“Every year I manage to live on earth,” writes Fatimah Ashgar, “I collect more questions than answers.” In her collection If They Come For Us, a powerful first volume of poetry that stretches the definition of poetry to encompass word heavy images that are much more than simply clever, Ashgar presents history, both her own and that of a greater world, and her work inspires “more questions than answers.” Movingly so.
If They Come For Us opens with a note of explanation of the Partition, an event that looms over many of the poems throughout the collection. Explaining to any in her audience who do not know, “at least 14 million people were forced into migration as they fled the ethnic cleansings and retributive genocides that consumed South Asia during the India / Pakistan Partition.” But those are the facts, the poems that follow tell what happened.
In poems like the dense, haunting “Partition” Asghar writes of belonging and the lack of belonging.
you’re kashmiri until they burn your home. take your orchards. stake a
different flag. until no one remembers the road that brings you back.”
The poem, the first of several simply titled “Partition”, continues with descriptions and reversals, ending in a new country:
until it’s too dangerous. you’re safe until you’re alone. you’re american
until the towers fall. until there’s a border on your back.”
That border on her back is just one of the poetic ways Asghar describes her history and her family’s history, which she tells readers “violence [is] not an over there but a memory lurking / in our blood, waiting to rise.”
Asghar uses her poetry deftly to illustrate those memories lurking in blood. In another “Partition” poem, this beginning with the line “1945: my grandfather steps / off a train in Jammu & Kashmir” she takes readers through more than a half century and back. It is brutal, beautiful, and encompasses volumes through couplets and short stanzas.
But these are not only political poems, or verse written on the subject of nations. If They Come For Us is just as insightful when Asghar turns intimate and accessible.
In “Map Home”, a poem disguised as a crossword puzzle, she writes “but still you insist on making eye contact with pain.” Asghar does just that over and over, sometimes breaking our hearts, as in “The Last Summer of Innocence” when she puts us in the shoes of a Muslim child in the United States “the summer after the towers fell or were blown down / or up & I watched the TV over & over.” Identity, puberty, belonging, and a thousand emotions universal to humans coalesce in two pages of raw poetry. Asghar is masterful at creating a world her readers (independent of their backgrounds or experiences) can inhabit with her.
Sometimes confessional, as in “My Love for Nature,” when she writes:
for nature is like my love for most things:
fickle & theoretical. Too many bugs
& I want a divorce.”
And sometimes clever, as when the “Old Country” of one poem’s title turns out to be Old Country Buffet and the poem surprises with the topic of family not nation, at least not until later in the poem when Asghar, as she does so well, widens our eyes a little more and balances the universality of family and childhood insecurity with the sobering specificity she can see because she has had the courage, to quote from a later poem, to “pluck my ancestors eyes / from their faces / & fasten them to mine.”
Fatimah Asghar is a poet to celebrate, a poet to introduce to others, a poet to read and re-read. My “Year of Poetry” has brought me in contact with some old favorites and some voices less familiar. Reading If They Come For Us, I can say that Fatimah Asghar belongs in first category. Her work is really, really good.
If you haven’t yet read If They Come For Us, hurry to the bookshop. Asghar has collected questions and some answers (she tells us in a poem: “I collect words where I find them”) and her words are worth finding.
Continuing this year of poetry next week with Turtle Island by Gary Snyder.