Woman Poets: Staying Alive Not Suicide

Forty some years ago I sat in a Modern Poets of America class; I still have the text book. Of the thirty poets anthologised just five women poets were represented – Emily Dickinson, H.D., Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Sylvia Plath. Sylvia Plath I was well acquainted with because in 1969 I sister was toiling away on one of the first Master’s theses on her poetry. Her novel The Bell Jar was published while I was still in high school and I read it during the humid summer holidays of 1973.

Plath was a classmate of Anne Sexton’s in summer school.  Like Plath, she committed suicide also, a little over a decade on from Plath’s own death. I first encountered Sexton’s poetry in the unlikely place of Catholic University’s Newman Bookstore sometime around 1976. As a neophyte woman poet, it was not heartening to find all these potential role models topping themselves.

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
The world would split open.”
― Muriel Rukeyser

 

Emily Dickinson was the first woman poet who taught me that poetry is the work of the subversive, the rank outsider, the desperado – even if you lived within the confines of a house and garden, the wild mind lived as untamed as bees. Plath lived in constant frustration with societal contraint and feminine stereotype. Sexton’s poetry is fearlessly truthful. Her poem on the joys of solitary masturbation can still shock as happened to a friend I recently recommended reading Sexton.  But such reckless bravery may also have been symptomatic of a lack of self-preservation.

Fortunately, during my college years I was exposed to other woman poets. I attended a Nikki Giovanni poetry reading. I found Adrienne Rich. I found Gwendolyn Brooks and May Sarton. I found Alice Walker. I found women who had complicated lives, who loved, sometimes lost, but were still in the game. My bookshelves began to fill with women poets who were survivors.  They did not crucify themselves with their art.  And they were busy telling their truth, even when that meant ‘wearing their ovaries on their sleeves’, as John Ciardi disparaged woman poets back in the 1960s.

Over the decades things changed. In 1973 I was seeking out the first anthologies of women poets, ones who didn’t make it into the syllabuses, but who worked, crafted and wrote and wrote and were published, too. And often forgotten. I now live in the 21st century where the English and Welsh poet laureates and Scottish makar are all women and jobbing poets. This would have been unthinkable when I was beginning to write poetry and wanting to read poems that more readily resembled my interior reality, which was also conditioned by my gender, my body, my hormones, and what society was projecting onto me.

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Anthologies can still be very gender unbalanced. So it was a real pleasure to go to the book launch of four Northern Irish women poets in Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh today.  Arlen House publishers brought out poetry volumes by Medbh McGuckian, Ruth Carr, Maria McManus and Maureen Boyle. The launch was at Enniskillen Castle this afternoon.  McGuckian was unable to read at the launch, but the genuine comaraderie amongst Carr, Boyle and McManus was so heartening to see – Sista’s really are doing it for themselves.

In Maria McManus’s reading of her poem Nightingale I had a sense of that feminine truth telling that splits open the world. The poem is dedicated to Marie Wilson, who died in the Enniskillen bombing on Remembrance Sunday 1987. Seamus Heaney had a famous refrain in one of his poems in North – the Ulster catchphrase ‘whatever ye say, say nothing.’ McManus’s reading acknowledged finally having ‘the conversation’ about the sectarian violence experienced over a generation, and I can tell you virtually everyone in the audience was choked up.

For those of you who want to read these contemporary Irish woman poets you can contact Alan Hayes, Arlen House, arlenhouse@gmail.com. They distribute internationally through Syracuse University Press.

Woman poets have managed to stay alive and sometimes even thrive. But still I do mourn the fierce imaginative flames of Plath and Sexton.  This is the poem I wrote about that Boston summer when they both attended Robert Lowell’s poetry workshop. It appeared in Magma poetry magazine back in 2003.

Cocktail Hour with Anne and Sylvia

 Of course, we would meet in a bar,

dark as our wombs,

the banquettes lined in wine Marquette.

 

Three sexy Scorpios – one golden girl,

one sloe-eyed brunette and me

showing the ashes of middle age.

 

It would have to be August

in a limp Boston loosening

her corsets against vapidity

 

and the heat.  We would meet

at this watering hole,

cackling over very dry martinis

 

or maybe a couple vodka stingers instead.

We would watch the spills on the bar

Spread like Rohrshock blots.

 

We would all cheerfully wear our

Ovaries on our sleeves and make course

jokes about male poets and their pricks.

 

Flirting academically with the bartender

We would order more nostrums,

Crazy Women swivelling gaily on barstools.

 

You both would be happy.

