[Not a Cult Media; 2020]
In the past few months, I’ve taken up lounging on the lawn in front of my apartment, trying to get some air as a reprieve from continuous, indoor life. Reading on the lawn creates a strange condition of exposure, being but feet from the heavily-trafficked curb in my Los Angeles neighborhood. People walk by often, and I just lay there, mask firmly on, shoes and socks thrown aside, my body sideways on a blanket. It always feels as if there are strangers in my home, voyeurs inches from my couch, and I find that it can be hard for me to actually, truly, read in such a setting. Without fail, I can’t help but look up every few seconds, distracted by the sound of passersby, sometimes a dog or the FedEx truck. But when I laid out one afternoon to read Sheila J. Sadr’s Birthday Girl, I read it cover-to-cover without distraction. Birthday Girl is Sadr’s debut poetry collection and the winner of the 2018 Stories Award for Poetry. It’s easy to move quickly through this book, so easy that I suggest multiple readings. I’m up to three at this point, and each time, I’ve found something new — another nuanced reference or tenderly-composed line I missed the first time around.
In a selfish way, one of the reasons I enjoyed Sadr’s book so much is because it mirrors exactly what I hope to be doing in my own work as a poet. We write around similar themes, and seem to carry similar experiences in life; reading poem after poem felt akin to conversing with a cousin. I say this not to reduce all experiences of ethnicity and trauma into one essential feeling, but to praise Sadr’s ability to bridge the gap between the specific and the universal — a recounting of life that is very much her own, but that extends outwards, offering rich possibilities for a reader to insert themselves into moments, peppering the narrative with their own struggles of being in a body.
Birthday Girl, with its slight size, tackles an impressively wide range of experiences and themes. There is continued friction against the domestic and the way the speaker observes parental performance, flooded with a mix of pity, reveration, and strangeness. There are injections of punchy millennial references, nods to the internet and technology that reflect a desire to not take oneself so seriously as a capital ‘P’ Poet. All of these avenues, though, feel cohesive; in a sense, the poems are all about attempting to assert one’s selfhood, coming up against the traumas, walls, and traditions of both future and past that seem to inhibit this process. Ultimately, this book is about survival. It’s about the violence done to the body, whether physical or emotional — intergenerational scars, the repeated vertigo of diaspora, or the very tangible effects of sexual assault. And, as the book’s description reminds readers, “it’s also a beautiful addition to a new tradition of Iranian-American poetry alongside writers like Kaveh Akbar, Anis Mojgani, and Solmaz Sharif.”
Birthday Girl is divided into four parts, and across all of them, a recurring reference point for Sadr is religion. The book’s speaker uses religion as a vessel for larger emotional processes; it is a known container, malleable to the speaker’s needs. The way Sadr writes about belief feels reflective of my own relationship to religion — albeit more or less lapsed, my ability to engage tainted by its patriarchy, but, with an understanding that it’s a part of my cultural upbringing and identity which cannot be wholly erased.
Early in the book, she recovers this institutional space, asserting some nod to matriarchy, or at least, to sisterhood: “I find my seat in the church choir / of my sister’s laugh. / Her smile, holy / water on Sundays. / Her teeth outstretched, the only religion / I wish to claim my name.” Even in casual ways, leftover bits of devotional language appears as metaphor, with lines like “You are the hymn / I find myself humming to” and “Bless’d be my heart . . . Bless’d be the hands who made this”. Despite a complicated relationship to structures of faith, Sadr is able to extract potent relics from these formalities. In a way, these relics will always be a part of her world view, and how she relates to the places from which she comes. As the book takes a turn towards more overt confrontations with brutality, Sadr emphasizes the hold that religion has on her sense of being: “I ran so far I forgot my own God . . . I ran so far / for a man I crumpled myself into a holy book”. While God may not be the guiding light of the speaker’s day-to-day existence, it is a foundation on which she can rest if absolutely necessary. It is in the moments where this comfortable background disappears that the speaker can understand the fullness of despair that is upon her.
Sadr also investigates domesticity and motherhood, and the special forms of pain that exist there. For her speaker, the domestic space is both a source of safety and a curse. It represents warmth and family, even shaping her outlook on desire: “I want / to love someone who smells like clean laundry / and a home-cooked meal after nine p.m”. Yet the logical analysis of the way these spaces and roles operate leaves the speaker conflicted, eyeing maternal trauma head-on: “Her bellyache against the dinner table. / Her nerves, their incessant frying.” Sadr delivers these lines cuttingly — homely niceties cannot exist without the truth of suffering. Once more nodding to religion, Sadr states that “women’s prayers are a search party for herself.” This short line struck me deeply. And this take on religion reflects, too, empathy with those in the speaker’s life who insist on holding belief close — an empathy with mothers who pray. It reflects knowing that in the daily devotions and rituals also exist a search for purpose and identity, one outside the confines of female performance.
This is part of a larger pattern — Sadr shines in her composition of concise statements on gender, with gut-punch assertions about the essential truths of being a woman, rendered in stunning fragments. One I keep coming back to: “I know I am a mother / because I have had so many / things escape my body” and also: “How they gave life to another country / while pulling from their own. / And is there nothing more woman than this? / To feed those who are already full? / To deliver to arms who have already taken too much”. Sadr explores the domestic in a way that wrestles with the balance between care and sacrifice, the subtle ways in which one slowly erases oneself over time. The speaker’s musings on hospitality and loss are inextricably tied to female aching, while also seeming to be a component of her heritage. In a sense her inheritance or birthright, and accepting this inheritance and putting it to action, is a task which Sadr’s speaker fails at. Yet she acknowledges her own failure, and tenderly looks towards the mother figure for understanding. In Mama, You Gave Birth to a Soft Girl, the speaker confesses, “I know you wanted a brick girl . . . You do not have this girl. You do not. / I mourn her stillbirth too”.
The use of the word ‘girl’ in this book is deliberate, and representative of a much larger condition of youth and femininity. All throughout, Sadr’s speaker seems to be negotiating her adulthood, her womanhood. The title, Birthday Girl, is of course a nod to a childish state of being, the text on the cover is surrounded by a pinkish hue, within a frame of flowers. To be the birthday girl is to be in a state of softness, to be small and held. Yet there comes a time when this must be released, when the speaker is told “not to call myself / a girl” and instead “to know / myself into a woman”. The poems in this book traverse a coming-of-age that is tumultuous, riddled with violence and grief. Yet they arrive at a place where womanhood does not mean abandoning the birthday girl of the past. Rather, Sadr posits growth as the ability to hold multiplicities: “So to call me girl is to hold / the ground I was born from.” She reclaims the notion that to be a woman means to reject the girl of the past; no, womanhood cannot be divorced from girlhood. For one is a function of the other’s legacy.
In the poem What is a Sheila Sadr?, the speaker says: “I am here / because you are too. / And we are. / And so is the sky.” She insists on a coming-of-age that is also in constant conversation with the things that came before. And that, perhaps, is the book’s greatest feat — it is able to sit in the past, in all the heaviness that exists there, and not see it as a ghost that must be discarded. Sadr does not seem to be writing to rid herself of her past experiences, shedding them onto the page as some sort of funerary ritual. She is not here for a clean slate, and she is unburdened by linear logics of healing. As seen in the book’s fourth and final parts, which exist in this mode of (precarious) optimism, celebrating selfhood without ever ignoring the continued forms of oppression that control the speaker. It’s an earnest ending, heartwarming but genuine, with simple and hopeful refrains like “welcome to womanhood” and “I reclaim myself”. Speaking as someone who has experienced much of the violence traversed in the book’s pages, arriving at such a place is easier said than done. Turning towards a relationship with girlhood that is complex, lovely, and rich can feel impossible. But as if giving the reader a guide for achieving such a dream, Sadr reminds us simply and beautifully: ”I choose to be alive / because I know joy exists.”
Sarah Sophia Yanni‘s writing has appeared in DREGINALD, Feelings, Autostraddle, and others. She is the author of ternura / tenderness (Bottlecap Press) and is Assistant Editor of The Quarterless Review. A finalist for BOMB Magazine’s 2020 Poetry Contest, she lives and works in Los Angeles.