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The making of a poem


Wondering how a good woman can murder
I enter the tent of Holofernes,
holding in one hand his long oiled hair
and in the other, raised above
his sleeping, wine-flushed face
his falchion with its unsheathed
curved blade. And I feel a rush
of tenderness, a longing
to put down my weapon, to lie
sheltered and safe in a warrior’s
fumy sweat, under the emerald stars
of his purple and gold canopy,
to melt like a sweet on his tongue
to nothing. and I remember the glare
of the barley field; my husband
pushing away the sponge I pressed
to his burning head; the stubble
puncturing my feet as I ran,
flinging myself on a body
that was already cooling
and stiffening; and the nights
when I lay on the roof - my emptiness
like the emptiness of a temple
with the doors kicked in; and the mornings
when I rolled in the ash of the fire
just to be touched and dirtied
by something. And I bring my blade
down on his neck - and it’s easy
like slicing through fish.
And I bring it down again,
cleaving the bone.

Vicki Feaver

I wrote ‘Judith’ in July 1992 during the first two days of a stay at Annaghmakerrig, a retreat for artists in Ireland. The poem came out of one of those serendipitous conjunctions that seem to happen if you give time to writing poems and are open to anything that presents itself. To read it now is almost like reading a poem by someone else. It seems fluent, as if it was written straight out. Going back to my notebook, however, it’s possible to see the chaotic material out of which it was born: the personal story that combined with the story of Judith. My notebook, I should say, is at the centre of my writing. The process that for many other poets goes on in the unconscious is recorded in the jottings made about dreams, places, things I’ve read and thought, as well as in the actual drafts of poems.

Pre-poem: gathering of themes

‘Judith’ is a dramatic monologue – written in Judith’s voice. But even before I discovered the story of Judith I had begun to think about the idea of ‘speaking for women’. Scrawled with my left hand, just before I left for Ireland, is ‘a letter to myself as a child’ which ends:

I am glad that you are a female child. You will have all the potential that a woman has; and more and more coming into this world now. You’ll have a view of the world as a woman that is a neglected view. You will be able to speak for women.

Key themes in the poem – grief being transformed into anger into action, action versus passivity, separateness versus merging of identity – were also already emerging. ‘IRELAND’, I wrote,

just the name I love… IRE means anger – land of anger – but it isn’t – land of freedom/and limitation. I’m not going to be so rigid – I’m going to be more flexible, more experimental.

I’d been reading Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae and had begun to apply her distinction, in a chapter on Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, between the ‘embowered woman’ who is always merging and the self-definition of the ‘armoured woman’ to my obsessive mourning for a relationship that had ended more than a year previously. Freeing myself as a writer, I was beginning to see, was part of the same process as freeing myself from this relationship: being open to change, moving from grief to anger, using anger positively to find a strong independent voice. Sitting by the Conway Falls, on the drive to the ferry, I saw the journey as a metaphor for this:

The motorway round Birmingham a sort of hell – industry, pylons, wires – and within an hour I’m here. Things do change; more quickly in a car. But the moral is you could stay on the M42 in that hell – and to leave it you have to move. As I did on the journey and I’m doing in my life by going to Ireland. It’s different; it will change things. Allow the possibility of changing in my head – moving from clinging to loss of R. A lot of that still in my head – journeys always make me think of him – although what I must remember is that although I was mostly very happy on our journeys together, I couldn’t find the separateness to write. I experienced through R too much.


Writing in my notebook on the first morning, I’m partly the writer, identifying myself with the tradition of women poets, partly still the wounded woman, trying to conduct a kind of self-therapy.

One of the first entries is about my writing space:

Disappointed with room at first: quite small and no bathroom – but now I like it - still the wonderful view over the lake and in exactly the same place – over the entrance hall – as Emily Bronte’s room at Howarth.

Then, I’m back with the relationship, describing the deer I startled with my headlights the night before on the way up the drive, and watched struggling to free itself from a fence:

I must define myself more clearly. I merged with R like that deer caught in the barbed wire and then I panicked and hurt myself so much in trying to extricate myself. If the deer could have been calm and thought about what was happening….’

