(To my friend 3,000 miles away*)
I have a thirst for friends who are not men:
A girl who will look up from pablum or the wash
And, with a kind of certainty of trust,
Will talk to me of what is beautiful again;
Who, after kids have sapped her strength away
And her own man has tethered her to heel,
Still answers with some energy and will
The questions that I have left over from the day;
A girl who’d get away and meet me at a place
Where she could sit across the table with some wine
And not talk of training babies or the price of twine
And look without a lie into my face.
For life’s gone bare of sisters, and the cold
Companionship of females presses in.
Togetherness with women is bad gossiping,
A clubbiness that’s killing to the soul,
A rigid discipline of what to say and what to leave behind,
Of being everlastingly alike,
Of half-day bridge and all the casserole delight
Of going nowhere, going quickly blind.
I’m too discouraged now in gathering of birds
To pass around my little plate of crumbs
And hear no one take up my glossolalia, my song-cum-
Litany of charms, my certain telling hints of names and words.
And so I stay alone, reread a Russian novel, taste again
A raw philosophy, a love that moved away,
A yesterday that seems like only yesterday
When my life found its meaning in the world of men.
The few of us who seem to have survived
This frightful feast of children at our breasts
Preserve, with fierce and hated selfishness,
The self – and wait within the vacuum of our lives;
And wait at candles’ ends across a sea
For husband’s job or war or death or destiny
To draw us within range, and bravely we exchange
A line of poetry, a recipe of peasant Greek cuisine;
And wait, grown tired of telling to a man
What always sounds insultingly dissatisfied
(And later, when we’ve cried, we say we lied)
What he, though willing, patient, cannot understand
Of age come late and twenties gone too soon
Of waste and lost momentum in the nursery dark.
So sitting separate, guarding children in the park,
We stir regret into the cold thin soup of winter afternoons.
Linda Frye Burnham, 1968
* I wrote this poem when I was 27 and living in Japan, an army wife with three kids, ages 2, 3 and 4. I got married when I was 21, in 1962. It was what women did then. By 1968 I began to feel that I had lost myself – the person who had accomplished so much in her college years. My husband was a doctor stationed at a MASH hospital on an Air Force base about 35 miles east of Tokyo. The women I knew were mostly Southerners married to Air Force lifers and Japanese women who were almost completely subservient to men. I missed the strong, fruitful closeness I had with my friend Mary, who lived in California. I wrote to her constantly (and many of those letters are published in a book, “Dear M,” that you can buy on Amazon). This poem erupted during a year that was changing America drastically and I could only read about it in magazines. I was isolated across an ocean with no one to talk to about what I was going through as a woman. I was very much on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with mysterious illnesses and massive depression. It was my period of Saturn Return, when a person crosses over a major threshold and enters the next stage of life. I didn’t know what an enormous change I would go through in the early ’70s, but I could certainly feel it coming.