You Can Find Your Voice By Hearing Another: Analyzing Alice Walker’s Poetry

condesign
condesign

Claiming your own voice can be a life-long process, especially because our voices change over time. I find this poem to be an excellent guidepost along the way.

On Stripping Bark from Myself

(for Jane, who said trees die from it)

Because women are expected to keep silent about
their close escapes I will not keep silent
and if I am destroyed (naked tree!) someone will
please
mark the spot
where I fall and know I could not live
silent in my own lies
hearing their ‘how nice she is!’
whose adoration of the retouched image
I so despise.

No. I am finished with living
for what my mother believes
for what my brother and father defend
for what my lover elevates
for what my sister, blushing, denies or rushes
to embrace.

I find my own
small person
a standing self
against the world
an equality of wills
I finally understand.

Besides:

My struggle was always against
an inner darkness: I carry within myself
the only known keys
to my death – to unlock life, or close it shut
forever. A woman who loves wood grains, the color
yellow
and the sun, I am happy to fight
all outside murderers
as I see I must.”

-Alice Walker, Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990.

***

First a few words about Alice Walker: She was born in Eatonton, Georgia, and lives in Northern California. Well known for writing The Color Purple among other novels, nonfiction essays, and children’s books, and winning the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Award, she is also a human (and all living beings) rights activist. Walker has written on such diverse and difficult topics as female genital mutilation, slavery, and divorce, all while showing a zest and lust for life and its beauty. Her site tells us that after a trip to Gaza she said,

“… we belong to the same world: the world where grief is not only acknowledged, but shared; where we see injustice and call it by its name; where we see suffering and know the one who stands and sees is also harmed, but not nearly so much as the one who stands and sees and says and does nothing.”

Analyzing: On Stripping Bark from Myself

(for Jane, who said trees die from it)

“Because women are expected to keep silent about
their close escapes”

The title is really the beginning of the conversation; the statement, that this poem is. Alice Walker is talking about close escapes, stripping off her bark, and not keeping silent: about becoming a more honest version of herself. If this does kill her, she says,

“someone will
please
mark the spot
where I fall and know I could not live
silent in my own lies”

These lines make me think of the women all over the world who are standing up for their rights, women who take risks to stand up and be free-women like Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Prize Winner who was beaten and jailed while walking her path defending women and the environment in Kenya, and founder of the Green Belt Movement, empowering women to better their lives and environment by planting trees.

It makes me think of fictional but symbolically powerful characters like Priya in the Indian women’s rights comic book, Priya’s Shakti, a rape victim who calls on Hindu spiritual forces to liberate herself and find her Shakti or power. It makes me think of you and I, anyone who is doing their best day to day to live a good life. Anyone, of any gender, ethnicity, age, or culture, will likely at some point in their life feel a call to be themselves and take care of themselves at any cost. Unfortunately, because of the enduring variety of prejudice and injustice in our societies worldwide, for some the cost of self-care and self-love is much greater.

Alice Walker writes that she is tired of people adoring her polite, nice self and of living for what others (family, lovers, etc.) want. She comes into herself, set against the backdrop of the whole world, and things start to make more sense to her;

“I find my own
small person
a standing self
against the world
an equality of wills
I finally understand.”

She also writes about her inner darkness and her own empowerment in recognizing it. I have read that which we do not recognize ends up ruling us, and I think it is true- unfelt anger, rage, hurt, and fear can drive us blindly if we do not recognize them. When we can know they are there, and hopefully with some compassion for ourselves, we are empowered with what Walker calls the

“keys
to my death – to unlock life, or close it shut
forever.”

I love that in the end of the poem she references the things that make her shine from within, that she loves:

“wood grains, the color
yellow
and the sun.”

We must all claim the things that give us life and joy, and know that even in a difficult world that needs so much from us at times, enjoying and honoring these things is crucial to our survival and also makes life worth living. For me these things would include coffee with a book and my love, campfires and fireplaces, seashells and the sea. Walker also writes that:

“I am happy to fight
all outside murderers
as I see I must.”

Here again we see a fierceness in self-love and self-claiming. I am reminded of Ntozake Shange’s words,

if it’s really my stuff
ya gotta give it to me
if ya really want it
i’m the only one who
can HANDLE it.

We all have the right to claim, handle, and celebrate our “stuff,” to “unlock life or close it shut,” and to “strip bark from ourselves” as we see fit. TC mark

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