The Poet’s Eye: Spring ’09

The Poet’s Eye: Spring ’09

From Poetry Co-Editor Clare Coss
What if your mother by Judith Arcana
Birth Control by Judith Arcana
Responsibility by Grace Paley
Gentleness Stirred by Nimah Nawwab

In our Spring ’09 edition, On The Issues Magazine writers and artists discuss feminist and progressive values that transcend politics — our Lines In The Sand.

What if your mother by Judith Arcana

Sometimes when you talk to them, in argument
they say, What if your mother had an abortion?
And then I say she did, because it’s true, only
that one wasn’t me, it was somebody else; nobody
but my mother ever knew that baby. But they
mean me, the people who say it, mean
what if she aborted me, like that’s hard
to answer. They’re so stupid, because what if
she miscarried or gave me away? What if
I drowned at the beach when I was three?
What if she loved someone else, not my dad?
Then I wouldn’t be here either. What if, what if.
What’s the point of asking this phony question?
All you could ever answer is, Then everything
would be different, wouldn’t it? One thing sure,
I wouldn’t be standing here talking to some jerk
who asked me that dumb question. I wouldn’t
be mad at my mother for doing it – would I?
I think you just have to tell these people,
Get real. That’s not what it’s all about.

Birth Control by Judith Arcana

Long ago and more recently than we think,
far away and much closer than we imagine,
women have used cervical plugs of beeswax.

They did not read this in a contraception handbook.

Some insist, despite the evidence, that drinking cold water
right before sex will make sperm sluggish; others think chicken broth
with pepper seeds will work if it burns your lips.

Women douche with rosemary, coriander, crushed willow leaves
in vinegar, powdered myrrh mixed with cloves and dried parsley tea;
these are fragrant, near-biblical, and useless.

Salt, honey and mint have never worked, but often they are
all there is, pasted up inside. The salt may burn.
Cabbage seeds won’t do serious damage.

But there always have been women so desperate
they put the piss of goats and horses in their bodies, despite disgust.
Some go all the way to death: lead powder, ergot.

This has been for sex, sometimes for pleasure.

There’s never been something you could be sure of, nothing
you could be sure wouldn’t hurt; there always was a chance,
the gamble sometimes good, the odds sometimes bad.

Right now they’re making something new. They’ll say
it’s safe, they’ll say it’s sure; they’ll say anything – we know that.
But then we find, oh look, we find just eighty-seven percent.

They’ll say you didn’t use it right: you forgot, you waited too long,
you did it too soon; they’ll say ninety-eight percent
as if it were a hundred. But two percent of us will know.

Two percent will be the data, information
rarely offered in the little paper inserts, print so small
that even if you can read, you can’t read it.

Judith Arcana writes poems, stories, essays and books; she’s just published 4th Period English, a chapbook of poems about immigration in the voices of high school students & some visitors to their class; check her website – – for more. Her prose books include “Grace Paley’s Life Stories, A Literary Biography,” a study of the late activist/writer. “Birth Control” was first published in “Affilia” (18/2, 2003); “What if your mother” first appeared in “5AM” (#17, 2002). Both poems appear in Judith’s poetry collection “What if your mother” (2005).

Responsibility by Grace Paley

It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets you can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric
It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy
to hang out and prophesy
It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes
It is the responsibility of the poet to go in and out of ivory
towers and two-room apartments on Avenue C
and buckwheat fields and army camps
It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman
It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman
It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power as the
Quakers say
It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the
It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no
freedom without justice and this means economic
justice and love justice
It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the original
and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems
It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it on in the way storytellers decant the story of life
There is no freedom without fear and bravery there is no
freedom unless
earth and air and water continue and children
also continue
It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time.

Grace Paley (1922 – 2007), short story writer, poet, activist, described herself as “a cooperative anarchist and combative pacifist.” Her many works include: “The Little Disturbances of Man,” “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” “Long Walks and Intimate Talks” (with Vera Williams paintings), “The Collected Stories,” “Begin Again: Collected Poems,” “Here and Somewhere Else” (with husband Robert Nichols), and “Fidelity” (posthumous). More about Paley is in the book by Co-Poetry Editor Judith Arcana, “Grace Paley’s Life Stories, A Literary Biography.”

Gentleness Stirred by Nimah Nawwah

Striding through the gates of learning,
Wrapped warmly in her black abaya,
Modestly cloaked head to toe,
Not a hair astray, no skin showing,
Holding her head up high,
Thinking of the future,
Arms laden with books,
Head in the clouds,
Lunch, television, studies, friends,
That is how her day will go,
Near future, far future,
Blissful, brimming with expectations.

“Hey, you there!” thunders across the parking lot.
“You with the black boots” the tone is raised.
Oh, oh, reluctantly she turns,
Fear stirs,
Watches wrath

The self-righteous, bushy-bearded figure,
Crashes through the crowds,
Bestriding his narrow world like a Colossus,
As his entourage hurries in his wake,
A raging bull on the rampage,
Seeing red as the girl flouts “convention.”

Necks crane to watch,
The crowds are in on the show.
He thunders on,
The police by his side.
“Stop, your scarf has slipped.”
The tirade begins,
gains momentum.

Head cast down,
Eyes to the ground,
Shoulders drooping,
She listens,
Burrowing into her deepest self.

Has she missed a prayer?
Has she been a disobedient daughter?
Cheated, lied, stolen,
Beaten a child, an animal, been cruel to another soul?
What did she do?
Her scarf slipped,
An unforgivable transgression,
In the eyes of the Controllers.

Is that her sin,
Her ever-lasting humiliation,
Her major fall from grace,
Her offense?

The mind is strange, the spirit stranger yet,
The rebellion begins.

*Abaya is the outer garment worn by women in Persian Gulf countries.

Nimmah Nawwab is a women’s activist and international poet. The first Saudi Arab woman poet to be published in the United States, her pioneering work includes a historic first-of-its-kind public book singing in Arabia and another in Washington, D.C. Her volume of poetry, “The Unfurling” (Selwa Press 2004) is available from Events she has been involved with and her publications are featured on and she can be contacted at [email protected].