Malabar Woman

Sometimes we can be quite surprised by the seething raft of connections and currents running through our work and which can touch us in our everyday lives. Quite by chance, one of my friends had posted on Facebook the very famous poem À une Malabaraise by icon of French poetry, Charles Baudelaire, just as I was writing a paper on the forced migration of Malabar workers from La Réunion to New Caledonia. It hit a nerve. It infuriated me. The gaze of this young, white, Frenchman, however full of spleen and revolution he may have been, upon the body of the Malabar (Indian) woman seemed such a textbook example of a certain type of leery colonialism, that I immediately had to respond. If he had been standing in front of me, I would have slapped his smarmy face. Instead, I wrote this poem. Yes, yes, I know he was critiquing France by trying to say it didn’t hold a candle to (a perfectly exoticised) Reunion Island. Still, if he were here, this is what I would say to him over a glass or ten of absinthe

 

Malabar Woman
Baudelaire
you pervy bastard
objectifying
exoticizing
eroticizing
velvet-eyed
wide-hipped
dark-skinned
Beauty

She whose bare feet
caress the dirt
as she saunters
sensuously
toward the market
her delicate arms
laden with fruits
of the tropical
persuasion
hurrying home
to that benevolent
Master

Is it you
in your dreams?
Does she light
your pipe?
Chase away
those pesky
mosquitoes
that so torment one
in the colonies?
Does she sing to you
in a low
throaty voice
thrilling
in its
Otherness?
Do you visit her
in her hut
as she lies
vulnerable
on her mat?
Oh Baudelaire
you really aren’t
that romantic
are you?
Painting such a cliché
dredged from
a white man
Fantasy

And then once you
have had your
exotic
erotic
poetic
moment
with she of the
flimsy
filmy
go on
you might as well say it
transparent
sari
you cast her off
like a used hanky
to fall into
some eager
Sailor’s
arms
And you imagine
a foul
fetid
future
for the girl who once
kept her Master
in fresh water
and his house
smelling of sweet
perfume

You relocate
dislocate
suffocate
incarcerate
the flesh
of your belle
Malabaraise
You decorate her eye
with nostalgia
for her life
in her natural
habitat
fulfilling
her natural
role
subservient
servant
of
Empire

But her body
now for sale
on the grey streets
of Paris
was never free
will never be free
at home
or in exile

She is Beauty
she is coolie woman
she is the subject/object
trapped
in your poem

Let her be
Baudelaire
let her be

©Karin Speedy 2016

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Ghosts in the Archive

Almost nothing

Louis Joubert

Louise Joubert, Hunters Hill archives

yet

if you close your eyes

see with all your senses

you might just make them out

Tiptoeing across the ledgers

dancing in the margins

playing hide and seek

between the lines

Sometimes you catch their gaze

staring back

through the eyes

of a slightly blurry

sepia print

smiling hopefully

mum fishing at magenta

Fishing at Magenta, Nouméa, c. 1930, Photo: Chris Vidal

wondering

if you will be the one

to unleash their glory

or their pain

If you listen with all your heart

those imperceptible shuffles

will take on the rhythm of speech

and they will whisper softly

of their travails

of their triumphs

image

Haja Fatima, Photo: Karin Speedy 2008

 of their tragedies

And like a conjurer

you will make them appear

bring them to life

write their stories

re-inscribe them into history

Then they can sleep

©Karin Speedy 2016