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Invention in Three Parts

(A Poem for Women)

I. A Calling

it’s a foreign language
we’ve come to speak
here by the water‘s edge,
the lake shore arcing around us
lapping at our bare feet.
It’s an invitation
to strip from our bodies
the language of our fathers.
We’ve worn it dutifully
and now need to wade naked.
Are you willing?
Lean closer
and I will tell you a story.

It’s 1968.
Six girls rest on beach towels.
Sun’s heat beats down
Tans their skin while the AM radio
(batteries wearing) crackles
and you lean in, try to catch
some of what they’re saying
but you can’t make sense.

At 12, my girlfriends and I invented
and spoke the IT_A_GA language.
Don’t recall it’s start, but it was
the secretive voice of questions and answers.
That same summer my father thought sure
I was distracted. He’d hurry me from the phone,
yelling at my mother, “Darlene, she doesn’t speak
up. Always glued to that phone, mumbling.
We pay good money for that school.
They ought to have taught her to talk right.”

Papa, they tried.

Now, it wasn’t what we spoke, but rather
how we spoke
that caused us to feel separate.
Don’t think (bet you’ve heard
that before) that at 12
we knew about power and language.
What we knew was this:

When we spoke IT-A-GA
we could hear
what we said.
That simple.

The talk in school, all
the language I had been taught
to spout couldn’t do that.

Look, we’re just ankle deep.
Can you wade further in?

II. Hearing Logic

If A = B,
and B = C,
then A = C.

If Sally goes all the way with Joey
and Joey goes all the way with Anne
then Sally is the same as Anne, right?


Language ceases to be logical
when we breathe through it.
Anyway, everyone knows Sally
is a tramp and Anne is in love.
Oh come on. Joey is just a boy.

Sometimes the water’s
too cold and we want to run
back to the shore. Wait
and the body warms.
Go ahead.
Hold in your stomach.
Dip down.
Get your shoulder wet.
Feel better?

Consider that how we name a thing
sets it like a buoy
in a bay—frames how we think.

Play a game with me:
when I say a word
You tell me quick
what word you think:


Did you think:

cold white tramp ?

Now, it’s not that we plan
to be misogynists.
But one day we’re speaking
and somehow we finally hear
the scaffold of our talk: all
that shit we’ve been taught
to say without hearing.
We stop. We’re scared:

We’re saying that woman
deserve the same equality
as men and to compete in
that world then we got
to get tough, just like men.
Cause we really want that.
Even if we’re not quite
perfect yet. Well, we’re
working on that and pretty
soon we’re going to be
just great. We just need to

Wait.Justwait a bit.

and you’ll see.

Let me translate:
A woman’s place is neither
in the home
nor the office,

a woman’s place
is a waiting place
where she can be switched
on or off
like a favorite reading lamp
or a cunt that comes
when you call it.

Now what do you want to be
When you grow up, little girl?

(Okay, Mama. I know:
girls don’t talk trash
at least not nice ones
and certainly not in public.
But Mama, I’m real nice.
This is public.

III. Sounding

We drink words and find
we talk a language of hesitation:

“Honey, when I asked you
if you wanted the rock garden THERE
what I meant was move the garden today.”

It’s not polite to ask for what you want directly.

Language is movement between talk and silence,
pause and breath.
It’s how we learn who we are
where we fit and don’t fit
and how to play.

Reach back
Float awhile
And perhaps you remember:

“If you tell, I’ll kill you,”
he said rolling off of her, shutting tightly
the bedroom door behind him.


“Everyone look at Jane. See,she knows the right answer.Jane speak up.”I said, “Speak up, young lady.What’s wrong with you?”

Or perhaps:

“Jesus, why’d you go and say
that to my boss. He doesn’t want to
hear about your work.
Why can’t you just shut the fuck up,
look pretty and fit in?”

Don’t sound.
Don’t know.
Don’t be.
There. You’re perfect.
The perfect little corpse.

_Yes, I know the water’s frightening.Even when I stand here shoulder deepand lean my head back, wettingmy scalp—I still want to covermy face. It hurts to hear and seethe land-locked places that formed my heart.__But when I dip belowthe surfacethe single sound of my heart’secho becomes familiar—bids meto listen until I hear the fluid languageof my own silences screaming.These are my stories.These are the ones I was taught not to hear._

I stand here today
naked and well
beyond the edge,
sounding a language
I’ve only begun to speak.

Invention in Three Parts

Mary Ann Reilly

Ringwood, United States

  • Artist
  • Artwork Comments 16

Artist's Description

A poem I wrote some time ago…

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