White Blight by Athena Farrokhzad
Translated by Jennifer Hayashida
Review by Charlotte Muzzi
Athena Farrokhzad’s White Blight, translated by Jennifer Hayashida, is a book-length lyric poem about the pressures of living in a culture that recognizes your own culture as other. Farrokhzad was born in Tehran and raised in Sweden. It is difficult not to read the book as directly addressing this personal history. The poem opens,
This first page introduces many of the book’s main concerns: the relationship between the speaker and a mother who
distinguished between long and short vowels
as if the sounds that came out of her mouth
could wash the olive oil from her skin
and a concern with difference and assimilationist pressures. This first page also follows a coherent poetic arc: near the bottom of the page, the poem turns and the speaker says
To think that I sucked at those breasts
To think that she put her barbarism in my mouth.
By the end, the mother’s desire to assimilate is treated with vitriol.
This section of the book crucially grounds the poem in some of its primary concerns and reoccurring themes: the mother-daughter relationship (which is metonymically associated with milk throughout the work), assimilationist desires and the resistance of those desires, and language as a contested site in a conflict between cultural identities. This intro is, with one exception, the only section of the book not delivered with repeated structure “My mother said,” “My father said,” “My brother said,” etc. Rhetorically, the poem operates with a fairly simple vocabulary, and we deal mainly in abstractions, with each page of the book being very sparsely populated by text. After the opening, which feels in many ways like its own poem, the entirety of the next page reads
My mother said: It seems it has never occurred to you that it is from your name civilization descends.
My mother said: The darkness in my belly is the only darkness you command.
Isolated on the page, and written throughout the book as white text on a black background, these lines demand to be read and weighed as pronouncements. The black background seems to speak to redaction, and potentially to call attention to the literal black and white on the page as a metaphor for the contrast between the whiteness of Swedish majority in and the speaker’s Iranian descent. By putting the text in white, this choice also foregrounds the book’s anxieties about white speech (“bleached syntax”). Although this latter interpretation seems to mix its metaphors a bit (I am suspicious about the connection between white text and white speech), I prefer it to the notions of redaction: after all, nothing on the page is actually redacted, and although the book is extremely concerned with how exactly to speak, it doesn’t seem as in conversation with metaphorical silencing—rather, its confident, elegant vitriol is one of its strengths.
The black bars that reach across each page combined with the sparseness of the population of the line create a visual severity, which is echoed by a tonal severity of the aphoristic procedure. Many of the lines in this poem are pronouncements.
My mother said: I will reclaim what belongs to me
You will meet death robbed of language.
On the one hand, pointing out the lack of image in lines like these seems silly: this poem does not aspire to describe particular images or to create an imaginative visual field in which the reader can locate poem’s emotional content. On the other, I do find myself struggling to hold the book together because of everything that the reader is not given. We do not have a literal scene or a narrative arc, and while we ostensibly have character speakers, the characters do not possess particularly distinct voices or speech patterns. Instead, their proclamations crosshatch and shift for entirety of the book, saying things that we, the readers, know that they never actually said. Lines like “My mother said: You distort the injury with your unfortunate lie” or “My father said: You will articulate my faceless longing” do not pretend to report actual character speech. None of this is, of course, by accident, and the poem is conscious of the choices that it makes. One page reads
My father said: Whose father are you rendering
My mother said: whose mother are you rendering
My brother said: whose brother is being referred to
. . .
My grandmother said if you don’t finish chopping the vegetables soon
there won’t be any dinner.
The speaker acknowledges that these are not fully realized characters, but instead masks through which to communicate her interpretation of their competing desires for her role in the world.
This choice makes explicit something that is inherent in character voice. Any mother-figure, after all, is not really a mother, but a speaker’s interpretation of a mother’s desires. Throughout the poem, however, I found myself questioning the choice to make this so explicit, because it seems that it sacrifices some of the speakers’ potential power. In the absence of much image, recognizable character, or narrative arc, what remains is a communication that feels sometimes abstract. Although many of Farrokhzad’s aphorisms are quite beautiful and telling:
My father said: Who is speechless in a poem about language
My grandmother said: Who is bared in a poem about desire
My mother said: Who is betrayed in a poem about betrayal
For me, the most emotionally powerful moments of the book were when the long poem allows itself something verging on narrative, such as
My father said: Your brother shaved before his beard started to grow
Your brother saw the terrorist’s face in the mirror
and wanted a flat iron for Christmas.
This brief narrative moment allows the notions of isolation, alienation, and discomfort with presentation of the self to locate in a specific experience in the alien culture: seeing through the eyes of a white majority, the speaker’s brother recognizes himself as a dangerous other and alters his appearance accordingly. For me, this poem is at its strongest when it locates the violence done to the self by dislocation and alienation in a specific instance and character.
Charlotte Muzzi lives in Tacoma, Washington where she teaches English at Charles Wright Academy. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The McNeese Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, The Cincinnati Review, and poemmemoirstory.