Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What I'm Reading: Seam by Tarfia Faizullah

67º ~ overcast, slight breezes ~ two massive wind storms blew through in the past 48 hours ~ lost one robin chick, put the remaining two back in the nest (scraggly, down-covered) and they are both thriving

A few posts back, I asked some questions about poetry of witness. On Saturday, I took Seam by Tarfia Faizullah out of my AWP box and started to read. From the first poem, I realized that this book would provide not only beautiful poetry, but some answers to my questions as well.

Seam was the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry - First Book Award winner and came out last year. I'm glad I held off buying it online and waited for AWP, as I happened to bump into Tarfia Faizullah at the Crab Orchard table and was able to have her sign my copy.

I had read a few of these poem in journals prior to the book coming out, but I didn't know that the entire book was an exploration of the 1971 civil war that resulted in East Pakistan becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh. In the book, Faizullah, born in the US to Bangladeshi parents who had immigrated in 1978, takes on as her main subject the lives of the "Birangona," the over 200,000 Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers (often kidnapped and held captive to be repeatedly raped and otherwise abused over the course of the war). In the book, Faizullah sets herself up as the "interviewer" and talks about traveling to Bangladesh as an adult to research the war through which her parents and grandparents had lived.

In thinking about my questions of poetry as witness, here is what I noticed, in no particular order:

~ Faizullah has a direct connection to the horrors she explores (is this direct connection necessary?)
~These do not appear to be persona poems, but autobiographical journeys. The "I" here seems to "be" Faizullah, at least in relation to the information provided in her author's note.
~ Faizullah does not preach or provide answers; instead, she questions and makes herself vulnerable to the answers.

In terms of the book, there are layers of tension here. The tension of a first-generation American returning to the homeland of her parents. The tension of the war and its atrocities, particularly against women. The tension between generations as Faizullah references herself, her mother, and her grandmother. The tension between genders, as the women who suffered through the war were then celebrated by the Bangladeshi government but ostracized by their own family, friends, and communities. All of these tensions are expressed through a wonderful repetition of key images throughout the book:

seams (as in what holds us together, as in a vein of something precious and hidden, as in what has the potential to be ripped open and exposed)
twining (a way of binding hair, the wrapping of a sari around the body, a sense of connection to family or to the land)
green (lushness, tropical, fecund, humid, omnipresent)

Here are a few excerpts to give you a sense of Faizullah's amazing gift of imagery and the line.

from "Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh":

Each map I have seen
of this country obscures:
each blue line, each emerald

inch of land cannot claim
such cloudy veins, these
long porous seams between

us still irrepressible--

(I hope you stopped and read that passage out loud. Not only are the images revelatory, but also the sounds.)

from "Interviewer's Note" part i:

You walk past white high-rises 
... .                             Past smoke
helixing from an untended fire.
Past another clothesline heavy
with saris: for hours they 
will lift into the wind, hollow
of any bruised or broken body.

And, finally, here is the beginning of "Interviewer's Note" part v:

But wasn't it the neat narrative
you wanted? 

This question smacked me right between the eyes in terms of a poetry of witness. We want to create a "neat narrative" out of pain and suffering. We want to create art out of something hellish and terrifying, but that "neatness" is always suspect, always pulled against and apart by the seam underneath, the seam that makes us ask time and time again: how could one human being do that to another?

And so, I'm thankful once again, that I've come across the right book at the right time, and I'm thankful to have these poems, these beautiful, gut-punching poems.

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