Review: Ali Jane Smithon feminist poetry

Poems to Paint on a Wall

Things are pretty hectic right now. There’s a lot to do, and there’s a lot to think about: what is happening and what might happen. Yesterday I watched a literary event online while I did housework. It was a warm and joyful discussion, with five writers located across different continents, but the highlight for me was a remark made by host Alvin Pang, who said, ‘For some reason we are uncomfortable about being confused’ – or something very like that, I was washing up as I listened and had to dry my hands then search for a pencil and paper to write the quote down.

Being confused is usually temporary – and sometimes it is the beginning of an engagement that produces clarity, understanding, insight, enlightenment even. Sometimes confusion stays with us for long enough to be awkward. Feminism, for example, what even is it? Sometimes people use the term ‘feminisms’ to remind us that not everyone who is in the category ‘woman’, or maybe not everyone who’s not in the category ‘man’ has the same kind of politics, or is positioned in the same way by the patriarchy. Colonialism and the patriarchy. Colonialism and capitalism and the patriarchy.

In a recent interview, more than thirty years after the publication of her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler speaks about the way the ‘category of woman can and does change, and we need it to be that way. Politically, securing greater freedoms for women requires that we rethink the category of “women” to include those new possibilities.’ Rethinking the category of woman is something I think about a lot, at the same time wondering if it even matters, are there better questions to ask about gender, power and freedom? I think the poets in Borderless all identify as women, but I don’t know for sure. The book describes itself as an anthology of ‘feminist poetry’. Is it the work of feminism to rethink the category ‘woman’ or to queer the gender binary, or both? I’m not going to pretend I know exactly what this book should do. I’m confused.

Poetry anthologies coming out now aren’t likely to have institutional support. More often, some brave editor has a thing they want to do, and they scrape together what resources they can to do it. But those might have been the usual conditions of production for feminist anthologies. On my shelves: Mother I’m Rooted (Jennings 1975), The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (Hampton and Llewellyn 1986), Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry 1986-2008 (Harrison and Waterhouse 2009), The Hunter Anthology of Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Cassidy and Wilkinson 2016), and Issue 24 of Rabbit: A journal for nonfiction poetry LGBTQIA+ edited by Michael Farrell. I’m reading Borderless in the context of this history of bringing poems together, bringing them into relation with one another, to talk about feminism, gender, sexuality, language and life.

 Borderless is not ‘Australian’ or even ‘Australian Feminist Poetry’ – it’s transnational. Not international. Transnational – borderless. Most of these poets live on this continent, but not all. I should probably relax and let myself be confused about definitions for now. Because a poetry anthology is full of poems, poems with their own confusions, pains and delights. Time to talk about the poems, and then return to what brings the poems together, hopefully I’ll be less confused.

There’s a poem in Borderless that’s written by Yasaman Bagheri, it is very beautiful and very sad. Yasaman Bagheri’s biography in the back of the book tells us that she is a political refugee from Iran, that she has been incarcerated in offshore detention, that she was medically evacuated to Queensland, but she is not allowed to study. That she is 22. Her poem, ‘Drowned on Shore’ appears in her first language and has been translated by the editor, Saba Vasefi. The first two lines are

Reborn from the water,
I am undrowned.

The narrator in this poem witnesses drowning, takes on the work of the survivor, to remember, and the remembering is described with finely observed detail, until the poem closes, describing the fate of survivors, ‘banished’ by the sea to ‘perish later from withdrawal syndrome/in a mouldy tent’. The poem keeps being sad after I’ve finished reading.

There is a poem by H I Cosar, like the manifesto of a goddess, declaring:

I will be insatiable
I will not learn from mistakes
I will face results
of terrible decisions

I will be wild and free
no roofs no rings
no names on paper
I will know who I am

I will have my breath
unyielding obstinance
clouds and earth
I will create havoc

Those aren’t even the best lines. This is a poem to paint on a wall. A poem to wrap yourself around. A poem to learn by heart and repeat under your breath.

There are a couple of poems addressed to men, and poems addressed to women as comrades, lovers, poems addressed to everyone, and a poem addressed to a midwife. It’s Zeina Issa’s ‘The Midwife’, a sensory memory poem of flowers, hair, bread, and the strength and power of determined, skilful care:

you carved pillars
out of your ribs of sorrow and kindled

life from life, swallowing a woman’s bellow
whole when push became a deafening echo.

Oh, and a poem by Jill Jones, the opening lines –

If I’m exhausted, I’m still beautiful
life a dying tree, a pretty weed…

–  that somehow gets to –

I welcome the bright famous moonlight
the shades of evening’s voluptuous demeanour
the morning that’s ecstatic with
every leaf of air

–  and beyond, to a walk in good company, and the sky, huge and subtle joys.

Jeanine Leane’s poem ‘On International Womens Day’ critiques the way International Womens Day is observed by many white women: ‘corporate breakfasts, achievement awards/champagne and motivational speakers.’ Leane isn’t doing the breakfast thing.

