The Poetics of Silence: A Study in Selected Poems by Arab and English Women Poets

“شعرية الصمت: دراسة في قصائد مختارة من الشعر العربي والإنكليزي النسوي الحديث”

أ.د. وفاء عبداللطيف عبدالعالي؛ قسم اللغة الأنكليزية/ كلية الآداب-جامعة الموصل

يتناول البحث دراسة في دلالة الصمت في قصائد مختارة من الشعر النسوي الحديث لشاعرات من الوطن العربي ومن بريطانيا وأميركا. ويركز البحث على محور (ثيما) الصمت وتمثيلاتها في تقنيات شعرية تقليدية ومبتكرة ليتوصل إلى أن الصمت هو نوع من الكلام، بلّ والأحتجاج ضد القهر والتهميش والظلم، والحروب والسياسات المحلية والعالمية.”

 

 

Prof. Wafaa A. Abdulaali, PhD

 

“The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; not in silence, but restraint”

Marianne Moore, “Silence”1 (ll. 11-12) 

If you dissect a bird 

To diagram the tongue 

You’ll cut the chord

Articulating song. 

Sylvia Plath, “Admonition”2(ll. 1-4)

Just like white that contains all colours, silence contains all voices and women’s writings abound in silence and the unsaid. Women’s literature tells us about the centrality of silence in their culture as a whole, specifically the ways in which their voices went unheard. Women poets, through their talents and methods within the genre of poetry, show their penchant for creating a poetics of silence where they locate a double bind: the need to release a gender pressure and an artistic flow of a language identified by a self-expressive rhetoric of reticence. Such writing strives to expose how women have been defined symbolically in the patriarchy as a tabula rasa, an inferiority, an absence, a passivity. Envisioned as a masculine prerogative, they strive to create a poetics of the speakable that probes into the female silence which they prove to be a women-only territory.

Hinging on Helen Cixous’s contention that binaries (masculine / feminine, voice / silence) imprison us within the narrowness of the closure of these terminologies, abolition of the demarcation lines between them would split open-ended textuality; in  a word, it is not the sex of the author that matters, but the kind of writing he/she produces. Cixous bases her argument on the belief that bisexuality exists in all humans, that is there is no total man, nor a totally female creature; yet there are ineluctable signs of difference (3) . Therefore this paper, though it does not take the feminist approach as its only way of criticism,  assumes  that silence exists – as life – in all humans, men and women .  To venture into silence as a female activity, though,  provides an adumbration of women’s  mental territory and preoccupations.

Female poets have developed ways to appropriate the demands of male-oriented cultures to silence them. They use techniques of writing and create figurative discourse of the space silence allows them to convey the protest against silencing them. The mixture of the typically female alienation, awe and fear through the mode of restraint language that typically inscribes their femininity, give them their claim to independence.

Thus, through the language of indirection, that is one mode of silent writing, they reject the entire culture that shaped their silence. However, this association of woman and silence, of femininity and marginalization, though it persists throughout their discourse, goes beyond a pathetic fallacy. The connection between the individual suffering with the collective suffering of women insists on locating feeling and gender identity within the world, not within the isolated self. The consequence is a tension – a terror and a delight. They insist on this balance to the end with a striking independence, though sometimes with diffident resistance to authority that gave room to their ambition as female poets.

In the guise of restraint or silence, though a sign of anxiety, perhaps uncertainty, the unsaid begins to make itself heard and break the silence traditionally assigned to women. The speaker, whether the poet herself or a persona, introduces herself as the origin of the discourse and hence becomes a mode of restraint and understatement which comprise the creative, aesthetic transformation of silence. By virtue of the abrogation of the distinction between poet and speaker, which is a fixture of modernist poetics, the female poet evades silence. She becomes the disembodied voice that speaks from the blank page. 

The sophisticated methods of skill in this realm do not only cease to be original in their effort at making silence speak, but also create a speaker’s  predicament that is interchangeably psychological and aesthetic. In a wider sense, the female poets’ position suggests a redefinition that inspires them. In the redefinition of the inherited tradition lurks the evidence of the female poets’ originality and self-definition that give them their distinctive voice and presents itself as a watershed in the mainstream of human writing.

II

The analytical or textual reading of a female poet’s text will look at the signs of silence such as spaces, codes, cover-ups and the elements of understatement, besides overstatements, such as hyperbole or exaggeration as excesses of language that denote a connection to the crises of the female language. Such a reading would pay attention to these characteristics as the relationship between textuality and language not only on linguistic level, but also thematic and technical that are more concealed as more revealing. In his study of Crane’s poetry, Thomas Yingling defines the task of such criticism: 

The critic […..] needs to be aware of what a text is necessarily silent about, how it negotiates ideology through absences that signify (if they do not represent) what the text cannot say within its own scene of
persuasion and still maintain its cultural authority
(4).

Likewise, the female poet would hush any tendency toward certain utterances in her works. The reasons for her self-imposed restraint are various, and the chief of them is gender-inhibition.

Nevertheless, Louise Gluck argues that silence brings in more eloquent and more artistic richness in her poetry:

I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum …. It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished. All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.(5)

Female poets articulate silence by what Adrienne Rich, quite rightly, calls “Cartographies of silence”(6) which is taken here as a springboard to critique silence as a female domain and as an empowerment to unseal what the poem is silent about. The poem consists of eight parts. For lack of space, the final part is quoted which is too clear to need any comment:  

No, let me have this dust, 

These pale clouds dourly lingering, these words

Moving with ferocious accuracy

Like the blind child’s fingers

Or the newborn infant’s mouth 

Violent with hunger

No one can give me, I have long ago

Taken this method

Whether of bran pouring from the loose-woven sack

Or of the bunsen-flame turned low and blue 

If from time to time I envy 

The pure annunciation to the eye 

The visio beatifica 

If from time to time I long to turn 

Like the Eleusinian hierophant 

Holding up a single ear of grain 

For the return to the concrete and everlasting world 

What in fact I keep choosing 

Are these words, these whispers, conversations 

From which time after time the truth breaks moist and green.

The signs of women’s modes of silence can be summarized as follows:

  1. The use of intertexuality: quotations, allusions, interpolations from other culturally authoritative sources to be the voice that speaks on behalf or to underline the message she wants to convey in order to avoid a responsive stance. In this way she presents a coded speech as she stands as a mere listener, reader or compiler of this voice. Through such a voice, she slyly asserts her own.
  2. The use of strategies of indirection or evasion.
  3. The use of personae or masks such as the use of animals as heroes to speak her own voice. A female poet may recreate women from history giving them a voice to pronounce their dilemma of marginalizing, silencing or neglecting them and hence construct a multivocal rather than a personal voice. The use of multiple voices, or what is called Bakhtinian dialoguic pluralism, manipulates the poet’s silence and hence gives her expression to a “Universality” and to herself an identity as a woman. She intertexts hers with other pretexts and hence weaving a difference.
  4. The use of such modes of silence as short, broken lines, ellipses, omissions, syntactic fragmentations, and unusual use of white space on page.
  5. In contradiction with the austerity and brevity of silence, women may use excesses of language such as repetition, tautology, implicated syntactic constructions, typographical modes of filling marginal spaces or intrusive sound play or long lines which are linked to culture constructions of how women speak or to gender.  

III

Edith Sitwell in her “Histrion” or ‘Women’ in War-Time”(7) dramatizes in a monologue women’s unspeakable anxiety that is akin to madness, a psychic state that is masked by a false gaiety. What the poem is silent about is the dissatisfaction with the role of the clown allotted to her in time of war. The female speaker is insomniac and the agony of silence and pretension renders her divisive. She has an inner “scream” that “tears my body into tatters / Beat, my brain to pulp-but yet I cannot breathe it into air”: 

In the night-time-O the scream that tears my

body into tatters

Beats my brain to pulp – but yet I cannot

Breathe it into air:

Dead my lips. – And anguish like a wind

Has set my body running 

But my soul is broken, cannot crawl to 

Hide …. I know not where 

(Stanza II)

Silence has destructive effect on the other parts of her body as well as her soul. The role of the clown assigned to her in war-time: “dancing”, “smiling” and painting her “cheeks blood-red” make her heart “an empty hole”. The male-dominated audience to whom she acts out this performance is compared to her mirror that only reflects her outward appearance: the “face”, “the cracking smile” and “the mirth” that wrap “her body like a shroud” while she resists assimilation to these patriarchal ideals by “silent dreadful tears that/ bleed and sizzel from my eyelids” (stanzas 3 and 4). The only democratic space that contains her voice is “the night-time”; otherwise she is relegated to silence and hence is robbed of her humanity. Thus, the female self, though in silent revolt against the absence of a public space of her own in time of war, is divided on itself. The woman-speaker, however, shows herself in a hysterical silence written in a language of horrible suffering. The woman-speaker’s body:

Is speaking to us of the pathology and violence that lurk just around the corner, waiting at the horizon of ‘normal femininity’. It is no wonder that steady motif in the feminist literature on female disorder is that of pathology as embodied protest-unconscious, inchoate,

and counter productive protest without an effective language, voice, or politics, protest nonetheless.(8) 

Thus, Sitwell’s female speaker strives to bring herself into the public realm by becoming a public performer, or rebellious, hysterical exaggerator that reveals her speechlessness. However, Sitwell’s woman’s stance should be read not quite as morbid, but it is her culture’s pathology where the poet quite brashly makes the private clash with the public to the point where the body dissolves into a ludicrous public performance as a clown with the female body as displayed object. 

Nevertheless other female poets, like Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, show self-imposition in tackling female silence only to stand on a substantiate ground to fend it off and to evade self-effacement. Moore in “Silence(9) and Bishop in “Insomnia(10) significantly illuminate the power of a female low voice groping about to express itself without being addressed to anyone. Moore’s long quotation and Bishop’s strategy of indirection demonstrate their quest for evading silence.

In “Silence”, Moore presents her father’s recommendation of her silence; the poem contains eleven and half lines quoted from her father’s speech and the remaining two and half are hers:

My father used to say,

“Superior people never make long visits, 

have to be shown Long fellow’s grave

Or the glass flowers at Harvard.

Self-reliant like the cat

That takes its prey to privacy, 

The mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth 

They sometimes enjoy solitude,

and can be robbed of speech  

by speech which has delighted them 

The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence; 

not in silence, but restraint.” 

Nor was he insincere in saying, “make my house your inn”.

Inns are not residences.

The poem, in its first reading, shows a daughter’s presupposed acquiescence. The girl-poet, though with skepticism and bitterness(11)  stands with her father on equal footing, a way for a woman to get the upper hand with a male domineering figure. Despite the few words she utters, the daughter shows herself competing with her male peer to claim her linguistic primacy. The poem is silent about the ignored relationship of the father with his daughter.

Jeanne Heuving argues that Moore uses quotations inside the father’s quoted speech(12). The father’s “reserve and restraint” sheds doubt on “his warmth and generosity” towards his daughter. What he wants to say to his daughter is that this is his house and her access to it is limited. In other words, she reverses the Emersonian self-reliance as it is shown in such a bloody creature as the cat. Considering the fact that Moore’s father left them shortly after her birth ironizes the father’s speech, yet gives the poem an aura of the universality of the predicament of the woman; besides, Moore’s nickname is “rat”, so the mouse in the self-reliant bloody cat’s mouth can be a self-image of all women caught in the throes of patriarchy. Thus, her resort to restraint, which is of her own not her father’s, is a powerful communication of her rejection of the patriarchal figure’s prescription. She effaces the inherited patronymic position in favour of a more rhetorical response. Moore’s silence, or better, self-restraint, is grounded in her inability to “neither embrace nor divorce herself from sexuality; the bonds of the flesh(13). She voices not only a resistance, but also the conceptualization of her own idea of superiority which she also acts with male hegemony.

In Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, especially in her final collection Geography III, the female speaker presents a critique of the idealization of women’s solitude, loneliness and absence that build up her silence. The cool reserve and self-contained intensity of Bishop’s poems attest to her verbal austerity that distances her voice from the territory which the poem covers.

In her “Insomnia” and “Filling Station”,(14) Bishop presents two types of silence and the unsaid. In “Insomnia”, she subverts the long inherited tradition of the sublunary world of the lunatic poets (Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, for instance). She admires the moon, not for its beauty or enchanting power, but for its power to impose its own presence “with pride, at herself, / but she never, ever smiles”; she goes on, saying: 

Far and away beyond sleep, or 

Perhaps she’s a daytime sleeper. 

What is important for her is that the moon, a female creature, can live an self-contemplation in an inverted world reflected in a mirror:

Into the world inverted 

where left is always right, 

where the shadows are really the boys; 

where we stay awake all night,

where the heavens are shallow as the sea

is now deep, and you love me.

The moon, quite surprisingly, is the unattainable loved one: distant, self-sufficient and indifferent. The tone is enveloped in the code of frustration, fears and ironic response to her experience with same-sex love. Alan Williamson insists that when tackling such personal themes as love, Bishop demonstrates a “jauntiness which insists on representing defeat as triumph … a peculiar exercise of pride(15)

The immense emotion of the speaker is met with “insouciance” and is asked “to go to hell”. An analogy between the speaker and the moon,  implicated as both are insomniac, acting indifference, are silenced and hence are absent, represented by the mirage presence reflected “in bureau mirror”, in an inverted world “where left is always right”, a hostile world. Therefore, both the speaker and the moon seek out “a body of water, or a mirror, on which to dwell” finding no male in such a world.

Her other poems such as “Filling Station” and “Sestina(16) present other types of absence or silence. In “Filling Station”, Bishop describes a masculine world full of “grease”, a world of a “father” and his “greasy” sons who “assist him” and in parenthesis expresses slyly the hint at an absence “(it’s a family filling station)” ; but the female touches that fill this scene impels her to question about the owner of that female presence, at the end of the poem. She realizes “Somebody loves us all”; that is, the mother. In “Sestina”, the mother’s absence is conveyed through the aura of acute loss which is established in the domestic scene of a grandmother and her grandson. Everything speaks in the scene: the almanac, the stove, the kettle, the rain speak. Only the humans remain silent about the experience of shedding tears at the absence of the  mother. The child speaker in the adult poet’s tongue demonstrates how speech is ascribed to objects not only as the child’s animation, but also the poet’s iconic silence about this “inscrutable”, traumatic experience of loss. Despite the lack of shelter from pain and loss, the poet-child performs the poem in the therapeutic operation of artistic production that is the only condolence the female poet can offer herself. In brief, a critic quite rightly summarizes Bishop’s poetics of silence saying that it is “affirmative and central in her poetic of reticence” and “crucial it is in shaping [her poems] as a whole”(17).

Anne Sexton’s “Lessons in Hunger(18) presents a woman’s reaction to a partner’s silence that renders her an object of her own contempt as she tackles the attitude of the female voice. She typically speaks with a mixture of pity and awe. Silence is the victimizer, the female  speaker is victimized:

“Do you like me?”

I asked the blue blazer 

no answer.

Silence bounced out of his books.

Silence fell off his tongue

and sat between us 

and clogged my throat

It slaughtered my trust.

It tore cigarettes out of my mouth 

We exchanged blind words, 

and I did not cry,

and I did not beg, 

              blackness lunged in my heart,

and something that had been good,

a sort of kindly oxygen, 

turned into a gas oven.

Do you like me?

How absurd!

What’s a question like that?

What’s a silence like that?

And what am I hanging around for,

             riddled with what his silence said? 

  

The poem presents violent actions of silence brought upon the female speaker: bounced out, left off, clogged, slaughtered, tore out, lunged. The poem starts and ends with questions. This is the place where the female finds herself unheard. But, by writing the poem, she reclaims her voice. As for the title which carries a metaphoric signifier of silence “Hunger,” it is not only absence but also hunger.

Everything is static as they are taught silence: books, tongue, me and us, throat, trust, mouth, words, cry, beg, heart, oxygen, question. It is a state of nothingness: an incomprehensible wholesale silence, a silence like death.  

VI

Silence in Selected Poems by Arab-Women-Poets

The most painful part in silence 

is the return of the echo.

Zuhoor Dixon” The Dialogue of the Flowers’ Night”

(P.23)

In Arab women’s poetry “Silence” is a literary and artistic matter like other elements of poetry such as figurative language, rhetorical devices and prosody. Silence for them is a practice of reserve which bounds up both in what they cannot and what they refuse to say. There are many reasons to study the relationships that exist between silence and female creativity, besides the social/ personal reality of Arab female poets.

Arab female poets proceed by arguments, sometimes by fragments in a manner suggestive of collage that characterizes much modernist poetry. Their poetry in its majority is footed poetry, or Shi’ir el- Taf’ila, or free verse. In any case, their language is both of restraint and excess. Some of their phrases are aphorisms, others are too short, even signature poems. The tone of their poems varies from ironic, satiric, overtly protesting; others are highly spirited. Some divide their conceptualization of the thematics of female silence from the Arab  tradition that preserves a male elite to insure women’s subordination. They also seek support for their tropes by the assimilation of congenial male sources. In this way their first-hand experience with silence is concretized through visualized perception and even through presence. The silence of female Arab poets is personified, apostrophized, allegorized, historicized, ironized, punned on, and satirized. It is lamented, admired, blamed, incriminated, addressed as victimizer or jailer, constructed as a mentality of the patriarchal society or the law of the tribe. It is a motif, a motive/stasis. They perceive silence in their full senses even in parapsychological or sixth sense, yet with a negative connotation. Silence for Arab women-poets is a friend, a peer, a disease, a rival, a language, a voice, a potentiality: positive or negative, a glitter, a symbol, a semiotic entity, a gesture or a nod, a blank page, a color, an ellipsis, an absence, an unsaid argument, an embargo, a space, a state of mind, a typically female territory. Like creativity itself, it is her nourisher and her destroyer. The domain of exploration in Arab women’s poetry is the domain of the unspeakable. With all these elements, silence for Arab female poets is poetry itself, and poetry is silence.

In sum, Arab female poets create a thoroughgoing resistance to all ideologies of domination, preconception of women’s speech and egocentricity. They strive to develop strategies for achieving triumph over self-effacement and marginalization, over suffering, pain, and rage. Silence is the standing on the verge of exteriority without touching it; it is the internalization of emotions and actions that build up the interiority of the female psyche. However, the emotions that motivate the poems of silence are not peculiar to the poet herself as gender-consciousness, anxiety, and isolation emanate from between the lines. Silence in Arab women’s poetry penetrates through all human emotions: love, hate, life,  [Life and death aren’t emotions. Do you mean these poets write about them?]  The attribute of silence can be  an epithet of any abstractionism or any tangibility .

In Nazik al-Mala’ika’s “In the Valley of the Bondsmen(19) and
a Revolution Against the Sun(1) and Atika al-Khazragi’s “Shahrazad(20) the  female poet emerges as the speaker of the poem as she  is in struggle against killing her by uprooting  her creative voice. Nazik in both of her poems epitomizes all women’s dilemma of silence and the horror of the victimization of women by the outmoded  social values and the imprisonment of the female in her femininity. Rejecting to be in the valley of the bondsmen, she screams “what a fire lurking behind my silence and my complaint!/my soul kept it, but eyes speak out“… “I do not want to live in the valley of the bondsmen/Among the dead…even though unburied“. Rage, despair and death wish are dimensions of herself and her social reality as well as, where: “they are human, but like apes/And evil hyenas unbelievers/Always read to them my song/But they are in gloomy, tight sleep“. But as a poet and woman, she finds condolence  and consolation in night when she writes. She connects the beauty of the night with aesthetic silence: both “purify my soul” and  provide me with high-spiritedness and pour on me rhymes”. She asks the unidentified addressees: “Let the Night of my dreams and solitude/And take the golden locks of the sunshine“. She prefers the insomnia of activity and creativity upon the morning of marginalization and negligence. The rebellion against the day, that represents the human activities that exclude hers, intensifies in “A Revolution Against the Sun” as she appears self-resolved as a lover of the night.

She addresses the sun contemptuously: 

All your locks of light are weaker than the flames of my rebellion

As long as my singing harp is in hands

But, remember O sun, I will empty my temple of your light

burry my past that you have unveiled

To let the beautiful shade of the Night fall on my tomorrow.

The poet gives two conceptions of silence/voice. The voice of the day is where her only voice is silenced, as she is rendered the only absentee, and in the silence of the night she is the only speaker, the poet.

In the same vein, Atika al-Khazragi reconfigures the legend of The Arabian Nights “The Thousand and One Nights ” and recreates the character of Sheherazade and the idea of the night as the time breaking woman’s silence, making her discourse audible to all male dominated cultures represented here by the silent, listening  man. So, woman’s voice, here, achieves, through her wit, a displacement of silence allotting it to the man. Her wit turns him into the listener while she is now the sole speaker. The man, who is a domineering brute, Shehrayar, has oppressed women, but is now being acted upon by Shahrazad. She deploys her pains and fears to embellish her tales with the aesthetics of her speech, and enchants him with her poetics of femininity. So, it is a reversal of the tradition of the roles. What the major difference the poem presents is that the female speaker here is a narrator, not a poet. Here the lover is the killer; in her silence lurks her death-sentence. Her speech is her life, her love. Sheherezade says in the  poem : “Do not resort to silence, Love is speech, is a voice“. She appeals to him:  I am a heart, sir, sickened, in patience, by your love/My heart rhymes my pains in verse and transmits longing into prose“. It is worth mentioning that the collection where this poem appears is called  “The Breaths of Dust”?  which is an image of Shahrazad’s voice which overwhelms the silent world of the Night.

Zuhoor Dixon’s “Ophelia’s Voice in the Sky” and “A Poem to Mona Lisa” give these two historical women their silenced voices as she puts them in an Arabic environment (21). Both poems sneer at the male-oriented culture’s attempt at silencing women.

In “Ophelia’s Voice in the Sky“, the sadness upon Ophelia’s drowning is projected on nature, rather than on people. Elements of nature hear her voice, but humans do not. Ophelia ,though described as “drowned” with a male gender, is in dialogue with nature:

 

At the face of the [he] drowned 

The tree at the bottom withered

The river withered

The sun withered

In the eyes of the road

                              

Using birds for anguishing over Ophelia’s death, the poet says:

And the birds that .. 

Left us to the trees of the water 

Recessed in their clothes 

At the drowned’s face ..

The face of the drowned never disappears, but stays floating signifying the collective nature victimizing of Ophelia and all those women who are wounded for their love. In the last part of the poem, it runs as follows:

                    – 3 –

The same call  … remained 

                               

Ophelia’s voice is in the sky

Her wound.. is a cloud

Her chest .. is a tent

Her grave .. is in the landscape.

In terms of images, Ophelia’s voice in the sky is “a cloud“, “a tent “on earth ; ” her grave .. / is in the landscape”.The clouds can be taken in the imagistic juxtaposition as a symbol of fertility; so her wound is a source of fertility, especially for the poet-speaker whose creativity is enriched by it ; ” her chest .. is a tent ” is put in its Arab context, as the tent is a symbol of the Arab tent where Arab tribes used to live and hence it is a metonymy of the tribal outmoded tradition of imprisoning the woman; her chest is as closed on itself as a grave, another signifier of the tying up  of the tongue. Her grave is not in a cemetery, but in the landscape, not revered. Taken thoroughly, this part of the poem which starts with ” the same call .. remained ” , it is Ophelia’s call, voice, which is followed by a blank line leaving it to the reader to fill in with what the poem is silent about. So, her voice is immortal, as her bleeding wound, her closed chest and the disgraced grave. Nevertheless, Ophelia’s call is reclaimed as Dixon immortalizes it in a poem, as she also does in “A poem to Mona Lisa” .

The poem shows Dixon’s penchant for ekphrastic writing as she tackles the secret of the uncanny poise that infatuated the male viewer of the picture. She argues that the picture shows rigour and diffidence through its ekphrastic posture which she takes as the power of the verbal description to make a silent picture speak. The opening stanza of the poem is both confident and inscrutable in reflecting the males’ reaction to Mona Lisa; the posture shows a variety of abstractionist silence: ” waiting“, “celebrating“, “smiling” which increase the sense of the indeterminacy of its meaning. Like all women’s silence, it is invested with a kind of mythic aura. Having mutual understanding, Dixon asks Mona Lisa to be the eyewitness of the male domineering culture’s construction of female silence. What the poem is silent about is to ridicule this culture that silenced, deified, then reified them; she goes on apostrophising her, saying: “I was told .. / Time scarcely dusts off itself / I said or a wave corners in a motionless tiller” . She goes on to say: 

When they left … 

        Their footprints were bubbles

        Lost in water. 

So, men’s concern about Mona Lisa is nothing more than “bubbles lost
in water
” since they only look at her as an idol, a commodity, an absence.
A search for female self-expression is not a male task. Therefore, like Mona Lisa’s,  the poet’s voice goes unheard. This is how woman is defined symbolically by patriarchy. In the final stanza, the poet touches her wound with salted hands as she remembers the ravages of time on the woman, yet she faces it courageously saying: 

For evening go quickly, like my years 

Go fastly like my years, 

But having me as active as a deer.

Through, the act of confrontation, that is poetry – writing, she evades silence, which is a therapeutic activity for all women’s illness; through it, she can restore her years. In sum, the poem is an implicit call to recuperate women’s history – represented by the history of Mona Lisa –  in order to unravel all the riddles of her silence. 

In “The  Language of the Colour ” , Amal al-Zahawi (22) presents another type of silence connecting it with other more public themes as nationalism and the liberation of Palestine. The language of silence is a silent articulation: it is a chromatic silence; it is visualized silence as the poet resorts to the eye to interpret and read. She says that this language enables her to be in full command of her self-expression and hence gives her sentence to freedom. She says, addressing an unidentified character, 

Can you see the dance of the colour 

                       or not? 

You whispered to me, though no language is begged 

It glitters the secret 

               Are you like me?

To see the symbol speak respond 

A laugh attacked my lips 

                        And on its shadow, bitterness flew

You talked and talked endlessly 

        The breeze, how can it be countable?

O language of colour be like flood, and rage

                   and injure as you like 

                           Balsam wakes up.

Al-Zahawi uses synaesthesia to sustain the articulation, not through speech, but the series of synaesthetic imageries she creates. The colour gets moving with the artistic  action of “dance” which is a female art. So, the colour is the language of the female speaker of the poem. The pictorial emotion that grows between man and woman of the scene “glitters” in reaction to the language of the colour’s dance. The colour grows into a symbol that speaks and responds in compensation for the silence that pervades the scene. Synaesthesia is intensified as the laugh of the woman’s lips breeds bitterness on the shadow of the laughter. 

Silence is devoured, hence, as “you talked and talked endlessly” like “the breeze” that cannot be counted as she wonders rhetorically about it. The language of colour is called upon by the female speaker to be intensified by turning into “flood“, that is a flood of words; but it cannot be discerned as a knife to do the action of “injuring“, yet the woman’s  challenge  conveys her wish to make the silent language bleed like a chromatic “flood” in order to kill silence – to tear it into pieces in whatever way the language of colour likes. The identification of telling / writing with bleeding / creativity is the self-inflicted violence brought about by the killing of silence which is the articulation of poetry. The poet is sure that the obliteration of silence endorses the waking up of the balsam.

Although the poem is too long to be explained here, the concluding lines are worth quoting : “And I am the dance of fire where love is not denied,” where the beginning is evoked. 

May Muzhaffar, in her poems “The News” and ” A Woman(23)  shows the woman feeling that she is transfixed by the boundaries  of her own utterance:

The silence grew and the fire put off 

A quiver grew between us 

Broken steps

Veiled steps

Silence remained silent about a news 

Lost on a wind’s wing – glittering for a while,

Disappeared into the bottom of dizziness.

The series of images of silence conveys the absence, the wholesale torture that renders the female speaker bewildered. The news is not told. 

In “A Woman” the title is a signifier that renders the poem gender-marked. Invisibility and absence signal her passivity. The poem runs as follows:

Occupied you are by an alien bird

Though the bird is a looking door…

Two hands like snow and an agitated face.

Fire on fire is a running out wind,

From the hole of the door and from the 

              Buttons of thought

Where you restore your memory.

It is a brief, but intense poem. The bird is a sign of the silenced voice, literally unsinging, “an alien bird“. The passive connotation of alienation annihilates the possibility of singing; then an ellipsis follows to leave the unsaid to the reader. The second image is juxtaposed on the previous one: “Two hands … ” which followed by or collaged on an antithetical paradox that makes speechlessness visible: “fire on fire…“. But the poem ends with a faint hope, but we are given signs, though faint ones: “the hole of the door” and ” restore your memory“. 

Such a woe is also expressed in more violent physical conveyance Bushra al-Bustani’s “A Female Silence(24), which is worth quoting at full: 

A Female Silence

Inside me poetry is being written 

Inside me silence is being written

Inside me all battles break out 

A wish sheds its sisters’ blood

Braids unfold 

What a painful silence as a flock of swans 

                         fall down

on an oasis of pain.

Silence has broken down my blood;

Shout, shout, O Globe, in your inside

cactuses set a tent,

On the Globe’s throbbing shingles, cactuses 

inject their poison 

Through her window, the arm of voice 

is being wrenched as voice starts.

Voice at night is being ravaged by the winged snakes 

by fires, by fever.

So, shout, O Globe … 

To assure me …

Wriggling, on my arms, through ages,

is your mine; it is about to explode. 

Damn them …

Damn them … 

The mine will explode

O sir, My Silence, 

O sir, 

you were a secure home 

and a bed of a quiescence 

But a well watered me a drop wine 

That burnt in my revolution against you

Sorry, sir if I killed you.

Sorry, sir.

A poem like this is far from being a call for help; it demonstrates a determination to achieve the victory of wit over the monster silence: she fends off silence with the speaker’s need to assert her self-expression and annihilate the self-effacement her culture imposes on her. 

Apparently, Al-Bustani connects silence with female creativity. Poetic creativity proceeds in a manner similar to a woman in labour; so artistic creativity is a biological birthing of a poem. The terror of inspiration in a woman is experienced quite literally  as the terror of  being possessed, ravished, or even raped. The silent monster looks on at what he has begotten and finally a baby is born: the woman’s child. The poem is an epitome of the woman’s predicament under patriarchy. The passive voice indicates that the woman is being violated as her speech is being expressed not by her, but from her. So, her speech is a silent struggle with pain and its emergence is a dreadful birthing. 

In Salwa al-Sa’id’s poem “Silence“, loneliness and alienation in the world of bubbles play a distinct role in the literary portrayal of women’s culture of marginalization. The woman speaker discusses a haunted place, invested with the epitome of disordered nature, the world surrounding her is a world full of babble, of voice where “wind’s seas, stars, trees and all humans chatter, while I am a coal among stones, babbling alone” ; she goes on saying : ” I beg the memory of the walls/ hence neighs Canaan” with which she concludes this short poem. The allusion to the Canaanite civilization – where Jordan grow in history, as the poet herself a Jordanian – helps eschew the ” I ” reference to the dilemma of the woman’s silence. She evokes the unspeakable wall of memory, of history, to speak, so that the Canaanite Horse, which is a symbol of the Arabs’ power and their horsemanship, would empower her to speak. In other words, she wants to say that the potentiality of “the neighing femininity” is there inside her and through “speech” she can recuperate all the power of which she was robbed. Her power of speech is compared through images with Canaanite glories; it is the articulation of poetry. It is a reference to the fact that the Arabic tradition of silencing the woman is not exclusively  Arabic, but rather it is the compilation of a history compiled and manipulated by historians who preserved a male hegemony and insured a female second status and absence. 

V

Although the space allowed here is not enough to mark off the similarities and differences between English and Arab women’s poetics of silence, the poems studied here show a great deal. In Arab women’s poems, there is a clear obsession with their seclusion and being imprisoned at home; therefore, they talk about their home alienation that compels them to resort to the night as their time of evading silence. In Englishwomen’s poems, there is a more direct touch of silence as an overwhelming, everyday conflict with the Other. 

Arab women’s poets’ (cultural) space allows them for little movement; English ones demonstrate how their speech, though said, goes unnoticed, remains hidden. Both dismantle the interiority of silence, revealing its symptoms as  serious impediments to their creativity. Both emphasise the word “Silence” and its derivatives by placing it as a title for the poem or using it somewhere in their poetic discourse. Silence for them violates the body as well as the soul.

Within this world of conflict, the women poets occupy the position of speechlessness, but struggle to find a voice to their agony. Sitwell, the public performer, Moore, the silent obedient daughter, Bishop, the silent insommiac, Sexton, the silent hungry woman, Nazik’s’ nocturnal female poet, Atika’s Shahrazad, the eloquent narrator, Zuhoor’s Ophelia and Mona Lisa, Amal’s chromatic woman speaker, May’s silent woman, Salwa’s silent female, all these personas attempt to speak through the silence which men impose on them. In sum, though they reveal submission to cultural paradigms, they transcend it in favour of an art of resistance, a poetics of silence. 

Notes

1. Marianne Moore, Complete Poems (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), p.91.

2. Sylvia Plath, “Admonition”, URL : 

3. Quoted in Toril Moi, “Sexual / Textual Politics : Feminist Literary Theory”, in Feminist Literary Theory : A Reader, ed. Mary Eagleton (MA : Blackwell publishers, 1994), pp. 231-232. 

4. Thomas Yingling, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds,New Anatomies(Chicago: UP,1990),p.74.

5. Louise Gluck, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (New York : Ecco, 19994), pp. 74-75.

6. Adrienne Rich, “Cartographies of Silence”, URL : 

7. Published in “Wheels : A Second Cycle,” ed. Edith Sitwell (Oxford and New York: Blackwell, Longman and Co, 1917), pp. 78-79.

8. Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight : Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (Berkely : U of California P, 1993), p. 175. 

9. Marianne Moore, Complete Poems (New York : Penguin Books, 1991), p. 91.

10. Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems : 1927-1979 (New York: The Noonday p., 1991), p. 70.

11. An excellent, detailed explanation of this poem is Jeanne Heuving’s, Omissions Are Not Accident : Gender in The Art of Marianne Moore (Michigan : Wayne UP, 1992), p. 117, to which I am largely indebted here.

12. Heuving, pp. 117-120.

13. Heuving, p. 29.

14. The complete Poems …, p. 127

15. Alan Williamson, “A Cold Spring: Elizabeth Bishop as Poet of Feeling.” In Eloquence and Mere life: Essays on the Art of Poetry (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P., 1994), p. 31.

16. The Complete Poems, p. 123.

17. C.K. Doreski, Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraint of language (New York : Oxford UP, 1993), p. 153. 

18. Anne Sexton, ” Lessons in Hunger “ , URL:

19. Nazik al-Mala’ika, Diwan Nazik al-Mala’ika, vol. I (Beirut: Darel-Awda, 1981), pp. 480-484; and pp. 485-491, respectively.

20. Atika al-khazragi, Anfasel-Sahar (Breathes of the Dusk) (Cairo: Fann Publishing, 1963), pp. 1-8.

21. Zuhoor Dixon, Fikulli Shayin Watan (Everything has a Home) (Baghdad : Dar el-Hurriyya Lil-Tiba’a, 1979), pp. 37-39 and 63-65, respectively.

22. Amal al-Zahawi, Al-Tada’iyat (Dissociations) (Baghdad: Ishtar publishing House, 1982), pp. 91-101.

23. May Muzaffar, Layliyyat (The Nightlies) (Amman: Dar el-Shuruq, 1994), p. 68, p. 30 respectively.

24. Bushra al-Bustani, taken from the archives of the poet.

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