In House Work, Khadija Rouf evokes the seismic shock following the birth of a first child: ‘After the baby everything changed. / My body rebelled against me, / I was no longer myself … Our home felt unchartered then. / Her in my arms, / trying to re-negotiate each room slowly, / realising I knew nothing at all’ ('After'). She captures a familiar moment of overwhelming panic: ‘Among mountains of washing / the only things moving / were my terrified eyes’ ('13 Ways of looking at a washing-machine').
There are so many moments of recognition in these poems; I had my own children in the 1970s and now watch my own daughter navigating the same but different waters. But there is more here than the kitchen sink; Rouf places the minutiae of household routine into its universal context as the 'domestic becomes cosmic' and 'galaxies swirl under beds' ('The formation of dust'). She writes beautifully of erotic tenderness, the loving chaos of family life and the warmth of female friendship. There are seahorses, snail shells, and 'tip-of-the-nose prints / from marvelling at a sunset or a starlit night' ('Window pane').
But in 'Femme Maison 1945-47,' Rouf responds viscerally to the anguish expressed in the paintings of Louise Bourgeois: ‘She is me. / What was once a woman / is now naked, torso and bare legged, / conjoined with a house … Will she be herself once more, one day? I need to know.'
Relationships are redefined: 'A man and a woman are equal / For a time. / Then, a woman and a washing machine are one' ('13 ways of looking at a washing machine'). Life is dominated by the tyranny of sorting bins, cleaning toilets, preparing a meal before work, ‘in time credit for once’ ('Cooking'). 'Hoovering / is an act of violence, Amazonian, full of fury' ('Hoovering'). A 'woman in Derby goes on rampage, / sucking up objects in her path, / …psychologists try to explain the trend, / but have to admit, they just don’t know' ('Hoovering II'). A chasm of misunderstanding opens; there is 'scrapping over the division of / labour.’ Rage over an un ironed skirt explodes, and ‘You stand in wonder … Somewhere the skirt still lurks, creased and ready’ ('Skirt').
Rouf reserves her astonishment for the women who were ‘…so angry with Selma James / All she said was, imagine if housework were paid? ... this work done for love / somehow discounted, not seen as toil / [but if] caring would have currency / …We could speak invoices, take time owing’ ('For Selma James'). Perhaps the most powerful poem in this collection is ‘Minding:’ ‘We budget for someone to look after our baby…’ Its repetitions convey the anguish of leaving a child with a stranger, for money, ‘praying to God, / the hand over, praying that she will not hurt my baby, / Transactions of love and care, the split inside, the ache so I can work, the unnamed cost of wanting both.’
In ‘Unattainable,’ Rouf writes: 'Serious: the work for which I am paid is cerebral, muscular…Valueless – the work for which I am unpaid / is expected.’ In the 1980s as a divorced single parent and a student, I was told by a male lecturer my place was in the home looking after my children, while women lecturers were introducing me to Betty Friedan, Adrienne Rich, and Selma James.
Rouf prefaces this collection with one of James’ most famous quotes: ‘By demanding payment for housework we attack what is terrible about caring in our capitalist society.’ She founded the International Wages for Housework campaign in 1972 arguing that women’s unwaged work should be paid for by governments, but it attracted a great deal of hostility from those who feared women would be institutionalised in the home, and other women’s groups focused on fighting for the right to work outside the home and equal pay. Now in her nineties, James is still campaigning and writing; in a recent interview she said, 'I never understood that argument because women were already institutionalised in poverty in the home. Women were dependent on men.' It was a time when I had to get my husband’s signature on a rental agreement and women relied on their husband’s NI contributions to fund their pensions – many women are still suffering the consequences of that.
In 2020 James wrote: ‘Especially since the Covid19 virus hit, it is undeniable that waged and unwaged carers are front line, and that we rely on them for survival.’ Rouf’s thoughtful and cogent poems contribute to a long and continuing tradition of making the personal political.