by Ann Cooper
She glided through her life
looking like a centaur in drag,
bustle out behind, and one could only guess
how many legs and feet below,
keys at her waist,
wearing muslins, silks, sprigged calicos.
She stayed at home and learned to draw,
to sing, to sew, speak French,
bring calves’ foot jelly to the deserving poor.
Told to hide her body,
except for her white hands and face…and breasts,
exhibiting promise but knowing little of what that was.
She did not raise her children
or know her husband very well.
Did she ever say, “Look at me, at who I am?
“More than decoration,
more than symbol of family and wealth,
more than a breeder of a future without change?”
Did she long to be treated well,
at least as well
as favorite dog or horse?
Was this my ancestor?
Not likely, though perhaps
my mother’s and my aunt’s.
Mine lived in a shtetl
and worked with her family on farm, in shop,
gender disguised by wig and dress,
work discounted by mikva mentality
that made her at monthly intervals
unclean to even touch
yet still acceptable enough to toil and clean and cook and serve,
hearing every day the prayer of men
thanking God they were not like her.
A breeder of a future without change.
Who had time for rage and bitterness?
And to what avail,
since this was what God decreed, they said.
How have I emerged from these strait worlds,
a funnel of their impotence and rage,
yet hearing still the echoes of those myths of women’s place,
to find a way unwalled, uncharted,
still not peril-free,
but freer than the garden mazes of cultivated plants,
cut and pruned and tortured into shapes
plants were not meant to have…
or women either?
* * * * *
Ann Cooper has been writing poems on and off for more than thirty years. She discovered he woman's voice very early, as a little girl, as she observed the many ways that women were treated differently from men—by both women and men: lowered expectations and narrowed horizons, for example, along with all the rest.