Not My Brother’s Sister

 by Shaina Clingempeel

In high school, people called me by my brother’s last name, Clingempeel. At first, I found humor in how my lengthy German last name spawned amusement. For a while, I enjoyed the nickname and considered it a distinguishing trait. In time, however, I realized what this represented: my brother went to high school first, and my experience became an attachment to his. Despite the social expectation for me to become the demure sibling, I gained a powerful command of language in poetry.

One can utilize the intricacies of poetry, such as white space and imagery, to discuss one's own story, in lieu of its social construction. In my poem “Speak Up, Sweetheart,” I detail how my brother’s experience dwarfs mine. From the title, one can surmise that “sweetheart”  becomes utilized in a pejorative sense that undermines female authority. As the poem progresses, the lines “(born cracked/from his rib cage/spare scraps that still line/his spinal column),” left-aligned and in parentheses, highlight how my brother's image sidelines mine. This also displays the expectation for a woman to shrink, in her voice, her body, her presence, and so on. Imagery of the body and of language pinpoint how people fixate on a woman's appearance, to compartmentalize her and oppress her with speech. When the poem ends, however,  one can see that this oppression becomes “written on a/page she’ll turn;” this indicates how I surpass my relational identity. In effect, I regain my name and my personal narrative, apart from my brother’s experience. Thus, poetry converts words into a source of female empowerment.

A recent poem of mine, “Save the Date,” examines sexist terminology in wedding traditions.  People expect women to serve as emblems of pureness, but this poem mocks archaic gender roles. Also, it explores the feminist wedding I would wish for my daughter, in which she wears black lace, and no ones “gives her away.” Through a centered poem in the form of a wedding invitation, I display the fixed nature of wedding vernacular, then subvert this. Also, I utilize delicate, female-associated images, in order to satirize them. For an example, I encourage my daughter to “bite” the flower petals from her bouquet to represent her inherent strength. The poem's last lines, “pastor, I will not say/amen. This is her celebration,” reject patriarchal culture, advocate a woman’s choice, and indicate that her relation to man cannot define her. “Save the Date” highlights that no one can infantilize a woman into the fragment of her brother, father, or spouse; a woman authors her own identity.

Both poems of mine, “Speak up, sweetheart” and “Save the date,” demonstrate the malleable nature of poetry, as a woman rejects definition as man’s counterpart. Poetry permits me to expose this pervasive sexism, on a personal and political level. If language becomes a weapon that establishes me as the weaker sex, I will utilize it to talk back.  In these poems, I become un-ladylike, in comparison with the quiet, docile woman others expect. Also, I prove myself as more than “smart like my brother,” but in my own right. Poetry enables me to discuss my story from my perspective, and with pride, as a woman.

Artistic expression, such as poetry, music, painting, etc., serves as a passionate method of social resistance. Because creative writing deconstructs language into basic elements, it elevates the individual's voice, apart from social definitions. As a result, this forces others to attend to the nuances of one's story. For me, words regain their resonance in poetry. Poetry provides me with the power of construction and demonstrates that I am not my brother’s sister; I am woman, a strong writer, and the most dedicated individual I know.

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Shaina Clingempeel is a first-year Poetry MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, where she serves as Social Media Coordinator for the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Festival. In her spare time, she loves to discuss feminism, write and perform poems, explore the city, read science fiction and existential philosophy, and watch mind-bender type movies.

Speak up,

          sweetheart, don’t stutter.

I’ve been told: I’m brother’s sister.

Born into the body

            with a blueprint.

Since he went to high school

first, I became his last name

I wore with pride painted on

a medal meaning people 

might address me.

In his shadow, aren’t I

more than a footnote?

(born cracked from

             his ribcage,

spare scraps that still line

            his spinal column)

At work, I’m asked to leave for

the man in the back because

I can’t be the tech savvy one.

Slip on a stage-play smile,

             I’ve been told, I’m better

as a backdrop hum.

Maybe there’s a mason jar

where my mouth used to be.

Watch me carve apologies

into the cracks in my spine

until you’re uncomfortable

          with my quiet.

Say it’s my fault they shout

            girl on the sidewalk.

Girl, why don’t you just

          keep your head down?

America, bring back bedtime

stories where my sister doesn't

         belong backstage.

Don’t ask my mother what

her husband does. It’s a

             sign of respect that

             she keeps her last name.

When you teach my daughter

about her body as a bruise,

           I won’t let you

temper her tongue into a tight-

rope tied to her skirt-length.

You find it’s safer to

place her in fiction, but

              it’s written on a

              page she’ll turn. 

~Save the date~

  11.21.2012

            I walk my daughter

  down the aisle singing here comes

         the bride in black lace--

         You can’t color her pure.

        Her skin isn’t gift-wrap to

                crinkle into his

        domestic ideal.

    Picture her brown curls unraveled

      as mine. In her vows, she says

        I don’t want a child, Mom.

            I praise her right to

    scrap the bouquet toss & bite into

          each petal with her teeth.   

                       Spit them up on

                       satin tablecloth.

        Dearly beloved, without a bow on

        her torso, she dances to
The Cure for her reception.

     As he takes her last name,

           this poem doesn’t become his

 poem on how love revives her.

      There’s no blushing bride to give to

   the groom. No---my daughter doesn’t

come after an ampersand.                     

                Pastor, I do not say

         amen. This is her celebration.