Is a Poem a Sacred Space?

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 6 2014 8:56 AM

The Book of Injustice

Tarfia Faizullah’s poems wrestle with the mass rapes of Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War.

Author Tarfia Faizullah.
Author Tarfia Faizullah.

Courtesy of Jamaal May

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.

1408_SBR_SEAM_COVER

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.

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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:

among
this damp, dark horde of men
and women who look like me—
because I look like them—
because I am ashamed
of their bodies that reek so
unabashedly 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 are
we 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, porcelain
circles into which stacks of lip-worn

cups slide neat. Jawbone, Lord. Galleries
of 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.

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