Review by Katie Eberhart
FIRE ON HER TONGUE: An eBook Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry
edited by Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy
Two Sylvias Press
P.O. Box 1524
Kingston, Washington 98346
2012, 460 pp., $7.99
Selfishness was what I had in mind when I began reading Fire On Her Tongue, not because I expected to find egoistic poets but because I wanted to escape my own concerns. I intended to immerse myself in the ideas, forms, words, and language of poetry by women. I hoped for a panoply of experience—sadness and happiness, loss, love, ritual, and absurdity—wrapped in innovation, fragile pairings, and surprising meanderings. Fire On Her Tongue is a major collection of poems by women who deftly navigate the fine-lined nets of moments and times, like Gloria Burgess’ “The Open Door” (epigraph: for my ancestors and our children). First is the place where the narrator could not have been:
i wasn’t there i didn’t stand at the threshold
of the open door my back wasn’t wracked
beneath a ceiling so low even children lay prone
but then the story moves to(wards) our time:
I was born inside the golden door
and i’m here by grace standing on the shoulders
of women and men stout in sprit fierce in soul
to reflect on the biggest mystery—how we came to be here:
i still search furtively
for signs of my tribe outstretched hands a cool
drinka water calabash smile I still tread softly
muted by the glare of ghostly strangers
A stranger may be friendly or dangerous and threats are a familiar theme in recent times perhaps because instantaneous communication lets us know everything, immediately. Daily life can be a morass of details, but poets and artists jump between times with results that may be disturbing, like Dorianne Laux’s “Superman”:
Superman sits on a tall building
smoking pot, holding the white plumes in,
palliative for the cancerous green glow
spreading its tentacles beneath his
blue uniform, his paraffin skin.
What is this nightmare? Turning our idea of Superman upside down with a dying-room image from the top of a tall building. Superman is a symbol and Laux has given us another symbolic/analogic Superman who faces gargantuan problems and procrastinates about:
the thankless, endless task
of catching dirty bombs and bullets,
though like the dishes piling up in the sink
there are always more.
Such a pathetic view of a childhood superhero becomes a glorious look at the naked emperor, our own aging, and a glance into a dark mirror where poetry can be the most fun. Kryptonite, again. When I was a kid, the Cold War was real and we read Superman comics for entertainment. I hesitate to say that “dishes piling up in the sink” reveals the feminine side of Superman—it does not—and I realize I’ve spent quite a while thinking about this poem from different angles and isn’t that what the poet would want?
Women often have a broad engagement with family, culture, life and death, children and education. For comparison, I looked at an anthology published in 1995, 100 Great Poems by Women (The Ecco Press), that includes one hundred poets who wrote during the last five hundred years and yet poems with themes of motherhood or children are not included. The editor, Carolyn Kizer, explains in the preface: “This anthology [100 Great Poems by Women] is bent on showing what women can write about besides romance and domesticity.” What is this gulf, an editor’s choice, of eliminating a part of women’s lives? The good news is that Fire On Her Tongue is wholly formed without glaring omissions. Love and motherhood are definitely the theme in Tina Kelley’s poem “Done Procreating”:
No more happy visits to the hospital, ever.
No more knowledge of the shortness and sureness of healing,
no more announcements to all friends of good news,
never again. Is this the happiest we will ever be
What happened? I read “there’s to be / no more birthing” as the poem skips tantalizingly from revelation to revelation. I’m desperate to know, is there a child or not, as the losses accumulate:
won’t be worn again in this house. And who would fall for me
now, cut off from all old flames who showed signs of peskiness,
bruisy rings under my eyes from the 5 a.m. feeding, impy haircut
requiring no grooming time, since I have none
Finally, with “5 a.m. feeding,” I know there’s a child. Yet it’s tricky to bring the full force of the mystery of love into a poem. I am not disappointed by Tina Kelley’s route:
In Drew’s little world, where
every square foot, every three-hour wakening is new, his smile
travels high into his scalp, and fills the room deep like a ghost.
Clearly, a contemporary anthology of women’s poetry would be incomplete without birth, motherhood, love, illness (even Superman’s), and grieving, all of which contain mysteries of (our) aliveness. Aimee Nezhukumatathil, in “The Secret of Soil”, mobilizes the raw energy of life:
The secret of soil is that it is alive—
a step in the forest means
you are carried on the back
of a thousand bugs
I’m delighted with environmental poems, but Nezhukumatathil’s young girl gives the poem-world a remarkable quality because of her enormous passion:
I give you is on page forty-two
of my old encyclopedia set.
I cut out all the pictures of minerals
This poem of imagination and desire plays at the fine lines between sensible and impossible, between danger and acceptable risks. I was encouraged that the girl would take the risks (“I wanted my mouth to fill / with light, a rush of rind / and pepper. I can still taste it”) and hoped she would tape the cut-out pictures to her skin and (somehow) enter a world unknown to us. I can’t say for sure what it is, but there is mystery at the end with the lingering image of scissors.
Although there are fascinating books and anthologies that focus on one topic (like illness), Fire On Her Tongue encompasses wide-ranging themes. I was constantly surprised and delighted, from Superman to Rachel Rose’s “Waiting for the Biopsy Results” (“We don’t talk about it. We put it out of mind”) and Elizabeth Aoki’s “Ode to the Tampon” (“Sister to the sweet hitachi / magic wand, bright daughter / to the moon’s sly wane”). Did “Ode to the Tampon” begin as a dare or self-assignment? The epigraph is “after Yusef Komunyakaa’s ‘Ode to the Maggot’.” Blood must have also been on Rachel Rose’s mind when she composed “The Opposite of War”, which is not what you might think:
The opposite of war takes half an afternoon
costs seven dollars in parking
and does not solve the problem
we cannot solve. It is inconvenient
and stings a little
Rachel Rose dissects analogy because we must know how giving blood to help strangers ultimately matters:
The opposite of war comes down
to how the word stranger
one blood sacrifice
From blood it is a short hop to life and death that Barbara Crooker deftly shows as a nexus of art and poetry. Crooker’s “La Neige Et L’Hiver” begins innocuously: “I stretch my canvas tight as a sail, / size it with gesso, sand it down.” We journey with Crooker through oils and pigment, beeswax and melting until we see that art is more than process–that like poetry, art encompasses problems and ideas:
I’m trying to fix
the fog’s sfumato as it speaks
in the old mother tongue:
horizon cloud sea.
“La Neige Et L’Hiver” proceeds at a quiet revelatory pace while clearing the scenery (“An empty bench after the tide recedes”) until so much is emptied that “grief comes and goes with its shaker of salt” and, in a linguistic circling back, the revelation comes as “ a small boat / with a canvas for its sail.”
Another kind of circling appears in Nin Andrews’ surprising poem “Why I love Angelina” which begins “On the island where I grew up, all the women look like Angelina Jolie.” I like the unlikeliness of this poem. “The women like to call themselves Angelina in honor of the real Angelina Jolie. Many say that Angelina is their cousin, their niece, their long-lost child.” Must there be a consequence for bliss or is this escapism?
Occasionally one of our women is born with webbed feet and hands. They swim for long hours in the ocean, catch fish with their open mouths, and dive forty feet down for conchs and oysters and rare anemones
The women are fertile; they adopt “lost souls.” They are wise and they know what we would all like to know, which sharks to trust:
The women know, as only our women can, the difference between the sharks who open their mouths wide to say I love you Angelina, and the sharks who are too hungry to know the difference between dinner and love.
Reading Fire On Her Tongue, I was frequently reminded of how important memory is to writing poetry, how a poem is not raw video. If the intent is to describe life as it happens, by the time you write the words, the moment will be in the past. Carol Levin considers “the tyranny of memory” in “Souvenir Shards,” beginning with ground rules:
Memory flutters like heatwaves above asphalt
and it’s futile to interrogate memory. I distrust
Yes, be distrustful when writing of a place visited long ago, be skeptical when your future self begins dredging up memories. In “Souvenir Shards,” Levin wonders what happened to the people she encountered in that other place, in the past, and about her role: “I don’t deny ducking lethal threats / they threw at me echoing / off their cool walls.” When you come from far away you can often chop yourself out of the scene by departing (“I drove in wavy light, a long way / away by car, ferry, plane, time.”) The souvenirs? Memories that return with their own baggage of questions.
Fire On Her Tongue: An eBook Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry is a beautiful and skillfully compiled eBook, with nicely selected fonts, a spacious layout, and adjustable text size. This anthology is a delectable collection of poems by women with mature voices who speak of the most tantalizing ideas. In Fire On Her Tongue, you’ll find love but also complexity, insight, and a staunch fearlessness. The sheer number of poets and poems made it impossible to speak of more than a few in this review and choosing was difficult because I trust all these poet-women who have traveled through the house of the world and emerged with much wisdom and skill. Anyone interested in contemporary poetry should read Fire On Her Tongue for the strong voices, ideas, and exquisite language. Anyone interested in poetry by women will appreciate this impressive collection. For me, reading Fire On Her Tongue was a treat and escape, like tea and cookies on a rainy afternoon, like a long walk in the company of many friends.
Katie Eberhart’s poetry and essays have appeared in Cirque and she has book reviews on the Tarpaulin Sky Press website.