incorporates a few Bangla, Farsi and Urdu words which add extra dimensions and flavors to the essence of the poems. For example, in “Relativity”, he uses “kursi” instead of using “chair”. A chair is simply a furniture on which we sit. However, the word “kursi” connotates more than a simple meaning. Geographically, a Kursi is an archeological site that contains the ruins of a Byzantian monastery. If we take this meaning, the poem appears with the appeal of Jibanananda Das’s “Banalata Sen” which is inscribed with timeless journey of the poet’s long thirsty soul. Even in this poem, the themes of spatiotemporal journey and timelessness also demand “kursi”, not chair or sofa.

The poet does not restrict himself in using just words, but he quotes an Arabic verse in his poem “In the Land of the Dead”. This poem is an amalgamation of the poet’s secular spirit. He writes about Tripitaka, temple, Buddha and at the end he enchants “Om Shanti, Om Shanti, Om Shanti”. It goes without saying that the poet embraces humanity over any other man-made religions. In the land of the dead, he does not find God, but men with “Khaki” and “heavy boots”. He sounds pessimistic when he witnesses guns that turn the trail bodies into ashes. He too wants to return to the “Naaf”, which is obsessively referred to in other poems, and be buried with the dead. His desire to remain with the dead is the desire of going away from the dystopian world where power prevails and replaces the stature of Gods and Goddesses.

In other poems also, he embraces the gratifying gift of life called death. He philosophically writes, “Men are like bees / collecting earthly delusions more than they can count”. He writes that when a man dies, he wears a dress which does not have a pocket. He urges to get rid of all sorts of delusions of life, because in the beginning and at the end, as he understands and writes in “Manifestation”, men only travel across nothingness. He asks God the fundamental questions which contradict men’s arrival in and departure from the earthly world to meet the supreme being. He writes, “O my Lord with a double face of cruelty and kindness, / How can man face you/ when they were created from a mistake of their first parents?” This poem reminds me of what Salvador Dali says, “You have to systematically create confusion. It sets creativity free—everything that is contradictory creates life”. The early Romantic Poet William Blake too asks astoundingly about this matter in his poem, “The Tyger”, “What immortal hands or eyes/ make thy fearful symmetry”. The contradiction of life when men desire to be with God and then are reduced to dust creates the epistemological essence of life.

Poet Rashid’s title poem “Me before Me” is the ultimate poem of the book and final revelation of his spiritual journey towards nothingness. Here, “Me” is the beginning and “Me” is the end as T. S. Eliot writes in his “Four Quartets”, “In my beginning is my end”. It is a dialectic exploration of the poet’s own self. He finds nothing between him and the illusion of the blue above. All his senses come to an end where he finally observes the philosophy of the void and blurred reality. The whole world is wrapped in illusion and “there is nothing, it is empty”. Rabindranath Tagore also asks this basic ontological question in his poem “Prothom Diner Surjo” that “who are you?” and he finds no answer. Most probably, these great thinkers look for the answers to the fundamental questions of their own existence and then end up describing their journey that is more rewarding and resourceful than a simple and plain answer to their question.

The great philosopher Rumi believed that music, poetry and dance are paths to reach God. Poet M. Harunur Rashid tries to reach God through his poetry. To me, he has successfully led his readers to the way of mysticism and spirituality. All the metaphors and similes, all allegories and conceits, all the images and imageries sing the song of an individual who has offered a philosophical hot cake in the form of a poetry book. I devoured this piece of cake with utmost delight and pleasure. It was a treat to my own spirit. Poet M. Harunur Rashid, to me, is more than just a poet. He is a mystic.


The writer is a Lecturer, Department of English Language and Literature, Premier University Chittagong