Veils, Halos & Shackles
The 2016 U.S. Presidential race has given the world a peek at the underbelly of America, and it ain’t pretty. It’s a culture of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that runs deep, and it’s always been there, somewhat hidden from public view. The Republican candidate has given acknowledgement to those who refuse to call their neighbors “brothers” or “sisters,” regardless of race, sex, or creed. And the “good ole boy” ethic is not just a rural thing—it’s alive and well in the universities and boardrooms of America.
But the U.S. is not alone. People in all countries have their own sense of the “other,” someone whom they mock, deride, and physically harm. We at TheScreamOnline find it beyond belief that some men can hold half the world’s population in such disregard that they feel entitled to treat them as second-class citizens or worse. We’re talking about women. The “gentler sex” that gave birth to us all.
Veils, Halos & Shackles is a landmark book of poems by or about victims of those “men.” These women have survived rape, incest, acid attacks, and more. This heart-wrenching collection is a powerful testament to the shameless brutality of their male offenders, but more importantly, it is a testament to these women’s monumental strength of will. Of the more than 250 poems in the book, we feature 18.
Stuart Vail, Editor-in-Chief
Ameerah Arjanee is a university student in the humanities. Her poems have appeared in such magazines as Magma and The Cadaverine and have received the Foyle Young Poets Award and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize. Her first collection, to the universe, was published by l’Atelier d’Escriture in 2011; her second, Morning with My Twin Sister, was released in 2014 by La Librairie Mauricienne Numérique. Arjanee lives on Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar.
Marriage Is a Mosque
“Marriage is a mosque — don’t tear it down.”
Green churidars, gold bangles, the gossip of empty cupboards.
“Marriage is — ” Green churidars, gold bangles — “You are from
a good family, he is from a good family.” “He is a doctor, a well-
educated man, how can he do this?” A broken set of porcelain
tableware; the imam gives good advice, he is kind and ignorant.
“Marriage is a mosque — pray in it, have patience in it, sabr,
women must have sabr, women can —” “Think of your family,
your parents have such a good reputation; the woman waits
and then everything is alright. He is a good man, he has a degree,
his family has no scandal, he wears polished black, black, black shoes.”
Somebody in a fit of anger broke the dining room table. Good oak.
“He is a good man, he just can’t control himself. A mosque is a marriage —
don’t tear it down and don’t walk with your shoes into it.” Your youngest
child is going to the psychologist, he smashed your face into the bathroom
mirror because — He is a good man, but he just can’t control himself sometimes.
The gossip of empty cupboards. “Women must have patience, sabr. He will
change. And if he doesn’t, so what? Women must — . He is a good man,
from a good family, he doesn’t mean it.”
Arjanee: Because of the taboo on divorce and the importance of the “reputation” of families, some women in Muslim communities who find themselves in abusive marriages are told by elders and religious leaders that their husbands will stop being violent if they have patience (sabr) and perform a certain prayer enough. Sometimes the “counselors” are well-intentioned but ignorant, giving out folk wisdom unthinkingly and fearing to transgress norms. Some are so pro-family that they are ready to ignore the suffering of an individual, in order to maintain the family unit just for the sake of maintaining it. They believe that preventing a divorce is the best thing in any circumstance. I witnessed such a case in a relative’s life when I was in elementary school, and later, in my late teens, remembered the case and felt very angry. The relative’s husband was an engineer (a “good job”), who had anger problems and was violent. The woman was convinced by her relatives that it was her role, as a woman, to keep working on the marriage and that destroying the marriage would be bad because, in their words, “Marriage is a mosque”; any marriage is holy, abusive or not.
Hira Azmat is a writer, editor, and feminist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Her first published poem, “The Trials and Tribulations of a Well-Endowed Woman,” originally appeared in The Missing Slate and was included in Hallelujah for 50ft Women: Poems About Women’s Relationship to Their Bodies (Bloodaxe Books, 2015).
The Trials and Tribulations of a
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 most mundane actions inspire a filial
mistrust that extends well beyond your
garden-variety middle-class moral suspicion:
going out for coffee with a friend, being on the phone;
in our lounge, leaning back
dupatta-less on the couch becomes
an act of sexual rebellion.
my sisters get hugs;
I, at best, get awkward back-pats.
felt up by a darzi at 10, groped by a driver at 11,
and too many times to count since; intrusive
hands years of poor posture couldn’t deflect.
I envy other women their ability to wear
their sexuality like a mask, to take
off and put on as they please
and, not least, I envy them
their delicates that actually
look delicate; mine, all hefty
cotton and industrial-strength
underwire, look just like armor.
fortunately, though, the man I love
Azmat: This poem comes from a place of lifelong, chronic discomfort with my body, reinforced by people’s reactions to it as something repulsive, something shameful and, somehow, almost inherently evil. For all that, it’s a poem that refuses to take itself seriously. I wrote it impulsively, laughingly, and the fact that it resonated with so many women around the world has me completely floored and strangely comforted.
B. Elizabeth Beck
B. Elizabeth Beck is a writer, teacher and artist. She is the author of two books of poetry: insignificant white girl (Evening Street Press, 2013) and Interiors (Finishing Line Press, 2013). In 2011, she founded the Teen Howl Poetry Series, the only under-twenty-one poetry series in Central Kentucky. The series was specifically designed to give teenagers the mic — for teens/about teens.
Grandma’s Mink & Army Jackets
I. Edelweiss & My Mother’s Apron
My mother’s family speaks Hungarian, German, English all in one
sentence. We kiss on both cheeks, exclaiming Szervusz!,
hug & interrupt; yell to be heard; reek of garlic, onions;
crowd around a large table to eat goulash & paprikash,
cucumbers, plums, apple strudel & dobos torte
served on flamboyantly hand-painted pottery.
Omi plants blackberries to wind around a chain-link fence;
Wolfie, Chris & I pick to eat until our stomachs ache. We reach
for glass bottles of 7-Up corked with rubber & metal stoppers
we open then chug; each taking our turn.
Emi Tante picks up her guitar; Filli Baci turns to his piano;
their strains of Mozart, Haydn, Bach fill the room.
Ferns, palms, jades dance in the solarium Aunt Martha
carefully plants with exotic blooms. Music floats over the end
of the evening, Reverend Uncle Emil only a shadow in my memory.
I erase him from these snapshots to forget other weekends
at Emi Tante’s & Uncle Emil’s home, when he would hold me hostage
on his lap in the living room and jack himself off inside his pants
by grinding against my bottom while Emi Tante made crepes
with clotted crème, blackberries, and dark chocolate, in the kitchen.
II. Silver Spoons & Daddy’s Little Girl
I have a photograph of myself at age eleven,
thin, brown-eyed girl in a cotton nightgown,
sun bleached, long blonde hair cascading
over Grandma Helen’s mink jacket
she let me try on for just one moment
after Grandpa Harry finished nine holes
at the country club, where we ate roast beef,
shrimp cocktail, petit fours from buffets decorated
with carved ice sculptures — after too many Manhattans —
back when white-jacketed waiters used little sterling silver brushes
to sweep away crumbs & ashes because everyone smoked
in those days.
Hypocrisy is the worst form of cowardice
like my father’s ivy league education — his legacy as only son
of a doctor and a debutant. Raised in a world where manners floated
between the ice cubes in cut crystal glasses of Johnny Walker Red
and tea in bone china was served at weekly bridge games
on linen tablecloths in the living room, where white & ivory keys
polished by the maid could not wipe clean the shame, degradation,
and dark secrets that echoed through the hallways of his life, my father
carefully removed his seersucker suit, Brooks Brothers tie & penny loafers
before climbing under my Laura Ashley nightgown.
Beck: I wrote the poem as an introduction to my book insignificant white girl, which details the story of an American suburban girl in the 1970s who survived childhood sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence. The purpose of the book is to raise awareness and to empower other incest survivors. It is a continuation of my lifelong devotion to social justice — first as a social worker, then as an inner-city school teacher, and now as a writer.
I teach high school students Catcher in the Rye. It is my own red hunting hat, my cry for the sanctity of innocence. Protect the children, Holden! Rail against authority & scream at the top of your lungs, “Sleep tight, you morons!” The prep-school boy who raped me in the ninth grade deserved more than that rant from me. Instead, I went on the pill.
Mary Brancaccio has an MFA in poetry from Drew University. Her poetry has appeared in Minerva Rising, Edison Literary Review, Adanna, Naugatuck River Review, and Lake Affect. She was included in Farewell to Nuclear, Welcome to Renewable Energy: A Collection of Poems by 218 Poets, which was published in Japan and America as a bilingual edition. A former broadcast journalist and public school teacher, she is currently an Assistant Professor in the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University.
To Nora, Who Came to Class with a Bruised Face
She holds her head up, not out of pride
but to cup tears in the levees of her eyes.
She pastes one hand against her cheek, as if
for shelter. Not the first time.
I calculate the physics of that punch —
loci of potential energy: fist.
Pendulum that pivots backward: arm.
It gains momentum. The same swing threshes
grass with a hand-held scythe or sweeps dirt
off a wooden porch. All brainfire and heart
logic: when hand strikes flesh, shock
waves blast through skin, tendon and cartilage.
Fist sears its silhouette onto bruised flesh.
It lingers for days.
Brancaccio: My poetry often focuses on the struggles women face to gain equity and standing in a world dominated by institutions that marginalize, oppress, and silence those who identify as female. “To Nora Who Came to Class with a Bruised Face” was a response to an all-too-common event that I encountered as a high school teacher: violence committed against young women (and sometimes young men) by their boyfriends. Despite how far women have risen in American society, many young women still accept violence as part of the compact of a relationship.
Shevaun Brannigan is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, as well as the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House at the University of Maryland. Her poems have appeared, or are forthcoming in, such journals as Best New Poets 2012, Rhino, Washington Square Review, and Crab Orchard Review. She is the first-place recipient of the 2015 Jan-Ai Scholarship, through the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway. Her favorite poetry gig is the workshop she leads at her local domestic violence shelter.
Why My Mother is Afraid of Heights
When he held her by her ankles
upside down off the roof like she was
a bird he was plucking, feathers
flying in clumps through the streets of India, like the dandelion fluff
from home that you blew to make a wish like
I wish he doesn’t drop me I wish this hadn’t
happened, this being the molesting, the threats, then — to come —
the disbelief, when a girl came forward and said he made me
touch him, and she, my mother, said me too, they told her she was
a naughty girl who just wanted attention, like that was always
such a crime, to want your parents to look at what they had made,
what the body was doing, what was being done to the body, it was
too much to ask, and she always was asking for someone to
love her, just a little bit, and they believed the first girl, who must not
have been held over the roof, if she was telling, she was older, heavier,
perhaps he couldn’t hoist her up and display her like the Indian flag,
and when he held my mother by her ankles while below her, the open
dumpster’s mouth yawned, spun around,
waited to receive her body, to swallow her up, she knew
the bags of trash would not cushion her fall, she was learning
at that very moment the mass of her body was immense,
she was learning to have a body
was a gift, to have a body was to have a weapon, was to
be desired and that you could control nothing, not even
which way was up.
