Paul Tran reads “Like Judith Slaying Holofernes”
Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of December 24th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: The December issue features poems by the 2018 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellows. One of those fellows is Paul Tran, a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow in the writing program at Washington University in St. Louis.
Lindsay Garbutt: Tran told us they were in a high school art history class when they first saw the painting Judith Slaying Holofernes by the Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi.
Paul Tran: And I remember seeing the image that used the Renaissance-style chiaroscuro of light and dark to render this brilliant woman dressed in this gold, sunlit dress, running her knife through the neck of the man, an Assyrian general who not only pillaged her town, but also wreaked unimaginable havoc.
Don Share: The woman in that painting is Judith, who, as the Old Testament story goes, propositioned Holofernes after he destroyed her village. With the help of her maid, they got him drunk and then she beheaded him.
Paul Tran: Many years later, now, I didn’t quite understand why it lingered with me. And perhaps seeing, for example, this past fall, when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified against Brett Kavanaugh in the Senate, did I realize it is both something about the painting and the artist’s own life that I was drawn to.
Lindsay Garbutt: Artemisia Gentileschi rose to prominence as one of the greatest Renaissance painters of her time. She was also a rape victim, who testified against her rapist in court and won.
Paul Tran: And so in this poem, which represents my own experience as a rape survivor, I wanted to place myself in both the feet of Judith and the feet of Artemisia, and imagine what it might be like for those of us lucky enough to achieve justice against our abusers.
Don Share: Tran says they vividly remember the day they began writing this poem.
Paul Tran: My mom had called me as she does every day, at 9pm, and I told her that I was preparing to do a reading in Baltimore and she, who does not entirely accept my gender or my sexuality, reminded me that I should look presentable in front of the people I was going to read for. And I laughed because of course, you know, I had prepared an outrageous outfit that she would entirely disapprove of, and just thought to myself, Mom, of course I know better than to leave the house without getting dolled up. But I’m gonna get dolled up in my own way. And somehow that thought intersected with this painting. And in the back of my brain came this notion that, well, certainly, before Judith left her house to run her blade through this man’s neck, she was gonna look very good.
Lindsay Garbutt: Tran weaves biblical characters into the poem, as well as moments from everyday life. Including dialogue from conversations with their mother.
Paul Tran: For her, that obsession with artifice, with illusion, comes from the fact that she is a refugee in a country that would otherwise redact her experience. And one of the ways that she demands her civil rights, her respect and dignity from people who often make fun of her for not speaking English well, for being small and simply also for being a woman, is to get dressed up, put her makeup on, do her hair. And I have never seen her leave the house—even if she is going to the post office—never saw her leave the house without getting ready. So I was delighted to fold that experience into the poem.
Don Share: Here is Paul Tran reading “Like Judith Slaying Holofernes.”
I know better than to leave the house
without my good dress, my good knife
like Excalibur between my stone breasts.
Mother would have me whipped,
would have me kneeling on rice until
I shrilled so loud I rang the church
bells. Didn’t I tell you that elegance is our revenge,
that there are neither victims nor victors
but the bitch we envy in the end? I am that bitch.
I am dogged. I am so damned
not even Death wanted me. He sent me back
after you sacked my body
the way your armies sacked my village, stacked
our headless idols in the river
where our children impaled themselves
on rocks. I exit night and enter your tent
gilded in a bolt of stubborn sunlight. My sleeves
already rolled up. I know they will say
I am a slut for showing this much skin, this
irreverence for what is seen
when I ask to be seen. Look at me now: my thighs
lift from your thighs, my mouth
spits poison into your mouth. You nasty beauty.
I am no beast, but my blade
sliding clean through your thick neck
while my maid keeps your blood off
me and my good dress will be a song
the parish sings for centuries. Tell Mary.
Tell Eve. Tell Salome and David about me.
Watch their faces, like yours, turn green.
Lindsay Garbutt: I love the way that Paul weaves these different stories together. And they do so with this sort of occasional rhyme or exact matching of words. So it’s something like “this / irreverence for what is seen // when I ask to be seen. Look at me now: my thighs / lift from your thighs, my mouth // spits poison into your mouth.” This sort of repetition feels like the stacking that they describe. So there are all these stories sort of layering, one on top the other. And because the lines are paired but staggered, you can kind of visually, on the page, see this layering happen, too. I love the way this poem sounds and I love the way Paul has made this narrative feel so contemporary.
Don Share: There is also in the sound of it a kind of slashing rhythm, which is not only devastating and vivid, and a bit frightening, but it also is interesting in relation to the lines “Didn’t I tell you that elegance is our revenge, / that there are neither victims nor victors // but the bitch we envy in the end?” Its espousal of elegance, at the same time involving vehemence, which is really kind of shocking. I mean, the painting is shocking and the poem is shocking too, which is good, because it would be strange if it weren’t. But I think that the way that’s achieved is in that the two edges of the sword, as it were, of the way the poem works, which is to have its own elegance—and it sort of gleams with that—and at the same time, to have the kind of slashing rhythm of it. It’s almost too much, you know.
Lindsay Garbutt: (LAUGHING) Too much in the best way.
Don Share: (LAUGHING) Right!
Lindsay Garbutt: Yeah, and I love, at the very end, it says: “Tell Mary. // Tell Eve. Tell Salome and David about me.”
Paul Tran: Watch their faces, like yours, turn green.
Lindsay Garbutt: Ending on green echoes the painting and the fact that this is about something that was a visual object and something that Gentileschi made, but it also ties together both art and artifice and emotion into one image. I love the last line, too, because it’s reiterating that you that we hear throughout the poem, and really driving home that we as the readers have been put in the place of someone who deserves to receive justice.
Don Share: Well, and like the painting itself, the poem shows how art makes vivid for us the process of someone or something becoming history.
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: That it’s narrating something but it’s so real in the narration that it’s well beyond being a story, that you are seeing it and feeling it. And that is how we learn what things turn out to be like.
Don Share: You can read “Like Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Paul Tran in the December 2018 issue of Poetry magazine or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all December episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Don Share: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at [email protected], and please link to the podcast on social media.
Lindsay Garbutt: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and this episode was produced by Curtis Fox and Rachel James.
Don Share: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Don Share.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt. Thanks for listening.