On May 28, Joe Daniels, the president of the 9/11 Memorial Foundation, announced that the 9/11 museum gift shop would no longer sell a ceramic cheese plate molded in the shape of the United States and showing three small, blue decorative hearts in the locations where hijacked planes had crashed. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Daniels also explained a new vetting process meant to ensure, presumably, that future tchotchkes would be more appropriate to the venue. “Merchandise reviews, he said, will now take place in the museum store itself, allowing the vetters to see the items in the context of what many regard as a sacred space.”
What many regard as a sacred space. Cheese plates aside, the problems of such pristine memory remain. Large-scale devastation has its own gravity, one that both draws our interest and shames our impulses to make something of that intimate pull. And so we resort to sacristy, the one thing we can make of massive devastation while still claiming to leave it untouched.
To instead put historical injustice to use, as Tarfia Faizullah does in her first book of poems, Seam, is therefore to risk profanity, and at first the collection seems constrained by Faizullah’s work to establish a personal connection to justify her involvement in the stories she’ll tell. Faizullah, who won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award for Seam, opens with a 10-page sequence that lays her family history alongside the historical trauma around which her book revolves: the rape of between 200,000-400,000 Bangladeshi women during the country’s 1971 Liberation War.
Faizullah’s family emigrated from the newly established country in 1978, and she was born in the U.S. in 1980. That poem, “1971,” suggests that her family was spared during the war; so what claim to authority on the subject, a reader might wonder, does Faizullah have? How can the recent death of her grandmother, also present in that poem, stand up to the horror she’s describing in this book? But by the end of the second poem, which is set in the Dubai Airport en route to Bangladesh, Faizullah has instead identified herself as a foreigner:
amongthis damp, dark horde of menand women who look like me—because I look like them—because I am ashamedof their bodies that reek sounabashedly of body. …
With that, something more uncomfortable enters the book: an unsettling hunger for the stories of these Birangona (a term, meaning something like “war heroine,” that the Bangladeshi government gave to the women whom society still shunned after the war). Suffering and beauty crowd in, as in the gravesite of Faizullah’s grandmother with its corpses stacked to save space, “impossibly green: vines and plants grown over the thatched bamboo of the other graves.” At the end of that short prose interlude, she imagines the bodies “pressed like flowers in a book, thinning over time under the weight of new bodies.” If at first her family history had felt thin—an insufficient connection to the devastation she means to describe—by now it has become something very different: another part of the world that won’t stop pressing its own claims, a reminder that the Book of Life and the Book of Injustice are written on the same pages, forever changing, and both unreadably long.
From one angle, it’s hard to say what a book like Seam is for. It doesn’t seem to serve the history it burrows into; it doesn’t suffice as a historical document; it rewrites the voices of the Birangona Faizullah interviews into her own lush lyricism, seemingly erasing the singularity of those women who speak to her, she notes, at the “command” of “the woman who runs a support group.” And yet taken from another angle—would I, as a reader, lose something important with the absence of this book?—the value is clear. I would.
The beauty of these poems does not redeem tragedy; at times, in fact, it seems to sully it. But that sullying—the humid tangle of lives, Faizullah’s own losses pressing in alongside the stories of the Birangona, her sexual desires flaring up back at her hotel room, her feelings of shame, her disquiet in the streets of Dhaka, the company of Western authors (Tomas Tranströmer, Paul Celan, Willa Cather) amid everyone else’s words—offers an unusually persuasive image of the ways old tragedies persist. They remain pressed in among the living and preserved by a hunger that is not always and not only for them, including a poet who might, in the midst of all these interviews, “reach for anyone // willing to wrap his good arm tight / around me for as long as the ribboned / darkness allows.” In a society still unable to make sense of the lives engendered by such an atrocity, that dark vitality seems to register more than purity ever could.
