Fatimah Asghar, After
Publisher: YesYes Books
2015, 46 pages, paperback, $10
“SOMETIMES I FORGET that my body is mine. That my voice is mine. I view this chapbook as a response to that forgetting.” – Fatimah Asghar
Before reading After, I had the opportunity to hear Asghar share her work at the 2015 AWP Conference. Like the other members of the Dark Noise Collective, her performance combined the gumption and power of spoken word with the carefully crafted language we tend to associate with poetry on the page. I soon came across Asghar’s work again in the BreakBeat Poets Anthology. And again when her cheeky “Pluto Shits On The Universe” made its rounds on the internet. And again when Danez Smith called her, in LitHub’s List of Actual Asian Poets, “fucking magic.”
I couldn’t have been more excited for this chapbook. As I waited for it to arrive, I wondered what the title was meant to imply. My impulse was that it was related to afterglow, aftershock, or aftermath. After reading her biography and discovering that she did post-trauma research while in Sarajevo through a Fulbright fellowship, I wondered if perhaps it was “afterwar.”
In the first poem in the collection, the speaker relates the story of her father’s friend, “a boatman with oars for teeth” who “pushed soft candy down the back of my throat.” In later poems, she continues to cope with sexually violent encounters with men, unnamed but described in vivid images: “Once I loved a man with a mouth like a beak. Looking for worms, he pecked through my chest, bloodied my heart, and called it a plum… Once I loved a man with talons underneath his curved feet… Once I loved a man that scraped my pulp with his teeth, ate everything but the pit.” The title poem (you may have, by now, surmised) refers to the morning after the speaker’s rape.
Though the content is dark, Asghar’s experiments with form are vibrant. One illustration of this is a poem titled (and formatted as) “A Partial Index of Lies I Told My Sister.” Another, “Advice Given to Me in 4th Grade,” is the story of a boy who gave the speaker a set of earrings. He “began to grow talons, afraid of the ‘no’ ready on my lips.” The body is tilted, framed by a couplet: “If you wear what he gave you / he will own you.” Another poem askew, “Panic,” details a list of worries (“my body is breaking / my body is already broken”) over a background chant, in gray: “i think i think i think i think i think.”
As you might imagine for a collection that comes “after,” the body features heavily, and is seen through many lenses. The spine is a stem, is “a mountain road I choose not to follow,” is plucked like a violin, is the staff of Moses being lifted by a beak-mouthed boyfriend. The legs are splayed, “politely ironed down”; they are a Barbie’s plastic limbs thrusting against Beanie Babies (“fucking loose sacks of animal”); they squeeze a man’s heart until it leaks. The speaker dwells on her anatomy, framing her body as victim, aggressor, anchor, and survivor. She reinvents herself as Medusa, the mythological figure who was raped by Poseidon, better known for her hair made of serpents, and her gaze, which turns man to stone. The gaze, like the “dignified clap back” described in “Stank Face,” is a healing mechanism, an inspirational “don’t-fuck-with-me” display of aftercare.
This collection makes it easy to see how Asghar’s poetry is “fucking magic”—in the way that its magic how a woman can stand back up, squeeze a violent heart between her legs, and take its power. Each poem here has a steady pulse—loud, strong, and confident in its beat.
Fatimah Asghar is a nationally touring poet, photographer and performer. She created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS, while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-violent contexts. She has performed on many stages, including the Dodge Poetry Festival, The Nantucket Project, and TedX. Her work has been published in Poetry, The Paris-American, The Margins, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and residencies from Kundiman, Millay Colony, VONA, New Harmony Writers Workshop and Fulbright and she is a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Her chapbook, After, was released by YesYes Books in 2015.