Liz began by reading a poem called: When Men Poets You Admire and Respect Can Only Answer Sappho When Asked in Public Are There Any Women Poets They Admire by Deborah Keenan from her collection Good Heart which we have not reprinted for copyright reasons.
I read that poem while babysitting four greyhounds this fall. Their owner was frantically explaining their different personalities and eccentricities—Ralph and Blanche get along, but Heart needs to eat alone, and Murray just wants to sleep—then gave me a book about greyhounds. When she found out I was a writer, she ran to her shelf to find another book, one by a professor she’d had ten years ago. As I spent most of the day surrounded by snoring dogs, it only seemed right to read the book about greyhounds first: FYI they are sighthounds who can see nearly a mile away, and are prone to tooth decay. Then I picked up Deborah Keenan’s Good Heart, and ugly laughed at this poem.
Any chance I get to ugly laugh is a blessing. It is unattractive and loud and usually indicates that I’m enjoying a meanspiritedness or anger that I rarely allow myself. The anger in this poem has simmered for “thirty years, forty years, so many years,” and at twenty-six I am already familiar with it and dread living with it for that long. Women are often broken down into more manageable parts—tits or ass or genitals, as if any of those parts fully encompasses what it means to be a woman. The reduction doesn’t stop with the physical body: one must be a dutiful daughter, a supportive partner, a nurturing mother, a smart businesswoman, a team player in whatever arena you are thrust, but never a complete self.
As a kid, I was something of a tomboy. Even this is a way for me to explain a more complicated truth in a digestible format. I liked lipstick and lace and feminine things, but was afraid of the future womanhood they represented to me. My mother spoke openly about how when her child’s body became a woman’s, it turned on itself with indescribable monthly pain that was likely genetic. She spoke just as freely about her sexual assaults, the way her femininity was used as excuse for abuse, and how that was part and parcel of being a woman. Since I already liked baseball and horror movies and getting my clothes dirty, I leaned in to those interests, hoping to hide from whatever malevolent fairy turns one into a woman. When I found out that being one of the guys doesn’t protect you from your cousin’s friend demanding to see your tits, I realized it wasn’t that easy.
My work is short, intentionally sparse. The beloved fragmentation Sappho achieved primarily through document mismanagement is one that I employ on purpose. If I am to be seen as many pieces, I feel no duty to show how they are connected. No poem of mine will ever be able to convey the whole story, and this is an anxiety I have embraced. While I cannot provide a complete picture of any given scene or event, I can remain true to the incomplete experience of it, the white space of the page serving as a reminder that, as Mark Strand wrote, “Wherever I am/ I am what is missing.” Similarly, my photographs are only fragments of the moments they capture, no matter how wide the angle or intimate the close-up. I am constantly aware of this when composing a shot, and delight in enhancing it further with elements that divide the reality within the frame, just as my reality often is.
The last thing I am going to read is a poem I like to keep handy when I’m feeling vulnerable. Public speaking doesn’t come naturally to me, so laughing—ugly or otherwise—gives me a chance to find a rhythm to my breath again.
If you thought the last poem was about you,
It has been several moments
since you had that kind of power over me.
A selection of Liz's photographs shown during her reading: