An Analysis of Kataalyst Alcindor's Poem: "When Dating a Sexual Assault Survivor"
by Suzanne Carroll-La Follette
Kataalyst Alcindor angles the subject of sexual assault by approaching it from the perspective of survival, moving on, loving and living again. "When dating a sexual assault survivor avoid the words: victim, rape, broken, stupid, failure, and goodbye. Go slowly, always, with everything," he begins. And we listen, he sounds like a man who knows, who has loved someone that has survived rape and then he turns on his heel on the second line. "We are always in the process of making our bodies ours again." This subtle and purposeful turn using "we" and including himself as a survivor caused a gentle tingle to run down my spine. This is the kind of poetic device that works wonders when on stage because of the visual presumptions the audience makes about a speaker. These words, spoken from a man instead of a woman, challenges who we see as sexual assault survivors, who we see as assailants and who becomes the lovers of survivors. Alcindor doesn't play it out long, just two lines and the speaker has taken a perspective of a survivor speaking to those who may try to love him and other survivors. Alcindor's poetic tricks don't stop there. He uses this how-to-manual of a poem to point-by-point work his way through the difficulties of loving and surviving. Through this format each line has the possibility of tackling another subject, the lines could be bullet points he works his way through. This specific perspective on the subject seems fresh and challenging, tender and heartfelt.
So, besides the well-chosen perspective, what makes this a great poem? There are several lines of this poem that stand out as beautifully crafted. Let's take a look at a couple of them one by one. Early on in the poem Alcindor delivers the line, "Make your compliments into flowers, lay them at the headstone of the mass grave we call our self-confidence." This double metaphor unfolds with a poetic cadence that introduces Alcindor's ability to craft a line. A double metaphor expresses two equivalences. In this case, compliments=flowers and a grave=self-confidence. These two images attached to their new meanings invite a greater despondence to an already unhappy image of flowers at a grave.
Alcindor continues with more metaphor, "We are the missing pages of life all holy books seem to omit." This short vivid line stands out between longer lines of extended metaphor as Alcindor breaks up his cadence and varies his line length. Short lines like these often stand out and have the possibility of cutting to the core with a quick and poignant image. "All holy books," encompass religions as a whole pulling in every possible audience that has ever felt excluded from their God, or history. A specific book named in its stead would not have the same affect, would shift the focus of the poem. As a metaphor this line equates sexual assault survivors as missing pages and his accuracy is haunting.
This brief study of Alcindor's metaphor draws me to the use of metaphor in poetry as a whole, but more specifically the use of metaphor in spoken word. One of the reasons metaphor rises to the surface in the ocean of poetic devices is because of its ability to create community. We attend poetry performances to be part of something greater than ourselves, to enjoy poetry in a room full of friends and strangers rather than alone at home. That's exactly what metaphor brings to a poem as examined closely in Ted Cohen's "Metaphor and the Cultivation of Intimacy." According to Cohen, the reason why metaphor remains such an important linguistic device is because, "There is a unique way in which the maker and the appreciator of the metaphor are drawn closer to one another." He goes on to explain that the speaker of the poem offers a "concealed invitation," then, the audience "expends special effort to accept the invitation" and this "transaction" creates community between them. So, if we think about metaphor like Cohen thinks about metaphor, where do you, as a writer, invite the audience? Where do you, as an audience member, allow yourself to travel inside another's poem? And where then, did Alcindor's metaphors take you?