Tag Archives: poetry

The Age of Angry Women

I’ve been keeping journals since elementary school, and they are, generally, what you would expect from journals: hard-back notebooks filled with lined pages covered in a not always legible scrawl of to do lists, New Year’s Resolutions, goals I had or things I wanted to try, quandaries I was trying to work through, and of course, what was going on in my life and how I felt and what I thought about it.

Or, often, what I thought I should think about it. What I thought I should feel about it. In my first journal from elementary school, I’d gotten the idea that girls were supposed to write about their crushes in their diaries, so I invented crushes so I could write about them in my diary, but not all of the things I thought I should think or felt I should feel were so entertaining. Often it was things that made me sad, or angry: I wrote about those feelings in the hope and expectation that by getting it out I wouldn’t be sad or angry anymore. It never worked.

In January 2017, I stopped writing in black and blue ink and brought out the coloured pens. I started to make charts, draw sketches, record dreams I’d had, write down quotes from books or poems I’d read.

This is one of those things that’s very awkward to say, and which I’ve been told is scientifically either implausible or impossible so I don’t mention much, but: I don’t have many memories of my childhood. I remember some friends, some teachers, school trips, other kids’ birthday parties, summer camp, the cottages. I have a handful of memories of my Dad and my brother. Of my mother, I have one clear memory before the age of 14, and a handful of other extremely unpleasant memories of things that involve her or where she was present–I know she was present–but her presence in that memory has been wiped clear as a white-board. For me, narrative memory starts sometime in middle school. Before then, I have my journals, and things people have told me, and weird snatches, and lots of stuff that doesn’t involve my family, and that’s it.

This image, for instance, does not resonate with me at all. I don’t have a childhood self to return to–though if you do, that’s great, and I’m happy for you. Apparently it resonates with a lot of people because it is all over my FB feed.

So early in 2017, in addition to watching the world slowly side into a dumpster-fire the size of Jupiter, I also was tired of trying to figure out what was in those missing years, who I would have or should have been, how I turned into who I am. Unlike most other people, I’m not tethered to a remembered history. It’s odd, it’s often uncomfortable, but it’s true, so I may as well make myself up. And my journals became a way to do that: to construct myself.  I still wrote to-do lists and plans and quandaries and what I thought I should think and how I thought I should feel, which still never worked, and pages and pages of — questions, quotes, the bits of myself that I inherited from trauma and wanted to keep (eg. loving nature), the bits that I inherited from trauma and wanted to change (eg. fearing people), the bits that might actually have nothing to do with trauma at all (eg. sewing), and what exactly I wanted to put in the empty spaces between them (eg. dancing).

We all engage in self-construction somewhat. The difference is, if you had parents who loved you, you had people from your earliest memories mirroring back to you a version of yourself you could flourish in. You might outgrow it, you might need to stretch or bend it, but there was part of that mirroring you could live in. When your parents hate you, the version of yourself they give you is ugly and contorted. If you try growing into it, it kills you.


In October of last year, I read through Adrienne Riche. Here’s some bits I wrote down:

it’s your own humanity you’ll have to drag
over and over, piece by piece,
page after page
out of the dark.

Which was as good a description of my project as I could ask for. But then, in relation to all those feelings I was trying to write away, this:

Anger and tenderness: my selves.
And now I can believe they breathe in me
as angels, not polarities.
Anger and tenderness: the spider’s genius
to spin and weave in the same action
from her own body, anywhere–
even from a broken web.

Maybe, I thought, I didn’t have to write them away. Maybe the anger isn’t the problem. Maybe I can let the anger be?

This, of course, is not a problem unique to me: We live in a world that delights in convincing women that we don’t have the right to feel our feelings, and if we do, we don’t have the right to express or act on them, and if we choose to anyway, we can’t expect anyone to take them or us seriously. We are hysterical, we are emotional, we are too sensitive, we are irrational, we are illogical, we are hormonal: if we want to be taken seriously in almost any context, we need to strip ourselves of any evidence of emotion, and then be labelled “cold.”

On the one hand, my upbringing made this worse: I lived in the same misogynistic culture, and was brought up in a misogynistic fundamentalist Church, and had a deeply abusive family. From all quarters, I got the message that I was not valued, and not valuable. It was awful. I won’t sugarcoat it. I’ve struggled with suicidal depression since elementary school (for which I was also blamed).

On the other hand, it’s meant I had nothing to lose in walking away.

Oddly, I’ve come to view this as a gift. Though maybe that’s the wrong word, because it came with a very steep bill.

Regardless, when I came across the message–and when it then proliferated across the literary landscape like a climate change-fueled wildfire–that my anger was not the problem, I could embrace it, without facing unpleasant pushback from people in my life who would tell me that the anger was ugly and uncomfortable and I should shove it back in its box.

In June of this year I fell into Jan Zwicky again. I don’t know why she isn’t a better-known or more-loved poet. Here’s some bits from Beethoven: Op. 95:

…You were right: stupidity
surrounds us, and our own
splits the skull most sharply.
Also: that nothing
is achieved without the grimmest labour
on the slenderest of hopes. …

…you were right
about discipline, and politics,
the steep well of fury, and finally
what the fury goes through to: love
like a hand through the wall of the chest,
like a hand in fire, fire
tearing itself, in the hand’s flame
a heart, in the heart’s fist
an ear.

That image!

What the fury goes through to: love like the hand through the wall of the chest.

There’s been, also, approximately a hundred books written very recently by women about women being angry and getting shit done using that anger as fuel, and I’ve read three of them: Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper, Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister, and Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly. I recommend all three, and I recommend reading them close together because they bolster and complement each other beautifully. Rage Becomes Her is approximately 250 pages of all the shit making women angry followed by 50 pages of what to do with it; Good and Mad is a historical and present-day journalistic narrative account of women using their anger to achieve positive change for society; and Eloquent Rage is a personal exploration of the uses of justified rage in the life of one Black Feminist activist. As well, all three provide an intersectional viewpoint that, while not complete, at least makes a conscious effort to broaden the scope beyond the most privileged.

Spoiler: they’re solidly pro-anger. Anger is justified, anger is fuel; anger tells us what’s broken and gives us the energy to try to fix it; and we live in a world that veers between discomfort and vilification where angry women are concerned, where it is hard to believe in the validity and uses of our anger. Where we still feel the necessity of bottling it up and slapping a smile or a joke on it. Where if you aren’t angry whatever happened didn’t bother you that much and if you are angry, you’re the problem.

Chemaly, Cooper and Traister would all like you to be angry, to express that anger, and to use that anger to propel activism in service of making a better world.

Cooper:

“This is a book by a grown-ass women written for other grown-ass women. This is a book for women who expect to be taken seriously and for men who take grown women seriously. This is a book for women who know shit is fucked up. These women want to change things but don’t know where to begin.

“To be clear, I’m not really into self-help books, so I don’t have one of those catchy three-step plans for changing the world. What I have is anger. Rage, actually. And that’s the place where more women should begin–with the things that make us angry.”

Chemaly:

“See your anger not only as a possible symptom but also as a way to recover yourself. If you are among the millions of people who have experienced abuse in childhood, for example, or physical and sexual violence in adulthood, anger is inevitable. Women who suppress this anger suffer more deleterious effects related to that suppression. Recovering from these assaults and their memorizes is hampered by ignoring what your anger represents as an agent of better health.”

“Anger is an assertion of rights and worth. It is communication, equality and knowledge. It is intimacy, acceptance, fearlessness, embodiment, revolt, and reconciliation. Anger is memory and rage. It is rational thought and irrational pain. Anger is freedom, independence, expansiveness, and entitlement. It is justice, passion, clarity, and motivation. Anger is instrumental, thoughtful, complicated, and resolved. In anger, whether you like it or not, there is truth.

Anger is the demand of accountability. It is evaluation, judgement, and refutation. It is reflective, visionary and anticipatory. It’s a speech act, a social statement, an intention, and a purpose. It’s a risk and a threat. A confirmation and a wish. It is both powerlessness and power, palliative and a provocation. In anger, you will find both ferocity and comfort, vulnerability and hurt. Anger is the expression of hope.”

Traister:

“‘It’s so powerful and kind of reminds me that the other side of the anger is the hope,’ Morales wrote to me. ‘We wouldn’t be angry if we didn’t still believe that it could be better.’

And if it gets better in part because of women’s ability and willingness and need to feel their anger and to let it out into the world, then what we would be living through right now would not be a trend or a fad or a witch hunt, but an insurrection–a righteous revolution, led by angry women.”

These books are fabulous and necessary and inspiring and, yes, enraging. I graduated from tea to wine to whisky while reading them, because believe me, they made me want to burn the world down. Traister, Cooper and Chemaly are right: women have a lot to be angry about; and our anger is not only justified and useful but necessary if we are going to fix the mess(es) we’re in.

But they missed one thing.

Anger isn’t just accountability and revolution and hope and optimism and power and independence and motivation and clarity and purpose and the place we should begin. It isn’t just good for our health and our souls to feel and own our anger.

Anger is love.

Fury is love, the hand going through the wall of the chest to the heart.

What you are angry on behalf of is what you love. If you are only ever angry on your own behalf, you only love yourself. If you are never angry on your own behalf, you don’t love yourself. Everyone I know who is never angry is a victim of abuse, usually starting early in childhood, that convinced them that they’re not worth defending and it’s selfish to defend themselves and it’s hopeless to even try. My father never got angry at the way my mother treated him, or very rarely, because he’d been convinced and then continued to convince himself that it was wrong and bad to value himself enough to feel anger on his own behalf. There are others in my family who are much the same–all women, mind you.

Think of when you have been angry in your life, and why, and look behind that anger, and you will find what you were defending–what you love. Anger on behalf of the poor, the exploited, on behalf of victims of assault or abuse or misogyny or racism; anger on behalf of children, of the environment, of the future, is a positive expression of love. You can’t love those things and not be angry when they’re threatened.

(And yes, the white man who only ever gets angry when his comfort and position are threatened only loves himself, and his comfort and position. It is absolutely a reflection of a person’s values and their heart.  Similarly the person who only ever gets angry on behalf of victims who live on the other side of the world, and can’t be bothered to react emotionally to victims in their own life.)

Anger is an angel. Anger is tenderness. Anger is what allows us to spin and weave a better future, even from a broken web. Fury goes through to love like a hand through the wall of the chest. Be as angry as you need to be.

First Fig, plus: Burda 2/2016 Dress 112B

Edna St Vincent Millay is one of my favourite poets. Besides packing stadiums for poetry readings during the Depression–besides writing whip-cracking cynical gems alongside her better known odes to springtime and nature–she also broke every convention for women in her day, and thrived for it, including a lifelong open marriage. One can’t say her work reflects in general a commitment to a responsible adulthood:

First Fig
My candle burns at both ends;
   It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
   It gives a lovely light!
Just wait; I’m getting to it.

My guess is that her version of burning the candle at both ends was not the 21st century supermom version, where you’re working 40 hours or more officially, and then going home and working another 40 unofficially, basically burning that candle out in service to everyone but yourself. We all have to pay the bills and, if there are small people in our lives who depend on us for care, we need to follow through; in all lives a little obligation must fall. But not only obligation. Right?

Millay was, from all accounts, an expert at identifying at separating out what she actually had to do (or not do) from what other people told her that she had to do (or not do), and then utterly ignoring the latter whenever it suited her. I’ve read that she and Sarah Teasdale (another poet from the same time period, but a bit older) had a falling out when Teasdale realized that Millay had no intention of becoming Teasdale’s version of a proper young lady. Teasdale committed suicide; Millay died of old age; at the risk of oversimplifying well past the bounds of good taste, enough said.

I guess this means there may be more Millay in this blog’s future, at least for title inspiration. And now allow me to segue awkwardly from this poem/blog title to the sewing project:

It does look kind of like a dress you could burn the candle at both ends in, doesn’t it? Fine for work. Good for weekend socializing. Also good for late nights and dancing. I’ve now proved this for all three.

So I love this dress. I even wore it back to the fabric store where I bought the linen (Downtown Fabrics on Queen W if any of you are curious–but I didn’t see any left when I was there on Saturday) and the store owner thought I did it justice, and I have it on good authority that it’s moderately flattering, but it’s not without its problems.

The Back.

Pros:

Nice bodice construction. Two-piece sleeves with a dart at the cap for a great shape with lots of movement (that I shortened to make it summery). Good, fitted skirt with a flounce gives lots of space for walking and, yes, dancing.

Side-ish. Sorry, Dear Readers. It’s as close as I got.

Cons:

Waistband does not sit on the waist.

The line drawings make it look like it should, and so does the photo of the dress laid flat.

Put it on the model, and you can see the bottom of the waist band is about where her actual waist is.

flounce dress model

I didn’t notice this until I sewed it up, tried it on, squawked, and went back and looked at the magazine photo. It does the same on me.

Note the bottom of the waistband being about where my waist is–and if a waistband is high on me it’s going to be high on everyone

This was frustrating, as I chose the size of the waistband pieces based on how they would fit on my waist, not on my ribs. Thus it’s a bit snug there, but I expect it will loosen up over time. Consequently this means there is also more ease on my actual waist than I planned; I snugged it in a bit during construction and I may do so again if it proves to be really too loose, but it is comfortable.

Also, the waistband pieces don’t match the darts/seamlines on the bodice.

Why the hell not, I don’t know.

I traced 38 there for everything, and it matched on the bottom, but the waistband side seams do not match the side seams on the bodice. However the total length of the waistband was a perfect (if rib-constraining) match with the bodice at that seam.

I gave myself a 1″ FBA on the princess seams, and it worked out just about perfectly. I also reduced the width and length of the back pieces before cutting the fabric based on what’s worked for previous woven dresses, which means zipper installation was slightly less frustrating than it sometimes is. So this was a first try for this pattern and barring some fairly easily corrected issues, it went together nicely and fit well. I’ll make a fall/winter version with long sleeves, assuming I can find a nice winter-ish dress fabric with just a bit of stretch.

Sizing Note

I should be a size 40/44, but I cut a size 38/40 with a FBA on the bodice and some me-specific alterations elsewhere. It does have a fair bit of ease, which is odd considering they state explicitly that you should choose only dress fabrics with stretch. This completely not-stretchy-linen handled the sizing down just fine, barring the ribs thing. I’d measure the waistband pattern pieces and compare to your preferred waist fit to find your desired starting size-but be careful and check to make sure that the length of the bodice pieces will put the waistband actually on or near your waist.

W.S. Merwin as nothing-in-particular

poetry month-12-7This one has no stitching on it of any kind, but I like it and thought it was a fitting way to end Poetry Month (though if I have time, I may squeeze in Dennis Lee as well): from W. S. Merwin:

The Laughing Thrush

O nameless joy of the morning

tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there

song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all of memory waking into it

and the lost visages that hover
around the edge of sleep
constant and clear
and the words that lately have fallen silent
to surface among the phrases of some future
if there is a future

here is where they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening

W.S. Merwin is a nature poet too, at least sometimes, though unlike Mary Oliver he can be a good deal darker and sometimes writes explicitly on environmental destruction. But he does it beautifully.

I took a page I hated from a self-help book, gessoed it, painted it, stamped and stenciled it, then drew the calligraphy letters on with a brush, and mounted it on a bit of backing board to make it stiff. And now it sits on my bookcase, amidst piles of books and mountains of fabrics and notions and quilted blocks.

Something about thrushes seems to inspire poets grappling with finding joy and meaning amidst loss, doesn’t it? And the thrushes have no idea–they just sing.

Mary Oliver as wall art

Even if you don’t think you like Mary Oliver–even if you think you don’t like poetry–you have almost certainly read one of her poems, and you might even have enjoyed it. Mary Oliver is that most rare of all creatures: a poet who makes a living from poetry. She’s a nature poet with an eye for the small details of the world, constantly finding the universe in a grain of pollen. She’s also had her work and parts thereof shared on every social media platform–alone, on pictures, and in video–just about constantly, probably since the internet’s electronic heart first began to beat. And if you still think you don’t know who Mary Oliver is:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

That’s Mary Oliver, from The Summer Day, and if you’re saying you’ve never read it, you’re lying.

However, The Summer Day (much as I love it) isn’t the one I turned into wall art, and neither is What Was Once the Largest Shopping Centre in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon, though that poem is one of my favourite poems ever.

poetry month-9-5No. The wall art was taken from Mindful.

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

This piece is just a sampler, a bit of muslin on which I practiced different kinds of stitches until I had something I thought was pretty. It was fun and not very difficult and, as is common with embroidery, it took forever. I’ve always meant to make another, larger, better-planned embroidery from another Mary Oliver poem, but somehow there is always something else I’m working on. One day, right?

Rilke as bookmark

poetry month-11-6For years, I had these self-help books I dragged around with me through every move. Most of them were gifts (of a sort) from one particular person who shall remain nameless, and they inspired in me an absolute rage; the others, while less rage-inspiring, were quite notable in their absolute inability to help me help myself. They were more like self-unhelp books, or self-trouble.

After the last move, in 2012, unpacking these ridiculous books again, I got angry at myself (self-angering books): WHY was I torturing myself by lugging these horrible, offensive, accusatory, unhelpful, rage-inducing books with me through house after house? Just because they were printed and bound did not mean they were automatically worthy of respect.

If they weren’t going to be helpful–and they patently weren’t–if they were determined not to be useful as a product, then they could become an input.

I carefully cut about fifty pages out of the worst book, gessoed them, painted them, stamped them, cut them, folded them, stitched on them, and turned them into other things.

You don’t want to original text to be distracting but you do want it to show that it was originally a page from a book; I don’t want to be reminded of what I hated so much about the books whenever I see them, but I do want to see what I made of my life and myself out of what the self-help books were supposed to help me with. So it takes forever. But it’s satisfying, too.

