Sworn Virgin

In that land where mountains climb each other’s backs,
balancing on one another’s shoulders for a better view –
gods and acrobats whose throats of dolomite,
vanishing in overbearing winter skies, thunder threats
and visit avalanches, blizzards, snow and ice on paltry
human lives imperilled far below; where death is but
a single breath away on any given day – it is unthinkable
for girls or women to walk out alone; to ride a horse,
to sing a song or play an instrument; to wear a watch,
or wield an axe, to let their hair hang loose and long;
it is forbidden by the Code for women to speak
out of turn – before a man has spoken; or to eat
before a man has dined; to choose a husband;
worst offence of all: to wed for love. The value
of a woman’s life is half that of a man’s. (The value
of a man’s life, fixed by blood feud, is twelve oxen.)

The elder village males appoint the time to marry off
a daughter – someone else’s or their own. They leave
a cartridge at her door – a sign her father can’t ignore,
a token for her dowry, a grisly keepsake taken
to her marital abode, where she will do the bidding
of her husband’s clan. Should she not find favour
with her bridegroom’s kin – perverse as their demands
may be – her husband may dispose of her.
The symbolic bullet serves as practical solution.

If a girl cannot abide such strictures, she may take
an oath to live as honorary male: “sworn virgin”;
whereupon her hair is shorn, her breasts are bound flat
to her chest, she dons a man’s attire, assumes a name to match.
The hard life of the village and the mountains wears her down.
The girl who scorned to be enslaved, oppressed by the male gaze
is exiled to the confines of her skin.

Only on her wedding day is a bride permitted
to sit astride a horse – under the duress of a male escort,
a posse of grim village men (an entourage of wolves)
who lead the rider to her groom – a white goat herded
to the fold, hemmed in, her face opaquely veiled
so that she cannot see the road; will not remember
her way home (for there is no return);
only the dim visages of mountains
bearing down like doom.

The poem references a mediaeval practice that lingers to this day in remote regions of Albania.

Jena Woodhouse


Jena Woodhouse’s most recent published collection is the chapbook Green Dance: Tamborine Mountain Poems, the debut publication from Calanthe Press (2018), inspired by the rich diversity of the Tamborine Mountain rainforest on the Scenic Rim of an extinct volcano in south-east Queensland: now threatened by the impacts of urbanization.

© 2019