Let’s start with the title. From the very beginning, this poem captivated my interest, sparking questions that spurred me to keep reading: Why is there uncertainty about whether or not Mary Jane will get saved? Why does Mary Jane need saving at all? From what? And if she does need saving, and there’s a known chance that she will not be rescued (the “or not”)—why doesn’t this Speaker care?
Before we even get into the work, Byas had me asking questions, and that’s why this poem was chosen for a BROWN STUDY. If you want a little background on what the BROWN STUDY is, please check out this interview, and this example. If you’d like your poem considered for a BROWN STUDY, please submit here.
“Pantun is an incredibly rich and storied poetic form in the Malay language…used to demonstrate how historical narrative are clothed in the allusive properties of the form,” writes Deborah J Brannon in her article “There is that line again: Revealing the pantoum in context,” (2011). In plainer language, we could say: the repetitive and interlocking nature of the pantoum is part of the story as much as the content of the poem itself. Or even more directly: the repetitive and interlocking nature of a pantoum’s structure amplifies the themes and tones Taylor Byas employs in I Don’t Care if Mary Jane Gets Saved or Not.
Taylor Byas herself is a poet, essayist, and self-described hugger. Thanks to COVID19 I haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing the latter, but it doesn’t take too much research to find a strong selection of poetry and prose by Ms. Byas. Taylor Byas is a Ph.D. candidate and Albert C. Yates Scholar at the University of Cincinnati, a reader for The Cincinnati Review, Assistant Features Editor for the Rumpus, and purveyor of top-notch twitter content. Her work has appeared in a number of fantastic journals and you can check out a selection here.
In full disclosure, Ms. Byas and I have been press mates, we’ve performed at the same reading, and she was a reader for an event I hosted in January. However we did not discuss this poem prior to me writing this analysis and I have not reviewed her Q & A responses prior to writing this, either.
As I mentioned in the opening, one of the things that really pulled me into this poem was how much Byas fit into the title without straining. The poem has four main players and half of them are set up in the title: the Speaker (I), and Mary Jane; the other players are Spiderman, named in the poem’s text, and us—the audience/reader. Some questions the title sparked for me:
- Mary Jane needs saving (or there is the perception she does)—why?
- Mary Jane might not get saved—why?
- The Speaker doesn’t care that Mary Jane might not be saved—why?
That last question is the pivotal one, but it stands on the foundation of the previous two queries, so let’s begin there. Mary Jane needs saving—or there’s a perception that she does—why?
Mary Jane is one of the best-known non-powered characters in the superhero system. She was conceived by Stan Lee and John Romita Sr to soften Peter Parker: her status is derived from proximity to power, acquired by displaying the cardinal values of white domesticity: piety, purity, submission. Her sillage as a character with no powers comes from her commitment to powerlessness, her dedication to dominability (Welter, 1966)—and I cannot imagine a more perfect metaphor for white womanhood.
Byas’ title concedes the perception that Mary Jane requires saving and protecting, and white womanhood is, according to Tara Nicole Kowasic, “the most important concept of white, Anglo, Protestant majority…as a means to augment race and power while maintaining and bolstering the traditional social order,” (Race, power, and white womanhood: The obsession of Tom Watson and Thomas Dixon Jr, 2013). Yes, the cry to protect white womanhood is deeply rooted in American iconography and underpins everything from the lynchings of Black men across the country as well as government sterilization of Black women, to the ongoing atrocities of state-sanctioned violence against Black people stemming from the so-called reconstruction era.
When I first read this poem, I approached it as if Byas herself was speaking. To study this poem for the column, I approached the piece as if I did not know the Speaker (because really—I don’t) and used only the information generated from the poem itself to flesh out who the Speaker might represent. This poem’s Speaker (the “I”) stands in stark contrast to the all-but-guaranteed-victim status that Mary Jane represents.
The first thing the Speaker tells us is that they cannot lie. Jump to the last line of the opening stanza and the Speaker reassures us they looked for something by adding, “I really did.” From the beginning Byas’ Speaker is presuming the audience’s distrust, intuiting the need to prove their points: I can’t lie, I tried, I really did, they assure the reader—and after that, the poem turns, as annotated. Once the line pivots (“my black ass would never be”), the Speaker starts giving us just the facts, no sugar coating. We know the Speaker is Black, and presumably a woman or women-identifying, therefore we can make the inference the Speaker is a stand-in for Black womanhood.
By nature of the poem’s form, there are only two lines that are not repeated. Because they’re the only two lines in the poem that are not repeated, they stand out. Byas leverages this opportunity to provide a peek into the violent underpinnings of the hero/damsel dynamic:
scream strung through the city like Christmas lights—
It is important to note that the screams referenced here come from the Speaker, not Mary Jane. And in this poem, as in life, the danger prompting those screams doesn’t generate a savior, it generates an aesthetic. Just as the twinkling lights of Christmas are supposed to lift our spirits and carry us through the bleakness of a long winter, when the Speaker screams her cries are not regarded as something onlookers identify with but rather as content to be consumed, disembodied from the threat or danger from which they originated.
An iteration of this concept surfaces frequently in pop culture when non-Black people, but especially non-Black women, appropriate elements of Black culture as aesthetic. Coopting elements of Black culture that emerge in response to existing within a white supremacist social structure, has been at the center of many a controversy:see Kardashian Box Braids, white women taking over #sayhername, the whitewashing of #MeToo, that neverending white struggle with the n-word, etc, etc, etc, etc.
I wish this ended at pop-culture; I wish it were just a poetic device and not an accurate depiction of how Black concerns are addressed in America. The Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law put out a report in 2017 titled “Girlhood Interrupted: The erasure of Black girl’s childhood,” which, among other things, documented adult’s perception of Black Girlhood. It found that “Across all age ranges, participants (overwhelmingly white) viewed Black girls collectively as more adult than white girls…Participants perceived Black girls as needing less protection and nurturing than white girls, and Black girls were perceived to know more about adult topics…than their white peers,” (Epstein, Blake, Gonzalez, 2017).
Disturbingly, this pattern emerges as early as the age of five (though researchers noted a quantifiable but statistically insignificant difference in perceptions of need/nurture between races as early as ages 0-4) and becomes increasingly pronounced as Black girls approach adolescence, continuing well into womanhood.
To phrase that plainly: society, but overwhelmingly white people, do not recognize the need for succor in Black women, as early as ZERO years old. Their screams (voiced concerns or cries for help) appear no more urgent or fearsome than the twinkling of Christmas lights to the reader (society) and to the Hero (Spiderman/social structures for rescue and aid).
As I said from the outset, the negation (“or not”) in Byas’ title is what initially drew me into this piece. Before we even get into the meat of the poem, just by virtue of the title, Byas has established a multi-layered conflict: the two players named in Byas’ title (Mary Jane and the Speaker) are on opposite ends of the perception of victimhood by the hero (and society at large/the reader)—but they do share a common predicament or threat: patriarchy. Patriarchy is the answer to the second question posed above: why does Mary Jane need saving at all? Because patriarchy is a very real power structure that all women face.
Sadly, having a common enemy does not make for allyship. In “Relating to privilege: Seduction and rejection in the subordination of white women and women of color,” Aída Hurtado explores the intersection of race and patriarchy, writing “Each oppressed group in the United States is positioned in a particular and distinct relationship to white men, and each form of subordination is shaped by this relational position.” Hurtado explores the idea that tensions between white and non-white women stem, not only from differing life experiences but also from “how each of these two groups of women relates to white men through everyday social relationships,” (1989).
History, current events, and the text of the poem provide ample evidence of that fact. Byas writes:
but the women who terrorize me in real life are
dainty enough to be rescued by a white hero. The movie villains
always come for the white heroine, and she will cry
the women who terrorize me in real life are
strategic, hammering out an axe with tears. The playbook goes:
always come for the white heroine and she will cry
wolf. Cry Danger. Call the police.
And the lines speak for themselves. Byas doesn’t ask us to go all the way back to Birth of a Nation to see how white-womanhood is used to endanger Black life—we have plenty of real-time, real-life examples of how non-Black women, despite ostensibly being victims of patriarchy themselves, can use their proximity to power to visit danger and destruction upon Black people. We don’t need to look back to the panic surrounding Sojourner Truth’s (presence, and) “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at the Women’s Rights convention of 1851 anymore than we need to look at the casual racism inherent on both sides of the ERA fight, or the current wage gap across genders and race. We know that while Black and white women are both fighting the patriarchy, Black women are not beneficiaries of the patriarchal system while white women have the opportunity to benefit from their proximity to power.
So the title of this poem could be read as: Why should Black women care if white women are saved by the patriarchy or not, when both the patriarchy and the white women who derive power through their positioning within existing power structures, are entirely unconcerned with saving us?
And that is one hell of a question. Who gets to be the damsel? Who gets to get saved when they’re in danger? This poem brilliantly disentangles every intersection it brings up. And for all the memorable phrasing and rhetorical magic that Byas brings together in this piece, what lingers with me after studying this poem, is this: we, the reader, are players in this poem, too.
In the Byas Comic Universe of this poem, if we aren’t the Speaker, and we aren’t Mary Jane or Spiderman, then we’re the onlookers. And if Spiderman is meant to represent the everyman as Lee and Rotima intended, then he represents us too. We are responsible for who gets saved or not. The Speaker is playing dead in our cocoon (the other un-repeated line in this pantoum).
Ms. Byas reminds us that as the onlookers, as members of society, we have the power to determine who gets saved (or not)—and with great power, comes great responsibility.
AUTHOR Q & A’s
Q: Your readers are well acquainted with your love for form. In this specific poem, how much did content inform your choice of form, and did you consider other forms for this piece before deciding on the Pantoum?
A: This poem was actually written during a Poem-A-Day of form that I was doing with friends, and it was a pantoum day when I wrote this piece. So I suppose you could say that the form almost fully informed the content in this case! I’d been thinking about superhero movies for a few days and the idea of the “damsel” and what images came to mind when I heard that word. You say “damsel” and I think of a white Lois Lane cradled in a white Superman’s arms, I think of a fragile white woman being saved just in time by the superhero because that’s what I’ve grown up seeing. And I was considering the repetition of even that dynamic, how it’s replicated not just in superhero movies but even in horror films. The Black person dies, the white woman fights and fights and almost dies and by the grace of some god she kills the killer or she survives until help arrives. All of this was swirling in my mind when I sat down to write this poem.
Q: The hero/damsel trope has such a rich canon, why Spiderman and Mary Jane?
A: The idea of repetition really influenced this poem much more than I initially realized! I was actually looking up information about the Mary Jane character in Spiderman and encountered Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy character in the results. I was thinking about how these are two different characters, and yet their roles as love interests (and as the damsel that needs saving) to Spiderman are so similar. And of course, I know there are probably a lot of differences between the movies and the comic books, but I was curious about the decisions made in the 2002 Spiderman movie and The Amazing Spiderman that came out in 2012, and how similar Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy felt in relation to Spiderman. Thinking about that repetition and remaking even really started to worm its way into my thinking about the poem.
Q: Pantoums require great care in crafting the line, because of the repetition; in this poem, what is your favorite line? Why?
I have to say I’m really proud of that last line. One of the ways I approach writing pantoums (and really any form that requires repetition) is to think radically about punctuation. I’m always trying to think about how punctuation can transform, and that comma in “I tried to imagine, myself” does so much heavy lifting. It adds an emotional weight, but it also turns inward at the very end of the poem that feels so intimate. After this sort of spirited rant about movie damsels and about the violence white women enact on Black bodies in real life, that last sentence lifts up the curtain and reveals the Speaker’s pain and vulnerability. And it lingers, it echoes. The reader is then doing that imagining. There is a transfer that happens. I think when writing the poem, I placed that comma and audibly congratulated myself. That’s how excited I got about it.
Q: As you were drafting, were there any lines you loved that did not make it into the final draft?
A: Surprisingly no! This is actually the very first draft of this poem, one of those times that you just get it right the first time. Form sort of pushes me to be sharper in my first drafts because the poem is such an intricate puzzle and things have their assigned places. A lot of this poem was also probably forming in the days that I’d been thinking about superhero movies, so when it was time to write, a lot of it was there and just needed to be unearthed.
Q: What were you reading when you wrote this poem? What were you reading when you edited this poem?
Q: Imagine this piece in conversation with non-literary pieces of art (i.e.: sculptures, music, paintings, etc). Can you tell me a little about who is in the conversation?
A: I absolutely love this question. I think projects that assert the humanity and vulnerability of Black women are definitely in conversation with this poem. I think about Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid. The photography of Gordon Parks comes to mind, as I’ve always admired the way he captures Black life and the way that Black people just exist in his photos. Black people are strong, fragile, laughing, serious, playing, fighting, but they are worthy. Worthy of attention, of life, of saving.
Q: If you were to trace the lineage of this poem backward two generations, what four other pieces of literature would be in that family tree?
The parents of this poem would probably be “say it with your whole black mouth” by Danez Smith (from Homie) and “Nancy Meyers and My Dream of Whiteness” by Morgan Parker (from Magical Negro). The grandparents of this poem would be “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” by Gwendolyn Brooks and “Revelation” by Blanche Taylor Dickinson (from Caroling Dusk).
Brannon, D. J. (2011). There is that line again: Revealing the pantoum in context.
Epstein, R., Blake, J., & González, T. (2017). Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of Black girls’ childhood. Available at SSRN 3000695.
Hurtado, A. (1989). Relating to Privilege: Seduction and Rejection in the Subordination of White Women and Women of Color. Signs, 14(4), 833-855. Retrieved January 24, 2021, from http://jstor.org/stable/3174686
Kowasic, T. N. (2013). Race, power, and White womanhood: The obsessions of Tom Watson and Thomas Dixon Jr (Unpublished master’s thesis). Virginia Commonwealth University. doi:https://doi.org/10.25772/TJ5S-P828
Phillips (née Johnson), Shernā Ann. (2020). Distressing the damsel with #Blackgirlmagic in the “Me too” era (2006–Present): A discourse analysis of black women in plays by marginalized authors (Order No. 27830368). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2432857133). Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.huaryu.kl.oakland.edu/dissertations-theses/distressing-damsel-with-blackgirlmagic-me-too-era/docview/2432857133
Price, A. O. (2019, July 26). Regarding the Em Dash. The Millions. https://themillions.com/2018/01/regarding-the-em-dash.html
van de Rijt, A., Song, H. G., Shor, E., & Burroway, R. (2018). Racial and gender differences in missing children’s recovery chances. PloS one, 13(12), e0207742. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207742
Welter, B. (1966). The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860. American Quarterly, 18(2), 151-174. doi:10.2307/2711179