Pushcart XLII: Tarfia Faizullah, “I Told the Water” (poem) from Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2016

Joerael Je: A Cup holds Water so do We 2016

Joerael Je: A Cup holds Water so do We 2016

I told the water             You’re right
     The poor are
                             broken sidewalks
     we try to avoid

Audio recording available online on Soundcloud

This is the third Faizullah poem I’ve encountered now, and each one has a haunting mood, a voice I find compelling even though I’m not entirely sure what the subject is. It’s that voice that keeps me hooked, rather than impatient, the sound of the words somehow conveying there’s something here worth hearing, if I can only find out how to listen.

The poem starts with poverty and moves on to lying “facedown in dirt”, the speaker becoming “hieroglyph a wet braid caught in your throat”. War and the urge to defy gravity. A “graveyard of windows”. And in the end, defiance:

Last night I walked out onto your ice
                                                    wearing only my skin
           Because you couldn’t tell me            not to.

I thought of hurricanes. I suppose that’s because the chaos in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria is still very much with us. And I still vividly remember Katrina, since a couple of friends of mine lived in Metarie and were incommunicado for quite some time (they were fine, they left, if far later than they should have). It’s always the poor these disasters strike worst: people with houses built on flood plains, people living in trailer parks or in substandard homes, people who can’t afford to evacuate or rebuild or invest in insurance policies. On a grander scale, it’s the world’s poor who suffer the most from climate change, which boils down to changes in water distribution and access.

But, as well as that fit, I left something out.

Faizullah lives in Michigan, an hour away from Flint, where residents were poisoned for two years by lead in their drinking water after the state government saved a few thousand by using unsafe pipes, while installing bottled water coolers in government offices so those making the decisions would not share in the consequences. As Faizullah says in a PBS interview, ““I was thinking about things like helplessness and poverty and allocation of resources…” And even those of us on the road of good intentions might forget Flint, in the wake of newer crises.

The poem is included in her recently released book Registers of Illuminated Villages, a collection of all the places undone by the imbalance of poverty and power.

Whether Flint, or Puerto Rico, or New Orleans or Bangladesh, water is both survival and danger. I see now how the poem captures that, the speaker admiring, and fighting, the water, and the invisible power behind it, giving voice to those who have none.

Pushcart XLI: Tarfia Faizullah, “100 Bells” (poem) from Poetry, January 2015

Artwork by Caitlin Abbott, from original photo by Naib Uddin Ahmed

Artwork by Caitlin Abbott, from original photo by Naib Uddin Ahmed

With thanks to Vievee Francis

 

My sister died. He raped me. They beat me. I fell
to the floor. I didn’t. I knew children,
their smallness. Her corpse. My fingernails.
The softness of my belly, how it could
double over. It was puckered, like children,
ugly when they cry. My sister died
and was revived. Her brain burst
into blood. Father was driving. He fell
asleep. They beat me. I didn’t flinch. I did.

Complete poem available online at Poetry

First, let me point any reader to Faizullah’s post titled “Against Explanation” on the Poetry website Harriet. I’m tempted to just stop here, with an excerpt in which she explains why she can not, will not, explain the poem, except to give a context: she wrote it after reading Vievee Francis’s poem “Say It, Say It Any Way You Can”.

Almost every time I read “100 Bells” in front of an audience, someone asks me to explain it. I’m baffled, because, to me, it’s one of my most transparent poems. I’ve been asked if it’s The Truth. I don’t think that’s what I’m being asked, though. It’s really something else: Did you make it up? Did it happen to you?
…. “I’m saying it,” says the speaker in Vievee’s poem. What’s so masterful about this phrase is how it deflects from the question “Did this happen to you?”

I read this poem three ways; I don’t know if any of them are true (whatever that means), but they feel very real to me, and they coexist at this point, though they were separate at first. I know a lot of very educated people put a lot of stock in the poem standing on its own, but I found meaning expanding with each new piece of ancillary information, and finding meaning is what I’m doing here.

My first reading focused on the Birangona, the Brave Women of War in Bangladesh who, during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan, were kidnapped, raped, and tortured. After were ignored, lived in shame and silence, until playwright Leesa Gazi spoke with a group of the women and created a play to tell their story and honor the courage it took for them to survive.

Now, I didn’t pick this out of thin air; I was alerted to it via the contributor note that goes with the published version of the poem. Faizulla’s 2014 poetry collection, Seam, featured interviews with the Birangona. I saw this poem as a composite of the experiences of those women, a layering of voice on voice, story on story, a hundred bells speaking through poetry.

Then I found a very different way of reading, through a blog that seems to be a series of school assignments (and again I wish the internet had been around when I was in 9th grade). This reader saw it as a narrative of personal experience. This makes a different kind of sense to me: the repetitions and contradictions reflect the confusion and denial experienced during and after a traumatic event. Again, the layering, but this time, the voices are from one person. The sister and Texas were more dominant in this reading; I was already slightly familiar with Faizullah’s work from having read another of her poems in the Pushcart two years ago, also appearing in Seam as one of a series of elegies written for her sister.

Then I came across the Harriet post. I’d noticed, of course, that there was a dedication line, but I hadn’t known the significance. And now I wonder if it’s a sort of retelling of Francis’ poem, with a different subject.

I wrote the first draft of “100 Bells” after reading Vievee’s poem. I needed to write the breath I didn’t know I had been holding until after I was done reading it, after I was done writing mine.

What a great use of breath, – anima, from the Greek άνεμος the force of life, the medium of the voice as a bridge between two poets and now between them and the readers of this poem. And now the three readings, each involving multiple voices, layer together in one burst of communication. When I read the poem, I don’t “hear” it as written, but as voices talking over each other, all trying to be heard.

I slithered. Glass beneath my feet. I
locked the door. I did not
die. I shaved my head. Until the horns
I knew were there were visible.
Until the doorknob went silent.

It’s awkward that I should run into a poetic discussion of truth after railing about truthiness in nonfiction. But poetry is not nonfiction. It is the artist’s conception of truth. I have no need to ask, Did it happen to you? It happened to someone, and thus it happened to all of us.

Pushcart 2015: Tarfia Faizullah, “The Streetlamp Above Me Darkens” (Poetry) from New England Review, #34

Cover art from Faizullah's first collection, Seam, by Dilara Begum Jolly

Cover art from Faizullah’s first collection, Seam, by Dilara Begum Jolly

for this, I am grateful. This elegy
doesn’t want a handful of puffed rice
 
tossed with mustard oil and chopped chilies,
but wants to understand why a firefly
 
flickers off then on, wants another throatful
or three of whiskey. This elegy is trying
 
hard to understand how we all become
corpses, but I’m trying to understand
 
permanence….

How to understand permanence, when there is no such thing?

In a wonderful conversation from Kenyon Review (made even more poignant because it is with Jake Adam York, who passed away just nine months later at age 40), Faizullah talks about the origin of the elegies she wrote for her sister: “When my sister first passed away, I silently spoke to her often. It was a way of conjuring her as much as it was a way to comfort myself.” Silent conversation eventually evolved into several elegies, like this one. She compares them to the layering of palimpsests, another wonderful image, and discusses the impossibility of testimony and conflicts of remembrance and guilt.

The poem (which is available online, thank you, New England Review) starts and ends with jhal muri, if I remember correctly from my culinary explorations; it’s a street-food snack of spicy puffed rice seasoned with chilis and mustard oil. This closing of the circle seems particularly appropriate to an elegy about permanence, as if it creates its own permanence – or at least the possibility of permanence inherent in a circle – to compensate for the lack of permanence of anything on earth. We do go on, somehow.

Whenever I see couplets, I now think of two people, and more often than not, that turns out to be the case. Here, we have sisters. Faizullah was born here in the US well after her family immigrated here, but the poem seems written from Bangladesh, where her sister died: “Across two oceans, there
is a world in which I thought I could live / without grief.” When you love someone, there is no place without grief; but there is also no place without love, even in the grief. The love shines through here.

As an elegy should, it turns from past to future: “How to look down into the abyss without / leaning forward?” The experience of grief must itself be a moving forward. I’d never thought of it that way before. It feels so much like the past, yet it is indeed motion.

The poem ends with a snippet of one of those mental conversations Faizullah might have had with her sister, a conversation that puts a point on it: in spite of our protests, the pain is something we crave, because human connection is necessarily linked to pain, and to blot out the pain is to blot out the connection.