Writers and storytellers, historians and poetesses, mystics and priestesses, queens and regents. Power has also been in the hands of women throughout history. Little, hidden, sometimes feared, female power was always present in many areas of life. Today I bring you five works -four written poems and a little reflection by five women from five different times, spaces and contexts, all clamouring for literature and the voices of women in it.
Sappho. The voice from the cave
She is the “grandmother” of all of them. She and Yoko Ono –hehe. Sappho, one of the first voices of literature of which we are aware. A woman, a priestess, lover of women, too. Resident on the island of Lesbos. Despite the fact that only a small part of her poetry has survived over the centuries, we still feel her words about love and honour of those times very close.
Sappho – Fragment 16
Some say thronging cavalry, some say foot soldiers,
others call a fleet the most beautiful of
sights the dark earth offers, but I say it’s what-
ever you love best.
And it’s easy to make this understood by
everyone, for she who surpassed all human
kind in beauty, Helen, abandoning her
husbandCthat best of
menCwent sailing off to the shores of Troy and
never spent a thought on her child or loving
parents: when the goddess seduced her wits and
left her to wander,
she forgot them all, she could not remember
anything but longing, and lightly straying
aside, lost her way. But that reminds me
she’s not here, and I’d rather see her lovely
step, her sparkling glance and her face than gaze on
all the troops in Lydia in their chariots and
*Translation by Jim Powell (1993)
By the way, the title “from the cave” refers to her pre platonic writting 🙂
Al-Khansa. Poetry, war and death
VII a.C. century. Middle East. Time of Mohammed. I speak of a turbulent and in continuous change land. From the ancient Zoroastrianism, (a belief based on natural powers and divinities fragmented in all reality) the society became a monotheistic religion: Islam. Al-Khansa was, at that time, one of the most recognized poetesses who wrote verses to the dead in the war, and especially to the honour of the fighters. She was known, above all, for winning numerous awards of this elegiac poetry to death.
Time has gnawed at me, bit me and has cut me.
Time has harmed, wounded and injured me,
and has destroyed my men who have died together.
This has made me restless.
They were not a harbour for the cruel
Just like the sun which is no shelter for the people.
We saw horses galloping
and flying dust.
And riders, having lustrous, broad swords and grey spears;
Whose swords turn faces deathly white, whose spears cut bodies.
We defeated those who thought
they would never be defeated.
And whoever thinks that they will not be harmed
thinks of the impossible.
We avoid dishonourable deeds and honour our guests.
And we store the praise (of people).
We wear armour in war
And silk, wool and cotton during peace.
María de Zayas. A strong woman in the Spanish Golden Age
María de Zayas was one of the few famous and recognized women of a brilliant period in the Spanish culture, resplendent in the arts, but also mostly male. The Golden Age, toward the dawn of the seventeenth century was a time where painting and literature reached particularly high levels of culture and intellectual. It was also important for the amount of high quality written works. In this sense it is very representative that María de Zayas was a writer, whose books were republished several times in the following years, making clear the preference of the public for her novels. In fact, many people believed that she was a man with woman pseudonym because it was impossible for a woman to write so well.
Why vain legislators of the world, do you tie our hands so that we cannot take vengeance? Because of your mistaken ideas about us, you render us powerless and deny us access to pen and sword. Isn’t our soul the same as a man’s soul?…. [Later the husband listens her laments and approaches Laura] moving closer to her and incesed in an infernal rage, (Diego) began to beat her with his hands, so much so that the white pearls of her teeth, bathed in the blood shed by his angry hand, quickly took on the form of red coral
(tran. H. Patsy Boyer, The Enchantments of Love)
Fragment from Wikipedia.
Emily Dickinson. Closed in her own room
With ideals close to Virginia Woolf, living in the same time, but without knowing each other, Emily Dickinson is one of the most curious figures of American literature of the twentieth century. Daughter of a wealthy family from Massachusetts, was soon self-locked in her own private space, both physically and spiritually. Dreaming of a future that was not allowed – studying, travelling, etc.- she hid herself from the society that she knew and wrote to heal her hurt soul. Her poems (full of mystery and sometimes unfinished, in fact she never thought of publishing.) talk about rural life and the country at that time, the desires and projects that she would never achieve with a language and unreal atmosphere almost surrealist.
I STARTED early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me,
And frigates in the upper floor 5
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.
But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe, 10
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,
And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as a dew
Upon a dandelion’s sleeve— 15
And then I started too.
And he—he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle,—then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl. 20
Until we met the solid town,
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.
Rosa Chacel. Women among intellectuals
The last female voice lived not far away from us in time, a period some of us see with a certain nostalgia, perhaps. The generation of 27, the poets of the Spanish Republic, tell us of a Spain that walks forward, optimistic, unaware of the horrors to come. Like everything, however, and as always, the women of this generation were forgotten. Maruja Mallo, partner of Dalí, Lorca, etc. in the Residencia de Estudiantes, and Chacel Rosa, among many others. That is why to end I want to pay tribute to these forgotten poetesses, forgotten or buried under male names, I do it with the example of Rosa Chacel. 
*Poems are extracted from the poetry reading in which I participated to commemorate the Women’s day in the community center Casal Popular Sageta de Foc in the city of Tarragona last 3rd March.
Other articles by Guiomar: