Ananda Devi’s When the Night Agrees to Speak to Me is an impassioned investigation of poetry writing as an apparatus to probe and confront the cruel vagaries of patriarchy, writes Yagnishsing Dawoor.
When the Night Agrees to Speak to Me
Ananda Devi (trans. Kazim Ali)
Ananda Devi’s words come to us wounded from battle. They’re crosshatched with bruises, but whole. These words, the acclaimed Francophone Mauritian writer tells us in Les hommes qui me parlent, her 2011 memoir, are not hers. They are wrenched out of her by someone else. Someone with a twisted morality. Someone aroused by the sight of blood. ‘She was always there, always a little smug, always watching me live without participating in my life, except when it came to writing,’ Devi says of this second self. ‘There, she took over and wrote with a savagery and darkness that gradually became her (my) trademark.’ Devi’s oeuvre, frequently written from a Mauritius riven by patriarchal and casteist politics, thrives on the unsaid, confronts literature’s unwillingness to turn out the lights. Her newest to enter the anglosphere is no exception. First published in French nearly a decade ago, and now available in Kazim Ali’s terrific English translation in a bilingual edition, When the Night Agrees to Speak to Me is a flaming feminist dispatch from Devi’s evil twin. Taking patriarchal violence as its subject, it hurls us headlong into the charred heart of thwarted womanhood in a cycle of thirty short poems, before laying us out to recuperate in the cool intelligence of three wordier prose poems dealing with the question of language, literary violence, and the cultural dynamics of touch respectively.
In an interview with her translator that (along with an essay by Indian scholar Mohit Chandna and a brief translator’s note) forms the tailpiece of the book, Devi reveals that many of these poems came to her at a trying juncture in her life, ‘with questions as to who [she] was as a woman, a mother, a wife.’ Indeed, the collection reads at times like a small slice of autobiography full of hard-won realisations and insights. Midway in the book, the speaker declares, ‘of my presence you remember nothing’ and notes, a few poems later, ‘I am nothing but mud / About which the future has nothing to say.’ Like her memoir, Devi’s poems clamour against this ‘future’ of invisibility and erasure, exposing the forces, both big and small, intimate and cultural, that undermine women’s bodies, ambitions and speech, condemning them to oblivion. Feel, for instance, the heat of these lines, taken from the second poem to appear in the book:
I don’t know you
Am unaware of your name
Your face unfamiliar
Scarred by its rage
When you tear up my page
You will know who I was
A wound, an upheaval,
A scrap from a dream
You, the master of our fate
Whose name I do not know
From where comes all this anger
This unforgiving fury?
Patriarchy rarely assumes a human form in this collection. Here it is reconfigured as an anonymous wrathful you identified with God-like power. Devi denies it name and face. To give it either would be to humanise it, to cinch her feminism too tightly onto an object of anger. To be unable to move into a more ample critique. ‘Anger is creative,’ cultural theorist Sara Ahmed says of anger in feminism, in The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Anger ‘works to create a language with which to respond to what one is against, whereby “the what” is renamed and brought into a feminist world.’ Devi is a feminist to be sure but not a messianic writer; renaming can only take the shape of un-naming in the poem, a refusal to christen the structures that sanction her object of anger. It’s almost as if Devi has turned over that imperative to us. There’s frequently a non-specificity to the poems in this collection, a cultivated elusiveness about their subject matter, that makes her disclosure of their striation something of a compass. But to read them today in isolation from the politics of our #MeToo world, as say, just a poet’s individual tussle with the hampering might of the social roles heaped upon her, is to expose one’s myopia. It is to choose not to see the claw marks on these poems as the telltale labor of something larger, something more insidious and more ubiquitous. Because Devi, for all her demurral to be pedagogic, mind you, is deeply intentional about her art. In the poem’s coda that should have come with a trigger warning but does not, the poem’s I is dragged back by the hair, as she attempts to flee—from what, Devi does not say. Instead, she asks of the reader the honorarium of her own arrived-at fury.
Escape is a recurrent impulse and an unachievable venture in these poems. ‘You have to know to leave when there is still time,’ Devi counsels in one. But in another, she bemoans the ‘impossibil[ity]’ of ‘That first step outside of [oneself]’. In yet other places, Devi alludes to the deceptive lure of escape, as in the fifth poem:
Outside the brambles wait
To be fed by wounds
Our eyes wander bloody
In their dark harmonies
Rain on my skin
A gown of acid.
Or the twelfth, where the speaker contemplates death at the hands of an intimate partner as her liberation:
Certain gestures seem so simple
They abolish life.
Firmly clench again
Your fist on my body.
I read these words, and the grim, life-threatening realities women face (and often quietly surrender to) in Mauritius, this growingly femicidal animal of an island that I share with Devi, smite me with the force of a sudden slap. ‘You didn’t believe me / When I showed you my death. / In the cadence of my step,’ Devi accuses me. I feel helpless in the face of this accusation. I go back to the first poem. I watch again a feline figure descend at dawn, ‘on crimson paws to drink water from the river.’ This time, I am hit by what I had failed to see. The blood. The obvious symbolism of the ‘trampled snails’ that lie in her path. I follow her south, this half-cat, half-specter of a woman, where she ‘[searches] / For some proof [she] lived [there] once’ and I see her, for the first time, as perhaps already dead. Devi’s poems beseech the reader, as the speaker does in the ninth poem, to ‘peel back [their] skin / Unclothe [them] of [themselves]. / Look closer.’ And when you do, as you should, you begin to notice the gore in Devi’s imagery, how steadily and deviously her language works to visibilise patriarchy’s torture and ruination of women’s bodies. Devi writes of ‘pierced wings’, ‘festive flayings’, ‘hands burned on bare stone’, ‘broken toes’, ‘soiled remains’, ‘wounds that have opened you/To all the winds’, ‘bod[ies] split asunder’, ‘bodies shipwrecked on their reefs’, bodies ‘richly dismembered’—all images that are so loathsome in their depiction of female corporeality they take Devi’s poetry at times dangerously close to that reviled territory of horror dubbed ‘torture porn.’
Is there some function to the onslaught of violence the reader is confronted with? How does pain, in its excess, become politics? In the titular poem, in which Devi dramatises the doomed encounter between women’s testimony and power, we come close to an answer.
When the night agrees to speak to me.
It is with a blade
Into the places of certainty
When the night agrees to speak to me
It is with its back turned
‘I haven’t suffered enough,’ the I of the poem tells us, ‘It will not be content with just a little.’ Night is a monster that will not reach satiety. It is patriarchy’s hunger, its incredulity, its indifference, its infinite viciousness. Here Devi’s I is the I of testimonio, she’s both singular and plural, both of now and ancestral. She’s what Gender Studies scholar Leigh Gilmore calls the ‘tainted witness’, or any woman who speaks truth to power, and is condemned to repeat her story again and again in the hope that it will be received without being mangled with doubt and judgment. The glut of violence in Devi’s poems then is a radical act of confrontation. It is Devi standing her ground in the face of a world that is at pains to believe that women are still, today, silenced, controlled, and killed. Devi insists on the reader’s responsiveness. From start to finish, her language jostles against the ethics of representing violence, especially violence against the female body, striving to ‘say more, to do more’, to make poetry ‘wear another hat, something incandescent, a sort of burning’ and in so doing to leave the reader with something other than ‘the skeleton of silence’, to use Devi’s own poetic argot from the first two of the three prose poems that close the collection.
When the Night Agrees to Speak to Me is ultimately an impassioned investigation of the possibilities of feminist rage, and poetry writing as an apparatus to probe and confront the cruel vagaries of patriarchy. I finished the book shaken and galvanised by its drive and its daring.
- Yagnishsing Dawoor is a reader and writer from Mauritius. His work has appeared in French Cultural Studies, the Oxford Review of Books, World Literature Today and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter.