Friday, September 21, 2007

May Swenson's Iconographs and Rachel Blau DuPlessis' meditations on feminist poetry

Absence is as powerful as presence. What is silent is as powerful as what is spoken. The white space in a poem, what printers call the negative space, is as important as the text.

In some ways I recoil from those aphorisms. There is something viscerally negative for me about absence, silence, negative space being important. I don’t want to reify that which is not included, that which is omitted, that which is written over. I don’t absence, silence, or negative space to speak for me. Perhaps because for too long it has.

I was thinking about this while reading Swenson’s poems in Iconographs because it is exactly that white space that she is using to speak for the poems. It is the white space that Swenson wants the eye to apprehend and “have material and mold evolve together and become a symbiotic whole.” One one hand, I am very sympathetic to this project. I feel like it unites the notions of form and feeling in poetry. In Iconographs, in some places Swenson’s vision works effectively and proves the truth of the aphorisms above. In particular, I find “The DNA Molecule,” “The Power House,” and “A Subject of The Waves“ to all be effective project. Yet, that doesn’t stop me from asking what are the feminist implications of that. If a poem accomplishes its meaning through what is left out - through an open space that is created, isn’t that in some ways antithetical to the sort of feminism that I believe in? The feminism that speaks (that being a significant word) truth to power? The feminism that works to make visible women’s lives and stories? The feminism that advocates equity? Is writing poems that rely on the eye noting the absence, the visual silence, and then taking meaning from that silence an effective feminist message?

I think that it is, or more accurately, I think that it was at the time that Swenson published the Iconographs. In some ways, these poems make visible the absence, which metaphorically works throughout this text as a symbol for women, and in the absence (read women) comes the meaning. Swenson is textually showing us how to apprehend her poems with a political message in the exact form and meaning.

Yet, I’m reticent to endorse this reading carte blanche because of the unresolved questions that Swenson presents us with about feminism in some of the poems. I’m cognizant in writing this that Iconographs was published in 1970 and presumably most of the poems were written during the early and mid-1960s. This timeline, read against DuPlessis’ narrative of her home feminist consciousness development in ”Reader, I Married Me“ or against any other second wave feminist narrative, means that Swenson in raising the issue of gender as a lens through which to see the world was synchronous with much of what was happening in the world around her. In spite of this, her observations, even her epiphanies, are not particularly profound from a feminist perspective - I would argue either in that historical moment or at the present.

Consider her poem, ”Women.“ This iconograph begins, ”Women should be pedestals moving pedestals moving to the motion of men.“ This poem is heavily reliant upon an ironic reading of Swenson’s assertions about women, which I think we can assume that her readers at the time understood. The physical set up of the poem on the page combined with the metaphor of women as rocking horses brings a profound physical understanding of the impact of sexism on Swenson and on her readers. Yet, despite this ironized reading of the poem and the painful reading that it requires, I wonder if it isn’t almost too precious and avoiding the real and palpable anger of women at the time. I wonder if Swenson’s treatment of women in the poem, which is directly in the text of the poem combined with the visual capturing of the rocking horse actually works to undercut the beliefs that Swenson is stating in the poem. I’m not sure. I’m not sure that I read this poem as a feminist poem. Again, the use of irony makes what is unspoken the powerful. That continues to sit in an uneasy way for me.

Another poem that I find troubling is ”Orbiter 5 shows how earth looks from the moon.“ In this poem, Swenson begins, ”There’s a woman in the earth, sitting on her heels.“ Swenson goes on to describe the earth as seen from the moon. She concludes with these to lines: ”A woman in the earth. A man in the moon.“ The woman in this line is the physical representation of a woman on the planet earth as seen from the moon. The man is an actual man visiting the moon. I think that Swenson does a brilliant critique here of the association of women with the natural world and that those final two lines just drip with irony. I also think that the arrangement of this poem as an iconograph is interesting. The seven lines face to the north east quadrant of the page as if pointing up to the sky. The seventh line separates and the eighth through twelfth lines while angled are approaching more of what we might perceive as the ”earth“ of the page. Those final two lines sit on the page as regular text as though they are grounded by some truthfulness about the earth while the others swirl in an outer orbit along with Orbiter 5. Yet something discomforts me about this poem. I guess I just don’t find the irony of the conclusion strong enough. And I think I am concerned that Swenson relies on irony to reach feminist conclusions.

This makes me in many ways more interested in Swenson. DuPlessis writes about not only the ”feminism of production“ (p. 65), but also the ”feminism of reception.“ How was Swenson received when working? How do I receive her now?

In spite of my dis-ease about some of Swenson’s work with a feminist lens, I also don’t want to paint an analysis in which Swenson is outside. I don’t want to label at this time the process of Swenson’s poetic practice as suspect - or not feminist. I don’t want to do that because I clearly thing that Swenson is an ally in all of this. A poet who is a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, in her own way. I don’t want to suggest that her work is outside of that. I am, however, strugling with it.

I return again and again to the philosophical question of what does it mean to create meaning from absence? Silence? Negative space? Can I resurrect that as a feminist possibility? I’m not sure that I can but I can understand that it is a practice emanating from patriarchy. That when presence and words and text is controlled by men, women must look to control the opposite and use that as the means to assert themselves. That perhaps is the liberatory reading of Swenson’s iconographs.

How can DuPlessis help with this? She writes,

It seemed that one needed, as a feminist, to invent an endless number of forms, structures, and linguistic ruptures that would cut way beyond lang-business-as-usual and narrative-business-as-usual, which always seemed to end up with “the same” kind of binary, “patriarchal” normalcy. Experimental writing of all sorts had always been crucial to the feminine project of cultural change: of revolution, not revision. . . . Writing cannot make these changes alone; but writing exerts a continuous destabilizing pressure and, in both analytic and formal ways, creates an arousal of desire for difference, for hope. If consciousness must change, if social forms must be reimagined, then language and textual structures must help cause and support, propel and discover these changes. So the essay aims at the decolonization of mind by the analysis of the deepest of embedded structures: gender. (Blue Studies, p. 28.)

I think that DuPlessis would read Swenson’s iconographs as a new structure and therefore feminist in its process and it’s practice. As I’ve said. I’m struggling with that.

There are a number of other elements of Duplessis that I respond to thoughtfully, but there are only two others I’ll bring up in this now long response. The first with regard to Swenson is, how do I, or perhaps do I, read Swenson as a lesbian poet? I think that much of what DuPlessis writes in “Blue Studios” could be transmogrified into a reading of a lesbian poetics. Does Swenson, who Maxine Kumin writes in the introduction to The Complete Love Poems of May Swenson, “even after the social acceptance of homosexuality, Swenson, like her friend Elizabeth Bishop, maintained her distance from woman-identified poetry,” count as a lesbian poet? Clearly from both the biographical facts of her life - and from her work (see especially Trellis for R in Iconographs) Swenson was a lesbian, but how does that relate to a lesbian poetic? This is a question I’m keenly interested in about Swenson - and Bishop for that matter.

I was also fascinated by DuPlessis’ notion of “social philology” (p. 33) and by her reference to her own intertextual relationship wtih H.D.’s Helen in Egypt and the way she presents intertextuality on page 27, “Rhetorically ”For the Etruscans“ mingles manifesto, analysis, intercuts of material from that workshop, letters to friends, the fluid form of talking and a sense of audience--the enormously excited and participatory group of women for whom, to whom, from whom I was speaking.” This fascinates me because I think it characterizes much feminist poetry from the 19790s through the mid 1980s and while it is intertextual, I also think that it is more than that - perhaps interlocutional? I think that this characterization is important in considering both the production and reception of feminist poetry.

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