Then, the writer surfaces again, prefacing a list of poems from Perdido, by the American poet Chase Twitchell, that I want to re-read with a declaration that resembles Keats’ idea of the ‘voyage of conception’ as ‘delicious diligent indolence’:

I am going to write here – but I have to come at it slowly – read poems – let ideas gather in my head like clouds.

The Discovery of Judith

Just before I went to bed the previous night, my first night in Ireland, I picked a book out of the bookcase in my room because it had a postcard sticking out of it that I thought might give me inspiration. It turned out to be written to a Miss Foster to reassure her that ‘we are all well except that I have a cold’ – but the book was a King James Bible and the card was ‘inserted at the story of Judith’. Why I didn’t write about this immediately that morning - considering the impact it was to have - is very odd. All I can think of is that the delay was a necessary part of the incubation process.

The first mention of Judith in the notebook was in the title, ‘Judith/dream’, written above an account of a dream that again connects with the idea of speaking for women:

Another of the dreams when I wake in my room. I wake because there are 3 (then 2) women/girls sitting on my bed and talking. I think at first they are women who are staying here. But when I sit up and talk to them I discover they are ghosts of people who used to live in the house. One takes a tiny chair and goes to work in a very small cupboard – because she’s a ghost it is no problem to her. They suggest (I think) that I might write poems about them.

This was followed by a transcription of the whole of the dull message on the postcard. Then, at last there is the key passage where finally, excitedly, I decided:

Judith is what interests me: the card is in the story about her cutting off Holofernes’ head. Surely that is a subject for me. I mean to have a go a writing it very directly with a lot of physical and sensual detail. There’s quite a lot there already.

Now H. rested upon his bed under a canopy, which was woven with purple, and gold, and emeralds, and precious stones.

(I could tell the story in her voice, or his – I must check out more of the background.)

The story of Judith

Judith was one of the Bible heroines pictured on the stamps I collected at Sunday School. I must also have seen some of the many paintings of Judith cutting off Holofernes’ head. But I hadn’t previously read the story. (As I discovered when I searched later, the Aprocrypha from which it comes is omitted from most Bibles. In the New English Bible where it is included, Holofernes’ jeweled canopy is translated as ‘mosquito net’.) Briefly, the Jews are holed up in a hillside town by the Assyrian army who have cut off their water supplies. The people, as summarized in my notebook, ‘are ready to submit’. The priests want to ‘leave it to God’. Judith, who has spent the last four years grieving for a husband who died of sunstroke in the barley harvest, ‘uses her intelligence - does something’. She dresses up as a prostitute and goes to the tent of the enemy general and, as is described in the poem, cuts off his head while he is in a drunken stupor.

The Book of Judith consists of sixteen chapters and is full of details that could easily have clogged the poem. Sleeping on it gave my unconscious the opportunity to sift out the elements that were important to me. The narrative of the poem derives essentially from three verses in Chapter 13:

6. Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes’ head, and took down his fauchion from thence,

7. And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day.

8. And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and took away his head from him.

The difference in the poem is that I omit Judith’s prayer and insert instead her interior thoughts as she contemplates the murder. This wasn’t a conscious decision but, as subsequent notebook entries reveal, a process of imagining myself in Judith’s position, and asking questions - rather like an actress trying to get into a part.

Identification with Judith

Judith rouses herself from long period of protracted grief and inaction – I suppose we would call it depression - to carry out an extraordinary and courageous act. My situation, as I’ve explained, was very similar. I was also in a state of grief. I wanted to rouse myself to write. A great chunk of Judith’s story consists of a description of her preparatory rituals - prayers and penances, as well as dressing in beautiful clothes. The rituals I was employing were not dissimilar:

I love this room: the red paint on the outside of the windows, echoing the red of my blouse hung over the chair.

But, unlike Judith, who exhibits unambiguous confidence and conviction, I was full of  twentieth century indecisiveness:

I feel good/together/strong/that I can find language.

But is that a good state to write in?

