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The simplest understanding of “abandonment” stems from an idea of loss – something that was once connected to something else, is no longer connected. And regardless of what led to that disconnect, the loss inevitably hungers for balance.  

In her debut book of poems Disbound, poet and translator Hajar Hussaini makes the valiant effort to pause in moments of abandonment, forcing the question – what if there is no balance? What if abandonment is infinite, a see-saw of power and desire forever oscillating between having and not having? Is it possible to lean into that oscillation? In this collection, Hussaini deftly examines the multiplicity of abandonment through her personal and political experiences as an Afghan who had to leave her home in Kabul.

Disbound by Hajar Hussaini

In a short essay about Disbound, Hussaini describes her approach to poetry as a “poetics of abandonment” to convey how abandonment is alive in the very language that makes its way to the reader. “I’ve had to abandon the Persian language to write in English,” she writes. It’s a daring confession, and it points to the fact that the adoption of something goes  hand in hand with the abandonment of something else. “I’ve abandoned Kabul to come to the United States; I abandoned my family, followed by the death of both of my parents—them abandoning me; the empire abandoning my country…” the poet continues. 

The title Disbound itself points to a disconnection from that which once felt whole. But Hussaini plays with syntax to look at disconnection as part of the whole. Growing up in Kabul, displacement and unrest became a part of her family’s life. The poet speaks to socio-political instability – “blind among a mob of angry men,” “ a thrown grenade,” “the surplus of survival / guilt” – right alongside that which is determined to take its place – “continue taking my antidepressants,” “tapestries of cinnabar,” and “lemon tea honey please.” This powerful yet effortless vocabulary of both violence and beauty is the poet’s strength. And Hussaini is brutally honest about that dichotomy in her poems. Just as the emigrant may abandon the land that has abandoned her, disconnection, with its relentlessness, makes way for hope. 

Hussaini’s poems also examine abandonment through her family’s migration to the United States. In the poem ‘inventory’, “memories” are “stashed cool and dry / in the mind’s cooking place.” And the emigrant gets to decide which memories are disposed of, kept unlabeled, or, perhaps, “donated to public officials”. The poet subtly gives the emigrant some clear agency here. Armed with “how-to optimism” that takes the emigrant to a new place, the twisted reality of this agency seems to haunt the emigrant. Because  when you “shake an immigrant” that’s when “the scraps of paper fall out of reality.” In this way Hussaini astutely represents a lifelong practice of holding and translating memories for a license to stay. 

What is most striking about these poems is how clearly they convey the loss inherent to the adoption of the English language. The full stop is “a ruthless authoritarian,” ellipses are a “cut tongue.” With this fierce attempt at bringing language to life, Hussaini also conveys the limits of true communication. These limitations show up in the emigrant’s maps. They show up in documents that represent her family. They show up in questions she needs to answer. And sometimes, it is “imperative to choose not to speak”. Hussaini’s poems are the glaring  structures within those limitations – built on a lifetime of fragments. 

With such fierce language and experimentation the poet establishes abandonment as the haunting foundation on which her personal and political history is built. Towards the end of the collection, she  writes, “And even though I have stranded / many architectures of you // always there lingers an outline / of something I must get back to” – and with that, the poet uses radical hope to keep the deeply moving and persistent memory of abandonment alive.