John T Marohn

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Women and Power in Western History

The Femme Fatale and the Liberated Woman

In one weekend, I was given a fast-forward fictional portrayal of the femme fatale in Saint Saens’s Opera Samson et Delila and a film version of the beginnings of the modern liberated woman in the movie, Colette

The film was based on brilliant writer who eventually broke away from a patriarchal husband who used her writing talents, under his name, to gain personal fame.

Colette reaches a tipping point when she discovers that her husband sold the rights to novels she essentially wrote.

It is her moment of truth when she storms into his office and confronts him with the tragic reality of what he has done to her: completely sold her artistic identity to someone else— the final and unforgivable transgression, in her mind.

On her arduous journey of independence, she discovers she no longer needs her husband’s name and power to succeed as a writer. Her talent is enough.

Seduction as Power, the Adulterous Lover, the Fleshless Saint

With some glowing exceptions (Queens Elizabeth and Victoria), it seems to me the only power women in the West have been allowed to have is the power of seduction.

Innocence, sanctity, maternity, and mediation found in the cult of the Virgin Mary during the Middle Ages reduced women to fleshless creatures of domesticity, quiet piety, and silent submission to God’s will (at least that’s the orthodox Christian version).

The courtly love tradition portrayed women as moaning lovers writing love letters hinting at a poetically inspired sexual tryst when a lover returned home from war or a military obligation (Granted the courtly love tradition may have been more myth than reality).

The women as seductress, however, seems to have been a constant in Western mythology, especially in the Old Testament. That role appealed to men because it obviously gave the male the innocent-victim status.

“The devil made me do it,” as an old tv comic character used to say. And the sexual devil was always in the form of a woman—- Salome, Bathsheba, Delilah, Jezebel

So, women it seems were given power in Christian myths as seducers (whores, most likely) or as adulterous, but bloodless lovers by mutual consent in the courtly love tradition.

On the dry side, women were permitted to have some iconic status as saints or martyrs, but, as we’ve seen with the cult of Mary, only as fleshless domestic servants of God.

Women and the Arts

On the other hand, in the arts, women really had no power. Their roles were to reproduce, to cook, and to clean. Or to help with the farming.

What we think of as their nurturing role may have been non-existent given all their harsh duties, not to mention how many births they had to have just to make sure that a few of their children would survive.

In any event, prior to very modern times, most women didn’t have time to compose an oratorio, to write a a play, or to paint, especially for a living.

Even if they married into wealth, they were prohibited, by tradition, from either exposing their talents (unless to “perform” as a vocalist or pianist in a salon setting) or establishing an independent career in the arts.

Colette certainly broke that tradition as an independent writer.

Thanks to her, thousands of women have been inspired to find their unique power in the arts as fiction writers.



Desire some sages say
Is the root of all suffering,
Knowing that wanting 
Implodes at the first grasp,
Having seen a child running
Towards the first friendly face
Then distracted by the sun’s rays
Swimming across a bed of crocuses.



My lovely agonist,
Cruel substitute,
Halloween mask,
Candied-apple Lover
In your cheap eye-liner,
I want to lust for you
As my first drop-dead date
In concrete basements,
But you were sent
By some official
In green pants
With a name tag
And ugly shoes
I cannot trust
Right now.

But give me time.
For I need a lover,
As young hearts do,
Some shiny face
That doesn’t nod off
And eyes that don’t close,
And long-fingered hands
On warm washcloths
And piano keys
On a Sunday afternoon.


Ménage à Trois

A third person cannot
Do what two have found
As the right length of a kiss,
Tertiary tongues spoiling
The settled contracts
Of imperfection
That cannot be made whole
By an intruder’s adrenaline,
The huckster’s offer
Of more dazzling fruit
Rotting in its excess,
Or Saturday night’s
Recycled news.


Il Sait

He knew
The names of pick-up trucks
And brands of dishwashers,
What time the sun would rise
Tomorrow or next Tuesday,
That a minor key
Drew him to fentanyl,
That a cloud had enough time,
That a hill would never say no,
That fall leaves gave up trying,
That his wife would
Give it one more shot.


Yesterday he was asked
What he believes in
As if the broken cliffs 
Along the sea
When the fog
Rolls in aren’t enough
Or the children faking fear
Running through a sprinkler.

Trucks and buses
Make wide turns,
Two year olds
Scream in restaurants,
Umbrellas are useless
In a windstorm,
A one-month old
Doesn’t choose
Which nipple is more tender,
The sky takes in any fool’s eyes.


Things Wished For

He learned as a child
To be silent
On buses and trains,
Or as a passenger
On a long car trip,
In his monk’s space,
Making up events
That never were:
A mother who spoke garlands,
A father who felt grief,
A older brother who had no ambition,
A nun who had bad penmanship,
A host that bled
On his first-communion suit
To let him know
That redemption was real—-
All repackaged in the odor
Of things wished for.

Post Mortem

After Frank’s death in July,
She had stalked the moon
When it arrived
In its crescent and full phases,
Forgetting even her name
And the overdue electric bill
Still in the mailbox
From two weeks ago
Feeling, in his death,
The moon’s tempered nods
For her to dance naked,
The summer wind breathing gently
On her breasts and wrinkled arms


A kettle whistling on the stove,
Its voice rushed to the untrained ear
But to this old-habit of a man
A purring of the familiar,
This hissing welcome into the feast
Of the sun’s surprises.
In this hymn of the known
Is to hear your soft feet upon the floor
Your body moving to its own rhythm,
Your head on my aging shoulders,
Your night’s sweet whisper
Melting my desire for any new gifts,
Except this day and an album of you


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