By Rashida Murphy
Poetry Collection: Veils, Halos & Shackles
Editors: Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay
Publisher: Kasva Press, 2016
This anthology is a sustained call for an intellectual and emotional uprising. It situates the reader at the heart of violence against women without ever seeming shrill or censorious. Veils, Halos & Shackles was conceived as a response to the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a bus in Delhi in 2012. The unprecedented public activism for women’s safety, that followed Jyoti Pandey’s horrific death, prompted the editors of this anthology to put out a worldwide call for poetry on the themes of oppression and empowerment of women. 180 poets from 25 countries, who contributed more than 250 poems in this beautifully printed and bound anthology, responded to the call.
The introduction by Laura Wiseman locates us firmly in the power of language to make paradigm shifts. Wiseman notes that the word ‘male’ is often dropped from the phrase ‘male violence against women.’ She comments on the “deep cross-cultural awareness and a close attention to the intersectionality that fosters power and privilege” in this collection. Additionally, this collection focuses on rawness, testimony, and honesty.
In writing a review for a collection such as this, I am aware that there will be many poems left undiscussed, many threads left unravelled, and many sub-themes left unexplored. As a collection, this was a tough read. I have been living with this book since its May 2016 launch in Western Australia and I have been reading, reflecting, and putting it aside, since. What follows here is a personal response to some of the 250 poems and their creators. It is by no means a comprehensive one, and I made choices based on first impact when I read them.
First, a brief note on the cultural awareness and intersectionality: there are both men and women in this anthology, from diverse language backgrounds. There are poems in Gaelic and Gujarati and, starkly, an absent poem – a blank page to honour the Afghan poet, Nadia Anjuman, who was killed by her husband before her 25th birthday. Since permission to use her poem was denied, the editors chose to include her name as a symbolic representation of women dead before their time.
The poems are arranged alphabetically by author and are exploratory in their treatment of similar subjects. I have chosen not to group them thematically, instead honouring the poems as they occur in the text.
In “The Marital Hygiene Poem”, Joel Allegretti tells the story of an abusive marriage. It unfolds like a play, full of dramatic tension and despair, from its opening line, “The bruise on the left cheekbone was the last straw” to its final one, “Pull the trigger!” A little later, Ivy Alvarez speaks of the “polite silences” she was raised on so that she could “learn to lie down” and let herself “be poured into/this strange shape/called wife.” In her statement at the end of the poem, Alvarez says this poem is about the restraints a girl learns early and how that oppression extends into marriage. This thought is picked up by Lana Ayers, who recalls abuse as a child and the way this impacted on her relationships, often with violent men: “passion cracks bones/blasts china to smithereens.”
On a different note, and perhaps the only poem that treats a dark subject with a light, even humorous touch, is Pakistani poet Hira Azmat’s “lifelong chronic discomfort” with her own body. Azmat writes that she intended it as a poem “that refuses to take itself seriously.”
“My breasts offend my father
even more than my opinions:
it’s the size that’s insolent – bursting
out of t-shirts, spilling
out of kameezes that hang
demurely on any other girl.”
The poems that reflect on abuse and violence do so unflinchingly and that is their power. Ned Balbo comments on generational abuse through the prism of his mother’s violation as a young girl while Helen Bar-Lev notices, “he needs no excuses/to be abusive.” Elizabeth Beck’s family “yell to be heard: reek of garlic, onions,” and the maid cannot “wipe clear the shame, degradation and dark secrets.” Laure-Anne Bosselaar reflects on “the odd tenderness of brutes” while watching her father build sandcastles. Mary Brancaccio reminds us that “many young women still accept violence as part of the compact of a relationship.” And Cindy Brown urges us, a few pages later, to beware of “brawling” bad boys and “pretty” jailors from whom women need to escape – “shoot from my shell, break from my jail.” Lauren Camp sees her job as a poet to lay open transgressions, secrets, abuse, and improprieties. Liana Christensen observes that it is too easy “to demonise particular cultures and religious groups for having some kind of monopoly on the oppression and abuse of women” and writes about sexual slavery in ‘The Netherlands’ as well as the worldwide prevalence of gender-based violence. “If she does not enter she will be stoned/by grim-faced farmers and lie in an open field/for the crows to eat.”
Stirling Davenport’s research into the prevalence of female genital mutilation among Somali women gives us this – “[He] slaps her bottom where she has not been cut/And where she still feels something,” while Kate Dickson tells us that “harm can come/to those who don’t know/when/to be afraid.” Barbara Goldberg channels Scheherazade when she recalls the night a man with a knife entered her room and she kept him talking for hours “until a wan sun seeped into the room.” In her chilling testimony at the end of the poem, Goldberg writes how a jury thought she had seduced the man, and dismissed the charges she brought against him. And Aine Ni Ghlinn’s poems, with their “echoes of personal experience” tackle child sexual abuse in two languages – “There are times when she can’t find her way back out. /But that’s another story … /That’s another poem …”
Tabish Khair speaks of the “hollowed out” women of colonial encounters, women who add “trans-local colour” to a global office while dreaming of escape from countries where “distance and dollars have made the dupatta disappear.” A colonisation of a different sort is echoed by Jan Napier’s women for whom “even rejection is communication.” Gail Newman’s ‘Refugee Narrative’ continues the theme of displacement and danger for women in a country “of crime-free and clean neighbourhoods” where men with “pants pooled around knees” threaten girls “alone in this vague country.”
Charles Fishman reflects on the life of Tahirih, the first Babi, (later Bahai) woman to be sentenced to death for daring to unveil her face in public. Tahirih is a renowned Bahai pioneer and one of my personal heroes, so I was especially delighted to find her within the pages of this anthology. Fishman translates her legacy thus: “Women, especially, were moved/by your voice, which was like a hand of fire/that reached out and touched them.” And this is also the legacy of this collection. Every poem is a response to an atrocity, every word a testimony to centuries of oppression and every testimony a “vision” and a “living force.” Pain and protest lead to healing. This anthology bears witness to the truth of that statement. I commend it to you. Read and allow yourself to be transformed.
Veils, Halos & Shackles is available on Amazon.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘The Beat and the Hungry generation: When losing became hip’, edited by Goirick Brahmachari, poet & Abhimanyu Kumar, poet/journalist, New Delhi, India.