This bookmark was one of the first. The lines are from a poem by Rilke, who I love (who doesn’t love German transcendental poets?), and the patterns are from a variety of sources meant to make it look a bit like an old-fashioned sampler. Here’s the full, original poem:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

My favourite Rilke poem is the 10th Elegy, but it is very very long (about 10 pages in my translation) and has no short pithy quotes suitable for hand-made bookmarks. He wrote so much gorgeous stuff, though. I can only imagine how it must thunder along in the original, with its rhyme and meter intact.

One of the things I love about Rilke is that when he wrote about God, he quite openly and clearly discussed having created him, built him, projected him out into the universe; that God was something we made, and then lived by. And yet the sense of worship and holiness is still there. It didn’t rob God of his meaning or value to have been created by people. It’s a fascinating perspective.

Sara Teasdale in needle-book form

poetry month-3-1I like poetry, a lot. A shelf of my Favourites Bookcase is devoted to poetry books (and there are more in the basement).  I also–as you may have gathered–like sewing and embroidery, a lot. So what better than to combine them?

A few years back, I was in need of a needle-book (a fabric book with fabric pages for storing needles not in use). There was a pattern in an issue of Inspirations magazine that I liked structurally, with its multiple pages and french-knot border, but at the time I was not a fan of stumpwork and wanted something different for the cover art. I took a Sublime Stitching bird pattern (I realize it is not a wood thrush) and combined it with my favourite Sara Teasdale poem to make this little needle-book, which is in more or less constant use.

It has a page for sharp needles, a page for crewel needles, and a page for beading needles, and little endpapers of crazy bird fabric scraps. The needle pads themselves are made out of wool felt, since it holds needles so nicely. The titles are just poetry month-4-1stamped in with regular ink, and the wool felt is held to the pages with regular zig-zag stitch–nothing fancy.

Sara Teasdale was not the world’s happiest poet, though she did win the first ever Pulitzer Prize for poetry. I once spent an afternoon reading a chronological anthology of her work, which became progressively more depressive; unsurprising since she died of suicide in her late 40s. Wood Song is one of her more uplifting poems, and it’s from comparatively early in her career. As you can see, it’s not so much the work of someone who is happy, as of someone who is trying very hard to be happy.

Wood Song

I HEARD a wood-thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star—
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.

Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call—
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.

It is gorgeous work, if sad. As much as I appreciate its artistry and the portrayal of having found meaning and solace in an interaction with nature, I also wish someone had been there to hold her hand and offer her some solace.

happy poetry month

Because it’s the one I have with me, and because it’s been stuck in my head for six months. Like a musical earworm, it demands to be spread … er, shared:

Here, in this little Bay
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.

For want of me the world’s course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.

(Coventry Patmore, Magna est Veritas)

It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

I promise that future poems shared this month will not be quite so despairing. Look on the bright side: last week, this poem was the introduction to a whole post about those last three lines.

floruit

Because Dennis Lee deserves a wider readership, and because I am finishing up a post about decision-making and scientific literacy.

floruit

Was a one, was a
once, was a nothing:
mattered and gone. And how cleanly

our floruit will fade into
moteflicker, starcycle, eddies of
gloryfit ex. Where

nothing will
sing of us; build on us; blazon our
hubris & only

~~~~~

floruit is a noun meaning “the period during which a person, school, or movement was most active or flourishing.”

From Dennis Lee’s fabulous 2003 collection un. Which I got today in the mail, and finished today, and sticky-tagged all over. What I love about his apocalypse poems is the way he rips into and reconstructs words that can mean only one thing, that have a heavy emotional evocation without any history whatsoever. Like un itself: not just a removing or destroying but a negating; they evoke skin-crawling horror at what we’ve done in a way that the best environmental prose rarely does.

Trout Lilies

six-antlered bright faces and many red tongues

(Mary Oliver)

It happened that I couldn’t find in all my books
more than a picture and a few words concerning
the trout lily,

so I shut my eyes.
And let the darkness come in
and roll me back.
The old creek

began to sing in my ears
as it rolled along, like the hair of spring,
and the young girl I used to be
heard it also,

as she came swinging into the woods,
truant from everything as usual
except the clear globe of the day, and its
beautiful details.

Then she stopped,
where the first trout lilies of the year
had sprung from the ground
with their spotted bodies
and their six-antlered bright faces,
and their many red tongues.

If she spoke to them, I don’t remember what she said,
and if they kindly answered, it’s a gift that can’t be broken
by giving it away.
All I know is, there was a light that lingered, for hours,
under her eyelids–that made a difference
when she went back to a difficult house, at the end of the day.

A different kind of refuge

This poem comes from Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early, and if you haven’t read it, you should. Happy Poetry Month!