Happy International Women’s Day 2021! Today, we celebrate some of our favourite poems by women. We’re each selected a handful to share with you. Tell us yours by tweeting us @poetsstories
‘What the Pool said, On Midsummer’s Day by Liz Lochhead (from Dreaming Frankenstein, Polygon Books, 1984) is such a luscious, sexy poem. The way the pool tempts and entices people into it on a hot day and the sounds it uses are delicious. I was lucky enough to hear Liz Lochhead read this poem when I was on an Arvon Writing course at Lumb Bank many years ago. I heard her words before I saw them written on the page. You can listen to it here. That pool’s calling and Lochhead’s marvellous alliterative use of zs has always stuck with me:
On-the-brink man, you
wish I’d flash and dazzle again.
You’d make a fetish of zazzing dragonflies?
‘simple tings’ by Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze is another poem I heard before I read it. Very quickly, it became a poem that I always try to share with writers young and old. Listen to it at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0169f2m So much is compressed into its eighteen short lines. I love its deceptive simplicity, Breeze’s use of rhyme, the fact it is dedicated to ‘Miss Adyln and Aunt Vida’ and the rocking rhythms of a woman’s life, her life story captured through the actions:
she rocked the rhythms in her chair
brushed a hand across her hair
miles of travel in her stare
‘Origin Myths’ by Nina Mingya Powles from Praise for Magnolia, 木蘭 (Nine Arches Press, 2020) is a new discovery for me. This split-form poem, like many in her first collection, explores questions of language and identity, often answering them with intriguing abstract responses:
What does this country mean to you? (I embroider volcanoes onto horizons)
Is this your home? (I stitch my name into the sea)
What is the purpose of your visit today? (I measure the distance)
Here’s a link to Powles’ recent Nine Arches collection launch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWL2mfEjHHQ
‘April Sunshine’ by Jackie Kay (from Bantam, Picador, 2017) is my final choice. It lovingly captures the poet’s fierce pride and admiration for her parents, ‘people who have lived all their lives, /For democracy, for democracy’ and marks an occasion, ‘a blessing’, when they were able to enjoy April sunshine once more after a hard winter in hospital. Sadly Jackie’s parents have both died in recent years but they live on in her stirring words: https://homemcr.org/media/jackie-kay-reads-april-sunshine/
For more recommendations from Sue, go to https://suedymokepoetry.com
‘Broadcast’ by Zayneb Allak (from New Walk Editions, 2017) is a poem I read regularly. Like the speaker, I too spent a long time away from Birmingham, and as many expats do when in the company of another estranged Brummie, the poem talks about the city and its staple characters, while affectionately pointing out our droopy vowel sounds. I return to it regularly, I think, because it conjures up the same feelings as the Brummie woman who has called a radio station:
Her cadences announce
What I least expect: home,
How I might miss it.
‘The Mask’ by Maya Angelou borrows from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem ‘We Wear the Mask’ to create ‘The Mask’. Angelou wrote it for a cleaning lady who she observed for several months on a New York City bus. She would laugh at almost anything she saw, Angelou describes, and Angelou understood the laugh as ‘a survival apparatus.’ Although a poem about African American survival, the idea, as is so often the case in Angelou’s work, will be familiar to many who have needed to survive. Her performance of it here always gives me pause and makes me grateful for our ancestors’ humanity.
‘Bad Kisser’ by Leanne Moden (from Burning Eye, 2020) is the only poem on my list that I encountered as performance first. Leanne headlined a poetry night in Nottingham called Totally Wired, which is now defunct. It’s rhythm and rhyme are incredibly satisfying and describes the speaker’s encounter with a sloppy kisser from her youth. Although, understandably, the speaker objects to the overly zealous snogger, she soon discovers that nobody else quite lives up to it. Oh, the folly of youth!
A poem I heard before I read it is ‘Sassenachs’ by Jackie Kay (from Darling, Bloodaxe, 2007). It appeared on a cassette (you will have to google it) produced by the Poetry Society’s education department of contemporary poets reading their poems for young people. It included Michael Rosen, Helen Dunmore and Matthew Sweeney among others.
I remember thinking that Jackie Kay sounded like she was having the time of her life as she read out her deceptively simple-sounding story of two friends travelling ‘off to London’ for their ‘first trip on an inter-city alone’.
What I think of as the poem’s chorus is infectious and cries out to be performed in a group:
Sassenachs sassenachs here we come.
Sassenachs sassenachs Rum Tum Tum
Sassenachs sassenachs how do you do.
SASSENACHS SASSENACHS WE’LL GET YOU!
I love the way the poem switches between registers and rhythms to denote the embarrassment and awkwardness of early adolescence. Out come the speaker’s egg sandwiches: ‘The whole train is an egg and I’m inside it. / I try and remain calm.’
The end of the poem, ‘We both die laughing, clutching/ our stomachs at Euston station’, gets me every time.
A poet whose work is relatively new to me, but which I already am passionately in love with, is Ellen Bass, from the USA. Locked down last year and missing my family I read and re-read her poem ‘Any Common Desolation’from her most recent book Indigo (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). The plainness of her diction combined with the sensuality of her imagery is arresting, and, like all god poetry, brings the reader back sharply into the present moment:
You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive.
The sound of an oar in an oarlock or a ruminant
animal tearing grass. The smell of grated ginger.
The ruby neon of the liquor store sign.
A poster of Edna St Vincent Millay’s (1892-1950) sonnet ‘Time does not bring relief’ sat on the wall above the head of a colleague for years before I actually took the time to read it.
Then it hit me. ‘You all have lied’ jumped out at me with sudden and contemporary force, ditto ‘I miss him in the weeping of the rain’, the natural object enacting the adequate symbol of its bereavement and taking the meeting I was in to a very remote place, as in certain representations of horror or confusion in films, when the action is slowed down and the sound conjured to a slur, as if to mimic waking from a dream or the slow loss of consciousness.
It reminded me, too, of recovering from serious illness, that shaky-nervy feeling of encountering everyone all over again, colleagues, friends and family, in the same rooms as before, but in a completely different landscape. I knew them in the world of before, the poem says, now I have to ‘go’ to the world of after. ‘There are a hundred places where I fear/ To go’: isn’t that exactly what it’s like, I found myself thinking. It could have been written yesterday.