anne sexton

In Sickness and in Health – Poets in Pain

 

Pain has an element of blank, wrote Emily Dickinson:

PainofLove William Adolphe Bouguereau 1899

Douleur D’amour – William Adolphe Bouguereau

It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there was
A time when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Pain is inevitable. It is a symptom and a disease. It is transitory for some, persistent for others. Whatever the cause, pain and sickness can stop you in your tracks, causing upset at a minimum but can lead to despair, depression and sometimes death.

Sickness and ill-health are like sailing vessels adrift in the clear water of your body. If you’re lucky, a sudden breeze will whip up and steer the bow seaward, if you’re not, the captain drops anchor and you find yourself confined to your cabin. Illness can strike at any time and you either recover swiftly or you don’t. That’s when I turn to poetry for succour because on the subject of pain and sickness writers are voluble. Poets with the use of sensitive, graceful and eloquent language can express so intimately what it feels like to be sick. They invariably inhabit the sickness, reach inside the jaws of pain and feel its teeth, reporting back lyrically what it is, was and will be like for the rest of us. After enjoying more than forty years of good health, the last three or four have been difficult for me.  I’ve been unwell on and off, with bouts lasting anywhere from a couple of weeks to months at a time and like anyone, sometimes my resolve is low and I’ve got to dig deep to find the strength to make it through the day. I’ve read books on ill-health, many inspiring and motivational in their own way, but personally, I have never found anything more uplifting than a poem. Poets distil sickness and their poems are remedies for healing. Can a poem cure a physical or mental complaint? Well it wont make it worse! I think poetry operates along the same lines as faith, belief and conviction. Ancient physicians used to talk about the poetics of illness and were concerned with the rhythms of the body and soul. In fact, fifteenth century medicine viewed the body as a manifestation of the soul and considered emotions, desires, thoughts and personal history when administering to patients. It seems we’re much less imaginative nowadays; the passionate heart is just a pump, the meditative mind merely a muscle, the body reduced to a soulless machine. Poetry, I believe, helps the body reclaim the soul and opens the door to healing which can come in all forms and at varying speeds. Maybe today I won’t be pain free but I might experience less pain than yesterday; maybe I just need to believe that tomorrow will be better but if it isn’t then it’s still going to be okay – poetry helps. Read these heartening words from Northern Irish poet, Derek Mahon:

Everything is Going to be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

donal hall & jane kenyon

Donald Hall & Jane Kenyon

American poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon were no strangers to illness. They met in in the 60’s at Michigan University where Kenyon was a student and Hall an assistant professor of English. ‘Poetry,’ he once said in an interview, ‘was the great commonness between us.’ For twenty years they lived and wrote in rustic peacefulness on Halls’ ancestral New Hampshire farm. He battled Colon cancer in the late 1980’s and shortly afterwards Kenyon was diagnosed with the Leukaemia that would kill her a mere fifteen months later. She was only 47. They both lost their mothers during this time also. Compassionately, generously they documented their suffering in their collections of poetry. Jane Kenyon, who also battled depression for much of her life, published four collections and a translated volume of the work of Russian poet Anna Ahkmatova. Rural domestic life, relationships, nature and the unremarkable yet wonderfully messy realities of life were her themes; her style plain and uncomplicated, overflowing with humanity. Her posthumous collection Otherwise – containing some new and selected poems arranged by herself and Hall before her death – annals her life’s work. Spirituality, illness, everyday life, faith, love and resilience pervade the poetry that is more honest and resonant with each new reading. The Sick Wife was added with an afterward by Hall who included it as her last word, written weeks before her death. It’s about the life-transforming impact of illness:

The Sick Wife
by Jane Kenyon

The sick wife stayed in the car
while he bought a few groceries.
Not yet fifty,
she had learned what it’s like
not to be able to button a button.

It was the middle of the day—
and so only mothers with small children
and retired couples
stepped through the muddy parking lot.

Dry cleaning swung and gleamed on hangers
in the cars of the prosperous.
How easily they moved—
with such freedom,
even the old and relatively infirm.

The windows began to steam up.
The cars on either side of her
pulled away so briskly
that it made her sick at heart.

One day you’re out walking the dog, planning the dinner, collecting the kids and the next you can’t get out of the car, can’t button a button. Last time I was laid up I couldn’t walk for three weeks and suddenly, in the normally wet, grey and gloomy west of Ireland each day burst forth with sunlight and long evenings, blossoms everywhere and everyone out walking! It was like a new addiction, a plague; all along the highways and byways of my locality people were walk-walkedy-walking and I found it infuriating. Imagine how Kenyon felt? Loosing her independence, too weak to get out of the car, enviously observing the young and the elderly who are almost complacent in their health and mobility.

During his wife’s illness, Hall wrote the poetry she couldn’t, about what she was going through. He also wrote plays, prose and children’s books and was of the 1950’s vintage, attending university alongside Frank O’Hara and Adrienne Rich. Like all writers and poets he has the gift of being able to transform torment into something else, something more, something other; a healing perhaps for himself and for us who see our own pain reflected. In the elegiac works following his wife’s death, it’s apparent that it is precisely this creative gift that sustains Hall through those dark times of illness, decline and loss. Without (1998) and The Painted Bed (2002) are intimate collections chronicling their lives, their love and dedication. In the poem The Ship Pounding, Hall keeps vigil at his wife’s side, comparing the hospital to a ship:

The Ship Pounding
By Donald Hall

Each morning I made my way
among gangways, elevators,
and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room
to interrogate the grave helpers
who tended her through the night
while the ship’s massive engines
kept its propellers turning.
Week after week, I sat by her bed
with black coffee and the Globe.
The passengers on this voyage
wore masks or cannulae
or dangled devices that dripped
chemicals into their wrists.
I believed that the ship
travelled to a harbour
of breakfast, work, and love.
I wrote: “When the infusions
are infused entirely, bone
marrow restored and lymphoblasts
remitted, I will take my wife,
bald as Michael Jordan,
back to our dog and day.” Today,
months later at home, these
words turned up on my desk
as I listened in case Jane called
for help, or spoke in delirium,
ready to make the agitated
drive to Emergency again
for readmission to the huge
vessel that heaves water month
after month, without leaving
port, without moving a knot,
without arrival or destination,
its great engines pounding.

There is no safe harbour however, only the pounding engines; the directionless journey of this floating infirmary. In Her Long Illness, Hall is once again sitting with his wife, reading to her aloud. Faced with the inevitable, they reaffirm their love for one another and her desire to catch even a scent of snowy air reflects her determination, her willingness to fight to the death.

Her Long Illness
By Donald Hall

Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.
He drank coffee and read
the Globe. He paced; he worked
on poems; he rubbed her back
and read aloud. Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed
their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurses’ pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.

The pain of loss is crippling. I’m reminded of Emily Dickinson again There is a pain so utter-/it swallows substance up. Writers and poets like Hall learn to live with pain by writing about it but they don’t have the monopoly on creativity. At any time, you can pick up a pen and start writing. Slowly at first if it’s new to you, you can write about what you’re doing right now, how you’re feeling, what’s going through your mind. There is huge therapeutic potential in writing, creatively or otherwise. Give sorrow words, wrote Shakespeare in his dark tragedy Macbeth, the grief that does not speak whispers the oer’fraught heart and bids it break – i.e. don’t bottle things up!

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with doctors. So does Anne Sexton, a poet

anne sexton

Anne Sexton

who spent more than her fair share of time in psychiatric units. Here’s an extract from her poem Doctors:

They work with herbs
and penicillin
They work with gentleness
and the scalpel.
They dig out the cancer,
close an incision
and say a prayer
to the poverty of the skin.
They are not Gods
though they would like to be;
they are only a human
trying to fix up a human.
Many humans die.
They die like the tender,
palpitating berries
in November.
But all along the doctors remember:
First do no harm.
They would kiss if it would heal.
It would not heal.

As a woman, I’m not alone in this love/hate relationship. All of my female friends have had negative experiences with flippant GP’s (mostly male), who’s dismissive approach to women’s health concerns is dangerous and grievous. It’s rare you get the understanding and compassion you hope for when you’re sick and vulnerable. ‘Are painyou sure it’s not psychological?’, my GP asked. If he’d taken me seriously or maybe even opened his ears a little, I probably wouldn’t have needed that emergency Laperotomy a week later! Would that we all had a doctor like the American writer and poet Raymond Carver. Carver’s life was marred by alcohol, violence and broken relationships and he died from lung cancer at only fifty years old. In What the Doctor Said, from the collection All Of Us, Carver receives a terminal diagnosis and despite the physicians poor communication skills (although this does reveal a welcome humanity), both men are led to somewhat of an epiphany:

He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
Something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

In the absence of recovery, the doctor prescribed resolve and grit, the kind of steadfastness required to meet the harrowing challenges ahead. Spiritual medicine.

Carver wasn’t the only poet to write from his sick-bed. Awaiting death, the comedic and good-natured Romanian poet Marin Sorescu wrote a collection of poetry entitled The Bridge. He was suffering from Cirrhosis and with almost Zen like objectivity

marin sorescu

Marin Sorescu

considers his fate, reflects on his life and illness, the nature of pain – he is played like a cursed organ in Balance Sheet and a diver who lost his oxygen tank in Pure Pain. The collection was his parting gift both dictated and dedicated to his wife Virginia:

 

Balance Sheet
By Marin Sorescu

I have two serious diseases,
A few others, extremely serious,
Plus three more, no less than dreadful
(Every one, I’ve been assured, is incurable).
Each hurts in its own particular way.
An acute, differentiated pain,
Requiring all my energy
And power of resistance.
In sum they add up to a kind of
Essence of torture and anguish,
Something unimaginable.
I am played like a cursed organ,
Assailed around the clock
By a thousand tempests.

Pure Pain
By Marin Sorescu

I don’t feel ill in order to feel better,
I feel ill in order to feel worse.
Like the sea with its green, treacherous waves,
You cannot sound the bottom of pain.

I dive into pure pain,
Essence of scream and despair,
And I return to the surface blue and pale,
Like a diver who lost
His oxygen tank.

To the emperor of fishes, I beg,
Kindly send me your most trustworthy shark
To cut short my passing.

What could be more distressing than your own illness? Your child’s. My younger sister had a tough time as a kid. She was sick a lot; always in and out of hospital or cuddled-up on the sofa in the sitting room with a Sindy doll or a book of fairytales. I know she suffered but I used to love coming home from school and finding her there, and snuggling up beside her and my mother on the couch. Although it was difficult for her, I sometimes contemplate how strenuous it was for my mum. The stress and worry with each medical emergency, the vigils by her bedside, the long convalescences. All of this in addition to looking after two other children, holding down two jobs and keeping a marriage together! The strain must have been immense but she never let it show. Calm, measured and graceful through what were undoubtedly tumultuous times. Her resolve, her strength of character and mind has always been remarkable to me and I thought about her while reading this next poem by American poet Philip Levine. It describes a night vigil over a child, the feelings of helplessness and despair, that there’s no-one there to hear our anxious prayers. Levine, confessed to over-dramatising his role in his sons illness, revealing that his wife did most of the work (surprise, surprise!). Like a true poet though, he turned his misfortunes into a poem:

Extract from:
Night Thoughts Over A Sick Child
By Philip Levine

Numb, stiff, broken by no sleep,
I keep night watch. Looking for
signs to quiet fear, I creep
closer to his bed and hear
his breath come and go, holding
my own as if my own were
all I paid. Nothing I bring,
say, or do has meaning here.

Outside, ice crusts on river
and pond; wild hare come to my
door pacified by torture.
No less ignorant than they
of what grips and why, I am
moved to prayer, the quaint gestures
which ennoble beyond shame
only the mute listener.

No one hears. A dry wind shifts
dry snow, indifferently;
the roof, rotting beneath drifts,
sighs and holds. Terrified by
sleep, the child strives toward
consciousness and the known pain.
If it were mine by one word
I would not save any man,

myself or the universe
at such cost: reality.
Heir to an ancestral curse
though fallen from Judah’s tree,
I take up into my arms my hopes,
my son, for what it’s worth give
bodily warmth.

Speaking of kids. Ever tried feigning an illness to avoid going to school? Award winning American songwriter, cartoonist and children’s writer Shel Silverstein did:

Sick
By Shel Silverstein

“I cannot go to school today,”
Said little Peggy Ann McKay.
“I have the measles and the mumps,
A gash, a rash and purple bumps.
My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,
I’m going blind in my right eye.
My tonsils are as big as rocks,
I’ve counted sixteen chicken pox
And there’s one more—that’s seventeen,
And don’t you think my face looks green?
My leg is cut—my eyes are blue—
It might be instamatic flu.
I cough and sneeze and gasp and choke,
I’m sure that my left leg is broke—
My hip hurts when I move my chin,
My belly button’s caving in,
My back is wrenched, my ankle’s sprained,
My ‘pendix pains each time it rains.
My nose is cold, my toes are numb.
I have a sliver in my thumb.
My neck is stiff, my voice is weak,
I hardly whisper when I speak.
My tongue is filling up my mouth,
I think my hair is falling out.
My elbow’s bent, my spine ain’t straight,
My temperature is one-o-eight.
My brain is shrunk, I cannot hear,
There is a hole inside my ear.
I have a hangnail, and my heart is—what?
What’s that? What’s that you say?
You say today is. . .Saturday?
G’bye, I’m going out to play!”

Physical pain is debilitating; mental anguish even more so. One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless -Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother from the grip of mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental illness can be almost as hard to bear as the symptoms. I mentioned the poet Anne Sexton earlier whose battle with depression is widely documented. She was good

sylvia plath

Sylvia Plath

friends with a fellow American poet Sylvia Plath, clinically depressed for much of her life too. Actually, many writers and artists struggle with psychological issues. Both states involve unconventional thought processes. Creative writing requires creative thinking and similarly mental illness concerns thoughts and behaviours that also differ from the norm. I was reading an article as well recently about how misery can improve creative performance! – So maybe there’s something to the correlation between creativity and mental illness but it’s worth noting that there are just as many mentally well writers out there too. Plath and Sexton shared with us and with each other their demons, despair and desire to escape it all. They were young women, mothers who felt imprisoned by domesticity; writers, trying to carve out successful careers but curtailed also within a predominantly male-dominated literary world; all of this under the shadow of depression. Both ultimately succumbed to suicide. Plath first in 1963, leaving behind a husband and two children; Sexton ten years later or so. In Sylvia’s Death, Sexton not only mourns her friends passing but envies it:

Sylvia’s Death
By Anne Sexton

for Sylvia Plath

O Sylvia, Sylvia,
with a dead box of stones and spoons,
with two children, two meteors
wandering loose in a tiny playroom,
with your mouth into the sheet,
into the roof-beam, into the dumb prayer,
(Sylvia, Sylvia
where did you go
after you wrote me
from Devonshire
about raising potatoes
and keeping bees?)
what did you stand by,
just how did you lie down into?
Thief —
how did you crawl into,
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long,
the death we said we both outgrew,
the one we wore on our skinny breasts,
the one we talked of so often each time
we downed three extra dry martinis in Boston,
the death that talked of analysts and cures,
the death that talked like brides with plots,
the death we drank to,
the motives and the quiet deed?
(In Boston
the dying
ride in cabs,
yes death again,
that ride home
with our boy.)
O Sylvia, I remember the sleepy drummer
who beat on our eyes with an old story,
how we wanted to let him come
like a sadist or a New York fairy
to do his job,
a necessity, a window in a wall or a crib,
and since that time he waited
under our heart, our cupboard,
and I see now that we store him up
year after year, old suicides
and I know at the news of your death
a terrible taste for it, like salt,
(And me,
me too.)

 

American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had a way with words – It is one of the blessings of old friends, he said, that you can afford to be stupid with them. I’d go further and suggest that you can be sick with them too! Friends are great healers. They cut your problems in half and double your chances of surviving even the darkest of times. When you’re sick and most of the people you know would rather be anywhere else, your friends are by your side. Renowned 7th century Chinese poet Po Chu-I knew only too well the value of good friends. Often unwell, the death of his mother and daughter severely affected his health and similar to censorship under communism, Po Chu-I’s poetry sometimes made him unpopular with officials and he spent a good deal of time in exile. His conviction that poetry should be simple, clear and accessible to everyone assured his place as one of the most loved and widely read of all the Chinese poets of the classical tradition. His poetry was unpretentious yet deeply philosophical.
Here, he’s been sick so long he doesn’t know what day it is; everything glum, even the sparrows. But then the cavalry arrive! They place his couch out in the sunshine and converse intimately as friends do, gradually restoring him to some level of well-being – a tonic more effective than any other medicine:

Being Visited by a Friend during Illness
by Po Chu-ï (772-846, tr. Arthur Waley)

I have been ill so long that I do not count the days;
At the southern window, evening – and again evening.
Sadly chirping in the grasses under my eaves
The winter sparrows morning and evening sing.
By an effort I rise and lean heavily on my bed;
Tottering I step towards the door of the courtyard.
By chance I meet a friend who is coming to see me;
Just as if I had gone specially to meet him.
They took my couch and placed it in the setting sun;
They spread my rug and I leaned on the balcony-pillar.
Tranquil talk was better than any medicine;
Gradually the feelings came back to my numbed heart.

 

If you’re sick for long enough or have recurring bouts of illness, it’s difficult to hang on to that joie de vivre. Being present, being with the pain seems theoretically sensible but when you’re suffering your objective is to escape it. Sometimes we run in the wrong direction. Why are we so clever at making things worse? Don’t struggle against the pain in life, said the Buddha. Struggling increases suffering. Buddhist wisdom says that anytime we suffer misfortune, two arrows fly our way. The first is the actual event the second is the suffering, which apparently is voluntary:

Life often shoots an arrow at you and wounds you. However, by not accepting what has happened, by worrying about it, by saying it is unfair and wondering how long the pain will last, we tend to shoot a second arrow into the open wound and increase and prolong the pain. Pain is often a given, but suffering is optional.

We can choose not to add to our woes simply by accepting what is. So I guess rather than questioning why me? It’s better to accept that it is (why not me?) and work on dealing with the consequences of that. And that’s more than enough to be getting on with. Struggling against the pain is like shooting the second arrow. Let’s take a leaf out of Robert Frost’s book, from the collection West Brook Running to be exact:

Acceptance
By Robert Frost

When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below,
No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud
At what has happened. Birds, at least must know
It is the change to darkness in the sky.
Murmuring something quiet in her breast,
One bird begins to close a faded eye;
Or overtaken too far from his nest,
Hurrying low above the grove, some waif
Swoops just in time to his remembered tree.
At most he thinks or twitters softly, ‘Safe!
Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.

Nature and poetry are interchangeable for me. The rhythm of life and line, the absorption of the senses, immersion of spirit, the patterns and hidden meanings, the souls music! I reach out to nature for the same reason I reach out to poetry: for comfort, protection, rescue. In search of spiritual connection there’s a place I go not far from my home near the village of Cong. Along the banks of the river Corrib the

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hawks rise high in the Cedar Pines and salmon leap in the meandering waters of Ashford Castle. It’s an outstanding place of natural beauty and an hour there, for me, can replenish and reinvigorate my soul like nothing else. Last week, standing on a grassy verge I faced an impossibly beautiful vista that looked almost as if it had been prearranged. The fallen log in the sandy bank overhung by Willows and downy Birches; the grey heron I startled from his patient hiding place at the waters edge; the mute swan preening her white feathers, bobbing in the ebb and flow, the bees and ducks in the dappled sunlight, the gentle breeze – it was so uplifting! But out where the current was stronger, I watched the water rush and hustle its way around a dark, mossy rock. I thought to myself Tracy, you are that rock! Out there, up to your waist in a river of pain. And, I thought, just like that rock you’re going to stand your ground! Let the pain lap at your heels and rush about, but don’t let it in, it will make it’s own way around you. It’s easier to get beyond than through! Reminds me of a quote by novelist Toni Morrison – all water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was – with a bit of luck, maybe the same holds true for pain.

robert frost

Robert Frost

Nature too is the lifeblood of Frost’s verse, yet he is not just purely a nature poet. His motivation is human psychology and his poems are moral messages. Mary Oliver works in this way too, making comparisons between the natural world and the human condition. In the above sonnet, the approaching darkness draws attention to the significance of the light. He’s saying that acceptance is our greatest weapon against fear. He gives us such a violent description of a sunset and yet the birds don’t ruffle a feather, they simply find their safe place in a night that is mercifully too dark for them and us to see our anxieties, to face whatever it is to come tomorrow; all we can do is let what will be, be.

I’ll conclude on a hopeful note with a blessing from award winning African-American writer Lucille Clifton. As a black female writer Clifton’s staying power was

lucille clifton

Lucille Clifton

commendable. She wrote candid and profound poetry, suffered her own personal tragedies and illnesses including several battles with cancer, her last in 2010. Her poem blessing the boats (a commemoration in honour of the blessing of the English boats that carried the first settlers to Maryland in 1633) is about letting go, facing your fears; venturing out into the unknown and trusting the wind to love your back! From her award winning eponymous collection:

blessing the boats
By Lucille Clifton

(at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

And that is my wish for everyone out there suffering – that you sail with some ease through this to that.

I’ll leave you with a quote that I’ve been trying to drill into my head. It comes from a guy called Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher with a simple philosophy: Don’t hang on to anything. He said: If you let go a little you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.

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PRO FEMINA – FOR THE WOMAN

 

woman1

Feminism: The advocacy of equal rights for women.  Or, if you prefer, the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, that definition was coined by novelist Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, as famous nowadays for being a feminist as a writer. Referenced by Beyonce on her recent album and by Dior, their 2017 spring/summer white t-shirt displaying the words We Should All Be Feminists is commercialising the matter, but it is also creating a mass movement of support for gender equality. Equality: an eight letter word that seems reasonable, achievable and simple enough, but why isn’t it? Because it’s not simple. It involves changing the world as we know it, the hetero-normative, patriarchal, intolerant, capitalist world. Until that happens, for most of us, equity is a castle in the sky.

Some men I know love to quote Plato: At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet. Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something. Only the dead have seen the end of war. But I never hear them quote from Book V of The Republic: Plato’s philosophical dialogue with Socrates where, in his ideal state, he says women should work alongside men, receive equal education and share equally in all aspects of the state. This was ancient Greece. BC! In Islam, Matrilineality – that’s the tracing of descent through the female line – existed before Muhammad. Even in 12th century Islam, women in business were the norm, they studied and were equal to men in all respects.
Men and women were created equally. However, throughout history, decisions about whether women will be revered in this century or reviled in the next have been taken by men. Why?

Biology aside, the differences between men and women are cultural and societal. And if people create society and culture then it must mean that there is capacity for change. That is, if we use our reason and logic and not blindly submit to the way things have always been. We’ve been traversing this uneven pathway of injustice and inequality for hundreds of years. In 15th century Europe, there began what was called The Quarrel About Women and smart men like the Italian diplomat Baldassare Castiglione wrote that everything a man can understand, a woman can too. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, the German scholar and theologian said that God endowed both male and female with the same soul, the woman with no less faculties of mind, reason and speech than the man. Female voices such as French princess Marguerite de Navarre and Marie de Gournay, writer and editor of Montaigne added to The Quarrel and before them, Catherine of Aragon, the queen of England, commissioned the controversial book, The Education of Christian Women by Juan Luis Vives. Claiming that women had the right to an education, Catherine fought for that during her time as Henry VIII’s wife, earning much admiration from subject and enemy alike.

Last year, I wanted to write a poem for my mother. I’d planned to trace her strength, grace, courage and selflessness through all the great women of history and before I knew it I’d written two pages of names!  From Sappho, the poet who pretty much founded western literature to Simone de Beauvoir, the French philosopher whose 1949 book The Second Sex, highlighted women’s oppression and was banned by the Vatican for doing so. Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt; Harriet Beecher-Stowe, anti-slavery campaigner; Amelia Earhart, pioneering aviator; Benazir Bhutto, Rosa Parks, Indira Gandhi, Nina Simone, Mary Robinson, Malala Yousafzai – we are inventors, scientists, scholars, theologians, presidents, activists, aviators, philosophers, women count for 52% of the worlds population – why are we still being treated like a minority group? And why is it necessary to conduct research to find out who all these incredible women are? Women are either written out of history or are ineffectually recorded in it. For example: after the death of former deputy first Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, all the powers that be praised him and his colleagues Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Gerry Adams, David Trimble, Bill Clinton, John Hume, George Mitchell for brokering peace, but no mention of the contribution made by British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, who continued in politics until 2001 despite being diagnosed with a brain tumour in 1997. It’s as if she never existed. And she’s not the first woman to be overlooked. I could fill a

woman 3

Mary Jackson – Aeronautical engineer

library, but what about NASA’s mathematicians? The hundreds of African/American women employed as computers at the Langley Research Centre whose calculations sent man to the moon!  William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy, whose journal entries were the inspiration for much of his poetry! Out of all the roads in Paris named after public figures, only 2.6% are named after women. One night in 2015 a feminist group known as Osez Le Feminisme (Dare to be Feminist) decided to celebrate all ignored women by covering all the blue plaques with their own versions which included Rue Simone de Beauvoir & Quai de Nina Simone!

Even with the gains made by first, second and third wave feminists, women are still struggling for recognition in every sphere. Equality, respect, or the full humanity of women: this is what feminism is all about. Basically, fairness. It’s not about misandry and it’s not about bringing men down; it’s about bringing women up. And feminists, I think, would like men to help them. At its heart it’s that simple. But equality challenges patriarchy (mechanisms that exert male dominance over women) and is dismissed as radical. Nobody wants to be cast out as a radical, so hence the negative sounding F word. And this is where I’m taking you today people! We’re venturing into the minefield that is Feminism. Protectively clothed in poetry we’ll be finding out why this loaded word, embroiled in so much controversy is more necessary now than ever. We’ll be making our voices heard with Radmilla Lazic and Carlyn Kizer; re-writing history with Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich; celebrating womanhood with Lucille Clifton and throwing a light on the Irish situation with Eavan Boland.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s groundbreaking book A vindication of the Rights of Women published in 1792, proposed that women were the equal of men. Years ahead of her time, it was one of the first pieces of feminist writing and preceded the first wave suffrage movements of the mid 19th century, which sought access to education, property rights, suffrage, reproductive and economic rights for women. The second wave feminists of the 60’s were more concerned with ending gender discrimination, the third wave began to consider race related subjectivities, because not every woman is white and middleclass and we are now in what some would call forth wave feminism, propelled by technology and inclusive of diverse voices whose goal is a society unrestricted by gender. Whatever wave we’re riding, it’s about having a voice and we can hear that voice loud and clear in the feminist poetry of Serbian poet Radmilla Lazic, in particular A Woman’s Letter from her collection A Wake For The Living. Lazić, a respected editor, critic and activist is the founder and managing editor of a Serbian journal of women’s studies, ProFemina. As a feminist with a sense of humour, her honesty is compelling. Rather than fit into patriarchy’s idea of what a woman should be, the speaker here wants to make her own choices, express her femininity and live her life according to her own rules. Translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic, Lazic first tells us what she doesn’t want and then what she does:

I don’t want to be obedient and tame.
Coddled like a cat. Faithful like a dog.
With a belly to my teeth, hands in the dough,
Face covered with flour, my heart a cinder
And his hand on my ass.

I don’t want to be a welcome flag at his door,
Nor the guardian snake under his threshold,
Neither the snake nor Eve from Genesis.

I don’t want to pace between the door and the window,
To listen hard and be able to distinguish
Footsteps from night-sounds.
I don’t want to follow the leaden movement of the watch-hands,
Nor see falling stars
For him to gore me drunkenly like an elephant.

I don’t want to be sewn with needlepoint
To the family portrait
Next to the fireplace with balled up children,
In the garden with puppy children,
And I the shade tree,
And I the winter landscape,
A statue under the snow.
In a pleated wedding dress
I’ll fly to heaven.

Alleluia! Alleluia!
I don’t want a bridegroom.

I want gray hair, a hump and a basket
To go roaming in the woods,
Picking strawberries and dry twigs.

With my whole life behind me,
The smile of that boy,
So dear and irreplaceable.

 

 

Feminism has tried to make a space for women in a world that has always privileged men and masculinity. Women are underrepresented in politics, science, architecture and the arts. During the French renaissance period, Salons were unwelcoming to women. By the 17th century, they began running their own cultural gatherings and though their writing went unpublished they were, according to writer and philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, considered a threat to the natural dominance of men. In her 1929 essay A Room Of Ones Own, Virgina Woolf argues for a space for women in a literary world dominated by men. A woman must have money and a room of her own to write fiction. In other words, the same civil liberties as men. In the mid 19th century women used male pen names in order to see their work published. The Bronte sisters became Currer, Ellis & Acton Bell, Mary Ann Evans was George Elliot and how much has changed? JK Rowling, since her Harry Potter series, has published as Robert Galbraith. Women in the arts are continually overlooked. In Ireland, a grassroots campaign, Waking the Feminists, calling for equality for women across the Irish theatre sector, ran from November 2015 to 2016. Plays by women generally have shorter runs, smaller venues and are less reviewed and publicised. We never hear about the success of playwrights such as Stacy Gregg, Ailis Ni Rian, Stella Feehily or Nancy Harris, playwright in residence at The Bush theatre in London and whose plays No Romance & Love in a Glass Jar are highly acclaimed, running in Dublin, London and New York. womanAmerican poet Carolyn Kizer studied with Theodore Roethke, the only woman in a class that included poets James Wright and Jack Gilbert. According to her, they were all chauvinists and treated her like wallpaper. Being a highly gifted academic her poetry eclipsed theirs, but she still felt ignored. A Muse On Water is her response to an incident with one of her fellow poets who suggested one night, that women ought not to try to be artists and should stick to the kitchen:

We who must act as handmaidens
To our own goddess, turn too fast,
Trip on our hems, to glimpse the muse
Gliding below her lake or sea,
Are left, long-staring after her,
Narcissists by necessity;

Or water-carriers of our young
Till waters burst, and white streams flow
Artesian, from the lifted breast:
Cupbearers then, to tiny gods,
Imperious table-pounders, who
Are final arbiters of thirst.

This abridged version of the poem is from the collection Cool, Calm and Collected and in it she connects women to water and man’s abuse of it and her. He pollutes it, diverts its course, seeks to impede a woman’s progress in every way. He tunnels her underground out of sight, dries up what could have brimmed and in realising she is necessary to life, still doesn’t deign himself to recognise her:

And yet these buccaneers still kneel
Trembling at the water’s verge:
“Cool River-Goddess, sweet ravine,
Spirit of pool and shade, inspire!”
So he needs poultice for his flesh.
So he needs water for his fire.

We rose in mists and died in clouds
Or sank below the trammelled soil
To silent conduits underground,
Joining the blindfish, and the mole.
A gleam of silver in the shale:
Lost murmur! Subterranean moan!

So flows in dark caves, dries away,
What would have brimmed from bank to bank,
Kissing the fields you turned to stone,
Under the boughs your axes broke.
And you blame streams for thinning out,
plundered by man’s insatiate want?

You know, Kizer had a difficult relationship with her father, he was remote, indifferent and demanded academic excellence. She was radicalised to feminism by her highly educated mother, who turned down a job with Eleanor Roosevelt saying ’who would get your fathers breakfast?’ As it turned out, after she died, he got his own breakfast for the woman 2next thirty years! Outspoken against injustice throughout her life and in her work, her most famous poem is a five part prose piece Profemina, in which she addresses all women, highlighting their vulnerabilities and strengths – many encouraged by men and often reinforced by women themselves. It’s a call for women to do better. I guess feminism is something that must keep happening, it must be a constant process of renewal. The final stanza from part three reads:

But we’re emerging from all that, more or less,
Except for some ladylike laggards and Quarterly priestesses
Who flog men for fun, and kick women to maim competition.
Now, if we struggle abnormally, we may almost seem normal;
If we submerge our self-pity in disciplined industry;
If we stand up and be hated, and swear not to sleep with editors;
If we regard ourselves formally, respecting our true limitations
Without making an unseemly show of trying to unfreeze our assets;
Keeping our heads and our pride while remaining unmarried;
And if wedded, kill guilt in its tracks when we stack up the dishes
And defect to the typewriter. And if mothers, believe in the luck of our children,
Whom we forbid to devour us, whom we shall not devour,
And the luck of our husbands and lovers, who keep free women.

