Can you hear her? And if you can, which voice, which her? She is daughter, sister, mother. She is girl and she is woman. She is friend, wife, mistress. She’s a body, or she’s a name. She’s a rose by any other, yet no one can recall the colour of her words or the scent of her dreams. She is everything…and/or/but she is nothing.
I’m a female author, performer, publisher – among many other roles and epithets that might be used. Even as a writer, I am a poet, fiction writer, journalist, essayist, editor… Sometimes I feel like I have so many different hats on in daily life that no hatstand could hold them without toppling. And yet, still I stand here, in a mostly upright if not entirely unwarped stance.
I’m not alone in this multiplicity. Society demands different faces in different places, particularly in a multi-facetted fast-paced modern western lifestyle. Advertising and social media alone are a 24-7 cacophony of voices.
But where does this leave me, and other women, in the multitude of roles we play and the stereotypes around us?
Many of my roles and adopted epithets aren’t directly in my control. Jobs and personas have been pushed onto me by others’ deliberation, circumstances, chance or fate. How I’m described is also usually as much about the person describing me as it is about me, the person described.
For what it’s worth, I’ve often thought of myself as a paper mâché woman, created and re-created over the years from fragments of heard and observed voices, stereotypes, pressures and expectations.
Perhaps the biggest role model I can pinpoint in my own life is my mum – a strong and caring woman, a woman with great intelligence but who’s always put family first. She installed a strong sense of individual worth in me. Even as a child I never wanted to be anyone else, only to change parts of me – to be prettier, more popular, thinner, cleverer, more confident… But these internally desired upgradings to my body and character were, and still are, driven by a sense of external expectations.
These include the idealised women portrayed on screen, in advertising and of celebrity status around me. But my sphere of influences also extends to the wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, nymphs, goddesses…in myth, literature and art. Then there are the stories passed on from woman to woman – some bitching maybe, gossiping too, but also the real tales of pain and survival.
Putting my feminist pamphlet How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press, 2018) together, I decided to use poems in the third and second person rather than the first person. One of many reasons behind this was the sense that who I have become is a sum of many third-person influences, descriptions and potential role models, as well as the second person advice given to me at various times in my life.
I’ve written a number of poems over the years about matryoshka nesting dolls. The way one doll rests inside makes a strong analogy for any aspects of layered personality and life. I also visualise it as generations of women fitting around each other – each one superficially similar yet hopefully growing bigger and stronger than the generation before.
The pamphlet’s opening poem ‘Matryoshka portrait’ has this analogy in the background but is also about my sense that women can be as responsible as men for propagating certain stereotypes about female existence. Also, how easy it is to jump to potentially wrong conclusions – in this case about the painter of this picture.
“And the open mouth, like she’d swallow
anything whole. Eyes cast down.”
‘Fashion Chains’ is a three-part sequence influenced both by and against Sylvia Plath. I don’t altogether like or easily read some of Plath’s work. But I admire the boldness. It’s hard to be a female poet, writing about women’s life and mental health issues without feeling Plath there, sometimes in a good way but also as a shadow or a yardstick to be measured against and fail. (Saying this isn’t to ignore many other important female poets, simply that there are too many to list here, and this poem in particular is influenced by Plath.)
“ i) A la mode/model
At night, shop windows un-
dress: chemo flesh revealed
in the glare of strip lighting.”
The first part of the sequence imagines fashion-store shop windows at night – a kind of contemporary version of Plath’s ‘The Munich Mannequins’, focussing on the unhealthy and objectivising aspects of fashion. The second part moves focus from the plastic models to the shop-window glass and part-reflections – ghost-like but sunlight sheering off too, like a photographer’s flash-bulb, perhaps. Also, for me, an awareness of the fast pace and transient/disposable nature of modern life, and how easy it is to not look carefully and to miss things in not doing so, the surface level potentially becoming all there is. The third part then takes the text of Plath’s ‘The Munich Mannequins’ and strips away some of the words. Symbolically, what is left might be rain on glass, sunlight glancing off the shop window, the plastic model without its clothes, the bare bones of society, or… I hope that this sequence, like the other poems, will allow for these possibilities but also be open to other interpretations, personal to each individual reader.
The pamphlet’s title poem ‘How to grow matches’ was first published in the ‘revolution’ themed edition of Magma magazine.
“Note how easily the wood splits
after years of hidden anger.”
The poem is advice from an imaginary female revolutionary leader. It imagines how, matchstick by lit matchstick, years of sexual bias in the work-place might build up to a fiery backlash. (A bit like the #metoo campaign, though this poem was written before that, and workplace gender politics feels a perpetual concern.)1
‘American dream’ is my interpretation of the many hidden (and not-so-hidden!) messages capitalism tries to sell: “The ad board called this hoard a bargain / promised a lifetime of cheap happiness.”
I chose the form of an alphabet (a-z) poem based on the childhood memory teaching game ‘I went to the shops today and bought…’ for many reasons. Not least, the fact that manipulative advertising and social propaganda has been around in many guises for years. It often seems that those seeking to control in this way might stop at nothing and target any age, even potentially masquerading in children’s stories and games in order to work their way into subconscious memory and adult outlooks.
“and in her trolley she bought:
an apple, & ambition;
baby milk & a burnt-ochre bra;
cocoa & cotton / fresh with sisters’ sweat;
diet food & dumbbells…”
First published in Oxford Poetry, ‘Family trees’ is a sequence that imagines how advice passed on through three different generations of women might change. To create this Chinese whisper effect, I started with one version of the text and then used a Oulipo generator to substitute the nouns with those a different number of words forward in the dictionary. I choose my personal favourites (or those I felt most apt) to create the other two parts of the sequence. This mirrors my belief that people may often take on the things they want to hear, but ignore or subvert the rest, partly in keeping with the cultural and societal setting of the time.
“This is our life, our time of metro chic,
my mezzo-soprano, pyjamaed against kids.
With a clover lust and love,
I chant him…”
Whether the changes I’ve envisioned over this time are positive, or realistic, is a topic that might provoke debate!
‘Atomic’ is based around stories – true or not – that I’ve heard about past generations’ marriages. It’s powered by the idea that the relationship which lies below the surface may be very different to how it appears.
“Their room is filled with an arrhythmia
of out-of-sync ticking; hands turn
the same angles at different rates.”
But rough edges and apparent incompatibilities can still make for a long marriage, though there may be compromises on the way. This is a poem not so much of opposites attract as opposites get by, finding or creating their own moments of atomic rhythm within this.
As Philip Larkin reminds memorably in ‘This Be The Verse’2, parents have a lot to answer for in terms of the people that we become. The griefs and inheritances that women carry with them in life come as much from their fathers as the female generations before. ‘His Secret Daughter’ imagines this with the added burden that the illegitimate child of the infamous Midas might bear.
“Her natural inheritance – nose, eyes,
the tight-lipped Midas smile –
overshadowed by her dad’s fingertip trail:”
Of course, this female character is my own invention. What myth makes of women is often not the same as the status given to male characters. If my heroine had existed (been considered worthy of existing) in the original story, it would no doubt only have been so in relationship to Midas – significant solely in her role as his daughter. Arguably, I don’t challenge this in my poem; I too highlight her in the daughter role. But, as humans, we all exist in relationship to each other. It’s just that history seems to give so many more dominating male characters’ tales rather than it does herstories. And, like it or not, this leaves marks, the past is part of our present, though we try to move on, forward, upwards…hopefully!
‘First Thing’ was inspired by both a visit to see one of my poems animated for the 2014 Blackpool Illuminations and many accounts I’ve heard over the years about young women, like Caz, caring for their siblings after their mum’s death, or disappearance.
“She’s porridge to bowl, Dad’s butty to beef,
but this glistening first light is hers alone –”
Of course, in reality, even small moments of secret escape or dreams for a better future can be difficult for young carers, though hope of finding these may help keep them going day to day. Things can change once siblings are grown up, but there’s no guarantee of how much if education and other prospects have already been restricted. Society is full of sacrifices that women make for family and those they love.
‘Her cumuli collector’ recycles age-old romantic notions of ‘a knight in shining armour’. This particular modern myth is my own creation. The voice of first love and fairy-tale happy endings gives extra power to this situation.
“When at last they kissed, he sucked out
the darkness within her, exhaling a white
mist on cold air – frostlike but sparkling.”
Because so much becomes pinned on the relationship, its failure is heart-breaking – as failed love or idolisation usually is. Behind this story though, the fact that this young woman gives control of her moods and happiness to another person rather than taking charge of them herself. If carried past young love into adult life and relationships, it might become a dangerously unshakeable core belief, undermining personal self-esteem.3
‘From His Uncoy Mistress, 2016’ is a modern-day reply to Andrew Marvel’s seventeenth century ‘To His Coy Mistress.’4
“…our love will know. Winged words
run faster than sun from your tongue.”
The central impulse behind my poem was the sense that still today when a husband cheats on his wife with another woman, it’s likely to be the other woman who takes the biggest share of the blame. In part, this may be down to historical double standards that portray male lotharios as somehow understandably driven by natural inclinations to ‘sow their seeds’ whereas women who behave similarly are ‘fallen’, untrustworthy and unvirtuous. But these ‘labels’ may partly come from women too. It’s not hard for me to see how, if a man cheats on his wife, it might be easier to blame the other woman than the husband. This both through love’s distortions and blindness but also perhaps because to accept the husband’s role in this as conscious or deliberate might lead to a sense of personal failure or lack of worth in the wife that caused him to cheat in the first place. In reality though, people are who they are, and this includes all sorts of habits that we may or may not like, and that may or may not possible to change.
As my previous poem hopefully suggests, words can play an important part in seduction, as well as in self-delusion. Words frame thoughts. As such, practically everything we take as real is shaped by conscious and subconscious language. ‘And his open mouth is an olive grove’ is written in the second person. It’s not so much an advice person as a laying out of inescapable facts, that this seduction will happen but even knowing that fact in advance wouldn’t stop ‘you’ from being seduced.
“Everything is a dance:
birds, flies, the cicadas’
Words are many, as many
as the grove’s virgin olives.”
The implied advice here is to accept the falseness and lies. This, not in a submissive way, more with the pleasure of awareness and active participation in something that may be superficial, pretend love and garnished with lies but isn’t trickery because it’s a fantasy or role-play shared enjoyably by both parties.
‘Territory’ also focuses on the language that may create and break relationships, but offers the other side of the map when it comes to truth and lies. Here, it’s the search for a common truthful language that shatters the relationship, when such a completely combined and un-equivocal vocabulary never happens. The dream of a totally unambiguous language, with clear meanings and understanding, proves impossible.
“Life’s a bitch, he says, as he lets go of your hand.
Life’s a bitch, you repeat, as if to master his hound.”
What finally splits up this couple may be communication differences. Or it may be differences that existed anyway – between, beneath and beyond the boundaries of language which ends up reduced to the primeval sounds of anguish.
“The howls that circle round and round
are not the smooth symbols
you told yourselves you’d found…”
‘Forget beef, forget chicken’ is another second-person poem where the voice might be a woman talking to her younger self, with hindsight. In many ways it’s a poem about the impossibility of advice, the voice of hindsight only comes through the first-hand experience. At a personal level, I suspect it’s also a reflection that however unconfident I may still be, I’m far more empowered and sure of myself now than I was as a young woman.
“On the day you decide, you open
the fridge and notice how his choices
have overpowered your tastes…”
‘Why sounds still circle’ is a poem that returns to the imprecision of language. Here, the confusion is made worse by emotional shock. There may be many voices in this poem or just one voice splintered into what sounds like a multitude of different voice fragments. In this state, in this situation, not only does nothing seem to make sense, but it feels like sense might never be possible again.
“Same voices now in the same room,
diverging. An ocean of troubled air
drowns the old sounds
circling like cluster flies…”
‘The little house on the horizon’ is a second-person poem in the voice of dreamlike self, observing the world, inner thoughts and hopes from a detached distance. It’s one of those quiet internal monologues which often pass unnoticed and unheard. It exists in a place that is both internal and external, and encompasses everything in that space between “the pause of your passing thoughts | and the skyline’s silhouettes”.
‘The cow that ate all the plums’ is mostly my dad’s fault. My grandparents were farmers and my mum and dad slowly converted one of the family barns into a house, where they lived for two decades once my sister and I left home. The house is surrounded by fields and my dad told me the story about a real cow that would eat all the plums, not to get drunk as such but presumably because the animal found the tippsiness quite pleasant. This took me to thinking about slang use of the word ‘cow’ and similar human scenarios.
“Do the other cattle notice her keen gaze,
the sudden ease in her gait as she lurches
to lean against the nearest oak?”
‘That Christmas’ is a poem inspired by the polar opposite to the ‘fallen woman’ stereotype. It’s the Virgin Mary-style, untouched and untouchable pedestal that women can also be hoisted onto as an example for other ‘failing females’ to aspire to. Pilgrims are so busy flocking to worship at my Ice Maiden’s feet and to clothe her in myth that no one stops to ask how she might feel or what kind of role model she might actually turn out to be.
