Fran Lock has curated this year’s compilation of poetry for Culture Matters, to mark International Women’s Day. There are poems by Jane Burn, Sogol Sur, Joanne Key, Julia Bell, Anne Pelleschi, Beri Allen-Miller, and Fran herself, ending with a prose piece, On Fighting the Disconnect.
When you put out a call for poetry submissions, you never know what you’ll get back. It’s a dangerous game, like asking questions of the Ouija Board, inviting a strangeness into your life, something maverick, haunting and twisted. This time was a little different, though; the women I reached out to being writers I’d admired for long time, and people I knew would have something to say on a subject that’s extremely close to my heart.
In the approach to International Women’s Day I started thinking about poetry’s potential as a kind of counter narrative, a way of exposing the hidden histories of women, stories and experiences that are erased or ignored by the general discourses of everyday life. When I asked these poets to contribute to Culture Matters, I suggested they send something that speaks to the material reality of being a working-class woman, of the struggles and joys that are uniquely ours, of the headspace those struggles create, of the ways we find to navigate the world and understand ourselves.
Which is easier said than done. What does it even mean to be “working-class” and a woman, here and now, when “work” itself is a vexed notion? How does gender interact with labour? How does labour interact with sexuality, ethnicity, disability, and with the hundred-billion other ways the world has of defining us?
These poems don’t answer all those questions. What emerges instead is a polyphony of voices across a wide range of cultures, experiences and generations. These poems, I think, exist as a proof that imagination takes root here, in us, in however inauspicious or infertile seeming the ground of our daily grind. Creativity unites us, and creativity is our best form of resistance and resilience.
Jane Burn has had poems in The Rialto, Under the Radar, Butcher's Dog, Iota Poetry as well as anthologies from The Emma Press, Beautiful Dragons, Emergency Poet & Seren. She is the author of three books: Fat Around the Middle (Talking Pen), Tongues of Fire (BLERoom), and nothing more to it than bubbles (Indigo Dreams).
The seed of this poem, Let me tell you about, was sown late last year when I attended a local poetry night. One of the open mic poets was a young, very well-spoken man in his early twenties. His poem was about a sexual encounter he had had (for real or imaginary, I do not know) with a woman he considered less than himself. They did what he imagined were the usual 'roughing-it' things like going to Lidl. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the ideas in his poem and when he spoke the line, 'chav girls need love too' which was meant to justify his 'slumming it', I walked out. I have been so angry about it ever since - the very idea that someone is to be treated thus because of where they were born is abhorrent. That they are just a 'girl'. As if there is a better class of person that can dabble with those who are lesser human beings. Oh yes, you can screw the common women for a laugh but you sure wouldn't take them home to meet the folks.
There is still a divide - there are still children growing up with less opportunity than others and judging by people like the man I mentioned above, there are still people growing up with the attitude that they are a better class of person. Perhaps he thought his poem was a witty little joke - perhaps he would be suprised to discover how offensive I found it to be.
Let me tell you about
potatoes bought by the sack
leaving school still not being sure what a noun is
trying to fill the gaps left by a crap education
hand-me-downs from them up the street
Jan’s, where you asked for a bob and came out looking like your nan
licking the back of Co-op stamps
paddling in the slipway at Thorne, avoiding a floating shit
dipping in Kayli’s rainbow and puckering at the taste
auntie’s handbags full of copper-filth tuppence smell
contemplating the scrapyard’s matted dog
my mother selling her rings
the cliché of three inches of bathwater each
knowing absolutely nothing about wine
the uncertainty of pasta
the raw song of the siren’s end of shift
being made to wait on doorsteps while other people went in
a boy with fists
the oompah band and how I loved The Floral Dance
the horse with strangles on the dealer’s yard
how my parents were never sure if they should take off their coats
curdles of Artex on every ceiling and wall
the fear that I might end up in the sewing factory
how a lathe is softened by a fascination of swarf
how I felt when I discovered that anyone can be an archaeologist
the first time I ate a courgette
calling lunch, dinner and dinner, tea
how it feels when someone mimics the way you speak
being good enough to fuck but not good enough to date
ending up working a supermarket till
feeling the smoothness of others snag upon your scuff
being haunted by your rough-built self
watching people hide what they really think
knowing there is nothing more ahead than there is behind.
