This familiarity with wrong meanings puzzles one
I hadn’t planned for this commentary to coincide with the Sussex Poetry Festival, the chief criterion in my dashed-off email to Jessica nearly a year ago being that I put it off until later. But here we are talking about irritation, and anyone who’s been involved in planning a poetry festival knows about that.
At Sussex our union is in a labor dispute with management over eroding real pay against increased workloads, the wage gap for women, and casualization (again: gendered). Basically, although no one has said this, it is a dispute over the “feminization of labor,” the fact that it is now considered not only okay but natural to treat all workers the way it was always considered natural to treat female workers (underpaid, precarious, competition-based, smile required).
We are working to rule (a bad strategy in the summer; we should do it during term-time when our research time is destroyed anyway) and there was some question as to whether we should hold the festival at all. American Studies voted to not staff our weekend university recruitment days as part of the work to rule; management came back and formally ordered us to do it, which they are allowed to do. So I guess, if I’m working to rule, the recruitment days are the thing I’m not doing while I’m doing the poetry festival, which takes place on the same two days.
I started keeping a time sheet when the industrial action started, and that’s where you really see the limits of your politics, isn’t it? I never “clock in” for time spent reproducing life. I scrupulously round down to the nearest tenth of the hour. “Schlepping down to the laundromat on Blatchington Road to wash linens so that a visiting poet can stay at my house” is not a category on my time sheet. I would do this anyway, I think, but would I be doing it today? I would hate for my very welcome guest to think of what I am doing as “work” even though she of all people would probably say that it is.
I am clocked in while I’m writing this, though.
In my last post, I demurred at the broad applicability of Marianne Moore’s line “I, too, dislike it.” I suggested that it was a positional refusal and an instance of what I’ve been describing as a celibate female irritation (which is determined not by identity but by rhetorical positioning). To be sure, it also invites the very uses to which Lerner puts the line in The Hatred of Poetry: doesn’t “I, too” suggest a gap bridged, the interface between self and other that, for Lerner, poetry always is? It invites identification, agreement. But who is the I and who is the you who, too, dislikes it?
This is the question that Mia You takes up in her new book from 1913 Press, I, Too, Dislike It, which explores the bitter conjunctures of academia, femininity, parenthood, and intellectual life. There’s a way that it’s explicitly a Why Women Still Can’t Have It All book, about a specific elite milieu, more or less Anne-Marie Slaughter’s milieu, evidenced in the women “who chase peas across heirloom dining ware” while bullshitting about U.S. foreign policy “with Stephen Greenblatt and Steven/ Pinker” in the sequence “Harvard Wives” (29). Plenty has been written about how misleading and narrow the “having it all” frame is, and I agree, but the Atlantic article really isn’t my point at all (much less You’s). Rather, “Why Women Can’t Have It All” is one very blunt transposition of the fantasy dialogue between utopian gift economy (poetry, in Lerner’s schema, a realm whose possibility is deeply undermined by the experience of domestic labor) and waged work under capitalism (represented, in Lerner’s schema, by poems). I, too? I who?
The poet’s very name—“Mia You,” me-and-you—is a near approximation for that “I, too,” that gesture of identification that seems so easy and is in the end so fraught. We may not be together in our disliking it. In the long sequence “Birth Story,” a midwife’s injunction to narrate a birth “so I could ‘sort out my feelings’” is an occasion to query the materials of narration, character and time (19). If the poem has a refrain, it is “I’m trying to think of when my birth story begins,” as the overly punctual “June 30, 2010, at 7 a.m.” becomes increasingly relative to a variety of temporal sequences relative to a due date, eating lunch, failure to induce, contractions, and parents proximate yet infinitely distant. The “my,” too, of “my birth story” is also relentlessly involved with the too of a fetus, of an unhelpful nurse, of many hands and needles and objects on and in the body of that “me”:
my son’s heartbeats monitored as I’m (we’re) fed Pitocin through an I.V. needle—the nurse, a new one, feeding me (us) apple juice through a straw—my husband again—the bed going up and down as I (we) accidentally hit the controls every time I (we) have a contraction—a series of young blonde doctors appearing between my (our) legs and feeling inside me (us)—the hospital staff asking for my (our) insurance information and realizing that my (our) wallet had been stolen—the jagged lines getting closer and closer together—the persistent regret of the roast beef sandwich—a burst of liquid as I (we) squat on a stool—the bed going up and down—the nurse, a brown-haired woman whose name I’ve (we’ve) now forgotten, stroking my (our) hair—a young blonde midwife named Iris suddenly appearing and telling me (us) to push—pushing and pushing and pushing and feeling like nothing is happening and then within seconds—a baby slides out of me (us) and I think—Oh, you are here. I brought you here. I did this— (25-26)
I, you. A joint venture, surely, me (us), an I (Mia You) who is me-and-you, but surely not an I, too.
