Heartline Writers – Phenomenal Woman

Poetry, stories and singing for International Women’s Day

Richard Wilcocks writes: “In Headingley’s Heart Centre, the Shire Oak Hall was full. A Powerpoint display was beginning on the large screen, ready to inform those present of the names of poets and their poems, and the now-traditional table of home-made cakes was in position at the back of the audience. This event is well-established, an essential part of the local calendar. Liz McPherson introduced the proceedings”.

Read the full report at https://headingleylitfest.blogspot.com/2023/03/heartline-writers-phenomenal-woman.html

A selection of the poems and prose presented can be read on the Heartlines Writers’ website The International Women’s Day 2023 collection.

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Undercliffe Cemetery – a prose poem

By David Spencer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9138485

The monumental gates are broad. The pillared span admits respectable citizens, the high and the low, captains of industry and the foot soldiers; the wealth makers of money and markets, the wealth creators born to necessity and toil. The gradations of the community of the living, from privileged prosperity to servile dependency, are displayed plainly here in the domain of the dead. Treelined avenues, bordered by the splendour of Egyptian mausoleums, gothic tombs and spired vaults reaching to heaven, house the relics of Bradford family dynasties.

These give way through narrow side paths to a stratified social landscape, the lieutenants of the masters, the servants of the great, police and policed, overseers and overseen. Further, in overgrown corners and inaccessible plots lie the remains, the names time-erased from modest head stones and from history, of the legions who fuelled the machine of Victorian progress, the labouring bodies of the children, women, men, that were fed into the mills, or confined in the dark damp basements or airless attics of the airy mansions, the great halls and grandiloquent grounds that cossetted and encompassed enchanted lives.

And here, in an unremarked plot, on the perimeter, the Quaker burial ground maps a vision of a different world. Uniform grey gravestones laid flat where “no man is above another”, where all are equal in life and death. But, in truth, the only leveller is death.

By John Yeadon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16694184

Terry Wassall

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it will not stay as it was left,
the boogie-woogie of books –
jazzing up the room –
will fall like a ton of fiction

there will be no tambourines,
no clinking of love triangles,
the muse will not slip into bed
and sleep until lunchtime

it will not stay as it was left,
the haughty new housekeeper
will burn the toast,
throw marmalade at the ceiling,

she will arm herself with butter,
blast out a battle-cry,
call up her cavalry of cutlery,
storm the entrance hall,

while the bell keeps ringing,
ringing and ringing,
ringing and ringing,
she has changed the locks.

Linda Marshall
(from Cloud Cuckoo Café)

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It was grey flannel, plain and droopy,
with drawstrings and a large untidy hood,
not some zany creation
sporting pistachio pockets and baroque buttons,
but an everywoman’s coat
that somehow caught the attention of young
who screamed like high hell from passing cars
that set off police sirens,
and made old men utter profanities
under their breath,
even yesterday it attracted a stray bystander
in the art gallery’s tearoom,
who asked if he could take a photograph.
“It’s the coat, not you,” he added,
and as she looked at the digital image,
she wished people were interested in her,
and not this ordinary garment
with the invisible wow factor,
but then why wish yourself even more trouble?

Linda Marshall
(From Half-Moon Glasses)

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Blue Electra

Out of the blue, she came with her silver wings,
slicing through the unspun drifts of cloud,
to rise higher than any bird was made to fly
defying men, defying women’s place, defying gravity
she flies, alone, across the wild Atlantic sea.

Out here above the earth she gazes down
at the insignificant checkerboard of the ground
and the tiny pieces moving, spinning round as
she rises higher than any bird was made to fly as
high and wild, she flies alone across the sky

Out of nothing came the plan to span the earth
They gave her a Lockheed Electra for the flight
and she very nearly almost might have been……
waves whisper unknown stories of her plight
They knew the date that mattered the 2nd of July 1937
the brightest of diamonds sometimes shatters
and the glinting shards reflect in shadows
courage, daring grace, a woman’s face.

Out of the blue she came with her silver wings.
the notes rise skywards. she flies on alone.
the music soars. she lives again. the drum beat roars.
she rises higher than any bird was made to fly
Amelia Earhart flies on in Blue Electra.

Amelia Earhart was an aviation pioneer who also wrote extensively including poetry. She
was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. She was lost over the Pacific trying to
circumnavigate the world…mystery surrounds her death. Recently a violin concerto, Blue
Electra has been written based on parts of her life.

Eileen Neil

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The Call

I saw her again today,
out there,
scanning the horizon,
her wild song calling them in.
She was Kali, Ishtar, Isis and Athena,
She was Gaia, Venus, the snake goddess, Minerva
she knew why caged birds sang
and now she rises.*
they are coming
black, yellow, white, red, brown
the rainbow generations,
the ancestors
the living ones,
the ones to come,
walk together,
hand in hand
gathered in answer
to her call
each one
birthing the future
from wombs of fire
their name is

*both this and the preceding line refer to works by Maya Angelou who wrote the poem
“Phenomenal Woman”

Eileen Neil

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The story of Mrs Phule and Fatima Sheikh

Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh

Even an ordinary person in India today would probably not know those names.

So you are forgiven for wondering: who are they?
They were 2 phenomenal women,

One Hindu, a Dalit, that is an untouchable, the other a Muslim.

Nearly 2 centuries ago they united, despite their different background and religion, against the culture of patriarchy and misogyny which ruled unhindered in their time.

They challenged the barbaric practices and oppression of men, such as female
infanticide and the killing of widows.

Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh rebelled against the beliefs that the sole purpose of women was to belong to men, as chattel, first to their fathers then to their husbands. That women had no need for education.

They fought against the views that the only value of women was in the dowry they
brought into a marriage and the siring of sons. Sons, not daughters.

Those two phenomenal women sparked an early movement for women’s rights in a
country where there were none.

SP and her husband were chased out of their house, for their opinions and their
work. They took refuge with Fatima Sheikh. This in itself was a challenge to the
common beliefs on caste and religion.

Together they set up the first school which educated women of all caste and religion, a first practical step towards abolishing caste and gender discrimination. They were the first female teachers in India, one Hindu and one muslim. They showed the way and other women followed and continued their work.

As the decades went by, through the 19 th century and into the 20th , the legal environment started to put in place legislation to support women. There is a long list of acts of law to map the small but significant steps of progress.

Despite all this, culture and social education still lag behind today. Nowadays barbaric acts committed on Indian soil reach a global audience and we are horrified. Yet is it surprising that such male attitudes remain when you know that the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work act did not come into force until 2013.

One shining glimpse of hope is the International Day of the Girl Child. This is seriously respected in India, especially in schools, colleges and education. We can but hope that things are changing for the better.

Marie Paule Sheard

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By the time I was born
She’d already lived through two World Wars
And had false teeth and grey hair
I saw her often and ate a mountain of her blackcurrant jelly and coconut pyramids
But it took many years before I really got to know her

My granddad was a centre of attention kind of guy
And she was like a bit part player, bringing in the tea from the kitchen.
After he died she lived alone on the ground floor of the house they’d rented
In north London, near the old Arsenal football ground
The rest of the house was let to lodgers.

I was playing in a band and Holly, the drummer who was from LA
Needed somewhere to store her kit, so I asked my nan.
She didn’t mind, she said she wasn’t using the living room anyway…
Nor did she mind if we turned up around midnight to drop it off.
She was always ready with tea and biscuits and we’d sit and chat with her.
This was nearly half a century ago and Holly, a long time back in LA still remembers it
Apparently she really enjoyed the sitting and chatting with my nan.

I guess I’d taken her for granted,
And I was quite surprised to hear that in her eighties
She was a woman who had fears but also still had dreams.
She loved what me and Holly were doing and
Wanted to hear all the stories we had to tell, well maybe not all of them.

A bit late in the day I know, but for me she’d suddenly become a real person.
And I was sorry I hadn’t found her earlier.
I was sure she had a lot more to say and now we were running out of time.

She told me a story often repeated in her family
Of how angry her mother was with her father who was drunk
When he registered her birth and got her name wrong.
So a few years later, when my daughter was born,
I took my nan’s intended name and gave it to her.
Seemed like it was the best I could do.

Jackie Parsons

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CHOCOLATE CAKE and ATOM BOMBS (or Less Bombs, More Cake)

Theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer diagnosed with tuberculosis
Moves to the high desert country of New Mexico to recuperate.
Two months before the US enters World War II
Franklin D Roosevelt approves the development of the atom bomb
And is of the opinion if the Allies don’t get there first
The Axis powers will, so the race is on.

Oppenheimer is now part of the Manhattan Project
And when looking for a secure location for their top secret laboratory
Has no hesitation in suggesting the area around Los Alamos
Seven thousand five hundred feet above sea level,
North of the state’s capital Santa Fe

Edith Warner, Baptist, teacher, and maker of cake
Came to New Mexico to recover from a breakdown
And is running a tea room at the railway station near Los Alamos
Robert, a regular visitor, looks forward to his slice
Of the best chocolate cake he’s ever eaten.

The US military are concerned with secrecy and security
So they requisition the town of Los Alamos
Closing it to anyone not working there.
Edith and the laboratory workers
Fear for the future of their precious escape.

Thanks to Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi
The powers that be agree to allow
Edith Warner’s ‘The House by the River’ to not only remain,
But for those working on the terrifying destructive power
That will change the world forever,
An extra room is added to serve dinner at $2 per person
And in respect of Edith’s beliefs – no alcohol

Jackie Parsons

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Woman Life Freedom

Woman Life Freedom is a Kurdish slogan, a rallying cry challenging violent patriarchal deadly authoritarian government . Used during the protests which erupted in Iran as a response to the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2023.My poem is about women fighting for freedom, for the right to vote, to have an abortion, contraception, to say no or yes to sex, their choice, to wear what they like, to cover or uncover their hair, their bodies, to march, and shout aloud, in UK, US, Iran ,Nigeria, Afghanistan etc etc etc, millions of phenomenal women.

Woman Life Freedom
Her body was not yours,
her mind her own.
Her right to place a mark
by the politicians’ name she chose
hard won by those wild women
long ago; long skirts stained from dragging
in the dirt of prison yards; throats
too sore to swallow from gagging
on long rubber hose; stomachs drowned
in liquid-force-fed-mush; they fought on;

Their bodies were not yours.
Lillian Lenten lighting fires,
Mary Richardson smashing windows,
Emmaline Pankhurst teetering
on the edge of death-by-hunger,
Emily Davison killed by royal hooves,
Sylvia, Adela, and Christabel,
willing to win by any means
with ‘nothing off the table’
so just the fight they fought, and won

Her body is not yours.
Her womb her own to guard
from seed sown carelessly
and new life she cannot bear
amongst the stony, US soil
of resentment and despair.
Her choice alone, her right to have sex
or say NO, resist and fight for life.

Their bodies were not yours.
women in their thousands in Iran
on Women’s Day in ‘79
reject the hijab, face the threat ‘death to the unveiled.’
Masih Alinejad, Fatemeh Sepehri,
proclaim once more in 2023
their hair, their clothes, their own to wear,
to cover or uncover as they choose,
while Mahsa Amini dies in captivity
in the hands of male
guardians of ‘morality.’

Our bodies are not yours.
Our words our own to shout aloud.
All around the world, our rights
are under threat, but we stand firm,
our history erupts like lava flows
to burn away the lies, the silence, and the chokeholds
on our freedom.

Drusilla Long

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