Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Elizabeth Langemak on "Expectation" and "Illinois Cornfield as Nude Descending Staircase"

I wrote “Expectation” after visiting Walt Whitman’s tomb in Camden, New Jersey. I suppose this isn’t surprising. But the thing that surprises me, looking back on it, is that I started writing the poem even before I arrived at the cemetery. As I was getting into the car twenty miles away, I already understood how everything would turn out: I knew that I would expect—or hope—to feel moved at the tomb. I also knew that I wouldn’t be.

And that’s how it went. I left the cemetery sensing—as I knew I would—that I’d somehow failed to comprehend something spelled out very clearly in front of me. I spent a long time afterward struggling to write a very different poem about Whitman but then realized that the more interesting poem, for me, was about this failure to connect with what I objectively understood to be an important or interesting moment.

I’ll also say that the experience of writing this poem—and of visiting the tomb in the first place—was colored by the weird understanding that I was going to write a poem about whatever happened there. I have this feeling a lot, and the feeling is, I’ll admit, dirty. I visit tombs, talk to my students, look at art, think about movies and deer and breakfast and conversations with the people I love most in this sort of mindset. There isn’t much escape from it, and I understand that this isn’t an original feeling. Stephen Dunn has a great poem called “The Routine Things Around the House” where he confesses that “When Mother died / I thought: now I’ll have a death poem. / That was unforgiveable.” Perhaps it is unforgiveable, but I’ve forgiven him because I’ve come to believe that this constant scheming is an unavoidable symptom of the poem-writing condition. We expect a little better of ourselves, and yet.

While “Expectation” tries to deal with these abstract ideas in a concrete way, “Illinois Cornfield as Nude Descending Staircase” is a comparison between an abstract painting and the concrete image of a cornfield. I wrote the poem last fall after returning from a run along some Illinois country roads. Looking at the cornstalks, I had the nagging sense that they reminded me of something and was surprised to realize, when I returned, that I was thinking of Marcel Duchamp’s painting. Hitting on this identification was exhilarating; it was like believing I saw the face of someone I knew in a crowd, deciding it couldn’t be that person, and then realizing that it was.

The most interesting realizations I’ve had about this poem, however, have occurred in the process of writing this essay. As I wrote, I showed drafts to two readers I trust; both times this has resulted in conversations about the appearance of the word “woman” in the poems’ last lines. To my surprise, both readers argued that the “woman still unshucked” in “Illinois Cornfield” suggests a feminist reading for the poem as a whole. In the first conversation, my reader was interested in the multiple connotations of the word “shuck”; she suggested that shucking might be something that is done to a woman, perhaps with a sexual connotation. In the second, my reader and I discussed the poem’s genesis in Duchamp’s painting; he reminded me of the implied power of a male artist’s gaze on a nude female figure.

I understand and like these readings but, quite honestly, I wasn’t thinking of either when I wrote the poem. I suspect, for example, that I simply assumed the female figure’s autonomy: the shucking, as I originally imagined it, is not done to the woman but is something that the woman does for herself as part of an evolution made visual by the painting. Nor did I think about the male artist’s gaze on the female body. In fact, one of my favorite stories about Duchamp’s painting concerns the controversy it originally created because the “nude” doesn’t really resemble a woman, naked or otherwise. My most immediate concern in writing the poem was how I might convincingly reproduce my excitement in sensing a visual connection between a cornfield and an abstract painting not known for its resemblance to any part of Illinois.

I see, however, that the woman’s appearance at the end of this poem and of “Expectation” is suggestive, especially when the poems are read together. In answer to the questions this might raise, I’d like to suggest that both poems use the word “woman” in similar ways: in each, I have purposefully used it rather than “person” or “man” in order to avoid vagueness or inaccuracy. From my perspective, both poems spend most of their time approaching ungendered notions such as disappointment or change. Perhaps this privileging of verbal specificity and universal experience over gender issues is ultimately the happy product of feminism, if not the outright feminist gesture that my readers saw; in these poems, I assume the right to speak as or about a woman without consistently monitoring what the final product claims about that woman’s relationship to men. Or perhaps not. I’m also willing to imagine that I’ll revisit this essay in a few years and wonder how I could have ignored my obvious impulses to address feminist issues.

At any rate, in writing this essay I’ve been reminded of how exciting it is to discover things I didn’t originally know about my own work. I’ve also been reminded of how easy—and tempting—it is to ordain poems with meanings that I didn’t originally intend. That said, there is a sizeable part of me that wishes I had aimed for the meanings other readers have ascribed to my poems, which enrich them in compelling ways. And, of course, there is also the part of me that knows it doesn’t matter what I intended. The poems live in the world now, and as they find their readers they find their meanings.

1 comment:

  1. I'm working on a story that features dog sitting right now -- probably because I sat a dog last week. And last night, sitting with friends, many small things sparked me to say "There's an idea for a story" (by which I actually meant 'that's something to inspire a story, poem, ad infinitum'). I tend to think of all this as part of the job of the creative writer, though, in a way that New Journalism let it be part of media since the mid-twentieth century. I think the tricky part comes not in reacting to what occurs, but in seeking out the perfect thing to which to react. Of course we sometimes assign ourselves topics for focus, but when does that become seeking the predetermined archetype and thus reducing the observation to a required footnote (read: proof)? Not that I think this is what Langemak has done with the grave site; she had a theory and it rang true, which slips to a different place.