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?
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you'll burn.
I found Atwood's poem at poets.org; 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.