The Visceral, Empathetic Poetry of Tarfia Faizullah

Registers of Illuminated Villages: Poems by Tarfia Faizullah. Graywolf Press, 2018. Poetry, 96pp.

[…] Bhai, here it is spring. Drive past
these parks of dew-carcassed grass, the smooth
and bright limbs heaped carelessly. Drive

ocean-ward. Park at the dock, where used
condoms remain half-submerged in sand.
Cyan water will forgive bottles bullied

into shards, such glittering emerald ghosts
of revelry or remorse. […]

(From “To the Bangladeshi Cab Driver in San Francisco”)

Who is Memory? Why does she matter / to History? the poet-child asks in “Fable of the Firstborn,” the last (or “last”) poem in Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages (Graywolf, 2018). The book’s title refers to a news story about an actual book that contains the brutal accounting of 397 eliminated Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, a record made more terrible by the irony of its decorated cover and ornate script. Faizullah’s small linguistic sleight-of-hand has changed the modifier — illuminated rather than eliminated — and amends the Register’s name to provide the collection’s title. Why does memory matter to history? Memory does not remember, Mahmoud Darwish said, but receives the history raining down on it. This received history is the burden, the constraint, and the brilliance of Faizullah’s poetics of illumination.

Faizullah has shared publicly that Registers was guided by her desire to shed light on aspects of the human condition that live in darkness. “So much of what we go through we attempt to sweep it under the rug,” she said. “…instead of trying to tell those voices to forget about the past, I wanted to look at the past…to try to understand it from the current moment and not feel like I would be destroyed by it.” In Registers, she dares to ask what is beneath that decorative, pretty thing.

I fingered bolts of satin I never meant to buy.
There, no one said her name. How to look

into the abyss without leaning forward? How
to gather the morning’s flustered shadows

into a river? […]

The irony that something of beauty can belie a brutal record of devastation is deepened by the fact that Faizullah’s own book could be read as if aesthetics are the only poetics at play. Consider the lush, elemental language. Consider its sentences that roll deliriously down the page (“imagine getting done in like one year what tarfia faizullah gets done in one line break,” tweeted Inam Kang). Consider its sublime, intimate voice and its poems with endings that Yeats might say click shut like a perfectly made box — it’s beautiful.

But of course, beauty is not the only thing at play.

It is like this. The night is our hair
inking the torsos of men into reliquaries.

Irony itself is a schism — a gap between what is said and what is known — and schisms occupy Faizullah’s work. Seam, her first book, won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award in 2017, and at its center was the genocidal rape and the horrific toll on the women of Bangladesh during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Part of the book’s tension was in reconciling survivors’ stories with the interviewer’s supralinguistic objectives. While Registers does contain what could be considered social poetry (the stunning “I Told the Water,” dedicated to Flint, Michigan is an example), it is by comparison intensely personal. Faizullah has come to listen and to name. The poem “100 Bells” could serve as that salvo, with its powerful catalogue of both the most contradictory and truthiest of truths, an echo of Vievee Francis’ “Say It, Say It Anyway You Can.”

[…] I didn’t flinch. I did.
It was the only dance I knew.

Faizullah has also said, “the more I went into the darkness of these poems the more I understood how darkness happens in the first place.” In a poem called “Doors to Trinity,” the speaker says I began to rub out / the foulest parts of me until I was vellum. This rubbing as if the human condition were a palimpsest, and the complicated surfacing that results, is central to this collection. At play with the meaning of “registers,” poems that begin “The Hidden Register of …” explore hunger, submission, and solace (and astonishment, the “hidden” track of the collection) where parentheticals provide multiple facets, beyond the official record. Submission, in a delicate unpeeling, gives way to (absolution), (absolution), and (absolution). These new surfaces are contrary, disobedient, inconvenient, antagonistic. In “Diary,” lust, violence, and grief triangulate: We danced like that, / a hand around my throat, / a hand around yours. In “The Sacrifice,” a goat is slaughtered as an offering and eaten: My first death. I feel / curious, // conflicted. Satisfied.

