“The Thousand Gestures,” or What I Learned from Hagar

The following is a guest post by Caitlin Cowan author of Every Creeping Thing, StS’s Poetry Runner-Up Winner

Yesterday I saw a pink plastic vacuum cleaner in the toy department at Target. This is why I’m a feminist.

We live in a world where Republican politicians in Michigan, the state where I was born, shouted down Rep. Lisa Brown’s (D-West Bloomfield) use of the word “vagina” in official proceedings (apparently one ought not to use this anatomically correct word “in mixed company,” according to Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville.) This is also why I’m a feminist. We live in a world where cleaning products are still pitched solely at women, where Klondike Bars are pitched to men with nagging wives. Come to think of it, that nagging wife seems to be everywhere these days: all she wants to do is talk about heirloom tomatoes and paint swatches…what a harpy! We live in a world where rape, sexual harassment, abortion, birth control, and other terms are still considered murky, taboo, or both. These, too, are reasons why I’m a feminist, and why I think that feminist discourse is a field to which all women writing today must contribute. I’m not foolishly suggesting that all writing by women, let alone all writing period, has to be or is inherently political, but rather that the landscape of our society is still deeply riven with inequalities that must be addressed and translated by all female writers—by all writers, really—from the budding creative writers that I teach at The University of North Texas all the way up to the finest writers of our generation.

I suppose I’m somewhere in the middle of that great swath of women, and my work seeks to engage with feminism any way that it can—I think of addressing feminist issues as a kind of triage: chaos is the order of the day, so dive in and tackle anything that needs tackling or calls out to you. My poem, “Every Creeping Thing,” (which I was honored to have chosen as Runner-Up in So to Speak’s 2013 Poetry Contest by judge Danielle Pafunda) is one of which I’ve always been fond, but also one I’ve tinkered with for years.

In my MFA program, I was asked to read the Bible as literature for a readings course by an older male professor who was overtly religious. All semester he—I’ll go ahead and say it—bullied us into tapping into the mystical wonder and religious import of the Old Testament, which made me uneasy. Weren’t we supposed to be taking away universals? Storytelling and textual beauty? Poignant characters? I came away from that experience with a profound sympathy for one figure in particular: Hagar, the woman who figures into my poem. My professor, however, was not particularly interested in her, and dismissed my interest in her as a mere distraction.

Part of the reason I had such difficulty mimicking his zeal for the Old Testament as a whole was, in part, because of the countless women who are wronged, sent away, turned into salt (Lot’s wife doesn’t even merit a name! I’m still indignant) and the like. Hagar was a handmaid (read: slave) to Sarah, who, supposedly barren herself, gives Hagar to her husband Abraham so that they may conceive and fulfill god’s promise. To make a long story short, Hagar conceives a son, Ishmael, and later, Sarah is able conceive a son, named Isaac, with Abraham as well. Then, with Abraham’s blessing, Sarah jealously sends Hagar and Ishmael away:

And Abraham arose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot; for she said: ‘Let me not look upon the death of the child.’ And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice, and wept. (Genesis 21:14-16)

In this poem I imaginatively inserted myself at this very moment, to look down at Hagar as she puts the child under the shrubs and weeps, because it is a moment I still can’t move past. The sense of how ill-used she is, and the fact that her struggle as a mother and a woman is so easily reduced to her usefulness as a vessel (“purpose filled”), remain very compelling for me.

But things get better for Hagar. God hears her, helps her. Brings her back from the wilderness. My poem ends before any of this can happen, and points to the very real, and very demoralizing possibility (dare I say certainty? in mixed company?!) that the “voice / among voices, that sibilating / hope” will not come, perhaps that it never came for Hagar and her son, nor will it come for us.

We are all, in a sense, women alone in the underbrush, and I don’t think we can afford to wait for a voice from above to right our compasses; instead we must be our own compasses, for Hagar, for Rep. Lisa Brown, and for the little girl who’s going to get that awful pink plastic vacuum for her birthday—I hope she stuffs it full of frogs.






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