Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 25, January 2013—Feminist Issue)

Rachel Zucker
a homespun of questions pulled over a loom of gender and race with the voices of ancestral (mostly living) women speaking in the lacunae

1. Is a question a feminized form of the statement?

2. What, other than embarrassment—fear of sounding uneducated, unsure, ahistorical, inexpert, unmasculine, untenured—stops me from beginning this lecture where I want to begin—with myself—without the cloak of form (in this case a self-imposed skein of interrogatories)?

Alice Notley: “Men who have written them [epics] since Homer have tended, or tried, to be near the center of the politics of their time, court or capitol. Thus, how could a woman write an epic?” i

3. How can I explain: what I care about is not just what someone says but how someone says it and who says it? How is this political?

Alice Notley: “It’s the only power I have.” ii

4. Why do women need to tell their birth stories? Are birth stories women’s war stories?

Alice Notley: “It is essential that women like myself speak out.” iii

5. Aside from telling stories—especially the stories which involve the fracture, dislocation, explosion of the self—is there any way to put one’s self back together again, to become whole, to make sense of the moments in which we—you and I—are transformed into life-making or life-taking beings and become super- or sub-human—is there any anodyne or palliative for this fragmentation other than artmaking?

Alice Notley: “This is the only power I have.” iv

6. Perhaps poetry should not try to repair fragmentation but should move from the “I” to the self, which embraces and includes the “I” but which also includes the unconscious psyche and is an ideal greatness where everything is connected to everything else—is the “I” owned/invented by the patriarchy anyway?

Bernadette Mayer: “The history of every historical thing including God but not including all men and women individually is a violent mess like this ice. But for the spaces even hunchbacked history has allowed in between the famous and loud for something that’s defined as what does please us. Which is perhaps the story of an intimate family, though you won’t believe or will be unable to love it, driven to research loves’ limits in its present solitude as if each man or woman in the world was only one person with everything I’ve mentioned separate in him or she didn’t represent history at all though he or she had stories to tell and was just sitting kind of crazily before an open window in midwinter…” v

7. Am I saying that the self is always male and female and neither but the “I” is almost always male? White? Dominant? Straight? That to speak or write as we have known it is to put on that mantle of authority and what does this have to do with poetry or with government?

Alice Notley: “I don’t have a lyric voice anymore.” vi

8. Does this appease or inflame my student who recently accused me of reinforcing a gender binary that no longer exists or another student who tried to convince me we live in a post-racial world?

9. Am I a token female?

Alice Notley: “No woman is like Helen, no matter what the male poets say… Only men are like them, in the sense that they invented them—they are pieces of the male mind.” vii

10. Do I dare call attention to our whiteness? Straightness? Who would like to be the first to accuse me of identity politics? Which is greater: the danger of speaking for others or the danger of keeping silent? Why have we been allowed to speak? Chosen? Listened to?

Bernadette Mayer: “What but the impulse to move and speak / Can change the world / Where should we move / who is this person speaking / Who am I speaking to / To you whom I love, / Can I say that?” viii

11. If I was writing poems before I had children, why do I say now that motherhood was the crisis that informed/inspired my real work and that now, though I am still primarily, fundamentally, eternally a mother first and foremost and forever, that the crisis of motherhood has ebbed and truly I find the need to speak diminished, blunted? What, retrospectively, does this prove about the need to speak?

Alicia Ostriker: “but who can tolerate the power of a woman / close to a child, riding our tides / into the sand dunes of the public spaces.” ix

12. Why do women need to tell their birth stories? Are we healing ourselves or the culture? Was/is anyone listening?

Tillie Olsen: “Traces of their making, of course, in folk song, lullaby, tales, language itself, jokes, maxims, superstitions…” x

13. If Alice Notley is my patronus, why does she not appear as a female stag with golden antlers and carry me away from this panel?

14. Why is there no name for the birth poem when we have “elegy” for death? What if I refuse to tell you what to think? Or what I think? Why should I tell this in order or make an argument or prove my point with evidence? Who invented that form? Why did the culture tell me not to say? Not to tell it? And why must I, if I must, tell it slant?

Bernadette Mayer: “From dreams I made sentences, then what I’ve seen today, / Then past the past of afternoons of stories like memory / To seeing a plain introduction of modes of love and reason, / Then to end I guess with love, a method to this winter season” xi

15. Why, when I had already read Stealing the Language (Alicia Ostriker) and Writing Like a Woman (Ostriker) and Of Woman Born (Adrienne Rich) did it take co-writing a book about giving birth at home and subverting the “I” voice of single authorship for me to see that I’d been speaking, always, in a borrowed language and pre-made forms?

16. Why did I not see, until writing an overtly polemical book—see the women crying in the audiences and the scorn of young graduate students at Prairie Lights and the pushback and anger and confusion and the gratitude—how thoroughly I had been dissuaded from writing about something, from writing politically, in a political manner which is to say of/for/about people & power, which is to say also female, a feministic diatribe meant to affect social change and to name names?

Alice Notley: “Perhaps this time she wouldn’t call herself something like Helen; perhaps instead there might be recovered some sense of what mind was like before Homer, before the world went haywire & women were denied participation in the design & making of it.” xii

17. Did I think that re-imagining the story of Persephone from a female point of view had political value? Did I think telling the story of my second son’s birth in all the mess and glory and dislocation in a way I had never seen birth described before in a poem had political relevance? Did I think telling the “true” story of (my) wifehood and motherhood was political? Did I think spending years collecting essays by young women poets about their female mentors in order to describe a permission-giving influence rather than a “kill the father” model would change anything/anyone? Did I think asking 99 poets to write a poem for one of Obama’s first 100 days of presidency would make me a responsible poet-citizen? Would make me part of the political process?

18. How did I feel when I realized the birth I had described was mine and also the birth given to me by a patriarchal system of medicine that despises women’s bodies? How did I feel when the mentorship book was dismissed as too anecdotal and unscholarly and could not find a place in the academic male-storm? How did I feel when I realized that the Obama poem project, while “community-building” and about government, mostly failed mostly to be political in its making or reception?

19. Why should you care how I feel or how anyone feels? Does caring about someone’s feelings have anything to do with politics or poetry? What is the voice of a woman? A white woman, a straight, Jewish-American woman—and why does it matter who is speaking and how can it not matter?

20. If everyone were busy caring for someone—a child, a parent, a friend, a person in need or even one’s self, in a deep way—would we then have no time or energy left for war? What would government be without the possibility of war—can you even imagine? Do you have the language to imagine? Do you have the need, the right, the privilege, the method, the desire to speak?


i “Homer’s Art,” Grave of Light, Wesleyan Press, 2006.
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ii Comment, AWP reading and conversation, March 1, 2012.
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iii “Homer’s Art,” Grave of Light, Wesleyan Press, 2006.
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iv Ibid.
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v Midwinter Day, New Directions Press, 1982.
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vi Comment, AWP reading and conversation, March 1, 2012.
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vii “Homer’s Art,” Grave of Light, Wesleyan Press, 2006.
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viii Midwinter Day, New Directions Press, 1982.
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ix “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas,” The Mother/Child Papers, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.
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x Tillie Olsen, Silences, The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2003.
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xi Midwinter Day, New Directions Press, 1982.
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xii “Homer’s Art,” Grave of Light, Wesleyan Press, 2006.
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