Maybe I should feel that I’m falling apart – that words are the glue that will hold everything together.

Asking questions

The first fragment of what looks like poetry begins as a kind of invocation to myself to become one of Paglia’s ‘amoured’ women but ends up recognising how difficult this is:

Squeeze myself into the armour
draw a hard line
but I am always sprawling
trying to join
In the armour – absence – nothing but air –
suck you into myself.

I obviously felt ambivalent about writing in a way that was so exposing of my emotional weakness. On the next page, under the title ‘Judith’, the lyric ‘I’ is abandoned for a more distanced and objective third person:


knew what she had to do
Beauty had got her nowhere
Her beauty was waste.
Use it/the parable of the talents
At that moment she could have loved him –

the choice in her mind
Passivity is what she hates…
Had she blamed god when her husband died

dying of boredom no sex
does it for the excitement of it –
violence/how can a woman be capable of violence?
how be the opposite of everything she’s been brought up to be?
what is the motive?
rage? what rage? the rage of grief?

This isn’t poetry, but it had got me thinking about Judith’s motives and the question that propelled the poem: how can a woman be capable of violence? By investigating my own grief and anger I put myself in Judith’s position:

She has to keep him believing that she’s fallen in love with him, that she’s going to let him sleep with her – she has to bring out his best instincts; and in that moment when she does, she almost falls in love with him.

Excitement/like before her marriage/as if she was going to bridal bed.

Softness hardness/armour that must seem soft…

The danger is that in the act of seduction Judith will be seduced. She has to appear soft on the outside (Paglia’s ‘embowered’ woman’) but inside retain her hardness (‘the armoured woman’). ‘Armoured woman opposed to embowered woman (Paglia, p92)’, I wrote in my notebook. Earlier I had copied out an aphorism from the story: ‘For ye cannot find the depth of the heart of a man, neither can you perceive the things that he thinketh’ (Judith 10: 14). Pages of theological debate, I now know, are devoted to the question of whether this virtuous woman actually slept with Holofernes.

Renewing the attachment to the sensual

At this point my inspiration and resolve seemed to slip away:

I’m so afraid I won’t write anything. Nothing today – and I’m so tired. It might help to look back at last year’s notebooks – to see how poems come.

Matthew said; ‘Nothing comes out of nothing’.

He doesn’t write poems straight out. He makes notes. Thinks about something.     

Maybe I can write the Judith poem – begin with the field, the heat, her husband dying. She told him not to go out that day, so her anger – defied her, the clinging woman he was trying to separate from.

(I) barley field
(2) cut to idea
(3) cut to Holofernes’ tent

Why do I want to write it?

‘Mathew’ was Matthew Sweeney, a friend who was also staying at Annaghmakerrig and who I have always found full of good advice on writing. Making notes is often a good idea. Also, changing tack when you get stuck. It didn’t matter that I changed the structure of the poem later. Just the concept of writing it as a series of scenes gave me the impetus to continue, to renew the excitement of the story and its sensual details.

I began immediately, with a fragment that links the death of the husband in the barley field and the murder, as they are linked in the final poem:

When they carried him in
he was already stiffening

They carried him in from the heat
at that moment she raised the knife
she loved him more…the husband they carried in

from the barley field
already stiffening
whose frothing lips
she turned away from in revulsion
pleaded in dreams
to be kissed

That last image came from a dream about her husband a widowed friend had told me. But it was too melodramatic for the poem and with it I lost the momentum of the story.


Went into the lake – poem MAKING LOVE TO A LAKE - I displace my own weight – keep my separateness, the lake moves to make way for me, fold around me, sun on it – like being hit by bright stones that emit light.

I feel so much better/more alive.

Braced by the dip in the icy lake, I began work on Judith again: a lyric poem in the first person. Again, the voice was both mine and Judith’s:

It was the only place
I felt safe in your arms…
was the most dangerous,
bits of me dissolving
like a water-colour
held under running water,
the ideas in my head
I thought were stone
so strong and clearly defined
like statues made of jelly
sucked on your tongue
until they were nothing
but a sweet taste.

