Luckily, I will be reading with one of these poets, Eileen Hennessy, on Saturday, 16 February, 12 noon, at the Yippee Museum Café, 9 Bleecker St. Please come.
In 1977 Robert Altman made a thoughtful movie called 3 Women, the idea for which came to him in a dream. Two of the women live in the same apartment and the third, who is married, lives in the same building, and their relationships shift during the movie. Today, it would probably seem inappropriate to use that title, and this film would be unlikely to become the cult movie it has, many women having firmly established themselves as independent agents beyond the scope of Altman’s treatment.
These thoughts arose after I’d finished reading three extraordinary first books of poetry, each by a woman of independent spirit and highly personal style. In ascending order of age, they are Kris Bigalk, Katrinka Moore, and Eileen Hennessy. Bigalk, a mother and teacher from Minnesota, has recently published her first poetry collection, Repeat the Flesh in Numbers (NYQ Books, 2012), a book primarily about a sensuous woman’s flesh and spirit that might be just “a woman’s book” in the hands of a more conventional writer. While Bigalk does address conventional subjects like marriage, family, and sex, she has a strongly idiosyncratic take that can result in memorable poems. “Exegenesis,” for example, might be the best poem ever written on menstruation: “I bleed / without permission, / without injury. / I bleed prophetic, a / waterfall, a flag, / a protest, an insistence / on rest.”
I mention that Bigalk is a mother because, among other subjects, her poems convincingly treat pregnancy, birth, and mothering, but do so in an idiosyncratic way. Thus we have the macabre “Dr. Barbie’s Abortion Clinic,” which conjures various taboo Barbie dolls, like “Morning-Sickness Barbie,” “Single-Mom Barbie,” and “Leaky Saggy Breast Barbie.” The poem concludes:
Step-Mom Trophy Wife Barbie –
that’s the kind of thing
a little girl should really
set her sights on.
Bigalk’s iconoclasm also takes on the biblical origin story by positing Eve as precursor to Adam, in “Apocryphon of Eve.” The first person/Person begins, “There was no rib that begat me” and adds that “There was no snake, no forbidden fruit,” and “There was no thirst for the knowledge of good and evil”; there was just love for “Adam’s body, the way it fit into /
mine. . . .” Only later, at Abel’s grave, did this sensuous woman understand what a disappointment she was to the Lord. Thus the poem subtly contests traditional views of Eve and woman and ends without resolution of the eternal question of our earthly purpose, if any.
If Bigalk sees the flesh repeat in numbers, they are the ones inscribed in our DNA. The first two poems in this volume, including the title poem, recognize that “in / the end cells practice themselves / to ruin, to death, to dissolution,” signifying that we are “the imperfect, the mortal,” but she sees her decline giving way to her son’s rise; not consolation but continuity. A strong, wise poet/mother, Kris Bigalk tells both her story and the history of humankind.
In Thief (BlazeVOX, 2009), Katrinka Moore uses the page as a locus for text as well as visual art, including reproduced images from paintings and drawings, examples of book-making art, and collage. Indeed, the book itself exemplifies the art of fine bookmaking, and Moore proceeds by way of esthetic juxtaposition and collage, pasting together disparate elements to make a collaborative yet new work of art. In this she brings to mind two predecessor artists, Susan Howe (b. 1937), an experimental poet, and Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), maker of small magical boxed assemblages of photos and bric-a-brac from his era.
Indeed, the title poem, “Thief,” mentions “cigar-box drawers” found in a roll-top desk and assembles such various items as “a framed topography of the moon” and “frayed postcards, tangled filigree chain,” and speaks in direct address to Archilochos, the ancient Greek poet. The facing page is an illustration of a topographical map with an insert of a pair of cranes from Hokusai’s Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji. The juxtaposition of prose poem (“Thief”) with an illustration on the facing page is characteristic of the way Moore works in this book. So are the sentence fragments that infuse her poem, one of which says, “Sings a string of words under her breath,” which is probably an example of her work’s self-referential quality. Another sentence fragment here is “Forager,” an apt describer of Moore the thief, who forages through and pilfers literary, cartographical, and visual documents to create her hybrid forms.
On the one hand, she will quote from Shakespeare in “Skimble, Scamble,” while on the other, she imports Into “Aeschylus in the Bronx” quotations “from Ted Hughes’s translation of the Oresteia and writing by students at the Bronx High School for Contemporary Arts”: “Jacqui in her skin tight dress is a cute / Clytemnestra but she’s pissed and whacks / Adinson/Agamemnon on the side of his head.” Later, in a girl named Jelani’s words, “Agamemnon sacrifices his precious daughter Iphigenia so Clytemnestra kills him . . . ,” and Aliya sings Clytemnestra’s welcome song:
Look at you now,
You low life son of a b—.
Now you laying there bled,
Still full of it.
Baby, you dead.
That the left-hand margin and the bottom of the page reveal the lines of a page of notebook paper—on which the text has crookedly been pasted—both suggests the off-kilter nature of Moore’s project and reinforces the debt her tour de force owes to her students. The resulting poem is both tragic and comical, reenacting Aeschylus’ great drama in Hughes’s serious translation of it, and drawing on the Bronx students’ savvy handling of that drama, without condescension on Moore’s part. Her postmodern sensibility has deconstructed a classic yet has made it new, in Pound’s words, through an unlikely commingling and juxtaposition of sources.
The title of Eileen Hennessy’s This Country of Gale-Force Winds (NYQ Books, 2011) looks back to her parents’ Ireland and at her native Long Island, both places well known for stormy winds. Symbolically, her gales might evoke blowhards, authority figures, and the winds of change. “Cemetery, summer afternoon” in just ten lines characterizes her poetry, referring to both “country” and a coming storm: “This is no country / for plastic wreaths. // Along the
horizon, bridges of lightning bolted / to the charcoal sky. / Between two tombs, a man jerks off.”
The allusion to W.B. Yeats’s “That is no country for old men” (“Sailing to Byzantium”) speaks of Hennessy’s absorption in Irish poetry, while the last line carries the candor of Yeats’s Crazy Jane, a keen observer of uncensored reality. Hennessy combines both Crazy Jane’s peasant wisdom and the poet’s ability to juxtapose it with the pretensions (“tombs”) of polite society. The word-play (“lightning bolted to”) and the surprising incongruity in this poem’s ending also typify Hennessy’s fierce attention to language and rejection of conventional expectations.
When she ends “Crossing,” about a cross-country train ride, and tries “to measure how much farther I must travel,” she concludes, “I have not come all this country alone / for nothing.” Here her plain-spokenness, as it often does, sounds depths of theme and practice for this poet who rejects qualifiers in choosing the exact word every time. Despite the formality of her poetic line, she writes in free verse and eschews fixed forms.
Hennessy’s poems often address objects, like boxcars, or animals, like lobsters, hares, a worm—entities that can be only observed but cannot talk back. Yet she exploits such entities expertly to reveal some larger truth. In “Then the worm turns,” for instance, she says she once “smashed a worm,” yet “still shudder[s]” with guilt, for etymologically wyrm meant “worm, serpent, dragon,” that is, it was once deemed of equal value with other denizens of the earth itself. In the end, she’s aware, the worms will “have a party on my dock. / It will not be my party, yet / I will be guest and host.” That we will be food for worms has been a subject for writers since time immemorial, but Hennessy’s originality lies in her beginning with the introduction of worms into her compost pile and the confession of her careless stomping of a worm. From using and killing them, she arrives at an awareness of the ultimate role these “rulers // of death, decay, transformation” play in composting our bodies.
The one poem here that spans more than a single page, “Incandescence,” is arguably her most memorable, possibly because it is the only poem here that addresses another human being with whom Hennessy’s speaker has a personal relationship. He’s her lover, whose visit interrupts the narrator’s reading of a scene of multiple shipboard rapes by pirates of “their booty.” The ensuing sex between lover/pirate and speaker/booty conjures memories of other marauders and their captive women until her imagination takes over and calls up “my unit of female partisans” gang-raping her lover, with her “perhaps” penetrating his penis with “the long nicked blade / of my knife.” At poem’s end, after her female cohort wears the man out sexually, “tiring of you, I order you taken / to the woods and shot.”
The cold eye that Hennessy casts on life and death might seem distant from the warmth Kris Bigalk brings to her poems or the charged invention Katrina Moore brings to hers, yet that eye gleams with the passion and searing intensity of a woman who speaks for centuries of oppressed Irish women whose bodies belonged to the men who owned them. Did such a woman, she asks in “This is how her body,” after having borne endless “heirs,” “dare to dream / her body whole again, entire, unbreached?” If not, Hennessy has, rejecting the malarkey of female idealization in favor self-realization, seeing the body as
Not the gate of heaven, not house of gold,
not star of the sea. Not idol.
Not work of art. Just body.
Just self. For herself.