Everyday Horrors

Spoiler alerts for the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes and Black Swan below!

A graduate school poetry professor, DC Berry, once told me that narratives are either comedies wrapped in tragedies or tragedies wrapped in comedies. The movies I’m going to discuss are probably neither, but for some reason, the older I get, the more I recognize horror in places I never thought to look, or at least, I am more affected by it. For instance, I recently watched Hereditary, a horror film that involves dark witchcraft, possession, and a terrible family tragedy. It was the latter that struck me, though. Yeah, yeah, yeah, blood sacrifices…beheadings…but I spent the majority of the movie wiping tears off my face because I couldn’t stand how cruelly and dysfunctionally the family treated each other at the dinner table. I felt similarly about the horrors of family when I watched The Witch. At the end of the film, I wasn’t scared; I was just really bummed out.

The Witch

When I was a little girl, I watched the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes and was transfixed. Victoria Page, a young ballerina, must choose between dancing in the company that will most nurture her art or her egotistical husband, whom she loves for some reason. I recently watched it again because I wanted to know if I had remembered it correctly. I only recall a few movies that I watched when I was little, and this one stuck with me. In fact, it informed many of the decisions I made as an adult, regarding career and relationships. What I recall thinking, as a kid, and as I re-watched it last week, is that a woman should never give up her career or her art or anything that serves as the anchor of her happiness. If she would like to marry, she should maintain this anchor at all costs, and not trade it for (as, Boris, the dance company’s impresario puts it) “the doubtful comforts of human love.” Don’t get me wrong, there can be room for both; a balanced life is often healthier (for any sex). However, Boris will not allow his dancers to fall in love with anything but art. Victoria Page sees it differently, and when told that Boris has fired Julian because of their romantic involvement, she replies, quite reasonably: “I shall dance somewhere else.” However, Boris’s company is where she grows most as an artist, and thus, the true conflict begins.

The Red Shoes

To be clear, the only reason for the conflict she feels is that her men are tearing her apart. Her husband’s ego cannot withstand her need to dance in the company that has fired him, and Boris’ ego cannot withstand the thought that her attention should sway to anything but his artistic direction. At the end of the movie, right before she dramatically flings herself off a building and onto the train tracks below, I recall thinking  (both as a child and now, as an adult) that she should have just divorced her lousy husband, who is so controlling that he abandons his opening night (and a pivotal moment in his career) just to dominate his wife and remove the one thing in this world, besides him, that she loves. That scene was exactly how I remembered it, and my feelings about it haven’t changed. 

I have read some contemporary reviews of The Red Shoes that claim it is a movie about artistic obsession. However, if the protagonist were male, I wonder if this so-called “obsession” would be viewed in the same way. Usually, when men are single-minded, regarding profession, we just call them “successful.” To me, the horror of this narrative is how commonplace and easy it is for a woman to marry someone who seduces her out of her light. Yes, the same can happen to men, but for women, there’s the added trap of cultural pressure not to outshine men, lest she be considered egotistical. “Selfishness” is one of the worst cultural sins a woman can commit, even if it is just for the short duration of a ballerina’s career. In the movie, Boris is, of course, also an asshole, but at least he uses his assholery for the promotion of her art, which she describes as wanting as much as she desires to live.

Black Swan, a more contemporary, but still tragic, ballet story, dons more overt elements of horror: bloody stabbings, doppelgängers, and surrealistic bird transformations. And yet, the underlying darkness again appears as a woman pulled apart by the demands made of her femininity. In this film, the virgin/whore motif manifests through the opposing forces of her controlling mother, who insists on infantilizing her grown daughter; and her creepy boss, Thomas, who sexualizes her during late night rehearsals in an attempt to awaken the darkness she needs for the Black Swan role.

Nina, becoming the Black Swan…literally.

I’ll admit, one of the most horrifying elements of the film is what ballet dancers do to their bodies. O their feet! O their spines! O the horror! (I’ll spare you a photo.)

