The Art of Remembrance in “Abacus of Loss”

15 March, 2022
Poet Sholeh Wolpé uses an aba­cus to remem­ber her life sto­ries (pho­to mon­tage TMR).


Aba­cus of Loss, A Mem­oir in Verse by Sholeh Wolpé
Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas Press 2022
ISBN 9781682261989 


Sherine Elbanhawy


The Aba­cus of Loss by Sholeh Wolpé is a vivid mem­oir in verse that unpacks indi­vid­ual mem­o­ries in a series of the­mat­ic strings—the wires of the abacus—each with a dif­fer­ent num­ber of beads, from three to thir­teen. Their enu­mer­a­tion has a com­pound emo­tion­al effect on the read­er and shows how the mal­leabil­i­ty of time influ­ences mem­o­ries as they expand and con­tract, lengthy and detailed dis­cours­es, or short, punchy bursts of emo­tion. Yet every mem­o­ry counts, every mem­o­ry adds to the lay­ers of loss that shape life. At times, the narrator’s per­spec­tive and her evoca­tive lyri­cism togeth­er with the count­ing and rep­e­ti­tion remind the read­er of prayer beads, espe­cial­ly when they include pleas and entreaties.

Aba­cus of Loss is avail­able from Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas Press.

Wolpé evokes the strug­gles of liv­ing a life of in-between­ness by choos­ing to com­bine num­bers in Ara­bic with Eng­lish let­ters in the chap­ter names, which in turn rep­re­sent the rows of the aba­cus. Each chap­ter explores loss from a dif­fer­ent angle, both lit­er­al and metaphor­ic. The first piece, for exam­ple, presents repeat­ed Per­sian words fad­ing into the bot­tom of the page, cap­tur­ing the mul­ti­tudes of loss—of lan­guage, home, her­itage, and even of self.

“that we choose the color
of our loss, like a blue
sash draped across
mourn­ers’ black.”

Lan­guage is both a vehi­cle of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of her uprootedness,“my moth­er tongue ripped blue from my throat.” It dis­tin­guish­es her oth­er­ness: “I wish I could iron my tongue, crease it sharp so I could belong,” not only in her youth but even lat­er; it con­tin­ues to remind her how she is per­ceived in Amer­i­ca, “Sit­ting with three open books black with the mean­der­ing cal­lig­ra­phy of a ‘ter­ror­ist lan­guage’ at an Amer­i­can air­port is a ter­ri­ble idea.”

By explor­ing loss, exile becomes a cor­ner­stone of the mem­oir, vivid­ly depict­ed: “Exile is a suit­case with a bro­ken strap.” The loss is per­pet­u­al and alters not just the nar­ra­tor, her fam­i­ly, her neigh­bors, her world but her whole being, even her sub­con­scious, “I lose the way to my next dream. Like a can­dle in a paper boat Dad­dy offers me to the sea.” The short, force­ful sen­tences cap­ture the dis­place­ment of val­ues, “It’s exhaust­ing to pro­tect a girl in a place like Amer­i­ca”; the dis­so­lu­tion of pro­fes­sion­al iden­ti­ties, “Dr. so-and-so is now a dish­wash­er at a din­er in DC”; and the aching vac­u­um of place.

“Refugees trail the nar­row roads
like sheep wan­der­ing edges
of hallucination.”

There’s a uni­ver­sal­i­ty of expe­ri­ence for any immi­grant who has expe­ri­enced the tur­moil of rec­on­cil­ing the cul­ture at home with the lived exter­nal one; the cul­ture dreamt and imag­ined with the real­i­ty of life in Amer­i­ca. In a verse enti­tled “Dear Amer­i­ca” Wolpé writes

“I thought you were azure, America,
And orange, sky and poppies.”

The dis­ap­point­ment of Amer­i­ca ends up becom­ing a life­long search for home, in both the obvi­ous and the unex­pect­ed, “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.”

We embark with the nar­ra­tor on her relent­less inter­ro­ga­tion of the mean­ing of home: “I left home at thir­teen.” And whether it’s the loss of the child­hood home, “There is my child­hood house becom­ing smoke.” Is it where we keep our things? “Is home my ghost? / Does it wear my under­wear / Fold­ed neat­ly in the antique chest / of draw­ers I bought twen­ty years ago?” Is it the home­land, where we are born? “Home was the Caspi­an Sea, the busy bazaars, the aro­ma of kebab and rice, Fri­day lunch­es, pic­nics by moun­tain streams.”

Sholeh Wolpé is an Iran­ian-Amer­i­can poet and play­wright. She is the author or edi­tor of more than a dozen books, sev­er­al plays, and an ora­to­rio. Her most recent book, Aba­cus of Loss, was hailed by Nation­al Book Award final­ist Ilya Kamin­sky as a book “that cre­at­ed its own genre—a thrill of lyric com­bined with the nar­ra­tive spell.” Sholeh has lived in Iran, Trinidad, and the Unit­ed King­dom and is cur­rent­ly a writer-in-res­i­dence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine. She divides her time between Los Ange­les and Barcelona. Vis­it her web­site, or fol­low her on Twit­ter @Sholeh_Wolpe.

We are sub­merged in the narrator’s world, fol­low­ing her from school, “Mama talks as if she’s swal­lowed the school principal’s loud­speak­er,” to mar­riage, “To escape Daddy’s rules, I get mar­ried. He is relieved,” then moth­er­hood — “So I have chil­dren. They teach me every­thing except the mean­ing of home” and divorce — “I divorce and mar­ry again.” She explores the mean­ing of iden­ti­ty: “I am sit­ting where I must not, a blas­phe­my in red, — the wild-horse woman I strain to keep under check,” dis­cov­ers sex, “the only way to have sex is to get mar­ried,” and finds out what it means to be a woman as she trans­forms from inno­cent, “I am so naïve,” to sen­su­al “my last lover left behind.”

She explores the suf­fo­ca­tion of the male gaze:

“I close my eyes, pre­tend the man is a cock­roach, but his stare laser-burns my nip­ples, sets fire to the twin cities under this thin pur­ple blouse.”

By defin­ing the essence of beau­ty, “Beau­ty opens its eyes and greets us with its sky,” and reject­ing the need to become what she is not, “My skin isn’t dark enough. (…) My hair doesn’t curl tight nor does it drop straight like a water­fall.” She exam­ines acts of trans­gres­sion on the body in “Please Stop” in Chap­ter Four, “The day a lover shoved me hard against the bed­room wall and bruised my wrists, I said, please, stop.” The illus­tra­tion at the begin­ning of the chap­ter is of a bird attempt­ing to escape a boil­ing ket­tle. In the poem in the last bead, we hear how the ket­tle begins to “whim­per like an injured bird,” and under­stand that “that whim­per was yours all along.”

Chap­ter Six is one of the longest chap­ters. Enti­tled “Pink” with twelve beads, it lays out the narrator’s feel­ings of anger and betray­al over the forced abor­tion that her best friend under­goes, the “girl who was once the jew­el of Tehran,” their “friend­ship like a two-paper origa­mi.” She express­es her dis­dain for her friend’s Per­sian lover, “They were once in love or lust,” and describes how “his leather shoes suc­tion the linoleum floor,” and how he brought her friend, “tuberos­es wrapped in gold­en cel­lo­phane.” His insis­tence that he loved her friend faces the narrator’s unvo­cal­ized con­tempt cou­pled with her friend’s agony:

“How is she? he asks. I shrug.
He drops his head, shakes it east to west, west to east.
I do love her, he says.
His eyes are the col­or of burnt toast.
I rub the pain between my eye­brows, tell him, She doesn’t want to see you. He nods, turns to leave then stops. Tell her I’m sor­ry. For this. For everything.
I want to say, Tell her your­self, jel­ly­fish. But my tongue is sud­den­ly stone.”

Her friend’s rela­tion­ship with God con­trasts with her own, “I tell Mama I am leav­ing reli­gion and its fog­gy tales. She points at the wall of books in my room, says, It’s their fault.” She explores the ten­sion of reli­gion through­out the mem­oir yet dives deep in Chap­ter Sev­en, enti­tled “Faith,” where Bead 8 entwines trans­la­tions of Rumi poems with the narrator’s own words, “God weeps behind the mask tat­tooed on its face.”

The push and pull between the narrator’s dif­fer­ent fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships add lay­ers of strain and com­pli­ca­tion. The com­plex­i­ty of love, the ten­sions, the regrets all inter­min­gle with mem­o­ries, so that by the end, the nar­ra­tor feels a sense of grat­i­tude for all the moments she has lived, even if painful and replete with suf­fer­ing. She attends the “Cir­cus in Tehran with tigers, ele­phants, hors­es, and shirt­less men in glit­ter­ing tights” with her grand­fa­ther; watch­es while her “grand­moth­er cooks and gives plen­ty of advice”; rolls her eyes when her “aunt calls on the phone and mono­logues for hours”; recoils when her “broth­er kicked with his words, called me whore because I live with a man out of wed­lock”; and despairs, “Dad­dy says he’ll nev­er speak to me again.”

She is over­whelmed, “I tell Mama, Look, I’m bathed in light. She says, No, child, it’s the Beloved leav­ing your soul.” The inten­si­ty of emo­tions felt for each fam­i­ly mem­ber is how the nar­ra­tor explores devo­tion, sac­ri­fice, anguish, and the abil­i­ty to con­tin­ue to love those who inflict pain on us, “The house is corpses of women, cook­ing meal after meal,” yet these “Women sing absence like opera.”

Cer­tain images recur through­out the mem­oir and linger with the read­er. Pis­ta­chios are asso­ci­at­ed with dif­fer­ent men, both close, “Dad­dy emp­ties his plate of pis­ta­chio shells into the trash,” and dis­tant, “I’ve nev­er had a pis­ta­chio, says the bar­tender. (…) I crack the shell like a vow.” The col­or blue evokes the promise of Amer­i­ca but also unre­quit­ed love and lies, “Where blue is light’s repeat­ing lie.” Red is lust, “He runs his broom to and fro, mov­ing dust clos­er and clos­er to my ridicu­lous­ly high-heeled red shoes, then stops”; sin, “There are pieces still cling­ing to her womb like strands of red algae”; and the pow­er­ful refusal to live with­in lim­i­ta­tions, “the col­or that refuses.”

I nev­er want­ed this mem­oir to end; each time I reread the words, they felt more heart wrench­ing, lay­ing bare what is unex­plain­able with evoca­tive, vis­cer­al lyricism:

“Dark­ness bends over itself to devour
What it will not hold”

I am immersed in the narrator’s world, unwill­ing to leave. I lis­ten to her con­ver­sa­tions with her aging parents:

“The bari­tone-roar of hairdry­er stops like the engine of a plane that has just arrived. Mama descends the nar­row stairs like a queen in a fluffy blue robe. She says, What are you two whis­per­ing about?

It’s not a ques­tion. She doesn’t wait for an answer because she imag­ines there is noth­ing about Dad­dy she does not know. Not after fifty-five years. She shuf­fles in her slip­pers into the kitchen to make the evening’s meal of rice and stew.

Mama is fry­ing onions now. The sweet smell per­me­ates the room with nos­tal­gia. She hums to a tune in her head and I think: Mis­takes are the sinews that hold our bones.”

The last wire of the aba­cus has three beads; the first talks of exile, “Moon drove us into dizzy exile, Lan­guage became a desert with no name,” the sec­ond, of accep­tance that life goes on as the nar­ra­tor attends a funer­al with her par­ents “in the same ceme­tery where our par­ents have bought their bur­ial plots, (…) Mama and Dad­dy prac­tic­ing their own absence,” and the final one, of grat­i­tude “Lis­ten, nothing’s too small for grat­i­tude.” By the end, grat­i­tude is my dom­i­nat­ing emo­tion, grat­i­tude for Sholeh Wolpé’s mem­oir, for every thought-pro­vok­ing word, for her raw hon­esty, for how she unpacks the com­plex­i­ties of exile, home, fam­i­ly, love, and every­thing in between. I am extreme­ly grate­ful, thank you.



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