Swansea University - Self Portrait as Ruth

Self-Portrait as Ruth, by Jasmine Donahaye

(Salt Publishing, 2009), 54pp, £12.99 ~ Longlisted for Wales Book of the Year 2010

Self-Portrait

Jasmine Donahaye’s second poetry collection is a confrontation that leaves the reader bruised, exhausted and yet subtly seduced by the strong, female voice that sings here of the poet’s relationship with the Israel-Palestine conflict.  It has been described as ‘erotic’ and yet the Eros that haunts each meticulously constructed poem is not one of pleasure, but of the cold mechanics of the genital.  Sexuality is a manipulative tool –

                                        …I want to make you
an offering – a grave, an accidental pregnancy;
some small death that will make you remember     
                                                                 'Elijah’s Return'

a bargaining device –

I am ready to submit
so I adorned myself with earrings and bracelets and anklets…  
                                                                    'Self-Portrait as Ruth'

or a violent oppression –

                                              …my body
empty with want, as you stand over me,
your hand on my throat, holding me down,
everything I care about gone.
                                               'Israel v Palestine: a sonnet'

The rape metaphor, of course, is not a new idea within poetry that deals with war and conflict, but it is Donahaye’s remarkable subtlety which takes this symbol and slow-drips its colour into each poem, giving the overall impression of systematic abuse, rather than a single act of violence.  This drip-effect is so potent that even the seemingly simplistic innocence of The Border 1947, which depicts the young girl straddling the “single rusty strand” of wire that demarcates the border between Lebanon and Palestine, is suffused with the reek of violation.  The poem, Fetishes plays with the idea of taboo quite blatantly, mixing images of religion with sexual shame – the anus “really wants in” and the “wet redness of the cunt” is not receptive but retreats into itself.  Even the Western Wall (also called The Place of Weeping) is unavailable, forbidden, to her as a Jewish woman,

  …should I
  should I not
  touch it?

The collection begins with the title poem, which ingeniously takes Bethlehem and replants it in rural Wales, the land of Donahaye’s settlement. The Moabite Ruth, gleaning in the field of Boaz and her submission to the new land, watched by farmers on quad bikes, introduces the diasporic theme with the heavy sensuality that pervades the whole work,

   …when I straighten up,
stalks of bearded, bristled wheat scratching my bare skin,
and I glance over to see if you are looking,
and you are
then for one instant I will know what I am –
the ache of desire

thwarted…
                                                        'Self-Portrait as Ruth'

In the world that Donahaye creates, women, or at least the female voice, is dominant even in submission.  The men of this world are passive observers, hot, mindless oppressors, objects of unfulfilled desire or utterly helpless and impotent.  In My Father’s Circumcision, the mother

turns away from the act
as though it occurs
against her will…

The words “as though” here are transparently telling – she is the author of the father’s cutting despite the sinister description of the moel’s unwholesome actions.  This reversal of abuser and victim roles is not straightforward – the female power over the male is temporary.  It is, however, the dynamics between female and female, particularly in age and youth, which are the most fascinating.  Remembering Baba Yaga is an eerie recollection of the childhood story as told by the grandmother and the problematics of memory, which mixes fiction with reality,

Of course, all the Stepmothers
were my grandmother.  Of course all the good,
dead mothers were my mother, the weak,
credulous fathers my father;

The repetitions and confusions of this poem, the quiet terror of the final line,“She will try again; she may still catch the girl” tell of a world which, from the outset, has been one of instability.

Self-Portrait as Ruth is a visceral, uncompromising work which, despite the passion and anger which quite clearly fuelled its inception, somehow leaves coldness in its wake.  Doubtless, this is Donahaye’s intention – to grab the reader by the throat and force a witnessing of the horror, but a scattering of more domestic poems like A kind of tikkun would possibly set the anger in relief and allow the reader time to reflect. However, the collection is a stunning work – unique in its perspective and undoubtedly a tour de force for this talented, highly intelligent writer.


Sarah Coles
(Swansea University) Currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing.