Subversive. That’s the best word to describe Anne Sheldon’s poetry.
Her new book, The Bone Spindle, is a collection of poems and stories centered on the fiber arts: spinning, weaving, knitting, etc. What could be more ladylike, more demure, more feminist?
More feminist?!? Oh, yes. It’s no accident that this book comes from Aqueduct Press, publisher of feminist science fiction.
These seemingly innocent poems, many drawn from history, myths, and fairy tales, all have a barb somewhere, a truth — uncomfortable and even inconvenient — a line that lets the reader know something else is going on.
Like I said: subversive.
My mother, an old-school feminist who pursued a career when most women didn’t, once told me she was appalled when she covered a feminist meeting sometime during the heady days of the late Sixties/early Seventies and noticed that several of the participants were knitting. She associated knitting with the housewife life she fought all her life to avoid.
I, too, was a little uncomfortable with public knitting at the time. My mother raised me, after all, and I was groomed to make my way in a man’s world, a place where knitting is a harmless pastime indulged in by unimportant people. It took me some time to understand that feminism was about more than getting a real opportunity to compete in a male world, that it also incorporated recognizing and respecting the often derided domains of women.
In Anne Sheldon’s world, even Charles Dickens misses the point. At the beginning of “The Knitters of Paris” — a poem about those who knitted while watching the guillotine in action — she quotes from A Tale of Two Cites, where Dickens proclaims the women “knitted worthless things” to distract themselves from their hunger.
No, says Sheldon: they knitted necessary items for their families:
socks and blankets and shawls
and fingerless gloves.
Then there’s her take on the supposedly wicked fairy from “Sleeping Beauty,” who is charmed by the way the princess responds to her spinning lessons, but still condemns the girl to her century of sleep because
she imagined love worth more
than woman’s skill
Sheldon likes to take the side of the bad guys from time to time. Have you ever thought of Rumpelstiltskin’s point of view? She has. Neither is her Penelope quite the dedicated wife of the Odyssey.
Perhaps my favorite subversive bit is in the long poem “The Girl With Twelve Brothers,” in which the girl of the title cannot speak (due to a spell) when her prince found her sitting in an oak and took her off to marry. Later, when the spell is lifted and the girl is rescued from an unfair death by her brothers, she begins to speak and continues to speak even while
seeing, even as she spoke
for the first time to her beloved,
his passion blowing off,
insubstantial as the disappointed smoke
more insubstantial with each word.
The truly subversive twist is in the last few lines of the poem. I’ll leave that for readers to discover on their own.
Perhaps because I grew up on the detective novel and also enjoy my spinsterhood (in the unmarried sense — I am not skilled at spinning or any other fiber art) I’m particularly fond of “Bachelorae Antiquae” in which
“Ms. Marple and Ms. Drew
will be at home for Sunday tea.”
In addition to the poems, the collection includes a sweet story about loss (and knitting) and a short anecdote about an exchange between a student and professor that I hope really happened (and wish I had been there to hear).
It closes with a poem summarizing in a few lines the importance of the fiber arts in human civilization. A line here, a line there, and you realize that without those who found the way to sew and spin and knit and weave, our ancestors would never have survived to this day of ordering clothes online.
My novella Changeling is available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.
My story “New Lives” is in the latest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.