So much of written culture has been, as the first poem in this visionary collection calls it, “Speaking a thin, permanent/archive. What we call a woman,” that women writers have quite a task. They must work towards creating their own identity, and their own lives and art, amid the swirl of ideas, conventions, and confinements imposed by others and by themselves. The intense focus of such ambition can lead to an intense self-centeredness.
Her Book by Éireann Lorsung offers an alternative: poems that explore what is “female” from various perspectives, as the poet works toward her own subject and voice. Yet Her Book’s focus on friendship and community singles it out; at least half of the poems are dedicated to other women, and many of them narrate with a collective “we” that appears to be women as a group—exploring together, experiencing together, making things. In these ways, Lorsung both expresses, and reaches out to, a community of women, rather than simply forwarding her own artist self.
We see this right away with the first section of the book, “Fifteen Poems for Kiki Smith,” which is dedicated to, and inspired by, another woman artist. You don’t have to know Smith’s visual art in order to get the power of these poems (though you will probably become curious about it). Smith’s images spark Lorsung into poems that sound authentic and earned, and the imagery is powerfully clear.
The first poem, “Revelation,” is an eye-opener. It immediately places us within the mind of a speaker whose perspective can’t be denied:
From inside all this hair I can see you.
The body on the ground,
on its own, is resurrection. Female,
that’s a question of creation.
. . . . . .
How clever a first line this is, its own directness nearly conceals. The poem’s speaker claims to be “seeing,” not just looking at, the reader, which encourages us to try to do the same. Who is the subject here? Who the viewer? Is neither the object? Already, the artistic ground trembles beneath our feet.
The three lines following the first introduce some of the poet’s interests—the body, nature, creativity, gender—all within tightly crafted, casually brilliant, lines. For example, the line “Female, that’s a matter of creation,” refers to the physical matter of the body but also to the self-creation each person must handle for herself. Such nuanced word usage characterizes Her Book—Lorsung says a lot in one or two phrases that allow for several interpretations.
The poems throughout the book are written mostly in tightly crafted, incisive free verse with varying stanza arrangements, mingled with some prose poems, as well as hybrid poems that feature both. All of them have an organic feel, the line and stanza breaks emerging out of images and speech. Though there might be not obvious music to the poems (e.g., rhyme and meter), Lorsung achieves lyrical effects through the use of repetition such as anaphora, litany, assonance, consonance, and with the personas’ and poems’ different speech rhythms. She uses lists in a number of poems, which suits Her Book as a kind of alternate archive. That is, objects, notions, names, conventionally “female” activities, even colors and designs sometimes associated with women and girls, are scattered throughout, like bits of history in a memory book. From these bits and pieces, as well as from her own thinking about, and experiences around, them, the poet synthesizes as well as collects.
One example is “Girl with Chain,” which explores a chain of associations and assumptions:
Girl with part in her hair.
Girl with downward glance.
Girl with tiny Adam’s apple.
Girl with shoulders gently.
Girl with generalized flower pattern.
Girl with stomacher.
Girl with late 18th century.
Girl with exposed.
Girl with blue ground.
Girl with fog.
Girl with platemark.
Girl with fourteen doubles.
Girl with Hahnemüle.
Girl with mottling.
Girl with linen, lines.
In contrast to “Revelation,” this poem describes a looking-at that is objectifying and generalizing. “Girl with downward glance” might allude to paintings and conventions about the proscribed modesty of women. “Girl with shoulders gently,” a tender observation, still indicates a painterly gaze as well as the recommended “gentleness” for females in many societies. These contrast with “Girl exposed”—a product of Realism and the taboo, and a subject more vulnerable, and possibly sexual. Objects paired with the girls carry important connotations; if you didn’t know (I didn’t), a “stomacher” is a decorative pattern in a bodice; “Hahnemüle” from what I can find online, is a kind of artist paper dating back several centuries. “Girl with Chain” presents a “thin” archive of depictions of women through the ages in art.
—Until that last line. Lorsung surprises us by moving from “linen”—associated with clothing and domestic fabric—to “lines,” the poem’s last word. “Lines” might refer to the “girls” in the lines of this poem, as well as to the poet herself, writing lines that are her own. The poem both acknowledges the “chain” and moves beyond it. The burden of this archive of depictions on a woman writer, how it both links to her and holds her back, is conveyed with simplicity and cunning in this apparently straightforward poem.
Another poem, “It falls into ruin by its own weight,” takes on a collective voice that indicates some violent aggression:
Let’s punish all those women.
