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Monday, March 14, 2011

Book Review

Majestic Nights: Love Poems of Bengali Women. Translated by Carolyne Wright and Others. White Pine Press, 2008. Review by Debrah Lechner.

Majestic Nights is a beautiful, seductively produced slim volume of love poetry, and the first riffle through the pages confirms that the well-chosen poetry included in this anthology is lyrical, very often romantic and not infrequently ecstatic.

It is that: but it’s a great deal more than that as well, and reading it with more attention is a little like discovering a loaded gun in a beautifully gift-wrapped package. The impact is explosive.

It is that: but then again the discovery of this impact is not sudden. It unfolds─ as notes about the poems and the lives of the women who wrote them are absorbed, and as the collection transforms into more than the sum of the poems, coalescing into a whole, coming to full bloom.

The subject matter in Majestic Nights covers the experience of Bengali women over nearly a century: Muslim and Hindu women, women from both Bangladesh and West Bengal in India, women who wrote from the seclusion of purdah, women tolerate extreme exposure and exile for the sake of writing poetry, women of diverse modern professions, women in love, women in fury, women in rebellion, women in grief, women who must surrender in their various ways to their own lives and the insistent inspiration of their own hearts.

It is not an easy thing to try to balance the desire for freedom and equality with the craving for a place of your own in the culture you love, for an anchor deep in family, tradition, and spiritual discipline. The subjugation of women is a highly inflammatory topic.

Majestic Nights also traverses an important era in the history of Bangladesh, a country where “war of words” is not just a figure of speech. Language in many ways defines Bengali culture, and it is a passion for which Bengalis have laid down their lives through the years. Their pride in their language and culture is manifest in these poems.

Negotiating these issues and the personal and political passages that they create required a deft touch. The result is a work that is deeper and more profound than any political manifesto because it is personal, and because no matter what the circumstances, it invokes the possibility of love.

Carolyne Wright may be the only person who could have succeeded at this. Her publications, prizes and accomplishments as a poet and a translator are too numerous to catalog, unless you want to read a list a yard long in 12 point type.

She appears to have crammed several lifetimes into the one she is still living. She researched for several years in Chile, publishing portions of a memoir in progress about her experiences, and her recent years in West Bengal and Bangladesh are yielding numerous translations of the poetry and prose of Bengali women, including two earlier volumes, The Game in Reverse: Poems of Taslima Nasrin (Braziller), and Another Spring, Darkness: Selected Poems of Amuradha Mahapatra (Calyx Books). In progress are other individual collections and a larger comprehensive anthology, A Bouquet of Roses on Burning Ground.

As a translator, the work she has done has been financed in part by a Fulbright Study Grant and a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship, as well as an NEA Fellowship in Translation. Recently one of her poems was published in The Best American Poetry of 2009, and in the Pushcart Prize XXXIV: Best of the Small Presses (2010).

Majestic Nights may be purchased at here. You can watch podcasts of Carolyne Wright reading her own poetry here and here.

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