by Katha Pollitt

Page 8

I thought I would read that poem that our introducer mentioned, "Lives of the Nineteenth Century Poetesses." I should explain that I wasn't thinking of Emily Dickinson when I wrote this because I was thinking of women poets--I hate that word, poetesses, and use of it was sort of supposed to be a tip-off--these are women who would have maybe thought of themselves that way; not very good writers, much more conventional people than Emily Dickinson was, but who had something--they had something that was very hard for them to express, given that things were the way they were.


As girls they were awkward and peculiar,
wept in church or refused to go at all.
their mothers saw right away,
no man would marry them.
So they must live at the sufferance of others,
timid and queer, as governesses out of Chekhov,
malnourished on theology,
boiled eggs and tea,
but given to outbursts of cries
that embarrass everyone.

After the final quarrel,
the grand renunciation,
they retire upstairs to the attic,
or to the small room in the cheap off-season hotel,
and write, "Today I burned all your letters," or
"I dreamed the magnolia blazed like an avenging angel,
and when I woke, I knew I was in Hell."

No one is surprised when they die young,
having left their savings to a wastrel nephew,
to be remembered for a handful of minor but perfect lyrics,
a passion for jam or charades,
and a letter still preserved in the family archives:
"I send you here with the papers of your aunt,
who died last Tuesday in the odor of sanctity,
although a little troubled in her mind
by her habit, much disapproved of by the ignorant,
of writing down the secrets of her heart."

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