When you (finally) see art that reflects your own experience
I hated poetry when I was in high school and college. All the BS about an athlete dying young (which now makes me weep because now it is real) and daffodils and celebrating and singing myself and the end of civilization as we slouch toward Bethlehem (which also now makes me weep because – well, everything) meant nothing to me.
Nothing. It was just a bunch of crap written by old men and I had to decipher the meaning and I did not know the meaning because there was nothing about the poems that touched my own experience.
The art I saw did not represent my life.
Sure, I had Judy Blume and Margaret and Nancy Drew and Meg Murry and Anne Shirley, but they weren’t part of the canon. Even The Diary of Anne Frank was something I read because my mom suggested it.
In school, we read Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, and Catcher in the Rye.
Stories about boys.
I don’t remember reading a single book or poem in high school English with a female protagonist. I barely remember reading anything written by a woman. Maybe Emily Dickenson and Jane Austen, but they were not exactly accessible.
It never occurred to me that there could be poetry about menstruation and needing a tampon. Or breaking up. Or about wanting pockets in our clothes. Or about housework.
Then I found those poems. I found Kim Addonizio and Sharon Owens.
And last month, I found the book Sweeping Beauty, an anthology of poems about housework.
WHO WRITES POEMS ABOUT HOUSEWORK?
Women. That’s who. Women write poems about housework and how dreary it is and how they are stuck and how nothing is ever done but sometimes there is ephemeral joy in a newly-made bed with hospital corners.
They write things like this, excerpted from Pamela Gemin’s poem “Upper Peninsula Landscape with Aunts.”
These aunts are My People.
And this is my life. And my mother’s life. And, as my mom wrote after I shared Gemin’s poem with her, my grandmother’s life.
STILL going through Grandma’s diaries, I’m reminded of the ceaseless cooking, baking, canning, freezing, washing (clothes and milk machine), ironing, mending, sewing, milking, transporting, etc., etc. that constituted her daily life. Almost no day went by without at least one extra person at the table and more frequently four or five. Company from any- and everywhere popped in and were fed.
My mother was a one-person factory! 🥴
Upper Peninsula Landscape with Aunts
Home from casino or fish fry,
the aunts recline
in their sisters’ dens,
kicking off canvas shoes
and tucking their nylon footies
on each other’s pointy toes
and freckled bunions.
When Action 2 News comes on
they shake their heads and tsk tsk tsk
and stroke their collarbones.
The aunts hold their shoulderstrap purses
tight into their hips
and double-check their back seats.
The last politician they trusted
was FDR, and only then
when he kept his pants on.
The aunts won’t be dickered down,
they’ll tell you a buck is a buck,
as they wash and rinse freezer bags,
scrape off aluminum foil.
The aunts know exciting ways
with government cheese,
have furnished trailer homes
with S&H green stamp lamps and Goodwill sofas;
brook trout and venison thaw
in their shining sinks.
With their mops and feather dusters
and buckets of paint on sale,
with their hot glue guns and staplers
and friendly plastic jewelry kits,
with their gallons of closeout furniture stripper,
the aunts are hurricanes who’ll marbleize
the inside of your closets
before you’ve had time
to put coffee on.
The aunts are steam-powered, engine-driven,
early rising women of legendary
soap and water beauty
who’ve pushed dozens of screaming babies
out into this stolen land.
They take lip or guff from no man,
child, or woman; tangle with aunts
and they’ll give you what for times six
and then some: don’t make them come up those stairs!
And yes they are acquainted
with the Bogeyman,
his belly full of robbery and lies.
The aunts have aimed deer rifles
right between his eyes, dead-bolted him out
and set their dogs upon him,
or gone tavern to tavern to bring him home,
carried him down from his nightmare
with strong black tea, iced his split lips,
painted his fighting cuts with Mercurochrome.
And they have married Cornishmen and Swedes,
and other Irish, married their sons and daughters off
to Italians and Frenchmen and Finns;
buried their parents and husbands and each other,
buried their drowned and fevered and miscarried children;
turned grandchildren upside down
and shaken the swallowed coins loose
from their windpipes; ridden the whole wide world
on the shelves of their hips.
The aunts know paradise is born
from rows of red dirt, red coffee cans,
prayers for rain. Whenever you leave
their houses, you leave with pockets and totes
full of strawberry jam and rum butter balls
and stories that weave themselves into your hair.
Some have already gone to the sky
to make pasties and reorganize the cupboards.
The rest will lead camels
through needles’ eyes
to the shimmering kingdom of Heaven.Pamela Gemin
To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall
If you ever woke in your dress at 4am ever
closed your legs to a man you loved opened
them for one you didn’t moved against
a pillow in the dark stood miserably on a beach
seaweed clinging to your ankles paid
good money for a bad haircut backed away
from a mirror that wanted to kill you bled
into the back seat for lack of a tampon
if you swam across a river under rain sang
using a dildo for a microphone stayed up
to watch the moon eat the sun entire
ripped out the stitches in your heart
because why not if you think nothing &
no one can / listen I love you
joy is coming.Kim Addonizio
And this gorgeous poem by Sharon Owens.