Saturdays Are Mlekodays – Episode Two
August 4, 2012 in Mlekoday
Episode Two: Emily Rose & the Revolution
“Most people aim for the chest / to see the body cave like a beaten rug. / I aim higher.” –Emily Rose
We poets tend to be a revolutionary bunch. I’m not sure why, exactly—maybe it’s all our book-learnin’, maybe our natural relationship with poverty. But regardless of the reason, there’s a long and proud tradition of politically radical poetry, and the slam community has taken the cause up with gusto.
At the same time, there’s a very real concern that our political poetry is a waste. That we are preaching to the choir. Indeed, the majority of people who come to slams or read poetry of their own volition likely think of themselves as liberals, progressives, or some other shade of leftists. The difference between trite sloganeering and deft social analysis is great, but it doesn’t matter when our audience already knows what we’re going to say.
There is, of course, value in preaching to the choir (which I’ll tackle in a future post). However, if we truly want to change the world, I think we have to change the way we approach our poetry.
Check out this poem, “An Inconvenient Wife,” by Emily Rose, previously published in issue 25 of the Columbia Poetry Review:
An Inconvenient Wife *
For Soraya Manutchehri
I. The boy with rock in hand
The stones are warm from the sun.
The body and I are both sweating.
I expect the rocks to thud like soil,
but the sound is wet cloth against a washing stone.
We throw rocks because
we are supposed to.
We are holy.
This is duty.
We throw the rocks
our fathers hand us.
Most people aim for the chest
to see the body cave like a beaten rug.
I aim higher
until it crumples back to ground
like wilted crops grown heavy.
There is no fight in the buried torso.
there is no woman in the body we bludgeon.
II. The mother
We paid him to take her—
make a wife of our child.
To serve in her office as I had taught her:
Do your work,
take him to your bed,
and do not complain.
I could have told him to wait.
That he was more eager to wed
than to be a husband.
But duty compels us.
Would you tell her not to marry?
Better to be a woman
wasted and forgotten
than endure a marriage to him?
I spoke to her of duty,
the womb as sacred,
the legacy of sons,
rewards of heaven.
I told her to stay.
I would never tell her not
to fight back. When death
in the form of men comes for you,
your claws and wild blows
are the body’s only instinct.
To fight back,
if only at the end.
III. The dead woman
There were dishes in the sink,
the floors unswept,
clothes pinned to the line,
sheets crisp and clean.
My duties almost done for the day.
They waited to take me
until after my family had been fed.
My ears were all static,
but the burning in my throat told me
I must have been screaming,
not in outrage,
but the sound of suffering released,
a boiling kettle.
I was as surprised by it as the men
who dragged me away.
They were clumsy with restraining me
as if none of them had ever
held a woman enraged.
I wondered if I could have taken him
all of this time,
but it is easier to say can’t
than die trying.
If I had thought it was an option,
I would have clawed his eyes out,
broken dinner plates against his skull,
drowned my children before he
could turn them against me.
Certainly, this is a political poem. But there’s no sermonizing, no policy analysis, no explicit calls for revolution. What makes this poem so special, and so truly radical, is that it refuses to prioritize political rhetoric over the dictates of art (and of realism, specifically). The voices Rose gives us are real voices, bewildering and maddening and relatable. The poem suspends judgment and portrays the situation from a number of perspectives, each voice given ample time and respect and craft. The poem’s beautiful, though haunting, imagery adds to this effect by giving these speakers individuality, by showing us how they perceive and understand the world, and by placing us in their socio-political moment.
Although it is clear which “side” the reader will take, the poem is a poem of deep compassion and understanding, the kind of compassion that transforms the very nature of politics and refuses to submit to dehumanization. There is suffering and tragedy here, and great moral outrage, but the villain is not “the boy with rock in hand.” The villain is ideology, which reduces the human being into a faceless subject.
We need a revolution against revolution. If we understand the work of the poet to be a prophetic work, we must stand against ideology, against us vs. them dichotomies, against politics. A return to the foundations of craft—honesty, accuracy, insight—along with a commitment to real personalism, real compassion, will help deliver us from the forces of violence.
MICHAEL MLEKODAY is an MFA candidate at Indiana University and a National Poetry Slam Champion. He tweets, sometimes: @mlekoday.