‘[the girls speak to each other via the common tongue]: Feather or a Rock’ by Ellen Welcker was published in 2017 in Spiral Orb. The free-verse poem is composed of twenty-one lines which are spatially arranged via couplets and single words or short phrases. The text of the poem appears scattered on the page. It begins at the traditional left-hand corner and then moves back and forth from the right side to the left. Eventually, the text degrades into one, two, or three-word lines.
These moments stick towards the central portion of the page are more spontaneous. They seem to come from the speakers without prior planning. This choice allows a reader to connect more intimately with the message the poet is trying to convey. It is as if her speaker, or speakers, (as will become clear), are engaging with the reader on a personal level.
It is clear from the beginning who the intended listener of the poem is. This certainty comes from the conversational element of the text. The words on the left-hand side come from one speaker, and the right, from another. These two women are struggling with one or more aspects of their life. It is through the text that the speakers hope to remind one another of their strengths and power in the world.
In the title, Welcker refers to the act of girls speaking to “each other via the common tongue.” This statement is likely a reference to what her speakers are trying to accomplish. The motivations, compliments, and encouragements are meant for one another but also for every girl in need of encouragement from one of her peers. ‘Feather or a Rock’ first traces through the various ways girls and women judge themselves. It continues on to replace these expectations with encouragements. The poem concludes with a liberating and elevating compliment meant to transcend the mundanity of societal pressures. As well as a determination of why women are in the situation they are in.
The poem begins with the speakers stating two factors that make their lives hard to understand and navigate. There is an ever-present choice between loving and/or being a “feather or a rock.” The poem continues with the two complementing one another and the strength they maintain to get through everyday life. Eventually, the second speaker refers to life as being filled with “persistent dread.” The darkness of this moment is offset with playful banter between the two.
The poem concludes with the first speaker referencing “martial law” and the Garden of Eden as the source of many of their problems.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Feather or a Rock
The poem begins with the first speaker addressing a question to her listener. As mentioned above the intended reader is any woman who is in need of encouragement of an understanding voice. The first speaker asks if her friend loves a “feather or a rock” more. This statement is quite vague, and not until the rest of the poem is flushed out, does it become clear what the speaker means. She is posing these questions as a way of forcing her partner to find an answer.
There are two stereotypical sides to who a woman is supposed to be. She could be a rock, or she could be a feather. This extends to the way she loves. Do you love beauty or strength? These two elements are traditionally opposite but it is through their juxtaposition that the speaker reminds her partner (and listeners) this is not the case.
Rather than responding to the question the second speaker replies with a different phrase. These lines emphasize the problematic idealized version of women. She describes how women are told it is “good to be ‘natural’.” One might ask, what is natural? What does that entail? This is the precise problem facing these women and all those to whom the poem is directed. Additionally, why should one conform to some specific idea of “good?” Women must “appear” the second speaker concludes. They must perform a specific role in the world.
In the next couplet, the first speaker tells her friend and partner that “you are not good.” This is a mimicking of one’s own inner voice. She repeats this in an effort to remove power from the phrase. One does not have to be perfect to be doing good. This is the reasoning behind the next line in which she says, “you are holding up though.” One’s life may not be perfect, but one should continue doing the best they can.
The second speaker replies with a similar statement. She copies the phrase “you are holding up.” But adds onto it, “you are getting a drink of water.” This mundane action is given a prominent place in the text to further emphasize the importance of the day to day. One should celebrate their small successes and take moments as they come.
The next couplet is similar to the first speaker repeats the previous phrase. This time though it is ‘eating” which is emphasized. At this moment an additional problematic element of how women are treated in society makes its way into the text. She tells her friend that she moving about her life and “concealing [her] identities.” The women are living the lives that society tells them they need to. Their own senses of self are somewhere beneath the layers modern life imposes.
In the following lines, the second speaker responds with another couplet. She makes an overarching statement about their place in the world. As well as the daily struggle of trying to understand how to make it through. The world in which women are forced to operate is like a “riotous wilderness.” There are no rules, but the continual breaking of rules. This contrast keeps one from ever having a full understanding of who they are supposed to be. Although the world might feel like it is “wild” and continually changing. It really is “more like a persistent dread.” This is the emotion the second feels most prominently on a daily basis.
The following lines converge towards the center of the page and feature humorous banter between the two. The tension of the discussion is broken when the first speaker uses the world “mycological.” She was referring to the “ferocity” of her partner and meant to say “mythological.” This slip of the tongue which is spelled out so spontaneously in the text is a happy reprieve from the darkening mood.
The two go back and forth over the next few lines with the second speaker correcting the first.
In the final four lines they return to the topic they began with, the problems inherent in the concept of a woman’s role in society. First, though, the second speaker complements the first. She speaks of the sound of her friend’s laughter. It has “undertones / of oak and berries.” This sweet and happy moment is brought back Ito reality with the final two lines.
The first speaker concludes the poem by adding that her laughter also has undertones of “martial law.” This “law” is that which was conceived “in a garden.” It is likely this is a reference to the Garden of Eden and religion’s subjugation of women. It was from the Bible that millennia of discriminatory practices were inspired and encouraged.