Kathy D’Arcy (ed.), Autonomy: a book about taking our selves back. Cork city, Ireland: New Binary Press, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-9935803-6-9
Thriveni C Mysore
A characteristic mixture of self-respect and self-contempt runs through the body, of every woman on earth. Autonomy edited by Kathy D’ Arcy has a subtitle: ‘a book about taking our selves back’. The book surprises readers of all sexes, not by being dramatic, but by being honest. A voice of righteousness that reverberates through the hearts of readers after reading Autonomy justifies literary achievement.
In the ‘Foreword’, Ann Furedi says:
If a woman does not have the right to decide what happens to her own body, if she does not have the right to determine what medical intervention is acceptable, her very personhood is undermined.
The moral status and ‘personhood’ of the fetus may be contested, but surely the status of the woman as a moral agent and a person is beyond challenge. (2)
In an ‘Introduction’, Kathy D’Arcy says:
The fight for reproductive justice is about people power, and so is this project. Through telling the stories of how we celebrate owning our own bodies, and of what it feels like when that right is taken away, we hope to help those whose bodily autonomy has perhaps never been threatened to understand why the decision to be pregnant must always be a choice. (3)
Without embroidery, the collection of essays, stories, plays, poems, Autonomy stands just for that, Freedom; Freedom of mind, body and spirit. Autonomy opens grandly with a perfect punch, a punch that keeps repeating in the collection till the end, powerful and meaningful.
The taste of cinders in Sinéad Gleeson’s mouth is hence felt by the reader in the poem, ‘Kindling’. The poet says:
Start a fire with fallen branches
Of trees carved with names, rutted against
or hung from, choosing death over shame.
Add kindling, twigs thin as wagged fingers.
Paper: bibles, prescriptions, tablet instructions,
Old legislation, ink long dry.
While everything on paper becomes so frightful for a woman in distress, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill the poet of ‘Labhrann Medb’ translated as ‘Medb speaks’ by Michael Hartnett declares:
I will make incursions
through the fertile land of Ireland
my battalions all in arms
my amazons beside me
(not just to steal a bull
not over beasts this battle –
but for an honour-price
a thousand times more precious –
I will make fierce incursions.
Eleanor Hooker dedicates her poem, ‘Delivery’ to the women who were incarcerated in Irish Magdalene Laundries. She says:
Drapes are assembled.
Master and Matron decide this woman,
raped into motherhood, shall not know her child.
A boy. He is swaddled and taken away.
As the oppression and frustration dies down with the pounding against two locked green doors inside the delivery room, a shriek of being wronged pierces through the words of Nicola Moffat in the poem, ‘Matryoshka’. She says:
that one’s whole life
being a vessel
for a tinier, neater version
that one’s whole life
can be measured
by the hands
Earlier in the same poem, the poet unravels a shocking universal reaction of gender treatment:
to teach you the ways of men
pats you on the head, afterwards,
calls you a ‘good girl’
Such like generalizations bears most strongly on the readers’ mind. The case of Savita Halappanavar etched in the minds of women all over the world creates an ether filled void again while reading Annette Skade’s poem ‘Brigid’s Well’. The poet says:
red ribbon for a woman
racked in a hospital bed.
Branches bend, at the root
the pool shivers,
casts twisted beads,
a thousand red ribbons.
I untangle satin,
work free her tender ghost
to fly on wind over the water.
The reader recalls the brave woman. Savita Halappanavar who died of medical misadventure, died for Ireland; sparking honest-protests, pushed the Irish government to introduce the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013, made the people of Ireland vote Yes to repeal the Eighth Amendment by a margin of 2 to1. Autonomy is all about this, about bringing a change.
In the poem, ‘˃(Greater Than)’, poet Megan Cronin strikes like a thunder with her rationality. The poet says:
Big girl heavy girl fat
But you are so much more than that.
You are heart
But no one tries to measure the weight of your kindness
or your burdens and you are attitude.
Responsibility of women in upbringing and the struggles thereof is wonderfully addressed to in the poem ‘Dear Son’ by Anne Casey. The poet says:
Listen to me
Asking you to be the kind of man
Who treats a woman like an equal
Or better still, like a queen
Like a crystal vase
To be handled delicately
With due deference
And only after permission is clearly granted
It is about
Being the kind of man
Who makes your Mama want to weep
Donna Rose paints the woes of poverty in her poem, ‘Rats’. The poet incredibly draws sand- picture of women who struggle either ways, with or without basic necessities. She says:
How can we call any woman free when a life of poverty is viewed as
adequate punishment? …
It was too much for her chapped and blistered hands to hold, the
mouldy ceiling, the eternal dampness of living in neglect, and
shame, and poverty and no matter what she did, the rats never left.