Adrienne Rich was another intelligent and influential poet active in feminism and movements for LGBT rights and reproductive freedom. Her poem Diving Into The Wreck, seeks to explore the truth behind the myths of difference and inequality. To write the future we must first read the past, so Rich is taking the plunge on our behalf; diving into the patriarchal sea to better understand what has happened to the men and women submerged by it – our assigned gender stereotypes and specifics; how men are raised to be aggressive and women are taught to submit to that hostility:

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armour of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

Rich’s own personal conflict and sexual alienation (first as a wife and later a gay woman with three children) were mirrored in the wider social and political events of the 1960’s and she developed a poetic voice that spoke for all women; the same way she collected her National Book Award – on behalf of all women. In the poem she manages to achieve a degree of equality, albeit of the poetic sort, in the form of an androgynous being who circles the depths of history searching for answers, tasked with salvaging what remains of a disappearing, water-eaten book of mythology. The idea of androgyny is interesting. Not only does patriarchy serve to subordinate women, it defines masculinity in narrow ways too. A man must be hard, fearless and invulnerable, when really, men and women should be free to be both strong and sensitive. English actress Emma Watson, in her capacity as UN global goodwill ambassador is heading up a campaign called #HeforShe which is about freedom from the prejudice of gender; because gender is unjust – we are all imprisoned by it. Maybe we need to stop linking education, career, salary and position with masculinity and femininity and align them more with intelligence, aptitude and creativity. The poem concludes:

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armoured body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

I recently posted a topic for discussion on a facebook book-club page. It was an article about publishers hiring sensitivity readers to flag offensive content before going to print. It kind of sounded like censorship to me, so I put the question to the group. Within minutes, I was under attack, there was a barrage of posts about: minority groups being misrepresented/abused/vilified in fiction; the value of sensitivity readers; that thinly veiled homophobia must be highlighted; that it’s not censorship, it’s about protecting people’s feelings. Everything from size to age seemed to be an issue; everything that is, except for how women and children are written about. It would appear that it’s okay to rape, murder, torture and abuse women and children, but people draw the line at a homophobic remark or the misrepresentation of a small person. (Fault finders will find fault in paradise – Thoreau) Before taking her own life, the American poet Anne Sexton pretty much gave convention the two fingers. As a 1960’s suburban housewife, a mother, a woman 5woman battling depression and a poet, she was out of sync with what society expected of her and felt the pain of the disapproval and isolation that ensued. In her poem, Her Kind, from the collection To Bedlam and Partway Back, apropos her experiences of madness, she speaks on behalf of the marginalised about what it’s like to be ostracised by society. There’s a puritanical strain in society that sees a woman as either a slut or saint; this isn’t right, a woman needs to be everything. Maybe for some women, marriage and kids is not the fairytale they were expecting and that should be okay. But in an oppressive society, Sexton feels condemned, a witch:.

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

In the middle ages, women who spoke out about religion or challenged the patriarchal order were burned as witches. It was a form of societal regulation. But despite her vilification, Sexton’s speaker is not giving up on what she believes, she’s creating a new place in the woods, where everyone is welcome. She’s riding the cart to the pyre affronting society with her nude arms waving. Like Rich, in the previous poem, had to search unfathomable depths, Sexton embarks on some kind of night-time reconnaissance mission above the houses, in order to first, express her true nature and second, find some definition of womanhood she can relate to; because reality isn’t reflective of her truth:

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

Feminism has evolved over the years to encompass not just women’s rights but rights for all marginalised groups, the disabled, LGBT, ethnic minorities and minority religions but I’m not certain that the intersectional nature of the movement is working. It’s proven difficult to establish a feminist world view to suit everyone. Feminists of course acknowledge the discrimination faced by others and can offer support, advice and share information but can feminism successfully advocate for the rights of all without risking taking the focus off women’s issues specifically? Gender discrimination applies to all genders of which there are many. Cis, bi, Non-binary, Trans, and the fifty-four other gender options recognised by some social media sites. Gender diversity is new ground for many of us, and incorporating the language into mainstream vocabulary will take time, we‘re all learning. American poet Rebecca Foust in Abeyance, a letter to my transgender daughter is a poem about a parents love for a child. A child who happens to be transgender. Not a pariah, just someone whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth. TENI, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland seeks to advance the rights and equality of trans people and their families, who often feel isolated, misunderstood and excluded from society. In the same way the speaker in Anne Sexton’s poem feels like an outcast, transgender people too, live on the periphery of society, at risk of violence and discrimination:
letter to my transgender daughter

I made soup tonight, with cabbage, chard
and thyme picked outside our back door.
For this moment the room is warm and light,
and I can presume you safe somewhere.
I know the night lives inside you. I know grave,
sad errors were made, dividing you, and hiding
you from you inside. I know a girl like you
was knifed last week, another set aflame.

It’s normal for parents to blame themselves when something about their child is considered an issue: ill-health, mental/physical disability, behavioural problems, learning difficulties. The same is true for parents of non gender-conforming children. Some parents learn the hard way that doing what they think is best, may not be the best option. In 1970 the mother of Kirk Murphy took her 4yr old to a gender identity clinic where doctors claimed they could cure pre-homosexuality.  After years of invasive treatment to correct his effeminate nature, he remained gay, ashamed, mentally damaged and died by suicide at 38. David Remer, born male but reassigned after a bungled circumcision also took his life at the age of 38, prompting transgender advocates to suggest you either accept a child, or lose them. Why is difference always seen as dangerous? Will there ever be a time when every human being is understood, accepted, respected and welcome to participate fully in all aspects of society?
Rebecca Foust might not have the words but she wants her daughter to know how much she was/is and will always be loved. In her own notes on the poem she recalls watching cabbages in her garden nearly turn themselves inside out to take in as much sun as possible and she compares this to the love a parent has for a child; it goes deep:

I know I lack the words, or all the words I say
are wrong. I know I’ll call and you won’t answer,
and still I’ll call. I want to tell you
you were loved with all I had, recklessly,
and with abandon, loved the way the cabbage
in my garden near-inverts itself, splayed
to catch each last ray of sun. And how
the feeling furling-in only makes the heart
more dense and green. Tonight it seems like
something one could bear.

When parents feel a child may be disadvantaged in some way they automatically fear for their future. In a article I was reading, the mother of one transgender teen who transitioned from female-to-male, said the fear she felt dissipated because her son was so joyful after the breasts that tortured him had been removed. The most important lesson she learned was hope – knowing her child could be happy and productive. And hope is what Foust leaves us with also. Parents brought together by mutual love for their daughter. Hope fills the air and their hearts, because parents love heart and soul, not gender:

Guess what, Dad and I finally figured out Pandora,
and after all those years of silence, our old music
fills the air. It fills the air, and somehow, here,
at this instant and for this instant only
—perhaps three bars—what I recall
equals all I feel, and I remember all the words.
So how do women in Ireland fair and what’s the gender situation here? Well, not great to be honest. Notwithstanding the gender pay gap which sees women earn at least a quarter less than men; patriarchy in Ireland has ensured the following: that women are underrepresented on boards (about 36%), in politics (35 dail seats out of 158!), academia and the arts; that 1 in 5 women experience domestic violence; that access to basic healthcare for women is denied, forcing thousands to travel overseas to obtain an abortion. Women don’t have autonomy over their own bodies. Ireland was the last country in the world to legalise contraception and is the only country affording equal rights to life to both woman and foetus. The UN has repeatedly criticised Ireland for failing short of its obligations under international law to protect the human rights of women. The state and church have consistently blocked the advancement of women. For forty years there was a marriage ban for female teachers! Up until the 1960’s the church considered that childbirth made women unholy or unclean because it resulted from sexual activity and they were often ostracised and forbidden from going to mass until they had been ‘churched’, that is: had the sin of childbirth washed away! Thousands of unmarried pregnant women, vilified and banished from their families and communities, were sent to live and die in secret, in state funded mother-and-baby homes or laundries. The gruesome and harrowing truth of one such place came to light recently with the discovery of the remains of hundreds of babies in a disused septic tank on the site of the Bons Secour woman 7sisters home in Tuam, Co. Galway. Child trafficking and illegal adoption were state policy and the government, according to Susan Lohan of the Adoption Rights Alliance, are terrified of opening an investigation, fearing it will dwarf anything that has gone before. At Mary Robinsons inauguration speech in 1990, she called for an open, tolerant and inclusive Ireland, and with the strains of Mna Na H’eireann ringing in the countries hopeful ears, the poet Eavan Boland read her poem The Singers:

The women who were singers in the West
lived on an unforgiving coast.
I want to ask was there ever one
moment when all of it relented–
when rain and ocean and their own
sense of home were revealed to them
as one and the same?
After which
every day was still shaped by weather,
but every night their mouths filled with
Atlantic storms and clouded-over stars
and exhausted birds?
And only when the danger
was plain in the music could you know
their true measure of rejoicing in

finding a voice where they found a vision.

Eavan Boland, like many Irish women, has struggled to find her place in a society hell-bent on silencing the voices of women. Over the years she has located herself centre stage in a habitually male dominated poetic tradition. Myth is a huge feature in her poetry, myth and the lost history of women. Her work focuses on the troubled role of women in times past and like Adrienne Rich diving into the wreck to find our names were never written, Boland combines domesticity and myth and focuses on the exclusion of women from the history books. What we read/have been told is at odds with what actually happened. For example, this years centenary celebrations acknowledged for the first time in decades, the roles played by over three hundred women in the Easter Rising. Boland’s poem Domestic Violence reflects the social and political shifts in Ireland as she equates the disharmony between a couple with that of a country:

It was winter, lunar, wet. At dusk
Pewter seedlings became moonlight orphans.
Pleased to meet you meat to please you
said the butcher’s sign in the window in the village.

Everything changed the year that we got married.
And after that we moved out to the suburbs.
How young we were, how ignorant, how ready
to think the only history was our own.

And there was a couple who quarrelled into the night,
Their voices high, sharp:
nothing is ever entirely
right in the lives of those who love each other.

2.

In that season suddenly our island
Broke out its old sores for all to see.
We saw them too.
We stood there wondering how

the salt horizons and the Dublin hills,
the rivers, table mountains, Viking marshes
we thought we knew
had been made to shiver

into our ancient twelve by fifteen television
which gave them back as gray and grayer tears
and killings, killings, killings,
then moonlight-coloured funerals:

nothing we said
not then, not later,
fathomed what it is
is wrong in the lives of those who hate each other.

It’s a poem about conflict: within a country and within a relationship. Thinking again about the misrepresentation of women in history, it’s not surprising that she’s the victim here because that’s how women have always been portrayed. I mentioned Mo Mowlam’s disappearance from the roll-call of names associated with 1998 Good Friday Agreement (Why? Because she was brave, clever?) but why do politicians make constant referrals to the disappeared mothers of Northern Ireland (Because they were victims?) In Domestic Violence, we hear the silent voices of ordinary people howled down, by a country tearing itself apart:

3.

And if the provenance of memory is
only that—remember, not atone—
and if I can be safe in
the weak spring light in that kitchen, then

why is there another kitchen, spring light
always darkening in it and
a woman whispering to a man
over and over what else could we have done?
4.

We failed our moment or our moment failed us.
The times were grand in size and we were small.
Why do I write that
when I don’t believe it?

We lived our lives, were happy, stayed as one.
Children were born and raised here
and are gone,
including ours.

As for that couple did we ever
find out who they were
and did we want to?
I think we know. I think we always knew.
wombOur final three poems today are a celebration of womanhood or two aspects, at least, of womanhood that are rarely praised – menstruation and menopause. Lucille Clifton was born in New York. The first in her family to graduate, she was poet laureate of Maryland in the 1980’s. Like Rich and Sexton, her poetry reflects the upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s, and she writes about relationships, child abuse, black heritage and slavery. In her Poem in Praise of Menstruation she compares the menstrual flow to a river, the river of life. Traditional odes to women compliment their eyes, hair, lips, etc., here Clifton sings the praises of the fertility of women, the monthly cycle that is beautiful and faithful and ancient and female and brave:

if there is a river
more beautiful than this
bright as the blood
red edge of the moon if

there is a river
more faithful than this
returning each month
to the same delta if there

is a river
braver than this
coming and coming in a surge
of passion, of pain if there is

a river
more ancient than this
daughter of eve
mother of cain and of abel if there is in

the universe such a river if
there is some where water
more powerful than this wild
water
pray that it flows also
through animals
beautiful and faithful and ancient
and female and brave

It’s such a liberating poem about the truth and beauty of menstruation.  Fertility is something to be celebrated not condemned as it has been in patriarchal societies. Menstruation gives rise to gender inequality and is a taboo in many cultures and religions. In Asian countries menstruating women are considered unclean and are forbidden from cooking, praying or even sitting with the family at mealtimes. A haemorrhaging woman is seen as a pollutant. Organisations such as Binti UK, work to empower women in disadvantaged communities, by promoting awareness about menstrual health and providing dignity and practical guidance. In her collection Quilting, published in 1991, Clifton offers two companion poems that address the menopause. That wonderful time when, as the Chinese say, the body’s energy moves from the womb to the heart, to a place of wisdom and self discovery, away from caring for others and into, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase, a room of her own. To My Last Period is both a tribute and a measured goodbye, not to womanhood but to the girl who never arrived:

well, girl, goodbye,
after thirty-eight years.
thirty-eight years and you
never arrived
splendid in your red dress
without trouble for me
somewhere, somehow.

now it is done,
and i feel just like
the grandmothers who,
after the hussy has gone,
sit holding her photograph
and sighing, wasn’t she
beautiful? wasn’t she beautiful?

