Poetry and Text

For me, the poetry written by Mathilde Wesendonck in these songs is far ahead of its time. They have feelings and ideas that are still being explored in contemporary poetry, Buddhist ideals of death and rebirth, and experiences shared by many women. I wanted to illustrate the universal and very contemporary feelings in these poems by pairing them with poems from poets of color. Only a few of the poems below are included in the piece but all are favourites and informed the shape of the piece as a whole. 

Mathilde Wesendonck

Here is a link to the poetry and translations from Mathilde Wesendonck for this song cycle. 

Women who shine like me

When I was a girl I was told 

“that behaviour is what gets girls raped”

When I said "my best atribute is my smile," 
I was corrected and told "your best attribute is your bosom." 

I was told by the women around me, 

“we should be happy you’re fat 

because if you weren’t, 

you’d be our competition.”

I do not compete.

I live safe and warm in my head, 

in a world that is mean to women 

who look like me, who think like me, 

who shine like me. 

But Safe on this bridge  

between them and the world, 

There’s nothing to do but be myself. 

Has anyone died?

I want to know, what does it mean to be a woman?

Is it being petite and small so a man can love you for the way your smallness makes him feel…love himself more because your smallness makes him big? 

Every time my sister calls I think it’s to tell me our mother has died. Every time my mom calls I think it’s to tell me my great-aunt or sister has died. 

When my brother calls he says immediately that no one has died. 

Is being a woman letting a man make you full with child? What if your body betrays you at every turn? 

As a woman, in the world as an American Descendant of Slavery, in my own family, in opera, I have these feelings of not belonging.

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Mark me a ripple,

Make me a piercing drop

Of froth at the lip of a wave, 

Just so I can be but a note 

In the roar of this cresting ocean.

Name me breath,

Know me as air

Dancing nude in the tree top

Just so I can be but a sigh

In the cry of this changing wind. 

Call me heat

Claim me red

Of flash writhing in fervor

Just so I can be but a spark 

In the pulse of a newborn flame

Hear me as woman,

Have me as your sister

On purpled battlefield breaking day,

So I might say our victory is just beginning,

That you and I are women

No longer trying to woo men

Holing the truth to be self-evident 

That all genders are created equal.

See me as change,

Say I am movement

That I am the year

And I am the era

Of the women.

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I am calling up the dead—the dead of my family.
I pull them out of the earth by their hair, by the fistful.
I scrutinize their bodies, green as acid, for traces of mine.

 

How can I stop looking at them?
At their faces?

 

Their bones strung together
are the beads of a necklace
I wind around my neck.

 

Their lives pour into me through a silver faucet
I cannot turn off. Their deaths, too —

 

suicide, suicide:
the familial sickness.

Surely it has congealed within me,

all their awful particles.

Surely I have been marked.

 

If I were the firstborn, mystical or clean
like a sheet of cotton twisting in the wind—

 

No.

 

I am a piece of slate stained,
scarred with footprints of the dead.

 

Are they confessing what they’ve done
to make me?

 

They lay their hands on me
like strips of seaweed.

 

When I place my mouth at my feet,
unable to speak,
I feel their malformed sadness run through my hair like a comb.

won't you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

This speech is surounded by some controversy. There is a very famous and incredibly inaccurate version of this speech which was rewritten and published12 years after it was given, by Francis Gage. The version below is the more accurate version and is the version we have included parts of. You can read more and compare the two versions by clicking the button below. 

May I say a few words? I want to say a few words about this matter.

I am a woman’s rights.

I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man.

I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?

I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it.

I am as strong as any man that is now.

As for intellect, all I can say is, if women have a pint and man a quart - why can’t she have her little pint full?

You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, for we cant take more than our pint’ll hold.

The poor men seem to be all in confusion, and dont know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better.

You will have your own rights, and they wont be so much trouble. I cant read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept - and Lazarus came forth.

And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between-a hawk and a buzzard.

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