Thursday, November 29, 2012

Bold women count

Last evening at a poetry reading at Kensington Row Bookshop, I read my poem about Sophia Kovalevsky (posted on June 24); hearing it out loud before an attentive audience helped me to sense a couple of edits I need to make.  Conversations after the reading drew my focus once again to bold women.  Mathematics has some of these women --  and wants more.  Here, in a poem with some numbers, Margaret Atwood celebrates a woman who is not only bold but who burns.  Many of Atwood's words apply to difficulties (including being misunderstood by men) faced by women in mathematics  -- women who have "talent / to peddle a thing so nebulous / and without material form." 

     Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing        by Margaret Atwood   

     The world is full of women
     who'd tell me I should be ashamed of myself
     if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
     Get some self-respect
     and a day job.
     Right. And minimum wage,    
     and varicose veins, just standing
     in one place for eight hours
     behind a glass counter
     bundled up to the neck, instead of
     naked as a meat sandwich.
     Selling gloves, or something.
     Instead of what I do sell.
     You have to have talent
     to peddle a thing so nebulous
     and without material form.
     Exploited, they'd say. Yes, any way
     you cut it, but I've a choice
     of how, and I'll take the money.

     I do give value.
     Like preachers, I sell vision,
     like perfume ads, desire
     or its facsimile. Like jokes
     or war, it's all in the timing.
     I sell men back their worse suspicions:
     that everything's for sale,
     and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
     a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
     when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
     are still connected.
     Such hatred leaps in them,
     my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
     hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
     and upturned eyes, imploring
     but ready to snap at my ankles,
     I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
     to step on ants. I keep the beat,
     and dance for them because
     they can't. The music smells like foxes,
     crisp as heated metal
     searing the nostrils
     or humid as August, hazy and languorous
     as a looted city the day after,
     when all the rape's been done
     already, and the killing,
     and the survivors wander around
     looking for garbage
     to eat, and there's only a bleak exhaustion.
     Speaking of which, it's the smiling
     tires me out the most.
     This, and the pretence
     that I can't hear them.
     And I can't, because I'm after all
     a foreigner to them.
     The speech here is all warty gutturals,
     obvious as a slab of ham,
     but I come from the province of the gods
     where meanings are lilting and oblique.
     I don't let on to everyone,
     but lean close, and I'll whisper:
     My mother was raped by a holy swan.
     You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
     That's what we tell all the husbands.
     There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

     Not that anyone here
     but you would understand.
     The rest of them would like to watch me
     and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
     as in a clock factory or abattoir.
     Crush out the mystery.
     Wall me up alive
     in my own body.
     They'd like to see through me,
     but nothing is more opaque
     than absolute transparency.
     Look--my feet don't hit the marble!
     Like breath or a balloon, I'm rising,
     I hover six inches in the air
     in my blazing swan-egg of light.
     You think I'm not a goddess?
     Try me.
     This is a torch song.
     Touch me and you'll burn.

I found Atwood's poem at; it is taken from Morning in the Burned House (McClelland and Stewart, 1995).  Margaret Atwood also is acquainted with Sophia Kovalevsky -- her short story about Kovalevsky, "Too Much Happiness," appears in Munro's collection, likewise called Too Much Happiness, published in 2009 by Knopf -- and the Knopf website offers an excerpt from the title story.  Another Atwood was featured in the 18 June 2010 posting.

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