“Boudoir (/ˈbuːd.wɑːr/; French: [bu.dwaʁ]) is a woman’s private sitting room or salon in a furnished accommodation usually between the dining room and the bedroom, but can also refer to a woman’s private bedroom. The term derives from the French verb bouder to sulk, or boudeur sulk or sulking, and originally was a room for sulking in, to put away or withdraw to.
The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) in his literary works helped develop a reputation in this small room dedicated to the privacy of female talks. Since the success of his book Philosophy in the Bedroom, the small sitting room or salon has a sulphurous and scandalous reputation combined with those of all exchanges and frolics.”
Women have abandoned the boudoir as the only space to express themselves freely, be it about sex or other secrets traditionally not shared with men. In fact, women decided to abandon this safe space and go public way before this quaint room was even dreamt of by the European aristocracy. A space can be physical or metaphorical. Poetry is one such space, providing women with a forum for railing against the injustices of a male-dominated world, especially in the sexual arena.
The following poetical extracts provide an insight into what women have thought and felt about having their bodies and their sexuality harnessed by others, be it through religious sanctions, social opprobrium or state-enforced punishment. And of course, economics also plays an important part in this conspiracy. A woman in a patriarchal society cannot look after her children without the consent or cooperation of a male counterpart, which, of course, limits her sexual expression. Of course, the pill has softened the blow. But then again, new reproductive technologies, such as the exploitation of surrogate mothers, otherwise known as wombs for hire, is threatening to undo this hard-won battle all in the name of perpetuating some favoured genes, generally patriarchal genes. But that is another chapter in the ongoing saga of sexual subjugation.
This short essay is to be understood as just a cameo portrait of the use of poetry by subversive women who wish to highlight their inalienable right to total respect and an equal seat at the table of society. The arbitrary selection of poets reflects the books available in my personal collection.
Down with the double standard!
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a Mexican nun (1651-1695) who ironically took the veil in order to have the liberty to study, and study she did. She was a leading intellectual of her time who was awarded the title of First Feminist of Mexico in 1974. Here is what she thought of men in some of the stanzas of her most celebrated poem:
Foolish men who accuse / women unreasonably / you blame yet never see / you cause what you abuse.
You combat her resistance/and then with gravity / you call frivolity / the fruit of your intents.
No answer at the door / will be a proper part: / say no—she has no heart /say yes—she’s a whore.
Whose guilt is greater in / this raw erotic play? / The girl who sins for pay /or the man who pays for sin? *
Well, you get the point.
The devaluation of women’s sexuality as women age is another subject decried by women’s poetry. The following is an anonymous poem from the Pampas in Argentina:
When I was a good and quick little girl / they treated me like a treasure /
Many suns and many moons I saw / time passes /
oh heart /
How I have changed. I am not a girl now /
I am very old /
oh heart! /
What is the use of grieving / if nobody will listen /
Gioconda Belli, a contemporary Nicaraguan poet, does not lament her age, she prefers to flaunt it:
When I get to be old /—if I get there at all—/ and look at myself in the mirror / and count my wrinkles /…
when my life is wrapped / in blue veins / dark bags under my eyes /…
when my grandchildren come / to sit on my knees / creaky from too many winters / I know that my heart will still be—rebellious— tic-tacking, tic-tacking / and doubt and vast horizons / will also greet / my mornings.**
Sulpicia, a Latin poet from the 1st Century BC, is not ashamed of love and she lets the world know it.
At last love has come. I would be more ashamed / to hide it in cloth than leave it naked.
I delight in sinning and hate to compose a mask for gossip. We met. We are both worthy.*
It is not only women with Latin blood in their veins who dare to celebrate their sexuality. There are some anonymous Egyptian hieroglyphic texts (ca. 1500 B.C.) to prove this point.
With candour I confess my love; / I love you, yes, and wish to love you closer; / As mistress of your house, / Your arm placed over mine. / Alas your eyes are loose. / I tell my heart: “My lord / has moved away…*
Infidelity might be as old as the pyramids but it is not the preserve of men. A modern Mexican woman dares to express her anguish in the face of what society sees as a transgression, yet is afraid to reveal her name.
Nobody knows that you exist in my life. It’s pointless to reveal what nobody would understand. … Ernesto, your scent permeates everything.+
A jump to India reveals a similar frustration, but for other reasons. Kamala Das, an Indian poet who died in 2009, is bitter about the disregard by men, at least by her man, of women’s sexual enjoyment.
Lesson you gave was about yourself. You were pleased / With my body’s response, its weather, its usual shallow / Convulsions. You dribbled spittle into my mouth, you poured / Yourself into every nook & cranny, you embalmed / My poor lust with your bitter-sweet juices.++
Bessy Reyna, a new-wave poet from Panama, writes about the hypocrisy of marriage.
While you / come home / open a beer / watch TV / …she / tries to prepare dinner / tidy the house / smile at the children / … and pretend that your escapades / are just a passing game / … and that in spite of everything / she is / a happy Wife. **
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz incarcerated her body in a convent to achieve intellectual freedom, but such is not the case of most women who join religious orders. An anonymous young woman from the 15th-16th century in Spain expresses her anguish in a ballad.
Since I’m a girl / I want fun / It won’t help God / for me to be a nun. / Since I’m a girl / with long hair, / they want to dump me / in a convent. / It won’t help God / for me to be a nun.*
Returning to India we can see that not all Indian women were as sexually frustrated as Kamala Das was. Indian princess Zeb-un-Nissa (1638-1702), a deeply religious woman, is quite clear.
Though I am Laila of the Persian romance, / my heart loves like ferocious Majnun / I want to go to the desert / but modesty is chains on my feet. / A nightingale came to the flower garden / because she was my pupil. / I am an expert in things of love. Even the moth is my disciple.*
Yes, Zeb-un-Nissa was clear, but she dearly paid a price for it, for her father incarcerated her for rebellion.
Ana María Rodas, a Guatemalan revolutionary poet, knows that the personal is political and she states so bluntly.
Revolutionary: tonight / I won’t share your bed /
You don’t realize, you phoney
that in your home
you copy oh so carefully
the manners of the best of tyrants+++
There is much to be said about the lack of symmetry in sexual relations between men and women. There are, of course, other possible gender combinations, but like reproductive technologies, that is another subject that deserves a separate treatment. Suffice it to say that women have not only broken loose from the boudoir, but have decided not to bouder, because sulking gets you nowhere. To paraphrase E.E. Cummings who believes that “candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker” on the subject of seduction of women by men, I would say “poetry is dandy, but action is quicker” to achieve sexual parity provided that it is not an oxymoron.
* A Book of Women Poets, from antiquity to now. Selections from the World Over. Edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone.
** Poesío Feminista del Mundo Hispánico (desde la edad media hasta la actualidad). Antología Crítica. Angel Flores, Kate Flores.
+ Claro que me atrevo. Escritos de mujeres mexicanas. DEMA
+ + Kamala Das:Orient Longman
+ + + Poemas de la izquierda erórrui. Ana María Rodas.
N.B. Montréal Serai is a not for profit publication which makes every effort to acknowledge quoted material following reasonable use guidelines for scholarly research, literary critique and journalistic articles. All translations from A Book of Women Poets… are acknowledged in the body of the book. All other translations from Spanish are by Maya Khankhoje.