The Critical Flame Commits to a Whole Year of ONLY Women Writers & Writers of Color

The Critical Flame is a small literary magazine and its editor Daniel Pritchard has decided to commit this magazine to doing one small thing to fight gender and racial disparity in literature. I admire Pritchard’s move, it’s the right one to make. Here at Gently Read Literature, I’ve made it a point to feature women reviewers and to review women. I’m hoping that soon, GRL will be able to mirror The Critical Flame.


In Which The Critical Flame Dedicates One Year to Women Writers and Writers of Color

Women writers and writers of color are underserved and undervalued by the contemporary literary community. The phenomenon has been well documented by critics such as Roxane Gay and Ruth Franklin, and by organizations like VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (n.b. I am a member of the VIDA board). This disparity deserves greater attention from academics and social scientists, who could at least bring some much-needed rigor (and funding) to bear. It is vital that we uncover the mechanisms that produce this disparity. You can’t fight what you cannot see, as the adage goes.

What we can see today are the outlines of a culture still dominated by white male figures, and by the presumption of their essential literary merit, everywhere from major publishing houses to small literary journals. As far as mainstream literary culture is concerned, white males are the default. They continue to personify the sublime human person, accessible to all readers, while other writers—women, African Americans, latinos, etc.—are presumed to relate an incomplete version of life, narrowed by their lack of access to this white male universality.

This is all disappointingly banal. Today’s patterns of exclusion echo the ones we find all throughout our society, with little change over the last three decades. Regardless of what some pundits might argue, we are not post-race or post-men; we are not post-anything today except, I sometimes fear, reasonable hope.

In his iconic address, “This Is Water,” David Foster Wallace speaks about the reflexive consciousness of our perceptions and values: the awareness of a choice between our culturally-mediated default interpretation of the world, and something else. When we are at our best, that something is full of empathy, humanity, and compassion. But, the ability to choose our own value-filter exists only when we are aware that there is already a default, and that there is a choice. If this is so, then it seems that either the literary community has not realized the choice yet, or has chosen not to change. I’m not sure which is more disheartening.

Silence on this literary disparity has not been the problem over the past few years. Inertia has. Many editors seem immobilized by their options: either admit their failings and allow a bruise to the ego, or brush off the critique with grand claims about quality and editorial judgment. In one iteration, an unappealing act of self-flagellation that may well harm their own publication by alienating certain cultural power centers. In the other, adherence to a relatively painless status quo. Duty in conflict with conscience creates a difficult choice, even for the most moral person.

However, as I’ve written before, nothing will change if people do not act morally within their sphere of control. So, while The Critical Flame may not be a powerhouse of the literary world, we have yet decided to embark on a project that will help our readers, at the very least, perceive and evaluate the literary landscape differently. If there is a cycle of criticism / reviews, book sales, and publishing trends that perpetuates the unjust inequalities we’re seeing today, then CF will act in some small measure to break it.

Beginning with the May 2014 issue, The Critical Flame will dedicate one year of its review coverage wholly to women writers and writers of color.

CF will continue to publish well-written, insightful, long-form critical essays and reviews, all of which will cover women writers and writers of color, just as we did (without any advance planning) in the current issue.

I see no conflict between duty and conscience. CF is small, independent, and all-volunteer: our livelihoods do not depend on its financial success, so we are freer than some others (capitalism, literature, and marginalization—consider that a call for papers, ye writers). Also the often-cited dichotomy between quality and equality is, to my mind, bullshit. There are more good books than could ever be covered by any single publication; every issue’s selection of titles is just as much a result of luck, networking, and taste as it is of quality. This project presents a great opportunity to publish in-depth essays about undervalued writers, books, and traditions—what could be more exciting for a literary editor?

But this project will not succeed without the help of our contributors; and no doubt some of our readers will have feedback, questions, and concerns as well. Please feel free to get in touch via email. We look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

Daniel Evans Pritchard

Daniel Pritchard

Daniel E. Pritchard is the editor and publisher of The Critical Flame. His poetry and criticism can also be found at Little Star, Fulcrum, Battersea Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Idiom, and elsewhere.

The Conversation Contintues

DSCN3270Stacia Fleegal has written an excellent post that keeps the discussion going on Sandra Simonds et al’s drive to get the Poetry Foundation to turn a portion of its immense resources toward helping poets in need.


Here is the link to Fleegal’s piece & a excerpt:

I was going to just tweet about it and let it die: “Open letters are the bunnies of the written word–they just keep making more of themselves.”

But I got really upset and figured the most productive thing to do was to pledge my grievance, take my fight to the one place where it makes the most sense, where people will really care…my poor neglected blog.

Womp womp.

Poet Sandra Simonds did it better. She wrote a much-needed and increasingly publicized open letter to the Poetry Foundation asking, in a nutshell, for them to step up and help poets in economic need.

You know, to do its job, the one it purports to do bigger and better than anyone else.


Also, Simonds has share that there is actual progress being made at the Poetry Foundation. If we keep the discussion going, we could very well see needful action taken.

Gently Read Literature, 2013 Winter Issue

Well, it’s here in time for the new year–the first subscription-based issue of Gently Read Literature. GRL’s 2013 Winter Issue is packed with quality, in-depth reviews and essays.

 Subscribe & get your copy today! A year-long subscription to Gently Read Literature (3 issues) is $10 & will be delivered to you as a PDF. Via PayPal ( ) to the email address rr mail a check payble to Daniel Casey to

Daniel Casey

816 Indiana St

Lawrence, KS 66044

Table of Contents

Sigh Eternally: CL Bledsoe on Adam Clay’s poetry collection “A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World”

A Beginning For an Author Who Obviously Isn’t a Beginner: David Atkinson on Molly Ringwald’s novel “When It Happens To You”

Cycles of Time, Notes to a Tune: Kelly Lydick on Sandy Florian’s poetry collection “Prelude to Air from Water”

The Horse Doesn’t Always Flow: Nicole Contreras on Leslie Scalapino’s hybrid work “Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows”

Muddled & Luscious Residue: Todd McCarty on Ryan Teitman’s poetry collection “Litany for the City”

Ne’er-Do-Wells Who Plunder: CL Bledsoe on Dan Boehl’s poetry collection “Kings of the Fucking Sea”

Wild Prospecting: CL Bledsoe on Daniel Pyne’s novel “A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar”

More Language, More Linkages, More Minds, More Memes: Paula Koneazny on Laura Solomon’s poetry collection “The Hermit”

Kurt Brown’s The Pictorial Impulse: The Poem as Camera and Brush

Tom Bradley’s Foreword to the New Edition of My Hands Were Clean

The Friendly Highbrow: Heather Lang on Matthew Zapruder’s poetry collection “Come On All You Ghosts”

The Lyric Mode: Christopher Schaeffer on Dorothy Lasky’s poetry collection “Thunderbird”

Don’t Doubt Language: Jennifer Jean on Elain Equi’s poetry collection “Click & Clone”

The Transvaluated Body: Gary Sloboda on Christian Hawkey poetry collection “Citizen Of”

The Perfect and The Imperfect: Glenda Burgess on Gretchen Henderson’s novel “The House Enters the Street”

Smashing the Masks: Michelle Ovalle on Amal al-Jabouri’s “Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation”

Fluid Ease: Ann E. Michael on Elaine Terranova’s poetry collection “Dames Rocket”

What is Polish Poetry Like Today?: Mike Walker on Jacek Gutorow’s poetry collection “The Folding Star”

Deep Family in the High North: Kirsten Sworts on Melinda Moustakis’s short story collection “Bear Down Bear North”

Longing: Sara Habein on Kirsten Scott’s novel “Motherlunge”

Rural Gothic Literature: Casey Pycior on Jon Boilard’s novel “A River Closely Watched”

Flouting the Rules: Garry Craig Powell on Tom Williams’s novella “The Mimic’s Own Voice”

A Reckoning on the River:  Sophfronia Scott on Robert Vivian’s “Water and Abandon”

The Ghost Behind the Page: Author Revealed by Aine Greaney

There are two novels on my nightstand: an already-finished paperback by a popular male author, and a half-read hardcover by an equally popular female author. As a creative writer with a busy day-job, I’m mostly a nighttime reader. After a hectic day and commute, there’s nothing I love more than to switch on the bedside lamp and prop up my pillows and lose myself in a good story. It’s a coincidence, not literary bias, that both of my current nightstand novelists are British. Both are contemporary tales set in the U.K., and both books are about modern families in crisis. Each has something significant and universal to say about 21st-century life. The paperback is yellow. The hardcover is orange. So let’s call the male author Mr. Yellow Jacket. And let’s call the female author, Ms. Orange Peel.

Although I can’t wait to see how things turn out for Ms. Orange Peel’s family in turmoil, I don’t really want this 231–page novel to end. When I treat myself to one of this author’s books, I’m never ready to say goodbye. But no worries. Two or three months from now, I’ll pick up another of Ms. Orange Peel’s books, in which I will immerse myself in her characters’ squabbles and infidelities and uncertainties.

