(Carcanet Poetry, 2021); pbk, £10.99
‘In Afghanistan women go unnamed, known only in relation to the men in their families […] Even their gravestones do not bear their names. To call a woman by her name is a prohibited act, considered disrespectful, and is even dangerous. This poetry challenges that taboo.’ (Parwana Fayyaz, Carcanet Blog)
In her first collection, Forty Names, Fayyaz names these women over and over again and often women from her family, whose stories she grew up being told even if, at the time, she didn’t fully understand them. Names are echoed, written first in Persian and then translated into English – an act which revels in the ‘emotional and imaginative’ aspects of translation, as Fayyaz discusses in a Youtube video for Carcanet. The effect is such that the names become almost internalised mini-poems in and of themselves: ‘Sabar Gul, Patience Flower’, ‘Sardar The General’ and ‘Shadnam Morning-Dew’ are some examples. Sound is echoed by poetic image in a naming act that imbues them with a sense of the fabular from the offset. Names bear weight: they carry stories and identities within them.
When a woman’s name is unknown, as in ‘The Woman on the Rock’, there is a sense of deep sadness and shame at not being able to call her, not being able to mark her individual and distinct personhood or story. The woman of this poem was seen by the narrator only briefly, and then discovered dead a few days later. She returns in the poet’s poetic imagination, a revenant of countless untold stories lost to time, unnamed and so unknown. Perhaps this is why she is recorded in poetry. She may be unnamed, but she is remembered still.
Creeping in the middle of the night,
from across the plains and above the trees,
her unknown face, like the silent music of the snow, comes to me.
The titular poem ’40 Names’, which won the 2019 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, reimagines the story of the ‘forty girls mountain’, where forty young women jump off a mountain to preserve their honour. Fayyaz gives the women names, colourful dresses and scarfs, and in so doing, returns a sense of agency to them. They are more than morality tale, they are given identity, particularly in the case of Zipon, the sure-footed shepherd’s daughter who leads the women.
The list of forty names has a beautiful musicality to it, one which flows throughout the poem in slant rhymes and sibilance. Here I love the subtle rhymes of ‘above’ and ‘dust’, ‘skin’ and ‘whims’, ‘story’ and ‘forty’.
The sky above, through the opaque skin of
your dust, carries whims from the mountains,
it brings me a story.
The story of forty young bodies.
The musicality of Fayyaz’s poetry draws on an oral storytelling tradition – stories of women, memorised by women and passed down through each other. Her collection continues this tradition in love and respect, as well as a questioning of the lessons passed on to her in childhood.
From the opening poems, where the three dolls Fayyaz and her sisters are given by their mother ‘lived longer than our childhoods’, to the closing ‘In Search of a Woman’, which seems to end almost as a statement of poetic intent for the collection, Fayyaz’s poetry bears compassionate witness to the realities of life for Afghan women. Her perspective circumvents the condescending narratives of Western media, while mourning the missed opportunities and oppression faced by the women in her poems. In emphasising their names she celebrates their triumphs and returns to them their stories.