‘A Stone’s Throw’: biblical allegory and the unending cycle of violence against women

We shouted out

‘We’ve got her! Here she is!

It’s her all right’.

We caught her.

There she was –

 

A decent-looking woman, you’d have said,

(They often are)

Beautiful, but dead scared,

Tousled – we roughed her up

A little, nothing much

 

And not the first time20100919artsonsunday

By any means

She’d felt men’s hands

Greedy over her body –

But ours were virtuous,

Of course.

 

And if our fingers bruised

Her shuddering skin,

These were love-bites, compared20141026book

To the hail of kisses of stone,

The last assault

And battery, frigid rape,

To come

Of right.

 

For justice must be done

Specially when

It tastes so good.

 

And then – this guru,

Preacher, God-merchant, God-knows-what –

Spoilt the whole thing,

Speaking to her

(should never speak to them)

Squaring on the ground – her level,

Writing in the dust

Something we couldn’t read.

And saw in her

Something we couldn’t see,

At least until

He turned his eyes on us,

Her eyes on us,

Our eyes upon ourselves.

 

We walked away

Still holding stones

That we may throw

Another day

Given the urge.

 

Elma Mitchell – “A Stone’s Throw”

Elma Mitchell (November 19, 1919 – November 23, 2000) was a minor British poet, but obviously a very original, crafty and thought-provoking, if not controversial one. She began publishing poems fairly late in her life (1967) dramatically announcing her presence with a poem that caught the attention of critics and readers and her first two collections of poems sold out upon publication. Yet after that, and two other published collections, she did not receive much critical attention or an exalted place in English literature.

Harry Chambers, writing an obituary in The Guardian, December 5, 2000, explained that “Mitchell did not give many public readings, but when she did so the effect on her audiences was electrifying.” He mentions “The quality of Mitchell’s whole oeuvre of heart-rending, compassionate, compelling and rhythmically skilful verse.” And surely as may be seen from samples of her work, she was decidedly an assured craftswoman with a sharp eye for effective artistic detail and a touch of cynicism.

Her four published volumes are The Poor Man In The Flesh (1976), The Human Cage (1979), People Etcetera: Poems New and Selected (1987) and Furnished Rooms (1983) all published by Peterloo Poets. The Guardian called her “a poet linking the great and small issues of life” and she came to public attention with a poem called “Thoughts After Ruskin” in which she does just that in a fairly unusual but original view of women. The poem gives her a reputation as a commentator on women’s issues as she ironically debunks the views of John Ruskin, (celebrated Victorian critic and writer) about women who he superficially saw as “lilies and roses”. Mitchell goes on to show the sometimes unpleasant ‘nitty gritty’ of women’s work and necessities.

This reputation is further highlighted by Ruth Padel in her column ‘The Sunday Poem’ in The Independent on Sunday (June 6, 1999) where she dwells on the crude and violent imagery of “Thoughts After Ruskin,” and the way men avoid the hard-hitting realities and only see the “condescending” surface appearance of “lilies and roses” that women deliberately, ironically allow them to perpetuate. This sensitivity to harsh realities concerning women, the gender politics, sexuality and sexual politics among other important compelling contemporary issues may all be seen in Elma Mitchell’s poem “A Stone’s Throw.”

This poem is a very closely and cleverly crafted dramatisation. It illustrates the way poetry uses implicit dramatisation to reveal and comment on issues. This is done without any specific reference, without explanations. It shows something without telling it. There are no explicit details, but the dramatic nature of the narrative in the poem directs the minds, the thinking, of the readers to the issues the poem wants to focus. There is a speaking voice – a man who narrates an event in his own words, providing details of the incident while unintentionally revealing much about himself and his companions.

A group of men caught a woman who seems to have committed some serious offence or violation punishable by stoning to death. The poem does not tell us what it is, but the several lines and references suggest it is something of a sexual nature and the men are about to carry out their judgment. They are, however, interrupted by a stranger who causes them to take a good look at themselves, have doubts and abort their mission. The final stanza suggests that, though prevented on this occasion, the men have not changed or repented and are prepared to do the same thing again.

While the poem does not tell explicitly what was happening we are not really left guessing, because the poem is obviously using a biblical allusion. It retells a story from the Bible (John 8; 3 – 11), well known even to many who might not be Christians or who might not know the Bible. A woman was caught in adultery, punishable at that time, according to the law, by stoning to death. She was taken to Jesus, who was urged to pronounce the expected sentence of death. But Jesus spoke quietly to her while writing in the dust on the ground and, instead, challenged her accusers, uttering the oft quoted words “let him that is without sin cast the first stone.” This effectively halted them and the woman was spared.

The poet uses the technique of narrative point-of-view. A great deal is gained by having the story told in the poem by one of the men eager to stone the woman. Several lines in the poem tell us about him and his companions who take a very perverse, greedy, sexual pleasure out of their mission – “we roughed her up”; “men’s hands/Greedy over her body”; “our fingers bruised/Her shuddering skin”; “it tastes so good”, and “Given the urge”. The poem uses several ironies. The men are self-righteous, ready to condemn others while they themselves are guilty. They describe their own greedy hands as “ours were virtuous, /Of course”; their violation of the woman as being “of right”, claiming “Justice must be done.”

Another important technique used by Mitchell is the central metaphor or central imagery of the poem, which has to do with sex and violence. The woman is roughed up, indecently handled by her captors who are about to stone her; note the startling chilling crude imagery (typical of Mitchell) of sexual violence in the fourth stanza especially, but running through the poem. Note also the other sexual innuendos elsewhere. Note as well the use of almost throw-away understatements, such as those remarks in brackets which come from the dramatisation – the conversational tone of the narrative which reveals the speaker’s thoughts and biased, prejudicial, judgmental attitudes.

Then in stanza six the poet pinpoints that people are quick to pass judgment upon others but hardly ever look at themselves. Probably for the first time these men are forced to do that and are quite uncomfortable and wrong-footed. The final stanza, though, shows that they are unrepentant, unchanged. This brings to mind a powerful statement of the poem – that even in modern times, long after biblical days our society has not changed because men behave the same way.

The poem’s title is significant in this respect. The poem is about the throwing of stones, but it also refers to the troubling issue of violence against women; the occasional cases of women condemned to death by stoning in extreme Islamist states according to Sharia law. What took place in the Bible all those years ago is still with us. It is only “a stone’s throw” away.

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