a poem for the abuse of power and people

Hello my friends!

I hope you are keeping well.

This poem has been running through my head a lot this week. It’s not graphic as such, but it has themes of abuse in case you’d prefer not to read it.

It was first published in October 2019 as a response to “the stark reality of children separated from their families and kept in cages”, according to the poet. In case you didn’t hear about it when story broke in 2018, this is a terrifying and ongoing feature of Trump’s migration policy. You can read about it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-44518942.

Like all great poems, however, it works at many levels – and it’s these that I will explore below the poem.

Cage, by Rigoberto González

In a world of loss
     gratitude is what 
          I demand for keeping 
     precious catch
within my reach.
     No one despises 
          the shepherd for
     collecting his flock. 
No one accuses 
     the watchman of 
          making a captive 
     of his charge.
I’m like a holster, 
     or sheath, all function 
          and no fury. Don’t 
     you worry as I 
swallow you whole. Those 
     ulcers in my gut 
          are only windows,
     the stoma punched 
in my throat is just 
     a keyhole. Don’t be shy.
          Hand me the rattle 
     of your aching heart
 and I’ll cradle you, 
     bird with broken wing. 
          Let me love you. I
     will hold your brittle 
bones together. I’ll 
     unclasp your beak
         so you can sing.
     It’s a world of always 
leaving but here
     you can always stay.

◊◊◊

In this poem, González takes on the voice of the cage and imagines how it might justify the incarceration of children. The cage speaks in language that is superficially comforting (‘Don’t / you worry’, ‘Don’t be shy’, ‘Let me love you’) but is deeply sinister for its notes of coercion (‘I / swallow you whole’). It preys on the vulnerability of the child – figured with jarring sensitivity as ‘bird with broken wing’ – and offers permanence in ‘a world of always / leaving’. It is a language that anyone who has witnessed a controlling relationship will recognise. It is the language of abuse.

I think the poem is so moving and skilful for its exploration of these dual aspects of a controlling relationship. The cage is controlling, exploitative, creepy – but it offers a warped version of safety that a vulnerable person might mistake for love. (Though it must be noted that the young children held in cages in America have no freedom of choice at all.)

On approaching such a sensitive issue, González wrote: “I tried other ways into the subject, but it always rang false, especially the versions I tried writing in the point of view of a child. I realized that these children have their own voices. But we are not listening. So I wrote a persona poem in which the villain tries to obscure the travesty of incarceration of minors with seductive, gas-lighting language.”

I hope you can find something to think about with this poem. Take care!

All my love,

Tanvi

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