I’ve written this poem (preemptively) for International Women’s Day on March 8 for which I’m going to be reading at an event next week. I realised I don’t have many gender-related poetry so I put this one together.
It’s inspired from a very good nonfiction book called Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland – The Women’s War (1984) by Eileen Fairweather, Roisin McDonough and Melanie McFadyean.
It’s a book about a period in Irish history called “The Troubles”, also known as the “Northern Ireland Conflict.” Only the Rivers Run Free is written from the point of view of the women on the street-level.
Every wondered what it would be like to see the Vietnam War from the point of view of the civilians? This book takes the reader and puts you in the shoes of those who lived it.
I’m not a historian. The following poem is simply many thoughts and feelings I had when reading the book. Interpret it as you will.
I want to write a poem for
the women of Northern Ireland
who had their houses broken into by the English
before taking their kids to school –
who hacked and cursed,
and Shannon from Belfast who has
strong opinions about colonial rule,
says “it’s us or them”
ready to condemn those
from across the sea.
And her mother remembers
The Easter Risings.
Her grandmother’s mother
remembers the Potato Famine.
Shannon remembers The Troubles.
She breathes through her nose
and out through the mouth.
Thinking about this history,
she lights a cigarette
and calls her friend Siobhan
and they talk.
The Freedom Riders,
Angela Davis and second-wave feminism,
and Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique,
Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar –
They talk about their
ancestors who sailed to the New World.
But Shannon’s world was the Women’s War
in the streets of Belfast where
the rivers ran free with blood and bone.
Where homes were pillaged,
where families were broken,
where the workhouse had made a comeback.
Years later, the two women run into each other
on the streets of Belfast.
They ask one another how they’re doing.
Siobhan drops her shoulder. Shuffles away,
her gaze dazed by this awkward silence.
She knows her friend hasn’t changed.
Siobhan calls Shannon reckless.
If she was to ask her what she’d done all these years,
Shannon would have talked about her history degree.
She would talk about her pro-human rights activities.
She would have talked about the marches she’d been on
against the counter-productive, sex-shaming
methods of organised religion.
I want to write a poem
for the women of Northern Ireland,
whose words stretch like elastic bands –
who fought like the Amazons,
who survived a red scare from
those who had a dystopia for a heart,
who sold their souls to the Queen and Empire.
An ode to the cloth – chaotic, broken,
the international anecdote of Victoria and Elizabeth.
And read it out loud through this land –
statues, stately homes and street names.
Flags like body bags. Great Britain.
What a metaphor for colonialism.
The women are a stitched seam.
Split-tongued like the Caribbean,
like India and Indonesia,
and Benin and Ghana and Scotland.
They had to watch their sons though,
because they couldn’t put it past the boys
to not do something stupid for glory.
Even their own kin who have their
fathers’ hands, sweat and blood
and last week when a boy was murdered,
that was a mother’s son, a sister’s brother.
The boys were simply jail bait,
primed for the guillotine. I want to write
a poem for the women of Northern Ireland,
who did the real work. I show them a gun
and they tell me it’s not a big enough.
They were waitresses and mechanics
and social workers and housewives
and so much more than our
hypermasculine history books suggest.
But life comes fast you know.
One minute you’re fighting the red coats
and next you’re in the midst
of fourth-wave feminism in your new job
at a university. And then it’s almost over,
life I mean. You fought your way through it
and I can tell by the way your daughters
talk that there’s power in oppression.
And when they call you terrorists,
say thank you. Thank you very much.