Brannigan: My family and I were at an amusement park, and my mother always refused to ride the roller coasters. I asked my father why many times, and one day he finally answered me, though likely still at far too young an age. “Why My Mother is Afraid of Heights” is a poetic interpretation of that answer. It is based on a true, horrifying story of my mother’s early-childhood experience. The poem came out very organically, as a story I needed to tell. The caesuras, or blank spaces, in the poem capture a haltingness that I felt must be conveyed when telling a narrative of so unsettling a nature. My mother does not mind my having written the poem, but it pains her to reread it.
Sampurna Chattarji is a poet, novelist, and translator. Her thirteen books include four poetry collections: Space Gulliver: Chronicles of an Alien (HarperCollins India, 2015), Absent Muses (Poetrywala, 2010), The Fried Frog (Scholastic, 2009), and Sight May Strike You Blind (Sahitya Akademi, 2007); two novels: Rupture (2009) and Land of the Well (2012), both from HarperCollins; and Dirty Love (Penguin, 2013), a short story collection about Bombay. Her anthology appearances include 60 Indian Poets (Penguin), The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry, and The Literary Review “Indian Poetry” issue. She is the editor ofSweeping the Front Yard, an anthology of women’s writing.
All the Goddesses
All the goddesses
are gathered at my door.
It is an old rejection they come to reverse,
not benign, perverse.
I do not let them in.
They are not like me.
Not Kali, the loudest,
clamoring for attention,
the slow dance of skulls around her neck
bone music to my fears.
She is aggressive, that one,
Look at the way she sticks out her tongue
at all who dare to look at her.
A red tongue, thirsty
for another demon to quench.
She drank his blood,
each self-perpetuating drop.
A furious suckling that saved the world.
she would have killed us all.
It took a husband
(Lord Shiva trembling
half-trampled beneath her feet)
to make her stop,
and bite her tongue in shame.
Not Lakshmi, the meekest,
sprung perfectly beautiful
out of a tumultuous ocean of milk,
a lotus at her breast,
she, a lotus at the breast
of Vishnu, Lord Protector,
gentle breathing light,
riding her white owl
into the homes of the propitiatory,
casting dark glances and blight on all
who dare to slight her.
Mother of the world,
a whimsical tyrant,
feminine and full of wiles.
And not Durga, the fiercest.
A cosmic blaze of energy
in her eyes,
a pinwheel of mace and trident and sword.
Terrifying, but derived.
Free of husband, lord or lover,
but formed fully of all their powers.
A sum total of gods then,
an essence of,
Shakti, distilled, concentrated,
burning the throat as it goes down.
Mother to none,
a lion between her thighs.
(and now I sense them listening, hushing,
pushing flat against the door)
I have taken Kali’s anger and made it mine.
My black moods are hers,
I whoop, I rant, I rage,
a belt of severed hands at my waist.
I have swallowed Lakshmi whole.
She runs through me now,
a river of desire.
I drown myself, and again
I rise, a dreaming weed,
clinging to love, unworldly-wise.
Durga has given me freedom,
and I have paid for it,
She made a fighter of me.
She taught me when to raise my weapons,
and when to lay my head in my mother’s lap,
a daughter come home again.
Trouble is an amulet
singed into your arm.
You need protection
In the softness of your elbow
the faded blue of old ink
stitches your skin
into impossible calligraphies.
Veined tapestry to pain.
Some things are best unseen.
I am looking at the mark
on your cheek
where a fist has been.
Pierced through ears nose and
tongue you draw my gaze like gauze across your face
your skin is paper the unchanging
blue calligraphy of your veins pains me
on the inside of your arm needles have punctured
the words that will save you from harm
you are a marked woman: your look
pierces me through the heart.
Chattarji: In these poems, I look at the violences that permeate a woman’s everyday experience in an insidious, sometimes invisible, but always simmering and hurtful way: the violences done to her by men, by other women, by her own perceptions, traps and expectations of herself; the ways in which patterns of oppression are replicated, from generation to generation, through mythology, religion, stereotypes, in the domestic, marital, and sexual realm in which her rage, her shame, her anxiety, her desires, her nightmares and her dreams are projected onto and evoked via the small but telling details of her life. I look at the female body as a site of abuse that could be physical or psychological, that could escape all but the sharpest eyes and the keenest hearts. Often, in my poems, it is the surface, the skin, that is as much a revelation of violence as that which is hidden in gestures, the silent language of damage. I am interested in the ambiguous ways in which violence is perpetrated and lived with: the nature of our complicity. My protest is against not just the incidents that make the news and raise public ire, but against all those unrecorded unseen unmarked instances of daily brutality that millions of women silently accept and live with.
Cheryl R Cowtan
Cheryl R Cowtan is a novelist who teaches English through filmmaking, performance, and technology at an alternative school for at-risk students. She lives in “the greenest part of Ontario” with her husband, two children and a menagerie of critters that fly, crawl, swim and run.
The Importance of Mustard
I lift the limp paper towel
And peek under at the sizzling bacon
Just a few more minutes to perfection
I push the 1 on the microwave.
The cracked-wheat bread pops out of the toaster
And I lay it side by side on the beige tile counter
Four thick slices of marble cheddar cheese
Slide off of my knife
I place them on one side of the toast
Parked tightly beside one another like school buses
Then I pick up the tomato
Red and round and firm
I hold it to my nose and breathe in the scent
A smell that was three months in the making,
beneath the sunflowers.
