the women you are accustomed to
wearing that same black dress,
their bronzed hair set in perfect place,
their lips and asses tight;
these women gathered in my dream
to talk their usual talk,
their conversation spiked with the names
of avenues in France
and when i asked them what the hell,
they shook their marble heads
and walked erect out of my sleep,
back into a town which knows
all there is to know
about the cold outside, while i relaxed
and thought of you,
your burning blood, your dancing tongue.
— Lucille Clifton
I’ve been writing and thinking a lot about women’s bodies, about black women’s bodies, and about my own body in particular. I’ve been fighting my way through the writing of an essay that needed to be submitted in late March (made it, thanks to my writers’ group). The essay — “My Body Politic: Paying Attention to the Woman Behind the Curtain” — is going to be a chapter in the next WE LEARN anthology of writing from practitioners.
I had the shell of this essay in my head the moment I saw the call for papers last fall. I cannot say how difficult it was for me to write the actual essay, however. I was writing all over the place. There are clearly far too many ways in which my body has been made an issue over time. There was no way to corral all of that into one 7-page essay. So a lot was dropped out of the final draft … and more may be dropped during the editing process leading up to publication. But all of it is still ricocheting around my brain, still in my way.
Having all that needs-to-be-processed thought taking up head space is part of what inspired me to create this rhyme royal challenge for April. Taken straight from what Sanchez said about using the stucture and confines of a poetic form to control things that are out of control. It’s what I’ve been trying to get at with each of the poems I’ve posted so far this month, but I still have a long way to go. I like the comment Raivenne left for the last poem:
“I think your frustration is in the limits of the form itself. You have so much more to say, but can’t. You also have this daily time limit so you can’t let it simmer until you find a phrasing that pleases you as the writer as well. Just let the divine flow recklessly for now and walk away. You may find you like your original words much more with some distance. You may find a better way to say it later and change it. The words are yours to say and change as you please.“
One of the things I kind of let myself forget is that the form is the form, but the poem doesn’t have to end simply because I’ve hit that seventh line. The video I posted of Sonia Sanchez yesterday is of her reading a 15-stanza poem about Toni Morrison … and each stanza is a haiku. I’ve done that with haiku, too, used the form but extended it, strung several poems together to create a whole. And the rhyme royals Sanchez read to us from Does Your House Have Lions? were used in the same way. I think I do tend to get caught up in the structure of things and forget that I still have the freedom to push at that structure and make it work for me. (Like maybe creating a poetic form last year by combining tanka and acrostic? What would that be … a tankrostic?)
In the essay I talk about how my body has always been unacceptable … and how the things that made me unacceptable also made me the focus of a lot of unwelcome sexual attention. There was a lot of writing that hit the cutting room floor before I sent the essay in because none of that was the point I was trying to make, but trying to force the cutting room bits into these poems is feeling off somehow.
All the thinking I’ve been doing about my body and the ways I’m perceived and the ways people respond to me reminded me of something. Years ago, I was on the street and as I passed two women, one said to the other: “Look at her. She’s as big as life.” I had already come to my “what-people-say-is-always-more-about-them-than-about-me” understanding of the world, so I picked at that statement to hear what might have been behind it.
“Big as life” … well, sure. Shouldn’t we all be as big as life? Because what’s the alternative? Wouldn’t we be … I don’t know … dead … if we weren’t as big as life? And, too, life is big and unavoidable, something not lightly dismissed or overlooked. Again, shouldn’t we want that? The comment implies that the speaker would rather be smaller — much smaller — than life. What does that mean? What does that say about how she sees herself? She wants to be diminiutive, wants to be someone who can be easily overlooked, not taken seriously, she’s afraid of calling attention to herself?
I am definitely big as life. I am not someone to be easily dismissed or overlooked … but that has much more to do with who I am than with the size or shape of my body.
The things I’m trying to write about are as big as life, too … but I’m trying to harness them, push and squeeze them so they’ll fit into a more manageable space. And maybe they’re not meant to do that. Maybe they just have to be as big as they are.
I arrive whole,
honey on my tongue, open hands
extended, offering not soul
but neither the stretching demands
or shifting sands
of a hopelessly-romantic fairy tale.
Just a woman. Whole, fierce, frail.
And so my heart, like my hands,
is open, free —
its silvered waters and green lands
offering warmth, energy,
passion — my love like a tree
ablaze in spring’s green shoots
running, sap-full from leaf-tip to roots.
(Boy, talk about all over the place! This post needs to be turned into a rhyme royal of its own, bring it a little more under control!)