But, eventually, we did.
Eva Griffin startles the reader by psychological depth and compels the poem, ‘All creatures good, small and Irish’ to be quoted. As the poem opens with,
Bury my bones in England.
the reader feels jolted. The cultural risks and societal pressures are tackled with great nicety. The poet says:
Raise us well,
teach us needlework,
guide our hands through soapy water,
feed us doctrine,
and when we stray
lock us up windowless with the rest of the dogs
wheezing away all summer long,
skin blistered with our new names.
Bury us good and straight and right,
grieve us devoutly,
and from the depths of a mass grave
I’ll mourn the life I thought I’d live,
wish that my bones were in England
for the land I’m in is no
longer good and Irish.
Countless feet treading so softly
on my sisters and I
shouting out a history of all your violence.
This is the very spirit for which the collection, Autonomy was made. The same emphasis infallibly rises in Megan Cronin’s poem, ‘Ex-Hurricane Ophelia’. Here the poet says:
And I’m sorry to tell you, Ophelia
That 518 years later,
Not much has changed.
The law of the land that hands down 14 years in jail for something that is not under one’s control is something that cannot be imagined by others. Taryn de Vere in her poem ‘Pregnant in Ireland’ says it all; the restrictions, the sufferings and the punishments. The poet says:
Of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term.
I tell my teenage daughter
And she is scared.
Not of abortion pills
14 times safer than pregnancy
But of her mother going to jail.
Matt Kennedy, poet of ‘Ireland is an Empty House’ concludes:
I would want to be home
Repeal the Eighth Amendment
Ireland is an empty house
We will not stop till it feels like home
To discover further the barrenness of human civilization, to see the hollowness of each passing era of shadows, Autonomy dissects before the reader through essays and plays. Painful assessments and recordings of Claire Hennessy in ‘Colony’, throbbing Marcella O’ Connor in ‘The Great Hunger’ who says very coldly:
The bag emptied. The procedure finished
the pain of giving birth to stillborn Grace Saoirse as explored by Tracey Smith in ‘Grace’s Story’, Eileen Flynn declaring:
Ireland – you’re a little bit backwards when it comes to equality.
It’s not easy for me to stand up here as a Traveller woman and speak about abortion…
There are also cultural rights, but I’m focusing here on women’s rights.
Autonomy also gives the reader honour as she reads: from the complication of Jane in the play ‘Vessel: a screenplay’ by Tina Pisco & Amelia de Buyl-Pisco, to displaced Ayala’s melting in ‘The Contaminating Agent’ by Aoife Inman. All and such voices rise sharply and by the time the reader reaches Emilie Roberts’ essay, ‘Edges’ feels just like the way she says:
…with the same wave of nausea in their guts, the same sweaty palms, the same jackhammer heartbeat.
but, one thing the reader does not feel is lighter. Just, different.
Anna of Sue Norton, Ciara of Margaret Cahill, Emma of Mary Coogan, perhaps each portrayal of woman in Autonomy is not completely restricted by time and place. They are characters of each and every woman, everywhere. It is universal with a slight difference.
The difference lies because of cultural complexities; otherwise, the problems pertaining to discrimination, gender or the likes, have presented themselves in a different manner. Culturally-cloaked sufferings never see the light, yet they exist in the deepest heart of every woman.
Autonomy edited by Kathy D’ Arcy acquires additional significance just because the theme – the feel – the essence – the reality – is universal, so shall the positive outcome of the movement/project in one country be rejoiced in other places of oppression.
It is dangerous to try and simplify such a book of literary merit that projects social complexity, because, like testing waters History turns to Literature when necessary. It has to be truthful.
Autonomy the book, shall be read, written about and remain trusted for that matter.
Thriveni C Mysore is a science teacher from Karnataka, India. She is locally acknowledged for her critical essays and articles on Philosophy and Education. Her books in Kannada on Philosophy and Science have won State awards. Being actively involved in Environmental Awareness Programs, she holds lectures and presentations for students. Amidst life’s complexities, she finds divine-solace in reading Nature poems.