EDITOR’S NOTE: TO READERS AND CONTRIBUTORS
The work you have in your hand comes to you from many places, through many voices and many lives. The impulse to hold these voices and lives together in a book of their own was born in New Mexico, from A Room of Her Own Foundation, whose mission has always been to bring women together in service of their own collective wisdom and creativity–to share what can be shared, and to protect and bolster what can only be done by one woman alone. This book is also intended to be in the spirit of Virginia Woolf, to honor her and her work, in gratitude for her giving us those words, “a room of one’s own,” for what it is we need. I said yes to Darlene Chandler Bassett, founder of AROHO, to my part in this work on a couch in a small cottage on Ghost Ranch, during one of AROHO’s writing retreats for women. I had no doubts.
My own life changed radically just as the work began. Within a few weeks of the initial call for work for WAVES, I had a classic, widow-maker heart attack which I survived because I happened to be in a hospital when it occurred. I had emergency open heart surgery that morning, followed by a long recovery—an ongoing recovery, truth be told—involving much more than the physical healing of my body. I tell this story because it is part of the story of WAVES, because when these pages came to me, they entered through a breastbone and a heart already broken open.
I often worked up in my writing room, on a quilt spread on the floor with piles of pages all around its edges, trying to see each page clearly and to grasp the connections and tensions that would shape the pages into a whole. It was slow work. The pages I was holding deserved my slowness and anyway, I couldn’t help it. There were mornings I would come to a piece that stopped me. I would have to sit with it, put my hands on the page and say to the woman who wrote it—Who are you? Where did you come from? Some such pieces were immense in their vision, some dense with pain or anger or some beauty I had never yet imagined. Some spoke in details that shook me—was it too much? should I set it aside?—though of course I knew that I would not. For every truth told, how many go unspoken? Muriel Rukeyser was on the shelf at my shoulder: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.” I wanted to make of these pages a book that would split open whatever parts of the world it might touch.
The work itself shaped the book, the piles of pages gradually resolved themselves into the nine sections that comprise WAVES. The first section, “Call Me Girl,” contains poems and prose representing earliest memories through readiness to move out of girlhood into young womanhood. The section takes its title from “Eagle Girl” by Claire McCabe, in which the girl, taught by her mother that wild things ought not be named, decides, “…please, just call me Girl.” It holds voices of other girls still strong in their own selves, as well as the words of girls speaking from moments in which those selves are imperiled. In “Driving Home” by Melissa Grossman, the speaker drops off a girl who lingers: “A startling knock on the window made me stop. / She was still there, bending down to say thank you again, / but I knew she was really saying, please.” The section ends with writing about the passage into young womanhood, a passage as fraught as all that had come before, but which comes to all, ready or not. In “Concrete Flowers” by Rebecca Chen, the girl’s flight from the family home proves perilous: “She is one of the concrete flowers, / landed shattered on the roadside / after launching themselves to the wind with yellow souls glimmering.” Valerie Speedwell’s “Regina” tells a different story: “she’s looking for an audience, looking for the roar of a crowd, their approval and applause, and despite she’s fat, despite she’s ugly, despite the world expects her to fail, the crowd calls out go Regina, go Regina, because she is revolutionary and shocking….”
The second section, “This World I Want You to Save,” gathers together responses to the natural world, in its domestic and wild, plant and animal, beauteous and threatening aspects. The work in this section speaks to healing connection, as in Susan Austin’s “Church”—“…I lay down // in sweet sage and let the earth / hold the ache for awhile.” Some pieces, such as “Jaguar Foretells His Own Extinction,” speak to the suicidal outcome of human betrayals of the natural world: “Who will call you to the Underworld? / Who will help you remember / Everything has tiger, / The enemy everywhere, / Until you are where-human?” The sea, the cold, mountains, the desert, forest, wild fire, rock, ravens—the earth in all its variety—is throughout this work a source of solace, mystery, and deep learning. So it is for the speaker of “Inside the Bowl (Asaayi Lake) by Leanna Torres: “Beauty is a noun on the shores of Asaayi Lake, the water touching the land in a way that is both ordinary and sacred. For the Navajo (Dine) people there is a concept of hozho. Hozho is said to be the most important word in the Navajo language and is loosely translated as peace, balance, beauty and harmony…. Ho’zho’, Beautyway.” In “Greenman” by Maureen McQuerry the heart of the forest is the site and source of ecstatic experience: “It was like this, precipitous, / life bursting forth in unexpected places, roots seeking hold and feeding / capillaries, the taste of moss and humus / filling my mouth with song, // and not like this, like nothing else at all.”
