On Dorothea Lange’s Photograph ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936)
(to my Aunt Nora)
Remembering your face, I saw it here,
Eyes weary, unexpectant, unresigned.
Not wise, but self-composed and self-contained,
And not self-pitying, you knew when to give
And when to take, and waiting, not despair.
During bitter years, when fear and anger broke
Men without work or property to shadows
(My childhood world), you, like this living woman
Endured, keeping your small space fresh and kind.172
The woman in Lange’s photograph is Florence Owens Thompson, a migrant agricultural worker, prematurely aged at 32, who reminded Pinkerton of her aunt’s stoicism. The poem’s subject matter appears to be threefold: the relationship between the female sitter and female photographer, public and private spheres and the ennoblement of the seemingly lowly task of ‘keeping a small space fresh and kind’. The
first two categories are interlinked by power dynamics, and the morality of capturing images or, indeed, of writing poems in response to portraits or photographs of the poor oppressed, when we, as visual artists and writers, are not. It is, perhaps, unlikely that the sitter’s opinion on either her photograph’s composition or its publication were sought. In linking her aunt with the sitter, Pinkerton gives the poem an instructive element which pushes ekphrasis into questioning and self-questioning.
Finch’s appendix describes this poem as blank verse. Whilst to my eye and ear, there appear to be certain irregularities, Pinkerton’s testament to ‘never abandoning [standard English metre] for variations in accentual or syllabic meters’ may yet be valid. On the one hand, it is possible that American speakers do not use the same stress patterns, naturally switching from iambs to trochees. Conversely, it might be that in opting for less rigid stress patterning, her questioning is conveyed less strictly, thereby self-presenting as a formally adept poet with a quiet social conscience. The poem is quite devoid of Woolf’s ‘loudspeaker strain’.
The present poet’s response adheres to the ‘tyranny of the iambic pentameter’, and follows Pinkerton’s nine-line stanzaic format in its exploration of another visual representation of a working-class woman.
Lines on Charley Toorop’s Portrait of a Working-Class Woman (1943)
‘They think they know me best, who know me least.
This English poet, writing of me now,
and only born in 1943,
has given me blank verse, because, she thinks,
it ‘captures best my blank expression.’ Has
she seen what I have seen? Art critics, too,
I’m oversized – is my perspective wrong
for such a subject? Have they lived my life?
She claims to know me least, who knows me best,
this artist, who ennobles my Van Gogh
Potato Pickers’ type of bulbous nose
and gnarled arthritic fingers (painted bronze).
She’s covered half of my left hand to make
the viewer ask the question ‘Why?’ No ring?
No fingers even? Mangled? Did I work
on dams or drains? What am I doing here
out-staring attics, skeletons of roofs?
What do I see or … do I see at all?’
This poem attempts, like Toorop’s portrait, to encourage the reader to look beneath the surface. The subject is given a strictly measured voice with which to treat art critics (the poet included) with contempt, and conversely, with which to praise Toorop’s thought-provoking portrait. ‘Thought-provoking’, because by keeping something hidden, Toorop turns visual art into veiled interrogation.
The final two poems in response to that of Pinkerton follow organically. There is a striking resemblance between the facial expressions of Florence Owens Thompson and Allie May Burroughs, the subject of Walker Evans’s ‘social realism’ photograph (1936).173 The Farm Security Commission appointed Walker Evans to document the effects of the Great Depression. The photograph of Allie May, in Walker-Evans’s best-selling Let Us Now Praise Famous Men became an iconic emblem of the Great Depression.
Allie May Burroughs in Black and White
The barricade bleeds rust in monochrome.
A visual metaphor, your background. There.
The camera never lies. There’s no escape.
Your private sphere’s gone public property.
And so have you. You’re prematurely aged.
You’re 27. Face gaunt. Face wrinkled. Yet:
you’ve exercised your lips and, exercised
your right to privacy; they’re drawstring tight,
as rigid as the tripod stand they face.
Allie May Burroughs in Focus
Sev’n decades on, your angry son incants:
‘She never had a chance to buy a truck.
She never had a chance to buy a fridge.
She never had a chance …. ’ and tells us how
you worked the landlord’s land, drew water from
the well to sprinkle on your children’s beds -
to cool them down, so they could sleep - and still
they woke each night in ‘circles of wet sweat’.
He hears you calling him, calling him, home.
