Thursday, March 15, 2007

rapper balladeers, tampons, and Shanghai bok choy

There's an interesting modern conception of poetry - it needs to be expressive and truthful, even if that makes the reader uncomfortable. In decades past the point of poetry was to tell stories in a lyric and beautiful way - I can't think of any of the Romantics writing about phone sex and tampons. In some of the poems in Humor Me, though, these two conceptions reach a sort of compromise - I am specifically thinking of Allison Joseph's "Ballade for the Missing Beat." Joseph writes her poem in a traditional style, with a strict form with a history of being used for descriptions of lovely things. Joseph, however, uses the form to speak about a distinctly modern movement: rap. Admittedly I am inexperienced with much of rap, but nothing I have ever heard has been in the form of a ballade. Joseph uses the form to lament the loss of "those rapping stars of yesteryear," the artists who ushered in the rap movement and perhaps lent it a sort of balladry. By using the form of the ballade, Joseph is lending a sense of establilshed credibility to a modern form, and placing beauty in a place where we may not be used to seeing it.

Many of the poems are uncomfrotable or even painful to read - particularly "wishes for sons." Instead of being a loving mesage from a mother, it is a bitter wish that they understand the pains of their mothers and sisters. Lucille Clifton does not seem to give any motivation for such an acidic bequest, but there is a hint in the last stanza of a sense of universality - "let them think they have accepted/arrogance in the universe," let them become resigned to the superiority others may hold due to their condition, but Clifton also suggests sympathy with the last two lines: there may perhaps be those who understand. The same subject is addressed, although in a very different tone, in the graphic story "Draining Like a Dead Chicken." Clifton's poem never directly referenced the act of menstruation, only what its symptoms can be, but Erika Lopez is far more explicit. She too is angry at tampons (which is completely understandable) and tries to accustom herself to her menstruation by accepting it as a part of her womanhood. I read this aloud to a friend of mine and when we got to the line "I love you, vaginal blood, and I am not ashamed of you," we both burst out laughing. There's the humor I was looking for, I guess - and yet I think we both wish we didn't always feel so bitchy about our periods. The problem addressed both by real women and by "Draining Like a Dead Chicken" is the unavailability of compromise between two extremes: either you submit to the "corporate guys" and buy tampons and pads and feel uncomfortable, or you get down with your woman self, use sea sponges, squat over your houseplants, and feel pretty silly. A graphic story is a fun, lighthearted way to approach the issue, though, and I appreciated that I could relate to it.

The use of illustrations to convey a political or social message, particularly when the illustrations are marked as "cartoons," can make for some very interesting observations. The visual depiction of a situation, attached to a snappy one-liner of dialogue, has a different effect on the reader than it would were it perhaps included in a story. Keeping to the theme of the anthology, most of the cartoons addressed issues of race, although some didn't seem to be really applicable - for example, an ascetic sitting next to a skeleton and conceding defeat. Most of them, though, were blatant depictions of presuemd racial problems. Obviously as a white person I will react to these differently from a person of color, but I still managed to identify with one: a line of students in a college cafeteria, with two black students discussing the menu. The dishes of the week are of international origin: pizza, "Shanghai" bok choy, ham, black-eyed peas and grits, and burritos. "That's as close as this university gets to multiculturalism," one student says to the other. I laughed because I could see that in my own college: we are a predominately racially homogenized campus, and cafeteria food is always fodder for humor - particularly ours (oh, how I shudder when it's lo mein day). However, thinking about the deeper meaning of the cartoon also made me think about how I could apply its other messages to my school. A multicultural menu is a particularly superficial way to demonstrate perceived diversity; it really has no importance at all. For a school to ever seriously consider having internationally inspired dishes as a marker of cultural acceptance is completely absurd, and it makes one wonder: evidently, this is an important way in which the school wants to be viewed - why not make more of an effort outside the cafeteria?

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