The White Woman’s Burden

I’m always more likely to pick up a memoir than a book of cultural theory, so when I came to read a book by the famous old-timey feminist Germaine Greer, it was not The Female Eunuch but Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, the story of Greer’s attempt to research her late father’s life. Mr. Greer did not say very much about his early life, and what he did say was not very true, so the book has an intriguing detective-story angle as we follow Greer from place to place in search of his trail.

Unfortunately, much of what stays in the mind from the chapters I read is an endless series of petty gripes. Greer goes back home to Australia after years abroad, and…well, she goes to the racetrack, and the races are no good, and the bottle of champagne she buys at the bar is no good, and they won’t let her take the bottle out of the bar, and when she tells them that any racetrack in Europe would let her take the bottle out, they are not impressed. Like that.

But her true idée fixe is improper wardrobe. Every scene, from her sister’s home to libraries to government record offices, is punctuated with Greer’s horror at people wearing t-shirts and trainers and (gasp!) shorts. This would be in the late ‘80s, when Greer was not yet fifty years old; the only explanation I can think of for her shock is that she had been living in England, where everybody had to wear three sweaters all the time. As for why she thinks her sartorial dissonance will interest readers, I have no clue.

But anyway, the thing I really wanted to share with y’all is an amazing passage from her visit to India, where her father had spent time in a military mental hospital. She is on the beach in Bombay:


The beach is very wide, eighty yards at least, yet every man who walks along it comes within two yards of where I sit writing in my notebook. Some of them, emboldened by their smart Western apparel, tight nylon shirt with huge collar, flared synthetic trousers and high-heeled plastic shoes, dare to sit down and stare fixedly at me. “Move! Go! Be off! At once!” I say in a piercing mem-sahib voice. They pretend they have not heard, look away for a minute or two and then, face saved, casually saunter off. I put my head in my notebook, anxious that they should not see my grin.

Why is it, I wonder, that all men are so confident of their attractiveness and so few women are? Why would any tatterdemalian Maratha imagine that a foreign tourist lady of apparent wealth would welcome his attentions?

Well, shut my mouth. Among the many interesting aspects of this scene, I would like to note two. First, I think that most women I know would interpret the men’s behavior not as seduction but as aggression, comparable to wolf-whistles or butt-grabbing in the Italy of yore. The men may feel threatened by her transgression of their culture’s norms (being alone on the beach), they may think (correctly) that she is jotting down snide and contemptuous things about them in her book, they may just be assholes. But why does GG suppose that they are acting based on the assumption that she is attracted to them, and why, oh why, does she make the obviously false claim that all men are convinced of their own attractiveness?

Second, I think that most women I know would base their objection to the men’s conduct on their status as human beings who deserve to have their space respected and not to be intimidated. Instead, GG uses race and class to trump gender. In case your Kipling is rusty, ‘mem sahib’ is what the Maratha and other Indians were supposed to call the women among their colonial overlords, ‘mem’ being a corruption of Ma’am and ‘sahib’ deriving from an Arabic word for Master. I am surprised that Greer doesn’t feel any discomfort at staking her claim as a rich white woman; to be sure, the fellow’s high-heeled plastic shoes are a regrettable fashion statement, but hey, at least he’s not wearing shorts.

I may well start working on a piercing mem sahib voice of my own, but I expect I’ll leave it at home the next time I visit the old Raj.



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Poem: Sarah Speaks, 1957

Sarah Speaks, 1957

by Roy White

You do not love cookies,
you love people, and don’t always be
talling them, either!
What did the girl imagine I would say,
with her I looove your cookies, great-grandma,
thrusting her bare enjoyment out at me
like a challenge?
These are Knut’s girls—Magnus’s Knut, I mean—
not evil, no, but so loose, so exposed,
as though they had no Enemy, as though
discipline and restraint were not our armorr.

Oh, it’s not just the children; one of Olaf’s
sons has married a woman, I dare not say
a lady, who wears her hair loose like a heathen.
I told her, but what good is telling?
never saw father, brother, sister laid
beneath one stone, Ma marrying the worthless
hired man. They never stayed behind
to raise the kids alone when a husband
followed his dreams and schemes to the capital,
scrimping and toiling while he had a handout
for every Indian and wastrel with
a sad story.

Keep your eye on your work, and if a wave
of sweetness overtakes you, don’t let on.
What the Adversary doesn’t know you love
he may not think to steal.

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She’s Not That Into You


A young woman I know works in the produce department of a grocery store, so when she told me she had become interested in poetry, I naturally thought of Pablo Neruda’s Elemental Odes. These include poems in praise of the onion, the artichoke, the watermelon, and, in addition to the fruits and vegetables, at least one nut. Here is his “Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground” in English:

I once copied out the first part of this poem as a note attached to some flowers for a girlfriend who was a compatriot of Neruda’s:

Del follaje erizado caíste completa, de madera pulida, de lúcida caoba, lista como un violín que acaba de nacer en la altura, y cae ofreciendo sus dones encerrados, su escondida dulzura, terminada en secreto entre pájaros y hojas, escuela de la forma, linaje de la leña y de la harina, instrumento ovalado que guarda en su estructura delicia intacta y rosa comestible.
The flowers were part of an attempt to be a proper boyfriend; once upon a time I had scorned as humbug the accessories of romance, buying dinner, sending flowers….the asymmetry had seemed to me disturbing, as though the guy were attempting to purchase the woman’s favors. My attitude had softened, though, as I stopped trying to deny that a beautiful woman who gives you her time is doing you an honor, so you might as well show your appreciation. So the flowers were a new thing for me.

