Women Poets Escape Family—and Convention
from Boston Review, May / June 2013
Women have always written poetry that does not have the traditional narrative of family and children at the center. The poems of Jorie Graham and Brenda Hillman (both mothers) never forget a larger political world. Louise Glück (also a mother) does the same with the aesthetic apparatus of myth. They follow in the footsteps of many others, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Gertrude Stein.
Poems about motherhood, that monumental element of all of our lives nearly forgotten by centuries of literature, aren't conventionally written simply because motherhood has been a traditional narrative. Motherhood, in the hands of a new generation of writers such as Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg, has become a subject with the complexity of any other. In The Grand Permission (2003), an anthology of prose about motherhood, editors Hillman and Patricia Dienstfrey write, "There is something different about the mother/child bond that could affect artistic life, either because of cultural expectation or because of biological necessity." But the eloquent convictions collected in the book can also sound like commonplaces. Toi Derricotte writes, "What I learned is that a poem is a living thing, and, like any living thing, we have to accept what we are given." Even mothers who are not writers understand poet Pam Rehm's position, "Time is that yoke I'm always straining to get out from under." And so might writers who are not mothers. Instead, I suspect Camille Roy's insight is the most pertinent: "Family is an organizer of psychic life." Whether poems about motherhood are conventional or not, they are steeped in some aspects of this common psychic organizer, a common plot, which furnishes some of its own conventions.
But what about those poets who, in mid-career and mid-life, are writing at a distance from the nuclear family, and who are trying to find an alternate plot? Several women are now in the midst of mapping a particular and overlooked consciousness of time: not a biographical moment, but a sustained and gradual understanding of the lived possibility of remaining alone during a time in life when the possibility of natural procreation may be on the wane and the hope of meaningful partnership feels challenged.
It is not new for poets, men and women, to find themselves at the edge of civilization, alone, past cultural regard. But how many have found themselves there, explicitly articulating what Joanna Klink does at the start of "Toward what island-home am I moving"?
Toward what island-home am I moving,
not wanting to marry, not wanting
too much of that emptiness at evening,
as when I walked through a field at dusk
and felt wide in the night.
Klink begins this poem with her wish not to marry, paralleled in layered syntax with not wanting "too much of that emptiness at evening." This might give married readers pause, though close readers of the history of literature will not be surprised. Marriage has never gotten a good rap from the canon: the Wife of Bath first spoke of the woe that was in marriage in the 14th century, and many more have since.
Seduced by a mood and not another person, Klink's inwardness becomes integrated with the environment: "And it was again evening that drew me / back to the field where I could sense no boundary— / the smell of dry earth, cool arch of my neck, the darkness / entirely within myself." The poem's abrupt close changes that course:
Come, black anchor, let us not be harmed.
The deer leafing in the dark.
The old man at the table, unable to remember.
The children whose hunger is just hunger,
and never desire.
In these last lines, Klink turns outward and finds civilization. It is not exactly our world, but the world of the helpless: animals, the aged, and the very young. She unites all with a shared fear for safety, not with a government by laws. What had been a solitary meditation changes into a vision of a new social arrangement. But it is mixed with palpable loss: the children never grow up.
This vision of silently shared need comes after a renunciation of the institution that formalizes shared need: marriage. For Klink, not marrying brings about a distinctly lyric state of mind, occasioning a melodious and at times fluorescent style. The sudden imperative at the end cuts through a complex syntax. Perhaps the poet's imaginary anchor comes from Shakespeare's The Tempest and announces Klink's intention to go toward the island instead of leaving it. In this way, she refutes the marriage plot and forgoes the vexed burden of children, instead opting for her own island, not as imperial kingdom but as (postcolonial?) home. A similarity between the poem's terms and the poet's own biography is only implied; such a similarity is not necessary to understanding the emotional core of the poem, the new plot she must make up herself.
Klink's lyric circumstance addresses convention (marriage) on its way toward something else entirely. Likewise, as Christina Davis writes in her unpublished poem "Eclogue":
I am of nothing the mother.
I have cradled many things,
and none has become a child.
In the fields
where my daughter
does not run,
in rooms where my son
does not live and the love
he won't withhold
or give, I have contributed
to a new nature. Must it really be
Klink's language is generous, while Davis's is a language of scarcity. But both feel they have to reassemble words and turn a negative into something positive using circuitous locution. A slightly peculiar diction, as much indebted to singing as to speech, pervades both poems.
If we look in particular at women poets who don't put motherhood at the center, or can't, or won't (and many of these poets are, biographically, living where their poems say they are), we see women in the midst of their own self-made narratives, murky but dynamic, unpredictable but full of self-understood value. They are engaged in a subversive project of renaming. The privilege I claim for them is a lack of a common plot and an ethical intervention that comes from a form of solitude that's both imagined and lived, with all its consequences. That version of solitude—written about, looked for, happened upon, or wandered into—offers lyric poetry a form with its own conventions and aesthetic history.
In getting a bit free from prescribed social roles, these poets must become tricksters of a kind. But they do so in order to turn toward new ways of life, new ways of mind. The extravagant nature of their preferred styles testifies to this. By "extravagant," I mean heightened in drama and in desired effect, tuned in to the pleasures of excess. These poets are less compelled to clarify through style than they are to enjoy, create, and destroy.
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The sly title of Tanya Larkin's My Scarlet Ways (2012) brings to mind a number of literary figures who take an alternate route, including Hester Prynne and Emily Dickinson, whose poem "To Put this World down, like a Bundle" provides both epigraph and title. Dickinson's poem celebrates a kind of renunciation as heroic effort: "To Put this World down, like a Bundle— / And walk steady, away, / Requires Energy—possibly Agony— / 'Tis the Scarlet way." But renunciation doesn't exactly mean abstinence. The last part of Dickinson's poem, which Larkin doesn't quote, gives some tasting notes on the blood of Christ: "Sacrament, Saints partook before us— / Patent, every drop." For women, renunciation has often ended up a sensual event: repression in life leads to sensual investigation within the ritual space of the poem. To put it more playfully, it suggests the old adage: when you talk about sex a lot, it's because you're not having any.
Larkin's poems tend to take a similar pose. Her mood is more playful than ferocious. Though she always appears to be arguing with someone, she seems to have a great time doing it. "Heaven and Hell Are Real Places," Larkin begins one poem, and then starts a fight with herself: "Goody for them but I'll keep walking."
These renunciations ask the poet to remember constantly what she was always supposed to be. And we all belong in families, right? When Larkin writes her own birth myth, "Foundling Wheel," she has to rewrite a story of family for her adult and female self: "Since no one remembers my birth I must part myself / like a curtain and walk through it again and again as long as it takes / to accept I am my own big baby." She eschews imagining herself as a mother, and instead, imagines who—or what—her mother might be:
A mother image whispered in my ear,
o hothouse orphan we nearly grew from seed,
your sweet suckling mouth was always astray of the source.
Assume your proportions and make mamma proud.
The mock-heroic epithet "hothouse orphan" combines a sense of managed growth (something organic but cultivated) with a sense of abandonment. The results are epic. Though the collation of high and low diction might not be anything special, the convergence of intricate, well-crafted sentences with a clear, emotional tone—and surrealist images that yield rather than obscure—is. The predicament grounds the surrealism in a real problem. The goal is to write a new birth myth—one true to Larkin's experience right now, not true to her experience as a woman in historical time. That she continues to grow big, and to be fostered by this "mother image" into an image of her own, implicitly addresses the traditional narrative of child-having, family-raising, partner-keeping.
In Larkin's recent chapbook Hothouse Orphan (2012) these transformations intensify. In "Satyr" she writes, "Now that my life as a woman is coming to an end, / it is time to resume my life as a satyr." Her fear, that her life as a woman is coming to an end, may have something to do with getting older and not fitting into a prescribed social role. From "Grasshopper": "Sometimes I get sad / at how little mischief I made as a girl. / Had I been a boy, I'd have been / a solitary one." The truth about this poet of "swagger" is that her best work shows off her candor in a kind of mess: the transformation continuing. In that mess, she presents not the vivid ambivalence of making choices, but rather of undergoing a variety of experiences. In her hands, a poem can give an account of a life passionately lived and also lived in great confusion. "The Greatest Un-Metaphysical Question":
This summer I was a terrible gardener.
