Beware of white bulls

europaI’ve just finished reading Moniza Alvi‘s Europa. It was a Poetry Book Society Choice for summer last year, and has been sitting in my (disturbingly large) TBR pile since I got it.

Wow. What a collection! I know I go on about the virtues of poetry collections having some sort of unity, but oh, this book reminds me why it’s so important.

For those of you who have forgotten your mythology, Europa was the daughter of  Agenor, the King of Tyre. Zeus saw her and decided he wanted her, so disguised himself as a white bull and carried her off (into the sea, and eventually to the island of Crete). She bore him three sons – most famously Minos, who was later King of Crete, husband of Pasiphaë, and the cuckolded stepfather of the Minotaur. (Moral: don’t play with white bulls. Real bulls do not frolic with young girls.)

Runbens' The Rape of EuropaI’ll review the book properly later, but essentially it’s about violence against women (specifically rape, and surviving it), and how that plays out into society as a whole. The central sequence is poems about Europa, but there’s also a poems about ‘post traumatic’ experience, honour killings, and a handful of poems that are versions (rather than literal translations) of Uruguayan/French poet Jules Supervielle. (Which is interesting in its own right – she is often referred to as a surrealist poet (I’d say a cross between Selima Hill and Pauline Stainer, with a dash of Jo Shapcott), whereas he made a point of distancing himself from the surrealist movement. But I digress. Again.)

There’s a real core of anger running through these poems, but somehow Alvi keeps it under control throughout. A fierceness that never tips into being shrill or aggressive. Really really good writing!

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2 thoughts on “Beware of white bulls

  1. I look forward to your reveiw of this book Joanna. And possibly I’ll wait for that before loaning it from our local library. I wrote this poem as a deliberate exercise in registering that kind of control which one needs to bring to bear. The poem I’m about to share with you was published in “Broadsheet” (Auckland N.Z) as long ago as 1989; alterations in a couple of lines.

    It was written just after my daughter had a throat operation. She was phoning me from a distant city and could barely speak a sentence; and I suspect, should have been resting. But, other than that single(poetic)intervention she got on with life and is a fabulously mature person. The White Bulls of the Court and a fifteen year old child; that was another story. If someone is brave enough to write of traumatic stress, in a valid poetic response, I take my hat of to them.
    It doesn’t alter the fact that I want poetry to be poetry.

    Hard To Swallow
    (the report)

    Patient complains of gagging
    Operate Monday
    remove lump
    from throat

    Biopsy shows
    the crust of
    a million tears

    Diagnosis confirmed
    recurring screams
    ~ suppressed

    Cause
    rape ~ ten years – going on yesterday

    Prognosis
    patient recovery ~
    short term outpatient offered

    Benita (1989)

    • Thank you Benita. I agree with both sentiments.

      Your poem reminds me of a piece called “Canker”, by Amerasian poet, Timothy Liu. I first came across it in a book called Black Lightning: Poetry in Progress), edited by Eileen Tabios. (Highly recommended for anyone interested in seeing how different poets go about the process of shaping a poem.) A similar subject, and an equally impressive control of the material.

      I don’t know if Alvi herself was ever raped – the book is certainly not personal in that way. But it doesn’t feel like someone cashing in on other peoples’ tragedies, if that makes sense. (Another tough thing to pull off.) My copy of the book was snaffled by a friend the afternoon I posted this, so it’ll be a few weeks before I write the review.

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