From the Serious to the Silly:
Three New Anthologies of Women's Writing
Voices of Light : Spiritual and Visionary Poems by Women Around the World, from Ancient Sumeria to Now.
Edited by Aliki Barnstone.
Shambhala Publications, Horticultural Hall
300 Massachusetts 02115.
Cloth: $25.00 ISBN: 1-57062 283-3 (1999).
A Map of Hope : Women's Writing on Human Rights : An International Literary Anthology.
Edited by Marjorie Agosin, with a foreword by Mary Robinson, U.N Commissioner for Human Rights.
Rutgers University Press
100 Joyce Kilmer Ave.
Piscataway, NJ 08854-8089.
Cloth: $49. ISBN. 0-8135-2625-6.
Paper: $19. ISBN: 0-81135-2626-4. (1999).
Girls : Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation.
Edited by Pamela Gemin & Paula Sergi
University of Iowa Press
Iowa City 52242.
Hardcover: $44.95. 255 pages. (1999)
Aliki Barnstone, who with the help of her father, Willis Barnstone, edited A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now
published by Schocken Books in 1981, now brings us this anthology of women poets on the
theme of spirituality. These, we are told, are the voices of women who yearned for self
realization and union with the divine, and these are their spiritual or visionary poems.
The words of the first known poet, Enheduanna, a Sumerian priestess, were chiseled on
cuneiform tablets four thousand years ago. Enheduanna, a woman of privilege, daughter to
the King of Sumeria, wrote "From the doorsill of heaven comes the word;
'Welcome!'" That is, perhaps, the basic premise of this anthology which takes us
from Enheduanna through Sappho to Louise Erdrich. Along the way we find
of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Vittoria Colonna, Mirabai, Emily Dickinson, Anna
Marina Tsveteyeva, Denise Levertov, Wislawa Szymborska and too many others to
one hundred and twenty poets down to the present. But that's where the problem
the present. The contemporaries included seem to have been chosen haphazardly, more for
their notoriety than their illumination, or simply because they are poets the editor
knows. The most appropriate poets of the past are well represented and some of the
contemporaries rise to the occasion of visionary poetry. This anthology is a good
endeavor, but perhaps, Barnstone should have stopped with the venerable, rather than
arbitrarily include the contemporary. Choosing whom to include among the living poets is
always a difficult task. Grace Paley, Maya Angelou, June Jordan and Adrienne Rich, are
just a few of the voices that seem missing from the compendium of women's voices with a
luminous purpose. There were other women poets among us who came to the fore in the 1970's
whose work was central to the theme, and thoroughly about it, but never mind, Voices of Light is a book worth reading
even if it errs in it's choice of contemporaries as did A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now. The notes on the poets at the back of the book are absolutely
essential reading. The average reader needs to know who these poets were or are, as well
as their cultural origin or country. Only the dates are given above each poem placing the
poets on the time line, and the book is arranged chronologically, which is an orderly way
to go about it. However, the average reader needs to constantly search at the back
of the book to know who Tzu Yeh, Sangha, Sakula or Sisupacala were. A preface to the book
explaining the editor's raison d'Ítre is essentially needed. Yet Aliki Barnstone has done
us the favor of collecting many women poets from near and far, and the compendium answers
Emily Dickinson's question, "Whydo they shut Me out of Heaven? Did I
singtoo loud? With Carolyn Forche's query: "To what and to whom does one say
yes? If God were the uncertain, would you cling to him?" One wants to know even more
about some of these mystical and luminous voices. Notes on the poets over each entry would
be very desirable, but reading many of the verses is a great pleasure.
Marjorie Agosin has done a very commendable job of gathering women's voices in both poetry
and prose on issues of human rights worldwide in A Map of Hope. A professor of Spanish at
Wellesley College, Agosin was honored with the United Nations Leadership Award for Human
Rights and has published other books with similar themes, including Ashes of Revolt. She's done a fair job of
making her current compendium internationally comprehensive in scope, though doubtless
there are far more women's writings she could have included, but a book such as this can
only be suggestive of the wealth of literature on the subject. Among the authors of the
seventy-seven representative works are Anna Akhmatova, Claribel Alegria, Isabel
Nadal Saadawi, Anne Frank, Nadine Gordimer, Wislawa Szymborska, Christa Wolf, June Jordan,
Petra Kelly, Hattie Gossett, Eva Hoffman, Barbara Kingsolver, Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich,
Nelly Sachs and Aung Sam Suu Kye. A notable omission is that of any writing by Helen
Caldicott, an Australian pediatrician, and one of the world's most articulate voices on
the suffering of women and children caused by nuclear pollutants and the world's
militarized economy. Yet in this important anthology, eloquent women writers from varied
cultures, names known and unknown, explore the tragedies and atrocities of war, giving
voice to terror and resistance, courage and sorrow. The works transcend national
boundaries and attest to our common humanity and desire for peace, harmony, equality and
justice worldwide. These women's voices appeal to our conscience, arouse our dedication,
and put an individual human identity on our sufferings, making us all comrades in the
struggle. The creative writers included have the power to portray the issues with the
profound and visionary observations of poets and story tellers who give reasoned as well
as emotional responses. The chapters are labeled thematically with titles like "War
and Resistance," "Imprisonment and Censorship," "Childhood,"
"Exiles and Refugees," "Domestic and Political Violence,"
"Resistance and Refusal." The poems and stories of children's sufferings in war,
and the plight of non-combative women and refugees is most touching. "The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights," is used as a preface to the selections, and in her
introduction, Agosin writes: "Literature is more than a witness to the passage of
time and its shadows. It is a documentation of the experience of being human in times of
adversity and resistance." She also says: "To my knowledge, this is the first
anthology ever to be published that focuses on the way in which specifically women writers
have spoken about human rights issues in which the writers are themselves victims or
survivors, or witnesses to their own cultural experience." A Map of Hope is handsomely designed with
an illustration from a painting by Liliana Wilson-Grez "Pedazos" and a cover
design by Carolina Harris which gives resonance to the books serious intent. This is a
book for a permanent collection. Libraries and readers of all types of literature need to
have this very vital book on their shelves.
"Where were you between Betty Crocker and Gloria Steinem?" pose the editors of
this anthology of poems from eighty poets born between approximately 1945 and 1964. Though
Boomer Girls : Poems by Women from the
Baby Boom Generation, is an interesting premise for an anthology, and
though some of the poets who should be included are, one imagines that my generation of
women's rights advocates and war resistersthe poets who fostered this generation of
poetswould be unhappy with the photo on the cover, which gives a silly slant to the
book. It displays a photo of two screaming girls, faces contorted by frenzy at what, one
assumes, is probably a rock concert. The rather garish cover, orange, purple and red,
doesn't say clearly that this is a generation of poets fostered by the likes of Marge
Piercy, Alicia Ostriker, Carolyn Kizer or Lucille Clifton as the editors state in their
preface. There is plenty of a complaining in the poems about mistakes made by parents,
creating too much of an overall whining voice to the selections. I had hoped for more of
the legacy of the poets of my generation mentioned above, but this anthology seems to
represent more of a "me-generation" of poets than the previous poets hoped to
foster. I don't think it's the writers included, but the selections from each that gives
this tone to the book. Still, the editors have compiled a book worth reading for some
intimate glimpses into the lives of women of the so called baby boomer generation, now in
their forties and fifties. The last two chapters, titled "The Music of the Rest of
Our Lives," and "Above the Chains of Flesh and Time," are perhaps the
most vital. Here, Elizabeth Alexander's poem with concerns beyond herself, titled
"Affirmative Action Blues," about the persistence of racism in the work place of
our time, resonates for the members of my generation who were active in the Civil Rights
movement of the early 60's. Harriet Jacobs' tribute to Harriet
Tubman, is rich with a legacy of emotional strength passed down from pioneering movers and
shakers like Tubman. Laura Stern's "Ice Cabbages," with its resonant line,
"we are the daughters who want to heal our mothers," offers poignancy to the
plight of immigrants, or displaced persons who struggle to assimilate into American
culture. Denise Duhamel's poem "Feminism" has charm and universality. The
premise for the anthology is good, but one longs for more such poems which reach beyond
self-concern into the issues of vitality voiced by these poets' forbears. The poets of my
generation did not tend to be the screamers at rock concerts depicted on the cover of this
collection. They were more likely the audiences at poetry readings and socially conscious
Pete Seeger concerts, and anti-nuclear, anti-war demonstrations. Writers like Rich and
Piercy voice vital issues and worldly concern in their poems. I can't imagine Adrienne
Rich, Grace Paley, Marge Piercy, or Maya Angelou's faces, contorted in screams, fawning
over rock stars. Perhaps, many girls of our generation did that, but the poets were the
serious ones, and when we complained about women's lot, we tried for wit and irony as
Carolyn Kizer did in "Pro Femina." It's not that there are not any good poems
here. Donna Masini's and Jill Bialosky's dramas about their mothers are poignantly
wrought. However, the main thrust of this book of "baby boomers" celebrates
sisterly feelings and complains that fathers are not very good, and mothers are rather
difficult. Men are either not present or unpleasant, and sexuality and it's discovery are
generally a bad experience. There are exceptions, but the editing or selections do not
fulfill the promise of the generation of women poets who came before, though there are
some good poems and poets included which do transcend the "me-generation"