Secure that delicate passage

On Hajar Hussaini's "Disbound"

Hajar Hussaini

University of Iowa Press, 2022, 77 pages, $19.95, ISBN 9781609388676

Before the first poem of Afghan poet Hajar Hussaini’s debut collection Disbound, Hussaini already resists the limits of the book’s form, positioning her text in a conflict between sequence and chaos, what is threaded together and what imminently, and presently, comes apart. In the epigraph, Hussaini clarifies and troubles her collection’s title with a specialized dictionary definition of “disbound”:

Disbound means that the book or booklet, whether printed or manuscript, was once sewn and bound, but has now lost its binding. The term may be distinguished from “unbound,” which means that the book was never bound.

                                                  Oxford Reference
A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology, 1450–2000

Hussaini frames her book in a fragile position: the ruin of the material text is incipient within its reader’s hands. Her opening placement of a formal Oxford definition is disturbed by poems that twist and distort traditional means of punctuation and syntax, inverting the neocolonial structures built into textual English. The title and epigraph provoke an anticipatorily imagined destruction of the text that gives presence to the ruins and abandonments surrounding the poems. In her essay “A Poetics of Abandonment,” Hussaini discusses Disbound’s creation within coinciding personal and political abandonments.[1] From her parents' deaths, to her leaving Kabul, to her leaving the Persian language for English, to the Afghan government’s abandonment of its people in a constant American-sourced war, Hussaini writes from many disbinding circumstances. The definition’s distinction between “disbound” and the more familiar “unbound” prefigures the familial, grammatical, and geopolitical stakes of the poems to come. Hussaini already testifies: there has been a boundedness, a state of narrative and material cohesion, but it has been lost. Yet here is Hussaini’s first collection seeking, as she writes, “to preserve for the reader a place where she can find some forms of repair,” its poems bound in intentional sequence, generating structures for rest without evading realities of empire and war.

In “notes from Kabul,” the opening poem of the book, Hussaini collages found language from various media and eyewitness accounts of her threatened city of Kabul into a sequence of four quatrains:

on being fine when others aren’t;  
notice graphic, how quotes
wax truth & assassinate 

the surplus of survival 
guilt covers pages & the data
at the price of two
boiled eggs

rectangular streets grind us
like watercolor powder
we wash blood off bags
& hats & the few

branches of tree
are in blaze yet we
still play stone scissor

Instead of the more expected lyric “I” the poem posits a “we” that reinforces its fractured form. Hussaini’s gathering of data and reports from Afghan social media commentators, witnesses at explosion sites in Kabul, and politicians produces a choral effect in which any singular voice becomes indistinct, both severed and several. Hussaini’s enjambed recombinant techniques enact a polyvocal form of witness that is partial and indeterminate, obscuring access to any singular speaker, let alone the speaker of the poem. In “A Poetics of Abandonment” Hussaini writes of one of her aesthetic strategies, “[i]n a subversive act, I abandon my own body, the body of an Afghan woman that is now abandoned by the US and its allies in the region but which used to be the justification of a war on terror.” Just as the distinction between singular reports in “notes from Kabul” is uncertain and endangered, so is the poet’s relationship with the materials of these “notes,” where data comes with a price, received and transformed from a displaced position, screening the possibility of embodied language. “Quotes” maintain an uncertain truth value and “assassinate / anecdotes,” obliterating cohesive narratives, even if those narratives are unreliable to begin with. Language of war and capitalist violence are cut together and disbound at once. Although the tree (the source) is on fire, there remains the play and gamble of a schoolyard game that ends on “paper,” the surface support of a poetry written from memory with, as Hussaini writes, “my point of view . . . toward the ruin.”

The aesthetic and geopolitical range of Hussaini’s poetics is formalized throughout Disbound in part by a hybrid technique wherein the poet’s thoughts and memories overlap rapidly with multimedia sources — translations of Persian poets, references to Afghan films, allusions to political philosophy etc. — across languages and countries. Hussaini’s lyric transformations of cultural materials and political documents chart the multivalent possibilities of poetry to illuminate — and create counter-forms from — the abandonments produced by occupational and colonial violence. In “on-site commands,” Hussaini performs the poem itself as an alternative kind of report in which “a camera-man & a well-known / columnist are at odds over / who gets to report this first,”[3] where “this” also serves as the poem, its presence, however fractalized between sources and borders — resistant, even anterior, to exploitative modes of geopolitical reportage.

The poems in Disbound offer a surplus of ways to read them against the grain of the colonial forces they process and address, although they never claim to transcend these ongoing historical traumas and hierarchies. While “notes from Kabul” suggests paper (the poem’s surface) as a potential refuge against the American-sourced and now Taliban-controlled destruction of a war-torn Kabul, paper takes on more troubling roles over the course of the book, becoming enveloped in, but not protected by, structures of empire and access:

when we are placed in a fragile expanse
do not we become broken; unhealable;

shifting positions; shake an immigrant
and scraps of paper fall out of reality[4]

tokhu nesti a hundred and fifty tried to escape
from the gate — the flames they say burned every
document as an act of surveillance[5]   

The documents affixed themselves to members of my family
haunting me in ways unbeknownst to my lover or the old friend[6]  

The play of paper at the end of “notes from Kabul,” then, is far from a total poetic clearance, as throughout these poems, paper becomes thematically linked to the document and its relation to colonial structures of war, surveillance, and immigration. Whether papers “fall out of reality” in acts of state violence or take on the parasitic quality of having “affixed themselves to members of my family,” Hussaini is constantly re-evaluating the roles of paper in her work as inextricable from the oppressive use of documentation in a Western empire that disbinds her family and her home.  In “A Poetics of Abandonment” Hussaini writes, “. . . my subjectivity emerges to blur the line between identity and legal identification,” and in Disbound, paper operates both materially and metaphorically as a medium between I.D. and identity. While the subjectivity of the poems flickers between imposed and self-emerging identities, Hussaini finds ground in this instability through forms that showcase the power of poetry to cohere disparate registers in the same compressed spaces: “& landlocking the poems / in which hope persists    & cannot leave the stage of politics       & polyamorous.”[7]

This poetic “landlocking” reflects Hussaini’s lyric mapping of Kabul, a city surrounded by mountains in a landlocked country. In her poetic cartography, displaced arcs of memory and distance are scaffolded with urgent descriptions of Kabul’s streets, tea shops, gambling houses, chamber of commerce, etc. Hussaini’s alternative map is manifold and imaginative as much as it is specific in its geographical and critical coordinates, dependent on the poet’s lived-in memories of a city and its people as well as on exterior forms. Failure to map with clarity, too, is a necessary component of this map. In “losing sight” the speaker attempts to visualize Kabul, but the effort is so distant and compromised it requires a de-focalized perspective:             

                             a screw in my glasses
came off                fell down the hill
I lost sight of a valley 5,000 years ago
I climbed to see     a city on top
                      instead, everything 
was in square colored pixels
                                    like a low-quality picture
I have of Kabul in the ‘70s[8]      

Hussaini acknowledges the limits of her speaker’s capacity for witness before testifying to the realities of war: “a T blows himself up / in the midst of a ceasefire / blind among the mob of angry men.” Spans of space, time, and visibility between the poet and her former city find a temporary correlative in “a low-quality picture / I have of Kabul in the ‘70s.” Both the observer’s eyes and the photograph are distorted visual mediums. Yet Hussaini’s language in Disbound maintains lucidity in charting the distortion inherent in displaced memories “calling me back to a country / I cannot afford to call home         anymore .”[9]

Hussaini offers counterpoints to the rifts that provoke this cyclical “calling back” in the conceptual and formal architectonics of her poetry. In “A Poetics of Abandonment,” Hussaini discusses her poetry as a kind of architecture and planning in the midst of the ruins: “To write poetry for myself or someone like myself is to acknowledge my reader is in transit. She needs the most a place to rest. Through justified margins, centered text, and regular patterns, I enclose my poems and shape them into buildings.” The visual and spatial consistency of her poems, then, is inextricable from their ethics of rest and generosity. In the devastating cascade of her final titular series, Hussaini suggests a critique of unnecessary aesthetic acrobatics: “my poems oppose irresponsible innovations // as a colleague describes they self-emerge and self-suffice.”[10] Hussaini’s poethical move towards formal stability and the rest it nurtures does not reduce complexity, but magnifies the reviving powers of artistic patterning within a larger map of war and displacement. 

