Wednesday, 10 March 2010

International Women's Week

I'm glad the F-word seems to be having a renaissance. Younger women appear to be embracing it and daring to call themselves feminists again, without the angst that's attached to it over the last couple of decades.
Here's a poem for IWW by the Scottish poet Elma Mitchell (1919-2000). I can't find a picture of Elma anywhere, so I've started the post with 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose' by John Singer Sargent, as its name reminds me of this poem. If you click on the poem's title, there's a link to an analysis of it by Ruth Padel which appeared in her popular column in The Independent on Sunday.

Thoughts after Ruskin

Women reminded him of lilies and roses.
Me they remind rather of blood and soap,
Armed with a warm rag, assaulting noses,
Ears, neck, mouth and all the secret places:

Armed with a sharp knife, cutting up liver,
Holding hearts to bleed under a running tap,
Gutting and stuffing, pickling and preserving,
Scalding, blanching, broiling, pulverising,
- All the terrible chemistry of their kitchens.

Their distant husbands lean across mahogany
And delicately manipulate the market,
While safe at home, the tender and the gentle
Are killing tiny mice, dead snap by the neck,
Asphyxiating flies, evicting spiders,
Scrubbing, scouring aloud, disturbing cupboards,
Committing things to dustbins, twisting, wringing
Wrists red and knuckles white and fingers puckered,
Pulpy, tepid. Steering screaming cleaners
Around the snags of furniture, they straighten
And haul out sheets from under the incontinent
And heavy old, stoop to importunate young,
Tugging, folding, tucking, zipping, buttoning,
Spooning in food, encouraging excretion,
Mopping up vomit, stabbing cloth with needles,
Contorting wool around their knitting needles,
Creating snug and comfy on their needles.

Their huge hands! their everywhere eyes! their voices
Raised to convey across the hullabaloo,
Their massive thighs and breasts dispensing comfort,
Their bloody passages and hairy crannies,
Their wombs that pocket a man upside down!

And when all's over, off with overalls,
Quickly consulting clocks, they go upstairs,
Sit and sigh a little, brushing hair,
And somehow find, in mirrors, colours, odours,
Their essences of lilies and of roses.

Elma Mitchell

(From Staying Alive - real poems for unreal times 
edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe)


  1. Hi, thanks for your visit and your kind comment. Amazingly I have 'Staying Alive' on my bookshelf, bought years ago, used to live in durham and they are a local north east publisher. Love that poem, when you see it written like that it is astounding what womanhood involves, though i always rescued the mice, never killed them. I go through poetry phases, am having another recently, loving Rachel Fox at the moment, pop over to her blog
    Am in awe of anyone who would voluntarily swim a mile across lake windermere, you are crazy.
    much love

  2. hi Martine- thanks for your visit and comment and the tip for Rachel's blog. Staying alive is a great anthology, some wonderful poems in it.
    As for windermere it was great, signed up to do it again this year and the great east in suffolk. it;s a fantastic day - great atmosphere with all the other crazies!! x