by Frances Payne Adler

Page 8

Emily Dickinson wrote that her wars were laid away in books. Mine weren't solely in books. I was spit on while reading this poem, "Friendly Fire," at an anti-war protest march:

Someone wants to know how I feel about women in war, women in
war, I mean sending women, I mean, we're talking mothers here,
some kid, if the woman gets shot, loses his mother, hey, they've been
losing fathers down the tubes since who knows when, but what the hell,
no one ever sent a father home for the kid's sake, fathers, I guess
they figure fathers expendable, send the woman home, have to
take care of our women, send her home, someone wants to know
what I think about women and rape, someone wants, every six
minutes a woman is raped a daughter is raped a wife is beaten every
eighteen seconds, someone wants to know what I think, have to take
care of our women, send her home, what I think send her home
to raise the kid, the kid they care so much about, the one that will grow
and go to war

As Alicia Ostriker says, "We've moved beyond Dickinson. . .we no longer pretend to prefer nonexistence." We have Tillie Olsen, making visible the ways in which our will has been "leeched"; we have Mary Helen Washington telling us about Zora Neale Hurston "jumping at de sun"; we have bell hooks teaching us to "talk back"; we have Maxine Hong Kingston refusing to collude any longer in the erasure of her aunt; we have Susan Griffin "putting a frame around our lives"; we have Gloria Anzaldua "making face, making soul"; we have Adrienne Rich, "What if I tell you you are not different / it's the family albums that lie"; we have Joy Harjo, giving back the fear; we have Sandra McPherson saying we don't need a "security clearance to write our poems"; we have Judith McDaniel proclaiming that "Witnessing is especially necessary when the reality of a lived experience is denied by the culture at large, the culture to which the witness is brought. . . ." We have Audre Lorde, "For women. . .poetry is no luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. . . .Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. . . .It is the skeleton architecture of our lives." And on and on.

Yet semester after semester in my classrooms, Dickinson's poems are pivotal in breaking open the silence that has blocked students' writing--particularly in my "Woman As Witness" feminist creative writing class. I remember one student in particular, who said to me two days before the semester began:

"I'm nervous about taking your class."

"Nervous about what?" I asked. "That you won't be able to write?"

"No, that I will. It's so presumptuous."

"What is?"

"That I think I have something to say."

This from a young woman who had lived more than 20 years, lost a father in her early years, a mother in her teen years, raised herself and a baby alone, and here she was apologizing for having something to say. Two weeks into the "Woman As Witness" class, her response to "I'm ceded - I've stopped being Theirs - " was a poem titled, "To My Rapist's Mother." Dickinson is the first step in reversing the domino theory of felled and muted women.

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