Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

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Marianne Kunkel

Author Bio

Marianne Kunkel

Marianne Kunkel is the managing editor of Prairie Schooner and a PhD student in poetry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with a specialization in women’s and gender studies. Her poems have appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poet Lore, Rattle, and River Styx, and her chapbook is The Laughing Game (Finishing Line Press).

To today’s American woman, what is the womb? Who even uses the term anymore? The more medical term, uterus, comes up occasionally when I talk with my mother about her decade-old hysterectomy, when I catch up with one of my best friends who recently battled infertility, when I visit my gynecologist. These conversations are serious, intimate and, as if we were discussing family secrets or money problems, private. Is the privacy we assign the womb fueled by cultural respect or shame?

TAMPAX and other companies do much of our talking for us. In a recent TAMPAX radio commercial, a young woman stated, “You just wish your period would disappear already.” What does TAMPAX know—that women are simply too busy for their inconvenient wombs, or that the womb is yet another body part many women associate with ugliness and weakness?

Feminist Judy Grahn writes that in contemporary American culture, menstruation is a process in which women “shut themselves in a little room to quickly and in many cases disgustedly change their pads and tampons, wrapping the bloodied cotton so it won’t be seen by others, wrinkling their faces at the odor, flushing or hiding the evidence away” (Blood, Bread and Roses: How Menstruation Changed the World, 1993). In recent years, the medical field has contributed to the concealment and near-elimination of menstrual blood by marketing menstrual suppression contraceptive pills such as Seasonale, which reduces a woman’s period to four times a year, and Anya, which stops periods altogether. In an American culture fascinated by vampire blood, the blood of Christ, and Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, it’s nonviolent menstrual blood that we find the most unsightly.

“Offensive,” another word for unsightly, is how Rep. Mike Callton described Rep. Lisa Brown’s utterance of the word “vagina” on the U.S. House of Representatives floor in June. Brown’s statement in defense of women’s rights to exercise control over their wombs is one of several recent political and social pushbacks against anti-abortion legislature in this country. Who else will speak out in support of women gaining ownership and pride in their biological bodies? Who else will lead candid and communal dialogue to empower all kinds of women—those without or with children, young or menopausal, straight or lesbian or transgender?

In this womb-themed collaboration with TJ Dema and talented poets from Botswana, Prairie Schooner showcases from its archives 15 poems by poets who tackle the subject of womb with ambition, enthusiasm, and great skill. Neither afraid nor ashamed, these poets express complicated ideas about the womb, feelings of protectiveness, regret, strength, admiration, fear, nostalgia, and more. Rather than whisper these poems in small women’s groups or, like a used tampon, quickly discard them as repulsive and alien, these poets confidently published them in Prairie Schooner between the years of 1972 and 2007. Now they confidently reintroduce them on this collaborative online stage.

Also unashamed are the impressively precise paintings by Hastings, Nebraska-based artist Kelly Manning, whose work intermingles body and water imagery, mirroring a fetus’s experience in the womb and reminding adult men and women that their relationship with water is forever tied to their first watery homes.

Perhaps most powerful are the Batswana poetry and art presented here. It’s been an honor to collaborate with gifted poet and Botswana arts manager TJ Dema, who worked quickly and ambitiously to gather 15 womb-themed poems by various writers from her country. I am struck by the poems emphasizing the womb’s role as a temporarily safe place for new life against a dangerous world; these poems are tender and startlingly sweet. The voices in the Batswana poems are also strong and urgent. Nothing seems held back in lines such as “the children snatched from / your fingertips / the buttered kisses of hope / you gave them daily,” or in another poem, “I am a man without a womb / Searching for a womb…”

In comparison to the relatively good showing of male Batswana poets in this second Fusion, I struggled to find womb-themed poems by men in Prairie Schooner’s archives. Few men are featured simply due to a lack of work, an unfortunate reality considering that the act of writing poetry often relies on imagining experiences beyond our own. In this American culture, many don’t dare imagine poems about the womb, and the daring women who do write poems about pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, menopause, ovulation, etc., know that they are a minority. I am reminded of the term “confessional” as applied to a style of poetry we know to be highly personal and made provocative by its repressive cultural context; to “confess” is to speak about a behavior or feeling that is widely considered shameful (and in religious practice, to then seek forgiveness). It’s clear that many poets featured in this special Fusion write about the womb without shame or hope for forgiveness. Rather than confess, they declare. Their poems are terrific examples of how to write about the female body—robust noise amidst oppressive cultural silence—and I am thrilled to bring them to you.