In “Reading Celan at the Liberation War Museum,” Faizullah passes through a gift shop herself, then passes on with so little comment that its strangeness simply lingers in the air. Before she gets there, she begins a litany with a line from Celan:
near arewe Lord, near and graspable. Lord,accept these humble offerings:
stacks of biscuits wrapped in cellophane,stacks of bone in glass: thighbone,spine. Stacks of white saucers, porcelaincircles into which stacks of lip-worn
cups slide neat. Jawbone, Lord. Galleriesof laminated clippings declaring war.
Faizullah has a great ear for the added detail that keeps image and rhythm from settling too neatly into any one pattern, as in “porcelain / circles into which stacks of lip-worn // cups slide neat,” which neither sits neat nor gives any warning of the “Jawbone” about to appear. The addition of “lip-worn,” with its consecutive hard stresses and its quick conjuring of absent bodies, seems to push the sentence out of any easy balance, forcing it once again out of alignment with the actual line and spilling it over the stanza break.
There’s also some of that effect in these more frightening lines from the first of the “Interview With a Birangona” poems that are at the center of the book, literally and figuratively:
Grandfather calls to me:mishti maya. Girl of sweetness.
Aashi, I call back. I finish braiding
my hair, tie it tight. I twine a red string
around my thigh. That evening,
a blade sliced through string, through
skin, red on red on red. Kutta, the man
in khaki says. It is only later I realize
it is me he is calling dog. Dog. Dog.
Like any first book, Seam is imperfect. In many cases, that’s almost beside the point. As the book goes deeper into the body of grief and desire, it hardly matters that this or that line isn’t immune to complaint, and if a few too many poems end with rhetorical questions or moments that feel a little too neat, that’s quickly subsumed. But there’s one habit worth mentioning since it’s become endemic in poetry, and since it’s especially pronounced here.
In the passage above, Faizullah writes, “I finish braiding / my hair, tie it tight.” In another poem, there’s “The plane circles back, / keeps time. …” The poem after that includes “Other adhans start up, overlap. …” while on the following page there’s “… how can people hurt / each other, go on / living?” I don’t know when or precisely why this formation—forgoing a compound verb (“The plane circles back and keeps time ...”) or two complete sentences (“The plane circles back; it keeps time …”) for what might instead be called an appositive verb—first entered American poetry, but it has become so pervasive that it now has the same effect on me as a word like “upon.” (Faizullah is hardly alone in this. A quick skim through no less a magazine than Poetry quickly turns up an otherwise-impressive poem that nonetheless includes two examples, “That man, // I think, had wanted to feed something in himself / not worth feeding, had founded a world on it” and “This moss / has been growing for ages now, can do nothing / but snag and grow.” Almost any issue of any magazine will reveal the same.) It sounds like some habitual idea of poetry has stood in for the language an author would otherwise draw from. It sounds like poetry has given way, momentarily, to “poetry.”
But there is far more poetry here—which is to say, far more of our living language pulled into shape by hunger and intelligence, the appetite for sound and saying rooting into the dark earth and blooming there. The second of the “Interview With a Birangona” poems responds to the questions “Where did the Pakistani military take you, and were there others there?”
Past the red mosque
where I first learned to touch
my forehead low, to utter
the wet words blown from
my mouth again and again. Past
the school draped with banners
imploring Free Our Language,
a rope steady around my throat
as they pushed me toward the dark
room, the silence clotted thick
with a rotten smell, dense like pear
blossoms, long strands of jute
braided fast around our wrists.
Yes, there were others there.
Like several of the “Interview” poems, this one ends with a Birangona’s abrupt answer to one of Faizullah’s questions, one deferred long enough and delivered bluntly enough to register both the woman’s frustration with the question and the sickening depth of knowledge the speaker will not fully expose. In this way, Seam feels unusually honest and exceptionally rich. Its self-critiques are not veiled attempts at absolution through awareness, nor do they give Faizullah an excuse to stop looking. Instead, they feel like the quickened presence of a flawed person (flawed as we are all flawed) who has committed to making as much as she can of the horrors she feels compelled to see.
Seam by Tarfia Faizullah. Southern Illinois University Press.