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With much of the literary world talking about gender balance in publishing, we invited three poets to talk about the relevance of gender, and gendered thinking, within their poetry itself. Is “women’s poetry” a relevant or even meaningful category, or should we eschew such divisions? Veering from the tongue-in-cheek to the theoretical and back, Daisy Fried, Aracelis Girmay, and Lisa Russ Spaar talk with BR poetry editor B. K. Fischer about poetry, feminism, bodies, and the difficult and shifting triangulations of all three.
B.K. Fischer: Taking the form of an advice column, the final sequence in Daisy’s Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice is a hilarious send-up of the pieties of the poetry world. The Poetess starts by applying the term poetess “to men and women, good poetesses and bad,” reclaiming the pejorative to issue wry judgments about the state of the art. This revisionary wit pervades the book. The poem “Women’s Poetry” begins by echoing Marianne Moore’s famous lines about poetry in general—“I, too, dislike it”—and proceeds to describe an erotic body-shop epiphany. “A Snow Woman” rewrites Stevens. It strikes me that Aracelis and Lisa are also engaged, in different registers and via different themes, in reconfiguring the work of the “Poetess”—the “woman poet” as such. Aracelis recasts gendered identity in “Self-Portrait as the Snake’s Skin” and “Portrait of the Woman as a Skein,” and in an expansive re-fabulation of Genesis. Lisa takes it to the microcosmic level: whereas flowers are typically gendered feminine, she sees the “flocked foreskins of the tulip poplar.” All of you are writing poetry that shows us how we move in gendered terrain—through families, houses, gardens, and classrooms, through sites of labor and transmission of knowledge, through stories, curses, and legacies, both matriarchal and patriarchal. But rather than asking you “Are you writing a species of feminist poetry?” I want to ask you this: What do you think is the right question to be asking, right now, about feminism and poetry? What are you asking yourself? What are you asking of poetry, and of yourself?
Lisa Russ Spaar: In order to engage with this prismatic set of questions and observations about the gendered terrain of poetry, I pulled from a bookshelf my rather battered 1977 Bantam paperback edition of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (judging from its swollen appearance it must have fallen at least once into the bath with me), which I read for the first time in the spring of 1978, almost exactly thirty-five years ago. I was a fourth-year undergraduate that semester, working on a thesis on Rich and Sylvia Plath. A passage from the afterword, in particular, thrilled me when I read it. Responding to Susan Sontag’s statement in Styles of Radical Will that “there are ways of thinking that we don’t yet know about,” Rich writes: “I take those words to mean that many women are even now thinking in ways which traditional intellection denies, decries, or is unable to grasp. Thinking is an active, fluid, expanding process; intellection, ‘knowing’ are recapitulations of past processes. In arguing that we have by no means yet explored or understood our biological grounding, the miracle and paradox of the female body and its spiritual and political meanings, I am really asking whether women cannot begin, at last, to think through the body, to connect what has been so cruelly disorganized—our great mental capacities, hardly used; our highly developed tactile sense; our genius for close observation; our complicated, pain-enduring, multipleasured physicality.”
What did that mean, I wondered, “to think through the body”? Moreover, what might it mean to write through the body, my body, my woman’s body, with its “complicated, pain-enduring, multi-pleasured physicality”?
Rich’s admonition remains mysterious to me, but I love its mix of miracle and paradox, and I think that my entire apprenticeship as a poet has been shaped by its faceted invitation. There are surely other questions to ask about feminism and poetry in our moment, but this query—how can I observe and think and create and be in the world through the body, my body, bodies I imagine and bodies I share? —is the one I am always asking myself, as a person and as a person who writes. And I go for sustenance to poems by men and women that evince in language some experience of this somatic consciousness. For me personally, this might involve attempting to conjure and articulate the vacant arctic spaces of my mother’s demented mind, or to plumb a loved one’s unexcavated hurt, or to body forth in language some experience of mid-life chagrin and rue. (What noetic sentience is it possible to express, for example, through a body less and less visited by “multi-pleasured physicality” but rather more often by hearing loss, stiff knees, hormonal storms, and nightly bouts of dread?) For me, heeding Rich’s words has meant that the sensory and the ineffable must always be exchanging their secrets, with a kind of fluidity or vexation, in which what is spectral or abstract can be made concrete, and vice-versa—something like Emily Dickinson’s “Ourself behind ourself,” maybe. Finally, this seems to have meant, for me, making a physical body out of my text.
