It is Sunday, March 8, 2015, a day the United Nations and much of the world recognizes as International Women’s day; a day acknowledging the work and trials of women globally and geared towards gender equality, and women’s empowerment.
Rising out of women’s struggles, upheavals and victories; the symbolic day continues to foster awareness of the invaluable contributions of women globally, as well as to the ills that continue to affect us. All across the world, individuals and groups are celebrating the legacy that is woman; her wide and varied contributions, while also protesting; calling for improvements in every facet her life.
The Woman as Writer
Today we know a vast cadre of women writers; their perspectives on life, their diverse output as well as the sensitivity and power with which they navigate the documentation of life, holding a rich and important place in our literary heritage, and indeed, in how we understand and see the world.
From having to write under male pseudonyms, to freely writing and publishing, to not being content with simply expressing the expected; we continue to see expanded perspectives and increased output from our women writers. Many of these writers have made it their life’s work to, through their writing and performance, empower and uplift fellow women, while exploring writing for its creative allowances.
Today as we celebrate the powerhouse that is woman, we look at the work of some noted female poets. The featured works in some instances cover the writers’ perspectives and concerns on general themes, and in others look at ideas specific to being woman.
Audre Lorde, U.S.A.
Audre Lorde was a poet, teacher and activist. Her poetry, and much of her writing, has been said to, “ring with passion, sincerity, perception, and depth of feeling.” Regarded highly for her activism, Lorde’s work has been catalogued in journals, magazines and in her numerous collections of poems, and academic writing.
In For All Of You, one of her most well known poems, Lorde calls the woman out of her skin, sets her free and challenges her to explore the vast territories that exist within her landscape. The piece hits home with its vivid imagery and strong charges.
For All Of You
Be who you are and will be
learn to cherish
that boisterous Black Angel that drives you
up one day and down another
protecting the place where your power rises
running like hot blood
from the same source
as your pain.When you are hungry
learn to eat
whatever sustains you
but do not be misled by details
simply because you live them.
Do not let your head deny
any memory of what passes through them
not your eyes
nor your heart
everything can be used
except what is wasteful
(you will need
to remember this when you are accused of destruction.
Even when they are dangerous examine the heart of those machines you hate
before you discard them
and never mourn the lack of their power
lest you be condemned
to relieve them.
If you do not learn to hate
you will never be lonely
to love easily
nor will you always be brave
although it does not grow any easier.Do not pretend to convenient beliefs
even when they are righteous
you will never be able to defend your city
Remember whatever pain you bring back
from your dreaming
but do not look for new gods
in the sea
nor in any part of a rainbow
Each time you love
love as deeply as if it were
only nothing is
Speak proudly to your children
where ever you may find them
you are offspring of slaves
and your mother was
– Audre Lorde, from Collected Poems of Audre Lorde(1997)
Cherry Natural, Jamaica
The author of two collections of poems; Come Meck We Reason, 1989 and Earth Woman, 2003, Cherry Natural has also produced two poetry albums. Known for her rebel energy and lively performances, Natural’s work is richly political, with calls primarily for the upliftment of women. Aside from her work in poetry writing and performance, she is a martial artist, motivational speaker and women’s rights activist.
In I’m Walking Out of Your Jail Tonight, Natural comes face to face with physical and mental oppressors; taking a firm stand in her liberation, and encouraging others to do the same.
I’m Walking Out of Your Jail Tonight
Take a good look at me, make a mental picture.
Capture all the details and put them on your computer.
I’m walking out of you jail tonight.
Yes, I’m walking out of your jail tonight.
I’m gonna break those bars and set myself free.
Hire all the security you can,
Give them you weapon of destruction
That wont stop me
I’m walking of your jail tonight
Yes, I’m walking out of your jail tonight.
You’ve had your time and that’s enough.
I’m giving you back your colonial attitudes
I’m giving you back your man-made rules
Take your laws out of my life,
Your standards are not mine,
If it’s the last thing I be I’m gonna be me,
This spirit of mine must be free
So I’m walking out of your jail tonight
Yes, I’m walking out of your jail tonight
I’m leaving the things you used to control my mind behind
You use me with your greed, your hate
Your guns, your drugs, and your jealousy
Making me into the people’s enemy
I will take no more, no more
I’m walking out of your jail tonight
Yes, I’m walking out of your jail tonight
No amount of money can stop me
True wealth goes beyond possession
Call me insane, this time I won’t complain
Madness has a way of freeing the soul
One more black woman is gonna be free
I’m walking out of your jail tonight
– Cherry Natural © from Earth Woman, 2003
Gwendolyn Brooks, U.S.A.
Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly recognized poet, and the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. Many of her works engender a political consciousness, particularly those from the 1960s onwards, with numerous pieces documenting the civil rights work of the period. She has published 16 books, among them; poetry, children’s verse, writing manuals, one novel and an autobiography, and is said to have, ” bridged the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young black militant writers of the 1960s.”
Brooks, as in much of her work, seeks to lift up the woman in To Black Women. It calls in quick, clear lines, for women to surpass and “prevail” in spite of life’s challenges and persistent oppressors.
To Black Women
where there is cold silence–
no hallelujahs, no burrahs at all, no handshakes,
no neon red or blue, no smiling faces,
Prevail across the editors of the world
who are obsessed, self-honeying and self-crowned
in the seduced arena.
It has been a
hard trudge, with fainting, bandaging and death.
There have been startling confrontations.
There have been tramplings. Tramplings
of monarchs and of other men.
But there remain large countries in your eyes.
The civil balance.
The listening secrets.
And you create and trail your flowers still.
– Gwendolyn Brooks (c), from Blacks, 1987
Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Jamaica
Said to be the first female dub poet, Jamaican writer Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze has had a rich and vibrant career of writing, performance and teaching, serving also in the capacities of choreographer, and theatre director. She has performed and taught globally and is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including; Ryddim Ravings and other poems, 1988, The Fifth Figure, 2006 and Third World Girl: Selected Poems , 2011. Producing seven poetry albums, Breeze has been called, “one of the most important, influential performance poets of recent years.”
In the poem Natural High, Breeze in very short lines, paints a crisp, clear picture of her mother and the intricate details; the important elements and habits of her life.
My mother is a
on clean children
over dirty habits
hits the sky
on bad lines
with the sun.
– Jean “Binta” Breeze (c), from Heinmann Book of Caribbean Poetry, 1992
Lorna Goodison, Jamaica
Among the most recognized of Caribbean poets, and with vast global impact, Jamaican Lorna Goodison was first painter before venturing into writing and teaching. Now, her catalog of publications is a weighty offering of poetry, including Tamarind Season (1980), Heartease (1988), Goldengrove (2006) prose-fiction, among them; Fool-fool-Rose Is Leaving Labour In Vain Savannah (2005), , as well as, From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People (2007), a memoir. The Hanover-born writer captures the rich dynamics of rural life, the sensitivities and cares of women, while also maintaining the crafty humour for which Jamaicans are known. Her work has a truly healing quality, and we get a sense of closeness between the writer and her varying subjects, so much so, that the reader also becomes interwoven and impacted by the work themselves.
Goodison channels the Caribbean/Jamaican/ancestral woman in Where I Come From, cementing her as healer, woman of mystery and mystical power.
Where I Come From
Where I come from,
old women bind living words
across their flat chests,
inscribe them on their foreheads,
and in the palms of their hands.
If you don’t have the eye
to you they just look like
third world women with nothing much.
Under their clothes
on white calico belly bands,
they have transcribed ancient texts
which soak into their stretched loins;
and when they seek cures for you,
their whitlow fingers braille-read
from the base of their bellies.
– Lorna Goodison(c) , from Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems (2006)
Louise Bennett Coverley, Jamaica
The mother of Jamaican folklore, Louise Bennett Coverley, affectionately known as Miss Lou, is a household name. Known for her vibrant spirit and work in broadcasting, theatre and poetry, Bennett Coverley, has authored several collections of poetry, including Jamaica Labrish (1966), and Selected Poems (1982). She has produced several records and cassettes, among them, Yes M’Dear and Miss Lou’s Views, and is known best for chronicling Jamaican culture in the nation’s native tongue, being somewhat of a pioneer in that regard.
Jamaica Oman, presents, in true Miss Lou and Jamaican style, the state of Jamaican women’s liberation, proposing, somewhat in jest, how men have been allowed to think women not liberated. Presented in Jamaican patois, the piece calls women ‘cunny’ (or cunnin.g) for ‘allowing’ this to take place, but does so not in a damning way, but rather with some playfulness, solidifying the woman as awake and present in her power.
Jamaica oman cunny, sah!
Is how dem jinnal so?
Look how long dem liberated
An de man dem never know!
Look how long Jamaica oman
— Modder, sister, wife, sweetheart —
Outa road an eena yard deh pon
A dominate her part!
From Maroon Nanny teck her body
Bounce bullet back pon man,
To when nowadays gal-pickney tun
From de grass root to de hill-top,
In profession, skill an trade,
Jamaica oman teck her time
Dah mount an meck de grade.
Some backa man a push, some side-a
Man a hole him han,
Some a lick sense eena man head,
Some a guide him pon him plan!
Neck an neck an foot an foot wid man
She buckle hole her own;
While man a call her “so-so rib’
Oman a tun backbone!
An long before Oman Lib bruck out
Over foreign lan
Jamaica female wasa work
Her liberated plan!
Jamaica oman know she strong,
She know she tallawah,
But she no want her pickney-dem
Fi start call her ‘Puppa’.
So de cunny Jamma oman
Gwan like pants-suit is a style,
An Jamaica man no know she wear
De trousiz all de while!
So Jamaica oman coaxin
Fambly budget from explode
A so Jamaica man a sing
‘Oman a heaby load!’
But de cunny Jamma oman
Ban her belly, bite her tongue,
Ketch water, put pot pon fire
An jus dig her toe a grung.
For ‘Oman luck deh a dungle’,
Some rooted more dan some,
But as long as fowl a scratch dungle heap
Oman luck mus come!
Lickle by lickle man start praise her,
Day by day de praise a grow;
So him praise her, so it sweet her,
For she wonder if him know.
– Louise Bennett, fromHeinmann Book of Caribbean Poetry (1992)
Maya Angelou, U.S.A.
Known for her work in women’s empowerment, American teacher, activist and poet Maya Angelou’s distinct voice still resonates throughout her poems. She is known best for poems such as Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise, and is author of the bestselling books, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, and The Heart of a Woman, as well as several collections of poetry. Renowned globally, Angelou has touched many with her distinct, subtle, yet potent calls to action, remaining a personal hero to many.
Much like Phenomenal Woman, Woman Me is a detailed tracing of the physical and non-physical traits of the woman. An empowering piece to its end; Angelou achieves effectiveness from a perceptive eye, a keen understanding and appreciation for the sacred role of the woman, embodying that sacredness in the language used.
Your smile, delicate
rumor of peace.
Deafening revolutions nestle in the
Beggar-Kings and red-ringed Priests
seek glory at the meeting
of your thighs.
A grasp of Lions. A lap of Lambs.
Your tears, jeweled
strewn a diadem
caused Pharaohs to ride
deep in the bosom of the
Nile. Southern spas lash fast
their doors upon the night when
winds of death blow down your name
A bride of hurricane. A swarm of summer wind.
Your laughter, pealing tall
above the bells of ruined cathedrals.
Children reach between you teeth
for charts to live heir lives.
A stomp of feet. A bevy of swift hands.
– Maya Angelou, from The Complete Works of Maya Angelou (1994)
Velma Pollard, Jamaica
Velma Pollard is a Jamaican poet, writer and academic. In addition to her academic works, she has published several collections of poetry including Crown Point: And Other Poems (1988), Shame Trees Don’t Grow Here (1991), The Best Philosophers I Know Can’t Read or Write (2001) and Leaving Traces (2007). She has two collections of short stories: Karl and Other Stories (1993) and Considering Woman (1989). The novella, Karl, later collected in Karl and Other Stories, won the 1992 Casa de las Americas prize. She has also published a novel: Homestretch (1994).
In Sea Wall, part one of the three part poem, Belize Suite, Pollard occupies the role of ;seer woman’. In a perceptive negotiation with mortality and the passage of time, she summons solidarity in vivid images.
I – Sea Wall
Only a gentle swish
Where waves would touch the land
no wind no turbulence
along this wall arranged by man
dividing land from sea
No cruise-ships light this harbour end to end
only that cluster
where the army lights
ride there at achor…
cool darkness and deluding calm
houses sit silent near the water’s edge
their calm precarious like our peace
hoisted on stilts
like mokojumbies in the carnival
listening the ocean’s gentle r murmur
hearing its angry wail
what seems like decades now
when death rode loud and furious
on the hissing waves
From storm and earthquake Lord
– Velma Pollard, from Heinmann Book of Caribbean Poetry (1992)
We see in the work of these writers, and in the written work of women generally; layered experiences, a penchant for tapping into the heart of things, as well as for taking on rebel roles. We witness a diversity of feeling, a range of concerns; a binding to family and home and still an innate inkling for telling their respective truths and for seeing unity and improvements globally.
The woman is as much rebel as nurturer, her stories and voice as relevant today as ever.