All I did was go out dancing. I mean that
metaphorically of course although
I really did dance myself to pieces
and wake up miraculously whole in my bed.
But just to be safe, I should have stayed home
where the greatest un-metaphysical
question was always "To read or to weed?"
I did neither. I fell in love with married men.
Larkin's bad choices may end in dead flowers, but they also tell a story about personal resilience. It is notable that the choices articulated by the poem are as boring as other people talking about china patterns. The speaker is not interested in choices, a legible narrative of preferences, but in the real metaphysical questions, which lie, instead, in the human pursuit of sometimes-unmanageable compulsions. But the speaker must travel through her own feelings of obligation, her sense of accountability to what she should be doing, before she can reach those questions.
In order to make judgments of value, women have to investigate how they have been judged. Sandra Lim's poetry engages with the world's fantastical, historical, and mythic stories, as if the women of those stories were overexposed celebrities. The best poems of her first book, Loveliest Grotesque (2006), eschew the inner lives of mythic female characters: scoffing at self-scrutiny, French revolutionary Charlotte Corday tries a hairstyle à la Marat—a coif in the style of her famous victim, the revolutionary monster Jean-Paul Marat. But it is the inner life that interests Lim—or rather, the difficulty of having one. Lim writes in the unpublished poem "Gryphons" of both the monstrosity of expectations and the expectation of monstrosity:
What do you understand about monsters & girls?
Just that something revoked them before they were born.
What's forever championed is the stirring
beneath their bellies, an imbecile glinting.
When Lim evaluates what the world says a girl should understand, what she finds is frankly stereotypical:
The world says she must know something of love
& something of mothering.
She learns the first best by the light of its going.
As for the second, violets have dropped their lights
with hardly a sigh & so, it seems she fishes for
varieties of love again with a crooked pin.
All she knows is that she gives herself to it,
but in this case, the feelings have no style.
The poem's odd locutions reveal a "she" caught in the language and logic of a fairy tale. The global nature of the tasks, love and mothering, can only be known by their failure—love "by the light of its going" and mothering by the departure of the issue. Both tasks require total submission and end in complete failure. This is what a girl should know by this point in her life, since the character speaks from the perspective of someone on a long journey, not someone on a quest with a determined ending. And this failed quest must continue because life continues, even if it has no "style." Likewise, the traditional script of love and mothering continues to exist, imposing itself upon the inner life.
Yet it is the inner life—some privacy of mind, not necessarily autonomy but an authentic secrecy—that Lim is truly concerned with. "Privacy," a right increasingly threatened in our highly observed world, is also uniquely desired by a female consciousness unable to hide completely from cultural ideas of how it should look—not just how it should be, but how it should look, what style it should have. So it is privacy that Lim finds lacking when she reconsiders a distinctly American fairy tale, the story of Anne Bradstreet—the mythic first poet of our national shores—in "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" :
We follow her past childhood,
and a sea-voyage,
past the smell off the shore like the
smell of a garden,
past an English girl bearing
past burying the children of her
children, beyond domestic work
and ceaseless illness and into
still grave and meek in middle life,
and this is
what I see in the leaves:
a woman once more
contemplating seasonal change
stained with a privacy that was
always in view,
The version of Bradstreet Lim conjures is not exactly the version we are familiar with, and it owes a debt (and a title) to John Berryman's unruly epic Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1959). To Lim, Bradstreet is no stranger to domestic labor, a middle-aged immigrant who may raise her children but who becomes distinguished by burying her grandchildren. Seeing Bradstreet this way, Lim identifies with her outside the traditional script of wife and mother. (Bradstreet is, in her work, a famous multitasker, an early success story for the juggling act.) Lim follows Bradstreet into middle age, into the depths of an inner life observing the passage of time and being observed at the same time.
