Ladies Of Lore -- A Feminist Poetry Project


If you stand in the middle of Linlithgow and close your eyes, you can hear the infant cries of Mary, Queen of Scots reverberate throughout the castle. She assumed the throne before she was a week old when her father, King James V of Scotland, died. Close your eyes and you shall hear the infant's cries again, perhaps shriller now. Fresh from her mother's womb, Mary, Queen of Scots already sensed the cruelty of the world. She was her father's only surviving heir. Yet a babe cannot rule.

There were two claims to the throne at the time, one Catholic and Protestant. The Protestant, Earl of Arran, won. And thus began her mother's struggle to remove the Arran from power. Mary of Guise wanted her daughter to be queen, but she wanted to experience the glory of regency first.

Often, people say that men have animal urges. Men hunger. Men lust. I argue that women's urges are just as animalistic. Mary did not want the throne like a man. She wanted it like a woman. Mary did not harbor the ambition of a man. She harbored the ambition of a woman. We, men and women both, are animals.

Six weeks in Scotland was not long but it was long enough to build the foundation for future stories. It was the summer of 2010 and I was twenty-one years old, studying creative writing with novelist and Virginia Commonwealth University professor Susann Cokal. There were six of us in the workshop, all women age twenty-five or younger. We talked, read, and wrote about Scottish history and folklore but in those exercises, we also considered our bodies, our loves, and our libidos. We meditated on womanhood and women's stories from the past and present. Some of us even visited Linlithgow.

It was around that workshop that I wrote many of the poems part of this project, Ladies of Lore. A few of these poems predate my time in Scotland but most came as a result of that trip. As my Scottish friend, Amanda, noticed after perusing my sketchbook, I was always drawing the women of Glasgow. What she did not know then was that I was always thinking and writing about them, too. I saw women on the street or in books and I imagined even more of them, from their bodies to their minds to their animal urges. I considered their origins, their dreams, and their failures. And, woman by woman, my cast of characters was born.

The majority of these poems were initially published in Quail Bell Magazine, the online and occasional print publication I founded in college. Most ran with photos I or other Quail Bell(s) took. I would like to thank Jasmine Thompson, Sidney Shuman, Lindsey Story, Tykeya O'Neil, Olivia Blackwell, Tony Fuchs, and others for contributing to those original photo sets. I would also like to thank Christine Skelly for reinventing these poems by creating original illustrations for this project. Thanks also to Deniz Ataman and Sarah Sullivan for editing and Kristen Rebelo for designing.

Welcome to my world of women, or at least a little corner of it. I present to you, Ladies of Lore.


"Witch Kisses"

Fancy the country girl used to run
through the thrushes,
calling to the warblers and the 'coons--
she was the witch of Luray,
a small but frightful, freckled thing.

She was not born;
instead, she leaked from the limestone
and oozed into her mother's arms,
wailing like Satan in Antarctica.

Both bears and mountain lions answered
Fancy's songs in the night.
Full moon or no,
she had them kill any cow she craved.

Fancy had no father,
but, even as a little girl, she spoke to men
the same way she spoke to other animals.

All the men-folk in Luray knew her witch kisses.
They knew her spiraling red hair and flickering eyes.
They knew her in the Biblical sense.

Fancy enchanted husbands
the same way she enchanted bobcats
and her first demon spawn came at age fourteen.

Her womb burned and she bled
and the mangled beast shrieked through the hollow.

Fancy fed him to the owls or the snakes--
no one knows for sure,
only that she left him in a crag like a Roman babe.

All of Luray heard the cry that changed
Fancy's child from infant to prey.

After that, Fancy stopped bewitching
the bears and mountain lions,
though she never stopped bewitching men,
the musky, coal-covered men of Luray.


