Thursday, March 8, 2012

Speaking through Red Lips

Taking a break this week from my Workshop Hell series, because one can hardly call oneself a feminist poet and then proceed to do a blog post on International Women’s Day about pot poems, which I will get to next week, God willing. So, little joiner that I am, here I am with some red lips and some thoughts onwhat else?women and writing.

This year’s awareness gimmick is this red lips thing. I must say I’m not entirely sure how it works. I suppose it might substitute the enthusiasm formerly felt about the pink ribbons, now that the Komen Foundation is disgraced. Whatever one does this day or this month, as Maura Judkis of The Washington Post so aptly puts it, the important thing is to remember that celebration is not the same as activism:
Rock the Lips does not link to the International Women’s Day site nor offer details on the day’s themes and events for this year. Women who participate in Rock the Lips might not be aware of the day’s role in bringing important attention to issues such as gender inequality, education and health care, violence against women and income disparity.

International Women’s Day comes at a particularly telling time in the United States this year, as politics and women’s concerns about reproductive health have collided in the Virginia statehouse, on the campaign trail and among media personalities, such as Rush Limbaugh, who caused outrage with his remarks disparaging Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, prompting advertisers to flee his talk show.

Without more explanation and information about what the day means, people who pose for an Instagram and post their photos on the Rock the Lips site may never learn the substance of the women’s issues being raised.
I’m not about to start some rant about all the things wrong with the world today when it comes to women, don’t worry. For one thing, it would take a heck of a lot more than a single blog post to do that; the recent news coverage of women’s issues is just the proverbial tip of the giant, silent iceberg no one wants to heed. But the half-assed enthusiasm of the red lips campaign and Judkis’s comments have started me thinking about my own silences, how I seem to preface every remark I make about women with some kind of apology. Perhaps red lips, in their boldness, are just what we need, as long as they are speaking, of course.

Recently, on Wom-po (the Women’s Poetry Listserv), R. S. Gwynn posted about his experience teaching The Stepford Wives to graduate students:  Next week I will tell them that their overwhelming rejection of ‘feminist’ (and most of them said that they couldn't embrace it because of all the negative associations it had acquired over the years) was so strong that it forced one person present to be silent. That person was Me! Ha!” I didn’t participate in the thread, but It’s been in the back of my mind ever since. All this time I’ve been arguing that the past decade or so has seen a tremendous silencing of women’s voices, it never occurred to me that I was one of them. I’ve been trapped into thinking I talk too much about women’s issues, that I “turn off” not just male students but female ones as well with my “outdated” views on feminism, and my women-heavy syllabi are inappropriate somehow. I’ve even caught myself questioning my poetrywho’s going to want to publish these poems with their twenty-year-old sensibility? WTF, as they say.

Speaking up is supposed to be hard. If you don’t receive resistance to what you are saying, if you’re not called names behind your back and viewed with suspicion or distaste, then you’ve got nothing to speak up for. Otherwise, it’s par for the course. This whole time I’ve been bemoaning the fact that the environment has become dismissive, intolerant, or even hostile to feminist thought, I should have realized that is all the more reason to push the issue. I don’t need to let the feminist stuff go, or to reduce it to fit the times. To do so would be to participate in this illusion that the battle’s over and we’ve won and all that. On the contrary, we need more discussion, a renewal of feminist thought and feminist watchfulness.

So, in response to Judkis’s question, “How do you plan to recognize International Women’s Day?” this is it. This blog post is my manifesto that I will continue to teach women’s writing and write about women and their issues, and to those who roll their eyes in the classroom, you can kiss my pouty red lips.

I’m looking forward to the papers my students will be turning in on Monday about PPD, post-partum distress, a unit based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” I began when the whole Komen thing blew up (you can read my original post here). Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sylvia Plath, perhaps my favorite feminist poet. It’s odd to call her that; so much of the attention she receives is swallowed up by her suicide and her relationship to Ted Hughes that it’s easy to overlook the fierceness with which she wrote about marriage and womanhood in poems such as “The Applicant”:
But in twenty-five years she'll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it's a poultice.
You have an eye, it's an image.
My boy, it's your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
Might she still be alive if she had been successfully treated for her depression, especially her PPD, which she so clearly felt? Many critics and biographers do not recognize the role PPD played in her suicide, just thirteen months after the birth of her son, Nicholas. Tasha Whitton, for example, says of “Morning Song” that
Instead of analyzing the poem in relationship to Plath's own experiences, a more successful approach is to compare the emotions described by the speaker in "Morning Song" to those expressed generally by new mothers. Modern studies of postpartum depression have shed some light on the frequently unusual reactions of mothers to their children shortly after birth, but at the time that Plath wrote this poem such studies were not common knowledge. The feelings that she captures in this poem are not meant to suggest that the mother dislikes the infant but rather that she is confused by the mechanical quality surrounding it.
In fact, there is nothing “unusual” about PPD; according to Leslie Tam, one of the few specialists in the field of reproductive psychology, as much as 80% of new mothers experience some degree of PPD. What’s innocuously referred to as the “baby blues” can quickly deteriorate into major, life-threatening depression and psychosis, however, especially if the woman has a history of such problems, as Plath did.

I’m not suggesting that we go back in time and save Sylvia Plath, nor that we view all women’s writing as women’s writing. Turning a blind eye, however, to cultural, juridical, political, and even medical shortcomings in our culture when it comes to women is dangerous and costly. The last text we examined in my class on the PPD topic was Sex and the City 2, in which Charlotte has to fly all the way to Abu Dhabi and get drunk before she can admit to her best friend that motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She is so intent on pretending that the idyllic motherhood of pink cupcake frosting and Electrolux appliances is the natural consequence of giving birth, that even when her nanny finds her crying her eyes out in the pantry, she still can’t admit that something is wrong. One hundred and twenty years after the publication of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” we still don’t know how to effectively screen for and treat PPD, a condition that is common, treatable, and potentially deadly.

Plath was a great lover of red. Those of us who love her work remember that great last stanza of “Lady Lazarus,” where she writes “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”  I leave you with “Tulips,” for obvious reasons.

Sylvia Plath

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anaesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage ——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn't want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free ——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salty, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.


  1. I think there's still a need to write about feminist issues. I don't care if they're outdated - if they're still affecting women, they're relevant, right? For every Twilight, we need a Buffy (I am ambivalent about Katniss.)

  2. I've been rewatching Buffy and noticing some things I hadn't the first time around, like how horribly she has to pay for her sexuality, not to mention Faith. We need some new heroines, I think (hint, hint).

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