PERSONA LITERATURE
AND THE VOICES OF TRAUMA,
continued...

 And the Voices of Trauma...
     

 

     
 

Wendy Rose's personae poems subvert this paradigm, to give new life to, and render forgotten truths in, the lives of two indigenous women: Truganinny, the last of the Tasmanian tribe in Australia, and Julia the "Lion Woman," a Mexican Indian dubbed "the Ugliest Woman in the World."

"Truganinny"(29) begins with an epigraph dated 1972, from Paul Coe, Australian Aboriginal Activist, stating that Truganinny "had seen the stuffed and mounted body of her husband and it was her dying wish that she be buried in the outback or at sea for she did not wish her body to be subjected to the same indignities. Upon her death, she was nevertheless stuffed and mounted and put on display for over eighty years" (240). Rose's persona poem finds Truganinny slowly dying, enjoining the reader "to come closer/ for little is left/ of this tongue/ and what I am saying/ is important." As in the epigraph, she pleads, "Please/ take my body/ to the source of night/ to the great black desert/ where Dreaming was born./. . .put me where/ they will not/ find me" (241). The historical silence in the accounts of indigenous women lends a special importance to these re-visions, where hegemony is destabilized by the interruptions of the dead, inscribing themselves for the first time.

Rose brings this same project to her two poems on the indigenous Mexican woman, Julia Pastrana (1832-1860), who was born with a congenitally deformed facial structure, and hair growing from all parts of her body. Billed in a circus as "The Ugliest Woman in the World" and "The Lion Lady," Pastrana married her business manager, believing he loved her for her "own sake," rather than for her earnings. Their child inherited a physical weakness that killed him after just six hours of life; within a week, Julia was also dead. Her husband had the pair stuffed and mounted in a case, from which they were exhibited in the U.S. and Europe as recently as 1975.(30) In "Julia," Rose takes on the persona to indict the husband: "my rigid lips, silences/ dead as yesterday, cruel as what/ the children say, cold/ as the coins that glitter/ in your pink fist" (128).

In a related poem, Rose pays homage to Pastrana, in "Sideshow: Julia the Lion Woman, The Ugliest Woman in the World."(31) Subverting this label, the speaker proclaims, "I call you/ the most beautiful she-wolf,/ the highest-flying canary,/ the most ancient song,/ the most faithful magic./ I call you/ my mother and my sister/ and my daughter and me" (99).

"The difference between poetry and rhetoric," writes Audre Lorde, "is being/ ready to kill/ yourself/ instead of your children." Lorde's 1975 "Power,"(32) about racial violence enacted by the police, and the contamination of justice in U.S. courtrooms, turns on a complex theme of the interconnectedness of impotence and power. A traditional free verse poem in the main body of the text, in the final stanza the speaker takes on the persona of a young Black man who threatens violence out of rage:

 

I have not been able to touch the rage within me.
But unless I learn to use
the difference between poetry and rhetoric
my power too will run corrupt as poisonous mold
or lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire
and one day I will take my teenaged plug
and connect it to the nearest socket
raping an 85-year-old white woman
who is somebody's mother
and as I beat her senseless and set a torch to her bed
a greek chorus will be singing in 3/4 time
"Poor thing. She never hurt a soul. What beasts they are." (30)

 

One of Audre Lorde's most well-known poems is a persona piece titled, "Need: A Choral of Black Women's Voices,"(33) which, although widely anthologized, has been published as a separate chapbook, aimed at helping women conditioned by violence. Drawing on the domestic violence murders of Patricia Cowan and Bobbie Jean Graham "and the 100's of other mangled Black women whose nightmares inform my words," Lorde constructs her poem as a performance piece, with the figures of Cowan and Graham foregrounded in the testimonies against violence. Cowan's persona, describing her death, says, "I was anxious to get back to work/ thought this might be a good place to start/ so on the way home from school with Bubba/ I answered the ad./ He put a hammer through my head" (31). Next, Graham describes her own murder:

 

When your boyfriend methodically beats you to death
in an alley behind your apartment
and the neighbors pull down their windowshades
because they don't want to get involved
the police call it a crime of passion
not a crime of hatred
but I still died
of a lacerated liver
and a man's heel
imprinted upon my chest. (32)

 

Giving voice to these lost lives is an aspect of the potential for activism in this poem; this effort toward coalition building is also inscribed in the "I" persona and the chorus, "All," who operate in a call-and-response style throughout the work.

A shift in the general mood of the works studies here thus far is signaled in Ai's "The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981," a persona account of the Atlanta child murders. Told from the perspective of the perpetrator, the poem describes a man who sees himself, as do so many of Ai's personae, as acting in accord with God, under constant threat of evil. Watching his most recent kill "roll/ down into the river," the man is musing over the need for a new coat, "not polyester, but wool,/ new and pure/ like the little lamb/ I killed tonight" (27). Then, with "that same hand that hits/ with such force,/ I push myself up gently" (ibid.).

The killer's thoughts next turn to the comforts of home-"hot cocoa by the heater" -- but this idyll is interrupted, once in his kitchen, by the remembrance of blood:

then I remember the blood
in the bathroom
and so upstairs.
I take the cleanser,
begin to scrub
the tub, tiles, the toilet bowl,
then the bathroom.
Mop, vacuum, and dust rag.
Work, work for the joy of it,
for the black boys who know too much,
but not enough to stay away,
and sometimes a girl, the girls too.
How their hands grab at my ankles, my knees.
And don't I lead them
like a good shepherd?
. . .
After the last sweet mouthful of chocolate
burns its way down my throat,
I open the library book,
the one on mythology
and begin to read.
Saturn, it says, devours his children.
Yes, it's true, I know it.
An ordinary man, though, a man like me
eats and is full.
Only God is never satisfied. (28-29)

 

This portrayal, a much less sympathetic persona than the figures examined thus far, grounds the study of perspective in a more abrupt, less ambiguous manner: no sympathy, as they say, for the devil.

Like Ai's "Good Shepherd," the neo-nazi speaker in Patricia Smith's "Skin Head" (1994)(34) postures as a self-important minister of justice. Describing the ritual of shaving his head, he reveals, "These are the duties of the righteous,/ the ways of the anointed" (277). The anger of this persona, too, is culturally-rooted: he is a white male who hasn't worked since his hand was mutilated in a machine while on the job. That he describes his face in the mirror as "huge and pockmarked" may speak of a working- or lower-class background, and his assertion that "I am filled with my own spit" describes both an kind of emptiness and an angry self-reliance. "I sit here," he says,

 

and watch niggers take over my TV set,
kings walking up and down the sidewalks in my head,
walking like their fat black mamas named them freedom.
My shoulders tell me that ain't right.
So I move out into the sun
where my beauty makes them lower their heads,
or into the night
with a lead pipe up my sleeve,
a razor tucked in my boot.
I was born to make things right. (278)

 

The profiles here of mass murderers and perpetrators of hate crimes brings to mind an unsettling parallel to the figures of the "American hero" and the Christian missionary studied throughout these works. Here, as in "The Good Shepherd," there is an explicit focus on dominion over, or complete removal of, the body of difference.

 

It's a kick to watch their eyes get big,
round and gleaming like cartoon jungle boys,
right in that second when they know
the pipe's gonna come down, and I got this thing
I like to say, listen to this, I like to say
"Hey nigger, Abe Lincoln's been dead a long time."
I get hard listening to their skin burst.
I was born to make things right. (278)

 

"Ain't got no job," the skin-head reasons, "the coloreds and the spics got 'em all./ Why ain't I working? Look at my hand, asshole" (279). This persona claims no allegiance with any group; he repeats, instead, the oath sworn by so many like him in recent media interviews: "I'm just a white boy who loves his race,/ fighting for a pure country" (ibid.). Here, again, the paradigm of purity is juxtaposed against the perceived "invasion" or "contamination" of difference, in yet another reversal of innocence and agency. The poet inscribes this figure as offspring of the legacy of violence and conquest:

 

I'm your baby America.
Your boy.
Drunk on my own spit, I am goddamned fuckin' beautiful.
And I was born
and raised
right here. (279)

 

The bounds of race and nationalism perversely locate the black boy who is the speaker of Sapphire's "Wild Thing"(35) as the skin-head's opposite, yet equal. This poem gives voice to a member of the group of young black men who gang-raped the "Central Park Jogger," and called it "wilding."

Riding his bike, the boy describes his tires as "eating up the ground/ of America/ even tho I never been any/ further than 42nd Street" (266-67). The alienation of this persona, like that of the skin-head, is palpable, and starved for reconnection from a perceived loss:

 

Below that is as
unfamiliar as
my father's face,
foreign as the smell of
white girl's pussy,
white girls on the bus
white girls on TV.
My whole world is
black & brown & closed
till I open it
with a rock,
christen it with
blood. (267)

 

In keeping with the Christian iconographies associated with so much of the violence in this canon (cf. Ai, Scarry, Spillers) is the familiar imagery of how the boy smashes open his world, to "christen it with/ blood." And, like the other perpetrators described here, the boy claims that there is power in his vengeance: "my dick is/ the Empire State Building./ I eat your fear/ like a chimpanzee/ on its 6th bunch of green bananas/ ow!" (ibid.). Keeping in mind gossett's rendition of "king kong," Sapphire's inscription of a black male buying into the symbols of white exclusionary practice is especially incisive.

The speaker describes his home as "a cage of cabbage/ & my mother's fat/ hollering don't do this/ & don't do that" (267). His hatred of his mother is conditioned by the blame he places on her for the poverty of living in the projects, and for keeping him "in classes/ for the mentally retarded/ so she could get the extra money welfare gives/ for retarded kids" (270)--a conditioning with so tight a grip, he feels he must constantly compensate, by purveying expensive clothes and jewelry from the welfare check. These compensatory efforts fail, ultimately, and the boy prides himself on inverting his shame:

 

So I can't read
you spozed to teach me
you the teacher
I'm the ape
black ape
in white sneakers
hah hah
I rape
rape
rape
I do the wild thing
I do the wild thing. (269)

 

Undermining savagely the empathy the reader may feel for Ai's priest in his loss of faith, this boy relates a further incident in the making of a rapist: "Christ sucked my dick/ behind the pulpit./ I was six years old,/ he made me promise/ not to tell/ no one" (270).

Later in his litany of anger and sin, the boy asserts, "My dick is a locomotive/ my sister eats like a 50c hot dog" (271). With this final recollection, the boy is "running/ running" out through Central Park, with his posse, "looking for Lt. Calley/ Jim Jones/ anybody who could direct/ this spurt of semen" (ibid.). As his "soul sinks/ to its knees &/ howls under the moon/ rising full," the boy shouts, "Let's get a female jogger!" (272). They "grab the bitch," and the speaker recounts:

 

Ugly big nose white bitch
but she's beautiful cause she's white
she's beautiful cause she's skinny
she's beautiful cause she's gonna die
cause her daddy's gonna cry
Bitch!
I bring the rock down
on her head
sounds dull & flat
like the time I busted
the kitten's head.
The blood is red & red
my dick rises.
I tear off her bra
feel her perfect pink breasts
like Brooke Shields
like the bitches in Playboy
Shit! I come all over myself!
I bring the rock down
the sound has rhythm
hip hop ain't gonna stop
till your face sees
what I see every day
walls of blood
walls of blood (272-73)

 

Transferring his rage, the boy announces, "Her nipples are like/ hard strawberries/ my mouth tastes/ like pesticide" (273). As the other boys also beat and rape the woman, the speaker tells how "I feel good baby/ I just did/ the wild thing!" (273-74).

A similar cockiness and pride of "ownership" is inscripted in the Texas Ranger persona of Gloria Anzaldúa's "We Call Them Greasers."(36) "I found them here when I came," boasts the speaker, in that historically Anglo-European excitement of "discovery":

 

They were growing corn on their small ranchos
raising cattle, horses
smelling of woodsmoke and sweat.
They knew their betters:
took off their hats
placed them over their hearts,
lowered their eyes in my presence. (134)

 

That the speaker willfully misreads Mexican courtesy as self-effacement is of keen importance to the poem, where the methods of stealing lands, brutalizing and raping individuals is painstakingly recounted:

 

Weren't interested in bettering themselves,
why they didn't even own the land but shared it.
Wasn't hard to drive them off,
cowards they were, no backbone.
I showed 'em a piece of paper with some writing
tole 'em they owned taxes
had to pay right away or be gone by mañana.
By the time me and my men had waved
that same piece of paper to all the families
it was all frayed at the ends.
Some loaded their chickens children wives and pigs
into rickety wagons, pans and tools dangling
clanging from all sides.
Couldn't take their cattle-
during the night my boys had frightened them off.
Oh, there were a few troublemakers
who claimed we were the intruders.
Some even had land grants
and appealed to the courts.
It was a laughing stock
them not even knowing English. (134)

 

The speaker here sandwiches "children" and "wives" between "chickens" and "pigs," demonstrating the prevalent attitudes of the late nineteenth century, as described earlier, which determined people of color to share qualities with the "lower beasts." Again, the inversion of innocence and agency is clearly, and casually, attested: "Oh, there were a few troublemakers/ who claimed we were the intruders." The lackadaisical attitude of conquest, and the appropriation of the "spoils" of battle, are here encoded not only in the usurpation of the land, but in the unrelenting violence that continues even after the claim is staked:

 

And the women-well I remember one in particular.
She lay under me whimpering.
I plowed into her hard
kept thrusting and thrusting
felt him watching from the mesquite tree
heard him keening like a wild animal
in that instant I felt such contempt for her
round face and beady black eyes like an Indian's.
Afterwards I sat on her face until
her arms stopped flailing,
didn't want to waste a bullet on her.
The boys wouldn't look me in the eyes.
I walked up to where I had tied her man to the tree
and spat in his face. Lynch him, I told the boys. (134-135)

 

That the rapist's contempt for the woman is spurred not by any action of her own, but by the recognition of her husband's pain in witnessing the attack, underscores, as in the above poems, the violent, rather than sexual nature of the act. The speaker here, having control over so much, could not silence a husband's devotion -- the "keening" expression of vulnerability so threatening to the misappropriation of power.

 
     

 

 

 Forward to Jaramillo, "Conclusions"
 
 

"Reading Hurt: Annunciations, Persona Literature and The Voices of Trauma" © 1997 by Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo
 
 

 Original Graphic © 1997 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal
 

 

 

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