Balanced on the edge of the hard, green bench,
arms tight at my side,
I strain to ignore
terror fluttering high in a corner of the courthouse.
I stare at a pale wooden door,
understanding the small opening motion
will begin the closure of my marriage,
leaving my vows unaccompanied in the hall.
I wear a bright purple dress in defiance
of today’s funeral.
The chamber door completes its opening arc,
my name coming muffled from within.
Fists clench my clothing
so tightly I cannot step forward—
until I let go of skirt, of hope,
lone pilgrim to this shrine,
unsure, even, of my lawyer’s face.
Within the dim room,
petitioners nestle shoulder to shoulder.
The judge glances from her papers,
small frown directed my way,
I stand at the podium, eyes fixed on the flag
behind the clerk.
Answer in single syllables.
About Sharon Thompson
Sharon Thompson recently retired after twenty years as a high school English teacher. She lives in Temecula, California and spends her time with her two grown sons and her thirteen-year-old dachshund, Sam. She also attends poetry open mics and polishes her writing.
Sharon calls Cecilia Woloch her mentor, and she has worked with poet Brendan Constantine and attended workshops with L.A. writer Jack Grapes. Sharon has been published in the 2012-13 and 2013-2014 editions of the San Diego Poetry Annual.
Photo credit: Kristy Hom via a Creative Commons license.
In celebration of Women’s History Month 2015, the National Women’s History Museum has launched a 31-day video series, Women’s History Minute. Each day during March NWHM will release a new one-minute video that honors women’s ingenuity, talents and dedication.
Today’s video celebrates Lena Horne, singer, actress and civil rights advocate.
In celebration of Women’s History Month 2015, the National Women’s History Museum is launching a 31-day video series, Women’s History Minute. Each day NWHM will release a new 60-second video that honors women’s ingenuity and dedication.
Today’s inaugural video celebrates Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, Under the Sea-wind and three other books—probably available at your local library or independent bookseller.
March is National Women’s History Month, and we are recognizing it here as we have in years past with a series of poetry and prose—Women In Words: Readings By, For and About Women.
To kick off the celebration, I’ll share one of my favorite pastimes—reviewing 19th century historical records from a feminist perspective. I know, sounds boring, but think of it as reading old stuff and poking holes in the male-dominated reportage of the past. Now that’s some fun.
Finding that old stuff, though, can be a bit of a challenge. Historically, documentation of women’s lives was sparse, particularly the lives of married 19th century women, regardless of race (although my research subject is a white woman, hence the following focus). White women weren’t named in federal census forms until 1850, only heads of households, who were most often male. Yet even the lowliest of white men’s names were recorded—in militia rosters and tax rolls, in livestock registries and slave schedules. Land records were no better. They often stated the husband’s name with a generic “and wife” tagged on, an afterthought making clear that individual women, with names and identities of their own, were unworthy of the artful inscriptions in leather tomes that their fathers, husbands and sons enjoyed.
Of all the records I’ve explored, newspapers have been the most eloquent sources of overtly male-centric recorded history, although newspaper mentions of women were also meager—unless their husbands were noteworthy. Then the women, were they proper wives, might receive mention in local papers for their garden parties or church socials, attended by the wives and daughters of other noteworthy men and serving as showcases of the latest fashions, perfectly crusted pies, hand-churned ice cream and other culinary accomplishments.
Women also made it into the press if they suffered unseemly failures. For example, had a woman fallen from societal grace, her ruin could elicit florid reportage that, with any luck for the reading audience, offered a racy detail or two. A few examples might be enlightening, if not fun.
On March 10, 1882, the Bourbon News reported a shooting in such a way as to ensure that readers would understand the character of the primary target—perhaps to forestall undue sympathy?
It is Mary’s bad repute that carries this short piece, that and the nine bullets that punished her bad body. And it occurs to me that not much has changed in today’s approach to news. When was the last time reporting on the murder of a sex worker did not emphasize the victim’s job? Really, think about this: Have you ever heard anything akin to “White Heterosexual Actuary Murdered at McDonald’s”?
Individual women’s mental health was another common 19th century newspaper subject, asylum commitments and suicides being regular fare. The Semi-Weekly South Kentuckian published this terse bit of unhappy gossip on August 14, 1885.
Had Mrs. Vittitoe not killed herself, we would never have heard of her; that she did, proved entertainment for the Kentuckian’s readers. Again, we’ve not progressed much.
