If the rapturous response to Amanda Gorman’s stirring performance at the Inauguration is any guide, poetry is definitely having a moment, especially poetry by women, and particularly by women of color. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen was a New York Times bestseller. Joy Harjo has been the Poet Laureate since 2019. Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize. A new biography of Sylvia Plath weighed in at a thousand pages.
That women poets are coming into their own makes sense for many reasons. Women are the large majority of readers of poetry (and also of fiction) and fill creative writing workshops and MFA programs. Poetry tends to be short, and thus lends itself to email, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook, all platforms where women are active. A poem can go viral, like Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” or many poems by Maya Angelou and Lucille Clifton and Rupi Kaur.
All this would definitely surprise critics of decades ago. There have been great women poets and popular women poets (not always the same people) for centuries, but in the past, few were taken seriously by the scholars and critics who form the canon. John Crowe Ransom’s notorious 1937 takedown of Edna St. Vincent Millay, “The Poet as Woman,” was typical (“undeveloped intellectually,” sentimental, effusive). But flash forward to our own day and who is the subject of a substantial, widely read biography and renewed critical interest? Who is still read? Not Ransom. In Millay we recognize a kindred modern spirit—a woman longing for joy and beauty and sex and love and above all, freedom. Ransom, by contrast, seems like a dusty old male chauvinist on the wrong side of history in just about every way (I say this as one who loves his poems, but they clearly belong to an earlier day).
Women poets today seem intimately connected to their readers. Perhaps it’s be- cause, even though “women’s poetry”—feminist poetry—has been part of the po- etry world for at least half a century, it still feels that women poets are saying things that have not been said very often, if ever. That is what makes my job as poetry editor of the Women’s Review of Books so exciting. We are, in a way, making history.
As April is National Poetry Month, we are celebrating by publishing six— yes, six!—poems. Longtime WRB contributor Priscilla Long’s “Summer, Seattle” depicts what looks at first like an idyllic day of reading and writing in a lovely garden. But I’ll bet I’m not the only reader who feels the anxiety beneath these concluding lines:
days that drift and pile up
like red-oak catkins
as if one day’s job
was to make another day.
In “The Skillet Puts in a Word,” Long wittily reflects on domestic work, which is at once daily and seemingly eternal:
I’m humble, a frying pan
but long after you, I’ll be
here, like the moon.
Next, US-based/US-raised Syrian poets: Mohja Kahf and Banah al- Ghadbanah. Mohja Kahf’s “When He Starts in with Geopolitics” is a clever take on the know-it-all expert who actually doesn’t know much: “When you think Syria, I know you think ‘walnut trees’ and ‘town meetings,’” not today’s reality of civil war and its horrors. Men who trumpet their out-of-date opinions oblivious to actual events—now there’s an old story. Banah al-Ghadbanah writes about another experience that is both daily and (so far) eternal, sexual violence. “Before I forget” tells of the gang rape of a Syrian refugee boy, whose rapists felt so safe, so entitled, they filmed it; “Little brother a sea of women have prepared a home for you, cast spells for your protection, while the men look the other way.”
Of course it is possible for a woman to be revered as well as reviled. She just needs to be a virgin and the mother of God. In “Poem Where I Am a Reliquary, a Vierge Ouvrante,” Anne Babson cleverly takes on the absurdity of demands for female sexual purity (talk about daily and eternal!). Her clear-glass empty container confesses, “I haven’t been a sacred vessel for a long time.”
Finally, Elizabeth Powell’s “Roe v. Wade 410 US 113 (1973): an erasure” distills Justice Blackmun’s decision down to its essence and makes poetry of its rather flatfooted prose. Witty and profound, it finds the mystery in that mysterious word “life” and stands in awe before it.
The tall green paper birch.
orange California poppies.
The cottage snug in sun,
lazing through the long days,
days I loiter
among poems and books,
days that drift and pile up
like red-oak catkins
as if one day’s job
was to make another day.
The Skillet Puts in a Word
I kiss and spit fat
on the burner, I'm
of Earth, old as Earth,
iron, born of exploding
stars, glad to hang
on your kitchen nail
for your few years
of cooking and dreaming.
I'm hot to fry fish,
the perfect pancake.
I'm humble, a frying pan
but long after you, I'll be
here, like the moon,
like mountains, like sun
and night. Like the sea.
Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based writer of poetry, science, creative nonfiction, fiction, and history, and a long-time independent teacher of writing. Her most recent book is Holy Magic: Poems (MoonPath Press), which won the Sally Albiso Poetry Book Award. Her previous poetry book is Crossing Over (University of New Mexico Press). Her other books include The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writer's Life (University of New Mexico Press) and a collection of memoirist essays, Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? She grew up on a dairy farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Before I forget
Little brother, your tears deep among the stars.*
How does a blizzard shriek?* And how does your shadow wander through the night? And how does the pain subside? And how does a butterfly fly in the rain, in the thunder, through the barbed wire and the barrel of the rifle? And how does a camera lens react to bearing witness? And what did the wind say? And how did the olive oil begin to taste? And how did you tell your mother and how many ears received the news that day? And when the dawn broke, did it cover you? Did the light comfort you softly or was it the night who held you close?
Did the city’s gravel speak after it had witnessed? Did the fish stare openly into the summer air? Little brother a sea of women have prepared a home for you, cast spells for your protection, while the men look the other way. You said it happened seven times before that and still no one knows your name.
Banah al-Ghadbanah (pronoun: zhe, they) is a Syrian poet published in As/Us, Sukoon: an Arab-themed literary magazine, Passage & Place, Afghan Punk Magazine, Poetry Northwest, Her Words, and Acting Up: Queer in the New Century Anthology. Banah is the winner of the Diverse Voices Book Prize, and their debut poetry book, syrena in space, comes out with Dzanc Books in 2022. Banah is currently a PhD Candidate working on zir dissertation about Syrian women’s creative work in revolution and war.
*the phrases “tears deep among the stars” and ‘how does a blizzard shriek,” taken from Huda Numani’s poem, “I was a point, I was a circle.”
ROE v. WADE, 410 US 113 (1973): an erasure
We need not resolve
the difficult question
of when life begins.
We are unable to arrive
at any consensus,
in the development
of man's knowledge—
When he is not
in a position
to speculate as to
Elizabeth A.I. Powell is the author of three books of poems, most recently Atomizer (LSU Press). Her second book of poems, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter: Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances was a Small Press Bestseller and named a “Books We Love 2016” by The New Yorker. Her novel, Concerning the Holy Ghost's Interpretation of J.Crew Catalogues, was published in 2019 in the U.K. Her work has appeared in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Seneca Review, West Branch, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Green Mountains Review and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Northern Vermont University. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. In 2020, she was Distinguished Visiting Writer at Oregon State University-Bend.
When He Starts in with Geopolitics
when he starts in with geopolitics at the mixer you know he doesn’t get it
the regime is dropping bombs on Idlib as we speak
Khirbet al-Joz, a village in the woods you can smell it
just from the name, Ruins of the Walnut Tree, the split heartwood—
it has a local council that’s been pulling together but just barely
the way tree roots pull toward water by the river
When you think “Syria” I know you think “walnut trees” and “town meetings”
the women in long brown or dark blue dusters negotiating and the small-town men
and the farmers and the FSA guys and the media girls & guys and the field medics in baseball caps
trying to decide whether to throw in with the devil Black Flags just to defend the town
they’re all hoarse now and there are flecks of light brown dust on their limbs in last sunlight
you can hear the sound of their running to the river but the border is closed where will they run
another shell explodes in your WhatsApp message from Khirbet al-Joz
and the local council is drafting a letter like Syrians newly awakened to their power to draft letters
to which no one in the world responds
and they are making hasty videos filmed in the street posted
online by the media girls huddled next to a crusty window
and you can see the smoke from the bombing, next building over, and feel the phone-camera shake
and you can hear the the hoarse women and men and their hasty online videos that no one seems to hear
and what will happen to them in the next moments? these moments, while you are at the mixer?
but the know-it-all hor d’oeuvres in hand starts in with geopolitics because that’s what Syria is to him
not the smell of Khirbet al-Joz and he knows nothing of Syrian women in town councils and does not ask “how are they?” or “how are they faring?” or “how are they faring now?”
Mohja Kahf, professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Arkansas since 1995, is author of a novel, three books of poetry, and an academic book, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque. Her writing has been translated to Arabic, Turkish, Japanese, Italian, German, and French translations. She is a founding member of the Radius of Arab American Writers and winner of a Pushcart Prize. In 2011 she joined the Syrian Nonviolence Movement (الحراك السلمي السوري), which was founded by protest organizers inside Syria. Her most recent book of poems is My Lover Feeds Me Grapefruit (Press 53, 2020).
Poem Where I Am A Reliquary, A Vierge Ouvrante
Full disclosure: I haven’t been a sacred vessel for a long time.
I am empty, as you can see through the glass.
They have lit me just so. Hushed patrons shuffle by.
Some point. Others gesture toward larger urns.
I am supposed to contain the fetus Jesus, to be His
Tabernacle. I am supposed to be a virgin.
I was handled by too many silversmiths in my making
For me to remain one, really. They wiped off prints
When they poised me next to the index card labeling me.
I am empty. I said that before, but it bears repeating.
I am an evacuated Heavenly Jerusalem.
I am descending to Earth in the End Times.
I am a trope, a symbol ex-machina.
I am mineral. I utter Magnificat.
But a woman? Don’t believe it!
Butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth.
Anne Babson’s latest collection of poetry, Messiah, will be released this autumn by Saint Julian Press. Her other works include Polite Occasions (Unsolicited Press), The White Trash Pantheon (Vox Press), the chapbook Dolly Shot (Dancing Girl Press), her play Reenactment, which tackles the subject of gun culture in America, and the libretto for the opera Lotus Lives, which has been performed in New York, Boston and Montreal. She has been anthologized most recently in Nasty Women Poets: an Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse (Lost Horse Press). Her work has recently appeared in Iowa Review, Cider Press Review, Southampton Review, Bridges, Barrow Street, Connecticut Review, The Pikeville Review, Rio Grande Review, English Journal, New Song, The Penwood Review, Sow’s Ear, The Madison Review, Atlanta Review, Grasslands Review, WSQ, Global City Review, Comstock Review, California Quarterly, Wisconsin Review, The Red Rock Review, and many other publications.