If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
One World, 2018. 128 pp.
Reviewed by Maya Marshall
Asghar’s, If They Come for Us is rife with righteous anger, lined with indelible sadness, and threaded through with a steel wire of resolve. But there is palpable joy, too, in this impressive full-length debut collection: “if you, for a second, can put away the dead/ you’ll see.”
The book opens with a note about a forced migration which led to the deaths of millions and the abduction and rape of tens of thousands of people. The note primes us for “Partition,” the series of poems that punctuates the book. Asghar then turns to an elegiac benediction titled “For Peshawar,” which establishes the tones of joy and protection embedded in the process of mourning, and then, as the book makes its first ascent, she introduces a question central to this collection’s thought-project:
what does it mean, to partition earth?
to cut the ocean? all the fish
wear flags on their fins.
the flies pledge allegiance
to which bodies, rotting
in the street, are theirs to nibble.
(“They Asked for a Map”)
It is an honest book. Yes, it takes on content of global proportions. Yes, it is feminist, and Muslim, and queer, and sex-positive, and unapologetic. It is also clearly the fruit of years of attentive dedication to craft. This writer is fully aware and in command of her tools and her voice; yet as a poet, it is evident that she is always reaching, ever seeking growth.
Asghar gives us a sonnet crown. She claims and honors the ghazal, an amatory poem or ode originating in Arabic poetry that serves as an expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love despite that pain.
The poet also experiments with inventive/invented forms, including a crossword and a bingo board as repositories for poems. Some may see this as gimmicky, but there seems to be a deeper message here too: the speaker is making a game of the countless reactions to her being perceived as different or “other.” “Microaggression Bingo,” at a craft level, serves mainly to establish the game, but its content turns the joke back on the ostensibly unaware aggressor; there’s kinship in this for those of us who enter rooms where people exoticize us by asking to touch our hair. “Map Home,” is a crossword poem with clues only the speaker can figure out, pointing to a home only the speaker can know.
Like many first books, this collection establishes who the poet is and where she’s from. The big themes? The abiding concerns? The guiding questions? To name a few: I’m an orphan. If Motherland is a parent, Kashmiris are orphans. Can you see the boy in me? I’m not afraid of you. I’m not a pity case. I’m not a story small enough to fit inside your mouth.
If They Come for Us isn’t a battle cry. Rather, it is a retelling of days a warrior donned and stripped her armors. These are stories of a woman moving through a world constantly locked in war, in a world that redraws borders of land and identity, leaving so many in between and outside. And so, it is powerful—in a book which revises lyrics to traditionally patriotic songs, and in which the speaker considers the lands that rejected her—to end with a pledge of allegiance to people, not nation:
my people I follow you like constellations
we hear glass smashing the street
& nights opening dark
our names this country’s wood
for the fire my people my people
the long years we’ve survived the long
years yet to come I see you map
my sky the light your lantern long
ahead & I follow I follow
(“If They Should Come for Us”)
Maya Marshall is a writer, editor, and poet, is co-founder of underbellymag.com. She holds fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her chapbook Secondhand was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2016. Marshall earned her MFA from the University of South Carolina, and she currently serves as a senior editor for [PANK] and a manuscript editor for Haymarket Books.