Poetry, April 2014
As a title, Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice suggests an earnest, seventies anthology aimed at redressing literary gender inequality, the kind of well-meaning effort that now seems slightly retrograde and isolating to those of us fortunate enough to have benefited from earlier feminist movements. Fried's arch title, and the poem of the same name, which begins, "I, too, dislike it," seems to dismiss the relevance of these sorts of movements and classifications, but the book as a whole presents a much more complex picture of the relationships between gender, work, family, and power.
Women's Poetry contrasts the realities of contemporary experience for a professional female poet with the hopes and aspirations of second-wave feminism. In much of the book, Fried strikes a sardonic tone and her primary mode is that of ironic distance—a sharp counterpoint to the earnestness of those movements she engages. This is at times humorous, but can also come off as jaded, and Women's Poetry may be a good diagnostic tool for gauging one's optimism about the state of poetry and the position of women in the field.
If, as so many like to bemoan, only poets read poetry, the concerns raised in this book regarding adjuncting, the increasing commodification of education, the effects of pregnancy on academic job prospects, the territoriality of various poetry schools, and the inability of the individual to effect meaningful change in the world will hit terribly close to home, and will also seem terribly familiar. The last section of the book is a long prose poem called "Ask The Poetess: An Advice Column," which originally ran in Poetry's 2006 humor issue. The poem reads much like it sounds—a Miss Lonelyhearts for poets, fielding questions about what is and isn't women's poetry, the proper use of "poetess," and the best SSRIs for life after the MFA. The experiences detailed here are common to many poets, but rarely the subject of poetry. It will strike some readers as funny and pointed, while others will merely see it as a collection of winking in-jokes. I'd say it's both.
The female body is a constant in many of these poems, especially when pregnant. It's novel to read a poem that casually mentions how uncomfortable it is to get up from seated when pregnant, and the surprise of that novelty speaks volumes about what is and isn't considered important in contemporary literature. Likewise, more than one poem marks personal time by whether or not the speaker is pregnant or is debating pregnancy and, in the context of job uncertainty, these moments heighten the poems' tensions. As Fried writes, "one must have a womb of snow" to proceed at all.
There are other poems, however, in which the emphasis on reproduction and female body parts can feel a bit jammed in, as if too much time had elapsed without reminding the reader the speaker is a woman. For example, "Il Penseroso: The Fat Lady," one of two poems about commuting:
She saw this driving
along, the veins of her breasts
the same blue as old roads, the cars
drag their red lights, movable
puddles, behind them.
In this poem, Fried's use of italics indicates a shift from a speaking to an observed self, but despite this distancing technique, it's startling and gratuitous when the POV burrows under the speaker's clothes.
Fried's use of the female body is particularly effective when it serves not just as a reminder of the speaker's sex, but is positioned as the subject of historical, political, or economic experience. In the long poem, "Attenti Agli Zingari," Fried sums up a moment in time not only historically and politically, but bodily:
Empty Gypsy camps are bulldozed by the authorities.
A stench of casual outdoor shitting remains.
The dollar hits 1.40 against the Euro. I turn 40.
Maisie's eleven months old.
Here, naked facts are juxtaposed with bodily experience with seemingly equal weight. The destruction of the camps is positioned in terms of the state of the global economy, and the speaker's age as well as her daughter's. All are measured against each other, and against the stench of human feces.
In Women's Poetry, the poems that move the farthest from the central concerns of the book are often the most interesting. In the excellent poem "Kissinger at the Louvre (Three Drafts)," Fried looks at a minor moment in the life of a major figure—Kissinger ducking into a car—from various angles, all of them unflattering. Kissinger's aphrodisiacal power is not in evidence as he "totters befuddled by culpability, luncheon champagne and dotage." Instead it's the speaker who holds the power (or anyone who notices, though most do not), who could place "Kissinger in front of The Raft of the Medusa / blinking at his father weeping for his son" or:
at The Death of Sardanapalus, a Potentate
presiding amid an exorbitance of fabrics
over his imminent suicide by fire,
slaves bringing in, in order of importance,
horses, gems, plate and favored concubines
for slaughter. I'm not that kind of poet.
Fried's speaker refuses to grant Kissinger a grand, tragic moment. Instead, in the final section, a passerby accidentally photographs "portly little Kissinger":
In Osaka, Oslo or Wasilla,
Alaska some weeks later, a woman at her kitchen table
uploads Paris vacation photos to her laptop.
"Who's that behind me?" A dark figure. "He looks familiar."
"How should I know," says her husband.
"I'm trying to get Baby to eat more potato."
"Oh well. I look fat in it," she says. And deletes.
The photograph of Kissinger is erased, but unwittingly so. Addressing public experience through the lens of the personal is standard literary practice, but Fried's poem suggests ignorance shapes our record of history as much as or more than anything else. It's a funny, bleak move, in which obliviousness has the last say. It's an echo of a question the book raises but doesn't answer—if day-to-day life suggests past feminist movements have done all they could and are now outmoded, is that perception true, or a product of our own weariness?
