As I entered Barnard’s Sulzberger Parlor I had three consecutive thoughts: this room is pretty, I’m tired, and I look and feel like a drowned rat. Underneath all this, I was excited, I love poetry, but it was a dismal Thursday night, I’d had classes all day, and there are midterms that I still have yet to study for. Nonetheless, I settled down and, too socially awkward to go to the back of the room to get snacks, waited for the readings to start.
I had been intending to take notes, but I found that once the poets began reading I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. As they spoke, I was taken out of Barnard, out of New York City, and on a journey. The first poet, Mary Szybist, took me to a plain of angels. Angels of rain (appropriate), alchemy, and bliss. A stillness descended over the room when she read elegies to her mother, yet in moments of such raw grief, she still managed to evoke some genuine, not sadistic, laughter. In that moment, I felt honored to witness her vulnerability and humanity.
With Tarfia Faizullah, the second poet to speak, I traveled to a mother and father in Northern Iraq, to a young boy in Bangladesh, to seeds in the ground of West Texas. In twenty minutes, I journeyed through her life, her father’s life, through her aunt’s life.
The final poet to speak, Catherine Barnett, took me on a journey into motherhood, something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently after leaving my own mum behind in England to come to Columbia. But it was her poem entitled ‘Summons’ that filled the room with silence, as she prefaced it by clarifying that it was written before the recent hearing, making me realize that for many women, myself included, justice has been divided into a before and after. ‘Summons’ was written in the time before she said, when she still clung to the “beautiful abstraction of justice”. She spoke of the words “rape haven” spray painted on the walls of a fraternity only to be washed off “like it never happened. Like it never happens.”
Yet I wasn’t just taken on a journey that night, I was also taught things I’d never known before, my eyes opened in such a short amount of time. Tarfia Faizullah taught me that a Ghazal is not only a fun word that sounds like guzzle but is also a form of poetry. Catherine Barnett taught me that despite our journey into the after of justice, despite the news we can’t outrun, despite the words spray painted on brick walls only to be washed away again, the world is not hopeless.
As I left the room the feeling of hope didn’t leave me, even as I stepped straight into a puddle wearing Birkenstocks and then proceeded to drop my phone in the very same puddle. As I endured the long, treacherous walk to back to Carman, soaked through by the rain, one line from the final poem of the night, Barnett’s ‘O Esperanza!’, wouldn’t leave my head: “Look at these books: hope. Look at this face: hope”. The hope that comes from spending an hour of an ordinary Thursday immersed in the words of women who fill the silence with art. Women who made me laugh and, I freely admit, cry within the space of a few sentences. Women who, somehow, understood. And all of this, fittingly, on international day of the girl, reminding me, in the words one of the Barnard students who introduced the poets, of the “danger and power that women embody”.
poetry via Bwog Archives