Notes toward a poem about Hedda and Lisa

Having just read an amazing poem by Jane Mead about Hedda Nussbaum and Lisa (do we still in good conscious use the last name of the man who beat her to death??), I’ve been thinking on them all morning. These are very rough notes toward something, although nothing like the firm calm grasp of an actual poem. But every start is a start, and everything that is grows from having been willing to start.

Hedda and Lisa

I understand, Hedda, I do,
I do, what happened to you, how
the shame bound tighter than
the pain, how you could no more
have saved yourself than Lisa. No more
have saved Lisa than yourself.

Lisa was yourself.

But I’ve been that child, too, and you,
goddamn you, were an adult and really-
really?-there was no single time when you
could have run, could have called 911,
could have locked out me out, made me
wander the halls crying until someone could
no longer refuse to see me?

Let’s talk about how traps work.
Let’s talk, let’s call Oprah, let’s weep
about how a coyote in a trap
will chew off her own leg.

But who sets the trap?
Nevermind, we’ve talked that to death.
Whose hands bear the animal’s blood?
We all know we all do and also
how we’ve made popular the wearing
of red gloves to make fashionable what is true.

But who made the trap, whose job
is forging, polishing, packaging,
boxing, driving, opening, pricing,
placing just so on a shelf?

The whole world betrayed you, Hedda,
and Lisa – hell, you weren’t even real
enough to own the expectation of a right
and the wrong done to you was barely
a crime at all. Manslaughter? As if
a six year old girl were a man, as if
one could slam a child into a wall
and say I did not mean to kill.

But still.
A coyote who would leave her leg in a trap
would not leave her cub trapped there.
She would stay, fight, face the hunter
and his club, his gun.

Or so I need to believe. Better
that you stayed, Hedda, when you could not
get her free than that you were too crippled
to run. But could you have crawled,
dragging shattered legs across the ground,
your cub in your teeth, across broken glass
and burning ground?

In the Disney movie, you would have.
In the Lifetime movie, too. In the starring-
Angelina-Jolie film you would have twirled
and blasted Joel with blazing guns; in the
sisterhood version, a tribe of Amazons
would have rescued you.

But in the real world, the easiest plot
was for the hunter’s clan
to club you. Hedda, battered
by one man and then the whole world
felt justified in beating you while Lisa
just went on being dead.

Poem a day #30 Another Poem about Privilege

And here ends my National Poetry Month poem-a-day exercise. I did it—yeah! And yeah, too, for the month being over. Having to produce something every day has been amazing, and exhausting. I have a paper to finish now, so need the time I’d spend doing this. Last year I started poem a day and got, I think, to day three. This year I finished, and some of them are even really good. I’m going to keep pushing myself to write some every day, but if every once in a while I need to sleep or, goddess forbid, go see a movie, I’ll give myself a day off. And for all of you’ve I’ve not seen or called cause I’ve been writing—maybe in June, before I go back to Poetry Camp?


Another Poem about Privilege
SB 170—a proud heritage of hate

If you own the woman you love
as chattel
and you do not set her free,

If you bring her nightly to your bed,
but in the morning
she rises to empty the mansion’s chamberpots,

If she is the half-sister of your wife
and you still fuck her
and you still are considered a model citizen,

If you scream human rights
in elegant prose
but protect your right to own humans,

If you can live this way
for years
and not kill yourself
or your children, the ones you own
on and off the record,
or blow up the capitol
or set fire to the precious parchment
of your hypocrisy,

then you are, absolutely guaranteed,
no doubt about it, history only continues
to prove that this is true,

white—a dangerous social disorder
we hope to eliminate
before the turn
of another bloody century.

