"Spelling" Part 1 - Denial
With this post, I start a series of reflections on some of my favorite poetry. I have always loved poetry and have found that many poems speak into my life spiritually. I’m starting with a three part look at Margaret Atwood’s poem “Spelling.” (I suggest you read the full poem here
first). I first encountered this poem in high school and have returned to it at different stages in my life over the years. It is a feminist poem in that it explores what it takes for women to be treated as human and have a voice. In this first section I want to explore the denial of that voice.
“I return to the story
of the woman caught in the war
& in labor, her thighs tied
together by the enemy
so she could not give birth.
Ancestress: the burning witch,
her mouth covered by leather
to strangle words.”
- From “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood
In these images of terror against women, Atwood expresses how women are denied two of the most basic ways in which they can have a voice - reproductively and verbally. When I first heard of the Nazi’s tying women in childbirth legs together, I remember feeling just sheer horror. Having experienced childbirth I can further grasp the insanity of being denied the freedom to birth that which has no option but to be born. To prevent the ability to birth denies life. It kills the woman and the child. It silences the act of creation.
Many other feminist writers see childbearing as being the ultimate conquest of a man over a woman. Childbearing and child rearing being roles that many women have been forced into overtime. In fact many women sought out the cloistered life as the only available alternative to a forced marriage (and potential avenue for a life of the mind). But the option remained to be ruled by a husband/father or by the church. A woman’s life was not her own. And so some feminists rebelled against childbearing. Yet Atwood sees it in a more positive light. The child is a part of the woman - a manifestation of a woman’s creative powers- an act of creation itself. A way to use her voice. And here she describes the enemy silencing that creativity by tying the women’s thighs together. Historically, that enemy was the Nazi’s, but the term here also refers to men in general. Men are seen as the enemy who have silenced the creative works of women for years. Creativity not just in the creative act of giving birth, but the act of creation through words and images as well.
Atwood then turns the image to “the burning witch”, who was denied the freedoms of speech and creation as well. Women who threw caution and convention to the wind and chose to use their voice were considered abnormal. That fact and the implication that by letting one’s voice be heard through writing one was rebelling against Christian doctrines (women must remain silent and all that), resulted in such expressive women being branded as witches. The lucky one’s were then confined and suppressed with a scold’s bridle
while the unlucky were forever silenced through burning or drowning. In this way generations of women were threatened and terrorized into silence. While the enemy in the first example seemed to suppress women out of a cruel hatred, the witches were suppressed because they were feared. The abnormal, the other, was feared by the men in power because they did not understand it. Due to this suppression, women’s literature and women’s voices remained virtually silent for years.
Women need a voice because of the power that is possessed by language. Virginia Woolf encouraged women to use that power and their voice by urging women to write. She told them “to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast.” This writing would give the woman a place in the world. Atwood too explored the power of language. She once wrote that “a voice is a gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech if possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.” Women had been forced into silence for centuries and had therefore been made powerless. Like having their legs tied together in childbirth or gagged in torture, to be suppressed into silence forces women to deny a vital part of who they are. They are forced to keep inside of them that which needs to be birthed.
But what does it mean to have a voice, to have the power of creation available to you? In parts two and three of this series I will look at how the poem defines how women can have a voice and break that silence.
Labels: Gender Issues, poetry reflections