Review by Silke Heiss of Letters to the World Poems from the Wom-Po Listserv (2008), edited by Moira Richards, Rosemary Starace and Lesley Wheeler, Los Angeles: Red Hen Press
It is more than a year since the perfectly named Letters to the World was born. The book emerged out of the collaborative efforts of members of the Wom-po LISTSERV, an electronic discussion group of mainly women poets, which has been going since 1997. It is of particular interest for South African literary life - the original driving force behind the book came from local Moira Richards.
Wom-po, says Moira, “lift[s] me out of the small country on the southernmost tip of Africa where I live” (p.337), and “the thing that drove/ sustained me in the beginning was the picture of this book of poems in my hand, on my shelf.” (Junctures, 10, June 2008). The group broadens her mind in the same way that Letters to the World will open doors of perception for any local reader:
Here, I catch glimpses of what it must be like to write in countries that have a single official language, in which cultural identities are self-effacing, countries that are situated on the other side of post-colonialism. (p.337)
Letters to the World is monumental, presenting a huge range of poems written by women from the screen-sized world of Wom-po (as Rosemary Starace describes it on p.216). Collectively, the anthology illustrates all the ways through the ages in which poetry has served society: some poems narrate past and present, praise, document, teach, preach, others mock, entertain, mourn, show hidden truths, share secrets, dream, prophesy, craft, play; while some preserve tradition, others experiment with forms, some are contained while others run wild, and together they sing, rage, whisper, keen, weep, wink and laugh. Most importantly, perhaps, Letters to the World acknowledges and embraces, but gives no special priority to, the female aspects expressed in the poets’ and artists’ works.
While Letters to the World contains numerous poems that address gender issues, some of which are militant, the anthology is not overloaded with this spirit. This book is, in fact, not an anthology of women poets. It is, simply, an extraordinary anthology of two hundred and fifty-nine poems, one per poet, each one inviting special focus, reflection, further exploration, thought and response. (One of the poems, as it happens, is written by a man.)
‘Politically correct’ is an interesting term. The human being is a political being – in György Lukàcs’s words, a Zoon politikon. Once upon a time it was politically correct to show reverence to kings and military leaders and to sing their praises. Now it is politically correct to adopt a pose of reverence towards peaceful, collaborative effort, and to laud the lengthy, detailed acknowledgements that often accompany such effort.
I use the term ‘pose of reverence’ provocatively, but it is not cynical. Rather, I wish to indicate the taking of positions – the unavoidable politics of being human.
The political position of a poet may well be inconsequential, but for the microscopic level. We have, for the most part, insufficient economic and military might to apply pressure in any but the most delicate of ways.
Ana Doina, however, disagrees with this view. In one of the ‘essays’, which punctuate the poems in this anthology, she says that:
Poetry has a part to play in the ethnogenesis of a group; it is still a repository for history and myth, a forger of national identities. Just think of all the national anthems […]
In the Romania under Ceausescu, Doina goes on, “poetry was a lifeline for many of us – from peasants to academics […] Verses and poems were […] our oppressed selves mocking the censors in ways no one could punish.” (p.166)
Whatever your view may be on what poetry is or is not, what it can or cannot do – you will find at least one poem or essay in this anthology to challenge your opinion.
When I hold this book, I am reminded of the behaviour of shoals of fish, or swarming insects, which organise themselves instinctively in order to preserve their kind from predators.
As I read the poems, the names of the authors recede within the swarm of words they have produced, and my mind burrows into the pages to appreciate each poem’s singularity, and its position within this (alphabetically ordered) collective buzz. Due to its thickness (454 pages in all), the anthology has a heavy body, wears powerful black, glowing red/ orange and silver colours, with a central bird-shape flapping pages of wings - providing a palisade of sorts as if to protect the poems. You don’t dare not take this book seriously! (The cover art is by one of the poets, who is also a collagist.) The spine and back cover are less fierce in gentle sandy hues. Inside, each poem and essay occupies a political position in the most positive sense of that word – armed not out of bloodthirstiness or predatory instinct, but for defence of and pleasure in the power of the creative, living self.