Ms. Orange Peel is among that small group of authors who appears again and again on my night stand. I’m a loyal reader. When I fall for an author, male or female, I fall hard. I commit to the long-term relationship. By contrast, I had to force myself to finish Mr. Yellow Jacket’s book, all the while wondering why I didn’t just quit and abandon. In fairness, I read it while I was in bed with a bad winter cold. So I wasn’t really looking for anything too deep. And truthfully, I did skip over some of the longer parts.

This is my second go-round with Mr. Yellow Jacket. Lured by the reviews and a particularly long author-interview on National Public Radio, I gave him a second chance. His books are cleverly plotted, and the writing is deft and witty. But as I add his book to the library’s booksale donation pile, I couldn’t tell you the name of one character in there. So this is goodbye for Mr. Yellow Jacket and me. We’re all through.

Why are some competent and well-reviewed books so forgettable? And, as readers, why do we commit to some authors and not to others?

So much of reading fiction is about personal taste. I’ve lost count of the number of New York Times bestseller books that I’ve found boring or shallow or confusing. And of course, there’s the issue of literary versus mainstream. Fast paced versus ponderous. Funny versus serious. And there are times when even our favorite authors disappoint. Or, depending on what’s going on in our own lives at the time, our tastes evolve or do a complete 180-change. But even within our preferred genres, our preferences are all about how an author uses language. It’s about the author’s subject matter. It’s also about the book’s setting (I despise books set in suburbia, USA), and the writer’s distinct narrative voice.

In my author-school days, Rule Number 1 was to never insert yourself between the story and the reader. Yet, I believe that too many modern fiction authors eclipse themselves completely from the work. As we read their books, we cannot sense the presence of an author-ghost behind the pages. While the story is clever or exciting or readable, the narrative provides no window into that author’s sensibilities or philosophies or attitudes. Quite simply, there’s no author there.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no great fan of the tell-all memoir in which we know every sordid nuance of a writer’s (and her family’s) life. And I hate those manipulative, tear-jerker stories that are really just literary gum-ball machines. Insert money. Get emotions. Equally, I don’t shy away from fictional or non-fiction stories about tough things. In fact, some of the world’s best writing has emerged from repressive regimes (A Thousand Splendid Suns) or bloody world wars (Pat Barker’s fabulous World War I novels) or genocidal atrocities (Elie Weisel’s works). But whether the topic is light hearted or harrowing, I want more than a story. I want more than an author’s extravagant vocabulary or his ploy to gain the critics’ attention or a larger publisher’s advance.

In a February 2011 post at the Guardian’s book blog, Gabriel Brownstein’s compares the critical response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom versus the response to Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector. Although both novels were released by two American authors on very similar themes, and both are “ambitious books that examine America before and after 9/11,” Franzen’s book reached instant stardom. His was the automatic shoe-in as the “great American novel.” Brownstein acknowledges Freedom’s scope and amplification. But he points to the difference in the reader-author relationships: “Franzen is dancing with you, sure…but his characters exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader; it’s addressed to judges and crowds.”

As I sit there propped against my nighttime pillows, I’m not a literary judge or critic. And as a reader, I’ve never, ever belonged to the “in” crowd. So I want an author who’s with me. Who subtly reveals himself to me. I want a deep, thoughtful writer. Someone I can still respect in the morning.


Aine Greaney is an Irish-born author and essayist now living north of Boston. Her latest novel, DANCE LESSONS, was released in April 2011, while her instructional book, “Writer with a Day Job,” (Writers Digest Books) will be released in June 2011. She’s also published short fiction, personal essays and feature articles, and she teaches creative writing workshops to adults and teens.

Khurshid Alam’s Investigative Poetry—An Interpretation on Subject, Treatment, and Technique

a window
on the real data, not a separate copy
of that data.
— J.H. Prynne, Poems.

Investigative Poetry

Investigative poetry is history in verse with investigative tinge and so it can also be called history poesy. Investigative poetry, to be recognized as a separate genre, requires much critical work into the making of the canon and creation of the works of the best crafts. Though Charles Olson and Edward Sanders have done worthy works towards creation of the crafts and standardization of the convention, it requires waddling yet deeper. Olson and Sanders believe that the trend is old one but because of governments’ tyranny from time to time the poets who were exploring had to backtrack or disguised their identity or presented their writings in codes so they are not explicit. In support of this opinion Sanders provides a series of the cases against the poets carried out by the political parties, governments, police and other agencies in his valuable book Investigative Poetry: The Content of History Will Be Poetry (1976, Blake Route Press).

History of investigative poetry is old one that began, Sanders traces, since William Blake’s The Songs of Innocence and Experience1 and has been well practiced by many other poets since such as P. B. Shelly, King George, William Pitt et al.2 ‘It is therefore my belief that virtually every major poet’s work in France and America for the past 100 years has prepared the civilization for the rebirth of history poesy.’3

Investigative poetry explores the reality of the conscious mind working behind the truth of the “representative history”. It is different from investigative journalism in the way that it is simply not limited to exploring a truth but shaking a man to the bone. In investigative journalism the primary purpose is to detect a truth in as simple ways as possible. While investigative poetry explores the truth with a mix of literary approach so it can reach to the majority and can make the people believe it.


What makes investigative poetry a separate genre is its approach: subject used for composing the investigative poetry, the treatment the poet uses in writing this genre, and the techniques.

History should be the rib of investigative poetry. But we have wider choice of picking up the historical records. One from the past; and second from the contemporary period. Past history has the potential to be the frame of the investigative poetry; but it lacks validity in some cases than others. Past history suffers from a chronic dispute that it is a “representative history” in many cases that a political government wants to have as such. And an investigation into the fact of the representative history or the past history can be alleged to be merely speculative which may attract arguments both in favor of it and against. Such speculation can lead to a wider platform of agreement and disagreement in the public domain and may meet a futile end. For there are people who may stand in support of the records of the representative history against those who suspect another sort of reality or who raise doubt to the representative history. Investigative treatment therefore can be accused to be biased as the data against a past historical record can be gathered only from sources that may be or may not be valid.

Contemporary history is a more fertile field as the facts behind a record can be under scanner of one and all in the present age. Even if there are disputes, investigation can be directed to a more unbiased treatment. For even the investigation can be under scanner and the present age can support with more acceptable approvals. Therefore, the content of contemporary history should be preferred for the content of investigative poetry.

In investigative poetry, investigative treatment should always be prominent. However mere “description of historical reality”4 is not enough in itself. For investigative poetry in that way would be nothing more than the representative history in verse, which derides of the very reason of investigation. Why yet another description of history at all! Investigation should bring out a new truth of the historical records so that the people are turned to think twice on the records as they come up and speculate themselves.

Investigative poetry should bring out a new truth altogether or should highlight the underlying feelings that the people may already be feeling but they do not find words to express or they do not have any clue to or are too busy in their life to raise their browse. The poets then should play the role of giving voice to the people and shake them to the bone.

Investigation does never mean always going against a record rather it is about delving deeper into the records and finding out the ulterior motives that might have led to that history. It is about investigating a possible hidden agenda behind the historical record.

Impartiality in the treatment of investigative poetry is one of the important factors. Investigative poetry should be free of all “-isms”. ‘Investigative poesy is freed from capitalism, churchism, and other totalitarianisms…’5 Though it is a challenging task as while investigating, the poet may take supports of some records. These supports may themselves be a part of some “ism”. Here the responsibility of a poet must be to jerk off all the belongings or at least the poet’s effort should be not to take the side of any “ism”. ‘Bards (should) “make reality,” or, really, they “make freedom” or they create new modes of what we might term Eleutherarchy, or the dance of freedom.’ 6

Impartiality may lead to discovering the truth. The poet, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, should play the role of “the Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer” which strives ‘for the love of truth, for the love of good, and for the love of beauty.’

Data proofing: The use of data is at the prime in investigative poetry. Investigative poetry should be stuffed with data upon data to validate the perception. Little should be left to the individual interpretation so that the readers do not find data too hard to believe. Essentially ‘Relentless pursuit of data’7 should be directed to ‘know the new facts early.’ (Olson, Charles. The Human Universe and Other Essays, p 134). The data should include, though not be limited to, photos, tape recordings, videotapes, microfilms etc. Flow-charts, graphics, indexing, and citing instances should be taken wide use of.

Use of Date, Time, Place: Investigative poetry must always use date, time, and place and people involved while describing history or filling ‘the area of darkness’ in history. This is important to validate the facts. Now is the era when the poets should not resort to using symbols for writing on history (as William Wordsworth had to). We live in a free time guaranteed by the constitution, thanks to the democratic rules of the land; and even if we risk our life we must yet give a try. Risking is worthier than submitting. That was the purpose of Socrates when he preferred to take poison but refused to submit and backtrack from his findings. Thanks to the first martyr for truth in the recorded history.

Meter: Any meter can be acceptable but free verse is best suitable given the uncertain themes and subjects of the investigative poetry. It can be best described in the words of Charles Olson as Projective Verse, a verse form written in the open or COMPOSITION BY FIELD that is controlled by the union of breathing and listening of the poets. A verse form that comes from the heart and goes straight to the ear suiting the themes and subjects of the investigative poetry; and is not necessarily composed around the meters. It conveys the meaning and purpose of the verse spontaneously. A verse that can be engaged in whenever and wherever the poet is.

One of the best examples of an investigative poem is by Edward Sanders; however every poem should not necessarily have all the elements of investigative poetry:

About 1789
William Blake move to small house
on south side of Thames

got cooking there
on Prophetic Books

decided through visits and advice of the
received ghosts of his brother Robert

to design in reverse relief on etched
copper plates, both poem and design —

and then to adorn the printed-
poem with individual paintings

thank you, o ghost.

Hand-help press
Hand-etched copper plates
Hand-pigmented poem-glyphs
The Hand! The Hand!

And as he fashioned and painted more and more of his
He moved

Unintelligent Design: The Collected Works of Alice Munro, Chronicling Imperfect Lives in an Imperfect World by Eileen Austen

Before I begin I must start with a confession–I grew up stateside, west of the Lake Huron country where Munro’s Canadian stories are rooted. Her descriptions of the flat rolling land, the blustery, snowy, cold winters and hot summers full of fresh water swims and wild Queen Ann’s Lace, evoke memories of my own experience. And, although I am younger than Munro, the ethos and echoes of small town life, with its sharply delineated social cleavages, clearly resonates with me. I am naturally drawn to her writing and predisposed to appreciate each and every word.

Detractor’s contend that her work is parochial, rarely stepping outside the familiar boundaries of Ontario or British Columbia; she is stuck on questioning the mores of the nineteen forties, fifties and sixties; her plot lines, especially those appearing in later works such as Runaway and Too Much Happiness, are contrived, awkward and rambling, and her focus is far too narrow, concentrating on the lives of women and girls at the expense of broader subjects. Each objection is poised to argue that her work, while abundant, fails to achieve universal appeal.

David Schneider sums these complaints up neatly in his review of Munro’s nineteen- ninety-seven edition of Selected Stories:

A female protagonist has had a hard rural childhood in impoverished Great Depression era Ontario, in the country around Lake Huron. A tragedy occurs – usually offstage, but there are loads of wacky or weird relatives – molesters, drunks, suicides, lunatics and general eccentrics. She perdures, makes it to college, marries, then has kids and often moves to western Canada. The marriage falters – usually his fault, according to the POV of the narrator. She strays, usually with a blue collar sort, and lives a life of artistic decadence and emotional weakness. She has travails with her own kids- usually daughters that are as headstrong as she, and then refuses to age gracefully. (Schneider, 1)

Even if his description were entirely accurate, which it is not, this alone is not reason to conclude her work lacks ecumenicity. Who wants to take Joyce out of Ireland? How far did Woolf stray from her own milieu or Chekhov from his native soil? It is not the tableau but the feast upon it that matters. In fact, I believe her genius and its increasing recognition, evidenced by her receipt of the 2009 Mann Booker International Prize, is found precisely in what Schneider deplores. True, she mines similar material over and again. What is unique and uncanny about her endeavors is that despite the predictable time, place and subject, each story succeeds in telling us something new and important about ourselves. In the midst of small town libraries and quaint, unrushed Sunday suppers, she manages to reveal universal truths, not often pleasant, about the vagaries of men and women as they seek to find how to live.

One other major criticism of Munro’s work is that since she first began writing, she has been an old woman trying to recreate her life, looking back with fabricated vision. Here too, I disagree. In Powers (Runaway) Nancy, the protagonist, says “she believes in what she is doing, that what she wants to do if she can get the time to do it, is not so much to live in the past as to open it up and get one good look at it.” (Munro, 287) Take one good look at it – this is what Munro does so well. She extracts a skein from the past, unwinds its many threads and unearths them countless times in order to better understand the here and now. Indeed, Munro is nothing less than the consummate observer and reporter on the human condition; this is why her work endures.

Does Munro examine the world through a chromosomal lens? Absolutely, but then so did Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence and scores of other male writers. While still a young writer, one of the first conflicts Munro confronts is the tension between wanting to expand her mind and the binding grip of love and marriage. But to believe that in today’s parlance, what she seeks is balance, is a huge mistake. Balance is not what she seeks, the mundane juggling of domesticity and the demands made of an artist. She is expressing something far deeper and more intrinsic.

Pens can be weapons and Munro plunges hers straight through to the core conflict women have faced since Lilith was written out of Genesis – to assert independence and risk rejection or submit to drowning in a flood of social, personal and intimate expectations in the hope of obtaining love. The temptation in thinking about her work is to marginalize Munro as an ardent feminist or spokesperson for female emancipation. Whether or not this is true is secondary; what matters most in her stories is that no one fares particularly well in love – man or woman.

Throughout literature, mining the mind/body dilemma is rich with reward. Rebecca Goldstein and the early works of Doris Lessing provide great examples. But Munro goes beyond their exploration finding fault not just with the treatment of women, but with the entire, enigmatic design of the male/female dialectic. There is one, inescapable truth in her stories. Men and women and children need one another – the survival of the species depends on it. This truth is followed by an unavoidable question: Why then is it so difficult for people, particularly those in love, to reconcile their differences and find peace together?

I believe her conclusion is nothing less than questioning the construct of our entire species. How else can our behavior toward one another be explained? If any punishment results from picking that apple, it is to suffer in life and love, because try as we might, we are governed by larger forces. Munro places her characters under a powerful microscope. Observe any two people, I think she is saying, and you will find all the proof necessary to form this conclusion: there is little evidence of intelligent design in the universe.

Without assigning any religious connotation, one way to view her work is to conclude that her characters emerge onto the page stripped down, primeval, stained with something comparable to original sin. We are endowed with the ability to imagine perfection but hopelessly flawed in our capacity to attain it. This is not meant to be judgmental or persuasive—no soap box here. Munro is simply being her sapient self, telling it as she sees it.

Does she tell it with greater acuity through the voice of a female narrator? Whether relayed in first or third person, her narrator of choice is undoubtedly feminine. In her view women are more conflicted in love than men, more vulnerable to psychological and physical harm brought on by both men and women, mothers, fathers and lovers included, and more subject to social constraints imposed upon them largely by the laws of men. Women are closer to her own experience and certainly as she frames them, the more interesting and obvious choice to carry the weight of her fiction.

In her early work, and to date only novel, the Lives of Girls and Women lays the groundwork for issues Munro will go on to explore over more than a half-century of work. Setting is determinant and what happens to her characters cannot be divorced from the northern earth they walk upon. Yet, fate is mercurial, plot structure uncertain, “In that world people could go down in quicksand, be vanquished by ghosts or terrible ordinary cities; luck and wickedness were gigantic and unpredictable; nothing was deserved, anything might happen; defeats were met with crazy satisfaction.” (Munro, 31) Through the eyes of Del, the coming of age narrator, she grasps at understanding gender and work. When speaking of her aunts and other farmer’s wives and rural ladies like them, she observes: “They respected men’s work beyond anything: they also laughed at it. … And they would never, never meddle with it; between men’s work and women’s work was the clearest line drawn and stepping over this line, any suggestion of stepping over it, they would meet with light, amazed, regretfully superior, laughter.” (Munro, 38) Such humiliation put one out, exiled you beyond the pale, “The worst thing I gathered, the worst thing that could happen in this life was to have people laughing at you.” (Munro, 44)

Certain character defects depicted by Del appear in later stories where they assume even greater meaning. Ambition is laid bare in subtext, revealed in a seemingly harmless question, “Have you always – been interested – in country life?” (Munro, 43) Del finds this chilling, a warning, “Didn’t he think he was somebody! He thinks he’s somebody…… Pretensions were everywhere.” (Munro, 44) Special peril applies to female aspirations. Del senses the cupidity of her aunts over various achievements of her mother, “…and I would feel how contemptuous, how superior and silent and enviable they were, those people who all their lives could stay still, with no need to do or say anything remarkable. I was not so different from my mother but concealed it, knowing what dangers there were.” (Munro, 91)

Social class emerges as another inevitable aspect of setting. Del asks, “Do we hate those girls, to whom we were unfailingly obsequiously pleasant? No. Yes. We hate their immunity, well bred lack of curiosity, whatever kept them floating, charitable and pleased, on the surface life of Jubilee, and would float them on to sororities, engagements, marriages to doctors or lawyers in more prosperous places far away. We hated them because they could never be imagined entering the Town Hall toilets.” (Munro, 173) But love is the invisible, most surreptitious force facing a girl and although optimistic, Del’s mother is the first to let her know that growing up and giving into love is the most hazardous thing that can happen to a woman: “There is a change coming, I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up till now has been their connection to men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals. He shall hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force, a little closer than his dog, a little dearer than his horse. Tennyson wrote that. It’s true.” Use your brains her mother advises, “Don’t be distracted. Once you make that mistake, of being –distracted, over a man, your life will never be your own. You will get the burden, a woman always does.” (Munro, 193)

