Listen, Bitch by Melinda Smith and Caren Florance. Recent Work Press 2019. Reviewed by Natalie D-Napoleon
Every day, women face a barrage of insults to our humanity through the ways we are spoken to in private and through public discourse. Through borrowed words Listen, bitch cleverly shows us how this discourse is played out.
The erasure, concrete and cut-up poems in the brief, yet dense, Listen, bitch are compiled by Melinda Smith – with artist and book designer Caren Florance collaborating on artworks – from the public speeches by politicians and public figures, celebrities and mass killers, accumulating into an avalanche of misogynistic discourse. Inspired by the words in the annual Ernie Awards for Sexist Remarks this collection uses the Ernie’s as a springboard for a deeper examination, re-writing and highlighting the power and cumulative effective of misogynistic insults. In the introduction Smith divulges that this ascent is a deliberate attempt to show the “‘social costs’ borne by the ‘non-compliant’ women in the poems” to the invisible rules of the patriarchy. Rules where the fence posts seem to continually shift.
The collection opens with the words of Ernie Ecob, former Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union, that “Women only want to be shearers for the sex”. The ensuing poem “Ernie Ecob as a Bare-Bellied Joe” intersperses various iterations of this quote with step-by-step instructions on how to shear a sheep. The poem effectively is a blow to the iconic Aussie industry of shearing while also a corporeal description of the way sheep are treated:
………. ………….………..If I hold still
she might not draw blood …this time”.
The poem escalates to the startling conclusion of the female shearer:
……………………………………..I feel her
bend, take me in a gentle headlock, lips
in my white ear….. Her low growl: ‘Women
Ernie, women – women only want… to be.’
From the outset the authors assert women’s pleas to be accepted as fully human.
There is a discernable effect of reading the progressive heightening of insults towards women. “Folly” is a compilation of phrases that reek of the familiar from figures such as INXS member Kirk Penguilly, Mark Lathan, Mel Gibson and Paul Keating, among others. The poem opens with an oft heard remark:
I really loved the ‘60s and ‘70s when life
was so simple and you could slap a woman
on the butt and it was taken as a compliment,
not as sexual harassment.
Also including public insults such as “sugar tits” and “bitches”, ‘Folly’ builds to the heady conclusion of a man waking up on the first morning of his divorce and missing the breakfast his wife makes. These micro-aggressions are like papercuts that display the power of this affronting language.
The astounding depth and breadth of misogynistic comments reaches from academics and TV personalities to politicians and college students. The poem ‘I Do Not Permit a Woman to Teach’ draws on the words of Susan Harlan’s article “Things That Male Academics Have Said to Me”. While ‘Re Me Ember 2017 (1)’ creates a confronting erasure poem from TV gardener Don Burke’s public statement after he faced sexual harassment allegations. Smith and Florance’s visual erasure of this #metoo poem places soil over the words of Burke’s statement to create phrases such as
…………………..such a …………………..bitter
life-long………………………………………….sexism and misogyny
is particularly confronting and results in a striking metaphor for women’s humanity being buried. ‘Julia After Tony’s Boning’ uses Australia’s first female Prime Minister’s continued verbal harassment by opposition leader Tony Abbott as a springboard to create a succinct concrete poem which ends with the mythic reference to the silencing (albeit of a dead) male politician:
As an Australian publication of found, cut-up and erasure poetry Listen, bitch is ground-breaking, considering the extensive publication in the United States and United Kingdom of erasure poetry texts for many decades, the form is yet to be embraced by Australian publishers – Ross Gibson’s reDACT (UWA Press, 2019) one of the first publications I’ve come across to solely include cut-ups and erasures. Smith and Florance have used this form to its full extent and power, to give voice to the oppressed; in effect holding a mirror up to men’s demeaning and abusive language towards women.
The concluding section of this collection, “Rougher than Usual Handling” has the most lasting impact and is a testament to the artful manner this collection has been designed by Smith and Florance: abusive words incite violent actions. From ‘Two-Hole Blues’ which uses words collected from online rape threats towards women, to the words of UCSB mass-killer Elliott Roger from his YouTube diatribe ‘Retribution’, the effects are chilling. In the poem ‘Supreme Gentlemen’ Roger’s words are distorted further by playing with the Heroku glass leaves text manipulation app:
I slaughter single spoiled , stuck up , blond slut I.
The collaborative visual poem of Smith and Florance, ‘Orion as a Woman Unhelped by White Ribbon’, began as an artwork installation which is based on the constellation Orion. The poem contains lines which follow the star map of Orion overlaid on a black dress with ribbon and poetry lines placed on ripped paper, and opens with
in the sky
is there because
bitch left him
– bad idea bitch – .
‘Eurydice’s Last Sky’ brings this message home using a similar visual layout to ‘Orion as a Woman Unhelped by White Ribbon’, except in this situation the image infers Eurydice Dixon’s dress, phone and keys,
Based on newspaper reports and public comments on the murder of comedian and writer Eurydice Dixon the lasting effects of misogynistic language place their ultimate imprint within this work.
Upon completion of the collection the reader is left with an almost prescient need for the proverbial shower to wash off the stink of the cumulative effect of reading these misogynistic insults which result in violent acts, sexual assaults and the death of women. Yet this stink of patriarchy is, as Clementine Ford writes, “the air that we breathe”. The air which women are forced to walk through clouds of and breathe every day. Breathe it in. Contemplate the stench. Think about the better world we could live in. Rose scented. Fresh. Listen to us ‘bitches’.
– Natalie D-Napoleon
Natalie D-Napoleon is a writer, singer-songwriter and educator from Fremantle, Australia who is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing. She spent the last decade in the United States where she was a Coordinator at a City College Writing Centre. Her work has appeared in Griffith Review, Meanjin, Southerly, Australian Poetry Journal and Writer’s Digest. She has won the Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize (2018) and KSP Poetry Prizes (2019). In 2019 Ginninderra Press released D-Napoleon’s debut poetry collection First Blood, based on her girlhood experiences growing up on a farm as a child of Croatian immigrants.
Listen, Bitch is available from https://recentworkpress.com/books/product/listen-bitch/
Sarah St Vincent Welch is a Canberra based writer, editor, writing teacher, and image maker, known for her short fiction about the lives of women and girls, and for chalking her poetry on the footpaths at arts festivals. In 2016 she wrote a poem a day for Project 366, an international poem-centric online project by poets, visual artists and translators. She has worked with writers living with disability and mental illness and facilitates community creative writing projects. She has lectured and tutored at the University of Canberra. Her heart belongs to two cities, and she has worked on novels based in both Sydney and Canberra. Open is her first book
‘Open’, the verb and ‘open’, the adjective are both hard at work in this book as she engages with memory, myth and dream, while remaining tethered to life’s dailiness, in public libraries and private gardens, on beaches, in houses and among children at play. If you are new to her work you will be enchanted. If you are already a fan you will reminded all over again of what has delighted you in her spare, gorgeous lines and unique consciousness. Here ‘a furled child hides’, and waits, ready to root and bloom in your mind when you open yourself to these poems. .– Melinda Smith
“Sarah St Vincent Welch dangles you under ‘a conker sun,’ wears you like ‘a soft corpse on her shoulders,’ slides you ‘into a bird cry.’ In Open each poem is a world – sensuous, intimate, nostalgic. You feel the rhythmic push and shove of these worlds as the poet folds you into them”. . – Lizz Murphy