What Women Want
What Women Want is a substantial booklet published by Second Light Publications. Its key poem, a 10 page narrative, Caroline Norton, is about the dramatic and tragic life of this writer and society, who was Sheridan’s grand daughter. She was the first person in Victorian times to gain some rights in law for women. What she achieved paved the way for later reforms and she deserves to be much better known. There are other poems about women’s lives and a section of general and lyrical poems.
There is an in-depth review of What Women Want on the internet on the blogsite/webzine of Californian journalist and poet Jamie Dedes on 3 February 2013:
Here is what Esther Morgan wrote for the back cover:
Myra Schneider's spirited new pamphlet focuses on the importance of getting things done - poems written, laws changed, the past confronted and challenged. While many of the poems record the terible injustices suffered by women throughout history, they are also a passionate call to action. Humming with Wordsworth's "force which rolls through all things" (quoted in her poem Cropthorne Church), they express Schneider's faith in the power of words to affect change.
This faith is exemplified for Schneider by the extraordinary life of Caroline Norton whose enforced separation from her children led her to campaign tirelessly for a change in the law. The poem brings to vivid life an important piece of history, the first skirmish in the long battle for women's equality under the law. It's an inspiring story and Norton's spirit - anger tempered by a zest for life and a keen intelligence - informs the pamphlet as a whole. Even the more lyrical pieces speak of a "now" that "pushes you/ to your feet". It's refreshing to read a collection that argues, in the face of continuing oppression, that poetry really can make something happen.
Here is a comment by Rosie Bailey and there are some more after the extracts.
I particularly admired the Caroline Norton Poem: the sustained and quiet elegance of the form, which allowed for so much information without in any way seeming 'informative', and the clever use of 'what she did'…It's one of the finest poems I've read for a long time…'Losing' is a leisurely but striking analysis of a hauntingly difficult subject...not a dropped stitch anywhere. And that's true also of many of the others that I liked: 'Piano' another successfully handled (and very moving) narrative; and that a wide-ranging deceptively innocent little poem 'The Bowling Club', which is suffused with the lovely essence of suburban continuity… And 'Cropthorne Church' and 'Insanity' - indeed there so many delicately done pieces. I'm very grateful to have it [the collection]. It has given me so much pleasure, and will again.
If you would like a copy please email me at email@example.com or use the form on the Second Light Poetry website. http://www.secondlightlive.co.uk/downloads/spring12.pdf
Here is an excerpt from the Caroline Norton poem followed by the first poem in the booklet.
CAROLINE NORTON extract
After Caroline Norton's brutal husband, George, had sued her for divorce and lost the trumped-up case he sent their three children to live with his hard-hearted sister in Scotland. At this time (1836) wives had no legal say whatsover in what happened to their children. Husbands could do anything they liked with them. This piece is about Caroline's reaction.
what she didn't do was
contact social services, weep to the NSPCC,
search for a helpline, make an appointment
to see a therapist - none of these existed.
Against her friends' advice she determined
to fight, announced she was scotched but not killed.
Soon after this she had a disturbing dream
in which she saw herself as a rabbit cornered by dogs,
bucking and scrabbling to save her life.
When she woke what she did was write to her nephew:
some private wrong has generally been the cause
of the important events of this world of changes.
After frenzied weeks of casting about for help
she was introduced to Talfourd, a Whig barrister.
He had pleaded for a Mrs. Greenhill, a mother
who had been desperate to keep her children.
The case was lost although the judge sympathized
but Talfourd, young, earnest and an MP, knew
the time was ripe for reform so he was very willing
to tutor Caroline. What she learnt was how to apply
her needle-bright brain to studying the law,
assimilating facts, spotting holes in arguments.
Soon she became expert on case law, was shocked
to learn about the treatment of other mothers:
whose baby was snatched while sucking
at her breast, bundled into a blanket and carted off,
another whose children were awarded to a mistress.
The plight of these women roused her sense of justice.
What she did was harness the skills she had honed
in writing novels and composed a treatise that showed,
point by point, the inconsistency of a law that gave
more rights to an unmarried than a married mother.
she did was expose with careful arguments
backed by examples, the iniquity of allowing
a husband who was guilty of adultery and cruelty,
the power to remove his children from their mother
if he chose and farm them out to total strangers
who didn't care a fig for the infants' welfare.
A Portia, she pleaded for the law of nature
to be heeded as well as the law of men:
nature say that the woman, who endures
for nearly a year of tedious suffering, ending
in an agony which perils her life, has no claim
to the children she bears? Does nature say
that the woman…who provides from her own bosom
the nourishment which preserves… her offspring
has no claim to the children she has nursed?
With her pen she set out to slaughter a draconian law.
THE COMPOSITION HUT
the fierce slope of the roof, the pines,
the lake, so it's easy to fold up this century,
its quick screens, its cables packed under streets.
Now is this green and blue silence, the hut
at the foot of the hill where Grieg worked.
I can almost see his newly-hatched shoals
of crochets and quavers. So why am I holding back?
The door's unlocked - once inside wouldn't my ideas
flow. No, I'd be beguiled by the spears of light
rising from the silkgrey water, by the voice urging
the rowers in that boat and I'd float to yesterday
when I saw a lifetime of waterfalls, mountains clad
with firs all pointing at ever. Lulled, I'd believe
the future safe, let littlefish words evade my fingers…
on, the composition hut is still in my head.
It's a hermitage where I could uncover layers of self
but does self have any meaning on its own?
I have no answer, only know I need the pines,
the lake of serenity, the idea of the hut as a retreat
or a perching place, at least, for my soul
where I can begin to face the discomposure
of composing and, undistracted, follow the thoughts
slippery as eels travelling beneath the surface,
let them lead me to the disruption and pain
beyond the trees. For when I shut off the outer tick
I find myself listening to the quickening beat
of this dear planet as if it were my own heart's clock.
Here are some of the many comments I received in the month after the booklet was published:
Just to say how much I have enjoyed your book. Caroline Norton is a gripping poem, and I like all the emphasis on 'what she did', there is a real tension and pace in the narrative, on doing, and her energy and determination not to be crushed but to always move forward really shines through. I like the way the book evolves, the kaleidoscopic views of women in the different poems, Oranges, Water, House, Need, Women Running some of my favourites...and the depth and boldness in the poems.The book is such an affirmation of women and as in all your poems has that spirit of optimism and love. Jane Duran
Caroline Norton is a triumph! I know the story, and you have told it beautifully. Thanks you so much. Anne Stevenson
The long poem (Caroline Norton) is really very effective, the device of 'what she ...' is perfectly chosen. It's very impressive, moves very swiftly but contains a great deal of information. Somehow the pace of it and the structure work to create the sense of justice being eventually done. I liked all the poems - particularly 'Piano', a really wonderful poem. I feel I know the landscape of a lot of the poems, the garden and the park, so I could 'see' the poems clearly. Mark Roper
I think your book is a real achievement. And I say ‘book’ deliberately because it seems more than a pamphlet, has the kind of substance one gets from a book. This sense is enhanced by its structure - the poems’ organisation around amazing central piece, Caroline Norton. The vivid story is propelled forward by the apparently simple device of: What she knew was. It’s an intriguing stratagem because one would normally expect the passive tense to slow the narrative down, whereas here, it lends a kind of urgency to the tone, to the narrative voice, and I think it’s extremely successful. So with a flick of the change of verb, we are propelled forward again and again into to different aspects of this woman’s courageous and tragic story. Of the others my favourites are the Picasso poems with their wonderful vitality and colour together with an inherent sense of optimism; and the three ‘family’ poems: Piano, Need and Crossing Point, for their vivid tenderness and poignancy. Like its subjects, this is a brave little book and I’m very glad to have it. Lucy Hamilton
I love the sense of the continuing narrative from book to book - with Paula Schneider coming back again. That poem had me on the edge of seat - even though I knew she survived to make her pottery. The poem about your mother is wonderful - so dense. Oranges is terrific and I love the ending - it is so earthbound.. 'House' is quietly eerie I like it very much and now I must find proper space to read Caroline Norton. Martina Evans
I love the pamphlet - particularly the sequence about Caroline Norton. Very informative and shocking. I didn't know anything about Caroline Norton, so I found this really interesting. I think they should teach this in schools. I also loved the very first poem (‘The Composition Hut’) - it reminded me of 'A Room of One's Own' the passage where she describes her thoughts forming and then slipping away from her. Kim Moore
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