A dear friend spends part of each morning memorizing poems. I envy this discipline, though not enough to cultivate it in my own creative life. Still, there is something mesmerizing when someone breaks into a poem out in the world, reciting lines from their memory. The only poem I can recall with such certainty and vigor is by Margaret Atwood:
you fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
When asked to receive a poem from memory, I voice Atwood in a feminist killjoy moment. This poem jolts listeners out of complacency and thwarts expectations of poetic recitation, offering sublime inspiration. The Atwood poem delivers a knife into the mind, then twists it, interrupting memory. This poem begs the question, What if it is not as we imagined? What if the world is not as we remember?
Three recent collections interrogate memory and poetic practices in feminist killjoy ways, though all with different styles of contemporary poetry and different effects.
Here All Night, the title a nod to a quip by stand up comedians, centers wit and humor in many of the poems, but Jill McDonough’s poems also shape memories and remake memory in queer ways.
In “Another Art,” McDonough riffs on Bishop’s “One Art.” Bishop’s poem is a villanelle—McDonough’s poem is written in couplets with slant rhymes in each couplet. Each poet utilizes form to contain emotional content. For Bishop, the emotions circulate around loss. McDonough throws Bishop’s pain around loss on its head with a contemporary paean to finding things. She begins, “The art of finding isn’t hard to master, / either. We find so many things, past or // present.” McDonough’s wry wit turns from things that are lost to things that are found: “Yourself. In a pickle, / a jam. Find something every day: steel bristle // from the street cleaning truck, lucky penny / on the ground.” The poet displays her powerful command of form and internal rhyme in these lines.
These found objects eventually turn from the quotidian to a beloved, found by the speaker and a conclusion with a sly sexual reference. Where Bishop’s loss of a beloved same-sex partner is hidden and muted in one of the great villanelle’s of the twentieth century, McDonough’s beloved is found in couplets rhyming at a slant and seemingly slapdashed onto the page with humor and smart puns. The poem and its counterpoint to Bishop reminds contemporary readers that what was once hidden is now open, resonating not only with literary history but also with political and movement history.
Similarly, in the poem “Gay Freaking Assholes: On Tolerance,” McDonough recounts an incident while teaching at writing camp where “one kid call another a gay / freaking asshole.” She then confides that she and another teacher, “froze, tried not to laugh.” The speaker and the other teacher, her co-conspirator, know that they should provide an intervention, a correction to these teenagers. McDonough writes, “Real teachers wouldn’t tolerate intolerance.” Yet, the moment of adolescent taunting, which the speaker and her co-conspirator have endured in some distant past, becomes for these queer adults a moment of levity, a fun lunch, the hurt inflicted by children from the past is for the speaker no longer fearful or upsetting. The absence of an intervention by the speaker and her co-conspirator is also stark because the cultural mores of the contemporary moment have changed so much that both know they are expected to intervene in a dour fashion with a lecture on tolerance, language, and bullying. Yet these wounded adults do not intervene, they laugh, to remake their own pain. McDonough concludes, “We call each other gay freaking asshole for years.” Humor reshapes a long ago experience of ostracism, reworking it into a repetitive, humorous adult experience. In the hands of a poet, homophobic bullying is undone, mastered, turned into a joke.
Like McDonough, Marilyn Hacker’s work also contains humor, though her wit is more more sanguine, more understated. In her newest collection, Blazons: New and Selected Poems, 2000–2018, from British publisher Carcanet, Hacker gathers poems over the past two decades with a generous selection of translated work.
For fans of Hacker’s work, the collection of the ten “Calligraphies” poems into a single volume is enough to commend Blazons. These poems capture scenes and observations of the modern world with sonorous clarity and meaningful politics. The first, “Calligraphies I”, opens:
Younger, we hoped for
long conversations with wine,
I won’t even mention love
and all its accoutrements.
The second section of “Calligraphies I” begins on the subject of memory: “Were there memories / that could be re-examined / and made coherent?” Hacker asks about the making and remaking of memories, a theme sewn throughout all of these poems.
Her extraordinary “Canzone” which originally appeared in the collection Desesperanto, ends with this stanza:
Now and from memory’s clerestory,
my vision of that palimpsest, a street,
(as fading daylight, gold on velvet, adds
textured layer) turns outward as streetlights turn
on, lights cut out lives, limits: What can I learn?
Reworking memory is central to many of the poems in Blazons, as a master poet—out as a lesbian for decades now—works and reworks meaning and memory over decades. Equally exciting in Hacker’s work is that she is always learning and shares that learning on the pages of her poems and her collections. Hacker’s discipline as a poet is reflected in a fealty to forms and a fierce belief that they provide a container against which she can press and remake experiences. Witness Blazons filled with poems using form and formal devices with apparent ease and joy. Her discipline is also reflected in language and syntax that are rich and syncopated. The stanza above from “Canzone” highlights the rich word bank from which Hacker draws—clerestory, palimpsest—as well as the sonorous qualities she evokes with the consonance of the “l”s in the last line.
While Hacker’s mastery of form and language continue to delight, her discipline as a translator, as a poet equally committed to other poets and with political implications, also inspires. Among the eight poets collected in Blazons, Hacker translates poems by Fadwa Suleiman, Habib Tengour, Sania Saleh, and Samira Negrouche as the centerpiece of the book. If poetry is a practice, a discipline, Hacker is one of the greatest masters and Blazons is one of her achievements from her practice and discipline.
Andrea Cohen’s Nightshade is perhaps the best book that I read in 2019. The few of her poems (“Major to Minor” and “Cloud Study”) that appeared first in the New Yorker enchanted me. Would the full collection sustain that power? The answer is yes.
Poet Robin Becker praises Cohen’s work as “sculpt[ing] away the inessential.” The poems are spare. Compressed. In a fashion that is reminiscent of Kay Ryan, though Ryan’s poems more often include a turn to wit on their path to some revelation about the human condition. Cohen has wit in her repertoire, too, but she gestures more often with dramatic irony. In a poem about the end of a relationship, “Division Of,” Cohen describes the beloved taking a painting from the home “of the girl on the stair” while leaving. Then taking the nail “on which the girl in a pink haze hung.” This action results in a hole “in horsehair plaster—” and then in the final devastating couplet, she writes, “and the crumbling / that comes after.” Cohen’s metaphoric engagement with objects, winnowed down through removal, provide a dramatic revelation of human nature.
In another, equally devastating poem, “How Sound Travels,” Cohen begins,
You said goodbye and I
heard good and I, and
only later, the buzzing
b, its lethal sting.
In the first stanza, Cohen demonstrates how the mind mutates and shapes our various experiences through language, often with a mistake, a misstep, a small misinterpretation. Then, in the second stanza, she delivers the effect of these mistakes, a “lethal sting.” Stripping away and laying memory and experience bare through language that is spare but well-observed, even sharp or stinging, is the space where Cohen excels. Every poem in this collection is pitch perfect.
Each of these recent collections by lesbian poets, in different places of their writing careers, invite new considerations on the function of memory in lesbian poetics. All three remind readers that what is imagined is not always real and the world is not as expected. The result? Great pain, great pleasure.