Irfan Ali Brick Books A lot of 21st-century English-language poetry has been marked by an irreverent and implicitly self-absolving stance toward truth and meaning. What stands out about the poems in Irfan Ali’s debut collection is their humility. Faith and cynicism, love and betrayal, self-loathing and forgiveness: these themes are unified by an earnest devotion to the pursuit of clarity, despite life’s contradictions.
The book’s opening piece describes itself as a “farewell salaah, [a] final prayer”: If You’re there then, prove Yourself different from the old deities known first for their flaws. Dam up this dusty river, divert me from this course where I meet Your angels for judgment and decline the infirmary’s mercy. This is a prayer for life, for a reason to live. But should a person reach for faith when “all he grasps for / turns to ash”?
A few poems later, the “you” being addressed is different, but there is the same cautious vulnerability: “Father, now there is only / the possibility of forgiveness / and the lingering threat of the you in me / that still wants to watch you burn.” Though the phrasing could be smoother – I tripped over “the lingering threat of the you in me” – these lines capture the contradiction of becoming our parents: stubbornly refusing to forgive the person whose stubbornness we’ve inherited. “How can there be so much love here,” the poet asks in “Mother.” “How / can there even be any?”
If this all sounds a bit vague, it’s because Accretion often has the emotional register of confessional poetry but with little biographical detail. We can intimate that the speaker has previously isolated themselves from loved ones due to self-hate, disagreements, and cynicism partially born of having come of age after “two towers fell / and it was safe to turn apostate.” On the whole, however, Ali’s themes are rarely particularized in space and time; many of these poems sound like imagined conversations across generations and continents.
The speaker of “What Song Do I Sing Her?” is in love with a “dark-skinned woman,” but expressing that love requires him to confront his alienation from both his ancestral and adopted cultures: “Most of the love songs I know issued / from white-sheathed throats, / and the hearts they were sung for / were wrapped just the same.”
What Accretion has in common with other recent poetry collections is a sort of central trauma. Something has happened that the poet is trying to confront head on, but it’s like staring at the sun. “The pupil can only contract so much / before it shuts forever,” Ali writes. “What they don’t tell you / is that the deepest crevasses / were never meant to be illuminated.” Despite its formal simplicity, Accretion is a challenging book. As we navigate the poems’ ambiguous landscapes, the unnamed moms and dads and sisters become ours; and ours, too, are the flaws and self-reckoning.