All the time I was mixing my experience with Judith’s. I’m in Judith’s story but writing about my emotions, trying to turn Paglia’s ideas about self-definition and merging of identity into sensuous images.

In the following pages - filled with attempts to write the barley field scene - I again revert to a third person voice. But the memory of walking across a field of stubble in open sandals is mine, from the previous summer:

They’d called to her from the white heat
of the barley field, and she’d run out
without shoes, the sharp stubble
puncturing the soles of her feet…

‘…like the emptiness of a temple with the doors kicked in…’

Then, there’s another attempt to begin the poem:


Grieving widow,
life no meaning,
she has sucked him into her
when he died he’s left empty space
and now there was nothing inside
but a roaring wind
the white hot
furnace of grief

Again, I’m in Judith’s story but using my experience, both literally and metaphorically. Once, on holiday in Crete, I climbed with R to a chapel on the top of a hill. The doors were off their hinges and a ferocious wind was filling the small building with its fury. There was a smashed oil jar on the floor and a white muslin curtain that billowed as if alive. It was so desolate and terrifying that we left immediately. This is the origin of Judith’s ‘emptiness’ as ‘like the emptiness of a temple with the doors kicked in’. Initially, I tried to find images that expressed ideas about the loss of identity involved in a woman’s longing to have her emptiness filled by a man. For instance, ‘She wanted to take him into her, / the peace of not being, / of the man filling her / like an ocean with his tides / and moods’. I rejected these as attempts to convey my experience rather than Judith’s; besides the ocean image didn’t connect with her story.

I brought together the image of the chapel with a detail of Judith’s actual mourning ritual from the Bible - ‘she set up a tent for herself on the roof of her house’ – to create a sense of both her literal space (on the roof) and her interior emotional space:

At night she lay on the roof
like a temple with the door
kicked in, open to the roaring winds.

‘Chapel’ was transposed to ‘temple’ because of the context. It took a few more drafts before I finally made explicit the connection, hinted at earlier (‘now there was nothing inside / but a roaring wind), between Judith’s ‘emptiness’ and the ‘emptiness’ of the desecrated chapel.

The murder

There are pages of drafts before I finally got round to tackling the murder. The bones of the final version are there in my first attempt:

As she held his hair in one hand
and his   

she gazed into his sleeping face
and felt the tenderness
of a mother

and she raised the curved sword
& with two blows  
the bone   cut off his head

What had to be added was the fleshing out. In the next draft this is already happening:

In one hand she held his oiled hair
in the other his curved blade,
and what she felt was tenderness,
the old longing to be sheltered and safe,
to melt like a sweet on his tongue
to nothing.

The images from the previous draft of ‘dissolving like a watercolour’ and ‘statues made of jelly’ that are ‘sucked on your tongue / until they were nothing / But a sweet taste’ (I must have been thinking of jelly babies!) have become much more succinctly and evocatively ‘melt like a sweet on his tongue to nothing’. Finally, the Paglia ideas of ‘embowerment’ have been integrated into a sensual image. A picture of Judith is emerging that juxtaposes violence and tenderness.

The transition to ‘I’

The voice of the first day’s drafts wavers between a first and third person, but is predominantly in the third person. This is also true at the beginning of the second day. Then there is a break in the notebook - two blank pages which probably coincides with a lunch break. Back at my desk, I write:

I’ve just been talking to Paula and Janet. I get such strength from women now. They think I look lovely with grey hair.

This input of female solidarity and confidence boosting obviously had a beneficial effect. From this point on the voice becomes unequivocally ‘I’, and much stronger. The fragments begin to come together into a cohesive narrative, and gradually the whole scene with all its sensual details begins to unfold. This is the final manuscript draft in the notebook:

In one hand I hold his oiled hair,
in the other raised above his wine-flushed,
simple face, a curved blade. He’s my enemy
and what I feel is tenderness, what I most
long for is the weakness to put down
my weapon, to press myself
to the warmth of his warrior’s
body, to lie under the green jewels,
the purple and gold silk
of his canopy, sheltered
and safe until dawn. And I remember
the men’s shouts from the barley field,
running out into its golden heat
without my shoes, the sharp stubble
puncturing my soles, feeling
the inside sucked out of me, knowing
my husband was dead even before
I flung myself on his already cooling
corpse. And then the nights
when I lay on the roof – my emptiness
like the emptiness of a chapel
with the door kicked in, open
to a roaring wind. And the mornings
when I rolled in the fires grey ashes…

In a few respects this draft marked a backward step. Some previous sections of the poem that get into the final version have been omitted: ‘the longing to be sheltered and safe’, for instance. There’s another earlier draft where I referred to ‘the fumey(sic) warmth of his body’, and this has disappeared, too. Fortunately, because I had kept the earlier drafts I could go back and recover the lost bits. However, I must have felt some confidence in the draft because at this point I began to work on a typewriter borrowed from the library.

The opening

All the later manuscript versions of the poem begin:

In one hand I hold his oiled hair…

This plunges the poem right into the action – but offers no explain of who ‘he’ is and no sense of place. Among the typed pages, though, there’s one that begins prosaically:

I am Judith about to murder Holofernes…

It shows the advantage, if the right words won’t come, of writing anything even if it’s a statement of banal fact because further down the same page the poem begins for the first time:

Wondering how a good woman can murder
I enter the tent of Hofernes,
holding in one hand his oiled hair

Somehow I had to go through the process of taking on being Judith – ‘I am Judith about to murder Holofernes’ - before I could properly begin the poem. Once I had done this a much better opening line flowed from of my early questions about Judith’s motives. ‘Wondering how a good woman can murder establishes that the voice is both mine and Judith’s. The juxtaposition of ‘good woman’ and ‘murder’ establishes the central paradox of the story. The first three lines are satisfying too for the verbal echoes of ‘wonder’ and ‘murder’ and the alliteration of ‘Holofernes’ and ‘holding’ and ‘hand’ and hair’.

I wrote out draft after draft of the opening, the details building gradually. The adjective ‘long’ was added to the hair, not just adding a detail to the picture but the repeated ‘l’s’ and the three stressed single-syllable words (‘long oiled hair’) lengthening and slowing up the line. Holofernes’ ‘drunken little boy’s face’ of an earlier draft became the more sensual and visually evocative ‘his sleeping, wine-flushed face’, the repeated ‘s’ sounds emphasizing his stupor. The ‘little boy’ went with the idea of ‘a mother’s tenderness’. I wanted to emphasize Judith’s sexual longings, not her motherliness. I decided to use the actual name of the weapon from the biblical text, ‘fauchion’. This wasn’t in the COD so I later changed it to ‘falchion’, which was. I added ‘unsheathed’ both for the repeated ‘sh’ sound and because I wanted another precise detail for the picture as well as to create a sense of danger.

‘…I rolled in the ash of the fire just to be touched and dirtied by something…’

The detail of rolling in the ash of the fire doesn’t enter the poem until the final written draft in the notebook (see above). In the Bible story ashes are part of Judith’s penitential rite in preparation for the murder: ‘Then Judith fell upon her face, and put ashes upon her head, and uncovered the sackcloth wherewith she was clothed’. The ‘rolling’ in ash was my addition. Because the typed drafts aren’t numbered, it’s difficult to work out precisely how it developed. Ashes are very resonant in terms of spiritual experience. On Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, churchgoers are marked with ash on their foreheads. It also connects with female rites of passage. Cinderella works and sleeps in the ashes. There is a connection with carnal experience and with death.

There are several drafts of the poem that break off at ‘the ash of the fire’ as if I didn’t know where I was going next. As previously mentioned there is a version that continues: ‘And now I want to (be) filled again, filled with my enemies moods and tides’. The phrase in the poem that I am most pleased with, that seems most to embody Judith’s loneliness and longing -‘just to be touched and dirtied by something’ - seems to have grown suddenly out of the voice of the poem, as if it had written itself.

