VEILS, HALOS & SHACKLES: INTERNATIONAL POETRY ON THE OPPRESSION AND EMPOWERMENT OF WOMEN

https://i0.wp.com/smarthistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/sabine2.jpg

Charles Adès Fishman and Smita Sahay have compiled an heroic anthology of poetry.  Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women; Kasva Press; Fishman, Sahay; Ed., 2016, 555 pages.

The topic of rape is a horrifying one.  It will not take long for readers of this anthology, readers of manners and decency, to be completely horrified and aghast—the systematic, contemporary, and worldwide brutalizing of women and children is not a dainty subject.

In this remarkable and necessary anthology, brutality against women is often told starkly, in what is essentially prose incident and prose vignettes—poetry sometimes takes a back seat, or poetry comes to the rescue. The topic hinders poetry. Poetry, in this atmosphere must fight to live and breathe.

Either the horrific incidents themselves do not allow poetry to come anywhere near, or the poets, brutalized by the incidents, or stung by the terrible news, are too traumatized to produce poetry.

Weaponized gossip is occasionally the go-to strategy, especially when the incidents occur in more middle class settings. It might be teachers using papers written by their students. One poem begins (and notice the pure prose):

The part-time teacher sometimes has her students read their English IA papers in front of class. She has not read them yet. She asks for volunteers.

A beautiful woman stands in front of the class and reads a paper in which she states that her husband beat her…

Judy Wells “The Part-Time Teacher Sometimes Fears For Her Students’ Lives”

Veils, Halos & Shackles does not get mired in one kind of politics; the perspectives come from everywhere—they are brief, but numerous, and the poets also add prose remarks to their poems.

This book, I am happy to say, has great documentary worth.

The poems tend to be the quick, through-a-keyhole type of horror—not the long arc of fictional, Stephen King, horror. But this is, unfortunately, very real. There are things here you would never want to look at, but which poetry somehow must tell—horror in sad, banal, mundane glimpses.

Poetry almost feels superfluous in recounting these terrible incidents. Poetry, like civilized decency, is ashamed, is tactfully silent, as the suffering unfolds. Unfortunately, or not, Veils, Halos & Shackles only sometimes has poetry. To be true to its subject, this was necessary.

The Socratic injunction against the danger of poetry was not the paranoid ravings of an old man. The best poem about a street fight will feature neither the street nor the fight.  If the poet is weak enough to believe that a poem on a street fight is all about the street fight, then street fighting will win, and poetry will lose.

Is there history, or science (why is there brutality?) or politics in these poems?  Yes, and no.  There is no systematic effort to present science, politics or history.  Yet the nature of the subject—and the poets in this anthology are from all over the world—make it impossible for these poems not to be, in some manner, political and historical—if not scientific.  The anthology has a fullness, in this regard, and is an important record, if only for that.  The editors have done a wonderful job in making this book feel like the world.

But does the subject itself hinder the pleasures of poetry?  To some degree, this might be said to be true.  The more we are appalled by a vast, society-wide problem, the more merely a reaction to it pains us to such a degree that even if the reaction contains understanding, stretching upwards into art, we find it difficult, if not impossible, to have anything to do with that reaction at all.

Poetry walking into the fires of the world cannot survive the fire—if it does, it’s not poetry.  Or, so many instinctively believe.

And if news of the horror needs to be spread, let something more efficient, like prose, do it.  Poetry is the end of existence, not the means; it is the message, not the messaging service.  We should spread the news some other way.

The poet, when reporting contemporary, dire, emergencies, naturally begins to talk in the more urgent, and plain accents, of prose.  It can’t be helped.

Prose can be three things, and only three things.  The truth. Story. Propaganda. Poetry traditionally avoids all three of these, but during an emergency, what is called “poetry” tends to follow the dictates of prose.

Poetry, as it is mostly written today, then, can be three things: The truth. Story. Propaganda. The third is perhaps the most common, since it’s so easy to mix up the first two, and the confusion between the first two ends up, often, being the third, even when the attempt at truth and story is done with the very best intentions.