The first poem, written in the blank verse nine-line stanza format of its predecessors, could be read as a mini sonnet, with the volta occurring at the end of line six, ‘Yet:’ The short clauses in the first six lines, replicating rapid photo shots, appear to be unequivocal. Nonetheless, all is not ‘black and white’. The short clauses are undermined by the extended final sentence outlining Allie May’s facial fight for privacy. In common with Pinkerton’s poem and Toorop’s portrait, this poem poses questions. The second poem is Allie May’s son, Charles’s, retrospective testament, his incantation is almost verbatim, and his other reminiscences are adapted to metrical requirements. 174
Jane Greer edited Plains Poetry Review, a vanguard journal of the New Formalist Movement, from 1981-1993. In her article ‘Art is Made’, Greer says the journal’s guiding motto is ‘No subject is taboo, but poetry is art, and art is made.’ 175 In common with Heaney, the present writer wonders whether an identifiable, audible form is a way of breaking taboos. Thus, her next poem summarises Greer’s article, and examines how this highly form-conscious poet puts her ‘guiding motto’ into practice in her poem ‘Rodin’s Gates of Hell’.
120 Lines on Greer’s article ‘Art is Made’
Greer’s motto states: No subject is taboo,
but poetry is art, and art is made.
The gist is an analogy she drew
with ‘murder mystery’; with form an aide
memoire, where rhyme and meter give a clue
to sounds and rhythms which ensue. That said;
the poet’s task to satisfy, and two,
confound that expectation, is obeyed.
She claims that poets who refuse to use
a rhyme scheme somehow manage to degrade
their craft; a world of words from which to choose
refused. Her manifesto is displayed
in ‘Rodin’s “Gates of Hell”’. Nothing subdued
about the subject matter. Unafraid
to tackle figures whom somehow [she] knew,
Francesca, (lust, unfaithfulness), who paid
the price with Paolo, arms and torsos spew
from bilge, their bodies, once conjoined, unmade.
Her rhymes schemes satisfy/confound. There’s few
who’d think of frozen/treason, for the shade
of Ugolino gnawing son anew.
The original intention had been to produce a twenty-four line poem in abab quatrains in keeping with those of Greer in ‘Rodin’s “Gates of Hell”’, but opted instead for simple ab rhymes to allow ‘rhyme and meter’ to provide easy clues to ensuing ‘sounds and rhythms’. The poem ends abruptly at line twenty-one, leaving the poem in mid-air, as is Ugolino, with the shocking image of his gnawing his son’s body in perpetuity. This conforms to Greer’s ‘no subject is taboo’ motto. The present poet’s representation of Rodin’s mammoth sculpture follows.
Lines on Rodin’s Gates of Hell
Their necks and shoulders an unbroken line:
three twisting shades point severed arms to where,
inscripted in the frieze, the warning sign -
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here -
presides above The Thinker (high relief,
bas stabilized), above a tumbling mass
whose forms contort the structure. Some believe
The Thinker’s Dante. Others, Rodin cast
himself as poet/sculptor. Maker all
the same, of metaphors for punishment.
Again, it could be Adam and the Fall
from grace, who contemplates abandonment
in anatomical distortion. Forms
discarding rules of form, and thus, inform.
This was not intended to be a sonnet, but once again, the poem seemed to come to a natural conclusion earlier than Greer’s ‘Rodin’s “Gates of Hell”’ It had adequately conflated the ‘sculptor/poet/maker’ concept. The couplet’s resolution combines Rodin’s, Greer’s and, inherently, the present writer’s use of form.
Kelly Cherry also finds her poems ‘finding their own way through the use of form’. Consider the opening, and closing four stanzas, of her thirteen stanza poem in light of her position statement ‘A Flashlight on the Map’.
Poetic forms, established or nonce, are like maps of places
no one’s ever been … If the writer knew in advance what
she would find on her journey through the poem, she
would not bother to make it. But she doesn’t know; she
never knows; she knows only that the form is there like
a flashlight or a map and that she will see what that form
reveals and go where the form takes her.176
The Bride of Quietness
My sculptor husband, when he was mine, possessed
Electrifying energy, humor,
The vital heat of violent force compressed …
Contraries in a controlling frame. Few more
Creative and compelling men could fire
The clay I scarcely dared to call my soul.
Shapeless, lacking properties of higher
Existence, it was perfect for the mould
He cast me in: classic receptacle,
A thing for use, but full of elegance,
An ode to Greece, forever practical,
Tellingly patterned with the hunt and dance.
My lines were lies, and yet he seemed to see
Aesthetic validation in my form.
I asked him not to draw away from me.
He said he feared he might commit some harm … 16
That beauty held no truth for me, nor truth 37
Beauty, but I was made as much of earth
As I had been, barbaric and uncouth,
Enjoined to rhythm, shiftings, blood and birth,
And void of principle. He said he’d father
No children. I could hardly help knowing
That he’d be wrong to trust me any farther.
By sunrise it was clear he would be going
Soon. Now from time to time I see him here
And there. The shoulders have gone slack, the eyes
Conduct a lesser current and I fear
That when they catch me spying, it’s no surprise
To him. He always found poetic justice
Amusing, and he knows I wait my turn.
The artist dies; but what he wrought will last
Forever, when I cradle his cold ashes in this urn. 177
Cherry presents herself as an erudite, formally aware poet, using poetry for purposes of poetic justice. Consider line four: ‘Contraries in a controlling frame’, the title and internal quotations from Keats, and a possible allusion to Lady Macbeth. The ‘Bride of Quietness’ bides her time, puts herself down, Nemesis does not appear until the final stanza, the thirteen quatrains being her coordinates on the ‘map’. Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ was cited alongside Keats’s ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ in the discussion in Chapter 4, and here, in response to Cherry’s poem, the present poet permits Browning’s silent duchess to speak up
The Last Duchess Speaks Up
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness
that’s me - as he would have it said ‘tis I’ –
he didn’t understand my joyousness,
assumed his name was all I cared for. Why?
The clue lies in my adjective, his ‘last’:
does that suggest he’s made the same mistake
before … and was it only in the past?
So tell me, what impression does he make?
That’s my last duchess painted on the wall.
He speaks in couplets, as his state dictates;
Looking as if she were alive, I call …
How does he stress his first line? If he weighs
the accent on That’s my last duchess … might
it sound ‘correct’ or, would he stress the That
and last as lesser mortals might feel right?
Perhaps no ‘cut-and-dried’ aristocrat?
A product of his time. A paradox;
a tyrant who loves beauty all the same,
who calls that piece ‘a wonder’. Orthodox.
Possessive. I’m an object. Have no name.
He asks the agent of the Count Wilt please
you sit and look at her, amenable,
admires my joyous blush, implies I tease -
he found my nature quite untenable.
Enough to wear his favour at my breast,
it should have been enough for me he thought.
I prized a sunset more than any crest,
for nature’s fruits and beauty, he cared nought -
and yet: he treasured language, took great care
with words; his euphemisms, gave commands …
avoiding truth with choice of terms and, where
I am, he knows the agent understands.
A connoisseur of art, and yet: he flaunts
his task (convince the agent of his worth
to wed the fair young daughter), proudly vaunts
the sculpture Neptune, taming sea - his wrath
implied, should she, like me, not quite submit -
commissioned work exclusively for he.
In contrast with the sculpture, a conceit,
Fra Pandolf’s fresco looks as fresh as me.
This response shares common features with Cherry’s poem in its quatrains, enjambments and intertextual quotations. The speaker’s seemingly even-handed assessment of the Duke is based on Angus Calder’s formal analysis of Browning’s poem, and my own close reading.178 The Duchess, like Cherry’s protagonist, is given
the last triumphal word. Unlike Cherry’s speaker, the Duchess appeals directly to her readers and listeners, draws them in, asks them questions. This has the dual purpose of encouraging the formation of allegiances, and to reconsider her portrait, the freshness of which speaks silent volumes. Thus, the poem and the poet may not be as even-handed as they might appear to be.
Marilyn Hacker is one of New Formalism’s most noted poets. Her pedigree is well-documented, having been active in humanitarian, lesbian and woman’s work since 1977. Hacker’s article ‘Meditating Formally’ made heartening reading for this writer.
When I see a young (or not-so-young) writer counting
syllables on her fingers, or marking stresses for a poem
she’s writing, or one she’s reading, I’m pretty sure we’ll
have something in common, whatever our other differences
A response to Hacker’s crown of sonnets, ‘Eight Days in April’, tracing the course of a lesbian affair in the springtime of her speaker’s life was problematic. The initial intention had been to write a crown of ‘heterosexual reminiscences’. The problem was not one of lack of formal technique, rather one of reticence, and an inability to write erotically, unless in a light-hearted manner for spoof purposes. Thus, a single sonnet seemed adequate for the task. ‘September’ is an apt title, given the present writer’s age, and the intertextual quotations from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 and Hermann Hesse’s ‘September’ seem apposite also.180 Hacker’s sonnets with ccddee rhyming sestets are emulated, in that they synchronize with the steady cardio rhythms embodied within the sestet of the following:
She’s had her former decades, former loves.
