I recently watched a tv show in which a main character was raped. Her actions during the rape were understandable; after resisting for several minutes, she finally went still, only slightly lifting her head to lock her eyes on something far away. No doubt she wanted to imagine that she was somewhere else and that this rape was already a buried memory.
But few crimes are as consequential as those committed to our bodies, and this is the great weight of Remica L. Bingham’s powerful new book What We Ask of Flesh. Bingham profiles many women and girls, all victims of rape or other physical abuses, to revive them (and her audience, I suspect) to consciousness. It is crucial that survivors of bodily violence articulate and share their experiences, Bingham contends, even if the language to do so is lacking. Another fitting title for this collection of poems might be How We Speak of Flesh, for it is a stunningly rigorous critique of the limited and biased vocabulary with which Americans discuss physical violence against women.
The first of the book’s three parts is a long poem, “The Body Speaks,” comprising twelve sections. Sectioning is appropriate, since the poem opens with a Bible story about a woman raped by townsmen and, once dead, cut into body parts that are sent to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Bingham’s first book, Conversion (Wayne State UP), also featured women from the Bible; these are our figurative ancestors, her poems suggest, women who went first and who many of us know well.
Of them, Bingham writes, “These hands held / water for desert thirst, held / barley, held,” stopping the sentence there to evoke images of women cradling babes. Tragically, “their piety // has not saved them,” Bingham observes, and in the poem’s ninth and most moving section, she imagines their collective dread of men’s sexual aggression:
The quiet means we’re not through yet. When it comes
it is hungrier than we imagined, asking much back. [End Page 164]
Bingham’s poems not only speak back to sexual entrapment but also look forward. In a later section, she writes, “the next time / we want to live / without consequence, with favor, / among men.” This visionary sensibility, when applied to the English language, is inspiring; in the poem’s fifth section, she campaigns,
Say vulva and make it clean say labia say lips slip not folly not force or flinch or fist
The alliterative music of these commands is a gentle argument for changing our words, and thus our minds, about cultural violence against women. Bingham goes after language again in a section that extracts lines from poems by twenty-eight well-known women, including Maxine Kumin, Ntozake Shange, and Natasha Trethewey, in an extensive definition of the word “come.” Braiding women’s voices, she demonstrates the bloody history of seemingly harmless words. Come, as in to return to a person’s memory, as in, “The flesh itself is finished / so close it’s come to the end / . . . a husk set aside, tied shut”; or come, as in to approach or move toward a particular person or place, as in, “An hour ahead of sun / I come to find you . . . / neck drooped unconscious.”
Part 2 of this book is more obviously tied to Bingham’s identity as an African American woman, though many of these poems focus on childhood. The opening poem, “Things I Carried Coming into the World,” is this poet’s chance to load “come” with her own meaning, as well as to borrow perhaps from Tim O’Brien’s important story The Things They Carried. An outspoken witness, Bingham lists an overwhelming number of influential and traumatic experiences, such as “foreign bodies wandering through my own” and
. . . a mother of mine two mothers removed . . . left broken on the sidewalk after a drunk white man jumps the curb in the colored neighborhood
In “Maieusiophobia,” a psychological term for the fear of childbirth, Bingham describes her fraught relationship with her mother. In the book’s title poem, she introduces more technical jargon to tell the...