'Imagine a Woman Behind Razor Wire, Glimpsed' by James Owens, with art by Cheryl Dodds
Railroad Diary, Istanbul 2012 -- by Cheryl Dodds
A long time ago, when we lived in the sky….
But no, we never lived in the sky. We invented that because of pain, because desire tortures even the dirt and stones into division, into definition fracture power solitude wall razor wire.
(But pleasure is also real. Joy is real. One autumn day, my wife climbed a fence and stole from a farmer’s disregarded field, knotty tart small apples burnished by the wind and the sun, and she gave me one, though I watched her eat and tasted her mouth, instead. Not everyone remembers that such things are possible, since they often happen only once.)
“Razor wire” is a slang term. Did you know that? Industry professionals call it “barbed tape,” which has a reassuring tone, something your father would carry in his toolbox.
If no one beats you, how do you know who you are?
I insist on saying this plainly, without art: if you remember joy, you should tell it speak it write it.
Once I found someone’s voice lying on the ground, a little puddle or puzzle of utterances, desperate and wet and confused by having been cut or torn from a warm throat. I brushed it off, and it huddled against the inside of my hand, nuzzling for safety. I held it to my ear, and it was like the sea shouting in the vast rooms of a shell, but not like that, at all.
Imagine a woman standing behind razor wire, glimpsed, as you pass to your easy life. This poem is not the gift of a woman’s voice. See how external I have remained, despite certain maneuvers that I hoped would bring me closer? This poem is white noise leaning into silence.
Some gestures toward commentary on Cheryl Dodds’s "Railroad Diary, Istanbul, 2012":
1. My initial reaction to Cheryl Dodds’s extraordinary photograph was the thought, this forbids speech. The voice is caged. Not “the woman is caged” but her voice. Then there was long silence, while I wondered what I meant by that. I’m still not quite sure, though the poem makes little forays in that direction.
2. Geometry is a power here, and even if geometry is inevitably symbolic of tragic-historical forces adumbrated in the photograph’s title, in the woman’s dress, in the intrusion of “Western” repressive measures of control (razor wire) into what could have been a peaceful “Eastern” scene, still it is line and plane, as if drained of detail to reveal underlying structure, sky and wall and roof’s edge and drastic perspective that forces the human figure into one narrow corner of this near-abstract composition. She is held at this distance. She cannot come forward. We cannot go toward her. We cannot hear her speak, though this is what I desired.
3. Does it matter very much whether the woman is trapped inside the wall or outside? Either way, it is division that is heartbreaking, though division is also the birth of desire. (Underneath the writing of the poem, though unspoken inside it, is the likely etymology of “paradise” in Persian as something like “place enclosed by walls,” the sacred as set apart, the desirable as distanced. What, then, does it mean to stand outside of a prison?)
4. In a world supersaturated with images, including images from this photographed woman’s part of the world, images whose narrative we tend to consider transparently understandable, it is of great value to be reminded of the silenced voice that would speak outside of our expectations, the surface of the image that rejects our wish to hear (understand, empathize), the voice an object of desire like the luminous fruit in the now-long-forbidden garden. (Oh, but these fragments don’t say what I wanted to say.)
Copyright James Owens. Posted with permission by the poet.
First published at Blue Five Notebookin the December 2014 year-end issue, in which the editors asked poets and fiction writers to contribute works based on a piece of art or photography. Other ekphrastic works can also be found in this issue, here.
* JAMES OWENS has published two books of poems – An Hour is the Doorway (Black Lawrence Press) and Frost Lights a Thin Flame (Mayapple Press). His poems reviews, translations, and photographs appear widely in literary journals, including recent or upcoming publications in Superstition Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Cresset, andThe Stinging Fly. He lives in central Indiana and northern Ontario.
CHERYL DODDS was co-editor/publisher for Urban Spaghetti, a literary arts journal. Her artwork has taken the form of mixed media, graphite drawings, photography, painting, woodcuts and multimedia as well as a few conceptual art projects. More of her work is online at AbsoluteArts.