Kathleen Nalley and Gabrielle Brant Freeman
So, you know those fabric and yarn “Crashing Witch” Halloween decorations that you start to see in Michael’s in, like, August? Yeah, well, Denise and Maureen wrote a poem about them by the same name. You know, like sometimes you see them nailed to trees, but mostly they’re nailed to doors, legs and arms akimbo, shattered brooms. And if you think about it, the news story for every woman’s crash looks something like this: people standing around, looky-loos. Some reveling in female abandon, admiring her courage: “All she wanted to do was open doors, to open doors for women–minorities…When she crashed, it was like all women had crashed…Those arbitrary doors kept popping out of nowhere!” (193). Others condemning her by commenting solely on her appearance: “Jeez, she’s ugly” (194).
Damn. It doesn’t matter what we women stand for, does it? Why we take the risks we do when we fly. But we fly anyway.
Yeah, I get what you’re saying. But notice, even those witches aren’t complete without their phallic symbol! I mean, can’t the kitsch designers just make a witch without a broom between her legs? Come on. So, it worsens. And worsens. And I think that’s largely what this entire book of poems is about.
Perhaps if we take a look at the collection as a whole — collaborative poems by two strong women writers — we can also look to the bonds that women make despite the blatant misogyny and obstacles. The weight of the book is both literal and figurative: “Once/a woman rubbed my back and I cried after she left” (25).
In fact, I love that the thrust of this book (see what I did there?) is that two women collaborated, flexed their mental muscles, created something from nothing together — a constant thread running through the years and spaces and places, and how, no matter the environment, no matter the decade, no matter the change in laws to promote more gender equality (oh, wait…that hasn’t happened), the same issues exist. And how, together, women often forge a bond (and that may be a cheesy way to express what these poets are doing here) that’s both natural yet at the same time, by design: “The men were busy with their eyes and hands,/their paternal regard. We were busy leaving them” (27).
Okay, so this review is taking way too long. I know as working women/teachers/writers/mothers/wives/household engineers/lovers, we have more duties than time. Alas, the editor was looking for this collaborative review a month ago.
I can only speak for myself, but lately I’ve done nothing but work, work, worry with children, work, worry about weather, work….sigh. Apologies for being so delayed. You know what it’s like: there’s always a baby with “an / ugly rash on her butt and it’s a choice between Desitin and milk” (54).
With this 1,000-year flood and all that’s happened to our states in the last four days, there are many among us who can’t even get to a store for Desitin or milk. I’m thinking of all those highways washed away when I read the line, “the hysterectomy scars of the world’s highways / faded into translucence like a woman dying” (67).
I saw on Facebook that your creek rose seven feet in a day. I hope you are okay. I hope the water hasn’t made its way into your home. My God, there are so many road closures. So much damage. So much to be wrung out. I’m housebound, so I best make use of this time and get back to our review.
I’m a political person, a sucker for a good, intellectual jibe, a tongue-in-cheek moment that reveals political truth or hypocrisy. So, of course, the 1997 section, “Exquisite Politics” — where, like the American Dream itself, nothing is out of reach for these poets — speaks to me the most.
Whether describing America’s golden years — “The country was a happy baby, our / family a tiny mouth, gurgling through ice cream” (52) — or a teen discovering Watergate to be merely the name of a hotel, these poems are strikingly dense (meaning so much is packed into so few words) and rich. Some read in deftly and tightly constructed lines, like the one above (I dare you to try to cut or change any of those words!). Others, in an adolescent stream of consciousness that renders the message truthful:
I never / heard anyone say Watergate was a hotel, a round one with / balconies near the Pentagon which I thought sounded strangely / like pentagram which reminded me of movies with devil / worshippers and symbols so scary that if you paint them in your / attic they can burn your house down. (53)
I mean, who hasn’t thought of the Pentagon/pentagram connection before? And, later, in that same poem, the poet(s) reconcile that child-like naiveté with a newly developed adult cynicism: “Now politics was evil…And the voting / booth looked strangely like a confessional, nothing else quite / so private and sacred in America…I imagined them in those / booths during unthinkable things” (53).
A message from you, dear Gabby, just pinged me off to Facebook for a moment, where, like anyone, I just had to look at my feed (and I ask, why, oh, why, do I read the comments?). Of course, people are politicizing this flood, politicizing the federal aid being offered to a state whose representatives voted against the same during Hurricane Sandy.
Oddly enough, Duhamel and Seaton remind us that, “Politics comes along when you least expect it” (38), and, boy, are they are right.
I’m going to sign off for now, but I found a seemingly timely line I’d love to hear your thoughts on: “Sometimes I wonder about the word consequences. / I mean, nothing runs in a straight line, right?” (24).
