Tarfia Faizullah. Photo credit: Jamaal May.

[Note: Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Tarfia Faizullah’s “100 Bells” appears in the January 2015 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.]

Almost every time I read “100 Bells” in front of an audience, someone asks me to explain it. I’m baffled, because, to me, it’s one of my most transparent poems. I’ve been asked if it’s The Truth. I don’t think that’s what I’m being asked, though. It’s really something else: Did you make it up? Did it happen to you?



The first time I read Vievee Francis’s poem “Say It, Say It Any Way You Can,” I didn’t breathe. It’s a poem that doesn’t let you. “He hit her in the back of the head. Truth—find its own coarse/measure,” it begins, and each line afterwards punches you in the stomach until its conclusion.



“I’m saying it,” says the speaker in Vievee’s poem. What’s so masterful about this phrase is how it deflects from the question “Did this happen to you?” It is a deeper response, a more insistent one. The gerund makes clear that it’s an ongoing one, too. Vievee implies that it’s more urgent to acknowledge the truth, to say it, instead of wondering who it’s happened to.



We live in a time when so many of us constantly document everything we do on social media. We have many platforms to explain and defend ourselves when we are misunderstood. These platforms intersect our professional and personal life. We are held accountable for how we represent ourselves. We live in a time when tone has never been more crucial. Did you make it up? Did it happen to you?



I don’t know how to give more of myself than a poem. Every poem I write is more accurate than anything I can ever tweet about it: my interior life, and its struggle and desire to converse with the exterior world. The fumbling moments before walking into the classroom, how beautiful my friends are when they’re in pajamas, smoking cigarettes, and crying. The frantic search, again and again, for my keys. Trying to stay awake in front of a fire with my best friend because I have one night with her after the services for our teacher who has just died. The flight the next morning, the woman beside me who told me about being molested as a child. Every poem is an attempt to capture the rise and fall of our chests as we lived through all of it. Every poem relies on the silence before the selfie, and after.



I wrote the first draft of “100 Bells” after reading Vievee’s poem. I needed to write the breath I didn’t know I had been holding until after I was done reading it, after I was done writing mine. I think of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, how his beloved Nadezhda and their friends memorized his banned poems so they would survive. All that breath, repeating the poems he was imprisoned and died for.



How many people around the world have now seen video footage of a man struggling to say, “I can’t breathe,” as he was being choked to death? I think of how he used the last of his breath to say it. I think of young women at college campuses everywhere, their silence about the torment they’ve received at the hands of their rapists and their institutions. All around and inside of us, breath that is vulnerable—unadorned, unacknowledged. Unexplainable.



I don’t know why some of us die privately and some don’t. I don’t know why we sometimes mourn together, and sometimes alone. Why do we still have to say any of it? Why does it still happen and why is it our private lives that are claimed by grief? Did you make it up? Did it happen to you?



There is nothing more privately mortal than a poem: its hidden cracks and crevices that only a creator knows, but are bare to everyone. The small electric bits of our private selves, not necessarily our documented autobiographies, but the articulations of our nightmares and our secret courage. As Jeanette Winterson writes, “Art is not documentary. It may incidentally serve that function in its own way but its true effort is to open to us dimensions of the spirit of the self that normally lie smothered under the weight of living.”



Does it matter whether the weight of living happened to us or not? Can the writing of it mean that it happened to someone, anyone, or could? Is that enough to open the dimensions of the spirit of the self? Haven’t we written it down in the first place because it is too much? Because it isn’t enough?



The first two stanzas of Larry Levis’s poem “Anastasia & Sandman”:

The brow of a horse in that moment when
the horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough
it seems to inhale the water, is holy.

I refuse to explain.


I refuse to explain. I can’t explain what passed through Vievee’s poem into me. I wrote it in “100 Bells.” I don’t know how to explain the electricity that passes through us when we read a poem that moves us. It is divine. I don’t know how to explain the divine. I can’t explain the winds poems can make when they speak, the higher the flames can flicker when the wind sings to their stray sparks. The roar a fire makes as it begins to catch. Like our breath does, when we hear someone say it, the only way they can.

Originally Published: January 5th, 2015

Bangladeshi American poet Tarfia Faizullah grew up in Midland, Texas. She earned an MFA from the Virginia Commonwealth University program in creative writing. Her first book, Seam (2014), won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Focused around a long sequence “Interview with a Birangona,” the book explores...