Thursday, October 17, 2013

How women poets can change the world – Review of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, by Stacia M. Fleegal



In the anthology Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence, readers learn just how many forms of resistance to female-specific violence there are. 

The answer is: so many that I wrote a damn critical thesis just to tell you how great this anthology is (i.e., settle in for a long-but-worth-it read). Also, four BL authors have work in this collection, and it’s incredibly cool to have published talented writers who also happen to be compassionate and engaged. Congrats on your continued greatness, Grace Bauer (#23), Mary Stone Dockery (#21), July Westhale (#19), and Sarah A. Chavez (also #19).

I realized writing this piece is in itself a form of resistance. To speak at length and in unabashed praise of a collection of poetry written in mouthy backlash to the cultural norms of domestic violence, rape, childhood abuse, verbal harassment and assault on city streets, etc., is to stand with women as they refuse to stand for it anymore. It is to give thoughtful treatment to a problem that is largely being ignored by our lawmakers and our justice system, which is an attempt to extend the work these poets and this editor undertook in participating in the anthology. It is to defy anyone to suggest that these poems aren’t literary because they often sound colloquial, or to dismiss them as therapeutic or confessional or any of those other supposed “critical” terms that condescend to the kind of writing I and others call real talk.  We can do that in poetry. Not only is it allowed, but resistance is poetry’s legacy.


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In her critical introduction, editor Dr. Laura Madeline Wiseman claims that, “poetics, and specifically, poetry of resistance … [allow] poets to use multiple strategies to challenge the powers that endorse gender violence” (xvi) — further, to “rupture the cultural meanings” (xvii) of it. Such strategies include “breaking silences,” “raising consciousness” (via “poetry of witness”), “disrupting narratives,” “sassing language,” and the use of “strategic anger.”

Behold a generous and judiciously edited collection of quality poetry by women in conversation with the dynamics of abusers and the abused, and as they endeavor to “use poetry as the platform of power to make life better for all” (xxiii) and “encourage readers to act” (xxiv).

The sheer range of resistance taking place in this collection defies an easy breakdown into specific categories; most of the poems, in fact, resist being cataloged under a singular type of resistance — an extension of the idea of differential consciousness. Wiseman calls on scholar Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed in her use of the concept of differential consciousness: namely, that “fractured identities are not a new phenomenon experienced only in a postmodern world, but rather the continual and historical experiences of those who are oppressed” (xv). In one poem, a speaker might be both timid and vengeful, healed and haunted, proud and ashamed. In so doing, she resists being easily classified as a victim, and therefore holds the power to change our idea of what constitutes a victim.

And if we can change victims into survivors and helpers of future generations, perhaps we can change abusers into non-abusers. It’s a least a step, right?

First, there is no ignoring the presence of female warriors Judy Grahn and Alicia Ostriker, or poetry heavyweights Ellen Bass, Joy Castro, Jane Satterfield, Megan Gannon, Evie Shockley, Judith Vollmer, and Maureen Seaton (and so many more). When the most visible and revered in our field lend their words and consciousness to a worthy cause, even as many of them have done their entire careers, the potential to reach even wider audience increases. Grahn’s contributor statement says that “every year she reads parts of ‘women are tired of the ways men bleed’ for ‘Guardianas de la Vida’ in the mission district of SF” (p. 215). In the part she offers up in WWR, we learn that 

During the Vietnam War
and during the Iraq War,
in the u.s. more housewives and girlfriends,
more brides and mothers
died at the hands of angry husbands and boyfriends
than u.s. soldiers died in the Vietnam War or in
the Iraq War (p. 70)

“Marriage, for many women,” Grahn writes, “is a kind of war.” Casting brides-to-be as soldiers preparing to enter the domestic fray, she wonders if women say, at their bridal showers, “I might not come back from this,” wonders why we don’t honor fallen housewives with “a white cross in front of the house” (p. 71). Grahn is raising consciousness by showing us how traditional social narratives favor and revere the safety and work of men; she disrupts that narrative by instead showing reverence for the safety and work of women.

Hadara Bar-Nadav’s haunting poems employ repetition to dig into our memories (“My Wife in All Things,” p. 19), as does Gannon’s “Attic Spell” (p. 64), which turns words on their sides as another way of disrupting narrative. A poem called “Tragedies” (p. 55), by Becky Faber, illustrates how social structures enable misogyny through that narrative of marriage as a private matter, rather than a community interest. But, simply, marriage units are entities of community units. Further, the disturbance of the marriage’s violence is simultaneously witnessed by a group of random citizens who are socially pressured to treat marriages as separate and private: When a man dragged his wife by her hair across a room, “everyone turned away” (p. 55). The speaker’s recollection of the incident in Faber’s poem un-silences the crowd who did not intervene or call the police by making us a smarter and more compassionate, responsible, and action-oriented crowd. 