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Both Daisy Fried's Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice and Carmen Gimenez Smith's Milk and Filth share an interest in feminist traditions, but their methods of engagement are very different. Fried's book takes a more sidelong, ironic approach, using brief or sustained narratives to highlight gender inequalities, among other concerns. In contrast, Smith's Milk and Filth is far more direct and almost irony-free, with poems addressing women's experience via feminist theory, historical and literary figures, frank depictions of the female body, and bracing manifestos. The legacy of feminist movements aren't just evoked, they are out-and-out stated.
A book of this scope runs the risk of reading like Intro to Women's Studies, and certainly Smith name checks Our Bodies, Ourselves, Andrea Dworkin, and Simone de Beauvoir, while unapologetically referring to "lady lumps," "meconium," and "blood," among a profusion of other body fluids and parts. Yet there's real range displayed here, and if Smith's economical language and fine control can't save the book entirely from didacticism that isn't a charge Smith seems worried about. Instead some of these poems make an argument for the didactic in the most positive sense of the word—informative and instructive. In this way Milk and Filth is so retro that it feels bracingly fresh. More than once I found myself raising my eyebrows while reading these poems, asking myself can she do that? and answering my own question with yes, she can, and then awesome.
Not all of Milk and Filth is so surprising. The first section of the book, titled "Gender Fables," is a tour of female figures and archetypes, some well known, some obscure. Lolita, Baba Yaga, Dorothy, and Phaedra make appearances. Many of these poems share DNA with Alice Fulton's versions of Daphne and Apollo in Sensual Math—voice-driven retellings of myth, peppered with playful anachronisms. In these, Smith's work is adept but covers familiar ground. The poems are more remarkable when Smith engages with history, race, and culture. In the poem "(Malinché)," Smith offers an account of the historical figure of the same name, a Nahua woman in the complicated position of slave, mistress, and translator to Cortés. The historical Malinché has been variously portrayed as traitor, victim, or mother of the Mexican people, but Smith's portrayal neither venerates nor vilifies. Her complicated Malinché aims to enact a subtle, yet radical power:
She tells them she plans to inter our dialect
into theirs, our divinity. She wants mongrel dictions
to add to her arsenal. She wants to be lord.
The precision of Smith's word choice is on display here. The devasstation that will befall the culture of the native people of Mexico is packed into that death-laden "inter"; the warlike "arsenal" acknowledges how language can conquer but also reclaim, while making us wonder what other weapons Malinché might have stowed away. The final line is both audacious and poignant, her desire to rule through language a sharp reminder of the few other forms of power she had.
The book's showstopper is the long poem "Parts of an Autobiography," where 111 numbered statements parcel out tantalizingly terse snippets of autobiography while tackling aesthetics, literary lineage, feminism, what poems should be and do, and how those requirements alter over one's lifetime. The poem's power stems from one statement building on another. Some lines are prose-like declaratives, others euphonic, and the best are both.
17. When I first began writing poetry, first began thinking of poetry, I was certain that I could rely on the I / eye, which turned out to be the most elusive quality.
18. So squeezed, wince you I scream? I love you and hate off with you.
19. Sylvia Plath's work gives me synaesthetic pleasure. The speaker's self-mortification perverted the edges of all her lines with sweetish vinegar.
20. Her poetry was pungent when so little poetry is pungent. Poetry of regimented epiphany smelled like fabric softener when I was young.
21. I liked my poetry to smell like I had forgotten my deodorant. You could smell me from across the table. I liked my work to smell of work and fuck.
In these lines, Smith questions a poetic reliance on subjectivity, highlights the delight and disaster of homophones, misprision, and upset syntax, and explains Plath's appeal, while doling out one of the more scathing descriptions of bland lyric poetry I've read. (Perhaps only bested by another line where Smith refers to "unseasoned-quinoa-Sharon-Olds-esque" poetry.) The poem intercuts opinions on poets and poetic styles, types, and figures with conflicting views of the speaker's role as woman, as in "73. I'm not a total cunt" and "93. I'm a baby machine." What begins as a portrait of the artist builds to a crescendo of manifestos:
99. I'll write screeds, manifestos and epilogues on the merits of female domination.
100. I would like to act in resistance to the classist assumptions of post-feminism. I would like to write about gender folded into race and class folded into gender too.
101. This coup will bring back the little bit didactic, the little bit ham-fisted because it'll be good for us.
102. This coup will be a collaboration of squabbling and seeing into the shared past to construct the shared future. I aestheticize all my struggles: complicated and as close to art, capital A, as I can do.
103. I like the crystalline tear like morning and climax with crying of language that overflows with afterbirth and rainbows and applause. Those knock-out body fluids: blood, sperm, tears!
It's not a bad trick to acknowledge your blunt instrument as you wield it, and there's a real pleasure in watching Smith tear down and rebuild our expectations. For some readers, however, a hammer is a hammer, and Smith's project won't work for them. It's also fair to note that like some earlier feminist literatures, parts of Milk and Filth may seem dated in the future. I for one find this book one of the more invigorating collections of the past year.
