It’s been a fews weeks since my last post, and that’s because work got busy while I also happened to be nearly immobile on the couch trying to get through the exhaustion and nausea of the first trimester of pregnancy. I’m happy to say that today marks twelve weeks. If you were reading this blog a year ago when I wrote about what led to my long-term writer’s block, you’ll know how much that milestone means.
We’re still adjusting to this new reality, which is thrilling and terrifying. Now that I no longer feel like an alien is sucking the life force out of me (thought IT IS), I’m happy to get back to feeling the wind in my hair as I run or bike, the soil on my fingers as I pull up dying tomato plants (not really because I have to wear gloves to avoid toxoplasmosis, but you know what I mean), and the spark of a new creative idea.
Many years ago, when a good friend had her first child, she said that pregnancy made her extra creative. She wrote and wrote and wrote.Until recently, I cursed her blissful experience because I was so tired that even my brain didn’t want to function, but now I’m starting to get it.
I’ve noticed that I started thinking about my grandparents a lot, which I suppose makes sense because I’m adding to a new generation in the family. My dad’s parents, both deceased, kept showing up in my dreams. Apparently, dreaming of people dying and people already dead is a thing that can happen in pregnancy. (Other things no one told you: stuffy nose, leg cramps, blurred vision that, oh, no problem, will clear up two months after the baby is born! I haven’t had the last yet, just got freaked out when I read about it the other day.)
Dreams get weird in pregnancy, and I’m a little nervous because I already have weird dreams. But apparently dreams about birthing animals instead of humans and bizarre things happening to the baby are totally normal. The other night I dreamt that my husband had drunkenly stashed the baby in a drawer, and we opened every drawer frantically searching for it, only to discover the baby in a pile of drawers we were throwing out. Whatever that means.
Anyway, death dreams. They make sense because death symbolizes major life changes, rebirth, etc. In one dream, my deceased grandmother was taking me through her old house and showing me all this antique furniture that had been passed down through her family. She said, “Here this is for you,” and pointed to a crib.
So my grandparents have been on my mind, and all sorts of memories have been leaking into my daydreams. I found myself writing poems about them, conjuring up the feeling of my grandmother’s smooth cheek against mine and my grandfather’s generous smile and the comforting smell of their house. I discovered a poem I wrote in grad school about a visit to my great-grandmother, the last time I saw her, when the refrigerator door kept bouncing off of her as she dug around inside for the jam cake she had made. I spent some time with the poem and made it better, and it felt like, in some magical way, I was connecting her to this little peanut (that’s what it looked like on the ultrasound) that has some of her in its blood and skin and bones but will never her know her except through words and pictures.
I’ve already had to pass up two amazing work trips (to Turkey and South Africa. Really? They couldn’t have asked me before this?), but I feel like I’m on an adventure that doesn’t end when the plane lands. Every day I learn new things about my body and this creature it’s growing, and my mind is like a cauldron brewing with ideas and dreams. A dream is an idea, no? An idea, a dream.
Take this: there is a heart beating in my body that doesn’t belong to me! And suddenly I’m thinking of Edgar Allen Poe and floorboards and all the places hearts could be secretly thump-thumping.
I know that women have been having babies forever, but it’s like I’m the only person who has ever been pregnant. The other day I was reading a book about it and said out loud to no one, “This thing is going to pee inside me?! Wait, how many pounds am I going to gain?”
I mean, how can these things not get your wheels turning? No wonder when I went to look at monsters on Wikipedia to find a costume idea for my parents’ monster-themed Halloween party, I was bombarded with a disturbing list of birth defects that long ago inspired the idea behind a lot of monsters and demons. (Seriously, Wikipedia, thanks for ruining my day. I just needed something more creative than a vampire.)
But my point is that pregnancy is a weird and wild time, so there’s bound to be a lot of weird and wild notions that come out of it.
A few nights ago we watched David Lynch’s Eraserhead, whose meaning people are constantly debating, and my partner said, “I watched this so many times as a kid. But watching it now, I’m realizing it’s about parenthood.”
Those of you who’ve seen the movie surely know what he means. If you’ve never seen it, well, don’t watch Eraserhead while pregnant. I was worried about the crazy dreams it would give me, but somehow my slumber remained free of skinned dinosaur babies. The lesson, Lynch might say, is to just stop being fearful, right? The difference between wonder and worry.
Here’s to letting go of fear, even in dreams.
A lot of the stuff I think about, however, is really normal and pleasant. Like how much I miss my deceased grandparents and wish I could know them now, adult to adult, and see the joy in their faces at the news of this pregnancy. How people who barely know us react so delightfully when they find out we’re having a baby. How wonderful the world can be when you’re pregnant with a child you want and nothing has gone wrong so far and you read that it already wriggles around in response to your hand on your belly and all your tears are happy tears and outside the weather is glorious and everything you love about fall is on its way and feels like it was made especially for you.
On a lovely May afternoon a couple of years ago, my partner and I headed to a popular brunch spot in our city. When we arrived and saw dozens and dozens of families in pastel dresses and button-down shirts, we remembered it was Mother’s Day and realized we’d never get a table. But they sat us immediately. There were virtually no other couples there, so they had plenty of two-tops. At some point, I went to use the unisex restroom, and a boy–probably ten or eleven years old–kindly gestured for me to go ahead of him. I shook my head, but he insisted. When I returned to our table and related this incident to my partner, commenting on how sweet it was, he said, “Oh, he thought you were someone’s mother.”
Once he said it, it became obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me in the moment. I’m not someone’s mother, so I don’t realize that’s what strangers assume about me. I immediately thought, oh god, do I look like a mom somehow? (Cut to a stoned Abbi Jacobson rolling on a waiting room floor after being asked how many kids she has in Broad City.) And then I felt a strange sort of guilt because I took a place in line that was meant for someone’s mother, which was not me.
I’m always happy to recognize my mom’s hard work in birthing and raising me. I was a real bitch at thirteen, so I can’t imagine why she put up with me. But have you ever thought about the fact that the only US holiday that honors women in any way is about motherhood? Men are honored for being fathers, yes, but also for being founding fathers, soldiers, workers, presidents, pilgrims, genocidal maniacs, civil rights leaders, and the son of god. Okay, it’s likely that in a few years President’s Day will include a single woman (though some states just celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln) and technically women are included as soldiers and workers, but they have not been included historically and popular images of Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Labor Day do not include women. Their work, outside of motherhood, was usually forgotten or erased.
There are four states that celebrate Susan B. Anthony Day, and one state, Ohio, now honors Rosa Parks Day. Can we make those federal holidays? Can one of them replace Columbus Day?
I have some additional suggestions for holidays honoring women with stunning accomplishments, especially for the times in which they lived, that changed this country for the better. Some managed these achievements because they did not have children, while others somehow balanced both.
- Anne Bradstreet Day: First American poet, author of The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, who somehow found time to write while raising eight children and struggling with frequent illness (1612-1672)
- Phillis Wheatley Day: First black American poet, former slave whose art countered racist expectations and worked to undermine the institution of slavery (1753-1784)
- Sojourner Truth Day: Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist who gave the phenomenal speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1791-1883)
- Harriet Tubman Day: Underground Railroad “conductor” who led hundreds out of slavery, abolitionist, Union soldier, suffragist (circa 1822-1913)
- Jane Addams Day: Founder of Hull House, the first settlement house in the US, first US woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, first woman public philosopher in the US (1860-1935)
- Zitkala-Ša Day: Sioux writer, musician, and activist who worked to pass the Indian Citizenship Act and co-founded the National Council of American Indians (1876-1938)
- Alice Paul Day: Suffragist and women’s rights activist whose civil disobedience, including the first political protest outside the White House and hunger strikes that led to force feeding and psychiatric treatment, secured votes for the Nineteenth Amendment (1885-1977)
The Feminist Wire has a great piece on the problem of Mother’s Day (even though, yes, it has somewhat feminist beginnings). It’s a holiday that reinforces traditional ideas of motherhood. Shouldn’t we be emphasizing parenthood over motherhood and fatherhood? We need dads to be equal parents, to be, in a sense, mothers as much as women are mothers.
Since this is a blog about feminism and creativity, I feel obliged to mention some of the poems that come to mind when talking about motherhood. First, of course, is Robert Hass’s “Mother’s Nipples.” Indeed. Is there a better poem for Mother’s Day?
Next comes “Morning Song” from Sylvia Plath, which is not the typical first-day-of-motherhood-joy-and-ecstasty dream we have been sold. Rather, this poem reflects a complicated reaction to birth: confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, attentiveness. “We stand around blankly as walls.” This creature is here; what the hell do we do now?
And then I think of Sharon Olds and her collection The Unswept Room, so much about dealing with her own mother, about being a mother to a grown daughter. As we think about Mother’s Day–about mothers who never stop working, about mothers missing their daughters in Nigeria, about fathers who are mothers too–these poems can remind us that motherhood is a complicated thing. That there are children who are motherless and mothers who have lost children or never had their own in the first place. That motherhood has nearly erased women from historical record. That women still die doing their sacred duty. That women’s ability to choose motherhood or not is threatened every day in the US and around the world. That there are many ways to be a mother. As Hass says, “There are all kinds of emptiness and fullness / that sing and do not sing”.
I’m very excited to tell you that this week is my blog’s first birthday! Happy birthday, little blog!
There have been several times where I felt like I had run out of steam because you know I get frustrated with how divisive and nasty and downright mean we can be to each other online. I don’t want to feel like I’m contributing to arguments that don’t get us anywhere, and I definitely don’t want to feel like people read my posts and like them but leave the ideas tucked into this virtual space instead of carrying them into the physical world. I also get a little anxious about all of my online activity and feel like I need to run away to live in an off-grid cabin in the woods.
Do you have anchors that keep you from living your entire life online? For instance, my dad still reads a real newspaper cover to cover every morning with his coffee. He could so easily, lazily even, go online to get all the news he wants, but even when he’s visiting me he’ll walk down to the sketchy gas station and buy the local paper to read on my porch. I love that he does that.
I like the internet in a lot of ways, but I always want my life to still be fulfilling without it. I secretly yearn for a future without electricity, where I have to be clever and resourceful and self-sufficient. Okay, I don’t really want to give up movies and records and my washing machine, but I would totally do one of the PBS shows where people pretend to live in Victorian England or colonial Virginia and they have only what people had then.
What I’m saying is that sometimes I think I’m finished with blogging, and then I run into a friend at a bar or an old colleague on the street and they say, “Hey, I love your blog.” I had no idea they were even reading it and am always thrilled to think that perhaps I am taking up some space in this virtual world in a way that has value.
So I will try to keep going. But if you want to do some crazy old-timey things in a culturally progressive atmosphere, count me in.
Anyway, for my blog’s birthday, let’s spend the day reflecting on my first love: poetry.
- “The Hawk” by Verónica Reyes
- “Rose and Snow Tell the Field Their Troubles” by Jenny Factor
- “Invisibility Terror: a prose poem” by Cheryl Clark
- “4. From ‘Fleet of Nouns'” by Sina Queyras
The Toast, which is my favorite blog right now, has this amazing article on Elise Cowen, a mostly forgotten Beat poet. You knew there were women Beat poets, right? I wouldn’t kick you out for not knowing that because they’ve been treated like Kerouac’s dregs. But now you have no excuse, and you should really know Elise Cowen, who wrote lines like “Frankenstein of delicate grace” and “Heavy as winter breathing / in the snow.”
Megan Keeling’s article describes the barriers faced by Cowen, other female Beat poets, and women interested in joining the fray. In the words of Gregory Corso, “In the ‘50s if you were male you could be a rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up.”
So that’s why you’ve never heard of her, or only knew her as Ginsberg’s girlfriend (yes). Lucky for us, Tony Trigilio has recently edited a collection of Cowen’s poetry.
But all this history talk has left me wanting to go far, far back in my time machine, so I will leave you with one of my favorite poets, the tenth muse. This is a fragment of Sappho‘s, translated by Anne Carson in If Not, Winter:
often turning her thoughts here
you like a goddess
and in your song most of all she rejoiced.
But now she is conspicuous among Lydian women
as sometimes at sunset
the rosyfingered moon
surpasses all the stars. And her light
stretches over salt sea
equally and flowerdeep fields.
And the beautiful dew is poured out
and roses bloom and frail
chervil and flowering sweetclover.
But she goes back and forth remembering
gentle Atthis and in longing
she bites her tender mind
I was reading a rather yawn-inducing piece on Jezebel describing the concept of a “basic bitch” and my eyes wandered into the comment section, which is typically fine on that site because most readers are feminist, anti-racist, etc. But I saw something really bizarre happen. A commenter who introduced herself as a Native American woman said she was tired of all the anti-white articles and comments popping up all over the internet, and people responded by challenging her Nativeness, even going so far as to demand to know what tribe she belongs to, whose rolls she’s on, what rez she lives on.
