The Archives of War

Sep 2015

Issue 9 Essay | Get the full digital print edition now!  Subscribe | Purchase

Artist: Aman Mojadidi, "Morning Prayers"

Artist: Aman Mojadidi, “Morning Prayers”

Issue 9  Essay

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Seam |  Tarfia Faizullah | Southern Illinois University Press (2014)

Good poetry has one obvious, distinguishing quality: It is not prose. It does not add line-breaks to sentences and call them verse. It does not pretend to be objective. It does not even attempt to be sensible. Rather, it attempts to outline an altogether different truth, an emulsion of the sensual and ethereal, an alchemical process that creates new elements, ideally unseen by the poet herself before they manifest in sound. The process becomes all the more intriguing and rich when it takes as its inspiration the very origins it shuns: prose, history and fact. Such is the brilliance of Tarfia Faizullah’s book of poetry, Seam, which grapples in verse with the history of the birangonas, Bangladeshi women who were raped by Pakistani soldiers during the liberation struggle of 1971. The book is a critical, and more importantly, sentimental interrogation of that gruesome history of organized rape and its legacy in Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi diaspora. Faizullah is a Bangladeshi-American poet who grew up in Midland, Texas. Seam is her first book, the result of a Fulbright scholarship which Faizullah used to travel to Bangladesh and interview birangonas. It begins with a note on East Pakistan’s 1971 military operation against West Pakistan, informing us of the shattering historical narrative, “According to Bangladeshi sources, two hundred thousand women were raped, and over 3 million people were killed.” From there on, the book patiently converts the unbending dictates of history into fluid poetics.  The very first poem sets up a juxtaposition between the italicized historical narrative at the beginning of the book and the poetry that follows it, as well as between the location of Bangladesh and its diaspora:

In west Texas, oil froths

luxurious from hard ground

while across Bangladesh,

bayoneted women stain

pond water blossom. Your

mother, age eight, follows

your grandmother down worn

stone steps to the old pond,

waits breathless for her

Coming at the heels of an official historical proclamation about the rape of thousands of women, the poetry jolts the reader out of conventional expectations of fact. Instead of somberly commenting on the tragedy, the stanzas focus on images from the emotional archives of a Bangladeshi family with rhythmic precision: “oil froths luxurious”, “pond water blossom,” “worn stone steps.” The co-existence of Texas and Bangladesh mirrors the co-existence of the diaspora poet and her Bangladeshi grandmother, creating intimate links between disparate lands and people. The central part of the book, which is composed of a single series, narrates interviews the poet conducted with birangonas. Like the opening poem, it continues to juxtapose documentary, history, and journalism with the absences and erasures of poetry. The poems often begin with a journalistic question in italics: “What were you doing when they came for you?” “Would you consider yourself a survivor or victim?” The poems themselves trade in desire and uncertainty to fashion responses that defy rational and ordered narratives. For example, in response to the question, “Where did the Pakistani military take you, and were there others there?” the poet responds:   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.   Faizullah does not deny the facts of history, but she does not allow them to infect her poetry without justification, either. The documentary truth of “Yes, there were others there” is only granted to the reader after she has grappled with the density of pear blossoms and the longevity of jute, details that would be superfluous in a historical account, but which endow Faizullah’s words with a characteristic and intuitive sense of the poetic. The truth-value of history is further undermined by the polyvocality of Faizullah’s text. Not only are the book’s pages populated by the birangona’s voices, they also routinely host the words of other poets as well as those of Faizullah’s relatives. Italicized intrusions from Willa Cather, Tomas Transtromer, Paul Celan, Cesar Vallejo and Faizullah’s mother and grandmother dot the book throughout. In Interviewer’s Note v., the italicized intrusion works directly to subvert the demands of history:   But wasn’t it the neat narrative you wanted? The outline of the rape victim standing against a many-winged darkening sky, shadow flurrying across shadow? They tossed me into that river but the river wouldn’t kill me, she said yesterday – you want the darkness she stood against to be yards of violet velvet you mother once cut into dresses   The river, the water, which flows in the form of italics through the text, is the seam between history’s “neat narrative,” its “darkening sky,” and the poet’s desire to convert the darkness into her mother’s “violet velvet.” The images of war and rape – “shadow flurrying across shadow” – constantly meet and brush against images of nature in Faizullah’s poetry, and sabotage the documentary mode in which war is so often reported and recounted. The juxtaposition of war and nature create a simultaneously terrifying and refreshing poetic landscape:   many-leafed, like bits of bomb-   shells gleaming like rose petals   upturned in wet grass, like   the long river in red twilight–   Or at another place in the same poem:   woman catches the gaze   of a Pakistani soldier through rain-curved palm   trees – her sari is torn from her–   The “rain-curved palm trees”, “red twilight”, “rose petals”, and “wet grass” do not prepare the reader for the brutalities they witness. The blunt edge of war, the inhumanity of organized rape, the systemic brutalization of women, both during the war by Pakistani soldiers and after the war by Bangladeshi propaganda, catch the reader by surprise in the midst of ponds and blossoms. But this is precisely the point: The country’s entire landscape has become saturated with violence. It is unable to narrate innocence:   Once, she will say, I didn’t know there was a hollow inside   me until he pushed himself into it. Once, you learned   that inside you was not hollow but seam: color of the rim of the river.   The result of this work is at once mesmerizing and disenchanting. As the empirical claims of documentation brush against the ambiguity and imagination of poetry, they create a novel truth, one that is simultaneously attentive to the pleasures of language and the injustices of history.

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Haider Shahbaz was born in Lahore and currently lives in Las Vegas, where he is an MFA candidate at the University of Nevada. He has a B.A. (History) from Yale University. His reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Believer and Himal Southasian. His translations from the Urdu are forthcoming in Brooklyn Rail and The Portland Review.

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