With Paper for Feet by Jennifer A McGowan is a collection of narrative poems using folklore, historical literature, and even religion as a source. McGowan, one of Oxford’s Back Room Poets, graduated from Princeton with honors, and from the University of Wales for her M.A. and Ph.D. Despite being certified as disabled at age 16 with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, she went on to become a semi-professional mime and performed in five countries. She has published poetry and prose in various magazines and anthologies and has both written and recorded songs on several (small, but perfectly formed) labels. She loves teaching and has taught both under- and postgraduates at several universities.
With Paper for Feet opens with the poem White Woman Walks Across China with Paper for Feet. It is an interesting poem with probably an interesting story behind it. A white woman (who is half Chinese) travels across China searching for the ghost of her mother at her birthscape. My understanding of the term is a more metaphysical combination of birth, location, and environment. The woman goes from town to town living outdoors and writing in her journals. When asked she tells people that her mother haunts her. She documents everything sometimes getting lost in the stream of her thoughts. Paper is the one thing that gets heavier with use. Ink is absorbed into the paper. Her nine-month journey is accompanied by so much writing she could not send it back home. In a turn on paper, her feet being paper, she as a person learned much on the journey absorbing everything she crossed. It was through the paper of her feet that she learned so much, yet is unable to communicate it.
Despite the depth of the opening poem, the second was much lighter and easier to understand at first read like most of the other poems in the collection. The collection continues with poems on folklore from around the world. The second section consists of poems of ancient Greece and Troy. Poems on Shakespearean women comprise section three to include a poem on Shakespeare’s mother. Even with my limited Shakespeare experience, the poems were easy to understand and offered a modern insight to the women written of in seventeenth century England. The fourth section is a historical look at women in England including the writer of the first autobiography, Margery Kempe. One theme that is brought to the surface in that had been lurking in the other sections is witchcraft — particularly as it applied to women. Men could be doctors, but women healers were witches and met a much different fate than the country doctor.
The final section is short, but perhaps the sharpest critical section. The Bible and Biblical figures are subject to interpretation and revisionism. Solomon, the wise king, claimed his own rights to kingly privilege. Lot’s wife, who is never named in the Bible, is given a place in this poetry:
They left her there, solid tears
under a sky empty of everything
except a lone seraph, singing.
McGowan combines folklore, myth, and history with a modern poet’s vision. The view is supportive of women’s role in history and told from a modern woman’s view which is something throughout history that has been missing. A well done and thought-provoking collection of poetry.