Sharon H. Nelson

Silencing is a subject that appears often in my writing. This poem was first published in Matrix and appears in The Work Of Our Hands. Papier Mache Press editor Sandra Martz chose it to open the 1998 anthology At Our Core: Women Writing About Power. For a different perspective, see "Words Ring With Music Beyond Their Sound" in Grasping Men's Metaphors.


for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Et Alia


A woman writer, simply by virtue of being a woman and a writer,
is a renegade and a subversive, yet we read women's writing
as if it had been written by respectable men.

My mothers who are lost have been denied
their majority. They are not Major Figures.
They lie uneasy in narrow graves
fitted to contain them narrowly.

They do not take
so much space
as a man.

If you listen carefully, you will hear them.
They stalk, clanking their bracelets and bones.
They scream, laugh and tell jokes, are ribald and bitchy.
They grin widely, reveal imperfect teeth.
They smack their thighs. They cackle, crackle,
crack their knuckles, tighten their hands into fists.

Their lines spill out, spill over, spill forth, released
like bellies from girdles, midriffs from stays,
thighs from the tight lines of garterbelts. They are released
from the tyranny of pantyhose, from speaking Prose.

My mothers who are lost stamp their lines in rhythm,
spit words out of books in all directions,
commit the sin of inelegance. They are noisy as an army.

My mothers who are lost scream at us.
Nothing is sacred to them. They will not be stilled.
They are in pain. Their pain is visible, tangible,
woven into words that betray it. They tell us:

We have been here before you, my dears;
we know the score.
We know the meanings of "Literature",
the convenient historiographic lies that obtrude
so that when we speak clearly,
what we say cannot be heard.

The study of Literature,
a bloated politics of meaning,
prevents you from seeing;
biographical detail stops you from hearing;
and history, the cloak of those who define
the growth of their own power over time,
is murderous in its uses;
like cotton wool stuffed in a mouth or down a throat,
innocuous in itself, nursery furnishing,
it chokes our voices as it block your ears.

My mothers who are lost are impatient.
They scream at us, scream their stories,
scream a warning, scream the lesson,
scream the answer to the riddle.

They scream the pain:
You're getting fucked,
fucked over,
fucked by form.


If a writer does not produce what is consistent
with the ideology of the dominant culture,
no one will hear her voice.
If a writer produces what is consistent
with the ideology of the dominant culture,
she may choke on her own words.

I contemplate their narrow graves,
the narrower grave prepared for me,
contraction of the female form to fit
a narrow shelf,
contraction of the voice to fit
constriction of the soul.

Form is a matter of fashion
like the length of skirts,
the wearing of business suits,
the bustle, the doublet, the tie,
kohl or mascara to darken an eye;
and content is
what those who write history
determine it to be or to have been,
the clear meanings poets strive for
lost in the war
that is won neither by poetry nor politics
but by force.

The brain's a squishy thing in its breakable carapace,
contains the fear we live with,
our own physical death.

We endure
the wounding and maiming
the shaping
to form
forming, reforming
to the meanest of meanings
to live.

And who would tell us no?

Constricted, contracted,
shrunk and shriven,
we make what is pleasing,
what makes us pleasing,
what we form to be pleasing
and what forms us to be pleasing
however it mis-shapes us
so that we take the smallest spaces,
speak in the smallest voices,
barely audible,
not audible at all.

Sharon H. Nelson. 15 March 1999.