Review of The Work of Our Hands by Fran Davis

Fran Davis provides an insightful and sensitive review of the work in in Matrix 39, from which I quote with her permission.

A Resonant Voice

For a feminist, reading the latest volume of poems by Sharon H. Nelson is both a wrenching and yet somehow a comforting experience. Here are all the challenges to the gendered construction of language, work, history, education, international politics, the daily lives of women and men -- all the important challenges that feminists have set forth in the last two decades. . . .

There are many aspects to the book, however, that keep it form speaking to feminists only, . . .Without excusing men for their complicity with the negatives of patriarchy, the poet manages to expose the ways in which men are as locked into these practices as women. Even the poem "Gross National Product," which develops the idea that all men are potential rapists, includes insightful suggestions about the way in which a man can be unwittingly seduced into a re-enactment of violence by continual exposure to violent media, and how these violent :images. . .provoke him,/ fixate his mind. . . . ." In "Heresy, a progress report," "[w]hate was done to women and unbelievers" is "done now. . . to the whole human race." Furthermore, though the poems are grounded in the recognition that man's relegation of woman to inferior and physical roles has kept her far more connected to reality and reliable sources of wisdom, the poet refers over and over again to the sufferings which men inherit from this tradition of dissociation of mind and body and word from flesh.

Thus the volume tends to focus more upon the exposure of gender as problematic, rather than upon one gender as the object of blame. This is a difficult line to walk, but a crucially important territory to be explored if feminist writers and artists are to be able to gain the kind of audience their works deserve.

One of the riches areas which these poems explore is the nature of women's work, "the work of our hands." Threaded through all the amazingly vivid images of scrubbing, paring, cooking, and preserving is a clear recognition not only of gender roles but also a genuine celebration of women. . . .

These are courageous and striking poems, and the risks which the poet takes with her material, her language, and her stance raise important questions for artists committed to dealing with significant social issues of our time.

Sharon H. Nelson. 15 March 1999.