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Blind lion, face-scarred, rib-thin,
pacing the bars of your rusty cage. And Donatella,
dear old bear, snout-wound suppurating
from the sword-slash of a Taliban,
did you not hear?
The North American experts have been called in.
Hollywood mobilizes its tax-deductible donations.
Once again our better inclinations
have been misguided, abused. Other keepers
are flown in, deals made with other zoos.
Whose fault that two animals are front-page news,
while the orphans are so numerous they remain anonymous?
Dear Mammals, what was unbearable
has become the way things are.
The Buddha is blasted to gravel,
and we must make sense of an airplane becoming flame
against the sharp hip of a building.
Some try simply to recall the name of a bear
— O Donatella! who once raised her broad palms in the air
and solemnly danced
for the children of Kabul,
girls clapping boldly next to their brothers,
the sun sharing its warm gifts
with them all.
I am writing without feeling, having flown from France
September 11th, your grandson bouncing
in his caa-approved car seat, safe as milk.
I’m sorry you worried we had been exploded
those long hours you spent on hold,
consulting with the airlines,
having no idea where our plane was.
We knew nothing until we began to descend
and the pilot shared what he had kept for hours,
where we were, where we would not be going.
I thought, insanely, of buying a car,
of never flying again.
The airport was a mob of stranded tourists,
hushed sobs. We were stuck till 3:00 a.m.,
your grandson mercifully conked out on the luggage.
My lover comes from another country —
we would have to fly again, and soon. Just after 3:00, we got a room.
You began the women’s revolution;
you were its first martyr.
I can neither forget you nor tell your story.
I’ll talk instead of myself,
the modern, post-postmodern method, one soul
that cannot ever know another,
or imagine another’s dreams.
Where I live, one in four Canadians
identifies as a poet. Where I live,
nobody reads poetry. Thank you for the poem
in which you wrote: I’m the woman
who has awoken.
You wrote: I’ve said farewell to all golden bracelets.
And then you were shot.
What did I care
until I came that close to terror?
I have dreamed a country of women
living in rooms with blackened windows.
I have imagined the blue cotton weave
you viewed the world.
Pictured the soul grown thin, thin,
sunlight filtered through mesh.
Pictured the bones’ hollow piping,growing more porous each year,
more troubled. Framed your sisters
in their brightest moments, your sisters at home
blooming in darkness. Remember?
The way you flourished, nipples sweet as olives,
buried alive when the gardener grew jealous.
The way you fought: a burqa to conceal a camera,
a poem to reveal a woman’s war.
Meena, forgive me for not writing before.
The pilot clears his throat, the overhead
clicks dead. The child between us sleeps on.
Fingertips touching, we lean back on our descent
with nothing to say. We barely bounce
on the runway. I lean into you, spiralling back
in time, back to last week, climbing Mont Saint-Michel
with our son swinging between us. Beneath
the thin blue American Airlines blanket,
when few words are necessary,
we hold on. Isabelle, thank you
for these eight years, so good
so far, for giving your seat to the stewardess in tears.
Thank you for the urgency of your love,
knowing we are not safe, though still safe enough,
in a world where our love is answered with stones.
We are decadence incarnate,
two women in comfortable shoes, we kiss cheeks
like sisters when we must, speak each other’s endings,
live in relative comfort. Isabelle,
the weight of the heart under siege takes its toll.
Thank you for not letting go.
Dear Anonymous Woman Executed for Adultery in the United Nations—Funded Sports Stadium,
Dear — What was your name? Exactly when
were you caught? Did you know where
you were being taken, does your family
know your grave plot?
Did your lover cry out, did he rend his clothes in secret?
I know the crowd watched carefully as you tripped
on the hem of your robes in the hot air
before you were shot, and fell,
in the middle of the arena to a noise, not applause,
like cicadas thrumming. I saw the film, the kohl-dark ingots,
your brain’s last clotted thoughts
spilled onto your hair and shrouded head.
I saw your burqa in the dry air trembling with blood.
But I never saw your lover. Please, let it have been love,
not something violent, grown malignant
within you. Did he get away with murder?
Dear Anonymous Woman Who Filmed the Execution,
And Dear — On what food did you grow
impossibly brave? You stood
in the crowd at the stadium. God has many names
and none of them mattered.
You dared: God was your camera.
