Sunday, September 03, 2023

Mary Leader, The Distaff Side


My mother could not sew and neither
could she knit. I think she’d have agreed
with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot:
“A woman did not look her best
knitting: the absorption, the glassy eyes,
the restless busy fingers!” Similarly,
if my mother had ever gotten to go
to Sewanee Writers’ Conference (which,
later on, I got to), I think she’d have agreed
with a man’s comment about how rude it is
when women in the audience take out
their knitting and get to work on it while
listening to various long-winded readings.
Did he never know men to sit and whittle
while talking and, occasionally, spitting?

I’m fascinated by American poet and lawyer Mary Leader’s fifth full-length collection, The Distaff Side (Shearsman Books, 2022), a curious blend of a variety of threads: the needlepoint the women in her family held, dismissed as “women’s work”; her mother’s refusal to learn such a thing to focus on poetry, and publishing in numerous journals yet never seeing a collection into print; and her own engagement with these two distinct skills, articulating them both as attentive, precise crafts. “My mother couldn’t sew a lick.” she writes, to open the sequence “Toile [I],” offering her mother’s refusal to learn as something defiant across the length and breadth of women across her family, “But that was a boast to her.” As the following poem reads: “1950, 1955, / 1960. What girls and women got up to / with distaffs flax spindles standards / happles and agoubilles was not called ‘their art.’ Not remotely. Needlework / was no more ‘creative’ than / doing the dishes, and trust me, / doing the dishes was not marveled at, [.]” That particular poem ends: “And my / mother’s hobby morning after / morning after morning, every morning, / every morning, was reading and writing / poetry, smoking all the while.” There’s a defiance that Leader recounts in her narrative around her mother, and one of distinct pride, writing a woman who engaged with poetry. A few poems further in the sequence: “I have / the typescript of what, in my judgement, / should have been my mother’s first / published book, Whose Child? I have / here the cover letter she labored over.” I’m charmed by these skilled, sharp and precise poems on the complexities of the craft of poems and needlework both, stitched with careful, patient ease.

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