Most children grow up believing that it is impossible to die. All it takes to change a child’s perspective on the world is a nasty cold, chicken pox, or the flu, something that reminds them that they are human, too. In Registers of Illuminated Villages, poet Tarfia Faizullah tries to describe the way things really are, the discoveries you can make only after you’ve become an adult. There is a shift in every child’s life that their mother warned them would arrive; a moment where every human must ask themselves what they believe is the truth, and who gets to tell it. In the bold voice of someone who has lived to tell the tale, Faizullah asks the reader to question the authenticity of their own personal narratives: the voices of the past, present, and future, the voices of the places we once knew and loved, the people that belong to us, and the ones that we might belong to in return.
At times the collection reads as a solemn prayer, a meditation that moves at a steady pace toward a recognition of the events of the poet’s traumatic childhood. But that is not to say that the poet accepts what has befallen her. Indeed, there are many moments where Faizullah finds herself apologizing for the errors of those who have hurt her, physically or emotionally. Failure and guilt are in constant dialogue with each other, as are helplessness and responsibility, questions and answers. The poems are constantly moving between margins, crossing the imaginary borders we use to make sense of the world. Again, this does not necessarily mean that the poet is indecisive. Instead, it is a way of showing the reader all of the options available to them: how are we meant to look at ourselves after the circumstances of our lives? What if there is something we missed, or something we chose to overlook? Will I remember this moment years from now, and will it mean the same to me then as it does to me now?
A manipulation of time and story-telling with such ambitious aims might sound like it deserves a sentimental documentary series on Netflix, not a collection of poems. But I disagree. I would much rather be taken to the rooftop of a poet’s childhood home; sitting and thinking about the way things are, wondering if I did everything right and pray that everything will be alright in the end. And through all of Faizullah’s snapshots of life, the poems are working hard to assume a certain normalcy, as though her experience with grief and pain were not gut-wrenching, insomuch as a part of life. This is also true of the cultural dialogue that underlies the collection. The poet talks about race and otherness in a way that demonstrates how easy it is to forget that your story is not the only one, nor the one that matters the most. In a voice that is confident and ever-humble, Faizullah reminds us of the highs and lows of the human experience, and cautions the reader to be wary of their own.
Reviewed by Elle Heedles