But of course poems are much more personal, and I had more invested in the note than the bouquet. It was, therefore, disappointing that the flowers had arrived with no note—the flower-lady was rather ditzy. But never fear, I had memorized the text, so when my gf said the note hadn’t arrived, I recited it for her (in Spanish). I admit that I was giving myself points for this, and looking back, I still feel that it was a very respectable effort. The ode still strikes me as pretty sexy, not the sort of thing you’d send to someone you don’t know well,, but something one might reasonably expect a girl to enjoy if she thought you were sincere…and if she fancied you.

So I was prepared for thanks and (yes) praise, but instead she seemed to lose interest before I had reached “rosa comestible,” and just changed the subject. At this point, I should have realized that I didn’t have what it took to please this woman–actually, I should have figured it out when she invited me to come to the Holidazzle parade with her church group, but I was trying to be open-minded.

Anyway, it took her a few more weeks to reach the same conclusion and give me the boot, and it took a few weeks after that for me to be grateful that she had, making me available to recognize my true love.

PS: Back in his Euro hipster surrealist days, Neruda had written a volume of love poetry that he later considered pretentious and obscure.  At a reading in his later years, a fan came up to him and asked him to autograph that book for his girlfriend.  Neruda obliged, adding the inscription “No lo lead”  (Don’t read it).

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You Can Call Me Queen Bee

When I saw Nicola Griffith’s Hild pop up on the BGL catalog, I wondered if it was that Hild, mover and shaker in the Northumbria of the 600s, abbess of the double monastery of Whitby (double meaning it contained both monks and nuns), patron of the cowherd-poet CAedmon and host of the epochal synod of 664 or thereabouts, where the Roman monks, with their bald-spot tonsure, downed the Irish with their receding-hairline tonsure in the biggest ecclesiastical rumble of the age.

Yes, it is indeed that Hild; the book is a historical novel, though it does not cover her whole life, in fact doesn’t cover any of the things I remembered about her from my long-ago reading of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People—it seems there is a sequel in the works. My previous acquaintance with Griffith was as a science-fiction writer, but really it’s not such a big stretch from SF to historical fiction, since both take an alien skeleton supplied by academic research and fill it out into a world using whatever the author feels are the exportable qualities of human nature. Hild actually has a lot in common with Griffith’s recent SF novel Slow River: both feature an aristocratic young woman with extraordinary gifts who also does menial work, both heroines find themselves fairly permanent outsiders and both have creepy moms, both novels explore an arcane subject in intense detail (waste disposal in SR, textile manufacture in H).

What I experienced in reading hild is probably similar to what other people experience when flipping through an old high-school yearbook, as I encountered familiar faces and places from long-ago grad-school days. Hey, isn’t that the Sutton Hoo ship-burial site? Rmember how Wulfstan used to take Godgifu to make out behind the prow? There’s the photo of the geoguth troop—the Boars had the best shield-wall in the state that year. That was some assembly where we had the big argument over Christianity and that one guy talked about the sparrow flying in at one end of the hall and out at the other, and whether the new religion could tell us what happened to it.

I think that, in the real world, these are pretty obscure references—I would guess that most educated Americans know a lot more about Westeros and the Free Cities than early-medieval Northumbria. My own knowledge of Anglo-Saxon culture is pretty weak on the domestic arts, and I found myself at first intrigued by the lore of weaving and dairy-farming and folk medicine, then, after 400 pages or so, increasingly weary of it. I suspect I may not be alone.

Hild’s mother trains her in the arts of a wise-woman: the virtues of plants, how to make predictions from nature, how to manipulate powerful men. Hild’s name means ‘battle,’ and, like so many other young women of fantasy, from GRR Martin to Ellen Kushner, she spends a hell of a lot of time practicing martial arts. Combined with her giantess’s stature and habit of suppressing all emotion, this kickassitude causes her to seem somewhat un-ladylike to most people. I can see how that would be, but I was surprised not to find much reference to the tradition of uncanny bettle-women in Anglo-Saxon and related cultures These valkyries or shield-maidens or whatever could be called upon as adis or arbiters in battle (the word valkyrie means ‘chooser of corpses’), and I imagine that they might be a way for people to assimilate a butch warrior-lady like Hild. Perhaps this is implicit in the book, since she does acquire a little troop of followers who regard her as a combined leader and good-luck charm.

My favorite instance of the battle-woman idea in Old English comes not in any epic but in a domestic charm, to keep bees from swarming. You are supposed to throw some gravel over them (is this really a good idea??) and say:


Sitte ge, sīgewīf,

sīgað tō eorðan,

næfre ge wilde

tō wuda fleogan,

beō ge swā gemindige

mīnes gōdes,

swā bið manna gehwilc,

metes and ēðeles

Sit down, victory-women,        sink to earth;

Never fly off         wild to the woods.

Be as mindful of my good

as any person is    of food and home.


Presumably it is their sting that makes the bees seem armed, but anyway you can’t help liking a culture that thinks of bees as victory-women.



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Devilish Pleasures of a Duke

I’ve noticed, scanning the new releases on the Blind Guy Library catalog, how many romance novels involve a lust for aristocrats. The favorite title seems to be Duke, though there are some Earls and even a Viscount or two. I guess lots of people have fantasies about possessing wealth and power, but what strikes me particularly about these is that they are usually more focused on ensnaring a duke and then giving him pleasure than on being a duchess or experiencing pleasure oneself.

I have a hard time getting my mind around the fact that these utterly shameless and grasping wish-fulfillment stories are so other-directed: How to Dazzle a Duke, At the Duke’s Pleasure, Desperately Seeking a Duke, Devilish Pleasures of a Duke…the scene that keeps coming to mind is from The West Wing, where someone has been promoted to Chamberlain or Lord of the Stool or whatever, and the inner circle guys one by one repeat the creepy mantra “I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.”   It’s all rather kinky, and I have tried to bring that out in a little poem:


Did You Know the President Is Super Sexy?


At the Duke’s Pleasure

The music tumesces as the aides intone in turn,

I serve at the pleasure

of the President of the United States.

Their reflected pleasure is an ecstasy of dark appointments,

leather and silk and the plush texture of gravelly voices.

Manly yes,

but I like it too.


Devilish Pleasures of a Duke

More tedious than wicked, the President,

but their quivering desire is laid at his feet.

The very pointlessness of his whims,

making you stand while he natters,

making you dress up in silly outfits,

gives them their erotic charge.

They call it Big Boy School.


A Duke’s Temptation: The Bridal Pleasures Series

They serve at his pleasure, yes,

but their pleasures are bridal,

not the tingling of mere skin

but the marks of rank’s ritual,

the driver, the access, the clearance.


The Wicked Duke Takes a Wife

She knows his most desperate secret,

but the tragic passion of the aides

is not for her, not

for her the urgent, panting

“Yeah” of the underling.

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In Coal Blood

Reading the following story, I couldn’t help thinking of the Turkish government’s “Hey, shit happens, what’s all the fuss about?” response to the death of several hundred humans in the recent mine disaster:

In 1767, the Newcastle Journal announced that the owners of coal mines had asked them to stop reporting the news of fatal mine accidents:


As we have been requested to take no particular notice of these things, which in fact, could have very little good tendency, we drop the further mentioning of it.


Besides cave-ins and floods, miners were commonly killed by three kinds of gas:

-Choke-damp was carbon dioxide, which is colorless and odorless but, of course, unbreathable. The way you recognized a pocket of choke-gas was that a person or several people would walk into it and drop dead. Occasionally, someone was rescued alive, but might not be right in the head afterward.

-White-damp was carbon monoxide. It was noted that small animals were even more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning than humans, so people started carrying them into the mines as alarms. At first they used mice, but then it was realized that a canary falling off its perch was easier to detect than a mouse looking poorly.

-Fire-damp was basically methane, which would accumulate at the top of the chamber until a candle got too near, and then explode. To disarm the fire-damp pockets before they could reach lethal size, mining companies used what they called fire-men. A guy in a wet suit (not a wetsuit, of course) would crawl along the mine floor with a long stick, at the end of which was a candle. When he encountered a suspected pocket, he would hold up the candle on the stick and duck.

These fun facts are taken from Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History


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Well, I have been devoting myself to non-blog writing recently, but I have read some good books, and thought I would at least share excerpts so that you can get a taste and see whether you’d like them. Here goes…


Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked. Affectionate satire, which is not something you find every day.


Also Slam, in which a teenager who has intimate conversations with his Tony Hawke poster discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant. The Hawke poster responds to Tony’s problems with quotes from his autobiography, which are only intermittently helpful.


John Lanchester, Capital. I would ordinarily be suspicious of a novel that attempts to give a panoramic account of modern London, told from the perspectives of characters ranging from a posh City trader to a traffic warden from Zimbabwe to a Polish carpenter and a native conceptual artist. But Lanchester’s book is much better than it has any right to be:

Also Fragrant Harbor, a similarly panoramic story about Hong Kong.


QuestLove, Mo Meta Blues. The best hip-hop memoir I’ve ever read. OK, it’s the only hip-hop memoir I’ve ever read, but he’s a phenomenal drummer and it’s an extremely interesting and engaging autobiography even if you don’t know any more about rep than I do.


David Kirby, The Biscuit Joint.   Fun poems.


Barbara Tedlock, The Beautiful and the Dangerous. An artist gets to know Zuni people before and after becoming an anthropologist. The excerpt here is actually not one of the most interesting bits in the book, but still worth reading.



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