Horses have been the most important thing to me for as long as I can remember. At four years old I used to balance on a precarious stack of buckets and try to scramble upon the fat roan back of a pony who lived on a nearby farm. I walked for three miles to where the local show was held throughout the summer and stood until the last horse had gone. From the age of twelve I worked evening and weekends in a dealers yard - I was not paid for the huge amount of work I did but I got to ride and be with the creatures that were the most important things to me.
One of our 'treats' was to sometimes be taken to Pannal Sales, Yorkshire. I had such fantastical ideals when it came to these beloved animals. The reality of the sales was something I have never fogotten.
A Day at Pannal Sales
These are not the horses of your dreams.
These are pens of steaming piebald hides,
tangles of splaying legs, shit-spattered hocks.
Ears back, too afraid to come to you over the gates –
throats raw with heaved wind, bellies fat with worms,
ridge tile spines, a din of screams.
These are not the horses you usually see.
These are hunters, jumpers too long in the tooth –
foundered ponies, sadly outgrown mother’s dreams,
cuckoo bolters, biters, buckers, lame ducks
doped on bute. Stallions, cresty, frothed and raked
about the lorry park to flash a high-kneed step.
You will sit at the ring and wish you were rich.
Guineas are bid over whipped-up hides
and the gibberish hubbada hubbada dubbada
auctioneer’s talk litters the day with hope
or hopelessness, depending on whose hand is raised.
You will not forget the gated ramp
of the meat man’s truck, nor the weanling Shetlands,
small as dogs, furzy as teddies, eyes like
portions of God walking mildly up it.
You will not forget the sound of a mare’s grief,
udder bagged for a foal’s milky crave.
The hat-rack shire with a Father Christmas beard.
These are not the horses of your dreams.
The witch who lives on the hill
Maybe there is something of the wanderer in me –
I have this problem with rooting. Not tree but tumbleweed,
rolled into corners, bumping its fragile netted head.
Dust settles on me, weighs me down. I wish I knew
my history – I wish I knew who I was. I don’t fit –
my dogs are cut from patchwork cloth, bite slow fingers.
My ponies is feathered and splotched with white.
He only needs a wagon, Tommy-The-Tooth-Man said –
he ran racehorses in Ireland, is bones like a bird, fears nothing.
I’m always after seeing their souls – horses will show
them to you, given time. You ought not to be on their backs
until you are in their hearts. I see those neighbours,
clocking my trousers, muddy-wet bum from sitting
low, learning their unicorn talk. I hope their curtain twitching
brings them what they wish for. Her garden. Looks like
a rubbish dump. Why would you want rusty things?
I got to keep my eye out for the scrap-man, sneaky bastard –
he’s got a right lust for my stuff. Bucket rotted to its scaffold form,
horseshoes, iron rabbit, old pot-belly stove. This clutter,
in its corrosion was a shiny something once. The beauty is in how
it changes. Shells everywhere, bleachy bones, pebbles.
Badger skull in a plant pot – I’m a-gonna use ‘em
for casting spells, come round yer ‘ouses, sell you pegs.
My gay abandon of lavender bothers them. Her
with that camper van parked on the street. Like a gyppo.
I lost count of the times folk have tried to insult me with this.
I’ll wish on clover for them – fuckers. I know they peep
through my windows, mutter at my Dead Man’s Swag.
I crave cabinets, the kind that you filled with china birds.
I have to scrub the stink of ciggs from, smelling like memories
of failed lungs and death. Roam the car-boots for bits
to fill them – then they are bright as bowtops, spangle of chintz,
porcelain birds. I look at a plate on a stall. Bloke says
hurry up and buy it – if you won’t, the Syrians will.
They pause to tut outside my house. Pretty soon
they’ll be genuflecting, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch,
calling to the Saints to preserve them. Why don’t you park
down your own end? The phone-wire box on the street corner
is opened, wires spilled – this man in his fluoro tabard,
crouches in front, confused at the spew of guts. At the tip
of every one, a voice – if you could press your ear to the mass
you need never be lonely again. There’s Betty, face like a wasp,
pressed to the glass, wishing me ill and I am meant to be the witch.
