Saturday, March 07, 2009

Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English

Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English
Eva Salzman and Amy Wack, Eds.
Seren Books or
ISBN 978-1-85411-431-0

A review by Mignon Ariel King

The editors of Women’s Work intend to counteract the “glaring gender imbalance” in anthologies of modern poets, incorporating both famous and lesser-known women poets from the US, UK, and Ireland. This admirable and complex goal is combined with a reluctance to detract from the poetry itself by reducing the poets to political pawns in a radical, separatist feminism. In a fair world, Salzman’s introduction assesses, “the writing is all that should count,” but in the absence of such fairness the scales must occasionally be tipped in the direction of “positive discrimination” (8).

These editors are an American whose bio is as vibrant as her poetry and a classic British poet-scholar, both of whom have been working with words for their entire lives. The reader is in very good hands with this pair. Salzman points out that editors who are charged with judging the importance of poets generally know too little about modern women poets to have an informed opinion about which women poets have earned the term “important.” The highly learnéd yet extremely entertaining introduction explains that the purpose of the anthology is not to “take gender politics as [its] main subject” (17); however, the fact that anger and resistance still confront the mere discussion of gender inequalities in canonizing literature hammers home the need for this work.

Separated into fourteen themed sections—rather than being arranged in chronological order—this is no gloomy tome. Remember compare and contrast papers from high school English class? Here the editors make such connections for the reader, helpfully placing compatible poems for the reader’s true enjoyment as well as understanding. This format allows the non-scholar to simply enjoy the poems at will. That is, read from the “Culture…” section at night and save “History…War” for daylight hours, if you please. Read according to your current mood. The diversity of voices represented roots this collection in the 21st Century. It is all quite good poetry, no low-quality work appearing because of a poet’s demographics. Here is a sample of the 283 pages of poetry, spanning one-hundred-plus years and three major English-language locales:

“Please can I have a man…Who when I come trotting in…
opens his arms like a trough for me to dive into.”
—Selima Hill, “Please can I have a man”

“Now, when he and I meet, after all these years,/
I say to the bitch inside me, don’t start growling.”
—Carolyn Kizer, “Bitch”

“What does she do with them all?/They warm her throat like pearls/
They fasten her dress, stud her shoes….”
—Amy Wack, “Tooth Fairy”

“In my dream I take the white man/slap him til he loves me.”
—Diane Glancy, “Kemo Sabe”

“When I am old…I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves/
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.”
—Jenny Joseph, “Warning”

“Here comes another alpha male--,/a man’s man, a dealmaker,/
holds tanks of liquor,/charms them pantsless at lunch….”
--Deborah Garrison, “Please Fire Me”

“…What would we have called each other laughing/
joking into our beer? Where are my gangs,/
my teams, my mislaid sisters?”
--Lucille Clifton, “The Lost Women”

The anthology is an excellent read, a sourcebook for writers and students, and a formal scholar’s delight(with outstanding front and back matter, brief but relevant bios, an index, and flawless organization.

English teachers from secondary to college level could not ask for a better text. It is also good for men who have a clue about modern women’s poetry or for those who would like to get one from experts. Impatient readers who could not be paid to read an intro can crack the book open anywhere and be absorbed. Read it because you are in love, or doing your laundry, or lonely, or truly annoyed. It weighs comparatively little, a fine companion on the train at 8am. For women poets there is almost the urge to be discouraged. Instead, be humbled. Be inspired. Be prepared to throw an “it’s about time” party when this anthology becomes required reading in modern poetry courses. Women’s Work has just begun.

--available on

Mignon Ariel King is an alumna of the Graduate Program in English at Simmons College, a former adjunct professor of English, and a multicultural woman poet

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