May 6, 2009

Not So Mystique-y Peek into My Creative Process: Patriarchal This & Subjugated That by Martha Silano

Martha Silano is the author of two collections of poetry, Blue Positive and What the Truth Tastes Like. New work is forthcoming in AGNI, Crab Orchard Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Best American Poetry 2009. She lives in Seattle, WA, where she teaches at Bellevue College, and blogs at Blue Positive.

I haven’t studied feminism in an academic setting since I was eighteen, so please don’t make me back up what I’m about to say with scholarly footnotes, or anything close to footnotes. That said, my branch of feminism is the So, are you a Women’s Lib-ber? branch, also known as the You-Said-You-Hired-A-Girl-For-the-Job-Is-She-Old-Enough-to-Type? model of feminist thinking. This is because my childhood and adolescence were one big Women’s Struggling to be Called Women Movement, one big Fighting to Enter the Job Force in Areas such as Medicine and Law Brigade. This is also better known as the 2nd Wave of Feminism, spurred on by the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the publication (also that year) of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the birth of NOW (in 1966), and the Inexorable March Toward Equality for All (1964-present). At that time, along with watching my mother (1) demand the right for girls to wear pants at my elementary school and (2) finish her degree and get her first job, I was reading, along with Friedan, De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Rich’s Of Woman Born, and The Dream of a Common Language, Goldman’s Living My Life, and Gilbert and Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic, to name a few. It was all patriarchal this and subjugation that. I was steeped in the deep, dark tea of feminist literary thought. What’s more, it was cool to be coating myself with radical feminist tannins, to refer to myself, proudly, as a feminist.

Fast forward thirty-five years or so, and no one under thirty (forty!?) wants to go near that label; it’s like walking around wearing a shirt that says “I am a huge and serious bore.” But that’s probably mostly because women (okay, predominantly white and privileged American women) have gained so much ground since the 1970s that the rights of these women—especially in contrast to the struggle for equality despite differences in class, race, sexual orientation, and ethnicity—has essentially become a non-issue. Not totally a non-issue, but over the last several decades the word white in front of the word woman presents a whole new set of possibilities in terms of achieving (or not achieving) economic success, respect, and a sense of belonging and of feeling included. [Actually, this would be a great place for a footnote: Despite increasing opportunities to climb all order of ladders and break through glass ceilings, white women still only make 78 cents on a man’s dollar. For single moms of color, that number plummets below the 1970s level of 69 cents. Over a lifetime we’re talking $700,000 -$2,000,000,000 LESS in each of our rocket-less pockets.]

So where does that leave us in terms of equality? Many of today’s young women know (as I definitely did not), that women should not have ever struggled to be physically or emotionally equal to men, that that was just one of the many mistakes of proto-feminist thinkers. As a teen, for instance, I avoided all things pink because I wanted to be taken seriously. I also did my best not to cry in public. Nobody back then “got” that traditionally feminine traits could actually be powerful. Why not? Because shoulder pads and lots of beige and black, i.e., looking and acting like a man, was how a woman commanded authority. Shoulder pads, thankfully, went out of style, but okay, caveat time: I’m not saying misogyny is dead, or that Hillary Clinton’s been solely judged by the content of her character. Also, I don’t believe the fight for economic equality is anywhere near over, and this belief is confirmed in the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is, as I type this, sitting on every U.S. Senator’s desk, waiting to be signed into law.

But I have always been a cup-half-full kind of gal, and by this I mean that despite knowing that we’re still working big time on equality—that are millions of men and women that for reasons of color, ethnicity, economic standing, etc., will never have the luxury of eating three nutritious meals a day, let alone making art—and also knowing full-well that many of us have yet to confront our own inner-misogynist, myself included; still, if I’d been born a hundred years ago it would have been considered (1) not just unladylike to write but impossibly un-peasant-esque and (2) I’d’ve had thirteen children by the time I was thirty (as my Polish great grandmother did) and been (3) too busy washboarding or bluing dirty diapers to consider my Artistic Side. I’m also most grateful for not being labeled HYST-erical for wanting to hold (gasp!) a pen.

Selfishly, effervescently, it comes down to this: By some grace of good fortune my great grandparents boarded a boat in the early 1900s. For them it was a choice: should we eat this chair, boil down this leather and make it into soup, or should we take our chances on this country called America? Their choice to come here and make a new life is the one I wake up dancing to each morning. Sometimes I sit down to write and I am very Human, very Person On This Planet, very Homo Sapiens Regardless of Gender, very much Equality and Justice For All, Including Men. But sometimes I arrive at my desk and I Am Woman Hear Me Roar; when I do, these are the poems I write:

I Can’t Write

about her birth—about the way, when finally, after an eternity
of curling in and screaming, they plopped her on my chest

like a hot, wet seal, like something straight out of a warm
long-ago ocean, something slippery and covered with fur—

but I can write about the clock and its second hand,
how I gauged my progress by its slow and gentle circling

while I bounced on a blue ball, brought my cervix inch by inch
to ten. But I can’t write, exactly, about dilation—how I stayed at three

till long past twelve, how progression didn’t really begin
till after the almost-full moon had risen high enough to view it,

if we’d wanted, from that 5th floor brimming, overbrimming, with moaning
or pacing, passing again and again that giant yellow and red mangle

of a Deborah Butterfield horse, where instead we occupied ourselves
with ice water, heat packs, string cheese, spray from a Jacuzzi’s jets—

or the number of times I pushed, but I can tell you that later that morning,
from three mini-blinded windows, I could hear the voices of children,

of mothers telling them to settle down, how I wished my womb, like theirs
(I presumed) had returned to the size of a fist. And I can tell you about

my bed, how I could lower it, how I could make it rise like a chair,
a ready-made chair for nursing, how in that bed I wished my daughter

were older than half a day, where both of us smelled not only of yeast
but of the acrid, earthiness of colostrum, of colostrum and vernix

and blood. I can’t write about the lighting or give you anything close
to a time frame, but two of the nurses were named Sharon

and each of them told me, as I begged for an epidural,
you don’t need one, this is your birth and this is your labor, feel that (the long

wait begun in late July nearly up). I wanted to keep detailed notes
about hazardous waste dispensers, my first try at aspirating

my baby’s nose, about the breakfast of Cheerios and tea and French toast,
but instead these loosely woven undies one of the Sharons dubbed

“Madonna lingerie”—wear and toss—instead, the doula and my husband
walking me to the bathroom to get those panties on and off.

And I can tell you about the luxury, on a Friday night, of popping
two Ibuprofens, taking my first unfettered, unfetused shower in months,

but I can’t remember much about that art on the third floor
where they made me walk and walk. All I can see is a cow

in the middle of a stream, on either side of her that blurry green of spring,
are two blue doors, one marked THE TRUTH, the other, EVERYTHING BUT.

What Little Girls Are Made Of

Tapir, pure tapir—all wide,
delicious ass. Herbivorous

to the core, union of fly rod
and shad roe. After hiking all the way up,

then all the way back down Mount Kinabalu.
In the month of pastels, fluorescent pink grass.

As American as a forest fire enveloping
your god-given home on the range.

With wheat berry eyebrows, resides
in the batter of Proust’s madeline.

Also of the sorrowful women of Durer.
Of cantaloupe rind, of gargantuan zucchini.

Of Athena—all brains from the get-go, over-
brimming, teeming, full of knowing

hare-bell from bluebell, every genus
and every species, all brushed up

on conifer know-how, reminding us
spruces have papery cones.

Of granite, with meteor shower
skin, her nose, when it sniffs,

pre- and just- rainfall, her voice
a synthesis of Ginsberg and Plath—

“A Supermarket in London,” amalgam
of nasty boy love and honey,

Lorca chasing her down the aisles hissing
Bees! You must devote yourself to bees!

“Babies in the tomatoes,” yes,
but also of baby tomatoes. Of those believing

the world held up by a turtle. She’s
the Thinker, Ye Olde Tick Tock.

She’s the patch of geraniums
in full throttle, all wrists and sucking fists.

She’s what glows and glows.

(Both of these poems appear in Blue Positive, published by Steel Toe Books in 2006, and are included with permission from the author).


Unknown said...

79 (69!) cents on the dollar
makes me wanna holler!

thank you, martha, for this thoughtful and relevant post. it got me fired up.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks, Michele. Fired up is good!