Earlier this month I spent two hours at the dentist. Every time I go, they tell me what I already know – I’ve got a grinding issue. On my walk home, my mouth minty and my teeth scrubbed, I called my grandmother, who asked after my dental hygiene. I explained the grinding, how it began when I first started teaching.
“Should you consider another line of work?” she asked, and I was left wondering what’s more important to save – molars or morals.
As it turns out, I’m not the only woman waking up tender these days. A recently released collection from Triangle House Review, Through Clenched Teeth, holds tales of other women starting their days sore, stressed.
When it arrived in the mail, I walked into my apartment, immediately drew myself a bath, and immersed myself in writing and water. I devoured the entire collection there: soaking, jaw sore, reading in candlelight. The collection is a no-frills publication: a thin, soft-bound, hand-sized text, almost like a zine, one that can definitely be read over the course of one bath. It merits submersion.
Triangle House, a new press out of Brooklyn, calls it an “anthology of lyric writing by today’s most exciting female-identified voices,” a “visceral response to the election of Donald Trump.”
I had had the kind of winter week where a heaviness stayed with me, despite the layers I removed once indoors. This month I’ve been teaching feminism to a class of 25 teenage boys, and the unit was all ups and downs: bright spots, dark stretches of an unrelenting winter season. Many of the students proudly disagreed with feminism, complained about the unit, asked daily when it would end.
So returning to my home and a warm bath on a cold winter day after the hardships of actually having to position to a classroom that women ought to be seen as equal to men—well, I was looking for some reprieve.
Through Clenched Teeth brought that to me: relief in poetic release, a collection of women writing in response to a President who has now been publicly accused by 16 women of sexual harassment.
The book opens and closes with Niina Pollari’s “Erasure Poems,” two provocative found poems collaged from the U.S. naturalization application. The first page asks: “Have you been in total terror?” with a checkbox for “yes” or “no” underneath.
The following pages nod a definitive, emphatic yes: women sharing moments of an all-engulfing pain, of being catcalled, of languages and lands being stolen, colonized, of forced familial interactions with Trump supporters, of a deep impenetrable sense of moving into the uncharted. This anthology forces the reader to ask: how much of others’ pain do we ask our women to hold? Our women-identifying mothers, therapists, educators, artists, and writers—what is the emotional labor we expect from them? A Greek chorus of women’s voices responds: so much, answering up with musings on cervixes, references to Fanny Howe and Monica, direct, urgent questions, like Melissa Broder’s “Have we figured out what’s wrong with the world yet?”
The writing is, of course, at its best, when it blends both the personal and the political, as is the case for most profound feminist writing in this day and age. The poets that excelled in such merging: Safia Elhillo’s “poem to be read from right to left,” Precious Okoyomon’s “It’s dissociating season” (which begins “I’m walking around Harlem a little stoned and weepy” – who hasn’t been there this year?), and Niina Pollari’s “Filling Out An I-90 Form On Independence Day.” These poems are asking questions of the body and its belonging: where we come from and where we go, given where we come from.
The anthology maybe veers to slightly too much poetry; I found myself drowning a bit in the middle section, a reliance on too much stanza-ridden anxiety. Michelle Lyn King’s “Thanksgiving in Palm Beach” was thus a welcome prosaic break, an articulation of how to be from a place but not of a place. In the piece, King describes a post-Trump Florida and how she navigates her relationship with her Trump-admiring father. We as readers are left to contemplate our own patriarchal belonging to America: what does it look like to claim that we are from but not of this fascist father?
Darcie Wilder’s “Everything Is Dumb Now” gives voice to an internet era of grief: think Sad Girls on the Internet: Trump edition. The poem is written in Wilder’s well-known caustic Twitter voice, abbreviations and scattered jargon expressing an abridged version of, what do we do now? It ends “hasnt loving and fucking always been terrifying?” In a world where women have always been shamed and therefore made afraid, hasn’t it?
And, perhaps, hasn’t feminism always been terrifying?
Or at least, standing where I have been this month, in the public spotlight of a classroom of 25 teenage boys, performing their masculinities for me and one another and society – hasn’t it always been terrifying to challenge patriarchy and sexism and misogyny like this? And isn’t it relieving when we can soak ourselves in the bath and submerge in an anthology of pain and grief and confusion but also in hope of a collective pathway forward?
The anthology increases in explicit, political fervor and action culminating in Jenny Zhang’s “Against Extinction”. The piece, which I read and obsessively shared when it was first published, took on another level of meaning when paired with pages of poetry – more important, more pointed. In it Zhang offers advice: “We have to resist extinction, resist violence, resist colonization, resist imprisonment and detention, resist deportation, resist an earth too warm and too toxic for human life, resist psychic and physical death, and risk being maimed if you haven’t been ready if we are to survive.”
Zhang continues, expressing that “this is about building a Movement rather than a movement…” urging us all to manifest the driving forces behind all people-powered movements: community, collaboration, nurturing: those inherently feminine qualities. She supposes, “if you can cook get ready…” The line, though previously seeming so important carried an extra lens of a gendered audience; in an anthology of women at our wits end, we are given the domestic discourse of needing to feed the hungry mouths around us. Is this the place for women-identified activists in Trump’s America? Or does this – as depicted in Niina Pollari’s last found poem – actually ”confine”?
Sure, there are mouths that need feeding. More importantly though, Through Clenched Teeth is a printed testament that there are also words that need writing – and collections that need compiling – to move us out of the bath and, inspired, into a new day of teaching against society’s wrongs.