Reluctant Mistress by Anne Champion
Anne Champion’s dazzling first book of poetry, Reluctant Mistress, offers readers a thought-provoking revision of the love lyric, rendering this rich literary tradition relevant to a postmodern cultural landscape. While invoking couplets, tercets, and other vestiges of her artistic heritage, Champion’s poems interrogate the power relations implicit in traditional love poetry, redefining their terms with subtlety and grace. Filled with “rituals,” “myth,” and “human grief,” Reluctant Mistress presents us with a thoroughly modern treatment of this facet of our literary inheritance, maintaining a sophisticated relationship between form and content all the while.
Champion’s use of traditional literary forms proves impressive as the book unfolds. My favorite poems in Reluctant Mistress create a sense of discontinuity between style and subject matter, presenting subversive content within received forms, which have been used most frequently by male writers addressing a silent female “beloved.” Champion’s poems strive to show the reader that these arcane courtship rituals, and the way in which we represent them in literature, still inform contemporary relationships in unexpected ways. Consider “Villanelle for Past Lovers”:
I cherish all the lovers in my past.
Some say it’s my greatest flaw.
A broken love is not meant to last.
I line them all up in my mind-an unlucky cast-
repeatedly playing their parts unrehearsed and raw.
I can’t stop loving the lovers in my past.
Here Champion presents a subversive message within a received literary form. By doing so, she skillfully revises the gendered power relations inherent in traditional love poetry. The female beloved is no longer silent, nor passive. Likewise, monogamy is no longer the ideal for the heroine of this story. Champion ultimately re-imagines what is possible for female characters within the love lyric, expanding the parameters of traditional forms like the villanelle. Like many other poems in Reluctant Mistress, “Villanelle for Past Lovers” proves as thoughtful as it is finely crafted.
Along these lines, Champion’s poems frequently give voice to voiceless characters from this master narrative. Mythical figures like Daphne and Psyche deliver beautifully written soliloquies, suggesting that Reluctant Mistress should be read, at least in part, as a corrective gesture, an attempt to recover parts of literary history that have been lost or overlooked. Champion writes, for instance, in “Daphne, Upon Transformation,”
Finally. These veins have turned
to roots, soaking nourishment from the earth
with stoic self-reliance, no longer needing
the channels that course in others
In passages like this one, Champion draws attention to a character who inhabits the margins of a predominantly male master narrative, ultimately asking us to reconsider what aspects of myth, culture, and history we fixate on. What’s more, the poet situates contemporary mistresses, young girls who eschew marriage, and women who take pleasure in sensual experience within this trajectory of silenced female voices. Reluctant Mistress draws our attention to the cultural mechanisms that cause us to relegate these stories to the margins, offering readers provocative social criticisms while maintaining lyricism and a sense of humor throughout. In short, Anne Champion’s first book is a truly wonderful debut.