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.

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.