About about:blank

Tracy Fuad. about:blank. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021.

           “about:blank” is the universal URL for an empty webpage in any browser. As I read the preamble to Tracy Fuad’s poetry collection about:blank I imagined text loading on a screen after navigating away from the initial blank page. Toward the end of this first page she writes, “The village / of the boundary / is without a shore. // The weather is there, / on my eye.” These two stanzas are on the lower right quadrant of the page, center aligned in the corner so they make two small eyelids, surrounding the blank space of a stanza break. The text moves about its subject, surrounding it. The small opening stanza enacts its aboutness.

            Through blips in their syntax (“The overlapping states, instead of turn, together, when blended like military”, “you against the green screen, a place/ without history”, “On that hill, I will put my emotions. Look in any language. The water, it has become high./ This is an offering to the unmappable other”), Fuad’s poems trace the contested borders of a contested country with a contested attitude toward both borders and countries. This begins even in the prefatory poem, “The village / of the boundary” dilates the meaning of the word boundary. Instead of indicating an invisible thin line separating this from that, the boundary expands to encompass an entire village. The line widens.

            Much of the collection was written in Kurdistan, in the Kurdish Region, an autonomous zone in northern Iraq. Fuad, who is of Kurdish descent and grew up in the United States, taught English at the University of Raparin in Ranya, Kurdistan for two years after she completed her MFA at Rutgers. The landscape surrounding the speaker, both its contemporary form and its history, inform many of Fuad’s poems in about:blank. Fuad overlays personal history with Kurdish history, both near and distant.  In the expansive and ranging poem “Report of the Excavation at Tell Sitak” Fuad writes:

            The land is always shrinking, loose earth sliding toward the floors of the valleys,
which makes me worry for the mountains; for erosion and an earth gone flat.
                                    There’s no trace of the summer I spent here:
                        A glitch of new condos flank the hillside,
and when I ask, in halting Kurdish, where the school is, everyone says there isn’t one.
            Ten years ago, my grandpa says, my light was the only light the eye could see.
Now that I’ve come back he looks at me disdainfully, like I’m a condo and encroaching.
                                    The older something is, the deeper it is buried.

The land is shrinking: ecologically and geopolitically. Fuad does not treat Kurdistan as if it is a place flung out of time, as is so often the case from a Western, imperialist perspective. It exists not in the past but in the climate crisis happening this very moment. Fuad observes the implications of development while also implicating herself: she is a condo who is participating in the development of the mountainside by living there. The single light is no longer the only thing the eye can see. There are the lights of a city. And the weather is there too—weather that has been built and shifted by human activity. To quote Fuad, “the weather is there / on my eye”.

            There are two important, complex themes I observed while reading about:blank. The first was the messy notions of statehood and borders. The second was a feeling of suspension that permeates the collection. The borders of Kurdistan might not be recognized by Google Maps yet the speaker is there. As if to confirm that presence, the poems’ grammar has a gentle direct quality. Line to line, the poems associate freely:

If you have your arms crossed in two weeks.
If there is a cursor hovering over your chin.
If in a language that does not interest me.
If you have passed with two weeks.
If you have a seat on your floor.
If in a language that is not relevant to me

In this poem “Future Conditional,” the truncated sentence structure remains as the subject fidgets. By not completing the conditional sentence, time stops. The future has not arrived yet. The first clause remains suspended in amber. The lines feel as though they should be read slowly and with care. The anaphora creates suspension, as if the speaker’s words are caught in affective jelly, or as if she is speaking slowly in an unfamiliar language. It is a palpable distance between the speaker and the addressed, as well as speaker and language.  This suspension complicates the hazy borders Fuad’s poems gesture toward. While a border might be more idea than fact, here she is in the village of the border.

            The speaker in Fuad’s poems often finds herself translating English into Kurdish or back to English, or making sense of what happens in between these translations. “I can’t think without etymology,” Fuad writes in “Jin - Jiyan – Azade.” These two languages are braided with the third language of the internet. The poem “Every Day I Get Exciting Emails” was composed by translating the title into languages the poet does not speak in Google Translate, and then translating those translations back into English. Or the poem “FOUR AND THREE QUARTER STARS,” a cento of Yelp and Google reviews for Babani’s Kurdish Restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota. This language is mediated by Yelp and Google Reviews—which is its own language with jargon and idioms, with the Midwestern gaze of the reviewers. Then there’s the poem “www.kurdchat.com” which opens:

Beauty has joined this room
Beauty: Hello?
Beauty has left this room

which felt like a translation of Dickinson’s “I died for Beauty” by a bot who creates fake Olive Garden commercials. The internet mediates so much language in this collection. It both allows connection between disparate locations—like Kurdistan and Minnesota—but it also inflects those distances. Or rather: the connection is not without commentary. “FOUR AND THREE QUARTER STARS,” for example, takes language from a review that communicates the existence of a Kurdish Restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota, but not without the trite comments like “ethnic, legit” which so crudely others a decades-old restaurant in Minnesota, and distances the place from its physical location.   

            about:blank isn’t just about blank. I read the blankness as a pause: the portal page to the rest of the web, the white space surrounding and within the poem, a lacuna in one’s personal history, or the smaller lacuna one experiences while searching for a word in a less familiar language. It’s the eye of the storm. The weather is there.

Katherine Gibbel is a poet whose work has been published in Bat City Review, Guesthouse, jubilat, Sixth Finch and elsewhere. Her chapbook Prairie was published by Ethel Press in 2020. She lives in Windsor, Vermont and edits Send Me Press.