They were doing this because they felt like she was complaining about reverse racism (which pretty much only happens at an individual level and not at a systemic level, so it’s not the same thing as actual racism, which is pervasive and affects every aspect of people’s lives), a reaction they thought was kind of racist in and of itself, so they responded with…their own racism.
Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s not really okay to question how Native someone is just because you don’t think they act or look like a Native person should. Because of the problem of blood quantum, people still think it’s perfectly acceptable to single out Native Americans as the one group that must prove their ethnicity. With blood.
Blood quantum is the measure of how much Native blood a person has. It’s like the one-drop rule, but instead of being used to classify as many people as possible as non-white so they could be segregated from white people and treated like second-class citizens, blood quantum was established by the US government (and back in the colonies) to actually limit the number of Native Americans. The smaller the tribe, the less the government had to offer in a treaty. Even now, government benefits to tribes are measly due to blood quantum. Lived all your life on the res, 100% Native, but descended from several different tribes? Too bad, you don’t have enough blood from this one tribe to be a full member, so the US government ignores you. Old tribal census rolls are incomplete because the US government forced your family off their land, sent their kids to boarding schools where their language was beaten out of them, and your grandfather was delivered in a shack with a dirt floor (by a drunk doctor who screwed up his birth certificate) to parents whose records don’t appear to exist? Sorry, friend, you’re out of luck.
Last week I saw this image of a white Cleveland baseball fan in red face haughtily explaining himself to a Native man. In the middle of the city. At a public event. In red face. Like it’s totally cool.
It’s an understatement to say that Native Americans are only visible in our society as mascots. And even then those mascot roles are often played by white people (see Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger and Rooney Mara’s recent casting as Tiger Lily in an upcoming Peter Pan movie). If you want to see Native people represented as real, multi-dimensional human beings, you have to dig around.
To help you get started, here are a few creative projects that challenge the stereotypes that even some “anti-racist” Jezebel readers perpetuate.
- The Cherokee Word for Water: This recently released film about Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation, focuses on her big impact on a tribal community without water.
- Reel Injun: Filmmaker Neil Diamond won a Peabody Award for his exploration of Hollywood’s portrayal of North American Natives.
- Project 562: Matika Wilbur has been photographing people from every federally recognized tribe in the US for this Kickstarter-funded project. She includes this anecdote on her Kickstarter page: “I had this incredible experience at the bottom of The Grand Canyon. The elders appointed a teenage boy to help me carry my equipment to photo shoots (since there aren’t cars down there, and I’m clumsy on a horse). He was kind of quiet at first, standoffish even. But after the first interview and photoshoot, he was excited for the next one. He started suggesting ideas. I could see him listening as we spoke to his elders. That evening, he revealed that he had walked a despairing path, having struggled with depression and his own sense of Tribal identity. As I was leaving, he shyly pulled me aside, and told me that this project gave him a new sense of hope. He said that he believed in me. He said that I was the first lady that he’d ever met that had went on to ‘do something’. He thanked me for giving him hope. He said that his experience with Project 562 had meant more to him than he could articulate.”
- The Artifact Piece: Clad in a loincloth, performance artist James Luna lies in a display case to underscore the problem of presenting Native people as artifacts of the past instead of living, evolving people of the present.
- The Round House: Louise Erdrich’s latest novel of an Ojibwe family won the 2012 National Book Award.
- Crazy Brave: Poet Joy Harjo’s new memoir chronicles her search for her voice and herself. What she’s learned about the debris of trauma: “You can use those materials to build a bridge over that which would destroy you.”
Last week I got into a Facebook argument with someone I didn’t know on a friend’s page. I was a bit embarrassed, as I normally ignore stupid Facebook comments from complete strangers and I didn’t want to turn my friend’s page into my own little soapbox, but he said something I just couldn’t let go.
The guy prefaced his comment by admitting it was ethnocentric and then said the entire continent of Africa is a shithole that has nothing to offer the rest of the world and he has no interest in anything that happens there.
I…I just–I couldn’t let it go. I had to say something. So I said something about imperialism and racial hegemony and recognizing our own roles in the various struggles in various parts of Africa.
As expected, he figured I was a hypocrite because what I had ever done for Africa?
