Two Reviews: The Grand Permission and Red Book in Three Parts
by Linda Russo
Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman, editors
I was drawn to The Grant Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood , edited by Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman and published by Wesleyan last year, out of an interest in considering poetics as a gendered and historically specific phenomenon. Reading it last September in preparation for a review for Jacket Magazine became an occasion to consider my resources. <http://jacketmagazine.com/22/russo.html > Not being a mother myself, what had prepared for this task that, with great enthusiasm, I'd taken on?
My education in motherhood and language — because I did think, before reading this anthology, that it came down to that — had its foundations in psychoanalysis, and toward poetics through the writing of Luce Irigaray. Though she used the term “poetics” in a way that seemed entirely relevant, she didn't address poetry, and certainly didn't address it as a social practice: it remained, for her, theoretical, about “the feminine” and “subjectivity.” This information was combined roughly with that to be found among poets: Mina Loy's poem “Parturition” (1914), perhaps the mother-poem of the topic of poetics and motherhood (which only became widely available with the publication of The Lost Lunar Baedeker in 1996); and Kathleen Fraser's concept of “the gestate,” a poetic form of delay and fragmentation she'd invented around 1979 for a female student in need of one. I'd been intrigued in both these texts by the way gender shaped poetic form. But I'd also discovered that gender had always shaped poetic form, and it was only with women's inventions that naturalized notions of poetic form as “universal,” as unmarked by gender, could be addressed as such.
I started writing the review while waiting for my sister to give birth. She'd chosen to do so at home. I believed I was to experience firsthand a poetics of motherhood. To my great surprise my sister had nothing profoundly poetic to say about the experience. Her first comprehensible and complete utterance was that her whole body hurt. Where was language then, and poetics? In the same way, The Grand Permission is not at all what I'd expected it to be: a series of essays (some poignant) about how the pregnant body, not quite singular, not yet plural, poses a challenge to linguistic expression as we know it, or about the unnamable relation to the other that is also so miraculously already self and other, or about how the experience of mothering brings a poet to a greater understanding of language to forge a new means of producing poems, i.e. that there was a poetics of motherhood: the epistemology of my piecemeal textbook education speaking.
The Grand Permission instead takes motherhood as a circumstance. Reading the collection convinced me that it's necessary to pay attention to what happens when poetry is considered and written from a place described not by a common experience too commonly expected — motherhood — but by the knowledge women create in relation to motherhood: a possibility or an impossibility, a concept and a reality. Because poetics is an activity and not a category, it needs such information.
Published last year by United Artists Books, Red Book in Three Parts collects early poems by Bernadette Mayer, written between 1965 and 1966. It is written much in the style of Mayer's first book Ceremony Latin (1964) , originally published in a small edition by Angel Hair Books in 1975 and recently reprinted by Sub City Press.
When Mayer speaks of her first book of poems, she says they were just “notes” she kept in a notebook, mixed in with her early translations from Ovid. This next book, too, is delicate, somber and firm, with a touch of the ceremonial: one thinks of H.D.'s use of myth as providing a shape, but also providing a thin sheaf so that she might lift personal experience away from her and objectivize it not too thoroughly but enough to provide a clear view: to make it not about herself, but thus infused. It's this that gives these poems a delicate quality; and what makes them somber and firm is their complex address to real and imaginary worlds in language, both ceremonial and vernacular. Here are two examples — the first a poem, the second the first stanza of a 3-stanza poem — both untitled:
Like Ceremony Latin (1964) , this book reads like a short notebook: some poems are titled, but no poem is ever discreet from the text as a whole. And here we glimpse Mayer experimenting with the boundaries of linguistic expression in a style that will be familiar to readers of her later books, such as Memory or Studying Hunger :
Anyone who is a fan of Mayer's will want the rare glimpse into her early work provided in this slim, elegant and smartly-printed book. It features a cover photo by Ed Bowes of Mayer spread across front and back cover, in which she's extended on a cushion-less summer lounge chair surrounded by winter snow. She's got really cool boots. Order from United Artists Books, 112 Milton Street, Brooklyn, NY 11222. For the reprint of Ceremony Latin (1964) contact Overground Distribution, PO Box 1661, Pensacola, FL 32591; firstname.lastname@example.org .
BIO: Linda Russo is currently writing a dissertation on how contemporary American women poets engage in, and modify, poetic concepts and/in poetic spaces constructed through experimental praxis. She lives in Buffalo, NY.