I watched a lot of video of the Pussy Riot performances and I was incredibly struck by how important the concept of being SEEN seemed to be underlying the performances. Not in the self-centered or attention-seeking way that's become so pervasive in culture, but rather in an attempt to return to the fundamentals of rising out of the blankness of culture and really being regarded for what a person is. I'd been studying the Paris shop window photographs of Eugene Atget recently and thought of how the surreal nature of the shop window (as well as its implication of enclosure/imprisonment) could act as a setting for a rumination on these concepts.
I wrote the first draft of this piece while traveling in England in late-November, much of it on trains. I finished it when I got back to the US. Trains--something we don't use much in the US--are the sites of some of my best writing because of that sense of movement and shared experience with the people around me. And England is a second home, as well.
The enclosure of the shop window--both as a means of display for the virginal, faceless mannequins and as a cage for the woman attempting to break out of the role imposed on her -- felt like the right metaphor for the stifling space of women in culture. It also gave me a place to play with literal details of the group's performances such as clothing, color, movement, and sound.
IN THE SHOP WINDOW
for Pussy Riot
On a street gray with winter rain,
a shop window is filled with mannequins,
alabaster women without faces. A man is dressing
them in prim white gowns for the ubiquitous
Wedding Season, the window a stage inviting
passerbys to audition for one long play.
But at night, when the shop owner cannot see,
the lights come on behind the glass. At night,
a light snow falling, one of the figure’s heads rises,
grows cobalt eyes in the smooth mask of her face.
Her white dress seeps with color: green to blue to red.
When her mouth opens beneath the snub
of her nose, she begins to dance, to sing.
The song is not beautiful and nor is she.
Here, they do not have to be. But that sound!
It has the power to break chain as it swells
and fills her glass cage. As it rises – rough
and ragged as a sparrow’s wings – people wake
behind their windows bars, wake
from their sad dreaming, drawn to the sound.
They have passed this window every day
but have never seen such this remarkable thing.
The woman’s strong new face, the bright red
of her gown there between the blank Virgins
in their white. The people press their hands
against the cold glass, full notes soaring out,
free and lovely and strong as birds.
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