Reviews

Prayer and Declaration

April Thompson

Manahil Bandukwala’s debut poetry book, Monument (Brick Books), begins with Arjumand, the Persian noblewoman later known as Mumtaz Mahal, Empress to the Emperor Shah Jahan. Mumtaz Mahal’s famous tomb, the Taj Mahal, is neither the subject nor setting of these poems, but a shadowy presence that waxes and wanes throughout. Monument undertakes one hell of a challenge: turning the monumental into the momentary. Yet, Bandukwala achieves it with a lyrical precision that makes us forget linear history and enter a world where memory of the future is possible. In her poem, “Before, it was love,” the poet sketches a decolonial portrait of love: “If love is an empire, reel conquest back in.” The poem braids sixteenth-century India with present day and confronts us with the continuity of urgent conversations: “So why wait; give the land back, now.” It takes a badass poet to collapse time the way Bandukwala does, and her poem “Restart, After Animal Crossing” is a testament to this. Here, she threads the futility of playing a Simulation Management video game during the pandemic with the building of the Taj Mahal, in a way that just makes sense. The accompanying drawings by Natalie Olsen detail an upside-down Taj Mahal that slowly crumbles throughout the book. Bandukwala’s words cut through stone to free “Mumtaz Mahal” from the monumental and return her to herself, as Arjumand. Pages make for a better home than a tomb, and within them Arjumand is given the grace of personal intimacy: “For a few brief days / there was no emperor, / no consort— / only two people in love under a monsoon.” This book is much more than a collection of poems—it is a radical reimagining of biography, love letters, prayer and declaration.

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