The particulate components of Hussaini’s language concretize the “buildings” of her poems in a series dispersed throughout Disbound that investigates punctuation marks. In the notes section she writes that punctuation is indicative of “our interconnectedness and the hegemony of European languages.” Hussaini re-figures the apostrophe not as a mark that unifies through possession, but as a kind of blade that can sever both name and identity: “pause    after the first vowel of this name    imagine an apostrophe cutting it / in half.”[11] The colon is transformed into a haunting shorthand for colonial power structures, where “day in and out this subject       in diction       in peace / punctuates      is aware of the case for :ialism.”[12] Ellipses-riddled tercets explore the poet’s techniques for learning English and how these methods might reflect her poetic methodology: “I was told that my table of disembodied words / is not how learning a language works … / but one dissects a complex into its capsules . . .”[13]

Hussaini’s study of punctuation’s relation to hegemonic violence produces a subversive relation between the poet and the smallest grammatical “capsules,” which become crucial marks in her larger architectural plan. By using poetry to look harder at the markings that are prescribed to regulate Western languages, she creates friction between her use of English and her resistance to its colonial impact. Punctuation enacts puncture, a site for Hussaini to critique the oppressive rules assumed by white American speech and citizenship. 

In some of the most powerful sections of the book, the buildings/residences/poems in Disbound become stations of grieving:

                           cutting the ribbon            
                           ending on a preposition
                           leaving tense rooms
grief is aware of 
its residence–time grants
                  appropriate emotions
                          I archive its semantics
                          I earn its adjectives[14]  

Hussaini entwines semantic archiving with elegy, reinforcing the poet-in-transit’s need to create forms for readers like her who “most need a place to rest.” Although Hussaini dismisses the phony performance of what she calls “the privatized human,” this does not preclude her from exploring visceral memories of connection and loss. One of the shortest language units of the book is “I’m peopleless.”[15] In an elegy for the poet’s mother, a testimony of lost touch reveals embodiment in paradox and peril: “I held her jaw in my palms / liquids barely circulating her body / in this language the body / is both / alive and not / if I were to choose / the strongest sense, touch / with its ability of measuring / its intelligence of distance.”[16] The titular sequence that closes the book measures this kind of “intelligence of distance” with mounting complexity. Split across twelve sections, the poem bears witness to the catastrophic events in Afghanistan in the fall of 2021. Hussaini breaks apart linear narrative into simultaneously occurring elements as a strategy of witness — “concurrent misfortune” — so that the poem also becomes a site of ceremony, elegy, memory, and dream in the midst of escalating fascism: “I want to go back / my father has died / their poets have traveled / to the outer maps. Hussaini employs an array of tones and resources to transcribe her grief from these “outer maps,” the accumulation of passages producing an irreconcilable procession for herself and “a long list / of mourners / who had no procession.”[17]

A translator from the Persian, Hussaini performs many kinds of translation in Disbound: between languages, between countries, between the oppressed and the oppressor, between sign and signifier, between the living and the dead, and between the addresser and the addressed: “in translation my soul is a print / where are you going? what language / are you speaking?”[18] She weaves a dazzlingly multivalent language culled from such sources as an “incumbencies’ dispatch,” her own dreams, the political philosophy of Frantz Fanon, photographs, Farsi songs, “telephone calls from PD #3,” Persian-sourced English words, heartland theory, and Sufi poetry. She maintains a pitch of multiplicity and intensity of forms throughout her necessary debut. She shows what only poetry of her caliber and circumstances can do, both halting structures of power and finding her own living forms of power within that halting, rebelling against history with formal durability and linguistic innovation. Through and across languages, Hussaini infuses grief and tenderness into her strategies for resistance, creating a work of great revival in the process:

And even though I have stranded
                                    many architectures of you

always there lingers an outline
                                    of something I must get back to[19]       



[1] Hajar Hussaini, A Poetics of Abandonment (Poetry Magazine, May 2022). 

[2] Hajar Hussaini, Disbound (University of Iowa Press, 2022), 3. 

[3] Hussaini, Disbound, 20.

[4] Hussaini, Disbound, 6.

[5] Hussaini, Disbound, 25.

[6] Hussaini, Disbound, 64.

[7] Hussaini, Disbound, 52.

[8] Hussaini, Disbound, 4.

[9] Hussaini, Disbound, 8.

[10] Hussaini, Disbound, 70.

[11] Hussaini, Disbound, 8.

[12] Hussaini, Disbound, 44.

[13] Hussaini, Disbound, 40. 

[14] Hussaini, Disbound, 45.

[15] Hussaini, Disbound, 42.

[16] Hussaini, Disbound, 14.

[17] Hussaini, Disbound, 73.

[18] Hussaini, Disbound, 19.

[19] Hussaini, Disbound, 71.