Poem a day #15 Found Poem in Explanation of Events Beginning October 2007

if there is a lyric poem inside every narrative poem, isn’t there also a lyric poem inside of an essay? At least inside of a well-written essay, the pleasure of which is the combination of the well-researched opinion and the exceptionally good writing? It’s a theory, as is the Timing Hypothesis Cynthia Gorney explores in her wonderful article in the New York Times Magazine

Found Poem In Explanation of Events
Beginning Approx. October 2007
From the article “The Estrogen Dilemma”
by Cynthia Gorney

“Dr. A., do you remember me?”
“I’m so sorry. Should I?”

warring, gesticulating, fluorescent,
reverent, sputtering, fading
Alzheimer’s brains

the timing hypothesis layer of complication
to the current conventional probing,
interrogating, poking—
permitted, distracted,
hallucinatory clashing data
suppositions, mysteries, arbitrarily
coming and going in waves

personal interior chorus of quarreling voices
ferocious hormones
vicious recurring hormonal hiccup

wondrously bland phrasing, explanatory graph,
overlapping lines that peaked and plunged
Climara-surge of industrious scrambling—
some menopausal malady is genuinely making you miserable

daunting influence of a drug industry,
concentrated soup of a pill, conjugated
equine estrogens, vigorous
and sexually satisfactory cardiac events
crank up frantically, crash
and then crank up again
ovaries start atrophying into retirement

this great Upheaval of During

density of dendritic spines,
barbs that stick along the long tails of brain cells
like thorns on a blackberry stem,
chemical solvent sloshed onto rusting metal:
the personal calculus of risk
is an exhausting exercise
phases of life
can unhinge us

But he could not stretch her spey, her spey, he could not stretch her spey

A slightly late International Women’s Day post – lest we forget that we are never the first generation of women to resist, to make our resistance public, and to celebrate it. This has been recorded by many of my favorite singers – Alix Dobkin, Peggy Seeger, and Karan Casey, whose version you can hear here.

Now go resist! And then sing about it!

Eppie Morrie

(Trad Arr. Karan Casey/John Doyle)

Four-and-twenty Highland men
Came from the Carron side
To steal away Eppie Morrie
Cause she wouldn’t be a bride, a bride
She wouldn’t be a bride

Then out it’s came her mother then
It was a moonlit night
She couldn’t see her daughter
For the moon it shone so bright, so bright
The moon it shone so bright

They’ve taken Eppie Morrie
And a horse they’ve bound her on
And they’re away to Carron side
As fast as horse could gang, could gang
As fast as horse could gang

And Willie’s taken his pistol out
And put it to the minister’s breast
O marry me, marry me, minister
Or else I’ll be your priest, your priest
Or else I’ll be your priest

Haud away from me, Willie
Haud away from me
There’s not a man in all Strathdon
Shall wedded be by me, by me
Shall wedded be by me

Then mass was sung and bells were rung
And they’re away to bed
And Willie and Eppie Morrie
In one bed they were laid, were laid
In one bed they were laid

He’s taken the shirt from off his back
And kicked away his shoes
And thrown away the chamber key
And naked he lay down, lay down
And naked he lay down

He’s kissed her on the lily breast
And held her shoulders twa
But aye she gat and aye she spat
And turned to the wa’, the wa’
And turned to the wa’

They wrestled there all through the night
Before the break of day
But aye she gat and aye she spat
But he could not stretch her spey,
He could not stretch her spey

Haud away from me, Willie,
Haud away from me
There’s not a man in all Strathdon
Shall wedded be by me, by me
Shall wedded be by me

Then early in the morning
Before the light of day
In came the maid of Scallater
In gown and shirt alone, alone
In a gown and shirt alone

Get up, get up, young woman
And take a drink with me
You might have called me maiden
For I’m as whole as thee, as thee
For I’m as whole as thee.

Then in there came young Breadalbane
With a pistol on his side
O, come away, Eppie Morrie
And I’ll make you my bride, my bride
And l’ll make you my bride

Go get to me a horse, Willie
Get it like a man
And send me back to my mother
A maiden as I came, I came
A maiden as I came

Haud away from me, Willie
Haud away from me
There’s not a man in all Strathdon
Shall wedded be by me, by me
Shall wedded be with me

Haud away from me, Willie
Haud away from me
There’s not a man in all Strathdon
Shall wedded be by me, by me
Shall wedded be by me

some thoughts on sonnets, but first on breaking silence

I’ve been reading through The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English and loving it so much more than even I thought I might. In part, of course, because I’ve quite fallen for this form, although I’m still no where having even one come together for me in my own writing life. And in part because the book has women. Contemporary women, sure, but not only—women who published sonnets and sonnet sequences hundreds of years ago. Women who seemed to not exist when I was an English major in college in the early 1980’s. And who certainly didn’t exist when I was at UC Irvine in 1985-86 and was told I couldn’t write about women writers in the 1700s because there were no women writers then—a statement made even more sexist-piggish because, in fact, all the male writers we were studying said that one particular woman was the best poet of their time. Odd how there was a best poet yet she didn’t exist? And the professor who proclaimed this was a scholar of exactly that group of male writers. Had he not read them? Or did he just have some awful brain disorder that couldn’t process female pronouns?

All those years of feminist scholarship have made this huge difference, and even such a mainstream anthology now includes women writers, and talks about their work seriously. Yes, the legacy of male writers is still far greater, or perhaps just far less suppressed, but that utter silence is gone.

Or is it just that this amazing anthology is edited by a woman writer?

In any case, the editor, Phillis Levin, has written a great introduction, with pretty much anything you’d need to know about the sonnet in English. A few highlights I am writing so I will remember:

The easiest thing to say about a sonnet is that it is a fourteen-line poem with a particular rhyme scheme and a particular mode of organizing and amplifying patterns of image and thought; and that, if written in English, the meter of each line usually will be iambic pentameter. Taken as a whole, these fourteen lines compose a single stanza, called a quatorzain, the name given to any fourteen-line form. But though a sonnet typically has fourteen lines, fourteen lines do not guarantee a sonnet: it is the behavior of those lines in relation to each other—their choreography—that identifies the form.

Whatever its outward appearance, by virtue of its infrastructure the sonnet is asymmetrical. The dynamic property of its structure depends on an uneven distribution of lines, of the weight they carry. It is top-heavy, fundamentally. Opposition resides in its form the way load and support contend in a great building.

In Italian, volta (a feminine noun) can refer to a change that is temporal, as in prossima volta, “next time,” or spatial, as in “a bend.” In architecture, it is the term for a vault, which forms the supporting structure for a roof or ceiling—an apt metaphor, as the volta supports and defines the structure of the sonnet. Turning marks time and its passage: in an Italian sonnet, the poet has less time before the turn arrives, but more space in which to make the turn, more time to amplify the aftermath.

Shakespeare is clearing the stage for a new way of thinking and speaking about love and time, death and the power of rhyme. He begins with the assumption that love is like nothing else but itself: it is beyond compare, beyond comparison. Yet this reflection beyond reflection mirrors the self-reflexive nature of the sonnet, its tendency to implode in its solitary cell. The unrepeatable instant is suspended and refracted in verbal and acoustical repetition; the unreproducible being produces an echo of everlasting absence.

Tell/Share/Overshare—when is the line crossed?

How do I talk about my own life while respecting the boundaries of others? What if, say, I wanted to write about a relationship with someone who is an abuse survivor, and the many things I might have learned from that? Do I have the right to share details of that person’s life in order to write about myself? If I don’t have that right, is that then a silence about my own experience being forced upon me? Where is the line between sharing, oversharing, trust, and betrayal?

I wish I had an easy answer, but I don’t. The paragraphs below are from a longer essay I wrote about Chana Bloch’s book Mrs. Dumpty, in which she chronicles her painful marriage and eventual divorce, both driven by her husband’s mental breakdowns. These are first person, autobiographical poems, and they are powerful and beautiful and so well-crafted, and they left me with a lot of questions.

