Sheree Fitch - In This House are Many Women

In This House Are Many Women (1993) is Sheree Fitch’s first adult poetry collection after almost a decade of publishing children’s verse. The collection itself is a house of sorts, containing a multitude of women’s voices and experiences on subjects ranging from daycare to domestic violence. The poems, written during a year in which Fitch obtained a Canada Council grant (1988), shatter the idealization of the “happy ever after” fairy tale conveyed to women who expect suburban comfort and contented marriages. In reality, they often end up at shelters, as in the first section entitled “In This House Are Many Women.” Those who do not look in the mirror and see battered faces instead experience mental anguish from even innocuous rites of passage. A mother in “Coming of Age” weeps for the young man who shaves “a newspaper smudge / of a mustache” for the first time. The second section, “Propinquity,” features poems both heartbreaking and heart-warming, but all centered on women trudging through a patriarchal society, often sacrificing themselves to benefit others. In the third section “Ever-spinning Cupid,” women sift through expectations of love and its realities, best articulated in the cycle of poems from the outspoken Lucy, who muses on everything from mascara to monogamy with a satirical bite. Finally, the last section, entitled “Diana’s Circus,” becomes an allegory for the life of a woman who attempts to tame her circus-like existence.

The collection marks a shift from the nonsense rhymes for which Fitch became famous, yet some of the rhythm is reminiscent of her earlier verse, as Fitch proves herself equally adept at entertaining and enlightening an adult audience. While similar repetition and verse forms are employed, the subject matter is clearly adult, as Fitch often explores the darker side of human relationships. Fitch examines heterosexual relationships in particular, whether depicting the bruises doled out by a spouse, or writing of the sexual escapades of Diana and the meter man in “Thursday.” Infused with a cynicism about the stability of monogamous relationships, her verse criticizes institutions like marriage in “Shopping with a Friend for her Wedding Dress” by suggesting the plastic sheaths over gowns at the wedding shop will suffocate a woman. Simultaneously, though, in “Ever-spinning Cupid,” the speaker suggests that despite attempts to outrun cupid—in this case, a cardboard cut-out at the local pharmacy—love is the “prescription / most of us came here for / in the first place” and a sterile, celibate life would be death. At the same time, the closing poems of Diana’s failed dreams in “Diana’s Circus” suggest that solo acts might be preferable to the circus she tried to maintain in what seems to be the suburban dream gone awry. While the poem “Postscript” is ambiguous as to whether Diana’s ultimate end has been self-inflicted or not, clearly the domestic circus has been her undoing, and she has escaped to the moon where “there are no laws of gravity.”

Fitch’s feminism is prominent throughout the collection, highlighted by “Lucy on BUTS,” a hilarious extended riff on the classic expression of ambivalence toward feminism, “I’m not a feminist, but ….” While Lucy reveals her confusion surrounding whether she is a feminist or not with numerous comic twists, because “I’m not angry or bitter or lesbian” and “I do like lingerie,” the poem reflects a deeper concern about how to describe one’s own orientation in a world that privileges labels. However, while the collection has a strong feminist orientation, and includes a multitude of women’s voices, the utterances often originate from homemakers and wives on subjects pertaining to marriage and motherhood. Occasionally, Fitch visits other subjects, such as “Cop” in which a woman’s work as a police officer (and as an undercover prostitute) becomes her way of holding onto hope “as best we can.” The woman in “Civil Servant” muses on regional “despair-ity” as desperate, unemployed people come in to give her their “sins.” But for the most part, Fitch displays a rather maternal feminism, in that childcare and housework are closely aligned with a woman’s experience.

The section “In This House There Are Many Women” is particularly evocative of women’s lot in a patriarchal society. It features a multitude of voices ranging from shelter workers, a neighbour who does not want the shelter in her backyard, to the women at the shelter themselves. This section traces the journey of a woman walking to a shelter, the women who fill out the forms, try on the donated clothes for job interviews, to “Marie’s Lullaby,” which offers the prayer that “someday / in this house of many women / there will not be / any women.” Fitch uses a variety of techniques for creating this medley of verse, including a handwritten shopping list—“Helen’s List”—which details the minutiae of life: needing to buy diapers, and the far darker necessity of obtaining a peace bond. “Filling out the Form” is a small grid of words that feels like a cacophony of voices in mismatched handwriting, as women reveal on the shelter form everything from how many children they have to what kind of abuse they endured. At the same time, Fitch interjects with occasional humour, as in the poem “The Fashion Show,” as Rhoda jokes about her upcoming job interview, “well sir my qualifications are / fuck all .” A woman who has found a job in the food service industry wears a uniform that looks like an “inflatable crooked candy cane” as she takes orders for “stickinlickinchicken.” But underneath the humour is concern about more serious issues—e.g. the low-paying jobs allotted to women who have spent years doing unwaged work in return for abusive relationships. Lucy’s response to an adulterer who is unhappy with his domestic rut is:
     He'll say he loves his wife and kids
     He's in a rut and stuck
     Walk away, politely say
     Sir, I don’t give a
     session in marriage counselling (88).

Fitch has never received the accolades for her adult prose that she has for her children’s work, which is a touch ironic, as it is assumed that children’s prose is simpler to construct. As she has suggested in numerous interviews, the difference between children’s prose and adult verse is subject matter rather than poetic technique. Though her adult poetry employs a diction more appropriate for adults, it is also accessible enough to reach a wide audience. Poems from this collection have been aired on CBC radio programs, and published in journals such as The Fiddlehead and Alpha. While her poetry is neither cerebral nor erudite, neither is it simplistic; instead, Fitch’s clever but accessible figurative language and her depiction of mundane, at times proletarian, daily situations allow her to reach a larger readership. While her children’s verse has the innocence of bedtime, this collection has more the feel of the thoughts of women long after the light has been turned off.