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Take Back The Night Like A Fresh Burning Star

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.

JUDITH BAUMEL

SNOW-DAY

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.

ELLEN HAGAN

TO THE WOMAN ON ST. NICHOLAS AVENUE

WHOSE THIGH WAS A WILDERNESS

BLOOMING –

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,

magnolia,

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.

MAUREEN MCLANE

HEIDENRÖSLEIN

sexual idyll

sustained by a pill

yr libido

his speedo

daterape drug

shot, mug

not she said

he said

none bled

none wed

none dead

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.)

LAURA FAIRGRIEVE

SALLY RIDE SPEAKS TO THE

SCHOOLGIRLS

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

IMAGE

Catherine Opie,

Self-Portrait/Cutting,

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.

TYEHIMBA JESS

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.

MONIKA ZOBEL

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

1991

Do you remember the Gulf War?

Do you remember what it looked like on TV?

Flashes of bright green across a dull green background.

Scud. Rockets.

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.

JENNY JOHNSON

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

of leather.

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

cutting through

the icy November chill like a cygnet paddling

suddenly

in a fresh, dark lake.

Denice Frohman takes ownership of her Self. Step back and watch for lightning bolts. Identity.

DENICE FROHMAN

HUNGER

a woman can go mad

without herself, you know

can call a lover

(who convinces her

there is sweeter fruit

than her own name)

a lover

and never

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.

HOPE WABUKE

RIB

between his stomach

and his heart

that place

taken from

other animals

and eaten

with barbecue

and applesauce

licked clean

and then thrown

to the dog

Salah speaks to all the women lost in Palestine, one a remembering refugee, maybe even herself. Identity.

TRISH SALAH

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

thing exploded.

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

tunnels, meaning

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.

AMANDA JOHNSTON

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

folded

like the woman, who was not a woman, really, a mannequin made to

be

buckled

on her back, topless afro kink that didn’t mean to offend, didn’t mean

anything

because the artist had his reasons, really, because the woman sitting on

the lie

of a Black woman, her blonde hair neatly pulled back, starched white

shirt and pressed jeans were not a statement of superiority and context

matters here,

and power matters always, and I’ve never been to Russia so I wouldn’t

know

this cover girl from a can of beans that costs less than what this

magazine wants

me to eat, but I know I’ll pay for this in the end even though I’m not

buying

the woman on the floor is a mannequin and not someone real

struggling

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.”

 

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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