Mary Oliver reads from new release–Dog Songs

by Emilie Egger

“We meet wonderful people, but lose them

in our busyness.

We’re, as the saying goes, all over the place.
Steadfastness, it seems,
is more about dogs than about us.
One of the reasons we love them so much.”

Award-winning American poet Mary Oliver recently gave a benefit reading for the

Dog SongsProvincetown Art Association which featured selections from her latest collection of poems,  Dog Songs.

The reading took place at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields in Greenwich Village on Wednesday, Oct. 9. About 100 people filled the sanctuary to hear the author read from her newest book and attend a brief reception afterward. Oliver read for about 45 minutes from Dog Songs and a few of her older books, adding supplemental stories to each poem she picked.

Although I wondered if the subject matter of dogs would make for a less-complex collection than her previous work, this latest release from Oliver is just as wise and profound as her previous collections. Oliver’s poetry regularly focuses on themes of nature and spirituality and this new book of poetry is no different. Themes found in her other work, such as forgiveness, loss, love, solitude, companionship also weave their way into this collection of poems.

The focus on dogs becomes a new way through which Oliver invites her readers to relate and understand her greater messages. Additionally, the trope of long walks that appears so often in her poems works exceptionally well in a book of poems devoted to canine companions.

Indeed, the focus of the book is celebrating dogs for their companionship, loyalty, and joy.

“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?”

 But it is also about so much more than pets:

This collection is not an assortment of simple, straightforward stories about dogs. Dog Songs tells the rich tales of life found in Oliver’s other work that happen to be told through her experiences with her many dogs. Oliver’s poetry is known for its accessibility; the focus on pets in this volume provides yet another way for her audience to access the perennial themes of her work–countless readers will be able to relate to the experiences of having a dog and thereby enter her deep realms of understanding.

mary oliver percy

Oliver’s presence at the reading was striking. She is a Pulitzer Prize (for American Primitive) and National Book Award winner (New and Selected Poems), as well as many other words. She read calmly but firmly to an adoring and grateful audience.

Like the rest of Oliver’s work, this collection is not overtly political, didactic, or religious. But she portrays her love for her pets and the love she receives from them in return as a transformative experience leading to peace, joy, and the desire to live life fully

As Oliver writes in her poem “Percy Wakes Me,” one of her compositions about a dear long-time pet:

“This is a poem about Percy.

This is a poem about more than Percy. 

Think about it.”

— “Percy Wakes Me,” Dog Songs

mary oliver

Mary Magdalene: a link between sensuality and spirituality

by Kaitlyn Kohr

Whether you know her as a saint, a prostitute, the apostle to the apostles, or even as a Christ’s possible lover, it is impossible to deny that Mary Magdalene is one of the most powerful women in the Christian tradition and perhaps most well-known after the Madonna. Her reputation as both a saint and a sinner have made her a symbol of the everyday woman. She is real and accessible to women in a way that other biblical women are not. Her accessibility is enhanced by her image, which reflects societal attitudes about women more than her own actually identity.

This approachability is especially prominent in art of the Magdalene, in which her beauty, sexuality, and personality are a reflection of beauty norms and women’s roles at the time the art was created. In the middle of the Italian Renaissance, there began to be a large number of paintings produced that depicted a sensuous, scantily clad or nude Mary Magdalene who is in the middle of penitence or prayer. These images are a drastic shift from prior Magdalene artwork, which usually depicted her clothed and surrounded by her saintly attributes.

The painting The Penitent Magdalene painted by the Italian Domenico Tintoretto inPenitent Magdalene 1598 showcases the new image of the Magdalene. She is a beautiful young woman with flowing hair, her body nude yet covered by a cloth, praying to the heavens surrounded by religious objects. The image is spiritual and sexual at the same time. In the 1876 Mary Magdalene in the Cave by the French painter Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Mary Magdalene is completely nude with fire-red hair spread around her as she covers her face with her arm, lying in the cave where she lived out the rest of her life in penance after Christ’s death. This image  is much more blatantly sexual than Tintoretto’s with the Magdalene appearing to be rolling in some kind of religious ecstasy.

Mary Magdalene in the caveSo what can feminists take from these images, created almost entirely by males that encompass both the erotic and religious devotion? These images depict female sexuality in a time when women’s sexuality was misunderstood and repressed. Yet, in art the Magdalene is in all her nude glory, beautiful and repentant before God. For women in the past as well as today she is a model of the balance between religion and sex. In a religion that has so often been interpreted to forbid desire, Mary Magdalene is a figure that Christian women can look to for sexual empowerment. In a society that condemns women who practice and enjoy sex, the Magdalene is a savior of sorts. For women who may worry about sex or their enjoyment of sex and its consequences for their spirituality, Mary Magdalene appears as an important figure who shows that the two are not mutually exclusive. She stands as a model of a woman who is not oppressed, basking in her sensuality and incorporating religion into her passion.

