“It just so happens that the first recorded poem was written by a woman,” says the celebrated local poet Marsha De La O, with more than a hint of sisterly pride. De La O was discussing Every Ravening Thing, her new collection of poetry, when the conversation shifted to Enheduanna, a high priestess of Ancient Sumeria and the earliest known poet in history. De La O was drawn to Enheduanna’s works as well as to her personal history of abuse and imprisonment.
De La O, whose own poetry is filled with powerful images of nature, was drawn to Enheduanna’s hymns to the goddess Inanna, which resonate with flashes of lightning and stormy skies. In the hymns, “Enheduanna is asking for help and detailing what happened to her,” says De La O. “She was writing from a place of loss.”
Enheduanna lived almost 5,000 years ago, but her experience of trauma and the courage it took to raise her voice is something many women and men share with her to this day. “We have been dealing with this for a long time,” De La O observes.
After reading about Enheduanna and the legend of Inanna, De La O was inspired to write “For the Poet Enheduanna of Uruk.” It would become the first poem De La O chose to include in Every Ravening Thing. Other poems followed organically, as they always do. De La O explains that she doesn’t edit as she writes. She lets the words and the silences between the words flow where they want to go before she sees a poem emerge.
“I see the way they are speaking and starting to shape themselves,” she says. Each of the poems in Every Ravening Thing stands on its own merits, but together they reveal a theme of dealing with trauma and breaking one’s silence to heal. The fact that the book has been released during the current era is a coincidence that feels a lot like destiny.
“Although it was written before the #MeToo movement splashed into the headlines in September 2017, it addresses many of the same themes of women responding to violence and issues of healing and taking back lost power,” De La O explains.
In “For the Poet Enheduanna of Uruk,” lightning and storm clouds echo the ancient poet’s writings, but the imagery is straight out of De La O’s own life. In the late 1970s, when De La O was still living in Los Angeles, she was struck by lightning as she sat in her house.
“Lightning struck the jacaranda tree next to the house. I was leaning against the wall and the lightning entered at the nape of my neck. It went down my arms and hands and reached my fingers before it bounced back up through my body,” she recalls. It moved backward and forward like a wave, she adds.
De La O remembers telling the story to some Native American women. They told her about how they would go digging for lightning glass as children in the Mojave Desert. Lightning glass occurs when lightning strikes sand and fuses it together into what is called fulgurites.
De La O saw the symbolism of fusion occurring under the surface. She could not help but think of “the fusion of my own history with violence.” She also imagined that on the surface, “women’s voices are fragmented but beneath the surface they are fused together.” Like lightning glass. By bringing our voices together, out into the light, we can begin to heal.
De La O works to elevate the voices of fellow poets as the editor, with her husband Phil Taggart, the Poet Laureate of Ventura, of Spillway. By editing the annual poetry anthology, De La O says, “You get to see diversity of the human mind. There are so many ways to think about the human condition.”
Although she has a singular way with words, in reading Marsha De La O’s poetry, we see that our human experiences — throughout all time — aren’t so different at all.
De La O will be reading from Every Ravening Thing and signing copies on Sunday, May 5, at the Topping Room in the E.P. Foster Library, 651 E. Main St., Ventura. For book purchases and more information, visit www.upress.pitt.edu/authors/marsha-de-la-o.