Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women
Editors: Charles Adès Fishman & Smita Sahay
Publisher website: www.kasvapress.com
Poetry That Hurts, Compassion That Heals
A Review by Vinita Agrawal
Two Hundred And Fifty Poems, Two Dozen Nationalities
The December 2012 rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi and her subsequent death deeply moved thousands of people all over the world. Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women was conceived in response to that brutal gang-rape and to the unprecedented public activism for women’s safety that it generated. The anthology features more than 250 poems by writers from over two dozen countries - from Brazil to Bangladesh, from New Zealand to Nigeria - as well as testimonies that are intensely personal, honest and disturbing.
All over the world, girls and women are victims of violence, oppression and exploitation. No country, no community, no religious or ethnic group is immune. Too often, women’s voices are stifled, ignored or trivialized — and as a result other victims of abuse feel alone and unsupported.
I believe we're in Singapore?
How many boxes of dreams
Did you help load on the aircrafts
my two-year-old sister died with me,
leaving another scar
on our Motherland’s face.
Did she get a name?
Wasn’t she a laadli,
like I was once,
before becoming a Damini, an Amanat,
As for me,
I’m off to have a word with Draupadi now.
I need to know
why her prayer for a few threads of dignity
was far greater than my own.
By Baisali Chatterjee Dutt (written on the day Nirbhaya died)
A Unique and Important Anthology
The volume and gravity of sexual, physical and emotional abuse suffered by girls globally is shocking. This is the first-ever anthology of international poetry to specifically address issues such as emotional, physical abuse, acid attacks, female infanticide, femicide, incest, sexual slavery, female genital mutilation (FGM), abduction, religious persecution, child exploitation Sorcery, prostitution, body imaging and more.
Most of the poems come from accomplished poets across the world. Most poems have been written specifically for the compilation, while others are reprints. It includes works from the Indian authors, such as K Satchidanandan, Ravi Shankar, Tabish Khair, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, and Sampurna Chattarji, Rochelle Potkar, Rita Malhotra and others.
In her poem, Rape Of Sunlight, Sumana Roy writes about the rape of a five-year-old girl in Delhi in the summer of 2013:
When they brought you to us that Friday morning,
blood sticking to your legs like a creeper,
your brother pointed to the sunlight lake inside your frock.
“Tomorrow I’ll be the sun,” you’d told him, planning for fancy-dress fun.
There were bottles inside you, and male snot. A syringe in your hair. A button in your palm.
I do not remember the rest.
Your father still seals our broken windowpanes with posters of “Save the Girl Child.”
Your grandmother stares at sunshine’s death certificate.
In another moving poem on the rape of an adult woman, titled Things Untouched, Adele Kenny, poetry editor of Tiferet Journal, writes:
After he was done, he beat her again
and left her for dead on the bedroom floor.
She doesn’t remember his face
but can’t get rid of his eyes whenever she closes hers.
Now she never enters the house without fear
— she looks behind doors for a man
who stands behind her in every mirror,
whose shadow hides inside her own.
She hasn’t slept in her bed since,
though the mattress has been replaced.
People who don’t know her well
would never guess (the secret a dark, still history);
and only her closest friends know
that she still refuses her husband’s hands,
that over and over again she says
it is only the silence of things untouched that keeps her sane.
In tandem with the plethora of forms of abuse that the poems address, the contributors too range from different backgrounds. Some of the poets are rape victims, social activists, psychologists, counsellors, radio journalists, grandmothers, mothers, daughters, friends, and teachers of victims and survivors, photographers, volunteers of rape and battery helplines, volunteers of homeless women's shelters etc. Still others write out of empathy and concern, having been moved deeply by the fate of human beings who just happen to be female. Almost a dozen contributors happen to be male. They are male feminists. In his note, one of the contributors, Late Max Babi says:
"I have been a feminist all my life... While I jump at the slightest opportunity to highlight the wrongs done by males to females in human societies anywhere, it hurts me to see that most women today are not really serious about doing something desperately effective to reduce these rampant cases of trafficking, child abuse, maltreatment and rape..."
Another male contributor, Jim Pascual Agustin whose poem titled Perhaps to Senegal to Listen to Ismaël Lô is also the opening poem of the anthology, writes:
"You’re my sedative,
your cheeks, a tangerine in my fist.”
His words make her think of bruising again.
She pretends her skin grows leathery, supple
and able to take knuckles out of nowhere.
Clearly, the male-female perspectives have been very closely intertwined, without being restricted to being strictly x versus y perspectives. They both believe that men and women have a lot to express on this subject. Poets such as Ravi Shankar, K Satchidandan, Tabish Khair and Dane Cervine, have written with profound sensitivity, condemning deeply held beliefs and practices. Going one step further, some male poets have also spoken about the sexual violence they have survived. Every poet and poem has added dimensions and perspectives to the anthology.
Shedding Light on Darkness
At the end of their contributions, poets provide a small note for the readers on why they wrote the poem. These little notes unanimously declare that these poems have been written not because the people who penned them suffered abuse and violence but because in writing them they were able to process their experience - it made them feel less powerless. This also proves that the written word can be enormously healing. It can be cathartic to incidents of anger and pain.
Perhaps Judith Goedeke a poet and a seeker, speaks on behalf of all the contributors when she writes in her summary -
"The certainty that some of those in great need will find comfort in this volume compels me to share these poems. The certainty that by raising consciousness we draw closer to demanding and receiving effective protective action against repression, genital mutilation, human trafficking, war rape, limited reproductive rights, economic strangulation and physical and sexual violence, compels me to share these poems.
I write to understand my own human experience more truthfully and deeply. I write in hopes good may come of it in the hearts and minds of others. This project will shine a light into a very dark place. "
One such dark poem that brings an ache to your very bones is Sati, 1987 penned by Susan Kelly-DeWitt for 18 year old Roop Kanwar, in memory of the 1987 Deorala incident that occurred in Rajasthan:
They said a hundred hand-sewn butterflies
ignited the gauze filaments
of your veil, that
once, when you fell off
the pyre with plainly scorched
feet, they hurried to lift you
back, onto the fire: Sati
Mata ki jai! Glory
to the Sati Mother!
They said you were struck by
the beauty of the gesture: Your body a lotus
of flame, your soul rising like incense
from its burning stem.
What do I know,
sitting here, continents away,
Weeping for whom?
They said you cradled
your dead husband’s head
in your lap as you burned,
with one skull --
Apart from exposing the different forms of abuse against women, Veils, Halos and Shackles brings home an important point, namely that no woman escapes the violence of the threat of rape. The fear is at the core of her being, she is vulnerable because she is a woman. And then it brings out something heartening too - the fact that this is a fear that unites women, creates a solidarity, a fraternity , a guild of understanding and empathy and a force that pushes them forward positively. In that sense the anthology actually shows a way out for women who have suffered some form of exploitation. Unite, and you shall be safe, it seems to say, proving that hope and survival are greater than fear itself.
The poems in this anthology rouse you, as a society, from a state of apathy, spur you to protest against even the smallest abuse happening in your vicinity and inspire you to go, get up, run and stop it from happening. If only you could...
I am building a house for Joanna, my youngest sister,
designed to protect her.
I regret its late construction --
I had thought, She is only thirteen,
believing she had a few more years of safety.
Violence - A Cookie Cutter Phenomenon
In her essential volume On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–1978, Adrienne Rich states, “When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” Janine Harrison, another contributor to the anthology, rightly points out that "Even though we address violence against women in more direct and active ways than we did several decades ago, the same issues persist across the globe. So we need work such as Veils, Halos & Shackles to add to the truth, to help more women become empowered to voice their truths. Only by continually adding evidence to the existing body can we illustrate the continued prevalence and relevance of the problem and have it taken seriously."
Cheryl R Cowtan an education counsellor and also a contributor to the anthology, shares these words with the readers:
"... There was a rotation of consistent behavior that made me think that (someone) must have taught these abusive husbands how to degrade, oppress, and hurt their wives because the stories were all the same. The tactics were all the same. The comments from the women were all the same. Domestic violence is a cookie-cutter phenomenon in our society. And, as such, it can be fought. Women can be made aware of the patterns, and male abusers can be identified by clear profiles. “
In her poem Mustard she highlights how the normal everyday can quickly and unpredictably turn into a violent incident over something as inconsequential as mustard. The poem also shows how this type of environment can damage a woman’s ability to think, make decisions, and stay calm, which are all required in the “leaving” of a violent relationship. An extract from her poem:
He shouts, “Where’s that sandwich!” from the living room.
I jump and bite back the startled noise while it’s still in my throat.
I’m surprised to find that I’m holding my finger.