This has everything to do with the subterranean elements in what Lerner calls the “hatred of poetry.” In her landmark essay “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion,” Barbara Johnson points out the difference between the way that poems by men and poems by women often imagine the relationship between writing and children.
While Keats writes, “When I have fears that I will cease to be”..., [Adrienne] Rich writes “and I have fears that you will cease to be. If poetry is at stake in both intimations of mortality, what is the significance of this shift from “I” to “you”? ... Death in the Keats poem is as much a source as it is a threat to writing. Hence, death, for Keats, could be called the mother of poetry while motherhood, for Rich, is precisely the death of poetry. ... Something unsettling has happened to the analogy often drawn by male poets between artistic creation and procreation. ... It is as though male writing were by nature procreative, while female writing is somehow by nature infanticidal. (36-38)
Holding aside the limitations of the isometry between gender and childbearing status that Johnson’s essay assumes, we see in this observation a whole other dimension to Lerner's “hatred of poetry,” which has as its concomitant not an investment in a utopian gift economy but rather the visceral need for poetry (“a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean” [Lorde 37]) in the face of endless labors, pun intended. (“What about the contractions I felt for weeks, months, every time I nursed, after that? What about the contractions I still feel now?” [You 20])
There’s a way that Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, soon to be reissued in Europe by the all too aptly-named Mute, could be called a book about the “hatred of poetry.” Certainly poetry’s inadequacy, even refusals to write, pepper the book; one poem is even called “Not Writing.” Other actions take writing’s place, even as each poem is a testament, in fact, to writing; “Sewing” begins, “Having given up literature, it was easy to become fixed on the idea of a single shirt, one with two pieces, no facings, not even set-in sleeves”; in “Bon pour brûler”— named for the legend that torch-bearing revolutionary women of the Commune reportedly placed on those Parisian things that they deemed worth destroying—tells the story of a girl in Rousseau’s Émile who learns precociously to write (25, 89-90). In Boyer’s counterinterpretation against Rousseau, the girl stops writing after seeing herself write in the mirror (I, too?), and “In the mirror was literature as a set of practical instructions, including this one: ‘Throw down the-pen-that-is-your-needle and refuse to write again’” (85).
In “Picking and Choosing,” Moore gives another of her classic protestations against Style: “The opaque allusion, the simulated flight upward,/ accomplishes nothing” (45). It moves us not. We are irritated; perhaps we are instructed by our own poetics to refuse to write again. “I knew I wouldn’t write. I wouldn’t read. I wouldn’t even watch Law and Order: SVU. I would lie on our sofa for months, nursing and staring out the window. I would miss my mother. I would weep hourly, daily,” You writes in “Birth Story.”
Is it because we dream all too ardently of a world to come, a world that is Poetry? Is it because we mark the objects that embody oppression bon pour brûler, and need no further word? Is it because the word is work too?
But I’ve gone on long enough; I’m clocking out.
Anne Boyer, Mia You, and many other fine poets will read at the Sussex Poetry Festival at the Hope & Ruin, Queen’s Road, Brighton this weekend.
Boyer, Anne. Garments Against Women. Boise: Ahsahta, 2015.
Cottom, Tressie McMillan. “Having It All Is Not a Feminist Theory of Change.” Signs 42.2 (Winter 2017).
Johnson, Barbara. “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion.” Diacritics 16.1 (April 1986): 29–47.
Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. London: Fitzcarraldo, 2016.
Lorde, Audre. “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007) 36-39.
Moore, Marianne. “Picking and Choosing,” in Complete Poems. New York: Penguin, 1994.
Power, Nina. One-Dimensional Woman. Winchester, UK: 0 [Zero] Books, 2009.
You, Mia. I, Too, Dislike It. USA: 1913 Press, 2016.
Image: Tom Lee, Weather Warning. CC NC-BY.