“My Bones Are In You” is the section with poems and prose about mothers, grandmothers, and motherhood. Many of the pieces about mothers and grandmothers recount searches for their stories. Edvige Giunta’s “The Story Keeper” begins: “In the beginning there was Dorotea. In the story there will be a sister, the beautiful nun who married twice. There will be prince, and evil brother, a Cardinal, dead husbands, dead fathers, dead children. There will be intrigue, murder, illness, sorrow; there will be mystery, and there will be questions, so many questions. There will be silences.” The work on motherhood shows its multitudinous facets—as embraced or refused, in its disappointments and losses as well as its complicated loves. “Never Bigger Than an Orange” tells of early loss, in pregnancy: “When the bleeding started I had cried from my bowels upwards and ripped raw my throat. He gave me grapes and took a job out of town.” In “Maternity,” Sue Churchill’s speaker bargains with God, bartering for her daughter’s sake: “…trading away all pearls / of happiness, the ones I sought so long / in the dark depths, holding my breath / to bursting. // It’s not just one or two I concede, / it’s all and any and ever.” In “The Disappointed Women” Celeste Helene Schantz brings to the page a less represented experience of motherhood: “These are the tssking women; / the women who glance sideways at my son. / These are whispering women, / who talk behind their hands; / who wait for the bus with their precious brats, / little rats with normal brains, / mimicking my boy as he talks / to the wind, to the robins.”
The pieces in “My Body Is Not Your Politics” tell the stories of the body, stories of trauma and illness; they also give testimony of its healing, reclamation and wisdom. The section title is borrowed from Hannah Bonner’s poem, in which the speaker reclaims her body from commonplace and uncommonplace trespasses: “—as my body, / my body filled with longing, longing // then relief, still churning, still declarative, / shaking like the Lilacs lining the street, / all blossom, blossom / and bark.” Accounts of crimes against the female body range widely in this work. In Sokunthary Svay’s poem about apsaras, even these statues of Indian female divine symbols of joy are subjected to transgression: “Foreigners cup their breasts / shiny from years of exploration, / hold them captive / in their viewfinder / to retrieve for pleasure / in future moments.” “Short Hand for Shame” by Lois Roma-Deeley sounds an alarm for a fully human emergency in the home: “Right now there is an eight-year-old girl / who will not wash her hair. // She is sitting on the third wood step / down to the basement….” All kinds of injury and illness come to the body. In “Stef’s Request” by Abigail Licad, the speaker photographs a friend’s naked, burn-scarred body the night before a new skin graft will scar what had remained untouched: “I map the contours of her flesh, the question mark of her sinuous / back’s profile, the meetings of inner folds her future husband’s tongue / will trace. Into the night, we work like witnesses bearing testimony.” For Susan Austin, in “Leap,” “Illness creates its own kind of weather, one that can leave you standing in a house you now longer remember.” But the body knows what to do and we must follow its lead, as Beverly Lafontaine tells us in “Coming Back”: “Get sick, stay in bed and that’s what happens. / You become a ghost in your own life. // Bits of me are floating back like moons to their / mother planet….”
“If He, If She Would Only” contains work about relationships with lovers and partners—what can be kept, what must be let go. They celebrate what endures, as in these lines from “Blue Moon and Bright Mars” by Sandy Coomer: “We learned how to say love without words, / when the hospital nights sank their teeth in / and the days chewed slowly on your flesh.” In some pieces, such as Sandy Gillespie’s “Without Turning,” the wild feminine is set in contrast to the demands of relationship: “She feels his beard / on her neck; she wants / to roll toward him, offer / breasts to hungry eyes. / The weight of her beak holds her. / From behind, he cannot see / feathers sprouted on her brow.” There are stories of beginnings and endings, of patterns that prevail, as in Tanya Ko Hong’s “Asian Women” where the speaker explains “what you do with your life”—“take what your husband gives you / his care, his food, his shelter, / you learn to bury the jealousy of his concubines / you become their big sister / you bear him sons or you are useless.” There is also the breaking of patterns as in Marcia Meier’s “Dogs and Men in Bed” in which healing comes: “I look out the bedroom window, see the long-needled pine / feel the shelter of this moment / remember the lie once told / ‘You ain’t nobody’.”
“Verdad Justicia Amor”–those words taken from placards from the abuelas de la plaza in South America—look at the workings of the world at large. This work focuses on racism and other forms of bigotry, on immigration, on various forms of social and domestic violence, on economic inequalities, war and peace, and on ways to intervene in the world. In “And / Or / Against / For,” Vero Gonzalez lists bits of language turned weapon: “Codes language: It wasn’t your fault and here’s what you could have done to prevent it. So it was my fault? Of course not. It’s just that you could have prevented it.” And it goes on: “You need to stop acting like the world is against you. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean you have to act like it’s true.” In “Power” by Susan Eisenberg the threat is immediate—two African American apprentices sent by “the white boss” to disconnect a transformer, stopped by a teacher who insists on a check: “The meter buzzed: 480 live.” Katherine Seluja speaks from the migrant experience in “You Are Migrant”—“which is to say // you are standing in a line / a very long line / you are grasping the fist of a child you do not know / you will not lose this child / you don’t know where this line will lead you / but you know well what it took you from.” This section ends with “Leave the Barren Fields” by Mary Morris—it offers a response to the difficulties and wrongs that have come before. The poem says, “Read Grimm’s fairy tales / to children in the next village. // Adopt a field or a horse. / Take on a juvenile // stealing your money for her addiction / or a boy herding his bony cow // across Darfur. / Be sworn in.”
The poems and prose in “Sisterhood of the Barbed Wire Museum” span a wide range of subject matter, embodying between them a tension between women’s needs for each other, and their equal and opposite need for solitude. There are pieces about friendship and sisterhood—with all their nuanced complications—in this section, also pieces that speak to the need for solitude. The section’s title is borrowed from Carrie Nassif’s poem “We Should Have” which begins, “we house collections of prickled connections / this, the sisterhood of the barbed wire museum” and goes on to say “we should have lassoed ourselves together / lashed down to weather the storms // built pulleys and lifted our souls / cantilevered the clouds.” One such complicated connection is the story of “Bracelets” by G. Evelyn Lampart. It begins, “Sophie is wearing bracelets—I can hear them jangling. I can’t take my eyes of her face to look at them because she’ll think she isn’t interesting. That would break her stream of confidential I am special speak. She is talking non-stop again. About herself. Herself as a woman who is jealous of younger women, the 25-year-olds, with privilege, and with trust funds. I understand. I tell her over and over I understand. I have been telling her for years I understand.” Some pieces speak of painful solitudes, but solitude and silence are embraced by the Agnes, a character in the play “The Siege of Ennis” by Eileen O’Leary. Agnes is fighting her brother to keep possession of their childhood home: “Listen! (LONG PAUSE) Listen. (LONG PAUSE) Silence. That’s what’s here. That’s what joined me, kept me company. The shutters…the cows…the rain…sometimes I’d hear them. But what was here…really lived here after everyone had gone…was silence. (PAUSE) Some places…the back end of the universe dips down…and live there. That’s what the universe is made of…silence. Listen. (LONG PAUSE) Nothing. If you can live with that…you can live with God. You can stand the prison of your own skin.” In Donna J. Gelagotis Lee’s poem “Wanting for Grace” it is solitude that holds open the door: “…I have planted myself where no one / will come for me. I might as well / wash my stoop, forage for herbs, // hoe the garden. I am drenched with the island’s / giving. Do not look for me. I am stumbling / up church steps, wanting for grace.” In the final poem of this section, “Rapunzel Brings Her Women’s Studies Class to the Tower” by Susan J. Erickson, Rapunzel ends her long solitude: “I uncoiled my crown of braids, cut the ties and loosened / the strands that held my story captive. Every day / new towers of darkness arrive. Do I need to say / your voices are searchlights that can sweep the horizon / to reveal fault lines and illuminate passage?”
“A Voice Answering A Voice” contains writing about the creative life itself, about foremothers in this life, especially Woolf, and teaching pieces that offer touchstones and maps for navigating this complicated life. It opens with an essay titled “Living with Ghosts” by Ellen McLaughlin, offered as a keynote address at the 2015 AROHO retreat. The title refers to all the ghosts, their voices, that whisper or shout over our shoulders when we sit to do our work: internalized negative voices, the imagined voices of literary foremothers like Woolf, of our personal mothers, archetypal voices speaking to us through myth, voices of monsters “the parts of ourselves we have walled up inside our personal labyrinths.” “All those ghosts, all those voices,” McLaughlin says, “I seem them as moths, battering the candle of my spirit, circling the flame of that part of me that is always waiting patiently for me to come back to the desk and work. They teem in me, those ghosts, I feel the press of their wings fluttering inside my chest when the writing takes hold at last, hear the almost inaudible murmur of their thought as the wave of creative life surges and I begin to ride the crest of it to a shore I have never visited.” Many of the pieces in this section speak to such voices. In “Hymnal” by Linda Ravenswood, the speaker of the poem crosses paths with an honored voice on a New York City street: “And I said / Toni Morrison! / because I’m like that. / And she said / You know I am! / And I said / Tell me you didn’t win the Nobel / Prize for your stories! / Ad she threw her head / all around / and said /
You know I did!” George Ella Lyon speaks across the years to Woolf in “To Virginia”—“If you’d heard me / reading aloud your words / in that room where you drew / your baby breaths / and blew bubbles of words, / where you were translated by time / into a fierce, dreamy, always / ink-stained girl // would you have said / do you say // Welcome, daughter? Audrey Chin’s poem “Mad Bad Sad Woman” attests to the saving power of the work itself: “If not for words // I’d be A mad bad sad woman dancing on the razor’s edge.” Olga Garcia’s essay “No Money/No Room/No Locks” speaks to the origins of her writing life: “By all accounts I had no money and no room that I could call my own as I was growing up, and yet it was in these conditions that my first inklings to write arose. There were little or no books in our house. My parents didn’t speak English and they were barely literate in their own language, Spanish. To top it off, my parents weren’t big talkers. They didn’t sit us down to talk story or to share with us that rich oral tradition that is often attributed to Latino culture. . . . Words were scarce. And yet, the power and enchantment of the written word bloomed in unexpected corners all around me. It lived inside me, like an ancient dormant seed, flor y canto, flower and song, germinating, waiting for a jolt of some kind to awaken and unleash it.” In “The Task” Alison Hicks considers ways to approach the time for writing, acknowledging the times of no access: “When it is dark it seems like darkness / will go on for a long time.” In the essay which ends this section, “Unmaking the Form,” Marya Hornbacher also embraces the difficult—perhaps ultimate–wisdom of uncertainty. She says, “I am writing my way into forms I know nothing about. I don’t know how to write anything I’m writing. I don’t know what I’m going to write before I write it, or when it will be done. This is unnerving…. In those simple rooms of my own, where I was that young woman, half a life ago, I sat alone: hesitating—faltering—writing—and I am still there. I am still her, hesitating, unsure, and secretly terribly brave. And periodically, as it did with Clarissa, that enormous bravery rises up and crashes over me and I say: I will write the book myself.”
