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BOOK REVIEW: Brown Boy by Nishat Ahmed

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Porkbelly Press’s recent offering from Nishat Ahmed, Brown Boy, can be read in a single sitting, but will take much longer to forget. This brief volume feels like a compilation of questions which interrogate our complex world through varied strata of identity. The poet’s voice in these poems comes from someone who has brown skin, Arabic language, Muslim upbringing, Bangladeshi ancestry and familiarity with deep loss. The questions range from what Shaitan will eat if the speaker finishes his dinner to how to show respect for one’s culture while protecting oneself in post 9/11 society to why death folds so neatly into one’s pocket and (at times) mirror and, most significantly, how to maintain relationships when there are disparate answers to these questions. For such a concise collection, the poems go in many different directions topically, which is a bit jarring, yet there are core threads that unite the pieces: intersectionality of time and identity; reaching toward connections and grasping empty air as well as how multiple moments inform a single experience.

What Ahmed does best is take inspiration from varied sources. Pieces found their spark with Hanif Abdurraqib, Angel Nafis, Jon Sands, Teju Cole, Erika Meitner, Florence + The Machine, Kelsey Wort, and Sonia Sanchez. However, these pieces have a strength and power to stand on their own. In “How Could This Be a Time for Music?” the poet explores the connection between a driver and a homeless man playing a rusted trumpet in an open field, but also reflects on the driver’s penchant for impatience on the road. This piece captures a longing between and because of others that is familiar, yet often unspoken. In “Brown Boy”, Ahmet wends through a range of anaphora which subtly shifts the poem’s narrative as the world opens to him. The structure builds a slow burn in the reader’s mind as they traverse the landscape of seminal moments in the speaker’s development. My favorite poem in the book is “The Heat Must Cut the Sweet”, which is not after or inspired by anything outside the poet’s mind. This poem holds the tensions of past and present in the sweetness of eating a mango. While the experience is narrated, images and knowledge of a car crash are juxtaposed with the sweetness of the fruit. The layers of this piece deserve being peeled back and closely examined for their depth. Isn’t this just how grief calls out to the living? The way that a mundane activity like eating fruit can evoke the means and emotions of a loss?

Nishat Ahmed’s chapbook may be brief as a deep inhalation, but readers will leave it breathless nonetheless.

Order your copy of Brown Boy from Porkbelly Press.

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