This is “Djinn in Need of a Bitch”:

[…] Forget his voice
burning past me.
Bitch, I need you,

bitch I need, I need, he moans,

and later in the poem:

[…] O, Allah. Tell me why being

your disciple is so lonely, why this man
turns to no one beside him, tries
to embrace her. Tell my why the dead

area mirages stepping lightly across
the floors of strangers, their children
asleep below. […]

It is said that poetry is the record of a singular response to an experience, and Faizullah’s is singular poetry: her parents came to the U.S. from Bangladesh; she was born in Brooklyn and raised in Texas. in “Your Own Country,” the speaker says, There’s a first day you learn how to kill yourself without dying. Your own country demands it. It isn’t new. It isn’t news. In navigating painful disconnections resulting from difference, Faizullah finds a necessary fluidity. The opening and closing epigraphs from Nina Simone remind us that time itself is not the overlord we credit it as. Such fluidity is a solution of sorts that throughout this book nulls the stark chasms between fear and lust, between imagination and memory, and between bodies (There are so many bodies inside this one, says the speaker “Poetry Recitation at St. Catherine’s School for Girls.”). Much of Registers, in fact, the struggle to reconcile a split destiny: one of a sister that died as a child, the other the poet appointed to give voice to her slurry of pain and grief.

Empathy has been described as feeling “with the perceptions of one’s own muscles.” When someone is about to jump off a bridge, say, sympathy feels sadness, but empathy runs toward them. Register runs toward. Faizullah is an immensely empathetic poet, and this visceral, muscle-deep quality penetrates her writing. It can be found in the language, but also in the way each poem arcs toward a sort of psychic détente, a way to be “connected underneath” as Muriel Rukeyser terms it, until the widest ruptures seem reconcilable.

From the book’s inclusive dedication to the open-hearted Easter egg of a poem on the book’s last page, Faizullah weaves a gauzy connection, a common sky, between these schisms with nothing more than language. She does so in plain sight in the astonishing “Because There’s Still a Sky, Junebug.”

In the center of the book, separated by black pages, is a slight assemblage of lyric, dramatic monologues called the “Soliloquies from the Village of Orphans and Widows.” The speakers are widows from Sohagpur village who survived its decimation when during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, the Pakistani army killed all the village’s men. They are complicated passages from lives that continue after great pain. In a book that speaks to a longing for incorporation, these black pages — the discontinuity they represent (not to mention the ink required to make them!) were, for me, unsettling.

Do we have to cut away rungs from this
wild climbing? […]

Where a frame begins, something has been cut out, says Philip Metres, writing about documentary poetics. The pages demand we reckon with these cuts. Between them, margins shift from right to left to center; they take on concrete shapes. They are first person, the are in medias res. They are musical. They are brief.

He had hurt me. Yes,
I did miss him –

but what reason was that
to not apologize?

Their emotions unfold and chafe against each other, they are not simple nor simplified. They are suffering’s many registers, the odd complexities of sentience, that in some ways mirroring Faizullah’s first-person explorations that contextualize this section and provide the commonality that cuts through divisions — of time, region and experience.

I was told I should say
no and taught to say
yes — so,
everyday,
it’s
okay
that jumps out of my throat,

Faizullah has stated that Seam attracted some criticism for “lyricizing” the stories of the women. How does a poet tell the stories of others? And why, in a digital era of ubiquitous documentation? When fascination can easily morph into voyeurism?

When I say love,
I mean
each artery of this ink.

Registers outwits such criticisms, in part because Faizullah honors the widows with her reticence. Beneath each soliloquy is something untold. As a reader, I fell as deeply into those missing parts as I did into the parts that were exposed. I won’t lie, the inked-black pages still unsettle me. But in a book that bares so much, perhaps they represent a giant redaction — a gesture toward the parts of memory and of history that is erased.

[…]Memory pours starfish into the sky
for us to imagine, and still
we burn.