Like a Viewfinder with overlapping reels, Safia Jama examines the way inherited trauma—her parents and brother fleeing military dictatorship in Somalia—can overlay the present day: “when my husband and I parted / ways, it seemed natural to me to pack, as if, for a day trip, / telling no one save two friends.” As a new life comes into focus, the speaker of the poems turns her attention to the tiny theater of “my small room” – “gazing out the window: I call it windowing” and marveling at bathroom mold that looks like Charles Bronson. The poems in Crowded House captivatingly delve into the complexities of the self and what constitutes a home.
The compassionately clear-eyed lyrics in Crowded House lead us in and out of terror, gratitude, premonition, humor, and real and imagined connections between private pain and the pain of others. "It's strange how things that happened before we were born / get braided into our consciousness," muses one speaker. In trying to understand what we can live by in the various contexts of empire, diaspora, family, a marriage (and its dissolution), or within the rise and fall of one's own wildest ideas, Safia Jama uses the poetic line in "weird combinations of extravagance / and asceticism" to unearth new glimpses of why human beings act--and dream--as they do.
Safia Jama’s Crowded House is a simmering debut that calls us in to the realm of feeling and fear. Elegy and ode to a changing season, a season of ending, of a time trapped in amber, this collection marks the freedom of the small room, loneliness, yes, and healing that can take center stage, if only we’d let it.
Safia Jama’s exquisite debut, Crowded House, opens with a matinal omen foreshadowing the end of matrimony. Her collection presents an inspiring narrative that arcs in anticipation of the devastating event, ultimately arriving at a transformed sense of self following the departures of patriarchal figures in the speaker’s life. In her recuperation of the house as an organizing conceit, Jama demonstrates what philosopher Gaston Bachelard might describe as “the topography of our intimate being”; she interrogates photographs and moments recalled, experienced in her apartment; “the house” is populated by specters, spirits living in relation to our speaker, agents each that urge reconsideration of our world, conditioning her observation and sensibilities. The book features tremendous citational practice, such that poems reverberate with a sense of devotion to others, “To be welcome, / and seen,” we hear, we want. Jama deeply regards the uncanny in minutiae, quotidian relationships, and sayings she recalls. We’re first introduced to the speaker’s recently departed father through his disembodied voice, for instance, asking, “Do you…realize what / you’re getting into?” Later we hear, as the lucid imperative of the book, “Do not be afraid of yourself” from the Emperor of Buttons. I can only but echo both of them in my celebration of this fantastic book.
--Joey De Jesus