John Marsh: On "Sisters"

"Very,Very Women: The Erotic and the Poetic in Amy Lowell's 'The Sisters'"

Near the end of Amy Lowell's, "The Sisters," the narrator offers to explain Emily Dickinson's "despair," her "[s]tarved and tortured" life, and her failure to give herself to anything-or anyone--except "cold, white paper":


                                        ...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-

The garment of herself hung on a tree

        Until at last she lost even the desire

        To take it down. Whose fault? Why let us say,

        To be consistent, Queen Victoria's.

        But really, not to over-rate the queen,

        I feel obliged to mention Martin Luther.... (152-161)


I start with this passage for two reasons. First, it reasserts the poem's preoccupation with and regret for what we might call the Cartesian split between mind and the body, especially how this split has affected women poets from the 18th Century forward. Dickinson has, for "too long--too long," sacrificed her "womanhood" for an overly intellectual, unnecessarily isolated chasing after the ideal. She is "a lonely-brain-child" playing tether-ball with her own abstracted thoughts until she loses even the desire for the possibility of erotic desire, "the garment of herself." Second, the passage suggests in its inquiries about the cause of Dickinson's lost desire the shift in tone from censure and regret to something more playful, less absolutely serious.

I'll return to the issue of the role of the erotic and the poetic below, but what is most surprising about Lowell's poem (at least to this reader) is its discursiveness, its playful chattiness. "The Sisters" as a poem seems far away from the sharper, more condensed poetics associated with orthodox Imagism as promulgated in Pound's ABC of Reading and figured, most famously, in his "In a Station of the Metro." These images remain in "Sisters"-"Sapho could fly her impulses like bright/ Balloons tip-tilting to a morning air"-but they are intermixed amongst passages of self-reflection and a witty self-consciousness noticeably absent from much of Lowell's other poetry, especially the minutely rendered "The Weather-Cock Points South" or "Madonna of the Evening Flowers." Thus we could read the above lines on Martin Luther as genuinely accusatory, as desirous of indicting Luther equally with "Confounded Victoria, and all the slimy inhibitions/ She loosed on all us Anglo-Saxon creatures" (86-87) and condemning the whole lot to hell. We have equal warrant, though, for reading these denunciations as imbued with some irony. As though the narrator had transcended "all the slimy inhibitions" and no one-least of all the narrator-takes or should take these inhibitions or the queen or the Church Fathers at all seriously; they are only to be regretted, like misguided, though indiscriminately destructive, children from history. I find it difficult to talk about tone, but perhaps it's enough to compare Lowell's poem with Emile Zola's "J'accuse" or (a poem from the same year as "The Sisters") Claude McKay's "Mulatto." Lowell's speaker does not share the same sense of outrage against the excesses of unjust persons or an unjust system. In other words, there are ways to poetically cue anger and bitterness, and "Why let us say, to be consistent" is not one of them.

This discursiveness and self-conscious playfulness prevents me from reading the poem with as much gloominess and doubt (for Lowell) about the status of a feminine poetic tradition as do Annette Kolodny, Cheryl Walker, and Betsy Erkkila. And since my own reading of "The Sisters" works counter to so much of what Kolodny, Walker, and Erkkila argue, it may help to summarize their readings. Nevertheless, I should disclose at the outset of this discussion that I leave the poem with an almost opposite reaction to Kolodny, et al. The narrator of "Sisters," far from anxious about the imagined failures of a feminine poetics, is so confident of her poetic abilities and her sexuality that she can playfully entertain, praise, damn by faint praise, knowingly critique, and yet still find solidarity with her predecessors.

Kolodny reads the poem as an expression of "the woman poet's need to assert for herself some validating female tradition and to repossess its voices for her own needs." She recognizes Lowell's narrator's ambivalence to this female poetic tradition and its voices, arguing that it "has helped Lowell ward off her anxious sense of isolation and aberrance, but she credits it neither with nurturing nor engendering her own poetic efforts." Similarly, Betsy Erkkila takes "The Sisters" as Lowell's ultimate alienation from the models of both womanhood and woman's poetry represented by, in turn, Sapho, Browning, and Dickinson. "What the poem suggests finally is that women poets and the concept 'woman' itself are so written over and overwritten by the misogynist inscriptions of classical authorities, 'a long line of Church Fathers,' and the sexual ideologies of the Victorian and early modern periods in England and the United States, that any complete sisterly identification is impossible and, indeed, 'rather terrifying.'" Erkkila is right to argue that the speaker has no complete sisterly identification with her predecessors; however, her claim that Lowell and the poem as a whole rejects the concept of womanhood imports a feminist critique that Lowell's poem does not have much interest in making. Similarly, Kolodny's reading does well to point to the speaker's ambivalence and ultimate solidarity, but it underestimates what the narrator has learned from her poetic tradition and its (sometimes flawed) voices, what this tradition has nurtured and engendered--that is, a lesson about the enervating split between the erotic and the transcendent. Further, such theses leave out what is especially rewarding and provocative about the poem, namely, its articulation of the relation between womanhood and poetic production.

Since both Cheryl Walker and Erkkila address the following passage, it might be useful to start a reading there. Imagining Elizabeth-not Ba-Browning supine on a couch, the speaker writes:


So Mrs. Browning, aloof and delicate,

Lay still upon her sofa, all her strength

Going to uphold her over-topping brain.

It seems miraculous, but she escaped

To freedom and another motherhood

Than that of poems. She was a very woman

And needed both. (53-59)


Walker wants to read this sequence as evidence of Lowell's distance from Browning; in other words, since the speaker later admits that she is "vastly unlike" Browning, so too must she be vastly unlike that which makes Browning "a very woman." Erkkila reads this passage from a similarly pessimistic perspective: "For all Lowell's attempts to escape the inscriptions of Victorian womanhood, the poem still seems embedded in a Victorian sexual ideology that locates womanhood-and indeed woman's sexuality--in reproduction and maternity. If Browning's other 'motherhood/ Than that of poems" makes her "a very woman..." then by implication Lowell may not be a "woman"; she may indeed be the very image of the sterile, brainy, unwomanly poet--the mannish lesbian--who haunts the subtext of the poem."

Both Walker and Erkilla, though, too narrowly read what Lowell means by "a very woman" and "another motherhood": it is not (or not exclusively) reproduction and maternity. Most pregnant teenage girls can tell you that motherhood was not the irresistible impulse for sex; rather, it is that "The huge, imperious need of loving..." that, in Browning's case, was "crushed / within the body" and "squeezed under stiff conventions" before she "escaped to freedom" (43). Sapho, given her sexuality, was not likely to share Browning's "motherhood," but she could share her "womanhood," since Sapho did not have a Confounded Queen or a Martin Luther to chafe her poetry or the expression of her sexuality. Indeed, Lowell's speaker "knows a single slender thing about her:/ That, loving, she was like a burning birch tree/ All tall and glittering fire, and that she wrote/ Like the same fire caught up to Heaven and held there,/ A frozen blaze before it broke and fell" (14-18). In other words, that Sapho was a very woman, because she was a very lover, and because she was a very woman and a very lover, she is, for Lowell, a very poet.

The narrator of Lowell's poem, then, does not reject that which makes Browning or Sapho a "very woman," erotic involvement with another person-indeed, this eroticism is the point of their congruence and solidarity, poetically and as women. Neither does Lowell's "The Sisters" normalize womanhood as motherhood or heterosexuality. That Browning's eroticism is directed towards a man while Sapho's towards a woman seems less important than its mere existence and what it can offer to the production of poetry. . (If the narrator resists anything about Browning, it is not her eroticism or womanhood but her metrical conservatism: Browning is too orthodox a technician "As to admit newfangled modes of writing..." (72), newfangled modes in which Lowell no doubt imagines her own poetry to work.) Who gets left out of this after-school erotic club, then, is, alas, poor Emily Dickinson. Although the narrator admires Dickinson's leaps of poetic imagination and should think her time "with Emily" is "'even better than Sapho," Dickinson ultimately disappoints since, drawing on the metaphor of eroticism as capital,


Sapho spent and gained; and Mrs. Browning,

After a miser girlhood, cut the strings

Which tied her money bags and let them run;

But Emily hoarded-hoarded-only giving

Herself to cold, white paper.... (146-150)


Dickinson fails as a poetic model for Lowell's narrator since she capitulates to her status as victimized subject of Victorian discourses on women's sexuality. (Dickinson does not fail as a formal model for Lowell's narrator, though; note Lowell's playful use of dashes in "Emily hoarded--hoarded" and the only previous use of a dash, in the line quoted above about Browing's skepticism about "newfangled modes of writing--") For the purposes of "The Sisters," Dickinson was not a very woman: too much poetry, too much playing ball with the stars, and too little tossing off of garments. (Or, we might add, the Dickinson available to Lowell in 1925, which was partial and highly mediated in terms of selection. Presumably, Lowell's overly prude Dickinson is not the Dickinson of "Wild Nights--wild nights--.")

Thus I'm inclined to read "The Sisters" as following Whitman in its attempts to revitalize and celebrate the place of the body and the erotic as the basis for the production of poetry. "Strange trio of my sisters..and which way shall I go?" Her answer is implies in lines on Elizabeth Browning:


Suppose there hadn't been a Robert Browning,

No "Sonnets from the Portuguese" would have been written.

They are the first of all her poems to be,

One might say, fertilized. For, after all,

A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain

And Mrs. Browning, as I said before,

Was very, very woman.


We can ask whether the metaphor "fertilization" implicitly re-inscribes poetry as "man-wise," but the weight of the poem, both intellectually and politically, seems finally to rest with something closer to an affirmation of the erotic, specifically for and sometimes towards women. "The Sisters" wants to recognize an equality of erotics-whether lesbian or heterosexual, reproductive or not--as a prerequisite for poetic production and, indeed, for womanhood. (Formally, the poem enacts a similar poetic politics, with its move away from the stylized and cold imagist poetics to a more chatty, playful, and intimate voice.) Whether it be Sapho with her lovers, Ba with Robert, such erotic involvement produces more "fertile" poetry. "A poet," the speaker reminds us, "is flesh and blood as well as brain" (91).

Admittedly, such a formulation seems unfair to Dickinson and anyone (including this reader) who might not think that erotic involvement is the sine qua non of meaningful poetry. Similarly, Michel Foucault has persuasively argued that the discourse of liberation from Victorian sexual conventions actually constructs the sexual subject as much as it frees it from those conventions. A Foucauldian might also object to what appears in the poem to be the all too facile equation of the self with sexuality, particularly in the narrator's denunciation of Dickinson's "lost garment of herself." Nevertheless, such an assertion on the part of Lowell for the equality and necessity of the erotic does meaningful political work towards legitimating female sexuality and homosexuality at a time when neither, despite our collective fantasies of the liberated 20s, were generously perceived. Further, I hope a reading that privileges the universality of the erotic--as sometimes happens with critics of Whitman's (homo)eroticism--doesn't also have to obscure or closet the specifics of the homoerotic. I don't think that need be the case: it certainly isn't, I would argue, for Lowell in "The Sisters."


Title John Marsh: On "Sisters" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Marsh Criticism Target Amy Lowell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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