God hid under the dark-woven folds
of your required robe. God’s eye
was made to record
with a small noise, hanging in the film
between your breasts, a woman’s
execution curled in the undeveloped roll,
as though death had not yet
occurred. As if, were the film never processed,
you could switch past to future, correct
the present imperfect. She would not have been shot.
You would be at home, peeling an orange.
What were you thinking as you stood
behind her, as she knelt
and you carried out the sentence,
gun in hand, followed through
on God’s command? Did you
think of your wife or simply of the task?
The wind rose, briefly fingered your hair.
God is the sentence and the execution, but – Dear,
God is the lovers’ brave infidelity, too, singing
long after the heat dissipates. Once
He created a garden: partridges,
almonds and pomegranates.
Oasis of song, cloistered sapling.
Said: Do you not know me in my nakedness?
Said: I am the bloodstain
left in the dust after her shrouded body
is hauled away in your truck, both hands broken
behind her back.
Said: Only the speechless hear me.
Only the silent do not turn away.
Do you not know me by my song?
I am the song of spilled blood, fragrant as lanolin,
as vernix from the skin of newborns,
ripe as a lemon tree
springing from the ribs of the earth.
I am the slow circle
of the bear’s dance. I am the wild lions of the desert
and I am their carrion feast, too,
Marjan’s blind and crusted eye. Pray —
For I am the pigeons that fill the twilit stadium
lifting and settling, quietly calling one another home,
drawn to that dark patch, that mineral stain
after the crowd has gone.
A Word About the Poem By Rachel Rose
I started composing the poems in “September Letters” as a way to calm myself as our plane attempted a landing in the chaos of the airport in Montreal on September 11, 2001. The idea was that if I had these poems to finish, we’d somehow make it home, which we did. But then the changes that September 11 wrought continued to haunt me, as they did so many who’d been brushed by the wings of terrorism (though I was, of course, perfectly safe). As I learned more about the situation, I learned also about the profound bravery of the women like Meena, murdered founder of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, who fought the Taliban and smuggled out images of the cruelty inflicted upon other women, and I felt I must write to her, and apologize for only paying attention after my own chance encounter with being airborne at the wrong time.
How the Poem Works By Susan Olding
Every correspondence, even an imaginary one, proposes a sender and a recipient. In “September Letters,” the series of seven poems that Rachel Rose began while her plane attempted to land following the collapse of the World Trade Center, recipients include those one might expect — the speaker’s mother and lover — as well as those one might not — a caged lion and an executioner. The recipient of the third poem, “Dear Meena,” is a revolutionary and martyr, a poet of tremendous courage and commitment who has become a symbol for liberty in a land where people, and women in particular, are denied the most basic of freedoms. Meanwhile, the sender writes from a “modern post-postmodern” place where “one in four Canadians/ identifies as a poet,” but “nobody reads poetry.” Here, we are free to commit to whatever we choose, yet we seldom commit to anything; here, ironic detachment merges with hypocrisy, as we proclaim identity with what we do not even bother to support. How can a person from a culture like ours speak to someone like Meena? Insulated from terror until the poem’s occasion, yet in our ignorance far from innocent, how can we address those whose struggles have suddenly, belatedly been brought home to us?
The answer, of course, is honestly. In language that is direct, unfettered, and unadorned — fitting in a tribute to a woman who claims to have “said farewell to all golden bracelets” — the speaker of “Dear Meena” admits the difficulty and acknowledges her insularity: “…you were shot./ What did I care/ until I came that close to terror?” On that self-implicating question the poem turns. Only after accepting responsibility is the speaker able to do what until now she has claimed she cannot do — that is, to imagine her way inside the “rooms with blackened windows,” and then ever deeper, inside the burqa, inside the body and even the bones, all the way to her recipient’s soul. Only then can she see the “sisters” her recipient sees through the burqa’s “blue cotton weave,” and when she sees them, she begs forgiveness for not writing before. By the poem’s conclusion, Meena’s line, “I’m the woman who has awoken,” has become the speaker’s — and the reader’s — own.
Meena’s compatriots in the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan concealed cameras beneath their burqas to uncover the cruelty of the Taliban. In using an instrument of repression to expose oppression they achieved the apparently impossible. “Dear Meena” performs its own impossibility. It adopts irony to transcend irony, turning an icon into an intimate.
Susan Olding is a Vancouver-based writer whose work has been published in literary magazines in both the U.S. and Canada.
From the Trade Paperback edition.