I can hear my sons’ laughter as they run to the tomato patch
This traditional searching each day,
To see how many tomatoes the raccoons have left us.
I smile as their joyous cries carry across the lawn.
They have found a red one among the green globes
I slice the tomato delicately, trying not to bruise the flesh.
The slices look like microscope cross sections
Alien pockets of gel surrounded by webbed tissue
Ah! The bacon is done.
I air lift it with my fingernails, sizzling and popping
Down onto the cheese
The hot grease slides onto the rectangular prisms
Melting with contact.
I shake miniature black flakes and clear cubes
Onto the arranged tomato slices
I put on the top layer of toast,
And then I freeze.
Mayonnaise! It must have mayonnaise!
I rush to the fridge, uncapping the jar.
It slides out onto my butter knife
Jiggling on its way to the porous bread.
I press down on the toast and slice the sandwich
Into two triangles
He’s going to love this.
I start to carry it in to him
But the word “mustard”
Appears in my mind
And stops me.
What if he wants mustard on it?
I stop, waver, return to the kitchen.
Mustard, mustard, mustard.
I walk in a circle, not sure, not wanting to make a mistake.
What if I put it on and he doesn’t want it?
Do we eat mustard on bacon and tomato?
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.
Cowtan: For two years, I worked as a counselor at a local women’s shelter, and though I had been trained, and had read the stats, and knew how to identify abuse, I was not prepared for the horrifying lives some women were living. As an educational counselor, my mandate was to educate survivors of domestic violence about the cycle they were caught in. And there was a rotation of consistent behavior that made me think an Abuser 101 class 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. “The Importance of Mustard” 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.
Charles Adès Fishman
Previously featured in TheScreamOnline, Charles Adès Fishman is the editor of Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. His previous books include The Death Mazurka, which was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, as well as Chopin’s Piano (2006) and In the Language of Women (2011), both recipients of the Paterson Award for Literary Excellence; the revised, second edition of his anthology Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust (2007); and his volume of selected poems, In the Path of Lightning (2012), the last two from Time Being Books. Fishman is poetry editor of Prism: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators. He lives in Bellport, Long Island.
A Dance on the Poems of Rilke
I remember a Czech dancer who danced on the poems of Rilke.
— Stennie Pratomo-Gret
In the particular hell of Ravensbrück
where Gypsy girls were sterilized and babies
were drowned at birth where dysentery
lung cancer and typhus took life after life
and grotesque experiments in the inducement
of infection and pain were cultivated as a fine art
where women of every European nation slaved
for Siemens through endless moonless nights
and cut trees dug pits loaded and unloaded
railway cars and barges where abortion was
inevitable and sexual cruelty the rule and where
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
Two Girls Leaping
They have a favorite color — this one:
this chlorinated aqua, this womb lunar blackness
drawn wholly into the light. The depth of the pool
beguiles them, the weight of their own bodies.
Mother is not near, so it is easy to jump in, to test
themselves against the cold liquid fire of the violently
blue water, to attempt flight, hands linked in a joyous
failure of suicide.
They wear no caps: dark hair spills black puppy tails
along their small tanned necks. Time lunges ahead, eternity
passes. A hundred leaps cannot tire them. They live
to jump: the heart of the water’s coolness pulses in them.
In what way are they innocent? The fragrance of unawareness
stays on them: their fearful certitude about all things
perturbs the slow dark pools we swim in. In their nonstop
gab, the world’s extravagant newness stings and clashes.
They are giddy with the ordinary, laugh in its cold blue
Becky is still laughing, gliding like a seal
in her favorite aqua water; she is giggling and splashing;
but now Mother is here, now Mother pulls her, goose-bumped
and dripping, from the ice-blue pool; now Mother slaps her,
slaps her again, again slaps her.
And Jennifer has seen everything. Watch how carefully
she moves, how cautiously she holds her tingling body.
“Let’s see who can go slower,” she says, “Let’s see who goes
The pool is empty now, a liquid rectangle. Water has its
own life, its own candor. Step back. Take a running start.
Now tell me: What is your heart’ desire?
Fishman: “A Dance on the Poems of Rilke” was prompted by my many years of work on the Holocaust and, in particular, on the poetry of the Holocaust (see, for instance, Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust). It was also a way for me to acknowledge the strength, resilience, and courage that many women demonstrated during the years of the Shoah, despite the always cruel and often vicious deprivations and mortifications women suffered at the hands of both male and female guards and other tormentors.
“Two Girls Leaping” is the word-video of a scene I witnessed one summer day when I was visiting my parents at a low-income seaside retreat on Long Island, where they stayed while they were not in Florida.
I believe that these very different poems share a theme: that human beings crave dignity and freedom and, insofar as they are able to, resist efforts to chain them or beat them down.
Barbara Goldberg has authored four prize-winning poetry books, most recently The Royal Baker’s Daughter, recipient of the Felix Pollak Poetry Prize. Her latest book, Scorched by the Sun: Poems by Moshe Dor, contains her translations of one of Israel’s foremost poets. She and Dor also edited and translated three anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry, including After the First Rain: Israeli Poems of War and Peace. Goldberg’s work has appeared in Paris Review, Poetry, and Best American Poetry. Among her honors are two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. A former senior speechwriter at AARP, she currently is Writer in Residence in American University’s MFA program.
One summer night a man burst into my room
brandishing a knife, looking for Sukie,
that “bitch with the big tits” he’d hitched
a ride with that afternoon. Odd that I
remember her name (it was long ago, I was in
another life). He was drunk, thick of tongue,
slow-witted. “I’m Joan,” I lied, a simple
sound he could retain. But more. If I kept
my name from him I’d have something
he couldn’t touch. It seemed to gentle him.
He settled on my bed, in for the long haul,
and with slurred syllables he rambled on about
a car, his new Trans Am, black and sleek,
it could do 170, 180, “Zoom,” he said, his arm
slicing the air between us. Did I want to
ride in it, test it out?
It was raining, ziggurats
of lightning split the sky. I was more afraid
of breaking into pieces than of what he might do
then and there. I said no. “So, Joan,” he said,
“Wanna fuck?” No, I said again, but he could
hold my hand, which he did, babbling on. He was
so difficult to understand; his speech
had no hard edge to it, no plosives, only
vowels flowing into each other without
restraint. Something about a mother
turning away, a father, a belt.
hours like that until a wan sun seeped
into the room, I could see the dim
outline of his face, the scar zigzagging
across his chest, me stroking his hand, fatigue
taking hold. It gripped him too. We made
a date. He left.
Terror when it strikes, strikes
(it was long ago, it was night) first
in the bowels, then snakes up to lodge
in the throat. It burrows in. It has
a taste. It leaves a taste. Does he
remember what wasn’t my name?
Goldberg: Some years back, I won a poetry contest. The “prize” was a free weekend at an artist’s farmhouse just outside Washington, DC. The farmhouse was lovely, in a shabby kind of way, large and airy. The artist was there when I arrived, as were a few other poets. The next day, she and the others left, all except one who was staying in a geodesic dome on the property. The next night, I was alone in the house. Because my room was bright in the mornings, I went to sleep with a long black sock around my eyes. Suddenly, I felt a presence in my room and ripped off the sock. A strange man, tall and drunk, stood by my bed. My first impulse was to soil myself. I saw he had a knife. I feared he would cut me up so badly that no one would recognize me. I thought of my two children growing up without me. I believed I would die.
He sat down on my bed and asked if I had a match. I actually did, but told him to look in the kitchen downstairs. Off he went, and I frantically looked out my window to see if I could crawl out to the roof, jump to the ground, and hide in the bushes. It was raining torrents and it was pitch black outside. The roof was steep and slippery. The jump itself could lead to serious injury. I ruled out hiding in the house because he might find me and become enraged. He returned with a lit cigarette and sprawled out on the bed, his knife visible at all times. He began talking about his father, his new Trans Am. He asked me my name. It turned out he was searching for the woman he had given a ride to that afternoon, the one staying in the dome.
Time passed. My goal was to keep him talking. I asked a lot of questions about his car. I could tell he was slow-witted, yet excited to be with a white woman from the city. He asked if he could fuck me, but I suggested we hold hands instead. I was astonished when he agreed. I began to think I might live. He grew tired. I suggested we meet for a “date” the next afternoon and that he should dress up. He left at dawn without physically harming me.
I filed charges and appeared twice before a grand jury. They first dismissed all charges, claiming I had “seduced” the man. The second time I appeared with unwashed hair and baggy, outsized, clothing. I cried all the way through the questioning – on purpose. This time, there was a more favorable outcome. Why? Because clearly I was a helpless woman. And because of my tears.
The first poem to emerge from this experience was “After Babel,” which describes in a precise, dispassionate, voice what happened.
Rachel Heimowitz is the author of the chapbook What the Light Reveals (Tebot Bach Press, 2014). Her work has appeared in Poet Lore, Spillway, Crab Orchard Review, and Prairie Schooner, and she has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is currently the editor of arc-24, the literary journal of The Israel Association of Writers in English, and has just received her MFA from Pacific University.
Pure Water Poured
In memory of Ruth Fogel, d. March 2011
Three women move together without
words, light candles, fold sheets, fill
pail after pail with water.
They sing psalms, voices
weaving through the candlelight.
Ruth, on the table, her hair,
the hair he would push back
from her face, ten fingers splayed
like a comb, now falls, full and brown,
down the sides of the table, her body
straight, breasts still round
with mother milk. The women
gently comb her hair,
clean her feet, wash
the gashes on her face,
her arms, the bullet hole
in her chest; her wounds
bathed until they stand,
jagged and white in candlelight.
The bloody washcloths
folded carefully, stacked
together with Ruth’s
the bathroom carpet,
three teeth that scattered
like beads; now gathered
to be buried with her. Pail
after pail of pure water poured.
The women chant and sing.
They dress her in hand-sewn shrouds,
stiff and white. The avnet
is tied around her waist
and, like an enormous hand,
the blue and white tallit
covers her: no casket, her body
returned to the land.
Heimowitz: “Pure Water Poured” is about the religious preparation for burial of the body of a woman who was killed in a terror attack in the town of Itamar in 2011. Ruth was the mother of six children and a teacher. She and her husband were strong members of their community. The attack occurred on a Friday night, which is the Jewish sabbath, a day of peace. Two young men, 18 and 19 years old, entered the house. Using knives, they immediately killed Ruth’s husband and three of her six children, including her four month old daughter, whose head was left attached only by the skin at the back of her neck. Ruth fought the terrorists alone, sustaining multiple wounds before the terrorists finally shot her with a gun they had stolen from a neighbor’s house. The three children who survived did so because they were sleeping in unexpected places. One boy was asleep on the living room couch. One was in bed with his brother, hunched under the covers. The third was their eldest daughter, 12 years old, who was at Scouts when the attack occurred and was the one to find her family when she got home. In the poem, I tried to demonstrate the beauty of the religious beliefs and practices, as well as the love and connection between women. I felt very close to Ruth, though I never met her in life. I too have six children and raised them here. Ruth is me. I have written many poems about her.
