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How I Did It: ‘The Ballad of the Small-Boned Daughter’

Shafilea Ahmed died in September 2003 aged 17. She was a British Pakistani girl from Warrington, Cheshire. She was a beautiful and spirited girl who was murdered in a so called ‘honour killing’ by her parents. Like so many others I watched the long gruesome trial in 2012 when her parents were finally convicted of her murder. Shortly afterwards I began to sketch out a poem in free verse.

A memorial stone marking  the site where Charlotte Dymonds body was found in April 1844.

Shafilea herself wrote poetry. I realized very quickly that it was going to prove an impossibly difficult task to write this poem. Negotiating these dark territories often are. How does one enter this subject matter as poet and as poet from a culture from the Indian subcontinent? Often it is the areas that we are most afraid of-the spaces we want to avoid that we should confront in our work.

I wanted to give Shafilea a voice but I also wanted her story to be truthfully told. I almost abandoned the poem but revisited it when I re-discovered the Ballad whilst studying ‘Versification’ at the poetry school with Mimi Khalvati. Like many people I first encountered the Ballad at school after being introduced to Wordsworth’s and Charles Causley’s ballads. In fact one of the poems I met at school was his famous poem, ‘The Ballad of Charlotte Dymond’, which concerns a true story of Charlotte, a domestic servant who was murdered by her young suitor Mathew Weeks in in April 1844, a crime for which he was eventually hanged. I still know by heart many of the lines of the poem, as many people must do, such as this quatrain:

‘Take me home! Cried Charlotte
I lie here in the pit!
A red rock rests upon my breasts
And my naked neck is split!’

What marks a Ballad out is its insistence of the use of ordinary speech and the vernacular in its verses. The subject matters of the Ballad are often violent, tragic or political. However it is the music of the Ballad allied with strong rhythm and full rhyme that is what keeps the audience’s ear awake.

Because a Ballad is driven by a story and is narrated it is easier to manage to achieve some distance, which had proved a stumbling block for me at the early stages. As I starting to build the narrative each quatrain of the Ballad provided a small snapshot. The first version of the poem is a little longer. It contains further verses dealing with her teacher’s response to her death and other details about her death, but I decided to edit them out as felt the reader only needed to know the essential information and it was important not to let the rhythm drop. I adopted the rhyme scheme abcb in each quatrain and ballad meter 4,3,4,3 and employed full rhyme on each even line. The Ballad needs to move quite fast and I wanted to use dialogue, which is often used in traditional ballads.

When I considered my original poem, it was quite fragmented and titled ‘Asphodel’. I decided I needed a different register in the ballad, I eliminated many of the more Latinate sounding words and replaced them with Anglo Saxon language which sound more plain .In other parts of the poem I retained the many images of water. Shafileas’ body was dumped in the river and found in the river Kent six months later. The other images that survived related to nature’s attempt to object to such an unnatural act committed by parents;


‘At first the light protested
   strained to touch her face
but she died again in the waters
   like a disappearing voice.’


In keeping with Balladic tradition we hear dead Shafilya speak:


I’ve woken in this fearful flood
   I’ve woken in the water
Oh mother did you put me here
   Your first-born only daughter?


For me the enduring power of the Ballad is tied up with its organic origins, there is a primal earthy quality about a Ballad that gets under your skin. ‘The Ballad of the Small-boned Daughter’ tells a tale of violence and lies and asks us to think about our responsibilities in the community. The Ballad is an ancient form yet I feel it is one of the most riskiest poems I have written precisely because of this. Fortunately I soon realized that some modern poets like Clare Pollard and Jacob Polley are rediscovering the Ballad, trying to use it in subversive ways.

The idea of using a conventional form and seeing it renewed and challenged in contemporary poetry interests me, as does an Indian poet like myself using and claiming this ancient form. I first read the Ballad to my fellow poets in my versification class. I realize now of course that the ballad is the perfect vessel for carrying this tragic tale of an honour killing. Once I found the form, for carrying Shafilea’s story, the poem itself told me what to do; it insisted on the music and the metre, then it wrote itself in one evening, (though it took many months to refine).

The poet Mimi Khalvati reffered me to a quotation by Angela Leighton that finding the right form has a ‘revelatory quality’ and that once found ‘it is the embodied spirit that has found its physical manifestation.’ This is how I now feel about ‘Small-Boned Daughter’.


Ballad of the Small-boned Daughter

I’ve woken in this fearful flood
   I’ve woken in the water
Oh mother did you put me here,
   your first-born only daughter?

And can it be that the fishes here
   are nibbling at my flesh.
And can it be the sun I see
   that faces in me in death?

‘You are as beautiful my Jaan
as the words or tears I’ll shed’
as she warmed the blade against
her cheek, fine as silken thread.

She disarmed her tongue with one
fine stroke, father held her down.
Then a gloved fist, sealed her in
and dropped her in to drown.

At first the light protested,
strained to touch her face,
yet she died again in the waters
like a disappearing voice.

For six long months she lay like this
whilst the air pulsed with life.
Then in February they found her
under a rippling rod of ice.

The mourners came to pay respects
the mother wailed in white.
The mother had rehearsed sadness
in the mirror all through the night.

Sometimes her daughter came to her
in snow or quiet weather
She avoided the ghost who smelt
like her small boned baby daughter.

She couldn’t ignore flakes of skin
and hair filling up her bed.
Nightly she lifted the black strands,
then went to sleep and bled.

Unwieldy daughter let me be!
she cried with a voice of wire
you despised all filial duty-
it’s the devil you admire!

One day when the grieving mother
was blowing on her tea,
they came for her and the father
and asked them how they’d plead.

We know not how she met her fate,
how she claimed her watery bed.
The only crime we’re guilty of
was not to see her wed.

Screens showed the trial in detail,
we followed every note.
We learned about her bloody death,
how they practised knots in rope.

And yes the parents were found guilty
for this was a tale of sin
but who grieves for this girl of seventeen
if not her kith and kin?

Sometimes on a September path
when your’re near or hear the water,
press your minds to the open sky-
think of the small-boned daughter.

small hands

Mona Arshi trained as a lawyer before beginning to write poetry in 2008. She won the Magma poetry competition in 2012 and has been published widely in magazines in the UK. Mona is one of ten poets selected for “The Complete Works”, a national development programme funded by the Arts Council. Her debut collection Small Hands (Pavilion Poetry, April 2015) is shortlisted for the Forward Prize’s Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection.

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Image Credits:

‘Old Oak Ashton Court Bristol’, Gillie Rhodes