lucrece, leda, and the rest of us: the evolution of a poetic object/subject

Having read my post on Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” a friend sent me an article about women poets in India who have taken up the subject of rape. You’ve no doubt read about the increasing problem of violence against women in certain parts of India, Delhi in particular, and the gang rapes that made international news. One poet explains her intentions:

‘With debates increasingly centering around violence against women, the topic has become common ground for all of us. We have become one entity, irrespective of where we come from,’ said Tamizh poet Salma. Her poems are often devoid of illusionary imageries and soaring similes. ‘I call sex, sex. A rape, rape. People have often asked me why my language is so stark and descriptions so explicit. How else would you convey what a woman goes through? Poetry is constantly evolving and this is part of that evolution,’ she said.

This article got me thinking about the evolution of the rape poem. For centuries, rape poems came from the pens of men. These poems, such as Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” and Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen,” addressed classical rape, stories from mythology. They were not meant to help the reader understand real instances of rape; instead, they served as metaphors, ways to address other subjects. Essentially, women’s bodies were not women’s bodies but political symbols.

Even later, with Seamus Heaney’s “Act of Union,” rape is used as a metaphor for Britain’s control of Ireland, a common theme in earlier Irish poetry. Likewise, many scholars consider Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” to be an allegory for the “rape” of Ireland. With its erotic, sensual imagery, “Leda and the Swan” turns rape into an aesthetic experience, which makes Yeats’s sonnet one of the most revered works of art and exemplifies a problem that is common in art from painting to film: the eroticization of rape.

So rape is sexy and rape is useful for “loftier” discussions than women’s lives. In her book Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, Sarah Projansky points out that “scholars and media pundits alike casually invoke rape metaphors…to convey a sense of ‘ultimate’ degradation or horror or to illustrate the humiliation of nations (e.g., the “rape of Kuwait”). Simultaneously, they neglect the particular experiences of [those] who actually experience rape.”

When women finally began writing rape into poems, the narrative changed dramatically. Suddenly, the rape poem became personal, intimate, and painful. Rape was no longer a metaphor but a gritty reality. In a strange way, women reclaimed their bodies as sites of personal violence instead of national symbols. Poets like Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Ntozake Shange expressed the complexity of woman as victim: being betrayed by a friend, being treated like a criminal by the police, feeling guilty and dirty, trying to overcome victimhood, etc.

But the depiction of rape on a personal level does not rule out politics. If the personal is political, then these poems are fiercely political, which just what the Indian poets are saying. Poetry can be healing, as it has been for countless victims in programs like Lifecentre, and it can nurture empathy, helping readers understand the experience of sexual assault and of living with the threat of this kind of violence. But it can also be a revolution.

Contemporary rape poems often serve to challenge, disrupt, and destabilize patriarchal power dynamics and gender norms that create male subjects and female objects, punish and silence transgressors, and perpetuate rape culture, i.e., community complicity. I came across this story from Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, who describes submitting a poem about her friend’s brutal rape to a literary journal and receiving a disturbing response from the male editor who told her to stop writing rape poems because he was “sick of wenchy women poets who are always bashing men.” Clearly, he was threatened by her poem. Her response, of course, was to write another one.

In Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, poet Anne Waldman wrote:

Perhaps women have the advantage of producing a radically disruptive and subversive kind of writing right now because they are experiencing the current imbalances and contradiction that drive them to it. They are turning to skillful means in figuring out how to combat assaults on their intelligence and time [and bodies]. She–the practitioner–wishes to explore and dance with everything in the culture which is unsung, mute, and controversial so that she may subvert the existing systems that repress and misunderstand feminine ‘difference.’ She’ll take on the subjects of censorship and abortion and sexual harassment. She’ll challenge her fathers, her husband(s), lovers, male companions, warmongers, micromanagers, spiritual teachers. Turn the language body upside down. What does it look like?

After I read Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” I thought about a few things in my life that I hadn’t written about. I thought about the time I was riding my bike to the library, nearly a decade ago, and two men in a pickup truck followed me. I could feel it all over again. And then I wrote this:

Caught

Quick, the hammering fear
as they pull up alongside
in a beat-up work truck

Words I cannot repeat, will not
words thrown like hammers
fired like hot bullets

I tell myself
to look straight ahead
keep riding, pedal harder

One block free
they find me again
I try to hide the shudder

It is the loveliest kind of day
a day for falling in love
or dipping your feet in the creek

A neighborhood of Victorians
pale pink, creamy yellow, baby blue
sidewalks interrupted by old trees

But the truck rumbles again
Locusts that keep coming, shadows I can’t shake
They have fists and gasoline and terrible tools

I have only the slender frame
of my bike and myself
a voice caught in my throat

Done taunting, they gun it
disappear into the city
their laughter still squeezing my throat

I stay inside for weeks
for the clouds watch my every move
the air itself trembling with murderous desire


why i started this blog

It was probably my junior year of college that I went to see the chair of the humanities department for a little encouragement. Much as I loved literature, I was feeling uncertain about my studies. I had become quite the budding feminist activist, and when I read Alice Walker or Adrienne Rich, I increasingly wanted to get up and DO something. I was not content with scribbling behind a desk. That’s why I knocked on my professor’s door and asked her why we interpret literature.