Diane Lockward is the author of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop (Wind Publications, 2013) and three poetry books, most recentlyThe Uneaten Carrots of Atonement (Wind Books, 2016). Her previous books are Temptation by Water, What Feeds Us (winner of the 2006 Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize), and Eve’s Red Dress. Her poems have been included in Poetry Daily: 360 Poems from the World’s Most Popular Poetry Website, Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, and other anthologies, and in journals including Harvard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Lockward’s work has also been featured at Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac.
The Missing Wife
Wife and dog missing.
Reward for the dog.
— bumper sticker on a pickup truck.
The wife and the 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.
Lockward: As indicated in the epigraph, “The Missing Wife” was inspired by a bumper sticker. On my way up to the Frost Place in New Hampshire one summer, I noticed those words on the vehicle in front of me. I wondered what kind of a slob would put that on his car. I wondered about his wife, how he treated her, if he treated her like a dog. That bumper sticker got under my skin and stayed there. Eventually, it led to the poem.
When I was revising this poem, I realized that the ending was a bit ambiguous. Who is the “he” — dog, or husband? I thought about how to fix that but then decided to leave it. It seems to me more suggestive and interesting than it would be if I specified which one I meant. It’s a case of Will-the-Real-Dog-Please-Stand-Up. I think the wife now misses human comfort and companionship, but not her husband’s. That she prefers her furry dog is suggested by her walking on all fours. The wife has found a more genuine self and life in the forest where she “performs no tricks.” Because the husband treated her badly, the wife could bear his touch only by making herself emotionally dead. For me, the saddest line in the poem is “They unlearned / how to roll over and play dead.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the wife is happy now, but she’s found contentment. She’s lonely, but she’s no longer afraid.
Martina Reisz Newberry
Martina Reisz Newberry’s most recent book is Learning by Rote. She is also the author of What We Can’t Forgive; Late Night Radio; Perhaps You Could Breathe for Me; Hunger; After the Earthquake: Poems 1996–2006; Not Untrue & Not Unkind; and Running Like a Woman With Her Hair on Fire: Collected Poems. In 1998, Newberry won i.e. Magazine’s Editor’s Choice Poetry Chapbook Prize for An Apparent, Approachable Light. She has been widely published in numerous literary magazines in the United States and abroad. She lives in Hollywood, California.
When He Is Gone
I told myself . . . first thing I’ll do is buy rock and roll music; I’ll play it loud and dance by myself in the big room at the back of the house. No, no . . . first thing will be no dinner. The day he leaves, I’ll cook no dinner; I’ll have 3 drinks of Irish whiskey on ice and I will not listen to the news on television. When he leaves, the house will stare at me, ask What now? I’ll say, nothing. Nothing now. First thing I’ll do is take a shower and not cry in it and not be afraid to come out. I’ll cuddle the dog even if she does smell a little funny, for who will be there to say so — no one, that’s who. I’ll feed her scraps from the table and let her bark, and I’ll never shout “Shut the hell up, Clementine!” I’ll leave clean laundry on the bed, unfolded, and sleep in the bed that same night. I’ll remember what my favorite ice cream is and I’ll buy cheap sweet wines to drink. I’ll break the yolks on every egg I cook for the rest of my life. I won’t buy make-up to cover bruises and I’ll throw away every elastic bandage in the house. I’ll bump my arm on an open cupboard door — hard enough to bruise — so I can say to my neighbor, “Oh, this bruise? I hit myself on a cupboard door,” and it will be true. I’ll cuss out loud 5 times in 5 minutes. I’ll learn how not to flinch and how to frown. I’ll leave my shoes in the kitchen and forget where I left the car keys. I’ll let the cat in and out 24 times. I’ll make a sandwich, take 2 bites and throw the rest away. I won’t look at anyone else first to see if a thing is funny or sad, I’ll laugh if I want and cry if I feel like it. What I lost was not beautiful. When he goes, the first thing I’ll do is buy rock and roll music.
Newberry: My own experience with domestic violence has convinced me that, because it happens in the dark, inside the house, behind locked doors, a footstep on the path to stopping it is to shine light on the subject and to show it for the heinous act it is. Many of my poems do exactly that. It has to end. The violence, the pain, the scarring, the humiliation — it has to stop. Perhaps poetry can help.
Allene Rasmussen Nichols
Allene Rasmussen Nichols is a doctoral student in Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her research focuses on poetry, playwriting and the representation of gender and sexuality in contemporary art and literature. Her poems have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Naugatuck River Review, New Plains Review, Conclave, Lunch Ticket, Ginger Piglet, protestpoems.org andDance the Guns to Silence: One Hundred Poems for Ken Saro-Wiwa. Her plays have been produced in California, Texas, Wisconsin, and New York.
They will say the sky is not for you,
that the blue in your eyes is a reflection
of the shattered china on the floor
or that the scarlet stains on the counter
are your shackles or that if you die
often enough, your children will be free.
You must come to know the lie, to name
your bruises and broken bones, to call
these walls a prison, to make your voice
like steel, not to break when struck,
but to reverberate until this house
You must teach yourself that you were born
to risk it all, not the next time you fall,
but today, while your breath reeks of poetry
and the sky beckons, and the sun itself
proclaims the promise that your body
can be strong and that your words
can bear the holy seal of joy.
Nichols: I address the subject of violence against women in my poems because physical and sexual abuse as a child left me vulnerable to abuse as an adult woman. I have, after many years of counseling, broken free of the cycle and free of my abusers, and I have discovered how wonderful life can be. I would like other women to know that they are not alone and that there is a way out. I also want people to be aware of the toll that such abuse takes, not just on women, but on society.
