Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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1246 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Women’s Sentencing

by Sarah A. Odishoo

It’s the way we speak. Or rather, the language we use. Women don’t have their own language, or more appropriately, they don’t have a mother tongue.

We compose letters, read, write, speak someone else’s words, words made up by the way men think and speak. Then those who are threatened by women’s authority criticize women, attempting to reduce the power of women’s voices. As a result, we don’t use our own language; we use an Other’s tongue. Therefore, we reach out blindly with others’ words, trying to make their words fit our sensibilities. But they don’t, we don’t, and we are generally misunderstood, misinterpreted, and finally, silenced. We don’t know how to ask for what we don’t even know we want.

Women writers are transvestites. We write like men. But we don’t think like men. And because we don’t, we are verbal dwarfs—miniaturized writers. Diminutives, endearing diminutives.

It happens that I am the mother of two daughters. One is a mother, the other a career woman. They are doomed to diminution. Dolls, I could say, but that isn’t accurate enough. They have more weight than a doll—a plaything. They are too honest, too kind, too compassionate, too funny, and too demanding. But their voices are repressed, their desires, their—how do you say—their interior narratives. There are no words that fit their interior discourse. After all, there’s only one word for “love,” and that’s most of what they are, and they can’t speak it, and if they do, few understand it.

Women think with their bodies. And it is because of their bodies, the very bodies that have been corrupted, debased, more sinned against than sinning, that they have been punished. A half-life, you might call it. Their bodies have been “soiled,” and with it their tongues. They have been banned from creating their own language about their own bodies; their thoughts can have no feelings, neither material nor immaterial. Their bodies are the excesses of their souls, and since their bodies have no checks, seemingly, but the men who own them, women cannot speak of their flesh or their affections. The only conceivable check is the integrity of the man who weds them, supervises them, and beats them, subverting their limitless desire.

For a woman, then, her power to dwell with irrationality and doubt, where there may be no consoling speculation or organizing perspective, there remains the possibility of redemption through relationship, any relationship. The sense of being in proximity, nearness, contact, feels like intimacy. And for a woman, intimacy overcomes every other consideration. The language of gesture has its own source of uncertainty, but it has the possibility of redemption, a saving grace—intimate disclosure and revelation.

But as Charles Wright, the poet, says of the poetic process, “always a failure,” so the woman’s despair, one that, without a language of her own, only deepens her compulsion to relate to another. All the while, she senses something in herself deficient, ever changing, defiant of reason, and propelled paradoxically by a simultaneous sense of failure and excitement. On a deeper level, she intuits the uneasy conception of an ideal relationship—something necessarily blind, necessarily precise, relying as it does on some quickened sense (however unconscious) that will spring to awareness and be shaped by the woman’s body; and something more, making something both precise and elusive, enriched with unexpected correspondences and music.

Not free speech, but freed speech is what she suspects her language borders. Somewhat like Keats’s negative capability insofar as it defines itself by what it is not. It is not speech that is free; it is a kind of speech that needs to be freed—freed of statistics and the matter of matter, replaced by intuitive winds and magical impossibilities. Keats in praise of Shakespeare said, “I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—”

That is the quality possessed by women and the quality most dismissed by the culture ruled by Man-speak. Women live and speak to each other within those uncertainties each day, when the baby cries, when the parent dies, when a miracle happens before their eyes—love in a world gone awry, they speak in ers and ahs and oohs and I-don’t-knows. But they do know. They have no words but the facts and numbers, quantitative ones, linear ones.

But women’s particular sense of language includes in it a sense of the uncertain, informed by necessities, but also a skepticism as to whether it is possible to ever fully know what those necessities are—this doubt, at least, a paradoxical ideal as much as it is an ideal paradox. Thus the language women desire is authentic, transparent, and inclusive of the complexities of the opposites. To live in the tension of the opposites, the way one does when one is in love, is the apex of organic language: a preciseness dependent on the uncertainty, on inwardness, on symbolic revelation, simultaneously.

The language then has the possibility, a primacy, of arguing for the spirit shaping the outward flesh; that language can reveal spirit, and that spirit can shape, transform flesh. That is to say, this new language—Woman-speak—has its own evolving and inaccessible linguistic structure (a spiritual one, one we are programmed for) and is a gesture toward faith, the birth of new meaning as one structure—Woman-speak—informs another—Man-speak.

Without this union, no new creation can evolve. Without a woman’s body, the spirit blown into man’s body of work, there can be no human language bearing witness to itself. It is half-formed—a half-life.

A woman’s language requires a metaphysical faith, a belief in an indefinable inwardness, as inward as her body’s reproductive system, the belief in the unseen between her legs. It’s there even when you don’t see it.

What Is the World Made For? Rebirth.

Women speak in metaphors. Their entire interior life is embodied in the word. The way it feels, that is the way “it” is. Reality is not what happens out there; it’s what happens in here. So they have to find images, mostly ordinary, homely, homespun, simple, and down-to-earth to relate their most fantastical, surreal, otherworldly sensibilities.

So cooking, gardening, children become the metaphysical topics for disclosure. But if the listener can’t hear, can’t make sense or meaning of her experience as metaphor, then what she has to say becomes chores she’s done, work she’s accomplished or can’t, a list of mundane and banal life chores that have no meaning or beauty. She may be beautiful, but she has nothing to say of import.

Listening to a child’s breath, singing a lullaby to get the babe to fall asleep, is a metaphysical act. She sings a lullaby because he’s afraid of sleep. Her voice in the dark moves him over dangerous waters like an intimate canoe, rocking him into his own dark possibilities, her voice singing him into his terror.

A woman’s way of seeing and her attention to a child’s breath are related. Just as an infant has no voice but a cry and his breath, so a woman. When she does have a voice, she is careful, cautious, and in danger. She listens for the unspoken, the coded, the concealed, the unseen, seeking. She intuits, imagines, deduces, induces, and feels with another. These are her words, her sentences.

Her sentence: She has no voice but this one.


SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Sarah A. Odishoo

is a poet and writer who recently won recognition from Robert Atwan as “notable contributor” for her essay “Eat Me: Instructions From The Unseen” from The Best American Essays in 2013. “Eat Me” was published in Zone 3 and also received the second annual Zone 3 Creative Nonfiction Award. Also cited in The Best American Essays (2010–2011) as “a notable contributor” by Edwidge Danticat was her short story “Time in a Bottle,” which was published by North Dakota Quarterly.

In the last year, her work has been published in Sierra Nevada Review and the online magazines Caveat Lector, Crack the Spine, Knee-Jerk, The Montreal Review, The Pedestal, Folly, and Ragazine.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury