I am, she said,
though borne into demolition.
—“Poem for Suheir Hammad” by Trish Salah
One hundred years ago, women were risking everything to get the right to vote, including marching on Washington during the Spanish Flu epidemic, which saw millions of people drop like flies. American suffragists had been fighting since the turn of the 20th century to get their ‘equality’ etched into legislative stone by the doodling lip-servants in Congress. Finally, the 19th Amendment was passed in August 1920, coming out of a snarky Seneca Declaration of Sentiments that was essentially a re-writing of the sacrosanct Bill of Rights, adding to “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal….” AND WOMEN. Women and men are created equal. It’s that self-evident. Seriously, Lennon says, take a look at her. She’ll beat you upside your head with a rib, like that ape at the watering hole in 2001: A Space Odyssey, if you fail to get the message again. Existence precedes essence, n’est ce-pas?
Well, the poets in Women of Resistance: Poems For A New Feminism are as the title suggests not willing to be passively aggressed, assuaged, mollified or tomdoodled any longer. No more of It’s Time We Had That Conversation (every four years) or the Hope and Change Ropey Dope lure-to-a-suckerpunch routine. Women are calling the shots for themselves now, redefining, in this volume, issues that have plagued them since Eden: their bodies, objectification, identity, rape, victimization, desolation, domestic abuse, lesbianism, finding a voice, feminism and celebrating their achievements anew. The book is edited by Danielle Barnhart and Iris Mahan, co-founders of Village of Crickets, an online literary project of engagement.
Rather than be just another white male interpreter/filter of what these important female voices are saying, it seems wiser to let excerpts from this anthology of multitudinous voices speak for themselves. Isn’t that the point? I will limit my role, beyond what I’ve already offered as introductory comments and concluding comments. Brief notes introduce each poem.
The age-old absurd question: Who owns a woman’s body? Here Baumel addresses abortion.
What was it drove me to insist on sleds,
to pull the children out of the playground
and toward the park’s much steeper hills, instead
of making angels? I was waist deep and bound
by ice, and they were too. In their eyelashes
was unremovable ice. They crawled and flailed
on snow. The progress of their grudging limbs
slow. Surely memory of snow-fort caches,
the childish city happily derailed,
its hopes of milk and bread and papers dim.
When I was young I came to Boston late
late late one winter night from Baltimore.
The pre-dawn, post-blizzard of seventy-eight
glowed in the silent town where dump trucks bore
their loads of snow as through a secret city—
filling and then dumping in the harbor,
filling yet again. I’d just removed
a child from my womb. Well someone else did it
and it was not a child but some small scar
inside. It meant nothing to me, that newt,
that early fetus, and the procedure meant
nothing except perhaps the end of fear
and queasiness. Today how I resent
the way sadness and loss are souvenirs
we’re forced to carry with us. Listen—Happy
is the way I felt, and still I feel,
when I can shovel through the euphemisms
of those who speak for me. More happy. Happy
that forever will that speck, that organism
remain forever small and unfulfilled
in contrast to my son who came exactly
ten years after to the day, and to
a woman ready for him. I had wept
returning to my now-lost lover anew,
seeing the streets of Boston being cleaned,
scraped clear of the invading snow
that clung to arteries, that fairly smothered
our chance to try to make a normal flow
of life. That struggle with the midnight gleam:
the wiping, tidying gesture of a mother.
Now I know why they say that deep down inside every hetero male is a lesbian trying to come out. Of course, it raises that Eve question again, too. Identity.
TO THE WOMAN ON ST. NICHOLAS AVENUE
WHOSE THIGH WAS A WILDERNESS
There you sat, gardenias & fat lemon trees bursting forth
from what appeared to be vulva – very near upper-most thigh.
That place we all of us blossom out from. You with all
your gnarled pinkest roses streaming upwards, all froth & funk
from the newspaper stand – none of it could contain
the many multitudes shooting forth from your thigh, how
it was full of satsumas & mangoes alike, sweet syrup of the streets.
All of you looked ragged & ravaged & I’m not one to judge, as much
of me looks the same so much of the time. & none of us immune to
tolls the days take & all of us whole reveling in the days given.
But my god – what contrast was your knee to your hip, what bright hot
youth. How a body part can so quickly become avocado tree,
peony, the way one opens up like sex, the way a clitoris swells
& swolls, how deep & divine a leg can look all draped over workhorse
right there in the middle stench/steam of city living.
Look, I want to say, look at this woman with her whole billowing self
(even as the rest of her is fading). All that ink on all that skin. God,
what a garden of a woman. What catapult, what precision. All,
all of her springing upwards & alive.
Goethe’s Heidenröslein (with Schubert music) is a much beloved church tune in Germany. It involves an uncomfortable rose-plucking. McLane calls it rape.
sustained by a pill
not she said
Fairgrieve does a nice job here with this hero piece: Women have The Right Stuff, too. (And we may need them in outer space to help colonize the Others out there.)
