The first time I read ‘After’ by Fatimah Asghar in the study room in the basement of my college my breathing went so crooked and so wrong the boys I was sitting with checked to make sure I was okay.
I’ve had this manuscript for forty-seven days and I still don’t know how to talk about it.
Reading ‘After’ is like having the conversation with a close friend about everything that’s happened and everything that makes you afraid. Everything that makes you ashamed.
How do you define what’s forgivable? Inevitably, there will be voices who are going to hate Asghar. ‘Dry’ is my favorite poem in the work and it’s about fucking a man who might be a rapist. It’s about fucking a man who might be a rapist after his girlfriend’s birthday party. It’s about bruises on her throat. It’s about not being bruised enough. It’s about getting used to being held down. It’s about needing violence. It’s about violence.
But God, how I want her to hurt me. “sex with you should be painful” ‘Dry’ reads and yes, this is the way an author should hurt me, the way plastic packaging should hurt when a knife goes through it. The poem is the technical equivalent of giving Thelonious Monk a bottle of whiskey and breaking his heart. I mean it’s perfect, and it’s going to inspire me for years, the way Monk inspired Komunyakaa.
It’s so hard not to make this review about me. It’s so hard not to answer Asghar’s work with my own stories. There are nights when I’m lonely and sad and torn apart and the only people online are people I’m not sure I can ask to talk to me at 4:22 AM and that’s what ‘After’ feels like, the entire work, like me when I’m reaching out for someone I’m no longer sure exists in the first place.
‘Playroom’ embodies the emotional theme, the loneliness of a girl who sees herself reflected in nothing and owned by everything. The strongest work in ‘After’ comes when Asghar rebels against form in the same breath as she rebels against all ideas of ‘should’; the lowercase letters, ampersands, and right juxtaposition of the stanzas tears apart all possible feelings of polished hesitancy that would have destroyed the intention of the work with a practiced smoothness. The language reflects the style; ‘tits’ in a poem from the point of view of a third-grader destroys any possible veneer of an appropriate life, a fiction Asghar will not sustain.
‘After’ is a chronological progression through Asghar’s sexualized life, and I say sexualized instead of sexual because the intersection of sexuality and violence with life – and its often unconscious coupling – is something women rarely get to choose. ‘Advice Given to Me in the 4th Grade’ is the best example of the way Asghar herself feels silenced, her experience the parentheses between someone else’s words.
And the words themselves are almost universally unique and gorgeous. Although Asghar has an appreciation for spines and flowers I can’t share, it is quickly redeemed by the vital integrity and shock of every other moment. Asghar is fundamentally experimental; after all, ‘Pluto Shits on the Universe’ was my introduction to her work, and it was and remains one of the most daring and innovative works I’ve seen Poetry publish this side of the century. ‘After’ succeeds most fully when Asghar stays true to that experimental vein, and the corrupted hints of forced love and sexuality sift to the top and shine in conjunction with a variable and perfect infrastructure.
My editor wants to publish the review the way it is.
I protest. I think the review is too short. I think it doesn’t capture the way after I read After, I felt like I wanted to drink. Not whiskey: water. I don’t think the review I’ve written the first time around captures the way After makes me feel the wrong shape for my body, or how I took a thirty minute walk in the bitter New Jersey cold without a jacket, repeating lines from Dry to myself the entire time.
I’m thinking of the way After tap-dances with the blurred line between racialization and sexualization.
I’ve never had any boy call me exotic. I’ve never cared about the color of a boy’s skin, never thought about crossing the borders of any country if there was some kind of sweetness I heard inside – “YOU: White boy or black boy or yellow boy or any boy not the color of me,” Asghar writes in ‘Seeking Love’. I’m thinking that I don’t know this flavor of not feeling human.
We get a lot of misogynistic poems in submissions at Blueshift. Most nights, I clean them out ahead of time, before the younger readers can see them, because there are things teenage girls deal with too much. I’ve wondered if we would get so many if the editorial board wasn’t all women and queer people and minorities. I don’t know what kind of person looks at us and thinks that something like Revolution John’s breakdown is okay to submit. I don’t know if it’s ignorance or an intentional violence.
After has never had even the privilege of asking; Asghar knows that there is something in the culture here that sees her and her body as sexualized and disposable – it’s hard to know where to put the therefore that feels like it should be inside this sentence. Reading Asghar makes me feel guilty for everything I’ve gone through and every time I’ve reacted to that wrong, for every moment of a culture that I’m ashamed of that I’ve been part of and every moment I haven’t spoken up when I should.
And yet. Even though the power rests in the anger, the despair, the rage, After claims power. I can’t forget poems like ‘Stank Face’ and ‘Red’ because to forget them is to surrender my own power, to wipe away the moments when Asghar – where women, especially minority women, who are so often overlooked in America – are fierce and powerful and immutable and true.
And yes, those moments rise in opposition to a culture that views women – especially minority women – as weak and shameful, but Asghar takes care to remind her readers that the rise can eclipse being pushed down. After ends in ‘Red’ because Asghar ends in power; the reminder that nothing of being a woman is wrong, and nothing – not sexuality nor the body nor any cultural sense of weakness surrounding any aspect of womanhood nor racial identity – can change that fact.