Variation on the Word Sleep

Variation on the Word Sleep
By Margaret Atwood

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head

and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.


The poem is for my usual Tuesday poetry post, but if you’d like to read why I chose it and a political commentary on the dangers of the new Supreme Court Justice, read on.

With the Senate confirmation of Judge Handmaid to the Supreme Court last night, I thought I’d post a poem by the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, Canadian author Margaret Atwood. To be fair, the religious extremist group People of Praise to which Amy Coney Barrett belongs were the first to call its female advisers “hands” and “handmaids.” Their use of the term predated Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. They no longer use the term. It also appears that the group was not Atwood’s direct inspiration. Still, it looks like we are in for a dystopian future of our own with the court dominated by conservatives who want to take away all the freedoms gained by women and the LGBTQ+ community in the past 50 years.

Her silence on the most basic issues of republican self-rule tells us to be ready for the worst. In her confirmation hearings, she wouldn’t say if voter intimidation is illegal, even though it plainly is. She wouldn’t say if a president has the power to postpone an election, even though he doesn’t. She wouldn’t even say that a president should commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power, telling Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that “to the extent that this is a political controversy right now, as a judge I want to stay out of it.” What exactly is controversial in a democratic republic about the peaceful transfer of power? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that she was nodding to the president who nominated her. He said he wanted a friendly judge on the court to deal with electoral matters, and he continues to signal that one of the most sacred concepts of a free republic is inoperative when it comes to himself. Rushing to confirm such a nominee just in time to rule on any election controversies (from which she refused to commit to recusing herself) should be troubling enough. But it is all the worse for being part of a tangle of excesses by the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Keep in mind that in Bush v. Gore, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Barrett were all Bush lawyers in that fight.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale centers on a hierarchical system of red-clad handmaids and blue-draped wives. The handmaids are stripped of rights and forced to bear children for wealthy infertile couples. Though the wives also face patriarchal rules forbidding them from activities like reading, they enjoy significantly more autonomy than handmaids. The wives don’t merely uphold the brutal heterosexist regime; they were instrumental in its creation. Throughout Hulu’s adaptation, wife Serena, played by Yvonne Strahovski, is shown like a fictional Phyllis Schlafly, proselytizing regressive policies in flashbacks. And like The Handmaid’s Tale’s wives, Amy Coney Barrett is working to build a more unjust society for oppressed communities, despite being a woman herself.

Barrett’s confirmation will turn the clock back on human rights, but similarly to the wives in The Handmaid’s Tale, Barrett will not face the full consequences of her judicial decisions. Conservative white women have upheld and continue to support patriarchal white supremacy and punitive capitalism at the direct expense of others. Barrett’s false feminist promise of the possibility to have it all—a large family and successful career—is not a reality for many working-class women, but rather “an example to young women across America of what they can do if they have enough money.” The impact of America’s policies on Black women, women of color, low-income women, indigenous women, immigrant women, and queer and trans folks already reflect conditions similar to those in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Though Barrett skirted questions about how she would rule on abortion during Senate hearings, it is clear she seeks to erode abortion rights. Trump vowed to appoint so-called pro-life judges. Barrett’s past writings indicate she will be one. On the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett supported judicial opinions to require parental notification for abortions without exception and mandate the cremation of fetal remains.

Many pregnant women already face undue burdens when seeking abortion care. The Hyde Amendment prevents federal Medicaid funds from paying for abortions. This racist and classist policy disproportionately affects Black and Latinx patients, who are more likely to be enrolled in Medicaid. Rural patients also face barriers to care: 89 percent of U.S. counties do not have an abortion clinic. Many pregnant women seeking abortions must travel across state lines to receive care, racking up travel bills, and risking jobs when they have to take multiple days off. As Barrett has said she would do, these communities would be disproportionally harmed by further restricting access to care, even if Roe v. Wade holds.

Barrett’s likely rulings on abortion aren’t the only decisions she would hand down without personal consequence. Barrett sparked controversy during the Senate hearings after using the term “sexual preference” in response to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s question about Obergefell v. Hodges. Her use of this outdated term that implies sexuality is a choice caused concern among LGBTQ+ rights organizations. This problem is even more acute in light of the statement Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito penned earlier this month, indicating their desire to overturn Obergefell. While Barrett later clarified that she hadn’t meant “any offense” by her use of the term, her apparent lack of knowledge of its implication does not bode well in a nation that already undervalues and harms LGBTQ+ people, especially Black trans women.

In 175 election-related cases this year, it found that Republican appointees interpreted the law in ways that impeded access to the ballot 80 percent of the time, compared with 37 percent for Democratic appointees. The best case for the enlargement of the Supreme Court is likely to be made by the court’s conservative judicial activists themselves. It would be good for democracy if they showed some restraint. But everything about this struggle so far tells us that restraint is no longer a word in their vocabulary and that prudence is not a virtue they honor anymore.

That’s the thing about her jurisprudence—it is not aimed at making life better for systemically marginalized people. And this is precisely the problem the handmaid comparison ignores. Barrett is the oppressor, not the oppressed. She would make handmaids out of others.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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