Tarfia Faizullah

Three Poems

Volume 14:2, Spring 2013


Independence Day Celebration 2011, Dhaka


In a courtyard, in these stacks of chairs
before the empty stage—near are
we Lord, near and graspable. Lord,
accept these humble offerings:

stacks of biscuits wrapped in cellophane,
stacks of bone in glass: thighbone,
spine. Stacks of white saucers, porcelain
circles into which stacks of lip-worn

cups slide neat. Jawbone, Lord. Galleries
of laminated clippings declaring war.
Hands unstack chairs into rows. The dead:
they still go begging. What for, Lord?

Blunt bayonets, once sharp as wind?
Moon-pale stacks of clavicle? A hand—


Moon-pale stacks of clavicle a hand
brushes dust from. I lost a word

that was left to me: sister. The wind
severs through us—we sit, wait

for songs of nation and loss in neat
long rows below this leaf-green

flag—its red-stitched circle stains
us blood-bright blossom, stains

us river-silk—I saw you, sister, standing
in this brilliance—I saw light sawing

through a broken car window, thistling
us pink—I saw, sister, your bleeding

head, an unfurling shapla flower
petaling slow across mute water—


Petaling slow
across mute water,
bows of trawlers
skimming nets
of silver fish that ripple
through open
hands that will carve them

less. We were hands,
we scooped
the darkness empty. We
are rooted
bodies in rows silent before
the sparked
blue limbs of dancers
leafing the dark

light indigo, then
jasmine alighting
into a cup, then
hands overturning
postcards bearing flag
& flower, hands
cradling the replica of a boat,

thrust there and into
nothingness. You,
a corpse, sister, bathed
jasmine, blue.


A corpse: sister, bathed jasmine. Blue,

the light leading me from this giftshop into

a gallery of gray stones: Heartgray puddles,

two mouthfuls of silence: the shadow


cast by the portrait of a raped woman trapped

in a frame, face hidden behind her own black

river of hair: photo that a solemn girl

your corpse’s age stands still & small

before. She asks, “Did someone hurt her?

Did she do something bad?” Her mother

does not reply. Her father turns, shudders,

as the light drinks our silences, parched—


as I too turn in light, spine-scraped—

you teach you teach your hands to sleep


you teach you teach your hands to sleep

because her hands can’t hold the shape

of a shapla flower cut from its green leaf

because her hands can’t hold grief

nor light nor sister     in her hands fistfuls

of her own hair    on her wrists glass bangles

like the one you struggled over your hand

the same hand that slapped a sister’s wan

face    look   the young girl stands before

the photo of the young woman who swore

she would not become the old woman

crouched low on a jute mat holding

out to you a bangle     a strange lostness was

bodily present      you came near to living


Bodily present, you came near to living,
Poet, in this small blue dress still stained,

the placard states, with the blood of the child
crushed dead by a soldier’s boot. Who failed

& fails?—nights you couldn’t bear the threshed
sounds of your heart’s hard beating. I press

a button: 1971 springs forth: black and white
bodies marching in pixellated rows. Nights

you resuscitated the Word, sea-overflowed,
star-overflown. A pixellated woman tied

with a white rope to a black pole, her white
sari embroidered with mud or blood. Nights

you were the wax to seal what’s unwritten—
the screen goes white in downdrifting light.


The screen goes white. In downdrifting light,
the stairwell is a charred tunnel. We walk out
of it into the courtyard—my skirt flares a rent
into the burnt evening. Something was silent,

something went its way—something gnashes
inside me, Sister—along the yellow gashes
of paint guiding me through these rooms lined
with glass cases, past machine gun chains

shaped into the word Bangla. Here, on this
stage, a dancer bows low her limbs
once more before us. The stage goes silent.
We gather ourselves: souvenirs of bone.

Pray, Lord. We are near. Near are we, Lord—
in a courtyard, in these stacks of chairs.



Dilara Begum Jolly

Dilara Begum Jolly, “Before the End of Time IV,” 2005, acrylic on canvas, 53″ x 93″



After she has ducked through
the low-slung metal shack, the war-
raped women she’s come
to visit offer tea drowsy with sweet.
They begin to speak, unlocking
the desiccated coffins of their grief.
The video camera’s lens blinks
on their dawn-thin faces until daylight
spools itself back into darkness.
Anything, she says, you would like
to tell me, anything you can
remember.  She ducks back under
the clothesline heavy with faded saris
out to the main road.  The rickshawallah
pedals across town to a small,
heat-spattered hotel room, and after,
she wraps a dark silk scarf around
herself until twilight.  She rubs her eyes
riverbank-raw until she lies
on the hard narrow bed and begins
to touch herself. After the familiar
arched shuddering, she wants to cry,
because that, at least, might be
redemption for each broken body
that can’t be restored. She doesn’t
feel shame’s dark-circled tightening
after waking fully-clothed
to the mirror, dust-webbed, nor
when she boards the bus back
to the city.  Sunlight fades to the open
windows into white dreams.
A child bends down to elevate
a pink blossom away
from a green field. It’s when she returns
to a borrowed flat, begins
to strip off her travel-pungent clothes
and smells her own body’s resinous
musk.  It’s when she sits naked
at the desk to rewind & fast-forward
through all the pixellated footage
of the women’s kerosened lives.
It’s when she begins to write
about it in third person, as though
it was that simple
to unnail myself from my own body.




Autumn of deviant heat, bruised
thighs, pale and shuttered
blinds, the day’s
hours discarded

in red brick, blue tile, preparing
for tonight’s impromptu
dinner party.
Failures rise up: wet

coffin, a single black hair stark
on a white towel. Hang
a needlework
of women grinding rice

into flour, a tapestried sky gray
like her eyeglasses, twisted
thin in that
plastic bag. Make rice

fragrant with jasmine: white flower
gift from God, steeped
and pressed into
a single vial of oil

sprinkled over her swaddled corpse.
Line your eyes with kohl,
twist away your
dark curls. Gather

the coats of your friends, pour
another round of cocktails.
Watch her twirl
through the room,

translucent, the skirt of her lilac
dress flaring out around her.
Fill white bowls
with steaming curry.

Speak, when prompted, a few
words of Bangla. Look away
from her
ceaseless whirling to your

laughing friends who drop
again the short, thin needle
of the old
record player down into

the grooved black album to play
the song you don’t want to hear.


“Reading Celan at the Liberation War Museum” and “The Interviewer Acknowledges Shame” are reprinted from Copper Nickel, and “Nocturne: Dinner Party” is reprinted from The Cincinnati Review, with permission by the author.

Tarfia Faizullah is the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor in Poetr at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers' Program and the author of Seam (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), winner of the 2012 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in Oxford American, Americacn Poetry Review, New England Review, and Best New Poets 2014. Her honors include fellowships and scholarships from the Fulbright Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and Sewanee Writers' Conference. She co-directrs the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press and Video Series with Jamaal May in Detroit, MI.