For We Think Back Through Our Mothers if We are Women: Karin Falcone on Mary Leader’s The Distaff Side & Sarah Heady’s Comfort

Nearly 100 years ago Virginia Woolf considered female inheritance in the arts. In A Room of One’s Own she wrote of the indignation of lunch at the men’s college versus the women’s: wine versus water, and the insult of prunes and custard for dessert for the women. Of the women writers who came before, Woolf explains “...when they came to set their thoughts on paper ... they had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help. For we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure.” The passage reaffirms a decision I had consciously made to remain in the café of the women’s college as a default mode among choices, and then pleasure, through generations of persistence, arrived.

Two recent poetic works by women take up the feminine realms of home and handiwork, community and inheritance. They take the warriors path, if at all, with the tip of a quilting needle, rather than a sword.

Sarah Heady’s Comfort was inspired by the 20th century women’s magazine of the same name. She found several copies in the attic while in residence at Art Farm, an old homestead in Marquette, Nebraska. The themes and language resonated with her and she carefully made photocopies of the magazines, and researched further the lonely place that farm life left for the white colonial women who would have purchased the magazine “Comfort” during the 1910-20’s.

Mary Leader came to poetry while working as an appellate attorney. Engaging with language and stories on a daily basis, never seeing a courtroom or clients, led her to a creative way of working with words. She reveals in the first pages of The Distaff Side, her mother, a midcentury suburban housewife, was a prolific poet, who had many pieces published in journals, but never achieved publication of her works in book form in her lifetime.

Leader’s poems begin as anecdotal “Panels” and take on other interesting shapes on the page as the unfolding of her matrilineage. She takes the gift of words from one side of her family tree, and the gift of stitchery from the other, and a fully feminine cosmology is born. Distaff is a term from spinning, also meaning the matrilineage. The cover shows a detail of a classical painting, a woman’s hand, turning flax into yarn. Leader veers from narrative to create cross-stitch patterned pages of pure typography, which she defends doing in another poem. These loving details are within the poetic embrace.

In “Spindle” Leader introduces her ancestral women through shapes on the page, and quoting a poem penned by her mother about the author’s “mother’s mother’s mother”:

Due solely
to the poem “Remains”
by Katharine Jo Haddox Privett,
a poem about the author’s Aunt Sara,
can it be known that, when Katharine Josephine
Walsh Webb made crab apple jelly, she
would place a geranium leaf at
the bottom of each glass
for the faint, exotic
flavor that it

The Distaff Side is accessibly narrative and inventively visual. Leader is a sewer and a poet: the inheritance of both sides is the manifest magic of self in this book. In “Argument” she describes her practice of needlework, that it is liminal:

 “Not ‘high’ not ‘low’ not some contest between

the quotidian and the ecstatic...”

The fabric is the earth plane, and as the needle goes through and under and onto the surface it is moving between the other planes, of the living and the dead, conscious and unconscious. She describes her room of honeycomb walls to hold the yarn, just as her poems hold “yarns”: “Sisters” of the sister aunts whose fates entwined late in life, and disentwined around money, and “Raiment”, about her mother’s best friend at college who went on to be a nun in a contemplative order.

Heady’s Comfort is also riding a liminal place. The found object language is laid into the fever dream of domestic life, chores, tips and tricks to make the hard work easier in a world where isolation is a common thread, and the magazine in the mail a special occasion of connection with the outside world. The pages begin to alternate, a page of spare and spacious poetics, with paragraph shaped blocks of language that are incantations:

“is moving through the poppies, is searching for trees like the ones back home : burdened with fruit : here only stars move on their own : no anchor, no time telling : just slaughters to see by : o hull-motion. O that feeling of hundredfold birds, not heat / exhaustion / just prairie as ocean :...”

The effect is dreamlike pulling the reader in with imagery of the active woman’s hand in making the home. The women of this book do not ever really find their comfort, instead there is a growing anxiety, a beauty that is brutal, of the western pioneer landscape. The visions of “the seer” invoke a kind of “log lady” of the prairie. A few pages are reproduced directly from the original Comfort magazine: The page of reader “Requests” is as linguistically delightful as it is heartbreaking:

          “Will someone send me a few old COMFORTS, of the days of Aunt

          Minerva. Will return favor any way I can.

                                                          MISS BEATRICE SMITH, Cleveland, Va.”

Heady picks up the voices of those disparate women and others, a kind of homesteader you may find on Reddit today, asking to exchange tangible things, to feel less alone, to strike up a conversation.

This single long poetic work is broken into three parts corresponding to the sun crossing the sky, the farmer’s measure of time. Heady’s skill as an essayist comes through in what seems to have started as acknowledgements and notes pages and transformed into an important critical work in itself, where she reveals her process and a bibliography of other historic works she used to create the living atmosphere of the book. It is defiant of narrative and rich with layers of meaning that become explicit in the rising and falling arc of the sun.

The alternating page structures in this large format book create a rhythm, like sewing, or train travel, with the words themselves. The cover image of Comfort, by contemporary artist Clare Rojas is reminiscent of needlework, too, a folk-art styled woman in calico levitating above the home, her heart energy piercing it, her face one of concentration.

In honoring matrilineage and women’s work of times past, from the vantage point of several generations of female authors to ping or outright embrace, these poets offer a stylistic rendering that is comfortably feminine, a measure of our gains, of “mothers’ mothers’ mothers’,’” a century of works to draw upon.

As we look to each other during a time when women’s rights are endangered because of a radically patriarchal reading of texts meant to protect our freedoms, these books may prove to have been written during a pinnacle, the end of an era. Poetry proves its timelessness when the unseen coincidences of time and reading collide. Leader and Heady have achieved both timeliness and timelessness, what all poetry aspires to. I believe Woolf would find them luscious.

Karin Falcone Krieger’s recent essays, poetry and visual art have been published in Tofu Ink Arts Press, Viewless Wings Podcast, Tupelo Quarterly, LITPUB, Newsday, Contingent Magazine, BlazeVOX, The Laurel Review, and in the anthology, “A physical book which compiles conceptual books” (Partial Press, 2022). She taught writing as an adjunct instructor for 20 years, and was an adjunct union representative. She has an MFA is from The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, and published the zine artICHOKE from 1989-2008.  She is a master gardener, personal chef and suburban homesteader. Links to these and other projects can be seen at