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Eve’s Revenge by Ethel Da Costa is proof that women have been angry for a long time, since time immemorial, and have been talking about rage, yet have been mostly unheard.
is just a big word thrown around by small men
who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given
than to explore the power they have to change it.”
~ Quote from the poem Don’t Cry for Me, from Eve’s Revenge by Ethel Da Costa
Reviewing a book of poetry is always a daunting task. Unlike a short story, or even a novel, where the references and meanings are clearer, the words in a poem are harder to unpack. The gap between the writer’s intent and the reader’s interpretation is far greater. This however, is also a blessing. Like Rorschach’s ink blots, poetry becomes a medium onto which the reader can project their own subconscious and discover something about themselves –this is the true power of poetry. It co-opts the reader in the process of creation.
In Eve’s Revenge, Ethel Da Costa provides people of all genders with a canvas graced by brush strokes. She rarely explains what she is trying to paint, but enough gets through to the reader to allow them to finish the picture in their own minds. The words reel you in, asking you to participate actively, and the reader is left moved by the experience.
Divided into four sections (Visitation, Finding, Agony and Descent), each section of Eve’s Revenge begins with a few Bible verses and some truly intriguing black and white photographs, that are a sort of visual poetry on their own.
But what struck me the most is that the book, published in 2008, resonated with me so much, even at the end of 2018. And it is not surprising, because this is the age of women’s anger. In the wake of #MeToo and books like Rage Becomes Her, attention is finally being paid to the fact that women are angry.
Eve’s Revenge is proof that women, especially female poets, have been talking about rage for a lot longer. As the poet herself writes in the Acknowledgements section at the beginning of the book, “The double standards of society, the rot of politics, corruption of our inner and public lives, hypocrisies of relationships, soul-selling of values, shallow friendships, religious betrayal, abuse, pain, loss of love and integrity… my anger had got to a boiling point, it was beginning to gnaw me, eat me up alive.”
This fury and these themes are housed in the pages of Eve’s Revenge. Perhaps most obviously in the poem Fruit of Wisdom, in which she writes:
“Maybe you ought to be crazy
noose on the pot
dropping into an empty well.”
Religious betrayal especially, is a recurring theme. As someone who struggles with reconciling my faith with the ugliness in the world around me, I found myself deeply responding to the following lines, in one of my favourite poems from the book, Faith at the Crossroads (Gibran cried in vain):
“You must understand I have been to heaven
but hell is on this Earth… Your Earth.
Through the years
hell is Eve’s nemesis
callous insensitive brethren
chasing faith right out of her bones.”
And again, in the same poem, when the poet asks God,
“So, tell me,
how do you deal with greed
This sense of being forsaken by God, comes out most strongly though in her short but potent two-liner, Adam’s Last Apple.
But it is not just betrayal by God that has the poet angry. She questions love and male-female relationships, in Kali’s Song:
“woman torn in between sighs and promises
fulfillment and disappointment
an institution which does nothing to help her plight”
society at large, which seeks to silence women, in Madness (dedicated to Durga):
“dust me under the carpet
push me into a dark corner with a broomstick
sweep the murky streets of the subconscious
but, why is that hoarse voice screaming the truth?”
and is unflinchingly honest and political, when she asks, in Mayhem in a Lotus,
“Has God truly deserted women?
or, is it just the BJP?”
Given the background and the title, it is to be expected that the poetry contains many mythological references. Eve is here for sure, but so is Medusa. And so are Sita, Kali, Durga and Krishna. My favourite reference however comes in the middle of the poem, Hallucinations in Chapora, which I initially began to read as an experience of using drugs. But in the middle of the poem come the following lines, which call to mind Satyavati, the fisherman’s daughter who became the Queen in the Mahabharata, forcing me to reconsider the lines I had read so far from a new perspective:
“She grew up in a fisherman’s hovel
today she is queen”
There is a strength in the words. They are powerful, like whip lashes. And raw, like the bruises caused by the lashes. Ethel Da Costa doesn’t hide her emotions, and a lot of the poetry is confessional and autobiographical. In some poetry, I could see flashes of Sylvia Plath. For example, the poem, Fairy’s Song (Dancing on a toothless smile), dedicated to her daughters, calls to mind Plath’s Morning Song, in which she describes the arrival of her baby and the early days of motherhood.
I would be committing a grave error if I did not mention how impressively Ethel Da Costa uses imagery in these poems. The mind-pictures she paints are less still-life and more motion pictures. They bear the reader along on a journey, from idea to idea and from emotion to emotion. Consider these lines from Dance of the Fireflies:
“fire flows from the sky
towards an electric bulb in a swirl
encircling around a poem”
or these lines from The Lonely Poet:
“Loneliness is a cloak on the body
amidst crowded markets”
Eve’s Revenge, then is a potent and free outpouring of a woman’s emotions. Her passion, and tenderness, yes, but also her anger, grief and complaint against a world and a system that has failed her. A world that must be changed, no matter how impossible it seems.
Image source: Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
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