Poet and novelist Constance Urdang's poem "The Moon Tree," from her first poetry collection, Charades and Celebrations, has been praised by Raymond Roseliep in a Poetry article as "the kind of thing Stephen Vincent Benet had in mind when he defined poetry as magic." Roseliep feels that another poem from this collection, "The Old Woman," is "achievement of the same caliber . . . and so is 'In the Junkshop,' which proves that poems can be written about anything." Saturday Review critic W. T. Scott explains that "by sheer force of style [Urdang] can make mythological figures out of aunts and grandparents, and she can deal with historical figures in exciting livelier ways than we usually get these days. She is a fine poet with a sardonic eye trained to real values."

As a novelist, Urdang has fared rather well also, though Natural History is, according to its author as quoted in Saturday Review: "Not a novel. A series of images in the form of prose episodes. Their meaning, if any, to emerge when at the end one can look back to try and make out the 'significant patterns. . . ."' Muriel Haynes in that same Saturday Review article likens Natural History to a journal, or "thought book," in which literally, though not in other regards, "nothing happens; a succession of everyday people, men and women, old and young, dead and alive, move in and out, serving as metaphors for ways-of-being-in-the-world." These everyday people who represent "ways-of-being-in-the-world" include the narrator, her family, and three of her female friends, and emphasis is placed on the age-old concerns of "time, birth, generation, old age, love, [and] death," as defined by New York Times Book Review critic Jay Neugeboren. Neugeboren believes, despite Urdang's "anti-fiction pattern," that Natural History "seems quite old-fashioned. . . . [Its] concerns remain fundamental, traditional." And he adds that "in spite of the book's fragmented surface, in spite of its disclaimers ('Not a novel . . .'), it becomes, due to its sure and singular voice, a coherent, evocative and real object in its own right." Whereas a contributor to the Virginia Quarterly Review says Urdang's structural strategy in Natural History fails, the same contributor praises the book's narrative for its "honest, moving, and intelligent questioning of what a woman's role is, and can be, in our society. [It] . . . has the fascination of a brilliant journal." As for Haynes, she believes "the effect of Natural History is a bit like that of a speculative talk with a sharp-minded friend of fine sensibility. There is a similar intimate ease,. . .there is intellectual exhilaration."

With three poetry collections in between, Urdang followed her first fiction, Natural History, with a novella entitled Lucha. Courtney Weaver writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that Lucha is a "literary mural of three generations of Mexican women which, despite its brevity, sacrifices neither beauty nor relevance." This mural paints the life history of Luz Filomena whose nickname, "Lucha," means to "struggle." Weaver focuses on the contrast Urdang develops between Lucha, a believer in urbanization and the idea of progress for women and for Mexico, and her niece, Nieves, a woman content to be mother and housekeeper—"[Nieves] is the icon of Mexico herself: Fertile, impassive, silent," offers Weaver. Whereas Lucha is rather accepting of Mexico's passivity in the first two sections of the book, she is, writes Weaver, "continually trying, continually struggling toward a new ideal of femininity and of herself." New York Times Book Review commentator Susan Wood judges that "in this spare, often elegant tale[,] . . . Urdang obviously knows Mexico and she writes about the country and its people with feeling and understanding. But . . . one feels something is curiously missing." Weaver, in turn, says Lucha, "like an effective painting, . . . may be praised for its capture of time and character. . . . It is a novel not about struggling dialectics but rather about the interweaving of sorrow, fulfillment, beauty and change."

Bibliography

  • (Editor with Paul Engel) Prize Short Stories, 1957: The O. Henry Awards, Doubleday, 1957.
  • (Editor with Engle and Curtis Harnack) Prize Short Stories, 1959: The O. Henry Awards, Doubleday, 1959.
  • Charades and Celebrations (poems), October House, 1965.
  • Natural History (novel), Harper, 1969.
  • The Picnic in the Cemetery (poems), Braziller, 1975.
  • The Lone Woman and Others (poems), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.
  • Only the World (poems), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983.
  • Lucha (novella), Coffee House Press, 1986.
  • American Earthquakes (novella), Coffee House Press, 1988.
  • Alternative Lives, University of Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1990.
  • The Women Who Read Novels; and Peacetime (Two Novellas), Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1990.

Contributor of poetry and prose to anthologies and to numerous periodicals.

Further Readings

PERIODICALS

  • Book World, August 17, 1969.
  • Gargoyle, June, 1983.
  • New York Times Book Review, July 29, 1969, January 11, 1987.
  • Poetry, April, 1966.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, March 8, 1987.
  • Saturday Review, October 9, 1965, July 19, 1969.
  • Virginia Quarterly Review, autumn, 1969.
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 10, 1996, p. 4A.