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Tarfia Faizullah. Seam.

Tarfia Faizullah. Seam. Southern Illinois University P.

From the opening lines of Tarfia Faizullah's singular, eloquent collection Seam, chosen by Chad Davidson for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, it is apparent she's a poet who feels tremendous empathy and who takes risks to express it. "In West Texas, oil froths / luxurious from hard ground / while across Bangladesh, // bayoneted women stain / pond water blossom," Faizullah begins, immediately letting readers know she dares to confront a horrific history in a lush and lyric voice.

Faizullah succeeds because, while her language is beautiful, she never prettifies the urgent story these poems tell about the mass rape of Bengali women during East Pakistan's 1971 War of Independence. Also, she acknowledges the question that hangs over her enterprise: what justifies making art from horror. Seam begins with an epigraph by Paul Celan: "Everything is near and unforgotten." Survivor of Nazi labor camps, Celan famously distanced himself from his best-known mournful and intensely musical poem "Death Fugue," fearing he had poeticized the Holocaust. That Faizullah invokes Celan, both in the epigraph and again in a crown of sonnets called "Reading Celan at the Liberation War Museum," demonstrates how well she understands the ethical complexity of her work. She probes the lines between witness, appropriation, and exploitation.

Seam revolves around the campaign West Pakistan waged against civilians in East Pakistan, which seceded and fought to become Bangladesh. More than three million people were killed in this war according to Bangladeshi sources, Faizullah tells us, and two hundred thousand women raped. Two hundred thousand! After liberation, the government of Bangladesh proclaimed the women war heroines, or birangonas. Still, many remain stigmatized and ostracized, even by their families. These events occurred before Faizullah was born in Brooklyn and then raised in West Texas. Her parents emigrated from Bangladesh in 1978, and she portrays herself as an unobservant Muslim. Yet, the underreported story compelled her to travel to Dhaka to interview some of the birangonas and to make poetry from her experience and from theirs.

Eight poems, all of them titled "Interview with a Birangona," form the central portion of the book, each a persona poem in which the woman speaks, each rendered in deceptively gentle couplets as if to slow them down and not overwhelm with their brutality. Here is the first:
I. What Were You Doing When They Came for You?
    Gleaming water sweeps over
   Mother's feet. Bayonets. Teeth.
   My green and yellow Eid sari
   flaps damply between two palm
   trees. Grandfather calls to me:
   mishti maya.
 Girl of sweetness.
 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.

Braided in and around these devastating poems are others in the voice of the interviewer, who also asks difficult questions of herself, including whether she's morally justified when she urges the victims to relive their rapes. In "The Interviewer Acknowledges Grief," Faizullah puts it directly: "Because you / can't reassure me I have / the right to ask anything / of women whose bodies won't / ever again be their own." In a masterful poem titled "The Interviewer Acknowledges Shame," she describes how the interviewer--back in a hotel room after videotaping women "unlocking the desiccated coffins of their grief'--touches and sexually satisfies herself. "She doesn't feel shame's / dark-circled tightening after waking," Faizullah writes, ending:
    It's later: when she arrives
               back at a borrowed flat, begins
   to strip off travel-pungent clothes
               and smells her own body's resinous
   musk. It's when she sits down naked
               at the desk to rewind and fast-forward through
   all the pixelated footage of the women's
               kerosened lives. It's when
   she begins to write about it in third person,
               as though it was that simple
   to unnail myself from my own body. 

What might be voyeurism in another context instead becomes an intimate expression of empathy: The speaker moving closer to women she now understands have been robbed of their sexual lives. The poet exposing herself, as she has requested from the survivors.

Faizullah never directly compares her shame and grief with that of the "war-raped" women, of course, but she bookends the Dhaka poems with some about the deaths of her grandmother and a sister. These explicitly autobiographical poems also come across as steps toward emotional identification with the torn women whose experiences most readers can barely approach. In the end, Faizullah indicates with characteristic subtlety that she returns home changed, not leaving Bangladesh behind. Though at this point you might expect to hear her slipping back into her American life, in the next-to-last poem she is just setting forth, "En Route to Bangladesh, Another Crisis of Faith." On the airplane flying to Asia (in retrospect? again? still?) over the ocean, she contemplates "everything--blue on blue on blue--like the one // seam of light left always on the airplane ceiling / that the pale, plastic shades cannot shut away--// until that narrow vein of light is the only / belief left, a cream-thick ribbon across our eyes." The word seam, used in several poems in different ways, by now evokes Faizullah's two worlds, and her ongoing exploration of how those worlds conjoin within her body.

At the last Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, a panel in defense of narrative poetry noted that some began dismissing narrative as passe and the "lyric I" as self-indulgent about the time new groups began finding their voices and telling their stories. So it seems significant that Faizullah is a young poet--she was born in 1980--who chooses to bear witness with her important first book. She mentions in poems that she took Cesar Vallejo, Tomas Transtromer, and the novelist Willa Cather, as well as Paul Celan, to read on her journey. But surely the spirit of Adrienne Rich also hovers here, her belief in the personal as political, and her insistence that poetry reach out to history.

Seam demonstrates both that fine art can be fashioned from history's atrocities, and that art is necessary--not to make sense of them--but to recognize them in their full horror. Shock and pity are both emotions safe at a distance. But empathy ... for that, you must come close. You must enter bodies and minds as Faizullah does, and the reader with her. For that, isn't narrative poetry one of the finest arts?
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Publication:Prairie Schooner
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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