The Hottest Summer in Recorded History, Elizabeth Bachinsky. Harbour Publishing, 2013.
Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, Daisy Fried. University of Pittsburg Press, 2013.

Review by Lise Gaston

Elizabeth Bachinsky’s fifth trade collection of poetry, The Hottest Summer in Recorded History, and Daisy Fried’s third collection, Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, are acutely aware of their statuses as texts, and the complex relationships between author, speaker, and reader. Intensely personal, even confessional, yet with speakers that are by turns self-critical, ironic, and wry, these collections also critique the act of writing and categorical interpretations that readers perform.

The poems in The Hottest Summer in Recorded History are in almost perpetual motion. As the poems call forth specific and visceral memories of places and of people, the speaker is consistently in dialogue with where she was and where she is going: “I can see now that I was once quite feral. / Getting older was my education in becoming civilized” (11). Home is fluid, contained in other particulars: “A Vietnamese philologist did my nails in a place called nails / and I knew I had come home and would continue to do so” (75). When the speaker is stationary, she laments—“God, I’m BORED!” (58)—or looks ahead, though irony cuts into the apparent simplicity of description:

But in the evening, cool air curls through the narrows

and the traffic calms,

and lovers sit in one another’s arms

at Prospect Point and behold her. How we love

to look at what we keep and what we have.

When she comes down at last, the future comes.

With it, other lovers. Other charms. (29)

Bachinsky’s collection is described as “intimate” and “candid”—and these are poems of intimacy, of relationships, told with concrete, straight-forward language. Candid details couple with artful wordplay: “The first time / you licked my pussy, I was sure; the first time / you kissed my mouth, I wasn’t” (12). However, this intimacy is complicated by Bachinsky’s practice of dedication: many of the poems, especially the most seemingly personal, are dedicated to an individual. Sometimes that individual is implicitly addressed in the poem; in “At Moishe’s, Saint-Laurent, Montreal,” “For David McGimpsey,” the speaker says: “We always walk through / Mile End on a weeknight before supper and then you / and I go for steaks on Saint-Laurent” (25). Sometimes there is no second person, no implied presence. Alongside the pleasure given to poet and dedicatee by this act of homage or inspiration, what does this pattern do for the reader’s experience? It hints toward the poem’s origins perhaps—an inside joke, a story, a shared understanding. By gesturing toward an individual poetic impetus in her dedications, Bachinsky creates a strange duality: with an eye to their audience, the poems invite us into the story of their own making; however we are simultaneously made aware of a greater backstory, of moments we will always be excluded from. That Bachinsky deliberately develops this dichotomy, complicating our readings of the most apparently intimate works, is signaled by one of the book’s epigraphs, by Stephen Dunn:

 It’s why your silence is a kind of truth

even when you speak to your best friend,

the one who’ll never betray you,

you always leave out one thing;

a secret life is that important.

This kind of play between intimacy and exclusion is realized and commented on in poems such as “I Drop Your Names” and “Other Poets’ Houses,” where the speaker won’t open the hosts’ journals: “I don’t need to. You write books”—an ironic nod toward her own project, a book that reveals much while keeping some pages bound (23). With all these pieces for and about other poets, the act of writing is necessarily and continually addressed; sometimes an entire poem is concerned only with its own production, a similar turn inward as the dedications perform. Occasionally the commentary concerns language more generally: “Oh / that’s just poetry. You don’t mean words / on a page. You just need a word to describe / that thing that’s going on out on the water” (19). That unknowing, its varying levels of comfort and discomfort, also arises in the speaker’s process of becoming—she is moving, from place to place, from person to person, but sometimes when she stops it is to wonder: “Nine months earlier my phone must have whispered, / Get pregnant. Where was I walking then?” (67). The final poem in the collection, “Mere Anarchy, St. John’s Nfld.,” captures the themes of travelling, the production of poetry, and friendship—wryly, after all the dedications, “All I wanted / was all new friends” (75). This piece also returns to the couplet form of the first poem, though these lines are stretched, almost overrunning the margins—for despite the thematic encapsulation, the travelling is not yet done, the movement of speaker and form is still in propulsion: “Look out, b’y, the townies said. Look out!” (76).

If Bachinsky’s speaker gets a metaphysical phone call to her body to be pregnant, Fried’s opening poem in Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, “Torment,” begins with the physical (and mental) reality: “Fatigue, swollen ankles, the midwife said. / The worst discomforts of pregnancy. / I wrote those down. But she’s wrong: self-pity” (3). In this poem, the pregnant, job-searching, poetry teacher compares her physical and emotional trials with those of her wealthy, job-searching students, “responsible children” (3) chasing a materialistic American dream and failing in their own privileged way. This poem, which begins: “‘I fucked up bad’” (3), ends:

 I don’t know how to end this poem. On “Torment”

I wrote: “You may want to find a way to suggest

ironic distance between the poet and speaker.”

