On Ladan Osman’s “How to Make a Shadow”

Excerpt from “How to Make a Shadow”

from Ladan Osman, Ordinary Heaven

Give her the spirit of a dog,
a black dog with a sword in her paws.
Tether her.  Put Position
at the bottom of a well filled with rats,
rats with shining backs, their eyes shillings
in the pocket of a man who sweats,
sweats at the ass crack for Position.
Say to her, bark, and she moans. . . .


Surreal or dream-like or imagination-work might describe Osman’s poem. Immediately, her words disturb and unsettle. The poem refuses to identify the woman. It doesn’t describe the kind of spirit a dog has, or say whether it is the same for every dog. The sword in the dog’s paw—can she not cut her tether? Will she? Why are the dog’s fangs and claws not enough? The poem triggers questions, but it does not provide answers.

Readers then must imagine the repugnance of scurrying, milling rats shining in a damp, entrapping dark. The well is closer to a grave or a pit or a trap. The reader has no control. The poem tells us to replace a woman’s spirit with the spirit of a dog, put Position in a well, ask the woman to respond like an animal. Perhaps all this happens against our will, perhaps not.

The rats’ eyes are coins, pocket change in the clothing of a sweating man. The man’s body repulses. He sweats for Position. His body repulses presumably because of the man’s obOrdinary Heavensession with social rank. The description makes the man ugly, in the same way that rats are ugly. And what is capital or money but the eyes of vermin, the bearers of pestilence? The craving for social rank offers little but sweat and money and ugliness. “Say to her, bark, and she moans,” but the moaning disquiets. Tell the woman to use her voice like an animal and she moans? Is this a sexual response? Pain? Protest? All of those? The poem will not clarify. Give a woman the spirit of a dog: Faithful? Wild? Dangerous? Take away her human-ness, try to, but still something human remains: she moans. The poem frightens. And we keep reading.

“How to Make a Shadow,” from Ladan Osman, Ordinary Heaven. Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, 2014.  In association with the African Poetry Fund and the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute.