Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Purple left hand wide border; black main cover, with purple and orange triangle pattern. Whit lower case letteringSargam / Swargam, Fathima Zahra

Ignition Press, 2021    £6.00

The vulnerability in a search for ‘home’

Fathima Zahra comes to me with  an impressive catalogue of accolades. As a winner of the Bridport Prize, I anticipated nuanced and articulate poems in this debut pamphlet. I was not disappointed. She writes about the quest for identity and a rooted home with an intimacy which draws me fully into her experience.

In the poem ‘London Aquatics Centre, Stratford’ a bikini-clad adolescent finds herself in front of a changing room mirror. She’s faced with what makes her different from her peers; her skin tone, her mother’s ‘disapproving / brows’. The poem’s about strength as well as vulnerability. There may be ‘no place to hide’, but nothing will prevent this girl growing beyond a ‘sliver of light’.

The eponymous prose poem ‘sargam / swargam’ plays on the meaning of both words bound together. As the footnote explains, ‘Sargam’ are Muslim community events in Jeddah. ‘Swargam’ means heaven. The narrator conflates the two as she reflects on the life she left behind, the ‘date palms and corniche picnics’. The rhythmic lines movingly explore loss in a tide of energy

                                                                                     of
all the heavens I’ve hoarded / I like the one with the flying
boxes of fried chicken best / the one where the bouncers say
salaam.

There is a visceral sense of restriction in the poem ‘Tighten’. I’ve had braces fitted. In this poem, we’re in that dentist’s chair. But this entrapment says much about the struggle for identity, the fear of being changed forever. We’re told of ‘sharp edges / & raw nerves’ which ‘screech’. The young narrator squirms,

fighting the urge to bite
his hand as he smiles behind 
his mask & tightens the rubber 
band of my braces

Zahra catalogues her mixed identities in the poem ‘Suitcase’. She explores herself as a dossier of ‘every last / place you fell in love with’: Lebanon, Parur, ‘every bridge across the Thames’. That suitcase is packed with friends’ goodbyes, a compass and a life vest. A ‘dancing tongue’ settles three languages, yet ‘trembles at any mention of home’.

Maggie Mackay