Bhisham Bherwani’s The Second Night of the Spirit
Reviewed by Tayve Neese
In his first collection, The Second Night of the Spirit, Bherwani grapples with tensions between duty and resentment, guilt and self-preservation, and love and shame. He confronts his potential role as a caretaker for his afflicted sibling and mother after his father’s death. Long a traveler seeking to escape his painful origins in Bombay, Bherwani returns home out of duty and reveals with great candor that which was the catalyst for his departure. While topic of origin and family dysfunction may be a typical subject for many first volumes, Bherwani’s crafting of this collection is far from typical. In its three parts the collection reads as one long poem akin to a personal epic, a feat rarely achieved by those turning out fourth or fifth volumes.
It is Bherwani’s mesmerizing control of the line that most captivates, pulling his readers forward into places of emotional peril without them ever realizing they’ve been caught up in his rhythmic undertow. Scientific and medical language add great texture to Bherwani’s lines as he tries to pin-point a reason and rationale for his brother’s illness and behavior. In the poem “Lesion,” he writes:
I don’t understand you: I’m awed
by your map of troughs and peaks.
of this dance of 10,000 million neurons, a half-hour synopsis.
Science, however, is unable to give answer to Bherwani’s pain surrounding his sibling and his reliance on science turns to frustration and anger. “Electroencephalograph, / I’d like to shred you to bits.”
In the poem “Cant/Descant,” anger and frustration continue and it is Bherwani’s mastery of the line that creates an abrupt but seamless tonal shift within the poem. The brother is taken to doctor after doctor. None have a remedy but still insist upon treating his sibling which causes Bherwani great pain:
Fuck MRI’s. Fuck x-rays.
And the psychiatrists and the psychologists:
fuck their fancy analysis, because
none of this drivel lights up my brother’s eyes
like his mother’s kiss.
After Bherwani’s rant, all immediately dissipates with the controlled turn of the poem’s last line focusing on the unquantifiable power and tenderness of “his mother’s kiss.” It is also in this line that Bherwani rejects the medical community’s definition of his brother. He stops trying to decipher the illness through facts and scientific language and in the poems that follow turns to mythical and metaphorical wisdom in order to understand and reclaim the nobility of his sibling. In “Looming,” one of the collection’s most powerful poems, Bherwani creates a parallel between his brother and Orpheus. By way of myth he elevates his brother from being shamefully ill by likening him to such a profound character:
Orpheus, am damned to looming
above Persephone’s world
below. I understand her world’s horrors
the sorrows of hell’s inhabitants. I
understand also horrors of this world in which I’m spinning.
In this poem the ill brother is gifted, not afflicted, and comprehends the world and its sorrows. As he plays his dream-lyre for the “Retarded, autistic, cerebral palsied,” he makes the profound observation that among the suffering “Love connects us like our chronic labor/ miraculously binds yards of yarn into cloth;”
Yet, as skillfully as Bherwani elevates the brother, he just as skillfully exposes him in his most primal moments in the collection’s second section, which is a flashback to his earlier family life. Bherwani questions his brother’s volatile behavior:
Why is his cry
and sad? He strikes forehead with fist and pounds
head against furniture
sobbing and screaming.
The brother’s violent outbursts are hardly manageable by the father and mother who “trembles/praying, standing/ beside her powerless, maddened son who takes her hands, / folded in prayer, and bites them.”
It is in this exposure of the brother’s condition that Bherwani also continues to expose himself. “In this night of the spirit there is/a guilty one. He escapes unscathed.” However, one could hardly say Bherwani goes “unscathed.” His dilemma is too poignant. He both loves and is shamed by his sibling. He wants to be present and absent. He feels duty toward his sibling. He feels duty toward himself.
Although Bherwani does return to Bombay to assist his mother and brother during his father’s illness and after his death, he cannot continue to stay to care for them. In the third section of The Second Night of the Spirit Bherwani finds himself escaping once again, traveling to New York, Amsterdam, and Osaka. As he travels and seeks solace in writing, Bherwani’s act of writing is in many ways parallel to his brother’s earlier looming. Just as the brother is damned, Bherwani reveals, “I scribble one futile line after/ another, each at best a doodle. / I am cursed.” He continues to deconstruct his own life and to find parallel between himself and his brother:
I am surrounded by books in New York,
in Bombay. They are useless, they make me
brood. I am condemned to brooding: useless
books. They are to me what my brother’s
blanket is to him, the blanket he carries
everywhere, covering himself on bed,
on sofa, even during dog days, even in mid-
May’s heartless heat. Some shrink has a theory
about my brother and his blanket. Smart
shrink. He must have a theory
about me and my books.
Bherwani, propelled into flight in order to escape his painful family history, continues to “seek anything that cradles/ a void with something in it like life.” The beauty of the collection’s language and honesty with which he reveals, “I am not devious. I am wretched,” makes Bherwani fully human, not some inflated hero or martyr. In turn, this forthright and powerful first book gives its readers to permission to embrace their own lives more fully and gently.