Abuse, Anger, Attachment, Bad Ideas, Emotions, Jane Paterson Basil, Quality of Life, Relationships, Self, Self Image, Violence

Poetry Critique: “Weapons of Feathers”, by Jane

(About an 11 minute read)

As I see it, a good poem above all else employs words to evoke an emotional response from its audience, regardless of whether its message is trivial or profound, true or false, or even exists at all.  But a great poem goes beyond that, much beyond that, to reveal a truth — and often in a way that is so fresh and striking, the impact of the revelation is multiplied many fold.

Jane’s poem, “Weapons of Feathers, so decisively achieves the first goal of evoking emotions that to spend much time examining the fact would be like pondering whether or not an approaching hurricane could be properly called a “storm”. There is little need here to go into the matter.

But does the poem reveal a truth?  And if so, does it do it in a fresh and striking way?  Those are the questions I will address here.

Now, to set the stage, Jane explains that the poem is a response to,  and a refutation of, “someone who wrote an insulting post about a million years ago, claiming that women who are abused, stay because they enjoy the abuse.”  As it happens, that notion has been thoroughly debunked by science.

We now know that, among other factors, women in long-term abusive relationships are quite likely physically addicted to their abuser.  Their brains are producing an extremely potent chemical, oxytocin, that bonds them to the man as surely as a heroin addict is bonded to heroin.  For more detail on that see this Café Philos post: Why Women Sometimes Become Addicted to Abusive Partners.  Here, we only need to note the fact in passing.

Of far more importance in this context is the curious fact that all partner abuse tends to follow a single general pattern with some variations at times. The abuser initially presents himself as an often exceptionally charming man, building up his intended victim with flattery and praise.

The actual abuse does not begin until he senses she has become emotionally dependent on him, and then he starts out by criticizing her for some seemingly legitimate error.  She’s just a bit over-weight. She screwed up dinner.  She was late home from work, and so forth.

Because the first criticisms at least seem legitimate, the woman is apt to receive them rationally by seeking to correct her mistakes, and by promising not to do the same things again.

But of course, it does not end there.  Her acceptance only provokes him to progress to larger and larger criticisms.  As time goes by, the criticisms tend to grow less and less reasonable, and more and more demanding.  She has come home with her hair barely out of place and a few fresh wrinkles in her clothing: Has she been seeing someone?  Sleeping with him?  Can she absolutely prove that she has not?

When the criticisms have reached a certain intensity, the punishments begin.  Since she cannot absolutely prove she has not been sleeping around, she must do penance by waxing the kitchen floor on her bare knees, or by submitting to a spanking, and so forth.

Not all punishments translate into physical punishments — some “merely” consist in two or three hours of verbally being curse and condemned, but all share a common element: They seek to demean her, put her down, crush her self-esteem and her belief in herself.  She is worthless, worse than trash, a bitch, and a whore, who can do nothing right.

But a remarkable thing might now happen.

She might credibly threaten to leave him — or she might actually leave him.  In such cases, she inevitably faces two factors that emotionally call upon her to return.  Typically within three to four days or so, her body will begin withdrawing from oxytocin.  Simultaneously, she will begin physically craving him as the pain of the withdrawal sets in. She is now likely to obsess on her memories of him, of his touch, of his body, of his smile, of his presence, and so forth.

At the same time, he himself is quite likely to suddenly revert back to his old charming self.  He may even beg forgiveness, promise her a new start, find her and bring gifts, pretend in every way he has seen the light and is now forever changed.  Some abusers even play on their victim’s feelings of compassion, kindness, or pity by breaking down in tears, begging as if their lives depended on their victim’s return.

And if she returns, the pattern starts all over again. The abuser almost never changes.

All of this can go on for years, with numerous variations — especially gas lighting the victim.  That is, pretending that her memory of, or take on, what is happening to her is nonsense, is madness.  Or, as Jane puts it more precisely in her poem:

…denying, reclassifying and minimising,
refusing and excusing the crime of abuse

All of the above is merely an objective description of the core pattern of partner abuse.  But what is her abuse to the victim?  What is her take on?  What emotions, feelings does it provoke?  And are any truths revealed by the poem that are not so powerfully revealed by an objective overview?

Specifically  — given the poem is designed as a refutation of the notion women stay with their abusers because they enjoy the abuse — does Jane reveal to us a truer reason they stay?  And, if so, does she do it in a way that is so fresh and striking it multiplies the impact of its truth on us?

At the beginning, the poem is directly addressed to the person — I will call him the “fool” — who “a million years ago” posted the insulting notion that women stay because they enjoy being abused. In the first stanza, Jane derisively calls that notion the “skeleton key”  — a sarcastic exaggeration of the notion’s alleged explanatory power:

 I catch the eye of your smokestack attack,
your knick-knack decree, your prickly glee,
your steel filigree of quack accusations;
your erroneous, odious, misconceived notion
that you hold the skeleton key.

  After thoroughly deriding the notion, she counters in the second stanza that she is an “unwilling detainee”, rather than someone who stays because she enjoys abuse.

After that, she denies that the fool knows her at all well, then proceeds to justly blame her abuser for his abuse of her.

Now, in the fifth stanza, Jane abruptly shifts from directly attacking the fool and his notion to obliquely attacking him by describing her abuser and what he does.  The sixth stanza, however, is in my opinion the key to the whole poem — again, she is talking about her abuser now:

He steals all my strength and my self-belief;
leaves me convinced that I’m too weak to leave.
I want to break free, to seek my redemption,
but all I have left are weapons of feathers;
I am a failed escapee.

And it is here that we get a full measure of the reason Jane stays with her abuser: He so “steals all [her] strength and [her] self-belief” that she is left with no more than “weapons of feathers” with which to defend whatever might now remain of the will power and self-esteem she would need to walk out on him.

The image of a woman’s strength and self-belief as reduced to mere “weapons of feathers” is to my mind at once fresh, striking, and — above all else — true.  A human has been crushed to “feathers” by the abuse of her.  I can’t think of a more apt word to describe the feelings of powerlessness, of weakness, of loss, than to liken one’s last remaining shred of a self to something as insubstantial and as alien as feathers.

But there is a bit more to it: Feathers are associated with flight, with escape, but these particular feathers are ironically rendered poignant by being flightless, worthless to aid in an escape.

Now in the seventh stanza, Jane economically, but vividly, drives home her feelings of vulnerability in just three powerful lines:

How can I fight or escape the mind-rape;
I can’t fan a fire whose flames have died,
I’ve no place to flee and no way to hide.

Reciting those lines, it is easy to imagine the tears she’s shed are to be measured in hours and in days.  The intense word “rape” here seems to me to be even further intensified by the recognition that the rape of her is no doubt enduring and relentless.

After that, Jane once again turns to derisively characterizing the “skeleton key” notion that women like being abused, and then ends the poem with a brilliant characterization of the fool as “licking a silver spoon” — as being too privileged to understand what she’s going through.

Now, there are two key (and many lesser) truths in the poem.  First, the essential truth that she stays with her abuser because he’s reduced her to feathers, and second the equally essential truth that the fool is indeed a fool who knows not a damn thing about why she stays with her abuser.

Both of those are to my mind genuine truths, and as such fulfill our ideal that a poem speak the truth.  But beyond that, I would propose that Jane has clearly in both cases fulfilled our other ideal of speaking those truths in such a way as to multiply their impact on us.

Here, then, is the full poem, “Weapons of Feathers“:

 

I catch the eye of your smokestack attack,
your knick-knack decree, your prickly glee,
your steel filigree of quack accusations;
your erroneous, odious, misconceived notion
that you hold the skeleton key.

How dare you presume to assess my position,
to deny my depths, my needs and my reasons,
How dare you declare that mistreatment thrills me;
why do you wish to further diminish
this unwilling detainee?

You misread my desires when you speak of agendas,
dismembering debris from my deadened embers,
placing the blame and incentive on me;
yet you can’t oversee my weighty life story
you’re not even a nominee.

I repudiate all of your fool’s accusations;
the self-satisfied sewage that you blithely peruse,
denying the truth that the root of abuse
lies with the abuser, who uses his beastly repartee
to make a recluse of me.

Each time he unlooses his sly war-cry ruses
that criticise and vilify, and meanly seek to crucify,
the savagery is magnified, and all the while
he denies or justifies each horrifying lie,
crushing me like a flea.

He steals all my strength and my self-belief;
leaves me convinced that I’m too weak to leave.
I want to break free, to seek my redemption,
but all I have left are weapons of feathers;
I am a failed escapee.

How can I fight or escape the mind-rape;
I can’t fan a fire whose flames have died,
I’ve no place to flee and no way to hide.
Your ignorance stinks, you’ve wakened my ire,
you are mistaken, you see.

You proselytize bootlace, bottled psychology,
lamely proclaiming I’m playing a game,
of break-ups and make-ups and titillation,
of lusty fun with fumbling seduction,
but you are wrong about me.

It’s high-time you scrapped all your latchkey untruths.
Cease denying, reclassifying and minimising,
refusing and excusing the crime of abuse,
spitting slick idioms as you lick your silver spoon,
and finally, leave me be.

4 thoughts on “Poetry Critique: “Weapons of Feathers”, by Jane”

  1. I asked you to critique this poem because I wanted to be sure that I’d stated my case accurately. Your critique tell me that I did. It’s all I wanted to know, but you gave me much more, including highlighting some of my phrases. I’m happy with the general order of the poem and the metaphor, but I’m wondering whether the meter still needs a bit of work. Perhaps should read it out to a couple of people – see what they think.

    Thank you Paul; yet again, I am most grateful to you.

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    1. I’m glad you found the review useful. I wasn’t sure you would, Jane, because I did little more than unpack your poem for folks who might be too busy to unpack it for themselves.

      I do think I might have gone overboard in laying out the scientific side of abuse, but I could not resist. One of my very few self assumed missions in life is to combat abuse as much as I can, and educating people to recognize it is the major way I’ve found to do that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You didn’t go overboard! I meant to tell you how gratified I am to learn the science behind it. This poem is about a relationship with the father of my two youngest children. It spanned 20 years and wreaked havoc. I despised him; hated him even, and yet I tried everything I could to win his approval. His pattern of behaviour followed the familiar one that you describe. I knew I was obsessed, but I didn’t know I was an addict. Your words contain at least as much power as mine; they almost exonerate me.

        I say “almost” because there were children involved. One day I’d like to post as much of the story as I am at liberty to. I would make it a tragicomedy, which would mark a final healing, assuming I’m not already healed.

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      2. Yes, I think you should do that! Writing about it would be healing in part, I think, because it would be a means of redeeming the wastefulness of spending years being abused. You’d be turning that experience into something immensely positive — honest art.

        Yeah, I’m totally interested in the science of abuse. Five years with Tomoko, ten years in therapy — you pay a price, you might as well understand what happened to you. Besides, helps to fight it. There’s way too much of it in the world, and much of it is institutionalized, or worked into the structure of things.

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