But there is a larger issue for me at play here, especially after reading the essays in section three, “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical & Aesthetic Considerations” in After Confession—what does it mean for her husband, and for how she relates to him after these poems, that she has written so beautifully her emotional reality of their marriage? She couldn’t have written her truth without revealing his mental illness, the violence, distance, and institutionalization, but still, those are intimate, and potentially damaging, details of his life. What are the limits of how much of that story was hers to show and to tell? Did the ways that she was harmed by him grant her permission to reveal all of this, in the ways that victims have the moral right to say who did what? Or is the telling itself a kind of emotional payback with a manipulative edge? (In all of her work she seems honest and caring, so this doesn’t feel like the case with her, but god knows there are poems and memoirs that exist for that reason.) I’m struggling hard with this issue right now, as I consider what to do with my own break-up poems, the “you” of which will be furious about when or if she sees them. What, if any, responsibility do I have to share or not share with the world intimate details about her? I’ve tried to protect her (way too much, too often, methinks), to conceal her identity, to not go into stories she revealed to me in intimacy that I think explain her behavior. But, ultimately, where does our right to tell our own story violate another’s right to privacy?

Mrs. Dumpty asks this question, and doesn’t answer it in any way. These are exactly the kind of poems that make male critics lose their minds and start flinging accusations of man-bashing, of some kind of conspiracy of women writers to bring men down (to reveal the nakedness of the fathers?), a trend always at its most hysterical frothing peak when certain African American male critics confront Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. “Who is she to say these things about him?” they scream. As a woman, a feminist, I answer, “She is a writer, and compared to what men have said about women for century after century, I think men are still getting off easy.” But as a poet wrestling with my own balance of honesty and integrity, I don’t have an easy, confident, self-justified answer. And maybe I can’t, or shouldn’t.

considering love poetry

I’ve never been able to stand most love poetry (or most love songs, for that matter). Too much is just trite, too much is just sappy and pathetic (including, sadly, too much of my own!), and some of it is just outright creepy, predatory, and violent. I once had a male lover who held my waist-long hair around my neck and quoted a Browning poem about a man strangling his mistress. I wasn’t being strangled, or seriously threatened, but still — umm, ick, and I got rid of the hair and the male lovers not so long after that.

Anyway, now that I’m thinking about poetry pretty much all the time. Recently a lot of that focus on has been on Sappho, in case you’d not noticed in recent postings. I’m loving Willis Barnstone’s translation, and in particular his incredibly thoughtful introduction. (I’m sure the notes are great too, but generally more than I need to know as a poetic, not linguistic, reader). He has a passionate defense for reading her love poems as openly sexual and lesbian, with a great review of how attempts to hide this have distorted our understanding of her and of poetry in general. In the midst of that, though, he says this:

(Much of the world’s love poetry is homoerotic, and in ancient Greek poetry, the majority of love poems by known male poets, from Ibykos to Pindar, are addressed to other men)

Which has left me wondering about the connection between this and love poems in general. If so many of the models held up to us as “great love poems” have always been homoerotic/gay male homosexual, is it any wonder that so much of it feels completely inauthentic to me as a woman? For heterosexual men writing, at least in theory, to women, how have these models confined and defined their emotional reality? And how many love poems have ever been to an actual person and not to some muse, some unrequited passion viewed from a distance as perfection incarnate, some ideal of a lover utterly separate from the messy reality we are all as humans?

What would an authentic heterosexual love poetry be? Lesbian love poetry, allowed to develop outside of the models foisted on us? I’m really curious now about contemporary gay male love poetry, written from within a time and place where “gay” is a social identity, not just a sexual identity within a different social role.

For right now, I’m sitting with one small fragment of a fragment of Psapfo’s writing, a bit that may well be my next literary tattoo:

for praying
this word:
I want

Some thoughts on Midrash and the women of Judges

So I set out, as a writing assignment, to create poems about the characters Deborah, Yael, Sisera, and Sisera’s mother from the stories in chapters four and five of Judges. Chapter 4 tells their story in prose – Deborah was a “judge”, which was a kind of charismatic leader/seer. She pushed the general Barak to take on King Jabin, who was oppressing the Israelites. Jabin’s army was wiped out, except for the general Sisera, who ran off to the tent of Yael the Kenite, who killed him. The story then shifts to Sisera’s mother, who is waiting for her son to come home triumphant. Chapter 5 tells the same story, but in a war poem which is one of the most ancient texts incorporated into what became the Bible/Tanakh, so clearly comes from a much earlier tradition.

I wanted to write about these women, but I just couldn’t. I started reading Judges, and writing about Judges, and was just totally stopped. Like a lot of Jews, I never actually read all that stuff that’s in the Tanakh but not in the 5 books of Torah. And while a lot of Feminist midrash has been created about women in Torah, the women from the rest of the Bible are rarely mentioned. Reading Judges was astounding and awful, as it has a subtext that is completely about the continued transfer of power from women to men, and the ongoing decay of women’s status as the Israelites moved from tribes toward a central government with a central temple and priesthood. The story is all told from the point of view of these central powers, of course, who in the book are explaining why life had become so morally decayed that they HAD to take over, with the repeated refrain “there was no king in Israel/every man did as he pleased.” Which became the justification for the ultimate imposition of patrilocal, patrilineal rule, headed by male king, male priests, and their male god.

Now I know that this book, in part, is wish fulfillment on behalf of the cult of the single male war god, since women continued to have power in home and society, and continued to have goddesses in the Temple until it was destroyed. Judges is a fantasy of class, caste, and gender, pretending that if they tell the story it will mean only what they said it means.

Yet even so, the steady decline of women in the book is awful. At the beginning is Deborah, clearly the story of a culturally vital woman, incorporated into this story with only a few additions of text linking her to this god. Oh, and thousands of years of intentionally obtuse translation which insists that both she and Yael are identified by their husbands, when the Hebrew probably identifies them by where they are from. Next, an unnamed woman kills off the evil Abimelech by dropping a millstone on his head from a tower in which the people had taken refuge. Also an earlier story, I think, incorporated here with another odd twist – Abimelech asks his attendant to stab him, so that they will not say of him “he was killed by a woman.” Yeah, gotta get rid of THAT story.

Next up is Jepthah, son of a tribal leader but whose mother was a “prostitute.” Nonetheless he comes to power, after his tribe begs him, vowing that, if he wins, he’ll sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he returns home. This is his daughter, unnamed, who gladly gives herself up to sacrifice, asking only that she and the other maidens have two months in the mountains to bewail her maidenhood. Granted, sure, then she was killed. Fun, huh? Leaves me wondering if Jepthah’s mother was in fact a priestess who conceived him in a power/fertility rite with a locally powerful man, conferring on Jepthah special powers. If this was the original story, then the priestly class that shaped these stories into Judges needed to delegitimatize Jepthah and end his line, so why not invent this story of the vow and child sacrifice? I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but I have read a lot, and the whole set up does make me wonder.

Next up in Judges is Samson, which is really interesting to read. Also clearly a much older story, probably a cycle of stories and legends about a local hero, his story is full of puns, riddles, humor, vows and reversals. The woman here is Delilah, who betrays her husband three times and ultimately was killed along with all her people. She had no power of her own, a far cry from Deborah and Yael, but at least she had a name.

Next, and this is my favorite, a Levite from Ephraim takes a concubine, who runs away from him. He tracks her to her father’s house, who welcomes him warmly and gives her back to him (with her consent, it seems, but we know who wrote the story). They travel to the town of Gibeah, where, in a re-telling of the also disturbing Sodom story, the men of the town storm the door and demand the man be turned over to them “to be intimate.” His host instead offers the concubine and his own “virgin daughter, “ saying “have your pleasure with them, do what you like with them; but don’t do that outrageous thing to this man.” So the man shoves his concubine out the door, and, in the morning, seems surprised that she has been raped to death. So, to get revenge, he cuts her into twelve pieces and sends her to 12 tribes as evidence of the crimes of the men of the town. Some of the tribes come to his aid, war breaks out, the Benjamites are defeated.

Big problem ensues – everyone realizes they are not allowed to wipe out one of the 12 tribes, but they’ve also vowed to not let their daughters marry the Benjamites. But the B’s need women to continue! What to do? They decide the men of Jabesh-gilead weren’t sufficiently loyal, so everyone goes there, kills everyone except girls of marriageable age who are still virgins, and “marry off” all 400 of these girls to the B’s. But they need more women! What to do? Everyone treks off to Shiloh, to the annual Feast o’ The Lord, where the men of B are invited to kidnap every girl who comes out of town for the festival.

Gotta love it, yes? Women go from Deborah, of such power that her story could not be simply suppressed, to woman-as-temptress, to unnamed girl willingly sacrificed to keep a single man’s vow, to single unnamed woman raped and dismembered, and ends with hundreds of unnamed women kidnapped and raped to keep men’s vows.

What in the hell can a feminist say? I couldn’t write about any of these women, at least not the kind of midrash that exists to give them a name, tell the story from their point of view, because this would give some legitimacy to the original story. That’s my critique now of so much of what has evolved as “women’s” religious practice in Judaism – the stories are treated as stand-alone stories, and writers work to fill in the gaps. But Judges isn’t just a story, it’s a piece of political propaganda, created by someone for a specific reason, and that reason needs to be explored and questioned. As a feminist, I’m more interested in an analysis that understands personal relationships as the epicenter of social power, gendered power, yes, and also race, class, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, and more. I need more than just finding the women – I want to find the power, and reveal it, and then reimagine and reshape. I want to re-understand history and so change the future. I’m just no longer interested in midrash whose goals is to elevate imahot to the same height as avot. I want to knock those damn fathers off their throne and figure out where we are all together, starting from new ground.

I want not just the why or the how, but the why.

And the why of the stories woven into Judges is a need to justify kingship to a people whose religious/cultural tradition had been as a people who lived under God and didn’t need kings. Power had to justify itself, had to explain why it was now legitimate, and the power stripped away from women was part of this process. The dead that pile up in these stories – and there are thousands upon thousands – aren’t supposed to matter, and we aren’t supposed to count them. The point of these stories is to enforce a peculiarly Jewish way of telling history, set in theology, in which the Jews sin against God so are handed over to their enemies until a leader rises to take them back to God’s law. Then they live “rightly” for some time, until they sin and the whole cycle starts over again. The sacrificed women, all those slaughtered, are only ways to advance the plot. We aren’t supposed to count them as people, we aren’t supposed to mourn them. They don’t matter—only we matter, the “we” who live to tell the story. This is how the survivors go on surviving, where genocide is such a given that it gives one no moral rise.

Which is exactly why I’m a Reconstructionist Jew and reject this doctrine of being “the chosen people.” History, oppression, war – these haven’t happened only because the Jews have pissed off their big daddy war god. That’s the storyline I’ve walked out of, to demand an end to that understanding of history. I want Jews, Jewish culture, and Judaism to enter shared history, where God is not the only cause, and where the dead count.

And when I count the dead in Judges, I find women’s lives, women’s truth, the story of women’s power and meaning all buried under the rubble of the record of Samson’s destruction. When I count the dead, I count the women of Judges: Deborah, Yael, the woman who defended her people by killing a king, Delilah the trickster, the daughter sacrificed, the woman killed and dismembered, all the women kidnapped and raped. I count them all.

To find out more:

I ended up writing two pieces: “________ bat Jepthah” and “Israel Beiteinu.” You can find them both here on my blog.

Alicia Ostriker, The Nakedness of the Fathers, “Judges, or Disasters of War”

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, “Warriors by Weapon and Word”

Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, “May My Lord King David Live Forever: Royal Ideology in Samuel and Judges”

Rabbi Jill Hammer, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women “The Song of Devorah and Yael”