Bella Bennett







Erasure Poetry and Feminist Revision of Classical Texts

by Bella Bennett


There is a certain power vested in the unsaid. Such a notion seems to describe the thesis of feminist rewriting, in particular regards to the Greek tragedies. Consideration of authors and playwrights along the lines of Ellen McLaughlin and Christa Wolfe reveals that the empowering quality of their adaptions is sourced, in part, in the reversal of discourse. These queens and daughters, or monsters and victims, written previously without due regard are reborn. As Hélène Cixous argues in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” women must write for women because they have been historically misrepresented in male-written media. When texts are reworked from the female perspective, the hegemonic and authoritative version of history established by male authors is undone. Women move from the sidelines to the spotlight in such retellings, and characters who were previously one-dimensional are given depth and complexity.

Erasure poetry, in the words of Mary Ruefle, is “the creation of a new text by disappearing the old text that surrounds it.” A possible translation is: You take what is said and make it unsaid, while simultaneously empowering the unsaid. Ruefle, a poet, has produced forty-five erasure books; one of which, A Little White Shadow, was published in 2006. Erasures take on different creative methods. Authors may choose from a variety of mediums to black-out words. Options include, but are in no way limited to, ink, gouache, and marker. The form is not necessarily creating new meaning. Rather, it is finding the meaning that already existed by breathing new life into stale words.

In a powerful sense, erasure is an integral part of the image-making of tragic Greek women by contemporary women writers. The likes of Ellen McLaughlin read between the lines and hone in on the margins of source texts. Characters are not invented in such renderings. They have always existed, though silently; as McLaughlin writes in Iphigenia and Other Daughters (1995), “I will be female and slightly terrifying/I will be what I have always been/Visible and mute” (75). By engaging with these foundational texts, feminist writers are challenged with the task of revision amongst overwhelmingly misogynistic elements. Regardless, it is of primary importance to assert that these characters have always possessed immense depth. Postmodernist reframing is a chiefly important strategy to not only provide alternate readings of classic stories, but to locate and preserve female characters.

What follows are three erasure poems I created through revision of McLaughlin’s Iphigenia and Other Daughters. Each poem corresponds to one of three parts: Iphigenia in Aulis, Electra, and Iphigenia in Tauris. To provide a more comprehensive understanding of my process, I have attached one example of my crossed-out words on pages, which I chose to do electronically, in addition to typed transcriptions of my erasures. I believe that the experience of reading each poem is significantly different in these two different forms. I chose to explore the notion expressed in the quote included above, where Iphigenia declares herself a muted statue. The poems concern topics and politics of visibility, in tandem with explorations of femininity.


Cixous, Hélène. « The Laugh of the Medusa. » Feminisms (1975): 347-62. Web.

McLaughlin, Ellen. Iphigenia and Other Daughters. The Greek Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2007. 19-76. Print.

Ruefle, Mary. « On Erasure. » Quarter After Eight 16 (2010): n. pag. Web.




I.  Iphigenia in Aulis


they saw me

offered me

swallowed me

my face as if it were food


he appears

I thrash

earshot screaming

I am ill


the ritual I know

grows girls to satisfy

suddenly I am

the bride


slowly, rapidly, crumbling as

I ascend to the altar

hurl as I pass

the strange eyes


knife in mouth

visible panting

here I am

at last




II. Electra


wet dog

you know nothing

just your corner of history and

it’s probably wrong anyway


whatever life you had

ground down to a pebble

notion of justice

no such thing in this world


know this truth

what I suffered has meaning

history would notice

but obliviousness is imperious


girls dress up best they can

endure privately

in an attic or basement somewhere howling

narrating history, telling my story




III.  Iphigenia in Tauris


girls are for the gods

at the marketplace we

are pretty in white

scorching noises, voices, cries


the problem

I can’t help

that I talk too loud

too much


no woman can be conniving

we girls are dark doorways

open mouths muted

the irony if a man should speak


terrify them

bind them

wives in silence serve

the male body












Bella Bennett is an undergraduate student at Emerson College, studying writing and publishing. She grew up in central Maine. She is the head designer of Stork Magazine and is currently writing an article about artisanal bagels. 

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