As part of our ongoing effort to support writers impacted by COVI-19, this installment of Sundress Reads features a review written by Maya Williams on Birthmarks by Whitney Rio-Ross:
Whitney Rio-Ross’ Birthmarks is a skilled and comprehensive deconstruction of the representation of women in the Bible, and how patriarchal influences have highjacked their stories and even play a role in Ross’ life with her mother (whom the book is dedicated to).
Ross uses poetry as a tool to give life to their stories and critique the ongoing themes of fruitfulness, equating baby-making and binary gender roles of men being masters and women engaging in eternal servitude. The book is out now with Resource Publications (an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers). See below for ordering information.
Before the reader can even begin to engage with Ross’ poems, there are quotes from the “beginning” of significant birth through Eve after she and Adam are kicked out of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis to the “ending” of significant birth through Mary before she conceives and gives birth to Jesus in the Book of Luke. The contrast is there on purpose.
Those two separate stories of women and childbirth alone display the ongoing themes of “bearing fruit” throughout the Bible being in strictly two categories: either for the sake of being punished or for the sake of sacrifice. The similarity they share is these two women giving birth because God, shown in this book of poems sometimes as a central male figure, told them to.
The opening poem is an erasure poem. Erasure poems are a staple in this collection in regards to an up close and personal look at how women are viewed to be servants (“Magnificat, As Plea”), and how bystanders are to be ambivalent towards women’s sorrow and how what is loved by them is taken away from them (“Resurrection, As Resurrection”). The opening erasure “Proverbs 31, As Curse” changes the line “A woman that feareth the Lord shall be praised” to “A woman that feareth the Lord shall be praised.” I don’t believe that erasing God from this piece is a dig upon someone’s relationship with a deity or spiritual entity. I believe that Ross is calling attention to how the patriarchy in our society is reliant on women’s fear, which is the only moment when they are worthy of any kind of praise.
Poems involving “Eve” in its title is another staple in Birthmarks, because instead of directly talking about Eve from the Bible, she talks about her mother. Just as there has been blame on Eve for eating from The Tree of Good and Evil—even though Adam ate from it too, and didn’t try to stop her—there has been blame on Ross’ mother…for multiple things actually: “What had she done wrong this time?” The strain in the indentations in between is startling too.
A more fascinating poem is one that reminds readers of someone not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. We don’t even know her name. The Prodigal Son is a story of the Bible often referenced about a son who goes off to waste his father’s inheritance in a life of lust and partying, only to return when he is poor and down on his luck. We know of the prodigal son, his father who welcomes him back with open arms, and his brother, who is upset because he was the one who stayed home and remained “the good one.” No one knows the mother. How long she had to wait for her son’s return, how much cleaning she had to do in order to prepare. Readers of the Bible may not consider that because the men in this story certainly haven’t. Ross makes sure we as readers get to know her in “Prodigal’s Mother, Waiting.”
Regardless of your personal worldview, and regardless of your knowledge base of Christianity, this book is an intriguing read. It is a book that encourages the reader to consider being in the shoes of women in an important text written by men. It is a book that supports you in viewing the harms of how a woman’s productivity in childbirth determines their value and can even pit women against each other when it shouldn’t (“Rachel, at Leah’s Baby Shower”). It’s a book of poems written about women by a woman shedding a perspective not often considered in most dialogue about religion.
Maya Williams (she/they) is a Black and Mixed Race writer currently residing in Portland, ME. Maya has published poems in glitterMOB, The Portland Press Herald, Black Table Arts, Occulum, and more. She has also published essays and poetry book reviews in The Tempest, Black Girl Nerds, The Floor Mag, and more. They are a Best of the Net Nominee and a finalist in Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance’s chapbook contest in 2019. Maya will be starting Randolph College’s low residency MFA virtually in mid-June 2020.