|Excerpts > Fall 2002|
review of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women, edited by Susan Aizenberg and Erin Belieu
As a child I loathed recess, especially any play that involved throwing, hitting, catching or kicking a ball. During softball games, dawdling to the plate, I could plainly hear the outfield yell, “easy out,” as the team moved toward me en masse. I’d flail at anything that came my way, while taunts hovered in the air, making the day seem muggier than it already was. My granny swings better than you and What are you swinging at? The moon? The teasing, which didn’t last past recess, never bothered me much. Besides, I liked the way it soundedswinging at the moonas though on a playground it was possible to be so close to the universe, that I might touch it with my wildly swerving bat. All my domain. Like those pictures we drew, the sun neatly in the corner, outlined cotton balls clouds, the even green horizon at the bottom of the page. Heaven and earth framing a house with a chimney and four windows, a family and a dog way out of scale.
Domain. It’s a word that resonates with power. Say it out loud and it booms like an edict. From the Latin, dominus, for lord, it’s masculine at its core. In the age of the poetess, as we know, a woman’s writing was mostly relegated to lyrics about hearth and familya cramped and confining corner in which to move about. And well into the twentieth century, the realm of women’s poetry was sparse and largely dismissed. Open poets Susan Aizenberg and Erin Belieu’s new anthology, The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women, and you’ll see how vast that domain has become. The writers included swing in all manner at the moon, the stars, the rocks, the dirt and everything between, above and below.
Aizenberg and Belieu are clear in their purpose for the anthology and strive for a balance of voices “in terms of geography, race, age, ethnicity, sexual preference, and aesthetic identification,” without “privileging any particular theme or political agenda” as they point out in their introduction. As a reader not closely familiar with all one hundred and eighteen poets included, I didn’t seek out those distinctions, although I appreciated their resolve for parity. I was only after good poetry, the melding of form and content that transforms language as meaning into language as being. I was rewarded over and over in this resplendent anthology.
For instance, there are a number of striking poems in the book in which the subject matter is language and what is revealed once general meanings and associations are sifted through. A good example is Heather McHugh’s poem, “Etymological Dirge.” McHugh digs deep, to the very root of language, and exposes both a wit and dark tension that are heightened by her use of nonce quatrains:
Calm comes from burning.
The kin of charity is whore,
Afford yourself what you can carry out.
As a wordsmith, McHugh’s skills are formidable, but skill only carries the piece so far. It is likely her knowledge and curiosity generated the poem, but something else happens here beyond the study of language derivation. Certainly elements of craft are at work, the formal structure, a discernible rhyme and rhythm, the prevailing end-stopped lines. The repetitive use of the verb “come” in the first stanza, along with the juxtaposition of comely/come in the third line convey a playful tone. But we should not be lulled into thinking the poem is merely sly. The opening line, “Calm comes from burning”, tells us otherwise. The connections and contrasts between words throughout the poem, such as, calm/burning, charity/whore, comely/ugliness, coward/danger/fear, afford/incentive/winning, invoke a mysticism. Language, McHugh shows us, has a reality that extends beyond our intellectual perception and our everyday usage. Words, however familiar, can still be subjective based on history and our own individual experience.
Alice Fulton, in a poem that takes its title from an invented symbol, “= =”, also explores language in an exhilarating way. Instead of employing metaphor traditionally, using words to describe one thing in terms of another, Fulton utilizes an ideogram to explore undefined images and ideas. The interpretation of the sign (which she calls “a bride / after the recessive threads in lace”) is limited only by her imagination . We’re invited to a place in which = = becomes “mortar between silo’ bricks,” and a “dash to the second power,” among other definitions. But Fulton doesn’t rely on distinctive subject matter to carry the poem. Music pervades, as in the line, “…when we admire / the holdfast of the tiles (their copper of a robin’s / breast abstracted into flat).” And the pleasing final line, “the snow that is / the mortar between winter’s bricks = = the wick that is / the white between the ink.” Fulton’s terra incognita is all about possibility, and moving beyond the staidness of habit, even in poetry. She suggests and demonstrates using = = as an alternative to the comma which has “…gone to pure / transparency.” Because as she states so well, “The natural is what / poetry contests. Why else the line = = why stanza = = why / meter and the rest.” Fulton, in this poem, pushes our capacity to contemplate language “without dilapidating mystery.”