It just started to ache.
An ache from a break,
From the last time I didn’t put mustard on his sandwich.
The book also includes a few vernacular pieces in Gujarati, Sindhi and Irish accompanied by English translations. One such contributor, Priyanka Kalpit a Gujarati poet, espouses how expendable women are in society, how they are treated with disdain, thrust to the margins and, even within these lines, are not safe. Traditions have turned into angry, cancerous tumors which will grow and then explode. Despite knowing this truth, most Indian women accept this situation readily because the establishment has its punishment mechanisms, its conventions and moral codes. Its methods are sugar coated. There exists an unspoken tradition that women shall adopt the role of the silent sufferer in society. The male partner might get away with bouts of temper, thrashings, beatings and alcoholism but the women shall only remain a silent spectator to his wrongdoings – simply because she is a woman and that is her ‘share’. Priyanka Kalpit attempts to present the predicament of Indian women who find them- selves being annihilated under the code of endurance and suffering in her poem.
The forceful content of the verses showcased in Veils, Halos and Shackles is enjambed with the terrible suffering that women endure but are unable to share with others. The poetry in the book amplifies the need to express the plight of exploited women, it gives a sense of emancipation to the suppressed and a word-swab of healing to the distressed. Some of the survivors of abuse have sought to bring justice to their mothers, daughters and neighbors. It is commendable that the editors of the anthology, Charles Fishman and Smita Sahay were able to solicit poems that tackle abuse in all its disturbing dimensions and compile poems that are imperative to be read if we want to face realities. The poems about women abused by lovers, fathers, husbands, relatives and certain perverted males who derive satisfaction from placing women in inferior, dependent, and frightening positions in society is bound to tug at the reader’s heart.
Charles Adés Fishman is a poet, editor, scholar and teacher based in USA. More recently, he published In the Language of Women in 2011. He has also contributed three poems to Veils, Halos & Shackles. He believes that the diversity of poems in the book share a singular theme: that human beings crave dignity and freedom and, insofar as they are able to, resist efforts to chain them or beat them down. His own poem broadcasts that to great effect:
a woman could be duly tortured for using rags
as tampons or merely for adjusting her dress
a certain Czech woman who knew every word
danced to the poems of Rilke moving sinuously
to each of his Orphean sonnets bowing gracefully
with the first notes of each Elegie: she felt the dark music
of Rilke’s heart each soaring leap of the spirit each lunge
toward grief Though she is long gone and we
no longer know her name she is the one who showed
even a halting step could be a triumph and a dance
on the poems of a dead poet might redeem
Charles’ poetry, though written from the male perspective is celebratory of women, empathetic to the violence and oppression they face, in a fluid, natural, unapologetic way, without reducing them to simplistic adjectives, honor systems or temptations. The poem, A Dance on the Poems of Rilke, is a layered, political commentary, while acknowledging and recording what women went through during the WWII. It salutes and condemns — it essentially invokes peace, kindness and equality.
Smita Sahay, is a writer, poet and editor based in Mumbai. Her poem The coronation of Shilavati is based on a tale by Dr. Devdutt Pattnaik about a prince who cannot become a king unless he has a male offspring.
In the note to her poem titled Cardinal Sins, Gloria G Murray, confesses that her husband passed away eight years ago and as a result she was able to acknowledge that as a victim in an abusive marriage, she had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her poem was fueled by her experiences.
"Chronic and devastating behavior from a supposedly loving spouse can traumatize you as much as being a war survivor can. That kind of marriage is a battle in itself. I have to say that although I am, yes, more lonely, I no longer live in fear of another person’s domination", she narrates.
In that sense, the book connects the past, present and future of its people. Veils, Halos & Shackles is an important and timely contribution to crucial women’s issues. It converses with a global audience and represents a plethora of women poets from across the world who have had similar experiences despite differences in the societies to which they belong... It would be another form of oppression to allow the victims of abuse to suffer alone in silence. Now, through this anthology and through the testimonies of the poets, readers will know that those who have been abused are not alone in facing or fighting the truth.
The poems in the book are a part of a much larger global narrative, one that defies geographical, linguistic, and cultural boundaries. Veils, Halos & Shackles breaks that silence and aims to bring this topic out into the open, into as many conversations as possible. In her poem titled "Dialogue 1", Priya Sarukkai Chabria writes:
She says to her lover:
I’ll tell you this in advance --
You who will be enclosed in my flesh, your rhythms
mine, our hands like a thousand comets descending towards pleasure,
your sweat becoming my skin, listen: All this I want, and more.
Yet in your passion, do not scar me. Do not split my lip,
nor stifle my speech. Do not force my cervix out of shape
nor ram my individuality.
I am parched. Riven
by longing, caked by the long dust of denial.
And yet I’ll come to you like the first rain, fragrant and trusting.
("Dialogue 1" was written years after reading Tamil akam poetry that was composed between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE, says Priya Chabria. Akam addressed the inner landscapes of love, and most of those poems were “assigned” to women, though written by men who adopted the personas of women).
To me personally, the most soul stirring page of the book is a page that is left blank. It carries the name Nadia Anjuman, a poet from Afghanistan who graduated from High School despite the Taliban regime and began writing poetry about the oppression of women in her country. She was killed at age 25, the same year that her first collection of poetry was published. Her poem titled The Silenced, could not be included in the anthology permission was denied. In a deeply touching gesture, the editors have provided web links to her poem instead where the reader can access Nadia's poem.
While on the theme of Afghanistan, the book contains another poem on a Pashtun Poet by Mary Dudley written with heart-rending simplicity:
Because I am a girl
my words cannot be written.
They must be spoken
only when no one is listening.
Because I am a girl my life is not my life.
My dreams alone are mine.
Because I am a girl,
My dreams are only dreams.
If no one is listening
I will tell you my dreams. And if you are safe
The book has the potential to spark off dialogues in society on women related issues. A personal story lifts a poem off the page, offering solidarity and empathy to the reader. For readers new to poetry, and for teachers teaching women’s studies and gender studies courses, these personal stories offer a powerful bridge. These testimonies are a part of history, as it should be recorded, in the words of those witnessing and experiencing it. Our contributors shared their testimonies readily — it seems as though they saw exactly what the editors were hoping to achieve. The poetry on offer is not the shrill, dramatic poetry of outrage but quiet, powerful poetry born from exploitation of one sex by the other.
Yes, this anthology is an anthology of protest - against not just the incidents that make the news and raise public ire, but against all those unrecorded unseen unmarked instances of daily abuse that millions of women silently accept and live with. But it is also an anthology of healing for it extracts words culled from pain and lays them out before the readers so that they may feel very real empathy for what happened. Yes it will make them lose sleep over what they have read but this book will also serve as reference point for putting into perspective the many malaises of modern society. In that sense it is more than a book - while it is a benchmark of viciousness against women it is also an extractor of the deepest level of compassion we can feel for our fellow humans. The voice of the book remains as strong as the voices of the protestors were in December 2012. Some voices do not fade, even when they are not heard for a long time — they are etched too deeply into our collective memories. Heartbreakingly, the book and the issue remain current.
At a more subtle level, the anthology also depicts that when there is a victim of abuse, her entire family suffers because of the experience. Many poets in the book have come forth with how devastated they felt to see their children bear the psychological scars of what they had endured. It made them feel furious and helpless at the same time. Therapy, family power and time alone helped such families to survive. The poets confess that though their lives will never be the same again, through their writing they have found the courage to help others with similar pasts… and that is a good thing.
Once in a while poetics do more than speak to power. They resist the abuses of power by imaging a better world. They enable poets to claim power over experiences and stories that are frequently missing from culture at large. Fishman and Sahay's anthology is one such project. They have put together a book of hope and resurrection.
Author of three books of poetry, Vinita is a Mumbai based, award winning poet and writer. Recipient of the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence, USA, 2015, her poems have appeared in Asiancha, Constellations, The Fox Chase Review, Pea River Journal, Open Road Review, Stockholm Literary Review, Poetry Pacific, Mithila Review and over a 100 other national and international journals. She was nominated for the Best of the Net Awards in 2011. She was awarded first prize in the Wordweavers Contest 2014, commendation prize in the All India Poetry Competition 2014 and won the 2014 Hour of Writes Contest thrice. Her poems have found a place in national anthologies like Suvarnarekha and Dance with the Peacocks and in international anthologies compiled in Australia and Israel. She was co judge for the Asian Cha Poetry Contest 2015. She has read at SAARC events, at the U.S. Consulate, at Delhi Poetree and at Cappucino Readings, Mumbai. She can be reached at https://www.pw.org/content/vinita_agrawal and at www.vinitawords.com.