Tuesday, 14 September 2021 09:49

Sisterhood, Socialism, and Struggle: Poetry and the Work of Solidarity

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in Poetry
Sisterhood, Socialism, and Struggle: Poetry and the Work of Solidarity

As I sit down to write this column the 40th anniversary of the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp is fast approaching, with hundreds of women planning to retrace the 130 mile march from Cardiff to Greenham in order to honour the legacy of those who founded the camp, and who spearheaded one of the biggest – certainly one of the most culturally conspicuous – women-led protests in the UK since the campaign for women's suffrage. A number of discussions surrounding the march have framed it as an act of solidarity with both our radical activist foresisters, and with women living under conditions of armed occupation, conflict, and the threat of war globally. The anniversary provides an opportunity to reaffirm the aims and objectives of the original camp, the ultimate goal of which was not only the removal of missile silos from Greenham Common, but a radical dismantling of the military-industrial complex worldwide.

While this last ambition remains unrealised, the legacy of the Greenham Peace Camp has continued to serve as an inspiration to future generations of activists and artists, offering a powerful model for non-violent direct action, and for collective creativity. From the earliest months of the camp, the women at Greenham Common produced their own newsletters, booklets and broadsides, incorporating and merging an array of forms from analysis to anecdote; to sketches, songs, drawings and poetry. These publications served a variety of purposes both inward and outward-facing: to circulate information, to generate discussion into demands and tactics, and to persuade and inspire new participants. These various projects also provided the women with an opportunity for creative expression often lacking within other contexts. They situated and prioritised the women as a cohort of thinkers, artists and makers, fostering a sense of shared identity.

Poetry was integral to this creative outpouring. One of the most iconic and arresting images to emerge from the camp is 'Dancing on Silos' by Rassia Page. The photograph features a ring of women in silhouette, holding hands and swaying on top of the missile silos while two police cars idle ominously in the foreground, and a cordon of barbed wire stretches off beyond the edges of the image. Page's poster appeared in City Limits magazine with the poem 'Life Against Death' by Dinah Livingstone superimposed onto the picture. Livingstone's poem juxtaposes the prosaic details of camp life: 'soggy sandwiches, brandy, ox tail soup' against the enormity of the threat of nuclear war: 'seeds of destruction whose sorrowful journey/  is speedy doomsday'. Faced with the might of the military industrial complex, the women in the poem appear immensely vulnerable, and yet it is the 'uneasy personnel' in 'sinister looking vehicles' who are 'protecting themselves from the women'. Livingstone's poem shares an intimate and detailed experience of camp life; it also provides an eloquent rationale for the actions of the protestors. It contextualises Page's photograph, offering a visceral and immediate insight into what it was like to be at the camp and exactly what was at stake for the women in protesting. It communicates both the shared vulnerability and the collective political power of the protestors in a way that straightforward reportage may have struggled to articulate.

Women and war

Throughout history women and girls have suffered – and continue to suffer – disproportionately at the hands of the military-industrial complex. The experience of women during and after war is particularly grim: existing inequalities are magnified as social institutions break down, rendering them ever more vulnerable to numerous forms of exploitation. Among the most traumatic of these is sexual exploitation and gender-based violence, which have profound and long-lasting psychosocial consequences. Other gendered effects include the recruitment of girls as child soldiers, girls and women becoming internally and externally displaced refugees, and the collapse of public health services rendering reproductive health care inadequate or unavailable.

Because of the central role of women in maintaining the fabric of family and community through times of war, they become tactical targets of some significance during armed conflict. Owing to their unequal status within the majority of patriarchal societies women and girls of all ages share a uniquely sharp experience of displacement, loss of home and property, the involuntary disappearance of relatives, poverty, rape, sexual and other forms of slavery, and sexual abuse. All of this while their responsibilities toward family and community remain formidable. Armed occupation and economic sanctions hit women hardest, while their gendered suffering is symbolically deployed as the justification for both these strategies.

With the Taliban now firmly in control of Afghanistan, the immediate future for women and girls in the country appears monumentally bleak. This bleakness is not unfamiliar. Following the overthrow of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1992 by the western-backed Mujahideen, the situation for women and girls in the region deteriorated rapidly: treated as second-class citizens by successive regimes, women continue to be the foremost victims of western aggression.

It has always been with us, across the globe and throughout recorded history, in Western Europe past and present, as well as the Middle East. Talk on social media turns on the need for feminist solidarity with the women of Afghanistan, but what does that look like? And how do we meaningfully and practically manifest this solidarity through cultural activity? In broad-left discourse, the notion of solidarity is everywhere invoked, but what do we actually mean when we use that word? And how might we achieve a measure of it through poetry?

These are big questions, without one single easy answer, although every so often I am fortunate enough to glimpse a possible route through the fog. For example, I have recently completed a project, working with Hari Rajaledchumy, for Poetry Translation Centre, to translate into English a collection of poems by the Sri Lankan Tamil poet Anar. Anar was born in 1974 in East Sri Lanka, and her early childhood was marked by intense outbreaks of ethnic violence that would later push the country into civil war. During this period education was not considered a priority for women and girls in general, and for the daughters of orthodox Muslim households in particular. Anar’s own education was interrupted when her home town of Sainthamaruthu was caught up in the chaos of the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s withdrawal from the region.

Her family’s attempts to obtain the necessary paperwork for Anar to sit her O Level exams were consistently thwarted by military-imposed curfews and civic disarray. As a result, her schooling stopped, and she became confined to her home from the age of sixteen. Throughout these difficult and precarious years Anar’s one outlet was the radio, on which she would listen to poetry being recited. It stirred something in her, and eventually she began to work in secret on poems of her own, submitting her work under pseudonyms, gathering inspiration and encouragement from an emerging cohort of writers.

I don’t intend to share Anar’s biography in its entirety here, but it does feel important to talk a little about her life and work in the context of ‘sisterhood’, because it offers proof, if any were needed, that the oppression of women and girls is a global continuum. How many girls like Anar are now living in Afghanistan? Or in Palestine? How many girls throughout the world and throughout history? It is enough to make your head spin.

I also wanted to share something of Anar’s story because it speaks very specifically to poetry: what it can do for us, and what we can do – through poetry – for each other. It speaks to the idea of solidarity, and how this might be forged and encountered on the space of the page and within the breath of the poem. To talk about this, I'm going to invoke one of feminism's most radical and compassionate foresisters, the black lesbian activist and poet, Audre Lorde.

A communion of compassionate subjects

Lorde insisted throughout her life as a writer, thinker, and political activist upon sustained attention to the granular particularities of women’s experience, and upon the recognition of “the fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic”. It is a demand for otherness and diversity of voice within activist cohorts and within art and poetry as a precursor to radical change, and it stands in defiance to the homogenising inclination of mainstream white feminism, which used a white, western subject-position unreflectively as a model for all human experience.

Crucially, this does not mean that Lorde foresaw feminism’s collapse into a morass of oppositional interests, but rather that she dared to envisage feminism as a network of varied experiences and positions, coalescing around the common goal of liberation for all women. Lorde’s writing about her own struggle with illness is telling in this regard:

The women who sustained me [...] were Black and white, old and young, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence. They gave me strength and concern without which I could not have survived intact. Within those weeks of acute fear came the knowledge – within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not – I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.

Lorde’s suffering becomes an occasion for discovery, a kind of self-revelation within a community of female fellow sufferers, a communion of compassionate subjects. To speak and act out of our experience of suffering, acknowledging that this is something we share – this is the measure of true solidarity.

From casualty to warrior

Which is all well and good, but how do we transform this feeling from a vague rhetorical gesture into meaningful practical action? How do we move – in Lorde’s words – from casualty to warrior? This is a timely and pressing question. Speaking to a Palestinian friend over social media we got into a conversation about how “solidarity” had become the left-wing equivalent to the Christian right’s familiar “thoughts and prayers”, ie aimed in the general direction of any person or group experiencing hardship, as a substitute for actually having to do anything. Solidarity as a noun, my friend said, is no use to anyone. For solidarity to be meaningful, to be worthy of the name, it has to be a verb.

And for poetry this raises a difficulty. In recent history, at least in the west, poets have not had a great deal of political or economic power. We cannot impose sanctions or meaningfully withdraw our labour. Our work is largely solitary, our wider “communities” disparate and scattered. If we went on strike nobody would notice or care. Our ability to affectively mobilise and protest is limited. Our field of cultural activity is so specialised, subjective and personal, that we often fail to form recognisable labour cohorts. This is not to say that poets are not politically engaged and active as individuals, but that collectively the pressure we are able to exert is minimal.

Or is it? I find myself returning to the work of Anar, to our translation project, and to the story of Anar’s girlhood, listening to poetry on the radio, the volume turned down low to avoid detection. Poetry was not inconsequential for Anar, and the act of writing poetry was not for her an absorbing hobby, but a life-sustaining necessity that grew out of the particular pressured context of a country in tumult. There might have been grave consequences for her daring to write, but she wrote nonetheless, and in turn inspired others. None of this would not have been possible had she not apprehended first, through the airwaves, that community of compassionate subjects to which she could aspire and belong. I also find myself thinking that translation at its best can enact a form of reflective solidarity: furthering the reach of voices and experiences that might otherwise have been excluded from national poetic canons. This matters because it allows us to understand ourselves as women as part of a global struggle. It allows us to see each other and ourselves in all our difference and collective strength.

Preservation, relation, radial witnessing

Poetry, and literature more broadly, may also work through archival research to construct counter-narratives, undermining the willed collective amnesia that attends both the history and rights of our most vulnerable and exploited citizens. The University of Glasgow’s interdisciplinary centre for the study of historical slavery is a fine example of such a project, but we might also consider the work of Jenny Mitchell, whose previously unpublished poem 'Shades of Jamaica', I am sharing today. Mitchell's work combines patient historicity with intense lyric writing to create a work of preservation, relation and radical imaginative empathy. Her 2019 collection 'Her Lost Language' (Indigo Dreams Publishing) traces the impact of British transatlantic enslavement on black lives and family dynamics. As Helen Hayes MP has noted of Mitchell's work, her poems “articulate the deep and long lasting impact of the horrific and shameful history of slavery on individual families, communities and relationships, and especially women.”

Mitchell and Clare Shaw, whose poem, 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape', I am also sharing today, are united by a belief in the power and potential of language not only to express the self and make sense of the world, but perhaps also to liberate and heal. In 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape' Shaw expands the definition of 'information', embroidering the unadorned rhetoric of the institutional guide, with arresting lyric images; using metaphor and rich figurative language to broach an experience that often feels resistant to articulate disclosure: 'There are many reasons/ survivors do not tell.' writes Shaw, ' Most whale song cannot be heard/ by the human ear, yet it travels for/ ten thousand miles, which is more than/  the world, and it sounds like dreaming.' Shaw's poetry is underpinned by her work as a mental health educator, and across both contexts her faith in language – and poetry in particular – as a transformative tool for individuals, communities and societies is paramount. Hearing 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape' for the first time I was reminded of the Adrienne Rich quote that “Every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome.” I am also reminded of a quote from Anar that Hari Rajaledchumy shared in the introduction to our translation project: “My poetry is about that fire known as language, which a woman carries under water.”

Poetry can offer support and form alliances. It can also be a tool in and of itself. Anthologies in particular create a diverse and intersectional poetic commons. Solidarity, frequently, is less about the noise we make than the space we afford for the stories of others to be heard.

The poems I am presenting today stage an important act of witnessing, offering an opportunity to connect and to be inspired through the empathetic reach and lyric energy of three very different poets who nevertheless share and articulate an experience of oppression as women. In sisterhood and solidarity,

Shades of Jamaica

by Jenny Mitchell

1. negro: dark, sable, dusky

sun licks me in the master’s field like fire whipped down by their god       my hands are blood from chopping cane till day turns rock          we women in a row              all starved to work 

the overseer shouts you slaves are devil made         i the blackest prey beneath him in the dark he has the nerve to kiss my mouth          his skin is shaped like death              black he calls again hush said to my child left in the shade with other pickney to grow wild            she calls him sir when she is his still       my body smiles to see her cheeny face    she’ll serve the master under his red roof like flame                    i pray he learns her books                                cave headed girls who scribe their english words are close to free           i pray she sees me wave bent in the crop

2. mulatto: mixed breed; young mule

House maid like it doesn’t hurt cleaning all of master’s rooms.
Ornate he calls a cuckoo clock, red sofas and a walking stick.
I have to clean ornate with care or feel the stick across my back.
This English man is dirty skinned though money laden.
He has me on my knees to polish marble stairs into a looking glass.
I see my mother’s face, too fini-fini though she smiles.
When polishing the banisters, I whisper how he names my legs
good thighs, strong calves. Red meat chopped for his larder
can’t breed a child as pale as him. He named her at my breast.
Raised to a dandy girl, serving gift for his new wife.

