by Tarfia Faizullah
Press: Southern Illinois University Press
Reviewed by: Paul David Adkins
A Cleansing and Breaking Water: Tarfia Faizullah, Seam,
and the Genocide of Bangladesh
Water breaks, and so does the body. But while water reclaims and heals itself from its trauma, the human body remains torn, severed, polluted by the violence inflicted upon it. Tarfia Faizullah’s debut poetry volume Seam is not for those easily sickened by inhumanity and brutality, but rather is written for women and men galvanized by compassion and empathy to record outrages and genocide, continuing in the tradition of Never Forget. And like any responsible genocidal document, Faizullah’s writing is unsparing in detail, unrelenting in intensity, and breathtaking in scope and vision.
But so many of us have forgotten. It was 1971, the year of Bangladesh’s Liberation War: also the timeframe of Vietnam, Biafra, Attica. Who knew Pakistani military forces killed, murdered, and/or raped approximately 3.5 million Bengalis in less than twelve months? Who remembers this systematic attempt to completely annihilate a country, a culture, a people? I didn’t, until I picked up Seam, and then assumed, alongside the author, the staggering grief of a nation.
Water permeates Seam, making an appearance in 22 of the 33 poems. In Bangladesh, a land averaging seventeen feet above sea level, a land of frequent, disastrous cyclones, the idea of water is always near. Faizullah creates, however, a human geography effuse with water breaking in all its forms: ocean, river, pond, rain, and tide. It flows through the rape victims torrentially.
In Interview with a Birangona (#5) an attacker inquires ,: “Over milk tea and butter biscuits, the commander asks / what it feels like to have dirty blood running through our / veins.” (34)
Sometimes the water cleanses, for instance, just before the onslaught of rape begins, as in Interview with a Birangona (#1): “Gleaming water sweeps over / Mother’s feet.” (25) Other times it forms a weight: “Each week I pull hard / the water from the well.” (28). Regardless of its function, however, water assumes an omnipresent force in the lives of the victims, with its shifting shape, its deceptive gleam, its once cleansing, and then polluting properties.
In many ways, the Bengali rape victims assume the identity of Bangladesh. Officially recognized by the government for their sacrifices in 1972, authorities bequeathed a woman violated during the conflict with the honorary title of Birangona, or War Heroine.
In 1971, a victim literally dons her nation’s identity:
. . . don’t tell
her the country of her birth
became a veined geography inside
you, another body inside your own. (10)
The speaker then reinforces this possession, this ownership, in the first of three poems entitled Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh:
Each map I have seen
of this country obscures:
each blue line, each emerald
inch of land cannot claim
such cloudy veins, these
long porous seams between
us still irrepressible. (14)
As the speaker records water’s breaking and the complex dynamics of human geography, she also pays close attention to the breaking of bodies, of the human spirit, of a culture exposed to such extreme trauma. In Elegy for Her Red-Tipped Fingers, the author notes, “Bangla: language I speak / now to your grieving daughter, this language / / the bodies of women were once broken / open for.” (19) Later, she incorporates this brokenness into the form of the poetry itself, presenting the reader with the disjointed lines of Interviewer’s Note IV:
Today there is no drinking
water today there is no
light today there is only
kerosene the hmm hmm hmm
of a generator pulsing deep (41)
Nothing seems to escape Faizullah’s eye.
Throughout the volume, a sense of disassociation weaves within the pieces. Seam takes a decided and necessary shift in voice as the speaker assumes the role of interviewer.
She begins to refer to herself in the second person in her Interview Note (I through V).” She observes in Part I: “You walk past white high rises / seamed with mold.” (27). Part V retains this dissociative state: “But wasn’t it the neat narrative / you wanted?” (46), she asks her disembodied self. This state of disassociation is a direct result of vicarious trauma the speaker experiences through reliving the victims’ stories. It is an involuntary self-defense mechanism creating space between herself and the Birangonas she questions. And while this distance is necessary to protect the speaker’s sanity, it also adds a compelling layer to the volume’s fundamental question, “How much can I possess, can I experience, of your traumatic story?” By assuming the second person in the Notes poems, Faizullah brilliantly navigates the horrors of systematic rape, while not intruding on the devastating details with her own opinions, reactions, and responses.
Faizullah’s speaker travels from the United States to Bangladesh to interview victims and explore her own history, while gaining an understanding of the underlying source of her mother’s trauma. Lorraine Healy, writing in her 2010 poetry volume The Habit of Buenos Aires about the Argentina Civil War, conveys a similar compulsion in her piece The Country I Flee From Daily:
Everything there needs me back:
the floods, the starving, the dark-souled.
To witness as the coffers
are covered in black velvet
To go behind the funeral procession
and wail. So many gone. (21)
What is so commendable about these personal journeys embarked upon by Healy’s and Faizullah’s speakers is the amount of personal courage it takes to initiate them. The risks they assume to relive these traumas is immense, and life-altering.
In 1971, the mother asks Faizullah’s speaker, “But tell me . . . / why couldn’t you research the war / from here?” (10) Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito provides the answer:
because I woke
alone in the myth of one life, I will
myself into another – how strange
nameless, the tangled shape
our blood makes across us,
my open palm. (60)
Seam is devastating in its courage to fully examine a family’s history. The trauma Faizullah willingly confronts is deadening in range, yet she still decisively steps forward to meet it headlong.
In her closing poem, she sums up the uncertainty, yet eventual victory, of her journey: “The moon filled the dust-polluted sky: a ripe, unsheathed / lychee. It wasn’t enough light to see clearly by, but I still turned my / face toward it.” (65) In the end, this is all we can hope for: a little light as we move forward, a touch of light which helps draw and focus the wandering of our vision.
Healy, Lorraine. The Habit of Buenos Aires. Huntington Beach, CA: Tebot Back. 2010. Print.
Paul David Adkins served in the US Army for 21 years. He earned degrees from Mercer University and Washington University, St. Louis. His chapbooks include The Upside Down House (Yellow Jacket Press), The Great Crochet Question (Kind of a Hurricane Press), and Stick Up (Blood Pudding Press).