As a man raised in a "get me a Grant's" culture ordinarily I would shy from a book titled after a woman portrayed in history as having poured the contents of a chamber pot over the head of her husband. That the husband was Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, and wondering what he might have done to deserve it, helped me overcome this inherent reluctance. But what made the difference was that Beate Sigriddaughter wrote the poems in Xanthippe and Her Friends. Were I ever so unfortunate to have someone empty a chamber pot on my head, for whatever reason, I cannot imagine a person more appropriate to administer the retribution than a gentle, sensitive, good-humored, sublime soul who writes like an angel. I don’t know from personal experience if Beate Sigriddaughter meets those qualifications, but from her writing I’ve no doubt she’d measure up. I’ve been reading her for years, and each of those qualities shines with a celestial magic through her carefully chosen words, such as these:
“Sun glints on muscle and desire to go deeper into words and destiny like Michelangelo cutting at marble to meet his angels in the stone.”
My problem now is to discuss this profoundly enlightening and enjoyable volume of writing while remaining vigilant to unconscious traces of an upbringing that encouraged me to feel superior to women, not merely because I have a penis and they don’t but for their being generally regarded as “the weaker sex.” Had someone turned me on to Kipling when I was much younger I might have shaken some of those silly notions off before they became ingrained. I have grown wiser with time, yet the damned reflexes still twitch on occasion despite my unmitigated and humbling certainty of which is indeed the deadlier gender. If I’m cautious here it’s not from fear of a metaphorical chamber pot but of contributing even an iota of additional pain to the feminine sensibilities of any who may read my words.
Another concern with reporting on Xanthippe and Her Friends is that its contents are poems, about which my learning is mostly auto-didactic and recent. I know precious little about the traditions of formal structure or its practitioners, or the language and criteria of formal criticism. I enjoy a poem mainly for the beauty of its associations, the ideas and feelings and visual impressions it conjures. An effective poem for me works like an exotic drug, relaxing certain tensions of thought and stimulating my imagination to unfold in the safety of a wondrous playground of sensual ideas. Often the effect is contained within a fragment, like this:
“with you I dreamed of wandering side by side, confirming our exquisite place in this maelstrom of molecules in the whirling of stars.”
Without question Sigriddaughter is a feminist, but the common injuries and inequities she addresses are delivered in a contemplative voice, the sharpness of its pain and rage clothed in a sense of nuanced irony. In The Wedding: Snow White, these selected lines bring into focus the inhumanity of a culture that encourages lethal competition and its consequences:
at my wedding celebration my unsuccessful stepmom is condemned to dance to her death on heated iron slippers. They are bringing them in now with smoking tongs.
How am I to enjoy my wedding night with this orgy of vengeance still fresh on my mind?
Here are my choices. Gloat and rejoice, dilute myself with drink or Disney bliss, or stand up to my true self at last,
This wedding is canceled until we find a better way. Any woman’s dishonor diminishes me.
The poet bravely addresses a personal frailty beyond her struggle to free herself from the conditioning of male-dominant tradition. A simple need of one woman. “Deep within me,” she tells us, “is an ancient fear that loving myself simply won’t count. And God, invoked for all-purpose love, turns out to be too distant for comfort. Would you please dance with me, if only just a little?”
Xanthippe was “not exactly the beloved wife of...Socrates,” Sigriddaughter tells us in the collection’s dedication. “For a long time her name was used as a synonym for shrew. I want to honor her memory, together with the memory of all women, sung or unsung, who bravely made and continue to make their way through this complicated existence of questionable attitudes with grace and rage and sadness and joy.”
Yesterday I tickled grass. I wanted to hear laughter, but it was just crickets rubbing legs in the wind.
Today grass tickled me. There are asters too now, yellow centers full of summer scent and whispering goodbye. –Beate Sigriddaughter