Taking Control of the Lens: Julie Dash and Leslie Harris

“I grew up at a time when it was an anomaly to see people who looked like me on TV. When you don’t feel seen or heard, you don’t feel validated or valued.” – Shonda Rhimes

          Space is what defines our bodies, fashion, style, dress, hair, mannerisms, and skin color. Depending on where a person resides, space determines an environment’s specific ethnic and aesthetic makeup. Black women filmmakers negotiate and utilize space differently than their male counterparts. Black male directors generally tell stories of the black male experience, masculinity, manhood, and urban experiences. These are themes seen in films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. Black women filmmakers, on the other hand, use space to explore black womanhood, gender relations, and class through the black woman protagonist(s) in film. The 1990s was an especially revolutionary period for black women filmmakers because they produced films that engaged women spectators around the world.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992) was the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992) was the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust opens with the line,

“I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many of my daughters. I am the silence you cannot understand. I am the utterance of my name.”

The powerful lyrical prose transitions beautifully into first scene when the Gullah Islands enter on screen with the presence of a boat treading through water. The audience is immediately immersed into a distinctive African culture that is defined and narrated by women. The voiceover invites us into the filmic space to experience the Sea Gullah Islands, home of the Peazant family, the members of whom have sought to sustain a unique, imaginative, original African culture. When the boat enters the on screen, we assume the boat is representative to the boats that crossed the middle passage to bring slaves to America. However, when the camera zooms in on the boat, the audience sees a regal woman who is soon to be revealed as Yellow Mary standing starkly in the boat, upright, and prideful. Her position is not a position of powerlessness. She is powerful and the women who will be unveiled in the film, following Yellow Mary’s entrance, have the same power and agency granted on screen.

Dash strategically time stamps the film, situating the setting in 1902, an important historical period for Blacks living in America. By doing so, the audience is able to enter into culturally specific space where blacks survive, exists, preserve, and remember their ancestors at Ibo Landing. Ibo Landing is a symbolic space because it serves as a canvas to glance back to slavery, the Middle Passage, African religions, Christianity, Islam, print media, photography, moving pictures, and African-American folkways, as elements with which black people must come to terms in order to glance forward as citizens of the United States. It serves as a space where the Peazant family can articulate their family history without the intrusion of whiteness. Whiteness is completely marginalized in Ibo Landing. Dash does this to show the audience a true authentic black culture where decisions are made and life is experienced on their own time and in their own space.

1002004012415809On the other hand, space in Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. functions differently than Daughters of the Dust because the film is situated in a city rather than a rural environment. The opening scene shows a young black man with a garbage bag in his hand, walking

slowly in the dark. He anxiously scans the area and places the bag next to a trashcan and walks away. This image is taken from second to final scene of the movie where Chantel, the protagonist, gives birth to her child in her boyfriend’s bedroom and frantically asks her boyfriend to dispose of the child. The media often frames the story as an unfortunate mishap that only happens in underprivileged spaces, such as low-income neighborhoods. The subjects are not granted a voice in the media to tell the story from their perspective. Leslie Harris revises the narrative and inserts the voice of 17-year-old Chantel Harris to tell the story.

In the first few seconds, Harris places the narrative in Chantel’s hands and her voice over is directed to the audience. Chantel states “You know tomorrow you might be reading about this in papers or you might even see it on TV. Y’all might shake your heads and think and say somebody was real bugged out or was on crack or something. Some people hear about my neighborhood and assume some real fucked up things. But I am going to tell y’all the real deal.” Instead of whiteness defining Chantel’s lived experiences, Chantel uses space to give an authentic voice to young black women living in urban environments.

Brooklyn, like Ibo Landing, is a symbolic space because it serves a foundation to build Chantel’s story. After the opening scene, Harris brings Chantel’s voice to the foreground and shows her standing at the Park Place subway stop in Brooklyn waiting on the Manhattan-bound train to take her to Midtown where she works at a local grocery store.

While Chantel is on the platform Harris cuts to the sign above the subway stop, which is covered in graffiti. Behind it are the tall high-rise buildings that make up low-income housing. Chantel boards the train and Harris makes it a point to briefly display the passing subway stops signs. Each sign along the ride is more clean then the last, each subway station nicer than the one before it.

