I stopped watching the Oprah show several years ago after I noticed how often it offered reports on some particularly gruesome atrocity suffered by women in Third World countries and followed it by Oprah’s remark as to how “we, the American girls, should remember how lucky we are to live in a country where our rights are respected and nothing like this can happen to us.” The shamelessness of using the suffering of others to make one feel good about one’s own life became too much for me to bear.
Mary Oliver’s poem “Singapore” takes this self-congratulating attitude even further. Before I read a discussion of this poet at Jonathan’s blog, I had never read anything by her. Now, however, I have encountered a perfect manifesto for pseudo-liberals everywhere.
Oliver begins the poem with a nearly concupiscent image of a third-world woman in the most degrading position this poet can find for her:
In Singapore, in the airport, a darkness was ripped from my eyes. In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open. A woman knelt there, washing something in the white bowl.
The nameless woman is on her knees in front of a toilet bowl. What can be more inspiring to a pseudo-liberal who goes through life motivated by the desire to find exploited, third-world people to feel sorry for? I can just imagine the author’s eyes lighting up when presented with such a vision. Of course, toilet bowls get washed everywhere on Earth (even though washing something in the bowl is a little less frequent). Who would want to write poetry about an American washing a toilet? That is not nearly as delicious as a person from Singapore – who by definition is imagined as oppressed and exploited – performing the action. It is also significant that the woman is not washing a purely Singaporean toilet bowl. Oh no, that would make her as boring as a Westerner who regularly gets on his or her knees to wash their own toilet. In order to be properly pitied, a third-world person has to wallow in the rich tourists’ excrement.
Disgust argued in my stomach and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.
Unlike the miserable woman from Singapore, the poetic ‘I’ has the lucky means to escape from this horrible, horrible country where people have to deal with messy toilets. Unfortunately for them, Singaporeans do not possess airplane tickets that would take them away from their disgusting realities.
A poem should always have birds in it. Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings. Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees. A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain rising and falling. A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
The poetic ‘I’ is not only better than a Singaporean cleaning lady, it is also far superior to those other poets who have no social conscience and who keep blabbing about the beauties of nature instead of concentrating on the plight of oppressed toilet cleaners everywhere. Well, not everywhere. Just in those pathetic non-Western places.
When the woman turned I could not answer her face. Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together, and neither could win. She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this? Everybody needs a job.
In one breath, the poetic ‘I’ assigns a feeling of embarrassment to the Singaporean woman and comes up with an apology for her engagement in a debasing activity.
Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem. But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor, which is dull enough. She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as hubcaps, with a blue rag. Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing. She does not work slowly, nor quickly, but like a river. Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.
Of course, “it is a truth universally acknowledged” that every Asian woman will be compared to a natural phenomenon whenever a Western writer attempts to describe her.
I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life. And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and fly down to the river. This probably won’t happen. But maybe it will. If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?
As usual, the condescending Westerner is ready to ‘want’ things for the object of her munificent attention. The cleaning lady’s presence at an airport, a symbol of the Western civilization that is contrary to the authentic nature of a Singaporean woman, alienates her from her true role of a winged creature whose place is in a more natural setting. She needs to go back to her roots, which the Westerner imagines as being next to a river. And if a river has nothing to do with the Singaporean’s vision of herself, nobody cares for the simple reason that. . .
Of course, it isn’t. Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only the light that can shine out of a life. I mean the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth, the way her smile was only for my sake; I mean the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.
. . . this woman’s smile and her entire existence are there for the sake of the poetic ‘I’ who uses the Singaporean woman to congratulate herself on being a superior poet and a wonderful, compassionate human being.
I strongly believe that it would be very useful to put up a poster saying “We do not need your pity” at every international airport of every Third World country.