Review by Ethan Milner
If we imagine a collection of poetry as something singular, I would call Fatimah Asghar’s debut, If They Come For Us (Corsair, 2018), a tapestry. A tapestry, according to the Met Museum Blog, is composed of vertical threads, known as warps, and horizontal threads, known as wefts. The horizontal weft threads are often colorful wool or silk, and are woven over and under the vertical warp threads to form the tapestry’s image. The wefts are tamped down tightly, ultimately concealing all of the warp threads from view.
Asghar’s weft threads are myriad, poems that burst in color and form to create landscapes and unearth memory: a mournful cinematic narrative, a paean to the pussy, or the visual transcription of trauma woven onto an apartment’s floor plan. These explorations of form at once dazzle and challenge. A poem like ‘Microaggression Bingo’ asks a lot of a reader, who might either nod knowingly, or be confronted by a sampling of unfamiliar experiences of alienation. One might even overlook the piece for the initial air of humor given by its bingo-game format; but the prosody itself challenges the reader to zoom in to each of these experiences rather than gloss them as a whole. In the second cell of the first row, we read:
Friend defends drone
strikes to play “devil’s
The first line’s abrupt enjambment highlights what a stark absurdity it is to be placed in such a dialogue: friend defends drone. Yet it also centers with hammering rhythm upon the vowels:
/ _ / /
Friend defends drone
What follows inexorably reads as ironic in the wake of such thundering callousness, how the friend ‘strikes to play ‘devil’s’’ followed by the single-word line: ‘advocate’, notably ending in a quotation mark.
In a recent interview, Asghar described her poetry as “cinematic”, which is even more clearly observable in ‘How We Left: Film Treatment’. Asghar works a series of quatrains, with directive headers in the style of a film script, into a sweeping narrative that explores the speaker’s familial history amid the 1947 post-Partition ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir.
The poem’s volta emerges in its final stanza to boldly articulate a vision of togetherness that stands in contrast to such violence and terror. The speaker asks a would-be perpetrator of this ethnic cleansing, a ‘god of small slaughters’, ‘who would not let his teacher die’ thus allowing their family to escape: ‘[i]n another life, could you have been my uncle, throwing me over / your shoulders when I was a baby?’
Moments like this appear frequently throughout the collection, wherein a speaker will imagine or ask for a better possibility. This is read in the opening ‘For Peshawar’, a riveting elegy that wishes the 132 slain children in the eponymous massacre ‘a mundane life’ rather than the terror to which they were subjected; for ‘[f]ingers licked / with mehndi’, ‘[n]othing glorious.’
If this collection’s wefts are what enthrall and challenge the reader, then the warps are what allow us to feel. We can rename these hidden threads “empathy” but the process is at once personal and interpersonal. If They Come For Us rigorously explores the innermost fractures, through humor, lament, and fearless self-examination. These poems hold each other together, but capture the reader with moments of deeply affecting vulnerability.
In ‘Boy’, the speaker describes a struggle with gender identity that culminates in sexual assault. The speaker’s inner boy is ‘feral’ and appears throughout childhood in moments of aggression. The poem bares its viscera in the form of a smashed jellyfish ground down ‘to a pink useless pulp’ as the speaker and their boy ‘watched it throb, open & close / begging for wet’. This is juxtaposed with the speaker themselves shifting between ‘I’ and ‘we’ as both the speaker and their boy are held down in the assault; both ‘said no’. The speaker turns toward integration, toward loving the boy within, whose wildness can be protective, who ‘clawed & bit & cried just like / we were back on the dirt playground // scraped wrists & steady pounding’.
If They Come For Us is framed by a recurrence of poems entitled ‘Partition’ that fill numerous emotional spaces: ones that reflect familial violence, past atrocities, cultural alienation, first feelings of belonging, of letting go and forbearance. The historical Partition described in the collection’s epigraph was one of the world’s largest forced migrations, sparking ethnic cleansing and mass rape, whose ‘effects and divisions echo to this day’. Throughout the Partition poems, the idea of division is indeed echoed: a speaker is ‘kashmiri until they burn your home’; a man sees a girl begging, ‘stares for a while & then / lights her on fire’; that ‘[e]ven nature is fractured, partitioned’.
These pieces, read as part of the wider collection, serve as contextual guideposts for the larger work of surviving, healing, feeling — no matter the ongoing or intergenerational trauma. They steady the collection’s aim towards interpersonal empathy by uprooting the pain for the reader to see, to feel if they can. Asghar has also said that her ‘artistic medium is relationships’ and this is clearly borne out in the way these poems at once are offerings, yet seek to reclaim something that was taken; be it love, family, or safety.
Yet this drive alone does not absolve the poem’s speaker from coping with their own wounds of loss, grief, and trauma. Through this lens the poem ‘How’d Your Parents Die Again?’ reads like a fleshed-out cell from ‘Microaggression Bingo’, focused on the personal narrative of its speaker. The lines are often stilted, divided by caesurae that choke rhythm to accent the bareness of loss:
Let them rest; my parents stay dead. Their dirge, my every
This halting meter can be disjointing to read, which amplifies the inexplicable loss of having never known one’s parents — what can one grasp for? What is there to say when words were never exchanged?
Note, also, that the line is weighted with two “male” followed by a “female” caesura, creating three partitions. If They Come For Us is replete with this kind of meta-textual resonance of image, identity, and language. The reader can choose to lean close to each poem and read them as individual threads, for their shape, their texture — but these threads interweave in ways that reward at a distance, as well. The interconnectedness forms new shapes altogether.
Many recent collections have navigated this intersection of the personal and political in unique and moving ways. Solmaz Sharif uses a cold, administrative military lexicon in the collection Look, trudging its way back to humanity through soulless barrens. Ishion Hutchinson’s Far District explores from place the way identity sits between many lands. Terence Hayes’ incendiary American Sonnets For My Past And Future Assassin employs form as a gateway into understanding the contemporary and historical contexts that would mean harm to the author.
In If They Come For Us, each poem asks the reader to consider the history that has led us to this moment, whether personally recalled or recorded in blood. It is a collection that explores, then shatters the false partitions between personal and political; between person and person. Fatimah Asghar challenges the reader to feel divided and reformed. The words are, as a result, closer to the page’s surface, their urgency more immediate. If they come for us and we survive, let these poems remind us why.
Ethan Milner is is a writer and a clinical social worker in Oregon, practicing psychotherapy at a school for youth with special needs. Ethan’s poetry was recently included in the anthology Spectral Lines: Poems About Scientists, published by Alternating Current Press. His work has also appeared in Five: 2: One, Alegrarse, Dream Pop, Ghost City Press, and The Offing, among other outlets. Ethan can be found @confident_memes on Twitter, and at ethanwritten.com.