Poetry Double Features #5


In Poetry Double Features, poet, critic, and editor Summer Farah moves away from the capitalistic language of “comparative titles” and instead towards the indulgence possible in considering two poetry collections that complement each other. The books paired here are not necessarily similar, but Farah asks: what language, pleasure, or wonder might be uncovered when they are read together? Poetry Double Features is in praise of the beautiful and unruly process of reading, synthesizing, and parsing out connective threads.  This month, Farah considers Your Blue and the Quiet Lament by Lubna Safi and White Blight by Athena Farrokhzad.


Your Blue and the Quiet Lament x White Blight

I first read Lubna Safi’s Your Blue and the Quiet Lament with the intention of writing a review; I didn’t, so when this column came to fruition I knew I wanted to write about it alongside another book. At first, I considered other texts that center loss; this collection explores death, grief, and the function of art so beautifully, “quietly” as the title suggests. I was particularly struck by the abundance of distances rendered by the experience of grief.  My favorite first poems are ones that give me a taste of the motifs to come, that give me a sort of navigational tool for the rest of the collection, like a prelude Safi constructs more of an overture, taking her time to tease out the different modes at play with the first several poems; they are not necessarily out of place with each other on the first read, but more rewarding as an introductory set on the second and third. I love the opening “Although,” which achingly produces the first distance–the literal one, of the diasporic poet to the homeland, to the family back home, and the consequences wrought by such distance. Upon learning about the death of her cousin, the speaker begins:  “It was Friday–no–weeks ago someone said. / Where had they taken him? / What does his mother know?”

That first line, a refutation, a misremembering, the distance quickly built into the line itself with the em-dash; stark, unobvious. I like this choice over caesura–less space to breathe, but still building. The reader should not have a moment of relief when those rendered in the poem do not.What a simple grief, to only have blurry approximations of what happened to someone you love. 

The next distance rendered is between mother and daughter. The poem “My mother no longer paints with the color blue” begins, “My mother sees nothing with her hands / canvassed across her lap except the shade / of every blue she ever painted.” I love that first linebreak with its blending of senses; the misdirect of seeing with one’s hands invites the absence of a certain type of intimacy. The speaker continues, “When she paints, my mother looks without / seeing me.” Here, the distance between the speaker and her mother is concrete, the crafting of distances. Painting is a continued motif with which this distance is communicated. I am often interested in how poets inspect poetry in their work, whether there is an admittance to its futility, or a consideration of its power; Safi’s collection plays with artistic practice on a variety of levels–coping mechanism or grief vehicle or betrayal, over and over again. 

The final stanza of the poem reads, “I cannot explain what happened, / only that it emerged out of the blue.” Again, I find this line even more evocative with a reread; the play with “blue,” as the idiomatic surprise in its first instance of staunchly figurative use is refreshing; I think of Yanyi’s Year of Blue Water and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and their use of blue, very shrouded in that mournful haze despite the abundance of definitions and histories each of those poets both offer. The speaker in this poem presents it as a push through the haze-y tone the poem has conjured thus far, and the blues the book will offer us later. That line, “I cannot explain what happened,” makes the next poem more poignant, in which we learn what happened–like mother, like daughter; the speaker witnesses her mother painting through grief, and so turns to the artistic practice of her own choosing to process the events. “Shot and buried with Lorca” begins, “I used to hear the dead speak like verses / in Lorca’s poems, barely audible, / Ay ay ay / Ay ay ay” and ends, 

I skip lines to avoid the end
of the poem but I can’t outrun the news that has 
reached me, that his mother withheld,
that his father didn’t know. That my cousin had 
covered himself with God and died in a shroud. 

A rush, a mournful reveal. The pillars of the book are set. 

It wasn’t until I saw Safi on a panel at AWP did I realize which book I wanted to write about alongside hers. I saw her speak with other Arab women about writing in English with Arabic as a first language. I was particularly interested in her perspective, as her story is similar to mine; raised by immigrant parents in the midwest, her environment was such that Arabic was the home language and English the language of everywhere else. Safi, however, is fluent, whereas I am not. She mentioned she had been asked about the ethics of “voicing” her cousin and thus “making him into a character,”–ethics that seemed in question in part because he would have been speaking Arabic, rather than the English the collection is majority rendered in.  I was interested in this question for my own work; when I use Arabic, is it performance, since it is not the language I primarily filter the world through? Is it honest? How do I give voice to the people in my life, who when they speak to me, I translate before I can reply? 

That brought me to the remarkable White Blight, by Athena Farrokhzad trans. from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida. This book is an art object, its cover a reflective silver, with the title, author, and translator name engraved into the shiny cloth. And then you open it; the lines are set with a black-box outline and white text, very evenly down the page; it’s a book-length poem, or a book full of poems that are untitled. I do not know which, but I am leaning towards the latter.

When I read a translated work, I am mostly thankful that it exists–how lucky am I to have access to this writing, how lucky am I to be able to read something that I would not have been able to before. However, with the case of White Blight, it feels almost more profound in translation. The more the work is filtered the more the thesis comes through. The collection begins,

My family arrived here in a Marxist tradition

My mother immediately filled the house with Santa knick-knacks
Weighed the pros and cons of the plastic Christmas tree
as if the problem were hers 

This pattern of “My [family member] [said/did/etc]” is what propels the book; so many instances are utterances, “My mother said: Never underestimate the trouble people will take / to formulate truths possible for them to bear / My mother said: You were not fit to live even from the start” or “My father said: I have lived my life, I have lived my life / I have done my share / Now nothing remains of the halcyon days of youth.” If the question of voice arose in others’ reading of Safi’s work, then surely it would be fascinating to read it alongside a collection that is entirely about voicing others. I remember the rhythm that built up as I read, each page turn wondering when I would experience a shift as books with such stark forms are wont to do; the utterances are a mixture of more off-kilter than you would expect a family member to say and very normal fare for a work by a diasporic poet. There’s a belief/disbelief operating so early on–I wanted confirmation of one or the other. My favorite moment of this unsettling/grounding is about a third of the way through: 

My father said: Whose father are you rendering 
My mother said: Whose mother are you rendering 
My brother said: Whose brother is being referred to 
My grandmother said: If you don’t finish chopping the vegetables soon
there won’t be any dinner 

The lines are robotic with their lack of punctuation, phrases on the page seemingly unrelated to each other, like a series of stock phrases generated and put out at random. This moment, though, a glitch in the system–the voices rendered speak back in awareness. Would our family members recognize themselves in our work? Much of this collection is philosophy from the voice of the “family,” whether about exile or war or poetry; I find it incredibly useful for inspecting my own guilt surrounding my craft, that “ethical” rendering. This formation of, “My father said: Whose father are you rendering” works in a multitude of ways, I think–both for self reflection of the person-turned-voice in a poem, and the reminder that the “speaker” is not necessarily the poet themself. To say for certain that Farrokhzad has a brother is a misreading. This is something I struggle with, in my own writing and as a reader–the bounds of reality of where our feelings drive the work but the work does not need to adhere to a strict truth. 

So much of White Blight is about the failure of language (again, even cooler to experience in translation); I am so fascinated by the emphasis on mother-daughter relationships and the blunt complexity granted; 

My mother said: Write like this 
For my opportunities my mother sacrificed everything
I must be worthy of her 
Everything I write will be true 

My grandmother said: Write like this 
Mothers and languages resemble each other
in that they incessantly lie about everything 

I wonder, is this true? Does language lie? I understand the instinct of the mother to shield their child in the form of a lie–protecting them from the truth, and so-on. But if language itself is a lie, how else are we to express the truth? I think about the way art practice recurs throughout YBATQL, and wonder if this is an antidote. I love to read those lines from White Blight alongside two poems in YBATQL; the first, “A poet’s operation.”

The speaker recounts writing a poem with her father, an abundance of distance crafted through their body language, “I am standing beside him, barely reaching his upright / shoulders, while he reasons with his choice”. These lines: “My father can’t admit that language is a thing / already infected. The analogy unable to destabilize / anyone.” are an incredible contrast to the way Lorca has been used in the collection thus far, with poetry as a vehicle with which the speaker is able to come to terms with reality. I love the move towards the grotesque, “A heart exposed in the language operation / emerges bloodied and muscled from its enclosed space–/the family home. At the end / the letters have become indecipherable.” Vulnerability becomes ruinous.  

And then, to contrast, I read it against the far more tender, “I have a mother like this too,” in which the speaker details communicating with her mother through a series of failed languages, or half-meanings: “mid-thought, the words running out, I say to her / while she sits with outstretched hands at the threshold of prayer” to, “the sayings in Arabic that tesselate the mother: / a monkey is a gazelle in the eye of his mother,” to “My mother never said to me, you are beautiful, / only said the words someone else said. / I write to her I am tired, in an Arabic broken by numbers, / my grief spelled out” to the closing lines:

I’ve seen how she nestles the longing in her hands, 
for the sake of a city she cannot name. There, there.
Without tears, how can you be sure the grief is there? 

There’s so much space between the utterances, there’s so much love imbued in those gaps, the unfinished utterances; as a reader, I can feel it, as an Arab daughter, I can feel it; it is those gaps in communication, the irregular space produced by the lines that really produces that tender environment. There is something valuable in the attempt to say rather than just in the success of saying–I think again to Farrokhzad’s “I must be worthy of her / Everything I write will be true”; is an artwork only valuable so far as it is “true”? Are there records not rendered through fiction? 

I see “ars poetica” as breaking the fourth-wall in poetry.  I love the way that “A poet’s operation” functions as an ars poetica in the context of YBATQL, since I don’t really see poetry actually operating as ruinous throughout the collection–rather, more similarly to the way language is expressed in “I have a mother like this too”, the negotiating of silences. “A poet’s operation,” then, is representative of a possibility of what the work could be doing, an admission and an acknowledgement. When Safi first mentioned she had been asked about the ethics of rendering her cousin’s “voice” in the collection, I was surprised; it almost felt like a misunderstanding of the work her book was doing–”voicing” the cousin felt much less like a prominent device, rather than the myriad of distances produced by his death. “Witnessing” and the lack thereof was the sense that stuck out to me in my first readings. I asked her more in depth about how she felt how voice was operating in the collection, which she generously answered via e-mail:  

“The one place I explicitly give my cousin a voice is in the poem ‘The Quiet Lament’…the lament as a poetic genre demands that kind of speaking out (and while in the Western tradition, it’s the mourner, I’m thinking also about the premodern Arabic qasida which begins with the tayf al-khayal, the phantom of the beloved, that speaks to the poet and whose absence the poet attempts to remedy (a dynamic that makes possible the rest of the qasida). 

But beyond the lament, I think the word ‘quiet’ is also doing some work here…with ‘quiet,’ you can interpret it how you want, it’s a voice that is not loud, not extending itself or imposing itself, quiet can also be silence, is there really a voice there? And throughout that poem specifically the moments my cousin ‘speaks’ are when I’m imagining him addressing the speaker of the poem.” 

In a way, White Blight is entirely built by the “phantom of the beloved” speaking to the poet; the family member who is speaking but not really speaking, their voice told to us by the speaker who does not speak back. I wonder if the collection is looking for an opening to speak back, and what linguistic failures are present to keep that from happening. There is a two-page spread late in the book where multiple family members take turns speaking with a repeated formula, “[This] for X, [that] for Y, [something] for Z, and a [family member] for you”; the most chilling is the two stanzas attributed to the mother. 

My mother said: Oxygen for the lifeless
vitamins for the listless
Prostheses for the limbless
and a language for you

My mother said: I will reclaim what belongs to me 
You will meet death robbed of language
Speechless you came, speechless you will return 

I wonder about this address; thus far, I read the “you” as the speaker, but when the last stanza of this sequence breaks form and produces this promise, I wonder–who is the “you,” now? Did the speaker arrive “speechless”, and that is why the collection is built from others’ voices? 

“The Quiet Lament” is the longest poem in YBATQL; Safi highlighted this excerpt of the poem in her response to me:

I am not writing in your direction to furnish my dreams with violence.
I have brought you along to show you the soil, close to the only crooked tree in the open
Where blood flowed and the angels looked for it.
To read this is not enough.
Please tread with your utmost respect. 

“Please tread with your utmost respect,” a beautiful plea. To move from the existential angst and guilt inside my own head to legitimate conversations I have had with other loved ones about the navigation of gaze, the responsibility placed on writers of color for their depictions when out-groups will be considering our work. If a poet cannot use their craft to process their grief without it being taken as trauma porn, what else are we meant to do? This inclusion is necessary not because of the complicity of the poet, but the gaze of the reader.  I am interested in this moment alongside this one in White Blight: 

My uncle said: Do not forget that you walked these streets as a child
Do not forget that all that matters in a revolution
is the daughters’ decisions between the lines of a poem 

My mother said: If you do not speak to someone for whom you can abandon language  /  there is no point in speaking

The sarcastic, “all that matters in a revolution / is the daughters’ decisions between the lines of a poem,” a reminder; perhaps we are not meant to take ourselves as seriously as we do. And so, the next lines, encouragement–”language” is defined and redefined so often in White Blight, but for my own purposes here I will imagine it as not the act of speaking, but the literal language in which one communicates. The abandonment of language, here, seems like an incredible act of love. The ways that YBATQL “abandon” language are  a communication of that love, too. I pair these collections because of the questions produced in my readings of them both, their push and pull with vastly different tones and forms, but always landing on my favorite consideration–what is poetry doing? 

Buy the collections:

Your Blue and the Quiet Lament from Texas Tech University Press 

White Blight from Argos Books 

Summer Farah