Detail of “O Body, O Incarnation” bowl (incantation against cancer)
The poetry-sculpture collaboration that I am working on with Tiffany Besonen now has a name: Reassurances: Incantation Bowls, Reimagined. Read Tiffany’s post about the naming process here. In writing the poems for this project (click here for a full description), I’ve run into several obstacles. One major hurdle, I’ve recently realized, is giving myself the permission to speak in the poems with the authoritative, oracular voice that these incantations against fears demand. Women in this culture (and others) are taught to be meek, to be unsure, to be equivocal. Studies prove it:
According to Lakoff (1973, 1975), women are caught between two forms of male prejudice. When women use tentative language—hedges (e.g., sort of, you know), disclaimers (e.g., I’m not sure,I suppose), and tag questions (e.g., isn’t it? right?)—men like them but perceive them as relatively unintelligent and incompetent, thus justifying their exclusion from serious discussion and power. When women eschew tentative language, men see them as intelligent and competent, but they are ostracized for being unfeminine; epithets reserved for such women include bully broad, iron maiden, and bitch.
Research has verified Lakoff’s contention. Wiley and Eskilson (1985) found that women who used assertive language were seen as successful managers, despite being seen as less likeable, than women who used tentative language.
[Reid, Scott A., et al. Gender, Language, and Social Influence: A Test of Expectation States, Role Congruity, and Self-Categorization Theories. Human Communication Research 35 (2009) 465–490.]
This is true in my own observations of the way I speak, the way my female colleagues speak, and, especially, the way my female high school students speak and write. Case in point: I just had to stop myself from going back and inserting “sometimes” above, so that the sentence read “the way I sometimes speak,” because otherwise it felt too declarative and absolute. Insidious, this phenomenon. Overcoming it to speak in the poems for this project as the protector, the oracle, the authority is difficult.
In the original bowls from the 2nd-8th centuries, CE, the demons prayed against were often female Lilith demons. What is it about femaleness that is so threatening? And particularly about assertive femaleness?
In Jewish folklore, from the 8th–10th centuries Alphabet of Ben Sira onwards, Lilith becomes Adam’s first wife, who was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam. This contrasts with Eve, who was created from one of Adam’s ribs. In the 13th Century writings of Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Cohen, for example, Lilith left Adam after she refused to become subservient to him and then would not return to the Garden of Eden after she mated with archangel Samael.
[Kvam Kristen E., Linda S. Schearing, and Valarie H. Ziegler. Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim readings on Genesis and gender. pp 220–221, Indiana University Press, 1999]
From the very beginnings of western culture, women have been outcast for being assertive. No wonder, then, that taking an authoritative tone is difficult. It’s fascinating that this project to write about fears has unearthed one of the most basic, yet hidden, cultural fears for women. That is not something I was aware would be an aspect of writing these poems, yet now, it has become one of the central issues. The bowls for this project are being made of sewing pattern paper–a traditionally female tool for traditionally female work. Yet here, the material is being repurposed–being used against its original use. The patterns were meant to be used as directions, as prescriptions, as a way to a predictable outcome, and these bowls definitely go outside those lines, literally and figuratively. In the beginning, I didn’t conceive of this project as a particularly feminist one, and yet there it is. The subconscious is a powerful and mysterious thing.
I’ve made other discoveries in this writing process. Writing to assuage fears means that I’ve had to think a lot about fear and its origins. In my original conception, the poems would be about “contemporary” fears: terrorism, unsafe food, child-rearing mistakes. What I’ve found, however, is that there are no truly contemporary fears. All of our fears come from that same reptilian part of the brain that they always have, and all are corollaries of the same three fears that have plagued humankind, and perhaps animals, too, since the beginning of time.
I believe that all of our fears fit into three categories: fear of suffering, fear of isolation, and fear of the unknown. You might ask: where’s that most basic fear–the fear of death? I would argue that we don’t actually fear death, we fear the process of dying ( fear of suffering), leaving our loved ones behind (fear of isolation), and whatever the aftermath of death might be (fear of the unknown).
In discussing this theory of fear with others, the most frequent question is “what about the fear of losing control?” I believe that wanting control is a manifestation of fearing the unknown.
Thinking about our fears in this way has informed the writing of the poems. They have become more universal, less”contemporary,” less tied to the here and now. I’m OK with that. It’s not how I originally conceived the project, but art is messy, and uncontrollable. Part of being an poet is to let yourself go where the words take you. In doing so, the poet must overcome the fear of the suffering that might come from being unsuccessful, the fear of the isolation of being misunderstood, and the fear of going into the unknown.
I’m working on it.
LouAnn Muhm is the recipient of an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is funded, in part, by the Minnesota State Legislature from the State’s arts and cultural heritage fund with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota on Nov. 4, 2008.