Tortured Syntax and Tortured Times

One of the strangest things about the 21st century is how much we all read, all the time: the news, our Facebook and Twitter and what have you, our phones. Reading is not a pastime anymore; it’s an essential skill in a surprisingly text-based culture. I love to read, like all writers, I suppose, but I am also wary of reading: when I sit down with an absorbing book, my mind always partially flickers to the void of the present. What am I missing in the world, daring to read? What am I tuning out? What words are being thrown in my direction?

I see an early version of this in William Carlos Williams’s famous lines, written so many decades before we had the internet:


It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there
From “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”


He’s not wrong; it is difficult to get the news from poems. It’s also difficult, as a writer, to get the news into poems in the first place. How do you make what’s horrifying, brutal, and factual into a poem?

Robin Coste Lewis, in her astonishing book Voyage of the Sable Venus, provides one answer in “verga:.”


by Robin Coste Lewis

“…women don’t want the men to go into the
bush because the women will only be raped but
the men will be killed…I have seen a woman
who was caught in the bush by several men.
They tied her legs to two trees while she was
standing. They raped her many times and before
leaving her they put stones in her vagina…”

—Abshiro Aden Mohammed, Kenya, 2000
Dagahaley Somali Refugee Camp
from A Camel for the Son,
by Fazal Sheik

Before leaving her they put stones in her vagina
The men will only be raped but the stones will be killed
The bush caught many men to go into the stones
The stones will be killed by several trees before leaving
The bush tied the men to the trees in their vaginas
Before bush go to trees they kill many stones
Many men will be caught by the trees in the bush
Several trees will be raped by the bush and killed
Only the caught men will be stoned and bushed by the trees
Several men were caught by the trees before leaving
The men will be killed but the stones will only be treed
The stones put many trees into the men’s killed vaginas
By the bush, the trees were raped only several times
Before leaving, the vaginas were seen standing in the stones

This poem embodies the traumatic nature of its subject by using a traumatized syntax, embodying the unthinkability of its epigraph inside its twisted sentences. This poem both presents and destabilizes the “news-y” tendency to use passive voice to discuss sexual assault: women “get” raped, but no one seems to be the agent of rape. Here, everything in the epigraph, every noun, becomes both assailant and victim. No one and nothing is left untouched by war.

I know this poem is not exactly a stay against despair; it is, however, a way of responding to despair, and to quote Lorde again, “give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” What I learn from this poem’s use of syntax is that sometimes surrealism (or anti-realism?) is a clear response to atrocity (think of Maus). Sometimes the difficult world requires difficult artistic practices to navigate it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s