I have too many Sistas without happy endings
too many Aunties who’ve hit the wall
seen too many Mothers weep for lost children
know too many women who will only wear purple
in bruises on their faces and bodies.

Jeanine Leane is more likely having her tea and toast while she thinks or reads, doing the work that’s needed to write and speak for herself and with the Sistas, Aunties, Mothers and children she describes in the poem.

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s, ‘Mother’s Machete’, is an account of a blade that has many uses, including skimming ‘soured milk and honey’. A machete that has a life of its own ‘growing in weeds’ and ‘biting the stone driveway/perhaps for our safety’. This long, machete-shaped poem of tense then loosening couplets is double-edged. Children know the jump-scare strength and speed of the machete mother,

no matter

how fast
the runner…

a machete mother
is always faster.

All’s well, so long as you are a beloved child who wants to be caught. No doubt there are references in this poem lost to me – definitions of Samoan words used in the poem are provided, but words can only take me so far. Many of the poems in this anthology are written by poets who come from literary traditions that I am only beginning to experience. What a joyful confusion it is to read these poems. What a fortunate thing to have these generous poets making work and editors bringing them together. The figure of the ‘machete mother’ feels known to me, but I can’t know what I’m missing and what I’m making up. The confusion of reading is deeper in some places than in others, but reading is a low-risk way to get out of one’s depth.

There are poems in this book about the common ground of violence and threats of violence, and the ways gendered violence is turned into statistics, headlines, theories. As Samah Sabawi says:

They write me down
They write me down

The woman in Samah Sabawi’s poem is having a baby, not in the hospital room she booked, but at a checkpoint.

I breathe you in
And breathe them out
I breathe out the tanks and guns
The human rights conventions
The UN resolutions
The bullshit conferences
All of it fades into nothingness
Until you and I are all there is.

Where Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Iron Ladies’ works a way through Margaret Thatcher, the Queen, Julia Gillard, Hilary Clinton, asking questions about whether women do power differently, Samah Sabawi’s poem returns us to doings that exceed resolutions, borders and conventions, the doing of breath and birth. It’s not that the vulnerable cannot be hurt, even killed, but that without this breathing and birthing, nothing can be done at all.

Time for some joy? How about Sara M. Saleh and ‘The (Not So) Secret Life of 3arab Girls: Our Raqs is Sharqi’. The poem is described as ‘’An intermittent Ghazal’ written ‘After Patricia Smith’. The reference is likely to be to Patricia Smith’s poem ‘Hip Hop Ghazal’, an ode to ‘us girls’, to bodies, to dance, to swinging hips.

Raqs Sharqi is a dance tradition, or a group of traditions. ‘Our Raqs is Sharqi’ surely puns on English homonyns and the title’s play with parentheses, the numeral 3 and capitalisation, is already life-affirming before we get to the first lines and ‘spring coil curls, sentimental lines of kohl’ and ‘whirring, grinding, blazing’. Just as in Patricia Smith’s poem, the celebrating, living bodies of 3arab girls are beyond defiance or resistance, melt away all disapproval, opposition, ignorance and indifference. They are the heat and energy of stars, molten cores, dazzling, ecstatic.

Kerri Shying’s emotional laundress takes all the time it needs. The poem warns us that ‘the bardo is bloody and heteronormative’ but having this insight isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it might even be what makes it possible to

              to Laurie Anderson          every
ten years
at our longevity
                           at our contentment

and to make one’s self a source of

oyster mushrooms that peeked out
between the half healed
flesh    writing over the strong scars
        that slow me down

the poem includes a couplet that has stuck in my head, becoming an aphorism

when you have come this far you have failed
to recognize several off ramps.

Survival’s not all humming along with ‘O Superman’, after all.

The switching back and forth between big and little things in this poem, as well as the reference to laundresses reminds me of Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s 1797 poem ‘Washing Day’, a poem about profundity and ephemera, daily practices domestic and spiritual, the substance and substancelessness of things. Kerri Shying makes worlds of commonplace and profound things, but which is which?

Washing is also part of Beth Spencer’s poem ‘Dress me up’, the brief ‘top and tail’ wash that is familiar to those who live with scarce water. The wash is a kind of sacrament, performed on Sunday, ‘skin holy in the glow from dimpled glass’. This poem, just two lines longer than a sonnet, tells lifetimes passed in and out of a house with a ‘long hallway where the bedrooms hide like bodies’. The bodies known well from washing are also hidden, private. There are two kinds of time in this poem, as expressed in the saying often shared by people with small children, a mingled comfort and sadness, that ‘the days are long but the years are short’. Loved family members are known and not known.

In her poem ‘optimal’, Alison Whittaker does a necessary thing, laying out the way our bodies are always living in relation to other bodies, the biological, social and political inseparable. In this poem the narrator describes the work of attending, constantly, to the body, having been advised to observe various restrictions to diet and maintain an exercise regime with the aim of

minimising my health risks
inherent apparently
as an Aboriginal woman

That ‘inherent apparently’ is working hard. We are often told that ill health is the result of contemporary indulgence, our personal ‘bad choices’. Aboriginal people are also loaded up with the mysterious ‘disadvantage’ that somehow just happens – yeah right. Meanwhile there is good evidence that profound and violent disruption, such as, say, colonisation, has health impacts that last for generations. The idea of an ‘inherent’ health risk is a trick. The ovum that carries half of our genetic material comes from past generations, the person that gave birth to us was born with that ovum already formed and waiting for release. The development of a foetus that grows from a fertilised ovum is influenced by whether the person carrying that foetus has access to the kind of nutrients that will help them thrive, is able to enjoy the freedom of being comfortably active and has the care and support that will keep them from anxiety and stress. Little hearts and guts and brains, the hormones that regulate all our systems, develop in relation to what’s going on with the bodies that carry us, and what is going on in the world around those bodies. How my body works is impacted by the stresses experienced or avoided generations before I was born and long before I made any ‘choices’. I apologise for the digression into what should be general knowledge – Whittaker’s ‘inherent apparently’ is a much snappier way to say all that.

Whittaker is well known for her work both supporting the families of Aboriginal people who have died as a result of colonial, and especially state, violence, and bearing witness and writing about the ways in which the institutions of the law address or fail to address this violence. She reads inquest findings, accounts of

                fat blak people pinned down
by scores of cops, people like me who just
somehow spontaneously die of heart
failure because, randomly and out of
nowhere, their own big torsos were
‘obscuring their airways’ when they were
pressed flat into the ground.

‘Somehow spontaneously’ unable to breathe. Colonialism’s impact on the body is multiple, sometime overt and sometimes hard to see. But the really nasty trick Whittaker reveals in the inquest findings is the way that one kind of damage, the damage of ill health, is produced, like magic, to obscure the visible brutality of pressing someone to the ground until they can’t breathe. Whittaker sees the trick. And in this poem, she is showing us.

The poem doesn’t hold back from the abject reality of bodies or shitty experiences navigating health care or just trying to buy a meal. The narrator of this poem is even photographed by strangers for a laugh or while she cries. The narrator knows she isn’t funny and isn’t only sad, but even rejecting the framing of others is too much some days. Most days. Still after all that, the final image of the poem is glorious, an unexpected self-averment of mightiness that exceeds defiance.

At the front of Borderless, opposite the title page, an Acknowledgement of Country – ‘This book has been created on stolen land’. On Ngunnawal, Ngarigo and Ngambi Country, the Country that Canberra is built on. The editors of this anthology are Saba Vasefi, Melinda Smith and Yvette Holt. The cover design is by Caren Florance, who is also a contributing poet, the cover image a recent painting by Wendy Sharpe. We already know that the space of this anthology is not bounded, it is not a field created to make an argument about what an artform is doing in a nation state. It’s not about a language, (though most of the poems are in English) or a national literature. The title says that its unconcerned with boundaries. But these three editors must have used some method to select these poems, these poets? To find one another, and to embark on this project together?

What does the book have to say about itself? There is a Foreword, written by Saba Vasefi, Editor-in-chief of Borderless and the former Director of the Sydney International Women’s Poetry and Arts Festival. The foreword asserts that ‘imagination and creativity are forms of epistemic freedom, nonviolent action and civil resistance… not only for those living under the power matrix of a fundamentalist regime like the Islamic Republic of Iran, but also for those living in a society governed by the practices and legacies of European colonialism.’ Vasefi writes that the festival meant that she met feminist poets, ‘liberationist women of colour committed to calling out the hegemonic conditions of segregation’. She says ‘it was my hope that Borderless might facilitate a platform for the alliance of diverse groups all standing together for cohesion.’ Standing together, a sense of unity, alliance can be an antidote to exclusion, marginalisation, banishment. A deliberate editorial strategy of ‘togetherness, unity and coalition’, from the decision to work with Yvette Holt and Melinda Smith, to then ‘congregate the voices of First Nations, refugee and migrant women with the voices of Anglo Australians… women from the LGBTQI and disability communities’.

My confusion hasn’t lifted. But I can see that one of the things to be gained from the rethinking of the category ‘woman’ is the potential for inauguration and renewal of commonalities and solidarities, the possibilities for division to melt away or turn into a site of connection, the potential for being in relation to others without the need for a binary, or a boss. Reading this anthology, I think of these poems, these poets, as being anthologised in relationship with one another, and with the editors, and now with us, the readers. I’m still confused. There’s a lot to do, and a lot to think about. Maybe you can help me out.

Works Cited

Connection and Community in a Time of Crisis, with Alvin Pang Ranjit Hoskote, Yvonne Owuor, Ellen van Neerven and Kyoko Yoshida. non/fiction lab’s 2021 Public Forum series. Presented by RMIT University.

Judith Butler and Jules Gleeson, ‘We need to rethink the category of woman’: Interview with Judith Butler, Ill Will, September 7th, 2021