Muse, Susan Aizenberg (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002, $12.95)
Year Of Morphines, Betsy Brown (Louisiana State University Press, 2002, $24.95 cloth, $16.95 paper)
No One With A Past Is Safe, Page Dougherty (Word Press, 2002, $16)
Open House, Beth Ann Fennelly (Zoo Press, 2002, $19.95)
Fabulae, Joy Katz (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002, paper $12.95)
Skin, April Lindner (Texas Tech University Press, 2002, cloth $18.95)
Before The Blue Hour, Deidre O’Connor (Cleveland State University Press, 2002, paper $14)
Frozen Spring, Margo Stever (Midlist Press, 2002, $12)
The eight first books discussed in this review contain poems with mature female voices in which themes such as activism, motherhood, and ethical aesthetics are at the forefront. I chose these books for their sweeping intelligences–in addition to their portrayals of contemporary American women: there are poems about Alma Mahler (Lindner’s Skin), Vivienne Eliot (Aizenberg’s Muse), Sylvia Plath (Katz’s Fabulae), and Helen Norris (Dougherty’s No One With A Past Is Safe). If this were a movie review, it would read something like: “If you’re only going to read eight first books of poetry by women this year, these eight are it.” As a lover of poetry, I am often boggled by the sheer number of poetry books published each year, and, as in the case with the following books, humbled as well.
Deidre O’Connor’s Before the Blue Hour (winner of the 2001 CSU Poetry Center Prize) is a book that looks close at loss of all kinds and death. In “Meditation,” the speaker encounters a dead fawn “on the side of the road [that] was beautiful/for a day…The liver glistened.” What is amazing about “Meditation” (and O’Connor’s book in general) is that she does not simply look at the fawn, muse a bit, give us a metaphor, and get out. Instead, in this poem, and elsewhere in the book, O’Connor comes back to her themes, sticks in there when things are sticky, unthinkable, when most of us would feel more comfortable looking away. The middle stanza of “Meditation” reads:
Just days later, only the face remains whole
amid the ooze of decay. Shed hair
makes a pavement halo around the body,
hundreds of tufts like filaments
dropped on the table beneath the vase,
or light around the Virgin of Guadalupe.
How deftly the speaker returns to the fawn, day after day, until “A flock of crows lifted this morning as [she] approached. / [She] had to cover [her] mouth.” Again, the speaker may cover her mouth, but the poet keeps her eyes open. In “This Hiss of the Spirit as It Leaves a Woman’s Body,” O’Connor’s subtle and honed observation turns to domestic spaces. The speaker comes upon her parents in the laundry corner of the garage where they “stood and seemed to kiss.” Because this is an O’Connor poem, the speaker doesn’t turn away, shyly, but instead stays and observes:
And then I saw their posture
meant something other than love:
my father’s arm had locked
my mother’s arm behind,
and behind her pale, uplifted chin,
just left of the box that made her voice,
he pressed a wooden garden stake
and seemed to reason through his teeth.”
The loss here is the loss of the child’s innocence, the loss of safety and trust, which is eerily mirrored in the title poem of the collection. The speaker, this time a grown-up, says she falls “in love with someone dangerously/unlike me” and survives the relationship: “…I miss you, finally,/less than I miss myself, who I was before you knew me….” O’Connor captures violence, this time as though from her peripheral vision. Even when the speaker(tm) tries, perhaps, to look away, she can’t. Her intelligence still sees what is happening to her:
…You didn’t know your strength: your hands
left bluish bruises, and you shook my knowledge loose
from me like bats in an unused room, wobbly sonar
searching for home….
Margo Stever also has a gift for penetrating violent and difficult subjects. In Frozen Spring (winner of the Mid-List First Book Poetry Prize), Stever’s poem “The True Story of Eugene” echoes O’Connor’s “Meditation.” In this poem, the chanced-upon dead is a man, however, rather than a fawn. Stever’s speaker is a child who concentrates on what lies right beside the man, rather than Eugene himself:
Outside a wasp nest fell on the sidewalk,
all the autumn wasps dead.
It looks like something decapitated,
like so many burnt out cigars stuck together.
The terrifying natural world, the world of men (and their cigars) is echoed in “Ascension,” a poem about dismembering a blue whale. Seven men (seven dwarves?) “bear the still warm heart/of the blue whale to the boiling vats.” The immensity of the whale, the tininess of the men is reminiscent of fairy tales. Elsewhere in the book, the speaker turns to the world of myth. In “The Fox,” Stever conjures up the violence of Hansel and Gretel in an elegy for her brother. In “Splitting Wood,” she describes a mother killing a violent father with his own ax in order to save her child.
The wild moon foamed at the mouth.
The wild moon crept softly at her feet….
She grew up in the country splitting wood.
She knew just how much it took
to bring a limb down.
Many of the poems also penetrate the ordinary with implicit violence.
The poems in the first section of the book center around childhood, often from a mother’s perspective. In “Weaning,” a baby’s breast feeding is described as “an elegant sawing.” In “A Little Bit Morning,” a child awaken by nightmares longs to sleep with his parents:
…his bare feet cold on the bare floor.
The door to their room is wide
like the ocean and just as cold…
This chasm, this fissure, this ravine, is the magic of Stever’s poetry. She is able to get into the mind of the other, and stays there though it is often difficult emotionally. She doesn’t ease back and forth for her reader’s comfort. In “Impression of a Snapping Turtle,” a son, this time seventeen, is described as:
Moon man, man child, monster child,
son between one world and another,
eater of the earth, eater of mother
father, brother eater….
Stever’s genius lies in the rendering of these in-between places, the lingering she does there. In “No Longer Mourn for Me,” she extends the metaphor of the turtles and perhaps the speaker’s anxiety about her son: “Many turtles did not survive/violent tropical storms…”
In “The Swimming Lesson,” the speaker is now the child thrown into the pool by her mother:
Never holding out a hand
as I sank, choking,
your image wavered above,
my distorted mother.
Warped by sunlight, pulled tight
by the bathing cap…..
Reading this thirty two line poem, one would expect the speaker to be rescued, the hand to finally come. But the brilliance of this poem (and, by extension, this book) is that the hand never comes, nor is there the easy resolution of the speaker saving herself.
Betsy Brown’s Year of Morphines (winner of the Nation Poetry Series, selected by George Garrett) is also book about violence and complicated loss–and one of the bravest books I’ve ever read. The jacket sleeve tells us that Brown has lost both her sister and mother to breast cancer and her father to pancreatic cancer. There is no disguise–“he speaker is the poet, at least more or less, and these intimate poems rescue terror and death by the sheer beauty of language. But Year of Morphines is not only a book of elegies. Many of the poems have the intensity and controlled rage of Anne Sexton. In “Midwest Boys,” Brown chronicles the cruelty of teenage males in her native Oshkosh, Wisconsin who threw a 32 pound rock over the an overpass “aiming for windshields” and “shoved candlesticks/up Linda. They drew oh her/ With her Bonne Bell.” The poem ends:
I hate you.
I remember your names.
My curse on you is this:
May you have daughters
and may you love them.
Brown brilliantly captures the nuances of adolescence and counters the bullies of “Midwest Boys” in “Monana Terrace,” a poem in which a kind boy, a musician, befriends her as her mother is dying: “If I am ever 16 again/ I will take him with me/ into that dread silent/ house of loss.” And, just as she ends “Midwest Boys” with a curse, “Monana Terrace” contains a prayer of sorts:
I never stop thinking of you,
a wish that you are well…
that you had the angel
we hope touches someone….
In the second section of the book, in a long poem called “Easter,” Brown weaves religious imagery and the high of morphine. The poem implicitly brings faith into the grieving process:
Because my mother and my sister died
both on Easter, 16 years apart,
I still look to see who rose those days
when the predawn blackness finally brought light
to their same sorry morphine crawl,
the glow the drew them then, Jesus Christ,
into peace, the same lost breast the slow
The touch of blasphemy is picked up again in “Mary Magdalene Talks to Jesus on Holy Thursday,” a revisionist persona poem in which Mary calls Jesus a “crazy, wrecked Bastard” and declares:
My hair is ratty like I got some crazy perm
at age 15 that won’t go away, and I never
washed the feet of any man.
Not even you.
Brown’s irreverence, her strong insistent voice, does not necessarily depend on postmodern irony, but rather a candid sass that infuses her poetry. In “Rage” (a French word for “pre-Pasteurian rabies” that struck a French village called Thiers) we also obviously see “rage.” She collages her sister’s translations from a French medical text, her sister who was diagnosed with breast cancer while studying medicine. Brown weaves the horror of this 18th century outbreak of rabies with her sister’s own suffering:
we were all ghosts and stories
about walks to the health-food store
and the way people so deeply numbed
find to talk about a future. In Thiers,
the 12-year-old boy just simply
could not drink the water. He shattered
the cup and convulsed….
April Lindner’s Skin (A Walt McDonald First Book Winner) is a book about desire and separation, the way skin separates us from each other, separates ourselves from the world, and, most terrifyingly, “gives its enemy a home.” (“Splinter”) In another uncustomarily mature first book, Lindner’s work centers around motherhood and marriage with gallant and honest ambivalence. With Plath and Sexton as her predecessors, Lindner directly confronts both the splendid and lurid in American confessional or “personal” poetry. In “Supper,” she writes:
….Outside the night rains ink.
To a stranger bracing his umbrella,
think how your lit window must seem
both warm and cold, a kiss withheld,
lights strung above a distant patio.
Then, in “Peep Show:”
Tonight we forget again to draw the shade,
pass from room to room, backlit like paper dolls
in a diorama…..
The speaker implicates herself not only in her own benign exhibitionism, but also her own voyeurism:
….From here I can watch
The boys across the way, in striped pajamas,
belly down before the television, each head
haloed in red, then blue, then green…..
The separation and familiarity of other families, the tenuousness of intact households, is further explored in “Tornado Watch.” In preparing for an upcoming storm, the family retreats to the cellar (a burying of desire?), while the speaker likens the tornado above to her fear of sexual infidelity:
How little it would take to spin me weightless
for a frozen moment in his arms
brisk and capricious, how little to soar
and teeter on the headlong edge of a smash.
This scenario is further complicated and amplified by the poem “What I Didn’t Tell You” which describes a series of lovers (perhaps imagined, perhaps not) the speaker takes on a trip to Europe:
…this one’s eyes, dark and wet
as coffee grounds, that one’s burnt
sienna moustache, the one’s milky way
of red freckles, that one’s taste of schnapps
and powdered sugar….
The speaker becomes each lover, the skin of each dissolving.
In “Condom,” the speaker and her husband love without one, the skin closer to skin, and in “Quickening” and “Ultrasound” the skin of another inside the self enlarges Lindner’s themes.
In the middle section of Skin, Lindner finds an alter ego in Alma Mahler Werfel, a turn of the century Vienna femme fatale, who had love affairs with “geniuses” such as the painter Oskar Kokoschka; the dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann; the biologist Paul Kammerer; and the pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch. She was also married to the architect Walter Gropius and the writer Frana Werfel. Werfel’s unapologetic brazen sexuality is dealt with compassionately in Lindner’s persona poems, where Werfel must subsume her own artistic passions. In “Counterpoint,” Lindner imagines Werfel’s own musical longings:
….One theme should dominate,
should set the mood, but when I wrote,
the melodies snared in their rush to be set down.
He called my songs chocolate, candied fruit…
So Werfel becomes not an artist herself, but a muse. In “Cut Flowers:”
sought me out. If anyone alive
can turn me into an artist,
he said, it is you….
Lindner turns the notion of muse on its head when she appropriates Alma Werfel as her own, and then gives her voice, one woman inhabiting another woman’s skin.
In Susan Aizenberg’s Muse (winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry), the most apparent muse is Vivienne Eliot (wife of T.S.) Aizenberg borrows Vivienne but subverts this borrowing in her title poem. She lists what is taken from Vivienne in a prose poem section of “Muse” called “Ward in Chancery:”
Photographs she’d lived with twenty years,
her husband’s love letters. Trunks of filmy
scarves, sheer, petal-colored dresses. Her
lacework. Pairs of pastel boots with their
many pearl buttons, those straw hats pinned
with gleaming fruit, stockings the color of
sorbet–even her fascist drag, black waistcoat
and cape, the ivory cigarette holder. They
took her passport, her driver’s license, her
right to vote or appeal for release. They took
her powders and elixirs, her car keys, the
keys to her flat…..
Aizenberg ultimately lets Vivienne speak. In the forth section of the poem, it is 1947, the year of Vivienne Eliot’s death:
nearly weightless now, so thin
any small arms might encircle me,
my body grown so light I can easily slip
across the beckoning rim.
Vivienne obliquely slips in and out of Aizenberg’s other work–in the poem “Contrast, Composition” in which Van Gogh is also hospitalized and in “For the Dark Girl,” a poem about Dorothy Parker who “tells her daily rosary: Dear God in Heaven, O Please–make me stop writing like a woman.” Aizenberg continually gestures towards the desire to rewrite the lives of women, as in “In the Frame,” a poem in which she substitutes her young mother for one of the characters in a painting of Edward Hopper’s. The “margins scrawled with purple-inked comments in [Vivienne Eliot’s] spidery hand” are echoed in the closing of “White Cat and Notebook: A Still Life,” an elegy for Lynda Hull, which ends:
…and the open notebook;
paint in a wash of violet
for your elegantly scrawled lines.
“Three Poems for Judi,” (another fine elegy written for J, someone who has died from cancer) is almost shocking in its courageous disclosure of the muse. J, a patient in the hospital says:
…I want to walk
again. Why won’t you take me home? You don’t know
what it’s like. You don’t know what this pain is like.
You’re putting this all in your next book, aren’t you–
Perhaps most miraculous are Aizenberg’s poems about her son, for whom her muse is most benevolent. Like Stever and Lindner, Aizenberg writes about maternal ambivalence, but Aizenberg breaks down the wall between speaker and poet in such poems as “Art” in which she dramatizes her son’s arrest:
deputies cuff my son, pat him down
against a black and white while he invited
them to “suck my cock, fuck” him “in the ass”….
Then, later, writes:
…Forgive me if this seems
extreme–I don’t know how to make things
Aizenberg’s son again echoes Vivienne Eliot when the speaker/the poet must hospitalize him:
…I fear the terrible bland prose
of the waiver I’ve just signed: I disavow
any right to damages. Rare side effects may
include a slowed heart rate, a drop in blood
pressure, coma, and death….
This signing, this “confession” of sorts beautifully intensifies the title poem.
Beth Ann Fennelly’s Open House (Winner of the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry) utilizes collage and polyphonics to get at the “self” or “selves.” In her decidedly ambitious “L’H(tm)tel Terminus Notebooks,” Fennelly pastiches the writing of William Matthews, Stephen Dunn, Cesar Vallejo with folklore/ criticism of Elizabeth Bishop, Larry Rivers, Marianne Moore as well as trivia/ facts from science, religion, and pop culture. All through this hypertext-inspired poem, in which the speaker constantly suggests ideas for “other” poems, is commentary by Mr. Daylater, sometimes referred to as Mr. D. He is the opposite of Aizenberg’s muse; he is the censor, the critic, the voice of doubt:
Mr. D: If your students read your poems, it’s for gossip.
