Violent Inactions: Rage and Reclamation in Asiya Wadud’s Syncope

Asiya Wadud’s Syncope is a pensive enunciation of incredible injustice. This visceral illustration of the refugee crisis reclaims space and attention and gives voice to those who are silenced. Syncope is a book-length dirge mourning those that died and survived the 2011 Left-to-Die Boat. Asiya Wadud inhabits the choral voice of the survivors and the dead as the poem moves through a hell-scape of fragmentation, abandonment, and fissure. 

Early in the collection, Wadud proposes the poem to be “a reckoning / a recitation / a dirge / an imprint.” The poem delivers all of these approaches. It lays blame, offers prayer, mourns, and becomes an object embedded in the mind of the reader. Wadud’s use of the dirge embraces its classical sense: its central goal is to lament those who have died, not console those who live. Using repetition and refrain Wadud takes us through a difficult story honoring those killed by lack of intervention. 

The Left-to-Die boat was an inflatable boat filled with seventy-four people from African countries, such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana, who boarded in Tripoli, bound for Europe, and experienced trouble at sea. Even though the duty to rescue those in distress at sea is an international law, and even though their boat was sighted by several vessels and authorities, they were left to die nonetheless. Nine people survived.

The Left-to-Die Boat was documented by Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research group based at The University of London which uses design and architecture to investigate and deliver reports on human rights violations around the world to be used in legal proceedings and presented to the public. Testimony from a few of the nine survivors is integral to Wadud’s poem, and her generous “notes” section gives the reader opportunity to continue learning about this disaster. But Synocope is not reportage—Wadud channels the ancient to give epic resonance to the failure to protect life on the Mediterranean Sea. 

The poem resists beginning, spending several pages on title, subtitle, and definitions of the title. Even the first line is interjected with internal spaces, the next stanza hugging the margin: 

there were 38 maritime vessels
they were all ocular if they chose to be

The starts and stops abut austere statements. Wadud’s use of empty space on the page, using the volume of the margin to speak, is juxtaposed with plain-spoken diction. Pronouns play a key role in a poem that addresses an unnamed “you” and is spoken from the first-person “we,” a sometimes choral, sometimes singular point of view. The poem is expressed from the voice of both survivor and victim. The “you” is a shifting address to the reader of Syncope, as well as the crew of the thirty-eight vessels that passed the boat, and the policymakers and leaders who continue to not do enough.

Despite the righteous anger that bubbles underneath this entire poem, Wadud’s writing doesn’t focus on laying blame—rather, she turns towards the disaster. Her spatial positioning focuses the lament on what is lost, giving it details and humanity. This is not a poem that heavily cites the governmental policies that the vessels, in refusing to give aid, violated; it is not a poem that relies on the larger context of this disaster to give it more poignancy. Wadud turns toward the Left-to-Die Boat. Her poem looks at it. And like a visual artist might paint a picture or assemble an installation to bring the disaster right in front of its audience, Syncope holds up the voice of the survivor, the voices of the dead—the drifting, the despair. We are asked to look—and not look away. Wadud writes: 

don’t call this a tragedy 
you know the exact language 
the ways you exculpate when the 
violence is stated 
we give you some new words: 
calcified violence

Violence of inaction every bit as real as physical aggression. Violence that broadcasts the message that migrants and refugees don’t matter; their lives hold no value. A violent message, a harsh reality for those dead, a psychological toll for those waiting to escape or die—at sea or still on shore. Those in the boat internalize the violence shown to them:

we doubted our own humanity because 
the rescue boats 
each of them 
saw something we couldn’t see 
shirked us 
we started to doubt that we were human 
without mirrors it is impossible 
to know what we are reflecting 
some vastness 
our images refract

Syncope resonates with the evenhanded fury of the dead speaking from the grave, of Antigone facing the executioner. It is simultaneously despairing, righteous, and blunt. Wadud allows the stark lines ample empty space so that they may shout from the page, mixing the lyrical and legal at several turns: “this is violence no shame reconciles.” The word “reconciles” feels apt. Shame is an understandable reaction to seeing humans valued so little that their suffering is willfully ignored, while one’s own life is respected and stable. “Reconciles” stands out because no amount of shame will balance out the violence migrants endure. The two experiences are not in the same conversation—one cannot answer the other.

In clear, stark testimony for the members of the Left-to-Die boat, people of color, and of the global south, Wadud writes, “I have faced all the torments— // bad situations / exploitations / theft / unmitigated ire for my dark skin // the insistence that we just die.” On the boat, seventy-two becomes thirteen. They dream of flying away like the cormorant. Wadud writes, “we are the ruin / meanwhile / we are not ruined.” They become eleven. Become nine. 

The end of the volume is filled with empty space, the page without text drifts off. Syncope enacts drifting in its form and content—the water, the boat, the lack of direction. The table of contents directs a reader to different middles of the poem. Epigraphs appear at the end of the book after the acknowledgment page. Formlessness is worked into the static technology of the book. 

Wadud defines “syncope” as “temporary loss of consciousness caused by a fall in blood pressure”; “the omission of sounds or letters from within a word, e.g. when probably is pronounced ‘präblē”; “in music, a change of rhythm and shift of accent when a normally weak beat is stressed.” Each of these definitions—the somatic, linguistic, and musical—operate as themes as Wadud moves through this landscape-not-landscape. The act of omission in the linguistic use of “syncope” is important—the unstressed syllable is left out. But syncope cuts both ways—in the musical “syncope,” the weak syllable is stressed. The people on the Left-to-Die Boat would be elided from history if not for acts of reclamation like Syncope, which place the stress on what has been discounted as weak.

Emily Wolahan is the author of the poetry collection Hinge (National Poetry Review Press, 2015). Her poetry has appeared in the Boston Review, the Georgia Review, Oversound, and other publications. Her prose can be found in Arts & Letters, Among Margins (Ricochet Editions, 2016), and The New Inquiry. She is a Poetry Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal.