Book Review

by Laura Hinton


American Women Poets in the 21st Centuy: Where Lyric Meets Language
eds. Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr
Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002
Paper (ISBN 0-8195-6547-4), 439 pages


I like this volume.  It has my head whirring. Because I am reading this volume, I am busily rethinking my “Experimental Women’s Writing” seminar for fall.  Because I am reading this volume, I am reconsidering the efficacy of other “poetry anthologies” (including my own co-edited one) that lack the structural hybrid that American Women Poets in the 21st Century quite uniquely presents.   Because I am reading this volume, I am reconsidering the efficacy, and the sheer beauty, of lyric in the charge of women.  For the women represented in this anthology are well versed in the lyric’s problems for women (pun intented).  They are women bold enough to write lyric anyway.

Even if Theodor Adorno was right, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” As co-editor Juliana Spahr notes in her comprehensive introduction, Adorno’s phrase recently has come under feminist challenge.  This volume lets us re-imagine the sense of the “barbaric.”  If the “barbaric” becomes a nominal signifier referencing an otherwise indescribable space only superciliously tagged “the confessional,” so, too, the lyric becomes an indescribable space that poets featured here can inhabit.  The American women poets selected by Spahr and co-editor Claudia Rankine seem all too aware of Adorno’s conclusion. A dialogue between issues of “lyric, gender, and innovation,” Spahr promises us a deeper exploration of the politically incorrect lyric, through snippets of these poets’ work, along with their artist’s statements and excellent critical analyses.  All the poets here — Spahr especially cites Lucy Brock-Broido, Brenda Hillman, Jorie Graham, and Ann Lauterbach — seem to be rearticulating the lyric’s “impossibility and difficulty,” working to construct a new formation of lyrical’s “interiority,” as site of resistance.

Perceiving “modernist innovation” as “a feminist space,” after foremothers in the innovative field, Kathleen Fraser and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Spahr is careful to distinguish between a “poetry of uplift” that might attempt to provide “positive images of revised femininity.”  These poets rather call for an investigation of “representation itself” through the lyric, suggesting “alternatives to lyrics troubled and limited history for women” (3).  The artists’ statements — what the volume editors call “poetic statements” — help articulate that investigation, on all its fronts.  The inclusion of these artists’ statements alone makes this volume an invaluable resource, as well as an excellent textbook for any advanced women’s writing or contemporary American poetry class.  Many of the artists’ statements are reprinted from small-press poetry journals like Fence.  But some are explicitly written for this volume, such as Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s “Preparatory Notes” and “By Correspondence,” combining both self-reflective statements about the writing process along with a series of “Letters” addressed to critic Linda Voris, which answer central concerns about Berssenbrugge’s life and work. Anyone who loves Berssenbrugge’s work will find her statement fascinating.

And I particularly admire Rae Armantrout’s statement, the essay “Cheshire Poetics,” which with Armantrout’s usual elliptical and humorous clarity constructs the metaphor of an appearing and disappearing “Cheshire” to call forth what she suggests is “the double bind” of meaning in her poetry: the problem of “what is seen and what is seeing, what can be known and what it is to know.”  Like Ron Silliman, who has written provocatively of his good friend Armantrout’s use of ellipses to create an empirical-epistemological problematic of meaning, Armantrout proudly places herself within a spatialized and sonic reference system in which writing becomes not a means of saying something purposeful but “a poetics of collisions and overlaps, of contested spaces”;  “Various voices speak in my poems, I code-shift.”  Armantrout declares a loyalty to the “slither” that Ezra Pound pronounced was happily missing in modernist poet HD’s writing — a loyalty I would argue is shared by all the other poets in the volume that follow.  While I don’t think Armantrout quite pegged Pound to the wall — I believe he was critiquing the “slither” of Georgian sentimentality in pre-war popular verse and advocating a “cut direct” method that embraced rather than rejected Armantrout’s “slither” — it is her duality between indirectness and oracular precision that compels the reader of her verse.  It is our desire for what Barbara Guest called “Fair Realism” (in her 1989 book by that title) vying against the “swerving motion” that typifies referentiality in Armantrout’s poetry (quoting Hank Lazer’s fine essay on the matter).  This effect leaves the reader longing for more, for more “slither,” for more “contested spaces.”

The inclusion of poets like Lucie Brock-Broido, Jorie Graham, and Brenda Hillman, together with Guest, Lauterbach, Lyn Hejinian and Armantrout, sets up the underlying aesthetic question of this volume, once so beautifully articulated by Armantrout herself: What is the meaning of clarity? And, again, borrowing from Armantrout: what does clarity mean, to whom?  The notion of clarity, and the schools of lyric poetry fighting for and against that expression, create a provocative subtext in the knot of the weave of these distinctive female voices.  Brock-Broido’s poem, “Periodic Table of Ethereal Elements,” seems among the more conventional lines of lyric represented here, in sturdy stanzas such as:

I was not ready for your form to be cold.
Ever. Even in life

You did not inhabit, necessarily, a form,
But a mind of

Rarer liquid element...  (96)

And yet Brock-Broido breaks the mold of the confessional lyric herself in her fractured and ambiguous poem, “Am Moor,” in which sentences seem missing essential components, like subjects or objects, beginning:

Am lean against.
Am the heavy hour

Hand at urge,
At the verge of one...  (98)

Brock-Broido’s provocative artist’s statement, “Myself a Kangaroo Among the Beauties,” is a series of epigrammatic declarations, which suggest her own lack of lyrical sentimentality when she writes: “I want a poetry which is inorganic, an artifact of artifice, riddled with truth” (100).  Meanwhile, she makes a stern critique of the judgement she feels being not associated with the experimental LANGUAGE school.  She writes: “A poem which the world longs to call a language poem is too open for my taste”; and, again, “After I had been the recipient of a particularly thrashing review, Charles Wright, in a letter of solidarity & sympathy, wrote to me regarding LANGUAGE(?) poetry.  He wrote: “What have we been doing all this time anyway, Barking?”  Rejecting the LANGUAGE label, Brock-Broido states, “I aspire to be a New Elliptical.” (101) In his essay on Brock-Broido, Stephen Burt writes of her “Sometimes desperate, often fanciful,” poems, which  “elaborately diverse, allude, and evade.”  These poems, too, “slither.”

In fact, American Women Poets in the 21st Century helps to reframe the debate about experiment versus tradition in women’s contemporary poetry.  It begs the question: Are you LANGUAGE or not?  I mean it literally begs the question, by refusing to answer it, by refusing to divide the poets into categories that seem exclusionary by design: the outside innovative and the inside conventional, or the inside innovative and the outside conventional — depending on what side one is on. In Sara Lundquist’s wonderful essay on Barbara Guest, “Implacable Poet, Purple Birds,” she describes Guest as bifurcating and blurring boundaries: a poet of some kind of wonderful slither.  She says that Guest “both is and is not a feminist writer…. she both practices and questions ‘experimental poetics’: she both anticipated and surpasses the Language poets.” Such a statement might be made of all the poets represented in this volume.

Instead of the sounds of women arguing, we detect in this volume a more subtle atmosphere, a muted but steady chamber of voices that intersect but never merge, voices that bounce off the various walls of rhetoric others have constructed without colliding. It’s as if there exists in this forum a huge spatial field for all forms of language and imagination and innovation.  If anything, this volume reveals how very distinctive are 21st century American women poets.  It reveals that women writers are not necessarily tethered to their gender, as Virginia Woolf once suggested of the fictive writer Mary Carmichael in A Room of One’s Own.  But then Mary Carmichael was a novelist, not a lyric writer.  The substrata of intellectual and aesthetic content in this volume makes me think that the multitude of female voices articulating American poetry are not shedding womanhood like a false referential skin; rather they are reworking the physical and cultural synapses of being a woman in the male lyric tradition, through a language and lyrical structure that would divide them and objectify them, like so many fetishized muses.  These voices speak from the “slithery” undefinable world that always characterized “the object.”