Despite a word’s origin, some utterances are equipped with emotional power that stretch beyond its syllables. Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Affirmative Action Blues (1993)” is a good example of this. In a poetic rant that includes the beating and trial surrounding Rodney King, linguistics, AIDS, and affirmative action, Alexander compiles statement after statement, a headlong rush of impassioned feeling and intellectualizing. The poem opens with two events occurring simultaneously: two black jurors trying to convince their white counterparts that Rodney King’s civil rights were violated and the speaker telling her boss never to use the word “niggardly” in front of her again. “…but don’t you know the word’s etymology?” he asks, and she writes, “as if that makes it / somehow not the word, as if a word can’t batter.” The contiguous incidences of indignity, are effective. They reveal that the tongue can be wielded like a baton, with the same power to bruise and break. The immediacy generated by those moments is extended to the rest of the poem in several ways. First, Alexander uses long lines, mostly enjambed, which deter a reader from pausing, lest the intensity of feeling be lost. Also, her thoughts move about in a way that mirrors the mind, as we progress from a dream with rats and baby otters, to AIDS, to the root of the word venereal, and back to Rodney King. Finally, the parallelism of the phrase “I know,” is interesting not just for its rhetorical use, but for the way in which it insists on its own subjectivity. As when she writes:
I know that the word “niggardly” is “of obscure etymology” but probably
Just as mind and heart must share the same body, intellectual knowledge and knowledge based on experience must coexist in the world.
Language, as in Alexander’s poem, has the ability to alienate. In “Letter from Home in Spanish,” Judith Ortiz Cofer expresses how this estrangement can become a sort of death. The letter from her mother details the failing health of her grandmother and we sense the alienation right from the start as the speaker tells us, “She writes to me as if we still shared / the same language.” The spanish on the page is at first not even legible to the speaker as words, but are “…flying letters / suspended just above the lines / like blackbirds on the horizon; / the accentssomething smaller / they are pursuing.” We never really know why the words “cannot pull” her “by the elbow,” but the correlation between the dying grandmother and the anglicized granddaughter can be found in the lovely imagery as in this passage:
She has no use now
But if the past can’t be erased, it can at least be put to rest as the speaker performs a sort of “mass for the dead” as she reads the letter aloud. “La vieja brings tears to my eyes / like incense; la muerte / sticks in my throat like ashes.” The final stunning image compares the mother’s penned blessing to “a row of black crosses / on a white field” and we’re aware all at once of both the dying grandmother and the interment of a mother tongue.
But perhaps language’s most imponderable task is giving voice to ineffable anguish. It seems like an enigma, articulating inexpressible sorrow. But if language can’t transcend sorrow, it can deliver us to the dizzying edge of it as in the poem, “Leaf,” by Cathy Song. The poem, written for the poet’s sister, confronts in unadorned diction the loss of a baby boy. In their simplicity, however, we witness what words can accomplish in images like: “…and the moon broke its light / on the lawn / and your small daughter tiptoed through / the broken dishes of grief. / Sidestepping hoops of moon- / light and milk,”. In this brief moment, the child carefully moving through the shards of her mother’s sadness, we know that she will have to maneuver this uncertain terrain for time to come. This kind of constrictive anguish can’t be absolved with the right word as Song makes clear when she writes, “…the tongue’s dull bell, / silent, / unable to finish / its sentence of grief.” The dual meaning of “sentence,” both as a grammatical unit and as a punishment seem fitting to me in this context of one who is imprisoned by the inability to give sound, let alone meaning to this magnitude of loss.
Words often fails us. Or perhaps we fail them. It can be wrenching, creating poems. The pick and choose of language, the continuous shaping. But sometimes a poem conveys exactly what we hoped it would or at least it comes maddeningly close. Compiling an anthology must be like this also. Certainly there will be detractors who discount the need for a collection of women’s poetry. But at a time when you can easily find anthologies on illness, addiction, a particular aesthetic or region, it is astonishing that an anthology such as this hasn’t existed previously. The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women unequivocally hits its mark. Read it as a textbook of contemporary poetry. Or read it as a comprehensive collection of women poets, among them, Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Kizer, Rita Dove, Jane Cooper, Marie Howe, Lucille Clifton, Lucie Brock-Broido, Betsy Sholl, C.D. Wright, Ruth Stone, Mary Ruefle, Marilyn Hacker, Ai, Maxine Kumin and Kathy Fagan. The women included in this book may all rise from the same chromosomal wellspring, but the way each asserts herself as a poet could not be more diverse. The Extraordinary Tide is an important book beyond its gender specific objective and because of it.