Ode to the Girl On a Wheel
"I think bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel ... the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."
-- Susan B. Anthony, 1896
Girls who break camp and ride,
daughters of iron fleur-de-lis and
pearl sankofa, smashing homeruns,
charting backhands, in city sandlots,
with floral abstractions and lightning
rod detail, calculating their girl futures
on urban stoops, long after dark,
long before Wimbledon's
silver trays spell out their planetary
names. Foremothers, women of rye
invention in the business of movement
& motion, concoction & measure,
The Paper Bag, 1868,
belongs to them.
They rode their bicycles out of tight
boxes and off their chains into a propeller
of girl wind, only to discover the
wide stained glass slide of themselves,
they sallied forth and circled,
in drums of cotton and sailboats of lace,
salty & pugnacious, riding with handle
bars but with no hands,
Sue Sally Hale, colored in a mustache
and dressed like a man just to play
polo in Southern California in 1950.
Juggling dream notes and sketches ten
feet in the provincial air, as their bikes
flew the red dirt roads, women of wheel
wind now giving historical permission to
their daughters traipsing gridirons, pitching
diamonds, running the wooden courts,
sleeping with their hands still arced in
black belt tunics and butterfly capoeira.
This love song is for those who mastered
the almost falling over, in order to relish
the sublime female flight of up & away,
the journey of female physical intention
Annie Taylor, first human
to go over Niagara Falls
in a barrel.
The great girl flight is the tumbling from a
solid, to a liquid, to a gas. Full throttle with
wheels calculating the circumference of
invisibility, fending off trumpets of chivalry
and doubt, giving birth to shy daughters in
need of the sweet roux of their own blue
cornflower flame. Contortionist swan
girls of the track and field that
hail from Housing Projects and Hollers,
measuring the mechanics of their own
dust tracks on the road, sweating the details
and leaving their girl trace,
The Murphy Bed, 1885,
is one of their contraptions.
Wrapping lavender and rosemary garland
around the velocity of their handlebars,
they sing and sign to the whirling, pirouetting,
dervish band of other girls with wheels
feverishly bringing up the rear, eyes and
aureoles leaned in, pressing on around
each bend, loop de looping the arena
with their mighty wheelworks mastery.
The circumference of a girl who won't
back down is a registered trademark
motion. On wheels, no longer standing
still they learn what makes them tick.
Remembering how their mothers made
quiet haste of cabin fever, preferring torque
to meander, saying No to any parade of
pretty dainty wave.
Cathay Williams was also William Cathay,
Secret woman & Buffalo Soldier, 1866.
They would rather be chased and never
caught, than stared at and never seen,
daring, wild, and crooked free, and woman
enough to build their own time capsules,
The Windshield Wiper, 1903,
invented by a girl.
Sometimes a girl can sail her bicycle,
sometimes her arm is already the wheel,
she is the girl-woman of the double-quick
hips, twerking with her kickstand up,
Virne Mitchell, pitcher, who struck out
Babe Ruth. Women would later be banned
from the sport.
They refashion new arenas for women
who fence and cover their hair, with
crescent and purpose, then lunge with
might and fearless heart.
Monopoly, the game, 1904,
was invented by her kind.
No bra or bodice, she is at home
with her inner workings and the quick
cockpit of her mind. Nobody's Fool
comes tattooed across her back beneath her
hoodie. This great grand daughter, the
sister, the lover to the woman who invented
the circular saw in 1813,
then bloomers in 1851.
Verve and gadget set them apart from
others, they are comfortable in their
running shoes and bloomers, relaxed
with themselves in an easy loose-fitting
kind of way. Sing the love song against
the liar who has tried, since the Games
of Hera, to tell us who they are, fill
the silence that can set in quick when
a girl is told from stroller wheel to
wheelchair, A girl's mind is not that quick.
Watch closely for the girl who is intent
on spinning her wheels in the cockpit,
Bessie Coleman, piloting her
Jenny into Paris, smiling down
at the ones who told her she
would never fly a plane.
Near the hoop, around the arena,
past the insult, into the microphone,
women who invented exertion,
who thought go & travel a fragrance,
The female Sumo wrestlers of 1870.
Hattie Stewart, pugilist, 1884.
The Women of Roller Derby.
Girls who GirlTrek and gad about for
freedom from inertia, in the name of
getting the lead out, with the same DNA
as the women who invented
Scotchgard, 1953, and
Kevlar, 1965 (5 times tougher than steel).
From the wombs of women who
bent forward all day in high cotton,
beyond the wired corsets of mothers
who could not leave the house
(and still be thought of a lady),
into the high notes of women
prone to move, girls made from
the cloth of "loose" women
removing their corsets without
permission, "strait-laced" women
who took years but finally learned
to disobey the rules, then who with
fists and fisticuffs fought back.
We march into the new Hippodrome,
in the name of women who twitch & move,
to honor the long-legged, the short-limbed,
the lanky girls, who uncrossed their legs,
who rode by emancipated on their wheels,
the loud whistling women who wanted
out of the house, off the plantation,
into the street, inside the ring,
Ernestine Shepherd, 74,
Women endowed with a wheel of a mind,
moving their body at the speed of girl light,
with sometimes a bat, a ball, a pencil,
pushing off with ink, back flip, triple flute.
Who sprint and glide into home with hair
fastidiously beaded and cornrowed, with
the rubberbands of their ponytails pulling
back their mother's eyes. Women who
dreamed beyond the screened-in porch
and backyard fence. A band of women
alive and well, who still saddle up their
mythological bikes, pioneering all the way,
Retractable Dog Leash, 1908,
Liquid Paper, 1951,
to strike out on their own. Tomboys.
Girls on bikes. Dykes on Bikes. Sweet
graying daughters of Title IX. All, us,
kin to the women who run the Sahara
shoeless and at night, and the Kenyan
girls of tomorrow now sprinting with the
moon, granddaughters of keen women,
who can't stand the standing still,
who crave the nimbus and the eddy,
and the flight, our girl XX DNA is
in it, wheel in hand. We'll Alpine race it,
balance beam it, figure skate it,
The Submarine Telescope, 1845,
forearm it, curl & summit, Caster
Semenya it, wheel in hand, we ignite
footfall, leave our trace, planting
Achilles and Sojourner, spinning still,
from a solid
to a liquid
to a gas.
Nikky Finney has written four books of poetry, including Head Off & Split, for which she won the 2011 National Book Award. She wrote this original piece for the 2016 espnW Women + Sports Summit.