Literary Review

Review: Veils, Halos and Shackles is deeply disturbing, immensely redemptive

Veils, Halos and Shackles; Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, Kasva Press, Rs. 800  

A recent post on my Facebook news feed featured the story of a woman who went on a solo biking tour across India. The conclusion of the story read, ‘India is safe for women’.

Immediately below it was the story of a Dalit woman in Haryana who was gang-raped twice by the same men — the second time, to teach her a lesson for complaining against them the first time. The conclusion was glaringly implicit.

Attempting unequivocal and overarching conclusions through either of these incidents is a farcical exercise. While they both have their place in the description of the social fabric of a country, a polity, and a world in general, perhaps the only appropriate way to express the bewildering irrationality of gendered phenomena in words is through poetry.

Poetry doesn’t make simplistic conclusions. It unfolds experience and draws the reader in deeply into a closer place. Veils, Halos and Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women, edited by Charles Adès Fishman and Smita Sahay, and published by Kasva Press is a collection of poems by over 180 contemporary poets from all over the world. Most of the men and women featured in it are well-known poets, and the poems are compelling in their literary merit.

The book was compiled following the barbaric rape and murder of Jyoti Pandey in Delhi back in December 2012, and is dedicated to her, Nadia Anjuman (the Afghan poet who was killed at the age of 25, in 2005), and to Malala Yousafzai (the Pakistani Nobel Prize laureate and activist for girls’ education). A Women’s Studies scholar would find much for deconstruction in the dedication.

The more than 400 poems in the book are unnumbered, emphasising the limitlessness of voices and subjectivities against violence. They are mostly in free verse — novel and contemporary in their construction (one of them calls itself a ‘word-video’) and each poet has included a synopsis that contextualises his/her work.

While many poems are about rape, incest, abuse, acid attacks, female foeticide and genital mutilation, many others speak about the personal-political manifestations of gendered life such as morality, norms, control, and policing.

For instance, Hira Azmat in her ‘Trials and Tribulations of a Well-Endowed Woman’ describes the pain of body-shaming; Barbara Goldberg in the note following her poem ‘After Babel’ talks about how she had to conform to a ‘feminine’ role by crying to convince the jury about a crime committed against her. Some are personal accounts, others written as empathetic reactions to incidents of violence, and some others such as Judy Dykstra-Brown’s ‘Zauditu’ , tell the truth through fiction.

The poems, with tones ranging from painful to cynical — to occasional dry wit — do not preach, reduce or generalise. They exhibit an eclectic range of experience and thought, each specified by religion, region, time and culturally precise natures of patriarchy, making a subliminal argument that while gender injustice is a global and historical phenomenon, its experience is local and specific.

The selection and presentation of poems is equally poetic. For instance, Nadia Anjuman, who had fought the Taliban regime to get an education, before allegedly being beaten to death by her husband for bringing ‘disgrace’ to his family by writing poetry, appears in the book in a poignant way. Since permission to publish her work was denied by the owners of rights to her work, her poem ‘The Silence’ is included as a blank space – a literary manoeuvre that reinforces the meaning beautifully.

In direct contrast to what a critical look at Malala as a phenomenon might suggest (that she is a construct of the West to facilitate its commercial and military intervention is an argument that cannot be ignored) are the arguments of Liana Joy Christensen in the concluding note after her poems. “It is easy to demonise particular cultures and religious groups for having some kind of monopoly on the oppression of women... the issues are a long-standing part of the problems facing humankind in all major cultures,” she writes.

The book, in containing these contradictions, provides the space for engaging with them critically. Whatever gender we perform, it is unlikely that any of us is spared the physical or psychological violence of gender injustice in our lives. So, each one of us can relate to the poems in our own way. The poems are graphic and painful: they grab by the throat, they resurrect demons, but they also redeem with the power of the word.

The concluding lines of Fishman’s poem ‘A Dance on the Poems of Rilke’, about a woman who created her own freedom within the vicious mortifications of a Nazi concentration camp, sums up the book’s endeavour: “... each soaring leap of the spirit, each lunge toward grief... even a halting step could be a triumph and a dance on the poems of a dead poet might redeem.”

Veils, Halos and Shackles; Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay, Kasva Press, Rs. 800

Maithreyi Karnoor is a Bangalore-based translator, poet, and critic.


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