Poetry of Identity — Dhaka Dust by Dilruba Ahmed

Dhaka Dust

Dhaka Dust
BY Dilruba Ahmed
(Graywolf Press, 2011)

In an essay opposed to writing from a static identity, “The Other’s Other: Against Identity Poetry, for Possibility,” the late Reginald Shepherd writes “[Poetry] offers a combination of otherness and brotherhood, the opportunity to find the otherness in the familiar, to find the familiar in the other.”[1] Identity poetry, Shepherd argues, diminishes poetry’s possibility of allowing the writer to exist in a different way. Dilruba Ahmed’s Dhaka Dust, winner of the Bakeless Prize, is poetry of identity, though it enjoyably speaks to multiple selves — daughter, mother, foreigner, tourist.

Travel is essential to Dhaka Dust. Often, Ahmed’s Bengladeshi-American speaker revisits the country of her origins. The book’s eponymous first poem begins before the book’s three sections, and so casts its shadow over the collection. In the poem, action is set in the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, and begins with the familiar phrase from physics, but with the subject clipped:

Can’t occupy the same space at the same time
unless, of course, you land in Dhaka, rickshaws

five or six abreast. They are all here:
studded with metal backboards ablaze with red flowers,

Heineken boxes, a Bangladeshi star with blue eyes,
peacocks, pink fans of filigree. The drivers sweat

and strain in their plaid lungis, and each face
seems to say Allah takes and Allah

gives. A woman breathes into her green shawl
against the dust on the road’s median. A man

with a plaid scarf (surplus from The Gap)
slaps the rump of a passing gray car

as though it’s a horse or dog.

— p. 5

Abridging the subject from the opening line allows, first, the reader to read the title of the poem as the subject the sentence: “Dhaka Dust // Can’t occupy…” It can also be read as an imperative, which creates an intimacy and authority over the reader. Most importantly, though, it seems to energize the poem as the reader careens through images of globalization in a large, developing city that does exist in more than one place: Dutch beer, clothing from an American store, the falsely blue eyes of the celebrity. The images’ rapidity mimics the hustle of the city, and phrases like “Allah takes and Allah / gives” reveal the culture and people in a subtle way that is neither overly expository nor didactic. The poem is spoken in second-person point of view, though this only becomes evident in the second half of the piece, when the frenetic urban scene dissolves and the speaker begins addressing herself:

You are there, too,
your maroon sleeves begin to stick

despite your deodorant. Under your orna,
a laminated map and digital camera

cradled in your lap. One strand of silver
wiry by your ear. Bits of children’s songs

snag in your windpipe. Other words surface:
sweatshop and abject poverty, and you let them.


Dust sifts into your lungs and sinks — feline,
black, to remain long after you leave.

— pp. 5-6

In this poem, like many in Dhaka Dust, images of place accrue until they drive the speaker to new emotional terrain, but in the third section, which is dominated by western European travel, some of the poems lack the emotional connection. “Venice during an Election Year in the US” itemizes impressions of Venice, ostensibly comparing the “half-sunk” city to the American political climate, but the setting does not conjure the various emotional ties that the aforementioned “Dhaka Dust” does. Poems such as “Limoni,” however, remain appealing through their sensuous imagery: “we’ll desert history / to study our own lives // through sea salt, lemons, anchovies” (p. 78). And perhaps the lack of the others is symptomatic of their placement at the end of the collection, after the reader has already been exposed to the depth of pieces like “Dhaka Dust.”

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  1. Shepherd, Reginald. Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2007. 42.

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