Well, for one thing, I don’t freaking shut an entire continent out of my life because I can’t be bothered with its misery. In fact, I actively engage with issues in Africa though my work in women’s advocacy and enjoy, in particular, music from Mali, food from Ethiopia, and literature from Egypt. Furthermore, I recognize that Africa is made up of countries and cultures that are distinctive and complex and is not just a big pile of shit, thank you very much.
Can you tell I’m still a bit angry?
Sometimes I think I’ve become an angrier person since the internet invaded my life. There’s so much to be upset about!
Let’s all take a deep breath and pour a glass of smoky scotch to soothe us.
The good thing is that there’s a lot to love and cherish and celebrate too. Like this piece on how Western feminists could learn a thing or two from Africa’s many women leaders (64% of the Rwandan parliament, for instance). That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite African women working in creative fields today. If you aren’t already familiar with them, you will love them.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: What can I even say about this woman? She writes like a graceful beast, stomping right through your heart on her toes. From Nigeria, Adichie is the author of, among other books, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize), and the recently released Americanah. She’s also given two kick-ass TED talks, “The danger of a single story” and “We should all be feminists.” Yes, ma’am, please, and thank you.
- Ama Aita Aidoo: Poet, playwright, and author Aidoo writes about women challenging traditional gender roles in Ghana. Check out her novel Changes, which follows Elsi, who leaves her husband after he rapes her and then enters a polygamous relationship.
- Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Zimbabwean writer published her first book, the award-winning Nervous Conditions, when she was only 28. It was one of the best works I read in graduate school. She also created the story for Neria, one of the most successful films of Zimbabwe.
- Sokari Douglas Camp: A sculptor from Nigeria, Douglas Camp works out of London. Her medium is steel, and she draws from Nigerian culture (more specifically, her Kalibari heritage) and such issues as war, oil, death, gender, and race. Her work looks homemade and industrial at the same time; it is shiny, dark, and bright at once. I love Yoruba Ladies, Sharia Fubara, and Saint.
- Mariam Doumbia: One half of musical duo Amadou & Mariam, Doumbia went blind as a child, like her guitar player and fellow vocalist, Amadou Bagayoko, whom she met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Last year saw the release of their eighth album, Folila. Listen to “Dougou Badia,” which features Santigold, whose voice blends nicely with Doumbia’s.
- Nadine Gordimer: A Nobel Prize winner, Gordimer writes of race and politics in South Africa. Her award-winning novel The Pickup deals with the alien feeling of being an immigrant. She is also known for her work against apartheid and for HIV prevention.
- Tracey Rose: Based in South Africa, Rose explores identity, gender, race, and the body through performance, video installations, and photography. Her 2001 video installation Ciao Bella, which offers images of iconic women “taunt[ing] one another’s historical time zones and scoff[ing] at one another’s histories and politics,” has been described as “a shambolic, operatic, feminist parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–8).” I ask you: does it get better than that?
- Nawal El Saadawi: An Egyptian feminist writer and doctor, El Saadawi wrote, among other books, Woman at Point Zero, about a woman forced into prostitution who receives a death sentence for killing her pimp. The story was based on a real prisoner. El Saadawi, a former political prisoner, is a big advocate for women’s rights and speaks out against female genital mutilation.
- Rokia Traoré: This Malian musician performed in and wrote the music for Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona, shared a song with Half the Sky‘s 30 Songs/30 Days, and recorded with Kronos Quartet. She is smart and bold, and she plays the hell out of her guitar. Her album Beautiful Africa just came out.
To celebrate the autumnal equinox yesterday, I attended Letters to the Earth: Songs and Poems of Conservation at Ijams Nature Center. The sky was a dreamy blue, so I rode my bike there. Jewel-toned hummingbirds flitted in and out of trees and cicadas sang their afternoon song while we lounged on the patio listening to a handful of Knoxville’s great poets: Marilyn Kallet, Arthur Smith, Jesse Graves, R.B. Morris, Jeff Daniel Marion, and Linda Parsons Marion.
They spoke of blackberries and tomatoes and mockingbirds, tigers and rhinos and rural landscapes. I was stuffed with empanadas, grilled corn, dulce de leche, and fresh coconut from the HoLa Hispanic Heritage Festival earlier in the afternoon, and I reveled in a day outside with so much for the senses after being stuck inside with a congested head for far too long.
Fall is my favorite season. It’s a time to reflect on the past, feel that familiar ache over things we’ve lost, and then let it all fall away like water. It’s a time to find beauty in change.
It was renewing for me to spend the first day of fall at a poetry reading. I’d been away from the literary scene for quite some time. I’d gotten busy with the nonprofit work I was doing, and I’d come home tired and in need of escape. I didn’t do much writing, I didn’t pay much attention to new writers and literary news, and I certainly didn’t attend events. I’d spend the day dealing with funding cuts and federal deadlines and the saddest client stories of abuse and poverty, and then I’d come home and watch 30 Rock or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Revenge and try to get some sleep before I had to get up and do it all over again.
And then came the period where I didn’t write at all. I thought I wasn’t a poet or fiction writer or storyteller after all. I thought I’d been wrong about who I was, that writing had just been a phase, though a long one.
It started three years ago. That fall marked the beginning of a series of struggles, from the September death of my husband’s brother–which was both unexpected and expected, wholly preventable and sadly inevitable–to my emergency surgery for a ruptured ectopic pregnancy the following July.
After that, I didn’t write creatively for more than a year. I just couldn’t. I would try–I’d feel like I should or even feel the urge, but when I sat before my computer or grabbed a notebook, nothing happened. Do you ever have that dream where you try to scream and nothing comes out? That what it was like.
I’d never had writer’s block; I’d written my way out of every dark hole. So I thought that was the end. I thought the writer in me was gone.
I had spent several years working for an agency that served victims of gender-based violence, so I knew a lot about healing. I had written support group curricula, researched resilience, and designed programs that helped people overcome trauma and tragedy. And then I found myself covering one layer of sorrow with another, facing my own mortality for the first time, grieving over the loss of something I never knew, losing a body part that was culturally tied to womanhood, realizing brutally just how much women risk their lives to bring new life, and tumbling down into a spiral of confusion over whether or not I even wanted to be a mother in the first place or ever.
I felt lucky to be alive. Had I lived in a country with less access to the right medical care or with a total abortion ban, I’d be dead. Had I not given into the pain and into my nurse mother’s insistence that I go to the hospital even though I didn’t think I needed to, I’d be dead. So I really focused on my relief at being alive, but eventually everything else bubbled up.
What I discovered is that healing is really tough. Healing is elusive, and you have to fight for it. You have to decide that you are going to go on, that you’re going to find a way to get through it, and that you’ll do whatever it takes. And you have to be willing to wait through every excruciating moment because it takes a long damn time. What I discovered was that in my time of need all the ways I knew to heal had abandoned me.
I couldn’t write a word. I did other things: I talked, cried, thought, ran, walked, talked, and cried some more. But I couldn’t put it on paper, and I didn’t feel like the pain would ever really go away. Maybe I couldn’t handle making it art. I was furious and disappointed and utterly sad, and maybe it didn’t feel much like art. Perhaps turning it into a poem felt too much like finding beauty in something that had no beauty or purpose or value. I hated what I’d been through. I said it wasn’t worth it. I said it was the biggest waste of everything. So how could I write about it?
I grew up a lot during that period. I crossed a bridge I never knew existed. Here’s what I learned: that’s life. Things happen, and that’s life. You take the good and the bad; you can’t have it any other way. Sometimes a bunch of bad shit comes at once, and you feel like you’ll never find your way out of it. Other times, it’s a gorgeous fall day, and you eat salty tostones and ride your bike and listen to poetry while hummingbirds mate.
Yes, if you wait it out long enough and work hard enough, Persephone comes back from Hades feeling like a bomb-ass queen. That’s life. Sometimes I sing it (that’s liiiiiiife) with jazz hands.
Deep into last fall, in the middle of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I fell in love with literature all over again. I’d forgotten the pull of words, the richness of life when words are joined in a way that makes you feel like singing. But there it was before me, and I felt it so hard that it welled up in my throat.
I started thinking about writing again. For a few weeks, I just thought about it. Then I sat down and words came, and I felt my new self settle back into my old self and we all felt good and ready.
Having read my post on Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” a friend sent me an article about women poets in India who have taken up the subject of rape. You’ve no doubt read about the increasing problem of violence against women in certain parts of India, Delhi in particular, and the gang rapes that made international news. One poet explains her intentions:
‘With debates increasingly centering around violence against women, the topic has become common ground for all of us. We have become one entity, irrespective of where we come from,’ said Tamizh poet Salma. Her poems are often devoid of illusionary imageries and soaring similes. ‘I call sex, sex. A rape, rape. People have often asked me why my language is so stark and descriptions so explicit. How else would you convey what a woman goes through? Poetry is constantly evolving and this is part of that evolution,’ she said.
