Our lives are worthy of art

When you (finally) see art that reflects your own experience

When your tinfoil has done all it can for you and has to be sent to The Good Tinfoil Place.

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.”

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.

Upper Peninsula Landscape with Aunts, Pamela Gemin

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! 🥴 

I leave you with three amazing poems. But get the books – Sweeping Beauty, Bukowski in a Sundress – and read more. I think you’ll like them.

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

inside, remarking

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.

4 thoughts on “Our lives are worthy of art

  1. I am not a poetry person in general, but that is good stuff. (I have also enjoyed the occasional Kate Baer poem – not all of them ring for me, probably because each human has different perspectives and experiences, but the ones that ring – whew.)

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  2. These poems are amazing, and two of them new to me – a lovely gift! When I was in college I attended a writing group and I wrote a poem about the life-on-repeat sameness of washing dishes, and I said that as far as I knew, most men wouldn’t relate really well to seeing the same burned-on streaks that don’t come off a pot even though you scrub them each time you find that pot in the sink, which is almost every day because you have taken that pot with you wherever you have lived (because at time, most guys didn’t wash dishes if there was some woman around who would). One guy corrected me and said that he had the exact same experience because he had once had a job washing dishes in a restaurant. I should have pointed out that the experience is different when you are getting paid, but I didn’t. He was a bit of a jerk, and probably wouldn’t have seen the difference. The women in the class liked my poem. And now I know that I am not predestined to be the dishwasher in any relationship, but it took a while.

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    1. I would like to read that poem! And yes, it’s completely different if you are being paid. And it appears that men are not changing much – that they still always know better than women.

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