in black and white
Much has been written about the gaze in film, art, and literary critical contexts from John Berger to Laura Mulvey to Linda Nochlin. The man is the bearer of the gaze, the woman the receiver of it. More often than not, this man, this woman, is from the Western world. But what if that woman being seen is Muslim, and “her hands compose a lettered garden” (14)? What if she lives in a place where “from under roses or pomegranate boughs machine guns rattle the street, sharia of violence flowering around her” (37)? The media tells us, the politicians tell us, that this “other” is terrorist. This “other” is different. This “other” is to be feared. In Marthe Reed’s Gaze, these are some of the misconceptions that she asks the reader to reconsider. From political misgivings to redefining the traditional definitions of the gaze to exotic posing in art, the poems call upon us as readers to open a “pentimenti of carved doors,” to see what lies behind them. To question. To pay attention to the world around us. To travel beyond the Western world.
“Were you paying attention” (9)?
The collection opens with lines from Simone de Beauvoir, Edward Said, and Fatima Mernissi – an intersection of feminist writers and theories of how the West perceives Eastern culture. And by beginning in her Prelude with George W. Bush’s now infamous “false pretenses” on why we should bomb Iraq, these intersections begin to take shape. Reed does not want us to be passive observers and blindly accept what we are being offered on television, in newspapers, in photographs…she wants us to lift the veil and see “what the magician shows and what he holds.” As with any performer, this magician requires a stage:
a closed field, a theatrical stage. empiricism forms its own
misgivings, writes a gap into the measure. any paranoia will do.
if I begin by counting backwards, no doubt others will come. (13)
But remember, this is a layered construct, and the opening poem “A closed field” reminds us of this when a woman suddenly enters, stage left:
the space between “she” and “I” expands and contracts, a
trick of the eye. she does not suffer paranoia. such complex
affiliations defy heat, draw a boundary around it. a garden
refreshes me. (13)
There will be movements in this collection. Poems will contract and retract between subject matter: politics, the gaze, the female form, the Eastern landscape, a Raqib Shaw painting. When the experimental dance begins, the poetry will bring you into its rhythms.
The “space between ‘she’ and ‘I’ expands and contracts.”
And who is this “she?” Perhaps these are the women of the East – the poets, the visual artists, the voices of rebellion: Suheir Hammad, Forugh Farrokhzad, Shahzia Sikander. Do you know these women? She wraps herself in couture, “wraps it in contradiction” (62). Her beauty is defined by “a shroud, an inferno, a ring of scars about her neck. Beauty consists in this, in the ability to doubt. A mantle of white. A mantle of stars” (63). And, in the end, with “the artist hiding in the wings,” she is “An agency of isolation. / Out of dark wings (last day); lustrous, a single oily tone responds by vanishing. / She performs such flight in silence” (83).
In Reed’s collection, we do not remain long with a single image, a single way of seeing. As the reader progresses further through the text, repetition of the words such as “veil” and “mask” initially evoke allusions to Sylvia Plath; but I am no longer amid the Western tulips. I have been transported to another world:
The mask recomposes her, palimpsest of hunger dissembling
Too beautiful to resist, her tumbling hair frames the mask.
Rewrites splendor. Uncovered she dishonors herself, vanishes,
Let her be covered. Veil, mask, body bag. (38)
Then, her poems soon shift over to syntactical play, to Jerome Rothenberg’s “blue.” But his blue never held a gun in its hand:
…Prayers form an elegant
calligraphy over her hands, crumble into a basket of fallen light.
Dust and smoke scatter even these. Through any blue window,
or a crack in the mortar. Would a gun suffice? Even my sex is
dust, handful of blue lost to the light. (18)
Ever-shifting. Ever-moving. Ever-fluid. After all, “Text moves without boundary…Without boundary. Text represents its own illusions” (19).
And if you don’t want to get lost in the politics, feminist theory, Eastern writers, fashion designers, or allusions, get lost in the beauty of the language:
Dream hijab (2)
light through petalled windows
white silk suddenly unfolds
your feet are restless
your hand warms a single peach
her back _________ thighs
sigh of pleated skirt
conversation in blue silk
a child rests on her lap
“Do you like what you see” (87)?
Chantel Langlinais is Instructor of English at Texas Christian University, where she teaches drama, poetry, film, and composition. She received her Ph.D. in English with an emphasis in creative writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her chapbook, Turning 25, was published in 2011 by Nous-zot Press. Her poetry has appeared in Ekleksographia, damselfly press, The Southwestern Review, The Louisiana Review, and the Louisiana English Journal. She has also acted in five productions with an experimental theater group during her time in graduate school. Her dissertation is a one-act play entitled The Exhibit..