“Now You Must Love This Too,” the final section, has pieces about aging and death, about the feminine divine and about the life / death / life cycle. For Barbara Sullivan, age comes, as her title indicates, as “Promise,” which begins: “Age is the great unseen divider of souls—each from the other and from its own former selves—and at the same time, it’s the one commonality that can be counted on: we have only to wait a while and we understand everyone.” The title of the section is borrowed from Ruth Thompson’s “At the Whaling Museum, Point Lobos,” where death is to be entered into willingly: “To come home, you must learn echolocation, like a bat. Then you call your ownself out into the dark.” One must go like the whale fall to the bottom of the sea to be undone: “Go down, they say. Go down. Now you must love that too.” Susan Kelly-DeWitt imagines the feminine aspect of God in “Bring Me the God of Mrs. Garcia.” As a woman sits mending her brother’s shirt and watching him laboring at his fishing nets, she considers the possibility of God as a woman: “And this She-God might even appear to her brother as he slept—glide in through the window, wearing a cape of vermilion feathers. She might pluck one feather and leave it on his pillow for good luck; he would wake in the morning with wonder in his eyes.” For Jeanne Bryner, it is not a vermilion cape, but something more common that adorns the feminine divine. In “Where God Lives,” two women from the projects come to the rescue of a family of young ones left too much on their own: “Our screen door whined, slammed, / when my sister brought the women in their gingham blouses. They found Vaseline / in our cupboards, rocked Ben till he slept, / gave us orange popsicles, threw / the potty seat in the trash. // It is difficult to believe in God, even now, / but I want to say that day, when I was six / and holding what was left of my brother’s dick / in my right hand, God’s hair was in pin curls / under a red bandana. He had two names: / Elsie and Janet Mae.” Experiences of cycle, of letting go and beginning again are lived out in a variety of stories and details. In “Rebuilding the ’63 Beetle” by Nancy Krim, the speaker insists on her ability to rebuild at the end of a marriage: “I don’t mind grease under my nails / and I have more time / than you can possibly imagine. / I put the first mile on the odometer without you / and I will be the one at the wheel for the last. / I won’t fix it quick and / I won’t fix it quiet, / But I will fix it, she said.” Barbara Rockman’s poem “The Writing Dress” ends this section. In it, the cycle turns as story itself passes on from mother to daughter. It begins as the daughter calls to the mother at work in the kitchen: “’I have written up and down my sleeves,’ she cried. // ‘It begins at my wrist, saddens at the elbow, but the upper arm is where the rain lifts and,’ / ‘ she sang out from the far end of the hall, / ‘At the shoulder, birds flock from the island, the lighthouse lit to make wings whiten and silver. Across the collar, she and the birds and the drove of bleating outrace the wolves. But mama,’ / she bellowed, ‘the hero is me.’”
These nine sections are bookended by the words of Maxine Hong Kingston, honored elder, who spoke to the women gathered together at the 2015 AROHO Retreat. Her words appear here in transcript form, as she spoke them, so as to let the delight and the deep teaching that happened between her and her listeners be as present as possible on the page. In her talk on Woolf’s Orlando, which opens this book, she begins by looking at how Woolf represents the writer’s life through Orlando’s struggles with his/her poem “The Oak Tree.” “She works for three hundred years,” Hong Kingston says, “and she still can’t write it. And she has not only one room of her own, she has three hundred and sixty-five rooms and she still can’t write it. She has one hundred and fifty indoor servants, she has eighty horses, and the poem still doesn’t come. So, what to do?” Questions of secrecy, privacy, the spirit of the age, motherhood, the nature of time—all figure into what Hong Kingston tells us in answer to that question. And in the talk that closes this book, she considers a wide range of questions put to her by some of the women at that retreat, including questions about writing protest, marginalization, success and labels. “If you have that pink edition of The Woman Warrior,” Hong Kingston says when asked about labels, “Anybody has it? Oh, I want to show you something. Just to show you that you can escape categorization, on the front cover it says, ‘Winner of the National Book Critic’s Award for Nonfiction’ and then you turn it over and the publishers put at the top ‘Fiction.’” This talk closes with an account and recitation of her very first poem which, when held together with all that has come before, shapes her words into the very infinity sign that she has said earlier in the session describes the poet’s understanding of time.
I am a poet myself and I expect that all of us have been on the receiving end of some serious talking-to from teachers and peers about the difficulties inherent in a writer’s life—the odds, the rejections, the impossibility of living a full-time writing life. I don’t doubt that we all continually face such moments and circumstances as we were warned to expect. And yet we keep on—I am daring to speak for others here, feeling myself again on the quilt on the floor, in the welter of all these pages–because the need to do our work is greater than those difficulties and disappointments. Because we know, deep in our bones, truths and mysteries that have yet to be given their rightful place in the world. That place in the world must be found and taken—this too is an essential part of our work.
Perhaps you know some of the names of the writers I mention in my overview of this collection, perhaps not. As I watched this work come in, as I sat surrounded by hundreds of pages of women whose names I was seeing for the first time, I thought again and again—There are so many of us, it’s a wonder that any of us get heard. It is exactly that wonder that we are working for and it is your presence here—as reader, writer or both—that makes this work complete.