In my heart’s depth
I keep our secret smothered
although this morning I suffer
like a snipe scratching its feather.
I, who cut off my sorrows
like a woodcutter,
should spend my life in the mountains.
Why do I still long for the floating world?
Akazone Emon, eleventh-century Japan
Translated by Kenneth Rexroth and lkuko Atsumi, Women Poets of the World
Should I set off alone to the mountains or make an everyday life in “this floating world?” The women poets selected for these pages picture contrasting paths: the solitary quest and the tasks of domestic life. **
I read these poems aloud to two friends. The first friend thrilled to the solitary adventure of the poet who dons her mermaid’s armor and dives into the depths. To my friend, it is only through such bravery and renunciation that one can truly see:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”
For her, this was the true exploration of the spirit. “As women we are taught we should find life safe and cozy. Men don’t have that option,” she said. Then she smiled. “Of course, women don’t really have it either. But perhaps we need to create this lonely adventure, at risk of cold and pain, to fully know the loneliness and the boundlessness of the soul, as well as the truth of existence.”
My other friend disagreed. “The hope that these poets express is in everyday acts—sewing, making cloth, cooking.” She went on to insist that it’s in the daily tasks of household life that we can see that we are more than “the sum of the damages done” to us, that we can perhaps mend our broken lives, or find a connection to some larger design.
By nature penetrating deep yet advancing by inches
to span all things yet stitch them together,
Only needle and thread’s delicate footsteps
are truly broad-ranging, yet without beginning.
Pan Chao, “Needle and Thread”
Like the poet who can’t decide between her pull to the mountains and her longing for “the floating world, ” I am drawn to both and include both voices here. Both paths seem to arrive at the same truth.
We revel in the juice and color of life—”0 world, I cannot hold thee close enough!”—even as autumn “aches” and “sags.” There are moments when “Lifting belly seeks pleasure/And she finds it altogether.” But no matter whether we live the life of a courtesan-turned-Buddhist nun in the fourth century B.C., a New England recluse in the nineteenth century, or a Berkeley mother today, the body eventually decays, “stinks like rabbit’s pelt” and “twists like roots.”
Ultimately, the terrain of exploration in the mind—or what Dickinson calls “the Brain”—is “wider than the Sky,” “deeper than the sea,” “just the weight of God.” Whichever life we choose, the light we see by can be “cold and planetary.” If we look behind the myths, whether in solitary adventure or in the thick of daily work, tenderness is not assured. “The grasses unload their griefs on (our) feet.” There are always the “row of headstones” which separate us from our houses, and the moon, “bald and wild,” is an indifferent mother.
What’s most painful in life is disconnection. “Here, in this time,/our hearts have been cut/into small chambers/like ration cards.” Whether we choose solitary adventure or household life, each of us still yearns to see beyond her narrow and separate sense of self. “In the uncertain hour/just before dawn,” we learn “imperceptibly” as we count steps again and again. Despite the dark terrain and the indifferent light of the moon, we can still, perhaps, recover another mother “at the centre of the earth” who can “hear all of us” at the same time:
She puts her big ear
against the sky
to comfort herself.
Do this. She calls to us.
Susan Griffin, “Our Mother”
** Archive editor’s note: This essay refers to “ten poems by women” that were on the poetry pages of Inquiring Mind’s Spring 1987 issue. Most of the poems are not included in the archive, as they are copyrighted and published elsewhere. These are the poems, with links (where possible):
“Our Mother,” from Made From this Earth: An Anthology of Writings, by Susan Griffin. (Harper & Row, 1982.)
“#632”, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. (Little, Brown & Co., 1957.)
“The Moon and the Yew Tree,” from Ariel by Sylvia Plath. (Harper & Row, 1961.)
The Floating World
“God’s World,” from The New Poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay. (Macmillan Company, 1918.)
“Untitled” by Ambapali; translated from the Pali by A.L. Basham. From Women Poets of the World (Macmillan Publishing Co., 1983).
Excerpt from “Lifting Belly,” The Yale Gertrude Stein. (Yale University Press, 1980.)
“Taking a Walk,” by Ella Mental, Barre Massachusetts
“Diving into the Wreck,” from Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971–1972, by Adrienne Rich. (W.W. Norton & Co., 1973.)
Daily Tasks: Seeing the Design
“Needle and Thread,” by Pan Chao; translated from Chinese by Richard Mather and Rob Swigart. From Women Poets of the World (Macmillan Publishing Co., 1983).
Excerpt from “Sources XV”, from Your Native Land, Your Life by Adrienne Rich. (W.W. Norton & Co., 1986.)