The ending

The final manuscript draft of the poem broke off at ‘the fire’s grey ashes’. The ending didn’t arrive until the typed drafts. Again, I had to fumble my way towards it. For instance, there’s a version that reads:

And I bring the knife
down on his neck, and it’s easy
like slicing through fish,
and down again, splintering
the bone like a bullock’s.

In the final version ‘the knife’ becomes ‘my blade’, emphasizing the function of the knife and its appropriation by Judith. Also, ‘like a bullocks’ has gone. I might have liked the alliteration, but ‘fish’ is enough. The added simile weakens rather than reinforces it. The double blow comes from the Bible - ‘And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and took away his head from him’.

In an almost final draft, the last two lines read:

And I bring it down again,
splintering the bone.

I know one reason why I changed ‘splintering to ‘cleaving’ (‘cleaving the bone’). My ex-husband once bought me back a cleaver from China. It was a fearsome weapon and, as he also came back with a mistress, my children hid it. I’ve seen fishmongers using a cleaver to chop straight through an eel, cutting through the spine. ‘Cleaving’ is a much more forceful word than ‘splintering’. It adds to the effect of an act that is both shocking and violent and connected with a woman’s domestic life, with cooking.

Final tinkering

By the end of day two I had a typed draft of the poem which is very close to the final draft. It is titled ‘Judith & Holofernes/Murder’. Before I settled for the direct and simple title ‘Judith’ I toyed with the idea of calling the poem ‘Murder’, but rejected it as unnecessarily sensational as well as redundant, as the word ‘murder’ is in the first line. ‘Holofernes’ went because I wanted to stress that the poem is Judith’s story.

Wondering how a good woman can murder
I enter the tent of Holofernes,
holding in one hand his long oiled hair
and in the other, raised above
his sleeping, wine-flushed face,
his falchion with its unsheathed
curved blade. And I feel a rush
of tenderness, a longing
to put down my weapon, to lie
sheltered and safe in a warrior’s
fumy  sweat, under the emerald stars
of his purple and gold canopy
to melt like a sweet on his tongue
to nothing. And I remember
the golden heat of the barley field,
the shouts of the men, the sharp stubble
puncturing my feet as I ran,
flinging myself on a body
that was already cooling
and stiffening; and the nights
when I lay out on the roof –
my emptiness like the emptiness
of a temple with the doors kicked in,
open to the roaring wind; and the mornings
when I rolled in the ash of the fire
just to be touched and dirtied
by something. And I bring my blade
down on his neck, and it’s easy
like slicing through fish.
And I bring it down again,
cleaving the bone.

The main change between this draft and the final poem comes in the barley field section. I kept coming back to it until about six weeks later and it is still probably the weakest part. I changed ‘golden heat of the barley’ field to ‘glare of the barley field’ because ‘glare’ was more threatening and more suggestive of the effect of bright heat and therefore the probable cause of the husband’s death. It also helps the poem’s rhythm and sound: ‘glare’ forms a sort of half-rhyme with ‘stars’ and enables the line to run on instead of ending dully and abruptly with ‘I remember’. I inserted ‘my husband pushing away the sponge I pressed to his burning head’ because I wanted an image of Judith with her husband that would show her as nurturing and at the same time give her a motive for her anger.

There is one other change. At the point that I moved ‘my emptiness’ to the end of a line to give more emphasis, I edited out ‘open to a roaring wind’. I wanted to connect ‘nights’ and ‘emptiness’ and ‘mornings’ – all now at the end of lines. I also wanted the poem to move more swiftly to its conclusion.

I now wonder if this was the right decision. By rearranging the line breaks I could retain ‘open to a roaring wind’, producing an assonance between ‘in’ and ‘wind’ that would slow the poem down before the image of rolling in the ash and create a stronger, because even more physical, impression of emotional and sexual loneliness:

and the nights
when I lay on the roof – my emptiness
like the emptiness of a temple
with the doors kicked in, open
to a roaring wind; And the mornings
when I rolled in the ash of the fire
just to be touched and dirtied
by something.

It must be true what Yeats said: that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.

Copyright © Vicki Feaver

Re-produced by Permission of the Author