Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women

Women Make Their Voices Heard through Calyx
Beverly McFarland, with AliceAnn Eberman

Quick Note about this issue: This Editor’s Issue of The Café Review is different from our normal published reviews. We have asked 14 editors of poetry journals from across the United States two complex question: Why do some poems stand out from others? And what is he state of poetry in America today? Their answers will surprise you. We hope this issue will give poets a better sense of what editors look for in poems. You will get the inside scoop about why different journals accept different types of poems. For teachers, this issue will answer questions students have about the dos and don’ts in submitting poems as well as the perennial question of why poetry matter.

For 33 years, the Calyx Journal editorial collective has been reading thousands of poems submitted by women from all across the country indeed, now the world and making decisions about what to publish in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. I am the journal’s senior editor; however, I am also a member of the volunteer collective and my vote there has no more weight than anyone else’s.

When I first read the poem The Civil War by Stephanie Farrow (after our first two readers had said “yes”), I was enthralled. But other members of the collective were not as enthusiastic initially, and it was held for a second reading and more discussion. Eventually, we all agreed that we should publish it and we did first in

Calyx in 2002, then in the anthology A Fierce Brightness: Twentyfive Years of Women’s Poetry, 2004.

A narrative poem, The Civil War fulfilled our major criteria: It has both significant, universal meaning transcending the personal, and the poetry is carefully crafted. This layered poem improves with each reading. The tangibles can be dissected. To begin, the word “civil” works on several levels as a word in the title, in how the soldiers at the protagonist’s house treat each other, and in contrast with the divisiveness of war personified early in the poem: She supposed The War Between the States / would draw shortly to a close, having fought itself to death. The protagonist can see the pain and loss of humanity in the gravestone eyes of the young men. She hears their hesitation, hears their quiet knuckles / at her door, not wanting to disturb but / desperate and she reaches out and takes them in.

Farrow’s descriptions do not apply to just Civil War soldiers. Again and again, we see these young men on our TV screens as uncivil “civil” wars are brought into our homes. This poem is not just about that war in the United States, it is about a world ever at war. The four compass points of the world are delineated: The east side of her wooden house / she kept for soldiers of the North, the west for Southern / boys.

The Southern protagonist is present in the middle of her world at war, as are we all. Her first response is fear: The first time a Yankee called by her door, she’d kept / the pistol by her side. Ultimately, it is her sense of humanity that prevails. She gave to the soldiers and they gave her what they had themselves. The poet suggests that is the only true response to human need in any time, but surely in a time of war.

Maybe it’s obvious, but it’s particularly symbolic that the protagonist, a woman, makes her home neutral territory and nurtures soldiers on both sides of the battle. The poem clearly shows how women/civilians play important roles in wartime, even if seldom acknowledged. The protagonist reminds me of Mother Courage, the central figure in Bertolt Brecht’s play, as the soldiers become like her family.

The piano cover, a gift from the protagonist’s husband, is equally symbolic. She unstitches the cover and carefully saves the thread for resewing. The country has been ripped apart carelessly, and now the nation must do as she has done, used / their ragged shirts to measure new.

The poem ends with a lovely, subtle foreshadowing of World War I in the poppies reminiscent of those in John McCrae’s famous rondeau In Flanders Fields, and the reader is left with a clear, moving vision of the men, blue and gray, / walking down the red clay road, the soldiers and their war / disappearing in a field of orange poppies.

     The Civil War

     Though she couldn’t know it at the time,
     it was the last winter and a bitter one.
     She supposed The War Between the States
     would draw shortly to a close, having fought itself to death.
     She could see it in the ones who came: the young
     men with gravestone eyes, the old ones with their gap
     toothed gums. The soldiers rapped with quiet knuckles
     at her door, not wanting to disturb but
     desperate. The east side of her wooden house
     she kept for soldiers of the North, the west for Southern
     boys. The first time a Yankee called by her door, she’d kept
     the pistol by her side. Her skirts were loose she’d thinned
     by then so the gun tucked easy in the rippled folds. But
     the Yankee’d only said “I’d be grateful
     for a night’s rest, ma’am. I have an egg.”
     She fried it and he snatched it barehanded from the skillet,
     cramming it, blistering and whole, into his mouth, A single bead
     of yolk drizzled down his jaw. He scooped it with a fingertip
     and placed it on his tongue with such delicacy curious, him
     so rough and hairy that she’d fried him some cornmeal and
     with the quilt her mama’d pieced, fashioned him
     a pallet on the porch. The Yankee’d melted into mist
     at dawn, but that afternoon she found an earthy turnip propped
     against her door.
    After that the soldiers came more
    often, like birds migrating in their first year, never having
     made the journey but knowing her house to be a slim oasis
     on the long route home. She cooked for every one, digging
     In forgotten places for dried persimmons, shrunken onions,
     preserves. They gave her what they had themselves greens,
     squirrel, if they were lucky, coon or possum; some trolled
     the creek for cat. They slept there on her porches too.
     In the dark inside, alone, she listened to their murmurs, soft
     as the batting of summer moths. Some cried out
     like children in their sleep.
      They needed
     food, they needed rest, they needed clothes.
     She stripped the cover from the square piano, exposing
     the cherrywood case, the ivory keys, to the mold
     and mice. The cover was broad and the cloth elegant poppies
     on a green background. Her husband’d bought it
     in New Orleans before he left. She unstitched the cover’s
     seams, careful to wrap the thread around the stub
     of an old cob for resewing, then used
     their ragged shirts to measure new.
                                      Sometimes
     in her dreams she saw them, blue and gray,
     walking down the red clay road, the soldiers and their war
     disappearing in a field of orange poppies.

Since Calyx exists to nurture women’s creativity and provide a forum for diverse viewpoints, we look for poems that ask readers to transcend traditional boundaries. Our pages reflect themes important to women and, indeed, all people: life and death and love; nurturing the sick and the dying; equality regarding race, gender and jobs; artistic expression; war and peace. Our collective decisionmaking is an inherent part of our mission, reflecting diversity of perspective in helping all women’s voices to be heard.