Book Review – ‘Listen, bitch’ by Melinda Smith and Caren Florance

I purchased a copy of this book at the Poetry On The Move Festival.

If the title isn’t a giveaway, Listen, bitch is a book of poetry about misogyny. Melinda Smith and Caren Florance take us on a journey of details; as Smith herself says in the introduction, “listening very closely to what powerful men say, in public, about women”. It’s all there, in the public domain; but seeing it all together, reading those words in a constant bombardment, is shocking. 

The book uses a number of found-text techniques to bring its topic into sharp focus, with the Ernie awards (read more at ernies.com.au) as a springboard. The authors comb recent history for a blend of memorable moments and those which may have slipped under the radar, but are no less contributors to the acceptance of questionable attitudes towards women in Australia today. Comments and media statements from men in power are examined and distilled into their essence. Erasures of press releases from a television personality and a politician shine a very different light on their remarks; and what is buried under the veneer is exposed as damaging language is stripped of its camouflage. The opening of ‘Zero Sum’ is a perfect example:

It’s very unladylike to be yelling in the Parliament
Constant male bashing it’s not
in our values I’m a country guy so I know

Why would I vote for Malcolm in a skirt?

What Listen, bitch uncovers is not easy to read. The words are shocking; never more so than when they excuse acts of violence towards women and even insinuate that women are to blame for these situations. But Smith and Florance have no intention of letting this go unchecked. Page after page, they present the evidence that these attitudes are still very much present in contemporary Australian society. In their wordplay, they highlight the utter absurdity (and sometimes complete hypocrisy) of the language aimed at women, using humour to temper the still-sharp barb. ‘Baby Joy’ is a brilliant example of this. But working through the pages, and with extensive reference to the comprehensive notes provided, it becomes clear that this is deadly serious. Some of these words are taken from men in positions of power with clear responsibility for community safety; yet these men are abusing their positions in inexcusable ways. To see this collection of statements pulled together makes the pattern unable to be ignored. 

The first pieces in this collection are unsettling, but the book gathers momentum as it progresses; each poem goes further down the path of the cost, for women, of refusing to conform to patriarchal expectation. The standout pieces are images of two works from an exhibition in early 2019. The pieces are dresses, with constellations laid over them and poems composed of news reports and media statements from authorities around acts of physical violence towards women; one of these explores the murder of Melbourne writer and comedian Eurydice Dixon. What Melinda and Caren highlight with these works is that this language has a cumulative effect. It builds up to a point where acts become extreme, extremity becomes acceptable, and women pay far too high a price. 

Listen, bitch is a collection with its finger on the pulse of contemporary Australian patriarchy and feminism. It’s incisive, sometimes funny, devastating, and clever as hell. Melinda Smith and Caren Florance hold up a mirror, showing those damaging words and their speakers the power and consequence of their attitudes. Melinda writes that the book is “a bearing of witness” that will “help to maintain the rage” in those already aware of (and affronted by) the language and attitudes it exposes. It does both these things exceptionally well; it will astound you, horrify you, make you aware, and call you to action. Thought-provoking and intelligent, it’s the kind of book that sends a reader straight back to the beginning again, hungry for more. The message is strong and powerful – ‘we know what you’re doing, and we won’t stay silent’.

Listen, bitch is available now from Recent Work Press.

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