Review: The Terror of Love and Grief—Elsewhere: An Elegy, by Faisal Mohyuddin

In his poem “The Hourglass. The Pebble. The Throne of God,” Faisal Mohyuddin ponders “the lightless language of elegy.” His father is dead, and he is grieving. And he wonders if he should choose to walk “the path of forgetting” or “embrace the terror.”

Mohyuddin’s intense and passionately restrained new poetry collection Elsewhere: An Elegy, stands full-face to the terror of human existence—the terror of being alone and the terror of being connected but only until separated. As he writes later in the poem, making reference to a rhythmic Islamic prayer:

“Or, as the distance between us will always be forever, I could loosen the trembling clutch of longing by pronouncing the pebble of your name, over and over as if performing zikr, until it comes to sound more like sand, until it too can sift more serenely through the songless hours of this fatherless life.”

Lightless Language, Songless Hours, a Fatherless Life

Mohyuddin’s collection can be experienced as a kind of zikr with its constant interweaving of themes—songs and songbirds, noise and silence, rivers and water, fathers and sons, guilt and innocence—and with its tightly calibrated structure.

Faisal Mohyuddin, Photo by Wendy Alas

The book is crafted with reflecting parallel surfaces like an exquisitely faceted jewel. It opens and closes with poems built on one- or two-word lines in two-line verses, “Lamplight” and “Riversong.”

Between those are five sections, all of which open with a poem of 20 words or so, scattered on the page, titled “Five Answers to the Same Question.” Similarly, each section closes with a poem called “An End to Captivity.” These bookends to each section are severe in their brevity and elliptical in their imagery.

By contrast, the core of each section is a more expansive poem, a haibun, a form that combines poetic prose with haiku. “The Hourglass. The Pebble. The Throne of God,” for example, is identified as a haibun for the fatherless.

With this architectured structure and the tight warp and woof of themes, Elsewhere is not just a collection of individual poems. It is itself a long complex poem, one that gains great force from the way separate elements relate to and interact with each other.

“Sound, an Accidental Weapon”

Sound, for instance, is an essential building block of the work. “The Jar. The Mist. The Bewilderment,” a haibun for those who listen, deals in part with the poet’s hyperacusis, a heightened sensitivity to sound—

“Sound becomes another’s accidental weapon, why so often I am climbing into myself, shrinking away from suffering. Grief, too, demands we turn inward.”

Yet, despite “the throttling blows of everyday noise,” Mohyuddin can hear, “through this misty quiet,” the voice of his dead father, “the lure of it,” beckoning him “toward water, toward a lighter torment.”

“Perhaps every shelter is housed within a larger house of terror housed in the larger house of mercy.” 

The loss of his father, the absence of his father, is a terror of grief. A few lines later, Mohyuddin suggests that maybe relief can be found:

“Perhaps every shelter is housed within a larger house of terror housed in the larger house of mercy.” 

But should mercy be sought? Or should the pain be borne in honor of the lost parent and “the unlived hours of his life”?

Four Generations

Four male generations of the poet’s family appear in Elsewhere. Mohyuddin’s father was a child in Pakistan when that nation was partitioned from India in 1947, “a toddler born into an already broken world.” He lost his own father to death around that time, and, living in his “third homeland,” lost his first love to tragedy.

It left Mohyuddin’s father stoic and emotionally distant. The poet recalls “the silly banter of the playgrounds my father and I built between us, our unspoken way of ensuring the earth did not open our silences.”

Not so, the relationship between Mohyuddin and his son. In an early poem, he is tucking his son back into bed, promising him “a toy truck,/a rocket ride to an imagined/country…./—whatever he wants/in this age of unlimited/wonder, if he would fold himself/back into a warm pocket of sleep.”

There is a palpable innocence to such scenes in Elsewhere, a tangible trust with which the boy embraces his father. Like any young child, he is “barbed with//questions,/impatience,” and “oblivious/to his grieving//father’s/unstillness,//his ancestral/terror.”

The third “End to Captivity” opens with the boy’s impatience:

“Every day the child asks/the same question:/When/will I be/older too?”

Which is another way of asking, albeit unknowingly: When will I no longer be innocent?

A Harsh Question

Ultimately, the boy and his pure heart come to represent a lifeline for Mohyuddin in his grief:

“I reach up//through/the bubbly//murk, grab/my son’s//steadying hand,/ready to be//fished out by/his innocence.”

Yet, is that what he should do? Maybe, instead, he should pull the boy into the river of grief, to learn the terror of living?

It is a harsh question left unanswered by the poet. And one the reader is likely to continue to ponder long after this powerful book is closed.

Elsewhere: An Elegy is available through the publisher's website.

Picture of the author
Patrick T. Reardon

Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicago historian, essayist, poet and writer who was a Chicago Tribune reporter for 32 years. He is the author of nine books including the forthcoming The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago (SIU Press).