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Poetry Moment: Lee Upton and 'Women's Labors'

Lee Upton, summer 2022 photo.jpg

Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Todd Davis is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona.

This episode’s poem is “Women’s Labors” by Lee Upton.

Lee Upton’s seventh book of poetry, The Day Every Day Is, won the 2021 Saturnalia Prize and is forthcoming from Saturnalia Books in 2023. Her work has appeared widely in the very best journals and magazines, including The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Southern Review, as well as in three editions of Best American Poetry. She taught at Lafayette College for more than thirty years and makes her home in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Poetry can be political, even polemical, but many poets work hard to avoid bald statements, seeking to tease out the complexities that make agreement on any single solution difficult, if not impossible.

It’s a problem that women earn 83 cents to every dollar earned by men. More recently, with the decision by the Supreme Court concerning Roe v. Wade, the issue of a woman’s body and who controls that body is again a debate that reaches a fevered pitch.

“Women’s Labors” is a poem that Upton wrote more than 30 years ago, and its examination of the role of women in labor, as workers, as the creators and bearers of all human life, is situated in one of the oldest poems, The Odyssey by Homer. Upton’s poem merges her own experiences with Homer’s tale of misogyny and femicide, suggesting we may not have come as far as we think in our desire for equality and women’s rights.

Here’s—

Women’s Labors

You might want to be amused at the work
that is never done—or at our most difficult
labor, our work soonest ended.

In some work we are with most women,
crossing a bridge in our labor.
You will forgive me if I resort to Homer.

When the master returns,
the handmaidens are ordered
to clean up after the dead suitors,

washing blood from the tables,
the blood and water running from their sponges.
And then a cable is drawn about their waists,

and they are lifted from the ground
to perish in a great bunch together.
Even Homer must have pitied them:

a knot of slaves who only yesterday
laughed, believing the master
would always be missing.

How could I not pity them more—
slaves no one will defend.
If you are a woman in labor

waves break at the spine,
and a giant cable is drawn about your body.
You are held in the air for a very long time.

At last, later, you may be—
as I was—handed a daughter.
And for hours it seems there are no gods to claim us.

It is an illusion of course. But
even after the bracelet is clamped
upon the infant’s wrist,

it seems we belong to no one.
We are out of history’s singular lens.
For hours we serve no state, no master.

____________

That was “Women’s Labors” by Lee Upton.

Hear more episodes of Poetry Moment at WPSU.org/poetrymoment.

Todd Davis is the 2022-23 host of "Poetry Moment" on WPSU.