Review of 40 Names by Parwana Fayyaz

The cover of 40 Names is solid black ground. A large numeral 40 appears sideways in a white serif font just left of center.  “Names” is printed in gold inside the zero of the numeral 40. The poet’s name is printed in all caps, in a small sans serif type, in white to the lower left of the numeral 40. The title “Forty Names” is printed in the same type, but in gold, below the poet’s name.

40 Names by Parwana Fayyaz

Carcanet Press, 2021

96 pages, £8.79

Reviewed by Jamie O’Halloran

40 Names is Parwana Fayyaz’s debut collection of poems. Fayyaz was born in Afghanistan, and raised there and in Pakistan. While studying for her B.A. in Comparative Literature, she minored in Creative Writing under the supervision of Eavan Boland. Fayyaz is now at Cambridge University where she earned a Ph.D. in Persian Studies.

40 Names is a testament to the lives of Afghan women in their home country and in exile. These are poems of witness. The title poem, which was awarded the 2019 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, is a distillation of this book of poems as it connects to names. They are stitched together by a thread, the names of Fayyaz’s mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts, cousins. She tells a family narrative that leans on the meaning of those names. As Fayyaz gives us English translations of Persian names, the family blossoms into a garden of Patience Flower, Lady Flower, Quietude, Beloved, Little Fragrant Flowering Plant. In using the English translation, the names become lines of poetry themselves.

Fayyaz’s diction and syntax are simple and direct without embellishment. In this regard, they build upon each other, as do the generations of women Fayyaz preserves here. The verbs and nouns are common. 

‘Sewing Needles,’ a poem about the poet’s mother, opens the book.

she made dresses of different colors and textures.

Kabul gave her velvet, in all colors—
she chose the colors of lover and ocean,
burgundy and royal blue.

Pakistan gave her satin, in yellow and orange,
she preferred something

It sets the tone and the metaphorical stash of fabric, color, and place the poet pulls from throughout the collection, a foundation for the following poems of women and how they endure and flourish in exile. 

The engine of the collection lies in this simplicity of language and how that candor bears authority, such as “we met my grandmother in her grave” from “Two Gravestones.” What reader cannot feel the clenching cold of  “The hand of winter wraps around her” in “The Woman on the Rock”? This metaphor describes an interior and exterior landscapes with acute brevity. Fayyaz’s metaphors and similes give us fresh, vivid images that startle, such as these lines from the long poem “Queen of Sheba”:

with a smile that
made my teeth feel exhausted in my mouth.

trying to settle
like the colour of tea

The collection gives the impression of having been written in the order of the poems as the poems gather strength. Fayyaz tells a story that begins simply with a mother and her daughters. As the narrative grows, it becomes more complex and the accumulation of personal and cultural wounds deepens. The language, accordingly, grows more sophisticated and complex in the latter poems in the book, such as “Afghans like soft worms crawled toward this homeland,” from “Her Name is Flower Sap,” and  “Her own throat became a tunnel toward an upended light,” from “The Caller and Her Constellation.” 

The center of the book is given to the long narrative poem “Queen of Sheba”. Although broken into short stanzas, most of them three or four lines, it has the sound and tension of prose. The speaker is recounting the story of her reluctance to meet a cousin known for “her ‘illicit’ deeds”. The cousin, “Belquees Queen of Sheba”, had a child out of wedlock. 

She married him after she bore him a son.
They said the man was a member of the local Taliban,
who killed and detained other girls who denied him and other men like him.

Girls like my cousin became the scapegoats of the old regime
and the city.

As the poem evolves, it is the speaker who feels shame for withholding empathy and warmth for her cousin: 

I keep thinking about how the women of
some households have failed one another,

of the brutal history that
women have faced in parts of the world like Afghanistan,
where women exist in corners and no one sees

each other’s growth or understands the choices each person makes.

. . .

And the truth is that no one is to be blamed;
neither this woman, nor those women, nor me.


History pays visits to women in this way.
The women who face the severest tests appear anonymous
and are judged loudest in history.

History has ungraciously failed the women of my family as well.

Boland’s influence in Fayyaz lives in these words. Eavan Boland, Irish by birth and nationality, as the child of a diplomat spent years of her youth away from Ireland, and in later years divided her time between Dublin and California. Her poems and scholarly work explore national identity and the movement of women from being the subject of Irish poems to being their makers. 

Fayyaz speaks truth to power. She avoids startling language and lineation. Her use of English mechanics and grammar is clear and direct. The poet trusts the stories she is telling and allows them to build upon their truth. By putting aside technical showiness, the poems build one upon the other into a powerful testament to generations of women.  

Jamie O'Halloran, a grey-haired woman, looks out to sea from a lichen-covered, rocky shore. Her hair is the colour of the sea. Her scarf is the colour of the lichen.

Jamie O’Halloran is the author of four chapbooks, most recently Corona Connemara & Half a Crown, a winner in the 2021 Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. Pinhole Poetry is bringing out a fifth, The Visible Woman, in summer 2024. Her poems appear recently in Poetry Ireland Review, 14 Magazine, Pinhole Poetry, The Night Heron Barks, Crannóg, Southword, One Hand Clapping, and in a dozen anthologies. She has won and been shortlisted for several awards. Jamie lives above a river in the West of Ireland. Instagram | Twitter