Two Women & Sampler



My feminism expresses itself in an intense
interest in what women do.

—Louise Bourgeois


Battlement stitch. And yet this same needle also made the Algerian Eye Stitch, the Peking Knot, and the Spanish knotted feather stitch, made cartographies from thread, as if a needle were a compass rose, a pilgrim’s staff that led away—Smyrna stitch, French knot, Romanian couching—and made her escape.

Blind hem. To join, gather, or bind with unseen acts. Girl, woman, crone: each a fabric stitched with blind hems. Why do I see blind knots in your eyes?

Burden stitch. Lovely their pillow shams, and tea towels, and runners. Lovely their collars, their cuffs, their sleeves. Lovely their embroideries, their efforts to darn and conceal. But study the stitches. Say the names of each stitch: thorn, whip, sword, chain.

Chain stitch. Loops, links, the promise of order, that one thing will follow another: this chain of days, of breaths. A chain, which defies loss. The simple machine of it, and yet so human, moving forward by going inward and going out again. Against his skin, I make a chainstitch. What cruel promises I have made.

Running stitch. Seen. Unseen. A body moving in and out of another body. Tongues slipped, slipped within. How erotic words are, all friction and rub. The needle, the needle’s prick.

Stitch. When I breathe, I feel a sharp stitch, an elm switch against my thighs. My father said, “Bad girl, bad girl!” The worst in the world, I am unruly as the stitches in my first sampler. Such poor canvases, our lives unravel, tangle, snag, tie the oddest yarns together.

Waste knot. Scolded, taught, I try to protect and hold onto. Waste knot. Waste not. But still the needle digs its holes, makes its wounds, leaves this women’s work: more emptiness to fill.

Worm stitch. Stitch your name with golden thread. Bind your life with extravagant knots. You know what’s coming. Sew a running stitch, a fly stitch. Make a battlement stitch. Try a backstitch, but, Poor Sampler—the worm, the maggot—you know what’s coming.


Janice N. Harrington’s latest book of poetry is Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin (BOA Editions, 2016). Her most recent book for children is Buzzing with Questions: The Inquisitive Mind of Charles H. Turner (Calkins Creek, Boyds Mills Press, 2019). With the support of a Guggenheim fellowship, she is currently writing a book of poetry about African Americans in the rural Midwest. Harrington teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois.