When I became an Amazon

A modern woman facing breast cancer and mastectomy is forced to confront issues in her life that may have contributed to her illness. An Iron Age Scythian girl competes in the desert arena and goes to war against Theseus and his Greek armies to preserve the freedom of her Amazon tribe. In this powerful and moving epic poem, Jenny Lewis explores the lives of two women fighting for the survival and the energies that link them across the centuries.

When I Became an Amazon, a Poetry Sequence by Jenny Lewis with illustrations by Tinker Mather, is published by Iron Press.

The Amazon – Orethia

i.

There were twelve of us
in that desert town,
under a sky dark as grape bloom,
with belts of flying stars to guide us
back to where our mothers waited
to garland us with wreaths of oleander.

They too had been tested in their time.
They too, rallying strength from tired
sinews, just like us after the long
mosquito-bothering days – our palms
branded by the hot metal of javelins.

We ran naked and the townspeople
came in droves to watch us.
Our bodies glinted like spears.
Our shaved heads were globes
of light reflecting our pride.
In each ear a precious ring had
told us from birth that we too
were precious.

As we entered the stadium, the roar
of wonder that greeted us was like
fire consuming the mountain.
This was what it had all been for.
The weeks of running without respite
up sharp tracks that cut our feet
to the bone. Meeting only goats
with marbly eyes the colour of urine,
or wild cats that swore at us
from a safe distance.

Sometimes we swam in icy rivers,
battling the steely curves of the torrent
for survival. And some of us didn’t survive –
but there was no grieving for the lost;
except the mother was allowed
one hour at sunset for a final leave-taking
to be alone. But tears were not permitted.
Tears were only for men and babies.

ii.

We flew over the hurdles like angels –
stretching the gap between leaders
and followers inexorably. It was always
us out in front, always. Our bronze forms
glowing like embers, fired by a violent,
unquenchable energy that seemed to
transform air into our natural element;
reconnecting us with dull earth only
for the brief, sandy thud of foot on
ground in the one two three four pulsing
rhythm that drummed in our blood
as we raced in heart, mind and body
towards the glorious finish.

They rose in bellowing ranks to cheer us.
Human mountains, tottering and waving;
with children held shoulder high to glimpse
us speeding past. And some at the bottom
crushed dead by the crowd’s weight.
And still they came pouring into the city
like ants, hundreds and thousands of them
day after burning day. And all of this so they
could say – I saw them, I was there.

I saw the Amazons.

A Poet in Perm

A short article written by Jenny Lewis for the Perm Newsletter in 2002, when When I Became an Amazon was translated into Russian.

Three weeks ago, I woke up in Perm to find myself something of a celebrity. I was on the morning and evening news, popped up in chat shows and news clips over the following fortnight and was guest of honour at a poetry and dance performance of The Snow Maiden at the Prozus Theatre. This is how it happened.

In 1997, through organising the Twin City Literature Festival for Southern Arts and the Oxfordshire Library Service, I met Robert Belov from Perm and his wife, Natasha Dubrovina who is a translator. I had just had a long poetry sequence published by Iron Press – When I Became an Amazon – which linked the experience of a modern woman who has suffered breast cancer and mastectomy with a one-breasted Iron Age Scythian warrior – the Amazon, Orethia.

Natasha loved the book and translated it into Russian. It was re-illustrated by a gifted young Permian, Lyuba Chulakova, and was the first bilingual title to be published by Natasha’s newly-launched publishing company, Bilingua.

My new Russian audience identified strongly with the text and applauded my attempt to write an ‘epic for women’. One reason for the high level of interest is that graves of fighting women found in Southern Russia are thought to have been those of Amazons. Another is that the recent, more open, cultural climate has led to a huge thirst for art including literature and poetry.

One of the most moving events was a visit to the Cancer Information Centre where I was shocked to learn that cancer has been a taboo subject in Russia, sometimes leading to divorce and ostracism. Had I known this beforehand, I should have been less confident about speaking so freely on TV about my own experience! Yet I’m so glad I did as it opened the whole issue up for debate. The response of the women at the Cancer Centre, and in the audience at the Gorky Library Presentation and the Bibliosphere Bookshop was simply ‘Thank you for writing this book.’

This month, the whole sequence will be broadcast on Perm Radio. We are also hoping for a stage production in the near future. Through meeting a poet and journalist who works for a Moscow newspaper, extracts of the Amazon will be published in a Moscow journal. In return, I shall send translations of poetry by young Russian poets to poetry magazines and journals in Britain. So the links between Perm/ Russia and Oxford will be strengthened.