Catherine Daly: Four Female American Poets, Four Feminisms

The Woman Behind You, Julie Fay
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998
Paper, 81 pps., $12.95
ISBN 0-8229-5682-9
(second book)

 The Groundnote, Janet Kaplan
alicejamesbooks, 1998
Paper, 79 pps., $11.95
ISBN 1-882295-19-6
(first book)

 The Allegory of the Supermarket, Stephanie Brown
University of Georgia Press, 1998
Paper, 89 pps., $15.95
ISBN 0-8203-2068-4
(first book)

 Bad Judgement, Cathleen Calbert
Sarabande Books, 1999
Paper, 72 pps., $12.95
ISBN 1-889330-24-8
(second book)

This review will survey four of dozens of American female poets who've published books with the last year or so. None of the poetry is experimental. Most of the poems are free verse. Kaplan, Fay, and Calbert actively define themselves as feminists, and have published individual poems from their collections in feminist journals. Brown's feminist messages are just as clear.

 Calbert's technically smooth writing pleasingly balances her expected observations. This satisfaction of expectation seems deliberate. Narrators realize they are both inside and outside a circle of married and unmarried heterosexual middle class women slogging through this book's secondary subjects, which include vampires, angels, puppies, cats, and babies. The poems explore meaning and the idea of meaning, this book's primary subjects, quietly, consistently, in a way which demonstrates and appreciates the small victories of second wave feminism.

Well, so what if we are
making an easy mythology,

 misusing spare parts of old creeds,


 Let's play with our angels playfully,

 for they cannot mean anything
more than we can possibly mean.

         "The Last Angel Poem", p. 44

Calbert works with familiar female figures, including debutantes and housewives, and their supporting characters in order to apply her discovered interpretation of their meanings to herself and by extension to her audience. She works them as though they are unfamiliar figures, not "... wedding dresses, all traditional / in silhouette and sensibility" ("My Summer as a Bride", p. 54), and offers them up to a gentle cultural critique.

This is a self-involved, "post" second wave feminism, where "... wanting to have a man again / before I die ... / ... / wanting to get off, get even, get lucky, get laid ..." ("Trinity", p. 12) means exactly what it says. Her litany of stock "female" phrases in the title poem, "Bad Judgement", is wonderfully snide; the first poem in the book, "When Nights Were Full of Sex and Churches", enjoyably surreal, and she proves throughout the book that she is a tremendously skilled technician: no writing here is awkward, forced, or unpolished.

 Janet Kaplan has more difficulty with phrasing than Calbert, but proves a command of a wide range of subject matter as well as lyric narrative structure as she retells the horrific story of her mother's depression and suicide and reveals that story's effect on her own life. Her use of music and dance is marvelous, as indicated by the book title, The Groundnote, taken from Adrienne Rich, well known feminist musician-turned-poet. A coming of age in the city poem begins:

From New York's outer boroughs toward center,
Central Park and the cymbalistic climax
to the 1812 Overture -- and, over
Manhattan's half-moon, the accompanying
explosions (cyclamen, sunflower,
chrysanthemum) flaring into blossom.

         "Poem", p. 17

The collection starts with a poem about appropriately-selected chanteuse Edith Piaf and is interspersed with quotes about tragic figures and poems inspired by such quotes. The life and writing experiences Kaplan's poetry depicts are primarily mediated by the figure of her mother, a frustrated writer, and secondarily by her other female relatives.

 The alicejamesbooks editing process failed Kaplan: this book could have used a careful editor to touch up typos.

 In Allegory of the Supermarket, Stephanie Brown shows herself a savvier cultural critic than Cathleen Calbert, although not as detail-oriented a technician. Brown is more concerned with reading signs and fitting them together to tell a larger story than coming to conclusions which establish her place in the allegory.

 She describes misshapen people waiting in line at the grocery checkout to buy foods that are appropriate to the lives and deaths that shape them. Her descriptions use phrases and exclamations taken from the magazines available at the same checkout. Most of her character studies are female, but fail to escape skewering based upon stereotypes. This is unfortunate. Brown's narrator is joyfully wayward in a way that makes these judgmental missteps trite.

 At her best, Brown writes frankly, with humor. In "Fashion and the Fat Girl", the repeated phrase in each stanza evolves from "think about it", to "face it", to "feel it"; the idea is evoked with sharp observation and telling detail, including, "the tiny red bow attached to her red bra which peeks out from her linen blouse"; and the poem's trope succeeds as it moves from the difficulty of finding clothing, never mind being fashionable, for a body that doesn't conform to a fashionable standard to how observers might "try on" a woman, thinking about having sex with her or what having sex with her might be like, to the book's title.

 Calbert has been praised for her Whitmanesque phrasing, although the influence of Walt Whitman is more apparent in Brown's work. Brown actively seeks to capture something spacious, something indicative, something joyful to contrast with the ways middle class life has narrowed.

 Julie Fay writes directly about her relationships. Fay has been criticized for writing about her unreconstructed sex life. She writes about sex with less grace than Calbert and less humor than Brown, but here sex is tangential to the lessons of relationships, particularly relationships outside of sex: of poet to emotion to world.

 Her relationships with men are tangential to her relationships with women. She makes her poetry through her relationships with mother, sister, and friends, and uses these gender relationships explore ideas of mirroring in her writing.

... hold a mirror
to study ceilings: apotheosis
of the loved one: everyone sweeps toward
heaven with that easy urgency
Tintoretto's caught, divine because

 they're flawed, not in spite of.

         "Christmas Shopping in Venice", p. 49

While her words themselves aren't tactile, Fay uses them to handle many different tones within a poem and from poem to poem. In her desire to capture the right tone for her message, she escapes the more awkward phrases of Kaplan, but stumbles through plenty of awkward poem openings and scene movements. The way that Fay uses her relationships with the other women in her life to mirror her relationship to the world can be compared to the way that Kaplan uses her relationships with women to mediate her experience of the world. Each method is a different version of a gender feminism in which relationships with men are what they are, but relationships with women carry meaning and power.