By Mitchell Angelo
Tarfia Faizullah is a Bengali-American award-winning poet. Her second collection of poetry, Registers of Illuminated Villages, examines violence: both personal and societal. She utilizes the confessional style to present the reader with real life challenges she has faced. Faizullah blends the philosophical with the tangible. Her work makes the reader ask questions about the nature of humanity, and what it means to be good.
Faizullah discusses living as a person of color in The United States, specifically in “Self Portrait As A Mango.” In it, the collection’s first expletive appears, and its place is well earned. With the opening stanza, “Your English is great! How long have you been in our country? / I say, Suck on a mango, bitch, since that’s all you think I eat anyway,” Faizullah takes down ignorant white people. This sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is similarly straightforward and dialogue-heavy. Throughout it, the speaker’s self-comparison to a mango acts as a metaphor for objectification—as a possible reference to ignorant people who compare non-white people to inanimate objects. In expanding on this comparison, Faizullah holds nothing back. She makes sure the reader clearly understands what she is articulating. The result is a poem of fury.
Toward the end of “Self-Portrait as a Mango,” the speaker examines self-worth as a person of color, finally concluding: “This mango isn’t alien just because of its gold-green bloodline. I know I’m worth waiting for.” This line marks her refusal to give in to the self-hate she has been taught by white society. It is a proclamation of self-love— a moment of strength against the violence “Registers of Illuminated Villages” expands upon.
In addition to conveying fury and defiance, Faizullah calls for her audience to learn and relearn loss. “To The Bangladeshi Cab Driver In San Francisco” is an example of this. Here, a sorrowful narrative unfolds as Faizullah recalls hearing a cab driver speak the language she learned as a child. She writes, “I could open my mouth to you in the register I know we know, but don’t, or won’t.”
Reading this poem—especially this line—as a person of color, my heart broke. I saw the speaker’s decision to stay silent as evidence that she is not ready to relive negative experiences she has had within her culture. I, along with plenty of Faizullah’s other readers, have had the exact same experience. My culture feels like both a celebration and a weight to bear, especially having grown up in a predominantly white neighborhood. And at times, I too have opted for silence. In “To the Bangladeshi Cab Driver in San Francisco,” Faizullah puts this silence into words. Though heartbreaking, the poem was so important for me to read. It resonated with me not just on a cultural level, but on a deeply personal level as well.
Loss of the language of one’s childhood is one of several types of loss that Faizullah makes known to her readers. For instance, “Registers of Eliminated Villages,” the collection’s almost-namesake, is a breathtaking piece about loss of innocence, about children struggling to find a safe, warm space to exist in an area ravaged by war. With the lines, “A mother turns to a father / in the cold room they share, / offers her hands to his spine. / I curl inside her, a silver bangle / illuminated by candle’s / flame,” Faizullah examines the beginning of life amidst living beings already struggling to survive. These instances of experiential dichotomy appear over and over throughout the collection, giving Registers of Illuminated Villages the strength and power it needs to become a vital piece in poetry.