“I rip apart each word”: New American Mythologies in After by Fatimah Asghar

The cover of Fatimah Asghar’s collection After (Yes Yes Books, 2015): blue and red snakes coil around an ear with a piercing in its helix

The cover of After, by Fatimah Asghar, lures us in — a vivid image of Medusa hair curls into blue and red snakes, surrounding a listening ear. We are bewitched by a lyric which will turn us to stone and then to blood and tears. Asghar is a member of the Dark Noise Collective, a vital group of poets with roots in the slam and spoken word as well as the page, and her work brings a much needed voice to American poetry.

The poems contained in After reclaim and own the theme of the Greek gorgon. The poem “Medusa Apologizes” contains a single footnote, “Oh, the paper cranes I make / folding your name on my tongue / when no one is looking,” which attests to the textures and twists of language which render the collection palpable and visceral as the snake coils on its cover.

The speaker of the poem “Stank Face” plays on the theme of ways in which women are forced to invent public personas to offset unwanted attention on the street and in other public spaces. Stank face takes on a mask as a form of foundation, a mascara: “each morning I stitch a scowl / to my smile. let my eyes sass / every person standing between me / & the bus stop. my eyelashes / icy. call it survival. call it eyeliner / so crisp it could kill a bitch.” These sonic lines reveal a layer frozen over a living person who requires the external barrier for protection, a Medusa who turns men to stone as a last resort for self-defense.

“Seeking Love” presents characters and setting for a hybrid drama-cum-personals ad. The “Me” character commemorates a family “who hid under dead bodies to leave.” The “You” sought for is listed as “white boy or black boy or yellow boy or any boy not the color of me.” The setting includes, “you are a hungry boy / so you follow, while I ready / to dust the death off my bones.” This play, composed only of two characters and one setting, multiplies the impact of the poem — framing the drama in a way that emotional language might obscure. The themes of death, exile, and survival coexist in these lines and occupy the spaces in between, carried by phrasing and sound repetition built as scaffold to hold their precarity.

Relationships between lovers in these lyrics stretch taut in their balance over asymmetries and liminal spaces. “Red” re-conceives the substance of menstrual fluid, the speaker addresses a lover: “I am not afraid of the colors / my body dreams to produce. Rather / I stop you, because you’ll taste metal / and think me machine and wires. / You’ll feel tin in my bones and think / you are making love to a copper woman.” From the snake-haired gorgon, this speaker becomes a copper statue, a living machine, a mechanical deity.

The narrator of “Dinner Party” unveils “snakes curled/ around my ear … still as stone,” and then “The snakes/ are alive hissing fangs biting my cheeks.” The words of the poem become tangible, “My boy’s / heartbeat is in the walls. The floorboards are his arteries. / They bark louder than the police. / He oversees as I rip apart each word, / feed the faucet every letter I have written.” The speaker unravels and tears apart the words themselves, lucid as hissing snakes, visceral as deeds she wishes to conceal.

In “After,” the title poem, an antelope left as roadkill relates an assault, tinging the panorama presented by the poem: “It would be easy to say he ground my bones / to road kill, limbs splayed for show. / But this is the way I always sit. My spine / incongruent, a mountain road / I choose not to follow.” The speaker conveys the surreal impact of the event and the reconstruction of identity that follows: “I am back in his kitchen, a rotten / cavity of who I was that morning. / How could I be raped one night / wake up with stitches down my legs / & still feel like a goddess?” This voice continues: “In the mirror: my antlers, a crown / seamed with blood ivory. Gigantic & proud,” and we see the reflection of the speaker, reconfigured as a source of power in nature.

These poems take root in the margins and liminal spaces, and they derive attributes of gods from snake hair, copper blood, and crowns of antlers, extending their reach into bone, ice, and arteries. The construction of these works, from rhythmic meters, sounds, and language sharp as glass and smooth as ivory, creates a space to hold a new myth of Medusa, a crane of words folded on the tongue, and a speaker who can dust the death from her bones.