Stunning honesty…from a woman. Go figure.

Posted: January 17, 2008 in Poetry Endorsements
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Taslima Nasreen
“all about WOMEN”
(buy via chelCpress or Amazon)

“A physician, a writer, a radical feminist, human rights activist and a secular humanist,” Taslima Nasreen made herself known to me at the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, where she read, among other pieces, “The Poem of Sabita.” Immediately after hearing this poet speak this particular work, I knew that her writing was both important and heartfelt…a rare combination.

Those who know me from the broad and blatantly false, over-exaggerated, and completely (99%) anecdotal observations/faux realizations heard at parties or, likewise, have read some of my own poems, know me to be, well, particularly hard on women as a sex pertaining to their psychological and behavioral flaws, but people who know me a tad more deeply know I am a feminist at heart (just one with an ill-timed and loose-mouthed sense of humour).

The problem with feminism in the United States today is that its enforcers are tasked with sweating the small stuff, the remainder. The blatant, rule-based (you can’t vote, write, own/inherit property, etc.) barriers have been broken by the first and second waves of feminism while the third/current wave faces battles against the subconscious, unconscious, and habitual ways in which society keeps women under glass. No easy task indeed, and something that requires the self-same vigilant effort that makes those charged with such work seem like the proverbial nagging wife. Sadly, though, the majority of women living here today seem to have largely forgotten, or take for granted, the trials encountered by their foremothers just a generation or two ago and what it means to be able to enjoy what degrees of freedom they do have.

Taslima Nasreen is a complete smack in the face to such complacency. Iconic, she serves as a reminder that not everywhere offers an environment where men and women get along so famously as they do in the US and other areas of the world. She is from Pakistan, and if you want to know where she’s coming from, check out her biography. If you want to know why her poetry is as powerful as it is important, please continue reading:

Honestly, I don’t know why it’s taken me such a long time to get to this review. Taslima’s was the first book I sought out after the festival of all the poets I wanted to follow up on and hers was also the first book I read from the same group. I passed this book to many a friend and contemporary, and anyone I shared it with had the same reaction. Perhaps that universal applicability scared me. Something so powerful that it could coerce a universal reaction from such a diverse group. Or maybe I’m just lazy. Either way, I want to share this Taslima Nasreen poem with you:

The Poem of Sabita

Sabita has thrown her newborn daughter from the sixth floor:
   shame, shame on you, Sabita,
   how cruel you are!
Who could throw an innocent baby whose eyes were just opening
   whose lips searched for some honey,
   some milk, some water,
   whose soft feather-like skin searched only for
      somebody’s warm touch?
   Thrown suddenly?  What’s your heart made out of – 
      stone?
Yes, stone.  There are two black stones in Sabita’s
   eyes, too.
   Who says she is human?  An out-and-out witch!
   Hundreds of street dogs have started a big feast
      with the smashed human meat.
Shame, shame on you, Sabita!

Sabita is mad.  Everyone declares it.
   See, the mad woman is looking at the sky, the way
      a poet looks at it.
Sabita is not a poet, but today she has written a
   poem,
   contentment showing as she writes,
   For ever since childhood she has wanted to write a
      poem, a beautiful poem.
Throwing her newborn daughter from the sixth floor
   was like writing a poem, a perfect poem;
   for had her daughter lived for fifty years,
   she would have suffered for fifty years,
   simply for being a woman.
Sabita, see, loves her daughter more than she loves
   herself.
She has written a beautiful poem
   reducing her daughter’s pain
   from fifty years to fifty minutes,
   not killing her daughter,
   but saving her.
It is for the well-being of others that people write
   poetry.

The language is simplistic, but Taslima does all her own translations, a task not easy to do in any genre, let alone poetry. And the simplicity of verbal aesthetics works here in a way that no eloquent tongue could. In the same way a mother explaining, to her child, the complicated moral values of the world would shorten sentences and placate detail for affect, so does Taslima address the reader.

The first stanza is a simple verbal cause-effect scolding. It is followed by elaborately staged, but still understandable and simplistic second stanza made up of images depicting the yearning to be nurtured as nestled inside a rhetorical question that implies reflective astonishment and disgust. Then, in the same stanza, with 2 back-to-back rhetorical questions, the poems turns ravenous with want. Want for explanations, want for understanding. Incapable of getting answers, the voice of the poem dehumanizes Sabita in the third stanza by likening her flesh to stone and calling her a witch. Interestingly enough, the same stanza also dehumanizes the crowd watching (dogs) as well as the baby (smashed meat), but the only child-like rebuke is aimed towards Sabita.

The following two stanzas regain the reflective feel of the initial part of the second stanza, and in doing so, create a mental wobble. Forcing light and dark together to make grey, a dizzy area. Childhood is mentioned in such a positive light whereas a separate childhood just ended six stories below. The humanistic subject of poetry has been invoked right after the image of an inanimate (stone-hearted/eyed) Sabita. And finally, that warm memory of childhood is linked to writing a poem. Then…

"Throwing her newborn daughter from the sixth floor
   was like writing a poem, a perfect poem"

Kinda feels like you were there to hear the “thwack,” right? It’s the final wobble; creation of a poem is paralleled to the destruction of life. The next couple of stanzas paint the killing of the child as one of love and mercy, pointing the finger at the nigh-insurmountable and inherent worthlessness of her life, judged simply by the sex of her birth. The act of Sabita not killing herself is then seen as sacrificial. Being a woman herself, she realizes living is a penance, one she saved her daughter from having to serve by taking away any chance the baby might have had to accrue such a fake debt. Then of course…

"It is for the well-being of others that people write
   poetry.

Here Taslima promises to drop another baby with each page read, reader. Each act of speaking out is a sacrifice on her part, and it’s done for your benefit (understanding’s in general, and women’s specifically). The only way to make her stop is for readers who understand and agree with the message to make it understood by others and enforced that being a woman is not a crime. It is this sense of urgency, combined with such blatant and well-crafted images, that captures my heart and soul. Taslima is an activist for change, and change has to come from within. But that does not mean change from within doesn’t need help when it asks. Thus Taslima’s poems call to the world for attention. Read. Answer.

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