And for the women we’ve lost.
I teach poetry as often as I can, and when I do, I become a bit of a poet myself. The thing about poetry is that it only rewards you when you’ve given it enough time and effort, when you’ve let it into your head to rest for a while. Only then does it seem to spread to the tiny crevices and memories of your brain. If you are resistant to poetry, it’s very hard for it to blossom and convince you. Your shadow blocks its sun.
I know this from watching students’ reactions. Some people say they like poetry, but they often assume it’s going to rhyme, and I usually don’t select those poems for class. (An uninspired rhyme scheme bores me.) Others–most, in fact–say they “don’t get it,” and I go about making my case.
But sometimes, the poetry makes the case for itself, even to a self-proclaimed poet or teacher. In fact, if you read enough of it, poetry will make its case again and again.
Recently, my son has become interested in money and its history. He’s been taught in preschool the story of George Washington, who couldn’t tell a lie (though he still lies), and sees that same George Washington appearing on coins. He brings his quarters and nickels and pennies with him into the dining room, sets them out on the table, looks at them. He likes the weight of that money in his hand, the faces of those respectable men. Once, he got a five-dollar-bill in the mail, and my husband and I were tickled at his fascination with the pictures, with Abraham Lincoln, with the way that history walked into our room.
So on Saturday morning, when I was in the upstairs bathroom, wiping down the vanity, I heard Mr. B ask his dad the name of the man on the nickel. (If he were to ask me, I’ll sheepishly admit, I would have to look. And maybe that ignorance is purposeful.) “It’s Thomas Jefferson,” he said, and helped a four-year-old sound out a mouthful of a name.
This is how it begins, I thought. This passing down of men’s names. This early learning of men, of men, of men.
That’s when Lucille Clifton’s “The Lost Women” finally clicked for me.
The Lost Women
by Lucille Clifton
i need to know their names
those women i would have walked with
jauntily the way men go in groups
swinging their arms, and the ones
those sweating women whom i would have joined
after a hard game to chew the fat
what would we have called each other laughing
joking into our beer? where are my gangs,
my teams, my mislaid sisters?
all the women who could have known me,
where in the world are their names?
Listen to the late Lucille Clifton read “The Lost Women” on Poets.org.
*And feel free to share a memory of a lost woman in the comments section, a woman whose name has fallen among the leaves.
Happy National Poetry Month!
Image: “Woman on Street” by alfstorm via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.