I digress. I love this film. Natalie Portman is fantastic playing the role of a scared, little girl in a grown woman’s body, as well as the confident adult in touch with the primal need for lust and conquest. I’m also a big fan of surrealism and coming of age stories. This movie especially intrigues me because I am unsure what to make of the ending. 

First, there’s the fact that Nina’s death, at the end of the ballet, makes no scientific sense. Many people have pointed out that a stab wound doesn’t just start to bleed, randomly, at the end of a dance performance. True, but then why does her friend gasp when she sees Nina’s bloody midsection? There appears to be something literal in her death. My impression was that she did (or was about to) physically die at the end of the ballet. I’ve often wondered if simply having Nina wait to pull out the glass shard until the end of the performance, would have resolved this practical issue. I’m no scientist, though. Perhaps, she could not have performed those dance moves with glass in her abdomen. 

Natalie Portman has apparently stated that she doesn’t believe that Nina dies at the end of the film but that she symbolically kills her inner child in order to mature as a woman. I like that idea, but I’m still confused by what appears to be literal blood, that other people can see, spreading down her tutu.

No matter. I liked the movie so much that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in this form of human anatomy! What interests me most, assuming she’s about to die of a stab wound, is whether or not she truly finds her power at the end of the movie. My first thought, when I saw it in the theater, was yes; she attained her deepest desire: perfection that marries technique with the experience of losing herself in the moment. However, the price of this perfection is mental illness and death. As Thomas holds her hand and calls Nina his “little princess,” a name he had previously reserved for the last prima ballerina (who did not take his rejection or her retirement well) I couldn’t help but notice how puny he looked in the face of Nina’s artistic triumph. 

Again, though, I can’t help but to imagine this story with gender roles reversed: what if Nina were a man and Thomas, a woman? I just have the sneaking suspicion that, not only would Thomas (in this case, the star of the ballet) get to live, but he’d also be endowed with some sort of sexual power over Nina, despite her new role as his superior, in this imagined scenario.

Gender roles aside, I do not think America has mastered the art of balance. There seems to be quite a bit of the “do or die” mentality: overworking and indulging in ways that mask a deep fear of unworthiness. If we’re not perfect (read: popular, beautiful, talented—“the best”) then maybe we’re nothing. In that sense, I think that the end of Black Swan is a happy one. She has achieved her greatest performance and will never have to cope with inevitable decline, if not tomorrow, then in a few years time. 

This month, I offer you Nikki Giovanni’s “Balances,” a poem about the push and pull of life’s contrast. 

Balances 

In life
one is always
balancing

like we juggle our mothers
against our fathers

or one teacher
against another
(only to balance our grade average) 

3 grains of salt
to one ounce truth

our sweet black essence
or the funky honkies down the street

and lately i’ve begun wondering
if you’re trying to tell me something

we used to talk all night
and do things alone together

and i’ve begun

(as a reaction to a feeling) 
to balance
the pleasure of loneliness
against the pain
of loving you 

Belong

Trigger warning: this post discusses abuse in destructive cults, including the mass suicide of Heaven’s Gate members. Proceed at your own discretion.

In spring of 1997, my roommates and I watched a news report about the discovery of 39 people who had helped each other  commit suicide. Members of the group, Heaven’s Gate, believed that the passing Hale-Bopp comet disguised an alien spaceship that, by committing suicide, they could board and finally find their true place in the universe. Videos surfaced, both of the cult’s wide-eyed leader, Marshall Applewhite (who, by the way, used to teach music at The University of Alabama, where I now teach English) and good-bye messages from happy, excited Heaven’s Gate members. It’s the latter that has always surprised me. They did seem legitimately pleased with their choice to dress alike and to help each other leave their “vehicles” in pursuit of a new beginning. They wore playful patches on their uniforms that read “Heaven’s Gate Away Team,” referencing the Star Trek television series. (Strange side note: Nichelle Nichols’ brother was a Heaven’s Gate member and also lost his life with the other suicide victims).

Nichelle Nichols
Nichelle Nichols in the role of Lt. Uruha.

I was stumped on what to think, as most people were at the time. Later, information surfaced on the various ways Marshall Applewhite and the other leader, Bonnie Lu Nettles (who had died in the 80s) had manipulated and isolated members of Heaven’s Gate in the way that all cult leaders do. And yet, the more I learned about its members, the more puzzled I became. Why did so many people who seemed otherwise intelligent and emotionally stable, join a cult that required them to leave everything and everyone in their lives behind and eventually, commit a gruesome act together? 

It’s easy to understand why the girls joined The Manson Family. Charles Manson—a misogynist p.o.s.—learned how to manipulate women from a pimp he met in prison. He preyed upon young runaways, lavished them with the love and attention they had never before received (he was, of course, faking) and then, after they believed that he loved them, abused and manipulated them into prostitution (and for a few—to participate in mass murder). But the Heaven’s Gate members were different. Many of them came from seemingly stable backgrounds.

Hale-Bopp Comet
Hale-Bopp Comet

A friend of mine suggested that perhaps people join cults because they’re lonely, but I think the reason runs deeper. Recently, I watched a documentary about Flat Earthers called, Behind the Curve. While I don’t think that the communities that develop around the belief that the Earth is flat necessarily meets the criteria for a destructive cult, it sure is strange. During the whole documentary, I wondered (among other things) why this group tries so hard to convince others to join. At a Flat Earth conference, one man tells the audience that for his “entire life [he’s] felt kind of separate, like nothing was quite right.” Another man says that, at this conference, he is in a room full of people who will never judge him. Others talk about feeling isolated outside of the conference.

Flat Earth

I wonder if, ironically, feeling like we do not quite belong in this world is something that most people experience, perhaps to different degrees. Certainly cults are not exclusive to the west; however, this part of the globe certainly flails in the face of chronic alienation. Mother Teresa once claimed that, of all the diseases she has witnessed, “loneliness in the west” is the worst one.

Our mainstream culture often seems keen to respond to people’s deep discontent with the suggestion that they’ve merely failed to purchase the correct products, which will then supposedly lead to “success,” which is to say, a higher social status. However, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the famous people around us are no happier (and sometimes, even more miserable) than us “nobodies.”

old ad

Personally, I think that the very normal sense that something isn’t quite right, that we don’t quite fit in, is the main reason that people fall prey to certain cults. While listening to Glynn Washington’s podcast, Heaven’s Gate, it was hard not to look around me and wonder, under the right circumstances, how many normally healthy people could have fallen under Applewhite’s spell. It was hard not to consider if, in a moment of vulnerability, we all could get sucked into the allure of unconditional love from a group that claims it would never leave us, despite the real possibility that, one day, we may desperately wish it would.  

Today, I offer you two poems by James Wright. In both poems, the speaker finds connection with nature. In “Beginning,” the speaker witnesses nature personified. At the end of the poem, he mirrors nature as he “leans toward” darkness. I like that this poem doesn’t suggest that nature heals alienation by wiping off the dirt and shining up the speaker; rather, the connection occurs when darkness is shared.

In “A Blessing,” there is a similar theme of finding connection to one’s self through nature, as well as contrast in nature itself. While the horses “can hardly contain their happiness,” the speaker claims that there is also “no loneliness like theirs.” In the end, the speaker realizes how close he is, through nature, to transcending his own human experience.

Beginning

The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
Now.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

—James Wright

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

—James Wright

Banner Photo Credit:

https://www.wmagazine.com/gallery/cult-classics-irina-shayk-joan-smalls#8

Morning Magic and the Tyranny of Planning

Earlier this year, I was in bed with the creeping crud. I didn’t feel well enough to read or even to stay awake for a whole movie, so I started watching YouTube videos. I don’t know why, but YouTube suggested that I watch a rich, young woman’s 5AM routine. Here’s the rundown: She gets up (with make up on and her hair brushed), gets out of bed and does a bunch of stuff to her face, dresses in expensive workout gear, and drinks lemon water before heading to the gym. After her workout, she showers, does more stuff to her face, and gets ready to work from home in cozy slippers. I watched it twice. 

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of getting up before everyone else. There’s something both romantic and satisfyingly productive about it. In practice, though, I have never wanted to get up before 7AM. Truth be told, I’d rather rise at 8. When I hear of people I know getting up at 5AM, it’s either because they have kids (and need a moment to themselves before the offspring awaken) or because they’re high-strung lawyers who like to brag about how hard they work. Despite the fact that I neither have children or a desire for early bird smugness, I continued to scroll, and seeing that I was interested in “early rise” accounts, YouTube suggested more “early morning routine” videos. One woman after another set her alarm to rise before the sun, with the grace of a forest nymph, and to wander into her pastel kitchen for lemon water. 

Also, because organized people wake at 5AM, apparently, YouTube offered me more suggested videos: calendar blocking, Sunday re-set, “clean with me” videos, and “night time routines.” I watched them all. I don’t know why, but they made me feel less lonely, as I lay in my sickbed. I thought about how nice it would be, once I felt better, to clean my house and to get my to-do list back on track. I’ll admit, I did feel renewed when I recovered. I cleaned my house; I diffused lavender oil; I wore make up. It felt so great to check off my tasks, so great that I decided to watch more YouTube videos. I think that’s where the vision began to curdle.  

I started to notice the number of YouTube channels that focus mostly on “organization.” There are so many of them out there. But the problem seems to me that there’s only so much organizing that one can accomplish without life becoming as bland as a YouTube star’s beige wardrobe. Sometimes, I found myself talking back to the screen: “Aren’t you just kind of making up work for yourself to organize, though?” and “I thought you did all this last week.” As a child of a hoarder, I completely understand the need to clean and organize more than the average, but over time, I’ve also realized that organizing can become an addiction. Nothing can ever be or stay organized, unless the person dies after cleaning, and her home is immediately transformed into a museum. 

Recently over lunch, I confided to a friend my conflict between wanting life to tick like a perfect clock, with my need for spontaneity (and eight hours of sleep).

“I don’t want to get up at 5AM,” I told her. 

“You just want to watch other people do it on YouTube?” she laughed.

“Yes!”

I think what is missing from YouTube, though, is the every day magic of an early rise. In these videos, everyone’s running on treadmills and doing “mind dumps” in their journals. They’ve videoed themselves “waking up” and pose-stretching. But I don’t see anyone who wakes to wipe sand from her eyes and stare dreamily at her cat, who meows for wet food. No one rushes for pen and paper to write down a dream that has answered the philosophical question that they had asked their subconscious years ago. No one even seems surprised to wake up in a room or in a human body; no one reaches around wondering where the hell they are, what this planet is, only eventually to nod and remember corporeal life.

Of course, these women are just making videos and (who can tell from videos?) seem to live happy lives, with the one exception of the nagging emptiness that dogs us all, no matter how much has gone our way! 

Ok, that got intense.

But for today, I offer you a poem about rising in the morning that marries the desire for creativity with the mystery of the sun. Sleep well, y’all!

A True Account Of Talking To The Sun On Fire Island

by Frank O’Hara

The Sun woke me this morning loud 
and clear, saying “Hey! I’ve been 
trying to wake you up for fifteen 
minutes. Don’t be so rude, you are 
only the second poet I’ve ever chosen 
to speak to personally

so why
aren’t you more attentive? If I could 
burn you through the window I would 
to wake you up. I can’t hang around 
here all day.”

“Sorry, Sun, I stayed
up late last night talking to Hal.”

“When I woke up Mayakovsky he was 
a lot more prompt” the Sun said 
petulantly. “Most people are up 
already waiting to see if I’m going 
to put in an appearance.”

I tried
to apologize “I missed you yesterday.”
“That’s better” he said. “I didn’t 
know you’d come out.” “You may be 
wondering why I’ve come so close?” 
“Yes” I said beginning to feel hot 
wondering if maybe he wasn’t burning me 
anyway.

“Frankly I wanted to tell you 
I like your poetry. I see a lot 
on my rounds and you’re okay. You may 
not be the greatest thing on earth, but 
you’re different. Now, I’ve heard some 
say you’re crazy, they being excessively 
calm themselves to my mind, and other 
crazy poets think that you’re a boring 
reactionary. Not me.

Just keep on 
like I do and pay no attention. You’ll 
find that people always will complain 
about the atmosphere, either too hot 
or too cold too bright or too dark, days
too short or too long.

If you don’t appear
at all one day they think you’re lazy
or dead. Just keep right on, I like it.

And don’t worry about your lineage 
poetic or natural. The Sun shines on 
the jungle, you know, on the tundra 
the sea, the ghetto. Wherever you were 
I knew it and saw you moving. I was waiting 
for you to get to work.

And now that you 
are making your own days, so to speak, 
even if no one reads you but me 
you won’t be depressed. Not 
everyone can look up, even at me. It 
hurts their eyes.”
“Oh Sun, I’m so grateful to you!”

“Thanks and remember I’m watching. It’s 
easier for me to speak to you out 
here. I don’t have to slide down 
between buildings to get your ear. 
I know you love Manhattan, but 
you ought to look up more often.

And
always embrace things, people earth 
sky stars, as I do, freely and with 
the appropriate sense of space. That 
is your inclination, known in the heavens 
and you should follow it to hell, if 
necessary, which I doubt.

Maybe we’ll 
speak again in Africa, of which I too 
am specially fond. Go back to sleep now 
Frank, and I may leave a tiny poem 
in that brain of yours as my farewell.”

“Sun, don’t go!” I was awake
at last. “No, go I must, they’re calling
me.”
“Who are they?”

Rising he said “Some
day you’ll know. They’re calling to you
too.” Darkly he rose, and then I slept. 

 

 

Photo from https://everwideningcircles.com/2016/03/04/olafur-eliasson-art-that-challenges-us/

 

Eat Your Heart Out: True Love Ain’t for the Weak

There is a story of a saint in India named Mirabai, who lived in the 16th century. As a child, she saw a wedding procession outside her window and asked her mother who would be her bridegroom. Her mother humored the girl, pointing to a small statue of Krishna. “There is your husband! Gopala himself. Love him and serve him as a good wife would her husband.” Mirabai took her mother seriously and devoted all her time to singing and dancing for Krishna. At night, she meditated in front of his image. 

When she grew older, she was married to a prince, and although she did perform her wifely duties, she spent her evenings worshiping Krishna, whom she considered to be her true husband. Her in-laws did not approve of her love for Krishna and told her that she had better fall in line with their goddess, Durga. However, Mirabai refused, citing that she had already committed herself to Krishna. One day, her sister-in-law told the prince that Mirabai was making a fool of him and had taken a lover that she meets in the temple. Enraged, he drew his sword, ready to slaughter his wife’s lover. Instead, he found Mirabai in a state of spiritual ecstasy, pleading to her Krishna statue for love. Figuring that his wife was mentally ill, he decided to humor her, and he built her a small temple of her own. 

News of Mirabai’s beautiful voice and dancing spread far and wide, and people began to visit her, enthralled by her ecstasy. One of her husband’s enemies decided to visit Mirabai, but knowing that his presence would cause problems, he disguised himself in beggar’s clothes. After hearing her sing, he was so moved that he offered Krishna a necklace, and he touched Mirabai’s feet, a sign of respect. Unfortunately, news of this exchange reached her husband, and he was so incensed that he told Mirabai to go jump in the lake—literally. As she was a (somewhat) obedient hindu wife, she tearfully said goodbye to her friends and prepared to commit suicide. However, just as she was about to jump, Krishna appeared to her and intimated that she should not kill herself. 

Meanwhile, the moodiest man on Earth began to feel bad about overreacting to Mirabai’s…well, she didn’t really do anything, did she? When he finds that she is still alive, and living in a different city, he goes to her and begs for her forgiveness. She takes him back and lives without too much drama until his death, a few years later.

At this point, her in-laws really started twisting the screws. First, they demanded that she commit Sati, the absurdly gruesome and misogynistic practice of a woman throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Luckily, Krishna had already told her not to kill herself. Her refusal to die infuriated her in-laws, and they proceeded to try to assassinate her on three separate occasions. 

Attempt 1: “Oh, here’s a basket with a garland in it for your Krishna. I hope you like it.” (Just kidding, it’s a cobra.) However, when Mirabai opens the basket, it damn well is a garland. You know someone got fired that day. 

Attempt 2: “Let’s see how Mirabai likes sleeping on poisonous needs. I’ll just cover them up with these luxurious rose petals.” Mirabai sleeps like the dead but isn’t. 

Attempt 3: “Here’s some poison…uh nectar…” Mirabai gulps it down, no problem. 

Finally, she gets tired of all the distractions and goes to live with her uncle, who leaves her alone. 

The first time I heard this story (and there are many variations of this narrative) it was through a comic book that my parents bought me from our church’s book store.

 It was my favorite “book,” and my mom would often try to talk me out of choosing it as a bedtime story because it was so long. I think I was particularly attracted to the idea that a deity could protect a person, even from snakes and volatile family members. Self-preservation is strongest in the young. Also, I liked that Krishna is depicted as having blue skin and a kind face. He is often drawn as feminine: soft features, long eyelashes. In fact, for part of my childhood, I thought Krishna was a woman. 

In graduate school, I was assigned a world literature class to teach and was excited to find Mirabai’s poetry in the Norton Anthology. Actually, very little can be confirmed about Mirabai’s life. It appears that she did experience a troubled marriage and the worst in-laws on Earth. There may have been attempts on her life. What I found most surprising, though, was the poetry itself. There are some poems that mostly focus on praising Krishna and describing Mirabai’s devotion and sacrifices:

I’m steeped.
steeped
in the dark one’s color.

I dressed up in my finery,
put on my dancing anklets,
abandoned all shame, and danced in public.

Gave up reason, went crazy,
kept the company of holy men,
found the true form of a devotee.

Sang and sang the praises 
of Hari’s virtues, night and day—
so saved myself from the serpent of mortality.

Without my lord, the whole world’s brackish—
merely a mouthful of salt.
Apart from him, everything’s disposable.

Mira asks her lord who lifts mountains
to give her the kind of devotion
that seeps with sweetness—that’s luscious, flavorful.

(NOTE: The poems I have provided in this post are not indented properly. While I am very disappointed in how ridiculously difficult WordPress makes the simplest of formatting, I have also submitted to its tyranny. #corporatehatespoets #theman)

As a child, I recognized that Mirabai was rebellious; however, I did not realize the extent of her conflict with society. I was unaware, at that age, of the seriousness of India’s caste system, as well as the general history of misogyny. Also, my child’s comic book was riddled with mixed messages. For instance, Mirabai refuses to worship the goddess of her husband’s house. However, when her husband tells her to commit suicide she (according to this particular narrative) dutifully visits the river. The caption above the image of her bidding her friends a tearful goodbye reads, “Mira, the true Hindu wife, did not protest. She fondly took leave of her tearful companions…” (Fondly? She cries in three images leading up to her attempted suicide and looks miserable as she prepares to jump. I suppose she could be fond of her friends, but the word feels flippant, considering the heavy circumstances.) However, moments later in the text, she directly disobeys her husband by agreeing to listen to another man’s order. At least Krishna doesn’t want her to drown herself.  

Yet again, though, the text contradicts when her husband asks her for forgiveness. In the image, it is Mirabai who bows to him and says, “Has Mira ever gone against the wishes of her husband? Yes, I will come to Chittor!” Yes, Mira has gone against her husband’s wishes—repeatedly. 

There is an interesting short program from BBC (“Mirabai: I Go the Other Way” from Incarnations: India in 50 Lives) that discusses how Mirabai’s narrative is used in modern times. One of the conclusions is that, while Mirabai is used to protest the caste system, India is not ready to see her as an inspiration for women’s autonomy.

I find that inability disturbing. Such a large part of her rebellion (and her sacrifices) were based on the fact that she was a woman. Her experience would have been different, if she had been a man. The danger she willingly faced would not have existed, or at least, not to the same extent. The same imbalance exists today as does society’s need to suppress progress and not just in India. In most parts of the world, including the U.S., women’s “honor” is fragile, mostly controlled by men, and when shattered, results in the woman’s destruction or, in the very least, abuse. 

The cowherd who carries mountains
is the one for me—
I want no one else.

I’ve looked and looked 
all over the world—
I have no other savior.

I’ve left my brothers,
left my bondsmen,
left my blood relations.

I’ve been hanging out 
with the likes of roaming holy men—
I’ve lost my honor in the world.

I’m delighted to see 
my fellow devotees,
but I weep and weep when I see the world.

I’ve sown love’s vine—
I water it 
with my flowing tears.

I’ve garnered the butter
from the curds,
and thrown away the whey.

The chieftain sent me a poison cup—
lost in love,
I gulped it down, straight. 

Just to complicate love and feminist matters even more,  Mirabai often proclaims such devotion to Krishna that she doesn’t even mind if he enslaves her.

My lord who lifts mountains—
I’m off to his home.

He’s my one true love.
The moment I see his form,
I’m entranced.

When night falls, I get up and go to him—
when day breaks,
I get up and return.

Night and day, I play with him.
I keep him happy
any which way I can.

I wear whatever he asks me to wear—
I eat whatever 
he gives me to eat. 

Our love’s an ancient love,
I can’t survive
a single moment without him.

I sit wherever he tells me to sit—
if he were ever to sell me,
I’d be willing to be sold. 

Mira’s master is the lord
who lifts mountains—
again and again, she sacrifices herself to him.

Somehow, though, the poem I find darkest (and the poem that most appalled my students) is when she becomes violently angry at a bird for singing happily, while she’s miserably awaiting Krishna to take away the pain of this mortal coil:

Hey love bird, crying cuckoo,
don’t make your crying coos,
for I who am crying, cut off from my love,
will cut off your crying beak
and twist off your flying wings
and pour black salt in the wounds.

Hey, I am my love’s and my love is mine.
How do you dare cry love?
But if my love were restored today
your love call would be a joy.
I would gild your crying beak with gold
and you would be my crown.

Hey, I’ll write my love a note,
crying crow, now take it away
and tell him that his separated love
can’t eat a single grain.
His servant Mira’s mind’s in a mess.
She wastes her time crying coos.

Come quick, my Lord,
the one who sees inside;
without you nothing remains.

The violence in this poem always surprises. Clearly, the bird can’t win, but it’s the honesty and rawness of her feelings that impress. Can true love justify destruction? In Mirabai’s poem, it does. The bird’s happiness belongs to her, either to snuff out, if her love does not return; or to wear as a crown, if he does. Although problematic, there is something pure about her emotions. Despite the complications and dangers with which the world tries to encumber her, she feels that her love is simple. 

What I like most about Mirabai’s work is her determination to buck the current. Although she shrouds each poem with the notion that she wears her “dancing anklets” and abandons “all shame” only to please Krishna, she still succeeds in making her own way, while negotiating abuse from her family and a violent, patriarchal system. 

It’s hard to say if Mirabai was indeed sincere in her love for Krishna or if she invoked his image as a cultural shield to combat the relentless oppression that followed her. As a powerless woman of that time and place, I wonder if her love for Krishna was more so a defiant declaration of self-respect. Perhaps, Krishna was a symbol of freedom, for which she gladly, and ironically, welcomed bondage. 

* * *

Dear Reader,

As Valentine’s Day approaches, whether you are giddy because you have picked the most perfectly cheese-tasctic card for your wife (as I have) or if you are prepared to twist the beak off an offensively cheerful bird, I hope you find love, respect, and satisfaction!

xoxo,

Shanti

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