“Just like the body, which more than a concrete form is a capacity.
You know the body of time is elastic, can take almost anything you give it, and heals quickly.”
While attempting to teach my creative writing students one of Patricia Lockwood’s most well-known poems, I nearly always face great dilemma. I use the word “attempt” here because in the context of misogyny, the poem, Rape Joke, raises a great deal of questions and debate. Does it counter misogyny, or does it make light of the fact that sexual offences against women are indeed a matter for hilarity in circles spanning the so-called high and low.
My attempt therefore tries to push the essential question – is poetry useful in countering toxic masculinity? The shadow of discomfort doesn’t linger too long, thankfully, because for this particular poem exercise, the participants, both male and female, lead the way in breaking down the silence around their own accounts. Still, the question remains: how do we then derive strength from poetry in general in coping with misogyny.
It’s not surprising that every time an incident of sexual aggression on women takes place in urban India, our collective conscious rises in uproar. Demonstrations, take-back-the-night roadshows, Twitter condemnations, Facebook outrage, candle-light vigils, petitions, etc. begin in earnest. It’s also not surprising that our collective consciousness doesn’t immediately register or recall names such as Kunan Poshpora (1991), Khairlanji (2006), the North-East under the stranglehold of AFSPA, and then Muzaffarnagar among so many.
Becase for the latter, there’s mostly local indignation, state or community-specific, or at best, from a limited number of social media members often disparagingly known as “keyboard activists”. The Gujarat ethnic killings and the rapes too are fast eroding from public memory, as one can tell.
To be more precise, in a privileged, upper-caste Manuvadi India, aggressions of all nefarious kinds on women particularly from Dalit-Adivasi-minority communities are glossed over with severe callousness. And even in the cookie-cutter urban angst that’s seen flaring up now and then, there hardly seems to be any consistency towards real change.
From report to report, and incident to incident, it’s a practised ritual of grief, whereas one can vouch – from either side of the “lakshman rekha” – that misogyny flourishes in everyday language, in educational institutes, in residential complexes, in places of worship, in matrimonial columns, and of course, in television programmes and comedy shows in the living room.
But there aren’t many takers for protests against horrendous rapes and sexual offences unleashed systematically on women in other corners of India. These are mostly places with poor or non-existent Internet connections, social media, mainstream media, super malls, and all the other trappings of the neoliberal lifestyle largely aided by right-wing values currently holding sway.
In that world of urban bubbles dotted with emoticons of tear and rage, what do poets do, then? How do they voice their anger? Can poetry at all be helpful in fighting misogyny?
Following the incident of “mass molestation” in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve, a succession of memes, tweets, and videos went viral. One could see themes such as “anti-rape clothing”, “how to raise your boys”, “#YesAllWomen”, “#NotAllMen”, and so on. But behind these, it’s not surprising that post-Bangalore, cathartic blog posts and social media posts from the “victims” too have been hurtling out. One person angrily wrote in her poem:
“Listen up, I give up.— Team Give Up
I give up on Bangalore
I give up on Delhi
I give up on Mumbai
I give up on Indore, Jaipur, Shimla, Chandigarh
And of course I give up on Goa.
What good were those news debates I wonder?”
“As I am groped even more violently,— Team Give Up
the gravel and dirt of the road in my mouth,
my brain has visions of vulgar displays of women empowerment.
On TV and web.
Shut up Tanishq with your prose about working women with views.
Right now respect for my views is the last thing on my mind
Shut up AIB,
Shut up Kalki Koechlin.
You think these guys understand sarcasm or the purpose of satire?
Shut up Da da ding.
Here’s to India’s favourite sport.”
The pain is palpable. The sentiment has been endorsed in various other blog posts across the spectrum. Poetry has replaced rant, some said. For others, this was anguish in the form of spoken poetry.
One can hope that the torment of the poet here will touch thousands who poured out their anger.
Says Smeetha Bhoumik, who launched Women Empowered, an independent platform for women’s empowerment and the arts in 2016, “Poetry is an immensely empowering creative process – free-form, elastic, malleable, ductile and nomadic.” A poet herself, Bhoumik thinks that in countering misogyny, the first steps would be to “pause, take a deep breath and acknowledge” the fact that there is misogyny. This is because “many of us, even the very best, can be in deep denial of the throttling effects of patriarchy and misogyny.”
Poetry is a weapon we perhaps haven’t explored fully in our collective role as yet. Fortunately, reports that female passengers have been allowed to carry knives on the Delhi Metro for self-defence turned out to be incorrect. But the idea is dangerous.
“The rape joke is that he carried a knife, and would show it to you, and would turn it over and over in his hands as if it were a book.
He wasn’t threatening you, you understood. He just really liked his knife.”— Excerpted from "Rape Joke", Patricia Lockwood
Says Priyamvada Gopal of the Faculty of English, Cambridge University, “I think armouring up is a personal decision and an understandable one but to gender-base weapons carrying can have all sorts of implications aside from making women always and again responsible for their own safety. ‘Why weren’t you carrying a knife’?”
Some of us would probably remember that after the violent rape and murder in 2012 in Delhi, a special gun designed for women was launched in India. The reason for the special launch of this handgun, a .32 bore sleek revolver weighing 500 gm nicknamed Nirbheek (fearless) after Nirbhaya, the name given to the young paramedical student who was raped, was, ostensibly, “giving more power to women for defending themselves”. Is this justice, or another masculinist strategy?
For Bhoumik, poetry is a clear-headed space that can help us “see” correctly. She says, “As John Berger put it in Ways of Seeing: ‘You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure’. Every person has to wake up to the oppressive effects of misogyny and address it with force and determination.”
