TABULA RASA: Merryn Williams reviews a new anthology of women’s poetry from Linen Press

Tabula Rasa: Poetry by Women 
Edited by Rawaa Elsir, Kavita A. Jindal, Avril Joy, 
 .                Lynn Michell & Reshma Ruia
Linen Press 2023
ISBN: 978-1-7391777-2-0

Only around two generations ago, very few women poets were taken seriously by the English literary establishment. Thankfully, that has changed; hundreds if not thousands of women are now writing and publishing good poetry and all-female antholgies are quite common. I’ve known a few women who refuse to appear in such anthologies because they prefer their work to be judged on its own terms. Most, however, do want to be published wherever and whenever possible, and it’s often quite easy to guess a poet’s sex without knowing their name, if only because they tend to write about certain subjects in which men have little interest.

This anthology features thirty-four poets, most of them unknown to me but very well worth reading. A major theme is clothes. There is a wedding dress, a talking dress, a magic coat, a scarlet coat. There are women who wash clothes at the well, pregnant women who take their clothes off, and baby boomers – in Marilyn Longstaff’s excellent ‘Dinosaurs’ – who used to make their own. And why do clothes matter so much? Because women are still judged on their appearance; look at any political group photograph and you will see a mass of men in grey and, standing out, the occasional brightly-dressed high-achieving female. ‘The Sack Race’, by Karin Andrews Jashapara, is about a different kind of garment; the sack is a metaphor for the restrictions which hold back the growing girl. ‘One Small Problem’, by Sheena Joughin, describes ‘a pocket in our school uniform knickers’ which baffled her and her little classmates. What can it have been for?

Yet clothes can also be a way of transmitting love, as in Bernadette Gallagher’s ‘Knitting Days’ written in memory of her mother:

I hear your needles clicking, knitting a jumper    
all those banks of wool rolled into balls.

Pattern in your head, in your hands - diamonds
emerging as the sculptor carves to release the form within.

You knitted me my long red cardigan, green fleck for our son,
along with hat and scarf to match, brown for his father.

Knitting our days together
only the moths will unravel.

Gardening is another art which has always been considered suitable for women. Gillie Griffin, in ‘Clearing the Allotment’, fights her personal war against bindweed and thinks of Ukraine. And in ‘Allotment’, perhaps the best poem in the book, Kathleen Jones feels a powerful connection with generations of female food-growers:

But in the dusk, in the rain, crouching
to weed the seedling salad patch
my fingers brown and swollen
with nettle stings, I realise that this
is where I was always meant to be –

replicating the actions of Viking wives
crouched in their small garths, beside fjords,
and all those other northern women, after the ice,
bedding down in caves and turf-roofed crannogs

sowing wild grain, transplanting berry bushes,
coaxing supper out of stony ground.

Women are also, of course, the transmitters of life. A baby is born (‘Daughter’, Khadija Rouf); another makes its presence known (‘Egg’, Reshma Ruia); another baby dies (‘My Mother with Sweet Peas’, Clare Best).

It is particularly interesting that this anthology allows us to hear from Asian poets, who recall how their ancestors were treated almost within living memory. Mona Dash, in ‘Unbound Feet’, says that the oppression of women is still going on. Crystal Z. Lee contributes a quite remarkable poem, ‘Milestones’, which traces a Taiwanese woman’s life through childhood – her brother is of course being the favourite – then forced marriage, domestic violence, Japanese occupation, a damaged son, a daughter breaking free, Alzheimer’s and death. Now she is a phantom or angel but lives on in her daughter’s mind. It’s important to remember the women who did not have opportunities and it’s encouraging that so many women have now found their voice.