Let’s get the obvious, by which I do not mean inconsequential, out of the way first. When a writer chooses to use her art to give voice to those who might otherwise be voiceless, that choice deserves to be recognized for its necessity, because bearing witness is a choice that all too few writers, and perhaps especially poets, make. In her introduction to No Ocean Here, which was published this year by Modern History Press, Sweta Srivastava Vikram makes clear that bearing witness is what the volume is all about. Based on interviews she conducted, she writes, the poems in No Ocean Here take on the fact that women in many countries throughout the world, “are stripped of basic human rights,” often starting life “without adequate means of nutrition, learning, and protection.” Vikram goes on:
I decided to write this book because listening, telling, and writing the stories of those who can’t write them will create awareness…. I can only pray that the book urges readers to empathize, and help…. If the book can provide even a handful of women, in unfortunate situations, strength and courage to say NO, I would be humbled.
That is a tall order for any book, much less a book of poetry, given how few people generally read poetry, but it is impossible not to applaud Vikram’s commitment to the stories she has gathered, the women who have told them to her, and the language of poetry with which she has struggled to bring them to life. Nonetheless, once you have acknowledged the value in Vikram’s motivation and recognized that the stories she sets out to tell do still need to be told (because it would be dishonest to pretend that these narratives of women’s oppression have not been told before), you still need to ask what her poems actually accomplish, not merely whether they succeed as art–though since they are art, that is the first and most important question–but whether they bear witness in a way that makes a difference.
Overall, I wish Vikram would learn to trust her language more. There are moments of real, and sometimes painful beauty in these poems, metaphors and snippets of narrative that illuminate the lives of the women Vikram writes about and that do, I think, have the power to change people’s perspectives in the way that only art can. Too often, however, those moments are undercut by writing that is prosaic, self-consciously didactic and sometimes mired in unfortunate cliches, as in these lines from the concluding strophe of “Her Wounds Are Mysterious:”
Her wounds are mysterious
like the Congo; the depth unseen
to the world but home to insects
The reference to the Congo is both cliche and evocative of a racist imperialism that is all too similar to the heterosexual male prerogative that wounded the girl the poem is about in the first place. Still, you can see the potential in what this strophe might have been like if it had been revised a little more. “Her wounds are home to insects….” is a metaphor that far more powerfully captures, I think, the horror and the damage inflicted by the men in the poem. Indeed, reading No Ocean Here, I found myself thinking more than once that one more revision would have strengthened the volume considerably. Notice how much stronger the poem “Honor Killing” would have been without the final three lines:
Dead, she stares at the sea
as it carries her bones
thrown by guards,
smoking water pipes.
Her mother’s mouth fills with sand,
her father and brothers’ hands are covered
with gloves to cleanse the stains
left on the walls of their family
by a man who spread her legs,
tore her apart like a coyote.
Right before her murder, she didn’t see
the silhouette of her face
in her grandmother’s heart.
Apparently the family’s pride lies
underneath her skirt,
in the space between her legs.
That second-to-last strophe is beautiful and heartbreaking. It would have made a fine ending to the poem, and I am happy to say that there are many moments in No Ocean Here that live up to the potential in those lines. The first couplet of “Her Wounds Are Mysterious,” for example, gives us a girl who “wasn’t always a fallen leaf,/she danced;” and in “There Is Something Wrong with the World,” women “who are compelled to kill their own youth/become invisible like soot inside chimneys.” The poem “War” deals with rape as a weapon of war in images that are hard to forget:
All cavities of the women’s trust were emptied out
when each man selected a victim:
her mother’s body, stuffed inside soil,
was stomped by feet and questions,
her sister dragged by her dark breasts,
and she was turned to debris and dust.
One of the strongest poems in the book, “Caretaker of Graves” takes on the subject of female infanticide, but from a mother’s perspective, and ends with what, for me, is an absolutely devastating image:
The sun doesn’t sink until 8 p.m.
but she sees darkness of bats all day.
Tidal waves of melancholy mix
with seeds plowed in her every year.
Mouth filled with muffled cries,
hospitals and conspirators in doctors’ clothes
shadow her throughout married life.
Frogs get used to the air at night
but her murdered womb mourns scars.
No Ocean Here is an uneven volume, but the moments of power and beauty it contains make it worth having and Vikram a poet worth watching.