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.
("XXX Sonnet")
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.
("Common Dice")
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
Omahrahu, 2008
(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)

Originally Published: July 22nd, 2008

Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...

  1. July 22, 2008
     Mark Wallace

    Ange, can you explain to me why writers like Lyn Hejinian, Joan Retallack, Tina Darragh, or Leslie Scalapino are or are not writing "women's work"? Obviously they're more explicitly associated with certain kinds of aesthetic extremes than the writers you mention, although Mayer, Moxley, Brady and Guest clearly have/had connections to and interactions with these other women. I'm not quite sure whether you're drawing a line somewhere, and if you are, what it is. it seems like maybe you are, but I can't make it out yet.
    Thanks for any clarification you can offer.

  2. July 23, 2008
     Ange Mlinko

    Hi Mark. I didn't imply all women did this sort of work (that would be nonsensical, right?) -- I implied that this work was being done only by women. (I think. If you can think of men who write in the vein of Young and dos Anjos, en travesti, with a highly gendered/sexualized response to Tradition, let me know....)

  3. July 23, 2008
     Mark Wallace

    Thanks, Ange. That makes a lot of sense. I think it’s the slippage in the phrase “women’s work” that threw me. I thought maybe you were saying that there was something (fundamental) about women that makes them prefer work of this kind, but you seem to mean that there’s something about this kind of work that makes (some) women the only ones who would be drawn to it.
    I can think of a few 20th century gay male poets who have been drawn to a similar aesthetic: John Wheelwright, Parker Tyler, maybe even Edwin Denby? But I can’t immediately think of any male poet who’s doing this sort of thing at the moment, although I certainly could just be missing something.
    It’s interesting for me to think about how this return to the old (in new ways?) remains such an consistent impulse within modernism. Of course the emphasis is usually on returning to the old as a way of developing new structures/ideas: H.D. does this perhaps in the most focused way, but Pound does it too, obviously. And of course, later, Robert Duncan obviously takes up this impulse.
    Maybe Wallace Stevens is another example of the kind of work you mean, at least in a borderline way? Nada Gordon has been writing recently about Stevens’ interest in the surface and the ornamental; it always strikes me that there’s a sensuality (even a muted sexuality?) in his early poems that makes them texturally richer than his later work.
    I’m getting off the subject now, but I always think of Ginsberg’s City Lights version of Howl as one of the first books that acknowledges that the concept of “make it new” has itself become tradition. By invoking Whitman, and also Williams (through having Williams introduce the poet), Ginsberg suggests that his aesthetic and cultural differences are part of several generations of such work. Certainly the problem of what it might mean to “make it new” when the idea of making it new is itself old (some might say “played out,” but I wouldn’t) is one of the issues a lot of poets think about these days.
    Thanks again.

  4. July 23, 2008
     Ange Mlinko

    Thanks for these thoughts, Mark. They're right on target. Of course, I don't think "make it new" is played out, but I do think there is a tyranny of the present (there always is) and the consistent impulse in modernism to turn to the old for the new is also a way to duck out from under the inevitable heirarchies and conflicts of the contemporary.
    I think I'll go read some early Stevens now....

  5. July 23, 2008
     Don Share

    I'm not a modernist, but am inclined to argue that turning "to the old for the new" is also a way to inform the inevitable heirarchies and conflicts of the contemporary.
    Or am I being impossibly naive (without the two dots over the "a")?

  6. July 24, 2008

    A Bunting scholar not a modernist??? Or is that a not-now-nor-have-I-ever declaration.
    The old is precisely the it in Day by day, make it new. (From Ezra Pound's Godspell!)
    Seconding the EM Young cite. And to corroborate the trend, I notice that Dora Malech has some saucy sonnets in Columbia Poetry Review 21. (I also notice the mirror-opposite takes by Mark Halliday and Joshua Clover there on spending time in Europe.)

  7. July 24, 2008
     Don Share

    Jordan, you catch me out every time! Thank you yet again for keeping me honest, sort of.

  8. July 24, 2008
     John Latta

    One nomination for a man writing en travesti (and “with a highly gendered / sexualized response to Tradition”) might be Alessandro Porco, in both The Jill Kelly Poems and the newer Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems (both ECW Press in Toronto). Wild swings of diction, over-the-top content, general lambasting of Romantic tropes and conventions, all done up to a T of untottering Traditional Technique. See something like lines out of “My Sweetest Bi-Curious”:
    My sweetest Bi-curious, live and love
    Without reprove, and like a dove
    Fly, fly high, soar, though to survive,
    On occasion, you must muff-dive.
    Or see “Jill Kelly’s Titty-Bop Sonnet”:
    What’s to stop me, say, from writing
    A beauty’s-best blazon, never looking
    Above, below, or beyond gianormous
    Jugs jugging-in at a C-cup 36?
    Well, sure, some critic might claim,
    Porco è porcu, his pen unable to sustain
    A poetic argument of “real” value;
    But that’s no reason not to do as I do,
    Which is express a love of bib-bubs
    In a fourteen-line song to the God of
    Titty-bops–hast thou forsaken me?
    Why not hand over a naked Jilly Kelly
    So I can finally stop writing this
    Thing & slide my this between her thats?
    Too, there’re a whole pot of smartly salacious limericks in Augustine in Carthage. Porco, I read, claims to be “influenced by the 17th century parson-poet, Robert Herrick, whose ditties in honour of amorous milkmaids and compliant servant girls were naughtily suggestive.” I’d wager Porco is “turning to the old” not only to sidestep those “inevitable heirarchies and conflicts of the contemporary,” but to thoroughly mock it–it and its most earnest stalwarts, both men and women. And, jeez yes, for fun. So much of the “post-avant” is so abominably (ab homine) temperate.

  9. July 24, 2008
     Ange Mlinko

    John Latta, that is so great! Thank you! Your own Rubbing Torsos, now that I think of it, shares salient qualities with these chapbooks too. I did use the word "mocking" re EMY, but not the word "fun," because that is the truly dirty word around here.
    Don, Jordan beat me to the question.
    Jordan: can we NOT speak of poets going to Europe? It makes me more miserable than I have any right to be.

  10. July 30, 2008

    Ange --
    since John has recommended my work to you (I think he's correct to do so -- it's in line with what you're discussing here), I'd love to send you a copy of my book -- my treat. Please do get in contact (a_porco@yahoo.ca); if you pass along your mailing addy, I'll send out a copy of _Augustine in Carthage_, which includes those salacious limericks!