Daisy Fried: I write from my own experiences, however obliquely and fictionally, and that informs my poems’ subjects. I was a kid in the 70s and 80s. I and all the girls I knew assumed we would grow up and be president, just like the boys did. So our experience of being female in the world may be different from that of previous generations. There are plenty of things we take for granted. Does that make us less earnest, more playful, writing woman stuff when we feel like it, and not, if we don’t feel like it, instead of being either militant or effacing our gender in our work? Are we less likely to separate woman stuff from the whole experience of living?
It’s still necessary to declare that female experience is human experience, which is what I hope my perfectly sincere, emphatically tongue-in-cheek title does. But the political awareness in my poems in Women’s Poetry doesn’t, I think, privilege gender over other kinds of politics. In “Torment,” one of two long poems from the book, an adjunct creative writing teacher rides on a train with privileged undergrads who have been interviewing for Wall Street jobs. The teacher is pregnant, and there’s gender involved in what she thinks about in the poem, including an account of being interviewed by a sexist female academic, but the poem is much more about the deterioration of the middle class in twenty-first century America than it is about gender. “Attenti Agli Zingari” has to do with neo-Fascism, and the treatment of the gypsies in Rome, all of this seen through the eyes of an American mother with a small child. But the poem at its heart is about what it is to be American in the larger world. Maybe. (I don’t want to know too much about my poems.) And as you noticed, the title poem is about a pimped-out car. Women’s poetry is like a car—it might have purple lights underneath, or outrageous hubcaps, or an enormous spoiler jutting off the back, but underneath it’s still a car. (Sexist aside: I notice men are more likely to know what a spoiler is than women. But I’ve gotten a few notes from women saying things like “hey, now I know what a spoiler is!”)
Obviously women are more likely to write, for example, about giving birth than men. But theme and content, while compelling, and often part of what is attractive or unattractive about a poem to a reader, has very little to do with what’s good. I do think some people get distracted by content; that can work for women or against them. Some people read a poem because they think it’s a mommy-poem. Some people run screaming. In both cases people are probably liking or disliking the poem for anti-poetic reasons. The question to ask about any poem, feminist or not, by a woman or not, is “is it good, and how does it succeed?”
I think VIDA is asking pertinent questions: what’s the gender count in magazines, who’s editing the magazines, who’s reviewing the poetry books, and who’s doing the reviewing. The numbers rather startlingly show that men and women are not being published and reviewed in equal numbers, at least at the highest echelons of the biz. But those questions are about numbers before they’re about ideas.
I believe what the Poetess says in her advice column: a woman is no worse than a man.
You asked about “A Snow Woman.” As it happens I didn’t set out to rewrite Stevens, but certain things about writing the scenery and gestures of “A Snow Woman” started to remind me of Stevens’s snowman poem, so I stuck him in there. My poem’s negativity about him seemed like the right emotional note to start with. I don’t feel temperamentally drawn to Stevens, but if I felt the poem had required my speaker to publicly adore Stevens I probably would have pretended to adore him. If it helped a poem to pick on Lorine Niedecker or Elizabeth Bishop, I wouldn’t hesitate to do that. In other words, Stevens is there to complicate and hopefully nuance the poem. He’s not there so I can grind an ax.
Ultimately, I believe what the Poetess says in her advice column: a woman is no worse than a man.
Aracelis Girmay: I am thankful for, among other things, the numbers work of VIDA and think this work calls attention to more work to be done. Questions surface: what poems or voices are lost because editors are predominantly male or white or on the East Coast? Other questions: What ideals or aesthetics are these organizations and institutions shaping? Who or what is wildly, meaningfully creating and shaping new spaces? What kinds of calls (for submissions or collaborations) can help foster new ways of thinking both about and against these constructions, structures, ways of seeing and identifying and signifying?
I am also thinking about this question of content and theme that Daisy raises. I am remembering coming to poems in a few different ways when I was younger (perhaps these are still my ways, but there was something more pure or less muddled then, as my recent expectations have been so much more schooled and taught). When I was younger, there was the good or stunning or breathtaking that moved through me, into me, regardless of whether or not I understood what was happening or how it was working or meaning, the poem’s thematic or conceptual concerns. That was (is) one way of reading. Another way: reading a thing that, however crude or gorgeous or uncrafted, struck me boldly because of the silence it spoke to, because I’d never heard a poem written like that before—much less heard anyone speak such things in such plain terms. For me, it wasn’t necessarily about the craft of the poem—but The What it was speaking. The gap it was breathing speech or shape into. That’s another way of reading. Sometimes, of course, these coincide. This is to say, when my friend Kamilah Aisha Moon published her essay “It’s Not the Load That Breaks You Down; It’s the Way You Carry It” in The Feminist Wire, we both realized the space (silence) she was writing into: the essay is engaged with thinking about health, work, class, and the fact of a body in academia. Since that essay’s publication in October 2012, she has received many, many emails and notes thanking her for her voice, for her sisterhood and encouragement. Yes, there are several collections of poetry and prose about health and wellness and the body. Yet, many years after Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, it filled me with both hope and a depth of sadness to hear a voice articulating a personal struggle for healthcare and wellness. The details of our bodies are not yet spoken about enough—not in ways that are diverse, complicated, full. I’m interested in the black, brown, female of it. I’m interested in the body that is not raced—or read in/through/with that lens, too. What is the heart doing!? What about the spine!? What magnificence! And how terrifying that these magnificents must be read according to class, access to healthcare, race, all. That the gift and brilliance of a body is utterly shaped by social constructions and the consequences of those constructions.
There is so much shame and quiet in discussions about desire, money, health, body, illness. What are the things that tend to, or guard, these silences? Perhaps I can start by making a list of a few of my own (personal) answers:
*fear of being alone
*fear of not having the resources (personal, monetary, interpersonal) to deal with the consequences of speaking, asking a question, taking care
*a desire to maintain a kind of privacy, privacy of imagination
*a commitment to a kind of performance of self that I am both aware and unaware of
I keep thinking of a question Thomas Sayers Ellis asks: “Who do you love?” That’s a question that June Jordan was always asking in her work. I want to know how the things we love intersect the silences we guard and/or inherit. That’s where the difficult work is for me—sussing out the silences I am loyal to, and why.
BKF: This work, this breathtaking sussing of silences, alongside the complex navigations of gender in each of your books, seems to inhere in each of your various formal choices, especially your syntax. Aracelis, in your long poem “On the Shape of a Sentence,” you ask, “What does the shapeshifting of the line tell us about the girl in question?” I would love to know the answer to that question. Your poem starts to answer it, to dramatize the evolution of the “she” as it unfolds through the word itself and becomes embodied in narrative. Lisa, your poems also follow sinuous paths of seduction and surrender, the sentence as voluptuary: “St. Hope. St. Story. Is syntax erotic? / If so, please. Please read. Here.” Daisy, your poems often employ a syntax of negation that encodes, or adumbrates, a form of resistance: “I’m not that kind of poet” or “If I were a different kind of poet, I’d put . . . .” Does form, for any of you, have anything to do with gender? Or with the body? What’s governing your formal choices? You all coil and uncoil (recoil) your sentences in skillful shapes—at times tightly, at times loosely. Aracelis, you riff on typography and lowercase letters, taking linguistic fascination down to the phoneme. Daisy, you spoof William Carlos Williams in a poem in the shape of a refrigerator. Lisa, your couplets seem to be informed by both physics and physiology—syntax as fulcrum, as systole and diastole, as architecture and sinew. Any of you: when you make a poem, what’s seductive, or tricky, or ambivalent, or unnerving, about the sentence? Or the line, the stanza, or the page?
