One of my New Year’s resolutions was to actively consume more media created by women. It can be very tiring to listen to music and view films and read literature made by straight men. The descriptions and portrayals of women can be complex, but I will never find a male writer who is able to understand fully how it feels to be a woman. This bleeds into the details. A man can write the female perspective well, but the nuances of navigating the world as a woman are lost to him. This applies to bodily differences.
Take one of my favorite slam poetry performances, Jeanann Verlee’s “Communion”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QCm6POALzc. It’s really powerful, and you should watch it, but to recap, she claims her body is a: crime scene; lint and gasoline and matchstick; melting wax; a hive; a mistake; a fetus in a biohazard tank; a wafer on a choirboy’s tongue. (And that’s not all.)
It’s not that she herself is all of these things; it’s that her body is. I could never see a man describe his own body in similar terms. I don’t know if men are as aware of their bodies, aware of how they can exist as objects. Since puberty—since before puberty, really—I’ve been very aware that my body is composed of parts that can be used by others. I think that women’s bodies are public domain in a way that men’s bodies simply aren’t. We’re allowed to be reduced to our breasts and our butts and our legs and our hips and our stomachs and etc., etc. In a way, then, it does make me a bit sad to read poetry by women that’s specifically about our bodies. I feel like we shouldn’t need to be having these conversations.
When I go a little deeper, however, I find that there is something to be said for all these poems about bodies. Lucille Clifton’s “poem in praise of menstruation” is candid and bold and completely authentic. I never read material about women that goes anywhere near “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 is so refreshing to read about periods. It is something so natural and normal to most women with female reproductive systems, but there is a silence around the subject in day-to-day life. It doesn’t make sense to me, but it makes reading “poem in praise of menstruation” more powerful.
I also loved Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Speed of Darkness” and Franny Choi’s “Second Mouth,” both of which are very concerned with the body. I think that their approach is similar to Clifton’s in that they seem to be celebrating womanhood and female body parts. Choi puts the vagina in a position of power, almost as a threat, almost as something to be feared or revered: “who wouldn’t fear an eyeless face/whose ghost stories always come true?” Female anatomy is a symbol for female strength and authority. Rukeyser’s poem is less concerned with the body as central theme, but images pop up now and again. She talks about “listening with the whole body” and the many ways to give birth. “The Speed of Darkness” sees a woman find herself and find her voice, and it often does so by referencing the body and bodily action. This is so unlike anything a man would write about a woman. Female poets actually dig into the whole of their bodies. They want to get the whole story told.
I’ve seen similar sentiments across some of the past weeks’ poems. When we were reading about war, I noticed that the poets were more concerned with how they felt about war and conflict, rather than with the conflict in and of itself. The powers at be will write history as they please, but poetry allows for insight into small, honest perspectives that, to the average person, often ring truer than the general record. Poetry allows for the opportunity to reclaim a narrative and insight that hasn’t been offered in the past.
Reading “I Dream of Horses Eating Cops” by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza had me thinking about our bodies—our possessions—once again. “i name my body full of hope despite everything/i name my body dead girl who hasn’t died yet.” As a trans woman, Espinoza is navigating an emotional landscape I can’t fully understand; regardless, it still applies that we as women (we as people), at the very very least, ought to be able to name our bodies and control our bodies and feel like we have some autonomy about how we exist physically in this world. “i hope everyone gets everything they deserve” is an astounding last line. It knocks me off my feet. If I’m being completely honest, though, I just hope that everyone gets everything they have.