The garden mourns, the flowers fill with cold rain,
and summer shivers in its chilled domain
for her, too wearing now to make new moves
for after all, there’s nothing left to prove,
can’t countenance ‘no venture, so no gain.’
She’s had her share of rapture, share of pain,
knows all about remover to remove.
The garden need not mourn, nor flowers fill
with rain, nor summer shiver in its chill
domain. Her heart beats now an even pace,
no lurch to see his unexpected face,
no loss of power of speech, no muttering,
no verbal diarrhoea, no stuttering.
‘Dusk: July’ is a poem in which Hacker’s poetic ‘I’ reminisces from her middle years and, once again, whatever my ‘other differences’ from Hacker, our common ground is form. Here I count Hackers syllables and mark her Sapphic stresses in a commentary on her poem. Sapphics have thus far been assiduously avoided by the present poet.
Lines on Marilyn Hacker’s ‘Dusk: July’
Heard the flying feet of the loves behind her –
Swinburne’s ‘Sapphics’ prophesy Hacker’s premise:
We’ve loved other bodies the years have altered.
(Stress here ‘we’ve loved’, though?)
Ageing process fearlessly faced: slim knuckles
swollen, eyelids grainy and skin that’s slackened,
bodies gone to seed in the earth, the conscience
Mid-life crisis hovers around her summer:
shades of grey-green, everything drear; the river,
streets and roofs and awnings, no sunlight dappling
over her season.
Hacker finds no excuse for months and seasons,
years, passed through her (similes air and water).
Mem’ry lapses: faces and names and places,
lovers who died of
AIDS or tenured, banged-up in jail for sexual
pref’rence, leanings, orientation. Sapphics -
Sappho - apt for lesbian lovers, school friends,
bar friends, old matrons.
Hacker ends in rational tones, she wants to
find her love beside her on waking, knowing
sooner, later, one will be dead, but thankful
both are alive now.
Hacker presents herself as a poet using a specific form to break down barriers associated with that form, and Judith Barrington is an extreme example of a poet using a particular form to take control of traumatic circumstances. After her mother drowned, Barrington found the villanelle the only container within which to confront her anguish. The title of Finch’s anthology is taken from a line from Emily Dickinson ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’, and Barrington says
… I do not think I could have written that particular piece
without a strict form. The boundaries – the finite patterns
that could not spill out into the unknown – provided a framework that I needed for the subject. I also think that
the villanelle itself was important to the subject – I couldn’t
have used just any tight form. I had always thought that
the shape of the villanelle, with its repeating lines that come
together at the end, suggested both tides and circles. These
were full of oceans, waves and moon.181
Lines on Judith Barrington’s ‘Villanelle V1’
Her mother drowned, she wrote a villanelle.
Not any form would do, the scaffolding -
repeated lines, like tides - an apt farewell
of waves and cycles, moons and ocean’s swell,
restraining framework for her suffering.
Her mother drowned, she wrote a villanelle
of standing on the shore, compelled to dwell
by waves like doors ajar that slowly swing,
repeated lines, like tides an apt farewell.
In fathomed rooms her mother lies, she tells
of won’dring ‘where?’, recurring questioning.
Her mother drowned, she wrote a villanelle
of chambers where her mother hides, repels -
although enticed - the thought of following.
Repeated lines, like tides, an apt farewell,
of waves and cycles, moons and ocean’s swell,
not any form would do. This scaffolding.
Her mother died, she wrote a villanelle’s
repeated lines, like tides. An apt farewell.
In her article ‘Housekeeping Cages’, Julia Alvarez makes two important points. The first is that housekeeping skills are inherited crafts of which women can be proud.
