Katherine E. Young Describes Writing of Occasional Poem “Women’s Work” for Swearing-In of Libby Garvey
"What I found was: almost nothing. In fact, I discovered very few recent poems about public service or public servants in general, and no poems celebrating women in public service."
On Writing an Inaugural “Occasional Poem”
by Katherine E. Young
Soon after I was appointed Arlington County’s first poet laureate in 2016, I got a phone call: could I please find a poem to read at the swearing in ceremony for County Board Member Libby Garvey? I dutifully pulled up various databases of poets and poetry, ran online searches, and asked around among poet friends. What I found was: almost nothing. In fact, I discovered very few recent poems about public service or public servants in general, and no poems celebrating women in public service. Of course, women have been elected to public office in their own right in the U.S. for only about 50 years; perhaps it’s not surprising that poets haven’t paid much attention to such a (relatively) short period of women’s public service. Still, I had a problem: what to read at the swearing in! I decided to write that poem.
The occasional poem written to commemorate a public event is an old form, dating back at least to the Greeks. Within the context of contemporary American poetry, though, it is a fraught idea. One need only consider the vociferous criticism of many poems read at recent presidential inaugurations to understand how deeply uncomfortable many poets are with the kind of poem that essentially praises people (and institutions) about whom Americans tend to feel some ambivalence. However, my own poetry background includes training in Russian-language poetry, where civic and patriotic themes have been a constant thread in contemporary poetic discourse (and in honorable political opposition, as well). My self-appointed task, then, was to weave together a sense of Arlington’s local history, celebrate the role women played in that history, commemorate the achievement of one particular woman, and do it all in a way that was accessible—and palatable—to a public audience.
What I wrote is “Women’s Work.” All the actions and events included in the poem, all the women mentioned, from Elizabeth Ball to Roberta Flack, are part of Arlington history. In 2016, the Arlington County Board chair, the local sheriff, and the commissioner of the revenue were all (and remain today) women. The poem was shared widely when it was first published. And just this month, I received another phone call: would I come back and read the poem again as Libby Garvey is sworn in this month to a new term?
by Katherine E. Young
Arlington County Poet Laureate, 2016 – 2018
(On the swearing in of Libby Garvey to a second term on the Arlington County Board, December 13, 2016)
“Men have every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has
been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”
– Jane Austen, Persuasion
There is method in our work:
when we fished the teeming river,
wove grass mats to wall longhouses,
sowed seed corn (all this before
the riverine plantations, glebes,
the boundary stones, canals and harbors,
the Federal city, Confederate ramparts,
the freedman’s village, five-sided forts).
There is power in our work:
when we, the daughters of Africa,
were yoked to plow and sow and reap
Potomac fields in blazing heat;
when Elizabeth Ball birthed five girls
on a farm where she kept bees, sheep, pigs;
when Anne Carlin built a dairy,
started a restaurant near a spring.
There is beauty in our work:
when we embroidered watered silk,
held ice cream socials in our front parlors,
crimped our hair in permanent waves,
hired out to fill impermanent slots
while young men fought across the seas;
when Roberta sang at Macedonia
Baptist Church, killing us softly.
There is valor in our work:
when we scrubbed the floors of boarding
houses, toiled in Rosslyn’s brothels,
saloons; when we nursed and taught
and dreamed of more; when Grace Hopper
built compilers, when Gloria Thompson
climbed the stairs to integrate Stratford
Junior High. When we sat in.
There is honor in our work,
honor for the women whose steps
we trace when we drive the buses,
wrangle budgets, enforce the laws,
ensure the jail’s staffed. Chair the council.
Collect taxes. Honor in the offerings
of our own bodies, spirits, minds:
honor in the work of our hands.
Copyright Katherine E. Young, 2016
This is an original poem written for Arlington County by the Arlington Poet Laureate, a program of Arlington Cultural Affairs and
Arlington Public Library.
Woman Drinking Absinthe, An New Collection Katherine E. Young
Katherine E. Young’s poems wrap with equal grace around bears and Bluebeard, salt and calculus, as they shift between local and global, past and present. Everything gets in: through all five senses, drinks tasted, birdsong heard, each line slipping under your skin. Woman Drinking Absinthe is a book stark with truth but alive with magic, and in it Young illuminates the broken but beautiful world we inhabit."
— Jesse Lee Kercheval