Registers of Illuminated Villages
By Tarfia Faizullah
Reviewed by Mitchell R. McInnis
Tarfia Faizullah's most recent poetry collection, Registers of Illuminated Villages, which follows-up on her dazzling debut, Seam, is an adroit sheaf of poetic strategies that succeeds as a product, but stumbles on poetic imperatives that would enable it to transcend its own hinges.
Registers of Illuminated Villagesis a handsome book. Like so many of Graywolf's other offerings, the publisher has paid careful attention to the details of bookmaking all but lost in today's churn of cheap publishing. This is satisfying and enticing, and worth mentioning because the design helped draw me back into the collection for my second and third reads, convinced I'd missed something in the text. To my chagrin, that was not the case—and in my chest I felt a hum rise.
Finding the illumined middle ground between sparking pathos and the self-indulgence of writers who make self the grail isn't easy. Then again, it isn't supposed to be. And as someone who's skeptically served my time in MFA workshops, I know the strange undertow that can pull talented poets away from the light and into the murk of being liked and praised amidst small-group dynamics and politics. Inspiration can get lost in formalism and the conversation-making ability of poems, and before you know it, everything sounds like Billy Collins's poem "Workshop." But again, I'm humming.
Over the course of my several readings of Illuminated, I moved beyond my attraction to the book as a product to a feeling of dismay over the collection's lack of emotional content. Amidst the hum, the word shrewd kept punctuating my evaluative thoughts—"shrewd" being a sort of praise similar to the way we praise authors for being "media savvy." I was aching for what Charles Simic calls the power of a poem to draw a reader back to the top and through, over and over again in a microcosmic eternal return, but it just wasn't happening.
Sitting, staring at the end notes of Illuminated, I was reminded of Faizullah's samplings of Sylvia Plath's Ariel and Histoire d'O by French author Anne Declos under the nom de plume Pauline Réage. Both Plath's and Declos's books are haunting and at times emotionally devastating. They yield serious introspection in readers regardless of gender or sexual tastes. These perennial tomes among twentysomethings are illuminating rites of passage.
Four poems exemplify the way Illuminated's emotional content lagged for me. Two of them are self-portraits: "Self-Portrait as a Mango" and "Self-Portrait as a Slinky." The Mango portrait is arguably the most emotionally taut poem in the book, leading with the line, "Suck on a mango, bitch, since that's all you think I eat anyway." This type of anger ebbs and flows throughout the poem, leading to, "Because this 'exotic' fruit won't be cracked open to reveal whiteness to you." It's a clever riposte to the presumed insults of the woman the speaker is addressing, but the portrait ultimately relies again on the word exotic, turning the word against itself, exposing it to be more insult than compliment.
Third among the four, "Your Own Country," opens with an elliptical reference to 9/11: "the same day two towers staggered into the ground." This short prose poem calls up the immense topics of poverty, 9/11, and its aftermath, then tries to dispose of the same with the same cleverness of the self-portraits without success. The lagging emotional residue of these three poems is somewhat ironically expressed in the poem "What This Elegy Wants"—ironic because the poem does not express an awareness that its couplets unpack the book's troubles overall. As the poem's speaker states, "I fingered bolts of satin I never intended to buy." Unfortunately, this sentiment is the residue that sticks with the reader.
Of the many combatants and refugees I've come to know from my own experiences amidst the chaos of lower Manhattan on 9/11, I've often felt my mind and heart's exhaustion surrounding the endless complexity of those events, their causes, and their aftermath. Running through all of them is the agonizing, inexhaustible ache of individual wounds that are never salved by collective politics. These events epitomize our failure as a species to evolve toward the democratic vistas Whitman envisioned. They haunt us with the spectres of our own selfishness and lack of true empathy. Unfortunately, the postscript and meta qualities of the above poems, as well as others in Illuminated, echo rather than redress the kind of political dialogue that dominates U.S. outlets and especially its dinner parties and cocktail hours.
While reading Illuminated, I revisited the work of American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who has explained the epistemological importance of emotional reactions. In part, this is a function of her mastery of classical texts and the elaborately discussed functions of tragedy among philosophers. If American poetry's move away from confessional poetry to a mix of persona poems and formalism sometimes frustrates a reader's emotional response, it thereby frustrates self-reflection and insight. As Nussbaum writes:
Our cognitive activity, as we explore the ethical conception embodied in the text, centrally involves emotional response. We discover what we think about these events partly by noticing how we feel; our investigation of our emotional geography is a major part of our search for self-knowledge.
In Sanskrit, it is called rasa—literally taste/savor the juice, the essence. Rasa is considered the heart of poetry in the Indian tradition. An emotional response parallel to human experience—and also transcendent of the same—rasa is an aesthetic breakthrough both emotional and intellectual. So compelling is this channeling of poetry, Schopenhauer borrowed the notion in his examinations of Indian philosophy, and it became integral to Nietzsche's Dionysian interpretations of classical theater and poetry. Scholar Kathleen Marie Higgins described Nietzsche's interpretation of reader/spectator experience as a "veritable Dionysian votary, suddenly able to see through the actor to the character, and through the character to the god."
Federico Garcia Lorca described this essential, dithyrambic fire as the "Dionysian scream." Lorca went on with this scorching imagery to help a poet find its sensation in one's veins, "Seeking the duende there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand." Unfortunately, for Registers of Illuminated Villages, it's more map and discipline than duende.
Decades ago, poet and critic Karl Shapiro engaged the question "Is Poetry an American Art?" Among his other ruminations taken from Whitman's and other American poet's journals, he concluded, "Ours is a hothouse poetry, kept alive by artificial respiration and fluorescent light." The hothouse is academia. Shapiro was writing long before MFA programs became an attractive revenue source for American universities, so his thought is both diagnostic as well as prophetic. And it is a thought in need of redress.