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:
Elizabeth Barret Browning
Elizabeth Madox Roberts