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If Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice suggests the present is ignorance and forgetting, and Milk and Filth unfurls a banner waving "forward march," Emilia Phillips's Signaletics seems intent on unearthing the forgotten in an archaeological study of the obscure and esoteric. The care and thoroughness of her revelations, no matter how minor, are evidence of her position on the value of the past. Phillips uses historical documents as the basis for many of the poems in her book, making Signaletics a demanding read, the sort whose "Notes" in the back aren't entirely optional. "Signaletics," for instance, is a term we learn comes from Alphonse Bertillon's 1896 book Signaletic Instructions including the theory and practice of Anthropometrical Identification, and many of the poems use excerpts from that book as a springboard, as well as other (more current) methods of identification, such as prints or teeth. These poems are most successful when this material is used sparingly, as in "The Ear: General Form & Separation of the Internal Windings," where most of the emphasis is on the act of listening: the sound of a lock jimmied open, a mother "listening/to the police radio/to my father," and the adult daughter listening for the sounds of criminal activity in her own house. Especially effective is the series of poems all titled "Bertillonage Fragment," of which the fourth is particularly strong. Phillips's aphoristic lines propel the reader through the poem with their quick concision while demanding their own reassessment:
regardless of the fullness
or color of the leaves many new
when first hired every man
who says he's innocent
if one listens to birds
all his life he will not hear them
anymore one day.
Phillips shows in this poem, and in others, an ear for clear, compressed language that doubles back on itself. The leaves first signal seasons, and then suggest the multitude of criminals. As we advance through the enjambed, unpunctuated lines, the officers progress through their own seasons, first trusting and then inured. That the individual bird calls might possess beauty or truth becomes impossible to discern in a chorus of song, and the line "who says he's innocent" is a question directed at the officers as well as the unheard claims of the men they police.
In poems like these, Signaletics is richly rewarding. At other times, the payoff is less certain. Personal threads run through the book regarding the speaker's father, a family breakup, and an unspecified illness—yet these narratives are difficult to piece together. It's unclear, for instance, if the poems about the father are elegiac or whether the speaker's illness is serious or passing or passingly serious. This makes it hard to assess the poems' stakes. There are also repeated forensic images such as fingerprints which accrue power as they reappear, while others, such as the many instances of teeth, seem to carry some obscure private significance. It's fitting for a book using forensics as a frame to expect the reader to assemble the clues, but the complicated and various lenses through which we view a personal history can feel like needless circling, if not avoidance.
Phillips's language is lovely overall, especially when she lets herself linger on sensual matters:
The Kurdistan honey you sent
I drizzled in warm sour mash
where it suspended mid-glass in viscous
curls. A girl from Tennessee drinks Tennessee
whiskey, joked the barman, unfolding
a napkin before me.
The sibilance and assonance complement the honey's sweetness, while the bartender tells the bad jokes bartenders tell. In the third section of "Triptych: Automata" Phillips describes a mechanical flute player and her language is an appropriate mix of musicality and accuracy:
Twelve songs to prove faculty, nine
bellows to forge & three pipes
to transmit wind to the oral cavity
where a thin tongue controls
release across the riser, activating
the shaft with vibration while the fingers,
padded leather, piston their combinations
on the keys—the rhythm, perfunctory—
& the notes unwavering in intonation.
She may be describing perfunctory music, but hers is not. There are missteps in Phillips's language, however, forced constructions or brief flirtations with poetic cliché, as in "child-sibling," "besmearing upon the plate," or "diaphanous sleep." Phillips also loves a five-dollar word, and while many of these are illuminating and appropriate, they can also disrupt:
Behind you, encorona, the sun,
& I in the grass, looking up, saw a plane
insectile (without my glasses)
fly through your head
in one ear & out the other.
—From Reading Joyce on U.S. Flight 2309
Putting aside "encorona," it's disappointing for the surreal image of a plane flying through one ear and out the other to be interrupted by "insectile," which takes away some of the image's punch by explaining scale. Phillips writes assuredly enough elsewhere to trust her readers to follow.
But when Signaletics is firing on all cylinders Phillips marries esoteric knowledge, personal narrative, and language to create an illuminating whole, as in these lines from "The Study Heads":
In the Physiologus,
Anonymous writes that when a lioness
gives birth to her whelp, she brings it forth
dead, and for three days, she minds it,
pacing in dimly orchestrated paths, her body weeping
until the sire—God, in the morality
though here, he's known as Consequence—
arrives, awakening the stillborn with his breath.
Of all the things I don't believe, I believe this the most.
Phillips brings Anonymous's strange account of lion birth to life. Her version, where the lion mother helplessly paces preordained tracks while waiting on divine intervention, beautifully illustrates the speaker's desire for and refusal of an intercessory god. When Phillips writes like this her erudition and—should I say—heart are a knockout combo.
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Editor: Don Share
Art Director: Fred Sasaki
Managing Editor: Valerie Jean Johnson