The thing about Tarfia Faizullah’s poetry is that it’s just so damn good. How does this poet cram so much lyricism and consciousness into her poems? I may be too awed by her talent and intelligence to notice any missteps in her recent release, Registers of Illuminated Villages, but more likely, there weren’t any. Faizullah’s poetry is so breathtaking that if you don’t read the entirety of this review, at least hear this: You absolutely should experience her work.
Like MacArthur “Genius” poet Natalie Diaz, Faizullah walks the walk. For her first book, Seam, she traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to interview female rape survivors of the Bangladeshi war for independence. During this conflict, a “systematic campaign of genocidal rape” of Bangladeshi women was conducted by the Pakistani army.1 In an interview with Sean Carmen, published on the Paris Review blog, Faizullah says,
[I]t seemed very urgent for me to go to Bangladesh and record the voices of these women, and spend time in the country in which these atrocities occurred. […] There was something wrong in my assumption that, even if the poems were imagined, I could claim to understand what a woman who had undergone something like that would be going through, and what it might mean to her. […] That was when I knew I had to go.
But of course, it’s not simply authenticity that we find in Seam, or in her sequel-like Registers of Illuminated Villages. In this second book, Faizullah’s poems return over and over to scenes shaped by her own origins (her grandparents’ generation grew up thinking of themselves as Pakistani, not Bangladeshi). Among the poems are images and stories that comprise a life in utero, a childhood marked by the tragic death of a younger sister, and the sexual blossoming and political awareness of a powerful woman. Faizullah’s poems are written in her own compelling and distinctive voice; at the same time she embodies a voice that speaks emphatically for all oppressed women.
Throughout the book, space and time are conflated. The speaker is at once a fetus, a child, and a woman; a grieving sister and a rebellious daughter; a student and a scholar; and a Bangladeshi Muslim woman raised in West Texas. In Faizullah’s poems, we have the sense that she’s continually running up and down the scales of a musical instrument that we cannot hear until she plays it for us. Contrapuntal sounds are evident in the first poem, “Register of Eliminated Villages,” in which what is beautiful merges with what is too horrible to bear:
_______It is high noon, the sun there
perched over fields shriven
______with lilies, the petals of orange
poppies red with a light
__________that a gauze of gray sparrows
glides through over sheaves
______of bone too stubborn to burn,
all that is left of those razed
Many of these poems tackle the complexity of grief, as in “What this Elegy Wants,” in which Faizullah’s speaker finds that she cannot escape grief at home by going abroad:
__________This elegy wonders why
it’s so hard to say, I always miss you. Wait,
she might have said. But didn’t you want
your palms to be coated in mustard oil? Did you
really want to forget the damp scent of my grave?
In the elegiac “100 Bells,” nothing but grief makes any sense:
My sister died. He raped me. They beat me. I fell
to the floor. I didn’t. I knew children,
their smallness. Her corpse. My fingernails.
Faizullah drills language for meaning. By simply following her expansive use of a word from the book’s title, “register,” she amply displays the scope of her lyrical and exacting poetry. In the preface poem, “Register of Eliminated Villages,” Faizullah identifies an obscene artifact, and then re-imagines it as “Illuminated Villages.” Throughout the book, she pulls together disparate threads of the vast, but interconnected, content these poems cover. From eliminated to illuminated, she shows us how to see what is hidden, what has been lost.
And, as with the term “register,” Faizullah folds varying meanings of the word “seam” into several of these poems, unfolding an escalator of words that repeat anew each time. Her seams are call and response; her registers are both lists and ways of perceiving. “The Hidden Register of Submission” gazes at female desire, even as it is trampled upon by male gaze. In “To the Bangladeshi Cab Driver in San Francisco,” her speaker says, “I could open my mouth to you / in the register I know we know, but don’t, // or won’t. In “To the Littlest Brother,” she mimics the sounds of a cash register, “ka-ching! ka ching!” And, in “Before the Accident, and After,” she writes,
I promise to lose weight was a lie
I told in every register I knew, until
the night the wind blew backward,
and exactly seven yellow poppies grew
from the mouth of her corpse I tried
In the midsection of the book, set off by black pages like funereal armbands, are “Soliloquies from the Village of Orphans and Widows,” harking back to the women’s voices she captured in Seam:
I was not
the taint he swore
he’d flay away;
I was the plant
into a whip.
He was patient
with his fists.
The final poem in the collection is found hiding behind the notes, the bio, and the acknowledgments, as if to ask the reader “are you paying attention?” In “The Hidden Register of Astonishment,” Faizullah queries poetry itself: “What does it mean to give in? More time for revision. // Heave your last doubts into the helixes of tomorrow.”
In her winding path, Faizullah offers us more than history, more than memoir, even more than compassion and intelligence. She offers memory itself as a path forward. Here, in “The Hidden Register of Hunger,” she clarifies her terms:
Memory pours starfish into the sky
for us to imagine, and still
Faizullah is an essential poet for our times, and, I believe, for all times. She writes furiously today, answering the paraphrased question “Is it possible to write poems after the Holocaust?”2 in the affirmative.
2. Paraphrase of Theodore Adorno’s oft misquoted “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”↩
Photograph of Tarfia Faizullah courtesy of Graywolf Press.