Survivors’ Lyrics: Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah
One definition of register is “the range of a human voice or a musical instrument,” and in Registers of Illuminated Villages, Tarfia Faizullah gives us the full range of her musical voice. The poems in her second collection move fluidly from the lyric to the plain-spoken, from her own voice into the voices of others, from tightly crafted stanzas to words loosened across the page like scattered seeds. And like seeds, Faizullah’s adroitly chosen words contain within themselves meaningful possibilities. The opening poem, “Register of Eliminated Villages” immediately plants itself deeply in the heart:
…Count to one
thousand, you suggest. Count to two.
Three. As someone must count
hacked date trees, hollowed
hills paved into gardens, though
the scholar on tonight’s
Frontline only counted each
town destroyed: three
hundred ninety-seven of them.
Who counts dolls, hand-
stitched, facedown in dirt?
Count to four. Five. Six. Count
cadaver, stone, belongings: pots
The speaker is experiencing insomnia; haunted by this register of eliminated Kurdish villages in Iraq, the speaker feels cloven into two—one self lies in bed trying to sleep while the other is surveying the fields in Iraq that were once towns and are now covered over in “orange / poppies red with light / that a gauze of grey sparrows // glides through over sheaves / of bone too stubborn to burn.” The register itself, the scholar is disturbed to discover, is elegantly crafted, in the quote that opens the poem he describes it as “a very decorative, pretty thing.” The horror of this is not lost on the speaker, who not only envisions the destruction of life, but also imagines the people of those towns and what they must have made with their own hands, “hours / spent weaving lace the color / of moonlight for a girls / dowry.”
What has been eliminated can also be illuminated. Here is the task Faizullah set out for herself, to listen to the voices of the dead, those of these villages, and others, as well as her sister who died in an accident as a child, and to shine a brilliant and searching light on what has been lost as well as what remains. The notion of village here is vital, for this village is not only external but internal. There are villages of silence that must be broken. Villages of ghosts that disturb sleep. Villages of childhood, of memories, of self-doubt. Villages of tenderness and desire, as well as villages that must be renamed after atrocities are committed.
In a series of poems at the center of the collection, Faizullah gives voice to the widows and orphans left behind after all the men in a village in Bangladesh were murdered in 1971 during the liberation war. Faizullah explains that the village’s name meant "Village of Love", and after the massacre it was renamed "Village of Widows." The women are left with their memories, both sweet and wretched, they are left with corpses to marry and desires left unfulfilled. But what is essential is that they live, that they continue to survive, “I know / his hand / is not pressed / anymore against // my breastplate /trying to pull me open / when I curl into / a swan” and later “but that was before… / before.”
Faizullah also has a before and after, before her seven year old sister’s death, and after. Time itself is riven, and as it is divided, so is the self. In many of these poems, Faizullah steps outside of herself to consider herself, criticize or encourage that self, but also perhaps this division is necessary to survival. Our dead are always restless within us, the memories of them surface suddenly, their voices interrupt us when we are simply walking down the street. Faizullah knows this intimately, and even in poems that aren’t specifically about Faizullah’s sister become about her, as if the sister’s memory cannot help but break into the poems. In “You Ask Why I Write About It Again” Faizullah struggles directly with this compulsion, “The hand / pressed hard against the pillow / does not want / to be the hand that lifts the pen again / to write the word sister, the word silence— / the hand desires / blossoms, instead…” though the hand desires blossoms it is already stained, fated, it must continue its work towards transformation, towards the difficult work of living, it cannot stop just as the “ailanthus mother spinning / its coarse silk— / it cannot stop, it must not.”
These poems are not only concerned with “sorrows unnamed,” with elegies and loss, and making registers of elegies and loss, but with the other hand—the living hand. The living hand’s fingers are “unruly” they have no desire to control their desire, desire unspools across these pages as proof of life, of being made of flesh. This flesh is in direct opposition with the dead:
You are still
an infinite autumn.
I am flaunting
of this flesh that eats,
fucks, bathes, waits—
I’m done cataloguing
loss. I’ll sand glossy
the corners of rib-
cages that I empty,
that empty me. I will
spur my skin into sex
or sleep or silk.
Your dresses still
hang in the closet
unworn and untouched.
So what if I am
tether, feral orphan?
I’m telling you now, I
am never going to die.
The sheer velocity of this poem, “Sex or Sleep or Silk,” astounds, it runs in torrents of emotion down the page, in fierce denial of death the speaker confronts the ghost of the sister, who reaches out to the speaker from her grave. To have such an icy, sweet, beloved hand always so close drives the speaker to need to do anything to feel alive. This poem is set at night like many poems in Registers of Illuminated Villages, often during fits of insomnia. The musical quality of these poems made me think of them as nocturnes.
The nocturne was originally composed to be played for one single night and then set aside, though there is a kind of precious beauty in that sentiment, what a travesty it would be to read Faizullah’s poems, reminiscent of nocturnes, and never read them again. Great poetry always calls us back to its pages, to linger, to relive, to rebreathe; Faizullah’s nocturnal poems are worth savoring night after night, and even in our fickle, of-the-moment, forgetful society, they should never be set aside. Here is a poet whose book deserves those words oft thrown about by publishers—highly anticipated.
In Registers of Illuminated Villages, Faizullah’s unflinching poems sing and soar, and ultimately pierce the spirit. When she writes, “I don’t know why we don’t know our own holiness, / but once you were a little girl, and so was I” in that moment we are all little girls wondering at what is holy, if we could be holy. To live is always to be forgetting, uncovering, remembering, denying and reviving, and with tremendous grace and bravery Tarfia Faizullah captures humanity, both her own and others, but she also dares to reveal what we, perhaps falsely, deem our inhumanity. In Louise Glück’s essay “Education of the Poet” she writes, “The dream of art is not to assert what is already known but to illuminate what has been hidden,” in this collection Faizullah achieves this dream, what is hidden rises up through the lyric delicate and threatening as smoke.
Release Date: March 6th, 2018
Brunch: Today’s brunch was a special treat from a local bakery here in Chicago, La Farine. Their almond croissants are epic in size and flavor, and their chai lattes are also quite memorable. I’ve always had too much of a sweet tooth and I’ll admit this is my favorite food and my favorite drink!
*All Fork and Page reviews are by Anita Olivia Koester