Propaganda is best when it disguises itself as concern for the oppressed.

The message of concern only advertises the triumph of the wicked, and the end result is just more winning for the wicked, as the innocent are frightened and the good are demoralized. This is the danger. Men are hated. Then men become worse. The illiterate brute fears nothing in front of the ineffectiveness of poetry, which is nothing but unintentional propaganda for what they do. Shelley warned of this, pointing out that poetry has a higher calling, creating love and beauty itself, the true poetry avoiding the problem of the dyer’s hand, stained by reportage of the very horrors poetry must fight by other means.

Many of the poets in this large anthology, about 250 of them—and many are widely published—are aware of this danger—poetry which reports oppressive behavior may give cheer to the oppressor, since poetry which replicates the helpless tears of the oppressed is exactly what the oppressor feeds on. Because of this awareness that weakness breeds weakness,  a few of the poems in Veils, Halos & Shackles urge the women in abusive relationships to murder their oppressors.

The reporter and the poet are not the same. The world needs both. And they should not be confused—when they are, propaganda grows like mold and problems multiply. Rather than be a helpless reporter, the poet offers brutal advice, but this unfortunately fails; it only deepens the sense of helplessness and despair, in which our world, and the attempt at poetry, founders.

Then there is the acute problem of symbol and metaphor—we think, without thinking, that metaphor is the soul of poetry, and even a figure as illustrious as Aristotle thought it so; but when we describe the disgust and terror of this topic in other terms (symbols) the poetry’s gain is the world’s loss; the problem remains, as it is simply given another name, and so despair actually deepens, and poetic wisdom mocks itself.

History, story, journalism, and statistics, are the moral lenses typically offered when widespread brutality occurs—poetry adorns, pleads, humiliates itself, digresses, sketches, symbolizes, paints, condenses, and gasps in such a manner that the very brutality which is the enemy now emerges grinning, in a new guise, not chastened; the oppressor, once banal, is now decorated with the laments of its victims. Poetry cannot harm it. Poetry, by its very nature, does not operate morally, but with faculties more sensual and ironic and complex, such that mere brutality has nothing to do with it at all.

Despite this, the editors have found poems which are stunning examples of poetry, avoiding the trap of harm, venality, stupidity, hunger, and menace breeding more of the same. The editors have still, despite all we have said, produced an important and bountiful anthology. There is hope for humanity.

Here is a poem from Karen Alkalay-Gut, which we meet early in the anthology—arranged alphabetically by author. The variety of the poetry in this anthology recommends it. This poem by Alkalay-Gut is rare for its pure accessibility and brevity.

Guy Breaks Up With A Girl

Guy breaks up with a girl
she tries to kill herself
girl breaks up with a guy
he tries to kill her

either way it’s her fault

This sad tendency is true. The difference between the genders, in that nebulous state of impulsive human desire, where the male oppresses the female, describes the whole subject of the book in an instant. What editor would not want to include this poem?

But what of men who die from love? Or where no one is at fault? What of this?

Or what of the men who would never say if the man “tries to kill” the girl it is “her fault?” What of this?

A poem is not a poem when it leaves itself open to indignant prose responses. Poetry does not belong to sad tendencies. Especially when they are objectively expressed.

Are all women self-effacing, and all men murderous? The poet is not a statistician, who furthers the news of cruel probabilities.

In “Guy Breaks Up With A Girl,” the subject triumphs; the evil, in fact, triumphs, not poetry.

On a certain level, this is the best poem in the book.

On another level, it is not a poem at all.

Here, then, is why this piece deserves a look. It describes the gulf—on two levels—which is the sorrow of us all.

The gulf between men and women—is it real, is it wide, is it imagined? How real? How wide? How imagined? Is it from birth? Is it from society? If it’s from society, does that mean the individual is innocent? How we answer—or do not answer—these questions—is how we write poetry on this topic.

It seems to me that women should never hate all men. If this horror is to be overcome, shouldn’t women fight the horror with the percentage of men who are good, and also hate the wrong?

