Poetry

Poetry Sunday: 'Magdalene Faces the Tribunal,' by Prartho Sereno

Magdalene Faces the Tribunal of Quantifiable Evidence and Measurable Outcomes

 

Yes, it is possible, I suppose, that he hypnotized us and we only imagined ourselves in those silent depths— that he tricked our minds into peace, our bodies into ease, created the illusion that we were whole. And yes, perhaps we merely felt as if we were loved. . .with abandon. . . He smelled like rain and his voice made my bones hum like a thousand dulcimers… Yes, it was probably an imaginary wind that brought us to his feet and blew us back into lives that are now, somehow, on fire. And I suppose one could make the case that he faked the whole thing, that he was just like the rest of us—lost, tiny as a grain of rice in a bubbling kettle of stars. He may have only brought laughter to our days and dancing to our feet, only made it seem a blessing to be alive. No, sirs, I have nothing to show. None of us got rich or made ourselves a name. But often I find my pillow wet when I wake in the night and think of him.

  From Elephant Raga (Lynx House Press, 2015), winner of the 2015 Lynx Prize and reprinted with permission of the press. The book can be ordered here. Prartho Sereno MPC photo [caption id="attachment_102258" align="alignleft" width="167"]book cover_Prartho Sereno_10-21-15 Click here to purchase on Amazon and help support Women’s Voices’ mission. [/caption] Currently the Poet Laureate of Marin County, California, Prartho Sereno has done stints as a counseling psychologist, vegetarian cook, P. E. instructor at Cornell University, watercolorist, book and cover illustrator, amateur songwriter, single parent, and psychic/palm-reader. She is author of three prize-winning poetry collections—Elephant Raga (Lynx House Press, 2015), Call from Paris (The Word Works, 2008/14), and Causing a Stir: The Secret Lives and Loves of Kitchen Utensils (Mansarovar Press, 2007), which she also illustrated—and a collection of essays, Everyday Miracles: An A to Z Guide the Simple Wonders of Life (Kensington 1998). A long-time California Poet in the Schools, she teaches at the College of Marin. Her website is www.prarthosereno.com.       Notes on “Our Kisses” [caption id="attachment_99736" align="alignleft" width="175"]Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor[/caption] I first heard “Magdalene Faces the Tribunal” read by its author at her Poet Laureate celebration, struck then as I am now by how powerfully the poem makes—and wins—its case against the arbiters of reason and limits. I see it as feminist ars poetica featuring the figure of a lone woman hauled before a panel of powerful misogynistic men and in the end silencing their petty objections by creating her own kind of irrefutable miracle. I like the tactics drawn from rhetoric to make the speaker’s case: the adoption of a mask (persona), the setting up of straw men, and the ironic pretending to concede points while in fact acing them. The poem is cast in the form of a “defense” to some limitation imposed by the Tribunal. On its surface, it “proves” the miracle of Christ’s resurrection, but of course the poem defends much more than that—mystery, beauty, and art—against measurement, evaluation, and demand for proof for things that cannot be quantified. The speaker anticipates the challenges the Tribunal will pose to her beliefs, feelings, and very memories, and she lays them out one by one as apparent concessions, e.g., “And I suppose one could make the case / that he faked the whole thing.” The speaker’s plenary anticipation of the Tribunals’ arguments reminds me of the adage that it is good to know one’s enemy. In its fierceness and in its image of one woman standing up to a group of men anointed with power, this poem reminds me of “The Defense” by Sharon Olds. In that poem, a speaker pregnant with her young son, defends her PhD dissertation before a panel of men who flunk her in a way that is humiliating and overtly sexist. Although her verbal response is a quiet “thank you” the speaker manifestly has the last word:

I thought, if you have hurt my child, If you have curdled my milk with that, I will find you, and I will kill you. And with that my son’s hair stood On end, in the saline.

“The Defense,” from Blood, Tin, and Straw (Knopf 2004)

In the same way, Magdalene appears to acquiesce to the Tribunal (who, in its despotic exercise of power no doubt believes she has accepted their pronouncement), but in fact it is she who has the last word and carries the day in these powerful last lines:

None of us got rich or made ourselves a name. But often I find my pillow wet when I wake in the night and think of him.

About writing “Magdalene Faces the Tribunal, its author says:

“It’s no exaggeration to say this poem’s gestation took decades. I lived in an Indian ashram on and off for much of the 80s, and upon returning to the West, I found myself in a culture ‘religiously’ devoted to weights and measures. All credibility for the immeasurable seemed to have been lost. I wobbled through the following decades carrying what felt to be an unwieldy secret: experiences of terribly suspect states such as love, silence, and (dare I say?) joy. Then, a few years ago, I re-entered academe to pursue an MFA in poetry. Even in the sheltered precincts of Creative Writing, the ivory tower’s virulent prejudice against all things interior and inexplicable slipped under the door. It was there, on one of many lonely, gray afternoons, that I heard Magdalene’s voice before the Tribunal. Her vulnerability and helplessness met mine; I let her write the poem.”

Sereno’s comment about letting Magdalene write this piece makes me want to talk a bit more about a technique popular in rhetoric and poetry called “persona.” The word literally means “mask,” and the writer using it enters the mind and body and speaks through the mouth of another person, often a famous historic or literary figure. A famous example is “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, where the speaker is a wealthy nobleman showing guests the painting of his wife whom he has had removed (possibly murdered) for insubordination. I made extensive use of persona in my last book (Paradise Drive), adopting the voices of men and women, of the Seven Deadly Sins, and even of dogs living in Marin County. The technique has come under fire recently, raising issues of cultural appropriation when writers adopt voices belonging to genders, races, and nationalities not their own. Many writers, though, find it remarkably freeing to speak in another person’s voice, and as you can see from this week’s poem, the results can be quite powerful.   Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com. ]]>

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  • Tara Fisher November 10, 2015 at 12:36 am

    I see you. I see me. I see all of us, shining.

    Reply
  • Tara Fisher November 10, 2015 at 12:36 am

    I see you. I see me. I see all of us, shining.

    Reply
  • Michael Shay November 9, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    Becky:
    Insightful response to a beautiful poem Will have to read Poetry Sunday more often.
    Best wishes, Mike

    Reply
  • Michael Shay November 9, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    Becky:

    Insightful response to a beautiful poem Will have to read Poetry Sunday more often.

    Best wishes, Mike

    Reply
  • Meryl Natchez November 9, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    Thanks for this wonderful poem,that even manages to speak to rain…

    Reply
  • Meryl Natchez November 9, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    Thanks for this wonderful poem,that even manages to speak to rain…

    Reply