"The Burgundy Girls"

Siomi and Sybil, Sybil and Siomi--the burgundy girls bound by the blood
that spurted from their wrists and pretty fingers that white winter afternoon.
Forever--to be--forever clever, forever chaste, forever lovely in their lace.
Only kiss gentlemen. Never stomp through the snow. Plan for each bridge.
We are ladies, sweet, stylish ladies, who worship dolls, books, and bows.
The exterior reflects the interior, so always brush, braid, polish, and powder.
We know no lows, only angelic highs, only rich dyes, only the custom size,
only letters, only dreams, only the belief that Elegance is what she seems.
Siomi and Sybil, Sybil and Siomi--the burgundy beauties of fine breeding.
They force their pocket watches to make time for grooming AND reading.
Bound by titters, bound by tea parties, bound by yesterday's silver wishes,
bound by lilac, bound by grace, bound by their own type of strange faith...


"She Is"

Eyes are always on the moon
ones that covet
Kings of Deception always swoon
songs that slice the heart
Melancholy maidens spend their hours at the loom
their opuses bleeding with loneliness

She is the moon
She is the king
She is the maiden

Owls only pray in the ripe of dark
where they are hidden from heretic birds
On the tree, lovers leave their mark
the sap runs with their ballad
Gabriel whispered a tender 'Hark!'
calming the startled Virgin

She is the owl
She is the tree
She is the messenger


"River Genie"

Like chipmunks scampering from log to log,
the debutantes descended upon the shore
of a wide and restless river.
Through sun, through wind, through fog,
they scoured the bumpy banks for lore
that they might share in their salons.

Normally their tales centered on creatures--
timid and curious, docile and and grim
whom they met at the rocks.
The debutantes listed their features--
from trim fur to crumpled posture, slouchy--
in more detail than a naturalist's journal.

Delighting sailors and gentlemen alike,
the debutantes always sought new
material for their handsome callers.

For how else could they afford their dresses?
Lashes? Powder? Feathers for their hair?
And other cover-ups for God's little messes?

One day, after each one parked her bike,
the debutantes trotted over dew,
moss, and cacti to the booming water.
They came to steal the stones' stories,
only this time, a whirlwind of glitter
arrested the young ladies' attention.

It was a green, mirrored bottle,
which they eagerly fondled.

"I shall assuage your fears, clear your worries,"
hissed a voice that smoothed into a purring flitter--
but not before the debutantes choked in a cloud.
Lavender-colored smoke had engulfed the girls
like a swift and unanticipated change in tide
that seared their lungs.

"A genie!" the ladies cried as loudly as pearls,
their mouths hanging open, their eyes stretched wide,
and their minds running in every direction.

"Aye!" said the genie, "You listened in school
but perhaps you should stay longer
to make your heads stronger.
Your body is not currency--only your thoughts,
and those thoughts inspire stories
that you must write yourselves."
The genie paused.

"And our three wishes?" asked the debutantes,
to which the genie said, "Back to your cots,
where you must dream tales for yourselves,
not dowry-seeking visitors."

With that, the genie disappeared,
and, moments later, the girls peered
into the bottle.

The genie had truly gone.

The debutantes would not steal
the stones' stories that day--nor ever again.

As their male callers became fewer in number,
the ladies spent their free hours penning
tales of their own creation,
not mere observations
of a man-managed world.


"La Prima"

Autumnal longings inspire nostalgia.
Perish, Summer.
The new season must ascend to the throne.
Pass your crown to shorter days
and owl-filled nights.
Let leaves burn, wither, and fall.
Let thoughts of death pervade one and all.

Like Spring, Summer urges growth.
It looks to life, to the future.
The dead are forgotten--
like the dark side of a knife.
That makes Summer a cruel month indeed,
especially for the deceased.

Remember even what no longer gleams.
Honor the dead, as the Mexicans say.
Bring them flowers, invite them to play.

It is not morbid to dwell at a funeral.
Morbidness implies sickness.
But she who admires the trees
and wonders about past loves
and the true fate of the dead
is not sick.

She is imaginative.
Her mind flutters like scores of bees.
Hush, stars.
Hush, raccoons and eerie birds.
Hush, every creature of the evening.
For I have a tale not even
the constellations have heard.

Like the best of tales,
it begins with 'Once upon a time...'

Nicolette and Gabrielle lived in a land of
gloomy brick houses, cobblestoned streets, and dry bread.
They were two arresting
young ladies.

Despite their dismal environment, they were not morbid.
They were not sick.
They simply dreamt of the past.

One fixture of the past particularly
bewitched them:

Before they had laced their very first corsets,
they shared a cousin
named Camille.

Camille, who choked on the hard bread.
Camille, who could not drink the gray water.
Camille, as strong as a feather and no stronger.

One afternoon, she fell.
A whimper and an impenetrable silence later,
the cousins had lost their Camille.

The weeks opened and closed,
like curtains over a stage.
And with each day,
Gabrielle and Nicolette publicly mourned their Camille.

Not a meal went by without one mention of her.

Until, that is, when Camille's mother
cursed them.
A flick of her tongue, a flick of her hand,
and neither girl spoke of Camille

So, with summer, Nicolette and Gabrielle
babbled about pure sunrises and sunsets,
not speaking of
how Camille had wished
to wrap her arms around the sun.

After months at sea,
Camille's father returned to the land of
gloomy brick houses, cobblestoned streets, and dry bread.
He wiped some salt off his sleeves
and told Gabrielle and Nicolette
ten-thousand stories.

But only one story mattered to the girls.

"I have seen a country," he said,
"where the women make sugar skulls to commemorate the dead.
Families make merriment in the cemeteries with dance and song.
They eat candies and special cakes, all for those long gone.
No one is ashamed of death."

Clouds passed over the moon as Camille's father
yarned one tale after another.
The girls lingered.
The girls swooned.

In one breath, Nicolette and Gabrielle whispered
the name of the holiday they had learned:

"El día de los muertos."

The next morning, Nicolette boiled tea,
while Gabrielle gathered Camille's favorite things:

a fan,
a parasol,
and a doll--her porcelain twin.

It was time to anglicize a centuries-old tradition.

Not a moment after opening the door,
the girls ran to Camille's grave.

Nursery rhymes, sweet humming, raspberry thin mints...

They have been drinking tea
at Camille's tomb
ever since.


"Dame Aragne"

Nestled in her creche of seaweed all tangled with crabs and sardines,
Dame Aragne reveled in the luxury of shadows.
Sunshine irritated her dark curling hair and white skin.
The irritation soon turned to true burning, eating every follicle and pore.
The burning then became petrification, making her a mermaid of stone.
With the sun as her medusa, Dame Aragne preferred to hide.
She hid far below the waves until the moon beckoned her.
Then Dame Aragne would shoot up to the surface of the sea
and sing to the stars, especially her favorite three:
Ladda-loo, Falla-coo, and Maffa-woo.
Ladda-loo was crimson; Falla-coo, a startling shade of blue.
Maffa-woo twinkled gold, every evening falling just a bit dimmer.
These stars were Dame Aragne's friends beyond the ocean,
her only confidantes, her only company.
Otherwise, she was a wan little mermaid, humming to herself
in a hammock of seaweed, until night tumbled into the sky.


"Ghost Ward"

At the age of twenty and one,
Eudora shed hot tears over the loss of her father,
a Virginian lawyer with lady's hands.
At the age of twenty and one,
Eudora stumbled to her father's funeral;
no one else observed the termination of his years.
At the age of twenty and one,
Eudora cursed the absence of her peers,
showering magnolias over her father's mudded grave.
At the age of twenty and one,
Eudora told herself not to worry dear,
for soon she'd have a protector who'd marry her off.
At the age of twenty and one,
Eudora coughed up her fears and boarded a black coach
for her uncle's Georgian plantation.
At the age of twenty and one,
Eudora knocked upon a white mansion door,
thinking it queer that nobody answered.
At the age of twenty and one,
Eudora knocked upon the door of the servants' quarters,
imagining them huddled over beer.
At the age of twenty and one,
Eudora, near hopelessness, curled up
on a set of plain wooden steps like an urchin in the cold.
At the age of twenty and one,
Eudora became the ward of a ghost, a
single woman enduring jeers n a world of wedded molds.


"Edwina the Unicorn"

Edwina the Unicorn--once a strange and lonely girl,
now transformed into the purest and most docile of beasts.

Depressed in the dismal urban sprawl, with all its noise and smog,
she built herself a rooftop sanctuary.

Why, she collected sparkleberries and talking ivy clusters,
singing toadstools and balloons in all her favorite hues.

