In Italian “corpo” suggests the human body and a body of work; so in English we overlap the same ideas. Our bodies give birth to our work. The best poetry tilts the mind toward the body’s corporeality. In Florence, recently, friends gave me a copy of a 2009 anthology titled “Corporea,” a collection of poems written by iconic feminists like Alice Walker, Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich, and others writing in English, familiar and equally widely known. Italian translations on the right face the English originals on the left.
Yes, I tried to appreciate the translators’ skill, but ultimately I returned again and again to the originals, thrilling to the razor edge of insight and anger, the efflorescence of modern American feminism.
Marge Piercy, “Missoula Rape Poem”
There is no difference between raped
and being bitten by a rattlesnake
except that people ask of your skirt was short
and why you were out anyway…
Josephine Miles, “Conception”
Death did not come to my mother
Like an old friend.
She was a mother, and she must
Lucille Clifton, “Homage to My Hips”
…they don’t fit into little
pretty place, these hips
are free hips…
Adrienne Rich, “The Floating Poem”
Whatever happens with us, your body
will haunt mine — tender, delicate
your lovemaking, like the half-curled frond
of the fiddlehead fern in forests…
I love the directness with which the writer faces the reader. There is no skirmish with fancy dancing at the border of communication. Empowerment takes up its staff and walks firmly ahead, breaking unspoken rules, praising what is often derided, entering into league with those intimacies that make so many squirm. It’s what I want for my own writing, but sometimes draw back from achieving, when I seek again that shroud of interior half-lights that make a poem dense and requiring many more than a first glance to penetrate.
Why would I aim for this? Three reasons present themselves, not exhaustive, nor necessarily definitive but powerful: One: hiding is protective and I’ve found that feminists themselves are not always to be trusted. Human, after all, and in the real world, defensive. I’ve had reason to avoid placing myself too fully in their company.
Next, my mind works in a glancing, reflective, associative way which is sometimes obfuscating, sometimes intriguing. I sometimes give myself permission to take what comes to me because if I don’t, I have nothing. Three, like any intense ideology (and mid-century to the 1980s feminism was both a practice and an ideology) the feminist point of view leave out lots of experience. It does not ask, for instance, right off the bat, what in the name of heaven has brought the rapist to this horrific deed. Because, of course, when Marge Piercy and other women were writing poems against rape, they were bringing to light the awful fact that women in that period were blamed for being attacked. They had to insist on the reality from the woman’s point of view because that reality had been entirely obscured with blame.
Reading this wonderful collection has started me thinking about what is happening to feminism today, when my daughter and step-daughter, my women students and younger colleagues are trying to make their way. Meanwhile I applaud the Italian feminist poetry collective that has brought out this anthology, and wish with a loss bordering on anguish that we, too, in the United States could still inhabit this exciting period of breaking open.