Joan Didion writes, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Rachida Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head gets at the very heart of why we tell stories. Through these poems, we discover that stories allow us not only to witness and demand change, but to live and create living texts. Reworking lyric and narrative traditions, Tales of a Severed Head interrogates the stories behind One Thousand and One Nights. In this age-old collection of fables, King Shehriyar marries a new wife each night and beheads her the next morning. Scheherazade, who volunteers to be his wife, tells stories each night to save the remaining women from being beheaded. Tales of a Severed Head resurrects the myth of Scheherazade in complex and nuanced ways; today, Scheherazade wields language as a weapon in order to save the lives of her fellow citizens. Vivid and transformative, these poems deeply consider the gendered hierarchies oppressing contemporary Moroccan society.
With poems in both French and English, this volume features translations by Marilyn Hacker, the author of twelve books of poems and ten volumes of translations. Hacker, known for bringing innovative work from poets such as Guy Goffette, Marie Etienee, and Venus Khory Gata to English-speaking audiences, continues her dedication to expanding international poetry with Tales of a Severed Head. Hacker’s translations of Madani’s poems are fueled by her love of language; indeed, this is the work of a poet and translator who deeply believes in language as a means of transformation and imagination. Moved by the visceral quality of Madani’s poems, Hacker writes in the introduction, “… I wanted to transmit the energy, direct and lyrically accurate, of Madani’s language, a French informed by disparate literary traditions and still entirely its own.”
Born in Tangiers, Madani is a Moroccan activist, teacher, feminist, painter, and poet. As such, art, society, and politics are inextricably intertwined in her work. In the 1970s, Madani wrote during a time of great intellectual repression, known to Moroccans as les années de plomb (the leaden years). In response, dissident literature blossomed. Madani’s first collection, Femme je suis, featured poems which were circulated among political prisoners. In Tales of a Severed Head, Madani continues to consider the relationship between the poetical and the political. Indeed, contemporary resistance is a felt presence while reading these poems. Her modern Scheherazade becomes a composite of many voices, a kind of diseuse (which translates from the French as “teller”). Madani’s diseuse is the holder of a collective and fraught past. Within a history of silence and repression, she struggles to speak. Yet, through this multifarious voice, Madani emphasizes the necessity of rewriting and retelling tradition. It is through the vessel of language that resistance can occur. Instead of the familiar “live to tell,” we have “tell to live.” Poetry is living matter.
Madani’s poems are intense and immediate. Urgency courses through each of the book’s three tales. The reader must believe that anything can change in a moment. In “First Tale,” she writes: “But the train arrives/but the branch breaks/but suddenly it’s raining in the station.” As with acts of violence, the entire scene of the poem changes without notice. Moreover, that which should be safe –a vessel that allows us to move and escape – becomes the very thing that kills. The poem continues: “And the train emerges from all directions/it whistles and goes right through the woman/the whole length of her." The horror of this scene is repeated again in the following line: “and they all go through her/the whole length of her." The use of repetition throughout these poems intensifies the past and its haunting consequences.
Readdressing the past also raises critical questions. Tales of a Severed Head is full of questions that echo, beg, and interrogate. For instance, in the first poem, we are instantly aware of the trouble of locating violence through questions. Madani begins: “What city and what night.” This question notably lacks punctuation, thus acting more like a statement. For, regardless of the answer’s specificity, it is night in the city and atrocities occur when one cannot see. Throughout, questions are imbued with increasing tension. These questions demand answers and accountability:
Why does she leave cut
in two her hands preceding her body?
Why does she leave to go around
the woman who used up her tears?
How many closed doors separate you?
How many words hurled against your door
before you come out on the square?
Notably, in this last question, words become a tangible object, “hurled against your door.” Again, language is alive and full of violent potential. Along with interrogation, questions also become a means to self-hood. Tales of a Severed Head features italicized sections, which feel more intimate. In these sections, the “I” speaks if only to become the “I.” For instance, “I say I/and my hatred bursts in this glass garden” and later: “I say I/and the innumerable arms rush/to seize my fragile neck." By proclaiming “I,” the speaker exists in the physical world. Acts of felt violence occur after this proclamation – a risk the courageous speaker must take in order to exist. As readers, we too are bursting and seized, as Madani invites us to feel each vivid movement. Violence is certainty not hidden in these poems; atrocities are held out for all to see and feel deeply: “all these eyes lined up on your foreheads/strongly resemble/bullet holes.”
Through language, violence and oppression can be reworked and questioned, giving voice to the silenced. This is the power of language. That which is empty can be full. In fact, one poem critiques the King Shehriyar and Scheherazade story, asking: has this story resulted in anything, except pain? Madani writes: “You have proclaimed nothing/and abolished nothing/999 pages have made nothing easier.” The speaker’s emphasis on nothingness exudes frustration and exhaustion. It is as if she asks: how can we move beyond this story to make something out of nothing? Perhaps poetry can be a means to filling this space, heading toward new territory. With the speaker moving upstream, against the current, Madani writes:
From metamorphosis to metamorphosis
from poem to poem she moves forward
and every poem is a skiff
headed for the other shore.
Here, the poem is the rock that keeps pushing one forward toward something else. And, as we can see in other poems, poetry not only aids metamorphosis, it has the power to destroy. In the “Third Tale,” the poem literally becomes a weapon: “Waiting, she places a mine/into each poem she launches.” These mines in the poem break down both poetic traditions and social constructions. Yet, this is a productive destruction. Destruction also leads to living, akin to the phoenix rising from the ashes. The poems in Tales of a Severed Head emerge brighter, more powerful, and with their heads whole and ready to speak, to tell.
Jane Wong lives in Seattle, where she is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Washington. A former U.S. Fulbright Fellow, she holds an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Mid-American Review, CutBank, Octopus, and in the anthologies Best New Poets 2012 and The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral.