She’s Still Mad
I used to love this band called Dead Moon. They were a husband and wife team from northern Oregon. Actually, they’re still around, playing a raw homemade punk rock that seems to have sprung like a scary fairy story from the forest where they live. The draw for me was the wife, rumored to be around 50 years old then, with the improbable name of Toody Cole. She was a beautiful, feral little rager, wailing through the set in a kind of trance, hair in a dark tangle, eyes practically rolling back into her head. She seemed so angry. I was annoyed at the world pretty much all the time myself, but it was another thing altogether to see a middle-aged woman so mad and so loud. What drove her? Who knows? All I knew was that it was a thrill to watch her, to see her swig Jack Daniel’s straight from the bottle and pound savagely on her bass.
Strangely enough, I found myself thinking of Toody Cole a lot over the last couple of weeks as I read the collections by the two most recent winners of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Neither of them swigs Jack Daniel’s, at least as far as I know, but they are both middle-aged women, and they are not going anywhere quietly.
Eleanor Lerman, whose book Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds won the 2006 prize, has been elusive in her career as a poet. In 1973, she published Armed Love, a sex-and drugs collection The New York Times called “X-rated.” She followed up quickly with Come the Sweet By and By and then took a 25-year hiatus from writing poems, her The Mystery of Meteors coming out in 2001.
Lerman follows on the heels of last year’s winner, Anne Winters, a poet whose work is more occasional still. Before her winning volume, The Displaced of Capital, came out, Winters’ only previous book was the much-admired The Key to the City, published in 1986.
Both women, silent for so long, have released these award-winning books from the vantage point of middle age, and the view from there is angry, rueful, and politically charged. You could hardly call Lerman and Winters similar in style: Winters writes with an upright elegance, giving her poems over to formal concerns; Lerman chases lyrically after a goofy, comic transcendence. Winters writes solely about New York City, with a materialist’s realism: Here are the circumstances that define the lives of the poor. Lerman, meanwhile, ranges around, bringing her bumpy, unexpected humor to Russian émigrés and late-life love and bondage clubs.
But as narrators, they are situated in a similar place. They write like people who have kept their eyes open and, as a result, have seen a lot of bad stuff. This is a grown-up point of view, the eye that sees loss everywhere. But unlike the rest of us grown-ups, who slip so easily into resignation, neither of these women has surrendered her rage.
It takes a fierceness to notice as intensely as Winters notices. In the gorgeously cadenced title poem, she tracks the diminishing chances of the poor:
As I pass down Broadway this misty late-winter morning,Winters looks closely at what she calls the “narrative of immigration” and notices its (to us) invisible shifts; she looks just as closely at the landscape of lower-class New York and notices its (to us) invisible dangers and bounty. In the book’s centerpiece, “An Immigrant Woman,” the narrator goes walking with her Guatemalan friend Pilar, who points out a “muy latino” mural:
the city is ever alluring, but thousands of miles to the south
the subsistence farms of chickens, yams and guava
are bought by transnationals, burst into miles
of export tobacco and coffee; and now it seems the farmer
has left behind his ploughed-under village for an illegal
partitioned attic in the outer boroughs. Perhaps
he’s the hand that emerged with your change
from behind the glossies at the corner kiosk;
the displaced of capital have come to the capital.
. . . and on the walk back,Winters’ view, even here on the New York sidewalk, is relentlessly global and historical: It’s like reading Jared Diamond’s and Robert Pinsky’s bastard child. But that passage is atypically benign: Mostly, this landscape is threatening, a diorama of systematic, often unthinking oppression. The narrator of the poem lives upstairs from Pilar in a tenement, whose ancient foundation shakes dangerously with the construction of a nearby bridge ramp. The drilling eventually shakes loose a beam, which falls upon Pilar’s little daughter, killing her.
pointed out more wall palms, beaches, until New York
seemed a dot in a belt of capitals
high on the globe: world-cities, packed
with immigrants, refugees, Gastarbeiter: a snowy
latitude suffused with tropical nostalgia.
Winters is too good to allow her poem to devolve into mere finger-pointing. It becomes instead a chronicle of the narrator’s friendship with Pilar, with the guilt of the white woman and the anguish of the mother mounting into a painful barrier. Here, anger is tightly bound to sadness.
Winters possesses all the intellectual comfort and torment of the Marxist, who always sees the larger structure; her book’s very title tells us these people are suffering under a system, and that someone—well, us—is to blame.
Lerman, on the other hand, is no ideologue; she’s a refugee from the counterculture sixties, a person to whom rage simply comes naturally. In “Starina,” she addresses a former lover, who taught her about “human rights and women. About the struggle…” and then abandoned her. “How unkind it was / of you to teach me to think for myself,” she grouses, and then goes on:
. . . You should have written a steal-thisLike Winters, Lerman looks hard at what she calls the “tired people, who have made very little money.” In “The Mayans,” she observes as “They sew themselves into oblivion / while our health towers over them. / Our honey, our nutritious breads, our Europe.” Lerman offers an alternative, though: Something like God hovers around, offering something like salvation. Her tired people stop their labor and “set just / this first footfall upon your sacred promise / that in the evening, there would be a bridge.” Lerman’s anger is always tilting into hopefulness.
manual for when the show was over. You should
have explained how to melt back into the crowd.
But I won’t do it, not by a long shot. Soon I’ll be
marching to the luncheonette with the other angry
elderly, where I will munch my cheese sandwich and
foment plans to vote everybody out.
Lots of writers are pissed off. Winters and Lerman are interesting because they’re still pissed off, long past the age when the rest of us have forgotten to be mad. Maybe not coincidentally, both writers work a lot with memory—they seem connected, even plugged in, to the times in their lives when they were young and broke. Winters recalls her “ephemeral Village-poverty.” Lerman remembers when “we lived the life and used ourselves before we learned / to use our money.”
In “Cold-Water Flats,” Winters tells of buying “‘Ground Meat for Pets’ / at ten cents a pound.” She even finds some redemption in her old, sad flat, remembering the cold water from the tap, “Its tang / of stone and metal, icy / at faucet-mouth, numbed lips, unceasing arrival, the water / which later, I think, will seem to have been / most precious—being useful, humble, chaste.”
Lerman too looks back with some tenderness. In her tribute to Eric Clapton’s wife, “About Patti Boyd and Me,” she writes as one former weirdo reaching out to another:
There is a picture of you on a train in 1967: a thin girl withYou can feel that time gripping her still. The past, for these two writers, is a source. They remember their own fucked-up youth, and their memory of that instability seems to inform their compassion for the unstable people who live all around us. They refuse to forget their own poverty, their own trouble, and so they are able to see the trouble around them. Maybe their respective long silences have allowed them to stay connected to their younger selves; the young writer connected to the older writer, uninterrupted by publication.
long hair on her way to see the Maharishi. I was a thin girl
with long hair, on her way to buy hashish. I had on too much silver,
and I was wild and sick in those days, when you had all that
mod and rocker style. When you had those young eyes:
living on the edge of everyone else’s life . . .
And, so, I come back to Toody Cole, banging her guitar, tossing her hair, the very picture of an angry woman, a woman who’s young and old at the same time. I’m 40 now and live a sensible, grown-up life—haven’t been to see Dead Moon in at least 10 years. I’m one of the people who’ve almost forgotten how to be mad. I’d rather be comfortable, get my work done. Also, I have to drive carpool. I don’t imagine I’m going to start raging again anytime soon, but maybe middle age will be the right time for me to look on as the poets and the rock ’n’ rollers do the raging for me.
Homepage illustration by Karen Kirchhoff