Registers of Illuminated Villages


Registers of Illuminated Villages by Tarfia Faizullah
Graywolf Press, 2018. 96 pp.
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria

If even what is beautiful— perhaps especially because it is beautiful or precious or close— is already departing or ineluctably gone, then every poem can be said to be an elegy in that it sings of that which no longer is before it. In Registers of Illuminated Villages, the much-awaited second collection of Tarfia Faizullah, the elegiac is the mode in which most of the poems operate. They count many losses— the death of a sister, the dissolution of faith along with a stable sense of country and place; the violence that transforms the Village of Love (Sohagpur) into a Village of Widows (Bidhoba Palli) during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, in
which 164 men were killed in one day, and the 57 women who survived became widows.

The world that the poet renders is full of sorrow: “…Allah re, tell me why// you made it so that taking a kiss/ full on the mouth feels like weeping.” To inhabit it is to feel burned and raw, for it is a flayed thing, like “an orange freshly peeled”— whether we are in the “Illuminated Villages” of Bangladesh or Northern Iraq, or post-9/11 West Texas or San Francisco. The poets asks “why a firefly/ flares off then on, wants another throatful// or three of whiskey” then declares “[t]his elegy is trying/ hard to understand how we all become// corpses….”  

Through poem after poem and in language imbued with both strength and tender precision, Faizullah asks us to regard death and atrocity without shielding our eyes, knowing that the bearing of such witness is borne of both duty and love:


        No, I said. I want
to watch them behead
the goat    
                                with the men.
                 …It is
to observe death

The book’s epigraph is a line from Nina Simone: “I do not count the time;” and the epigraph to the first poem in the collection comes from Brandeis University professor of Middle East Studies Kanan Makiya’s description, for a 2002 Frontline interview, of

“[A] work … called The Register of Eliminated Villages. You flip the pages, beautifully scripted and done with a pencil. ...You look at this person who has taken such immaculate care of this book, which records the destruction of 397 Kurdish villages. ...You look at the book and you know you're touching evil somehow.”

But beyond the encounters with death and violence in the book, the poet also wants us to look hard for the things with “gold-green bloodline” that are “worth waiting for.”  There, she tells us, in those places “it’s noon: time enough to coax out// the perfume of a shapla lily’s pink petals,/ kissed by the lips of a garment worker/ whose ankle sings with bells as she pedals.”  

We typically associate illuminated manuscripts with scribes who laid lines of gold on the edges and pages of medieval texts in Europe; but traditional illumination techniques were also used in the ancient Middle East and across Asia. For instance, one of the Malaysian Qur’ans in the holdings of the British Library is illuminated on almost every page, with the adornment reflective of the particular artist’s style. Illumination is thought of as a supplement to the text—one that sheds additional light and artistry on what is there. Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages performs a similar function: it takes what so-called official records describe as “eliminated,” and with a voice that “[wants] to be/ a reckoning, to tornado,” reclaims these through the devotion and plenitude of poetry into the “illuminated.”   


Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015.