Friday, December 31, 2010

Janice N. Harrington on "Why, Oh Why, the Doily?"


“Why, Oh Why, the Doily?” was triggered by re-discovering a collection of doilies, family keepsakes. So began a meditation on the meaning of doilies and the devalued artistry of women. My early attempts in 2004 sounded elegiac—here’s a lost time and here’s what doilies meant. Despite continual revision, drafts never moved beyond the small container of personal history.

In 2007 I began working on a series of poems about the African American folk artist Horace Pippin. Pippin fought and was wounded in World War I. After the war, he drew memories of the war, still-life paintings, memory pictures of his childhood, portraits, and landscapes. He also painted, with meticulous deliberation, an amazing array of doilies. I didn’t see the connection, however, between Pippin’s work and my own early efforts to write about doilies until I read Selden Rodman’s Horace Pippin: A Negro Painter in America. Rodman’s words describing Pippin’s obsession with doilies gave me a springboard that led to the doily series. I knew I wanted a poem that enacted obsession, wanted to crochet a poem (links, chains, intertwining, dropped stitches) that moved from the specifics of family history and memory toward more abstract representations.

Section One
This section draws on my first attempts to write about doilies. It begins with memory: a woman crocheting beside the front window of her living room. I then join this memory to other threads. I wanted to ground readers with a clear, understandable image before moving forward.

Sections Two to Six
If readers think of the themes that the poem engages as threads, then it is possible to see weavings and interweavings. The poem is growing from a specific memory to the ways doilies trigger memory and, more broadly, to cultural memory (ring games, Little Sally Walker, childhood), always expanding: doilies as works of art, architecture, mathematical expressions, etc. While I wrote, I continually asked myself, what are doilies? What do they do? Why do we make them? Why am I captivated by a construction of tangled thread? Those questions drove and built each section.

Section Seven
Like doilies, catalog cards (in the predominantly female world of libraries) are made by women. Like doilies, catalog cards are anonymous. No one recalls the art that assigned a book’s location or captured a book’s content with a snapshot of language. I saw a sympathy between the art of making doilies and the art of making catalog cards. The poem describes the doily in the condensed, objective language of a library card and presents the rhizomatic connections that place doilies in larger contexts, including an allusion to Bishop’s “Filling Station.”

Section Eight
What are doilies trying to say to us? The poem suggests this large biblical word: Behold! The word of angels and old testament prophets. Doilies are baroque and ornate. The word “look” didn’t have the weight that I wanted readers to consider. I also saw this sentence as a way to clean the reader’s palate before the longer and more expansive meditation of Section Nine.

Section Nine
Readers might see a contradiction between section eight and section nine. Doilies know only one word, yet later a doily asks questions. Does this mean that the questions that doilies ask don’t require language? That form and the relationship of their threads shape the questions that doilies ask?

If they ask questions, then can they also generate narrative? Perhaps some doilies can only speak one word, but others have a larger vocabulary? The poem never settles those questions.

Section Nine builds on the visual format of a Bernard Tschumi essay and adapts it for its own purposes. It was probably the most challenging part of the poem. I had to formulate the abstract queries that I hoped would defamiliarize the doily. If section nine succeeds, then a reader can no longer look at any doily as “just a doily” or as “handiwork—women.”

Section Ten
This section completes the poem’s arc from personal memory to an ekphrastic poem that weighs the artistic obsessions of Horace Pippin. Pippin’s doilies look like the barbed wire fences of No Man’s Land. They speak to the eye, and the hand can almost lift them from the canvas.

The last section also alludes to Frost’s bitter “The Road Not Taken.” Although Frost’s poem defies easy sentimentalism, when I study Pippin’s doilies I see converging trails. I see the doily as a vehicle of expression and as a way of seeking. Pippin was searching. Artists search. And so, metaphorically, the doily grew into a labyrinth, a maze of lace that completed the poem.


  1. Delighted to see "Horace Pippin" and "Janice N. Harrington" given status as Labels--I knew too little of either before. But the inclusion of the word "doilies" itself is my very favorite. In the vein of beautiful anonymous work, needlework--and catalog cards! brilliant observation on Janice Harrington's part--addresses omission of this form simply by being acknowledged, in the plural--Those Various Doilies--under a name that can be indexed, as such, right along with the proper nouns that index software would pick out. I love the way Harrington makes taxonomy itself part of this bolt. The Labels entry in itself is like a found poem, swedish blue floss worked on white linen. Why? Because it looks nice, is useful, was available, took time. And the series itself is just beautiful. I feel I have discovered, right at the end of the month, too, another kindred spirit in the recto and verso of BPJ.

  2. Hello Janice,
    I have greatly enjoyed this wonderful poem of yours; highly original and free, rich and witty.
    How it gently moved me; into the abstract, memory, associations, questions, questions, your world, Pippin's, and then my own. It is a journey with doilies (like flying saucers or carpets) for a vehicle. Liked the way it moves into the absurd. I guess it is almost exhaustive qua doilies; like ML I loved the taxonomy part. And Bishop's intro is just perfect.
    So Doilies, as you point out, will be far more than just 2D-piedestals for the (absent) love object; they will be love-objects themselves.
    When reading your poem, I remembered the doily on my grandmother's easy chair, and lifting it, just to have a peek... I found this huge tear in the chair's fabric (green velvet). So they served to cover things up as well. Or, to protect (wood) furniture against damage by the (hard, often metal) objects. The more practical (under)side...
    I had never before thought of them doilies as being 'mental', a metaphor for the mind itself. Among other things...
    Mind-opening, a breath of fresh air, so, thank you.