Hostage: a person seized and used as security for the fulfillment of a condition. Someone who is specifically held captive so that other people will act according to the will of their captors. So what does poet Laura McCullough mean when she likens women to hostages in her newest poetry collection?
Women and Other Hostages is McCullough’s seventh and most recent collection of poetry. Excluding her prologue piece, this collection is split into five separate sections for the reader to view. Her poems act as a looking glass, allowing the reader to experience the world from an entirely female perspective and see the joys and struggles of the everyday woman. The myriad of poems she presents display a range of emotions from the freedom of selfhood found in “Women & The Syntactical World” to the unquestionable pain demonstrated in “The Will.” McCullough pours her soul into each piece and proudly displays her own battles to bolster others.
Prepping the reader for the full collection is “Medusa as a Parable of Faith & Resilience,” as it paints the scene of society and showcases the relationship it has with women.
“I choose neither pain nor joy,
Women are given very few choices and the ones that they are given are often steeped in difficulty. The legend of Medusa, a woman so terrifying she turns men into stone, has become a symbol of power in McCullough’s writing. She takes the negative image of Medusa and imposes it on herself and femininity saying, “Athena never owned up / to her crime against Medusa.” (lines 3-4). McCullough shows Medusa not as a villain, but as a victim of both the men and women in her life who have been beaten down by a system that twisted their world views. Through myth, she sets the stage for the issues she has lived through and witnessed, breaking down her struggles into a story that everyone has heard of at least once before.
The power dynamic between genders is the driving force of her collection. The titular poem “Women & Other Hostages” is a personal favorite as it digs into what it means to be a woman in society and struggle through the day-to-day difficulties of life. The poem highlights the expectations put on women as the narrator comes to terms with herself and allows her to simply still act out “like the dumb beast I am occasionally thrilled to be” (line 36). Throughout the collection, McCullough’s poetry goes through and touches on power both taken and given to women in society. Because even though hostages may be at the mercy of their captors they still exhibit power over the situation in a sense. The hostage’s life and actions determine how much the success of their captor’s goals. McCullough’s poem “Cougar” finds power in giving men too much of what they want:
“Men are afraid of her, they say,
The subject of the poem is described as exactly what men want. She has done exactly what is expected of her and made herself desirable to men; however, she has done it so well that it has backfired. She has found so much power in the desire of men that she now becomes something for them to fear. Other poems like “The Troubles of Men: Holometaboly” highlight the construction of gender norms and shows that people have more in common when they look at themselves without them. Showing what society could be if differences were put aside and what people share without labels in the way.
In the end, McCullough’s poetry is heavily reflective of her own life and experiences. Her heartbreak, hope, and passion bleed into each page of the collection. Her experiences as a woman, wife, and mother have shaped the direction of her words and allow the reader to place themself in her shoes and relate to the vision she presents. McCullough showcases women in multiple circumstances in her poems, never lifting one above the other, but instead finding solace in their similarities and differences.