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Feminist Literature: A New Frontier


ISSUE:  Spring 1984
Extended Outlooks: The Iowa Review Collection of Contemporary Women Writers. Edited by Jane Cooper et al. Macmillan. $17.95 cloth, $9.95 paper.

In the spring of 1981, the Iowa Review published an omnibus issue of women’s poems, stories, and critical essays. Jane Cooper, Gwen Head, Adelaide Morris, and Marcia Southwick edited the issue, and they have written an introduction for its appearance as a book, published by Macmillan as Extended Outlooks. They describe their desire to be as representative as possible, to include “academic women, Black and Third World women, lesbian women, politically committed women, women committed to an aesthetic vision . . .to print writers who, at this stage in the Women’s Movement, ordinarily publish in different places, along with some who have hardly yet published at all.” The 90-odd writers collected in Extended Outlooks provide as many shades of what might be called womanly feeling, yet they also share some elusive community of experience or emotion. In “Letters from Three Women,” the poet Wendy Battin says, “The ocean is a mind with a tune running through it.” She is referring to the “humpbacks, who pass/ their songs from ocean to ocean/ in intricate barter,” but it could also stand as a metaphor for the way these poems, stories, and essays seem to exist in awareness of each other. Though the contributors did their work alone in places as disparate as the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference and Bombay, India, all of these artists are enjoying the freedoms and exploring the insights that have come in the wake of the resurgence of feminism.

The authors are arranged alphabetically, so that Margaret Atwood, Olga Broumas, and Carolyn Forché are all democratically tumbled in together with Martha Boethel, Kathy Engel, and Kendra Kopelke. Eve Triem and Ruth Stone, two living poets, have poems as well as appreciative critical essays by other writers about their work in Extended Outlooks. In her piece about Ruth Stone, Sandra M. Gilbert articulates part of the credo at work among these women. “If we are feminist critics, we must find and cherish these “lost” artists even while we honor those who live more publicly successful lives. . . . At the same time, however, we must also remember that Ruth and the other women writers she represents don’t need us the way we need them. . . . To herself, we must remember, Ruth has never been lost. If we have not yet found the meaning of her life and work, perhaps that is because it is we who are sometimes in danger of losing our way.”

These are remarkably tender words for a critic, ones that draw their power from the humane values which some feminists are trying to restore to the act of criticism. Adelaide Morris, for instance, has chosen to write about the nature of H.D.’s vision in “Helios and Athene,” a previously unpublished poem which is also included in the anthology. Implied in Morris’s choice is a preference for a subject with positive strengths; the critic’s insight into the poet is itself an instruction about art as a source of hope and, again implicitly, about the need for hope in our devastated, devastating world.

Not surprisingly, women’s rediscovery of each other in recent years has led to a revaluing of motherhood and the ties between women and their daughters. The twin effect of this in terms of historical models and the recentering of women’s consciousness has only begun to be explored, though Extended Outlooks offers poems about Queen Boadicea, Dr. Lord-Heinstein, (an English gynecologist), and Alice James—all conceived as heroines who had to pay a price for being admirable. As the epitaph for her poem, “Queen Charming,” Pamela White Hadas quotes the line from Virginia Woolf that is frequently used to describe how and why Women’s Studies scholars are redrawing the map of literature and influence: “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.”

In fact, the number of poems and stories about personal mothers outweighs those to historical ones in this collection, and in their variety they recapitulate some recent feminist issues. To begin with, there is Sandra Gilbert’s poem “The Love Sequence,” which seems downright old-fashioned according to the clock set ticking by Mad Woman in the Attic, the extraordinary book about women writers which she wrote with Susan Gubar. More than Second Sex or Sexual Politics, Mad Woman in the Attic is the book that defines for women writers “the damned old nausea/ of desire, the ague that shakes the last right angle/ of reason from your bones/ and turns the world to terrible metaphors for passion.” These lines from “The Love Sequence” are reminders of the conflicts—between self and passion, and art (which passion leads to) and self—that were at the front of feminist awareness 15 to 20 years ago. “Hate is the cure. Dislike. Contempt. Rage. Hate.”

One thinks of Sylvia Plath, though her answer was finally more violent and more sterile. For Gilbert, the hatred is bracing, “at last you can stand up for yourself/ you’ve become a natural marvel, a beautiful pink nettle./ Even your mother would scream/ if she touched you.” This reference to the mother who loves us willy-nilly is the lone echo in Extended Outlooks of that old, consoling notion; it is, after all, a notion dependent on a person who is fixed in the social order with no other drawing card except her (alleged) unconditional love. Many of the poems in Extended Outlooks either criticize that fixture, or deal with painful memories associated with a mother’s immobility, or try to cope with mothers who have actually expressed themselves in marriage and divorce.

Sometimes the mother’s life evokes a mournful sense of the world’s limitations, as in Shirley Kaufman’s lines from “Claims,” “Show in winter, / pillows of goose down/ where my mother still walked on the underside of sorrow. . . .” Sometimes there is anger at the mother for being smothering or trivial as in Marlene Leamon’s “Upstairs.” “Why do you always live upstairs? she asks, showing the same/ mother’s care she always has.” In this poem, the poet’s anger also has to do with rage against her mother as an obstacle between her and her father.

There once was a man on a hill, someone who relished views. He is the man I most clearly resemble, our eyes the same steely blue, our heartbeats irregular. She tells me of his love of reduction, how he would squint in the scope of his gun, lining up hearts and brains.

Elsewhere, in poems about parents who are divorced, a whole new harvest of feelings is being reaped. Some of the writers are melancholy about the whole marital enterprise, as in Marcia South wick’s “Doors Opening Here, and There”: “Noticed the apparent closeness of a couple/ walking down the rainy street, / just beyond the trimmed hedges./ Then realized the rain was responsible.” Some of the narrators bear a more tender witness. Lynn Emmanuel has two poems, “The Sleeping”—about her parents’ wedding night—and “Silence. She is Six Years Old”—about visiting her father (at his mother’s) after her parents are divorced. In these touching poems, the poet shows as much affection for their happiness as for their suffering. In “The Sleeping,” she writes, “I have imagined all this:/ In 1940 my parents were in love/ and living in the loft on West 10th/ above Mark Rothko who painted cabbage roses/ on the bedroom walls the night they got married.” Later, when the child pretends to be asleep at her grandmother’s, her father comes into the room, “and he lifts her up and whispers his wife’s name—/ Rachel, Rachel/ and he takes her hand, small with its clean nails, / and he puts it to the dark:/ Oh Rae, Oh Rachel, he says. . . .”

Emmanuel belongs to a younger generation than Southwick, one that has come of age in the wake of earlier furies. Perhaps Emmanuel’s mother and her fellow rebels stomped out of the house with The Feminine Mystique under their arms. If so, their daughters are sweeter people for it, and have not been kept from loving men by observing their mothers’ experience. In “My Father’s Cabin,” by Kathy Engel, the poet recalls “all the mornings as a child/ when I walked in my socks/ straight to the telephone before breakfast/ before anything/ to place a collect call/ just to hear his voice—/ “Kath, how are you Kath?”/just to hear the pause,” Waiting for her own silence suggests the child’s desire for revenge on the father who’s deserted; but the poem is about a visit to this man by an adult woman who has forgiven him and is not afraid of life. “This late September night in my 22nd year/ my father and his wife are sleeping in the other room, / my love sleeps here on the floor in his sleeping bag/ and I see again/ soon it will be light out.”

In “The Gaudenza,” Gwen Head is writing from the point of view of the young parent imposing divorce on her child. The narrator is without a name except “Mommy,” which is how her daughter, Abby; addresses her, and she is unable to make a new relationship after the breakup of her marriage. Though the plot turns on the death of a little boy, a friend of Abby’s, its meaning lies in the way that the mother and daughter are brought together by their parallel sorrows. Their roles as mother and daughter are their only human functions; they are literally all each other has in the world. “Then she knew that their road would never end, nor would either of them ever again find the words, for what soared tirelessly, watched sleeplessly over them both, their guardian and doom, invisible, radiant with loss.”

In the realm of politics, Extended Outlooks gives the reader new contrasts to consider both in the poems themselves and in the comparisons between the kinds of subjects the poets choose to treat. There is a group of extremely moving poems by Carolyn Forché about her involvement in the politics of Belgrade and El Salvador. Though we are aware of the contrast between her as an American and the people she observes, the power of her emotion grants her human admission to these foreign events. By comparison, “Madeline’s Dreads” by Alexis DeVeaux is a poem about staying home and being wired by and to the world anyway. Written as though in imitation of the heroine’s nerves, it weaves the inescapable relation between the horrors of the world and our own backyard. “Madeline’s dreads/ are full of uprisings in Haiti/ and Mississippi/ and Brooklyn.”

Sharon Olds has five poems in Extended Outlooks, several of them based on political events. She writes with shocking intelligence about a “Pilot Captured by the Japanese, 1942,” “History: 13,” and “The Takers.” By shocking, I mean, “Hitler entered Paris the way my/ sister entered my room at night, / sat astride me, squeezed me with her knees, / held her thumbnails to the skin of my wrists and/ peed on me, knowing mother would never believe my story.” In truth, it is the events which are shocking, and Olds, by her intelligent rendering of the facts, reveals this. Maxine Hong Kingston shares this quality in her poems “Restaurant” and “Absorption of Rock,” and so, to some extent, does Jane Shore in her rather more emotional “Basic Training” and “High Holy Days.” By contrast, Margaret Atwood, June Jordan, and Sara Miles write out of sorrow or anger for the conditions of the oppressed.

Yet these writers are working closer to a tradition than those writing about lesbianism. The selection in Extended Outlooks shows how the literary freedom around this subject has allowed for some documentation of the inner life on this front. Stories by Becky Birtha (“Johnnieruth”), Lois Elaine Griffith (“Places”), and Monica Raymond (“The Thread”) are all directly or indirectly about women choosing women as lovers, not out of sexual compulsion (though there’s some of that in “Places”) but out of emotional preference. The exploration of lesbianism, however, has also led to the opening of an unforeseen frontier: the antagonism women experience among themselves.

In “A Poem for Women in Rage,” Audre Lord envisions a black woman barely kept from murdering a white woman by the arrival of her white (lesbian) lover. The poem works a series of changes on the pressure of fury versus the threat of love, a conflict which has special resonance when voiced by a black woman. “Gears of ancient nightmare churn/ swift in familiar dread and silence/ but this time I am awake, released/ I smile. Now. This time is/ my turn.” As the narrator of the poem reaches for the knife, her impulse is restrained by the sound of her lover calling from across the street. “A voice of pain or fury/ slashing across judgement like a crimson scar/1 could open her up to my anger/ with a point sharpened upon love.”

One of the earliest targets of feminist outrage was the notion of women as too rivalrous and bitchy to have real friendships (let alone love affairs). The feminists saw this notion as an offshoot of male domination, another branch of the tyranny that sought to divide women and so keep them enslaved. Among feminists, the original attraction to lesbianism was filled with Utopian longing. In part, this seemed to arise from a sense that women’s love for each other was suppressed because it was so threatening to the power structure. In part, the utopianism was possible because the territory was strange. Having been through this phase, a natural realism has followed, admitting to the difficulties between women as in all human relationships. This is not a return to Scarlett O’Hara and Clare Booth Luce. It is the working through, historically, of a change in sensibility so that the resurfacing of familiar conflict is necessarily transformed by the new context.

Adrienne Rich, who played a large role in the celebration of lesbian love (in her extraordinary Twenty-One Love Poems), has three poems in Extended Outlooks that reveal her in a revisionist mood. In her poem “For Ethel Rosenberg,” she writes of the other woman’s execution as the background against which she married. The poet identifies with the traitor, though Rich cannot face this until after her own marriage has dissolved, after she has tested “the ranges of disloyalty” for herself. Some of Rich’s claims for Ethel Rosenberg are a study in what can be infuriating about this poet’s dogmatism: “that wife and mother/ like so many/ who seemed to get nothing out of any of it/ except her children.” In her attraction to Ethel Rosenberg and her desire to merge the public and private experience, Rich has here obliterated the historical record which shows that Ethel was passionately involved with her husband. Though Rich is unwilling or unable to admit this, the poem confronts other of her prejudices.

The poem narrates Ethel’s descent into the poet’s consciousness, how she dwells there for years, “so painful so unfathomable,” “unabsorbed/ first as part of that dead couple.” “Then slowly severing drifting apart/ a separate death a life unto itself.” Rich’s mastery becomes evident as she renders Ethel’s life both as a distinct image and as a mirror to her own. The poet has also been part of a “dead couple” (an unhappy marriage); after “drifting apart,” her marriage also ended in “a separate death”—her husband’s suicide. As Rich becomes “a life unto itself,” so Ethel slowly emerges as an individual in the poet’s mind. This process culminates in a sort of psychic showdown between the poet and her long preoccupation with Ethel Rosenberg, a showdown which finally is between the poet and herself.

Since if I imagine her at all
I have to imagine first
the pain inflicted on her by women. . .

if I dare imagine her surviving
I must be fair to what she must have lived through
I must allow her to be at last

political in her ways not in mine
her urgencies perhaps impervious to mine
defining revolution as she defines it

Rich, the ideologue, has been tempered by Rich, the human being. This seems like a new stage in her thinking; though she has always been honest, there was a period when she (honestly)-felt-the sisterhood of women was necessarily lesbian and had a punishing attitude toward those who did not agree.

A number of the writers have poems about art in Extended Outlooks: Sarah Appleton, Joan Gibbs, Cynthia Macdonald, Honor Moore, Gerda S. Norvig, Monica Raymond, Roberta Spear, May Stevens, Ruth Stone, Pamela Stewart, Stephanie Strickland. Among these poems, there are signs of similarity, if not in imagery, than in the sort of starting-all-over-from-the-truthspirit expressed this way by Raymond in “self-criticism”:

it was a mistake to pretend that
we were on intimate terms
with wildlife

and fling words
like scarlet tanager
into our poems

At the same time, there are artists, among them the poet Jane Cooper, who stand alone in the styles they have evolved in the expanding choices in our cultural supermarket. Cooper has contributed a story, “The Children’s Ward,” to the anthology. Written in a pure style, each word seems to have been measured for its place in the sentence. Cooper s prose is clear and gentle, shocking and swift. In her story, a little girl nearly dies of an unnamed intestinal illness; her family hires an Irish nanny to take care of her, and the child’s awareness of her pain and mortality are woven through her feelings about sharing the hopes and prayers of her nanny’s Catholicism. The story takes place in the Depression, but the author’s sensibility seems informed by an intense modernist aestheticism, a view of the artist as taking holy orders. And yet this artist dwells in the physical world we know, one including “farts” and masturbation, even while she is reaching for the timeless realm of the child’s matter-of-fact evaluation of life and death.

Cooper’s eclecticism bears her own somewhat aristocratic stamp. Most of the other writers are eclectic, too, though a look through the list of contributors will show many of them combining wilder ingredients in their styles. “Akhua Lezli Hope is a native New Yorker and a member of the Steering Committee of the Black Writers Union. Her work has appeared in Ordinary Women, Keeping the Faith, Black Scholar and small-press publications. She has a yet-to-be published manuscript, The Prize is the Journey, and seeks the evolution of a mythopoeic system which clarifies, educates, and inspires necessary change.” “Gerda S. Norvig teaches literature, moonlights occasionally as a poetry therapist, and has written a book on Blake to be published by the University of California Press. Her poems have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Response, Coast2Coast, and, most recently, Voices within the Art: the Modern Jewish Poets.” “Nellie Wong is a socialist feminist activist poet employed as a secretary. Her collection of poems, Dreams in Harrisson Railroad Park, was published in 1977, 1978, and 1981 by Kelsey Street Press, Berkeley, CA. She has contributed to many feminist, Third World and Asian-American journals and magazines.”

The flair these women exhibit in their resumes is part of the fun associated with what they are doing: kicking over the traces and seeing what’s there when the traces are gone, cleaning out the attic, exploring places no one’s ever been before. And, hardback publication allows us to reread the contents of this Iowa Review, a small magazine that brings so much feminine effort and intelligence to the surface. For those familiar with this special issue of the journal, Extended Outlooks is an encore in a permanent form, and, for anyone interested in the varieties of feminism, it’s an education.

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