This article got me thinking about the evolution of the rape poem. For centuries, rape poems came from the pens of men. These poems, such as Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” and Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen,” addressed classical rape, stories from mythology. They were not meant to help the reader understand real instances of rape; instead, they served as metaphors, ways to address other subjects. Essentially, women’s bodies were not women’s bodies but political symbols.
Even later, with Seamus Heaney’s “Act of Union,” rape is used as a metaphor for Britain’s control of Ireland, a common theme in earlier Irish poetry. Likewise, many scholars consider Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” to be an allegory for the “rape” of Ireland. With its erotic, sensual imagery, “Leda and the Swan” turns rape into an aesthetic experience, which makes Yeats’s sonnet one of the most revered works of art and exemplifies a problem that is common in art from painting to film: the eroticization of rape.
So rape is sexy and rape is useful for “loftier” discussions than women’s lives. In her book Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, Sarah Projansky points out that “scholars and media pundits alike casually invoke rape metaphors…to convey a sense of ‘ultimate’ degradation or horror or to illustrate the humiliation of nations (e.g., the “rape of Kuwait”). Simultaneously, they neglect the particular experiences of [those] who actually experience rape.”
When women finally began writing rape into poems, the narrative changed dramatically. Suddenly, the rape poem became personal, intimate, and painful. Rape was no longer a metaphor but a gritty reality. In a strange way, women reclaimed their bodies as sites of personal violence instead of national symbols. Poets like Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Ntozake Shange expressed the complexity of woman as victim: being betrayed by a friend, being treated like a criminal by the police, feeling guilty and dirty, trying to overcome victimhood, etc.
But the depiction of rape on a personal level does not rule out politics. If the personal is political, then these poems are fiercely political, which just what the Indian poets are saying. Poetry can be healing, as it has been for countless victims in programs like Lifecentre, and it can nurture empathy, helping readers understand the experience of sexual assault and of living with the threat of this kind of violence. But it can also be a revolution.
Contemporary rape poems often serve to challenge, disrupt, and destabilize patriarchal power dynamics and gender norms that create male subjects and female objects, punish and silence transgressors, and perpetuate rape culture, i.e., community complicity. I came across this story from Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, who describes submitting a poem about her friend’s brutal rape to a literary journal and receiving a disturbing response from the male editor who told her to stop writing rape poems because he was “sick of wenchy women poets who are always bashing men.” Clearly, he was threatened by her poem. Her response, of course, was to write another one.
In Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, poet Anne Waldman wrote:
Perhaps women have the advantage of producing a radically disruptive and subversive kind of writing right now because they are experiencing the current imbalances and contradiction that drive them to it. They are turning to skillful means in figuring out how to combat assaults on their intelligence and time [and bodies]. She–the practitioner–wishes to explore and dance with everything in the culture which is unsung, mute, and controversial so that she may subvert the existing systems that repress and misunderstand feminine ‘difference.’ She’ll take on the subjects of censorship and abortion and sexual harassment. She’ll challenge her fathers, her husband(s), lovers, male companions, warmongers, micromanagers, spiritual teachers. Turn the language body upside down. What does it look like?
After I read Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” I thought about a few things in my life that I hadn’t written about. I thought about the time I was riding my bike to the library, nearly a decade ago, and two men in a pickup truck followed me. I could feel it all over again. And then I wrote this:
Quick, the hammering fear
as they pull up alongside
in a beat-up work truck
Words I cannot repeat, will not
words thrown like hammers
fired like hot bullets
I tell myself
to look straight ahead
keep riding, pedal harder
One block free
they find me again
I try to hide the shudder
It is the loveliest kind of day
a day for falling in love
or dipping your feet in the creek
A neighborhood of Victorians
pale pink, creamy yellow, baby blue
sidewalks interrupted by old trees
But the truck rumbles again
Locusts that keep coming, shadows I can’t shake
They have fists and gasoline and terrible tools
I have only the slender frame
of my bike and myself
a voice caught in my throat
Done taunting, they gun it
disappear into the city
their laughter still squeezing my throat
I stay inside for weeks
for the clouds watch my every move
the air itself trembling with murderous desire