Berkeley Talks transcript: Poet Tarfia Faizullah reads from ‘Registers of Illuminated Villages’

Giovanni Singleton: So, good afternoon everyone. What’s going on? I’m not here for a bit and you forget? I’m Giovanni Singleton, Lunch Poems coordinator. Thank you all for being here today in the lovely Morrison Library. First, I’d invite you all to sign up on our email list, which is over on the librarian’s desk. We also have posters outlining this year’s complete Lunch Poems program, so be sure to pick one up, we have two more events. Also, on our website, lunchpoems.berkeley.edu, you can view this reading and all of our past readings on YouTube where we have our very own channel. Okay. So forget Netflix, you know, all of that, just move on over to Lunch Poems, okay. Our next event takes place on April 4, where we will celebrate National Poetry Month with Ben Learner, so please come back and join us. And now, welcome Lunch Poems director, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, who will introduce today’s distinguished reader. Thank you.

Geoffrey O’Brien: Thank you Giovanni. Do we have some high school classes here today? Is that what’s happening? Thank you all for daring to step foot on the university campus. Good to see you. We’re really happy to have Tarfia here today. I’m going to talk a little bit about her most recent book, Registers of Illuminated Villages.

So it’s got this title, Registers of Illuminated Villages, and then you open it up and you encounter the first poem or even when you just get to the TOC, and the poem is called, as Tarfia knows, “Register of Eliminated Villages.” And in that move from illuminated to eliminated, we get a lot of what is to come, although not all of it. In that we get an obvious tension and continuity between destruction and something a lot less destructive, illumination. Even though bombs also produce illumination, so does poetry, especially when it’s engaged in the ancient task of trying to preserve person and place and experience, even though it doesn’t protect bodies very well.

The opposite of preservation is destruction, possibly, but another opposite of destruction might be variety. And this is a book that is filled with poetic variety: variety of method, variety of form. On the one hand, it’s a way of conserving and expressing poetry’s richness and on another it’s a demand that the poets seek local methods that are adequate to any of the things that the poem needs to capture, whether its historical atrocity or the difficulties of desire.

Many of the poems’ many forms end on a stanza that’s much smaller than the stanza that’s been iterating throughout the poem. Quatrains will end on a couplet, tercets or couplets will end on the singlet. This is a familiar, although not over familiar, form of poetic closure. That kind of dwindling, that kind of taking control of the poem’s own end. It can’t go on forever, but it’s going to decide how it’s not going to go on forever. But in the context of both illumination and historical atrocity, these closures also express the fragility of poetic preservation. That it can’t keep preserving forever. That it has a susceptibility to breakage and stoppages of its own. But it’s also a supplement as much as a remainder, a going on almost past its end.

And speaking of that, the book seems to end in the usual ways. There’s a set of notes to the poems, there are beautiful acknowledgments that constantly say, “This poem wouldn’t exist without,” which is another way of marking preservation. But after all that, after that back matter, there’s the astonishment of a final poem called, aptly, “The Hidden Register of Astonishment.” Rather than back matter, poetry is the book’s very last words, that going on past an end and surviving into quote, “the helixes of tomorrow,” a quote from that last poem. The poem and the book’s last two words are ‘front door’, ending on that which can be closed or opened, eliminated in war or illuminated by the gold ink of the poem. And also always a space of invitation. Please join me in welcoming their maker, Tarfia Faizullah.

Tarfia Faizullah: Hi y’all. Oh, let me grab my phone, sorry. I’m never completely organized. Thank you for that. You were saying such smart things, I had to start taking notes. I wanted to start with a new poem, actually, that I hope does what you were saying, preserves person, place and experience. I teach right now at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and the Art Institute is right across the street, so I often go there to take breaks from teaching. And this is a poem that I’m working on that I guess is a little bit part catalog, part, I guess, observation of the movements through a space like a museum. And it’s really new, this is the first time I’m reading it out loud. So we’re just going to see how this goes.

It’s called “An Alien of Extraordinary Ability,” which is a title taken from, or it’s the name of a person who gets an emergency visa to come to the United States to do something artistic or performative. It’s a term coined by the U.S. Immigration Services. This is “An Alien of Extraordinary Ability.”

