Kay Ryan on poetry

A poem really has no beginning and end, although it does appear to. All the parts of a poem exist as a sort of plasma, simultaneously apprehended, existing in the mind all at once, as soon as we have become familiar with them. The word “blight” constantly and forever charges every word in the poem, shores every word in the poem. It is Indra’s net, everywhere is the center, reflecting all. This great capacity of poetry is seldom so well exercised as it is here. The fact that the mind can move around in a poem—is asked to do this—is why poetry is considered the supreme art. Poetry is the shape and size of the mind. It works the way the mind works. It is deeply compatible with whatever it is we are. We dissolve in it; it dissolves in us.

Kay Ryan, On the Preposterous Beauty of Gerald Manley Hopkins

Mary Dorcey, ‘Kindling’ (1982) #20BooksOfSummer

Kindling is the first collection of poetry published by Irish feminist poet, Mary Dorcey. It’s a short book which you can easily read in an afternoon.

Some of the poems do feel very much of their time, rooted in second wave lesbian feminist politics and culture. They fall into two (linked) groups, poems that challenge the oppression of women under patriarchy (‘the vicious bigotry of all the Pope’s boys’), and poems that explore relationships between women, especially as lovers, friends and mothers and daughters.

There are poems about the position of women in Ireland (‘coming Home’, pornography (‘Photographs’), women’s incarceration in prison (‘Night Protest’) and mental institutions (‘Rope’), and conflicts within feminism (‘Colonised Minds’). ‘In a Dublin Nursing Home’ a lesbian couple have to pretend to be relatives, an experience I’ve heard older lesbians and gay men describe.

They are ambitious, powerful poems, but overall, I preferred reading the more ambivalent, and perhaps messier poems about relationships between women, such as ‘Full Circle’, ‘The Quarrel’, ‘Night’ and ‘Friendship’. These are poems about the unruliness of desire and it’s rather consoling to see that ‘lesbian drama’ hasn’t changed that much in thirty years.

I will definitely look up more of Dorcey’s poetry and will be interested to see how she’s developed since 1982.  

You stretch your hand
to mine
and some ember of the me
that I was to you,
rekindles
and and in silence,
recovers the power
of speech.

‘After Long Silence’

Jane Hirshfield, ‘After’ (2006)

A photograph of the collection 'After'. The cover of the book is a painting of a window opening onto a landscape with trees and sky.

But thought is hinge and swerve, is winch, is folding.

Jane Hirschfield, ‘Articulation: An Assay;

I’d read a few poems by Jane Hirshfield over the years and thought that I should explore her work, but I didn’t buy a collection until I came across the poem ‘One Sand Grain Among the Others in Winter Wind‘.

This poem articulated something about loss that I was feeling at the time, but was unable to express. When I read it, I realised that what I was experiencing was a kind of pleading with the universe, “No, not this too, don’t I get to keep even this one small, precious thing?” That’s the power of poetry, that “yes, this is what I mean”.

After is quite an eclectic collection, both in terms of form and content. The poems range across topics such as philosophy, language, nature, the self, grief and death, and are thematically linked by a deep interest in the human condition. Many of the poems are concerned with the relationship between thought, speech and action. There is also a sense that language is often an inadequate tool to express human experience, but we must try because it is all we have.

Hirshfield has elaborated a sensuously philosophical art that imposes a pause in our fast-forward habits of mind. Her poems appear simple, and are not. Her language, in its cleanliness and transparency, poses riddles of a quietly metaphysical nature. Clause by clause, image by image, in language at once mysterious and commonplace, Hirshfield’s poems clear a space for reflection and change. They invite ethical awareness, and establish a delicate balance.

David Baker, quoted on Wikipedia

I find it difficult to write about the individual poems, possibly because they are so eclectic. As the blurb says, these poems are “an extended investigation into incarnation, transience and interconnection”. Some of my favourites include ‘Theology’, a poem about our desire to believe in miracles, and ‘After Long Silence’, which addresses the relationship between words and thoughts. I love ‘I Imagine Myself in Time’ a poem about that sense of multiple selves which develops as you get older and the realisation that a future self will one day be looking back at the person you are now, “And that other self, who watches me from the distance of decades, what will she say?” ‘Letter to C.’ is a moving poem for a dead friend and fellow poet. There are the ‘Assays’ dotted throughout the collection, examinations/investigations into words and what language does. There are beautiful encounters with nature. There are seventeen tiny “pebble” poems. After concludes with ‘It Was Like This: You Were Happy‘, a blunt study of mortality which strips the entirety of human life down to a sentence:

Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

This is an enriching collection which I’ll be keeping and revisiting again and again.

Jenny Factor, Unraveling at the Name (2002)

These dense, formal poems demand a lot of attention. They need to be read slowly and thoughtfully. Presented in three parts, Unraveling at the Name takes the reader on a deeply personal and uncompromisingly sexual journey through the experiences of young womanhood, marriage, awakening same-sex desire, divorce and single-motherhood. The experiences described by the speaker are common enough, but by elevating them through highly formal poetic structures Jenny Factor captures deep emotional truths about how life feels. Marilyn Hacker, blurbing the book, praisingly calls her use of the fifteen-sonnet heroic crown an “extravagant gesture”. and I think that’s the precisely the point.

Unraveling at the Name is Factor’s only collection and I really hope she publishes another one day.

Poetry Foundation, Jenny Factor

Sapphic Link Love #5

June Jordan, ‘These Poems

Casey, The Canadian Lesbrarian, Viscerally Real Queers, Dyke Processing, Kink, and Disability in Jane Eaton Hamilton’s novel WEEKEND

KQED, Rebel Girls from Bay Area History: Pat Parker, Lesbian Feminist Poet and Activist 

New York Review of Books, Alone with Elizabeth Bishop

LA Review of Books, Taking Responsibility, An Interview with Sarah Schulman

Albert Goldbarth, ‘The Sciences Sing a Lullabye’ (1948)

Albert Goldbarth, ‘The Sciences Sing a Lullabye’ 

Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you’re tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now.
Quit tapping your feet. They’ll dance
inside themselves without you. Go to sleep.

Judy Grahn, The Work of a Common Woman (1985)

Judy Grahn is a lesbian feminist poet and activist whose work is very much concerned with speaking back to power. Her project is one of radical redefinition rooted in a centering of the lives of ordinary women. The Work of a Common Woman brings together poems published between 1964 and 1977, a period when feminists were fighting to break free of patriarchal modes of representation and wrestle back control of the narratives through which women’s experiences had been mediated by culture. This was a time when one of the top feminist priorities was to get women’s voices out there, which obviously meant finding ways to bypass the gatekeepers of publishing and the media. Grahn was an important figure in this effort, co-founding the Gay Woman’s Liberation Movement and The Women’s Press Collective, as well as making her own work available in an accessible pamphlet form that could be easily circulated by women’s groups.

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