Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, may be my favorite book of 2014. I picked it up after returning from a peace delegation to Palestine, and I was experiencing a range of emotions that witnessing brutality and listening to stories of survivors evoked within me, but I found myself utterly mute in terms of articulating it. Then I read Seam: a collection that weaves beauty and devastation tightly together, carefully and respectfully chronicling traumatic memory in a way that reaffirms hope, humanity, and community.
Seam explores the horrors of the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, a catastrophe that haunted her parents’ lives in America, a deep wound that Faizullah bravely interrogates. The first poem of the book, “1971,” begins with a historical note that lays the foundation of her work:
“On March 26, 1971, West Pakistan launched a military operation in East Pakistan against Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, and armed personnel who were demanding separation of the East from the West. The war resulted in the secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh. According to Bangladeshi sources, two hundred thousand women were raped, and over 3 million people were killed.”
This dark stain of history is what Faizullah tenderly caresses, reimagining and bringing to life the voices and stories of the raped women who survived terrors rendered so unspeakable that they risk being forgotten. Faizullah’s poems, through fearless witness, ensure this doesn’t happen.
The book organizes itself around a few touchstone tropes that are repeatedly returned to: several poems bear the same title or variations of that title. Some include, “Interviewer’s Notes,” “Instructions for the Interviewer,” “Interview with a Birangona” (A Birangona is a word for women who survived rape and/or torture during the war), poems to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and poems about reading various authors in Bangladesh, such as Willa Cather and Tomas Transtromer. The repetition of titles echoes the relentlessness of repeated acts of violence upon women during this time period, but it also points to persistence and resilience in the face of trauma.
Just like Faizullah’s note at the beginning of her book, documents of history often reduce tragedy to numbers, and those numbers are void of emotion as they become simple details of fact. However, Faizullah’s poetry combats this, putting narratives front and center, reclaiming the humanity and dignity of the survivors by reimagining the details with vivid precision and force. In “Reading Transtromer in Bangledesh,” the speaker documents being in her grandmother’s house and hearing of the sudden death of a classmate:
details flare out like sails
of a ship: mother trapped
in an asylum, father weeping,
his son’s warm corpse cradled
in his arms, the chicken bone
still lodged in his young throat.
To whom would this not be
an inelegant death—a caught
bone like one of our own?”
I’m struck by Faizullah’s simile—flare out like a ship—how tragedy turns to narrative and sets other pains into motion, be it grief or a desire for some form of justice. Faizullah also documents the stories in compact ways, choosing the most potent images and details to render heartbreaking devastation, and then moves to a larger, almost prophetic, question that forces readers to confront the senselessness of such a death. Later in the poem, she writes:
“I want to shed each jagged
dirt road, bodies jostled inside
each swerving car, trains
draped with bodies dangling
like writhing vines—”
In the speaker’s overpowering desire to escape grief, Faizullah again uses imagery in a way that’s utterly haunting. These bodies—filled with their stories and the stories filled with their grief—dangle like “writhing vines.” It’s strangely inhuman, but the sentiments of fear, threat, and claustrophobia come through clearly in those few lines.
Faizullah’s details not only haunt: they also create a sense of place while documenting an acute sense of loss. Simple images can set the reader’s heart to aching in one swift turn. Take, for example, one of her poems titled “Interviewer’s Note”:
“Past another clothesline heavy
with saris: for hours they
will lift into the wind, hollow
of any bruised or broken body.”
The saris on this clothesline take on a ghostly quality, reminding us that even though they are clean, they are never washed of the broken bodies that inhabited them. It’s a stark image and a difficult one to confront.
The poems get more difficult as they directly convey the voices of rape survivors. In another poem titled “Interviewer’s Note,” we get a glimpse into the horror of assault.
me—river—me—you want the splayed heart
of another’s hand clasping yours, to know
if cruelty exists, or if it is only love’s threadbare
I actually have no words for this. Simply demoralizing, shocking, overwhelming, profoundly painful. Faizullah uses the second person to take on an accusatory and simultaneously distanced voice of the rape victim, encompassing the sense of shame in the details. The juxtaposition of the self with the river creates a jarring image of callous assault; however, as it’s repeated the speaker starts to blend with the river in a way that’s both haunting (does she exist anymore or is she drowning in this river? Becoming the river?) and beautiful (a body is a part of nature.) The craft work here is stunning.
Faizullah also documents the after effects of trauma in moving, empathetic ways. In “Dhaka Nocturne”:
“I admit that when the falling hour
Begins to husk the sky free of its
saffroning light, I reach for anyone
willing to wrap his good arm tight
around me for as long as the ribboned
darkness allows. Who wants, after all,
to be seen too clearly?”
Again, the question takes on a shaman like quality—how grief resides within us in a way that forces us to want to hide part of ourselves. Ironically, we also want human contact and tenderness in any form. Loss doesn’t make us fully recoil: it often makes us desperately reach out for any type of contrived and fleeting semblance of healing.
The horrors of history are not past: sadly, these types of injustices still occur all over the world, making trauma almost commonplace, even in its profound effects on communities and politics. However, Faizullah’s poetry does some of the necessary work we need to begin to combat injustice: forcing oneself to confront it and making it impossible to forget it. Thus, her poetry restores faith in humanity through its graceful empathy, and reminds us of our responsibilities to the future: we must feel the pain of others, so that we can fight for justice passionately when tragedy and war bear their monstrous teeth in our present.
Anne Champion is the author of Reluctant Mistress (Gold Wake Press, 2013). Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, The Pinch, Pank Magazine, The Comstock Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, Poetry Quarterly, Cider Press Review, The Aurorean, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s Prize, a recipient of the Barbara Deming Memorial grant, a Pushcart Prize nominee, a St. Botolph Emerging Writer’s Grant nominee, and a Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop participant. She holds degrees in Behavioral Psychology and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College. She currently teaches writing and literature at Wheelock College in Boston, MA and is a staff writer for Luna Luna Magazine.