Are there moments in your life when your femaleness is a source of power or hardship? When does your voice ring its clearest? When have you been silenced?
Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility brings together international poets and essayists, both award-winning and emergent, to answer these questions with raw, honest meditations that speak to women of all races, nationalities, and sexual orientations. It is an anthology of unforgettable stories both humorous and frightening, inspirational and sensual, employing traditional poetry and prose alongside exciting experimental forms. Feminine Rising celebrates women’s differences, while embracing the source of their sameness—the unique experience of womanhood.
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On Resistance & Roles
"Does your weakness show as your strength?" Rivka leans toward me from behind a scratched wooden desk in her office at Neve Yerushalayim Girls' Seminary. The thin metal folding chair I'm sitting on creaks as I cross and uncross my nylon-covered legs under my long blue skirt. It's October, but the Jerusalem sun pouring through the open window feels as hot as it did in July. Sweat gathers on my forehead, under my armpits, even on the soles of my feet, sliding around in the cheap sandals I bought only a few weeks ago in a local shop.
It's 1972 and I'm seventeen years old. I'm three months into what's supposed to be a one-year stay at a religious seminary for girls who want to immerse themselves in Orthodox Judaism in the heart of the Jewish homeland. Jerusalem, the most sacred, the most holy, the most healing of Jewish cities — a city that is like a loving mother holding out arms of unconditional love for her lost children. That's how I thought about it back in Chicago. At least, that's how I would have thought about it if I could have put it into words. Back in Chicago, I helped prepare sumptuous Sabbath dinners at the home of the local synagogue youth leader every Friday evening. I chanted psalms on the sandy Lake Michigan shore just below the synagogue grounds. I jumped out of bed at 5 a.m. every Thursday morning during my senior year in high school to study the Talmud before homeroom with my equally fervent suburban friends. My teenage rebellion morphed into a search for salvation in a hippie dress. I believed in a God who responded to three-part harmony and the chords of the acoustic guitar.
Now I stare at the leather-bound Bibles and Talmudic tractates stacked on Rivka's desk and spilling out of the bookshelf on the wall behind her. I've studied these books. I've pored over their Hebrew and Aramaic phrases, learned rabbis guiding me through the nuances of the 613 religious commandments every Jew was supposed to follow. But what did I actually learn? And how did I miss the crucial laws of modesty that governed so much of what religious girls could do and say and be?
"You could get married, you know," Rivka says. "There's no commandment for girls to study Torah. Rabbi Goldstein would be happy to make a match for you." And so he would. That's the promise of the religious life. Follow these strictures and you will never be alone. You will live in community, you will never go hungry. If you are a woman, though, you will relinquish a part of yourself, just as I reluctantly relinquished the faded blue jeans I naively shipped to Israel in a battered Kmart trunk. Was that only three months ago? Since then I'd learned more Jewish law pertaining to women than I'd ever learned in those Talmud classes back in Chicago. Now I knew to dress in long skirts and long sleeves so as not to attract male eyes; to pin up my seductive long hair; to sing my psalms only in the company of other females, because a woman's voice tempts men to sin.
How does Rivka know I am weak? Why does she think I am strong? The powerful aroma of chicken soup wafts into the office from the kitchen down the hall. The other girls have been busy cooking for tonight's Sabbath dinner, and the scent of their labor fills the room. I can picture the thick, white Sabbath candles we'll be lighting in just a few hours and the colorful embroidered tablecloth on which we'll set an array of homemade delicacies. I can hear the folktales we'll tell around the table of mystics in search of God and feel the haunting pull of the Hebrew melodies we'll sing before and after the meal, our girls' voices clear and strong, free to soar in a girl-only space. My weakness is my longing to be part of this transcendent world, but where once I believed in an invisible but loving God, now all I have are the real forms of the Orthodox men I see every day on the street, with their bushy beards and black hats, averting their eyes from my woman form as they pass me on the sidewalk. The only thing I know for certain is that I can't breathe in this restricted air. One teardrop escapes my left eye, slides down my sweaty cheek. I turn my head just slightly to the side, hoping Rivka won't see.
"Are you sure you want to leave?" Rivka asks.
"Yes, I'm sure."
I started illegally, at 14, selling toys at Woolworth's while the manager told me not to hold the boxes too tight or I'd squeeze the milk from my titties.
So what, I thought, I'll get a better job, and I did.
All I ever wanted was a paycheck every other Friday, that brief abundant moment when you buy the sweater you've been watching all week, a lipstick you don't really need. All I ever wanted was to get the jokes, bring a casserole to the baby shower, say hi to the receptionist using her first name.
All I ever wanted was
to watch the narrow light of morning widen to yellow noon through my office window, while I do something people are willing to pay for, to return after a lunch bought with my own money, then work all afternoon while the light turns rose, then silver gray, and finally a million windows twinkling in all the other towers, each one a woman working.
one day, there were no mango trees to climb, no uncles to pillion with. hopscotch became a banished game and with it, father's lap, that once welcomed tears and smiles and dreams that stretched longer than mother's colorful sarees. clothes were longer, looser and evening outings, shorter.
walking meant watching the ground lest the stars above made a bait of me.
suddenly, the family's love had a new name. what is it that they call flightless birds?
Each Jar Tied with Bright Red Ribbon
Why, turning, does my life small itself so readily, restricting its contours to the idea of making homemade peanut butter with my daughter, which leads my son to declare he will not make anything for anybody, that he dislikes Christmas in general and won't even eat the cookies this year in protest. Meanwhile I wonder if daughter rhymes with peanut butter, once again my attention riveted to the fleeting fascinations of my children: the color wheel, weather, dinosaurs. These become my metaphors but before I've written anything they've moved on to Greek myth, carnation pink. Any of these worth an epic, a large canvas, and I see how I could fit a few naked women around the edges, but my mind trends to handwork, the dropped stitch no one else will notice.
Open Triangle 2012
I held hands with Rosa Chávez Taylor every Friday morning. Sister Ana led my third-grade class across the field stretching between our school and church. Thirty-three gala-uniformed girls in alphabetically ordered pairs bathed in sunlight. I felt bad for Susana Zambrano, who, as the last on the line, had to hold hands with Sister Ana, whereas my name paired me with Rosa — freckled, longhaired, kind, articulate Rosa. When the breeze blew my way, I caught whiffs of her clean skin combined with the anise and chamomile growing around us. On hot mornings, our palms sealed together. We chatted softly. For those twenty minutes, she was mine.
Once, after church, Rosa fell quiet, and I feared she was mad at me. She stopped, opened her mouth, and pointed inside — the Holy Host was stuck to the roof of her mouth. The line of girls behind us backed up in disorder. Sister Ana clasped her hands and ranted about desecrating God while Pilar Merino tried to reach in and dislodge the wafer.
I peeked at Rosa's mouth. I saw a quiet O, pink and fragrant like the flower of her name. Within, the cushion of her tender tongue.
Rosa closed her mouth. "It's gone." When we resumed our walk, she asked if I was cold — my fingers trembled in her hand.
That was Rosa. Later years brought me Ilsa's lush brown skin. And later, Nina's Mapuche eyes. Her sass. Oh, was she sassy. She liked to smell her own skin. "Backs are sexy," she said once as we shared a towel on the beach. "If only we could see our own backs." She loved herself.
I loved her, too, and other girls. They loved me back — just not that way.
At age ten I was a tomboy — a fact everyone attributed to my having three brothers, no sisters, and a somewhat lonesome disposition.
I loved girls, but no one knew. I reveled in the intimacy girls enjoy in Mexico — sleepovers and homework dates and makeover sessions. Sharing beds and couches, braiding each other's hair, stroking each other's lips with cherry-flavored lip gloss brushes.
Why did I never kiss those lips, touch that knee one tad longer?
I wanted to be loved as much as my brothers. I was an A student and doting daughter. At age fifteen, I swapped my sneakers for high heels. I grew my pixie out into feminine locks. At twenty-three I was a full-fledged señorita with the good boyfriend and the bright future.
I worked hard for that future. I went to grad school, traveled abroad. I claimed my right to pursue my dreams. When a boyfriend threatened to stifle my freedom, I dropped him. I was a confident woman who fought for what she wanted.
That, until I met Nina in 1989 — the sassy one with the Mapuche eyes.
We were grad students on Long Island, in a country foreign to both of us. Nina's Chile had just ousted its dictator of seventeen years. "No," voters wrote on the ballots, and Pinochet was gone. Nina had done her part, and had the scars to prove it. During my teenage years, I had organized sundown-to-sunup dance parties — a sweaty exercise in sentimental education. Four thousand miles away, Nina faced water cannons on the street, and spent an occasional night in jail. My heart glowed with pride and love as she told me.
Nina had a poster on her wall of the No campaign showing twenty smiling naked children, their sunny faces reflecting Chileans' willingness to face fire for a greater good. Nina was a brave working-class girl getting an education on the force of smarts and scholarships. I, too, had the scholarships and the scarce cash. My upper-class family had lost everything to Mexico's 1982 monetary crisis. Nina and I met at the crossroads of Latin America's upward and downward mobility.
She was open to things I was not in the habit of considering. She knew that cops would be aggressive. I questioned the sense of attending such demonstrations. Her answer: Why not? She doted on a potted plant on her windowsill. One Wednesday night while our housemates slumbered, she proposed to smoke some. I sat on the carpet, my back against the wall; she in her bed. In the glow of her rice-paper lamp, we smoked. Soon everything swayed, her clock flashing orange meteors. I sat folded onto myself, crushed under a burden I did not understand.
My heart beat loudly. My words were warped. "You could easily hurt me."
"Why would I? You don't trust me. Why are you here?" If only we had the subtitles from Annie Hall. Nina would know what I meant: I am weak when you are near. You can play with my body. Touch.
In a parallel universe, she would have done just that. Why not?
I filled the silence with nonsense. "If I were gay, I would climb into that bed, with you."
In literature, sometimes characters lie outrageously, revealing their truths.
"Right. You are not a lesbian, and nor am I."
After a fitful sleep in my narrow bed, I showered and headed to campus. If only I could force the clock's hands back, I thought while standing at the bus stop.
Indeed — I erased the night in Nina's room in three simple words.
Those words haunt me to this day.
Without Mirrors and Minus a Gravity of Love
One year ago, I wrote without mirrors and minus a gravity of love along with a drawer-full of fragments, indigestible bits, sea glass and shell, that's all I was, voices out of sequence, static, may morning give me thread and a bone needle to stitch a self from wreck.
There is no hero to this story. Maybe there is no Hero. Rather — spill. eddy. drift. pool. Could be
I'm Joseph Campbell's nightmare — equal parts exchange and ravel, wave and particle, hide a bit, sweet, with me, inchoate jetsam stuffed in a drawer, like any mortal, loose envelope of prayer.
Now Don't Tell Me of Men!
My soul hurts so much that I awaken the stones under the earth
my womanhood a moneybox filled with stones a home to worms, woodpeckers a cave to the wolves climbing down my body on my arms, new seeds are sprinkled the man of your life is searched that's quite a serious matter
my womanhood, my cold snack and my pubic, a home for nothingness, the world stands here and yourself! live with the rubbish thrown into you when he's gone, tell him that flesh leaves nails that you live with the science of the break tell him of that serious illness
like a lamb skin, I'm cold in your gaze I'm not in debt to your mother's womb, sir! my womanhood, my invaded continent neither am I a cultivated land ... scratch off the organ that's not mine like a snake skin, I wish I could drop it
it's not reasonable to be a mother to murder it's not homeland that's divided but the body of woman now, don't tell me of men!
DR (la Republica Dominicana)
I grew up in paradise.
Mami, in her underwear, climbs up a rock wall like a native lizard to slide down the waterfall. Boys and the girl watch. Small eyes on skin. In green rocks, Mami explodes, gone in mists.
The flies orbit the tired horse's ear.
Lobo, the horse, does not listen to six-year-old commands. Squeezing hard, pulling, rope peels tiny palms pink. He chews saw grass like she slurps purple popsicles. She smiles at his lips. Pause. They pause for a snack on the trail. Chewing. Noises.
He must stop when el hombre comes, "Dale! Move his big ass! Remember you have spurs now." Those spurs — small urchins.
The sand, black, from dead volcanoes, causes her knees to swell. Thighs, too, sore inside from saddles at six. The only girl for miles collects hazardous sea urchins. Piles. Pricks. Reds. Blues. One boy is eight. He loves her: the ropes of gold, the salt crystals on her arm feathers, the heat on her shoulders, on the precarious collection of critters.
Knobby knees, scabbed, thighs of leather. She plays only with boys. Her mother doesn't look closely.
He surpasses grown-ups. They can't catch him. Before bed, he curses. With pleasure, sings, pinga! pinga! His favorite bad word. He sees her in the corner of his eyes.
Here, in the pile of urchins. In the dead sand. The boat ride. The drunk grown-ups. Thighs of leather. He insists on a boat ride.
She does not like his floppy float. The way he drags it behind like a broken doll. She will not go to sea with him. The way her dog doesn't like men.
He tows, persisting, "Just us in the sea!" One time he told her to close her eyes while the grown-ups were inside. On the grass, the poor lawn, "Just open them!" He was peeing in front of her. A golden arch surprise. "Remember when I saw your teticas in the bathroom last summer."
The float. Panic. Piles. Piles. Pricks. Perhaps a sea urchin will puncture it for her. The death of the dog at the vet.
At night, she sleeps on his air mattress. She is the small girl on the floor. Papi and Mami party. Mami borrows the polka dot dress. At night.
Men play chess. Boys try. She pulls her dress crooked to show a sunny burnt shoulder. Fluffing the blonde power on her trivial head.
Forgetting what they are, he and she catch a frog to save the dogs. The dogs that follow us through the cattle. Large ranch hands with and without mustaches stain the cows with smoke.
The scent of burnt hair will haunt her blow-dryer in the future.
Harvard in the Sixties (Un)Speakable Memories
At present, pregnancy and parturition are made by the profession to seem somehow shameful, unbefitting professional dignity. The imposition of "quasi-masculine" standards on women takes a grave psychological toll.... Many women professionals must think more than twice not only about when to have children, but about whether to have them at all: under present conditions, childbearing means either five years of arduous work at two full-time jobs, or the lamentable "option" of suspending one's career. The alternatives are thus very few. Many women professionals who have succeeded in their careers have in fact chosen to lop off a whole area of their lives, as men are never forced to do.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Feminine Rising"
Copyright © 2019 Andrea Fekete.
Excerpted by permission of Cynren Press.
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