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 felt like it 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, its juxtaposition unsettling and beautiful. Throughout, the metaphor of garden: fruit, flowers, vegetables, the sun—and from this backdrop of paradise jumps the picture of a knife’s reflection. Again, wow. A mirror that possesses innate danger. (Is it 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, and I loved it.
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 in a testament to her all-to-human contradictions, struggles and beauty.
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.
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. And 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 unsettling. Following 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, and his rage and pain keep us vigilant, tense, aching.
Amazingly enough, I enjoyed the ride.
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. Free, yet connected to the writer, in a communion that every reader knows. The poem, in describing an ordinary heartbreak, creates an ache within our own chests yet at the same time also breathes blessing.
*See previous post to read poem
Chris Abani's website
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.
Mother Teresa once claimed that her spirituality intensified when she realized that a Hitler lived inside of her. Carl Jung also explored the Shadow: the most frightening part of our psyches that we repress into darkness. When I read Katherine Anne Porter’s "Flowering Judas" I had one word to describe her as a person and as a writer: courageous. In "Flowering Judas," 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, Laura 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 herself. 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. Instead, 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 to help him “sleep.” But are these pills intended to relieve or to kill? Couldn’t they silence him and his confessions? The reader doesn’t know if he has died at the story's close; however, Laura has given him drugs that can result in his death, and therefore she is culpable, a murderer.
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 (like Jesus Christ) thanks to Laura, a Judas. 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 rising above the hell of self-realization, and live in the light once again.
The following is the actual text from Katharine Anne Porter's "Flowering Judas" -- which I refer to in the previous text...
Damn good stuff
Numbers tick in her brain like little clocks, soundless doors close of themselves around her. If you would sleep, you must not remember anything…1-2-3-4-5—it is monstrous to confuse love with revolution, night with day, life with death—ah, Eugenio! The tolling of the midnight bell is a signal, but what does it mean? Get up, Laura, and follow me: come out of your sleep, out of your bed, out of this strange house… without a word, without fear she rose and reached for Eugenio’s hand, but he eluded her with a sharp, sly smile and drifted away. This is not all, you shall see—Murderer, he said, follow me, I will show you a new country, but it is far away and we must hurry. No, said Laura, not unless you take my hand, no; and she clung first to the stair rail, and then to the topmost branch of the Judas tree that bent down slowly and set her upon the earth, and then to the rocky ledge of a cliff, and then to the jagged wave of a sea that was not water, but a desert of crumbling stone. Where are you taking me, she asked in wonder but without fear. To death, and it is a long way off, and we must hurry, said Eugenio. No, said Laura, not unless you take my hand. Then eat these flowers, poor prisoner, said Eugenio in a voice of pity, take and eat: and from the Judas tree he stripped the warm bleeding flowers, and held them to her lips. She saw that his hand was fleshless, a cluster of small white petrified branches, and his eyes sockets were without light, but she ate the flowers greedily for they satisfied both hunger and thirst. Murderer! said Eugenio, and Cannibal! This is my body and my blood. Laura cried, No! and at the sound of her own voice, she awoke trembling, and was afraid to sleep again.