Saturday, August 23, 2014

Silenced Women, Books and Poetry

via The New York Times

I've been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's novel The Signature of All Things on the recommendation of our dear Mary. To be honest, I was not a big fan of Eat, Pray, Love but have always admired Gilbert's writing and speaking, her take on life and her gentle demeanor (I saw her once, live, with Annie LaMott). Her new book is read by Juliet Stevenson, the great English actress, and perhaps part of the love affair I'm having with the story and the writing is due to Stevenson's exquisite interpretation. I think, though, that the book is just plain interesting and beautifully written. I generally take forever to listen to an audible version of a book -- I have a hard time staying with the story and don't think my ears are as connected to literature as my eyes, if that makes sense. In any case, though, I'm getting toward the end, unable to listen to it in my car because of some lurid details that I don't want the boys to hear, and I might even lie on my bed and finish it up -- just lie there and stare at the ceiling with earplugs in my ear. 

I'm struck, over the last few days, as I immerse myself in listening to this story of a late eighteenth, early nineteenth century woman by just how constrained women's lives were for most of written history. The constraints were so pervasive and affected every aspect of their lives, including sexuality -- maybe especially sexuality -- until very recently. And then I think about how women are shamed and silenced even today, sometimes spectacularly but more usually, silently and subtly -- even by themselves. I can honestly say that I've felt stifled over the last couple of days, perhaps over-aware of my opinions, my outspoken-ness, my sharp tongue. I wonder if men feel this way regularly, whether they feel the need to second-guess their intentions, apologize for the way they deliver their thoughts or feel "less than" because of them.

Although I can't begin to fully understand it, I think Emily Dickinson was hinting at these things -- at anger and constraint -- when she wrote this poem.

Here's the poem for your eyes:

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--

And here's the poem, read by Juliet Stevenson (!) for your ears:

Emily Dickinson - My Life Had Stood A Loaded Gun by poetictouch


  1. Good point about men - I think they question themselves much less often. I'm quite outspoken myself, sometimes too much so and for the wrong reasons - displaced anger type thing. And I'm always quite ashamed after but I highly doubt that men feel this same sense of shame, partly because society says it is okay for men to be outspoken. Even when I'm outspoken for 'good' reasons - some folks can't really cope with it. But if I were a man it would be much more acceptable. It would be interesting actually to see if men who write blogs get as many angry, anonymous comments as women do. I somehow doubt it. An interesting subject - I am realizing that I've often fought against my outspoken personality type - not that it changes it, just makes me more insecure.
    - Karen

  2. Well, there are definitely still two sets of rules in place for men and women, just as there are different sets of rules for different races. We all know it and maybe someday, all of this will change but it's going to take internal change of attitude before it happens, no matter what laws are in place.

  3. The Signature of All Things is in my list of top ten books, ever.

    It's strange because I read something Elizabeth Gilbert had written just yesterday about women and how we are in the world. I follow her on Facebook and it was an article she had written for O magazine.

    Added to that, I listened to CBC last week, a program about women in the work place and how different men and women are in the world.

    And yesterday my daughter sent me a quote, What if I fall? Oh my darling, but what if you fly?

    And now your blog, all saying the same thing. Hmmm.

    And still I live in fear of falling but I know I'm not alone now.

  4. Here's the link to go with my rather muddled, but it made a lot of sense to me, comment. Sorry:)

    Basically, ask for what you want.

  5. Here's my two cents....I too have felt your sting when my opinions have clashed with yours....though I don't think I was ever mean...I just didn't agree with some things like the rest of your tribe. I just quit commenting before it is not worth it to me.

    1. Thanks for your honesty, ain't for city girls. I think the feeling is mutual here as I've felt the sting from your words, too.

  6. That poem is new to me. Thank you for it.

  7. I tried to.comment on that Gilbert article on the Oprah website. But it seems you can't do that unless you give all your Facebook or Twitter information and allow them to tweet on your behalf. Also, when people inquired about submitting, the line was no because of legal reasons. Many people find a lot of value in what Gilbert has to say. I find she has, as Oprah has, turned spirituality into a brand.

  8. I heard Elizabeth Gilbert on NPR recently. She was discussing her reading life and I found myself jotting down lots of book suggestions.

  9. When I saw Gilbert here in Asheville recently, she talked about how she was fascinated with thwarted female desire. She was recently on the Nerdette podcast, and said some interesting things there too. She spoke about 'chick lit' being the new 'polite botany' and said she felt that to overcome these restrictions, women have to just keep doing what we're doing.

  10. I can't read Dickinson without thinking of this poem, by Billy Collins. Particularly the last verse. Maybe Mr. Collins got the loaded gun feeling from her poetry too?

    Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes.

    First, her tippet made of tulle,
    easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
    on the back of a wooden chair.

    And her bonnet,
    the bow undone with a light forward pull.

    Then the long white dress, a more
    complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
    buttons down the back,
    so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
    before my hands can part the fabric,
    like a swimmer's dividing water,
    and slip inside.

    You will want to know
    that she was standing
    by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
    motionless, a little wide-eyed,
    looking out at the orchard below,
    the white dress puddled at her feet
    on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

    The complexity of women's undergarments
    in nineteenth-century America
    is not to be waved off,
    and I proceeded like a polar explorer
    through clips, clasps, and moorings,
    catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
    sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

    Later, I wrote in a notebook
    it was like riding a swan into the night,
    but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
    the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
    how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
    how there were sudden dashes
    whenever we spoke.

    What I can tell you is
    it was terribly quiet in Amherst
    that Sabbath afternoon,
    nothing but a carriage passing the house,
    a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

    So I could plainly hear her inhale
    when I undid the very top
    hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

    and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
    the way some readers sigh when they realize
    that Hope has feathers,
    that reason is a plank,
    that life is a loaded gun
    that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

    Billy Collins

    1. Emily P. -- I have always loved this poem and believe I posted about it once with a video of it being read by Collins. I'll try to find the link. And yes, Collins is definitely paying homage to Dickinson in the poem. He references several lines of her poetry.

    2. Here you go:

    3. thank you! You made my morning. :-)

  11. For what it's worth, I don't think it's necessarily easy for male bloggers to be outspoken. I tend to avoid controversy on my blog specifically so that I don't invite snarky comments. I just hate confrontation! This may make for a blander blog, and believe me I've thought about that -- but still I tend to think a lot about what I post, how it may be interpreted and the kind of response it may invite. (And I'm not implying that you don't -- just making the point that it's not necessarily easier for men, at least not this man.)



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