Last month the Kingston Whig-Standard covered a story on the sentencing of a 69-year old man who “brutally abused” his wife for most of their 45-year relationship.
“A Kingston Police investigation…revealed that [the victim] suffered several skull fractures over the years, at least one broken arm that hadn’t been set, and multiple healed rib fractures…She also had “cauliflowered ears” like an old-time veteran prize fighter, scars on her arms that appeared to medical personnel to be from cigarettes being stubbed out on her skin, relatively fresh similar burns on her feet, and brain damage. Her medical team found indicators of at least two untreated strokes.
At this point, she’s no longer able to speak for herself…
When two detectives visited her in hospital…they observed that the mention of [her husband’s name] did cause her to react physically, by recoiling.”
The horrific abuse faced by the victim is hard to fathom. But what’s so powerful about this case, I think, is that it demonstrates poetry in action – as Crown attorney Jennifer Ferguson presented poetry to the judge as an exhibit for the sentencing. The poetry was an excerpt from a poem written by the late poet and activist Bronwen Wallace based on her experiences working at Interval House – an emergency shelter for women and children facing violence. Ferguson argued that the character in Wallace’s poem was the victim in this case. This is the excerpt from Bronwen Wallace’s poem, Intervals:
This is for Ruth,
brought in by the police
from Hotel Dieu emergency
eyes swollen shut, broken jaw wired
and eighteen stitches closing one ear. This
is what a man might do
if his wife talked during the 6 o’clock news.
“And I knew better,” she tells us softly,
“I guess I just forgot myself.”
Tomorrow she may go back to him
(“He didn’t mean it, he’s a good man
really”), but tonight she sits up with me
drinking coffee through a straw.
“I can’t sleep,” she apologizes,
“every time I close my eyes,
I see his fist coming at me through the wall.”
The poetry was accepted by the judge as “a firsthand account” of the result of one of the beatings the victim suffered.
So why does poetry matter?
Because poetry is a form of resistance. Poetry is a form of mediation between one’s self and the world around us. It’s a means of shaping one’s identity. Poetry is a means of self-assertion.
Poetry – of all the art forms – is “the most economical,” as Audre Lorde writes. “It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper… As we reclaim our literature, poetry has been the major voice of poor, working class, and Colored women.”
In this case, poetry can also give a voice to those who have been silenced.
This is what I would like people to understand when they ask me why poetry matters.