Ms. Muse: ‘Only Freeish’ in America

Ms. Muse is a discovery place for riotous, righteous and resonant feminist poetry that nourishes and gives voice to a rising tide of female resistance—brought to you by Ms. digital columnist Chivas Sandage.


For the first time in my life, I felt allergic to poetry. A radical, rogue Supreme Court decided Americans with uteruses no longer have the human right to control our own bodies but are subject to the whims of our state. I couldn’t bear to read a poem.

Too angry for literature, I made protest signs and headed to a local rally in Northampton, Mass., the majority-white, lesbian mecca just a few minutes from where my wife and I live for part of the year. There, an 85-year-old writer friend spoke of the abortion she had decades ago when she was a single mother who’d just escaped an abusive marriage. Choice saved her young daughter’s life and her own, she said. Her now middle-aged daughter and teenage grandson stood in front of her, beaming. My friend’s words sparked something inside of me, made me want more.

Next came Independence Day. The painful irony of a July 4 on the heels of such profound loss of liberty left me suddenly hungry for words that spoke to the absurdity of overturning “settled law” protecting the bodily autonomy of 51 percent of our nation, and threatening privacy rights for all. To “own” is to belong to oneself. But now, many of our daughters and nieces and sisters and mothers and wives no longer belong to themselves, no longer have authority over their own bodies to author the rest of their lives.

I needed poems the way some need scripture. While I could easily open a book, I needed to hear from my community, my country of women, in the present tense. In sorrow and anger, scrolling pathetically as if social media were an oracle, I sought poems by women, needing to hear their voices rise in this moment.

I sought poems by women, needing to hear their voices rise in this moment when, depending on where we live, we may no longer own our bodies.

Chivas Sandage
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A protest in San Marcos on June 25, 2022. (Gabriella Moore)

In San Marcos, Texas, where we live the other half of the year, people were protesting in larger numbers at the county courthouse, one day after the ruling. I knew of no other protests planned in my area. I craved my local community.

I scrolled until the “oracle” offered a post by Black educator and activist Ebony Murphy-Root. In a photo, she stood in knee-high water, hands on hips, a huge smile on her face. The text read: “Some of you are new to holiday weekends in a country where you are only freeish, I see. Come on in, the water is fine.” It ended with a wink.

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Reading Murphy-Root’s words, I saw two things. First, I saw—and heard—her words as a tanka, a Japanese form that’s slightly longer than haiku:

“Some of you are new 
to holiday weekends in 
a country where you 
are only freeish, I see. 
Come on in, the water’s fine.”

Second, I saw myself in that mirror—that supposedly “woke” white woman who has managed many times to celebrate what was always an ironic holiday for me without too much difficulty. Despite deeply rooted feminist, pro-Indigenous and anti-racist convictions, the tension I felt each year around Independence Day was more an intellectual anger than emotional or physical anger.

I grew up with the human rights of bodily autonomy and voting access. I witnessed efforts to integrate Black and white America in the ’70s as a young child bussed to school on the other side of Little Rock. I knew Black men, and later, all women, had won the right to vote. It seemed to me that “the arc of the moral universe” was indeed bending toward justice, at least in the United States. I had felt grateful to be American but not necessarily proud. Raised in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, I oohed and aahed over the “bombs” bursting in a massive ballet above us each year, while knowing our founders were slaveowners who didn’t mention women in the Constitution. Even as a small child, I knew this land was not our land.

As an adult, I played the dutiful liberal patriot, monitoring the sparkler I placed in my daughter’s hands. As the mother of a teenager, I turned my kid onto A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. It didn’t stop me from enjoying our town’s fireworks display, that perennial theatre of war, the thing that killed my combat photographer father 10 years before he killed himself with another weapon: alcohol.

A city clerk had refused to hand me a marriage application, but I still had rights my great-grandmothers never knew. My daughter and I qualified for state health insurance (though the program wasn’t equal to my wife’s coverage). My privilege served me in countless ways whether or not I was aware. I believed in my country and its promise, despite its momentary leaders and their failures.

On June 26, 2015, everything changed for our family.

The Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges transformed our lives overnight. Suddenly, my marriage was legal in the eyes of the federal government. In the basement, I found the triangle of flag from my father’s casket and carried it outside, unfolded it for the first time and tacked it to the side of our house. Above it, I wrote a huge banner saying, “Marry Me in Texas!!!” to greet my wife when she returned home from work.

Our Connecticut town was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, but families like ours had been the hot topic discussed everywhere in the national and local media, from the town’s Facebook page to the local radio station. I knew exactly what our GOP neighbors thought of us—but for the first time, I felt deep, passionate patriotism. I celebrated July 4 with a new, wild, bodily joy. Finally, my country belonged fully to me because I belonged fully to it.

When Biden won the 2020 election, I celebrated my country with the same ecstatic fervor by joining the dancing, cheering, honking, singing, swollen streets of Northampton:

Cue: the June 24, 2022, ruling that women are second-class citizens. The shock comes in waves.

Murphy-Root was absolutely right: My daughter and nieces and sisters are no longer free—only “freeish.” Under this new decree, women and girls can be forced to carry the children of their fathers and stepfathers and uncles and brothers and neighbors and coaches and strangers and teachers and priests and abusive husbands and abusive boyfriends and the male friends of their families and the fathers of their friends.

Women and girls will die. Again. Preeclampsia and sepsis and illegal abortions will kill. Again. Anyone with a uterus no longer belongs to themself but to the state. Again. And those who are most vulnerable—women of color, domestic violence victims, homeless women and girls, and the poor—will suffer disproportionately. As they always have.

I’ve known institutional homophobia and what it feels like to have my marriage be invalid and invisible, for my child and me to not share my spouse’s health insurance, to be forced to file taxes as if we’re single, to not have any of the legal benefits of marriage. But all of my life, I knew I would never have to carry and bear a child I didn’t choose. I had access to contraception, including the morning-after pill, and access to abortion. Having that freedom freed me in countless ways. Bodily autonomy meant that I was fully responsible for my life—which gave me pride and shaped my identity.

Many times, I prayed for blood to come; when it did, I knew I was lucky. Miraculously, I’ve only been pregnant once and that was my choice, my desire. I was scared at first when no blood arrived. The reality of what I’d chosen overwhelmed me at moments, but I was equally joyful and hopeful and longed to become a mother. Looking back, if I’d not had the choice, it would have changed everything.

If I’d been forced … No, I cannot imagine surviving the experience of my body being taken over by another being for almost 10 months (nine months is a myth). Then surviving the most severe physical pain of my life for six hours of pushing. The anesthesiologist getting called away for an emergency as he neared my door, forcing me to have a natural birth, a dream and a plan I’d given up on three hours earlier, pleading for anesthesia then begging until I got to the point I made my best woman friend chant over and over, “Pain does not matter”—all while I pushed down what felt like a brick wall with my vagina.

All of it was possible because I chose my daughter. I wanted her more than anything and would do anything for her. But I could never have become that woman if I’d been forced by the government to procreate. I’m not that strong.

*

Ada Limón. (Lucas Marquardt)

Still online too late at night, I stumbled upon “A New National Anthem” by our next U.S. poet laureate Ada Limón. She wrote how the song we always sing goes “too high for most of us” and is riddled like history “always, always” with rockets and bombs. Limón asks:

“And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps
the truth is that every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins.”

Much of my childhood was spent trying to understand unsung stanzas, as well as chants from the playground. Why would anyone try to catch a tiger by the toe? And why tiger? I pondered the idea of having to pay a price for crying out when caught. I sensed “something brutal / snaking underneath” so many of the rhymes and songs we “blindly” sang, even the ones with less curious lyrics.

As an adult, it was a surprise to realize I have complete recall of “Cotton Needs Pickin’” and “Pick a Bail of Cotton,” originally work songs sung by slaves on Southern plantations and later sung to glorify or mock the conditions of slavery but drilled into us schoolchildren, just without the latter song’s repeating N-word. These songs revel in a slave’s work for the master, as would a Broadway musical celebrating the joys of plantation life.

I thought about a line from the first song, “Hurry up, hurry up children,” and understood it to mean child slaves made to work long hours in the hot Southern fields. From my grandmother Opal (Granny O), who as a young girl chose to pick cotton so she could buy schoolbooks and a pair of boots, I knew what picking cotton does to your fingers, how it can leave them raw and bloody.

I remember rereading the Black slave’s promised fate in our anthem: Nothing could save them from “the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” under Old Glory.

I know now our anthem was written by a slaveowner. An attorney by trade, Francis Scott Key knew well the cruelty and torture most slaves endured but apparently could not fathom why they might fight against the country that enslaved them for their own liberty. Two years after writing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Key founded—with Henry Clay and other influential white men including many slaveowners—the American Colonization Society which sent 10,000 free Blacks to what is now Liberia. Apparently, Key and the other men generally agreed with the prevailing view of the time: Free Blacks could not be integrated.

Later, Key became a trusted advisor to President Andrew Jackson, also infamous for his brutality to his 161 slaves, including having a woman named Betty whipped 50 times for washing the clothes of others without permission from Jackson’s wife. Perhaps, “If he hollers make him pay, / Fifty dollars every day” refers not to the tiger’s fate but to 50 lashes—a common punishment for slaves.

And perhaps, as Limón’s poem proposes, a new anthem for a new age is indeed needed—a “song that’s our birthright, / that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on.” An anthem we can sing without worshipping war and having to skip stanzas about the terror and death of Black Americans.

