Sunday, January 06, 2008

Mr. Williams, There is a Lesbian in the Middle of your Poem.

Last fall I had the pleasure of reading Paterson by William Carlos Williams. I’ve written earlier about some passages in Paterson from the letters of Marcia Nardi to WCW. I continue to think about Nardi and how she works in this text, but I also want to think about and write about the lesbians in Paterson.

The first passage that I’ll write about is from Paterson V in the second section. Here it is in its entirety.

There is a woman in our town
walks rapidly, flat bellied

in worn slacks upon the street
where I saw her.

        Neither short
nor tall, nor old nor young
face would attract no

adolescent. Grey eyes looked
straight before her.
was gathered simply behind the
ears under a shapeless hat.

        hips were narrow, her
thin and straight. She stopped

me in my tracks--until I saw
        disappear in the crowd.

An inconspicuous decoration
made of sombre cloth, meant
I think to be a flower, was
pinned flat to her

breast--any woman might have
done the same to
say she was a woman and warn
us of her mood. Otherwise

she was dressed in male attire,
as much as to say to hell

with you. Her
                        express was
serious, her
                feet were small.

And she was gone!

.        if ever I see you again
as I have sought you
daily without success

I’ll speak to you, alas
too late! ask,
What are you doing on the

streets of Paterson? a
thousand questions:
Are you married? Have you any

children? And, most important,
your NAME! which
of course she may not

give me--though
I cannot conceive it
in such a lonely and

intelligent woman

When I read this passage, I was incredulous to find this lesbian. First, I suppose I should explain why I think she is a lesbian because while it seems completely evident to me, I’ve found that some don’t see the lesbians in literature as immediately as I. Williams begins by rooting that there is a woman in the town of Paterson who “walks rapidly,” by this he means she is a woman of purpose and a woman with intention and places to be. She is also “flat bellied” and wears “slacks upon the street.” Paterson V was published in 1958 and at the time that it was written, it would have been less usual than today for a woman to be wearing pants. Yet, many lesbians in talking about the 1950s describe wearing pants in public. So I see that as the first sign that the woman is a lesbian.

The next passage, through the line “disappear in the crowd” is further explication of the woman’s appearance. What I find striking about the description is both the ordinariness and plainness of the woman. She has “grey eyes” and gathers her hair “simply behind the/ears.” There is nothing of particular note in many ways about the woman. She is a woman that I might see out at a lesbian bar at any time. Yet, Williams says, “she stopped me in my tracks.” Why was she so unusual to Williams? Why would he not have conveyed rather than her physical description the charisma that she had that drew him to her?

Part of the answer to these questions comes in the next section in which Williams describes the flower that this woman has “pinned flat to her/right/breast.” The flower is a symbol of both the woman’s gender and of her sexuality. By that I mean that the flower, “an inconspicuous decoration” “meant/I think to be a flower,” marks both the woman’s gender as “[o]therwise//she was dressed in male attire” as well as being a symbol for women’s sex organs. Combined these series of facts mark her as a lesbian.

What I especially love, of course, is the next line, after the “male attire” is that the purpose of this clothing is “to say to hell//with you.” I admire both her plain clothedness and the intention behind it.

Like most lesbians prior to the lesbian and gay liberation movement of the last part of the twentieth century, however, she is a spectral lesbian. That is she is present for a moment in the poem and then “she was gone!”

Williams asserts that if he sees her again, he will speak with her. While up to that point, I had some sympathy with him as the narrator in Paterson (though my relationship as a reader with Williams is conflicted even on the best days), it is at this point that I lose some of my sympathy and respect for him. The series of his questions is suspect and indicates the sexism that I think is implicit in this poem. Yes, Williams grapples with his sexism and is looking to understand relationships between men and women, but still I find him suspect. HIs first question is “What are you doing on the/streets of Paterson?” I imagine the lesbian responding, “Living, what are you doing?” He then asks,“ Are you married?” and “Have you any//children?” As though this lesbian he has clearly identified could be married, living as consciously and openly as she does. It is only in the fourth question that Williams gets to asking her “NAME!” This woman, like other women in the book, is a flat character not meant to be named or explored as a real person, but as a rube for Williams’ art. Perhaps I am being unkind when I say, by the end, I imagine my lesbian chuckling at Williams. She will not tell him her name and he will never know, that truly, she is not lonely. We might both ask Williams, if we were to speak to him, “Have you read anything that we have written?”

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