The Folger Shakespeare Library commissioned essays from 13 contemporary women writers for a handsewn chapbook published in honor of its 2012 exhibition Shakespeare's Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700. The following essay is the final one in the book.
In 2300 B.C.E., a Sumerian priestess was taken from her temple, stripped of her clothes, probably raped, and left in the desert to die among lepers. Enheduanna’s father was losing a war, in a region where war, in the phrase of Dunya Mikhail—an Iraqi poet now living in Michigan—is still, in 2011,“working hard.” Dunya Mikhail’s poems, pressed into existence by calamitous circumstance, are one end of a string whose beginning is held by Enheduanna’s “Hymn to Inanna”—the world’s earliest work of literature for which an author’s name, of either sex, is known. Enheduanna’s poem reads, in part:
It was in your service
That I first entered
The holy temple,
The highest priestess.
I carried the ritual basket,
I chanted your praise.
Now I have been cast out
To the place of lepers.
And the brightness
Is hidden around me,
Shadows cover the light,
Drape it in sandstorms.
My beautiful mouth knows only confusion.
Even my sex is dust.[i]
The war poems of women are not the same as those of men, yet have existed alongside them from the start—as, we may safely guess, have also the love poems of women, the prayer poems of women, the poems of women’s rites of passage, celebration, work, and mourning. Enheduanna wrote her hymn in the form of a praise-plea to the moon-goddess, asking Inanna to unleash her fierce powers to restore peace, and Enheduanna herself to the goddess’s service. By the hymn’s end, this has happened, and King Sargon’s daughter’s words were carved into clay, then hardened by fire. The forces of destruction, it seems, can both provoke and preserve the creative. Poems today are printed on burnable paper and spinning electrons, yet it is possible that Dunya Mikhail’s—or Wisława Szymborska’s, Anna Akhmatova’s, or Nelly Sachs’s poems of 20th-century war—may last as long.
In 1552, Queen Elizabeth I of England was imprisoned in London Tower by her half sister Mary, then transferred to house arrest at the less visible Woodstock Manor. There, under severe restrictions, she carved one brief poem into her window’s glass with a diamond, and wrote with charcoal another, longer one onto a wooden shutter:
Oh Fortune, thy wrestling, wavering state
Hath fraught with cares my troubled wit,
Whose witness this present prison late
Could bear, where once was joy’s loan quit.
Thou caused’st the guilty to be loosed
From bands where innocents were enclosed,
And caused the guiltless to be reserved,
And freed those that death had well deserved.
But all herein can be nothing wrought,
So God send to my foes all they have taught.[ii]
Elizabeth’s, here, is another hand along the same string, gripping a bit of partly burned fire-log as pencil for the writing of one poem, for another using a diamond whose only value to her was that it could serve as a pen.
The record of women’s poems of duress circles the globe—Li Qingzhao, the most famous woman poet of Song Dynasty China, was forced into exile with her husband after their house was burned in 1126, a casualty of war. Roughly five hundred years later, the house of Anne Bradstreet (the first American poet of either sex to publish a book) also burned—in her case, by accident. Houses in poems are real, made of wood, brick, and stone; they are also, almost inevitably, tropes for the self: places of intimate, particular, bodily inhabitance, places of mediation between interior and exterior, private and public, worlds. Each woman left a record of her home’s destruction in the preservative of words, and while Bradstreet’s “Verses upon the Burning of Our House” turns by its close to the consolation of religious belief, the most moving passage for a modern reader is the poet’s account of what has been lost:
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best,
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under the roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall 'ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle 'ere shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom's voice ere heard shall bee.
In silence ever shalt thou lie.
Phoenix objects now, Anne Bradstreet’s trunk, her chest that we may guess held part of her dowry. But no, not phoenix—the tender gleam of polished wood reflecting a tallow candle here rises fragile, momentary, treasured as only the unmythical, daily, and wholly perishable can be. The repeated, mild adjective, “pleasant,” holds more pain, somehow, than any more hyperbolic grief could convey. Yet it also holds pleasure—what is tallied in this poem’s passage is joy’s loan, not only joy’s loan quit. It is captured not only in the remembrance of earlier domestic happiness. Joy, however impermanent, holds sway also in the beauty of the words themselves, in the way they are almost plain, but not. Bradstreet’s quiet metrical rhymes cup both memory and imagination’s freedom into the tongue and heartbeat’s music.
This consoling, rebalancing, restorative emplacement of experience into a form that holds shape and beauty even as it holds also grief, and pain, and loss, is no small part of what the act of art-making brings. The person writing a poem is not entirely passive before fate—and that sense of ground-level agency is a condition of the creative perhaps particularly important for women, who so often in history have found themselves plunged into powerlessness, not only by Fortune’s restlessness but by the basic circumstance of birth into cultures in which they were viewed as daughters, wives, mothers, and not persons.
