Of Sonnets, Deer, and Media Saturation

September 14, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Carol Quinn on “Child Bride Dies of Internal Bleeding on Her Wedding Night” by Benjamin S. Grossberg

Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain unfolds from the premise that pain is inexpressible, and more than that: that “pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed.” We have a choice when we encounter the suffering of others. We can ignore it—possibly out of what is sometimes called “compassion fatigue,” or even feelings of our own helplessness. Or we can acknowledge the suffering and try—though it may be impossible to do so in the purest sense—to understand (and even, if still possible, to take the cause away). Akira Kurosawa famously said, “To be an artist…means never to avert one’s eyes.” Perhaps, in averting our eyes from death and suffering, we become less sentient ourselves.

Like “Design” by Robert Frost, Benjamin S. Grossberg’s “Child Bride Dies of Internal Bleeding on Her Wedding Night” is a sonnet that interrogates order even as it establishes one. A type of reassuring theory is called into question by these poems, and a possibility that is not comforting is discovered to exist instead. Both sonnets may disturb us; they may, in fact, be examples of formal poems that, as Irena Praitis puts it, “explore how form can be employed to disrupt consensus and deny solace…”

The German philosopher Edmund Husserl sometimes applied the term “geometer” to those who sought to console themselves by imposing order on an unpredictable universe and creating idealized forms that seldom corresponded precisely with reality. Husserl writes, “If we are interested in…ideal shapes and are consistently engaged in determining them and in constructing new ones out of those already determined, we are ‘geometers.’” He also critiques those who “quickly found and still find formulas with which to console themselves and their readers.” The sonnet form has sometimes been used to assert order. The ability to create order can offer comfort in the face of seeming chaos. To a reader’s ear, the sonnet may also suggest a kind of world-as-we-expect-it-to-be in terms of rhyme: an aural reassurance and counterpoint to the form’s epiphanies. A contemporary poet might also use the form to lull an audience into a sense of false security. Grossberg’s sonnet does, in fact, shatter an audience’s self-consoling theories about the suffering in question having been short or coming to an end quickly.

We may at any moment access an infinite number of headlines recounting suffering. The title of Grossberg’s sonnet recalls the style and syntax of such headlines. Still, little is known about the Child Bride; the poet gives us a little more information about her in the epigraph: “‘The girl, identified only as Rawan, was married to a 40-year-old man…’” As the poem begins, Grossberg switches over to a description of wild dogs “setting on a young deer…” In both metaphor-creation and empathy, we attempt to better understand the unknown by comparing it to what we already know. Grossberg’s analogy is apt, as it involves the media via “A program I saw once…” Also, the deer of Grossberg’s poem may recall the deer of sonnets written centuries ago—but only obliquely, with no more force than that of an accidental allusion.

But something about the analogy disturbs the speaker. The poet discovers that in the comparison of Rawan’s suffering to that of the deer—and in the television narrator’s suggestion that the deer doesn’t feel what is happening to her; that a sort of “peace / enters her dark-marble eyes as she falls back”—there is also a turning away. Grossberg’s challenge to the television narrator’s explanation causes the reader to question not only the announcer’s knowledge of the deer’s suffering, but our own defense mechanisms and reassurances to ourselves about Rawan. Grossberg’s subtle, slant-rhymed sonnet ushers us into a realization that we know nothing of the suffering of others, and that the consolations and defense mechanisms that allow us to look away are as reliable as the television’s program narrator’s assertion about the deer being at “peace” as she is devoured. Instead, the television narrator may inadvertently be describing a modern media consumer’s own inability to comprehend the suffering depicted daily.

It is not difficult to find Rawan’s story online. The title of Grossberg’s poem is very close to a Reuters headline from September 10, 2013: “Child bride in Yemen dies of internal bleeding on wedding night: activist.” From this Reuters story, we learn a little more about her—and more details that are difficult to grasp: Rawan was only eight years old. Grossberg has done something that many strive to do but don’t always accomplish: he has created an elegy for a stranger, and his elegy might move other strangers to remember the lost girl after they move on to the next headline.

Carol Quinn’s poetry has appeared in 32 Poems, Western Humanities Review, Cincinnati Review, Pleiades, Colorado Review, and other journals, as well as the Women Write Resistance and Hot Sonnets anthologies. Acetylene, Dr. Quinn’s first book of poems, was selected by Dorothy Barresi for the 2008 Cider Press Review Book Award and published in 2010. Dr. Quinn received her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English Literature in 2005 from the University of Houston, her master’s degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, and her undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California. Her reviews and scholarship have appeared in Pleiades, The Emily Dickinson Journal, American Book Review, and Voltage. Dr. Quinn has also recently won the So to Speak: A Journal of Feminist Language and Art Poetry Prize, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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