The intimacy of the poem, “Emma Bovary,” is unmistakable. After all, its title is the character’s true name—not “Madame Bovary,” the novel’s title--for Emma’s mother-in-law and her husband’s first wife also held it. No. With this poem we are looking at Emma, up close and personal: her feelings, desires, essence, and legacy.
What drew me was the first line. Written in the vernacular, it sounds more like a letter, and her tone is one of confidant, inspiring me to lean closer: “I would have liked then for someone to touch me.” Wow. Confessional, transparent, courageous. No distance existed between us, whether I wanted to hear her or not... and I wanted to.
The poem kept me guessing, too. The contradictory second line: “So I could know the purpose of this hardship” conveys a contradiction in life: we can truly understand hardship only by encountering kindness. Clearly, Emma is familiar with strife through the amazing imagery she uses, so alive for her that it is personified as “black-eyed and impassive” and captures not only how hardship appears but how it feels: hard, cold, and indifferent. Interestingly, the word “show” appears three times in the next two lines, which expresses Emma Bovary’s two realities: what she shows and how she actually feels. She is a character on the page, yet we know her more deeply than some human beings we see every day. Don’t we? Alas, do we ever truly know anyone?
Images collide in this poem, juxtaposition unsettling and beautiful. Throughout, the metaphor of garden: fruit, flowers, vegetables, the sun—and from this backdrop of paradise, the startling image of a knife’s reflection. Again, wow. A mirror that possesses innate danger. (Doesn't it feel dangerous to look at oneself too closely? Perhaps we might be frightened of what we see.) While Emma describes taking down her hair—a lovely Venusian image—she mentions a gravedigger. Teeth and headstones, a gravedigger and new potatoes… some burials signify birth, others death. I grappled to gain my footing while taking in the largesse & truth of life; I loved the turbulence.
Finally, beneath Emma’s Bovary’s skin, alphabets. A birth again, but through the written word. For she is born and reborn in our minds and hearts through the life of the novel. In the story, Emma Bovary dies from her own hand, but continues to live on the page nevertheless. The last line: “This world could not get rid of me if it wanted to.” Here is her transcendence, affirmed by the writer, who gives Emma the last word, a testament to her humanity, which although based in fiction, feels very, very real.
by Monica Ferrell
I would have liked then for someone to touch me So I could know the purpose of this hardship. Black-eyed and impassive as a canyon, From the hive of my mind, I looked at their faces As I moved between rows of espaliered pears. I only intended for someone to show Me, once, an affection like the sun Shows even the simplest bulb, entering what’s hidden. Let me show them instead the picture In a knife’s reflection, take down my hair Where the gravedigger kneels among new potatoes. Behind my teeth are headstones, and behind those Skeletons of cavemen, of dinosaurs, And under my skin: alphabets, alphabets In black ink, a legacy of histories tiny and alive As an ant army marching toward forever. Understand, please—I, too, have a splendid use, This world could not get rid of me if it wanted to.
Poet of an Ordinary Heartbreak: Liberated, together
I felt this poem beneath my skin all day long. It’s not a difficult poem to understand; after all, Abani claims his world as “ordinary” four times in describing an everyday domestic scene: preparing a meal in the kitchen. Yes, we can relate to that. And his use of sensory details to express emotion transfers his experience into our own bodies: “The knife nicks…. Blood sprouting from a finger… scrape pulpy red flesh into the heat…” They’re evocative details, yet disturbing. Ready or not, we feel them.
What exactly is Abani thinking about here? While the poet does not claim he wants to harm his former love, images of violence flash before our eyes, images that are disturbing. Following the picture of a bloody finger, “red flesh” hardly brings to mind tomatoes. No. It’s the human body torn apart in a bloody mess that we see, or possibly the human heart at its most basic, extricated from higher emotional expressions of love, compassion, goodness. In fact, what’s being contemplated here is injury. Although Abani does not speak of his heartbreak directly, we reside within his perceptions. His rage and pain keep us vigilant, tense, aching.
Abani is a master at contradiction. An ordinary day, interspersed with thoughts of violence, builds in steady tension, and then, unexpectedly, sighs into prayer. Solace arrives through confession, the poet’s redemption, resulting (hopefully) in our response: Yes. I have felt that way too. And with those words, we are liberated--a communion that every reader loves.
Poet of an Ordinary Heartbreak
By Chris Abani
Who hasn’t been tempted by the sharp edge of a knife? An ordinary knife cutting ordinary tomatoes on an ordinary slab of wood on an ordinary Wednesday. The knife nicks, like a bite to the soul. A reminder that what is contemplated is as real as the blood sprouting from a finger. As real as a bruised eye. Instead turn back to the meat stewing on the stove. Scrape pulpy red flesh into the heat and turn. Say: even this is a prayer. Even this.
Reading Katherine Anne Porter’s "Flowering Judas", one word came to me. Courageous. In the story, Porter confronts the demons of death and betrayal through her main character; however, she inverts our expectation as readers, for Laura is the betrayer rather than the betrayed, the murderer rather than victim. Blind to her own crimes throughout, she realizes her crimes only at the story’s end, when a dream (the unconscious state unclouded by self-deception) reveals Laura to herself as she truly is: a monster.
In the beginning, Porter conceals Laura’s nature, just as Laura denies it. She plays the part of an innocent white girl squirming beneath Braggioni’s predatory sexual attention in a revolutionary Central American country. Without realizing it, we side with the helpless female figure, intelligent yet unable to defend against a hostile man in a turbulent and dangerous place. However, Laura is not the victim we assume her to be. Nor is she a heroine of the revolution. As the story continues, her actions and connections are deflated of idealistic intentions, as we discover she has aligned with Braggioni: a revolutionary leader who is self-absorbed, misogynistic, ugly, heartless, and violent. He acts as the villainous Godfather figure and Laura herself is one of his thugs.
For she, too, is a murderer, acting on Braggioni’s behalf. In her dream at the end of the story, Eugenio stands as her accuser, an imprisoned revolutionary whom Laura has given pills during a prison visit to help him “sleep.” But are these pills intended to relieve or to kill? Couldn’t they silence his confessions? The reader doesn’t know if he has died at the story's close; nonetheless, Laura has given him drugs that can result in his death.
Remaining mysterious, Laura withholds herself from the Latin community as a single woman, disconnected from friendship, family, or sexual liaisons. At the same time, inextricably drawn to where the power lies, she enacts Braggioni’s commands. Although she finds him repulsive, she is docile, quiet, and obedient. As a result, Eugenio—and others whom she “assists” in prison—will be sacrificed. Flowering in her feminine beauty, but deadly nonetheless, she represents a terrifying aspect of humanity: our willingness to blindly align with power at whatever cost. Katherine Anne Porter conveys the all-too-human quality of lying to ourselves in duplicitous preservation, the facile blindness that keep us in ignorance to our monstrous qualities. Laura may resist Braggioni, but he is her own shadow, and until she realizes this, she cannot be free. Interestingly, although Braggioni leads her into the Underworld, he may also be her healer in mirroring the truth. For once seeing herself clearly, she may rise above the hell of self-realization, and live in the light once again.