Tanis MacDonald is the author of six books of poetry and essays, including Out of Line: Daring to Be an Artist Outside the Big City (Wolsak and Wynn 2018). Her fourth book of poetry, Mobile, was longlisted for the Toronto Book Award in 2020. In 2021, Tanis won the Open Season Award (CNF) in The Malahat Review for her personal essay "Mondegreen Girls." Her work has appeared recently in The Goose, The Fiddlehead and Hamilton Arts & Letters, and in the anthologies Far Villages and Best Canadian Poetry 2020. Tanis lives in Waterloo, Ontario.
To the author of the fiction craft book who wrote this prompt for beginners: “Write a short story from the point of view of a young girl being pursued through a dark park by a crazed man with a knife,” fuck off.
To the same author who followed up with “Now rewrite it from the point of view of the man with a knife,” please continue to fuck off.
You dropped “crazed” from the second description. Aaah, he’s just a guy, you know, who could be having a bad day, you know, he needs our understanding, you know, why don’t we look at this from his point of view?
Comparisons are amphibious, odiferous, odalisque.
Right now I have all the words. But you don’t have to accept that. You can revise at your leisure, as soon as I leave the room. I’ll send in a woman with a knife.
One should never trust a woman who tells one her real age. A woman who would tell one that, would tell one anything.
—Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance
If you want to clear a room, start talking about ageing. Take my three friends: the first one loses her temper whenever I say anything about growing older. I used the word “crone” in front of her once just to watch the meltdown. A second friend was so resistant to any whiff of age that she once pressed down on my foot, hard, under the table because I was telling a story that veered close to saying how long she and I had known each other and, therefore, how old she might be. I can tell you that she was old enough to give me a big bruise on my foot. (A woman who would tell that would tell anything: Oscar knows.)
But ageing is only terrible until you consider the alternative. I met the third friend for lunch. He and I both lived through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and to find ourselves alive in the café in our old neighbourhood after twenty-five years was a mind-bender. We grew older while many of our friends did not.
There was a popular meme making the rounds a few months ago: “describe yourself as a male novelist would describe you.” I didn’t do it: not because I was too good for the meme but because male novelists don’t describe women like me. Alison Lurie, in her novel Foreign Affairs, notes that the Western canon of British literature was written by the young for the young, as few people lived past the age of fifty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lurie’s succinct description of literature by and for the young arrives with the knowledge that sympathetic writing about ageing women has been—with some exceptions—in short supply. We are, as we age, tagged with some of the adjectives of our childhood: silly, stupid, weak, emotional or, in short, every epithet we rejected as we took wide-legged stances in our prime to assert ourselves as adult women. I see my friend’s foot-bruising tactics have a purpose.
Jane Jacobs, in her “gloomy and hopeful” 2004 book Dark Age Ahead, notes that “pockets of people patronized as quaint, or ridiculed as feckless or stupid, are sometimes (perhaps always) Dark Age populations still handicapped by the consignment of their cultures and identities to limbo” (168). These “identities in limbo” include women who are ageing in urban spaces: patronized, mocked, often solidarity, not on the public radar.
In my forthcoming book Mobile (Book*hug, Fall 2019), I’ve written about women’s urban citizenship in two voices. The young woman is a shifting portrait of dozens of the young women I knew, including versions of myself. The older woman is neither quaint nor stupid and she’s not run by anxiety the way the younger women are. She’s calm and philosophical; she has an unwashed body and a clear head. She’s homeless, pitiless, and expectation-free. I’m calling her Crazy Jane, a homage to and extension of W. B. Yeats’ poems, and partly to push back against two centuries of poetic “Crazy Janes,” older women considered mad for making their way alone in the world. (See Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel and Richard Dadd’s 1855 painting.)
My own Crazy Jane started talking to me when I was writing about the perils of walking in the city and women’s poverty and vulnerability. Crazy Jane’s rock-like presence in the muddied stream of late capitalism allows her to be a Yeatsian philosopher and a Blakean prophet. Role models for my Crazy Jane include, though are not limited to, the poet Anne Szumigalski and Jane Jacobs herself, both great examples of women whose art and fierce clarity defied age. But Crazy Jane is most defiantly herself.
Ageing takes guts. It requires the emotional fortitude of a saint and the exploratory zeal of an elite athlete. Parsing our way through some bodily change, my partner asked “Is this normal? Is this what is supposed to happen?” I answered, “I don’t know. I’ve never been this old before.”
About ten years ago, a friend of mine turned sixty and announced that she was giving up gender because it had never done anything for her. When I was younger I felt as though I could choose to occupy my body or escape it temporarily, via books or wine or conversation. But those opportunities to escape the body are just about over. The degenerating disks in my spine demand that I get up and move every twenty minutes. My piriformis is kicking back after so many years of walking. My left ankle did not return to its usual shape after the Great Distil Fibula Break of 2012, and there’s something unspeakable happening to my big toes. I take glucosamine and vitamin D; I stretch; I work at a stand-up desk; I walk. I modify and get results that are a bit better, but I—and we all—grow more and more entropic. Call me Our Lady of Thermodynamics.
We are young forever until one day we are not. Whatever ageing is, I’m spectacularly good at it, a natural, a champion. I can do it without even trying. From my crone’s catbird seat with my swollen ankle and bruised foot, I might do anything. Fifty-six. Anything.
Voices by Lynda Cronin
The Rapture of Crazy Jane: Five Poems
Crazy Jane meets W.B. Yeats
William, I walk the Annex. You’ll
call it Byzantium. There is no
country for young women; I know
why they are in one another’s arms.
But me, makar, I walk the blocks.
You can’t be surprised. Fish
or fowl, I’ll take my form
from any natural thing and more
besides, begotten, besotted. I’ll
take the sidewalk test and pass
with flying colours. I’ll rummage
in the marvellous order. Give me
a rundown building, give me
squatters; I’ll show you the subway
stop, a woman in a shawl that’s
the weave and colour of my skin.
Now we are old and grey and full of
sleep, I’ll say an aged woman is not
a party of the first part; gather me
into what is. To come, makar. To see.
Crazy Jane, Leaky Object
The city’s no arcade, no gallery, no marketplace. She will consider growing older on the sidewalk.
Bunions, pull-cart, sneakers, three layers of skirts, Leafs jersey beneath cable-knit beneath cardigan beneath green cloth coat. Jane’s as crazy as you or me.
She can slip you an aphorism if you’re short. Always stand your broken ground or We are leaky as skin.
She does not fear the hiss of the stars. She walks like a citizen, she stamps your passport, she welcomes you and your luggage to her country, the river valley, the park, the hard runnels of the alley, the overgrown community garden.
Have you anything to declare? Your matching baggage. Your basket of rotting apricots.
If you know her, raise your hand, raise your glass, raise your ruckus, raise your kids, raise your flag, raise your interest rates.
She’s the madwoman of the Danforth, every day on the corner across from World of Cheese. No one sees her. Everyone does.
Crazy Jane and the Central Query
When Crazy Jane is crowned the Queen
of Swords, she is not chastened: she’s
no sister of mercy or torment.
She raises your roof and rumbas.
A want of wit’s not her carpetbag.
When thanked for her passion, she
knows they mean patience. Blessed for
her goodness, she knows they mean
old woman, don’t meddle. She grasps
the hilt in her potato-dirt hand, beckons
with the other. The Queen of Swords
knows a lie when it rolls up and
starts to bluster. Jane’s never been
one to slide away. She’ll collect
crosses to bear and nail them to
your door, buster. She knows the long
ticker-tape of deferred grief,
the sobbing nightingale, orchard
dead by the highway. Jane collects
wrinkled apples on the point of her
sword. If she offers you one, don’t
hesitate. Take it and bite. Love is
squalor; we’ll be run forever.
Death and the Old Maiden
Man in a hood by the BFI bin. Hoarse breath. Kick in my ribs. Sharp clavicle swipe. Garbage. Gash. A mouth open in my neck.
I am fierce, bone dog, your paw between my teeth. You can study it if you want, I’m just the one who gets to bite it. Apotheosis isn’t easy.
Your black robe won’t protect you. I’m a prisoner with an agenda, a tongue as curved as your scythe. I’ll sleep coughly in your harms. Call me Saint Jane of the Sidewalk, canonize me behind the Wing On Funeral Home, sanctify me in the alley by the Bata Shoe Museum.
Bastard rack of ribs, help me stand for this last lesson in skirt-lifting.
If I can’t dance macabre, I don’t want to be a part of your world-class city.
Crazy Jane visits the Yeats Exhibit at the National Library in Dublin
Jane’s nowhere to be seen
among the drafts they gleaned
from the apprentice mage.
She does not show her age,
but she occupies Yeats.
But our Jane’s a Free State,
likes the photo of Maud
Gonne, looking just, by God
like she’d clean Willie’s clock
in two short rounds: tick, tock.