The mis-en-scene of this shot is important because it shows how Chantel moves into spaces of familiarity to spaces of unfamiliarity. It also represents the social circumstances that Chantel experiences daily. Before she enters the store, Chantel abruptly turns to the camera and openly states,

“I’m a Brooklyn girl. Lots of people think Brooklyn girls are tough. I guess that’s true. I don’t let nobody mess with me.  I do what I want, when I want.”

Despite the drastic change in environment, moving from grimy to affluent in only a couple of minutes, Chantel doesn’t change her attitude but declares Brooklyn as her identity. Brooklyn defines Chantel’s experience and how she interacts in other spaces unfamiliar to her.

These stories of black women navigating restricted or granted spaces would not have been explored if it wasn’t for black women filmmakers creating these films. These films are critical to explore how the various types of black woman navigate their worlds whether in Ibo Landing or Brooklyn.

Class condemnation through film: Traffic in Souls and White Prostitution Films in the early 1900s

by Emilie Egger

White slave films like Traffic in Souls (Universal 1913) were all the rage in the early traffic_in_soulsProgressive Era in the United States. White slavery (forced prostitution of immigrants) was a topic of great concern during this time and in the years before World War I, became the focus of both government and non-government moral panic. While legislators pushed laws condemning the forced prostitution of immigrant women, reform-minded groups used whatever means they could to reinforce traditional family structure, and what they considered to be “middle-class values.” Directors and theater owners also joined the hype by creating and featuring films (purportedly) designed to combat this societal ill from the cinematic front.

Nickelodeons and motion picture palaces had always attracted lower-class and immigrant audiences. The price of a Nickelodeon movie was cheap enough for an immigrant’s income and the length of the feature not so long that s/he would have to miss work. Although theaters’ incomes were largely supported by this working-class demographic, around the beginning of the twentieth century theaters began attempting to attract what they thought was a more “respectable” class, namely women who were part of wealthier families than the newly designated “blue-collar” workers.

Only upper and middle class women were considered a part of this suddenly-valuable “respectable” demographic; the lower-class women, even though they continued to frequent theaters, became the fodder for the productions rather than valued customers. In many ways, the new “respectable women” were the foils to the lower-class immigrant women portrayed in the white-slave films, who were forced into compromising positions due to their poverty and need to work.

traffic in souls 2In Traffic in Souls, working women were portrayed as being in harm’s way simply for leaving their homes. The continuation of this logic is that they should stay home instead of attending films. Lower-class women viewing Traffic in Souls and other white-slavery films saw people like them portrayed as passive victims in a cruel society. Their only hope for safety was to become more “respectable” like their wealthier counterparts.

As they endeavored to ‘clean up’ the theaters, filmmakers (and the theaters who featured their work) were focused on ‘educating’ and ‘enlightening’ those of the lower and immigrant class who came to see their work. Traffic in Souls was defended as a kind of ‘reform document,’ intended to warn immigrant women about the dangers inherent in working outside of the home, especially in an urban area. Later scholarship has been ambivalent about George Loane Tucker’s true intentions in making the film, many historians stating that his goals were more related to the huge box office numbers than actually producing an educational, moral document.

Whatever Tucker’s reason, Traffic in Souls was a sensational hit. 30,000 people saw it during its opening week in New York and white-slave films were soon being shown all over the city. As Shelley Stamp writes in Movie-Struck Girls, 15 New York theaters had “gone into slavery” by 1914, because they knew these types of films would be instant hits. They remained the hype for about a year. Even famed director Alice Guy Blache made a film as part of the white-slave hype.

Many white-slave films, including Traffic in Souls, came under intense scrutiny because oftraffic in souls 3 their subject matter. Even though Traffic in Souls was promoted as a reform document, it was considered indecent from its beginnings. On the day that it opened in New York, police raided the theater and stole the film. The police followed the film to new theaters, where they did much the same thing. While theaters that carried the film argued that, since they took a firm stand against white slavery, they were doing the ‘decent’ thing, censors said they were playing into social hysteria and promoting indecent content. Today, many scholars have decided that they exploited the sensationalism surrounding white slavery in order to make a profit.

Declaring Radical Self-Love and Authenticity: Andrea Gibson, Nicole Reynolds, and Mary Lambert in NYC

By Carly Fox

A ubiquitous name in the spoken-word movement and the first winner of the Women’s World Poetry Slam, Andrea Gibson performed at the Best Buy Theater in NYC on October 15, 2013. 2340772100_9eff0b0fa9_bSinger/Songwriters Nicole Reynolds and Mary Lambert opened for Gibson to a crowded room of more than 200 visibly queer and adoring fans. Through fearless prose, heart-wrenching honesty, and unapologetic presence, the three powerful voices interwove themes of queer politics, sexuality, gender, body image, sexual violence, and love and loss into her performance. Echoing the heart of feminism, that the personal is always political, Gibson, Reynolds, and Lambert also highlighted the fundamental importance of practicing radical self-love and authenticity as a means to reject sexism, racism, and homophobia.

Musician and poet Mary Lambert opened the show with a striking sense of honesty and emotional intensity. Lambert, who has been described in The New York Times as a “rarity”, is the powerful female voice accompanying hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis in the gay rights and marriage equality anthem “Same Love,” which has sold over two million copies in the US alone.

Mary Lambert performs " Same Love" with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at the 2013 VMA.

Mary Lambert performs ” Same Love” with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at the 2013 VMA.

Lambert’s poems and songs covered a wide range of political and deeply personal territory, using her sophisticated voice to address issues of rape, self-harm, and homophobia.

Perhaps most poignant and moving was Lambert’s reading of her poem “Body Love,” in which she describes with unparalleled images and metaphors the epidemic of body shame and self-hatred among young girls and women.

Lambert’s poem begins with the line:

“I know girls who wonder if they’re disaster and sexy enough to fit in.

I know girls who are fleeing bombs from the mosques of their skin, playing Russian roulette with death. It’s never easy to accept that our bodies are fallible and flawed. But when do we draw the line? When the knife hits the skin isn’t it the same thing as purging because we’re so obsessed with death?”

Most striking about this performance was the profound honesty Lambert brought to the arena. Indeed, the crackling and bittersweet pain in her voice suggested that this was not just an abstract story for Lambert, but a deeply personal testament of overcoming self-rejection and embracing self-love.

“Love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet.” - Mary Lambert

“Love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet.” – Mary Lambert

By the end of the poem Lambert exclaims “The time has come for us to reclaim our bodies.” “Try this”, she urges the listener, “Take your hands over your bumpy love body naked. And remember the first time you touched someone with the sole purpose of learning all of them.”

Indeed Lambert’s trenchant prose are a powerful reminder to reject the lies of sexism and patriarchy.

“Love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet. And brother arm wrapping shoulders and remember this is important to our worth more than who you fuck. You are worth more than a waist line.”

In her online bio Lambert admits she is good at “two things: crying and singing.”

True to this statement, Lambert ended her set with a soft giggle and unassuming bow, telling the audience “Thanks for letting me cry at you.”

Philadelphia based singer and songwriter Nicole Reynolds, who works on organic farms raising sheep and growing her own food through the WWOOF program (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), followed Lambert with songs about her childhood, farming, the art of storytelling, and the chaotic feeling of falling in love for the first time. In an interview with the Pittsburg CityPaper, Reynolds says “I’m just honest on stage. I think for people to start opening their minds — and they’re starting to — it just takes a whole lot of people being honest.” Indeed the honesty of Reynold’s performance was striking.  Whether humorous, sad or melancholy, Reynold’s songs were filled with an uncanny sense of authenticity.

Introducing her song “Like the Ocean,” Reynold’s explained that it was about her childhood, adolescence, sexuality, being raised Catholic, and how she came through it.

The song’s opening phrases highlight much of the fear and homophobia that young queer adolescents often face.

“When I was a girl they told me in this world some things fit and some things don’t. A man and a woman, a man and a woman that’s what he wrote. This we know. A priest looked at me with his big blue eyes. He told me my love was the devil in disguise. My mother couldn’t look at me. Her eyes turned blank.”

By the end of the song, however, Reynold’s deeply moving lyrics underscore her reclaimed sense of self love and openness.

"I love who I love who I love like the ocean.” Nicole Reynolds

“I love who I love who I love like the ocean.” Nicole Reynolds

“I think what I think and I say what I see. I cut my own hair and I am who I be. I love who I love who I love like the ocean.”

 Andrea Gibson, followed Reynolds and Lambert with more provocative reflections on authenticity, love, and the need to look honestly at personal shame. Gibson’s poems addressed issues of white privilege, racism, homophobia, and recent public tragedies like the death of Tyler Clementi and the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Before reading her poem about Trayvon Martin, Gibson described the personal and collective grief his death caused, and the anger and helplessness she felt on July 13, 2013, the day George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin.

In her poem “July 13, 2013” Gibson laments “I don’t know what makes us human more than our crimes. That just breaks my heart.”

“I am small as a kid being pushed inside a locker. Good god I want to be big. Big enough to stop editing the ugly out of my bio. To empty every bullet from the chamber of my heart to fill it with the hoodie of a boy. What poem will walk him home? What radio tower of light, what redemption will dull the blade, melt it down to mirror. Give us back to god. Unhaunt the house of the mother choosing the color of the casket.”

Other poems addressed issues deeply personal to Gibson. In “An Insider’s Guide on How to be Sick”, a poem about having Lyme disease, Gibson explores her own sense of shame and fear. “Nothing has brought up shame as much as living with Lyme disease” she explained candidly to the audience. Admitting that it had taken her over a year and a half to find the courage to perform the poem in public, Gibson credited the transgender and human rights activist Leslie Feinberg as a powerful inspiration. Feinberg, who Gibson called one of her biggest “activist heroes”, writes openly about her personal experience of having Lyme disease on her blog TransgenderWarrior.

Highlighting the vivid reality of living with a disease, in “An Insider’s Guide on How to be Sick,” Gibson explains:

“Every fever is a love note to remind you there are better things to be than cool. Fuck cool. Fuck every pair of skinny jeans. From the month your muscles started atrophying to a size two.”

Gibson ends her poem with a powerful reminder that one could choose to embrace challenges as teachers. “Everything is a lesson” she says.“Lesson number one through infinity: You will never have a greater opportunity to learn to love your enemy than when your enemy is your own red blood. Truce is a word made of velvet. Wear it everywhere you go.”

In a culture which constantly bombards young girls and women with messages of shame, self-rejection, and not-enoughness, Andrea Gibson, Nicole Reynolds, and Mary Lambert remind us to speak our own stories, and embrace ourselves and others with compassion, love, and honesty. Indeed their words stand as powerful testaments that radical self-love and unabashed honesty is perhaps one of the most profoundly political acts in which we can engage.

Beauty Rest

By Alicia Cobb

It’s a complex

Beauty only goes skin deepth

You heard your mother say it

Didn’t listen

Doesn’t pertain to you anyway

But when the golden strands turn gray

And wrinkles set in

There’ll be no need for a mirror

When we can’t fit into those thigh boots

And we have too many rolls

To fit in that tank top

What will you replace

In the empty spaces

Conversations about

Who you know

And where you’ve been

It’s a complex

I can’t even begin

Baby girl

I wish I had a mirror

That would reflect your soul

Because that

Pretty girl

Is what makes you whole

Not perfect pictures

Or the likes

Or millions of friend requests

Let your brain do some work

Allow your beauty to rest

Beauty is and forever will be skin deep

One day it will be put to a test

When Will We Be Feminists?

 When Compassion is a Value

When Progresspicasso-woman-in-blue-nov-23-2009

Is Measured

By

How Much Truth

We Dare

To Know, To Speak

When Pushing a Wheel-Chair is Worth More Than Your Stocks

When Peace is More Than a Logo on Some T-shirt the Gap is Selling

When Patriotism is Pacifism

When We Stop Believing in Borders

When We Stop Building Walls

When Courage is Not a Gun

When War is Not an Option

When Man is No Longer Defined by NOT Woman

When Beauty is No Longer Measured in 2’s and 4’s

When We Can Stand Naked Without Sucking in Our Guts

When We Stop Applying Perfume

To Cover up the Scent

Of  What They  so Presumptuously Call “Feminine Oder”

And Instead,

Let Pussy Smell Like Pussy

When Our Bumper Stickers Read Not, “God Bless America,” but

God Bless the Orphan in Gaza

God Bless the Widow in Afghanistan

God Bless the 15 year Old Boy in Yemen Who’s Learning to Shoot a Missile

God Bless the Woman in the Congo Who’s Been Raped More Times than She Can Count

God Bless US All

When We Remember That the Man We Call God

Came From the Vagina of a Poor Palestinian Woman

When a Black –

Muslim –

STONE

BUTCH

Who’s Taken a Punch

Who Knows the Meaning of the Word Dyke

Who Prays to an Indigenous God

Who Took the First Bite of the Apple and Enjoyed It

Who Remembers Stone Wall – And the Hard Fist from the Cop

Who Was Burned at the Stake

Who Was an American before Columbus

Who Marched in Birmingham, in South Africa, in India, in Palestine

Who Was There, at the Bottom of the Ship, Crossing the Atlantic

Who Sat in the Back

Who Drank from the Other Water Fountain

Who Jumped from the Windows at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory

Who Gave Birth to Jefferson’s Negro Baby

Who’s Been Down and Out, and Then Some.

Who’s Cried

Who’s Fought

Who’s Lost

Whose Father was Hagar

Whose Mother was Jezebel

Whose Name is Not Remembered

And Whose Story is Never Told

When

This

STONE

BUTCH

Is

Elected

President

Then

Then We Will Be Feminists.