In middle school, I discovered Jane Austen. Reading Sense and Sensibility on a family road trip, her savage critiques of English society and human nature combined with the romance and mystery of England’s Regency period struck a chord deep inside of me.
Studying abroad in the UK this summer, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to pay my respects to Jane at Westminster Abbey. Waiting eagerly in line, wandering the entirety of the magnificent church knowing that my ultimate purpose was to arrive at Jane’s memorial, I could scarcely wait. As I approached the Poet’s Corner, where great writers like Shakespeare and Byron stand enthroned, I searched for her memorial. And searched. And searched. My eyes skipped over her plaque multiple times amid the throng of people. After all my anticipation, I was shocked to see how small her memorial was, how bare.
Looking around the chapel, I realized how few women I saw memorialized in the sculptures. If they were present, they seemed to be royalty, or part of statues celebrating men. The Abbey, which before had felt like such a place of promise, suddenly felt hollow and empty to me. For the first time, the lack of remembrance paid to women throughout history became real as the dominance of white men in the eyes of history weighed down on me.
This experience made me really angry, and I’ve been trying to find a way to approach the future despite the masculine dominance of the past. I want to be a writer, to create something that makes an impact. And now, I’m worried that those dreams will go unfulfilled, no matter how realistic they are, due to the nature of our male-dominated history books and historical sites.
Naturally, I decided to write a poem about women. I hope that my work can highlight that history is not only made up of facts and sequences of events, but is also present and malleable in a way we can focus to change our own society. Thinking about the other sites I visited, such as Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House in Sussex, I wanted to talk about the anxieties women creators feel about the lifeline of their work, and the way women everywhere are reduced to their gender no matter what, unable to escape stereotypical ideas about what they are capable of. In this poem and through my reflection, I realize that the historical contextualization and memorialization of women can have a profound impact on what we believe is possible. I reference one of my favorite novelists, Toni Morrison, within this poem because I hope to also point to how women of color especially have been erased as cultural leaders in history, whether they wrote similar poems about women, fought for civil rights, or put their bodies on the line.
In passing years, Jane Austen has become one of the most famous and popular female writers of all time. But often her books are canonized as “mere” romance novels compared to her male counterparts’, despite being respected and satiric social examinations. And even with her popularity, one major fact stands out to me: we actually don’t know what she looked like. The one likeness made during her life was by her sister and described as an “unflattering” picture by her other family members. Subsequent ones have therefore been approximate guesses. For the institution of Jane Austen on the 10-pound note, the British government chose one of these “feminized” versions of her: undereye bags erased, more youthful. The lack of a true understanding of what Jane looked like has made it actually impossible to memorialize her as she was, erasing her real personhood from history in so many ways.
By addressing this poem about women to her, the woman without her true face recorded, I see both the imposter syndrome I experience as a female writer embodied completely, as well as conceptions of what defines legacy and memory. While I don’t want to buy in completely to the system male writers have created to glorify previous male writers and history has been dominated by those same men, it is important to demand a space for women in these areas, to start a conversation on how we can radically shift our historicization and understanding of women. I encourage everyone to research amazing, unknown women throughout history, through research or one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed in History Class. By refocusing our attention on the important women, people of color, and queer people throughout history, the way we understand the world can change. For me, writing this poem about women is part of my journey of being the change we are creating within the world.
I told myself
I wanted to be part of the building
I wanted my bones to be part of the building,
Wanted myself to be the structure, and the structure me.
What if my name hallowed never happens because never before
Has the feminine word become holy and sacred in the kaleidoscope way
I dream of. What if
I’m just another
Forgotten name in the listless line of the
Forgotten women of history.
I wonder if Morrison ever feels this way--
Not the musician, I mean, Toni-- the real Morrison,
The Great American Novelist Morrison.
Does she sometimes believe that no matter what she says,
Or screams and whispers and rhetorics and begs,
Our world will never listen?
What do I believe, Jane? Do I
Believe in institutions, in a carefully laid
Road of bricks of dust,
Holding our fragile bodies together?
I don’t even know if my belief, or lack,
Would change a damn thing.
Jane, do you believe our names down in history
Even matters? That any exaltation can last longer than a sigh?
Our wrists fly with the ache of runner’s calves, with the calluses of
A priest’s knees, our bodies ripped open
Revealing the revolt of our insides like a dead fish.
We pour out these entrails, and no one seems to listen.
Can you believe?
Your name is there but your body isn’t.
Your name is there but your heart isn’t.
Your name is there but your face is nowhere, especially
Not tilting from a pedestal to the Rose Window light.
Our fates stretch our legacy thin, in this dream we spun ourselves:
Our plaques there, but shadowed, always, with mountains of men.
Is all our work is, a man’s story
We happen to emerge from behind?
Will it ever be just our stories, stories themselves
Jane, tell me
I’m not crazy.
I’m doing right with my life.