#MeToo Anthology: A Women’s Poetry Anthology, editor Deborah Alma, (Fairacre Press).
In Bernard MacLaverty’s novel, Midwinter Break, the author describes a tour bus ride to Buchenwald concentration camp. A wasp buzzes down the hot bus with shut windows. None of the tourists – pensive, afraid even – dare raise a hand to swat it, sensitised by what they are about to bear witness to.
Reading editor Deborah Alma’s #MeToo anthology, a reviewer may have something of this.
The triumph is this book exists at all; voices raised in one howl of ‘Enough!’ This is an important anthology, yet a roll-call no contributor would wish to be in, though perhaps the first and last of its kind. We’d wish it so.
This is fraught and sober reading, not just for men: the first thing that struck me anew was how manipulative, exploitative and predatory our species can be to each another, but especially the male to the female. Secondly, many of these traumatic re-tellings appear to be from the 70s – women living such anguish half a lifetime, maybe longer, the pain still viscerally present, some feeling a lack of entitlement to call out their abuse, this assault.
Lastly, that relativist moral arguments about an uninvited hand on the knee being less culpable than harassment, molestation, or rape, misses the point entirely – that a climate existed in which people – men, mainly – felt this acceptable, and the ‘knee-hand’ exculpation neglects to own-up to helping an environment fester, in which worse became almost ‘permissible’.
In this context, critically reviewing the poetry seems beside the point. It is there. Get used to it. But eventually, it always is about the poetry.
The democratisation of ‘voice’ in #MeToo is a deliberate choice, one assumes, as part of inclusivity of intention. I did wonder if it’s this, or the nature of the subject-matter – bearing witness to what has happened – that gives the poems an often narrative-style. Something, as we know before we begin, has happened. In a sense, we already know the endings, so any with-holding is conceded to the reader, in favour of context. On occasion, the churl in me felt entitled to ask if these poems could therefore have worked as well as flash fiction. It seemed no coincidence that some of the perhaps longer-practised poets had gone for ‘telling it slant’, as in Saphra’s ekphrastic poem about Epstein’s priapic ‘Adam’, Helen Ivory’s poem about a scold’s bridle, or Pippa Little’s final poem in the anthology, ‘Spartaca’, which reminds us that, ‘Spartacus was a rebel slave hunted down by the Romans to be crucified. Asked to identify himself by soldiers, everyone in the crowd around him stepped forward and said ‘I am Spartacus’. I found this a clever and subtle co-opting of an historically ‘male’ story of collective courage, brought into a female ‘Spartaca’ tradition that this anthology makes reference to (and a tradition it would presumably wish to see ended, by being no longer necessary.)
These ‘historically’ located poems, from Roman times, to Ivory’s poem referencing the 16th. century, and to Epstein’s monumental sculpture from 1939, grant creative ‘distance’, but with certainly no loss of, and arguably intensifying, their power, in the longer lens they reference and quote. Adam in Saphra’s work, ‘howls for cunt.’ Sculpture and poem work powerfully.
Eliot-shortlisted Jacqueline Saphra, Geoffrey Dearmer-winner Kim Moore, Helen Mort, Pascale Petit have poems in this anthology, alongside many newer, ‘breaking’ poets with multiple accolades to their names like Wendy Pratt, Emma Simon, and Elisabeth Sennitt-Clough – and probably others’ who have never published before (there are no biographies in the anthology, perhaps for obvious reasons), or who may never wish to publish again, it is impossible to tell.
Editor Deborah Alma has wisely created seven sections to the anthology (subtitled ‘rallying against sexual assault and harassment’) and the final, seventh ‘circle’ of this Dante-ish recounting of hell, is one of hope, of – if not triumph – at least solidarity in adversity, a space where women harness the power of words for their own, to call out behaviours that should be consigned to history. For this reason alone, this book deserves to be read widely. Anyone have the courage and vision to make it a set-text in schools and colleges?
by Ken Evans