poetry

One and Five Chairs

Joseph Kosuth,

Joseph Kosuth, “One and Three Chairs.” (1965)

Content Note: this piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.

ONE AND FIVE CHAIRS

The empty chair is the passenger seat of his car;

I am fifteen years old.

They always tell young women not to walk home alone at night,

so I accept the ride I already know will take me anywhere but home.

When it is over, he asks for a kiss as a token of his generosity

in granting me “safe” passage.

O captain, my captor; I carry in my blood and the melanin of my skin

the knowledge of what we women have survived to reach the shores,

knowing full well that it is not freedom

that awaits us when we disembark.

——-

The empty chair is the dressing room of the high-school theatre;

I am sixteen years old.

Four hands on my body, under the guise of a prank,

grasping at my arms, then my bra, until the flimsy material comes undone.

It’s a joke, they say,

and I, the girl-doll, dutifully laugh.

As I re-clasp the bra at the middle of my back,

I run my fingers over my vertebrae.

It occurs to me that if I could sharpen them enough through starvation,

perhaps they could swiftly slice open any hands

that would ever again dare to touch this flesh.

——-

The empty chair is the bare stage of the black box theatre;

I am seventeen years old.

As our scene study from A Streetcar Named Desire comes to an end,

my theatre instructor tells my scene partner to

“keep going as if you were raping her.”

This is not in the script. There has been no rehearsal.

I am not permitted to file my objection, because

I am suddenly face to face with sweaty brow and insistent hands;

there is an audience and so I mumble: “those aren’t the lines.”

Of course there are no lines; this is unscripted.

At least, I reason, the scene has the authenticity of fear.

Weeks later, I learn that my scene partner has assaulted another woman in my class.

I want to say I am surprised,

but I know that he is well-rehearsed in his craft.

——-

The empty chair is the waiting room of health services;

I am twenty-two years old.

He is a stranger, a fellow student.

His chatter is friendly at first, then insistent. I am polite.

Of course I am always polite.

Then he is everywhere; even waits after-hours for me to emerge

from a late doctor’s appointment.

I pull phrases out from my arsenal: “Please leave me alone. I already have a boyfriend.”

Shoulder-grip. I am suddenly aware that there is no-one around.

“You need a new boyfriend.” His breath is hot on my neck.

At campus security, I am given a neon pink rape whistle

and a glossy pamphlet on stalking.

“Don’t worry,” the woman says to me.

“He just sounds like the misguided kind of stalker. They’re mostly harmless.”

Mostly.

——-

The empty chair is the faux leather couch in the graduate lounge;

I am twenty-four years old.

It starts at my feet: my boots being wrestled off,

and as I sit up to protest, I am vice-gripped across my chest,

pressure against my sternum.

I do what I have been told I ought to have done before:

wrestle, twist, say no, no (louder), and stop, with an extra

please for all the socially ingrained female politeness that I still cannot shake.

Without my glasses, I cannot make out the figure standing near the

elevator doors that are in my field of view,

cannot scream,

cannot do anything.

A while later, there is another ding of the elevator, and I am released before anything else happens.

I splash water on my face, re-touch my lipstick.

Could have been worse, I say,

as I pull up yet another empty chair to my table.

Mother Tongues

[TW: This piece contains graphic mentions of violence and blood.]

"Cassandra" by Max Klinger (1857-1920)

“Cassandra” by Max Klinger (1857-1920)

We have inherited the mouths of our foremothers.

Sweet cupid’s bow; pursed lips.

Inside, our cheeks ragged from biting down on them

every time we are too afraid to speak.

Philomela, raped by Tereus.

Brave princess threatened to tell,

so he cut out her tongue.

It’s a good thing she knew how to weave

to thread her story somehow

and pass it along to her sister.

In the end they both nearly died,

preserved only as songbirds.

O, Philomela, you sing so sweetly now

but at the cost of your very humanity.

Cassandra, raped by Zeus.

It was he who bestowed upon her

the gift of prophecy in the first place.

But we women know too all well that little

comes for free in this business.

After brutalizing her body,

he added insult to injury:

speak your prophecies but be cursed never to be believed.

O, Cassandra, so many of your daughters

raise their voices aloud

but are driven to madness by knowing full well

they only ever echo back.

Lavinia, raped by Demetrius and Chiron.

They must have known she knew how to write

for after they forced themselves into her

they tore both her tongue from her mouth

and her hands from her arms.

“Let’s leave her to her silent walks,” they said.

O, Lavinia, blessed wretch

be their mutilation of flesh or of metaphor

how many of your sisters walk silently?

For if a rape occurs in the forest

—a bedroom, a house, a car, a classroom—

does anybody hear it?

Does it happen at all?

Our tongues are bloodied now;

we taste iron.

Tears fall, the salt-water mixes with our blood,

and we swallow.

We swallow it down,

great gulps of this silence.

Bitter as it is, many of us would prefer to drink it

knowing the poison others await to eagerly drop into our mouths

if we should ever dare

to speak.

Spelling Lessons: A Spoken Word Response to the UBC & SMU Rape Chants (Trigger Warning)

This spoken word piece is a way of responding creatively to the various voices that I’ve heard in the past week since the news about the rape chants on two Canadian campuses broke. I have been fortunate to be able to speak with many news outlets about this issue, but I felt that I also wanted to craft a longer and more nuanced response. I speak back not just to the justifications by those who participated, but to the other voices that still condone, excuse, or rationalize this type of behaviour. I speak as way of contextualizing why these chants are not merely innocuous, and as a way of situating them in a broader culture of violence. 