To walk towards a frame, hoping there is a mirror and not a hole. A gathering of well-accommodated individuals. Ewer formed of sprouting bamboo. Time spent apart and together. Personal ornaments, collared discs, scepters and early imagery. Neolithic axis of the blank culture. Neolithic axis of the blank and blank culture. Blades, dagger axes, arrowheads and knives. Serrated discs, ceremonial blades, serrated axes, handles, animals’ heads and masks, dragons, fish, birds, naturalistic animals, insects, surface decoration, dish with coiled bird and dragon interlacery, shroud, plaque.

To walk through the pillars of darkness towards flowering cherry and autumn maples. “I like this gallery,” my friend says. A door to 1,000 years ago. Fields under sun and moon. I gaze at families. They pass on. Tonal effects, trial proof, working proof, etching, window shopping, allusions to the sea, light palette, ewer and basin, Virgin and Child, the rape of blank by blank, bottle, plate, plate, plate, plate, vase, plate, vase, dish, teapot, teapot, platter, water jug, terrene, coffee pot, soup and plate, teapot in the form of a camel, tea caddy casket containing a sugar box and two tea caddies, teapot, teapot, teapot, old man with gold chain, flower garland and curtain, the music lesson, the family concert, interior of blank, fishing boats in a calm, fishing boats off in estuary, landscape with the ruins of blank, river landscape with the view of blank, two cows and a young bull beside a face, beside a fence in a meadow.

The watermill with the great red roof, blank landscape with travelers, a boy blowing on a firebrand, the battle between the gods and giants, the denial of saint blank, Volkan, Volkan, young woman at an open half door, portrait of a boy, clock, plate, teapot, teapot, teapot, cup and saucer, dish, bowl and plate, square section of bottle, vase, lady at her toilette, head of a philosopher, portrait of the architect, view of a door in Paris style of the temple of blank, the terrace, the terrace, deposition, the fountains, the old temple, blank awaiting his turn to throw the blank, the landing place, bust of blank.

Cupid and Psyche, blank and his children, Les Immenses, head of a guillotined man, head of a damned soul, head of Medusa. Am I now part stone? I stared into your eyes in the glass case, come back for more. Your plaster eyes, the black of your mouth, the diligence, the moorings, battle scene, blank awakening, the revolt of blank, innocence preferring love to riches, the death of blank, blank healing blank, swamp plants from small swamp land studies, the storm, the storm, the marsh, springtime, pond in the woods, the Valley of blank, reverie, the banks of the blank in winter, the little shepherdess, beggar with oysters, beggar with duffle coat, the philosopher, the philosopher, girl with cherries, fish, still life, the keeper of the hand, the Song of the lark, side, sun, skirt, smock, young woman in a wheat field, afternoon tea, the lovers, education of Cupid, the maid, the bird catcher, teapot, teapot.

A model marriage. For 30 years they have cultivated virtue and carnations. A neighbor complaining about the watering of his lawn. A true art lover, the print collector, approaching storm, steamboat leaving blank, the beach at blank, the races at blank, bullfight, still life, corner of a table, blank girls challenging blank boys, the blank shop, yellow dancers in the wings, portrait after a costume ball, ballet dancer on stage, the artist’s house at blank, the Crystal Palace at blank, woman in a garden, woman reading, lunch at a restaurant, two sisters on the terrace near the lake, calf’s head and ox tongue, apples and grapes, woman at the piano, young woman sewing, the laundress, chrysanthemums, seascape, blank street, rainy day, fruits of the blank, Christ in the desert with six angels, the battle of blank, the first tournament, the third tournament, the tournament, fragments from.

Virgin and Child, Virgin and Child, Virgin and Child, Virgin and Child, Virgin and Child, Virgin and Child. The adoration of blank. The dream of blank. Virgin and Child. Madonna and Child. Six scenes from the life or blank. Virgin and Child with Angel. Virgin and Child with the angels, the temptation of blank. Virgin and Child. Cabinet of curiosities. Virgin and Child with two angels. Blank drawing the Virgin and the blank child. Virgin and Child. Virgin and Child with the young. Mars, Venus and Cupid. Side chair, hall chair, mirror, one of a pair of side chairs, looking glass, tall case clock, desk and bookcase, figure, figure, figures, seated figure, cabinet, chair, Virgin and Child, adoration of the blank, head of a bearded man, Virgin and Child enthroned, blank exercising a woman possessed by a demon, triptych of the Virgin and Child, the death of the Virgin.

Thank you. Right back at you. Whoa, that made my mouth dry. Okay. I’m going to read just a few more poems, new stuff. This is a poem called “The Names of Flowers.” It came from an exercise exchange I was doing with my students where I gave them a writing exercise but in exchange I had to do a writing exercise, too. So I asked them to make me a list of flowers. And so all of the flowers you hear are the ones they listed. “The Names of Flowers,” and it begins with a quote by Osip Mandelshtam.

“I am gardener, flower too, and not alone in the world’s dungeon.” With thanks to my students.

Sunflowers I bought weekly to vase, another attempt at home. I did not stay. Passion flower, name of the song I heard for the first time in the backseat of a car, when I did not touch the soft seeming arm of the pretty person sitting beside, though it’s fruit, not flower. I do forgetful sometimes now, but still haven’t burned it all in a garbage fire. But I was talking, wasn’t I, about flowers?

Hydrangea, bouquets of it, I through convincingly across poems without seeing, smelling, touching a single one. Lilies, whose male and female parts made me ache with color. Through years, I ached with monstrous love for mothers and fathers. Stamen, pistil, lilies, like us, come in a range of varietals, calla, garden, origami, stargazer.

Hello gardenia, southern blossom. Your petals in a bottle I sprayed my child self with, my mother mid-shower. But that’s a fake memory, one I wrote to beautify this poem. To avoid recalling years they’re scent disheartened. Redolence, rife and trees in a city made lonely by the end of a long love.

Chrysanthemum, name of a drink my ex’s family concocted for the holidays, the ones my own family never celebrates. Consists of champagne and pomegranate, or was it cranberry. I remember now an auntie who delighted in it’s making. Maybe she loved the measuring of distinct parts, only to mix them. Except, they were called poinsettias, not chrysanthemum.

Memories, glass doors, slid open by the names of flowers. Tulip, another flora to populate early poem drafts. And what was that one line? Didn’t a tulip kiss the window, drink the light or some shit? No, something about a tulip’s long leaves being like a kid’s forgetful arms.

Two left now. “Dandelion and elderflower.” The former, more weed than flower. Seeds of which catch wind gusts, miniature miracles, parachutes carried far from home on such adventures. Lastly, elderflower. To be honest, y’all, I got nothing, except that when I see it as an ingredient on a drink menu, I order. Real talk. How do I know the names of flowers when I am no gardener?

“Hurt.”

Sometimes you imagine your family as children. Recall, they too were hurt against a well of their own will and ignored. With this knowledge comes panic. Call everyone. Ask what hurts. Then, but are you the voyeur of the vicarious silhouettes of hurters who hurt themselves first. Maybe panic is a way to cope with what hurts. I disagree, it is arrogant to repeat hurt several times in a row. Though of course, there are other words. It is not arrogant to fit the belt around the waist until you see, finally, the cinched form.

A faucet will often sputter and grunt like an intruder jostling a triple lock door. No, ignore. Call your sibling, who breathes a crisp and clear pattern of logic. There is still more to be adored. Most necklines, in fact, our salvageable. Cut the clock, cut the cloth, you’ll soon see the dress amid all the excess gauze. Ma, won’t you tell me the story again? The one when you snuck out in a green dress, just to regard.

I wrote that poem during the polar vortex, which happened recently in the Midwest. And I watched through the entire 8th season of Project Runway, I think in one sitting. And then I was like, “I want to write a fashion forward poem.”

I call my mother to complain, it’s not my fault. And my mother, oh, I just want to say, so this is a poem that I wrote because I literally called my mother to complain about something and then I wrote down some of what she was saying, some of it is what she is saying on the phone and some of it isn’t.