*

An excerpt from “Right to Life,” a poem written by the American poet Marge Piercy in 1973 began circulating on Facebook:

I will choose what enters me, what becomes
of my flesh. Without choice, no politics,
no ethics lives. I am not your cornfield,
not your uranium mine, not your calf
for fattening, not your cow for milking.
You may not use me as your factory.
Priests and legislators do not hold shares
in my womb or my mind.
This is my body. If I give it to you
I want it back. My life
is a non-negotiable demand.
Marge Piercy. (Robert Shapiro)

Then someone else shared the full poem. Finally, the poet wrote, “enough posting all or part of that poem… That doesn’t accomplish anything. You’re preaching to the choir. Get busy organizing instead.”

Some noted sharing political poems is a form of protest, and may even be essential to a movement’s success. “That poem was very meaningful to me as a young woman—and it’s just as important now,” Kate Brandt, a friend in Los Angeles, told me. “I disagree with her that it doesn’t accomplish anything. Its rage and passion are a clarion call, uniting us in solidarity. It connects us with each other and with our younger selves. We need to feel not so alone in this onslaught of hate and ignorance, as we gird our loins, again, for the fight. So I’m afraid she doesn’t have the last word on her own creation!”

Feeling overwhelmed, what did I do? I sought poetry. In The Atlantic, I discovered American poet Tiana Clark’s, “Considering Roe v. Wade, Letters to the Black Body.” A headline ripped from the pages of a recent newspaper, “Dear Black / American Women Are 3 to 4 Times More Likely to Die / in Childbirth Than White Women” is followed by:

…To all the Black Babies
sliced from lynched women’s bellies spilling black

jelly then burned as crackled wood singing singe
under silent, white starlight. Dear Unbelieved

Pain. Dear Thick Skin Myth…

Black history is American history and this devastating compendium in the form of a letter begun over and over, repeating salutations, becomes a long list of facts and images of the Black body in America. But these words haunt me most: “…under silent, white starlight…” This image describes the scene of the crime in its aftermath. This glimpse into the perspective of the murderers, the white men who were capable of committing such atrocities, is unforgettable and invites us to understand the very human evil that is part of our American legacy.

*

While I tend to teach and write about poems by writers who identify as women, I happened to share on Facebook “Pity the Nation,” written in 2007 by the late American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The poem is inspired by the late Lebanese American poet Kahlil Gibran, who died in 1931.

I read and reread both poems, appreciating the accurate description of our (still) dis-United States. Gibran writes: “Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero”, and later, “Pity the nation divided into fragments, / each fragment deeming itself a nation.”

Ferlinghetti’s poem ends in a most prescient manner:

Pity the nation oh pity the people
who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away

My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

My country is no longer mine but I will remind her of her promise of liberty and justice. The founders of our Constitution did not even mention us once—but nor could our founding fathers fathom a Black man would someday become president. Should that lack of imagination deprive Black people today of their relatively newfound liberties, as is the case for women and girls since the end of Roe?

Thomas Jefferson proposed the Constitution be updated every 20 years, so that it might truly be a living document. He wrote that “each generation” should revise the Constitution so that it would “be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to generation, to the end of time.” Created by powerful white men, our Constitution is hardly the living document that Jefferson envisioned. On July 24, 2022, it was wielded instead as a weapon to uphold the patriarchy’s power.

*

Our country’s new poet laureate says poetry “has the possibility to show us rage, to connect with our fear, to celebrate joy, to make room for the whole spectrum of human emotions. Great poetry is the place where we come to get the strength to heal, to become whole again and to then recommit to the world.”

Or, as Ebony Murphy-Root suggested, we could just “come on in, the water is fine.” Her words also remind me of the value in finding pleasure in the moment, pleasure in our bodies and our lives despite our oppression—a powerful form of resistance, and something Black and brown women have much to teach white women about.

We can explore the connection between our resistance and our strength born of both rage and joy in order to build the stamina to fight for our human rights and all women’s rights yet again. And again. And again.

It’s also true that our loss of bodily autonomy can help us experience more empathy for others who are vulnerable in ways we are not, and helps us to better comprehend the lived experience of women and girls throughout history. But even for the many women who felt anger or even rage in response to Roe’s end, numbness can set in.

“Right now, so often we are going numb to grief and numb to tragedy and numb to crisis,” Ada Limón told the New York TImes. “Poetry is a way back in, to recognizing that we are feeling human beings. And feeling grief and feeling trauma can actually allow us to feel joy again.”

Living through this sea change calls for protest and acts of resistance but also means turning back to our work, families, and lives in this new/old America of the Supreme Court’s making. Poetry can speak to the range of our emotions and our suffering, help us to move forward, take action, and organize before it’s too late. Though we be “only freeish,” we still have the power to resist and work to make our country, finally, something that we’ve never been for every American—a land of the free. 

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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About

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms., winner of the 2021 Claire Keyes Poetry Award, and author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the Foreword Book of the Year Award in poetry. Her poems and essays have appeared in the Texas Observer, The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review, and the print version of Ms. Magazine, among others. Her debut nonfiction book is forthcoming from the University of Texas Press. Ms. Muse, her column, features contemporary feminist poets and essays on the intersection of poetry, politics, and our lives. Follow her on Twitter: @ChivasSandage.