Bearing witness is a major theme in this anthology. Speaking out, taking political action, and opening homes to battered friends and co-workers are just several ways that we can bear productive witness to women whose lives are demeaned and endangered by a global gender-imbalanced power structure. An early poem in the collection is Lucy Adkins’ “Grandma Ellen Tells It Like It Was,” a sparse rendering of how marriage so often trapped previous generations of women into abuser/victim dynamics. The speaker addresses a universal “you,” making the past tense “was” of the title almost sarcastic because, though contemporary women have a “Crisis Line” and “Friendship Home,” the abuse that drives us to those rescue resources still happens in the supposed “pretty picture” of many homes. Adkins taps into our nostalgia with a grandmother story, then lures us to a sideways commentary on the perpetuation of gender violence, where women still “knead [their] rage / into a hard round ball” they keep “tight inside” (p. 5).

Ellen Bass’ poem “Bearing Witness” takes society to task for negligence: “We weep at tragedy, a baby / sailing through windshield like a cabbage … but we draw the line at the sadistic.” But “God is the kicked child,” she reminds us (p. 20). Kristy Bowen’s poem “No Girls Were Harmed in the Making of This Poem” seeks to create a space (on the page, the prose poem is a near geometrically perfect rectangle) within which to contain all the gender violence she’s witnessed, only to lament in her second poem on the adjacent page, “I can’t keep dead girls out of these poems” (p. 31). Another prose poem by Mary Stone Dockery draws a character sketch of a woman “After the Rape,” as she kills a bee “before it entered [her] skin” (p. 49) – the way she couldn’t with her rapist. 

Other poems bear witness not only to gender violence itself, but to pervasive institutional misogyny through the observed responses of larger social groups to the violence. In Sarah A. Chavez’ “When Dana Was About to Be Raped,” the speaker is a teacher discussing a literary scene with a class that agrees “in unison” that a woman should’ve fought harder to fend off her rapist. The speaker is stunned at her female students’ victim-blaming, as well as their own ignorance of their vulnerability – “how female [they] really are” – to males who decide to assert their dominance: “Yeah, I’d just kick him / in the groin and run!” (p. 43). Another teacher explains “Why I Dread Teaching The Sun Also Rises” in Wendy Barker’s poem: “I know how it feels when someone in a group, even in a family, / goes berserk like a maddened bull” (p. 17). The speaker in Lisa Lewis’ poem “The Accident” is also triggered into recalling a personal experience with gender violence after witnessing another instance of it. By layering “public” accounts of abuse over “private” experiences, these poets are resisting the dichotomy of witness and “victim” to demonstrate the oneness of all women – as a show of support, as a way to fuel collective change, and as a means to publicize, rather than perpetuate the privatization of, gender-specific abuse.

Support for victims is an incredibly productive means of resistance because it counters hate with love and empathy. It’s also a kind of earthy-spiritual and communal-female response to gender violence. In Alison Luterman’s “Another Vigil at San Quentin,” a crowd gathers to protest fighting evil with evil. As they stand with candles and chants, we learn the sentenced man’s crime was raping and viciously murdering a 10-year-old girl. “Say that part. And then how, / to express our horror / at the ravage of our daughters, / we’ll carefully poison him.” She continues: “I don’t have words / for what I’m doing here,” though we can imagine she hopes that the karmic energy of compassion will be stronger than the hate that bore its need (p. 16). Therese Halschied’s “Song as Solution” tells the story of the women of rural South Africa’s success in shaming an abusive man through singing openly of his sins, “how rage felled the moonlit evening” (p. 73). Khadijah Queen channels collective consciousness when her speaker reaches her breaking point in an abusive marriage: “I unlocked my chorus of archetypal women from their chains. They / rubbed their raw wrists with aloe and set to work” (p. 149). Grace Bauer’s “Common Law” is a litany of excuses for staying involved with an abuser – “common” not because women are universally prone to masochism or stupidity, but because unchecked institutional and domestic misogyny have stacked the odds against abused women having adequate support and autonomous means of escape/separation. Bauer’s lines are a bible of no. Such poems present a peaceable, self-preserving resistance.