I call my mother to complain, it’s not my fault. And my mouth grows dry with blame and hate. I keep myself on a strict diet, but oh, I ate blame, spat hate into the air, brushed it, my teeth, her hair. Oh, Allah forgive. That when we believe in faith, let us not blame anybody, let us say it is our fate. Do not dig. When you dig, there is dirt. For us to learn, for us to be a better, look at you. I thought you had forgotten. Ma, I both listen and tune you out. One day, it’ll.

Okay. So, that’s the new stuff. Get organized here. Okay. How’s everybody doing? Cool. How are we doing on time?

“Register of Eliminated Villages.” And it begins with a quote from Kanan Makiya on an episode of Frontline.

“I have a register which lists 397 eliminated villages, Kurdish villages in Northern Iraq. The work is called ‘The Register of Eliminated Villages.’ It’s a very decorative, pretty thing.”

Somewhere in this insomniac night, my life is beginning without me. In Northern Iraq, it is high noon. The sun there, perched over fields shriven with lilies. The petals of orange poppies red with a light that a gauze of gray sparrows glides through over sheaves of bone too stubborn to burn, all that is left of those razed towns.

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. I curl beside you, lay my head close to the vellum of your smooth back and try again to sleep. Count to 1,000, you suggest. Count to two. Three. As someone must count hacked date trees, hollowed hills paved into gardens.

Though the scholar on tonight’s Frontline only counted each town destroyed: three hundred ninety-seven of them. Who counts dolls, hand stitched, facedown in dirt? Count to four. Five. Six. Count cadaver, stone, belongings: pots, spun from red clay. Who will count the amputated hands of thieves?

A mother presses a hand to me. Inside her, I thrash, a stalk of wheat blistered by storm. Sleep comes, brief as it is bright. I startle awake, turn to you. The register, I know, is real, fat with the names of the dead, elegant strokes of sharp pencil etched into thick pages.

A father presses an ear to a mother’s belly. I am wide awake. Count to seven. Eight. Nine. You murmur, turn to me. Someone must be counting hours spent weaving lace the color of moonlight for a girl’s dowry. But I don’t have the right to count hours, girls or dowries. Just the skin-thin pages of the good book I once cut a hollow into, condoms I stored there, cigarettes.

Count each minute I waited for them to fall asleep. Count nights I sat alone on the curb, held smoke inside my mouth, released whorls of it into the air.

A father leaves a mother asleep on her side, the crocus of my fetus nestled inside. I draw over us the thin sheet. 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.

I hear hydration is key.

“To the Bangladeshi Cab Driver in San Francisco.”

Half drunk, I don’t do more than lean my head against the backseat of your back of your seat, straining to hear. You call your brother to wake him from slumber. We drive up hills past palm trees and sidewalks chalked yellow, your voice soft as you murmur in the language fed to me from birth. I strained to hear each known word: bhai=brother, bon=sister, bhaat=rice, daal=lentils.

After the nightly affairs, do you replace slacks for a lunghi, shoes for chappals? Do you close your fingers into the sharp beak of a hungry crow to gather the last bits of bhaat and daal? I could open my mouth to you and the register I know we know, but don’t, or won’t. I can’t go back to summers spent unfurling in heat beside vendors uncapping bottles of Fanta, just to weave hours stripe with palm trees into jute-joyous shacks.

Bhai, here it is spring. Drive past these parks of dew-carcassed grass, the smooth and bright limbs heaped carelessly. Drive ocean-ward. Park at the dock, where used condoms remain half submerged in sand. Cyan water will forgive bottles bullied into shards, such glittering emeralds, such glittering emerald ghosts of revelry or remorse. Swim homeward. There, it’s noon: time enough for the sun to coax out the perfume of a shapla lily’s pink pedals, kissed by the lips of a garment worker whose ankle sings with bells as she pedals.

This is for my sibling. “To The Littlest.”

Hey Chotto, heard they promoted you to first commander of the old crew. Heard you can turn the knots back into ropes now, that they’re with you. As for me, I’m still fighting not to be a djinn or hate-burnt spire. I haven’t razored my wrists tho, or pilfered the pills to end the endless clang and clamor of oil change, what should we eat, cash register (Ka-ching! Ka-ching! My girl J and I would high-five and say any time we saw boys we decided to confuse into men).

