When circumstances change, we change. As with any organism, a human’s survival is predicated on homeostasis, the processes of self-regulating stabilization. In addition to our physiological adjustments, we must also adapt psychologically to altered conditions. Some changes create extraordinary imbalance: the death of a loved one, a debilitating accident, the loss of one’s homeland. Exiled from Iran as a teenager, the poet, playwright, and translator Sholeh Wolpé asks, “What is a transplanted tree / but a time being / who has adapted to adoption?” Her remarkable new memoir in verse, Abacus of Loss, chronicles a life in which difficult changes are weighed against the acquisition of agency.
Abacus of Loss consists of ten sections containing “beads” that shift between brief passages of prose poetry and spare verse that depict a life’s turning points, junctures, and epiphanies in forthright language and clear imagery. Almost all the beads are written in present tense, entrusting to the reader deeply personal experiences and probing questions. The speaker divulges what others perceive as her transgressions, recounts her assertions of will, and recalls incidents in which she was blatantly objectified or subjected to unwanted advances. Wolpé renders herself vulnerable by sharing intimate confidences with the reader, and her unflinching candor elicited my empathy and admiration.
In “The Color of Loss,” the first section of the book, Bead 5 recounts a school assignment in which the students must “Think morally, / philosophically, and poetically” and list seven of life’s pleasures. The speaker’s list infuriates the teacher, and he sends the girl to the principal’s office. Nonetheless, she maintains, “It is a good list. An honest list.” On the next page, Bead 6 lists the seven pleasures. The last is a vow of defiance: “Say no when all they want is yes.”
In the second section of Abacus of Loss, “This Coffin,” Wolpé contemplates her role as a daughter in a conservative family:
Think of those left behind, he says. The young girls they just
hanged—for refusing to convert. A good religious girl, I’m
on display under a bell jar. No boyfriends. No late-night
parties. No drinking. In the United States of America,
all Daddy cares about is protecting my virginity. He
guards it like his wallet.
Constrained by tradition and religion, the speaker marries so that she can “escape Daddy’s rules” which include the prohibition of sex outside marriage. She is expected to submit to the prescribed roles of dutiful wife and daughter, as indeed many women do, transplanted or not. Many others rebel, but freedom often comes at a steep price as family equilibrium is disrupted and the tenets of faith tested by the assertion that women no less than men deserve autonomy.
The beads in “This Coffin” frequently terminate in the image of the speaker carrying her own coffin on her back. This motif reminded me of the chapter “Death Is an Adviser” in Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan in which Don Juan says, “Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch.” Whether Wolpé’s coffin symbolizes the inevitable end of life, the threatened death of self-worth, or the annihilation wrought by exile, the recurring image of the speaker burdened by her own coffin struck me as emblematic of a deep, abiding strength honed by necessity and adversity. In Bead 11 she writes:
. . . I look for home under every rock,
inside every shirt, between pistachio shells, even in the smoky
cloud rising from kebabs cooking over hot coals. I am naïve. So I
have children. They teach me everything except the meaning of
home. And when they are gone, I run. Again.
My heart goes out to the speaker who has lost so much, whose movements are burdened by exile and gendered expectations.
Abacus of Loss examines the masks of patriarchy in powerful metaphor and narrative. Early in the book, God is described as “a reckless / adolescent” and later as “a vagabond / peddling bombs and swords.” In Bead 12 of the section entitled “Pink,” we read:
This is my punishment, she cries. God is punishing me for my sins.
I want to ask, God in whose garments?
Under what mask?
In what country and under what law?
The hierarchical concept of honor as defined and policed by those who conform to patriarchy is for the speaker “something I can never fathom, / universally virile—.” Wolpé’s poems question gendered power imbalance and push back against patriarchal beliefs.
Strength and courage are given full voice in Bead 8, a long poem in the section “Faith” that incorporates three passages from Rumi translated by Wolpé. This bead describes an encounter with a Pashtu poet in a mosque where the women “huddle behind ropes and wooden barriers, on the / periphery, the other side, covered head to toe.” The sight of the men praying freely beneath the dome “needles that / dangerous part of me I call RED, because she is red—the wild- / horse woman I strain to keep under check.” The speaker defies expectations by leaving the women’s area to sit against a wall where she, “a blasphemy in red,” is approached by the Pashtu poet:
Watch him pull me into his
horizon, suck me
into his wormhole on the other
side of which he still
prays, except that here, in this
he bows not before a god
but before me,
this female blinking danger,
soft, strong and RED,
Defying patriarchal traditions and religious prohibitions courts upheaval and discord, but the compensating development of agency and the poet’s freedom to choose for herself how to live increase in strength and importance.
Throughout Abacus of Loss there is joyous acknowledgement of life’s pleasures, large and small. Paramount among these pleasures is the freedom to love. Bead 3 in the section “Honeymoon among Sargassum” celebrates love’s healing power:
We sprinkle stolen holy water
on our naked bodies in Tulum,
into unpronounceable charms
that un-scar old wounds.
“The Tally” is the book’s last section in which the laughter of children and the circle of family are juxtaposed with cemetery plots and a seated mother watching her “chemo-bald” daughter sip tea. Wolpé seeks and finds balance, writing, “Listen, / nothing’s too small / for gratitude.” In spite of the immense losses suffered, the poet’s grace and generosity of spirit shine brightly as she demonstrates how adaptations to difficult change can become the genesis of personal fulfillment, “. . . the downfall / that becomes windfall.” Sholeh Wolpé’s Abacus of Loss is a brave, honest, and wise accounting of the inherent worth of a woman’s life and her magnificent power to adapt and thrive.
About the Reviewer
Linda Scheller is the author of two books of poetry, Fierce Light (FutureCycle Press, 2017) and
Wind and Children, forthcoming from Main Street Rag Press in June 2022. Her poetry, plays, and book reviews are published or forthcoming in Poetry East, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Terrain, Notre Dame Review, The Museum of Americana, and Poem. Recently her manuscript Black Forest was a finalist for the Barrow Street Book Prize, and her writing was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her website is lindascheller.com