Unreading a Poem

This is a guest post from Rachel Wagner. Rachel writes fiction, poetry, and essays. She teaches at Seton Hall University and lives in Newark, NJ. She can be reached via email at rpatricewagner@gmail.com.

I saw headlines about the parents who gave their daughter to a pedophile cult leader as a “gift,” and I admit that I didn’t click on the articles because I thought I got enough information from the horrific titles. The general statement about it all was bad enough. I didn’t want to know the details. This was around the same time that the most recent R. Kelly situation had surfaced. A lot of people were talking about the girl’s parents allowing their daughter to live with this guy and then being surprised when she has been completely brainwashed. I felt as though I didn’t need any more convincing that R. Kelly is irredeemable, so, again, the headlines and blurbs told me what I needed to know.

But on a Sonia Sanchez reading spree, I got the details in a poem entitled “For Some Women.” I was cruising along Wounded in the House of a Friend feeling like I was literally consuming each poem one by one. I hadn’t read her work in years and was inspired to request some of her books while doing some research on Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever for a conference presentation. An academic article looked at her poems alongside Souljah’s book reminded me of her writing. I was excited to be finally digging into her poems again.

Then I hit “For Some Women,” and I was almost instantly put in a weird mood. Usually, when I read poems, I wish that I had a better memory. I read a great poem and want to be able to recite it later effortlessly. And then this poem came along, and now I wish I could forget it. I don’t think I’ve ever been affected by a poem this way. It’s so sad that I almost don’t want to say what it’s about. But I guess I have to.

The poem tells the story of a crackhead who gives her daughter to her dealer for seven days because he doesn’t want to fuck her anymore; he wants a virgin. The narrator hands her over, listens to her daughter calling out for her as she walks away, and picks her up a week later. This mother seems to not understand why her daughter is so unresponsive back at home. By the end of the poem, the daughter runs away, leaving her mother confused and concerned about who she might meet.

I was sitting next to my two-year-old son while I read this poem, feeling completely paralyzed while I read it. When it was finally over, I instinctively put my arm around him. I looked at the back of his head while he played with his cars feeling like I never want him out of my sight. His posture looked so innocent. He didn’t even feel me looking at him. I was upset. I rushed through the rest of the poems in the book, slammed it shut, and stood up.

I regret reading it because I know I’ll never forget it. I don’t want to think about children being given away or men who would rent a child as a sexual slave. I don’t want to see these perspectives. I understand that things like this happen, but I don’t want to think about it.

An earlier poem in the same book tells the story about a girl being raped in her room in a very graphic way that I understood to be exposing the hard part instead of rushing over the actual rape details. It wasn’t the girl’s feelings before and after. It explained everything that happened—the language he used, the positions her put her in, the weapon he had.

But somehow this poem was different because there was a level of fucked up parental consent. The mother willingly brought her daughter there to be raped. How? Why? What? The mother’s tone was so cold and flat as if she truly believed this was the most logical option. It worried me so much just knowing that there are really people like this in the world. I felt so small.

The only redeeming moment in the poem is at the end when the daughter runs away from home. It certainly feels good at first knowing that she gets away from her mother, who clearly cannot care for her in any capacity. Then the questions start mounting up, and I started worrying like the mother does, even though I didn’t want to align with her in any way: Will she find someone equally as abusive? Where is she going to go? Who is she going to meet? Who will be next to prey on her?

Recently, a New York Times article came out describing the physical reactions that women recently freed from ISIS are having now that they’re back home. Most can’t stand or talk or pick up their heads. These women were raped for three years or more and can hardly function after all of the abuse. I saw that article, and I didn’t just stop at the title or subtitle. Sanchez’s poem showed me that I did actually do need the details.

I still can’t get the poem out of my mind. It serves as an intrusive thought that I randomly remember throughout my day—driving to work, snuggling up next to my kid, standing in the shower. I have moments when I wish I could unread it, but it jerked me into reality in a way that only a poem could.

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