Poet’s Note: “This poem was written well before [the 2017] Presidential Inauguration and without this event in mind. But it seems a day worth remembering the fate of our shared planet and all its beings, human and beyond.” —Jane Hirshfield, via The Academy of American Poets
Editor’s Note: Today I defer to Jane Hirshfield and The Academy of American Poets. Listen to the poet read this important work of protest. Read the poem in its entirety.
Today’s poem is dedicated to those who are marching with the Million Woman March and those who stand with us in solidarity.
By popular demand, in celebration of Purim we are re-featuring this stellar poem by Stacey Zisook Robinson, in conversation with your faithful editor at the crossroads of feminism and midrash.
By Stacey Zisook Robinson:
THE BOOK OF ESTHER
That blush on my cheek?
And I have glittered my eyes
And robed myself in the finery
of silk and gossamer,
lapis and gold–
And whored myself for your salvation.
You asked for no thoughts.
You merely offered my body
to the king–
My life forfeit
If my beauty failed.
You asked for no ideas
And I gave you none,
Though I had a thousand,
And ten thousand more.
Diplomacy was played on the field of my body,
The battle won in the curve of my hip
And the satin of my skin,
Fevered dreams of lust
That blush on my cheeks?
It is the stain of victory
And of my shame.
Today’s poem was originally published on Stumbling Towards Meaning and appears here today with permission from the poet.
Stacey Zisook Robinson is a single mom. She sings whenever she can. She writes, even when she can’t. She worked in Corporate America for a long time. Now she works at her writing and looks for God and grace, meaning, connection, and a perfect cup of coffee, not necessarily in that order. Stacey has been published in the Summer 2013 issue of Lilith Magazine and in several anthologies including The Hope (Menachem Creditor, ed) and In Transit (BorderTown Press, Daniel MacFadyen, ed). Watch for her book, Dancing in the Palm of God’s Hand, forthcoming from Hadasah Word Press. Stacey has recently launched a Poet in Residence program designed to work with both adults and kids in a Jewish setting to explore the connection between poetry and prayer as a way to build a bridge to a deepened Jewish identity and faith.
Editor’s Note: This week we celebrated Purim, a Jewish holiday that commemorates Queen Esther (5th c. B.C.E.) saving Persian Jews from genocide. Esther’s rise to power, however, was problematic. Her predecessor, Queen Vashti, was summoned to appear in her crown, ordered to display her beauty before the king and his nobles. The implication, according to many scholars, is that Queen Vashti was ordered to appear wearing only her crown. She refused, and it was suggested that she should be de-throned and replaced by a “worthier woman” so that “all wives [would] henceforth bow to the authority of their husbands, high and low alike” (Esther 1:19-20).
And there’s your daily dose of female oppression, Bible style.
A search began for beautiful young virgins. Those who made the cut were subjected to twelve months of beauty treatments before the king would even deign to lay eyes on them. The hopefuls then appeared before the king, who did not see any of them ever again “unless he was particularly pleased by her” (Esther 2:12-14). King Xerxes liked Esther best of all the young virgins displayed before him, and crowned her queen in Vashti’s stead. Plot twist: the king did not know that Esther was Jewish, for she had deliberately kept that fact from him. In the end Esther was able to use her beauty to bend the king to her will, and when one of his henchmen sought to have all the Jews in the kingdom annihilated, Esther stood up for her people and they were spared.
While it is this end-result that is remembered and celebrated each year at Purim, it is Esther’s degrading rise to the throne—and what it cost her to to save her people—that is the subject of today’s poem.
To come to power, Esther had to take the rightful queen’s place and become the poster child for the idea that “all wives [should] bow to the authority of their husbands.” To catch the king’s eye she had to strip away her personhood until nothing was left but her physical beauty. “That blush on my cheek? / It’s paint, / And I have glittered my eyes / And robed myself in the finery / of silk and gossamer, / lapis and gold.” It was not her devotion to her people that allowed her to save them, but that she “whored [her]self for [their] salvation.” Nor did her people care who she was beneath her beauty, or whether she survived her attempt to save them: “You asked for no thoughts. / You merely offered my body / to the king– / My life forfeit / If my beauty failed.”
Queen Esther was a pawn in men’s games, as women of history have too often been. “Diplomacy was played on the field of my body, / The battle won in the curve of my hip.” She used her beauty and her sexual allure because, as a woman of her time and place, they were the only instruments of power available to her. But if she were given a voice, she might speak of inner conflict. She might tell us what it feels like to lack the ability to either refuse or consent. Queen Esther was a hero, but what did it cost her to package and sell herself in the name of the greater good? “That blush on my cheeks? / It is the stain of victory / And of my shame.”
A note from Series Editor Sarah Marcus: Born from a powerful in-class discussion that we had about gender, race, and the role of masculinity in rape culture, “Be A Man/Be A Woman” poems are an analysis of gendered personal experience and a study of our intersectionality. This poetry series was inspired by a HuffPost essay I wrote called, “Why I Teach Feminism at an Urban High School.” The poets featured here are students from my 12th Grade Resistance Writing class whose work I found to be brave, fearless, and progressive. Please help me support their crucial and influential voices.
Johnny Ward is a senior in my Resistance Writing class. His life is music. He enjoys working out and good food. He follows sports and the news, and he constantly sends me relevant and funny BuzzFeed lists and videos. He says that our class has opened his eyes to what feminism actually meant. “I thought it meant you were feminine, or a lesbian, or pro-women to the point that you were anti-men. Now, I know it means standing up for women’s rights and being conscious to the fact that lack of equality is a problem and that anyone can be a feminist.” His advice to young writers is to practice, have confidence, practice, and perform.
I especially love this poem for its insistent and aggressive repetition. Johnny maintains a sturdy rhythm that serves to highlight the contradictory messages we send young men. He writes about the struggle to come out of the cold and embrace connection. This poem commands our respect on many levels.
I’m young but
I feel so old
If I may be so bold let me say
It’s more than just cold out here
It’s more than just cold out here
You need more than just a coat out here
You need coats out here
They coming for your throats out here
But be a man
Tell me what are tears?
I ain’t been able to cry since… eh, can’t remember
I’m seventeen, look at me
Still manhood’s a puzzle
I carry a whole household on my back with back trouble
and still going through black struggles
But anyway be a man
Showing emotion is weak
or it’s how you show it
If so, then please explain that to me
Like what do I do whenever I see
My friend going through it?
Walk up and just give her a hug then leave?
I wasn’t taught to console nor to be consoled
It took Jesus 16 years to even reach my soul
Pardon my rude mouth he forgave it already
I’m making the change
I prayed it already
Wish I could forgive but I hold grudges
Like that one time One time said “your father was a joke n****, you the punch line!”
Life ain’t easy it’s full of opinions
“You ain’t a man until you first had sex”
“You ain’t a man until you gotcha first check”
“You ain’t a man till you known through respect”
“You ain’t a man till you build intellect”
“You ain’t a man till you made yo first band”
“Think you a man with that gun in yo hand?”
“You ain’t a man till yo words ain’t see through”
“You ain’t a man till we believe you”
“You ain’t a man till yo actions speak for you”
“You ain’t a man till these women adore you”
“You ain’t nothing till you love yourself”
“Aye you a man, man why you need help?!”
We what we want we just got to connect
We’ll be alright we just need to respect
We what we want we just got to connect
We’ll be alright we just need to respect.