The poems in WHITEWORK, Ashley McWaters’ debut collection, explore sewing as synecdoche for the whole of women’s work, particularly the creative work traditionally deemed acceptable for women. Braiding together the myth of Athena and Arachne, a Victorian teacher-pupil relationship, and the act of writing itself, this pristine and haunted collection explores concerns about ego and alter-ego, the shock of beauty, and the nature of female creation. Devoted to formal experiment, and taking up erasure (both textual and historical) as a central motif, the book acts simultaneously as homage and artifact. At once preserving the language of the female and its historic omission, WHITEWORK celebrates the unspoken through supernatural means–with the muted vocabulary of a Poetry Queen. If you think it’s gentle, do look again; McWaters has a sharp needle.
“This book weaves a web around notions of “women’s work:” at its center is a yarn about an embroidery apprentice and her teacher (lover? murderer? fairy godmother?), but there are also cross-outs and other references to the work of the women writers such as Moore, Dickinson, and Stein who are the ghosts and tutors to McWaters herself. Whitework draws deeply from all the witchcraft and craftiness and crafted possibilities these strategies offer, from formal turns that echo the precision of the needlework described to the lyricism imbedded in arcane language and ritual. In this way it is like an antique sampler, a showcase for the artist’s abilities and wishes. Whitework is utterly original, and exquisitely made.”
“Ashley McWaters’ debut collection, Whitework, is a cycle of poems set partly in an imagined (finishing? needlework?) school for young women, centered on the activity of sewing and the myth of Athena and Arachne. Relations between women and attendant feelings of love, desire, ambition, and jealousy serve as the emotional backdrop for many of the poems. Emily Dickinson, a hovering spirit and guide, gathers at the edges of the book, present at times in McWaters’ language and in her rendering of domestic moments that illuminate women’s interior lives. I am drawn to these poems for many reasons—for their spareness and restraint, qualities of the language which resonate with the subject matter but also make palpable the darker underbelly of the poems; for their devotion to paradox, perhaps best expressed in the numerous images throughout the book which evoke both beauty and violence; and for the poet’s agility with persona & voice. Student & teacher, Athena & Arachne, aunt & niece, speak about and to each other across this sequence of poems. On the surface, their monologues and conversations are about stitches, hemming, the drag of the needle through fabric, but all of this is metaphor for their true subject: their hunger for freedom and artistic recognition. With poems rich in image and sound, Whitework pulls the reader to reconsider the “womanly art” of sewing, to see it as an artistic and a cultural inheritance that both confines and liberates women.”
“The poems from Ashley McWaters’ Whitework are peculiar in their quiet (sometimes cold) balance of writing and erasure, interweaving the texture of both poem and subject through the difficult language of omission. These poems find sanctuary in the central, empty space at the heart of their subjects—sometimes through the literal erasure of the found text, but more often, through the subtle nuances of the language around them, a language which dually presents and preserves this absent heart through an intricate stitching of female voices. These poems are the visible stitches, the sutures left in the tissue; a needlework of the highest order.”
—John Pursley III
“Numerous poets have tried to unite Sappho’s body with Dickinson’s mind; only Ashley McWaters has succeeded. These poems cut like the sharpest blades: at first the cuts don’t look painful but on closer inspection they run too deep—to a core that we don’t like to admit is there. The act of this book is like the fact that our blood runs through us in complete darkness until finally, at some unforeseen moment, it finds the light of a fatal wound.”