Book Review-Sister Tongue by Farnaz Fatemi
Sister Tongue by Farnaz Fatemi
Winner of the 2021 Tom and Stan Wick Poetry Prize
reviewed by Bethany Reid
In Sister Tongue, Farnaz Fatemi weaves the events of her life together to make a single, coherent theme. How on earth this works, in this complex, dazzling collection of poetry and poetic prose, left me, at first, a bit tongue-tied. But it does work, and beautifully.
Language dominates the book. In the first poem, “I Name the Eight Muscles of the Tongue,” Fatemi confesses, “Before I am five I have the sounds / of two alphabets in my mouth.” Although the five-year-old chooses English, the women who loom over her life—mother, grandmother, aunt “pinching / my cheek”—incant for her the intricacies of Farsi. Even in the years when she stubbornly doesn’t understand, Fatemi can’t escape the evocative syllabics of her family’s native tongue. The difference between languages, between cultures is a conflict that raises questions: what to forget, what to remember, what cells to “slough off,” “How fast to let things out,” and, finally:
I learn to taste the truth
in secret. Give over to mute bliss.
What is silent dwells on the names
it gives each of its selves,
lets them linger
to get them right.
These ancestor-women recur throughout Sister Tongue, presiding, guiding. In “Untranslated,” they become “All the women / who disappeared into the silence inside me,” the women she must “pull from the roar of the past.” They make the poet’s quest inevitable:
I want the foreigner in me
to meet the foreigner in me.
The conflict between (or constellation of) English and Farsi is only one of the displacements brought to light in these pages. Someone else has said that the collection explores “negative space,” which strikes me as exactly the right metaphor. Fatemi artfully dances through her displacements: being a twin sister (which means eventually learning how to be a “self”), being born in America to Iranian émigré parents, speaking both Farsi and English, losing Farsi (almost), living through the breakup of her parents’ marriage, and on into the adult years—including moving to Iran and relearning her native tongue. Not to mention the whole gnarly knot of religion. In one of the prose sequences we hear, “Allah’s not god to me,” then, almost immediately, “When I’m in Iran the call to prayer is a call to God, an invocation.” Similarly, in “Tea”—where we witness multiple deployments of language and meaning—these claims chime only a few lines from one another:
I like the noisiest women best.
I perform what I know of hierarchy, of who serves whom….serve the tea and behave.
Who am I? or, perhaps, Which am I? is the narrative thread pulling us all the way through Sister Tongue. I read, and reread, eager to find out if the competing voices—or “selves”—would be reconciled. I am not a twin, not an Iranian American, I speak fluently only English, and have in fact scarcely ever wandered far from home, and yet I identified with these poems. By the time I reached the lyrical “Heretic,” late in the book, I was wholly there, and telling all my friends they needed to read this book. “When you sang your body invented us / an alphabet,” “Heretic” begins, fulfilling the promise of the first poem. And continues:
Last night each dot and curve of the letters of our alphabet
came to rest on my body while I slept,
entwined around my hips,
pulled their fingers through my hair.
I breathed them in.
Or this later line: “Syntax of attention // at the back of your throat.” Yes, the poem is about a lover, another space-between and, at the same time, collapsing the space-between. But, thematically, every page of this book is about so much more. Its 90-some pages offer the heft and satisfaction of a fat novel. In capturing (and refusing to tame) her personal story, Fatemi captures something essential about what it means to be female and, for that matter, to be human.
Bethany Reid has four books of poetry, including Sparrow, which won the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize, and Body My House (2018). Her poems, essays, and short stories have recently appeared in One Art, Passengers, Persimmon Tree, Constellations, and elsewhere, and her chapbook, The Thing with Feathers, was published in 2020 as part of Triple No. 10 by Ravenna Press. Bethany and her husband live in Edmonds, Washington, near their three grown daughters; she blogs about writing and life at http://www.bethanyareid.com .