And later, after the speaker mentions a poet, Rodney Jones, by name:
Mr. Daylater: Will you change the names, B.A? I bet
you’ll change the names. Pathetic, your need to be liked.
Mr. Daylater is mean, a harasser–he asks B.A. (the speaker’s character/Beth Ann) what color her panties are. He tells her:
Mr. D: I like how you slipped in that you ran a marathon.
–It’s a telling detail, Daylater.
–It’s a bragging detail, B.A.
In her feisty resistance to Mr. D, the speaker continues her collaging, her gathering, so that in essence Fennelly’s book is ultimately about pushing beyond what we think we cannot say, pushing beyond taboo. In a very funny poem, “Mother Sends My Poem to her Sister with Post-its,” Fennelly recreates the look of post-its on a page by arranging little squares of text in which the speaker’s mother “corrects” the poem with such messages as “She doesn’t smoke/ anymore” and “She got this wrong/it was me/not her father/ who sang her ‘Irish Rosie’…” The mother has teamed with Mr. D as a critic, yet still the speaker persists.
In “The Cup Which My Father Hath Given Me,” Fennelly describes the father’s death as “My Father’s Pregnancy” in a section of prose:
…Toward the end, all he could stomach was a mouthful
or two of ice cream. But my father had fidelity. It was the
greatest love he had ever known, and even then, he
had no remorse. He was groaning, we were counting
his breaths, he was bearing down.
Fennelly’s leaps of imagination and malleable memories are paralleled in her intellectual life. In “L’H(tm)tel Terminus Notebooks,” she writes:
In the Old Testament, Moses has light beams shining
down from his head, but Michelango’s Moses has
horns, a mistranslation of the Hebrew for “light.”
In “The Impossibility of Language,” an immigrant named Guillarmo writes “I am alonesome” which Fennelly appropriates as the perfect ending to her own poem. Her obsession with mispronunciations, misreadings, and misunderstandings is much more than language play. Hers is a fierce longing and wrangling with the beast that is our alphabet. Though she writes in the opening poem “The Impossibility of Language:”
The mushroom cloud
is a balloon caption
for which earth
Fennelly, by the end of Open House, has done much to fill in that balloon and widen our definition of what poetry can be.
The poems in Joy Katz’s Fabulae (another winner of the Crab Orchard
Award Series in Poetry) also play with the blurred edges of speaker and poet. Although the title suggests the book may be about spinning fictions, in “The Entrance,” Katz draws “a whole landscape” in which her poem can exist, then writes:
It was drawn by a gypsy girl whose hair I have always envied.
She exists; I am not even making her up….
reader, can you get out of the poem?
By not finishing? By turning the page?
Katz is like O’Connor in her insistence in observing, her insistence in bringing her reader along. And like Aizenberg, she is obsessed with visual art. She also speaks the unspeakable, or, rather, draws what she’s been forbidden to draw. In “Following the Orthodox Men” she writes:
…I didn’t choose
to be cut off from them and their God forever, or maybe
I did, from the moment I, as a girl, drew God–
who is never permitted to be drawn–with wild hair the color of
Like O’Connor and Stever, Katz comes alone upon the dead, but this time the dead are under their protective headstones. In “In the Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague” Katz adapts a stance of bravado:
I think the dead are not more holy.
How do we know they
in their inverted world trail stars for us?
I would say something irreverent about someone
buried here, if I knew her–….
The impulse to rebel, and rebel against death, resonates with “Following the Orthodox Men.” While Katz certainly challenges authority, she also enters worlds where people have little or none. In “From the Forest of Canes,” an eerie poem about foot binding, Katz adopts the persona of a Chinese woman in 1931:
I have not seen my feet since my fifth year.
This excites me.
My maid binds me weekly, her touch excites me….
Katz’s enters the persona with relish, without judgment. And in a chilling group of poems abut re-imagining Nazi Germany, the speaker is first forced to role play through a youth camp “Together in a Small Room (1975),” then visits a solitary confinement cell in “At Terezin (1992),” and finally inhabits history in “What Remains.”
Katz leaps from historical poems to present day with ease and grace. She revisits the images of wounds and bandages in terms of sexuality ( “From the Forest of Canes”) in “A Visit to Seattle,” a poem about a contemporary women’s romantic ambivalence. In a relationship with a “stranger” she describes his:
Sheets that smelled like skin, torn from the bed,
hang like clean bandages on the line.
And in “The Word Wife,” a freer, present day woman lets her new husband “sketch[ed] her feet/….crisp lines falling like wisps/of hair from a boy’s first cut.” Gender seems blurred and easy until Katz introduces:
…the word wife, first light
touching the violet’s hair. The new word
husband, hush of a car up the street….
Still, Katz comes closest of the six poets to writing at least one out-and-out love poem, the unequivocal quiet “Aubade” which ends:
of your head on its pillow, a gentle, intimate shape–
it was something, it was eternal.
In the poems of Page Dougherty’s No One with a Past is Safe, the body is also celebrated and loved, but this time the gaze is upon the female body. In “We Are All Girls,” Dougherty describes adolescent girls practicing romantic encounters “each wanting so much the other to be a man.” She likens the illicitness to shoplifting:
touching each other’s nipples, reaching
fingers down into the girlish dark…
And in the delightful “Women’s Locker Room” (a riff off “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop) which begins “The art of walking naked isn’t hard to master….”
Dougherty makes an inclusive list of the kinds of bodies she witnesses:
Dark-wide circumferenced nipple like the world,
limping, long backs, cellulite, or perfect face,
Mary Kassett, Kathe Kollwitz, or Georgia O’Keeffe….
Like Katz and Aizenberg, Dougherty also calls upon the visual artist as muse. Her poems are tactile in their visual descriptions and she writes poems inspired by paintings (by Gustave Caillebotte and Boris Kustodiev), propaganda posters, and the photographer David Floyd. In “Cat Deaths,” Dougherty paints Redhook, Brooklyn:
….We lived by the water
that summer, my boyfriend and I, lovers
for a few years between the escalation
of the Vietnam war and the women’s movement
when I stopped sleeping with him
for months at a time….
apartments above, like a Hopper painting.
Dougherty, the person, was a community organizer in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia in the 1970s and was active in the miners’ wildcat strike. Dougherty, the poet, draws on this time of her life for poems of that period and her activism infuses poems about World War II as well. The most explicitly political of the six books, Dougherty is at home with persona and large convincing statements about history. In the list poem “Happy Land,” Dougherty simply and effectively lists places of disaster where poor people were needlessly killed:
Iroquois Theater, 1903,
Natchez, Mississippi dance hall, 1930,
Triangle Shirtwaist, 1911,
Winecoff Hotel, Atlanta, 1946,
Mannington Mine, 1963.
Land of neglected reports,
Land of smoke and no exits….
In “Ode to X,” a poem about the Gulf War, a speaker unable to “shake the thought/of bombs dropping on Iraq,” goes to bed to her lover:
In the spin of his hair I heard the bombs sing.
In the gyre of my hips I feel the graves being dug.
Like Katz and Aizenberg, Dougherty also draws the reader into the conversation of the poem. In “Radical Forgetting,” the speaker is on a New York subway, going from “116th to 110th,” eavesdropping on high school boys talking about their sex ed class:
How the teacher gave each guy five dollars,
the mission to buy condoms, bring them to class,
perhaps some of you from that train are reading this.
“I was embarrassed, I didn’t want to ask the woman
at the counter, you know, where are your condoms?….”
When Dougherty not only takes us on the train through her imagination, but then also literally says we could have been there with her, she is feminizing the postmodernism nod and wink. She embeds her acknowledgement of the other riders–future potential readers–but without missing a beat, continues her powerful narrative. The teenage boys become her muse, the other subway riders become her muse, and Dougherty has become her own muse.