And yet women—let there be no doubt of this—have always written poems, sung poems, lullabyes, love songs, prayers for the dead; have always found for the overpowerments of event and feeling the answering vessel of form. How could they not? It is what human beings do. When nothing can be controlled by will or choice or force, what is left are the powers of mind and tongue, the navigation of fate by shaped and shaping speech. Howl, chuff, cry, sigh, rasp of breath—these are the expressions of our most animal being, in pain and longing. But cry made speech, made shaped and chosen words—suddenly, under the worst circumstance, there is freedom from “worst,” because some seed core of humanness is confirmed, preserved, beyond it.
Powerlessness, then, evaporates, in the moment of making a poem. And so we can look at the Chinese characters carved into the walls of Angel Island’s immigration holding barracks, at the Japanese characters on the walls of the Manzanar internment camp, and note without surprise: they are poems. Each holding one person’s resilience and shaping spirit caught in a moment of answer, each holding the evidence of a person pressing back against unbearable circumstance until it can be borne. These poems, by men and by women, were written as Queen Elizabeth’s was, on the only paper their authors had at hand—the material walls of their own imprisonment. They are witness that certain acts of speech, however desperately born, are also unimprisonable, free, and lasting.
How often women’s fate has been to be kept from literacy, from print and writing, from publication, does not need recounting. But let us not think that to be kept from print is to be kept from the making of poems. Poems, songs, are printed on spirit, on breath, on air. Who, having once heard a spiritual, would think that women under any circumstance did not sing, together and alone? Who can forget, having once heard it, the story of the Russian dissident physicist and poet Irina Ratushinskaya, writing, in the early 1980s, 250 poems on the bars of her prison cell’s soap, then washing each one invisible to her jailors after its memorization? Tille Olsen’s book “Silences,” Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” tell necessary truths about the suppression of women writers, through history and into contemporary times. But the story of words achieved against those silencing forces is equally essential to recall.
Historian Gerda Lerner points out, in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, that the problem was not that women did not write, but that the record and knowledge of their having written kept disappearing, so that each woman who found herself writing was forced to find her own path and authority de novo. How this might happen was no single story. Lerner lists some of the possibilities: self-authorization as a mother writing letters of counsel to her children, self-authorization as a teacher, self-authorization as repository of memory, self-authorization as a mystic speaking to and of the Divine. The 17th-century Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, was an intellectual of genius seemingly from birth, exploring her grandfather’s bookshelves by age three, confident of her rightful standing though her mother was illiterate and never married any of her children’s several fathers. Sor Juana took refuge in convent life as her only viable escape from marriage. Until silenced by the authorities at the end of her life for advocating the equality of women, she wrote poetry both secular and liturgical, played and composed for musical instruments, conducted scientific experiments, and corresponded with the scholars and courtiers of two continents. But more often, within Europe’s convents and Beguinages, and within the more independent lives of the women mystic poets of what are now Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, a genuinely profound spiritual experience demanded its own recording. And so we have poems from the famous 12th-century visionary abbess Hildegard of Bingen, poems from the ecstatic 13th-century Beguine, Mechtild of Magdeburg, poems from the North Indian poets of wisdom—Lal Ded in the 1300s, and two centuries later, the vertiginous, undomesticable Mirabai.
Self-authorization arrives, too, in the undeniable overflooding of felt experience into expression; that is, by sheer force of immeasurable need and immeasurable talent. “Mine—” wrote Emily Dickinson, in the 19th century, “by the right of the White Election!”
Mine-by the Right of the White Election!
Mine-by the Royal Seal!
Mine-by the Sign in the Scarlet prison-
Bars-cannot conceal!Mine-here-in Vision-and in Veto!
Mine-by the Grave's Repeal-
Mine-long as Ages steal![iii]
Dickinson’s hand, too, holds the string that links the poems of women, however unknown to one another, throughout knowable time. And reading this poem, what was glimpsed above breaks free and clear—in the self-authorized speech of women is not only answer to prison, to loss, to death, to the multiple vetos any life imposes on the one who lives it. In poetry’s speech is also exhilaration, the joy of irrepressible making, irrepressible freedom. Dickinson may not have found publication or wide recognition in her lifetime, but she was not silenced. If we did not now have her poems, she still would not have been silenced. The greater luck, then, that the poems survived, for us to read.
“Joy’s loan,” wrote Elizabeth I, at age nineteen, conceiving of joy’s existence even in despair. Whatever appears in the psyche, in a poem, for that moment exists, and that concise and memorable phrase recalls that joy, however precarious, was once possible. We glimpse—under but also within her poem’s intricate, stitched surface and rebellious substance—that it might be again. It is, I believe, always so. To make a poem, under any circumstance, even the worst, is to be, in the making, not only free, but joyous. This does not, cannot, undo grief, but it supplements and multiplies how we are with it. The air’s oxygen opens itself in us more largely, when we are singing. In the Folger Shakespeare Library’s assembled collection of early women’s manuscripts lies the evidence that when human suffering finds its voice within poems, it finds also the measures of human joy. And further evidence, of this: find voice it always has, and always will.
[i] Excerpt from “The Hymn to Inanna”, © translation by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (NY: HarperCollins, 1994).
[ii] This poem exists in widely divergent versions. This one appears in Women Poets of the Rennaisance, ed. Marion Wynne-Davies (NY: Routledge, 1999), and elsewhere.
[iii] From The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1951, 1955, 1979).
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