Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Sindhi Woman" by Jon Stallworthy

Barefoot through the bazaar,
and with the same undulant grace
as the cloth blown back from her face,
she glides with a stone jar
high on her head
and not a ripple in her tread.

Watching her cross erect
stones, garbage, excrement, and crumbs
of glass in the Karachi slums,
I, with my stoop, reflect
they stand most straight
who learn to walk beneath a weight.

I liked liked this poem for the wisdom of the two lines. The whole poem beautifully illustrates its point about adversary without sounding critical or callus like the common phrases "Trials make you stronger," or "Work builds character."

The whole poem is actually just two sentences, broken into two stanzas. The first stanza, or sentences, appears to be only describing a particular scene, like many other poems. The word "bazaar" immediately places the reader in a third-world, Middle Eastern market. "Barefoot" suggests poverty but also strength and tenacity. With this setting, both visual and emotional, immediately put in place, Stallworthy uses precise detail -- the cloth, the placement of the jar, her walk -- with words like "grace," "glides," "blown," "high,"and "ripple" to put a sense of beauty, even accomplishment, to the stereotyped image of an African women carrying a load on her head. The image itself may be unusual in its culture, but Stallworthy describes it in such a way that the usual pity that comes along with such description is completely erased. Stallworthy puts worth and dignity to this woman who in many other renditions would to portrayed as unfortunate at the best.

With this set up, the reader still carries the grace of the woman with him as he reads Stallworthy's description of her surroundings. The poem drops back to reality, where the woman really is poor, and by our, American terms, extremely unfortunate. But even as Stallworthy depicts "garbage, excrement, and crumbs/ of glass in the Karachi slums," the reader retains an admiration of the woman, who can walk with such grace, barefoot, though it all. Stallworthy nurtures this feeling by comparing his own stoop to the woman's straight back. His personal comparison seals the attitude he has been feeding and makes his point come across as humble and as compassionate as possible: "they stand most straight/ who learn to walk beneath a weight."

Throughout the poem, Stallworthy follows a simple, though not common, rhyme scheme: abbacc. The rhymes are not jarring. Only the last couplet in each stanza stands out as obviously rhyming. This is impart because Stallworthy has no set rhythm to his lines. The words flow, but they could easily sound like prose. However, because of the the rhymes, the words sound just a little more poetic, a little more composed than they would ordinarily. This parallels the image of woman Stallworthy is describing. It could be ordinary or taken for granted, but it is actually far more than first meets the eye. And, of course, the rhyming of the last two lines highlights the thesis of the poem.

"Sindhi Woman" is a beautifully written poem that breaks away from the stereotypes of both poverty and so-called "character-building" to portray the spirit of one who has overcome, without loosing the meaning in a series of devaluing cliches.


  1. I love this poem too, for all of the reasons you mention. It's nice to address an old idea without the same tired, old phrases.

  2. It is not about the Middle east or an African woman. It has been stated as the 'Karachi Slums' signifying that the poem is set in post-independence Pakistan.

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  4. Spell check doesn't pick up such errors as the difference between "impart" and "in part" as in your comments: "This is impart because Stallworthy has no set rhythm to his lines."