The poetry of Nin Andrews is a multi-faceted exploration of the experience of being female. Andrews writes as an insider; that is, she writes through the female body, through the persona of a girl evaluating cultural messages, and through a woman in relationship as daughter, mother, lover, wife. In The Book of Orgasms, she gives a playful voice to various aspects of female sexuality. Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane interrogates the socialization of girls. Her newest book Southern Comfort is an autobiographical series of poems that examines her parents’ marriage and sexuality, the indoctrination girls endured at her Catholic school in Virginia, and the humorous and didactic stories her mother told Nin and her sisters about their emerging womanhood. Andrews works from the local to the global, grounding her stories in specificity yet connecting with broader female themes of relationship, work, humor and meaning. She also works from the global to the local, painting broad strokes and then drawing the reader in – Don’t you see yourself here? Her work is engaging, tough, intimate, tender, devastating, generous, forgiving, and laugh-out-loud funny.
Sex is a recurring theme in Andrews’ poems. Women in particular have a complicated relationship with sex. As girls they are warned away from the dangers. In “Bathing in Your Brother’s Bathwater,” Catholic middle school teacher Miss De Angelo instructs her adolescent girls never to use the same bath water as their teenage brothers. “Even if he doesn’t touch himself,/the water does./And it only takes one./One fast moving whip-tailed sperm./And you know how easy it is to catch a cold,/how quickly that little virus races clear through you./And once that happens,/no one will believe you’re any Virgin Mary,/no matter what you say” (Southern Comfort 9). This kind of indoctrination, however scientifically challenged, lays the groundwork for the female push-pull, attract-repel to sexuality and the sexual experience.
As Andrews girls grow older, they become aware of their longing, their power and their limitations. They also come to understand their relationship with objectification. The poem “Pants” is a metonymical exploration of the idealized female body:
Outside the apartment building a pair of women’s pants are walking away. They are slender pants, carefully tailored pants, sleek black velvet pants, subtle and suggestive pants, pants that are the envy of women whose calves can’t possibly enter such tiny, delicate leg holes, pants that speak of a sylph-like woman, an airy woman, barely a size five, possibly a model or a ballerina who no longer walks on earth while men stare after her hopelessly, while other women, ordinary women, watch and weep and the pants, those sensuous pants, simply sigh. (29 Orgasms)
The breathless hypotaxis feeds a light-headed illogic. The sexual ideal cannot be reached by women or men. Despite being warned about sex in their youth, women long to be desired, but now instead of being restricted by others, they conjure up the prohibitive voices in their own minds. Only the slenderest fraction of women are models or ballerinas, yet in this poem, all women who are not “watch and weep” over their perceived loss of perfection. Men who presumably have or could have access to other, less narrowly defined women also pine. Interestingly, the pants, who “simply sigh,” are unhappy too, perhaps because they are empty and walking away, since so few women fit into them. Or perhaps they realize the absurdity of the system – everyone wants to desire and be desired, yet our self-imposed category of desirability is stupidly restrictive. It is worth noting that these are women’s pants, and not men’s pants, yet by narrowly focusing on one body type, competing men run up against the same loneliness, only on the flip side.
Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane interrogates the gender role instruction kids grew up with in the 50s and 60s. The pre-Seuss Dick and Jane readers taught schoolchildren much more than reading – it was Dick who played sports and ran with Spot the dog and rescued Puff the kitten. Jane stood by in her blue ruffled dress making monosyllabic exclamations. In Andrews’ re-examination, contemporary gender role values are imposed on the connotated world of white, middle class ‘50s suburbia. In one poem, a young girl named Stephanie writes to Jane, asking why she lets Dick win every single race. “Does he ever come in second, she asked. Didn’t Stephanie know? Jane’s job was to clap so Dick could run fast, to be silly so that Dick could laugh, to cry so Dick could comfort her, to scream oh no, so that Dick could save the day or Puff, the kitten” (23). In the end, however, Jane could not resist the radical feminist belief that women, too, should strive for self-actualization. In the poem “Fantasy Jane” she looks back on her life,
Jane never knew how it happened. Her life, her love, her dreams… What were they? Had she always been just a fantasy, a fantasy of Dick’s? But of which Dick? Was that the question of her life? Her life of so many Dicks. Her father was a Dick, her brother was a Dick, her neighbor and her neighbor’s neighbor and of course her husband, too. (19)
Gender roles are further explored as well as complicated in Andrews’ most autobiographical collection Southern Comfort. The mother wears the pants in this household. After the father spills $105-an-ounce Christian Dior Diorissimo perfume on his favorite suit, he complains to everyone that “he couldn’t comprehend how a sane soul could live with a woman whose bathroom is nothing but a maze of perfumes, powders, lotions, elixirs, pills, douches, palliatives, and God only knows what all else.” (64) He doesn’t get the last word, however. As Andrews observes,
My mother had an instinct for retaliation. She began to inquire of guests at cocktail parties just why it is a man can’t learn to control his aim. After twelve years of marriage, not a morning had passed, she explained, when she had not had to Lysol and wipe up at least one splash from the rim of her toilet bowl or floor… She even began to wonder why some sort of disposable funnel had not been invented by Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson, which could be attached to a penis, perhaps with a rubber band or Velcro, and made to conduct the flow neatly into a toilet bowl without mishap. (64)
In the end, a sign goes up on the door: Women Only. She concludes, “In a house of many daughters, the message was clear. My father was not welcome” (64). In both poems, “The Fight” and “Fantasy Jane,” the penis becomes something of a joke, thereby subverting traditional male power. Word play softens the blow, and there is no blood – this time – but it is a theme that weaves in and out of the poems.
Andrews’ mother and father continue to compete, contradict and generally argue their way through the book, and their daughters sometimes have to choose which parent to align with – the northern, fact-stickler mother or the southern, mythmaking father; but in the end, Andrews uses humor and nostalgia to reveal the nature of her relationship to them. In the title poem, which takes place when the mother is away, Andrews and her father stay up late sipping whiskey drinks, even though Andrews is still a small girl. He sits on the couch and reads, and she lies belly-down looking at picture books she’d read “a thousand times,” and pretends that was all there was, “the two of us alone, together, on a summer night” (66).
Things don’t always work out so neatly, though. The collections Why They Grow Wings and Sleeping With Houdini give voice to women who would specialize in flight or other disappearing acts. They have nightmares of drowning or being eaten inside out by tigers. They have suicidal urges and are saved, perhaps by electro-shock, or are not saved. They are seduced away from everything they know, or they hurl themselves at unnoticing strangers. They are left by lovers and fathers. “The Kiss” is about the obsession that follows a break-up. The speaker begins, “At first I thought it would be simple to forget.” But it doesn’t work that way. “Days passed, so many of them, and in each one I saw you again and called your name like a chant, a song, a prayer. Soon I became so used to you, leaving your trace in my mind, like a shadow on the sea, a sea of shadows. Only the birds kept watching, lifting me each morning out of my darkness.” The poem continues to chronicle spiraling despair:
How I envied you, then, and all men like you, who float like milkweed in the wind, wandering through random cities, cities full of houses, houses full of rooms, rooms bleeding light in the darkness, the scope of their thoughtlessness extending infinitely outwards in a shimmering, an envelope of light, before vanishing forever.” (42)
In this poem it is he who seems to disappear, slipped from his underwater chains like Houdini. But that’s the illusion: it’s really she who has vanished, since her retreat into depressive sleeplessness prevents her from being a participant in her own life. Presumably, in the world, the actual world that Andrews inhabits, there are thoughtless women who float like milkweed in wind, but in this poem it is the woman who is left behind collapsing.
Sometimes the loneliness kicks in before anything else can happen. In the poem “Adolescence,” a girl finds her body is changing into something undesirable. Andrews uses the language and imagery of fairy tales (castle at the bottom of the sea), laced with contemporary details (blue jeans and Band-aids).
The winter her body no longer fit, walking felt like swimming in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. Everything stuck to her skin: gum wrappers, Band–aids, leaves. How she envied the other girls, especially the kind who turned into birds. They were the ones boys hand–tamed, training them to eat crumbs from their open palms or to sing on cue. What she would have done for a red crest and a sharp beak, for a little square of blue sky to enter her like wings. But it was her role to sink so the others could rise, hers to sleep so the others could dance. If only her legs weren’t too sodden to lift, if only her buttons would unfasten in the water she kept swimming through, and she could extract from the shadow of her breasts a soul as soft as a silk brassiere, beautiful and useless, like a castle at the bottom of the sea. (Why They Grow Wings 23)
This young woman grieves much as the women weeping over the tiny velvet pants. They seem, either temporarily or permanently, to lack the ability to either present themselves as desirable despite their failure to match up with some ideal, or to say to hell with desirability: I’m doing something else with my life. In this way, Andrews shows us that the myth itself is failing women. She is serving in the role of Stephanie, asking if Dick doesn’t ever come in second?
Through humor, exposing taboo, and kicking sacred cows, Andrews shows us the folly of some of our traditional gender assumptions and their limitations for both men and women, with a particular sensitivity to women. She notes in an interview with MiPoesias Magazine that gender bias even slips into the way we read her work. I will give her the last word: “One question I am so often asked is, how can I write like that, meaning how can I write about sex. Don’t I worry that my parents will see? My first answer is no. Let’s face it. Few poets have high visibility. And if that’s ever a problem, then congratulations. And my second answer is, would you be asking me that same question if I were male?”
Andrews, Nin. The Book of Orgasms. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2000.
— . Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane. Washington DC: Web del Sol Association, 2005.
— . Sleeping with Houdini. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd., 2008.
— . Southern Comfort. Glen Rock, New Jersey : Cavankerry, 2009.
— . Why They Grow Wings Berkeley, California: Silverfish Review Press, 2001.
Karen Schubert’s poems appear or are forthcoming in MUSE, Jenny, Penguin Review, Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar, Redactions and others. Her chapbooks are Bring Down the Sky (Kattywompus, forthcoming) and The Geography of Lost Houses (Pudding House, 2008). Nominated for 2011 Best of the Web, she teaches writing at Youngstown State University.