“History is a ship forever setting sail.” It’s “in a hurry”—a “bus that will only wait so long.” It’s “a past/ That’s gone, but won’t lie down/And let us grieve it.” Most of all, in Smith’s stunning fourth collection, history is voices. To her own sure, lyrical voice (and impeccable ear for sound and rhythm) Smith adds those of migrants, victims of hate crimes, workers, freed slaves, and those who nearly died. Throughout this choral masterpiece of a book, she gives us the testimonies history has silenced. Using erasure to stunning effect, Smith reveals a long overlooked and urgent “Declaration” within the original Declaration of Independence, paring the hallowed document down to seventeen spare lines. These include “our” nine times, and Smith forces us to see how incomplete this proclamation was and still is. Who exactly is the “we” it represents? A case in point is Smith’s moving series of erasure poems drawn from letters written by African Americans during and after the Civil War. Addressed to spouses, children, and even Abraham Lincoln, the letters, many by former Union soldiers, are poignant pleas for the things most basic to human dignity: a united family, wages, a military pension, healthcare, and in one instance, “the name of the baby/ that was born Since I left.” Here and elsewhere, Smith spotlights names—those history recognizes, and those it doesn’t. Smith herself names the authors of the texts she uses and devotes her own fine “Ghazal” to reclaiming that “stolen crop: our name.”
Faizullah’s dazzling second collection is an over-brimming well of lyrics, dreams, portraits, voices, memories, and challenges. The transformative power of language starts with the title, a revision of the catalog of “397 eliminated” Kurdish villages in Northern Iraq. With this, Faizullah announces her project of not just elegizing, but restoring, creating anew, and calling history to account. Ambitious as this is, it is only part of what happens in the book. Though she’d like to be “done cataloguing/ loss” and instead “sand glossy/the corners of rib-/cages that I empty,” the book is haunted by the younger sister who died in a car crash. Just as political violence has left “bone too stubborn to burn” where villages used to be, the girl, as irrepressible as the poet, won’t be laid to rest. Seriously injured in that same collision, Faizullah is always conscious of bodies, and her language repeatedly fuses the physical and the emotional: “when I say love, / I mean/each artery of this ink.” Speaking in many “registers”—Hunger, Submission, Solace, Astonishment—Faizullah is passionate in every one of them. More than that, “I do not dream. I glow,” she states. As do her illuminations.
“I don’t want to spare you any pain,” Swearingen-Steadwell warns her fourteen-year-old self. “I want the unbroken woman you will be to exist.” With the clear-eyed admission—no, the claim—of anger, need, fear, loss, and love, these are the poems of a survivor. In a series of fourteen masterful sonnets (in which she breathes fresh life into the old “fourteener,” a line of fourteen syllables), Swearingen-Steadwell tells the girl she was what the world has in store, good and bad. At the same time, she captures the charged, electric feel of life that may be the one saving grace of the fraught period known as adolescence. But these mature, controlled lyrics draw on the poet’s deepest emotions and experiences with none of an adolescent’s solipsistic angst. Swearingen-Steadwell is always looking beyond herself. She shows us the beauty of “the gentle hills of Umbria,/gold and orange, soaked in open sun”; speaks the tragedy of Native American women “who died/with an answer//a pine standing sentry, fur/crown and mantle.” She tells a lot of stories, paring down each adventure and misadventure to its bones, yet giving every detail. You feel you know her friends, lovers, the kids at school, the cafeteria ladies. You recognize the mother who “leans over your bed,” only now it’s the poet who holds “the illustrations up for you to see.”