Sometimes people ask me why I wrote a series about
housekeeping if I’m a feminist. Don’t I want women to
be liberated from the oppressive roles they were meant
to live? I don’t see housekeeping that way. They were
crafts we women had, sewing, embroidering, cooking,
even the lowly dusting.182
Alvarez’s rationale for using couplets in her poem ‘How I learned To Sweep’ is ‘since you sweep with a broom and you dance – it’s like coupling.’ 183 If we examine extracts from her poem, in which the speaker sweeps as she watches television coverage of the Vietnam War, we see a danse macabre. Alvarez presents herself as a subversive poet utilizing ‘kitchen sink’ as a medium with which to indict the war itself, and inherent apathy towards its media coverage. She provides a different spin on feminist perceptions of ‘oppressive roles’. Alvarez might be said to occupy both insider and outsider status, as might the present writer in her ensuing poem, ‘Ironing and Watching the News’.
How I Learned To Sweep
My mother never taught me sweeping … 1
One afternoon she found me watching
t.v. she eyed the dusty floor
boldly. And put a broom before
me, and said she’s like to be able
to eat her dinner off the table
I watched a dozen of them die … 29
as if their dust fell through the screen
upon the floor I had just cleaned.
She came back and turned the dial;
the screen went dark. That’s beautiful,
that’s beautiful, she said, impressed, 39
she hadn’t found a speck of death.
Ironing and Watching the News
So long ago, I can’t remember now
exactly when I learned to iron, or how
to starch a shirt. I might have watched my mum,
or Grandma Needham taught me to become
an expert with the ‘smoothing iron’. Was starch-
ing done in dolly tubs? I’ll Google search.
These days, it’s second nature, it’s a breeze -
could do it in my sleep – like shelling peas.
I iron them once when they’re still damp, and then,
quick squirt with Robin Starch©, and iron again.
It’s not a craft exactly, but a skill
acquired from years of practicing … but still
it’s satisfying, somehow, all the same,
to take a pride in household tasks’ not tame.
‘White Widow’ spider wearing white hijab,
so crisply ironed, and linked with al-Shabaab.
Alvarez’s point that inherited household skills are a ‘craft’ resonates with the present writer. Thus heroic couplets were used in this poem to ennoble quotidian tasks. The poem could be read as a sixteen-line sonnet with the subversive turn encoded within the final couplet.
Alvarez’s second point relates directly to the Poets’ Round Table discussion.
You use what you have, you learn to work the structure to
create what you need. I don’t feel that writing in traditional
forms is giving up power, going over to the enemy. The word
belongs to no one, the houses built of words belong to no one.
I am writing under someone else’s thumb and tongue. English
was not my first language. It was, in fact, a colonizing language to my Spanish Caribbean.
Alvarez addresses her ‘vexed relationship with English’ in that complex ‘house built of words’, the sestina.
Some things I have to say aren’t getting said
in this snowy, blonde, blue-eyed, gum chewing
dawn’s early light sifting through the persianas closed
the night before by dark-skinned whose words
evoke cama, aposento, sueños in nombres
from the first word I can’t translate from Spanish
Gladys, Rosario, Altagracia – the sounds of Spanish
wash over me like warm island waters as I say
your soothing names: a child learning again the
of things you point to in the world before English
turned sol, tierra, cielo, luna to vocabulary words –
sun, earth, sky, moon – language closed
like the touch-sensitive morivivir whose leaves closed
when we kids pokes them, astonished. Even Spanish
failed us when we realized how frail a word
is when faced with the thing it names. How saying
it’s name won’t always summon up in Spanish or
the full blown genii from the bottled nombre.
Gladys, I summon you back with your given nombre
to open up again the house of slatted windows closed
since childhood, where palabras left behind for English
stand dusty and awkward in neglected Spanish.
Rosario, muse of el patio, sing in me and through me
that world again, begin first with those first words
you put in my mouth as you pointed to the world –
not Adam, not God, but a country girl numbering
the stars, the blades of grass, warming the sun by
el sol as the dawn’s light fell through the closed
persianas from the gardens where you sang in Spanish,
Esta son las Mañanitas, and listening, in bed, no English
yet in my head to confuse me with translations, no
doubting the world with synonyms, no dizzying
array of words,
the world was simple and intact in Spanish
awash with colores, luz, sueños, as if the nombres
were the outer skin of things, as if the words were so
closeto the world one left a mist of breath on things by
their names, an intimacy I now yearn for in English –
words so close to what I meant that I almost hear my
blood beating, beating inside what I say en ingles.
The sestina presents such a degree of difficulty for the present poet, that to date, she has produced just one, ending lines with numbers as an aide memoire of its form.