‘Can Poetry Describe This?’
The story of Anna Akhmatova and the mothers in the prison queues in Leningrad proves that women cannot be forcibly mirrored into the masculinist surplus — even of a revolution
Manash Bhattacharjee Delhi
I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
— Audre Lorde
The relationship between women and poetry, particularly in the 20th century, drew a profound and unique synthesis between women, poetry and the inevitable third link in the chain: politics. My door to modern women’s poetry was flung open 20 years back with Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem. Much later, I realised, the epigraph of that poem stands today as a poignant reminder for all poetry of the 20th century which stood up to the almost impossible challenge of naming the unnameable during times of horror.
The episode in the epigraph (written on April 1, 1957) is worth recounting in Akhmatova’s inimitable words: “In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent 17 months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody ‘identified’ me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I can.’ And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.”
This conversation can be read symbolically, where Akhmatova speaks not for herself but for poetry. As if the old woman asked her, “Can poetry describe this?” And Akhmatova answered on poetry’s behalf, “Yes,
Faced by the dense vacuity of an indescribable situation, the poet raises her head to uphold her power of language, and through it, her craft. When the machination of power turns people faceless and non-existent, the poet is an affirmation of eyes, an assertion of presence, the sole hope for language faced with extinction. Like Fredrico Garcia Lorca, Bertolt Brecht and Osip Mandelshtam, Akhmatova was a witness to barbarism. But as fellow poet Joseph Brodsky also knew, Akhmatova was sure that only language could be more powerful than barbarism, and outlast it.
The women who stood before the Leningrad prison were victims of Stalinist purges. They were mostly mothers, waiting in vain for their sons to be released, as the megalomania of a suspicious leader kept imprisoning Russian youths to terrorise them into becoming unthinking accomplices of tyranny. The fortitude with which Russian mothers faced a dehumanised, totalitarian regime that went berserk in the name of human progress, documents a unique moment in 20th-century history.
At the other end, feminist thought sought to de-construct the image of the mother. The patriarchal discourse of the mother was critiqued and the abused story behind motherhood was exposed. Yet, feminists didn’t abandon acknowledging the contribution of their motherliness as part of their political identity. Audre Lorde, for example, described herself as a “black, feminist, lesbian, mother, poet warrior.” She found it possible to insist on her motherhood, living outside the bounds of patriarchal and heterosexual norms. Motherhood, as part of her experience, meant a space which she can assertively and subversively inhabit, challenging hetero-normative codes. By attaching her identity as mother alongside her being black, feminist and even lesbian, this is precisely the point Lorde was making of her unclassifiable motherhood and sexuality.
Asian women poets in the last century have also responded admirably well to repressive/religious thought-regimes. Pakistani poet Kishwar Naheed titled a poem, We sinful women, which struck at the roots of religious morals with a rebellious discordance. The assertion of sinfulness was also a negation — the power to refuse the archetypal image of the morally submissive, patriarchally virtuous woman; to say ‘No’ to the diktat
which effaces a woman’s face with the same impunity with which it effaces the distinction between civilisation and barbarism.
To turn a woman’s face into a private organ is to violently fetishise the body and forcibly throw it into two divided realms: one, of public obscurity, and two, of private consumption. As if her face is a gazing beehive of hazardous intentions, which has to be debarred from exuding the slippery honey of temptations. Naheed cuts through the crumbling logic of this paranoid prohibition in Anticlockwise. In the poem she avows the multiple erotic spheres of a woman’s desire, which also mark her freedom:
Even if my eyes become the soles of
Even so, the fear will not leave you
That though I cannot see
I can feel bodies and sentences
Like a fragrance
The fear of a woman’s freedom has driven all the holy texts of the world to deny her the right to be free. In every holy text, man is the surreptitious first person (sometimes as an accomplice of god or as god itself), and man alone the second person to whom the text is primarily meant for and addressed to, while women are incorporated and addressed as outsiders. It shows how the grammar of all holy texts is politically designed by men to relegate women into a position of discursive subordination, which translates into cultural stereotypes and social marginalisation.
In the Quran, god is the narrator and women are addressed in the third person. Men, who are addressed directly, have cunningly fitted god’s decrees and women’s duties into the norms of religiously sanctioned patriarchy.
In texts like the Manusmriti, the question of women is relegated to the classification of essence according to roles assigned to them. What makes those texts sinister and violent is how each role is affixed according to the moral prison-house that men have designed regarding how women should behave before male eyes. There is a moral and religious codification around those roles, which are praised or condemned according to the rules and values men have conveniently, selfishly and forcibly set up around those texts. The history of violence against women draws its vicious sustenance from these canonical (religious) texts which have served an abominable purpose across time.
It would be perfect to quote in this context the Hindi poet Alok Dhanwa. In his famous poem Girls in flight, he lays bare the duplicitous everyday lives of men, and smashes their hypocritical im/moral-codes regarding women:
You, who keep your wives away / from your whores and your lovers / away from your wives, how struck / you are with terror when a woman wanders /fearlessly searching for her self / together in whores and wives and lovers…
The topos of contemporary women’s poetry is not around an interior journey of discovering a vague philosophical self, conditioned by second-hand, man-made ideas and assumptions. This journey of seeking one’s voice by women in modern times has been a very concretely driven, two-way process: of overturning the restrictions imposed on their life as much as finding voice to reformulate and reassert how they see themselves. This reassertion often gets enmeshed with their sense of solidarity with the larger community and class of oppressed people.
The poet, Nellie Wong, born to Chinese immigrants in the US, addresses racism, the concerns of Asian-Americans, and more. In her poem, Under our own wings, she mixes Brechtian candor with Audre Lordean reflexivity:
To remain private with change is to self-destruct. / To go public with change is to begin... / As someone said, dear sister, as someone said / You are always working, working / hammering away at lies myths distortions… / What is antique… / is not unbreakable.
In the same poem she speaks about, the battles of Vietnam/in the bedrooms porno movie theatres magazines TV screens of America, exposing the capitalist ‘pornographing’ of history. Then she adds with a painful tune:
Though we try because we want / to control our own destinies we are mirrored /…in the shattered glass / of our race and our sex.
Between striking the hammer and facing the shattered glass, the woman poet measures the consequences of her difficult freedom. Faced with a similar predicament, towering over the shattered pieces of one’s ostracised caste identity, India’s Meena Kandasamy sets afire the sick, chameleon-ish body of Hindu racism:
We will singe the many skins you wear to the world/the skins you change at work/ the skins called castes and/skins called race/the skins you mend once a week/the skin you bought at a sale…
The metaphors of the mirror take on a different dimension in the imagination of feminist poets when it comes to expressing the precarious traps of love. Sometimes the tone is harsher, when Sylvia Plath gazes down the male lover’s gaze, and with tense defiance confronts his diabolic charm:
I sought my image/ in the scorching glass/for what fire could damage/ a witch’s face?/So I stared in that furnace/where beauties char/ but found radiant Venus/ reflected there.
Part of feminist assertion in poetry has also meant baring one’s desire by toppling over the disciplining modes of shame and other hesitations that seek to control and repress women’s sexuality. Of this, Joyce Mansour, the most talented surrealist woman poet of Jewish-Egyptian origin, offers a good range. If in one poem she imagines the breezy cloud of coitus — I want to sleep with you side by side / Our hair intertwined / Our sexes joined / With your mouth for a pillow… — on another occasion she spells out the ravenous intentions of her desire:
I opened your head / To read your thoughts / I devoured your eyes / To taste your sight / I drank your blood / To know your wants / And made of your shivering body / My nourishment...
The relationship between poetry and politics is not, however, merely restricted to the act of writing poetry. Other acts in a woman’s life can also be poetic or translatable into poetry. The act of poetry, like our use of language in all its forms, is primarily an act of translation. Poetry is an
expression among the body’s many translated acts.
The Egyptian women who recently braved dictator Hosni Mubarak’s regime with posters, slogans, fists and blood, displayed poetic rebellion in the streets of Cairo. Manipuri mothers protested naked against the rape and murder of Thanjam Manorama by men of the Assam Rifles, and Kashmiri mothers marched against the disappearance of young men — these have also been dark but illuminating events for poetry to address and recapture.
The dignified yet defiant lives of Aung San Suu Kyi and Irom Sharmila (also a poet) are poetic acts of politics. Despite the bleak signs of hope, Sharmila, on fast against the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), says, “The day AFSPA is withdrawn, I will eat rice from my mother’s hands.”
The statement is an agonising reminder of how poetic life as well as its suspension has been historically a struggle against the violence and terror of law as repression.
The story of International Women’s Day began exactly hundred years ago, on March 19, 1911, in Germany, following a statement by the Socialist Party of America. It played an important role during the October revolution in Russia. Alexandra Kollantai recalled how peasant women in the villages had “chased the aristocracy out of the nests they had roosted in for centuries”. For Kollantai it was a “clear and indisputable fact that without the participation of women, the October revolution could not have brought the Red Flag to victory”.
The story of Akhmatova and the mothers in the prison queues in Leningrad is terribly ironical. It proves, however, that women cannot be forcibly mirrored into the masculinist surplus — even of a revolution.
The writer is a poet and scholar living in Delhi