Even a man who murdered his own father for his money, one John Collins, a “young student of Topeka … petted and made vain,” was represented in language far favorable to that describing the women whose sexual services he favored. The February 7, 1902 Oklahoma Hornet reported that, while on the witness stand, “the secret of his debauchery and association with the lowest, vilest types of white trash and colored prostitutes was drawn from his own lips.”
Collins killed his father for profit, yet he was a young student, petted and vain, while the women whose nether regions he frequented were the lowest and vilest. And who is it we blame for today’s unfaithful powerful men’s downfalls? Still the women.
Sexual peccadilloes and suicides garnered as much attention in newspapers of the era as the birth of a child, but the credit for the latter was typically awarded to the proud father. The November 24, 1899 Waukomis Wizard reported the birth of my great uncle with some enthusiasm, but forgot to mention my great-grandmother and the significant role she played in bringing him forth.
If newspapers weren’t denigrating women for poor character or insanity, or relegating them to the equivalent of today’s society section, they were ignoring them completely—except for the occasional female celebrity.
Temperance activist Carrie Nation was a common target of newspaper ridicule during the turn of the century. The Enid (Oklahoma) Weekly Wave ran an editorial about her on November 27, 1902, while she was busy launching anti-saloon hatchetation escapades from her home base in Guthrie, Oklahoma. She shared the editorial’s bull’s-eye with a number of suffragists, other women of note, and organizations equally distasteful to the anonymous writer.
What the world needs is more such women as Carrie Nation and Susan B. Anthony and Lilly Langtry and Mary Ellen Lease and Charlotte Corday and Belva Lockwood and Cleopatra and Mrs. Catt and Countess Chimay and Helen Cougar and Pharoah’s wife who get out and kick the chandelier and spit through their teeth and take an interest in things. We need women in congress to stand on the hurricane deck of the ship of state and direct the fight on oleomargarine. We ought to have female generals in the army taught to ride straddle and hold the reins in their teeth while they careen over the pampas with a gun in each hand and yell: “Whoop la! Down with anarchy—the A.P.A.—the Clan-na-Gael—the High-binders—La-Mafi—Hot Snooks and Sockless Jerries—and up with the Stars and Stripes!” That’s the kind of women we need to make this universe rear upon its hind legs and paw the air and beller like a bull calf in a tornado! You bet!
The editorial’s targets are impressively far-ranging and diverse, and, while archaic, some of the slurs offer insight into the male-dominant ideology of the day: In addition to temperance campaigners, suffragists, actresses who became producers, female revolutionaries of various sorts, and women who dared to lead, also in disfavor were psychologists, the Populist Party, and Irish, Chinese and Italian immigrants. Nonetheless, I hope being likened to a purported Chinese-American criminal society, the Mafia, and something that might have been a rude gesture, was more invigorating to Mrs. Nation than inhibiting.
Still, when I compare this and the other articles to the sexist foolishness that falls from today’s pundits and politicians’ mouths, I’m reminded, yet again, that not much—not enough—has changed. Hence the ongoing need for Women’s History Month. The designation draws our focus to women’s stories that might not otherwise be told, to past women of note, to acknowledgement of women’s experiences and accomplishments; it encourages us to wax poetic about those who, on average, make 80 cents to a male’s $1.00. We’ll be doing all this throughout the month, featuring a variety of writers and genres as we celebrate Women In Words.
Along with our regular contributors—Karla Cordero, Scott Gressitt, Dan McClenaghan, Penny Perry and Conney D. Williams—we’ll publish works by some guest writers from around the region, including short fiction by Suzy Fincham-Gray and Natalie Hirt, and poetry by Kathy Fallon, Ruth Nolan and Sharon Thompson.
We’ll also publish another excerpt from Patricia Bracewell’s second book in the Queen Emma of Normandy trilogy; and a new essay by Lesléa Newman, author of Heather Has Two Mommies, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, and her newest poetry collection, I Carry My Mother.
Check back Tuesday for the next offering or subscribe (upper right corner) to receive email updates.
 Perhaps the American Psychological Association, founded in 1892.
 An Irish republican organization formed by Irish immigrants in the United States.
 A Chinese-American secret society with a purported penchant for urban crime.
 Not certain of this one, but “cocking a snook” is the British term for “thumbing” one’s nose at someone, the five-finger salute; there’s also a Snook, Texas;
 A snipe at the Populist Party, “Sockless Jerry” was the nickname of Jeremiah Simpson, of Kansas, a Populist elected to the U.S. Congress.
In 2009, folklorists were delighted to learn of the discovery of a cache of 500 unknown Bavarian fairy tales. Unearthed from a municipal archive by German storyteller and fairy tale expert Erika Eichenseer, the tales had been collected in the 1800s by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, transcribed from his interviews with local Bavarians. By 2010, a portion of the collection, edited by Eichenseer, was published in Germany. This month, Penguin Classics releases The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales in English, the translation by Maria Tatar, Harvard University’s chair of the Program in Folklore and Mythology.
Unlike the more familiar Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen collections, Schönwerth’s renditions of oral Bavarian lore are said to be true to the common folks who shared their stories with him, perhaps over mugs of cider or strong homebrew. These tales are unembellished, unconcerned with literary form and style, “earthy, scatological, and unvarnished,” as Tatar describes them in the book’s introduction. “Schönwerth’s collection of tales may lack some of the charm of other nineteenth-century collections,” she wrote, “but it gives us a crystal-clear window into the storytelling culture of its time.”
Some readers might think the time of fairy tales has long past, that they are an archaic notion or that they belong solely to the naïve realm of childhood, but such readers might reconsider. Fairy tales offer adults a variety of goodies, from that window into the storytelling culture of a particular time and place to a momentary escape into fantasy, lessons in morality, consolation, hope. And this particular collection offers a sometimes fascinating contrast to the Grimm Brother’s versions of similar tales.
Consider the Grimms’ “The Frog King,” the story of a selfish young princess whose golden ball is rescued from her pond’s depths by an ugly talking frog, who is, of course, a bewitched prince, hoping to regain his comely form and riches. The bratty princess refuses to honor her commitment to befriend the frog, throwing him against the wall when he tries to crawl into her bed, but the king forces her to do the honorable thing and spoon with the amphibian. The Grimms reward her snittiness with marriage to the prince, returned to his former self.
In Schönwerth’s version of the story, “Follow Me, Jodel!” good-hearted but not-so-swift Jodel is competing with his smarter, not-so-nice older brother Michael for inheritance of the family farm. Jodel finds success with the help of a “less-than-beautiful” toad, who is, inevitably, a bewitched and moneyed maiden of the lovely sort. Jodel wins the girl and her castle because he treats the toad kindly, going right for the spooning, even though she “gave him the creeps.” Michael ends up with the leftover farm.
While honoring folklore morphology, The Turnip Princess is a series of such female-male role reversals and spins—sometimes gnarly—on the Grimm tales. Tatar attributes these differences to the brothers’ personal preferences, rather than cultural distinctions: “The divide between passive princesses and dragon-slaying heroes may be little more than a figment of the Grimm imagination.”
The Turnip Princess is a rich resource, comprising seventy-two stories in six categories: Tales of Magic and Romance, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes, and Tales About Nature. The stories are followed by Tatar’s commentary and a motif index by Nicola Schaffler, making the collection both fun to read and a useful academic text.
And for those not convinced that dusty fairy tales have anything to offer a modern audience, consider one of the last stories, “Sir Wind and His Wife.” The two were present at the creation of the world, but they were overweight, a contemporary topic most readers will find familiar.
“Created by Project Implicit, a research collaboration between scientists at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington, this Implicit Association Test (IAT) aims to ‘[measure] the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy)” that remain “outside of conscious awareness and control.’ The test, which has been taken by more than two million people, reveals that even the most consciously tolerant of us may hold prejudices, and while you may be surprised by the results, you’ll be in good company. … Go here for the Implicit Association Test.”
We must reach beyond the walls of self-imposed prisons, prisons we helped to build with ignorance on the foundation of systemic racism. At one time, most of our people believed there was no other base on which to build a lasting legacy but the historical, Disney-like footing erected by men who did not believe there is value in all humanity, only part of it.
This is because who we were—what we knew ourselves to be—was forcefully unlearned. Embezzled. Misappropriated by governments—state, federal, local—that denied us and infected us with disease, figurative and literal. You have heard of the Tuskegee experiments or the connection between the CIA and the crack cocaine epidemic, right? And the great legacy of our history is still being hidden from us.
The only history most of us want to know is an exclusionary story that is not our story, a story that tells how America infected our souls with its fear and greed, then somehow had an epiphany that it should now become our savior through a lie of inclusion, a lie to delude us, to tell us that the scales of justice are balanced, that it is blind to the melanin in our skin, that the American dream is accessible to us—all the while knowing it is reserved for the majority race.
America makes movies about us facing the agonizing struggle of our society, yet the story says that only way we surmount these obstacles is when a Caucasian comes along and saves us. We call these movies Glory, The Help, Tarzan, Django. The Tarzan and Django references are only a metaphor, Django because Quentin Tarantino decided to do us a favor and tell a slavery story that had never been told before. And he did. I can’t recall ever before hearing the pejorative “Nigga” so much in a movie. I wonder if Tarantino would’ve been able to make the film if it were about Jews in Auschwitz and Germans were screaming “Judenschwein” every other word. Tarzan is my personal favorite, because it allows a Caucasian boy to talk to all the animals of the jungle and mature to become more civilized than the African savages he encounters. This propaganda campaign continues to work even to this day because so many African-Americans still seek Caucasian approval/acceptance in order to realize who we are.
We must reach beyond the walls of self-imposed prisons.
Every morning I wake to see myself as the African-American the Creator intended me to be. Endowed from birth, I don’t have to barter for my humanity. It is mine to claim and own as any other human being living in this America. America has been, and is, an altered state of reality for those who have been denied access to its ambition, to the American Dream. We are not extras in a movie, trying to portray our humanity in non-descript forms. How could I ever be destined for a starring role in a story about me, still going to auditions, praying that somehow America will finally cast me in a role where my lines are from the same script as Caucasians?
Every morning I wake to see myself as the African-American the Creator intended me to be, dismantling my own prisons and those erected on the premise that my life does not have the same value America intended for all of its citizens.
This life of mine intends to breathe like James Baldwin, Sojourner Truth, Toni Morrison, et al, in defiance and defense of my own humanity, in celebration of my Blackness, and in solidarity for the hope of all my people.
About Conney D. Williams
Conney D. Williams is a Los Angeles based poet, actor and performance artist, originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, where he worked as a radio personality.
Conney’s first collection of poetry, Leaves of Spilled Spirit from an Untamed Poet, was published in 2002. His poetry has also been published in various journals and anthologies including Voices from Leimert Park; America: At the End of the Day; and The Drumming Between Us. His newest collection, Blues Red Soul Falsetto, was published in December 2012.
Conney has performed his poetry on television, radio, galleries, universities, grade schools, coffeehouses, and stages around Southern California and across the country, including the Black Arts Festival. He is a talented public speaker with more than thirty years of experience.
Harry Griswold will read at Writers Read at Fallbrook Library on Tuesday 10 February, 6 to 7:30 p.m.
With his newest collection, Just Enough Clothes (Garden Oak Press, 2014), Harry Griswold establishes himself as a modern-day Edward Arlington Robinson—a storyteller with a clear-eyed focus on the shrinking, white, middleclass world. Intelligent and careful, Griswold lets us into the space of a cultured man who has time to think and reflect on the world he inhabits, the life he’s lived, and the unluckier people who share the planet.
In “My Country Tis of Me,” he writes:
I’ve never had doors
held any way but open for me,
never been pulled over by the cops
for something my skin did
Griswold brings the reader with him on his walks along safe San Diego sidewalks in “Crowbar on My Walk Today,” which begins:
A crowbar creaking someone’s head open
is the faint sound I think I hear in the blank
blue above me, a San Diego December day
in the shorter sunshine period we’ve agreed
to call winter. Maybe I hear my own buried
fears breaking out.
In his suburban home and mountain second home, the poet worries about the wars our leaders have pulled us into, the unpredictable earthquakes from Mother Earth. The reader feels a little safer because Griswold is awake and noticing. There is a coziness and intimacy to these poems, as if Griswold is telling us, “Yes I see the injustices out there, but you’re safe with me here, “Without Conflict or Hostility:”
I’m closed in, big boards sealed at the seams with epoxy
The book’s title, Just Enough Clothes, serves as an ars poetica. Griswold keeps a tender distance—just enough clothes—from his subjects. He is a poet who pays attention to what he reveals and what he leaves out. He resists the confessional, but can’t stay entirely away from personal revelations. In “Killer Workshop,” he struggles with a poet-teacher who accuses poets of hiding behind their words. He says of himself and his fellow students:
So we carried less and less
stuff for self-protection. He stood
up front pretending to be our friend,
staring right through us. Now,
he’d intone, write a poem,
make it a killer.
Griswold’s poems can take startling turns, as in “Copper Clues.”
Copper mixed with tin makes
brass lamps, and on its own
passes current well.
Voltage, we know is changed
by its conductor. As are
Then the poem shifts.
Bernstein once allowed
Herbert Von Karajan to conduct
his New York Philharmonic,
despite suspicions left over
that Karajan had cozied up
during the war
Griswold’s poems have the richness of short stories, similar to Edward Arlington Robinson, Claudia Emerson and Jericho Brown. In “Rubbings,” Griswold reveals a man’s character in a few short lines.
He may have designed the space
with his coffin in mind, adjacent
to where chairs would be arranged for viewing,
a small window above his head
to give extra life.
Like Billy Collins, with whom Griswold studied, and the white male middle-class writers of the mid-twentieth century—John Updike, John Cheever, Richard Yates—Griswold explores dark undercurrents in a comfortable life, surveying those who cohabit his world with empathy and love. Novelist Duff Brenna called this collection a page-turner. Every page has a new revelation: a personal vignette tucked into a meditation, an unexpected portrait of a woman living in a mice-infested home, a recounting of an endearing meeting with poet Mathew Dickman.
In “Googling Mathew Dickman,” after sipping wine with the younger poet, Griswold concludes:
The world is in a handoff,
from cupped hands to new cupped hands.
I was worried but now I’m not.
Reading Just Enough Clothes feels like an intense conversation with a close friend. There are moments of humor, shrewd comments about history, exuberant explorations of our current events and moving personal stories. In some of the most touching poems in the collection, Griswold writes about his romance with his wife, Stephanie, especially in “Aspirations and Not.”
My one wish is that you’ll let me rise, up ahead,
like the distant water that comes into view
as you approach that gentle town far from here
where I once hoped we could live.
This fine collection concludes with an awakening in “OK I Got it Now.”
Seven billion little gods
live around here, each assigned
to a human alive in his own universe.
Our parallel domains don’t meet
so I see us like grass in the breeze,
seven billion blades swaying close
but not touching.
Penny Perry is a six-time Pushcart Prize nominee in poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in California Quarterly, Lilith, Redbook, Earth’s Daughter, the Paterson Literary Review and the San Diego Poetry Annual.
Her first collection of poems, Santa Monica Disposal & Salvage (Garden Oak Press, 2012) earned praise from Marge Piercy, Steve Kowit, Diane Wakoski and Maria Mazziotti Gillan.
I have come to a point in my life that if I don’t write it down, I will soon forget it. The worst thing is that after writing it down now, on the scraps of paper that indicate I am still functioning, I lose the paper. It makes me laugh. When you forget what you are laughing about; that is when others become concerned and don’t really want to be around you.
I wrote a note last week that said, “remember the reports.” I found it today. For a moment I was terrified. I remembered the reports but I did not remember why I needed to remember the reports. I looked for another note. I think I lost it. I only share that so that you and I are on the same page when it comes to writing back to messages sent to me on the FB messenger.
I go through them most every day and try to read them all. We have some great folks following this page. I think that is the best part about being able to carry the keys to the Facebook computer. I have met some really interesting individuals. What you need to remember is that I am not always at work when I review the messages. If you are reporting a crime (yes, it is happening), you need to call the business line aka, non-emergency number or the 911 line. Unless it is a real emergency, our preference is that you call the business line, of course. I cannot always remind myself with a note and the messages scroll down and you disappear from view, but not from my heart.
If it is a tip about a crime, it is fine to leave it. I send many out after they come in. I try to direct it to the person that needs the information. Sometimes, I read the message and think to myself, I have to write that person back. Then other things interrupt the process and I never get a chance to write back. I want to apologize for that. This is me apologizing. It is not because I don’t appreciate the time you take to write us, because I really do.
So, in review, please do not report active crime through the Facebook page. If someone took your collection of concrete lawn decorations and you have pictures of what what taken, I might throw it on Facebook. I have to be amused by it, so they better not just be the standard urinating cherub or concrete bench. If you have a collection of cement aardvarks or an Elvis statue that was taken, I just might throw the photo up. I am all about entertainment.
Speaking of Elvis, I was riding by the Augusta Civic Center with my dad when the story came on the radio about the death of Elvis Presley. He was soon to play at the Augusta Civic Center and even at that age, I found it kind of eery. You know, every time I drive by the Augusta Civic Center since that day, I can still hear clearly hear that announcer. I just cannot seem to remember what I wanted those reports for.
Have a great night. If you need to report a crime, it is best to notify the fine men and women of our dispatch center and the police officers of the Bangor Police Department. They won’t lose the note. We will be here!