Poem of the Week: Women’s Day Edition

“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

– Virginia Woolf

Women have always told stories, speaking folklore, reciting poetry. They’ve often stood behind male writers in the records of literary history, overlooked or anonymous, save for the lucky ones who were able to shine on their own terms. The fight for civil rights has been a long one, and International Women’s Day is here to celebrate female accomplishments and promote social awareness. This post is to showcase a few of the many worthy feminist poets who have cried out their strength and have written out our power.

Maya Angelou. Dorothy Parker. Margaret Atwood. Kishwar Naheed. Nellie Wong. Audre Lorde.

Still I Rise
By Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

 

Song of Perfect Propriety
by Dorothy Parker

Oh, I should like to ride the seas,
A roaring buccaneer;
A cutlass banging at my knees,
A dirk behind my ear.
And when my captives’ chains would clank
I’d howl with glee and drink,
And then fling out the quivering plank
And watch the beggars sink.

I’d like to straddle gory decks,
And dig in laden sands,
And know the feel of throbbing necks
Between my knotted hands.
Oh, I should like to strut and curse
Among my blackguard crew….
But I am writing little verse,
As little ladies do.

Oh, I should like to dance and laugh
And pose and preen and sway,
And rip the hearts of men in half,
And toss the bits away.
I’d like to view the reeling years
Through unastonished eyes,
And dip my finger-tips in tears,
And give my smiles for sighs.

I’d stroll beyond the ancient bounds,
And tap at fastened gates,
And hear the prettiest of sound-
The clink of shattered fates.
My slaves I’d like to bind with thongs
That cut and burn and chill….
But I am writing little songs,
As little ladies will.

 

Helen of Troy does Countertop Dancing
by Margaret Atwood

The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look–my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

 

We Sinful Women
by Kishwar Naheed

It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

who don’t sell our lives
who don’t bow our heads
who don’t fold our hands together.

It is we sinful women
while those who sell the harvests of our bodies
become exalted
become distinguished
become the just princes of the material world.

It is we sinful women
who come out raising the banner of truth
up against barricades of lies on the highways
who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.

It is we sinful women.
Now, even if the night gives chase
these eyes shall not be put out.
For the wall which has been razed
don’t insist now on raising it again.

It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

who don’t sell our bodies
who don’t bow our heads
who don’t fold our hands together.

 

My Eyes Follow Them
By Nellie Wong

My eyes follow them
Women in Burqas of gold, cream, blue,
Burgundy, women unseen, traveling
to a wedding party to somewhere
In Kandahar
How do I know that they are women
Except that only women wear Burqas,
Covered from head to foot with squares
Of opening, netted or crocheted,
Framing their eyes
And even in their embroidered beauty
The intricate stitching of the covers
Over their heads do not distract

My eyes follow them
Children in cotton in colors of birds
Their eyes fixed on the unseen viewer,
Their eyes follow the camera
Aimed at their foreheads, throats
The girls are not covered up
Like their grandmothers, mothers, aunts
Until one day as they approach
Womanhood, then too they would wear
Burqas, then too, they will remain
Invisible and still my eyes follow them

A woman hands a lipstick to her sister
Who runs a slash of berry red across
Her unseen lips because in their Burqas,
To these watching eyes
Beauty blossoms, beauty blossoms
In secret salons, in homes, where women
Carry out rituals, who teach
Girl children to read Arabic
Who resist the law handed down
By men demanding invisibility
As their right

My eyes follow them, the men hobbling
On one leg, their crutches become wings
As they rush in unison toward
A helicopter dropping prosthetics
Prosthetics in pairs floating
From parachutes, dropping
Onto the land, dry, barren
When one thump or hop
Could explode a landmine

My eyes follow the woman, a journalist
Named Nafas, in her Burqa
Disguised as the fourth wife
Of a man who rides with his family
Ostensibly to Kandahar
Nafas searches for her sister
Whose legs have been blown off
Left years ago in Kandahar
Who has threatened
To kill herself rather than live
Under control
Of the Taliban

My eyes follow them, the woman
Surrounded by her children
Whose hunger gnaws
At a sandwich made of grass
The father knows it’s only
A matter of time as winter descends
Over the land, as tons of wheat
Are hoarded by warlords
That death may be a gift
That death may be better
Than starving
These eyes absorb, penetrate
These eyes remember
The bound feet of my aunt
In Oakland’s Chinatown, this woman
Whose movement was restricted
From her girlhood in China
All the way to the United States
These eyes ferret the unknown
The hidden, the unseen faces,
Shapes of their jaws
Mouth, arms, bodies, legs
Of the women in Burqas
Whose passion for movement
Remains unknowable
Whose spirit thrives
At the thought of wheat
They could pound into flour
Who long for the sun
To find them unafraid
And daring, daring
To read the newspapers
Listen to the radio watch television
Walk the streets run the land
Dancing as women as sisters
Beckoning in the heart of darkness
As the eyes split open
Their ankles glistening with truth

 

A Woman Speaks
by Audre Lorde

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did
mourning.

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
promised
I am
woman
and not white.

 

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