“Tourists queued to buy their daughters
brittle icicles made in her image.”
It may sound ridiculous to start climbing for the first time aged 41, but that’s what I did. I’ll never be a good climber. Amongst other reasons, I won’t trust my feet and can’t completely control the rush of fear. But I still love it. Both climbing and the notion of walls as a barrier have such commonplace analogical potential that many phrases relating to them have passed from the metaphorical world to clichés of everyday language. My poem ‘Climbing | Wall’ is an attempt to understand some of the pressures faced by British women with the family background of a foreign culture.
“Footholds higher now
than Mei-ling’s reach,
smaller than a fawn’s hoof”
To put it another way, imagine dealing with the gender prejudices and norms resulting from not just one but several societies’ expectations and customs!
‘Black market’ is another poem drawing on a different cultural background. I visited Russia in the early 1990s on a sixth form school trip. Eva’s experience is based on the stories told by our guide. Like the pamphlet’s opening poem, it features matryoshka. This time the dolls referred to aren’t just the traditional nesting women but also politicians. The wooden casings are used for very practical purposes.
“Beneath their glossy wooden shells,
a nested space of secrets – perfect
for hiding notes when bartering for food.”
In ‘Two women in the moor’, inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s 1883 painting, the women’s characteristics merge with the landscape. Their life is hard and bone-aching, though they can still sing in the short moments of freedom.
“Their young voices lift from the bracken
as the last light wings them home.”
Another painting-inspired poem, ‘Bowl of oranges: a still life’, draws on historical expectations. It’s set in a time and situation where the wife’s role was to provide offspring and heirs to carry on the ancestral name. The pressure of this ultimately leads to desperate deception.
“Shadows fill her gown’s creases;
their charcoal rims her eyes…”
‘Publicity shots’ is written in the second person of an adopted, self-aware and self-deprecating, persona that can see the distance between social media profiles and real people. I decided to have some fun with this idea by getting the persona to offer many different snippets of marketing advice to an imaginary author, who at appearance level may have more in common with various fictional literary characters than they’d really like to admit.
“Selfies are allowed on social media,
but spontaneity must be planned:
angle and light fixed for that natural look –
as if glancing up from a book in hand,
or somehow portraying that you have a life
outside your own pages…”
‘All the women left’ was written after a visit to Birmingham Symphony Hall, not for a concert, simply passing through the building. At the same time, I was thinking about apocalypses and women-only tribes. The poem title came to me first, wondering what if there were only women left in the world? But I liked that this also had another potential meaning: what if, as a protest, all the women left an event? I don’t want to give too much away about the eventual narrative. But essentially, it’s a poem imagining the latter happened for a concert. A potential added irony with the scenario is that, if all the women left, half the audience might leave the concert but if all the female musicians left would that only leave half the performers?
“Velveteened seats sprang back
like the thud of plush dominoes,
leaving the symphony hall quieter
than a shell that’s forgotten
the sea, never dreamed of ocean…”
‘Facts of/for/against survival’ is a mixture of newspaper headlines, unusual facts and a personal moment between a mother and son which hopefully brings together the many disparate threads by hinting at one commonality.
“…She tells him to take care of their roots.
As she does so, thousands of mothers
across the world are holding their child’s hand
and using their tongues’ same words…”
As with the poem that opens the pamphlet, this is my recognition of the part all women play as individuals not just in defining how women are regarded in the world but the direction of society overall.
For me, even sharing this pamphlet here through snippets is also symbolic. It’s representative of the way female voices may only be listened to in fragments and how I’ve given away parts of myself or my identity over the years. Sometimes for love, other times through lack of confidence or trying to meet too many different demands simultaneously. It’s also symbolic of the mish-mash of external voices that have become part of me, or that I’ve rejected along the way.
So where does this leave me now as a paper mâché woman that’s constantly re-mashed with new glue but trying to get by and survive in the 21st century? The honest answer is I don’t know. I have all these women and more rattling around in my mind, and it’s very easy to lose a clear sense individual identity under the weight of society’s adopted egos. Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of men and women out there who would be happy to tell me who I am! But perhaps that is the bottom line – whatever external influences may act on me, it’s up to me what I do and don’t allow to be part of the woman I become.
1 The poetryfilm version of this poem may be found at: https://youtu.be/pK5a1S1Pd2I
3 The poetryfilm version of this poem may be found at: https://youtu.be/R0Pu5NFqDH0