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The Betrayal of Names

by Carol Barrett

            On reading Vivian Gornick’s Women In Science

            years after her Woman In Sexist Society

Image of a person standing in a corridor with surroundings decaying and image is overexposed.
Image credit: Chris Anderson on Unsplash

That first book named the dark, Vivian, the light

on my own thighs at daybreak, how I poured first lines

into the cup on Miss Slemmer’s desk, wrapped my throat

in my skirt when an unnamed man left me to the woods.

You called flesh what it is, poor semblance of life,

spelled our dove names in feathers, in blood, wrote

our flight from the scarlet stump. Now, tracking

these women to their beakers, their notebooks,

pungent cells, you dare leave their names untold?


The one trained to the question: will it bring you

nearer to God?  It matters, Vivian, her name.

Matters whether the woman paired to the man

who divided the animal kingdom between them,

claiming fish, toads and possum for his own,

assigning her the cockroaches in the basement,

it matters whether she is Naomi or Ruth.


The woman who did not wear tweeds, wear oxfords,

who climbed stone stairs in sandaled feet: it matters

the house where she stirred her coffee, molecules

dancing, pirouettes in equations the next day in lab.

It matters the town where she goes for groceries,

stopping the evening light to lift a butterfly

from coarse pavement onto the grass, matters

the name of the roses her grandmother pruned

off the back stoop, the ones she gathered

and chopped with a curved blade in a wooden bowl,

testing the color of juice in a handful of summer rain.

Matters the name of the tower, the pitted clock

where a secretary checks on another’s rightful tenure:

the men kept her too long, they’ve lost, she’s won.


Give us their names! The slips of their stories

press our cut lips like shame. You ask what constitutes

a lived life: not a body chemistry, Vivian, a name.


Black and white photo of the author, Carol Barrett.
Carol Barrett

Carol Barrett has published three volumes of poetry, including Calling in the Bones, which won the Snyder Prize from Ashland Poetry press. She supervises doctoral research in gender studies and several other interdisciplinary fields. Her poetry has appeared in magazines in Britain, Germany, Israel, the Virgin Islands, as well as Canada and the U.S. An NEA Fellow in Poetry, Carol has also placed poems in over fifty anthologies.

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