Nola Passmore holds qualifications in psychology, creative writing, and Christian ministry. She finds this mix invaluable in writing about social-justice issues. Her poetry, devotions, true-inspiration stories, magazine articles, academic papers, and short fiction have appeared in various magazines, journals, and anthologies in Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. She and her husband, Tim, run The Write Flourish, a freelance writing and editing business, from their home base in Toowoomba, Australia. Passmore is a firm believer that hope can be found in the darkest of places.
cannot bear their scars
Curling into a shroud,
they brace themselves
for the return journey
Yet, in the crushing,
sweeter than a perfect bloom,
richer than the life before.
I gather fragments,
inhale their breath.
Passmore: I have several close female friends who have experienced various types of abuse, including domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and satanic-ritual abuse. In spending time with them and hearing their stories, I’ve seen the long-term effects firsthand. However, I’ve also seen how resilient people can be in the face of traumatic experiences. Each of these friends has found great solace in their faith, and they have been able to help others through difficult circumstances. As well as acknowledging the horror of abuse, I think it’s important to let people know that there is hope. In the poem “Petals,” I tried to show how something beautiful can still come from tragic circumstances. My wish is that this anthology will highlight the injustice of these abuses but will also provide hope to the hurting.
David Ray is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he also edited New Letters. His most recent volume of poems is Hemingway: A Desperate Life, and his other collections include After Tagore: Poems Inspired by Rabindranath Tagore,The Death of Sardanapalus, When, and Music of Time: Selected & New Poems, which offers selections from fifteen previous volumes. Ray’s most personal and enduring collection, Sam’s Book, has been re-released by Wesleyan University Press. His memoir, The Endless Search, was published by Soft Skull Press in 2003. He lives and writes in Tucson.
Red Dresses of Rajasthan
It is the tradition for husbands and mothers-in-laws to punish by burning a bride who does not bring enough dowry or who is disobedient.
— The Times of India (Delhi)
One sees red dresses in Rajasthan,
same style as those often worn
in the harem — silks adorned
with tiny mirrors that glitter
with each move of the dancers,
emitting light like stars.
But the elaborate marriage
can bankrupt a bride’s father
and she can be made captive
to a mother-in-law like those
in fairy tales, and that witch
might later demand more dowry
at the threat of burning the bride,
tossing a match onto a kitchen
spill of cooking oil, an assault
sure to kill or disfigure beauty
the young bride has brought
along with the gold demanded
by ritual, tradition, obligation
so profound and burdensome
that parents fear bankruptcy
if they have one daughter too
many, and infanticide of girls
is not at all unusual. Knowing
of these ancient rituals, I dream
of women begging for rescue,
and how I would save every dancer,
those beautiful brides of Rajasthan
who should never be chained
to a kitchen or plow or a man,
and never be bartered or sold.
D. Ray: My writings about heroic African-Americans and members of other ethnic cultures include issues of fairness and justice, ecology, politics, history, and traditions. These works are scattered throughout my books, and in numerous magazines and anthologies. In writing about New Zealand, Australia, and India, I address the same themes on an international level, for the Maoris of New Zealand, the Aborigines of Australia, the Harijans (“Untouchables”) of India, and others of stigmatized castes who suffer great indignities and violence. The focus of all my forays into these themes is that hope and healing are overcoming racism and injustice.
Note on “Red Dresses of Rajasthan”: According to The Times of India in New Delhi, hundreds of women are murdered each year due to the tradition of “bride burning” by families of the groom after they have exhausted their extortion of obligatory dowries of gold, jewels, money, etc., a gift that sometimes leaves families of brides bankrupt. The burden of such sacrifices is a major cause of the abortion of females. The murders of brides are usually treated as accidental kitchen fires, and the groom is free to seek another victim. No doubt the grief is transient when marriages are arranged for greed, rather than love. Many brides dread marriage to a stranger almost as much as a widow must have dreaded being forced onto the cremation platform of her husband in the ancient tradition of suttee. Practice, especially in rural life, is one thing, and public pretension is another, for both bride-burning and suttee are officially illegal.
Sumana Roy’s poems, essays, and short fiction have been published in Granta, Guernica, Prairie Schooner, Caravan, Cha, Himal Southasian,and other places. She writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal, India.
Rape of Sunlight
You trapped sunlight like a tree.
Every autumn you wanted to take a new lover —
pet, clothes, toy.
You thought adulthood a disease.
Your torn shoes made our lives a museum of journeys.
I remind myself that you were only nine.
I remind myself that you’d asked me Ma Kali’s age
and how you always said you were older than her.
In Brindaban, you said you wanted to be a widow.
You liked white. Its taste, you said, was what
you wanted to be: a tube of toothpaste in our mouths.
When your brother threw up in the car,
you cupped your palms.
Vomit was precious, you said.
One day you’d be vomit too, you promised.
Your catalogue of ambitions grew like nails.
You counted backwards to your birthday every morning,
restless to be ten.
“I’ll change my name to ‘Decade,’” you said.
“Decade” is prettier than “Dopati,” your name, you argued.
Your grandmother had named you after the flower,
but you wanted to be Time, not sweet-smelling.
Time has more chlorophyll than all the trees in the world.
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.
Roy: This poem was born out of a particular incident — the rape of a five-year-old girl in Delhi in the summer of 2013. Among other things, a candle and a 200 ml bottle of hair oil were found inside her.
