STEEP TEA: The Three Marias

I wrote my poem "Woodwork" in response to a poem by the Irish poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. Section 18 of her long poem "The Rose-Geranium" begins:

I run my hand along the clean wood
And at once I am stroking the heads
Of everyone in the room.

The wood image immediately recalled, for me, the sessions of woodworking in secondary school. I was hopeless at turning a plank of wood into a door wedge or a pencil holder, but I did love the smell and touch of the material, which Ni Chuilleanáin's lines brought back so powerfully for me. The feel of the clean wood sends her out into the streets, on a failed quest.

I look, and fail, in the street
Searching for a man with hair like yours.

The eroticism of touch resonated strongly with me, and so I wrote a poem about handling a piece of wood and being unable to handle the boy across the worktable, who was working with such alluring mastery on his project.

Then I read A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone, and came across the poetry of The Three Marias -- Maria Isabel Barreno (1939- ), Maria Teresa Horta (1937- ) and Maria Velho da Costa (1939- ). The three Portuguese authors in their early thirties collaborated in writing what is reckoned now to be a seminal work of Portuguese feminism, "New Portuguese Letters," which was modeled after a seventeenth-century Portuguese classic "Letters of a Portuguese Nun." The book by The Three Marias was banned on charges of obscenity and abuse of the freedom of expression. The women became a cause célèbre in the international women's movement. The charges were later dropped when the book was declared to be of literary merit.

Their poem "Saddle and Cell," translated by Helen R. Lane, uses very frank sexual language, reminiscent of Walt Whitman, but with a feminist twist. The third stanza reads:

The male is exposed and his erectness
may be like a flower
his testicles tender bulbs of life (giving milky water)
and so humble that the hand
may gather them like fruits or sever them.

Ouch! These women are fully capable of both tenderness and cruelty; they are changeable; they can choose. They are also fully alive to pain, in others, themselves and nature, as the sixth stanza shows:

I argue
that the wedge and the hollow are imprinted on everything
the tender drop of sap inscribed in the tree's rough trunk and bark
the piercing pain of losing the breast one day soon
 stamped upon its roundness.

These lines are as sensuous as the lines by Ni Chuilleanáin, but they are also couched in the form of a philosophical argument. I decided to take the extraordinary line "the wedge and the hollow are imprinted on everything" and extend it to queer desire. Gay men and their loves, and not just heterosexual pairings, are imprinted too by the wedge and the hollow. The line became the argumentative epigraph to my quiet poem of observation.


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