For others, breaking silence and raising consciousness isn’t enough; here, the poems turn explicit, daring us to continue looking away. Sassing language – using “a diction and syntax that is impolite, blunt, passionate, and sarcastic,” refusing “to take on a disembodied voice” (xxi) – is a strong reclamation of power. Linda McCarriston’s speaker writes to the deceased judge who “admonished” her abused mother in court, urged her to “take the husband back to her bed.” “Tonight,” she orders him, “put on / a body in the trailer down the road / where your father, when he can’t / get it up, makes love to your mother / with a rifle” (p. 121).

Certainly, political activism is another way to productively bear witness to violence against women. Monica Wendel’s “Sexual Assault Awareness Week” sasses by suggesting that men carry whistles to blow if they’re “afraid / [they] might rape someone.” She imagines would-be rapists thanking “the feminist brigade”: “I’m sorry, I’m in this situation where I think I was trying to rape someone. / Thank God I had this whistle and you came.” As clever as Wendel’s revision is, we have to wonder with her, “What if all the time spent on telling us / what to do differently was spent on telling men, or everyone, not to rape?” (p. 191). 

While speaking about what we’ve witnessed is one way of resisting, what about survivors of domestic violence – how do they best resist what’s already happened or is happening to them? For some, breaking silence is the most immediate solace. To tell their stories is a resurrection of second-wave feminism’s mantra that “the personal is political.” In Rebecca Morgan Frank’s “Song of the Rattling Pipes,” a young speaker disassociates from her rape, “as if she were not pinned / beneath another’s weight.” She moves through the alphabet, “A apocalyptic” to “Z zinnias” to endure unspeakable horror. A willingness to talk about the ground zero moment of trauma, without exploiting, eroticizing, or antagonizing, is to wield a heroic form of resistance. The women in WWR’s poems enter into public record more personal testimonies as to the pervasiveness of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse into every aspect of their lives, long after their own traumas. In July Westhale’s “Years After the Assault,” a woman remembers every detail about “not the assault / or the seven days after / when the universe was made,” but of the averageness of the day that contained it in time, averageness she can longer trust (p. 193). Jehanne Dubrow’s speaker in “Schiller” obsesses over “the man with the knife,” until she lives “in a place called knife,” for “the home [is] no longer home” (p. 51). Jill Khoury’s “Home Security” also examines the notion of self-protection, of the far-reaching paranoia of being haunted by a prior assault, through an obsession with her home security system that, when armed, is no less a trap than the abuser/victim narrative: there is “no exit from my safety cage,” she says (p. 95). 

And then there are the women who claim violent force for themselves, who believe you can dismantle the master’s house with his tools if you use those tools to bash in his skull. Two poems by Billie R. Tados are striking – face-slapping, even – with their insistence on women’s capacity and justification for violence. Contributions like Maria Luisa Arroyo’s “Violent Eruptions” explore the role of the rescuer, in the form of a woman providing sanctuary to another, whose husband then attacked them both. The rescuer shoots the husband, stops him “like no restraining order ever did” (p. 9). Elliott Battzedek offers two excerpts of a longer work called Wanting a Gun, mirrors back and forth between the grown woman who states, “There is nothing in the world I want right now so much as a gun” (p. 22) to the memory of a young girl dismantled in “three easy steps” by a man with an arsenal, but whose “favorite gun was me” (p. 25). Shevaun Brannigan’s speaker in “Don’t” graphically exacts revenge in a second narrative, in indented lines that form a second column of text; in the first, she tells herself, in litany, “Don’t know” and “Don’t picture” (p. 35).  Kerri French’s persona poem assumes the voice of Frankie Silver, “the first woman to be hanged in North America after standing trial for the murder of her husband,” who speaks from death row: “Don’t tell me the monsters / my daughter draws aren’t / sleeping beneath the bed” (p. 59-60). Not only are these women sassing language, they are using strategic anger to disrupt the victim archetype; if we can see women as the ones wielding violence, intimidation, and rage – but on the page, not in “real life,” in vengeance – and we can empathize, even root for them to pull the trigger, then perhaps we can apply that empathy in a preventative way.

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The idea of poetry being dangerous … can that even still be a question? (I mean, for half the world’s population, walking out the door is dangerous.) The real question is, dangerous to whom? Women Write Resistance – any woman writing resistance – reframes the notion of danger, gives power back to victims, survivors, witnesses, and rescuers. They share their experiences from the safe places that support poem-making and from the trenches, both of which insist survival, even beauty, is yet possible. And they do it well, in poems memorable, moving, and crafted, literary.

Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013) is available to purchase here. Please do so.

For more information on National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence website here.

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