You’d swear off crucifixion by art,

Decide to survive, become grandmas,

 

Grin and flash nicotine-stained teeth,

Wear cliché purple hats and scarlet lipstick

Living more potently than legend or myth

 

© Bee Smith 2003

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Gratitude Journaling and Thanksgiving

“Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse.” – Henry Van Dyke

This November has had the theme of gratitude from the start and well in advance of the American feast of Thanksgiving that will be marked tomorrow. Earlier this month, my friend and creative colleague, Morag Donald of Crafting Your Soul, co-hosted a gratitude journaling workshop with me. Combining creative writing exercises, guided meditation and craft work, we led participants to collage covers of A5 notebooks or scrapbooks where conscious note can be made of all those acts of kindness that occur in our life. I chose a scrapbook where I can paste in images to remind me of all the myriad miraculous events and details that populate one’s days. So far birthday cards, chocolate wrappers, newspaper snippets and headlines, and more have been pasted in. I also use words, but I keep it brief. It is also acts, in part, as an aide memoire.

There is anecdotal evidence that the practice of gratitude journalling greatly contributes to a feeling of happiness and well-being. Over the past decades there are any number of books and articles written encouraging people to embrace the practice of gratitude. Which is really a reminder to not take for granted all the acts of kindness, random or deliberate, from strangers, friends, even institutions.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, that great feast of family, food, football (for some) and the official opening of the Christmas shopping season in the USA on Black Friday.  I am long gone as an ex-patriot and there won’t be any turkey and cranberry sauce for us tomorrow. (Sadly, my Irish husband does not understand my liking for pumpkin and all kinds squash, succotash and sweet potatoes; this hampers any meal planning if there are no more than the two of us eating in on Thanksgiving Day.)  Since I have to post Christmas presents across the Atlantic, most have already been bought, wrapped and despatched already.

There is also the issue of celebrating a narrative that does not admit the impact of the colonising of North America and consequent displacement and genocide of its original inhabitants. Some maternal ancestors were early Quaker settlers in the Burlington, New Jersey region. At least I can say I come from people who paid the natives for their land, which was a rare occurance back in the day. The Lenape chief Ockanickon is buried in the Burlington Friends Meeting cemetary, reflecting the integration of Europeans and indigenous peoples at the beginning of the settlement. But even Quakers were slave holders in the 18th century, so I cannot be certain that all my ancestors were always on the right side of history on all questions of morality. The Burlington Quaker mystic, John Woolman, had his metanoia regarding slavery as an apprentice clerk when he was required to write out a bill of sale for the purchase of a slave. He did so just the once; he approached his employer afterwards and said he could not, in good conscience, do so ever again. His employer may not have comprehended his morality, but he did respect his ‘light’, as Quakers would call it.

So how shall I mark Thanksgiving 2017? I will be having a routine mammogram free, courtesy of Breast Check Ireland. I will cherish our old dog who is as loving as ever even in an illness that will ultimately earn her angel wings. I will bless the names of our vets, Sinead and Thomas,  who care for her.

But I will also bless those cranky colonial ancestors who braved leaky wooden sailing vessels to migrate to another world, circa 1630-something. I will be grateful that I inherited their itchy feet.

I will bless them for their idealism and their calculated risk taking. I will be thankful that I have inherited both their tendency to flinty morality and tender conscience.

But above all, I bless and thank the Lenape people, who welcomed my ancestors, sheltered them in the caves on the banks of the Delaware River, who taught them the ways of squash, corn and bean, who helped them survive in a harsher climate than they knew in their old world. For this I am thankful, for without them, there would have been no descendents born, wed, bred.

What I am most thankful for this Thanksgiving is connection. For the kinds of connections that can be made in poetry.  Also, the human kind of connections, all the little heaps and piles of kindness.  Thought of in that way, lineages are wrought from the seemingly random decisions to behave kindly, to help another human survive another day, to live and to love.

I realise that not everyone has had such a benign experience or  even expectation of life. But, I pray ‘May Love cast out Fear’ daily. Perhaps, my ancestors did, too. That is my hope this Thanksgiving.

 

 

Geopark Ghosts

New month and another inspirating jaunt out with fellow creatives on Cavan Council’s Ancient and Wild project. Journeying with the Cavan Arts Officer, we met in a remote corner in the southwest of the county. At Trinity Island we contemplated place and its impact on people, as well as the function of memory and time, and how all interplay in creating art in all genres. This project seeks to explore the relationship of artistic expression and the unique landscape of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, which straddles the Cavan/Fermanagh region.    And, as well, the subject of ghosts and haunting cropped up in conversaton.

Trinity Island is an watery outpost as the rim of the geological ribbed moraine, the largst on the planet.  A causeway links it to drier, higher ground.  Privately owned by the O’Dowd family, who steward this heritage site, we viewed the ruins of its Abbey and learned of its long history of humans inhabiting this space.

Trinity Island

Trinity Island Abbey was one of three abbeys in this ancient landscape. Founded by the Premonstratensian order of monks, it was a daughter house of the Abbey on Trinity Island in Lough Key, Co. Roscommon.  Tom O’Dowd describes them as ‘White Canons’. The ‘White Fathers’ or Augustininians had their Abbey in nearby Drumlane. Elsewhere in the Geopark Augustinians had an Abbey in the middle of Lough Erne at Devenish Island; they also give their name to the White Fathers Cave in Blacklion, West Cavan.

Trinity Island Abbey

With their white cowls it is little wonder that the lady who was the solitary congregant at Mass in the ruins of the Abbey one wild Christmas morning mistook a ghost for a real priest. Tom was told by another priest that if one of the ordained died before saying a Mass for a Special Intention that sometimes their souls suffer from a guilty conscience. And they come back looking to fulfill their promise. Because the lady could find no mortal priest who had journeyed out into that Christmas storm to say Mass that morning.

The other Abbey in the area was a remnant of the Celtic Catholic tradition that was subsumed after the Whitby Synod in CE654. So the Trinity Island area had three abbeys all within a short paddle along the tributaries of Lough Oughter.

The O’Dowds have uncovered various archaelogical treasures over the years, which have been whisked to the secure haven of the National Museum. Replicas of finds are given to the landowners and we were shown a Celtic cloak pin and a stone face of a man circa 700BCE.

We had thought provoking talks by artist Patricia McKenna and musicologist/musician Sean McElwaine exploring the interplay between landscape and art and music.  Sean also introduced me to new Irish trad band The Gloaming. Check out a sample of their work on You Tube, which includes the haunting fiddle of Martin Hayes, here.The Gloaming.

But what haunts me is that long jawed, wide, generous smile on the face of a man sculpted sometime more than 1,300 years ago. The horizontal lines across his cheeks might have been facial tattoos.  Which might have been interpretted as fierce. The weathering over time has given him a bit of a cauliflower nose, but this man looks more of a lover than a fighter. That smile speaks to me of an ancestor preeminantly happy and confident in his own skin. I would have been happy to know him and imagine him living close to the water and fenland. Perhaps he carved the wooden boat, or cot as it is called, discovered in the Trinity Lough’s mud. It was resubmerged, unlike this visage who smiles out at us from the ages.  He thrived. Possibly his descendents survived. I hope so. Who would not want to descend from such a Happy Cavan Man? Whatever his personal story, that face shines out, immortalising our ancestors long before they began to document the story.

Writing Inspiration 1

Where do poems come from? (This is about as loaded a question as where babies come from, but potentially less embarrassing.) I thought I would share where the inspiration can be sourced and then show you the poem that resulted from said source.  The example is the poem “Inish”  (Irish for island), which I wrote after a boat trip to an island off the Sligo coast back in August 2015.

Inspiration and writing both have allies in observation. Notice things. Look. See. Listen. Hear. Touch. Feel. Feast. Taste.  Every sense is quivering to offer you something to prime the writing pump.

So I am going to share some photos I took that windswept day, bundled up in my husband’s thickest sweater.

Inishmurray inlet

Inishmurray inlet. The boats go from Mullaghmore harbour. There is no jetty. You have to leap at the auspicious second onto a rocky promontory.  It is an object lesson in the leap of faith.

Inishmurray was a monastic site, but also had families living there until it was evaculated in the 1940s, when the population had dwindled to an unsustainable level.

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Brady family members created this monument to their island lineage on what had been the family homeplace.

This is the poem published in Irish publication Skylight 45 in January 2016.

Inish

On an island you are always surrounded.

Not a bad thing – not necessarily, not always,

not even when lashed, cornered by southwesterlies,

the sea the colour of a gun, rock outcrop a citadel,

wind keeping you beyond reach.

 

From their front porch before their eyes

mainland’s Sleeping Giant becomes transgendered,

a paunchily pregnant Giantess,

drowsily sexy with the mountains ranging

to her north and south standing guard.

 

They have a bit of bog, a bit of grazing,

some seagull eggs, laver bread, grey mullet and pollack.

Also round stones, holy stones etched with art

for cursing, for blessing, doing the double;

a diet of dread and angelic awe.

 

How could they not come home again

forty years beyond their leaving, bringing back

the Brady nieces and nephews to show them

what was missed and missing.

On an island you are always be surrounded.

 

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So get out and about in your world. Inspiration is the next seashell you see. Or a piece of litter you pick up. Flotsam and jetsam are inspiration’s buddies. It doesn’t need to cost any money at all. It does take time, attention and intention.