Woman on Fire (in memory of Lisa Davenport) / Michelle Castleberry


I.
The burn unit in Herat, Afghanistan
fills with women, at times ten deep.
The air vibrates with cries, is thick and singed.
Girls wrapped in bandages of bridal white
tremble with arms charred at right angles,
lifted to hold, lifted to praise nothing.
Most of them set themselves alight.

What makes a woman combustible?
What makes her soak her dress in kerosene
and drop a match at her feet?

Where there is no tenderness or hope,
where there is no warmth or light,
Even the poorest homes
have matches and cooking oil.

What makes a woman catch fire?
Where there is no tenderness or hope,
where there is no warmth…

Have a girl-child, beat a cadence
into her skin and sing a chorus
of negations over the drum of her body.
When she turns twelve,
marry her off to settle a debt
to a man of fifty who takes up the dark song.
Fill her with children,
fill her with words like guttering embers.
Pack them in every day until you smell her.
If you watch you can see her flare.
Then ignite.

Where there is no tenderness or hope…
Even the poorest homes
have matches and cooking oil.
Where there is no warmth or light,
women burst into flame.

In a portrait of a survivor,
the flame is there still,
in whorls of flesh resembling abalone,
in a scrim of scar tissue like wax.
Her eyes burn out at you
with something like pride,
saying
"This body is beautiful
because it is mine."

II.
A woman is a landscape.
Her body is a map.
A man can be cartographer,
explorer, realtor, or lover of the land.

A woman is a landscape.
Her body is a map.
Some men see a mountain
and fall to their knees
happy, humbled by its beauty.

Others see a mountain
and want to take the top off
to get at the vein of coal inside.

Some see a woman
(A woman is a landscape
Her body…)
and talk of acreage, of property lines.
When they learn they cannot own her,
they salt the earth, burn the map,
set fire to a wooded lot
and cross the street to watch it burn.

Here the comparison breaks down.
If you destroy a woman to mine her heart,
she will escape with it every time
even into death.

A woman is a landscape.
Her body is a map.

What are you?

III.
Take them back.
The words "woman on fire."
Take them back
…make them metaphor again.

Where there is tenderness
let a woman warm herself
in the shell-light of an embrace,
in the dawn-light of a child's face.
She is a landscape named home.
Her body is a map
of heaven pulled down
for those brave enough to see.
Where there is hope
let a woman kindle visions,
fan a spark of resistance
to lead a people.
There is warmth in a woman
loved well from birth, cast out in rays
as palpable as breath.

If a woman is on fire (say it)
let her burn with a poem or song
that troubles her sleep until
it scorches the page and air.
If a woman is ablaze
let her burn from the furnace of her desire
stoked under the gaze of her lover.
Let both of them find her beautiful.

Where there is tenderness,
and warmth, and hope and light
for every girl-child,
Where there is tenderness,
and warmth, and hope and light--
every woman can burn
and none will perish.




1 comment:

Anonymous said...

as Michelle rushed thru her reading of this at the April Word of Mouth, we all rushed in her wake, stunned, rapt... the power of this poem is shattering, but its ending note of burning yet not perishing fuels creative fires beyond that shattering, the dream of light triumphant...