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Tomorrow's Parties Today

Assignation At Vanishing Point (Elixir Press, 57 pages)
by Jane Satterfield 

Reviewed by Allyson Shaw

Jane Satterfield's first book of poems, Shepherdess with an Automatic, confronts the reader with soft-spoken juxtapositions. In the fine, lush field of her work modernist and feminist paths come into view and are then obscured by something more dense and alluring. In her new book, Assignation at Vanishing Point, the pastoral, the epistle, the persona poem and a debt to modernism are greeted once more, with renewed concentration and verve.

In the perceptive forward by Michele Mitchell-Foust, the metaphor of "sleeping beauties," or the "terra incognita" of antique maps aptly describes Satterfield's latest collection. Indeed, this name for unknown spaces works in many ways to describe fable and memory, lapses and invention. The poet today is in a position to look back over a brave kingdom of women writers. As one surveys literature's fragmented voices, vacancies appear as sleeping beauties unmapped, unrecorded by patriarchal history.

Jane Satterfield wakes these beauties, deftly incorporating fragments from the lives of women writers from Simone deBeauvoir to Bronte. These bits of lost history are re-imagined in epistolary persona poems and lyric meditations, yet these voices are not just claimed; they are interrogated. The poem "Antique Dress" seems to ask—does the dress fit? What in our literary past binds us, in all senses of the word? Does part of our inheritance carry with it undesired spectacles, unwanted narratives?

“Seen askance, it's all you've wanted, ever.
A hand-me down
from who knows where...

someone's fiddly needlework. Slip it on, agree to pose.

Next thing you know, you're immersed.
The tin bath. An arrangement of oil lamps underneath.
His cold gaze going over your skin.
And your sudden longing for streetclothes, something more serviceable.”

The speaker addresses the contemporary woman writer/reader, the one who can sing along with the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties," the one who will go to tomorrow's parties, who will write tomorrow's poems, but must, as she does so, unpin herself from certain aspects of history. The poem seems to ask, “How does the ancestral voice look on us? And who do we ask to check it?” The final stanza also points beyond these questions of history and voice to the complicated notion of gaze—who, ultimately renders us, deems us memorable? In the last stanza a male artist, a lover, examines the "you" of the poem, complicating the question.

The seductive power of this male presence appears throughout the collection as muse and lover. In "Demon Lover," a Hadean presence offers "Proposals in a dark alley, sunken bridal veil" to the archetypal Persephone, the woman poet who is ravished by darkness. In a similar take on the myth of Persephone, the speaker of "Mercy" longs for freedom from spring, which is "some vast machine we're at the mercy of..." This spring is "a garden not ours for admittance ...I want a field at the end of it,/ behind whisky light, something charged and magnetic/ where obstacles are of no account" These moving lines capture a longing for a new Edenic freedom, beyond the patriarch's "herbs staked and bound."

The figure of Eve, the common mother and original sinner is said to be redeemed through Christ's sufferings and the sufferings of the saints. In "The Real Saints" the speaker reasons a proof against the seduction of martyrdom. What place does motherhood have in the company of Saints who display their stigmata, their glorified bodies as evidence of grace? What mark does motherhood make on the poet who is also a woman?

“Tell me, will I always walk this moonlit corridor
of pain—How to learn to love it? Want it? When not one
pang brings her, nuzzling, nearer—museling, darling daughter.”
The daughter in this last line is not only a literal child, but also a mythopoetic being, a writerly descendant as well as the poem itself.

The poem as conception or birth is also manifest in the generative moment of "Erotica," a mix of post-coital dishevelment and Dickinson-like ecstatic receptivity: "This interval—door, blown window, dusty pane— / where everything & I am open." The moment of sensual disorder is also the moment of the poem's making.

In "Field Service Postcard," the decorum of the ambiguous epistle is a disguise and a silencing. In the end notes, Satterfield explains that during World War I, "ready made" phrases made up communications from the front lines. This trope is combined with phrases from Bronte's Villette: "...When "she" acts it is because— /all sentences not required will be erased." "She", in quotations in the original, is disguised, and the poet poses more questions for the reader: Who decides, in the front lines of language, what will be required and what will be erased? Beyond a simplistic us/them dichotomy, the poem suggests this editing might be the weighty job of the contemporary poet.

In the poem "Stanton Moor," Satterfield references the neolithic standing stones of the English countryside, which, according to legend, are ancestors present in stone form. It is in this landscape of ancestry that the speaker must find her way. "I watched the snow, the thousand intersections and collisions/ of light and time and flesh and space/"—indeed, Satterfield views history not as a linear spectacle but as a layered now.

The alternative would be to speak from an ahistorical void, and ignore history, as so many Americans seem to be doing. But in this collection, Satterfield does more than imagine the myriad silenced voices; she speaks from the vanishing point of silence. And in doing so, history becomes a series of masks. "Coming of Age" borrows phrases from Griel Marcus's essays on punk. Here the speaker recalls being a student, gleaning the world, "Second-hand, third-hand,/ received and reified—the ecstasy, excitement of the world/and when it cracked:/ a distant voice through the machine— / if you have trouble understanding the message / you will be able to hear it again." This is what makes Satterfield's work so compelling—here is a writer, bolstered by punk-rock credentials and hope, who can speak with many voices.

Allyson Shaw a novelist and poet, edits the e-zine Die Cast Garden. Her collection of poetry, The Bon-bon and Love Token will be available from Del Sol Press in May, 2004.


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