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Harriet writers have an open invitation to post even after their contract expires, but not many of us do so. The intensity of professional blogging for three to six months is exhausting, and the exposure may leave one feeling, months later, unnerved. Nevertheless, there is always news. Why not share it here? I am thinking of two recent chapbooks, both by young women, both enamored of language like summer foliage, dense and floral, practically Shakespearean — one is, after all, called Sonnets, and the other is called Comedies. Warning: Some of the language herein may not be suitable for …
… dogmatists. Hence:
The creamy nymphs are singing: Tra la la.
Their secrets whirl like microscopic jewels
‘Round troglodytes whose Hee hee, ha ha ha’s
Mean: Sugared words are sweet but we want food. …
(“Sea Things Sonnet”)
Sonnets by Elizabeth Marie Young are actually patterned after Shakespearean sonnets (in iambic pentameter, even!), but their mocking, lascivious mix of dictions makes them, well, perverse, especially in their final “couplets:”
Fuck hard, omnivorous and out of breath.
Outlandishly, we’ll knife the kiss of death.
That last little phrase is delightful Elizabethan pastiche. Elsewhere she’ll reference “algorithmic suburbs” and microorganisms, smilax and ocelot, Goya and Aristotle, Thebes and the Macarena (she is a Greek and Latin scholar, besides being young and impertinent). I haven’t seen iambics treated with such irreverence since the Sonnets of Bernadette Mayer, ca. 1985 (well, I read them in ’95). It’s clear Young has read Mayer — the chapbook recalls not only that earlier book of erotic sonnets, but seems to reference Mayer’s “Eve of Easter” and “Utopia” as well. With the final couplet of the book, Young suggests that sex and utopia are incompatible. How can love be democratic? At the first sign of love’s asymmetry, equality goes out the window. Take that, revolutionary boyfriends.
Eros is also foregrounded in Simone dos Anjos’s Comedies:
I play Colombina, poor enough to learn early.
A story so slight we must refer to impressions,
Pavlova as Le Cygne, or what we know at birth
of time. Though the main task is to find a plot
that suits music, then wish for others to read it.
To be unreal is to concentrate solely on the literal.
Rex plays Rex. Innamorati say yes. The swan dies.
And I am cast in the role of rarely-staged facts,
type of understudy, a chorus man or waiting lady.
They kiss me in the name of comedy. En travesti,
a boy in dress. By day with breasts, en travesti.
I’ve learnt enough to come early, play as softly
as I’m cast. The main task is to suit the music.
Sadder and more enigmatic than Young, dos Anjos doesn’t write epigrammatic bouquets. Where Young displays forward gusto, dos Anjos casts a sideways glance. But at root, their strategies are intertwined: both use language as mask; both don mythic personae, en travesti. Both work the language into brazenly beautiful — epicene — phrases. Both strive for disorienting effects, as in dos Anjos’s:
Sitting as though she is elsewhere a picture
misplaced as the sound in a seashell she’s found in
(“Before a Statue in the Sea”)
Why, you might wonder, should we be interested in these retro stylings and iambics? I myself fell to wondering if this is not only the work of women, but women’s work, and why. There are similarities with Barbara Guest’s poetry, for instance. For so long, Guest fell between the cracks — friends with the New York School poets, but never part of their branding. Too abstract? Too feminine? It’s worth mentioning that the newest issue of The Chicago Review features Barbara Guest, and in a truly splendid format: poets and critics choose one poem and write a brief commentary on it. My favorite may be Donald Revell on “Roses.” He writes: “‘Roses’ breathes new air — air that, only a moment before, simply wasn’t there. A little gasp of surprise liberates both poet and reader from prior circumstance.” He goes on to say, “As in Fairfield Porter’s gestural realism, ‘Roses’ finds its figures hovering in free space among other figures equally free. The boat and shoe are here together, each on a line of its own.”
The Fairfield Porter reference is telling. Porter resisted the overwhelming interdictions against realism in the midst of the ab-ex revolution. He won himself a little bit of freedom, as Barbara Guest did, as Elizabeth Marie Young and Simone dos Anjos do. I can’t claim to have a unified theory as to why some women poets (also Mayer; also Jennifer Moxley; also Andrea Brady) slip into period dress and speak through Victorian and Elizabethan gestures, but I’d venture it has something to do with regimes, and lack of change, and throwing into relief the possibility that dogmatic, booming pronouncements (like “make it new” and its avatars) are themselves a mask for power.
Elizabeth Marie Young
(c/o Ryan Murphy, 121 LaSalle St. #6
NY, NY 10027)
Simone dos Anjos
Cosa Nostra Editions, 2008
(c/o 1158 Hotz Ave, Iowa City, IA 52245)