cover image City of Rivers

City of Rivers

Zubair Ahmed. McSweeney’s (PGW/Perseus, dist.), $18 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-938073-02-1

This unusually compact and consistent debut from an unusually young poet might get noticed first for that poet’s unusual migratory life. Born in 1988 in Bangladesh, Ahmed came to the United States in his teens; he now studies engineering at Stanford, after some months among “the white streets of Berlin.” Ahmed’s lines point to his tropical childhood, his native land’s difficult past (especially its 1971 war of independence), the troubles of his extended family, and his own curious, anxious relation to an America of prosperity and snow. After sending “A Few Words to My Father,” the volume concludes plangently in a California where “The moon lights the ocean on fire... My body is music./ I will never have a home.” Readers who seek clear poems about immigrants’ lives will find a few here. And yet the collection stands out most for the slim and backlit images, the stripped-down lines and shadows, that Ahmed prefers: “Through the window I see/ The sky eating birds,/ And inside my shoulders I feel a dead horse.” Such work looks back productively to the American Deep Image style of the 1960s, to James Wright and the young Robert Bly. Even a poem that begins with a named location—“I Close My Eyes and Find Myself in the Exact Center of Dhaka”—gives itself over quickly to the biggest aspirations and the smallest words, asking “why the sky is above/ And not under our bodies,” with “the skin of men spread so thin.” (Dec.)