Of course love finds Del but not where expected. She is an honor’s student, ostracized for using her brains by all but one gifted, motivated fellow. They attempt to make love but he is clumsy and ignites no spark. Instead Del finds ardor in a poor, uneducated boy from church and is baptized in the “dreamy purr” of his arms. In describing her experience of him, she says “The mouth closed frankly around the nipple seemed to make an avowal of innocence, defenselessness, not because it imitated a baby’s breast but because it was not afraid of absurdity. Sex seemed to me all surrender – not the woman’s to the man but the person’s to the body, an act of pure faith, freedom in humility.” (Munro, 239)

Del is surprised then at her boyfriend’s need to break her will after he proposes marriage. Who do you think you are becomes his accusing battle cry. She does not capitulate and thinks she can leave him undamaged. But as her mother warned, she gets sidetracked. She daydreams about warm thighs and burgeoning orgasms instead of concentrating on her scholarship exams, her greatest hope for getting out of Jubilee. She falls short, fails to make the grade, is sabotaged by love.

In her 1978 collection entitled Who Do You Think You Are?, later released as The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose, Munro raises the stakes. The rural setting, social backwardness, poverty and the eccentricities of love in Royal Beatings, (Selected Stories) mix into a lethal combination so powerful the destruction carries from one generation to the next. When Rose’s mother dies and her father remarries, Flo weds with the understanding that for her, it is a step up the socio-economic ladder, a fragile hold she fears she might lose. Told through a meandering, non-linear plot, the reader learns that Flo is beset with insecurities, jealousies and peasant-like suspicions and she suspects the worst. When Rose challenges her authority and standing, memories of incest, infanticide and murder skew Flo’s vision; this viral, internecine chaos must be stamped out.

Flo enrolls Rose’s father in her mission. She spews forth a list of sins for which Rose is guilty, “her rudeness, and sloppiness and conceit…She mentions her brother’s innocence, Rose’s corruption. ‘Oh don’t you think you’re somebody,’ she says, and a moment later, ‘Who do you think you are?” (Munro, 130) Rose objects and for a moment senses her father’s reluctance and embarrassment but realizes by now she “ought to know she is wrong, in thinking she can count on this. The fact that she knows about it, and he knows she knows, will not make things any better.” She watches as her father’s face fills with “hatred and pleasure.” (Munro, 132) Rose wonders as her father strikes her, “How can this go on in front of such daily witnesses, the linoleum, the calendar with the mill and creek and autumn trees, the old accommodating pots and pans?…..Pots can show malice, the patterns of linoleum can leer up at you, treachery is the other side of dailiness.” (Munro, 133)

Flo realizes she has over reacted but is not really sorry. What’s important is to save face and restore the balance of power she has inspired Rose’s father to maintain. With this story as in many others, Munro leaves out the most important detail: did her husband have sex with his daughter Rose? Are her senses trustworthy or does memory poison her sight? In the aftermath everyone pretends nothing has happened, makes jokes, finds way to make things seem normal, creates “a feeling of permission, relaxation, even a current of happiness in the room.” (Munro, 137) With a paucity of words we learn that things are never patched up, never normal. “After Rose put her in the home, {Flo} stopped talking. She removed herself, and spent most of her time sitting in a corner of her crib, looking crafty and disagreeable, not answering anybody, though she occasionally showed her feelings by biting a nurse.” (Munro, 139)

Rose has her comeuppance. In The Beggar Maid, (Selected Stories) she moves on to become the poor, accomplished, scholarship student who is romanced by an older man, heir to a mercantile fortune. At first Rose is guileless and unimpressed but the positive response by her peers and professors force her to take stock – the bonds of marriage may offer freedom and possibility as well as constraints. Despite his many deficits, sexual prowess among them, and the fear she doesn’t quite love him, she is afraid to turn down his offer, afraid to be ungrateful. After all, Rose says, “only middle class people had choices anyway, that if she’d had the price of a train ticket to Toronto, her life would have been different.” (Munro, 182)

With her change in marital status she acquires additional recognition. Girls admire her diamond ring. People who previously ignored her suddenly take interest. “Oh Rose, isn’t it wonderful! When are you coming back again? We’re going to give a tea for you, the ladies in town all want to give a tea for you.” She observes that “Paths were opening up to her, barriers softening….She dimpled and sparkled and turned her self into a fiancée with no trouble at all.” (Munro, 176)

The unhappiness that follows eventually provokes her to tell her husband that she no longer loves him, and in a moment of inside humor and wit, says “I never loved you.” (Munro, 179) Like many bad partnerships they do not take leave of one another until “nearly mortal damage had been done.” (Munro, 183) Years later, when they see each other in an airport, she is tempted to approach him, deliver the news that she is now happily married. She notes that his birthmark has faded (this blemish a trait common in many of Munro’s men) but his venom toward her for rejecting him is unrelenting. “He made a face at her. It was a truly hateful, savagely warning, face; infantile, self-indulgent, yet calculated; it was a timed explosion of disgust and loathing.” (Munro, 184) Men, Munro is saying, may also be damaged by love, swallowed whole only to be cast out like common spittle.

Face, (Too Much Happiness) one of Munro’s few stories with a first person, male narrator, probes masculine pride and vanity. Born with a large, mulberry colored birthmark on one side of his face, the narrator is rejected by his father at birth. He says to the narrator’s mother, “What a chunk of chopped liver….You don’t think you’re going to bring that into the house.” (Munro, 141) The house is a large one located in town on a substantial piece of property. The father is wealthy, a person of note; he can’t afford to have this splotch soil his primogenitor. He rejects both mother and son and within a short time ensconces his mistress and her daughter Nancy, a year younger than the narrator, into his guesthouse at the back of the estate.

Home schooled, Nancy is the narrator’s only friend until he is eight or nine years old. Nancy adores him and wants to be like him. One afternoon while playing together, Nancy, hoping to gain his approval, paints her face red. He doesn’t see his face as red; he thinks it’s a soft, fuzzy brown. Outraged, he runs to his mother in tears. “You nasty little beast,” she screams at Nancy followed by a stream of rancor. When Nancy’s mother steps out to see what’s happening, his mother turns on her. “All this poured out of my mother as if there was a torrent of rage, of pain, of absurdity in her that would never stop.” (Munro, 156)

Violence is in the subtext of most of Munro’s stories and it is omnipresent here. After the incident his mother says, “Fetch me my garden shears…..While I’m out here I might as well trim the glads. Some of them are downright wilted.” (Munro, 157) By the time she is finished they are hacked down and strewn every which way. Not one is left standing. For once, though, she prevails over her husband. The mistress is sent away but then so is Nancy, her son’s only friend. He is sent to an all boy school where he is quickly nick-named Grape-Nuts. Years later, his mother tells him that Nancy, whom he never sees again, took a razor to her face, making permanent her desire to be like him. She says of this, “Such deep feelings. Children have.” (Munro, 160)

In The Albanian Virgin (Selected Stories) Munro portrays men and women equally capable of conspiracy and skullduggery. Two story lines run parallel, one concerning Charlotte, a vacationing bookshop owner from Victoria, the other, possibly fantasy and certainly fantastic, about a young woman named Lottar; both are traveling in the Balkans. During an afternoon tour, Charlotte’s guide is stalked and killed by a rival clansman who seeks to settle the score between two families locked into generations of mutual honor killing. This event prompts Charlotte to create a story for a movie. In Charlotte’s rendering, Lottar is caught in the senseless crossfire and taken to an ethnic enclave, where as inadvertent booty, she is expected to become a member of their kula.

Men set the rules and establish the practices in this tribal setting. They sit around polishing their guns and exchanging tales of valor, while the women work. “Knitting is what they did while they trotted back and forth to the spring with their water barrels strapped to their backs, or took the path to the fields or to the beech wood, where they collected the fallen branches. They knitted stockings… lightening strokes. Women’s hands must never be idle.” (Munro, 569)

Collegial on the surface, behind Lottar’s back the women cannot resist the temptation of money; they dress her and drape her in jewelry in order to prepare her for sale to a Muslim buyer. She is spared this fate by the intervention of a Franciscan monk who is more concerned about her soul being delivered to heathens than for her physical well being. “Did you know you were being married?” the monk asks. “Is it something you want, to be married.” When Lottar says no, he screams “Take off that gold trash. Take those clothes off her. I am going to make her a Virgin!” (Munro, 574)

To become a Virgin, Lottar must swear to never marry and to assume a male persona. In exchange for this, she is entitled to the privileges of a man – to own a horse, a gun and to wear men’s clothing. Absent a spouse she is likely to be poor. Then again, no one will bother her and she’ll be able to eat with men. Presented with this Faustian proposition, Lottar chooses female revocation in exchange for freedom and assumes a neutered existence.

Angry with her decision, the women strip Lottar of her skirts, bracelets and face paint; she watches as her hair is chopped off and falls to the ground in irregular plaits. When she steps into her trousers the women chide her. “Tomorrow you would have been a bride,” they said. “Now you will never have a son.” (Munro, 574) Afraid the women will try once more to bargain her to the highest bidder, Lottar flees the encampment and follows the monk to the Bishop’s monastery. But, despite her assumption of a male role, the Bishop refuses to let her enter the sanctuary lest her female body defile sacred space.

Plotted with great complexity, Lottar’s journey into the elemental, dark side of male/female social organization is juxtaposed against the contemporary infidelities and eventual break-up of two couples working and studying in Victoria. With the dissolution of their marriages, Munro poses a question: which social formation is more evolved, more treacherous – the tribe or the suburban couple? Which extracts the highest price? And as always in her work, which is the most damaging? The questions leave the narrator unmoored. She says, “I had to get back to the store….but I felt as if I could as easily walk another way, just anyway at all. My connection was in danger, that was all. Sometimes our connection is frayed, it is in danger, it seems almost lost. Views and streets deny knowledge of us, the air grows thin. Wouldn’t we rather have a destiny to submit to then, something that claims us as anything, instead of such flimsy choices, arbitrary days?” (Munro, 602)

Destiny and the capriciousness of fate loom large in Munro’s stories. In Chance, (Runaway) a story aptly named, Juliet, the young female narrator is desperate to continue her education but money, or the lack of it, prevents her from realizing her dream. When she is offered a teaching position she is encouraged to take it, to set her sights lower, do something more practical, less ambitious. “Juliet was used to this sort of advice, though disappointed to hear it coming from these men who did not look or sound as if they had knocked about in the real world very eagerly themselves. In the town where she grew up her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb, and people were quick to point out the expected accompanying drawbacks – her inability to run a sewing machine or tie a neat parcel, or notice that her slip was showing. What would become of her was the question.” (Munro, 53)

On the train westward, traveling to start her new job, Juliet is thrown into a consequential encounter; she rejects the advances of one man for another who is far more appealing if predictably less appropriate. The first unhappy man commits suicide by throwing himself under the train while Juliet sits on the toilet and menstruates over the tracks. Convinced she is responsible for the man’s demise Juliet weeps and finds solace in the welcoming arms of Eric. Against custom and without caution she follows Eric to the distant and isolated Whale Bay. Here she encounters his housekeeper and paid protector, Alio. When Juliet asks Alio if she lives in the house with Eric, Alio replies, “No, I do not live here. I live down the hill with my hussband.” (Munro, 77) Her meaning is clear, “that the word hussband carries the weight of pride and reproach.” She is a mere caretaker but Juliet is single, in heated pursuit of her quarry and therefore of questionable character. She is of lesser value.

Like Del, Rose and other female narrators, Munro follows Juliet through a series of stories. Soon (Runaway) tells of Juliet’s return home to visit her ailing mother and retired father who arguably lost his teaching job because of her scandalous situation. She has fallen in love with Eric and is the mother of Penelope, their magnificent, Homeric love-child. Without the warnings of a prescient mother like Del’s, Juliet strikes out against conformity. She consciously refuses to marry.

Juliet’s mother Sara is desperate for her to wed, seeing only the benefits, none of the pitfalls. But Juliet knows too much about her parent’s marriage to be cowed into convention. Juliet’s defiance estranges her from Sara, forms a line of tension that can’t be bridged. Years later, after Sara has died, Juliet recalls their last moments together when she happens upon a letter she’d written to Eric during her time away from him. “Then she thought that some shift must have taken place….Some shift concerning where home was. Not at Whale Bay with Eric but back where it had been before, all her life before. Because it’s what happens at home that you try to protect, as best you can, for as long as you can.” (Munro, 125) Like the man on the train only far more important, Juliet is left feeling culpable, but in order to be true to herself, she refuses to acquiesce. She’s left with conflicted feelings. To save herself she failed her mother when Sara most needed her.

Mothers and daughters are predestined to clash. Nowhere is this more evident than in Silence, the last of the Juliet trilogy, endowed with one of Munro’s most unreliable narrators. The story opens innocently. Juliet has traveled some distance to visit Penelope, ostensibly at Penelope’s request, to a spiritual retreat where her daughter has been residing for a long but unspecified period of time. On the ferry to the remote island Juliet speaks of her daughter in glowing terms. “I’m spoiled….She’s twenty years old, my daughter – she’ll be twenty one this month, actually – and we haven’t been apart much.” (Munro, 127)

We are told Juliet is surprised when she arrives and finds that Penelope is part of a religious cult; more surprised when her daughter is not there to greet her. A large, domineering woman informs Juliet that her daughter does not wish to see her. She continues to bruise, adding that in her transcendent quest, Penelope blames Juliet for the absence of spiritual direction in her life. For a time Juliet pursues Penelope but is eventually forced to concede – she has lost her daughter, she is not coming back and she doesn’t understand why.

When years later Juliet has a fleeting, chance encounter with Penelope’s childhood friend, it is clear Heather does not know about their schism. She rattles on about Penelope’s five kids, the cost of school uniforms, the inconveniences of living so far north. But she is in a rush, no time to explain. Juliet is left to conclude “You know, we always have the idea that there is this reason or that reason and we keep trying to find out reasons…..But I think the reason may be something not so easily dug out. Something like purity in her nature…..My father used to say of someone he disliked, that he had no use for that person. Couldn’t those words mean simply what they say? Penelope does not have a use for me.” (Munro, 158) If Juliet does know the reason it is not revealed. Nor are her reasons for not trying to find her bevy of grand kids. This mystery remains with the reader; Munro is not going to tell.

Motherhood and love of children are never portrayed with ease. In Miles City Montana (Selected Stories) Munro describes a young mother as a detached, dislocated observer. “In my own house, I seemed to be often looking for a place to hide- sometimes from the children but more often from the jobs to be done and the phone ringing and the sociability of the neighborhood. I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself.” (Munro, 378)

Staying focused and not being ground down by the demands of a needy infant are painted with brutal candor in Jarkarta. (Love of a Good Woman) “When she (Kath) nurses her baby she often reads a book, sometimes smokes a cigarette, so as to not sink into the sludge of animal function. And she’s nursing so she can shrink her uterus and flatten her stomach, not just provide the baby – Noelle – with precious maternal antibodies.” (Munro, 80)

Kath and her friend Sonje find themselves one day discussing the story Fox by D.H. Lawrence where he claims that a woman can only be truly happy, truly married if she submerges her will into his. To Kath this means defeat; giving in, losing all resistance to passion, having many babies; to Sonje it conjures something ideal and beautiful. Despite Sonje’s husband’s promptings to experiment with sex outside the bounds of marriage, she remains loyal and speaks of loving him “agonizingly.” Kath requires more safety and while she would never think of being unfaithful, it is not because of the depth of her love. It is due to her need to be connected. If she threatened that bond through adultery, “all of her life would blow up in her face …. but she could not say that she loved Kent agonizingly.” (Munro, 97)

Munro twists and turns this tension between the need for consuming love and the need for self protection most adroitly and brilliantly in Passion. (Runaway) Grace, an orphan child raised by a poor but caring aunt and uncle, is expected to assume their modest, if unchallenging business of caning seats for chairs. Grace wants more and continues to attend public schools until she has exhausted what is available to her. Once again an older man offers his sage advice, “telling her this was getting her nowhere since she was not going to be able to go to college.” (Munro, 166) Because college was out of her reach, he suggested she get “a taste of life” leaving Grace to wonder why an educator “did not believe learning had to do with life.” (Munro, 167)

The High School Principal’s idea of living it up is to arrange a summer job for her waiting tables at a lakeside resort. She accepts and it is here that she attracts the attention of Maury, an earnest and reliable fellow, who takes her to see the movie, Father of the Bride. Maury is surprised when Grace does not enjoy the film and Grace is unable to articulate her rage to him. Grace looks at Elizabeth Taylor with dismay. “That was what men – people, everybody – thought they should be like. Beautiful, treasured, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should be to be fallen in love with. Then she would become a mother and she’d be all mushily devoted to her babies. Not selfish anymore, but just as pea-brained. Forever.” (Munro, 164)

Maury’s mother, Mrs. Travers, encourages her son to bring Grace home for dinner. Grace is enchanted with his family, finds excuses to spend time with his grateful, intelligent mother. “In fact she fell in love with Mrs. Traver, rather as Maury had fallen in love with her.” (Munro, 165) After a period of time the assumption of marriage implicitly fills the air; Grace imagines a husband for herself. “He would be handsome, like Maury. Passionate, like Maury. Pleasant physical intimacies would follow.” (Munro, 173) But intimacies are not forthcoming. He felt a need to protect her and “the ease with which she offered herself threw him off balance.” (Munro, 173) One afternoon Mrs. Travers warns her against expecting too much, expecting everything from one man. They are discussing Anna Karenina and her prospective mother-in-law reveals to Grace how much she identifies with Dolly, the maid who has to figure out how to do laundry for additional family and friends when they are vacationing in the countryside. “I suppose that’s just how your sympathies change as you get older. Passion gets pushed behind the washtubs. Don’t pay attention to me, anyway. You don’t do you?” (Munro, 172)

But Grace is attentive and does listen – she does not want to accept life without exhilaration. Is it a coincidence or a test when Grace cuts her foot and requires medical care? She has a choice. She can venture off with Neil, Maury’s half-brother, a married physician with children, or play it safe, permit Maury to drive her to the hospital. Mrs. Travers suggests she go with Neil, saying “This is good, Grace, you are a godsend. You’ll try to keep him from drinking today, won’t you? You’ll know how to do it.” (Munro, 181) The mystery of this cautionary remark tips the scale for Grace. Washtubs be dammed; the allure of Neil becomes irresistible.

In contrast to Maury’s hesitation or inability to take possession of Grace’s body, Neil’s desperation is overwhelming – he needs to claim her now. Grace, wired with hunger, gladly complies. After, when questioned by Neil about Maury, Grace denies her engagement even as Neil makes it clear he cannot take Maury’s place. Later she remembers his goodnight embrace, his arms wrapped tightly around her, “as if he was telling her she was wrong to give up on him, everything was possible, but then again that she was not wrong, he meant to stamp himself on her and go.” (Munro, 195)

Grace takes a ride with Neil but does not follow him over his suicidal edge. Maury, willing to forgive, asks for a simple affirmation – just tell him that she didn’t want to go with his brother, but Grace finds it too unbearable to lie. She answers with the raw, uncensored truth. “I did want to go,” she says. “She was going to add I’m sorry but stopped herself.” (Munro, 196) It is Mr. Travers who comes to Grace to “tidy things up.” He apologizes for Neil’s terrible alcoholism and hands her an envelope with a check for one thousand dollars. “Immediately she thought of sending it back or tearing it up, and sometimes even now she thinks it would have been a grand thing to do. But in the end, of course, she was not able to do it. In those days, it was enough money to insure her a start in life.” (Munro, 196)

The undertow of violence and calamity that pulls at Grace in Passion, since after all she might have been killed along with Neil for her transgression, takes on even greater dimension in her latest and possibly final collection, Too Much Happiness. In these stories murder, physical brutality and heinous sexual exploitation take the reader into an even deeper heart of darkness.

In Dimensions, Munro is unmerciful in her depiction of a woman who has been deprived of education, hope or even the minimal expectation that she is valued and appreciated. When one night after an argument Doree does not come home for a night, her husband Lloyd kills their three children. Declared unfit to stand trial, Lloyd is placed in a psyche ward miles away from Doree’s meager job as a motel housekeeper. Nevertheless, Doree takes three buses in each direction to visit him when she can. She is not conflicted by her intellect or desire for independence – she doesn’t know better. On the contrary, she wills her way to forgive him and in thinking about her situation, concludes that “Lloyd, of all people, might be the person she should be with now. What other use could she be in the world…..?” (Munro, 30)

The divide of power between men and women is so uncomfortably explored in Wenlock Edge that it reads more like Hitchcock or King. The set up has elements reminiscent of other Munro stories: the unnamed female narrator; the seamless drop from the present time into memory; the narrator away from home fending for herself in the cruel world; and, the complicit, female cohort, Nina, who wants the narrator to share in her unseemly, compromised existence.

When Nina suggests she should have dinner with Mr. Purvis, her tormentor and provider, she knows what mischief she has put into play. Mr. Purvis’s housekeeper, his perfidious ally, is the one who arrives to deliver the unsuspecting narrator into a nicely decorated den of iniquity. Once inside, and before being introduced to Purvis, the housekeeper calmly demands the narrator to remove her clothing, every last stitch of it, as blandly as if she were announcing the time. The narrator takes this lurid requirement as a challenge and believes she is up to the occasion, “she took it more as a dare than a preliminary to further trespass, and my going along with it had more to do with the folly of pride….more to do with some shaky recklessness than with anything else.” (Munro, 79)

Ultimately her rash decision to go along with Purvis, to sit naked at dinner with her legs open while he dines in a luxurious smoking jacket, is not without consequence. “I would always be reminded of what I had agreed to do,” she later notes, realizing there is no safe place for women. (Munro, 91) The potential for violence against women is ubiquitous, even for smart ones. “I was writing a good essay. I would probably get an A. I would go on writing essays and A’s because that was what I could do. The people who awarded scholarships, who built universities and libraries, would continue to dribble out money so that I could do it. But that was not what mattered. That was not going to keep you from damage.” (Munro, 92)

This notion of female duplicity is further examined in the disturbing waters of Child’s Play. What is particularly horrific about the drowning of the Down’s Syndrome girl is that it is a shared experience. It’s possible that either young woman might have committed their crime alone but there is an unspoken bond between the faux twins, Charlene/Marlene, a shared recognition of a profound personal and cultural understanding. Feminine domesticity abides because women comply. Compliance requires allegiance and allegiance requires hierarchy. Permission is granted to annihilate the violators, “the mice and slugs” who expect they can roam outside the circle and survive.

Managing expectations is at the heart of Too Much Happiness, the title story of this book. It is one of Munro’s few works set outside Canada – in Russia and Sweden – and in another time period, late Victorian. The story draws upon actual history to chronicle the life of Sophia Kovalesy, the first woman to hold an academic post in mathematics at a major European University. In Munro’s imagined depiction of Kovalesy’s life, there is upheaval in the rebellious streets of Moscow and Paris but the lurking danger is not physical; what’s potentially lethal is for Sophia, a woman of substance and accomplishment, to become attached to love.

To make her way in the world Sophia is forced to marry. Young women who wished to study abroad were unable to leave Russia if they remained single. She marries Vladimir, a revolutionary intellectual whom she admires but does not love. “Vladimir had not been a coward but he lacked the manly certainties. That was why he could grant her some equality those others couldn’t and why he could never grant her that enveloping warmth and safety.” (Munro, 295)

Munro contrasts Sophia’s relationship with Vladimir to her feelings about Maksim, an unfaithful lover who neither respects women nor believes in their call for social change. Maksim is masculine, certain of his sexual potency; he has something valuable to offer. “That marvelous assurance he has, that her father had, you can feel it when you are a little girl snuggled up in their arms and you want it all your life.” (Munro, 295) This need is not easily shed and Sophia feels drawn to him despite his obvious failings. He is unable to accept her as both a woman and a scholar and Sophia understands that he views her as a “delightful freak” and something of a fraud; he feels hoodwinked by her charm that hides “a mind most unconventionally furnished, under her curls.” (Munro, 250)

Women too are not immune from holding her suspect. After being awarded the Bordin Prize in Paris, Sophia is showered with attention and compliments. “But they had closed their doors when it came to giving her a job. They would no more think of that than of employing a learned chimpanzee …Wives were the watchers on the barricade, the invisible implacable army…Men whose brains were blowing old notions apart were still in the thrall to women whose heads were full of nothing but the necessity of tight corsets, calling cards, and conversations that filled your throat with a kind of perfumed fog.” (Munro, 267)

On a return passage to Sweden, where Sophia goes to die, her mind fills with consternation. “How terrible it is, Sophia thinks. How terrible the lot of women. And what might a woman say if Sophia told her about the new struggles, women’s battle for votes and places at the universities? She might say, But that is as God wills. And if Sophia urged her to get rid of this God and sharpen her mind, would she not look at her – Sophia – with a certain stubborn pity, and exhaustion, and say, How then, without God, are we to get through this life?” (Munro, 294)

Before dying Sophia spoke to her sisters of her new projects, most notably a novel about her days as a youth that reified something important, that “there was a pulse in life.” She continued, saying, “Her hope was that in this piece of writing she would discover what went on. Something underlying. Invented, but not.” When her daughter comes into the room one last time Sophia’s dying words are thought to be “Too much happiness.” (Munro, 302) They might just as well have been who do you think you are!

Sophia is speaking for Munro when she urges women to get rid of this God. For look what this God has done to women especially, but to men and women both. She is asking the ever present question – why is it so difficult to put all the pieces together? What is it about love that so paralyzes women, so distorts the character of men? How can anyone examine the human condition and conclude that this is evidence of intelligent design? Given the range of tensions between men and women, it’s absurd to believe one can go through life and love unscathed, undamaged. And, who do you think you are if you are foolish enough to even entertain the notion. We make ourselves unhappy muddling through our attempts to triumph over what Carl Sagan kindly refers to as our reptilian brain. Through her keen observations of social constructs, Munro concludes we are primitive in love; it’s embedded in our DNA. To countenance any other reality – to think that it’s possible to live an integrated life of the mind and heart – well that’s just too much to hope for, too much happiness.

Works Cited
Goldstein, Rebecca. The Mind Body Problem. New York: Penguin USA, 1993.
Lessing, Doris. Children of Violence. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc, 1970.
Munro, Alice. The Lives of Girls and Women. New York: Random House, 1971.
—, Collected Stories. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996.
—, The Love of a Good Woman. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998.
—, Runaway. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2004.
—, Too Much Happiness. New York: Random House, 2009.
Schneider, Dan. “Selected Stories by Alice Munro.” Laura Hird. December 2, 2008. Web.



Eileen Austen has been nominated for several awards including the Kirkwood Prize at UCLA where she was a student in the Extension Writer’s Program. A recent Creative Writing graduate of the low residency MFA program at the University of California, Austen worked with Tod Goldberg, Mary Otis, Deanne Stillman and Mark Haskell Smith. This year Austen was selected to attend and become a member of The Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

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A Discovery of the Novel’s First Ten Pages by Bryan Burch

FIRST TEN PAGES: A Discovery of the Novel’s First Ten Pages from Dickens to DiLillo, The Good Earth to The Bad Seed, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to The Picture of Dorian Gray

Last year, I interned at Tin House Books as a “slush-pile” reader. My job, along with the other five or six rotating interns, was to read the first fifty (50) pages of unsolicited agent submissions, make comments and then move on to the next manuscript. We screened the pile to inform the editorial staff of their potential and, in our commentary, supplied key lines of rejection text. The reality – and this appears to be a common opinion amongst slush-pile readers – one knows way before page fifty how much “potential” a manuscript exhibits. That is not to say that most submissions were bad, they weren’t. Tin House only accepted agent submissions, or suggestions from connected sources. In fact, most of the novel manuscripts or short story collections I read were on par with student work from workshops, in grad school, or submitted to The Whistling Fire, a journal I co-edit with a couple of friends. In most cases, the work is good. The language is creative. The plots are often sound. What’s lacking is specificity and direction in support of an overall theme. Some writers call it Tone (with a capital T).

Something happens when a reader commits to an unfamiliar fiction. There are patterns of enjoyment one seeks in order to justify a several hundred-page commitment, similar to, say, choosing a mortgage. As time passes, the page numbers grow and the number of remaining pages shrinks. The reader pays off their debt of time-invested with the satisfaction of a fruitful investment. I wanted to understand the patterns that keep readers reading beyond the first ten pages, so I went home and took all the novels off my shelf and laid them out like old lovers to remember how the affairs began. I picked up fiction at garage sales, like a barfly waiting for cheap beer. I hung out in bookstore aisles gulping down opening pages, before clerks drove me off for fear of copyright indiscretions. I re-familiarized myself with novels I’d read long ago and others I’d only heard about to understand if Gone With the Wind has a better beginning as a book or as a movie, to understand what that guy caught in the rye, and to figure out what it is about Twilight, or Love Story, or Island of the Blue Dolphin that kept different decades of adolescents reading beyond page ten.

From the first ten pages, one cannot glean that Anna Karenina will jump in front of a train, or ascertain what makes this Gatsby so Great. How can one tell, at the beginning, who Frankenstein will be in the end? Literally! I created a blog, suggestively called, so I could put my observations and discoveries in order and formulate some opinions on this question.

In most cases, there are only subtle indications of a story’s ultimate direction. The opening of Gone With the Wind features a trio of teenagers conversing on a front porch, not the sweeping panorama one usually considers when they remember this classic. The grand stuff emerges later in the story, but Tone is clearly established. Even though Margaret Mitchell spends the first many pages describing these three, aristocratic adolescents flirting on a broad, Georgia verandah, interweaving information on their looks, clothing and movements with brief glimpses into their histories, the reader is also made privy to information that has interpretive tension.

The dress set off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist, the smallest in three counties, and the tightly fitting basque showed breasts well matured for her sixteen years. The green eyes in the carefully sweet face were turbulent, willful, lusty with life, distinctly at variance with her decorous demeanor.[1]


Bottom line, this girl is pretty. She is willful. She has beautiful eyes, a nice rack and the smallest waist in three counties. Even if one knows nothing of Scarlett O’Hara, a girl like this is bound to cause a stir! By parsing out facts about a character, along with the place and time in which they live, Mitchell’s players grow from types into individuals. By the end of page three, one has a very clear picture of Scarlet O’Hara and her two suitors, as well as the tonal inclination that will carry through the entire one-thousand page story. The Scarlett that Mitchell develops in the very beginning of her narrative is the microcosmic reflection of the entire novel’s scope, allowing the reader to experience The Old South through a personal and human portal.

From the beginning, it is necessary to immerse the reader in the physical world of the piece whether that world is as specific as the Empire Grill in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, or as sweeping as John Banfield’s The Sea. Author Alice LaPlante in The Making of a Story, A Norton Guide to Creative Writing, offers four characteristics of a good story opening: it establishes the tone, it immerses the reader in the physical world of the story, it introduces characters and situations, and it keeps the reader wondering “What happens next?” (468) Along with Ms. LaPlante’s commentary, I created a list based on the most helpful books I have read and one I highly recommend to all beginning writers, Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit. Primarily a book to encourage Macro and Micro editing habits, it provides great support and tangible items to consider in the self-editing process. From these two sources and observations of my own, I created the following list of ten questions to evaluate the first ten pages:
1. What happens in the first sentence: Where am I? Who am I with? What’s wrong?!
2. What happens in the first ten pages: How does it support the opening paragraph and the entry into the story? How intentionally narrow is the scope? A narrower scope, it turns out, creates a more tense beginning, similar to a narrow canyon creating river rapids.
3. Narrative POV: first, second or third person, and how close or how far the reader’s to the main character and the action.
4. Narrative Perspective: WHO is telling the story and how close are they to the reader? Is narrator neutral? Is narrator a character? Is narrator reliable? For instance. Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned is voiced by an awkward, first person narrator who is sure of his lowly role in his world giving the story an immediate and present feeling. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight is also in the first person, in the form of the main character’s diary, giving it a more distant feel.
5. Language: Is it suitable to the events, agreeable, high falutin’? Are there too many adjectives? Are the verbs active enough to suit the plotted action?
6. Setting: How quickly is the reader grounded in a location and then, what is wrong with this picture? The chafing of character against setting creates the majority conflict. (This, as it turns out, became an important discovery.)
7. Character: Who are they in relation to setting? Do they belong? Are they in the right place at the wrong time? Visa versa?
8. Structure: Does the rhythm, tension and tone support the setting, characters and conflict?
9. Prologue or Thematic Preamble: How does the author attempt to focus or divert the reader’s attention at the opening of the story?
10. Plot Expectations beyond page ten: Based on the first ten pages, what did I expect to occur farther along in the story. Not an exercise in clairvoyance, but an attempt to see how clearly the author set me up for the story’s telling. This was challenging with unfamiliar material, but a whole lot of fun and started some interesting blog comments.


Within the first few lines of a novel, an authorial voice – the sound the reader hears – forms in the reader’s consciousness. This voice defines the level of reliability between the reader, the narrator and the story. It designates the amount of intimacy passing between reader and narrator. It also establishes an elusive plasticity through which the reader passes in and out of the story. Notice the difference in style and tone when reading even the short excerpts presented in this paper from the tone of the paper itself. Notice what happens to your sense of serenity as you leave an analytical construct and slip into the opening moments of a fiction, as you enter the unfamiliar.

Consider the authorial voice in these first few lines of Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road or Richard Russo’s Empire Falls or Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and how they draw the reader into the story. Notice how location and character are woven together in these three uniquely different openings.

When he awoke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.[2]

The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory.[3]

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads.[4]

Without much else but a sampling of language and sentence construction, a reader is alerted to situation and perspective coupled with character and place. In the woods; the Empire Grill and not a street, each give a reader an immediate perspective on a character in a particular location, as well as a strong suggestion of narrative authority. In the second example, from Empire Falls, the reader is placed, in the first few words, into what will become the main character’s home base. Further, the grill itself is in the center of the decaying town of Empire Falls, Maine, which is central to the book with its themes of community, rise and fall, and regeneration. With specific, yet evocative word choices – Grill, Falls, Empire – the reader is alerted to a once productive town that has fallen into mediocrity.

The examples from The Road and Falling Man respectively, are less specific yet equally strong indicators of place. “…in the woods” immediately directs the reader to conjure from their own experiences what a “woods” experience might be. An unknown “He” waking “…in the dark and cold of the night…” clues the reader to apply their own imagined impressions of how these cold, dark, woods would feel and how they affect the man and the child. As the storyteller introduces “He” and “Child”, the reader is inducted into an unspecified place that is partially of the reader’s improvisation.

