an introduction by Sarah Kirstine Lain
It begins with a word as small as the cry of Athena’s owl. / An ache in the cage of breath, as when we say ‘can hardly breathe.’ –Carolyn Forché, from “Harmolypi”
As we close out this year of the woman, our 2018 P2G Winter Quarterly is dedicated entirely to femme poetry. Here’s to the world-womb, the well-aimed skillset and game face; here’s to elegance and precision. C’est bon, said the lady smacking her nude lipstick, without any ado whatsoever.
We begin with Rhina P. Espaillat’s “Triptych,” a three-part Shakespearean sonnet centered on a woman. As a triptych comprises three images in three folds, so these sonnets paint a woman in three phases of a journey: Departures, Suppose, and Road Map. How compelling that triptych derives from the Greek, τρίπτυχον, meaning three-in-one: and isn’t multiplicity associated with both the godhead and poetry? In Departures, a newlywed woman grips a ticket, eager to leave with her new husband, wary in a space divided by the glass of her names and families, of shifting life. In Suppose, a woman, perhaps the same woman, is also boarding; this time she is solo, marriage left, with nothing but a blank notebook and a pen. The word suppose is aloof and lacks certainty; it hopes, assumes, and argues. As I read this sonnet, I think of how my various departures suppose me into new phases of my own femininity. Supposing I, woman, board where I choose. Suppose the narrative is as soft as my frame and as daring as warmth, if I write it thus (I will). Suppose I own my name, and a woman’s name is a theme in the triptych. In Road Map, it folds upon itself; it opens again: how the road loops round to fold / back into what will have her / learns to learn / her name again.
In “Artist’s Delight,” CM Burroughs writes with such music: baskets at my side fill with: this // is a passionflower; this is a black-eyed / susan; this is a tired iris; this is a bloom of / cotton bright…” The repetition of this is, this is, this is demands acknowledgement of both the beauty and hurt in these lines; and the enjambment foreshadows a sort of ominous turn. As the artist paints his subject, the poet introduces the reader to a less-than-harmonious landscape: When he is unhappy with / so many things, he stabs the forests. This kind of jolting opposition is also present in Emily Jungmin Yoon’s “American Dream,” where initially the speaker writes to a lover, The alcove of your arm / has become my favorite room. As the poem twists, this same lover laid calm last night while a Korean man broke into your room / and raped me. Yoon confronts race and masculinity in this poem as the speaker’s “platinum” white lover is guilty of an indirect violence—of inaction in the presence of direct violence. The role of the mother in Yoon’s poem speaks to the survivor’s “managing up” so often required in trauma narratives: the lineage of facing it, and of putting on a face: I comfort my mother, the poem concludes.
Carolyn Forché writes of “Harmolypi” – a song of joyful grief that begins with a word as small as the cry of Athena’s owl (i.e., the owl of Minerva, a symbol of knowledge). It was Hegel who wrote that the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering. Here, the reader experiences the joy-grief of awakening, finally, as history’s canon wheels over itself like Carl Sandburg’s “Grass”: What place is this? / Where are we now? When Forché speaks of the owl’s night forage, I picture its wings brushing the walls, waking the human doze with ferocity. But what walls–of a lifespan or silence? ‘Not now’ is what it sounds like. Or two other words. The diction of confinement isn’t the point, is it? There is only the need to testify to the wall, to touch it. It exists. Yet in much the same tone as “Harmolypi,” Forché welcomes the reader to Begin again among the poorest in “Prayer.” This poem resides in an ambitious discomfort: to see human suffering, and having been altered by sight, to manifest the answer to one’s prayer with an imagination toward creative and actionable empathy. Forché writes: Language will rise then like language from the mouth of a still river. No / one’s mouth. It is a poet’s work to find a new (disruptive) language with which to testify to the silent fog that Eliot wrote about in “The Dry Salvages,” and to the polished stillness from a locked church that Forché writes about here in “Prayer.”
“Wrapped in Red” by Cynthia Bargar speaks to historical narratives on the physiological connections to madness. It addresses domestic in/sanity, boredom, and simplicity: The floor strewn with rolling balls of yarn / you pick one up put it down / brew a cup of tea. / Fortified you cast on. In “Trespassing,” Erica Wright addresses poverty and victim shaming. The speaker draws the image of a copperhead that has targeted her because she shouldn’t have been there in that field, / too big to ever belong to a rag of a thing like you. As if rags could define a girl. As if the bite is her fault, this girl with the audacity to step into a freedom that the copperhead does not believe she can wield. This being-space, this green open. As if a copperhead has any idea of what a girl can wield. To drive home this spirit, Natalie E. Illum writes so poignantly about the corporeal experience of a disabled girl in “Adage,” disrupting the familiar dictum with:
My mother says, ‘remember what doesn’t kill us, makes us.’
And having been made thus, we hope you find solace and understanding here in the language-womb and fortitude of the feminine.
Hegel, Georg William Friedrich. 1991. Elements of the philosophy of right. Translated by H.B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Orig. pub. 1820.)