All people deserve the right to speak for themselves - to say, "This is who I am," "These are my experiences," "This is what I believe." Poets exercise bedrock human freedom in every word they write. But not everyone has this basic right. In every age and place, including ours, there are individuals and whole groups whose voices are silenced; their words, when they do speak or write, are suppressed, erased, discounted. Part of the work of poetry is to give a voice to the voiceless, until they can speak for themselves. Speaking in the persona of another person is an act of empathy and imagination that changes the poet in some subtle way. It often rests on the sturdy foundation of research, which is also an essential part of poetry's work.
This poem imagines what a young woman buried alive in the so-called Magdalene laundries in Ireland might have thought, felt, and said, had anyone been listening.
Mary Magdalene stood weeping beside the tomb. Even as she wept she stooped to peer inside, and there she saw two angels.
"Woman," they asked her, "Why are you weeping?"
She answered them, "Because they have taken my Lord away
And I do not know where they have put him." (John 20:11-14)
My name is gone too, stripped away by the sisters
of Our Lady of Charity who tell me Jesus will love me again
only when I am scrubbed as clean as the priests' linen shirts and my belly
is as flat as prison sheets wrung through the mangle.
My scared parents sent me here at the first whiff of sex
and now the great green Connemara world has shrunk
to these high convent walls and this round aluminum tub
where my hands, pale as flounders swimming among the priests'
underwear, will have only each other for comfort when the baby
my body will never get to love is borne away
to Australia or the orphanage. They'll swear she has no father, her mother
is dead, and there's the end of it.
The nun keens Our Lady's rosary—"the Angel of the Lord
declared unto Mary and she conceived of the Holy Ghost. . ."
She's shapeless under her habit but she was young once too,
jolly, maybe, with curves the boys liked. But out of all those girls
one had to go to the convent, every Irish family knows that.
Now she hasn't wit or will and takes a sour joy
in cutting our hair short and ragged and drowning our voices with her prayers.
My face crinkles in the steam, cooks to a pudding,
featureless and red. I imagine smuggling us out,
myself and the baby inside me, in one of those great bags
hidden among the prison uniforms or parish napery, but whose hands
would we tumble into? The priest's, with his dour mouth turned down in a C
like the first word of a curse? Not Christ's, for they have squeezed him so small
he's a stone fit only to be hurled at wayward girls.
In this place only the birds are free. Ah, Jesus,
maybe the skylarks, singing as they rise
on strong brown wings, will carry this Magdalene's name
to the living world.
--Mara Faulkner, OSB
Credit: From Still Birth. Copyright© 2013 by Mara Faulkner. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press, www.finishinglinepress.com.
Invitation for your writing:
Listen to the recording that accompanies this poem. Then take a favorite poem of your own or someone else's; read it out loud and think about the sounds you might add to amplify the silent voices in the poem. If you feel inspired to do so, record the poem with the sounds. Send it as a gift to a friend.