Can poetry hurt us? they ask me before
crawling into my words to sleep.
– Patricia Smith, “Building Nicole’s Mama”
* * * * *
Words are scary things. Oh, on the surface they may seem ephemeral…once they’re spoken, they vanish like smoke. They can be forgotten if useless, ignored if hurtful. They have no physical body until they are written – and that body can be destroyed without a trace.
And when they’re arranged in the form of a poem – well, who ever thinks of poetry as hurtful? Unless it’s a satire to expose a wrong, or a cathartic exorcism of a painful event. Poetry, most would probably say, should be a gift, a song, a thought, a whisper, sometimes even a shout…
But a short, poisonous snake?
That’s one definition of the word landai, which also means folk poem, in the Pashto language – a curious word to apply to something like a poem. Years ago my grandmother remarked to her daughter that, “When I was coming up, poetry was ‘Roses are red, violets are blue…I love you.'” Poems weren’t considered snakes in any English class she ever attended. Nor had I ever heard of a landai until I came across an article in the New York Times, “Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry.”
At first I was baffled by this story on the role of poetry in Afghan women’s lives and a literary society called Mirman Baheer, a society with hundreds of members, some who can meet openly in public…and some who cannot. It was those latter women whose world I was drawn into, a world where the writing of verse, even a two-line landai, can induce a beating or at worst death, if the fingers wielding the pen are those of a female. I, with my laptop and notepads and multicolored inks, can jot down an idea or a couplet whenever I wish, share my work with the world under my own name, recite it in any public forum, without fear that my male relatives will accuse me of besmirching the family honor. I have unhindered access to local bookstores and writing groups, friends to critique my work, printers to bind my finished words into a book. Consequently, I take poetry for granted. Enough to usually put off writing it unless I have a rare deadline to meet or assignment to fulfill.
Funny how ease of access so frequently equals a shortage of persistence.
Last week I told you about Mary Leapor, an 18th-century kitchen maid/poet who memorably let the meat burn in her employer’s kitchen while scrawling her not-to-be-deferred thoughts on paper. I thought of Mary, and persistence, again as I read about Afghani female poets and their not-to-be-deferred words, feeling certain Mary would take up their banner. She didn’t take poetry for granted, and neither can the members of Mirman Baheer, whose founder, Saherra Sharif, describes a poem as a sword.
And while I’m thankful for the article, for journalists like Eliza Griswold who jeopardized her own safety to write it and for poets like Ogai Amail, who transcribes verses from a teenager’s voice on a cell phone, for the most part I’m still just baffled.
Baffled by the case of Nadia Anjuman, who died in 2005 following a severe beating by her husband. Nadia was considered a disgrace to her family for writing poetry describing the oppression of Afghan women. Baffled by the memory of a girl named Zarmina, who after being caught reading her poetry over the phone, was beaten by brothers who assumed a boy was on the other end and tore up her notebooks for good measure. Not long thereafter, Zarmina fatally set herself on fire – “because her family wouldn’t let her marry the man she loved,” according to one source. Baffled by men who view poems as snakes, by wondering what I could do for women whose tongues are muffled but unsilenced, whom I’d be proud to regard as my literary sisters.
But I have no real answer to that bewilderment right now, except to share their story – not because it’s National Poetry Month, or because I’m a woman and a poet, but because I believe that’s what they’d have me do. And to ask you to share it as well, helping more people remember their names, their words, lest they too vanish like smoke…in the hope you’ll agree that something as mysterious and beautiful – yes, as necessary – as the human voice raised in poetry should never equal punishment.