Williams, Kimberly K. Sometimes a Woman. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2021. RRP: $19.95, 78pp, ISBN: 9780645009064.
In popular culture, the women who helped pioneer the wild west of America are often depicted as dutiful wives and mothers or as ‘gals with golden hearts’. I’m thinking Jane Powell in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a musical film that idealised the Wild West and its ‘pioneers’. The character portrayed by Powell is a romantic construct: a beautiful blonde, revered in a household of seven rough men who all end up tamed, polite and considerate characters who also learn how to dance! They don’t lay a hand on her. Kimberly K. Williams looks to explore a separate and very different idea of female pioneers, through the lives of the prostitutes and Madams who have been largely unheard of in American history’s records. In fact, they have been ignored: ‘Mostly no one knows who we were’ (20). Her collection of poems, Sometimes a Woman, published by Recent Work Press, presents a collage of the many voices of such women as they expose the stark reality of their existence.
The poems in this collection are relentlessly grim, recording a litany of endurance that sometimes ends up as survival, and more often leads to physical degradation, suffering and death. Liberally employing the first person in free verse form or dramatic monologue, Williams charts the bleak lives of the ‘doves’ of the Wild West. The entire text reads as an invocation, calling up names, details and voices from the past. Several of the poems hardly read like poetry at all: Williams has utilised lists of facts, dates and names to create a sense of disconnection with her subject. These lists are cold, detached and somehow explicit even when the details are simple.
Early in the text is the poem ‘What’s In’ (3). It records many of the euphemisms given to prostitutes, such as ‘red light lady’, ‘soiled dove’, ‘darkened angel’ and ‘frail sister’. Deceptively simple, this little poem clearly recognises the position of these women. Society is too ashamed to state the hard truth and covers it over with labels more acceptable to the tongue and conscience. The adjectives insinuate the spoiled nature of the women as well as their fragility. Williams has even numbered some parts of poems—‘1’ through to ‘6’—treating the poems’ subjects as objectified parts rather than individual people, as in ‘Whoring Explained Five Ways, Plus One Wonderment’(15). The poem defines some of the hard facts behind whoring, about what (and who) has been left behind, and the factual treatment inherent in the job. Some of the lines link strongly to domestic violence and rape in today’s society, suggesting little has changed.
compliance. It’s just
The poem concludes on a rare positive, with a ‘wonderment’ of hope offered:
There’s a new word
I hear, suffragette,
and I wonder what it means.
Another simple list which Williams works through, in ‘Roll Call of the Fancy Ladies of Yavapai Country’ (43), includes women’s working names, their ages and where they come from, in a kind of roll call or census. The poem ‘Virginia City, NV: A Timeline’ records the violence done to the kinds of women Williams write about, such as how they were often brutally robbed of their earnings. Sometimes even the manner of their death is recorded next to them: ‘Julia Bullette is beaten to death for her jewellery and money’, and ‘Four men pound Ellen Farry to her death’ (51). There are no punches pulled in this exposé. The facts of history are allowed to speak for themselves.
Williams includes rhetorical questions as a style element, which somehow add a hopeless sense of acceptance for much of what the women in her poems endure. They expect no answers. In ‘Sadie Orchard, Kingston, NM’, Williams writes, in Orchard’s voice, ‘I left home at fifteen and headed west. What other way was there to go? (27) The will to survive leaves the women with no choice.
The language Williams employs in crafting these poems is simple and direct. Her choice of imagery is dark and often confronting. Vernacular and natural speech idiom add credibility and honesty. The voices of the various persona are alive. Broncho Liz makes a particularly strong impression:
But honey, I don’t miss. You want to fly
crooked when we’re supposed to fly
straight? Why, I’ll assist. The derringer and I added three
holes to Charlie’s collection. He died and because he smacked
me first, I walked free. (‘Broncho Liz Tells it Frankly’ 44)
There are also some mythical characters examined in this text. Emily West Morgan is one, Calamity Jane another. The latter is nothing like the character Doris Day portrays in the film of the same name. Instead, she is a straight-talking woman who debunks her myth and tells it like it is:
I am the stuff
of legends, legends that leave
out the gambling and the whoring
and the swollen splitting head-
Stuff that into your legend and suck it. (‘Calamity Explains Gut Rot’ 80)
The final poem of the collection, ‘Silver Heels’, taps into another legend. A mountain, a creek and a mine bear that name, in memory of one of the ‘ladies’ and her famous dancing shoes. The poem is written in the first person and reflects on the status of women, the truth of their lives and what they leave in memory. In the persona’s mind, ‘the truth so wavers that I can’t track it anymore’ (63). And her strength of character is evident in her last words: ‘I’m always going to shine’ (64).
I read the poems in this collection with an overwhelming sense of sadness at the seeming pointlessness of these women’s existence. Their lives were nothing, valued by no-one—as Williams notes, they were often not even worthy of a memory: ‘remembering us, is like locating an unmarked coffin’ (21). It was quite difficult to persist with the text because of the wretched nature of the material presented, and yet, at the same time, it needed exploration and exposure. There are stories from our past that have been hidden, swept away and even disguised. The lot of sex-workers around the world today is not easy and human trafficking continues. Sometimes a Woman puts unerring focus on a part of America’s past that has been distorted in popular culture. The reality is a long way from Jane Powell’s idyllic representation of the lives of women in the pioneering days of the gold rush, and it is important that we recognise that truth.
Veronica Lake is a Churchill Fellow (2010) and a teacher long associated with Literature. She collates and edits Primo Lux, an annual student anthology of poetry. She is a member of the Voicebox Collective, OOTA Writer’s Group and Poetry WA. Her first collection of poems, Dragonfly Wing, was published in 2019 by Sunline Press. Her poetry has also been published in journals in Australia, New Zealand and India.