Pervin Saket writes fiction, poetry, and screenplays. She is the author of the novel Urmila (Jaico, 2015) and a collection of poems, A Tinge of Turmeric (Writers’ Workshop, 2009). Her short fiction has appeared in Journeys (Sampad, UK); Breaking the Bow (Zubaan, India); theAsian Writer collection (Dahlia, UK); Aliens (Prime Books, USA); Earthen Lamp Journal; Khabar; Love Across Borders — An Anthology by Indian and Pakistani Writers; and elsewhere. Her poems have been published in The Binnacle (University of Maine, USA) and in Kritya. Saket was shortlisted for the Random House India Writers Bloc Award 2013 and conducts creativity workshops at the British Council Library.
The Left of the Horizon
My fingers grope an empty sky
I do not believe that
These binds will free my wrists
A day when the sun will melt these chains and
A night when darkness can be peace
I know I can hope for
Words, spoken and written
But in this world of binaries,
I am the other, the lesser, the left
I cannot even imagine that
The scales shall be evenly balanced
Torn, tired, tested,
Our children will emerge from wombs and
Weave dreams of a day when
The world will understand its daughters.
(Now read the poem in reverse order, starting with the last line.)
Saket: “The Left of the Horizon” started as a question: What would it take to bring about equality in our world? The answer that resonated most was — a change of perspective. Hence, I began the experiment of writing a poem that changed with a change in perspective. I wanted the same lines, which were once shackling, to also speak of freedom. Words of despair would now speak of hope, and what was once bleak would now be celebratory — all this, without changing anything except the order in which the poem would be read. Apart from the themes that the words carry, I worked towards a structure that would emphasize that change is not as overwhelming as it seems — sometimes a fresh perspective is all it takes.
Ravi Shankar is founding editor of Drunken Boat and author/editor of eight books and chapbooks of poetry, including Deepening Groove, winner of the 2010 National Poetry Review Prize, and W.W. Norton’s Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from Asia, the Middle East & Beyond (co-edited with Tina Chang and Nathalie Handal). He has been featured in The New York Times, been a commentator on NPR and the BBC, and been awarded a Pushcart Prize. His most recent book, What Else Could It Be: Collaborations and Ekphrastics (Carolina Wren Press), was published in 2015. Shankar teaches at Central Connecticut State University and in the first international MFA program at City University of Hong Kong.
Breastfeeding at the Blue Mosque
Hidden from a queue to bag shoes a woman nurses a child
under a wool scarf in the shadow two fluted minarets cast
pitched towards incessant sun, a necessity somehow an insult
to sharia law, no matter what sustenance a lemonwedge
of breast, God’s own, yields, puckering a tiny mouth
until bright eyes glaze to doll loll. Fairly alien to ponder
raw biology of milk conveyed by ducts lined with capillaries,
made from pouring stuff of stars: nourishment that manifests
minerals for bone from pulsing light.
Too close to the slickheat pushing out
between the legs of nearly every woman not your wife
but her as well? How could it be that her very being derives
solely from her relation to you, that she could have no value
in the calculus but to function as temptation, or its dome-
blue corollary, disappointment? No cover covers up
those integers holding the place of zeroes, Iznik tiles or after-
life virgins. Ostrich eggs on chandeliers don’t dissuade spiders.
If the fear of the Lord is not the beginning of our wisdom,
then La ilah ha il Allah is a breast in a mouth, else nothing is.
Shankar: In 2010, I was asked to be a visiting faculty member at Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus, a country that I did not know much about at the time. Preparing for an idealized vision of a seaside paradise, I quickly discovered some rudimentary facts — for instance, that while the southern portion of the island is mostly Greek and part of the EU, the university is situated in northern Cyprus, which is considered occupied by every country but Turkey, and there were certain places where women had to cover their heads and where certain liberties I took for granted were forbidden. Fascinated by Turkish culture, my family and I (including my newborn daughter) traveled to Istanbul where we marveled at the mosques, ate beyaz peynir, and drank thick, dark coffee. But at one of our stops, the famed Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet, my daughter got hungry and cried to be suckled. What ensued and the nearly cartoonish lengths that we had to go to so she could be fed — and the greater irony that this taboo against the body, against femininity, was transpiring in a house of worship — was what engendered this poem.
The poet and critic Lisa Russ Spaar featured “Breastfeeding at the Blue Mosque” in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Arts and Academe” blog, where she wrote:
Milk may arguably be our first language and the mouth our primal mind. Women have been breast-feeding their own and others’ infants presumably since the dawn of humankind, and while this act of sustenance and nurturing should seem the most natural of activities (“mammal” < L. mamma, breast), controversies abound across time, place, and culture regarding who, when, where, and why women should breast-feed, particularly in public spaces. . . . The richly ululating texture of the Arabic in this Muslim proclamation of faith — “There is no deity except God” — is evocative of the sounds of suckling and meant to remind us that we all, men and women, are equally children of the universe, deserving of respect, dignity, the right to praise, to nurture and protect, and to be protected and nurtured, especially in our most holy places.
I don’t think I could put it any better! But as an interesting coda to this poem, when it was published, one of the first comments was from someone who called himself Imam1950, who wrote, “this is hate spech, not a peom. Ravi Shankar is well known for hate speech. It is strange that the Chronile gaves space for such hate peoms/articles. [sic]” That comment made it clear to me that efforts to deify the human body and sanctify the maternal impulse — the very principle of caring and sustenance that life itself derives from — are still under attack. And when I read recent stories like that of the woman accused of adultery in the Syrian city of Hama who was stoned to death by ISIS militants, aided by her own bearded father — or when I read statistics like the latest from the US Census Bureau showing that women make 75% of the wages that their male counterparts do — I realize how much further we have to go as a society to achieve equality and compassionate understanding.