AG: I suppose I am always interested in thinking about the extent to which we are—each, all—finding or telling or creating (making up!) stories of ourselves, and in so doing, finding or telling or creating (making up!) stories of each other. I am also interested in finding ways to talk about the things we read. The ways we read. Text as body and body as text, among other things. I’m interested in finding ways to surprise myself into new territory and thinking about how play and experiments with “form” can be ways to surprise myself, my relationships to language.
In the particular poem you mention, I had been poised to excavate something (a feeling, a memory, a loss, a question) about body and loss and both, about the progression into, and simultaneity of, girlhood-and-womanhood, for some time. And was having trouble. I wanted to work within the constraint of an experiment that would be full of mystery and discovery. I thought that if the sentence “She is my she” served as a kind of map for the experiment, I might be able not only to engage with a new way of thinking about structure and excavation, but also to point to the practice or process of “reading” one’s world. How strange, how cultural, constructed, and unfinished. But it is often hard for me to hang on to this vantage point when I am writing. I hoped that the structure itself would point to the multiple ways of seeing the given thing—These are the ways I read the line, the shape of the sentence, and you?—and that several other ways of reading the line, the "S . . . ," might start to surface in a reader. I hoped that the structure itself would point to a process of exposing and translating—would resist the fix—would point to something many-headed and multitudinous.
LRS: I’m kind of a syntax-suck, and the poets I love (Dickinson, Plath, Hopkins, Rilke, Carl Phillips, Charles Wright, Celan, among many others) wield syntax in provocative ways. It’s exciting, therefore, to be in conversation with both Daisy and Aracelis, because they are poets to whom I turn to for delight and inspiration in just this regard. I think of Daisy’s impeccable dark and comic timing, for instance, in poems like “At Advent, the Waiting Room” from My Brother is Getting Arrested Again:
We small army say if you turn time
backwards, Mary goes back to Bethlehem,
the lowing of the cattle, the comfort of straw.
Labor’s just as terrible, if not worse, in reverse,
but then the swelling hurt subsides; her breasts
grow lighter, de-manufacturing the milk
that would have fed the god. Mary still
remembers the strange unraveling. Therefore
no one ever bears, no one ever
bears the whole world’s weight alone again.
That deft trellising of four sentences over ten lines in a kind of rewind motion is just dazzling, and leaves us panting at that last, knock-out epiphany. Or consider this sorrowing, one-sentence cri-de-cœur/psalm of terror and survival, the second stanza of Aracelis’s “Palimpsest” (from Teeth), which describes a father’s helpless horror at being forced to witness the rape of his family by five “coke-eyed soldiers”:
and the father,
undoing his pants,
his hands like rain,
down to his ankles,
his long thigh bone—
a shiny scar
that runs so long
down to his shin,
he, sobbing, naked,
up to the sky,
into her chamber
smell of sweat;
how he cannot stone,
how no thing will gallop,
how it is so quiet
inside his ear
the way she cries
This poem always makes me weep, and its power has so much to do with its lean, pent, keening sentence (and “sentencing”), its “word most sadness, / stretched long as trains.”
I think my couplets allow me to take a dense, brocaded mesh of language and espalier it—to allow the reader space to enter the text, and to allow me to move between external perception and what Dickinson called the “Campaign, inscrutable / Of the Interior.” Your question has made me realize, too, that if my earlier syntactical gestures had to do with the sentence (which I think they did), in this new book, Vanitas, Rough, I’m playing more with fragment, silence, what’s cut off abruptly or finally unutterable. I wonder if that has something to do with writing through the middle-aged body, too.
If I am blindfolded, can I tell if the jazz music to which I’m listening is being played by men or by women?
DF: Like any poet writing in any mode, I make hundreds of formal choices in every poem. Syntax, lineation, tone, pacing, voice, deployment of image: these are all formal choices. They’re all opportunities for thinking in certain ways and at certain rates. Likewise, traditional form is an opportunity, not a vessel to be filled up. I can’t imagine considering any of this in terms of gender. I really can’t get my brain around that concept. I realize there’s theory about female ways of thinking and male ways of thinking, female language and male language. If they’re true—I’m skeptical—I’m politically opposed to acting as if they’re true. The minute you start assigning gender to certain formal choices or gestures or tics, you have to start pointing out the million exceptions.
