p o e m e l i z a b e t h a l e x a n d e r
“She remembered that in the mountains of Souli, sixty women had gone to one of the peaks, danced together, and thrown their children and themselves over the precipice rather than surrender to the slavery of the Turks.”
December 18, 1803
traditional Souli folkdance
“ . . . & the agony of death awaiting set the rhythm.”
When I saw her 12 years ago, she danced like a girl
on the legs of a girl
with the clear sparkling eyes of a girl
My aunt Valla Dee, age 66; my niece’s wedding
Last autumn they found cancer, she had surgery
& six months later, not recovered from that operation
went back for another —
repair of a thoracic aortic aneurysm.
To gain access to the aorta, you divide the sternum at midline
(you make a vertical incision)
You induce prolonged hypothermic circulatory arrest
(you lower the body temperature to 18˚ C,
you cross–clamp the aorta,
stop the heart)
You provide retrograde cerebral perfusion
(via a tube inserted into the superior vena cava)
to keep the brain from shutting down for lack of oxygen
You have 45 minutes to repair the aneurysm
The recovery: long & excruciating
The alternative: the aneurysm bursts, the patient dies —
or maybe not
in the ICU:
Her sternum opened wide, chest cavity exposed
I could have peeked.
The breathing apparatus eclipsed her mouth & nose
but not her bruised complexion.
“Sweet Jesus, let her die”
(my prayer, not Aunt Valla Dee’s)
I lay my hand on hers & told her who I was
She tapped her fingers twice in recognition.
Not only the subcontinent but also the women who lived there were partitioned
Hindu, Muslim, Sikh
Their breasts sliced off,
their bodies branded,
“Pakistan, zindabad!” / “Hindustan, zindabad!”
Their assailants carved these tattoos.
“The female body became territory to be fought over & conquered. . . .”
In Thoa Khalsa, 90 women jumped into the village well & drowned themselves
(Sikh women, at the Muslmaans’ approach)
Had the women chosen not to sacrifice themselves, it is likely that their fathers
or their husbands
or their brothers
would have slain them.
(That same day, before the drownings, a man of Thoa Khalsa prayed,
“We have not allowed your sikhi to get stained
& in order to save it, we are going to sacrifice our daughters, make them martyrs,
please forgive us . . . ”
Then he arose & killed his daughter along with 25 other women of his household.)
By water & by fire,
by gunshot, poison, strangulation,
women took their lives
or had them taken, by their own,
“Viran, pehle mannu maar” / “Brother, kill me first.”
In Amritsar many women chose family honor over their own lives.
Others, horrified, prayed to escape the will of men.
“We would listen stealthily & overheard them saying that all of us should be locked
up in a room & burnt alive . . . Our own families were saying this.”
Betrayal to betrayal
the war on women,
Hindu, Muslim, Sikh
Bible story (Judges: 11.29–11.40)
Jepthah made a vow:
If God would fight for him against the Ammonites,
Jepthah would present to God a gift of untoward magnitude,
not just any burnt offering — a lamb, say, or a goat,
but a human sacrifice, from Jepthah’s household.
Jepthah’s idea, not God’s — the whole mad scheme
Jepthah vowed, “Whoever first comes out of my house to meet me
after I return victorious
that one will die.”
a predetermined pool of candidates, a narrow field
& God gave the Ammonites into Jepthah’s hand, with a very great slaughter
& Jepthah’s only child came out to meet him.
& God, foreshadowing Camus, did not let Jepthah off the hook.
‘If god is God,’ wrote the philosopher, ‘He is the devil.’
& Jepthah tore his robe & passed the blame.
“Alas!” he cried, “My daughter, you have become the cause of great trouble to me.”
A vow was a vow was a vow in ancient Israel,
Jepthah’s daughter knew that, reassured him.
“Father keep your vow, but let this thing be done for me . . .”
She asked to spend two months
with her companions
in the mountains
bewailing her virginity.
“Go!” Jepthah said.
How old were you, Jepthah’s daughter?
What was your name?
& did you die a virgin,
or did a shepherd boy appear,
or did one of your companions lie beside you
kiss your sweet thighs & lips & breasts
Did you know love?
i. The initial lines are quoted from Louis De Bernières, CORELLI’S MANDOLIN (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 88; the last line is from Souleiman–Aga, Turkish colonel and eyewitness, as recounted in “Zalogo”.
iv. The sources for the quotations are as follows: Mattie Katherine Pennebaker, “‘The Will of Men’: Victimization of Women during India’s Partition. Agora no. 1, issue 1 (Summer 2000); Gyanendra Pandey, REMEMBERING PARTITION (Cambridge University Press: 2001) as cited by A.J. Philip in “Betrayal to Betrayal,”; Ritu Menon and Kamla Bahsin, BORDERS & BOUNDARIES: WOMEN IN INDIA’S PARTITION (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998), pp. 47 and 49.
The last line of the poem alludes to Philip’s title.
v. See Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, eds., THE NEW OXFORD ANNOTATED BIBLE WITH THE APOCRYPHA (Oxford University Press, 1975 & 1977), p. 510.