“Dust” by Katherine Barrett Swett

Katherine Barrett Swett


Constance Woolson died
in Venice January 24;
an apparent suicide,
she was not 54.

Henry James said half one’s feeling
for her was anxiety.
He wrote it repeatedly
in letters that scholars find revealing
of James’s ongoing anxiety.

He thought her cheerful manner a facade
as flowers set in the window
have nothing to do with what’s inside.
Did he think how
the pots might fall below,
the careless maid knocking
them off the windowsill?
His metaphor is shocking
as Woolson was the pot that fell.

She would hate the bios and novels
about her love-lorn melancholy.
She was a writer who wanted readers;
and, of course, she was lonely,
living abroad, far from home, to save money.

I reread her novels most years.

I like the smell of old papers and books,
of library stacks, forgotten lives.
I take them like snuff in the afternoon,
the past boxed up like Bluebeard’s wives.

Who isn’t lonely as she grows older?

I clean the embossed spine
of East Angels, bought for nothing
when second-hand books first went online.
I spend hours dusting
and wiping each shelf with lavender oil
to fight off mildew and soil.

The last Christmas she turned down
all invitations. She wanted to be alone
with her things and memories.
Her gondola wound
for miles around the lagoon.

I am now her age, and I don’t believe
she killed herself for love.
Hers was a deeper grief,
and she was not afraid to die;
she wrote that repeatedly.

James couldn’t get over
that suicide is very impolite
—it seemed so out of character—
like refusing to eat your host’s meat.
I think she reached the limit
of memory, writing and stuff.
Even a gentle lady has the right
to say enough, not enough, enough.

from Rattle #51, Spring 2016
Tribute to Feminist Poets


Katherine Barrett Swett: “For me the most interesting work of feminism is the recovery of lost lives and lost writing. I have studied the writings of 19th century women for 30 years. I am amazed by the bravery and tenacity of women who wrote and still write against enormous pressures to be silent. I love to enter into their worlds and break that silence.”

“On Coming Home” by Lisa Summe

Lisa Summe


Domesticity is of all our pets together
in one room. Plus me in my plaid pajama pants
and you in no pants. Some people take off their shoes
when they walk in the door, but you,
the first thing you do is take off your pants
because to you, pants = work, and you are home.
There’s cat litter stuck to your feet,
there are my dirty socks on the floor
again, and there’s the floor mat
our guests rarely wipe their feet on.
So the cats scratch it up. So the dog naps there.
There’s a time where your mom doesn’t knock
on our door for Sunday breakfast again,
a time where your sister tells you to please stop talking
about anything related to sex. I want to fit in
with the women in your family,
but I am too reliable. You can count on me,
darling, to wink at you from across the bar
ten years from now. What if every time was like
the first time? By which I mean our lovemaking brings us
to tears in a stranger’s bedroom and we don’t know
when we’ll see each other again, don’t know
what the moon will shine like when it’s been cloudy
for weeks. Just know that I am a garden of boomerangs.
And Ingrid Michaelson is singing all the while.
I listened to that song again where the girl can’t help
falling in love, as a reminder that television
is not a stand-in for affection and neither is
the bowl of cereal one of us silently pours the other.
We crave surprises. Once I mailed you a postcard
from the mailbox down the street, which is to say
my gratitude is the longest day of the year.
Summer solstice is the way your body shines,
which is how my mouth says I was here.
I make you promises, but I don’t
say them out loud. We both know marriage
is overrated. Instead, matching heart tattoos
on our pointer fingers. Instead, a six-pack
of Sierra Nevada in the fridge,
a homemade pizza. So much of love
is consumption. So much of my appetite
is bottomless. I’ve been running.
And, for once, it isn’t away.

from Rattle #51, Spring 2016
Tribute to Feminist Poets

[download audio]


Lisa Summe: “I am a feminist poet because I am a woman who loves women. My autobiographical poems, while often celebratory, also explore the challenges that come with identifying as a lesbian: homophobia, familial rejection, appearance norms, etc.” (website)

“Women Only Write About Themselves” by Julie Steiner

Julie Steiner


Women only write about themselves.
When they compose,
a therapeutic ooze engulfs and salves
a woman’s woes.
That self-absorbed confession self-absolves,
while readers doze.
Women only write about themselves.
Enough of those.

When men say “I”, their “I” is universal.
Their strong hearts bleed
for all the tribe. Applaud their verses’ muscle!
Attend! Give heed!
The female “I” is narcissistic. Facile.
A feeble reed.
When men say “I”, their “I” is universal.
It’s all we need.

from Rattle #51, Spring 2016
Tribute to Feminist Poets


Julie Steiner: “I consider feminism part of the broader notion that all members of the human race, without exception, should have opportunities and challenges proportionate to their actual, not presumed, abilities. So, yes, I am a feminist. As are most men, I think. But occasionally all of us in positions of traditional privilege—whatever those might be—need reminders that our own worldview is not a universal default, shared by all humanity.”

“Fried Fish Cafe” by Charles Simic

Charles Simic


The evening sky is red
And so is the wine I’m drinking.
I’ll stay on right here
At the end of this long pier.

O world with your traveling horrors,
Cities burning in the distance,
Coffins piled up to the sky,
Martyrs hung like butcher’s carcasses.

Whatever your secret is, sea wind,
Whisper it in my ear and only in my ear
And then let the gulls
Spread over me their ghostly wings.

from Rattle #17, Summer 2002

“Malignant” by Robin Silbergleid

Robin Silbergleid


In the third hour in the family surgical waiting area
my brother asks if I’m going to write a book about our
mother’s cancer, and I shrug because there’s not much

to say about the lump or the MRI with the blue dye
snaking toward her lymph nodes or the medical grade
saran wrap and sports bra the surgeon called a “binder,”

which, when she’s home later, we’ll chip away at, and I
won’t point out the irony of her saying it’s “killing” her
to wear it, because all that is still far away from the room

where we sit with our books and technologies, with
other waiting families and boxes of Kleenex, and I know
he’s just making small talk, which is better than our sister

mumbling to herself or anyone who will listen, right now
prattling on about the miracle of split screens on her laptop,
but the truth is I’m not sure what it means to call us family

beyond this shared concern and a smidge of DNA, each of us
like planets orbiting the same sun but never making
real contact, which is reserved instead for the ones we choose

to love—like his wife, whose wedding dress cost more than
my bathroom, at home with her feet propped up, days from
giving birth and waiting for the cupcake he bought her

at the café down the hall—but I can’t tell him any of this,
especially not today, because it’s clear as malignant
cells under a microscope we don’t know each other at all.

from Rattle #51, Spring 2016
Tribute to Feminist Poets

[download audio]


Robin Silbergleid: “I’ve identified as a feminist since I was about eighteen and read Chris Weedon’s Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory as an undergrad. My poetry often addresses subjects of gender, alternative families, the female body, and reproduction. I’ve had the occasion recently to read my work to and host workshops for other women who have struggled with infertility and pregnancy loss, which, at its best, feels like a powerful, woman-centered and feminist connection. Although these poems aren’t the best illustration of this principle, I see much of my work as an instance of feminist activism.” (website)