The shape of my two-refrigerator poem, “This Need Not Be a Comment on Death,” came about by accident. I worked on pieces of it—the film of the mother at age three, the Hexbug Nano (great toy! highly recommended!) getting trapped under the fridge, the birth narrative—sporadically over a few years. At some point the line-breaks started to seem overly random. I often fiddle with line-breaks as a way to focus my brain, to help me make intuitive decisions about other formal elements, and about thematic issues, but the line-breaks I was working into the poem put no pressure on this other stuff. That, or else I accidentally set straight margins. Honestly, I don’t remember. Probably the line “This need not be a comment on death” seemed like a stanza ending, and when I skipped a line the thing started to look like a fridge with a top freezer. The poem doesn’t spoof William Carlos Williams, the greatest poet of the twentieth century, so much as it spoofs Camille Paglia, who claimed in Break Burn Blow: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems (which is otherwise a pretty good book) that Williams’s “This is Just to Say” was in the shape of an icebox.
I’m not aware of my formal choices having anything to do with gender or the body. They have to do with words and sounds and achieving the right sort of balanced imbalance that makes a poem feel dynamic, and right, to me. Refrigerator and freezer become objective correlatives for the shifting emotional states in the relationships between mothers and daughters. But I could see a man writing a poem in which the refrigerator represented something masculine too.
BKF: I’m intrigued by the ways this conversation has slipped between and among the literal and figurative layers of meaning that surface when we talk about poems and poem-making, and also resisted this slippage. That is, we have been inviting metaphors for poetry and poeming, and also interrogating them. Reading each of your books, I was struck, indeed moved, by the power of your metaphors as they emerge in the poems themselves. All of you command intense faculties of observation, and deploy those observations through various modes—compression, baroque textures, visceral imagery. But you don’t always stop at the image, at the thing itself—metaphors punctuate your poems. Aracelis shows us the grandfather’s feet as “sluggish catfish . . . In the bucket, alive but nearly dying.” Elsewhere, a swan is a “white peony.” Lisa sees “the annual carnival // a neon embolism.” Daisy hears freezer ice fall “like a glacier calving.” An unholy subject, metaphor. The past few decades have seen a pervasive mistrust of troping, a skepticism about how positioning one object to suggest another order of meaning, or another realm, might reinforce or obfuscate hierarchical arrangements. Metaphor “carries across,” and it can also carry power or ideology across, and many poets have eschewed it, or tried to, for this reason. Daisy alludes to this risk in the bitter and pithy “Metaphor for Something, or Solving the Credit Crunch.” But there is nonetheless a (sensual) pressure in each of your work that resists the horizontal leveling of metonymy, as if substitution, sequence, parataxis, and contiguity do not suffice. There’s language in each of these books that aspires, if not to grand heights, then to correspondences, in Baudelaire’s sense. I’m not seeing “forests of symbols” or a “profound tenebrous unity,” but I am seeing something of the ways Baudelaire finds that “perfumes, sounds, and colors respond to one another.” There is a synesthetic urgency I detect particularly strongly in Lisa’s work. Would any of you care to speak to the metaphoric tendencies in your acts of image-making, of poem-making?
AG: This is what I think right now as a way of entering this question about metaphor (but it feels like I’ve just barely got my foot through its window): the keen sense that we’ve always had the world to talk about the world. In John Edgar Wideman’s “In Praise of Silence,” he writes about his indebtedness to an African American language evolving from what he calls “a communal experience of time and silence . . . ,” a language that depends on “the body’s whole expressive repertoire.” I think about that phrase a lot. I think about how my Adey Zuphan (my father’s mother’s youngest sister) first told me that the asha tree is called “asha” (which means “fool”) probably because it grows everywhere. Sometimes when I am talking, especially at times when I am overcome with strong feeling—love or anger or—, I find myself looking or reaching for language (literally, it sometimes looks as if I’m looking for something). Rarely, in these moments, does an eyeful of tree or an overturned chair give me its help. But when I am writing poems (spending more still time with my thinking and quiet), the world I’m in really does help me to speak, to access, more fully, the language closest to my bone and vibrancy—which, I realize now, is how I’m trying to describe the interior, the imagination. I think, too, that metaphor—or that kind of seeing, thinking—works accumulatively. My great grandfather’s foot like a catfish in the basin—that image and metaphor-making, to me, is not just about carrying over or transformation, but about the memory and context that our images come with. In the house, we’ve got many worlds—the murky river and the basin. The catfish brings its history and knowledge of rivers and murk and maybe capture, and my great grandfather’s foot brings its history and knowledge of work shoes and work and damage and age. These associations touch and inform each other. I am interested in the overlap (historical and emotional) that the image insinuates without explicitly summarizing or translating. A fleck of dream or memory, a few things side by side, a charged atmosphere between them.
LRS: I remember being appalled in the faculty lounge a few years back when a colleague mentioned that “beauty” was beginning to come back into accepted currency in certain critical conversations—not appalled that beauty was regaining value, but because I’d never realized it had fallen out of favor. I’m feeling this way a bit about metaphor and how it has been recently mistrusted, but of course it makes sense that people might question the way tropes signal hierarchies by requiring, or seeming to require, the surrender of one way of seeing into another. Maybe because my flood subject is desire, I almost can’t think without participating in some form of triangulation. Metaphor is a ruse, a way to complicate the float, in any one moment, of myriad possibilities: erotic, devotional, ironic, meta-poetic. Anne Carson has that great bit in Eros the Bittersweet in which she talks about Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Velázquez, by positioning the mirrored image of the on-looking King and Queen of Spain on a back wall, at just the height at which the viewer might gaze and see himself or herself in that same mirror, creates “a blind point where the reality of what we are disappears into the possibility of what we could be if we were other than we are.” The painter’s artifice, Carson says, “triangulates our perception so that we all but see ourselves looking.” Metaphor does this, I think, and is a kind of ecstasy, of ex-stasis, whose stereoscopy tricks us into believing that a thing, an experience, is both itself and other, the self and the beside-the-self, the thing and the no(t)hing. This figurative act of moving among and dwelling in possibilities stirs the text (and, one hopes, the reader) in a way that not only reflects experience, but creates it.
DF: I want my poems to have narratives or fragments of narrative in them, and I also see narrative as a strategic or formal choice. There’s never a story I want to tell merely because it happened. Some narrative poems are anecdotes made poems by their metaphors, and while there are extremely good poems in that line, it’s not what interests me. I don’t think of metaphor as one of my central concerns, which maybe explains my somewhat cavalier attitude towards it in “Metaphor for Something, or Solving the Credit Crunch.” Of course I use metaphor—humans do, right? We’re metaphor-making animals. To exclude metaphor would be artificial, if interesting.
I am always telling stories or disrupting them, proposing metaphors and disrupting them. Why? I want to be simultaneously telling a good story or making a good image while also being self-aware about that process. This isn’t new. Frank O’Hara always gives you the emotion and the parody of the emotion. Tristram Shandy is a great novel and also a tomfool brilliant treatise on novel-writing and storytelling. Self-consciousness is nothing new. It remains a pleasure, another thing that makes us human. Not to be self-conscious seems inhuman. I love literary language, but we don’t live in a world made up exclusively of literary language, so it would be hard to write a poem only in that idiom. And vice versa. There’s an artifice and set of proprieties associated with any diction, including the colloquial, and what’s more fun than disrupting proprieties, high and low, metaphoric and metonymic, hypo- and paratactic?
Ultimately most of the things I do in poems are attempts to please myself. I put in the glacier calving because I was already playing around with tales of mothers and daughters and coldness and thawing and birth. It’s cheesy, but how could I not put in a glacier calving? Is there no place for cheese in poetry? Much as I mess around, I mean it too. I can’t imagine doing one—messing around, meaning it—without the other.
BKF: There is nothing cheesy about a glacier calving! How wonderful to live in a world and work in a medium where that sentence, the one I just wrote, can exist! In this rich braid of thought about bodies and words, about making meaning and messing with it, I love that Adrienne Rich has come up. I love, and worry about, her idea of “thinking through the body,” which strikes me as a gorgeously tempting and incredibly dangerous notion, and which Rich herself approaches interrogatively, “asking” rather than insisting. Your poems are all “multipleasured physicalities”—when you think about your process in making them, or, perhaps more to the point, when you teach the craft of making poems, do you think about the ways the body is involved? Involved how? Before or during? Through the breath, the ear, the pulse? And then—this is the question that won’t go away—is there a way to think through the body without thinking through a gendered body? Would we want to?
LRS: Regarding the involvement of the body in poem-making: one thing I sometimes talk about with my students is that poems themselves have bodies. Poems have torsos, limbs, nerve centers, pulses, and respiration. Their rhythms—auditory, visual, even tactile—are somatic. If the pleasures of good poems are physical pleasures, as I really feel they are, then it follows that the physical pleasures (or pains or sensations) of poems are, in part, an extension or an externalization, an “outering,” of our own physical pleasures or pains or sensations. After all, the mouth is the primal mind, and we come to consciousness through the body. How else write the world?
I wonder if it is possible to think of the body—its music, boundaries, finite structures, sensory “language”— as the elusive, paradigmatic Ur-poem, as the matrix, so to speak, that must be intrinsic to all poem-making. Could it be in relation to this “central poem” (Stevens) of the body that all poems generate, reverberate, collide, caress, and move, an embodiment only “completed,” of course, within the reader? Could it be in the friction, the frisson, the world transpiring between the mystery of being, the mystery of beauty—the unsayable—and the finite, sensory capabilities of the body, that poetry begins? If, as Sharon Cameron suggests, the poem endlessly reinscribes “the place of loss”—the matrix or womb?—perhaps this loss is something the structure of the poem seeks to recuperate through its “bodying forth”?
And just a scribble more about the idea of gendered conscience/consciousness: can either conscience or consciousness be gendered without also taking into account the complexities, dictates, customs, and exigencies of culture, as well as a host of economic, personal, temperamental, familial, political, medical, psychological, environmental, and other circumstances? If I am blindfolded, for instance, can I tell if the jazz music to which I’m listening is being played by men or by women? Once a voice is added to the mix, however, things get more complicated.
DF: I think I’m hopelessly literal. “Thinking through the body”: it’s a trope, of course. But when I hear the phrase, I think: “the”? What’s “the body.” I have my body, Barbara has her body, Aracelis has her body, Lisa has her body, but what’s the body. The phrase changes our individual bodies into a concept, and that’s what a body is emphatically not. Of course ear, heartbeat, breath, mind (part of the body), as well as something we call spirit, are involved in poem-making. But when asked about thinking through the body, my first thought is: my back hurts when I sit too long. I wish I was a sculptor not a writer because then I’d move around more when I work and my back wouldn’t hurt when I get lost in language and pixels and forget to sit up straight. The great (and troublesome) thing about bodies is that they insist on their facts. They refuse conceptuality. And each poem, to be successful, must insist on its own individual facts and refuse conceptuality in the end, however much theory got the poet to the poem and the poem into the world.
AG: “Is there a way to think through the body without thinking through a gendered body? Would we want to?” Oh! I would love to know my thinking—in other terms. To know how and what I would see if not held by, shaped by, the constructions of race and gender (and so on) particular to my upbringing. Which is not necessarily to say that I would give up accessing these ways of seeing, too. I both want to know them and am afraid of that knowing. What could be lost or gained in that knowing?
I mourn that knowing of the world on other terms. And while I do not think a poem necessarily pushes its writer or reader to reconsider or challenge the constructs we’ve inherited, I do think it is a potential space within which, if we are rigorous and careful, we might work to begin to articulate some of our tendencies of/in seeing, staying quiet, organizing the world.
BK Fischer was poetry editor at Boston Review. She is the author of St. Rage’s Vault, winner of the 2012 Washington Prize; Mutiny Gallery, winner of the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize; and Museum Mediations, a critical study. She teaches at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.
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But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.