A plea. A prayer.
by Keith Taylor
From the March, 2018 issue
Tarfia Faizullah's first book, Seam, published in 2014, revitalized and changed documentary poetry in America. To write that remarkable book, Faizullah returned to her parents' native Bangladesh, where she interviewed some of the hundreds of thousands of women who had survived rape during the 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan. Those poems did not keep a documentary distance. The poet's anger, passion, and sense of loss were placed beside the horrors of the experiences she had recorded. The result was unlike anything else in our literature, and Faizullah has received acclaim for that harrowing work.
At first her second book, Registers of Illuminated Villages, just published this month, appears to take up the work of Seam. The first poem has an epigraph from the PBS news show Frontline in which the interviewee claims to have a book, The Register of Eliminated Villages, that records 397 "Kurdish villages in northern Iraq" that have disappeared. Faizullah remembers those villages deep in her imagination. She recognizes the feeling from her previous work in Bangladesh--"A mother / presses a hand to me. Inside // her, I thrash, a stalk of wheat / blistered by storm."
But then there is a transformation: The eliminated villages become illuminated. The image of their destruction blurs into the outline of a holy book, an illuminated book, a Qur'an. The conditions of the poet's life--the stuff of lyric poetry--become part of the story. There are moments lamenting the death of her sister, a sense of the poet's travels around the country and the world, poems about a Muslim girl in a Christian school in Texas, poems about the experience of prejudice. There is the blatantly aggressive kind of prejudice--"A shiny pickup drives past. Go back to your own country! they holler. A firecracker, lit then thrown." And then there are those moments we've come to call microaggressions: "She says, Your English is great! How long have you been in our country! / I say, Suck on
a mango, bitch, since that's all you think I eat anyway."
This poet finds her own way through the world. In one of the most mysterious and moving poems in the collection, "I told the Water," whose dedication reads "for Flint, Michigan," the poet addresses the water itself, its presence, and its power. "I told the water // You're right / the poor are / broken sidewalks / we try to avoid."
All of this moves and shapes Faizullah, for whom nothing, not even the words, comes easily. She talks to the water, and she creates spirits, even a magical Djinn, to speak for her:
I can't ignore feelingThat is the dominant tone of this unforgettable book--it is both a plea and a prayer.
I've never belonged anywhere:
not this city or that village,
not in childhood's cradle, not this adult bed
I slide into alone after crying out
your name, O, Allah.
Tarfia Faizullah reads from Registers of Illuminated Villages at Literati Bookstore on Thursday, March 29.
[Originally published in March, 2018.]
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