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The Lyric Me, Too | Public Books

“The” is a suspect word. It’s small and ubiquitous, but there’s something presumptuous about it. It aggrandizes and abstracts. Unlike “this” and “that,” which also indicate specificity (“this word,” “that man”), “the” indicates primacy and universality (“the word,” “the man”). As Wallace Stevens famously declares in “The Man on the Dump,” “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.”

“The the” is just about the ugliest two-syllable foot I can imagine ending an English-language poem. Still, its awkward stiltedness, resistance to clear prosody, and unsettling employment of an article as a noun force us to reread a word we use all the time but hardly notice. After all, what’s worse than the awkwardness of “The the” is, of course, the convincing fluidness of phrases such as “the poetic,” “the English language,” “the United States of America,” and, as Adrienne Rich reveals, “the body.”

In her 1984 essay “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” Rich writes:

Perhaps we need a moratorium on saying “the body.” For it’s also possible to abstract “the” body. When I write “the body,” I see nothing in particular. To write “my body” plunges me into lived experience, particularity: I see scars, disfigurements, discolorations, damages, losses, as well as what pleases me. Bones well nourished from the placenta; the teeth of a middle-class person seen by the dentist twice a year from childhood. White skin, marked and scarred by three pregnancies, an elected sterilization, progressive arthritis, four joint operations, calcium deposits, no rapes, no abortions, long hours at the typewriter—my own, not in a typing pool—and so forth. To say “the body” lifts me away from what has given me a primary perspective. To say “my body” reduces the temptation to grandiose assertions.

For Rich, an emphasis on “my body” does more than bring her own “lived experience” into sharper focus. She notes how it also reveals the relatively privileged and secure position from which she writes: white, middle-class, “no rapes, no abortions, long hours at the typewriter—my own, not in a typing pool.” To say “my body” checks Rich from projecting her body’s particular conditions as universals, from centering her body as “the body” from which we will first hear of “the truth.”

This is not to say, however, that bodies can’t hold and bring into focus certain truths. “My body, you are an animal / for whom ambition / is right,” reads the epigraph from Anna Swirszczynska that opens Adelaide Ivánova’s The Hammer, positioning the subsequent poems as a vital, contemporary response to Rich’s challenge. In its original Portuguese, Ivánova’s collection won the Prêmio Rio de Literatura. In its English translation, by Chris Daniels, The Hammer powerfully dramatizes the tension between what can be claimed as “my body” and what will be deployed as “the body” amid the trauma of sexual violence—not only by the rapist, the judicial and medical institutions, and the possible witnesses, but tragically and then tactically by the speaker herself.

On the page following Swirszczynska’s epigraph, we find Ivánova’s table of contents: a cascade of nouns preceded by their definite articles. These poem titles include: “The Cat,” “The Judge,” “The Testicles,” “The Married Woman,” and “The Sentence.” In Portuguese, there are four different forms of the definite article, which varies depending on the gender and the number (singular/plural) of the noun following them. These articles are also employed slightly differently than the singular English “the,” in that they commonly occur before proper nouns. This means that Ivánova’s poem titles appear more variable, or at least less relentlessly repetitive, in their original form than in English translation.

Despite this difference, the collection’s translation is neither a reduction of nor an improvement on the original; rather, it reinforces the truism that a translation is always an interpretation, and any good interpretation will bring to the fore what’s already possible and meaningful in the original text. Slippages between languages can lead to remarkable crystallizations of meaning. In the case of The Hammer, “the” emerges as an immediately evocative motif through which we see how both deep alienation and defiant articulations can result from abstractions of the body.

The “lyric I,” the voice of subjective agency, is rewritten as the “lyric me,” the direct object of a globalized system of repression and violence.

There is a problem, after all, with the imperative to speak only about “my body.” In doing so, I might end up overlooking how my body is fundamentally shaped by misogynist, cynical, and universalizing structures of power that, since birth, have groomed me according to various abstractions of the body. The patriarchy, capitalism—they are nothing if not relentless. “My body” must be defined and understood in relation to “the body.”

And further: there are those who will dismiss any woman’s account of her body as “just her perspective,” who refuse to acknowledge that the violation of any woman’s body has repercussions for how each of us gets to articulate our own.

But, The Hammer insists, such denial is futile. If, indeed, the body could be where we first hear of the truth, the truth would be this: Rape is not just the assault of an individual. Rape is absolutely about politics, the pervasive propagation of fear, the rendering of persons into property. Rape is a latent and constant threat to a collective body, telling us to be on guard in public spaces, to avoid certain activities at certain times of the day, to never raise our voices too loud or attract too much attention, to regard it as an inevitable consequence of the state’s incapacity (or unwillingness) to protect us. Rape is terrorism. “The body” must be defined and understood in relation to our bodies. We must also be relentless.

The Hammer is divided into two parts, which Ivánova explains in an endnote: “In the first, a woman narrates her post-rape experience within public institutions and her dealings with bureaucrats; in the second, she narrates her experiences as a wife—both virtuous and adulterous—and considers questionable, equivocal parallels between rape and consensual sex.” Both parts of the collection, in other words, expose the varying mechanisms with which a patriarchal society tries to dissemble a woman’s claim to defining her own body, whether that society’s agents are the cop, the court clerk, the doctor, the husband, or the rapist it protects and refuses to punish.

That the speaker refers to her rapist as “the prince,” both metonym for and determiner of state authority, is indicative of how—following the disembodying trauma of assault—all of the figures listed above become allegorical. “The doctor is a person,” the speaker reflects, because, after all, “me and the doctor have a body.” Yet, the doctor has the authority to define her body as the corpus delicti, or evidence of a crime:

the expression used

when law is breached and

traces of the fact of a crime

are left making body a

place and of the crime

an adjective

And it is the doctor who eventually conflates “dead bodies and living women,” referring to both as “pieces of evidence.”

Similarly, in “The Sow,” the speaker opens the poem by reminding herself that “the clerk is a person,” but what promises to be an indication of the clerk’s individual humanity twists ironically into a statement about how being “a person” might just mean being one of many trapped within prescriptive and dehumanizing roles:

she’s curious just

like all persons are curious

she asks me why didn’t i

scream since i wasn’t

gagged i don’t answer but i know

we’re all born with the gag

This last line, “we’re all born with the gag,” encapsulates the relevant and revolutionary vision of lyric poetics that Ivánova demonstrates throughout The Hammer. In these poems, the speaker is not a “lyric I” that is overheard speaking to itself outside of time, outside of context, even outside of body—“feeling confessing itself to itself,” according to John Stuart Mill’s oft-cited formulation. This “I” cannot be projected into the world as a one-size-fits-all role offered to the reader.

Rather, in Ivánova’s work, the “lyric I,” the voice of subjective agency, is rewritten as the “lyric me,” the direct object of a globalized system of repression and violence that absolutely determines the time, context, and body from which the speaker can speak. And for the song that struggles free from the gag, the question remains: Which readers will hear it and reply, “Me, too”?


Although Ivánova is originally from Brazil and writes primarily in Portuguese, she resides in Germany and occasionally puns across various languages (“dode- / casyllable / dodi al- / fayed / princess in- / diana” read six lines in the collection’s one Spanish-titled poem, “El Martillo”). Daniels’s translation remarkably conveys Ivánova’s global perspective, while demonstrating a virtuosic capacity for succinct and surprising phrasing in English.

This concern for both the local and the global is not just a linguistic mode for Ivánova, but also an ethical one: although The Hammer often reads as a deeply personal account, asking us to bear witness to the violence inflicted upon the speaker’s body, the poems also fix our attention on a wider landscape of violence. They address, for instance, the death of the toddler Johanna, who drowns in her parents’ uncovered swimming pool in Rhineland, as well as the murder of Laura Vermont, an 18-year-old trans woman, at the hands of two São Paulo policemen. “For Laura” is the only poem in this collection that doesn’t begin with a definite article, and Ivánova makes her reasoning clear: “laura has a body / and a name they are hers.”

What ultimately connects these tragedies is a seemingly universal desire to look away from them, a refusal by witnesses to testify on behalf of the victims. Ivánova writes:

incompetent the witnesses

all know they lie what they don’t

know is that in latin

witnesses and testicles

come from the same root which in this

case is an insult to testicles

As exemplified by these lines, Ivánova’s poetry can be brutal, enraged, and unforgiving, but it is also surprisingly funny. This humor—alongside Daniels’s eloquent phrasing and occasional moments of lyrical tenderness—deftly draws readers into the poetry’s polemics, undercutting the alienation some might feel in response to the speaker’s candid anger and refusal to let readers off the hook for desiring to look away.

Humor, after all, powerfully forges moments of connection between a speaker and her audience while nonetheless maintaining—sometimes even emphasizing—their differences in perspective and experience. Such connections are not just ambitious but urgent. The manifesto of RESPEITA!, a coalition cofounded by Ivánova of Brazilian feminist poets, articulates the following imperative: “We get together in order to create among us a genealogy of political education, so that we know not only to articulate our demands, but also to develop strategies of how to act in the face of oppression. … We need to develop a common imagination for the sake of all of us.”

We might be “all born with the gag,” but Ivánova and Daniels also show us that poetry can turn that gag into a tool, a weapon, a hammer, through both its capacity for establishing and asserting tropes and its capacious embodiment of simultaneously particular and universal experiences. This arises precisely in how the “lyric me” is affirmed by and universalized as those voices (of the translator, of the critic, of any reader) declaring, “Me, too.”

Daniels explains in the translator’s note that the rendering of The Hammer into English is indeed such a declaration, positioning the original text as more than just a statement to be heard—instead, it is a call to action. Perhaps only a book in translation—especially from a writer and activist such as Ivánova, who moves between languages, countries, and continents—can show that there’s hope in the fight against what binds us, precisely in the bonds between us that we’re willing to expose.

“My body, you are an animal / for whom ambition / is right.” If my body must be defined by the body, let poetry assert again and again that the body is a collective of our bodies. If

i sleep with a hammer

under my pillow

in case someone

sneaks into my

bedroom again

let poetry define that hammer as the hammer, turn that private artifact into a public icon, endow the particular with the potential force of the universal. We have all heard before that “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” But how many of us have been hiding hammers under our pillows? It’s time to find out.

 

This article was commissioned by Eleanor Johnsonicon

Featured image: Photograph by Adam Sherez / Unsplash

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