Sonnets Uncorseted

By Maxine W. Kumin 1925–2014
1
 
She was twenty-two. He was fifty-three,
a duke, a widower with ten children.
 
They met in Paris, each in exile from
the English Civil War. Virginal
 
and terrified, still she agreed
to marry him. Though women were mere chattel
 
spinsterhood made you invisible
in the sixteen hundreds. Marriage was arranged
 
—hers a rare exception. Despite a dowry
a woman never could own property.
 
Your womb was just for rent. Birth control
contrivances—a paste of ants, cow dung
 
mashed with honey, tree bark with pennyroyal—
all too often failed the applicant.
 
 
                                    2
 
If anything went wrong you bled to death.
You bore & bore & bore as you were taught
screaming sometimes for days in childbirth.
To bring forth was a woman’s fate
 
but not for Margaret Cavendish, childless
Duchess of Newcastle. After the head
of Charles the First had been detached
and the Restoration seated a new monarch,
 
she and the duke returned to his estate
where nothing discomposed their paradise.
How rare, two lovers scribbling away,
admiring each other’s words in privacy.
He: polymath, equestrian, playwright.
She: philosopher, fantasist, poet.
 
 
                                    3
 
His the first book on the art of dressage,
till then an untried humane approach
to teaching classic paces in the manège,
the grace of the levade and the piaffe.
 
Hers the goofy utopian fantasy,
The Blazing-World. The heroine is adrift
with her kidnapper in a wooden skiff.
A storm comes up conveniently, and they
are blown to the North Pole. He freezes to death
but she is carried to a contiguous
North Pole, a new world where the emperor
falls in love with her, makes her his empress
 
and cedes her all his powers over
clans of wildly invented creatures.
 
 
                                    4
 
Poems, plays, philosophical
discourses on Platonick love,
a chapter on her Birth, Breeding, and Life
and an Apology for Writing so Much
Upon this Book about herself,
even some inquiries into science…
years in chosen isolation the Duchess
filled with words, and the Duke with reassurance.
 
Even this outburst did not discomfit him:
Men are so unconscionable and cruel
they would fain Bury us in their...beds as in
a grave…[T]he truth is, we live like Bats or Owls,
Labour like Beasts, and die like Worms. Pepys
called her mad, conceited, and ridiculous.
 
 
                                    5
 
Virginia Woolf, in 1928,
found her Quixotic and high-spirited
as well as somewhat crack-brained and bird witted
but went on to see in her a vein
of authentic fire. Eighty-odd years on,
flamboyant, eccentric, admittedly vain,
 
now she’s a respected foremother among
women of letters. Founded in 1997,
the Margaret Cavendish Society
— “international, established to provide
communication between scholars worldwide”—
is plumped with learned papers, confabs, dues.
She’s an aristocrat who advocates
—words worn across centuries—for women’s rights.
 
 
                                    6
 
I went to college in the nineteen forties
read Gogol, Stendhal, Zola, Flaubert.
Read Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky
and wrote exams that asked: contrast and compare.
 
Male novelists, male profs, male tutors, not
a single woman on the faculty
nor was there leaven found among the poets
I read and loved: G.M. Hopkins, A.E.
Housman, Auden, Yeats, only Emily
(not quite decoded or yet in the canon).
Ten years later, I struggled to break in
the almost all-male enclave of poetry.
 
Here’s a small glimpse in the the hierarchy:
famed Robert Lowell praising Marianne
 
 
 
                                    7
 
as the best woman poet in America, put down
by Langston Hughes, bless his egalitarian
soul, who rose at the dinner to pronounce
her the best Negro woman poet in the nation.
 
Terrified of writing domestic poems,
poems pungent with motherhood, anathema
to the prevailing clique of male pooh-bahs,
somehow I balanced teaching freshman comp
half-time with kids, meals, pets, errands, spouse.
I wrote in secret, read drafts on the phone
with another restless mother, Anne Sexton,
and poco a poco our poems filled up the house.
 
Then one of us sold a poem to The New Yorker.
A week later, the other was welcomed in Harper’s.
 
 
                                    8
 
But even  as we published our first books
the visiting male bards required care.
We drove them to their readings far and near,
 
thence to the airport just in time to make
their flight to the next gig. You drive like a man,
they said by way of praise, and if a poem
 
of ours seemed worthy they said, you write like a man.
When asked what woman poet they read, with one
voice they declaimed, Emily Dickinson.
 
Saintly Emily safely dead. Modern
women poets were dismissed as immature,
their poems pink with the glisten of female organs.
 
The virus of their disdain hung in the air
but women were now infected with ambition.
 
 
                                    9
 
We didn’t merely saunter decade by decade.
We swept on past de Beauvoir and Friedan,
and took courage from Carolyn Kizer’s knife-blade
Pro Femina: I will speak about women
of letters for I’m in the racket, urging,
Stand up and be hated, and swear not to sleep with editors.
 
If a woman is to write, Virginia Woolf
has Mary Beton declare, she has to have
five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door,
a sacred space where Shakespeare’s sister Judith
might have equaled his prodigious gift
or not. She might have simply floated there,
set loose in the privilege of privacy, her self
unwritten, under no one else’s eyes…
 
 
                                    10
 
Oh, Duchess, come hurdle five centuries
to a land of MFA’s in poetry,
of journals in print and even more online,
small presses popping up like grapes on vines,
reading staking place in every cranny,
prizes for first books, some with money.
 
Come to this apex of tenured women professors
where sessions on gender and race fill whole semesters
and students immerse themselves in women’s studies.
Meet famous poets who are also unabashed mothers
or singletons by choice or same-sex partners—
black, Latina, Asian, native American,
white , Christian, Muslim, Jew and atheist—
come join us, Duchess Margaret Cavendish.
 

Maxine Kumin, "Sonnets Uncorseted" from Shakespeare’s Sisters: Women Writers Bridge Five Centuries, published by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Copyright © 2012 by Maxine Kumin.  Reprinted by permission of Maxine Kumin.

Source: Shakespeare's Sisters: Women Writers Bridge Five Centuries (Folger Shakespeare Library, 2012)

 Maxine W. Kumin

Biography

An enduring presence in American poetry, Maxine Kumin’s career spanned over half a century. She was the recipient of prestigious awards such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award. She was the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1981-1982, and taught at many of the country’s most prestigious universities, including MIT, Princeton, and . . .

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