Let’s punish them hard.
Let’s make it so their babies
fall out of them
like red splotches
and their bodies are open
to whatever invasion we choose.
Let’s show those women
they can’t be trusted
with the frangible innards
we’ve taken so much time
Let’s haul out of them bodies
what we came for,
new stock, new
Is the “us” who speak here a community of hostile women talking about other women whom they judge harshly? A group of misogynists? Some other group discussing the punishment of Eve (and all women) after her disobedience? This is a poem whose interpretation is best left to readers, but it’s a powerful perspectival flip.
“Dowry Cloth” describes a cloth made painfully and deliberately: “We made this cloth from our skins./We pulled out our own hair carefully/from the roots/and threaded needles with it,” as the true cost of the “dowry” becomes painfully obvious:
We took the left-over, the uneaten,
the throw-away, the heretical,
the disgusting, the idolatrous, the dregs,
detritus, dross, the junk no one
but us would want, we took that
and our hard labor
and our bodies
and made you this.
This poem leads us to think about dowries still in existence in certain cultures, as well as what a real dowry might be: ourselves, our lives, what we have made, what we would like to give, what might be conventionally inappropriate but is nevertheless a part of who we are.
In “Dowry,” Lorsung links natural and bodily imagery with things made by hand. She does this in other poems as well. In “The cells—the moon,” Lorsung describes cells as “breakable and lacelike handmade cells.” Connecting what might be considered feminine, “lacelike,” to “cells,” is a reach—but a fruitful one. And the sounds of “breakable,” “lacelike,” and “handmade cells”—the soft consonance of those “l”s, the assonance of the long a’s—have been marvelously layered by the poet.
We are taken from cells to celestial bodies in another poem, “Standing,” in which the poem’s speaker says “the body/is more like stars than we know.” There’s an ecological current underlying many of the poems; Lorsung seems to be encouraging us to think of ourselves as more physically, as well as imaginatively, linked to nature. “Standing”’s optimistic cosmology is in contrast to “Stars and Scat,” whose title demands that we consider what isn’t pretty:
We’re talking basics here,
just questions of inside and outside.
When it comes
down to it, the sky
is full of bullshit, a few thousand
years of the stuff:
women chained to rocks, heroes
swinging their clubs
all over the universe.
Listen, we know
the sky at this time of night is pret-ty
and makes you prone
to stories you’ll recover from
like a millenial hangover
This poem is more like a warning, in language more direct, more idiomatic, and angry, too. These are just a few examples of the range in this first section, the shifts in mood, perspective, philosophy, and style. We also see how good a poet Lorsung is. Getting into character in believable, lyrical poems is hard to do well.
Her Book’s second section, “Girllife,” begins with one of the strongest poems in the collection. The story of a woman who carries a “labyrinth” with her at all times, “First Principles” revises Genesis and gives us a different sort of epic journey:
In the beginning was the labyrinth.
It was the size of a continent, the inside
of a jar she carried in her shoulder
bag, swinging while she walked.
Sometimes she didn’t know it was there
but underneath everything walls
would rise, hold
up construction of new roads, and
she would reknow: it was there, she
had seen it. The labyrinth covered
everything in questions.
Both companion and burden, exhausting and stimulating, the labyrinth demands perpetual interpretation, and requires that the woman in the poem never forget it is there:
She entered it daily:
she never wore a watch, she carried
Nothing with her, or she carried
her knitting, she emptied
the canvas bag at every turn
and filled it
with sand, guitar
strings . . .
was enough. The labyrinth
followed her from one edge
of the world to another:
It was all around her, like her mother’s love.
Every morning she reentered
the labyrinth of the labyrinth.
The smell of the sea that wasn’t there.
The clicking shadows of laurel trees
and their scent; she was full
A simple, but intricate extended metaphor: I find implications of artmaking (“laurel trees”), sexual identity, nature, motherhood, and more. (The poem also reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s haunting poem, “The Monument.”) “First Principles” conveys, more than any poem I can remember reading, the difficulty of having to map one’s own life within a world that has tried to map it for you. It is a fascinating depiction of complex identity and the dilemma for women (or anyone) trying to figure out how to, in common parlance, find oneself.
The poem “Pink,” dedicated to a girl or woman, uses another list to convey a sensuous experience of the world, as well as a desire for experience. It seems true to what adolescence can be like: “crushing/petals in a pocket/was like blushing—/She wanted to touch everything/over & over.” Another poem, “Sweets,” dedicated to five women, presents yet another list of objects and associations, floated into a realistic but also mythic atmosphere:
In the high windows, contrails; a severely English blue.
There were trees growing out of buildings.
We could touch one another’s shoulders and we did.
Flowers on our desks in old jars, postcards,
pictures, poems, biscuits, cups of tea, train trips . . .
We made a text with the passage of our hands.
We were near to each other with music and in silence.
The making of the “we” here is not necessarily the making of art but of a comforting community, of a life shared: “We held hands, borrowed clothes, sat together, watched/for stars or hot-air balloons, birds, satellites./Did not expect them. There they were.”
Another poem includes a startling journey—one that takes place inside a house, with objects of domesticity and handiwork all around. It is a journey through memory, through fragments of some personal history, though we aren’t told the precise story:
It was as though we were on a ship
in the middle of the prairie
It was as though the house
was sighing or breathing
Stocks of flower seed, vegetable seed,
wool blankets, quilts our mothers made . . .
The poem opens into litany with lines that include handmade as well as domestic items: “pressed leaves,” “paper birds and animals with pin joints,” “teacups” “colored shoes” a “pile of silk scraps,” which the poet ends with this:
The most gentle apocalypse in the world.
We woke up, the sky was blue.
(“And so the last day came, and the last hour of the last day”)
That phrase, “The most gentle apocalypse,” is unforgettable. I can see the tumult of objects and associations being turned over in the writer’s mind, as if inside a coccoon out of which someone will eventually emerge. The sky—am I being too optimistic?—of that last line is blue, and seems open and clear—a good one to wake up into. It’s a different sort of sky than the one “full of bullshit/thousands of years of it.”
After even a “gentle apocalypse” some rebuilding is necessary. In “Reconstruction,” Her Book’s third section, Lorsung describes being “on a journey without/the female names of things“ (“Autoportrait tree”), yet the journeying in this section is more detailed and personal than in the other two. For example, “Sewing Together” is one of the most beautiful poems in the book, speaking of what is possible, even with a vexed and inhibiting history:
We went to school and someone there
told us not to touch things, sing things,
dance things, hold things, love things.
But in fact we were singing together
while we sewed. We began sewing
parts we didn’t use. My leg to your leg,
your left arm to my left arm. We sewed
together everything in us able to touch,
sing, dance, you know what I mean.
New body’s grace was a shambles
but it spoke with us, fragments
of an original language.
The work described in the poem—the women beginning to metaphorically incorporate and include one another in their handiwork, as part of their own bodies—I find very moving. I will be thinking about those three last lines for a long time.
I’ll end with one more favorite, “Eating the Archive,” a turn from Mark Strand’s famous poem, “Eating Poetry” (“Ink runs from the corners of my mouth./I have been eating poetry.”) In Lorsung’s feminist revision of Strand’s pleasure poem, the woman poet has a more bitter task, a tougher pleasure: “I eat the archive, which used to have a flavor./The taste of the letters./The taste of what made them,” it begins. The speaker describes being “Tired . . . of people sucking/and eating the spines of books,” but she says, “I eat it all”:
Continue to eat it. Pages dry as old leaves.
Everything is dust in the archive.
The poem is dust.
My tongue is coated in it.
Touch is what makes the archive disappear.
As Lorsung’s poet-speaker keeps eating, the snow-covered city she is in grows quiet, and “things in the archive and city/are going to die.”
. . . Tonight
they begin to fall apart.
I hold a candle, blow it out. Eat it.
For the first time, the people outside
are sleeping. Quiet.
Where no one is chewing.
Where no one is licking and licking their words.
That last line anticipates our misreading it as “licking their wounds,” so that Lorsung, Dickinson-like, achieves two goals with the word of one. She implies that we need to move beyond both “wound licking” and “word licking” if we are going to make it through the archive, and come out, knowledgeable and still talking.
An alternate archive that is vibrant and inclusive rather than “thin” and “permanent,” Éireann Lorsung’s Her Book records the poet’s journey towards making, from a tangle of personal, historical, and artistic material, a voice of her own. At the same time, Lorsung’s is not a self-centered project. Within the poems, and through their homages to other women, Lorsung writes toward a community, sharing her creativity, experience, and attention. She does all of this in mostly short, lyrically intense, accessible poems that meet us instantly on the page, while unfolding more over multiple readings—her own “gentle apocalypse.”