this is me, Sheila, talking — poem

this is me, Sheila, talking
I have seen fingers
crack in the ring
like girdle scones

this is me, Sheila, talking
this is me this is me
I have seen women settle like
junket, I have seen water curdle

listen this is me
this is Sheila this is me
I am a person
who knows things

I have a small brown voice
here it is in my handbag
south, southwest, southeast
little voice is restless

these are my hands the skin
is lifting drifting freckling
covers the blood lumping
inside the bones are grinding
these are my hands crackling

I am not ready to die

listen to me it is always
nearly too late
this is me, Sheila, talking
this is me

Rachel McAlpine, 1977


The other day I photographed a friend’s hands, so beautiful, so capable, and I was reminded of this poem. I wrote the Sheila poems (“Sheila and the Honourable Member”) at the height of the Women’s Liberation movement and they were first published in Stay At the Dinner Party (1977, Caveman Press).

We were intensely conscious that women had no voice in the public arena and women worked to get representation in Parliament, on regional and city councils and company boards and in other positions of responsibility, with considerable success. In the early 1970s if a woman uttered any opinion about sexism or discrimination or our rights, we were scoffed at. (I’m still called a “strident feminist”, I think, on the New Zealand Book Council’s web page about me: “strident” was a mandatory adjective for any woman who spoke and was heard.)

I was also finding my own voice as a person and a poet. It was at the 1977 United Women’s Convention in Christchurch that I read these poems first — and what a response! We women were starving for many things that were ours by right including our own voice.

Nowadays I notice that my poems are also speaking for others: older people who are tired of being stereotyped. I’m still a feminist, of course, but now ageism takes more of my strident attention.

Photo of an old woman's hands

Old hands speak eloquently. Old voices too.

13 thoughts on “this is me, Sheila, talking — poem

  1. LA says:

    Beautiful, the picture, the poem, the afterthought and overall sentiment

    1. You understand…

      1. LA says:

        💗

  2. You are a woman of so many gifts, and I’m so grateful that you continue to share them with us!! Stay strident – I’m learning how – for the sake of not only ourselves, but also our daughters, the whole next generation who still need us to pave a new way!

    1. It’s never too late to be strident! A pejorative which I embrace as aspirational…

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I forgot how often “strident” was thrown around. I remember Tillie Olsen’s book “Silences” which explored the topic you address in your poem.

  4. Oh I love this, Rachel. Somewhat hilariously, the other week at the Auckland Writers Festival, a gentleman (don’t know who he was as he forgot to introduce Artemis Cooper and himself)… but anyway, having a conversation with Artemis Cooper about her work as a biographer he mentioned two of her subjects, Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Jane Howard and referred to them as being considered ‘Strumpets’… much to the dismay, surprise and bewilderment of most of the women in the audience… er and I suspect Artemis Cooper herself. Anyway, my book group talked about this and here’s a fab new definition of the word Strumpet…. ‘A strident piece of crumpet’…. well, we’re now all happy to be ‘strumpets’. Viva la Strumpets and here’s to Strident Women en masse.

    1. Whoops, I misquoted my book group – the definition of a strumpet is a stroppy bit of crumpet!! 🙂

      1. Even better.

    2. I’ll take that, although I doubt I qualify as crumpet x

  5. alison41 says:

    Stride on, dear Rachel, we’re counting on you!

  6. “Strident.” I love it! What a great post, and how interesting how far, yet perhaps not really so far, we’ve come. It seems there will always be someone, some*thing,* some element of “the other,” to be repressed, put aside, because of the fear involved in opening to it. How miserable we make ourselves as humans in this constant battle led by ego!!

    1. Two steps forward, one step back, for societies and entire countries. Groupishness has its purposes but at such a cost. Meanwhile I will occasionally be strident. Thanks for chatting!

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