Myself and Strangers: Fragments and Thresholds in Sahar Muradi's [ G A T E S ]
Keegan Cook Finberg
Reviewed: Sahar Muradi, [ G A T E S ] (Black Lawrence Press, 2017).
Mentioned: Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (Vintage, 2002).
The title of Sahar Muradi’s chapbook [ G A T E S ] is hard to type because there are spaces between each of the letters and also spaces between the letters and the brackets. The word is tender, segmented, open. On the surface, this formatting might make you think of something like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the journal after which Language poetry is named. Like the poets associated with Language poetry, Muradi uses techniques of found language and collage. She also gives us a few philosophical gems about language itself.
In a poem that considers the names of places in Afghanistan, specifically the name of the northeastern valley Panjsher:
The difference between a poem and a lion is an alphabet. The difference between five poems and five lions is slight.
As the notes explain, in Dari, panj means five and sher means lions; the word for “poem” is also “sher” but spelled and transliterated differently. In keeping with this ferocious animation of language, a little later in a poem about British colonialism in Central and Southeast Asia:
a word is legged,
to retreat, move back
from a forward or threatened position
as in chess, a piece
And then, toward the end of the book in a poem that seems to take place within the U.S., but as if to illustrate the power of Panjsher inside the power of Muradi’s own poetry:
The Director is called in to write the opening.
Instead he writes a resignation letter: From line to line, we lived together.
Language dismantles the dwelling.
Muradi’s work, perhaps like Language poetry, makes us think about the materiality of language. But even more so it prompts us to think about the materiality that is not language. Those spaces! Those empty gaps. I venture to say that it is actually this notion of dismantling—the dismantling that language can do, that war can do, that colonialism has done—that is most interesting about [ G A T E S ]. In the Poets & Writers column “Writers Recommend,” Muradi explains, “Stillness is necessary. I listen, let things pass, and try to accept all of life, including the stuck parts.” This book contains a lot of stillness and silences. Silences between letters, between stanzas, between scenes. These silences are so full, so necessary to the collection, that they seem to take us somewhere.
For example, one of my favorite poems in the collection is written in two columns on the page. Both columns tell the story of butterfly farms, but enacted in the cavern between the columns is the history of settler-colonialism, its echoes of oppressive effects, and the attitudes of U.S. jingoism. On one side, the butterfly cocoons are golden, on the other side invisible; one side flies, the other survives.
Echoing the spaces in the title, and packing the collection with these transporting silences, each poem is entitled “[ ].” I have seen brackets like this in poems before: It is one way that transcribers and translators mark gaps in poetry that survives only in fragments. For example, it is that way that Anne Carson translates the “impression of missing matter” in the poetry of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho. For Carson, “Brackets are exciting” because they “imply a free space of imaginal adventure.” Brackets delimit the silence and they give it importance, or as Muradi might say, brackets show that silence is “necessary.” Blanks can make us anxious. People often see that something is open—or, hear silences—and feel the need to produce, fill, and close, moves that evoke patterns of colonization. This is the way that Sappho’s poems were often published before Carson’s translations, with editors filling in the pieces.
Muradi resists filling in, and she creates a theory of history’s lived experience, a theory of the transformative power of fragments, in [ G A T E S ]. When talking about her book, Muradi has said that the brackets in fact are gates themselves, making the text a collection of connections as much as absences. The first poem of the collection, a lyrical list of gates, illustrates this connection most clearly. Muradi’s experience of leaving Afghanistan with her family during the Soviet invasion, which embroiled the country in war throughout the 1980s, and her childhood as an immigrant in the United States, create these connections and these gaps. In fact, the personal and the political—the individual and the social—are often woven so tightly in the collection, they are inextricable. Some poems detail scenes from Afghanistan, characterizing cities and people. In these poems, the gaps create travels between locations and perspectives. In other poems, spaces probe Muradi’s relationship with her father, her ambitions as a writer, fears of belonging, and moments of recognition.
In a poem that seems to press on the meaning of “refuge” in a post-9/11 United States, the themes of patriotism, estrangement, and the frailty of the body, create an injured world through a series of heroic couplets. The couplets are worlds apart from each other but held together through openings:
I will wear my wounds in chapters.
I will use the Internet to build a home.
Who gave their life the most?
Who fought the longest, the hardest? for like ever?
My body in the waiting room of public medicine.
No one cares where you have to be.
Noting the jade leaf that cracked and did not fall.
I woke with chiclets of dreams.
I am not real. I am just like you.
If you were real, you would have some status among the nations.
What [ G A T E S ] shows us is a history in fragments, a home in pieces, a theory of identity that is open, painful, and bright with vulnerability. But Muradi also gives us a glimpse of what these blanks might look like as thresholds—in [ G A T E S ] we pass through them.
From the archive:
Surviving 2017 with Poetry
Reviewed: Nicole Sealey, Ordinary Beast (Ecco, 2017); Sheila McMullin, daughterrarium (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2017); Layli Long Soldier, WHEREAS (Graywolf Press, 2017).
Keegan Cook Finberg is a poet and a critic. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, The Believer, and Jacket2, and she has published scholarly articles in Textual Practice and Canada and Beyond. Her recent poetry appears in Prelude Magazine, Bone Bouquet, Rove, and Two Serious Ladies. She is working on a critical book project, Poetry in General, or, Literary Experimentalism since 1960, which argues that postwar U.S. poetry responds to the degradation of the social democratic notion of the “public” by emerging as the premiere form of socially engaged art. Finberg holds a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and she currently teaches English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern Indiana where she is also the Reviews Editor of the Southern Indiana Review.