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As we count down to the teen poetry slam at Petit, we wanted to introduce you to more of the genre. This poem is called “Shrinking Women.” (It’s a little hard to hear this poem in the recording, so we’ve included a transcription below. )
Across from me at the kitchen table, my mother smiles over red wine
that she drinks out of a measuring glass.
She says she doesn’t deprive herself,
but I’ve learned to find nuance in every movement of her fork.
In every crinkle in her brow as she offers me the uneaten pieces on her plate.
I’ve realized she only eats dinner when I suggest it.
I wonder what she does when I’m not there to do so.
Maybe this is why my house feels bigger each time I return; it’s proportional.
As she shrinks the space around her seems increasingly vast.
She wanes while my father waxes. His stomach has grown round with wine, late nights, oysters, poetry. A new girlfriend who was overweight as a teenager, but my dad reports that now she’s “crazy about fruit.”
It was the same with his parents;
as my grandmother became frail and angular her husband swelled to red round cheeks, round stomach
and I wonder if my lineage is one of women shrinking
making space for the entrance of men into their lives
not knowing how to fill it back up once they leave.
I have been taught accommodation.
My brother never thinks before he speaks.
I have been taught to filter.
“How can anyone have a relationship to food?” He asks, laughing, as I eat the black bean soup I chose for its lack of carbs.
I want to tell say: we come from difference, Jonas,
you have been taught to grow out
I have been taught to grow in
you learned from our father how to emit, how to produce, to roll each thought off your tongue with confidence, you used to lose your voice every other week
from shouting so much
I learned to absorb
I took lessons from our mother in creating space around myself
I learned to read the knots in her forehead while the guys went out for oysters
and I never meant to replicate her, but
spend enough time sitting across from someone and you pick up their habits
That’s why women in my family have been shrinking for decades.
We all learned it from each other, the way each generation taught the next how to knit
weaving silence in between the threads
which I can still feel as I walk through this ever-growing house,
picking up all the habits my mother has unwittingly dropped like bits of crumpled paper from her pocket on her countless trips from bedroom to kitchen to bedroom again,
Nights I hear her creep down to eat plain yogurt in the dark, a fugitive stealing calories to which she does not feel entitled.
Deciding how many bites is too many
How much space she deserves to occupy.
Watching the struggle I either mimic or hate her,
And I don’t want to do either anymore
but the burden of this house has followed me across the country
I asked five questions in genetics class today and all of them started with the word “sorry”.
I don’t know the requirements for the sociology major because I spent the entire meeting deciding whether or not I could have another piece of pizza
a circular obsession I never wanted but
inheritance is accidental
still staring at me with wine-stained lips from across the kitchen table.
– Lily Myers
This poem has been passed around quite a bit, because it seemed to strike a lot of people as powerful. In the poem, Lily Myers describes the tendency for the men in her family to grow larger and the women in her family to grow smaller. Through three generations, including that of herself and her brother, she talks about how this difference in size comes from something psychological, something that was taught differently to each of them.
In her family, the lessons were gendered. She learned from her mother, and her brother learned from her father. Though the poem begins with a discussion on lessons about food and size, it progresses to subtler things– being taught to absorb, to grow in, to make space, to accommodate, to filter, to apologize. Ultimately, these lessons have to do with feeling worthy of taking of space, of eating, of asking questions, of speech. The women in her family are struggling to feel they deserve the basics of human life and existence.
How does listening to this poem make you feel? For some people, these gendered lessons might seem to reflect larger issues relating to how genders are taught differently in our culture. For other people, they may recognize similar moments of not feeling they deserve to take up space for reasons that have little or nothing to do with gender. This can relate to unhealthy relationships, struggles with body image, anxiety about socializing and public speaking and all kinds of things that people of all ages work to overcome.
Let us know what you think.