Time is always an issue, isn’t it? It’s an I wish list: I wish I had more of it. I wish I were better able to focus and use it. But watching the creek rise outside my window, watching the rivers rise at friends’ homes on Facebook, watching the flood waters rise in Charleston and Columbia knowing that friends and strangers live there, that friends and strangers are watching those waters, too…it’s so hard to do anything else. I, too, thought I’d better use the “extra time” I had, kids’ school closed due to flooding, and get on this review. But “I’ve spent the entire day / looking for a word to speed us across the bay / away from the ghosts and barnacles. / But where is the word? Where / is the poem*?” (265). It’s hard to concentrate on anything beyond this: We are lucky. No water in the house.
Oh, the comments! The comments! Absolutely “nothing runs in a straight line” (24), rivers, Facebook feeds, thoughts. “I can totally see why you leapt / from snowflakes under a microscope / to a dead manatee floating in the same pool / Elvis once swam in” (265). These poems, and not just the exquisite corpses, take leaps. The reader has to trust that the leap means something, that it will come out somewhere. Or maybe that’s wrong. I mean, the title of the collection is Caprice. Maybe the leaps point out how much of our lives seem to be subject to some sick bastard’s whim.
And speaking of whim, I can’t help but go back to Facebook feeds. In between posts about Americans being evacuated from their homes, there are your political posts (thanks for being a “political person,” by the way – I am grateful for your passion) giving perspective, and there are cat videos and one of a manatee sunbathing. I watched this last Friday night at around 11:30pm. Three minutes of my life. Would that three minutes be better spent studying the candidates? “If I were the type who made promises / I’d probably begin by saying: America, / relax! Buy big cars and tease your hair / as high as the Empire State Building. / Inch by inch, we’re buying the world’s sorrow” (18).
Consequences, capital C. Last night, after the nightly news reported on the American bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital, the refugee “situation,” and the number of people who have drowned in the Carolinas so far due to flooding, the half hour ended with a video of a teensy dog chasing two bear cubs off of its porch. Way to end the newscast on a happy note! “Yeah, the world’s sorrow, that’s it!” (18).
I wish I had time to work on this letter more, but I have to go pick up the kids.
Btw, whenever I read “Robinsonade,” I think about that time in Spartanburg when you were watching me put on my makeup, and we talked about reasons for wearing it and reasons for not wearing it. We were talking about being “women of a certain age.” Talk about caprice. I feel stupid for even mentioning it after our previous discussion, but there it is. The speaker is shipwrecked, but she’s managed to hold on to her makeup kit. And then she meets “the natives.” “I plucked their brows. I shaved their legs. I taught them how to paint their toenails with chemicals” (227). So…if you were shipwrecked on a desert island, what five things would you absolutely have to have? Makeup? “Then we all lay in the sand, our bright faces smiling toward the sky. I knew it would work. Beauty had saved me more than once” (228).
You know good and well if I am stranded on a deserted island, I would most certainly not wear makeup! Hell, on the singular day every now and then when I don’t have to shower, I am most happy! Be damned the hair and face! I used to be the prettified one in the room, but that landed me in hot waters on several occasions (Beauty most certainly did not save me). Now, I am satiated by just being.
So, deserted island…five things? Maybe I watch too much survivor tv (Hello, Naked and Afraid! And, btw, what’s up with that? Can’t even a survivor show NOT show ass?), but I think my items would be more survivor-based (although a cosmetic mirror would make a great distress-signaling tool!).
That brings me to one thing I particularly like about Duhamel and Seaton’s aesthetic: their anti-aesthetic. Seaton’s favorite heroine (we learn from one of the many interviews in Caprice) is Olive Oyl. I mean, Olive Oyl’s the antithesis of our institutionalized version of beauty! The poets recast her, elevating her to Olive of Troy; Olive, Queen of Scots; Olive Magdalene; Olive Nefertiti, primarily because “You can’t imagine how boring it gets in all these little boxes, each strip’s linear predictability” (81). (What truth in those lines!).
They remind us of Olive’s potential, her ability to one-up Popeye, “more than once she’d shrunk his bell bottoms, then sucked the/pimentos out of his olives” (108). Indeed, “There was nothing Tammy Wynette about Olive” (108).
In Caprice, Olive even pulls a Katy Perry by taking control of her sexuality and she apparently likes it: “Olive/kissed a girl in cyberspace. They both loved Tracy Chapman/and despised spinach//in any of its forms. Their boots left deep footprints all over/pink clouds’ skinny/wisps. They ordered each other around like siblings./‘Oh, Olive’/bounced along the rooftops of Sweethaven, the heavens/sailorless and spinach-free” (110).
In a way, the poets flip beauty on its made-up, teased head; they “revoke our duennaship/and unclasp our future like a bra” (261).
Now I’m thinking about beauty. About make-up and hair and last, but not least, weight. You know every day at the gym, my daughter steps on the scales before and after working out? Despite my best teaching, despite my best preaching, despite my rants, even she is caught up with numbers, is worried about the way the world looks at her. She has a gap in her teeth like Lauren Hutton. I love it. She wants braces.
And, ah, now I go back to a quote you mentioned, “I’ve spent the entire day/looking for a word to speed us across the bay/away from the ghosts and barnacles” (265) — a word we can praise instead of beauty. Gab, help me out: what is that word?
Yeah, I know. We’d both be bare-faced, bare-assed (ha!), and unshaven. Lol.
Ok, so wow. “A word we can praise instead of beauty”? Sometimes I wonder how any girl makes it out alive in America. I mean, we are exposed to so much gender-biased media every second of our lives. “I spy politics and social norms. I spy a deep belief in right and wrong” (241). The older I get, the less sure I am about anything.
Maybe this: I’m sure I grew up worried about the number on the damned scale.
It was easy for Jim to take off his clothes,
his body firm as a futon, his penis
just the right size. The small towel fit around his waist
perfectly, covered everything. I, on the other hand,
has all this flesh to worry about, breasts to pubis —
lumpy thighs, thick ankles, the largest ass
at “Plato’s Retreat.” (25)
How many times have you measured your worth by whether or not the towel fit around your hips? Whether or not you could tuck it in at your breast and it would stay? Whether or not everything was “properly covered”?
How about a word like strength? How about courage? How about honesty? All three are present in these poems. Can I say it takes balls to write a poem like “A Poem Cycle”? No? “How do you solve a problem like gender?” (224). How about it takes breasts to write a poem like “A Poem Cycle”? No? Well, “ Once a woman told me / she could orgasm all alone / on the F train […] No one noticed / as she let out her small gasp” (263).
In a previous iteration of this late, late review, you mentioned that even the most silly of Halloween decorations, the crashing witch, couldn’t be designed without the phallic symbol, the “broom between her legs.” And I mentioned that, “Every time I go over some arbitrary limit, I’m incarcerated, detonated, laminated, or worse” (193). Just like that kitschy decoration on sale for “$14.98,” someone will always want to nail us, reduce our value, hang us on a hook, and put us on display.
But you know what? Fuck the scale. Fuck the number. Fuck the broom. None of us need wood to fly.
Yo, Gaba Gaba:
Somehow I knew this would end here: you in a rant, me in a rant, black lace panties in their respective wads (see what I did there?).
This is the world we live in, the society where my 12-year-old daughter had to prove herself to be on a community flag football team (the boys just signed up). Only after she intercepted the ball and someone said, “Ha, ha! You just got intercepted by a girl!” did she realize she had to prove herself. She still had to intercept yet another ball and run it in for an 80-yeard touchdown before her teammates “accepted” her. “The moral of this story has something to do with chaos theory, / how one minute you don’t and the next you can” (84).
I call bullshit. She didn’t need wood to fly. She used her own legs, her own feet in the same cleats the boys wore.
Sorry. Again, I digress into the personal. But our back-and-forth communications, THIS BOOK, is personal. I can almost hear my daughter saying, “Don’t mistake my bruises for mistakes” (39). Much like I would point to the pouch over my c-section scar(s), the crow’s feet beginning to circle the corners of my eyes. I think Carly Simon once said something about such being battlescars and being proud of them.
Of course, a woman would say that.
Today, I had to call (for the second time) the plumber who is supposed to come fix our backed up system. Not sure if all the rain had some stopping-up effect or what. Nevertheless, every other sentence out of his mouth ended with, “sweetie.” SWEETIE! Here I am, a pissed off customer, and his best volley, the most effective tool he has in his toolbox (ha!) is to call me sweetie?
To make it worse, some women around here love this. They love that ol’ Southern gentleman approach to handling a trifflin’, ticked off woman. Whatevs. “There are sardines and there are sharks—it depends/what you’re in the mood for” (81). Today, I was the freaking shark. Or, better yet, the dog: “Better the Devil Dog you / know than the Little Debbie you don’t” (252). In other words, watch out, Mr. Plumber, sweetie.
“Knowing no other world, I absolve / every sibling’s sin, every soiled day’s beginning. // Tomorrow tumbles backwards then forwards then sideways / into a light I believe ineluctably mine” (69).
I had to stick that quote in here now. Call it self-preservation. Call it a moment’s meditation. Call it calming down.
Gab, I’m not sure we’ve done what we were supposed to. I’m not certain we weren’t too revealing, too reviled, too revved, to create a proper book review. So, to you, I ask, “At what point did our lives go spiraling through the drama and the karma to the place we’ve come to now…like we’re all chicks together on a Saturday night, bullshitting” (240)?
I see what you did there. 🙂
“Bechdel Test (Take Three)”
“M: Was there ever a time when you didn’t want to be a / poet?”
Miss you terribly.
All my love,
Yes, there was. But I was sorely mistaken. And, even then, there was “Never a time when I didn’t want to be blown away like a pilot light” (277).
I leave this, and you, my friend, “She who poetizes faithfully” (277).
Love and misses.
Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton
Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015