Indeed the daily sight of her 'wonder garden' brought
both tears and hope to Edwina's deep, dark eyes.

No matter the weather, she would climb out her window
every morning to wander her little glitter field and sigh.

In a day or a century, perhaps, Edwina will escape the dreary
city and find a cottage in the greenest of forests.

And then, only then, surrounded by golden sassafras,
chubby partridges, and magic pebbles, will she be a happy unicorn.


"Lesbian Tea Party"

Prim Carolyn never claimed 'bellehood'
in this beauty imbued neighborhood, where all
the pretty girls steal away to lewdly kiss their select cutie boys
in deep gardens after school.
She, the bull (with hair that tufts out like horns,
and cool lips, and nostrils unsuitable for ringing)
prefers to remain unknown,
despite her penchant for quietly singing to herself,
as she walks to the corner store,
where she always steps in, nearly chiming,
"Back for more of that Earl Grey!"
And the shopkeeper pushes up his eyeglasses and sniffs,
"Oh, you're back again today, Carolyn?"
Five minutes later, Carolyn is brewing tea in the shade
of her cramped little kitchen, still singing.
She does not pretend to spend her afternoons holed up in azalea bushes,
bitty breasts bouncing
at the hurried hands of masculine fervency
that never distinguishes between whispers and whooshes.

Carolyn awaits the lacquered nails tapping at the window,
the ones so undeniably feminine in grooming.
Carolyn awaits her chance at swooning and spooning,
her chance for the quivering flower within her
to begin blooming at the sight of--not sunlight--
but fingers tipped with rhinestones and magenta polish.
Never does she imagine her desires for love and romance
being demolished--not now, not anymore,
not after a thousand-and-one girls have denied
her India ink letters and pressed dandelions before.
Rejection could not blossom in an eternity, not between
a lace-and-pigtails hungry teacher and a
shy and willing child just beginning to analyze the
black mystique of womanhood, in any case.
"Miss Church loves me. Miss Church loves me.
Miss Church loves me now and forever and--"
Never does Carolyn expect to turn around at the sound
of nails attacking the glass and not see
the lady who first spoke to her about
Toni Morrison and Sula or the lovely Princesse de Cleves. Never does Carolyn expect to turn around at the sound of nails attacking the glass and not see
the lady who first sipped her tea and exclaimed
at its deliciousness instead of calling it a joke
or complaining about the latest laddy who broke her heart before Christmas or Valentine's Day.
Never does Carolyn expect to turn around at the sound
of nails attacking the glass and not see
the lady who promised her that their lesbian tea parties
were really, oh, really more than okay.


"The Owl and the Crab"

Feathers lapp a speckled shell,
sipping waves of copper milk, in a tense union of forest and sea,
where lovers are like hunters, fondling for grains of golden sand
and slightly weathered mice bones.


"Jenny, the Actress"

She struts down the sidewalk, brandishing her jutted shoulder blades,
so delicate compared to her feisty pout; those two pulsating lips redder
than Virginia sunshine, redder than the cherry two-hundred eager men
supposedly popped on the floor of her black and windowless apartment
as the lights flickered like dying fireflies by the white mansions of Palisades.
"Hey there, starlet," the would-be debauchers mumbled when they met her.
"Say there, starlet," the would-be debauchers said as they haggled to get her.
"Night-night, starlet," the would-be debauchers screamed as they embraced her.



I pull out my plasma phone, punch in your digits, then I hear the dial tone---
I could spend the next few seconds waiting for the rest of my life.
But I have new planets to conquer and rockets to test drive.
The future doesn't come because you're ready for it.
The cosmos keep on expanding and dying, expanding and dying.

Let me pull out my planner, the one coded in my silver fingernail.
Today I have intergalactic scenes and meetings with alien beings,
plus stardust soirees and comet conventions.
Why, I gotta bail another space squid outta jail!
He owes me a couple Jupiters for that,
Jupiters I'll use for my next venture.

I've an astronomical business in the works---
an idea so big it'll transcend solar systems,
jump constellations and so many stars,
skipping light year upon light year
into infinity and beyond.

I'm the next futurista,
an entrepreneur taking over
meteors, gravity, the Universe.

Pick up the phone if you ever catch up.