Poetry doesn't always require panic attacks
Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 02:04
Anytime I mention poetry, I see fear crop up in people’s eyes.
They think of Shakespeare, who is mislabeled as impossible to understand, or of that high-school English teacher who told them everything they thought about a poem was wrong. Or maybe they think about that time their teacher sent them home to write a sonnet, and then ripped it apart.
Well, nobody need fear. “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” by Natasha Trethewey, is written in poetry. Now, before the mental panic button goes off, “Bellocq’s Ophelia” is not the scary poetry that high school teachers force students to read. No, “Bellocq’s Ophelia” is a beautiful and haunting story about a woman-turned-prostitute who seeks to reclaim her identity and escape an objectifying lifestyle. A photographer, Bellocq, comes to take pictures of her and her fellow prostitutes--it's through a fascination with the camera that allows Ophelia to recapture herself.
The protagonist, Ophelia, is a young, half-African-American, half-Caucasian woman trying to make her way in New Orleans. Unable to find a job, she finds work in New Orleans’ red-light district in a brothel filled with other women like her.
The story is divided into two parts. The first part contains letters written home by Ophelia. The second part is her own journal entries. The book is organized in chronological order, and by reading the letter and journal entries made at the same time, readers are able to glean even more insight into and about Ophelia.
The poetry is stunning, managing to capture Ophelia’s change into a prostitute who buries her identity to remain detached from customers.
While many readers today shy away from poetry, I would beg them not to in this instance. Prose is meant to tell us a story, while poetry shows us that story. By telling Ophelia’s story through poetry, the reader experiences every incident, thought and emotion of Ophelia. It eliminates part of the truth vs. fiction gap by allowing readers to become Ophelia by removing the narration element. Nobody is telling the story to readers--they are living it along with Ophelia.This concept is even more present in the journal section of the story, where the narrative places the reader directly into Ophelia’s shoes.
But, my favorite part of this book of poetry is the reclaiming of Ophelia’s identity. She quickly learns to shove her truest self to the back of her mind in order to entertain and please customers. Ophelia’s ability to shut off her identity is a skill she learned early in life, which is part of the tragedy of this story, and of women in general, particularly in this time.
Women must shut off part of who they really are in order to perform for and attract men—they must embody the feminine other, the feminine mystique that both Simone de Beauvior and Betty Friedan shouted so much about. This concept is only heightened in the brothel, where a woman’s sole purpose is to please the male customer.
However, it’s through the power of photography that Ophelia recaptures that identity. By realizing the power of a lens, by looking at herself through the unfaltering eye of the camera, she begins to form her identity in something besides her relationship to men. By learning photography and by purchasing her own camera, she is able to release herself from the bind of lost identity that prostitution has placed on her.
So, instead of running in the other direction from a book filled with dreaded poetry, discover the powerful way poetry can tell a story by removing the distance between the reader and the character.