Women in History
March is Women’s History Month in the USA and Friday, March 8, 2013 is International Women’s Day. To celebrate, Escape Into Life presents this mini-anthology of international women in history by an international group of women poets. Click on each poet’s name to see her solo feature at EIL. For more sculpture by Petah Coyne, click her name, here or below.
Love in a Fallen City
after Eileen Chang
As if all those who meet or even hear
of her became judges of what she is:
lover of traitor, ruins as a stage that
the fugitives erect. Could she fence
or fight the war beyond fiction—soot,
golden locks, traditions from which
she has unravelled. Could she slash
the border, a lone partisan, her words
descending as blades. One last flight,
and the next; one last face or haven
where veracity abides. It comes to
any soul that reaches for it, asylum
into which people hurl themselves.
And she, expelled, jots riots on his
shadow through the day’s distortions.
She’d fall before him as she falls to
dust, until love blossoms from dust.
Eileen Chang (1920-1995) is one of the most famed and popular writers of 20th-century Chinese fiction. Her best-known works include Love in a Fallen City, The Golden Cangue, and Lust, Caution. She left China and migrated to the US in 1955, where she spent the rest of her life. From 1943 to 1947, Chang was married to fellow writer Hu Langcheng, who collaborated with the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and was regarded as a traitor. For all the controversy surrounding her marriage, Chang was never apologetic about her “political incorrectness” (which was a serious ordeal in China in those days) and maintained a defiant stance over her personal life.
Three chapters in the life of Lise Meitner
In the shadow of a swastika flag, Lise wipes sweat off her brow. Last night she dreamed of Otto. His hand as he casually placed the ring on her desk. Now the trees whisper, repeating his advice, a staccato mantra: Geh. Patterns on the pavement take on shapes of safety, a trembling map of Denmark, Sweden. The light hurts her. Lise closes her eyes, calculates the odds of bribing a border guard with the beauty of spectral colours.
Otto is puzzled. Lise reads his letter at breakfast every morning, stares at the dim Swedish sky. Her vocabulary shrinks to a handful of words: uranium, barium, perplexity. People begin to talk. The woods are all winter and stillness. Lise rests on a log, sketches diagrams in the snow. Breath hangs in the air, miraculously taking shape like a theory. She delivers it to Otto’s doorstep like a baby that might not survive the dark days of December. Like some kind of payback. He smiles, closes the door behind them.
III Chain reaction
Lise has them all alarmed. What if the little dominoes fall just like that? Albert signs a letter. Franklin considers potential weapons in German hands. This provokes insomnia, a project, an invitation. Lise declines. She watches from a distance, clutching her own Pandora’s box, fingers curled around its broken lock. When the first bomb falls, she marvels at the darkness in the hearts of men.
Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was an Austrian physicist who became a Swedish citizen in 1949. With Otto Hahn, she discovered nuclear fission, but he received the Nobel Prize for this. Element 109, Meitnerium, is named for her.
Hedy Lamarr Told to “Stop Silly Inventing”
Hedy, your image crackles even now on the screen
with your sharp accent, your incandescent brain.
How you tried so many years to train people to listen
to your ideas, hoping to break the code that would make men
see “spectrum communications” instead of your sparkle,
“frequency hopping” to help translate classified garble
into music. You told them you knew the dinner-party secrets of Stalin,
but they ignored your information, so you withdrew and stayed in—
playing piano with the boys, studying math and losing a few million.
Your famous figure, that face had to fade before your invention
was finally adopted by the Navy, after your patent had expired—
even that last victory denied. Communications permanently jammed.
Keeping your mouth shut was always hard, condemned
to temptress status, your glamour a screen,
your beauty a vault, your secret world hidden within.
Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000), a beautiful Austrian-American actress and movie star, was also a mathematician, who, with composer George Antheil, invented and held a patent for a frequency-hopping machine that used a player-piano roll. After the patent ran out, their secret-communication idea was used in a military blockade of Cuba and led to modern spectrum-communication devices like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
What I Want from Haydée Santamaria
On the death of a national heroine
Place a leaf on the forehead of suicide.
An evergreen on the dip of her neck.
Cover her with flowers: Ophelia.
(From, “There Where the Light Does Not Forget Its Warriors” by Fina Garcia Marruz)
I cannot be midwife to a mythology.
There are enough gods and goddesses.
And besides, there is a dramaturgy to consider.
True, the body’s fluids are transformational
and a good story will invert
the roles of flesh and spirit: mimesis and phenomenon.
And Haydée herself
would proclaim every bleeding
fighter an artist
by right of a story.
And hers could have been
A Good One:
Coops are brutal
and the child Haydée was pecked
raw by the hen whose nest she’d usurped.
She learned early
that blood is the necessary
sacrifice of all mothers
So the story might have begun.
And it would get sexy fast.
Hiding guns under her skirt.
Feigning pregnancies to escape the scouts.
Squeezing a soldier’s hand, a flirtatious batting of lashes
to thank him for helping her with her bags –
not books, like she said, but ammunition.
And, later, when she was caught and imprisoned,
and they brought her an eye
plucked from her brother’s living skull
she would not talk
because her brother was only one
of so many Brothers
whom she would mother—
If only she had not married
Had remained the ambiguously virginal
Ophelia in a moment of madness and political passion
and not taken 22 years to turn to suicide.
Had she not given birth to a son and a daughter
in the meantime, but instead
had died singing bawdy songs
Fidel might have called her an artist
in a passionate speech of mourning.
He might have made her
Saint of the dawning
But a body’s fluids have to be contextualized
the blood, the semen, the liquid eye
before a story can lift a man or woman
from the ranks of miners and prostitutes
undertakers and handmaidens.
And it was not her neck pierced by the bullet
that day she led the rebel through the streets
his wound disguised by a turtleneck sweater.
Not her blood then.
The fact is: her blood brought life
then an end to her own pain
and that is not a tragic story arc.
Oedipus plucked his own eyes
and lived. So what do I want from you
Haydée? What do I need?
I need you to rise up
an angry ghost and tell them
to keep their fucking Ophelias
and weak-minded madwomen
suffering, their own enemies
because they just. can’t. handle. it.
Explain it to me.
Tell me you believed in something
besides the privilege of struggle.
Tell me you weren’t looking for martyrdom
within the context of a tiny story
and simply missing those days when you could
knock on any door and be greeted
as a potential touchstone to the gods.
Tell me you loved the blood, the semen
the liquid eye.
Tell me you loved the filth of the living
before you blew your brains out.
Haydée Santamaria Cuadrado (1922-1980) was a Cuban revolutionary, guerilla fighter, and leader of a women’s platoon, the Maria Grajales Platoon.
Do click each poet’s name to find her bio, links, and more of her work. To see more art by Petah Coyne, here is her Artist Watch feature at Escape Into Life. Note that the peacock sculptures are titled Everything That Rises Must Converge, after a short story by Flannery O’Connor, another wonderful woman from literary history! And read about Rachel Carson and Sandra Steingraber, with a poem by Emily Dickinson, here at EIL, If Bees Are Few.
[…] in more extreme examples like Sylvia Plath, even kill themselves) over what they haven’t. I wrote a poem recently about Hedy Lamarr, who was only recognized for her scientific achievements at nearly the end of her life – […]