Original poem reprinted online here: "Women Like Me" by Wendy Rose
Originally read: May 22, 2013
More information about the Poet: Wendy Rose
Usually, I have an apprehension to defining poems about the self. The poems that ultimately go "I am a man, a firefighter, a husband, a cactus, a dog, I am a proud man." "Women Like Me" is not one of these poems. It's a definition of the self poem of course, but the style of the poem, the continuous barrage of rhetorical questions does not lead to confidence of one self, rather the deconstruction (and knowledge) of one self into generic terminology and pieces.
The first part of the poem has the title blend into the poem "making promises they can't keep." Already with the negative connotation there's something amiss -- what are the promises? In this first part the question isn't explored; however what is explored is the image of the Grandmother who has, "invading burr and thistle from your [her] skin." The images turn surreal but then ground themselves on an emotional endpoint, "to restore you happy and proud, / the whole of you transformed / and bursting into tomorrow."
Bringing the old into the new. And the trajectory of this poem could go to how the speaker knows how to get there, but more intriguingly, the majority of the rest poem reassures the speakers lack of confidence on how to get there. "But where do I cut first / Where should I begin to pull?" Since the terms here are a bit general, specificity really stands out, "Russian thistle", "African senecio" these images can correlate not only to the plants, but also the background of the grandmother, and the speaker.
And to ensure the focus stays with the speaker, the following violently laced rhetorical questions become personal:
[...] Or the middle finger
of my right hand? Or my left eye
or the other one? Or a slice
from the small of my back, a slab of fat
from my thigh? I am broken
as much as any native ground,
my roots tap a thousand migrations.
The lines about specific body parts are disturbing, and as the sequence get more precise on where to slice, the speaker, coincidentally, compiles all the parts together then states, "I am broken." A bit cliche, but the next line could be over the top "as much as any native ground." I wrote could because the focus isn't on the speaker at this point -- slyly, the focus is on "any" which refers not only the speaker but also the background which is foreshadowing (the next line, "my roots tap a thousand migrations" bluntly does as well) the generational discourse.
The focus is the next lines shift tone and blame, first there's line about daughters never born, then the speaker feels like an "invader," then the speaker asks over arching rhetorical questions, "Who should be rooted, who pruned, / who watered, who picked?" The lines seem to be driven more emotionally and it's one of the reasons as well I'm apprehensive about definition poems like these -- sometimes the emotions overtake the poem and there's a lack of focus. An unfocused definition of the self, I feel, should be explored more to make a stronger point than just "I'm a mess and I don't know who I am."
But these moments in the poem happen, as they should, to strengthen images like this, "Should I feed the white-faced cattle / who wait for the death train to come / or comb the wild seeds from their tails." The previous mess adds to the misdirection, and the image, I think, is strong enough to carry the mess and not be over taken by it. After rereading the poem again, it's 50/50 working for me. But I appreciate justifiable risks than aimless risks.
But then there's lines like, "or the world before this one / or the Mother Ground?" which make me cringe because "Mother" anything is the go to word that wants to encompass all women. Nothing against the term "Mother" but after a while I want something more other than "Mother" or better yet, "Gaea" to appropriate these types of experience. The violence, although uncomfortable, felt more personable versus the overreaching terms, although safe, seems more preachy.
In any case, the poem ends with this rhetorical question, "Who should be the sterile chimera of earth and of another place, / alien with a native face, / native with an alien face?" The adjective noun combination of "sterile chimera" can refer to the multiple backgrounds of the speaker, and the inability to have "daughters." It's concise imagery. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of the alien and the native punctuate the speaker's indecisiveness on how to go forward in a very visual signifier/signified world.