You say that Y is for your sister but it’s always somebody else’s sister, isn’t it? It’s always the sister of the friend or the family down the street or the sisters of colour who face disproportionate violence, or the fact that so many of them have been slaughtered for the colour of their skin, or the fact that so many are missing, are absences in the family tree. Or perhaps they are sisters that you don’t recognize as yours because they say that a sister is determined by her biological sex and not by the knowledge that she was born into the wrong body. Because heaven forbid that you have to say “yes, this is my sister,” mine, a person for whom I am responsible, a person with whom I share relation, if not through blood or name or shared appearance but through the social fabric that binds each of us together. No man or woman is an island.

You say that O is for oh so tight but it’s always about how tight a woman’s pussy is, isn’t it? It’s always about the value that we place on the vagina and virginity, about how much you hate a loose woman. Because you want it tight like that first time. Tight like a woman who hasn’t opened her legs wide because you believe the myth, of course, that every man that a woman allows to penetrate her is taking up space, stretching her out, reducing her value like the time that you called that woman a “slut” for having too many sexual partners, that time you said that girl was a “whore” for sleeping with half the football team, like that time you said a friend was devaluing herself and that she shouldn’t just “give it away.” But her body does not belong to you, or to anyone else. It is hers to share, to enjoy, to take pleasure in and from.

You say that U is for underage but then again aren’t kids just having sex younger and younger these days anyway? Can’t we blame this on Miley Cyrus somehow? Because Cherice Moralez, a fourteen-year-old girl who was raped by her fifty-year-old teacher was “as much in control of the situation” as her perpetrator, was “older than her chronological age.” At least that’s what the judge in Montana said anyway. At least that’s what was said by the people who make excuses for a culture in which many adults have consistently abused their power and tried to paint their victims as mutually consenting parties. At least that’s what said by the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Tell me again how a child asked for it. Tell me that statutory rape isn’t as “real” as “rape-rape.” Tell me again how funny that is.

You say that that N is for no consent. It’s almost as if you know that it’s wrong. It’s almost as if you realize that you should have stopped chanting by now. But you weren’t really listening to the lyrics, were you? I mean, it’s hard to keep the rhyme and the meaning in your head at the same time, isn’t it? You know what’s hard to keep in your head? The constant memories kept by those who have known intimate violence, the ways that you try to keep the nightmares from disrupting your sleep, the way that you try not to flinch when someone walks to close to you, the way the word “rape” or “sexual assault” always catches your ear on the news because it is happening again, it is always happening again, it is happening right now. Someone is not giving consent. Someone is being held down. Someone is unconscious. Someone is screaming “no, please stop, don’t, please stop.” Someone is being silenced.

You say that G is for “grab that ass,” but it’s always that street harassment isn’t such a big deal, right? As if women should just ignore the constant deluge of comments about their bodies when they are getting groceries, crossing the street, or going to work. As if a woman should simply not pay attention to the man who decides to sidle up to her, real easy, on public transit, and grope her repeatedly. As if her body does not belong to her, but is a public commodity, placed on the meat market with a high turnover and a low rate of exchange. Or maybe you say that G is for “go to jail,” but what you need to know is that the legal system is not perfect, and that even with forensic evidence, few perpetrators ever serve time. Do not buy into the fantasy that the perpetrators of sexual violence do not walk among us.

Maybe you say I’m too sensitive.

Maybe you say that I’m a feminist bitch.

Maybe you say that I should just learn to take a joke.

But I say to you that the language you speak and the words that you spell have meanings far beyond the spaces in which you say them, that the breath of your words is not a declaration of neutrality. Words and phrases are not benign, not drummed into everyday existence simply because they have been repeated over and over by generations of students. You have been given the gift of freedom of speech: use it wisely, and know  that the seemingly innocent syllables you speak may just be the word-weapons that wound others.

two poems.

1. use value

the conditions of my reproduction are thus:

slimy, mewling, i emerge
and thrust myself always-already

into waiting wombs of identity categorization
labelling myself to death

but i’d do it again
i’d do it again
re-produce

the way i forget the contractions, the contradictions
the way i forget that my head is beating against a brick wall
my body mistaking the writhing seizures of market flux as orgasms

capitalism has to be sexy
capitalism has to sex me
so that the moment in my own neoliberal re-birth
when i am screaming “you did this to me, you bastard”
ends up being “totally (net) worth it”

2. loose ends

i began with loose ends
hoping to tie them neatly into bows
around the un-wrappable packages
of these categories:
writer/critic/race/politics/gender/self/other/community/knowledge

but like a certain hopeful monster*
the tail end of it all
began to bind my feet
though i found them pretty at the time

then up to my waist
measuring the smallest units of meaning
and finding them always insufficient

then like a safety noose
clutching tighter
in erotic transfigurations
mindblowing theory
the little dea(r)th

tangled, these chains of meaning
fall into my lap

the only way to prevent
being handcuffed by them

is to play cat’s cradle
where there is no last move
only loose ends

the tools of knowledge.

tiny tubes give birth to resplendent colours

tentative in their vibrancy

longing to be blended

caressed with sensuous fibres

pressed into the waiting flesh of an eager canvas

droplets of ink, long-calcified

only to be brought to life again

by a warm hand running across their rustling pages

by a heart that wishes to drown itself

in the word-surge

flags fly gaily to proclaim

the triumph of enlightenment

thoughts scribbled hastily on leaves of paper

there is a madness to this method of mine

an intimacy of indexing

now hear this

melodic lines and counterpoint

when all else fails to produce knowledge

this trembling voice and trembling body

surrenders to the pedagogy of rhythm and lyric