How comforting it is, then, that in the context of “seeing” and the resulting action – from pure pleasure to the attraction of the flesh to inhuman violence on a body – has elicited the poet’s reaction down the ages.
Sumana Roy’s poem Rape of Sunlight examines the complex landscape of desire and destruction with the trepidation of a gossamer spider web (as this excerpt shows):
“Your catalogue of ambitions grew like nails.
You counted backwards to your birthday every morning.
You were 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,— Excerpted from "Rape of Sunlight", Sumana Roy
Blood sticking to your legs like a predatory 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.”
The poem evokes fragility and lament in the words “nails”, “flower”, and “chlorophyll”. Dopati is a flower that opens and shuts to touch, and its seeds pop when prodded. That and the other images in the first few lines, even while giving way to a harsh reality, speak about “the sunlight lake inside your frock”, a most painfully delicate description.
The sensitisation that one expects from poetry is in abundance in Roy’s poem.
“You trapped sunlight like a tree.— Excerpted from "Rape of Sunlight", Sumana Roy
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.”
The reference to “lover” – and one stumbles over the word the first time on reading it here – is a child’s plaything and, hence, ironic. “Sunlight”, we know, comes back in its tragic loss, later in the poem. Will this not tell readers of the immediacy of the disease that toxic masculinity represents?
In an open letter to his daughter, filmmaker, actor and musician Farhan Akhtar admitted that in Bollywood “stalking, unfortunately has become a mutated form of cinematic romance”, even writing a poem to express his anguish:
“What is this country that I live in?— Farhan Akhtar
That takes away her right to love
Brutalises her with an iron glove
Rapes her without fear
of there being justice for her tear…
…what do I tell my daughter?”
Akhtar’s composition is direct and blunt, but somewhere it misses out on the urgency in such a call. One might not say the filmmaker has great poetic prowess, but one would still admit that this could be a viable way of sensitising those in show business, who are grappling with the representation of violence, particularly against women.
As regards Lockwood’s poem, critics and readers have come down with strong (counter) opinions and reservations, which is a sign that poetry can address issues in misogyny. Her long lines and stark narrative reproductions of common sayings, frat-house jokes, provocative pick-up lines, and rabid utterances from actual offenders that rape victims or survivors encounter in real life make the poem an unnerving read. Almost always, I encourage a silent reading, and then take the premises apart bit by bit if a reader so desires.
It is a complex poem and to circulate it as a tool to counter violence against women often invites queries whether it was really meant to speak against misogyny, or whether it actually reinforced the stereotypes of rapes, murders and sexual offences:
“The rape joke is that his bookshelf was just a row of paperbacks about serial killers. You mistook this for an interest in history, and laboring under this misapprehension you once gave him a copy of Günter Grass’s My Century, which he never even tried to read.— Excerpted from "Rape Joke", Patricia Lockwood
It gets funnier.
The rape joke is that he kept a diary. I wonder if he wrote about the rape in it.
The rape joke is that you read it once, and he talked about another girl. He called her Miss Geography, and said ‘he didn’t have those urges when he looked at her anymore,’ not since he met you. Close call, Miss Geography!”
Perhaps one needs to hear another perspective to really understand how poetry helps in spurring a healthy outlook on the other:
“She says to her lover:— Excerpted from "Dialogue 1", Priya Sarukkai Chabria
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.”
There is the anxiety in the words “scar”, “split”, “stifle”, “force”, and “ram”, clear references to violence. And in these beautiful lines there is also the lush longing for the lover, which perhaps should be the fate of all men and women. Chabria’s poem is a prayer – for the lilting love of flesh, for fellow humans, and for the power of love itself.
In June 2016, a poem titled I’m Sorry was performed at the 2016 Southern Fried Poetry Slam Festival in Greensboro, North Carolina, by an artist named FreeQuency (Mwende Katwiwa). She describes herself as a “25-year-old Black, Kenyan, Immigrant, Queer, Womyn poet in New Orleans, LA”, according to this website.
This poem was put up as an “apology” in response to the symptom “of a social disease seen from football rosters in Ohio to buses in New Delhi.” Ever since, Katwiwa’s performance has rocked several boats in order to traverse the rough seas of gender crimes, both in the heteronormative and the LGBTQ context.
Let’s return to our initial concern: while candle-light vigils and petition-signing for urban offences appear an essential ritual in our country, the larger scourge of routine and, often, state-sponsored rape and patriarchal violence against Dalit-Bahujan, Adivasi and minority women continues to be a victim of terrible amnesia. Who takes poetry to the so-called backwaters then? Are we then going to fail as poets in our perceived zeal for social justice? Aruna Gogulamanda, an emerging Dalit poet, says it without frills:
“She was told...— Excerpted from “She was told”, Aruna Gogulamanda
to take the cruel thrashings.
the jeers and the sexist assaults.
of her man or her master…
on her body…
which she hardly knew,
as one, as her own.
“she was dirt…— Excerpted from “She was told”, Aruna Gogulamanda
she was filth…
and in this country…
she is called a Dalit.”
Even as we pick up the broken pieces to reconstruct our fractured collective sensibility, the problem that remains is: how far can poetry take us on this voyage where the most discriminated are trampled on repeatedly. A truth we all must acknowledge.
Until then, let these lines of Lockwood picked randomly burrow deep inside us:
“Then suddenly you were older, but not very old at all.”
“The rape joke is that this is finally artless. The rape joke is that you do not write artlessly.”
“The rape joke cries out for the right to be told.”
“The rape joke is that this is just how it happened.”
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