Clifton’s poems are clean as bones. Insightful and unflinching, her language is casual as she most sincerely addresses her womb in Poem to my Uterus and wonders where she can go without it, her black bag of desire. You know, the way something is described to you can have a huge impact on how you perceive it. Women have always been fed the same line – that once they enter menopause it’s game over, they are no longer of any use to society, they become undesirable, invisible. This is another one of those myths Adrienne Rich was talking about; we perceive menopause as bad. Clifton doesn’t view the loss of her uterus as the end; she might not know yet where she’s going but she’s going somewhere, she’s still a woman. Her femininity will be changed but not lost. Echoing Rich who alone, dove into the wreck of womanhood and Sexton, who alone rode into the fires of ignorance, Clifton must now walk alone and barefoot into a new future beyond roles and stereotypes and without her old girl – beyond sexuality:

you uterus
you have been patient
as a sock
while i have slippered into you
my dead and living children
now
they want to cut you out
stocking i will not need
where i am going
where am i going
old girl
without you
uterus
my bloody print
my oestrogen kitchen
my black bag of desire
where can i go
barefoot
without you
where can you go
without me

So there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of feminism!  When I was younger, anytime any woman appeared on TV talking about women’s rights, the males in my household would roll their eyes and change the channel and being an impressionable child, I found myself doing the same thing! But the lonely voices for gender equality: Bell Hooks, Coreta Scott King (wife of Martin Luther who devoted her life to civil rights work), Betty Friedan, Yoko Ono, Gloria Steinham and Germaine Greer have now become a symphony of millions of men and women fighting to change our oppressive society from the inside. Members of the Men’s Rights Movement, which originated as a backlash against feminism have become the Pro-Feminist Men’s Rights Movement, because they too see that patriarchy reinforces unequal gender relations. Pro-feminist men are involved in anti-violence work with boys; counselling male perpetuators of violence and supporting anti-pornography legislation. Social media, has been instrumental in highlighting the sexism, discrimination and injustice faced by women on a daily basis. #yesallwomen was set up in response to #notallmen (asserting not all men are sexist) because all women are subject to sexism, and it’s used by women throughout social media to share experiences of sexism and harassment. Sexism and misogyny are so normalised, so insidious in our society that we sometimes fail to notice it or we question, when we feel uncomfortable about something, whether it‘s really happening. The everyday feminism project, set up by feminist writer Laura Bates, raises awareness of women’s experiences by cataloguing instances of sexism faced by women around the world on a daily basis. Notwithstanding the over-sexualisation of women in music and cinema; the fact that Women’s fiction is a sub-genre (Men’s fiction is simply fiction); the gender pay-gap; educational, occupational, political and social inequalities;  there are thankfully, a plethora of groups out there empowering young women today. The National Women’s Council Of Ireland provide workshops for young women on leadership, public speaking, media training, body image, self-esteem building. Free To Run is a charity that uses outdoor activities to empower women. Girls Brigade Scotland challenges patriarchal traditions and Hockey Club teaches girls to get up when they fall down, to play fair, to push themselves but help their team-mates. The girls themselves found playing team sports with other girls to be more inclusive, whereas the boys were too aggressive and never passed the ball! We could take that as a clear metaphor for inequality – men refusing to pass the ball.

Our lives aren’t one-dimensional and being a woman isn’t the only identity she possesses. She may be black, Asian, disabled, Islamic, Christian, short, etc and so face many forms of discrimination. Intersectional feminism seeks to understand how sexism relates to race, religion, size, age, appearance. So for example, as well as advocating for the white woman who makes 77c to the man’s Euro, intersectional feminism includes the black woman’s 60c and Hispanic woman’s 54c! But is intersectional feminism broadening the movement too much? Is it creating more labels, separating, classifying, perpetuating the idea of ‘other’, ‘difference’ – which are patriarchal constructs – and creating more confusion and room for disagreement? Actually, this is the problem I have with feminism. It’s become so fractured leaving many women afraid to identify as feminist for fear of being scorned by whichever brand of feminism they are not aligned with. For instance, are you a liberal feminist or a radical one? Do you want a seat at the patriarchal table or would you rather smash it to pieces? Are you an eco-feminist or a theological one? Do you believe pornography is exploitative or see it as a way for women to express themselves sexually? Do you believe that transgender women, having enjoyed the privileges of men, should now be recognised as female? There are over 100million women living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation (cutting of female genitalia) does feminism fight this human rights abuse or would that be an attack on cultural identity? The latter, according to Germaine Greer who has always been critical of the imposition of Western attitudes on the rest of the world.

Can feminism advocate for all marginalised groups? If the answer is yes, then I believe that women will always be seen as a sub-category, a minority group and will always experience sexism.  Maybe I’m wrong, but feminism started out as advocating for the equal woman 4rights of women, ALL women. We’re not there yet. Just look at how much ground has been lost since the recent Trump presidency. His Global Gag Rule –that’s the withdrawing of funding for NGO’s providing information, counselling or abortion services – will wipe out any assistance to women in countries like India where the US invests $16m in health programmes, or Latin American where 13% of maternal deaths are the result of botched back-street abortions. On a more positive note, before I conclude, on International Women’s day last month, Iceland announced it will be the first country in the world to make employers prove they offer equal pay regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or nationality. You have to hand it to Social Affairs Minister Thorsteinn Viglundsson who said ‘you have to be bold in the fight against injustice.’

I think feminism, as a movement, needs to stick to the plan. Then, going forward as equals, men and women can work together on securing a greater equality for all of humanity, through another movement, something akin to Humanism. Is it foolish to envisage a world within which every gender, race, religion, physicality is equal, a world without minorities, where markers of difference are opportunities for unity? Is humanism a castle in the sky?  If it is, then maybe feminism could be the foundation we put underneath it.

 

You might enjoy reading work from other feminist poets such as: Alice Walker, Carol Ann Duffy, Margaret Atwood, Susan Howe, Muriel Rukeyser, Medbh McGuckian and Louise Gluck.

Music today from: Nina Simone, Kate Bush, Patti Smith, Anthony & The Johnsons, The Gloaming, Aretha Franklin, Caged Bird Sings, John Spillane & Eric Serra.

 

https://etudesirlandaises.revues.org/3183http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/shuffelton-codex-ashmole-61-how-the-good-wife-taught-her-daughter-introductionhttp://wordsnquotes.com/post/99722793438/carolyn-kizer-a-pioneer-in-feminist-poetry-dieshttp://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/tag/kirk-murphyhttps://www.morganmckinley.ie/article/irish-gender-pay-gap-stands-20-according-morgan-mckinley-studyhttp://www.thejournal.ie/women-talent-bank-gender-balance-state-boards-1588110-Jul2014/http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11830018/French-feminists-hijack-Paris-street-signs-to-celebrate-women.html

The Guardian – Jessa Crispin 2017

http://www.biography.com/news/hidden-figures-movie-real-women

http://www.ecstatic-awakenings.com/womb-awakening/