Her mouth is a poisoned bud. This used to be a nice street.
Starlings roost on her ridge tiles. Kids kick balls in her hedge.
Sogol Sur is the author of the poetry collection, Sorrows of the Sun (Skyscraper, 2017). She is currently undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Birkbeck, and working on her debut short story collection.
One presumes one has everything to lose
One enters the office, the bureau for bureaucracy, an embassy, a ministry, a roomful
You have to prove to them why
you exist; why you need your inheritance
although the term and the concept soil your mouth
newly-shed blood in a lucid lake spreading, an indestructible virus
this money, two-thirds of a professor’s salary is the only thing you have inherited
from your mother - apart from her lust for the impossible,
unacceptable ambitions, and sudden-death genes.
You need the money, you tell them, your mouth
churning, turning, withering, a diseased flower in garbage.
Your father has sent you. He is pulling invisible strings.
What strings? What country? What inheritance?
Why do you think you exist? What mother? What father?
They don’t utter this, but you can hear it
for by now you know a motherless woman is not a woman
but a rootless tree, carved and scarred by a myriad of artless passersby,
its branches cut and thrown in a deep swamp.
They shout at you without uttering a sound:
Your country does not exist. It died with your mother.
We don’t owe you any money. You don’t have any power
How would you pull strings? Which strings? Why do you think
you’re special? All the strings were buried with your mother
in that grave. In that crowded cemetery where your body bent
without your involvement and you heard a man - a far relative - say,
‘she’s okay, it’s probably just stomach ache,’
and you were surprised by your lack of desire to beat him to death.
But you did wish god or something like that
existed and could resurrect your mother instead of
ordering you to look chaste and you glanced
at your mother’s sister in her black chador, praying
at her sister’s tomb.
And for the first time in your life you envied her
you needed something, anything to hold on to
but there was nothing.
When they collected you from your
mother’s grave, you couldn’t hold on to them because
you knew they were nothing. And there was nothing again to hold on to.
And every time you go to a sweaty office to claim
her money you wish you were buried
with her in that grey cemetery
for you know there is nothing to claim, nothing
to hold on to when you’re a motherless woman
in your twenties with a painful passport and
you hear voices in your head that logically you are aware don’t exist,
yet they are as deafening as the rain knocking on your window during
Tehran winter showers. And the vociferation:
Take off your fake hijab
Who do you think you’re fooling?
We know you
You’re not meant to exist.
Joanne Key lives in Cheshire where she writes poetry and short fiction. She recently returned to university as a mature student to complete an MA in Contemporary Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University, Cheshire. She has previously been shortlisted for The Bridport Prize, Mslexia Poetry Competition and The Plough Poetry Prize, and her poems have appeared in magazines including The Interpreter’s House; Ink, Sweat and Tears; and Nutshells and Nuggets. She won second prize in The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2014.
At fifteen, my wires trailed
behind me like loose shoelaces.
Despite the cable, snaking
under my ribs, the feathers
started to poke through the cuffs
of my school jumper. A danger
to myself, the men said
I could take off anytime
and should be sent to the factory
where my mind would be occupied
with minding the machines,
tending them, mending my ways.
The factory and its banner:
Set Aside All Thoughts of Flight.
My father gave it the green light
as he sat on his rusty throne,
flexing the hinges of his fists,
smoke and booze flowing
through his steel tubes.
And so they squeezed me
into line with the other women,
side by side, forced in
as tight as batteries.
The siren howled.
A door clanged shut.
That was that.
The machines ate everything:
days, words, music, news.
I watched them swallow
some women whole.
We called them Sleepers.
I saw my mother slip away
until all that was left
was her voice humming
in the drum of its stomach.
The factory took the sun,
the doves cooing on the roof,
the chatter and laughter
and pitter-patter of rain,
leaving us only with the sound
of crying on fire escapes
and the moaning of Sleepers
trapped deep inside the machines.
Nothing lasts forever.
Many years have passed,
but on lonely nights like this
my mother often flits back
into my life. Owl-eyed
and full of light, she sits
on the windowsill,
preening her feathers,
before disappearing again,
her shape fading from view
as she circles the ruins
of the factory, picking over
the bones of those old
So many times I have tried
to call her back, my face
at the window – pale
and plain as a blank clock.
Mouth clicking. Open. Shut.
Julia Hephzibah Bell is a writer and Course Director of the MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She is the author of three novels and the bestselling Creative Writing Coursebook. Currently she is working on lyric essays and poetry. Hymnal is a verse memoir about growing up in a religious family in Wales. And she is currently working on a sequence of essays about Berlin. Two of these essays will feature in forthcoming editions of Wasafiri and The White Review. She currently divides her time between London and Berlin.
The Visiting Speaker
But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? - Luke 10:40
Typical. The minute there’s a man about the house
she’s off, leaving me to get on
with the gutting of fish, the buttering of bread.
Sitting there, simpering, playing with her
beads in that idle, flirty way that makes her look cheap.
Five loaves and fishes and then some
piled on the table, there’s at least fifty people coming,
it will take a miracle to get this done in time.
And all she cares about is boys, boys, boys,
turned into a simpleton the minute they arrived.
Our hands butterflied across the table,
slicing, dicing, picking bones, tossing salads,
while we debated the various defences of Kierkegaard,
and the finer points of the theories of mind,
and then when he arrived she emptied like a drain
quite the coquette, while I sit here steaming
Pollack, getting grease stains on my blouse.
So many exceptions: Peter who’s vegetarian, Matthew
the wheat intolerant, Mark who can’t stand fish.
Wet drips together dripping. Especially him.
When I went out to complain all he could say
was there were more important things than cooking
in that kind of hippie, dreamy way that she believes
is a substitute for thinking. See here, he said,
picking a flower, consider the lilies of the field.
And she lay next to him, giggling, rococo,
as if posing for a Titian. God, that made me mad.
Here I am up to my eyeballs in dishes,
and all she can think about is sex. What good are flowers
when the clock is ticking on the Sunday roast?
He’s no idea what it’s like pulled every which way,
clean this, cook that, where’s my clean shirt?
He might have time for stargazing, but me,
I have to keep the carrots from boiling over.
A martyr? Don’t be soft. I’m losing my mind in here.
Anne hails from Swansea, South Wales, and her life and work have evolved from her Welsh origins. She is the organiser of international literary events and an international creative writing competition. Closer to home she established Dylan Thomas's birthplace as a successful centre celebrating his early life, and for holding workshops and events, including poetry readings. She is a regular speaker on Thomas' life nationally and internationally. Anne has organised arts festivals in local parks and created 'Welsh Mams' Day. Her work is drawn from her lifetime experiences in which people and place provide centrality to her sense of iterative historical and emotional consciousness.
1832, for a mother
They call me a Murder Stone, though I have killed no-one.
My role was not to take a life but to record one that was brutally shortened.
I am so tired, worn out, worn down,
my once loud voice has disappeared, gone.
I am a pock marked slab of misery where pointing fingers chiselled into me.
They call me a Murder Stone, though I have killed no-one.
I was chosen, hand-picked and quarried in Mawr,
there is no-one alive to remember why now,
so I must tell you before I fade,
before the earth re-claims me and becomes my grave.
My role was not to take a life but to record one.
I am weak and leaning on an old chapel wall.
As your feet pass by or your car engines thrum,
you do not notice me yet I am the one who remembers the truth.
They call me a Murder Stone, though I have killed no-one.
Look for me in Felindre, look for me.
Find me and discover about an unborn child,
about Eleanor, its mother
On that sultry, weeping-cloud day, I watched her sitting room's
furniture be moved and switched, re-switched, re-moved.
I saw pain take control of a face that was drawn, a soul that
was torn between despair and survival.
A blank worn canvas
outlines of deep silences
tears left un-spilled
Gasping breaths were her voice as she paced and twitched,
stood still, sat down, opened cupboards, slammed their doors,
apologised, searched, spinning round and around.
Those old training shoes
trying to make sense of it
a tongue sticking out
Into a quiet, whimpering stillness, words emerged from their
swallowing, smothering cocoon and filled the room.
Whispering into her neckline, she spoke about that morning, the
hat mis-shaped, the ugly morning and the note that was left by her
Now only shadows
quick silvered running footsteps
a broken marriage
Beri Allen-Miller is a poet and photographer currently living in Hertfordshire.
hammering nails into my head to let the pain out
i’m tired of being ice picked
chipping holes into cold
melting little drips
into the eyes
of wiser guys
“peanut butter mix it up
mess with me ill kick your butt”
i’m never going to let my heart shed
ive got a brain i hide
use it selfishly
they say i was born in soft focus
a little vaseline on the lens
a little tinsel around the eyes.
i put my hood up
relax my accent
hiss into a blunt little minute
70 70 70
tangled up in my hair
i was rocked by smoke
finding with my fingers
my core centralising light
she a peony
i sit with it
let it alight
get off of the brim of my hat
covering my eyes with your tiny palms
i am pushing out noises
in breathy punches
scaling through vowels.
There is only so much a voice can do
the girl piercing the old men whispering about her brain
I dart into myself - a bee
with an eye for contagion
keeping my teeth aligned is
harder than holding a drill into skin
- a bee direct but fatally scared
- a bug with a dark glint and quietly amber in
temper and colour
amber in coffin
I can hear the flesh of all of the sewn together men
they don’t fit me well
I can’t speak or talk
Take me in your car
park us near the seaside -
the sea is our bedroom
It’s a chore to roll over if I don’t have two small pulses to encourage
one eye or both
you see in me, a bracing for potency
You strain to make me larger
this splinter is no good
it has ruined to such impossible depths
tweezers will not do they become too foreign at the side of my skin
I draw my family tree on my stomach, it’s all images written in flexing marks and I am told I am lost, love is recycled into threads
our mother’s day will come
my mother’s face exists in the space between
kaijū and sphinx. she’s wearing clothes that hold
her body in contempt. her breath, imperfect
peppermint. she has to go to work. her earrings
are obols, shorn of their funerary usage. palest
flirtation of dubious gold. unclaimed merest
flick of skin, the seldom-surfaced self. our
mother holds down several jobs, like righteous
men might trample serpents underfoot. she
works in the kitchens of holiday parks, spiting
her wrists with the ambergris of hot fat; salt
in the cut to her thumb. she works, waitressing
tables, while little kids scream with tactless
joy, engineering ice-cream headache, on
and on. our mother’s scanned your hummocks
of steroidal meat for hours, her hands making
a dumb-show of séance. she cried like a tangled
cassette in the night when she thought we
couldn’t hear. our mother worked lates with
the cold coiled inside like a sharpened spring
at the twenty-four seven garage to tight to pay
for heat. she gritted her teeth through gregarious
sleaze in the small town slur of the local bar.
and she came home and kneaded the bread
like she was thumping breath back into
a stopped heart. she held me through all my
recalcitrant havoc, the voices we heard in
our heads between god and the vomit, our
gremlins and lurgies and rages. my mother
studied. in those hotbed-of-non-event towns,
she dug in her heels, and she bit back her
anger. not a shoulder to cry on, a human
shield, her backbone a needle of lightning.
she studied, defended, and cleaned on her
knees till she bruised. my mother, our mother,
unfolding the joke from a book that the world
had kept from her. my mother, coming
sudden on the mind’s reckless hieroglyphs:
i finally understand. my mother’s face exists
between the strange and the wise. and we catch
her sometime, when she’s only herself, dreaming
her private tumult. my mother works, tilling
the stony earth until a word strikes water
and everything wickedly greens for a moment.
this is the grace that shit is grist to. it’s thanks
to her we are free.
On Fighting the Disconnect
The teenage girl on the bus is wearing a white T-shirt with the words I AM A FEMINST printed on the front in stark inch-high black letters. It’s dark outside and she’s travelling alone, so, when a group of boys get on at the next stop and bundle upstairs into the seats behind her, making the usual lewd and nonsensical comments, I swap seats to sit with her. I don’t want to come off like a dick, or imply that she needs protecting, but I want her to know she’s got help if she needs it, so I ask her if I can sit down, and to make conversation I tell her I like her T-shirt. “Thanks”, she says, and drops the name of a thoroughly ubiquitous online retailer whose ethical policies might want a bit of rethink, their supply chain having been linked in recent years to the labour of refugee children; with their British-based warehouses the subject of widely reported exposés into exploitative and dangerous working conditions. I don’t say anything, but it does give me private pause. The workers in sweatshops and warehouses are typically women and girls, and it’s hard for me to imagine anything more cynical than the way consumer culture regurgitates this cosmetic and morally-compromised feminism to idealistic young women.
Somewhere there’s a disconnect. But maybe it was ever thus. Take Rosie the Riveter, that oft-copied icon of female “empowerment”. Rosie was designed by J Howard Miller, and her purpose wasn’t liberation, it was propaganda. Rosie was supposed to mobilise a workforce, and she did: between 1942 and 1945 over six million women in America alone took up new jobs to further the allied war effort, many of whom started work in the factories before their employers had issued standard uniforms and safety equipment. Before 1943, for example, steel-toed boots weren’t made in women’s sizes, and women welders regularly sustained injury working in their everyday clothes without proper protective gear. Agencies that could have stepped in and stepped up to outfit women with safe and appropriate clothing didn’t consider it worth their while. They were only temporary, after all, an expendable substitute for male workers drafted overseas.
In the U.K, the women working in munitions factories turned yellow from exposure to TNT, earning them the euphemistic nickname: the canary girls. Although this discolouration was temporary, other side-effects were far more ominous. Women developed bone disintegration, throat and lung problems, and a fatal liver disease known as toxic jaundice. All this to earn a scant half the amount of their male counterparts, and while being expected to conform to an idealised and unobtainable standard of beauty that was considered as much a part of their “duty” to the war effort as the factory work in which they were employed.
Rosie’s a suspect symbol, the acceptable face of female labour; she isn’t jaundiced or exhausted or malnourished or maimed. She’s a fetish, a wet-dream, she’d working-class drag with the edges sanded off. She obscures not exposed the complex reality of what it means to be a working woman.
Somewhere there’s a disconnect. As IWWD rolls round again this year I find myself dwelling on this disconnect more and more. As a buzzword feminism is everywhere, and I want to take comfort from that, but I’ve seen a lot and I’m naturally wary. When companies and celebrities position themselves as “feminist” in order to encourage consumption or legitimate their views, I am wary. When conversations about equality are reduced to a grubby little cash nexus, I am wary. When the idea of real and necessary systemic change is diverted into the celebration of spurious cultural “gains”, I am wary.
Fundamentally, I don’t give a shit if L'Oreal or any one of its feckless spokespeople think I’m worth it, because “beauty” as an arbiter of personal worth is meaningless to me, especially when “beauty” means relentlessly performing some grotesque notion of exploded femininity twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, something that isn’t remotely practicable for most working-class women with dirty and difficult jobs.
Fundamentally, I think there are more urgent and important issues at work right now than whether a boardroom Tory earns the same amount as her male equivalent. Yes, of course, we should work towards parity of pay in business, but this can’t be the only measure of whether feminism is succeeding. The question of economic equality needs first to consider the working conditions of the poorest in our society; needs to start with the fruit-pickers and warehouse factory packers, needs to understand the connection between the convenience of your next-day delivery and the woman in Grimethorpe breaking her back on minimum wage to make that happen.
Fundamentally, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference if Jodie Whittaker is Doctor Who, or if we have a gender-flipped Ghost Busters, when women in Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre are still on hunger strike for being detained unfairly and indefinitely in demeaning and dangerous conditions; when cuts to Child Benefit coupled with restrictions to access of Legal Aid trap threaten to women in poverty and domestic abuse.
My point, I suppose, is that wearing the T-shirt is fine, idealism is fine, but feminism isn’t a slogan, it isn’t an aspirational brand, and wearing the T-shirt isn’t fighting the patriarchy. Feminism requires something of us, requires joined up thinking and a sense of our responsibility to each other. Feminism requires class-consciousness, an attentive listening to the varied voices of working-class experience.