3. quadroon: a quarter negro; offspring of a mulatto and a white

Preparing mistress for her bed, she cries
Your hands do not look clean when they’re scrubbed raw.
I show my palms, begin to brush her hair.
She slaps me hard. I know the reason why.
My shining locks outrank limp curls.
I dare not call the master to be saved.
He always says how beautiful I am.
She takes it out on me when we’re alone,
prays for God to save my half-breed soul.
I want to scream a quarter black, no more.


Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape

by Clare Shaw

Though sexual abuse takes many forms,
salmon will find their way home, I have seen them
leaping up falls, there was nothing calm
about them, the current and cold
could not stop them, they were sky-born
and silver. There are many reasons

survivors do not tell.
Most whale song cannot be heard
by the human ear, yet it travels for
ten thousand miles, which is more than
the world, and it sounds like dreaming,
like wolf and bird.

Flashbacks are recollections from the past
and in Tromso, the sun will not rise from
November to January.
You may feel you are going crazy
but the worst is over,
and though you are very afraid

when their oxygen tank blew apart
a quarter of a million miles from earth
the crew of Apollo 13 made it back
unharmed. Remember to breathe.
The Shaman travels beyond the ordinary
and an animal walks beside you,

you are power
and though you couldn’t remove yourself
from the situation you were in,
there are 7.422 billion people in the world
and rising, you are not alone.
The sun will not set in Tromso

between May and June
but it’s the winter that people love
when the ice glows blue
and the night is a colour of its own.
Sometimes lights will dance in the sky
and though it’s minus thirty

it will be enough to warm you,
to sustain you, enough
to convince you to stay.

Taken from the forthcoming collection Towards a General Theory of Love (Bloodaxe, 2022)


Killing a Woman

by Anar

Here is a battlefield,
a convenient clinic, a silo
of superabundant supply,
a permanent prison.
Here is a woman's body,
a sacrificial slab.

The heart’s ache, the pulse
of life, belongs to us both, but

for women it will not take root.

Before my eyes
my murder is happening.

Translated by Hari Rajaledchumy and Fran Lock from the forthcoming collection Leaving (Poetry Translation Centre, 2021)

Jenny Mitchell's debut collection, Her Lost Language, was joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize 2019. Her second collection, Map of a Plantation, was published this year. She recently won the Folklore Prize and the Ware Poetry Prize.

Clare Shaw is a co-director of the Kendal Poetry Festival. She has three poetry collections with Bloodaxe - Straight Ahead, Head On and Flood: her forthcoming collection was awarded a Northern Writers' Award and will be published by Bloodaxe in 2022.

Anar (Izzat Rehana Mohammed Azeem) is a distinguished voice in the Sri Lankan Tamil poetry scene with 5 critically acclaimed collections to her name. She has been contributing her poems and articles to literary magazines and national media since the early 90s. Her books have won several awards, most notably the Government of Sri Lanka's National Literature Award, the Tamil Literary Garden’s (Canada) Poetry Award, Aaathmanam Award (Chennai), SPARROW Award (Mumbai), and the Vijay TV Excellence in the Field of Literature (Sigaram Thotta Pengal) Award.

Hari Rajaledchumy is an artist/writer currently based in London, UK. Some of her recent writings have appeared in Manalveedu (India) and Aaakkaddi (France). She previously worked as a translator on Kim Longinotto’s 2013 documentary film ‘Salma’, based on the life and works of Indian Tamil poet Salma. In 2021, she co-curated the inaugural edition of QCSL study programme aimed at strengthening queer cultural production within Sri Lanka.

Read 379 times Last modified on Wednesday, 15 September 2021 10:41
Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.