Before you judge, consider: before body there is nobody, and we all begin as small shores. Ay littlest brother, heard you tie ties by yourself now, that out there, there’s the right one to love, that you don’t shake at the table as much anymore. Is pink still your favorite color? Do you eavesdrop with four ears and two knocked knees? Listen, the ache of a sibling for a sibling isn’t obvious or absent. I swear, not all of us die at war or in accidents.

Chotto, the books I left are secrets, underlined beside a summer-heavy pecan tree. Write past all the censors. I’ll grab cheese-sticks, high-five you after, tomorrow. Remember?

It’s really nice to see so many familiar and friendly faces in the audience, thank you all so much for coming.

“Your Own Palm.” This poem is written lightly and affectionately in the voice of my father. “Your Own Palm.”

O, my daughter, once I was a poor boy folding peppers into my sarong to walk three miles to sell. But what can you tell me of sorrow, or of the courage it takes to buy a clock instead of a palmful of rice to go with the goat we can’t afford to slaughter? Look at the lines Allah etched on your own palm: you have a big brain and a good heart, still, you don’t use either enough!

Once, I walked through a war beside my brother parallel to a gray river. Why do you care about the few damp bills I didn’t give to our mother? Or the clock I bought to take apart? Well, I left that country with a palmful of seeds I’ve thrown across this dry, hard Texas. Allah has blessed me with this vine that coils upward. I care so little for what others say, ask your mother. That nose ring doesn’t suit you, by the way.

Once, you were small enough to cradle. There was a coil in that clock made of metal. O, that something so small can matter. No daughter, I don’t need a glass of water. Look, this will grow into maatir neeche aloo. In the spring, you see, its purple leaves will be the size of your own palm. In the village, there is a saying: “Dhuniya dhari, kochu pathar paani.” I don’t know where the clock is or how much it’s worth! There was not enough for kerosene. Why do you always ask what can’t be answered?

So that saying ‘dhuniya dhari, kochu pathar paani’ translates, I guess roughly, to “the whole universe is water pulled in the leaf of an upturned palm leaf,” I guess. Yeah, pulled water in an upturned palm leaf, the whole universe.

Okay. “I Told The Water.” I wrote this poem originally for Flint.

I told the water, “You’re right. The poor are broken sidewalks we try to avoid.” Told it, “The map of you folds into corners small enough to swallow.” I told the water, “You only exist because of thirst. But beside your sour membrane, we lie facedown in dirt. The first time my father threw me into you I was hieroglyph, a wet braid caught in your throat. I knew then how war was possible, the urge to defy gravity, to disarm another. I knew then we would kill to be your mirror. You black-eyed barnacle. You graveyard of windows.” I told the water, “Last night I walked out onto your ice wearing only my skin. You couldn’t tell me not to.”

Let me see how we’re doing on time. I’m just gonna close with, actually, it’s very funny, I’ve never read The Hidden Register of Astonishment ever anywhere. I think because it’s such a weird funny secret part of the book, that it’s almost like it doesn’t exist, but of course it does. So I was really delighted to hear you mention it and I think I’m going to close with that. I appreciate y’all coming so much. And is there anything else I want to say, I guess not. Just thank you so much.

This is called “The Hidden Register of Astonishment.” And I guess this is kind of, there’s one more thing I want to say, I’ve been thinking about love a lot, which I guess one is always thinking about love a lot, but I’ve been thinking about love with a lot of focus. And I think I wrote this poem a little bit as a wish for the kind of love I’m hoping for. “The Hidden Register of Astonishment.”

You always worry your own astonished twin, your own shell garden. (Don’t remark on the past that old archer). Ask when the crickets whir. Ask, then, before you drown in the blasphemy of glass crushed by kin. Discover shark’s eye, saw tooth, hermit turtle, arrow, wentletrap, a tidal wave inside your shin, the itch of sin and tin. He pressed his teeth to you; you knew; you grew vast. What does it mean to give in? More time for revision. Heave your last doubts into the helixes of tomorrow. The sound of crickets is a fringe shawl, you swear. Astonish yourself: unattach in front of his mirror. You’ll press your teeth to him; he’ll know your answer. He’s visited your village before. You’re almost near the city. Only you can invite them to your front door.

Thanks y’all so much.