Monday, August 8, 2016

Monday Muse on 'Veils, Halos & Shackles'

My wish is that this anthology will highlight the injustice
of these abuses but will also provide hope to the hurting.
~ Poet Nola Passmore

Cover Art by Lucy Liew
The Core, Acrylic on Canvas, 30" x 30"
© 2006 by Lucy Liew

A woman who is not yet battered is not a real person. 
~ Rwandan Proverb*

As deplorable a statement as that proverb is, it could easily be applied to other cultures than Rwanda's. The tragedy is that in too many places in the world today — our streets, our workplaces, our schools, our political, military, and cultural institutions, and especially our homes — women remain subject to abusive power, oppression, and violence that deny them their individuality, their intelligence, their creativity and self-expression, their very human right to exist.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the the timely and ever-green anthology Veils, Halos & Shackles (Kasva Press, 2016).

While a single woman has to shout loudly to make her presence known — often, she can't shout loudly enough, or is dismissed for having shouted at all — a group of women acting together become a force of resistance. In the wonderfully titled anthology, women lift their voices in resistance against silence and against exploitation, molestation, rape, incest, bodily mutilation, murder; they also speak to all forms of stricture and marginalization we find in contemporary society. Their many voices together simply cannot be denied. To hear them, to join them, to bear witness to the truths of the stories they narrate, Laura Madeline Wiseman writes in her introduction, are first steps toward imagining that better world in which every girl and woman is acknowledged as someone who matters.

Conceived in response to the brutal gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi, India, in December 2012, Veils, Halos & Shackles, edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, is a volume of remarkable and important work, first and foremost of witness and resistance. Fishman and Sahay bring together cohesively more than 250 poems by more than 180 poets representing scores of countries. And what a welcome call-and-response they make!

In statements accompanying their contributions, a distinguishing feature of this anthology, the poets, a number of whom are men, relate their reason for writing on the subject of women's oppression and empowerment. Sadly, the deeper into this international anthology a reader goes, the more that reader begins to understand how universal the problems of violence against and oppression of women are; so many — too many — of the poets themselves have been victims of sexual assault or other gender-related crimes. And yet, as sometimes happens when art is allowed full reign, their poetry becomes the means to redress too-long held silence, freeing the rest of us to overcome our own.

Fishman and Sahay are to be commended for their selection of accomplished poets, who are organized alphabetically, an approach that prevents common or shared experiences from being too narrowly defined or categorized. While including a number of recognizable names, among them Helen Bar-Lev, Barbara Crooker, Jehanne Dubrow, John Guzlowski, Diane Lockward, Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, Linda Pastan, and David Romtvedt, the anthology features, by virtue of its global reach, poets who will be discoveries for any reader, and therefore welcome for the light they, too, cast. 

Some of the poets are represented by more than one poem. Some, as their explanatory statements make clear, relate personal experiences or experiences of family members or close friends, while others speak for those whose voices have been forever stilled. Not a few speak out of empathy, or to better understand their own previously unexplored feelings, to honor a loved one's memory, to celebrate a mother's resilience; still more write, says Stirling Davenport, because "to have a world without violence, we have to envision it first." 

There are voices of profound sadness, and understandable expressions of rage. And there are voices steely defiant, set firmly against being defined as victim:

Thank you for making me understand
that sometimes the world
can turn inside out
and I will remain. [. . .]
~ from "A Thank-You Note to My Rapist(s)" by Sharon Coleman

Many of the poems are written in free verse; some use a traditional poetic form. Lyrical poems on one page give way on another to poems whose spare imagery is so clear it hurts:

Dad, do you remember,

your fist flew
through my face
between my pigtails.

Do you remember your face

in the mirror over the sink
while you were teaching me
to wash blood

with cold water.
~ "Dad, Do You Remember," by Katerina Stoykova-Klemer

You and I
never walked together.

You walked ahead leading
like some cowherd

and tied with a rope

I followed.
~ "Tethered" by Vimmi Sadarangani (Trans. by Gopika Jadeja)

In a volume of the breadth of Veils, Halos & Shackles, it's impossible to note all the poets whose words continue to resound long after the volume is put down. Like me, perhaps, you will take up the anthology and put it down many times before you can complete it. Not because of its length (it is a substantial 555 pages) but because what it recalls and documents is real and shattering and still somehow hope-full.

Go slowly through Veils, Halos & Shackles' alphabet of poets, for completing it is an act of solidarity not only with the poets who show us their own hidden scars but also with all the girls and women in our communities whose stories we do not know.

[. . .]
If no one is listening
I will tell you my dreams.
And if you are safe
live them
for me.
~ from "Pashtun Poet" by Mary Dudley

Veils, Halos & Shackles on FaceBook

* The Rwandan proverb is mentioned in the chapter "Children of Bad Memories" in Andrew Solomon's Far and Away (Scribner, 2016); Solomon's piece on Rwanda's genocide, for which he interviewed women who had been raped, appeared in his excellent book Far from the Tree (Scribner, 2012). Solomon cites as his source for the proverb Binaifer Nowrojee's Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence during the Rwandan Genocide and Its Aftermath (1996).

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