Looking for a model, Lim finds one. But in order to pursue an act of feminist identification, she has to transform her subject with an act of liberating imagination. She does so because she feels time passing. Since this doesn't frame itself as a dramatic lyric moment, Lim must find and determine her own moment—which is, perhaps, why she's more attracted to the types in fairy tales and the typology of the Puritans than to a more exposed record of her own life. In a retelling of "Bluebeard," also unpublished, Lim writes, "I long to be unhurried in the blue story, / where time itself might be sad or content / or even uncomfortable, but for once it won't feel // as if it is going through me looking for something else." Her interest in the historical is an interest in the artificial and is occasioned by her conviction that there is no natural place for her—a Korean-American woman alone and thinking in the privacy granted by lyric poetry—within the social script of national femininity.
On the surface, Klink's poems do not do battle with the judgments of others in the way Larkin's and Lim's do. But Klink's departures from culture never forget the consequences of difference. Individual secession changes your relationship with the human family. In "And Having Lost Track," she writes:
And having lost track, I walked
toward the open field. Now transparent,
now far, the day-moon burned through the
air. I passed a scientist, his hands
holding cinders to the sky.
I passed a pile of corroding metal,
a young girl with a ring of keys.
The sound of a flute came and went.
I passed a garden under snow, a half-open book,
a man unaccustomed to grief.
And thought: what must I do differently
Klink's recognition of her own isolation comes twinned with a consciousness of a world that has left her alone. She eloquently marries, in her own peculiar diction, the world's languages of scientific discourse, casual idiom, and communication: "To be outside the classifiable world, / and having lost track, and having heard / no message." For Klink, the field—an expanse in the natural world, outside the limits of civilization—is the primal location of the work. She goes back to learn to pay attention, and also simply out of joy. But her journey isolates her.
Klink's most recent collection, Raptus (2010), places the emotional aftermath of a significant breakup against a background of natural, mainly Western, landscapes. But she has been writing about detachment for years, and her work is a record not only of the ecstasy of engagement with the natural world, but also of the mixed and passionately felt consequences of detachment from a noisier, more chaotic world. Personal identity ceases to be important in these matters, as in "Study for an Estuary," where looking at the ocean eloquently diminishes her "until I am required to be someone else, and the water follows some course perfectly / uninvolved with me."
In "Sea by Flowers," she again frames this detached state of mind not simply as an ecstasy in nature but as a way of realigning her values:
Traveler, show me some place where I matter least,
a shoreline as it arches toward horizon close as
attention, always turned to you, sweet in your soundproof
movement, gold-cordovan glow.
In her luminous work, Klink often addresses strangers with great intimacy and tenderness. "Soundproof" they might be, but that does not mean they have nothing to teach her. The point is not that this kind of intellectual and ethical gesture swerves against the value of a family, but that it is made possible for the poet when she imagines herself outside a "normal" story. Not only does she need to go to the edges of fields, to frozen rivers and northern bays, she needs to go toward structures of human relation that enable her to evade the roles of wife and mother. This focused solitude seems less the result of a set of choices than an original act of intellectual necessity.
These women poets, not having children and families, turn toward acts of mind in solitude that are potentially valuable for poetry. It is not that men have no stake in this kind of consciousness. Shakespeare framed it brilliantly in the sonnets: "And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence / Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence." But the sonnets were written in a world when the besiegement of the brow by time was seen to take hold with greater alacrity. With longer lives to live, and more possibilities for how to live them, both men and women should be moved to read, and write, a lyric poetry that does not simply judge choices, or represent people at the mercy of them. Lim, Larkin, and Klink deliberate among cultural imperatives, their own changing desires, and the true circumstances of our lives: it is a juggling act worth fighting for.
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Editors: Deborah Chasman, Joshua Cohen
Managing Editor: Simon Waxman
Poetry Editors: Mary Jo Bang, Timothy Donnelly, B. K. Fischer
Fiction Editor: Junot Díaz