Although the names of poets accompany the poems, and there are little biographies at the end, there is something singularly unegoic about this anthology. It comes closest in my mind to what one might call a contemporary folk collection. Who would have thought? The term ‘folk’ has normally been reserved for oral traditions, but the book is testimony to the literacy and, indeed, formal schooling of the greatest mass of people ever in human history. And in the First World, this means thousands upon thousands of women.
The limitations of this anthology are also its strength. The contributors are for the most part deeply educated in Anglophone literature through the ages, and they all have access to the internet, that is to say, First World facilities.
Ren Powell writes from Norway that:
even after 13 years the subtext of discourse is still sometimes incomprehensible to me. Deciphering conversations peppered with cultural allusions is like trying to read around the blackened parts of a censored document […] That’s why Wom-po is important to me. It’s the link to my literary culture. (p.40)
Poets – please forgive me if I mention your names only haphazardly in this review. I shall take the point made in Biographies (p.394), where the poet complains that:
The trouble with reading a poem
by a woman is you’re always looking
behind the words for the life.
In this wonderful verbal quilt of a book, your words count for more than your names and your bios. Each poem is a drop in the wave you have made together. One poet writes that her “poetry and […] spirit do thrive in this [Wom-po] world” because:
No one sees my wheelchair, my voice software, or that I can’t hold my pencil. They see me. (p.246)
Two poems, which I read out at the weekly open-mic ‘Off The Wall’ poetry sessions in Observatory, Cape Town were well-received – Near Winter Solstice (p.51) and In the 70’s, I confused Macramé and Macabre (p.35). The latter is a profoundly funny, concrete poem, beginning like this:
I wanted the macabre plant holder
hanging in Janet and Chrissy’s apartment.
My friend said her cousin tried to kill himself
by putting his head through the patterns
in his mother’s spiderplant hanger, but
the hook broke from the ceiling and he fell
I said it could have been a very
macramé summer for the family.
Why is this profoundly funny? Because our smile is skewed. Death appears in
[t]his neighbourhood with its macramé details
crushed into the street.
The poem contains characteristics that just about all the other two hundred and fifty eight poems in this anthology share – namely, it has something to say, it shows a special sensitivity to words, it joins thought and experience, and it enables the personal to resonate with that which is greater than itself. Signs of effort towards achieving these characteristics ought perhaps to be expected of any poet – yet they are not necessarily always found.
The craft, humour, learning, candour and depth of the poets at hand is a joy to read and re-read. I wish I could give you more than tidbits –
The sky has the deep sheen
of crafted mahogany, the stars
are a multitude of fine crystal bells
he can almost hear
summoning him. (Near Winter Solstice)
On the hilltop, all around us,
Nebula, Milky Way, Orion’s Belt
close enough to unbuckle, the moon
a narrow slit made for pennies. (Nocturne, p.395)
some days my own words dissolve
in my hands, middle-aged and amazed
at where they have come from,
where they are going. My daughter,
eighteen, on her own, but connected;
my mother, seventy-eight, on her own,
still, connected; and I
in the knowledge there is no morning
I can not wake up and find the world
forever changed. (Poem at Forty-Five, p.380)
Rosemary Starace’s essay on p.398 suggests that sometimes input at Wom-po can be overwhelming, and Arielle Greenberg says she has “felt bogged down by the size and volume of the list” (p.120). Any reader holding the weighty Letters to the World is most likely able to sympathise with such feelings. Yet, despite or because of this, and despite or because of the fact that process is more important than product at Wom-po (as the editors testify), there is extraordinary focus and skill in poems such as Letter for Emily Dickinson (p.145), First Deep Breath (p.156), Long Overdue Note to my College Professor (p.167), Looking Back Up the Hospital Drive (p.288), April Again (p.333), The Paper-Wasp (p.389), and Advice for Women (p.399) – to name a few.
Although the poems are arranged arbitrarily according to authors’ surnames, there are ‘happy pairs’ and even ‘gatherings’. For example, Ren Powell’s essay, mentioned earlier, on writing from the enclave of an American living abroad is faced on the opposite page with this suggestive Haiku:
Beyond the window
a garden blooms in full sun –
fly beating the glass. (p.41)
After Astounding Evil, the Promise of More to Come (p.144) with its deliberate echo of Dickinson’s After Great Pain A Formal Feeling Comes, is faced with Letter for Emily Dickinson (p.145). Splitting Oaks (p.282), a poem about Cabeza de Vaca, is looking at Waitress (p.283), who, as it happens, is serving Spaniards. A trivial coincidence, perhaps, but still satisfying. Lost Things (p.132) reminds the reader of the costs of loss and ends with the words:
The cost is a multitude of goodbyes
spent for each surprising, certain leaving.
These words resonate strangely – because unintentionally – with the subsequent poem, The Farmer’s Daughter; or Persephone’s Return (p.133), in which the daughter gives her body to some boys to help pay for the farm - “She will endure.” As if it had ‘heard’ the cost of loss, and of the farmer’s daughter’s sacrifice, the poem after that, Questions Midway (p.134), wants
a voice I’ve never heard
to speak in a language that has no word
for sadness. When will I learn?
And quite by chance, the poem after Questions Midway, Drought, 1937 (p.135), offers such learning from a 67-year-old:
I should have known
the winter I was 17 – four night-blue crows
on the snowy fence rail. Bad luck.
Instead, I thought how beautiful they are,
the way the years transform
become all sooty-voiced and magpie,
their clever thieving, me reflected
in the cooled lava of their eyes.
Losses caused by social and political evil is a recurring theme in the book. After Astounding Evil, the Promise of More to Come (p.144) does not make any definite reference to the evil of the title. The poem searches for an impersonal end to humanity – such as any natural disaster – a split glacier washing us away, or a meteorite obliterating everything at once, rather than
[…] this unabating terror that we inhabit
our jaws clenched, our necks twisted and stiff
from turning to see behind our backs, night and day.
I may be wrong, but these words suggest to me that the evil in the title is terrorism (not unlikely the events of 9/11).
Isn’t It Enough (p.188) gives voice to the destruction of the spirit by war (the poet is Iranian), and offers a piercingly sad ‘solution’ to trauma – the poet gives up love “being satisfied with the quiet of shadows/ and memories”, because:
Time was past, lost,
by the rain of bombs.
I don’t brush my dreams any more.
The replacement of ‘teeth’ by ‘dreams’ in a single terrible instant expresses the traumatic effects of war.
ode to jasmine (p.108), by contrast, is patriotic, singing of a connection to Palestine – “a lover/ whose lips are jasmine […] i even love you from abroad.” War in the beloved country is not mentioned directly, but the fragrant flower conceals something:
[…] in palestine
the scent of death
Lights Across the Dead Sea (p.339) engages directly, similarly wistful, with a Palestinian lover of the land:
Imagine, I said, if those hills
were still ours.
The poet’s verbal dexterity shocks and hurts as it exposes the awful details of war:
white bolts of bandaged
morning still trembling
on their lips,
their grassy lashes glaring
across makeshift coffins
Four November 9ths (p.244) is an autobiographical poem in which the poet – who is Jewish-American - reflects on her birth on Kristallnacht – something which she only became aware of on her 50th birthday. The poem quite deliberately and laboriously cranes from one significant November 9th to the next, as if sympathetically re-enacting the difficulties (which Primo Levi describes in The Drowned and the Saved) experienced by many holocaust victims to go back in the past and piece together fragments of memory - because “it was evidently not a thing/ to be remembered or told […] It is not a simple matter, the birthday, or the telling”.
Our politically correct position is that of the defeated, wounded one rising out of the ashes against all war-mongers. But in the context of war and post-war poems such as the above, the ‘essay’ Medicate Specific (p.157) confuses us:
Please forgive me, I will kill and I will kill again and it will be legal, it will be the “enemy,” it will disable, destroy, shock, decivilize, I did not choose the specific consequences, but I do medicate the specific, with wine, with pill with needle with anything to shut out the wound of the wounding. No history will absolve me, no history cares for me, do you care for me, do you love me. Say yes, say yes, say yes.
Who says yes? That is the question. Romanian Village (p.122) provides an answer, as follows.
In this narrative poem, the poet and her brother are sent to fetch clay for their potter uncle, and find a several days’ dead soldier at the edge of the village. Although he could have been and most likely was an enemy, the unknown man is buried respectfully by the villagers in a “mixed ceremony with prayer words/ from all the Christian rites”. The next day, the uncle and the children finally get the clay. This poem tells a powerful story with a powerful meaning, affirming the gentle but potent integrity at the heart of all creation – “this must be the best clay in the world”.
The village setting in the above poem is unusual in the anthology, where most of the settings are interiors both literal and figurative. Liesl Jobson’s Vocal Warm-Up at the Co-op (p.211) reveals its South African origins by means of Afrikaans words and names. The poem itself pants out a full-stop-less blast of painful details from a daughter buying Tylenol for her mentally ill mother – but for the local references, this could be happening anywhere. Eastern Cape poet Crystal Warren’s delicate Body of Glass (p.375) transcends geographical boundaries even more decisively – the poem describes the feeling of body and perception not being in proper alignment, and is set in the mental plane:
The edges of my identity blur:
always an image, evading an answer.
Is this who I really am?
There are lemons, guavas and “the dark rouge of hills” in Lights Across the Dead Sea (p.339), and a “shoreline of coconut trees” in Last Aerogramme to You, with Lizard (p.285) – but apart from these and few other exceptions, the letters in Letters to the World come from the classic north: from ice, snow, and wintry cold; the writers either watching or using as symbols swallow, robin, finch, mockingbird and bear; places of moss, fern, pecan tree, red willow, rosebush, birch. There is Boston, buffalo grass, a porch, the prairie, San Francisco, California, New Orleans. Cotton, tobacco, sugar cane and, inevitably, slaves.
Reparations on p.138 gives voice to History’s Accusations and expresses unhealed, perhaps unhealable wounds. If white people have the same name as the speaker’s wife, the poem reports, then the white people say:
Oh, we must be related.
Yes, I say. Your family owned her family.
They always fall silent. They always walk away.
Deema K. Sheema’s essay on p.110 expresses similar feelings of personal divisions due to historical violations, and questions the “seductive humanist agenda” of Wom-po:
As a Muslim-Palestinian woman living under the nauseating grip of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab hysteria, can I really enter the realm of sisterhood with Western women poets?
Sheema answers her own question by proposing that liberation around the world is interconnected. But Mendi Obadike on p.137 doubts what intellectual debate on inequality can really achieve. She puts it bluntly:
I did not want to get entangled in one of those neverending conversations that have been wearing out black women in predominantly white women’s circles for longer than I’ve been alive.
I daresay that poems on these matters, on the other hand, do not wear one out – not when they are "grow[n …] from a need” (quoted from possibilities of poetry, upon her death, p.341).
And the Shoes Will Take Us There in Spite of the Circumference (p.257), for example, is a poem about a very different kind of oppression – that of a layperson violated by a selfish, insensitive professional. In the first, prosaic, rhythmically irregular stanza, a son is diagnosed with some kind of developmental delay or disorder. In the second, one-line stanza, son and mother walk out of the therapist’s door – straight into the third stanza and an embrace, which literally explodes into colour, sound, shape, and feeling. The words themselves become protectors of love - conquering judgment, harshness and cruelty in a
Mass of sunlight wrapped around our legs
Poetry conquers all doorkeepers who say you can’t – this is the message of the superb satirical poem, Illegal Entry (pp.112-3), in which the ice booms function as doorkeepers of poems crossing national boundaries, in order to protect the “native poets”. Yet words slide “willy-nilly across our/ ice boom”, but are warned that if they make any further attempts “they will be forced/ back upon the internet where they will languish/ unseen”.
One of the most interesting and heartrending poems on the problem of otherness is the poem, Otherness, in this anthology. It offers a deeply psychological take on the various faces this woman must present: writer, neighbour, friend, daughter, black poet, mother, cook. Yet she is masked by all these, until her son detects her in a sudden recognition of her own body language –
[…] (a front
can lie; a back always tells. He walks around the back of me
to find the face. […]
[…] pulls me eye-to-his-eye,
asks the face: Mommy, are you there?
The theme in a noticeable number of poems in Letters to the World is poetry, language, verbal expression, and writing. A few examples are: A Portmanteau Kind of Quiet Evening Filled with Exit Words (p.60), The Throat Singers (p.118), One-Book Poet (p.227), The Mother Maker (p.306), The Text is Dead – Long Live the Text (p.309), Lost in Translation (p.361), Rules of Contact (p.371) Open Stage (p.404). These poems prove the fact that Wom-po is “a community of voices across the planet, each of us a unique person, yet all joined together by words” (p.296) in a marriage of true minds (this is Charlotte Mandel’s quotation from p.264).
The book is a poetry festival created for the love of poetry. It is neither establishment nor anti-establishment – what poet can thrive in such mental cages? The writers’ words interact not only with each other, but with art, and past myths and texts – such as Poem for my mother who wishes she were a lilypad in a Monet painting (p.114), Chagall’s Windows (p.115), the excellent Untitled (p.352) (on a photograph by Man Ray), the marvellous Female Comic Book Superheroes (p.159) in which “tiny ankles thwack/ against the bulk of male thugs”, Note to my College Professor (p.167) (which works with astonishing skill and feeling with W.B. Yeats), Helen with Insomnia at the Clavier (p.225), the wry The Expulsion (p.303), April, Again (p.333) (superbly intertexting with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound), Harborview (p.345) and the simply lovely The Sun Quite Bride (p.349) (playing with echoes of Cummings) – to name a few.
April, Again begins with the line, “The most brutal movie I ever saw”, which echoes “April is the cruellest month” – but unlike Eliot’s speaker, who acidly scorns the myth of regeneration in The Burial of the Dead, this poet is not a mere observer, but a participant, deadly alive, so to speak, in the very middle of life:
My fists are clusters of blossoms,
and inside them, the stone knuckles
with whatever flesh will adhere,
adhering. Yes, I am old enough
to discuss April with a certain
earned authority: how pale petals
on the cherry tree guess nothing
about the hard pit.
Lines such as the above cannot have grown but from thoughts carefully cultivated over years and I bend my head in respect.
Yes, the reader can learn much from these poets. With First Deep Breath (p.156) I was introduced to the “mason sonnet” – something I had never heard of till then. It comes across as almost archaically beautiful in its finely crafted, reserved rhyming structure. On another page I find Number Four is Heroin (p.85) – I did not know that about number four! The poem brings back words, dripping with beauty, from a drug trip:
Every note I deliver disengaged from its chord
hovers, soaked, in its own honey ochre over
The salted city, and sails the musical salt sea of myself.
This beautiful mess of mainline I’ve made is mine.
There are poems of course also on sex, sexuality and femaleness. Of Hollywood (p.106), Meadowbrooks Sapphics (p.165), The Meal (p.215), The Sun Quite Bride (p.349) and Kind Thoughts (p.350) are but a few of these. New Breast (p.222) is so moving that I cried. On the other side of age, the less crafted, but clear-sighted Annealing (p.220) captures something of inexperience and its fear, almost, of knowledge:
At the treshold of adulthood,
years of loving, tender rearing
suddenly stolen by secret demons
silently loitering inside the mind, and the
final moment of creation goes awry.
There are naturally moments in this anthology where poetic creation has gone somewhat awry. There are poems which appeal to me less, because their ideas seem more idle, their words less inspired, less carefully chosen, or stuck in pedantic journalism, their emotions or subject matter inadequately understood – but these vulnerable and less tended specimens are almost hidden in the skirts of the myriad and kept safe, as it were, as poems in process, still unfolding, perhaps to fade, serving for the moment to highlight the many instances of poetic mastery.
Finally, there are the numerous cameos, the ‘inbetween’ poems - a treasure-house of gems. The ones I haven’t named, that slip between my themes. Don’t let them get away. Give this book to yourself or another. Live with it. And if you are an English student or lecturer, pester the curriculum designer until your department has its own Letters to the World to pore over and over again. At $19 on Amazon, it should still be affordable for many of us.
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