SALLY RIDE SPEAKS TO THE
Don’t believe the quiet heat that waits to pull your
velocipede to pieces
when you pedal like you’re tired of waiting.
Someone will want to solder your throat shut
while your mind turns figure-eights around
faceless people who promise you
space travel is one hundred years away.
Do not close your mouth for them.
Speed comes to anti-gravity paint
the hacked up remains
of spoiled shoe laces and band-aids
that stew on the blacktops, awaiting no rescue.
Run fast enough to crack your scabs,
run fast enough to hear
your arteries turn all your thoughts to nothing
more than a righteous racket.
When I flew to the edge I was neither sight nor
sound, not a grayscale photo
I was speed
I was the hand that holds the storybook illustration
I airbrushed the shadows clean off the page
I was an acrobat courting the cold-blooded stars
I was the slingshot that pulls itself impossibly taut,
that kisses its spine good-bye.
I counted backwards and my bones became hollow
I steered a shuttle with no space for pins or needles
sometimes chasing weightlessness is the only way
to keep your blood blitzing, to remember the
years you spent writing out equations,
whispering promises to cramped book spines,
answering barbed questions, remembering
you’re the first
and sitting up straighter.
I raced against the rest with
no sir, not a single tear shed
Danny Dunn turned anti-gravity cartwheels in my dreams
and there was no divide
my interstellar medium, X-ray visions and Canadarm arm
shot me straight up
I did not wait for outer space to extend its arm to me,
I thrust my face skyward
where no tinted glass could have spared me
where a breathless canvas of black beckoned me close
where I offered my ear, I reached out my matte limbed machine
and snatched a shuttle whole
where the sun would have happily frozen me to death
if I drifted too close.
There are three male poets in the collection. Here, Hall is literally putting his male gaze to ekphrastic use to undress Catherine Opie’s representational model.
JAMES ALLEN HALL
dye coupler print, 40 x 30 in. (1993).
The model turns her back to us, hair shorn to the nape,
tribal tattoo circling her tricep, which, when flexed,
is a warrior’s, but now hangs limp as a spear, unpoisoned.
She is naked. Maybe our looking unclothes her, searing
the image on her back: a house, scratched red into her flesh,
just beginning a lifetime’s scab. Two windows, a door.
Two open eyes and a shut mouth and all the poisoned words
are in their beds, looking out to the front garden,
where two girls in red skirts hold hands among the tulips.
But the model can’t see them. I tell her she can drop the knife,
but there’s a bruise the size of a fist at the base of her neck.
I tell her the girls are in love, if love means drawn in blood,
the scar of your childhood will never heal.
Here is some more ekphrastic representation. This time Jess takes on a Biblical theme.
HAGAR IN THE WILDERNESS
Carved Marble. Edmonia Lewis, 1875
My God is the living God,
God of the impertinent exile.
An outcast who carved me
into an outcast carved
by sheer and stony will
to wander the desert
in search of deliverance
the way a mother hunts
for her wayward child.
God of each eye fixed to heaven,
God of the fallen water jug,
of all the hope a vessel holds
before spilling to barren sand.
God of flesh hewn from earth
and hammered beneath a will
immaculate with the power
to bear life from the lifeless
like a well in a wasteland.
I’m made in the image of a God
that knows flight but stays me
rock still to tell a story ancient
as slavery, old as the first time
hands clasped together for mercy
and parted to find only their own
salty blessing of sweat.
I have been touched by my God
in my creation, I’ve known her caress
of anointing callus across my face.
I know the lyric of her pulse
across these lips… and yes,
I’ve kissed the fingertips
of my dark and mortal God.
She has shown me the truth
behind each chiseled blow
that’s carved me into this life,
the weight any woman might bear
to stretch her mouth toward her
one true God, her own
beaten, marble song.
Zobel goes Reichstag fire on domestic abuse and says no to siegheiling men any more. Nothing left but smoke and mirrors in the end, as in the beginning, come to think of it. Identity.
THAT’S WHERE YOU DISAPPEAR
The kitchen towel absorbs the sweat
of steamed beans, splattered beet juice.
Into the gravy boat I pour every man is a grave.
For I have crammed all the names
of dirt into my mouth and dug my way
out with words as shovels.
Tonight I let fire grope the house.
Let the rats on the roof be
spelled backwards. Into the pan I burn
every man is a cloud-shaped bruise.
And yours, yours the contours of a country
no longer ours. I let the fire ruin
the curtains and rattle the windows.
The charred beans scatter across
the floor like roaches. On the chair
your coat with its puppet shoulders.
Your puppet show. Into the smoke I carve
every man is a smeared shadow of himself.
So tonight I let fire unbolt the doors,
and the trees on the block dance
like black-veined feathers. You’re the void
between these lines. Every man is a void
between these lines. I lock your shadow
with its mothballs in the hallway closet
and let the fire suffocate what’s left.
This house is no longer yours to shovel.
This house is no longer a grave.
Wessel inquires after male aggression. Even the Mario Bros. get some comeuppance. As if they needed any more of that.
ELIZABETH CLARK WESSEL
Do you remember the Gulf War?
Do you remember what it looked like on TV?
Flashes of bright green across a dull green background.
More abstract than Super Mario Brothers.
A classmate’s brother wrote home,
we’re living in a palace these days, sleeping on marble floors.
I imagined a floor made of thousands of marbles,
thought how uncomfortable that would be.
The whims of kings are inscrutable, I guess.
That was the year I watched Ken Burns’ Civil War on a loop.
I loved the pictures of battlefields before and after,
peaceful then pockmarked and perfectly decrepit.
I loved how Gettysburg was saved by a textbook every time.
That was also the year someone cooked meat in strychnine
and threw it to dogs all over town.
First they’d foam at the mouth,
then shudder, then die.
It happened to my dog.
I saw it.
She was a birthday present, and I used to wake up early
to feed her puppy chow softened in hot milk.
I warmed it up in the microwave
and went out to the little garden shed where she slept.
This is the order of things.
First one thing, and then the other.
It’s taken me a long time to understand this.
Johnson channels Katy Perry and kisses a girl. Lesbos.
THERE ARE NEW WORLDS
To ride a horse is holy.
Like how Stephen refusing to ride side saddle
in The Well of Loneliness
fully astride, rides high on
the acrid sweat
On the overleaf of my worn copy,
there by the pond, next to Stephen
isolated on a stone, is a swan.
I first kissed a woman
after hours of silence and shared cherry Chap Stick
late at night on a bench
in a garden that was so historical
Thomas Jefferson must have sat there, too
cross legged in his wig
or Gertrude Stein, I hope, legs straddled wide
on a speaking tour
explaining, A rose is a rose is a rose
I strode home alone
the icy November chill like a cygnet paddling
in a fresh, dark lake.
Denice Frohman takes ownership of her Self. Step back and watch for lightning bolts. Identity.
a woman can go mad
without herself, you know
can call a lover
(who convinces her
there is sweeter fruit
than her own name)
sleep good again.
I want to believe
I’m a better woman now
that I’m writing poems.
that when I say, poems
I mean another way
to say, revenge.
that when I say, revenge
I mean to regift each shard of god
back to its maker.
that when I say, god
I mean to grow fat off my own honey
and never go hungry again.
Bringing it all back home. I ain’t no Adam’s rib to be chucked to the dog, Wabuke seems to be saying. Identity.
between his stomach
and his heart
and then thrown
to the dog
Salah speaks to all the women lost in Palestine, one a remembering refugee, maybe even herself. Identity.
POEM FOR SUHEIR HAMMAD
“I am a tunnel,” she said,
Meaning, not the route to her beloved Brooklyn,
Home a way from
Meaning, a thing you bomb, some
Reuters runs photos,
Of the aftermath
(what is after math… when some thing
Has happened… many things happened, but
…there is no end in sight.
What is the math of after, its calculus?)
Reuters runs photos
Here are two women, sitting on the rubble
(what is rubble?
These were homes)
Sitting in the Rubble, what were homes in Rafaah
Homes near tunnels
Two women lived, near
A lifeline of food and medicine,
Or something you bomb,
a thing exploded.I am, she said,
though borne into demolition
Probably the most outrageous entry in the collection is Amanda Johnston’s response to a 2016 viral image. The image says it all. The poem more so.
PHOTO: WHITE WOMAN
SITTING ON BLACK WOMAN
AS CHAIR ON MLK DAY
January 20, 2016
Once the image went viral in our minds, we were instructed
to find comfort in plush upholstered apologies neatly pressed and
like the woman, who was not a woman, really, a mannequin made to
on her back, topless afro kink that didn’t mean to offend, didn’t mean
because the artist had his reasons, really, because the woman sitting on
of a Black woman, her blonde hair neatly pulled back, starched white
shirt and pressed jeans were not a statement of superiority and context
and power matters always, and I’ve never been to Russia so I wouldn’t
this cover girl from a can of beans that costs less than what this
me to eat, but I know I’ll pay for this in the end even though I’m not
the woman on the floor is a mannequin and not someone real
to find the exits, naked, in a room full of mirrors without reflection.
These poems speak to the fascism all around us today, and, sometimes, in us, and offer a tonic, or enema, so that the reader may come away less full of ideological shit than s/he may have started out with. Many excellent poems had to be left out of excerpting due to their length, including some of my favorite reads — Mahogany L. Browne’s angry “If 2017 Was A Poem Title:” was a favorite read too long for the space allotted; Patricia Smiths “What She Thinks As She Waits By The Door,” was a magnificent voice-giving to Alice Kramden of The Honeymooners, which evoked Tillie Olsen’s Depression era reverie in “I Stand Here Ironing”; and, Denice Frohman’s “A Woman’s Place.” with winning closing lines, “got god & named gravity / after herself.”