Skin

by Soraya Peerbaye

It wasn’t said. What we were, beneath the skin of our respectability. My father, a doctor, his accent learned from Indians who studied in England. My mother, a Mary Kay consultant: pink makeup kits in the living room, the paperback success story on her night table. How I dreamed of her winning the pink fur-trimmed coat, the pink Cadillac.

Unsaid, as she held my brother’s hand, going door to door to find out who had beaten him with a bag full of bottles. Her wrist a golden ribbon between the gap of coat sleeve and glove.

~

Once I woke in the morning and looked out my window to see boot prints in fresh snow. A trampled path, as though someone had taken a shortcut through our backyard, suddenly unsure which way to go. As though I’d rubbed my eyes too hard, opened them again to see dark stains on the light. An afterimage. The watermark on my grandfather’s stationery.

I went outside in my nightgown and winter boots. Stomped it out, beat my arms, did a little chicken dance of fury and shame. Paki. I wasn’t even – A word, mouthed in snow.

~

I perfected my English. That is not what I am. I wasn’t even from there, didn’t speak that language, was not dark brown like the servants, les bonnes who cleaned our house, the chauffeur, the gardener, the tailor “back home,” Bhai Aziz, Bhai Yousouf, Shiva. Did not carry the bitter scent of turmeric on my skin, the smoky rose of agarbhatti; did not glisten with the shine of almond oil and sweat. That is not what I am. That is not what I am. I perfected my English.

Notes on the Poem

With previous Poem of the Week selections, we've looked at how storytelling draw us into poems on the merits of compelling narratives, but manage to achieve even more when combined with poetic effects and artistry. Soraya Peerbaye has done that affectingly and persuasively in "Skin", a three-part prose poem from her 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Tell: poems for a girlhood. (By the way, those previous Poem of the Week selections that tell great stories - and more - are "go-go dancing for Elvis" by Leslie Greentree and an excerpt from "The Ha-Ha, Part II: I Cry My Heart, Antonio" by David Kirby.) Tell focuses on the events surrounding the 1997 murder of teenager Reena Virk by a group of high school classmates. While much of the collection is directly derived from or surmises what took place before, during and after that horrific crime, Peerbaye both broadens and deepens that story with everything from historical perspectives on the area in which the crime took place to personal reflections that empathize with Virk's life. The narrator of this particular part of the collection recounts miserable incidents of racism and violence, made even more poignant by juxtaposing them with bright and innocent images: the pink of the Mary Kay products and prizes, "[her] wrist a golden ribbon", "did a little chicken dance" ... As the Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed:
"The true miracle of Tell is not merely its choice to sing of [the unbearable facts of violence, hatred, and alienation], but its ability to sing in such a way as to urge the reader to embrace painful sympathies."
The poem elicits those painful sympathies through its approachable, gentle storytelling, with which a listener can relate. While plainspoken, beautiful imagery glows amidst the words: again, "[her] wrist a golden ribbon" and "[the] watermark on my grandfather's stationery." That storytelling also evokes the spoken word, as the fury of the end of the section part segues into the third, which uses repetition to depict a brief, fevered rant that, paradoxically, rises from frustration at being treated as the "other", yet lashes out at other "others". In their directness, the ferocity of the words in this final section come close to echoing the physical violence described in the previous sections. The poem's storytelling has driven home troubling and powerful messages.

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