Unperturbed, she gazed out the window at the blossoming dogwoods. We sat in an office full of dark, shiny wood and cloth-bound books in muted tones, but the sun lit up the world outside. She smiled. “Why do we enjoy a spring day?”

I nodded. It was all I needed to hear to get back to the books, but when I finished school, I decided to join AmeriCorps and become a VISTA. I wanted to learn through experience and to serve others. I felt a great need to make people’s lives better in some way, and my myopic poetry certainly wasn’t going to do that.

The best part of my AmeriCorps assignment in Philadelphia was my weekly visit to an after-school program for at-risk Latinas. We laughed, danced, and learned. It was their safe space in the day because outside of that program their lives were full of violence. A friendly, open senior on a fifth-grade reading level told me that she had been raped by her uncle for years. Another girl–a vibrant, intelligent eighth-grader who attended with her sister–lost her boyfriend to a bullet in the head because he had the best corner.

I loved those girls dearly. It was a profound learning experience for me, one that confirmed everything I thought about the world: oppressions converge to make the notion of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps a joke, investing in education should always be our priority, and giving is better than having.

But I had a serious hankering for a creative fix, so I went back to school and studied poetry and fiction writing. I devoured the pink-covered Vorticist magazine Blast, the stories of Katherine Mansfield, the groundbreaking fiction of Nawal el Saadawi, the verses of Sharon Olds. I studied Said and Spivak, Gilbert and Gubar. I learned to step back from my writing and to revise, revise, revise.

And what do you think happened next? I had enjoyed teaching composition to first-year students who desperately needed to learn how to write a basic argument, but I soured on the idea of teaching poetry to middle-class kids who wouldn’t do anything with it anyway. Fed up with the ivory tower, I abandoned my PhD applications and ran off to Poland to teach English as a second language.

My students came from all walks of life. One was a wealthy CEO whose wife could never travel to the US with him on business trips because officials would not give her a visa for fear that they would stay. “As if I want to move to America to work at McDonald’s,” he would say. “I am a businessman!” There was a shoe designer, a gregarious woman with curly dark hair, who came from Georgia for a better life, and a teenage girl who was frequently in trouble with her mother. I always enjoyed chatting with an amiable young man who could not marry his girlfriend because his low-wage job in a shop kept him living with his family, six people in a two-room flat. There simply wasn’t room for another person.

Every student there was learning English to improve their lives. Most planned to leave Poland for England, Scotland, Germany, or the Netherlands, where they saw opportunities they did not have at home. I felt guilty for being able to go and do whatever I wanted. I felt frustrated that the only way I could help them was to teach them the language of the people who ruled the world.

I came back and worked as copywriter. It felt amazing to get paid to write and come up with ideas with creative folks, but I hated advertising. Obviously. Then I wrote grants for a nonprofit, which led to my work in women’s advocacy–leading online campaigns, influencing legislation, developing and improving programs for women and girls. I truly love women’s advocacy, but sometimes I get so caught up in politics and analysis that the left side of my brain feels heavy. It’s like the right side is withering away.

I try to avoid binary thinking, but somehow I’ve spent my whole life trying to balance these two sides of myself–my desire to create community change and my passion to create art. Sure, writing itself can be revolutionary, but it never seemed enough for me.

Recently, I decided to devote more time to my writing. I brushed off some old poems to submit and revised a story, but writing is a solitary pursuit and I needed to connect. Therefore, I decided to start a blog where I could discuss current events that disturb me: gang rape, slut shaming, cyber bullying, the bizarre need to legislate my body to death.

And then I thought, hey girl, you don’t have to stop there. I realized I could combine politics and art in one spot. I could make my own creativity political. I could sit behind my desk or march down the street, and either way I’d effect change. That’s the birth of Saga, a place to explore feminism and creativity while engaging with other artists and thinkers and doers.

As I write this, birds in the eaves of my house, in the magnolia and pine trees out back, are singing because it’s spring. It’s rainy, and the slender sprouts in my garden are getting stronger. Even now, without much sunshine, I look from my computer screen to the window and remember why I do what I do.

I hope you’ll join me on this exploration.