My criticisms of the volume are negligible.  I might make the criticism that the poets represented here are pretty high-profile.  Most are highly published (by such venues as Wesleyan, the volume’s own publisher) and many hold prestigious university positions.  This volume has the effect of recanonizing the nearly canonical in contemporary American poetry.  It takes few risks with its material.  No one really off-beat or marginal gets her say here. The volume might be said to have a proper feel.  Which is not necessarily a defect.  This is an elegant collection that many of us will want to use in our classrooms as well as our research.  Overall, I was unusually delighted by the depth of the essays I discovered reading this volume. I did find myself in great disagreement with Craig Dworkin’s assessment of Hejinian’s work as the art of structural “paranoia.” Dworkin clarifies and de-pathologizes his use of the paranoia term, using Naomi Schor’s Freudian explanation to describe a “textual madness.” But I would argue that Hejinian’s writing never constructs “paranoia.”  It is neither “mad” nor a closed system of signs that paranoia represents.  Hejinian’s own poetic statement included next to Dworkin’s essay argues for an implicit “host/guest” relationship within poetry, a “xenia,” she writes, which is “the occurrence of an existence which is also an event of strangeness or foreignness.”  It is that experience of “foreignness” that might make such writing seem “mad.”  But like Freud’s uncanny, it is that “foreignness” that resides at home, existing always in an encounter that is cultural life itself.  That life constitutes a continual openness and rearrangement.  And it is this life-as-language that characterizes Hejinian’s work, not the profound sense of isolation structured by the paranoiac.

One of the more successful essays, in my opinion, is Voris’s piece on Berssenbrugge’s unique work. Her detailed analysis of Berssenbrugge’s masterpiece Empathy did much to explain that which always remains mysterious about Berssenbrugge’s lyricism: what Voris calls “a ‘sensitive empiricism’… [disrupting] narrative and the rhetorical representation that simplify experience by insistently tracing the myriad and minute ways in which the phenomenal world enters experience.” (68-69)  Berssenbrugge understands “empathy” as those “imaginative acts that create space and with which space is apprehended.” (73) I found this assessment of empathy enormously helpful to my reading of Berssenbrugge’s masterwork, as well as my own thoughts on sympathy and empathy.  Having written on sympathy as a historical construct enveloping the novel, a voyeuristic act requiring a subject’s objectification of the other, I found respite in Voris’ reading of Berssenbrugge’s reading of “empathy”: as a non-linear and non-objectifying set of “formal coordinates, including external and internal boundaries, the sense of limit or of expansiveness…” Many have asked me what is the distinctiveness of empathy from sympathy, and I would turn them to Berssenbrugge (and Voris’ essay) now.

What this volume calls for are more analyses of women’s contemporary poetics, more published artists’ statements, more collections of women’s contemporary innovative writing. We should expand beyond the well-grooved arguments about the lyric, and move the topic of experiment into experimental forms, like the prose poem and intergenre, poems that are no longer clearly “lyric” anymore — for example, the work of Carla Harryman, Bernadette Mayer, and Leslie Scalapino.  This volume gives me thirst — it doesn’t quench.  Which is perhaps the best thing I can say about it.  American Women Poets in the 21st Century gives us the desire to desire more contemporary women’s poetry, to read more and beyond what has been already concluded or said.


BIO: Laura Hinton is the author of The Perverse Gaze of Sympathy: Sadomasochistic Sentiments from Clarissa to Rescue 911 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), and co-editor of We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001). She has published essays on the writing of Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino, and Fanny Howe; her poetry was recently published in Bird Dog Magazine.  Currently she is at work on a book about women’s intergenre writing, and completing a poetry manuscript.  She is an Associate Professor of English at The City College of New York.

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