Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Jérôme Melançon : Monument, by Manahil Bandukwala

MONUMENT, Manahil Bandukwala
Brick Books, 2022





The fall of an empire is not the end of a life. A life is unique, unplanned in its specificity, infinite in its possibilities, to be cherished, so that it never runs out of new experiences. While lives are shortened, ended, their brightness dimmed through external factors perhaps, empires are prone to decay and inevitably fall through their own destructive logic. And in this fall, they take more lives with them, consuming themselves and those caught in their repetition of retaliation. Empires amass death, glorifying it, making retaliation for (real or imagined, imputed) wrongs they bring into the lives they rob of their time.

Laying out this compelling view of empire, in Monument – whose title also reads as Moment – Manahil Bandukwala holds up the life of Arjumand Banu against the span of the empire built by her husband, the Emperor Shah Jahan. She excavates the person, the body, the life from the rubble that began to cover her long before her death, thus rendering the beauty of living that Arjumand was denied. The building of the Taj Mahal, and of the empire itself, in her name – not her name but her ascribed name, Mumtaz Mahal –, is the background for the book, where all poems are concerned with (and for) her figure. As befits a reappropriation in someone’s name, all characters in her story, even the author telling it, are related back to her, giving her, more than a role, even a leading one, a depth, a duration. In “Rest” Bandukwala describes her offering in light, airy prose, with a steady hand:

Rest now, Arjumand, in a place
to surpass a God’s house. A home built

          beyond layers of atmosphere–perhaps lush fields, or
a fresh start wading in a shallow riverbank. A place not built

          by twenty-thousand labourers. A place
that does not rest

on the back of an empire. (15)

The breaths and caesuras in this poem reopen possibilities in a life that has long been delineated. “A place not built / by twenty-thousand labourers” suggests a version of history in which these labourers might have actively not built this place, as well as the existence of another place; “A place / that does not rest” undoes the infinite weight of the monument, brings movement back into a life, liberates the figure the marble hides.

Bandukwala uses poetry to speak Arjumand Banu alive (37). The collection is sharp, precise, concise. It resists the temptation to elevate a monument to a life and instead makes itself a moment of its continuation. It depends on the monument – history cannot so easily be changed – but also contributes to erode it. It does so notably in drawings of a crumbling upside-down Taj Mahal that evokes destruction as well as a hourglass, counting down the time of the moment of the myth that replaced the life, as well as the time a life is allowed. But it also avoids the temptation to place blame and shift the focus. The tenderness of the poems contrasts against the undermining of the empire, repairing the harm it ceaselessly caused, acknowledging the imperfect love and the (misguided) “Love language/as architecture” (17) that led to the building of the immense monument.

Bandukwala’s feminist approach is subtle and focused. The poem “Unravel,” which floats across the higher parts of six pages, best describes the poet’s attachment to the figure she has chosen as well as a desire for a self-determined, uninterrupted life. The poems in “Love Letters” develop a voice for Arjumand Banu, as do the erasure poems based on her reported last words which give them new meaning. From the particulars of Arjumand’s life, she holds up our duty to celebrate other lives, not to drown them in other lives, and to let love be its own production. This is especially true of a woman’s life, ended in a fourteenth childbirth when one ought to have sufficed, when refusals were ignored: “In the literature // you shrugged off being / a bad mother, knew one son was enough, // wrote what women did but kept hidden. / The real you set those steps to follow.” (16) But it is also true of the twenty thousand labourers who worked on the Taj Mahal and whose hands were severed for symbolic reasons (at least according to the popular story), whose wholeness the poet also returns.

Monuments, like empires, are built to last. A book has a capacity to stay, and stay with, rather than last, and with this book Manahil Bandukwala allows something of her life and Arjumand Banu’s to remain with the reader (although the book itself as a physical object, in the beauty of the type and the careful aesthetics of word placements and title layout, certainly leaves an impression and sets a mood of its own). Against the infinity of monuments and empires that is built upon destruction, upon the transsubstantiation of matter and lives, Manahil Bandukwala privileges the moment, delves into it, holds up fragments to the light without polishing them, so that they may shine in their own manner.





Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His most recent chapbook is with above/ground press, Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022, after 2020’s Coup), and his most recent poetry collection is En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He has also published two books of poetry with Éditions des Plaines, De perdre tes pas (2011) and Quelques pas quelque part (2016), as well as one book of philosophy, La politique dans l’adversité (Metispresses, 2018). He has edited books and journal issues, and keeps publishing academic articles that have nothing to do with any of this. He’s on Twitter mostly, and sometimes on Instagram, both at @lethejerome.

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