A woman getting on a plane.
This is how it will happen.
A bird that has stopped singing
on a still road. This is how it will sound.
This cloth belongs to my face.
Who pulled it off?
That day I saw you
as if a window had broken.
Sharp, with edges that could cut
through cloth and skin.
You wrapped my mouth in plastic
and told me to breathe in free air.
This is how it will feel.
I remember heroes.
Figs, dates, a mango.
This food, your enemy’s food.
This is how it will taste.
It will not come
slouching out of the ground.
It walks along a street
that has a familiar name.
This is how it will look.
It will have my face.
– Imtiaz Dharker
from The Forward Book of Poetry 2007
(Forward Press; London, 2006)
This is a two-faced poem. Deceptive. It begins with that simplest of actions: a woman getting on a plane. We are told that This is how it will happen, which sets up the structure of the poem to follow. We are never explicitly told what “it” is – the ending of a relationship? The beginning of something darker? I would argue for both. And something more fundamental, that lies at the root of both.
The poem works by a series of statements. In twenty-three lines, there are seventeen full stops and only one question mark. (And even that question (stanza 2, line 2) can be read as rhetorical.) Only six lines don’t end sentences. It makes the poem very bald, very stark. Simple, declarative sentences, suggesting that these are simple facts, no discussion needed (or tolerated?). The enjambed sentences are all concerned with elaboration, but even here they are kept in tight check (only one ends midline, the rest resume the usual pattern).
It begins with a woman getting on a plane. Leaving somewhere, or someone. And it will sound like a bird that has stopped singing/ on a still road. A sudden silence, an ominous one. No movement, hence nothing to tell us (yet) why the bird has fallen silent. Many Irish poets have written similar scenes, where a seemingly deserted road cannot be trusted, where a bullet can come from anywhere. So … she will leave, and it will be sudden and ominous.
The second stanza sets a puzzle. What is the cloth? A veil? A mask? Is the “who” a genuine question, or rhetorical (verging on the accusatory)? The connotations here are of secrecy and exposure – habitual modesty, or obedience? The other time cloth covers a face is when a corpse is laid out. Back to veiled (no pun intended) threats. Whatever the cloth is, its removal means that she is revealed, exposed, unmasked. Visible. And vulnerable. But also (potentially) powerful – think “barefaced”. Which certainly fits with the tone of her question. This exposure may not have been of her own doing, but she’s not shrinking back from it either.
The third stanza tells us that there was a definite act, a moment when the decision (to leave? to destroy?) was made: That day I saw you . The unspoken “as if for the first time” links back to the idea of revelation, of unmasking. And things are topsy-turvy – she doesn’t “see” until the window (however metaphorical) has been broken. And again we are reminded of cloth and face: this time, the glass could cut/ through cloth and skin. So damage has been done (and more is threatened), but is making something more visible (echoes of Corinthians’ “through a glass darkly”?). Pain and/or danger are the costs of clarity. Knowledge isn’t always comforting.
Stanza four makes the threat real. You wrapped my mouth in plastic – to muffle her? To harm her? And she is told to breathe in free air. Is that “to breathe-in”, or “to breathe in-free-air”? The former is cruel; she is anything but free. The latter is also threatening, but has a longer-term implication; don’t breathe until you get to free air. (Which at least implies that she is intended (at this stage) to be free at some point in the future.) And this, we are told, is how it will feel; desperate, suffocated.
The fifth stanza’s reference to heroes is disturbing – following on from the near-suffocation, it brings martyrs to mind. (A hero, after all, is someone who is willing to risk themselves in a situation that everyone else refuses.) Figs, dates, a mango. Fruit of the ancient world, of the Middle East. This food, your enemy’s food. So the enemy has the same food as we do. The enemy is like us. Very like us. (Echoes of Walt Kelly’s “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”) Eating your enemy’s food could be a shameful thing – having to accept charity. Or it could be an act of power – taking his food away from him. (Echoes of the Bedouin Law of Hospitality, where the acceptance of food places the guest under the hosts’ protection.) For whatever reason, “it” will taste familiar, and sweet.
The penultimate stanza calls to Yeats’ “The Second Coming” with its images of disaster and dread:
and what rough beast, its hour come round at last
slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
But this is not how “it” (getting more threatening with every line) will appear: nothing obvious, nothing to mark it as an agent of catastrophe (remember the still road in stanza 1?). It will walk along a street/ that has a familiar name. Somewhere we’ve been. Somewhere we almost know. And then in the final stanza, It will have my face. It will be here, real and present.
It’s impossible to escape the political connotations of this poem – published in a collection titled The Terrorist at my Table, it can hardly be read without the echo of July 7th. One of the recurring questions in the wake of the London bombings was (and still is): what made these four young men turn against their own country? In the play of personal against violence, familiarity against danger, this poem offers an answer. Just as a loving relationship between two people can become bitter and harmful, so it is possible to become estranged from an entire culture, an entire country. And what frightens us more than our neighbour (or lover, or parent) turning against us?
Whether you read the “I” of this poem as a woman escaping a violent relationship, a terrorist addressing their country, or an entire section of society addressing the rest, this poem has the same basic message. It’s about power, and about taking power back. Accepting that there will be a price, and there will be pain. About surviving threats, about becoming the threat. About restitution. “It” is control over her own fate. She demands it. She will take it. It will be sudden, ominous, and threatening; sweet, and familiar, and personal, and real. The I of this poem (surely a woman) has finally understood that the “other” (man, country, culture) is opposed to her. Like, perhaps, but not alike. Domination, repression that she will not accept any more. As simply as a woman getting on a plane. As dangerously as Yeats’ beast. And as herself. No mask, no veil. Her own face.
A Fine Line, July 2007