Dangerous Women

Dangerous Women, by Jesi Bender
Published by Dancing Girl Press

Review by Jennifer Saunders

Patriarchy can transform nearly anything about a woman into a threat. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is frequently criticized for paying too much attention to her wardrobe, but when Janet Yellen—secretary of the Department of the Treasury—appeared before Congress wearing a suit she had worn in public five weeks previously, she was criticized for that. Meanwhile, in 2014, Australian TV host Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit on air every day for a year as an experiment, and nobody noticed. Hillary Clinton was regularly criticized for being “shrill” but when she softened one debate appearance with a laugh and a shoulder shake, she was deemed unserious. It’s the classic double-bind: damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Which is why, in Jesi Bender’s poetry chapbook Dangerous Women, the “Married Woman” and the “Unmarried Woman” can both be declared dangerous. The “Young Woman” is a threat, but so is the “Old Woman.” There is either the “Beautiful Woman” or the “Unseen Woman.” The “Woman Apart” is suspect, but so are the “Women Together.” Why, it’s almost as if it’s the fact of womanhood rather than any particular behavior that’s considered threatening under patriarchy.

Too smart dumb blond too pretty what a dog too loud too pushy too bitchy too much. Who does she think she is?

The poems in Dangerous Women pair these archetypal threats with poems inspired by literary and historical figures ranging from Jezebel to Georgia O’Keeffe (who, it should be noted, once said, “The men like to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”). Bender lays the foundation in her opening poem “Womb Wounds” (archetype, The First Woman) which traces misogyny back to the story of Eve. “All daughters of the same black Eve / she in us birthed sin,” Bender writes. What could have been a source of power—the birthing womb—is reduced to pain, leaving those giving birth to “[b]ear this burden with a grin” and to become “broken bones.”

The line “Now—where is her heart, the core of her flesh” from “JesiBelle Waits For the Hounds” (archetype, The Faithful Woman) strikes me as the guiding thread of this collection. What has happened to these women’s stories? What has become of the core of them? The women in Dangerous Women have either been forgotten, like Maria Sibylla Merian, the German naturalist and scientific illustrator, or flattened into stereotype like Jezebel who is remembered as a harlot rather than as a woman remaining true to her native religion. The core of her gone, all that remains are:

her arms, her legs and her head.
They wanted it this way,
As far as I can tell,
So no one would ever be able to say;
“This, this was Jesi Belle.”

Bender writes this of Merian in the prose poem “Soft Egg” (archetype, The Independent Woman):

That was what she wanted to show the world—that deep down where things crawled and clambered, there were insides so beautiful, so delicate and bright, that they mirrored the infinite ecology of the human heart.

Here we see the heart again, the core.

I do feel compelled to mention my discomfort with one of Bender’s poem, “The Portrait My Mother Made,” (archetype, The Strongest Woman) dedicated to Mamie Till-Mobley and written in Emmett Till’s ghost-voice. This image troubled me:

Cradled by silt I came out
clean as cotton from the gin

Is that image one the murdered Till would have used? Coming from Chicago as he did and having been raised by a woman who herself left the South as a very young child, it would not likely have been a natural linguistic reference point of his. More importantly, the cotton gin was the invention that solidified chattel slavery in the South by making large-scale cotton production profitable. In a way, it was contributory to Till’s murder. Placing the image of ginned cotton in Emmett Till’s mouth struck me as a questionable choice.

Bender is on more solid ground when she is shining light on historical figures who should be better known such as the naturalist Merian or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the Mexican writer, philosopher and Hieronymite nun who is considered the first published feminist in the Americas. I was unfamiliar with both these women, and Bender’s poems inspired me to learn more about them. Dangerous Women is at its best when recovering such stories in Bender’s lyrical language. In the “Tenth Muse” (archetype, The Unmarried Woman) she writes in the voice of de la Cruz:

promised you      Salvation
The sky quells and
light     vibrates against skin

Women fly and fall in this collection, become or give birth to birds. “Last night, I dreamt / I birthed three dead birds,” Bender writes in “Shalosh” (archetype, The Childless Woman) while in “A Poem For Emily” (archetype, The Quiet Woman) Emily Dickinson is described as a “little red wren.” Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, imagines herself flying in “The Bird Machine,” one of the collection’s prose pieces (archetype, The Intelligent Woman): “In her mind, when she closed her eyes, she pictured that as she spread her arms and pushed the wings against the air, there would be a trail of exultant leaves in her wake. {gold} “ In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Hélène Cixous writes, “What is interesting is that birds, writing, and many women are considered abominable, threatening, and are rejected.” The repeated appearance of birds and bird imagery in a collection about how women are constructed as dangerous and threatening taps into this deep root, but Bender’s poems reject rejection. They reclaim and retell. They restore the core.

Jesi Bender is an artist from upstate New York. She is the author of the play Kinderkrankenhaus (Sagging Meniscus) and the novel The Book of the Last Word (Whiskey Tit). Her shorter work has appeared in Fence, Split Lip, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among other places. http://www.jesibender.com

photo credit: Sarah Tinsley

Dangerous Women by Jesi Bender
dancing girl press, 2022
32 pages, $8.00
available here:

Jennifer Saunders is the author of Self-Portrait with Housewife (Tebot Bach, 2019), winner of the Clockwise Chapbook Competition. Her poem “Crosswalk” won the 2020 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and appeared in Southword. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Grist, Ninth Letter, San Pedro River Review, and other publications. Jennifer holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in German-speaking Switzerland.
photo credit: Denise O’Gorman

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

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