“Flaunting of this Flesh": A Review of Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages
by David Nilsen
Tarfia Faizullah’s new collection from Graywolf Press adapts its title from its first poem, “Register of Eliminated Villages.” The eponymous register was referenced by Kanan Makiya in a 2002 episode of Frontline and referred to a hand-written book that recorded 397 Kurdish villages in northern Iraq that had been eliminated at that time. From this wide-lens frontispiece, one might assume Registers of Illuminated Villages to be a broad, sweeping look at the violence of the Iraq war, or war in general, or xenophobic violence the world over. The book’s purview is much more personal than this, however, looking at the violence both physical and emotional that has shaped the speaker's life and the individual lives around her.
The various definitions of “register” are referenced and employed throughout the book—written lists, changes in pitch, sought-for records of memory. In the book’s opening poem, Faizullah moves from the unspeakable tragedy of those Kurdish exterminations to the small portrait of her parents in bed, her father seeking a written sign of her future.
A father reaches
for the Qur’an, thumbs through
page after illuminated page,
runs his finger beneath
each line of verse, looks everywhere
for the promise of my name.
In “100 Bells,” Faizullah records in rapid staccato a litany of violations and losses endured, though by whom they have been endured isn’t clear. In writing since the first publication of the poem, Faizullah has been careful not to clarify which of these tragedies are autobiographical. Ultimately, it’s not important; these are things that happen in this world, the worst images of human loss spread across two pages:
My sister died. He raped me. They beat me. I fell
to the floor. I didn’t. I knew children,
their smallness. Her corpse. My fingernails.
This task of recording is maintained throughout Registers, but by book’s end, a different sort of register is acknowledged. In the final poem, “Fable of the Firstborn,” Faizullah concludes a personal origin story with lines that speak to another meaning of “register” while referencing a different type of record altogether: the chapters and verses of the Qur’an:
Isn’t that why you’re here? In the end,
there’s only one way to begin
an origin story: at the beginning. I know
a good one: a monster named Joy-
in-the-Margins learns the nature of light
by revising the dark into song with every
register of her seven tongues.
Ready? Let’s begin. Verse 0. Surah 1.
Throughout Registers, Faizullah explores the theme of the body as corruptible: the nameless dead from those villages mentioned early on; her sister’s childhood death, referenced repeatedly; her own horrific injury suffered in a childhood accident. The polarized spiritual interpretations of the body—as enlightened vessel of beauty, as Gnostic source of evil—are eroded away in this context, and the body remains simply the body, the gateway to human experience, but neither celestial chariot nor shameful shackle. As she writes in “Sex or Sleep or Silk,”
I am the flaunting
of this flesh that eats,
fucks, bathes, waits—
I’m done cataloging
Violence is done against the body, but that is no more the body’s fault than grief is the spirit’s fault. The body is a conduit, and it is corruptible, breakable, and temporary, but it is all we have. Faizullah acknowledges this in “Consider the Hands Once Smaller,” which opens:
It is like this. The night is lonely
until it isn’t. You bite your tongue
after eating orange rubbed with chili
before washing for a kiss
from a man whose questions
unearth the softness in you.
We share with each other the names
Of our dying.
She finishes the poem with these beautiful words that come with a bitter bite, respite and resentment intertwined:
I don’t know why we don’t know our own holiness,
but once you were a little girl, and so was I.
That melancholic backward gaze is perhaps the central emotional tone of Register, and she describes it perfectly in “The Hidden Register of Hunger”:
searching for the memory
of the first ancient feeling
we ever had.
There is regret and fatigue and grief draped across those words, but they are still standing on the page, and she is still here to speak them. Despite the register of loss she testifies to in this collection, Faizullah still has a voice. As she writes in “IV and Make-Up Homework” after describing the agony of a childhood shoulder injury and subsequent treatments, “Mornings begin anyway.” We keep waking up. We keep breathing with these corruptible bodies. After enough of those mornings, Joy-in-the-Margins might just emerge.
David Nilsen is a freelance writer living in Ohio. He is a National Book Critics Circle member, and his literary reviews and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Gulf Coast, The Millions, The Georgia Review, and numerous other respected publications. You can find more of his writing at davidnilsenwriter.com.