I couldn’t figure out what else,

to responsible children, there was to say. (9)

This advice is of course itself ironic, as the speaker is closely and continually identified with the poet (she is named Daisy in this poem), a pattern continued from Fried’s two previous collections, She Didn’t Mean to Do It and My Brother is Getting Arrested Again. In the lyric narrative mode, which Fried writes in, this conflation of speaker and poet is standard practice, but here the poet/speaker’s self-conscious advice highlights, as does Bachinsky’s collection, these interpretive assumptions we hold.

For Fried the personal also continuously collides with public questions of politics, gender, and writing. Like in Bachinsky’s work, the ideas behind the poems are often made visible, but gesture less toward the initial impetus or inside joke, and more toward the reader or critic, catching us in our habits of reading. These poems are topical, engaging headlong with the political moment—or rather, the speaker’s experience of that moment. In this way Fried follows Cixous’s famous demand of “women’s writing,” that “Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.”[1]

For, of course, the book’s title instantly asks a host of predictable questions—what is “Women’s Poetry”? Who defines it? Does it exist? If it does, is this book it?  The titular poem, characteristically personal, descriptive, both seemingly incongruous and delightfully on point, contains a response:

 Women’s Poetry

I, too, dislike it.

However,

I was trying not to think

when out of the gaping wound

of the car-detailing garage (smells like metallic sex)

came a Nissan GT-R fitted with an oversized spoiler.

Backing out sounded like clearing the throat of god.

A gold snake zizzed around the license plate.

Sunburst hubcaps, fancy undercarriage installation

casting a pool of violet light on the pocked pavement

of gum blots. Was it this that filled me with desire? (13)

Taking up the famous first line of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” Fried then combines the stereotypically female imagery of the “gaping wound” with traditionally masculine automobile showmanship. And, to further complicate things, what do we make of these lines in the last poem of the book, “Attenti Agli Zingari”:

 First draft title: “On Listening for the First Time

to a €185,000 Ferrari Stopped by a Fascist Demonstration,”

couldn’t make it work. One line worth saving:

“Backing out sounded like clearing the throat of god.” (55)

Which poem draft is Fried referring to—and what happens when we make the interpretative choice? What is striking is that the political and material specificity of this long-winded, supposedly discarded title is precisely what is lacking from the loaded generic term “Women’s Poetry.” However, this line of inquiry, if we go back to the long version of “Poetry” published by Moore, is exactly beside the point: “things are important not because a // high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them / but because they are / useful.”[2]

Fried’s poems also engage with their own composition, and their own forms. The poem “Lyric” is all nature poetry made artificial, set in the “World’s Foremost Outdoor Outfitter,” “Inside, a fake mountain rising far up to the ceiling”: “Everything // wood-grained plastic except oxblood walnut gunstocks ensconced on racks” (24). But then again, why can’t the lyric, this self-conscious, constructed form, exist within and through a self-conscious, constructed (and destructive) “natural” world? The ending of the poem, however, takes us even further aside, presenting the final uplifting note not through a predicable return to “real” nature, and not even to the constructed nature, but to an object that does not attempt to disguise itself as anything other than mechanical conveyance: “Escalator inexorable beside the mountain whirs its upward always upward song” (25).

The final section is the “Advice” of the collection: “Ask the Poetess: An Advice Column.” It deftly serves up and takes down gendered divisions of writing, definitions of poetry, and—hilariously, for this graduate student—creative writing program tropes: “I feel compelled to write poems attacking the linguistic hegemony of the bourgeois ruling class, sometimes using Google searches to generate strings of jargon and nonsense. Help! What should I do?” / “I feel tempted to write first-person poems about my childhood memories of my grandmother, a marvelous woman of ropey hands and gnarly wisdom. Help! What should I do?” (63-4) (The Poetess’s advice to both questions is to return to school and try to flunk out.) The main effect of this section seems to be the breaking down of these dichotomies, including the advice-seeker/responder pattern of the conventional advice column—through Fried has done this work, and threaded advice for writing, thinking, and listening, throughout the collection: “There are too many / stars in poems you have to get drunk to write” (14).

_______

Lise Gaston writes poetry, essays, and reviews. She is a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and lives in Oakland, California.

 


[1] Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs 1.4 (1976). 875-93.

[2] Moore, Marianne. “Poetry.” Others for 1919. Ed. Alred Kreymbog. New York: Nicholas L. Brown, 1920.

 

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