Linda Pastan, one of the better known poets in the anthology, writes a poem with the same sentiment as “Gut Breaks Up With A Girl:”

On Violence Against Women

when Adam took
that second bite
he said

you’ll get what
you deserve
and spat out the pits

and led Eve
in lockstep
from the garden

and oh
the sweetness
of blame

continues
toxic
down the ages

Unfortunately, Pastan is right. Blame is sweet.

The truth of women wronged is such that perhaps I am too fastidious to speak of gender theory and society and poetry and blame; I should recognize it is the topic which is more important, even as I quote Shelley. But I trust the reader will understand what I am saying.

The following, by Sampurna Chattarji, is my favorite poem in the anthology; it does not shy away from the topic—none of the poems in this anthology do—but it manages to embrace the topic and its profound terror without succumbing to what it works in. It has a deeply informed subjectivity; there is no straining after reporter’s facts, there is no general bitterness, which causes so many poems to run aground. It achieves poignancy in the simplest and truest manner possible.

As A Son, My Daughter

When you grow up,
you will be a healer
loved for your smile
and your sorceress skill.
You will be a composer
of concrete dreams,
songs of towering glass.

You will be the one
to split the gene
and shed light
on every last particle of doubt.

You will know numbers so well
that you will reject them all
save two,
for they will be enough
to keep you engaged endlessly
in running the world,
efficient and remorseless,
a network of binary combinations.

When you grow up,
you will be all that I am not.
Wise, patient, with shiny long hair
and good teeth,
radiant skin to go
with your razor intellect,
as brilliant as you are beautiful.

You will be a wife
and a mother,
your children will be
brilliant and beautiful,
exactly as I see them,
perfect miniatures
of all
that I am not.

I brought you up as a son,
my daughter,
fierce and strong and free.
But now, now
that you are, have become,
all that I am not,
you are too fierce, too strong, too free.
Your hair is too short.
Your absences too long.
You fear nothing.
You frighten me.

The paradox is that poetry can speak of the horror of women brutalized, both systematically and randomly. But poetry escapes blame; it escapes its subject—or, rather, it elevates the subject, which is a paradox, since the wrong, the horror, cannot be elevated.

The miracle is not that that Veils, Halos & Shackles, a poetry anthology, contains no poetry, but that it does.

Wrong begets wrong. And poetry must conquer this begetting, not just the original wrong.

Men, hurt by women, for whatever reason, often rescue themselves by retreating into a “man’s world;” men’s escape from women is expressed in the following “humorous” bumper sticker: “Wife and dog missing. Reward for the dog.”

Diane Lockward saw this bumper sticker on a pickup truck in New Hampshire, and she came up with this fine response, a beautiful, redemptive and poignant poem, “The Missing Wife:”

The wife and dog planned their escape
months in advance, laid up biscuits and bones,
waited for the careless moment when he’d forget
to latch the gate, then hightailed it.

They took shelter in the forest, camouflaged
the scent of their trail with leaves.
Free of him at last,
they peed with relief on a tree.

Time passed. They came and went as they pleased,
chased sticks when they felt like chasing sticks,
dug holes in what they came to regard
as their own backyard. They unlearned
how to roll over and play dead.

In spring the dog wandered off in pursuit
of a rabbit. Collared by a hunter and returned
to the master for $25, he lives
on a tight leash now.

He sleeps on the wife’s side of the bed,
whimpering, pressing his snout
into her pillow, breathing
the scent of her hair.

And the wife? She’s moved deep into the heart
of the forest. She walks
on all fours, fetches for no man, performs
no tricks. She is content. Only sometimes
she gets lonely, remembers how he would nuzzle
her cheek and comfort her when she twitched
and thrashed in her sleep.

What woman—or man—could read this poem without being profoundly moved?

Another major theme in this anthology—of perhaps the most important topic of our time—is that the aftermath of abuse is as terrible—perhaps more so, lasting a lifetime—than the abuse itself.

