Last October I finally read The Princess Saves Herself in This One, the first of these poetry collections by Amanda Lovelace. It had been on my to-read list for a while, but it took my friend Rebecca reading it and lending me her copy to actually get around to it. This time, I saw The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One in Chapters while buying a copy of the first book as a birthday gift! So I bought one for myself, and Rebecca and I buddy-read it. You can see her thoughts here.
If The Princess Saves Herself in This One is a very personal but broad story about the struggles of abuse, trauma, womanhood, family, and relationships, then The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One, while still personal, narrows the scope specifically to the relation of being a woman in this world. It focuses more on sexual and gender politics, with the personal elements enhancing Lovelace’s statements—wow, that’s too bland of a word … let’s say her call to arms when it comes to what it means to be a woman in a society that, while still patriarchal, is perhaps waking up.
I loved buddy-reading this with Rebecca, because our different experiences allowed us to share our very different learnings from this book. For Rebecca, of course, as a woman in Western society a lot of these poems resonated with her on a personal level. For me, a lot of these poems felt more at arm’s length: I recognized, from my feminist reading and the conversations I’ve had with friends, the sentiments in them, but there was less of a visceral reaction. Gradually, my understanding of this book developed around my response to it as
“the only thing we’re guilty of is being women”
I’ve been thinking about Jordan Peterson over this weekend, ever since that subversively intimate profile of him came out in the New York Times—well, not so much about Peterson himself, but about what he represents and the way we are still so invested in building up and celebrating these odious figures simply because they help drive the engines of capitalism. The same day that I picked up this book from Chapters, I saw that Peterson had nearly two shelves dedicated to his new book, all the various copies facing outwards. Why? Because his book will sell. And in our society, what sells matters most.
I bring this up here and now because The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One has actually helped me process my understanding of Peterson and his ilk. Jordan Peterson is a “matchstick boy”, to use Lovelace’s parlance. I don’t know if he genuinely drinks the snake oil he’s selling or if he’s just saying it because it’s getting him more of a platform … whatever the case, he is out to burn women as witches, to burn them simply for the crime of being women. It’s there in all of his utterances, the casual way he throws out terms like “enforced monogamy” or talks about the inherent differences between the “two” genders. In the wake of terrible actions fuelled increasingly obviously by misogyny, Peterson does not blame the men perpetrating these crimes but instead the women who turned them down. (Pro-tip: if someone tries to excuse violent behaviour by blaming the struggle for equality and equity, this is a sign that they are an asshole, and you should probably laugh at them before ignoring them forever.)
By the time part three of this book rolls around, Lovelace has made it clear that she is fucking done with matchstick boys like Peterson. It’s not just a matter of not taking it anymore, or of fighting back: she is going to refuse to play by their rules entirely. Their rules proclaim fairness but are inherently unfair. We should stop giving the matchstick boys a platform, stop pretending their ideas are worth engaging with in so-called “civil” or “rational” debate. We should, instead, focus on creating safer spaces and encouraging women and other people who experience oppression to talk, and act, and create. Rather than delivering us a series of tepid, generically motivational stories about the empowerment of women, girl power, rah-rah and all that, though, Lovelace does something much more clever and compelling. This is the power of a poetry collection, the opportunity it presents to build an emotional arc that allows you to devastate a reader and simultaneously lift them up to new heights.
There is a poem, 41 pages in, that really grabbed me: “they / will try / to steal / your light”. It goes on to remind women that, although men and other elements in our society will seek to use women’s own strengths against them, ultimately, those elements are not able to control that power. It’s a short, simple poem, but it builds on top of the fire-and-light symbolism that Lovelace suffuses throughout this book: do not take your strength from another, from their adoration or admiration or love; take the strength from within yourself, and if you feel your strength taken from you, remember that you can snatch it back. As the collection moves on and the arc bends towards a firestorm crescendo, Lovelace returns to this idea. Women experience oppression in our society, yes—and depending on one’s various other intersections of identity, one might experience more or less oppression than other women—but throughout history, women have always fought back. Feminism is not a fresh or new idea, even if the name itself hasn’t always been around. Women have always fought back, and faced pushback and censure for it, but they have never stopped fighting.
And so Lovelace reminds us that the power of the matchstick boys is one of smoke and mirrors. Their torches and pitchforks can harm and abuse individually, yes, but collectively, this is a society built on a house of cards. And they know it. That’s why they are afraid of and hate women so much, and work so hard to persecute them, to silence them. Lovelace exhorts women not to settle for survival, not to settle for being allowed to sit and smile and have a small part of the domain. This is not the time to be silent, not the time to be polite, not the time to be “nice” or “civil”. The matchstick boys thought they could come and play with fire. The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One—they do.
So that’s the power in this book. If The Princess Saves Herself in This One was a reminder for me, as a man, that women don’t need to be saved, then The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One is a reminder that women’s voices, women’s fury, women’s perspectives, need to be at the forefront of this conversation and this revolution. I am not a matchstick boy. But I must also work not to be a bystander to the witch-burning.