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08-25-2015

Tarfia Faizullah

 

1971 

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 West Pakistan. The war resulted in the secession of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh. According to Bangladeshi sources, 200,000 women were raped and over 3 million people were killed.

i. 

In West Texas, oil froths 
luxurious from hard ground
while across Bangladesh, 

bayoneted women stain 
pondwater blossom. Your 
mother, age 8, follows

your grandmother down worn 
stone steps to the old pond, 
waits breathless for her 

to finish untwining from 
herself the simple cotton 
sari to wade alone into green

water—the same color, 
your mother thinks, as 
a dress she’d like to twirl

the world in. She knows 
the strange men joining 
them daily for meals mean 

her no harm—they look like 
her brothers do nights they 
jump back over the iron gate, 

drenched in the scents of else-
where—only thinner. So thin—
in the distance, thunder, 

though the sky reflected
in the water her mother 
floats in burns bright blue. 

ii.

 

Gather these materials: 

          slivers of wet soap, hair

                    swirling pondwater, black oil. 

Amar peet ta duye de na, 

          Grandmother says, so Mother

                    palms the pink soap, slides

it between her small hands

          before arcing its jasmine-

                    scented froth across her 

back. Gather these materials: 

          the afternoon’s undrowned

                    ceremonies, the nattering 

of cicadas—yes, yes, yes—

          Mother watches Grandmother

                    disappear into water: light: 

many-leafed, like bits of bomb-

          shells gleaming like rose petals

                    upturned in wet grass, like 

the long river in red twilight— 

iii.

 

1971: the entire world unraveling
like thread your mother pulls 

& pulls away from the hem of her
dress. In America, the bodies 

of men & women march forward 
in protest, rage candling 

their voices—in Vietnam, monks 
light themselves on fire, learning

too late how easily the body burns—
soon, the men whose stomachs

flinch inward will struggle
the curved blades of their bayonets

into khaki-clad bodies, but for now
they lean against the cool stone 

walls of your grandparents’ house,
eyes closed as your mother watches

her mother twirl in the pond, longs
to encircle herself in ripples 

of light her fingers might 
arpeggio across green water—

she loves the small diamond
in her mother’s nose, its sunlit 

surface glittering like curled 
hot metal she knows falls from 

the sky, though never before her eyes.  

iv. 

 

Why call any of it back? Easy
          enough to descend with your

mother, down 
                     & down hard
                                         stone steps—how I loved, 
she says, to watch her—

                     yes, reach 

            forward to touch 

                                  the sun-ambered softness

of the bright sari Grandmother

           retwines around 
                                 her body—yes, 

your eyes 
            dazzled by the diamond’s

many-chambered light
                       —it shined
so, Mother says,
                       though it’s not you 

           she’s speaking to anymore, 

                      caught as she is in this reeling 
                                            backward—1971 
                      & a Bangladeshi 

woman catches the gaze 
                                            of a Pakistani 
soldier through rain-curved palm 

                       trees—her sari is torn 
                                                       from her—
She bathed the same 
                          way each time, Mother says

—the torn woman curls 
                                  into green silence—first, she 

would fold her sari, 
                          then dive in—yes, 

the earth green 
                       with rain, the water, 

green—then she would
                                       wash her face 
until her nosepin shined, aha re, 
how it shined—

                       his eyes, green

—then she would ask me to wash her back—

                                     the torn woman a helix of blood

 —then she would rub cream into her 
beautiful skin—

                                                    the soldier buttoning 
                                                                          himself back 

                                          into khaki—yes, call it 
                                                                          back again— 

v.

 

Two oceans between you, but still 
you can see her running a finger 
along the granite counter in the sun-

spilled kitchen, waiting for the tea
to boil before she drives past old 
West Texas oil fields still bright 

with bluebells. But tell me, she asks, 
why couldn’t you research the war
from here? Gather these materials, 

these undrowned ceremonies—
tea poured into a cup, a woman 
stepping lightly across green field

into a green pond—but don’t tell 
her the country of her birth
became a veined geography inside 

you, another body inside your own—Oh
Maa, she sobs. I miss her so. You open 
the door to step out to the concrete

veranda. Look: the moon is an ivory 
scythe gutting another pond across 
which the reflection of a young girl’s 

braid ripples. Tell me, you say, about 1971.

 

-from Seam

 

BIO: Bangladeshi-American poet, editor, and educator Tarfia Faizullah was born in 1980 in Brooklyn, NY and raised in west Texas. She received an MFA in poetry from Virginia Commonwealth University and is the author of Seam (SIU 2014), which U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey calls "beautiful and necessary," as well as Register of Eliminated Villages, (Graywolf 2017).

In reviewing Seam for Slate Magazine, Jonathan Farmer observes "There is poetry here: our living language pulled into shape by hunger and intelligence." Focused around a long sequence "Interview with a Birangona," the book explores the ethics of interviewing as well as the history of the birangona, Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers during the Liberation War of 1971. Tarfia received a Fulbright award to travel to Bangladesh and interview the birangona. Of her book, Tarfia has said, "I don't believe that there is an art that can ever render something as unreasonable and as violent as human suffering. I tried to write a book that acknowledges the limitations of that rendering as much as it is helpless before those ‘images of the atrocious' and the ways in which those images are forgotten even as they continue to haunt us."

Tarfia's honors and awards include a Great Lake College Association New Writers Awards, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, as well as scholarships and fellowships from Kundiman, Bread Loaf, Kenyon Review, Sewanee, and Vermont Studio Center. Her poems appear in Poetry Magazine, Poetry Daily, Oxford American, Ploughshares, jubilat, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. Poems have also been anthologized in Best New Poets 2013 (Meridian), The Book of Scented Things (Rose O'Neill Literary House Press), Please Excuse this Poem: 100 Poems for the Next Generation (Viking/Penguin), and Hard Lines: Rough South Poetry (University of Southern Carolina Press). Recent prose appears in LA Review of Books, the Poetry Foundation, and Necessary Fiction.

Tarfia has collaborated with photographer Elizabeth Herman, emcee and producer Brooklyn Shanti, and composer Jacob Cooper, and has served as an editor for Blackbird, Asian American Literary Review, Four Way Review, Orison Books, and New England Review. She co-directs the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press and Video Series with Jamaal May, and lives in Detroit, MI. She is the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor of Poetry in the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan.