REVIEWED BY JENNIFER MACBAIN-STEPHENS
In Saba Syed Razvi’s poetry collection In the Crocodile Gardens, (Agape Editions, 2016) an amalgam of fairy tale like poems lives in a forest filled with demons, Sirens, Thisbe, Persephone, poison fruit and the wolf’s “anguish of an unspoken wish,” (from the poem Snow Song.) We travel dark roads to witness characters at their most vulnerable moments, sometimes on the verge of making a wrong choice. Like Cassandra who could foretell the future but was cursed to have no one ever believe her, the speaker’s voice is always full of warning. From the poem “Promise,”
Loveless Thisbe, do not mistake the sound
of a voice through the wall for a voice that seeks
a home inside the walls
of your heart.
Every voice echoes.
Thisbe is alone, she places the palm of her hand on a crumbling wall, tries to find an opening to touch warm fingers. Razvi captures a yearning through these literary tropes. Razvi, however, alters the reality. She gives these characters more of an assertive voice. In “Poisonfruit,” there is no female character named, it could be any archetype speaking, but she is done with previously written rules.
Seduce me with an apple or a pome,
I will laugh for you—
…I am no goddess—no kindness in me—
to be won.
We hear the haughtiness of this character, not bowing to the whims of men. She is no one to be taken for granted.
In “Like Red, Dancing for the Wolf,” the speaker, is the one always in control. There is a sexual energy to this poem with the mention of a corset in a quiet room. Here, the wolf is a symbol of never getting enough of something.This reworked nursery rhyme sings out:
…a thousand legs to carry me home
and a milipede’s petal quenched wish
would carry me dancing boot-heeled back—
your jaws, pink tongued.
When Razvi writes “carry me back” we do not know if she means back home to safety or back to the wolf— but we are leaning toward the beast, wanting the danger to hover over a tipping point. We feel this push and pull with violence again when Thisbe appears for a second time in “Thisbe, Upon Seeing the Lion.” The lion seizes the virginal Thisbe. There is a “kiss” and a “bloody pair of lips.”
The moment of arched back, broken-
of a feline, sinewed and fanged and
claws parting the sheaf of skin…
The sexual imagery is raw and sparse with just fur and spine as the take away. This ravaging is also murder. It is no surprise then that several poems in Razvi’s collection deal with real life war. In the poem “Oil field. Mine, field. Afghanistan,” Razvi depicts a damaged land and people. Here she draws this picture with her specific words:
…a plastered poster’s
picture depicts how to tie a tourniquet where no-man nomad
has stepped through not a missile’s arc but a mine-field.
Once, here, were pomegranate trees, once whooping birds and
Jasmines big as a fist, until a fist took…
It is no wonder that Razvi weaves to and from fictional characters into real bodies, eking connection through themes of storytelling. As with fairy tales, love and violence intermingle. Razvi uses demons and mythology to her advantage. The demons lay not only in the snowy wood, but hide in the skies over Baghdad. Here is Razvi’s perspective from the ground, in her kitchen in “Shock and Awe:”
…I do not wear a veil
everyday, but today in defiance.
From my kitchen the small heat
of a gas stove—how could I even remember
to scream, if the flume of blue kept growing?
Like the earlier wolf imagery, there is an ominous sense of hunter and the hunted throughout this collection. It makes sense that we travel from mythical lore to exploring the “animus” (the monster in man) himself. War is the mirror held up this animus.
It is this curiosity and fear of the animal within us, however, that keeps us turning the page, we seek out new depths to plummet, new journeys to begin with a broken compass: search without totally losing all self.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is the author two full length poetry collections (forthcoming from Yellow Chair Press and Stalking Horse Press.) Her chapbook “Dixit: Every Picture Tells a Story, or The Wrong Items,” is forthcoming from White Knuckle Press in 2017 and “She Came Out From Under the Bed, (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro)” is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at Lime Hawk, concis, and Inter/rupture. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.