Bruce Pratt’s irony perhaps makes the point the best; his poem “According To A Spokesman” begins:

Raped, beaten, and thrown down an embankment,
left by her three male attackers for dead,
her injuries are not life-threatening.

The truth is that the “injuries” are always “life-threatening.” Sexual abuse of any kind destroys lives, innocence, and every part of life, once and forever—the defense against the wrong after the wrong has happened, cannot speak, unless to dismiss the wrong—but the wrong can never be dismissed, even if the person, in certain instances, bravely escapes the worst effects. The morality of the issue is such that nuance is not possible, and since poetry excels in nuance, translating a wrong into poetry is the most difficult task there is.

Hina Panya’s remarkable poem, “The Gallery,” gets at the sorrow of the anthology’s topic by having a mother in a gallery opening of her son and stopping in shock before a portrait of her own battered face, a memory (she thought) her son was too young to remember. The poem’s three stanzas use first person, third person, and finally second person, in a very effective manner.

Rochelle Potkar’s “Friends In Rape” attempts a strategy we only occasionally find in Veils, Halos & Shackles—the poem uses the point of view of the abuser—the poem inhabits the “logic” of the male friend’s thoughts as he decides his “brimming love” needs to connect him to his female friend: “Should love not translate?” “Maybe she is just shy” “Doesn’t she smile at each one of your jokes?” “I will be gentle”

Potkar’s strategy flirts with danger—drama illustrating wrong by allowing wrong to speak, concedes too much; it enters that realm where Milton made Satan too attractive. If the entertainment industry gives us villains who seduce, in dramatic fashion, as the audience is forced to listen to villains’ “logic,” or even view villainous audacity and energy, wrong may ultimately win. On the other hand, Shakespeare allowed Iago to speak freely, and who can say this was not a good idea? We are tipped off to how evil works. Potkar is doing us a service; after all, the poem is called “Friends In Rape,” and so I think she is wise to show us what the “friend” is thinking.

Kirtland Snyder’s poem “Intimacy” takes arms against the ‘historical violent male conquest problem’ head on, in one of the most impressive poems in the book, with heroic meter and blasting rhetoric, a sensitive message that swaggers to make its point.  The poetry, as poetry, is strong in a 19th century sort of way, which Snyder obviously intended somewhat ironically—but it’s impressive as poetry, nonetheless.  The message, however (the poem is addressed to a sword-wielding, penis-wielding cartoon of a man) is a bit overblown—neither civilization as we know it, nor the successful male, belongs solely to the sword and penis, if at all, as the poem will have it. Stereotyping, which Snyder chivalrously uses to bash the stupid, bullying male, finally helps no one. It doesn’t reduce violence, it doesn’t increase enlightenment, nor does it produce very good poetry. But Snyder’s poem, considered purely as pyro-technics, is really good in parts—here’s the first stanza:

If you’re lucky in life you will learn to love a woman,
you will learn to keep moving inward on the long journey
to the heart, your most audacious enterprise,
like trying to find the source of the Nile with the Nile
your only map, a living watercourse through a dark
continent whose deepest wellspring you will name Victoria.

The superficial theme eventually kidnaps the poem, but it’s a great poem, nonetheless.

When the majority of the poems are not painting savage incidents which make us turn away in helpless disgust, they occasionally sing out a will to survive, advertising the strength of the woman who survives. Do any of these poems—which address the pain of rape and murder and abuse explicitly—cure the pain, or reduce the suffering, of any of the countless victims? Certainly, writing poems is better than silence. Certainly, it is better to share.

This plague of women suffering must end. All must be vigilant. Men must learn to love. Only through love, and through words informed by love, can we enter paradise.

If you purchase only one book of poetry, please purchase this one.

—the Scarriet editors, Salem MA 10/22/2018

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Ratan Ghosh said,

    October 31, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    I wish to get connected, how can I

    • thomasbrady said,

      November 1, 2018 at 2:01 pm

      Hi Ratan,

      Are you on Facebook? If you are, are you a member of Indian Poetry? Are you the Bengali poet?

      Tom


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: