Her Wings of Glass, edited by Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle and Dilys Wood, (Second Light, 2014), £12.95, 207 pp., ISBN: 978-0-9927088-0-1
Reviewed by Zozi
[Originally published in LP10, July 2016]
After Virginia Woolf died, one newspaper headline announced “Woman Writer’s Suicide”. Are we still seen as women first, and writers second?
Unfortunately, it seems to me that women’s writing in 2015 is often still read as being intensely personal, dealing with ‘feminine’ emotions and experiences; meanwhile, the subject of men’s work is more likely to be hailed as ‘universal’. Jeanette Winterson wrote that “when women writers put themselves into their fiction, it’s called autobiography. When men do it, it’s called meta-fiction.” The work of twentieth century female writers, particularly Plath, has been much mined by critics for its links to the artist’s personal life and state of mind.
Her Wings of Glass is a sprawling anthology, featuring 237 poems by 107 female poets, and it responds to the above presumptions with warmth and chutzpah. Format-wise it is similar to Bloodaxe’s seminal anthologies Being Alive and Staying Alive, but the decision to feature only female poets is, to me, a welcome innovation.
Editors Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle, and Dilys Wood write in the introduction that poetry by women is now “less concerned with defining woman, more with defining existence”; they add that this book is a “representative cross-section” of work by women poets writing in English. As such, it is a highly ambitious and intriguing collection. Divided thematically, the anthology covers such topics as love, war, creativity, the natural world, the environment, existence, and abuse.
Nature poetry often seems to suffer a hackneyed association with tame, apolitical, watercolour work. But the editors’ approach here is much redder in tooth and claw, and many of these nature poems deal with ugliness and unfamiliarity. Take Mimi Khalvati’s ‘Sciurus Carolinensis’, which breaks language open and turns the familiar grey squirrel into something wild and alien: “I displace the red… Skia, oura, I flicker on the walls of the cave.”
In Rose Flint’s ‘Horses in the Summerlands’ and Fleur Adcock’s marvellous poem ‘Toads’, nature poetry becomes a way to approach wounds and heal them. “It was the summer of my father’s death. / I saw his spirit in every visiting creature”, Adcock writes; the small tragedy of a dying toad becoming a stand-in for larger losses. Similarly, Flint writes movingly about horses, “like bronze bells, rung by love”, their beauty giving a child an escape from trauma and sadness. Mention must also go to Frances Horovitz’s taut, suspenseful, and beautifully crafted poems, which intercept everyday images (buzzards, harebells, lilac blossoms) and make us see them afresh.
Wounds of a different kind are explored in the chapters which take the environment, war, and the human family as their subjects. The set of poems themed around the planet are unflinching: Adcock’s poem ‘Regression’ envisions humans “foolish and lost on the naked skin of the earth”, whilst Shuttle’s ‘Modis’ pictures the changing climate “racing on smoky winged feet / across Russia and Australia”. Anne Stevenson’s ‘Teaching my Sons To Swim in Walden Pond’ is a highlight of this section, presenting Thoreau’s idyllic spot as something universal, ancient, a microcosm of the world: “The pond was measurable. / Its voice, immeasurable”.
The ‘War on Humanity’ chapter is probably the most ambitious part of the book. In it, we travel from Cape Town to India, from the battlefields of France to Palestine. The Holocaust casts its inevitable shadow over this chapter, and in particular Susanne Ehrhardt’s poems about a German family make for difficult, unsettling reading, (“When our fathers died defending murder / How shall we remember them?”) especially when juxtaposed with the poems of Lotte Kramer, a Holocaust survivor who escaped from Germany as a child. In Kramer’s poem ‘A Glass of Water’, something as simple and clear as the title image becomes symbolic of deprivation and enormous loss. I am reminded here of Szymborska’s comment that “apolitical poems are also political”. This anthology does not provide any cosy escapes or easy answers. Although the vast jumps in time and space in the war section sometimes lead to a lack of cohesiveness, the editors should be commended for covering such distances in a small space.
The chapter on ‘The Human Family’ makes for similarly challenging reading, as themes of separation from parents, child abuse, and loss of parents surface. Caroline Price’s ‘The Boy Who Could Lay Eggs’ and Maria Jastrzebska’s ‘FAQ’ illustrate two different, but very visceral approaches to child abuse: one very graphic, another more indirect, but no less shocking. Meanwhile, the poems ‘Daughter’, ‘About Love’ and ‘I Remember Leaving, Being Left’ (by Denise Bennett, Adele Ward and Kay Syrad respectively) interconnect, with their themes of mother-love and the trauma of adoption and separation. One of the joys of an anthology is how carefully chosen poems can respond to and reverberate with each other – we can move swiftly from tender celebrations of family, to work that portrays the family unit as an oppressive sham.
This anthology’s main strength is boldness; it cheerfully destroys the archaic image of women’s poetry as lily-livered, delicate and afraid to tackle Big Themes. This is a book with limited physical space but an incredibly broad thematic range. It does not provide a cosy, safe space, but offers poetry that is raw, vivid, and real.