A couple of weeks ago I attended a seminar about “missing voices” of women in Irish poetry. Between academics who held their subjects at an impassioned, scholarly distance, to writers who presented movingly on now dead friends, and, finally, others doing their best to fit within the shapes academia allows both for researchers and subjects, the experience, for me, was a mix of startling, boring and aching. But when a PhD student presenting on Cathleen O’Neill, a working-class poet and activist (who, I found out later, was sitting in the audience), raced through what could have been an hour long presentation in about 10 minutes, articulately, intelligently, if not necessarily calmly (this was after some considerable trouble with the projector), my ears perked up. When she later engaged speakers with justice-bent positions on race, class and citizenship (gender already naturally on the table), I felt the room open with possibilities. Possibilities for what? Living. The way a poem can open new possibilities for living. like this one, by Kay Ryan (from Odd Blocks, Carcanet, 2011):
It’s her politeness
one loathes: how she
isn’t insistent, how
she won’t impose, how
nothing’s so urgent
it won’t wait. Like
a meek guest you tolerate
she goes her way–the muse
you’d have leap at your throat,
you’d spring to obey.
That I am getting better at identifying and banding with humans whose work is messy and vital, people who interrupt and disrupt universalizing assumptions (what kind of imaginings and aesthetics belong in a literary canon, for example? is gaining access to such a canon the goal, and is it a worthy goal?), who risk disorder in “polite company,” (the way Kay Ryan would like the muse to do!) in order to do public justice work, I take as a sign that I am healing from the aspirational reflex that propelled my mother from the (literal) peasant class in Romania, to the lower-middle-class in the U.S. This is the reflex that always assumes that as you rise in class, you grow more civilized, morally fit and spiritually secured in the eyes of God.
My mother was born a burden (female) in a rural farming family in the middle of a war (WWII); I do not know that there was one specific thing that threatened her survival, but I do know there were many things. At her mother’s funeral, in the same tiny village where she was born, she forbade keening, which was still common, even if in a less formal structure than in the past (when keening was a payable service), and insisted on playing Beethoven’s Funeral March on a cassette she’d brought with her from the US. I am not suggesting in any way that the old wailing ways are more valid or sincere as public performances of grief (they often aren’t, that kind of sincerity is not the point), or in any way more intrinsically appropriate than Beethoven; I am simply commenting on the importance she placed on the aesthetics of grief. Disordered human voices profaned her experience; classical music ennobled it. Naturally, I also grew up taking ballet, classical piano, poetry reciting lessons — I performed the first of these until grade school, the second until high school, both with exceeding mediocrity. I was gifted at reciting, though, and still commit verse to memory — of the three things my mother identified as markers of membership in a more desirable class, poetry increasingly offers the most access to people of all classes. And yet, here we are with the “missing voices.”
I know my mother broke class boundaries to survive a kind of death members of her family couldn’t imagine, and if she’d known another road, she would have taken it — at the same time, I need to believe it’s possible to grow into yourself without being ashamed of what fed you. To reject provinciality, and bigoted piety, anything that distorts the self and others, yes, but to acknowledge that this must always be done inside of any classification — no class has intrinsic moral integrity or superiority.
I recently met up again with this young scholar. We talked about working-class and welfare-class student realities, about depression and overwork and immobilization and PTSD, about embracing difference, releasing shame. We embraced each other, and through our conversation, we released shame. We talked about entering institutions that (now) claim to value resilience through adversity, while expecting students to perform the orderliness and stability that comes naturally only when life is orderly and stable. The panic or lethargy in my body feels like my problem; it is my problem, whose else is it? Cathleen O’Neill, the scholar told me, wrote a poem called “Class Attack” — “because it’s not a panic attack, it’s a class attack.” This isn’t blame, but it is a confrontation. Voices of the oppressed haven’t “gone missing.” There’s systemic agency involved; the institutions erected to protect privilege render it effortless, for even the un-privileged who enter these institutions, to miss them (yet, thankfully, some people do the hard work of looking). Some, after a long struggle, find a quiet place to live and die in peace. Some burn themselves up. Some who catch a little light but not too much, destroy those around them, as well as themselves, in efforts to preserve, at all costs, some (initially liberating, eventually imprisoning) measure of power, which is, in fact, power-over-others, dominance. The process by which women with racial and class privilege achieve power-over-others has a name, coined by the Turkish scholar Deniz Kandiyoti as patriarchal bargaining. Still, some women find ways through pain to more just expressions of their natural power, to speak.
[image: “The Thinker” and “Seated Woman” of Cernavoda, Romania, from the Hamangia culture, 2500 B.C.E. and 6000 B.C.E. — interesting that the male figure is identified by what he is doing with his mind, and the woman by what she is doing with her body — why not “The Thinkers” or “Seated Man and Woman”? Well, I know why.]