Thursday, 15 June 2017

Furies: A Poem

Two Furies, from a 19th century book reproducing an image frrom an ancient vase
(Source: Wikimedia Commons) 

lighting lightless eyes with fury 
that motion through emotion – anger – arrives 
teller of troubling truths, revealer of wrongs 

we’ve been told, we women, not to feel it 
certainly not to show it 
so unladylike, so inappropriate 

but we do feel it 

who can blame us? 
we are human, after all 
wilfully wronged and restrained
forced into shapes not our own 

taught no other way 
we push our anger down, hold it in 
feel it thickening in our throats 
until our voices flee 

this is what they want

rage flares within 
burns our hearts to black 
and we cannibalise ourselves 
until all that remains are empty 
silent shells 

they delight at this 

what they do not understand
– and what we are remembering – is that 
black is our colour, darkness our home 
and red blood flows through our chthonic bodies 
its own bright unlight 

we endure because life endures 
(despite hollowness and enforced silence)
by virtue of the dark 
its womblike circumference 
its still sanctuary   

and because of that pure, beautiful blackness 
they do not see 
when our shells ossify, become armour 
that protects us as we sprout 
wide shadowy wings that fly us to freedom

then we open our throats and speak truth 
singing serpent-tongued and winged
as we always were 
for it is our furies that show us the way

* * *

I’ve been thinking of anger recently, of how it is an emotion that has at times driven my writing. I seem to have so very much to say when rage is flaring in me, and it provides me with an energy I would not otherwise have.

A few years ago I read about a Canadian study by Dr. Cheryl van Daalen-Smith, called ‘Whispers and Roars: A Feminist Analysis of The Anesthetization of Girls’ Anger’, which made quite an impression on me at the time. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find the full article again (though it is mentioned here and here), so I cannot quote from it, but it dealt with the idea of anger as a positive and useful emotion, and explored the ways in which girls are taught to suppress it, resulting in loss of feeling and authentic self-knowing.

We tend to characterise emotions as either good or bad—happiness = good, sadness = bad—yet I think the truth is that emotions themselves are neutral. It is part of being human to experience the whole gamut, from the brightest of joys to the deepest of griefs. I, for one, think that a life lived feeling only the so-called ‘good’ emotions would be a very boring life indeed. Though emotions such as anger, fear or frustration may be unpleasant to feel, they are necessary, bringers of wisdom, growth and creative fire.

Anger, in particular, is a very useful emotion, as it alerts us to when an injustice is being done to ourselves or others. It tells us when something is wrong, and, when handled well, gives us a chance to put things right. Of course, anger can be a problem when it is expressed through behaviours such as aggression or violence; but what the study made clear to me is that it is as damaging, sometimes more so, when it is not expressed. Girls are often taught from a young age that showing anger—making a scene, disturbing the peace, rocking the boat, disagreeing (particularly with a male)—is wrong, unfeminine. Above all, we are expected to be ‘nice’, and this has the terrible side-effect of silencing us, often when we most need to speak. 

Thus, instead of being shown how to express anger in healthy ways, to speak up about the wrongs done to us and to protect ourselves from harm, girls—and the women they become—tend to suppress their anger, to force it back inside, where it festers away and causes an untold number of health issues, both psychological and physical. In being taught not to acknowledge and express anger we are also being taught to distrust our own feelings, disconnecting us from those feelings, from our bodies, and our intuitions. With anger turned inwardly, we become angry with ourselves, rather than angry about the external things/people/situations that really deserve our outrage.

It goes without saying that reading the aforementioned study made me angry—for myself and for all women and girls. Anger is indeed a negative emotion when it is anaesthetised, when it is stripped of its power—just as women are stripped of our own power in a patriarchal world—but when channeled in the right way, anger becomes positive, and positively powered. 

Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in Women Who Run With the Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman (1992):

In her instinctual psyche, a woman has the power, when provoked, to be angry in a mindful way—and that is powerful. Anger is one of her innate ways to begin to reach out to create and preserve the balances that she holds dear, all that she truly loves. It is both her right, and at certain times and in certain circumstances, a moral duty.

For women, this means there is a time to reveal your incisors, your powerful ability to defend territory, to say “This far and no farther, the buck stops here, and hold onto your hat, I’ve got something to say, this is definitely going to change.” (p. 363)

Expressing anger is something that I still struggle with, but being able to write it out is a way of releasing it from my body, so that it does not remain to build up inside and do harm. Hence, thinking of these things, I wrote the above poem.

On my journey as a writer I have discovered that I love to play with words, to double up and twist their meanings. Thus, in this context, the word ‘furies’ refers not just to the many angers that women feel, but also to the Furies (called the Erinyes in Greek), who were ancient chthonic deities of vengeance in Greek mythology. They are often described as being frightening in appearance, sometimes old hags, with black bodies, wings, and snakes wreathing their heads. The wings (whether of bird or bat) and the snakes call to mind the imagery of the Great Goddess, so often associated with birds and serpents. And of course, their black bodies and connection with the underworld, brought to mind the Dark Feminine too. Thus, the Furies in this poem represent far more than just themselves.

So, I share ‘Furies’ here, as an expression of my anger—and there are far too many things to be angry about these days—but also as a transformation of that anger, into a written creation that I hope will inspire others. It is all right to feel anger, all right to have flashing eyes and bared teeth, when needed, and to invoke the power of the Furies. Wrongs need to be righted, and if we women can learn how to harness our anger, then together we can be part of the process of change.

* * *

Addendum: Just yesterday I came across this utterly brilliant post by Trista Hendren, ‘Re-stor(y)ing Sanity’, on The Girl God blog. It is about girls/women, the anaesthetisation of rage, and Medusa—another snake-wreathed female ‘monster’. I thought it such a beautiful synchronicity that I had to tell you about it. Do go and have a read.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1862), detail
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

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