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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry


Tales of a Severed Head

Rachida Madani

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To purchase Tales of a Severed Head

Title: Tales of a Severed Head
Author: Rachida Madani
Genre: Poetry
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 162 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Tales of a Severed Head - US
Tales of a Severed Head - UK
Tales of a Severed Head - Canada
in Blessures au vent - Canada
Tales of a Severed Head - India
in Blessures au vent - France
  • French title: Contes d'une tête tranchée
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original French text
  • Translated and with a Preface by Marilyn Hacker

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Our Assessment:

B : quite effective

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Tales of a Severed Head is a sequence of three 'tales', poems in which the present-day situation of women in too many respects still resembles that of the time of The Thousand and one Nights, a story (or rather: the story behind the story) which the poems repeatedly turn back too. These are poems about a freedom of expression -- a giving voice, in some form -- that is seen as an essential step for women; the poems also consider the difficulty of doing so -- of both articulating and conveying meaning and self.
       Poetry-writing -- or tale-telling -- are opportunities, even if what they ultimately can achieve is difficult to determine or influence. The fictional Scheherazade's immediate goal (preserving her head) may be realized, night after night, but more often:

Waiting, she places a mine
into each poem she launches
without knowing what forehead it will burst
       The Scheherazade presented here bemoans:
I am no one
       in Shehriyar's city
I am nothing. But I have words,

       Her only hope -- for immediate survival, but also in finding an identity for herself -- is in clinging to these, and in fashioning stories. Yet this Scheherazade also notes that she is: "only an invention of men/to clear Shehriyar's name", The Thousand and one Nights here presented as a story meant to humanize the brutal king:
And it's thus that they stole my sentences
distorted my sentences,
thus put into my mouth
       a thousand and one stories
of which I still knew nothing.
       Here even this tale that suggests the cunning and power of women is revealed to be a male fantasy, presented in this way only to make the man look better: Shehriyar may come off as a bit of a fool, but an undeniably human one -- in contrast, it is suggested, to his remorseless true self.
       The situation is perhaps different in the modern day, but has not necessarily improved: it is the present efforts of which Madani writes:
It was the sobbing tale of a shattered woman
the bloody tale of a head severed
       on the way to revolt ...
       Madani's poem shifts between a timeless and more distanced present-day (the focus on an anonymous/everywoman 'she') and Scheherazade's own voice (those passages in italics). The writing is evocative, any hints of naturalism quickly giving way to a richer and vaguer (un)reality -- from the 'First Tale', which opens with a woman seeing a man off at a train station, the symbolism here going way beyond the Freudian tunnel:
And the train emerges from all directions
it whistles and goes right through the woman
the whole length of her.
       This sense, of women being completely overwhelmed, is found throughout all three tales; writing helps counter it, but only gets 'her' so far: even near the end, 'she' finds: "she is still unheard [...] she is still unread".
       Stylistically, Madani uses repetition, especially of line-beginnings, for effect, especially early on. At its most extreme, for example:
And it's the same night
and it's the same solitude
and it's the same child
in the same street
       in the same circle of streetlights.
       It helps lull the reader, and then makes the later, freer verse all the more effective.
       The bilingual edition, with the original French facing the English translation, is an always welcome presentation -- and though the English translation is very fine, the original French is particularly welcome in allowing readers to see, for example, those repetition-effects, not all of which are readily translatable. (Readers might also notice one change of name, as translator Hacker apparently didn't trust English-reading readers to recognize the name Ducasse and opted for his better-known pseudonym, Lautréamont.) Hacker's Preface is also a helpful introduction to Madani, and situates her within Moroccan culture (and politics) of the past few decades.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 November 2012

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Tales of a Severed Head: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French-writing Moroccan author Rachida Madani was born in 1951.

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© 2012 the complete review

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