A Fierce Compassion: Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism

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I have a daydream. In it, I stand in front of a floor to ceiling bookcase that is about three feet wide and filled with titles related to an era that lives in infamy, meaning, of course, the one we’re in. The books are lyrical responses from writers who refused to say that what transpired in this era was acceptable by any standard, that helped keep the resistance from losing heart.

Women of the Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism belongs on the shelf in my daydream. The introduction, by editors Danielle Barnhart and Iris Mahan, makes an important point when quoting Adrienne Rich: “Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience.” Our era of infamy owes much of its disgrace to the way truth is abused to harm women throughout the world. The physical and mental harm are inextricably bound, and the selections here highlight that, along with many other essential facts.

Naomi Shihab Nye is a longtime activist, poet, and editor. Her piece, “Not Even,” about suffering in the Middle East, is direct and mournful, addressing “Yemen crying” as it weeps “for arched windows / crushed for nothing / and the people who dwelled therein.” Part of what makes her dirge so resonant is that we know how savagely the Saudis treat Yemen and women in their own country, and we know that the Trump administration abets Saudi Arabia policies. “[I]t’s not new. / It’s not even you,” is the way she closes this rightfully damning message.

James Allen Hall, in “Image,” addresses the act of young women cutting—a form of self-injury that involves a person making small cuts on their body, usually the arms and legs—a subject too flammable for many earlier feminist anthologies. He is looking at a photo by Catherine Opie called “Self-Portrait/Cutting,” made in 1993.

Two open eyes and a shut mouth and all the poisoned words
are in their beds, looking out to the front garden,

where two girls in red skirts hold hands among the tulips.
But the model can’t see them. I tell her she can drop the knife,
but there’s a bruise the size of a fist at the base of her neck.
I tell her the girls are in love, if love means drawn in blood,

the scar of your childhood will never heal.

Hall makes points that are implicit and explicit. One can’t help but wonder who inflicted the bruise, and after the word “blood” the viewer-speaker tells us that a childhood scar will never heal. The viewer is looking at one, presumably young, individual. America is one young country, and its self-inflicted scars of exploitation and slavery will never heal. This doesn’t mean we can’t undo some of the damage, to cutters and to the world community, and there is more in this collection to point the way.

Sandra Beasley’s edgy piece called “Kiss Me” is a femmage to the truly civilized thinking and behavior of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s also broad satire, with the Supreme Court Justice at a performance of The Taming of the Shrew. There’s a lot of traditionally accepted behavior after the shrew is spanked into submission. Ginsburg adjusts an earring, makes a ladylike gesture with her program. The details add up and we know how false the shrew’s contentment will be. “Kate will be tamed. That’s how we know the ending is happy.” Except it isn’t, in the minds of anyone who is paying attention, and Beasley knows her audience and Ginsburg are in on the painful joke.

In “January After El Niño,” Ryka Aoki writes in the voice of a mother rightly alarmed. Here is the beautiful, loving whole of a response to an ugly weather event in this era of climate crisis:

Dear child, as I write this, it is raining
in a city where it never rains.
People drive quickly, sloppily, angrily.
Surging around corners,
where people leave the Metro bus.
Where someone pushes a shopping cart,
then yanks it back before a pickup rushes by.

In this rain, I wish
that you should never want to go outside.
That I could read you stories, make you soup.
I wish you would never outgrow this room,
forever watch Thomas the Train,
Spill your Rice Krispies, toss Fisher -Price blocks.

I hear another car door slam, another horn blare.
Someone yells faggot,
and I wish you would remain an infant,
tiny feet in drawstring booties, that I
could shield with arms and back from the storm
and whatever ill it brings. To this world,
in which I wish you might never be born,
not now, when water fills like hatred
in the cracks and potholes of the roads,
inciting the voices, the wheels,
the engines that assault them every day. I wish,
this body had never opened,

that this heart had never known love,
that instead of you, what falls from above
would find no one to endanger, no one to hunger,
no one to harm.

Here, Aoki gives us eloquent, angry love. One doesn’t have to be a parent to appreciate the power of what is named.

Another poem, “When My Daughter Wasn’t Assaulted” by Amanda Johnston, describes a situation in which a young, presumably Black woman, in a car with her white boyfriend, has a flat tire. The cop in the poem “called a tow truck instead of backup,” and Johnston’s speaker wonders “what if / this was a different part of Texas?”

Would she be so lucky or was it luck,
if the absence of a known pain
is just a heavy hand in repose?

The reader can’t help but remember Sandra Bland, who was found hung in a Waller County, Texas, jail after being arrested during a traffic stop. “Heavy” and “repose” are words well-chosen because they acknowledge a truth that contains a respite both fragile and fleeting.

The range of voices, geography, and experience in Women of Resistance is part of what makes it so compelling. “Lucky Ladies Sestina” by Jill McDonough exemplifies this range in a single poem, and the poem’s power is heightened by the fact that it does not isolate the world two middle-aged women share in Brooklyn, “warm in the dark blankets, safe / our whole lives but still sort of surprised.” Later in the poem, one woman’s life is forever marked by the botched illegal abortion of a relative, and families are forced into migration. In this sestina, we see again the mind-boggling juxtapositions that fill our newsfeeds every day.

Those of us lucky enough to count ourselves safe in this disastrous time understand, reading these poems, that our safety is thanks to those who came before us who were not safe—and that there are plenty who are not safe still. Women of Resistance recognizes this reality with fierce compassion, and a lot of really fine poetry.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →