Cheryl Walker

Gloria T. Hull: On "Call"

Lorde's seemingly essentialist definitions of herself as black/lesbian/mother/woman are not simple, fixed terms. Rather, they represent her ceaseless negotiations of a positionality from which she can speak. Almost as soon as she achieves a place of connection, she becomes uneasy at the comfortableness (which is, to her, a signal that something critical is being glossed over) and proceeds to rub athwart the smooth grain to find the roughness and the slant she needs to maintain her difference-defined, complexly constructed self. Our Dead Behind Us is constant motion, with poem after poem enacting a series of displacements.

. . . The cover of Our Dead Behind Us consists of "a snapshot of the last Dahomean Amazons," "three old Black women in draped clothes," superimposed upon a sea of dark and passionate South Africans at a protest demonstration. This image projects Lorde's membership in a community of struggle which stretches from ancient to modern times. In "Call" she invokes "Oya Seboulisa Mawu Afrekete," "Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer/Assata Shakur and Yaa Asantewa/my mother and Winnie Mandela," speaking into exclusionary space a transcendent black woman power "released/from the prism of dreaming.". . .

The oracular voice that powers--at different frequencies--Lorde's work can best be heard full force in the majestic orality of "Call," a spiritual offering of praise and supplication that is chilling, especially when she reads it. Aido Hwedo is, a note tells us, "The Rainbow Serpent; also a representation of all ancient divinities who must be worshipped but whose names and faces have been lost in time." Stanza one summons this

 

Holy ghost woman

Stolen out of your name

Rainbow Serpent

whose faces have been forgotten

Mother loosen my tongue or adorn me

with a lighter burden

Aido Hwedo is coming.

 

She invokes this deity in the name of herself and her sisters who, "on worn kitchen stools and tables," are piecing their "weapons together/scraps of different histories.". . . She brings her best while asking for continuing power to do her work as woman/poet. And she is blessed to become not only the collective voice of her sisters, but Aido Hwedo's fiery tongue, "the holy ghosts' linguist."

Critic Robert Stepto pronounced The Black Unicorn "an event in contemporary letters" because of its author's "voice or an idea of a voice that is essentially African in that it is communal, historiographical, archival, and prophetic as well as personal in ways that we commonly associate with the African griot, dyeli, and tellers of nganos and other oral tales." This voice holds in her later volume, which continues to "explore the modulations within that voice between feminine and feminist timbres" and also to chart "history and geography as well as voice."

Cheryl Walker: On "New Heavens for Old"

Horace Gregory claims that Lowell's "true affinities were of a nineteenth-century origin, gathered from her readings in her father's library at Sevenels and among the book shelves of Boston's Athenaeum." There is much to support this view, even in Lowell's own estimation of herself in a late poem like "New Heavens for Old," published in the posthumous Ballads for Sale. In this poem she contrasts the new women of the 1920s who:

 

bare the whiteness of their lusts to the dead

gaze of the old housefronts,

They roar down the street like flame,

They explode upon the dead houses like sharp, new fire

 

with her own, old-fashioned, persona:

 

But I--

I arrange three roses in a Chinese vase:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I fuss over their arrangement.

Then I sit in a South window

And sip pale wine with a touch of hemlock in it,

And think of Winter nights,

And field-mice crossing and re-crossing

The spot which will be my grave.

 

Just as Amy Lowell's culture was a complex mixture of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century elements, of Victorianism, progressivism, and modernism, Lowell herself interacted with her culture both as a progressive and as a reactionary.

Cheryl Walker: On "Sisters"

When Lowell wrote her important poem "The Sisters," late in her life, she went back to Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson. In "The Sisters" she certainly acknowledges the positive contribution each of these women made and she also revives them literally in her imagination, enjoying a romp with each, using the social energies that made her such a famous hostess. However, she also writes that they leave her "sad and self-distrustful." It must be said that Lowell, like H. D. and Louise Bogan, among others, was interested in superseding as well as giving acknowledgment to a feminine literary tradition. Furthermore, she associates such a feminine tradition with marginality, ascribing to men the primary authority for poetry. Lowell begins:

 

Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot

We women who write poetry. And when you think

How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.

I wonder what it is that makes us do it.

Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise,

The fragments of ourselves.

 

Since Lowell's poem is such an important breakthrough, the first grand attempt by a woman poet in America to situate herself within a feminine literary tradition, "The Sisters" is worth pausing over. From the eighteenth century forward, women have acknowledged the importance of other women poets, but usually their focus has been on a single individual like Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Felicia Hemans.

Here Lowell brings together three strong poets instead of one. She also acknowledges the autobiographical focus of women's poetry when she says that these poets scribble down the fragments of themselves. Of the Lesbian Poet she writes:

 

Ah me! I wish I could have talked to Sapho,

Surprised her reticences by flinging mine

Into the wind. This tossing off of garments

Which cloud the soul is none too easy doing

With us to-day.

 

In addition to what may have been Lowell's sense of continuity with Sappho as a lesbian, she also sees both the freedom and the limitations inherent in a poetic mask. For Browning, Lowell has particular sympathy because "her heart was squeezed in stiff conventions," just as Lowell's was at times.

However, Browning's connection with a powerful male poet (which might have helped her scribble down "man-wise" her fragments) leads Amy Lowell into dangerous territory. She imagines Elizabeth deferring to her husband, "for Robert is a genius." This makes Amy uncomfortable and she adds that she doesn't much like "the turn this dream is taking." Yet this dream moment is significant. The daunting presence of male achievement continued to haunt Lowell's imagination throughout her career, rendering her deferential as well as defiant.

Leaving Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lowell imagines an afternoon with Emily Dickinson, which seems to delight her more. (In fact, she began a biography of Dickinson though she never got very far with it.) Despite the fact that her assessment of Dickinson is skewed by the early twentieth-century vision of the Amherst poet as a frustrated spinster, Lowell intuitively grasps the complexity of the earlier poet's demanding psyche.

 

    I think she'd be exacting,

Without intention, possibly, and ask

A thousand tight-rope tricks of understanding.

But, bless you, I would somersault all day

If by so doing I might stay with her.

 

Each of these poets excites Lowell’s admiration and respect. However, at the end of "The Sisters," Lowell insists that she will not be restricted by the heritage they represent. Her "answer," she says, will not be any one of theirs. Why did Amy Lowell summon these women poets only to reject the traditions they represent? In the last lines one can actually hear Lowell imperiously hurrying her guests to leave, as she might have done at the end of an evening at Sevenels. "Put on your cloaks, my dears, the motor's waiting." Then, shooing them out the door with assurances that they "have not seemed strange to me, but near, / Frightfully near, and rather terrifying," she breathes a sigh of relief as she wishes them "Good night!"

Clearly, her need to separate herself from these women was complicated. In addition to her ambition to compete with a masculine tradition to which, she perceived, they did not belong, she also found that they made her self-distrustful, wondering as she did after writing the Keats biography if her commitment to invading the masculine sphere was the right one.

However, her desire to distance herself from these women also derives in part from her discomfort with the female roles they represent. Sappho's is the least objectionable. Yet Lowell admits that she knows only "a single slender thing about her"--that she was a lover. The role of the lover, especially the lesbian lover, is one Amy held dear. And, in fact, she may be singling Sappho out for special intimacy: "we two were sisters / Of a strange, isolated family." Yet Lowell wanted to be more than a love poet. She wanted to compete in the intellectual realm, a territory traditionally belonging exclusively to men.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning she sees in the guise of the female invalid, a common figure in the nineteenth century. She pities Browning for being bound by Victorian conventions, yet she admires her "over-topping brain." Then, with typical Lowell perversity, she actually criticizes Browning for being overly intellectual, saying she needed to escape "to freedom and another motherhood / Than that of poems." The love sonnets are the first Browning poems Lowell finds "fertilized" for, she concludes, "A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain." In her demand for balance between heart and head, we can hear the androgynous Amy speaking. Yet she finds Browning in any case "vastly unlike" herself, for the earlier poet was "very, very woman." Did Lowell insist on seeing her this way in order to be able to dismiss an intellectual rival? Did she see herself as also potentially guilty of one-sidedness?

Dickinson, the great experimenter, is the closest to Lowell in many ways, and therefore--as Bloom might predict--she comes in for the harshest reproach. Though Sappho "spent and gained," and Browning, after a miserly youth, "cut the strings / Which tied her money-bags and let them run," Emily

 

        hoarded--hoarded--only giving

Herself to cold, white paper. Starved and tortured,

She cheated her despair with games of patience

And fooled herself by winning. Frail little elf,

The lonely brain-child of a gaunt maturity,

She hung her womanhood upon a bough

And played ball with the stars--too long--too long--

 

None of these women fully represents the poet that Lowell wished to be: intellectual but passionate, sensitive to self and others but able to capture, as she praised D. H. Lawrence for doing, "the real throb, and misery and gusto" of life. For Lowell this meant choosing an androgynous persona. The spinster self was a greater liability, despite her capacity to "play ball with the stars," than the tough, manly self whom Lowell had never yet seen represented in a woman poet.

Cheryl Walker: On "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree"

In January 1922, [Millay wrote in a letter to Arthur Ficke]: "I hold a very nervous pen lately. Does your hand get that way sometimes, so that you want to dig in the earth with it, or whittle it, or thrust it into a broad fat back, – anything but write with it?" (Letters, 143). In "Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree" it is possible to see her using her art to develop a perspective on the aggressive impulses she was feeling…

This sonnet sequence is notable in Millay for its rendering of character, its imagism (since almost everything is "told" in pictures of the body and the domestic and natural worlds), and for its restraint. We are never informed… of the reasons the woman left her husband or precisely why she returned "loving him not at all." …As readers we are the ones who see her engaging in the tasks assigned to women: setting the house to rights, making the tea and the fire, giving "of her body’s strength" to the man as though he were a child whose hands needed steadying about the cup. Furthermore, Millay invites us to see this woman’s impulses as both mediated by culture and masochistic in the sense Mary Ryan uses that term, where gratification comes from an activity which is stressful and self-defeating. Like a magazine housewife, this woman learns to

Polish the stove till you could see your face,

And after nightfall rear an aching back

In a changed kitchen, bright as a new pin,

An advertisement, far too fine to cook a supper in.

The use of "you" and "your" … seems to make this activity a ritual of capitalism, "an advertisement" of the role assigned to women who must make their kitchen "bright as a new pin" despite the fact that it then becomes unusable.

The last line of the couplet, with its extra syllables, suggests a metaphor for the disillusionment the woman feels with her life in general. In pursuing the pattern of romantic love given by patriarchy, she discovers not that her husband is a brute, but that he becomes an accomplice in continuing, rather than a partner in terminating, her frustration.

…[T]he woman now seems to feel that her body has in some way betrayed her. By flashing a mirror in her eyes at school, [her husband] appeared to give her her body in a new way. He appealed to her narcissism. But like the male gaze which promises subjectivity to the woman only to betray that promise in the end, desire for the other’s body that is actually desire for her own selfhood confuses the woman as to her real goal. The young woman cannot know herself by looking into this mirror. But she believes her needs addressed by the desire he seems to arouse in her: "And if the man were not her spirit’s mate, / Why was her body sluggish with desire?" …

Only when her husband is dead, and "From his desirous body the great heat / Was gone at last," can she begin to find her own way. At the end the poet says:

She was the one who enters, sly and proud,

To where her husband speaks before a crowd,

And sees a man she never saw before –

The man who eats his victuals at her side,

Small, and absurd, and hers: for once, not hers, unclassified.

In this way she becomes "an ungrafted tree," set free from her younger self who has been inscribed within the structure of another’s life. The poem suggests that even during their separation the woman was not wholly free, so that when she returns to "the wan dream that was her waking day," she is merely "borne along the ground / Without her own volition." Who, then, is the "strange sleeper on a malignant bed"? Is it her husband or herself, grafted onto his need for her?

Cheryl Walker on: "Diving into the Wreck"

In the title poem, "Diving into the Wreck," surely one of the most beautiful poems to come out of the women's movement, the explorer--simultaneously male and female--achieves something close to a mythic density. The figure is passionate but with an isolation and passion transparent to the universal. The poem is utterly personal but there is nothing in it which draws away into private life.

From The Nation (1973)

Cheryl Walker: On H.D.'s Imagist Poems and Ancient Greece

Though H.D. was not consistent in her commitment to the Greek persona, sometimes relinquishing it in favor of others and at no time limiting it absolutely to a certain set of qualities, we can, with reasonable accuracy, pinpoint the aspects of the Greek persona which typically appealed to H.D.

From Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1991. 111-12. © 1991 by Cheryl Walker

Cheryl Walker: On "Medusa"

"Medusa," from Bogan's first book, mythologizes the experienc of psychic injury:

When the bare eyes were before me And the hissing hair, Held up at a window, seen through a door. The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead Formed in the air.

Since this scene becomes frozen in the mind, and since it retains not only terror but beauty, as we shall see, the poet seems to be inviting us to note the connection between the traumatized individual and the artist who would preserve in form the content of psychic crisis.

[. . . .]

Through her final years Louise Bogan became a woman obsessed with the memories she had accumulated in her childhood and in her young life with Raymond. [Her marriage with Raymond Holden had disintegrated by 1933]. Thus the "Medusa" poem written in the early 1920s may be read in part as a terrifying prolepsis:

[. . . .]

This is a scene whose beauty and terror has pollinated her imagination with its "yellow dust" that does not drift away. The shadow to which she refers in line eighteen suggests both the sense of her own insubstantiality in the face of this truma and the embodiment of her desire to echo it, to become the shadow of suffering.

From Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Copyright © 1991 by Cheryl Walker.