The title poem in this pamphlet of 20 poems has a daughter asking her mother, “where are the pubes?” in a gallery of paintings of nude women and the mother’s answer about a male gaze feeling inadequate to a daughter who is also a woman. It sets the tone for a questioning of how women are depicted, the gap between image and reality and the impact of that gap. The opening poem, “The Fallen Alices” juxtaposes the publication of “Alice in Wonderland” against reports of female suicides in the Thames river,
“Of all the stories told by the Thames this is ours:
we are the curious, the questing, the covetous, the lost,
we are the girls who never grow up. We are hanging
from bridges because the river listens to our petitions.
We are flower-selling under arches, distracted by the ticking
of this gentleman’s fine pocket-watch, we will follow him home.
We are the eat-me drink-me, the locked room, the golden key
on the glass table. We are the drugged, the tricked, the riddled,
Alice is the archetypal curious girl but the real life Alices, whose curiosity leads to being unable to slot into the role society has given them, end tragically. The “flower-selling” is a nod to George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” where the flower girl is taught proper diction by a phonetics professor so becomes able to improve her life. The title of the play is a reference to the myth where a scultptor’s wish that his statue comes to life is made true. Anna Kisby’s use of enjambment and quick rhythm hurries the reader along to the next idea or image, just as news readers might pause over a sad story then move on. The merging of the stories of the suicides with Alice, suggests that those who expressed concern over those suicides were satisfied to write these women off as tragic rather than explore the reasons behind their actions and allow women fewer restrictions. The power imbalance of knowledge against innocence is explored in “Just Like A Woman” where the narrator is telling the story of seeing Bob Dylan playing in Paris while she was still young,
“at the first strums of my favourite song
(which would lose its shine when
I got fired up about misogyny
but that was later, not then) as he filled
his lungs to sing Nobody feels any pain
he looked directly at me –
with Dylan I was living the phrase
we locked eyes – at which point
in the story my husband always replies
The colloquial vocabulary belies the serious points being made, not just about the power of a seasoned performer to fool a young girl, but also about the dichotomy of being a music fan when the lyrics are misogynous and the scepticism of a man it would be natural to feel you should be able to rely on. It’s a familiar undermining of a woman’s experience: she’s fine as an adoring fan but when she gets to move central stage, she gets the eye-roll treatment. In “The Outsole and Insole of the Cowboy Boot Shopgirl” the narrator gives her sales pitch that mentions “lemonwood pegs” and then considers her lonely heart,
“lassoed on Main Street, two-stepping into the store, shelves immaculate
with boots – every colour, exquisite and best. In a quiet grove
citrus limon gives herself up to the axe. A hammering in my chest
like I’m held on a last and being entered carefully, fixed
with lemonwood pegs. Love me. Live your life at extreme pitch.”
The exterior efficiency of sales gives way to a inner sentimentality which wants her customers to care as much about the boots as she does and take them on adventures rather than just dreaming about it. The final poem, “Tortoise Missus,” considers a late marriage,
“All the jerks I practised on: teenage jack rabbits,
bullies making me jump at the scrape of a chair.
How little they loved me, or how much, but themselves
more. How they or I fell short. The many ways
I irritated them: texting when walking; falling mute”
“Time is precious, fleeing, on my heels – my slow smile
crosses the finish line.”
This won’t be a marriage repented at leisure.
“All the Naked Daughters” is the first publication from Against the Grain and carries a weight of expectation beyond its 20 poems. Fortunately, “All the Naked Daughters” is hefty and carries that weight with ease. This is a fabulous beginning.
“All the Naked Daughters” by Anna Kisby is available from Against the Grain Poetry Press.