Whenever I read, I’m always dissecting the author’s psychological process. Not, I promise you, whether the events of a story or poems mirror an author’s own life. I am a fiction writer, so I know that it’s almost always synthesis or loads of practice or having paid careful attention. It is hard to write interestingly about one’s own life. Unless you’re David Sedaris, and when it’s brass tacks, it’s probably hard for him, too.
What I’m looking for in the words of other writers is clues about how they feel about things: issues, people, events; or insights about their writing process: sometimes you can tell when a writer gave up and took a short cut, or you can locate his “real” story in the words that are there–that is, you can see a writer’s affection more clearly than the writer himself can, if you read carefully.
As much as I want to turn off this readerly impulse, I can’t. Perhaps it is what makes me a writer, or maybe it is deeply ingrained from those hundreds of hours I spent in writing workshops.
If you read here regularly, you know that I’ve been feeling a little bit militant about injustices toward women and the way we American women seem to be keeping ourselves in these corners of oppression, and how our politicians are happy enough to help us stay there.
The Book & what one has to do with the other
Andrew Merton is a professor of writing at University of New Hampshire, and I am lucky enough to be reviewing his first book of poems called, Evidence That We Are Descended from Chairs because of the Guest Post by Joy Jacobson that appeared on this blog a few weeks ago.
Imagine my fancy when I read–perhaps erroneously, more on this later–some poems that seem to be truly angry at women in this utterly delightful collection.
Don’t misunderstand: I am not calling Merton a misogynist. The poems are art, and exist outside of Merton’s consciousness, or perhaps in spite of it. Perhaps I’m identifying Merton’s anger with his mother or wife, isolated to those two people and nothing to do with women in general. Or maybe I’m misreading it all together. The book provides for much thematic wrangling, to review each poem or theme would be to write a second book. So I’ll take a closer peek at these few poems I read as being non-feminist.
Perhaps Merton’s poems that deal with women angrily are presented as a critique of the things men say about women, I’m thinking specifically of one called, “The Way Women Are,” whose first two lines are, “She says there’s no reason for me to be jealous,/ even though he’s good with his hands.” The implication here is that the woman in the poem is being unfaithful and lying about it, but the poem is about the speaker’s experience of that phenomenon, which he attributes to “the way women are about these things” in the last line of the poem.
There is one that he writes to the speaker’s progeny, “Advice My Daughter Will Probably Ignore,” in which he describes an eel of a man who is setting himself up to take advantage. The last two lines of the poem may indicate something of Merton’s observance of The Way Men Are. It goes, “by then,/you’ll have heard it all before.”
Taken as a collection, the poems are funny and insightful and largely unpretentious. They are short, simple, revealing of the human condition. Merton writes with sensitivity and freshness. Former US Poet Laureate Charles Simic said it best in the foreword, “…he knows what it’s like to be at the other end of the stick.”
Another thing I love about these poems is the way the ones with epigraphs interact with them. The poems literally speak to the epigraphs, often in humorous ways. Here’s a great, short example:
God does not play dice
Not, at least,
since that day in the garden
when He rolled snake-eyes.
Back to the women
Here is a full example, and the first poem in the book, also set in the garden:
The Original Sin: Adam’s Story
God saw that I was lonely.
He was right about that.
The rib thing, though–
consider the stars,
the beasts, fish,
birds, all that.
Don’t tell me he had nothing left.
What I saw
when I saw Eve–
her long hair, breasts,
the absence between her thighs
That was all right
until the business with the snake,
the rising of my desire.
I have read this poem now four times and re-typed it one time. I can’t not read the tone of blame in the last stanza: Eve was all right till she made me sin.
And maybe Merton’s intention is to draw attention to the absurdity of this social trope: the notion that all of men’s misbehavior can be attributed to women in some way.
But then there’s the poem, “All Hallow’s Eve,” in which Merton invokes both Joan of Arc and the witch who tried to eat Hansel and Gretel after the speaker “taste[s] his mother’s ashes.” How is it productive to compare any woman to a misunderstood (probably delusional) warrior and a cannibalistic witch? I want it to be productive.
So then, do I read this mother in this poem as Merton’s mother, so it is about one woman instead of all women? Or do I read her as any mother, which would be sensible considering the references to well-known historical and literary female figures? Do I interpret the reference to Joan of Arc as someone who was strong and impressive and unconfined by the cultural moment in which she lived (but then ultimately was when she burned as a sorceress and adulteress), and the reference to Hansel’s witch (Gretel’s apparently already been eaten) as something about hunger instead?
Now two things: These are five poems in sixty-some that it’s not even absolutely clear are overtly antithetical toward women as a group. And they are still good poems. In 1980, Merton wrote a book called, Enemies of Choice: Right-to-life Movement and Its Threat to Abortion. It’d be hard to mistake the thesis of that book. So clearly, Merton himself is fond of the notion of women as people with thoughts, ideas, choices, and rights.
But I think that the best poems offer multiple valid possibilities for interpretation, and I think the best poets are ready for questions like these. So, Andrew Merton, write on. I can’t wait to read your next book.