Their Names

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The book Bright Wings – An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds, has flaps on its front and back covers that when opened give the book an impressive wingspan. The anthologist is my man Billy Collins, who paired his talent with the artistic Audubon ornithologist David Allen Sibley, to hatch this beautiful collection. However, in a recently acquired habit, I assessed the parity in the poetry assembled through the table of contents. Out of more than 100 poems, 37 were penned by women. Hmmm. My feathers ruffled.

“Oh, bother,” you might say. “Why the kerfuffle?”

I bought the book because of the anthologist and the subject matter, both of which I adore. It was only as I began reading that I observed the preponderance of male voices twittering on the pages, but I carried on because, dammit, they were good choices. I came upon one unfamiliar poem and poet, Greg Delanty, and Googled. Wikipedia situates him in a long list of other members of authorial Irishry incubated and fledged at roughly the same time in the University College of Cork (UCC). Apparently, there were few women at UCC in that period because the list includes just one. Hmmm.

I read on.

I resumed with “The Coot” by Mary Howitt whose name was vaguely familiar. Thanks to Wikipedia again, I learned she lived and wrote in the 19th century. The entry nests her life with her spouse, William Howitt and her work described as joint authorship with him even though she had an extensive body of independent writing. Hmmm.

In case you think I’m overly sensitive or a an angry feminist (and so what if I am?) note this: A survey done at McGill University of New York Times book reviews points out that 2/3 of books reviewed were written by men. This omission of women is a pattern across literary genres. Hmm.

A few weeks ago, while walking across a bridge spanning the Rideau River in Ottawa, I spied a mallard pair mating in the current below. They swam around each other, nodding and bobbing their heads in an ever-tightening circle. Ducky consent given, the male mounted the female. In the process of finding his way between her tail feathers, he pecked at the back of her head and she sank under him. He continued pushing her head below the water with violent thrusts from his pretty green head and violent beak.

Thankfully, the rite was brief. The female survived and in a fluster of feathers popped up and shook him off.

Soon there will be eggs to tend and ducklings to guard. The pretty boy, his part done, will decamp with the lads to fish and dabble carefree. She, having survived the near-death experience of procreation, will assume her broody role perhaps not so much grateful as relieved. Distracted by instinct, she does what she must to survive because, in the words of Woody Allen from Annie Hall “We need the eggs.”

Still, 37% of poems written by women is mere survival, not flourishing. We women keep doing it – writing and fucking – because we must, because the urge is powerful, because if feels good. Because, crumby as 37% is, its better than nothing. Nevertheless, it makes me broody.

My solution? I ignored the remaining poems written by drakes and instead had a hen party. Here’s to:

Brenda Hillman
Juliana Gray
Lisa Williams
Cecilia Wloch
Carol Frost
Marianne Moore
Jane Hirshfield
Mary Oliver
Llinda Gregerson
Sylvia Plath
Mary Howitt
Kathleen Jamie
Amy Clampitt
Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Barret Browning
Dorothy Wordsworth
Debra Nystrom
Linda Pastan
Susan Mitchell
Annie Finch
Anne Stevenson
Lisa Williams
Elizabeth Madox Roberts
Kay Ryan
Lucia Perillo
Lorianne Laux
Nancy McCleery
Emily Dickinson
Carol Muske-Dukes
Averill Curdy

33 thoughts on “Their Names

  1. Frankly, I expected less than 37%.

    Your description of the copulation, this particular one and in general, belongs to an alter of the 37%.

    Just one question: why oh why, out of all who you could quote, including Bukowski, you chose a certain woody who cannot approach me even through cable anymore. Or is the joke on him?

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    • Well, I quoted the Annie Hall movie because it and Midnight in Paris are the only Woody Allen movies I like. Also, it related to birds and hatching so it fit the post. But I understand your repulsion, if that’s what it is you’re expressing, of the person Woody Allen. I try – don’t always succeed – to separate the art from the artist and in Allen’s case its a struggle. Bukowski was no angel, either. IN my opinion an A-class asshole and womanizer but ,damn, a good poet. I’ve heard others say that Sylvia Plath wasn’t a good person either but, damn, a good poet.

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      • It’s getting harder and harder, isn’t it, to separate art from the artist, or fun from the comedian, or (wo)man from the… (wo)manhood? I often wonder about it. In the case of the woody or the jackson I don’t look away though and don’t forgive.

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  2. Good list. Mary Oliver MMHM There’s a lot of talent on your list, some legends even, but Mary Oliver ❤
    Okay, but angry feminists have every right, so I sure did like your "So what if I am?" line.
    If you wanna know where women reign, it's where men aren't interested and/or there's no money. I am a bad feminist and should not comment, but it just so happens there's a documentary on my tv and the subject is racism, but mostly, I hear sexism because I am a woman.
    Sorry for the apropos, must have been the timing.

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  3. 37% is not 50% and that is a deep disappointment to me too, Susanne.

    Artificial intelligence is the topic du jour in our house. Hubby is all for robots taking over. I am not. Especially when you consider programmer bias. Unless AT LEAST 50% of those programmers are women, I’m not ready to make the leap to a computerized, robotic future.

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  4. Thank you for this. I feel as if I no longer live my life with my feminism on the surface level, but give me an anthology where there are a lot more men than women, a movie with a lot more male actors, or as happened last year a book where the writer tipped his hat to so many men writers at the expense of the women ones AND I GET MAD. Really, TODAY?! Ugh.

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    • Thanks for your support, Jean. For the record, I still like the anthology and it would take an awful lot for me to fall out of love with Billy Collins – you know, something like learning he was a wife beater.

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  5. Whilst the cold hard fact remains that women scare the bejesus out of men in general and men in power particularly and therefore must be kept down and in their place, 37% is way better than any anthology I have ever looked at. I take heart from that. Like the crumbling of old science, so goes the patriarchy – one death at a time.

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  6. Yeah, the patriarchy enrages me on an all-too regular basis. Mostly I can just tune them out, at the stage of life I am and with the lifestyle I have created, but it still gets to me more often than not.
    As I mentioned to a gay friend of mine not too long ago, now that I am now longer interested in fucking them, I really don’t see much point to being around heterosexual men. Sorry. Not sorry.

    Deb

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