The Road is set in a post apocalyptic future nine or ten years after “the bomb”. The author compels the reader to co-create this environment by utilizing natural aspects familiar to a modern reader such as tree, cold, asphalt, house, shopping cart and deconstruct them into foreign objects unsuitable for modern use. A contemporary reader’s familiarity with a shopping cart is as part of the shopping experience, to use and discard as one pleases. If a wheel sticks, one selects another from an abundant supply. In McCarthy’s eerily quiet but deadly world a shopping cart takes on the onus of a pack mule or a homeless person’s mobile home; one broken wheel is to forfeit all one’s stores, an extreme liability spelling doom.

On a microcosmic level, a good story opening reflects the entirety of a story’s scope. The tone that is established at the beginning must continue through to the end. Don DeLillo’s novel utilizes similar emotional tones with his opening lines that grow to a greater resonance through to the end of the book. In its deficit projection of what the street no longer is, the reader is swirled in a time / space / ash continuum where everybody is a “Falling Man.” Even if the reader does not have the luxury of the book’s mysterious cover art – twin towers disappearing into clouds – or the powerful live media representations that followed September 11, 2001, DeLillo prepares the reader for something equally catastrophic as McCarthy has at the beginning of The Road. Like an acorn that has the entire necessary DNA to become an Oak, the opening pages of a novel contain a similar DNA to carry the reader through to the fully developed ending of a story.

What gets a story going, I found, is the juxtaposition of character against setting. In the popular teen-vampire series, Twilight, the narrator, who is also the main character, Bella, is placed in an unfamiliar physical location from which plot emerges. Setting influencing character, creating tension. The outcome is plot. This is a classic set up to start a story. Bella in her familiar hometown of Phoenix, results in status quo, equals, no story. When placed her in an unfamiliar place, her new home of Forks, Washington, environmental tension (and vampires) occurs and plot ensues.

The first three paragraphs of Richard Amory’s Song of the Loon offer a simple illustration. The first paragraph describes a brilliant river-forest setting. The second paragraph describes a muscular, copper-headed man paddling up a river. The third paragraph unfolds as the canoeing man is drawn to shore by the sound of a wooden flute and into the, strong arms of Singing Heron. One. Two. Three. Setting is presented, character is produced, and the influence of setting upon character creates tension via choice. Woods + man in woods + unusual sound of flute in woods = tension and discovery, which unfold into plot.

A story’s beginning is a crucial indicator of how the reader will navigate through to the end. Consider the enduring success of Agatha Christie, Queen of the Murder Mystery, who said, “Only give out enough information to keep the reader involved. A story is a beginning, not the beginning.” It is important to offer the reader enough information to keep them interested, but not so much as to overwhelm or confuse them. Remaining intentionally narrow focuses the reader’s attention on the narrative track. It informs the reader, from the beginning, how the journey will progress for the next couple of hundred pages. As Ursela LeGuin indicates, the door one passes through to gain entry to this new world must follow through to satisfaction. The door presented to the reader must represent the story being presented. If a reader feels they’ve been baited and then switched, they’ll stop reading. If the reader figures out ‘who done it’ before the narrator does, there’s no more mystery in the murder. It is also true that in order to ensure a front-to-back reading, an author’s story should be full of surprises. If a reader knows what’s coming next, they’ll stop.

When considering which doorway to draw the reader through it is interesting to see how different authors use setting and character to produce tension and plot. In the case of The Road, it is a generic man in the woods with a sleeping child. The initial tension is revealed when the reader learns that the man is not in the woods by choice and is in great danger every moment. The opening situation mirrors the story’s ongoing conflict arising from the constant chaffing of character (father and son) against setting (ruined remains of former society) against circumstances (nothing to eat and everyone wants to eat them). The result? Tension and conflict are created as character and place become irreconcilable. The constant tension of McCarthy’s story is the square peg of need unable fit in the round hole of lack. What lends relevance to the seemingly simple situation of a father checking on his sleeping child on a cold, dark night is how the storyteller pushes natural act against unnatural setting.

Eighty-five percent of novels I read follow a classic model that establish setting at the onset. As in the Song of the Loon example, character follows setting which create tension and events. Setting is the imaginary portal that carries the reader, via narrative, from their world into the world of the story. Eighty-five percent of the novels I reviewed introduced a literal, particular or socio-economic setting early in the first paragraph and often in the first two sentences. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina it is the Oblonsky household. In Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die it is on a BOAC Stratocruiser. In One Hundred Years of Solitude it is “facing the firing squad.”

Of the remaining fifteen percent, ten of those imply a setting that is greatly affected by the narrator’s perception or conflicted mental state, as in the beginning of Falling Man or in Tod Goldberg’s Living Dead Girl. Goldberg’s narrator places the reader in the midst of a vague, haunting memory, which eventually leads the narrator to recall, “…the last time I was home.” As the narrator is emotionally homeless, the reader is cued to imagine an anti-home setting in a home-less anthropological construct. This lack-of-home, ungrounded state resonates throughout each of the characters of Goldberg’s story and is a theme in many of his works.

The popular children’s tale, Stuart Little by E.B. White, is in the fifteen percent that introduces character over place. The strange combination of characters in the Little family introduces tension by exploiting the reality of a mouse born into a human, urban family against the reader’s understanding of how urban humans typically react to mice. Usually with traps or poison. In the first paragraph, the storyteller takes hold of the reader’s attention by casually presenting Stuart Little’s birth into a human family:

When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way. He was only about two inches high; and he had a mouse’s sharp nose, a mouse’s tail, a mouse’s whiskers, and the pleasant, shy manner of a mouse.[5]

With a generous helping of suspension of disbelief and a childlike curiosity for how this infant will survive to maturity, the reader is less involved in discovering the setting of this incongruous family relationship and more with the nonchalance with which the family relationship occurs. Mice are ubiquitous to human activity. A mouse living with humans, as human, is very rare, indeed. And yet, there are several potential considerations playing on the reader’s mind that the author leaves to the reader’s imagination, such as, is this taking place in a regular house or in a mouse nest? Is the mouse/child in a crib or a matchbox? The narrator, in his earnest fashion, places the story in “America…where unusual happenings are rare.” He creates tension by holding the facts of Stuart Little’s coming into the world against the reader’s accustomed grasp of reality. Stuart is integrated into the family as if having a mouse for a son is not unusual.

The storyteller is staking a reader’s general bias toward mice to produce an initial conflict in a similar way that DeLillo, in the evocative opening narrative of Falling Man, relies upon a reader’s memory and understanding of the events of 9/11 to supply certain images that, as a media watching public, most readers can conjure from memory. In both examples the storyteller relies upon a reader’s experience of reality outside the story to accompany circumstances within the story.

A unique five percent of story beginnings, fall into a category best represented by Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, where the narrator is in no particular or stated physical location. The character is so absorbed in himself that setting is a non-existent feature. It is interesting to note how this ratio, 85-10-5, reflects similarly to Kinsey’s and Masters and Johnson’s breakdown of social collectiveness in humans and animals. In the case of Kinsey’s studies of human sexuality and sexual preference, eighty-five percent of respondents followed a heterosexual norm, ten percent crossed over between hetero and homo-sexual preferences and the remaining five percent were strictly homo. This sociological 85-10-5 distribution also happens to mirror what happens at the racetrack or in the casino, where eighty-five percent of gamblers lose, ten percent break-even, and five percent win, which has a great deal to say about how individual habits mirror human nature and explains all those big buildings in Las Vegas.

As human beings, we come from a long tribal history of living close to the earth, close to the crops we cultivated and the animals we raised or hunted. Socio-integration was vital to the safety and continuation of the clan. If one was not part of the tribe he was part of the outside. Aligning oneself to a tribal place was a specific way to gain audience allegiance to a storyteller’s character and narration. Commonly known settings made a story accessible. In the most recent couple of hundred years man has migrated to densely populated areas and created communal identities on a very large scale. Instead of being a member of “the green clan,” we have assumed the identity of Cleveland, London or Beijing, which has grown to represent large masses of individuals. In order to introduce narrative specificity and individual character as defining features, storytellers initiated the stratified fifteen percent that focus first on a character’s lack of recognizable place in order to focus on the individual’s interior complexity.

In the case of A Wild Sheep Chase. Murakami’s placeless, narrative conversation occurs in the relative non-setting of “it.” As a style, this five percent is more challenging to enter, as if the narrated character has not acknowledged the presence of a listener, or reader in this case:

It was a short one-paragraph item in the morning edition. A friend rang me up and read it to me. Nothing special. Something a rookie reporter fresh out of college might’ve written for practice.
The date, a street corner, a person driving a truck, a pedestrian, a casualty, an investigation of possible negligence.
Sounded like one of those poems on the inner flap of a magazine.
“Where’s the funeral?” I asked.
“You got me,” he said. “Did she even have a family?”[6]

What is unusual about Murakami’s first, eight-page chapter is that the unnamed character who narrates the story of a dead girl, doesn’t seem to be actually involved with his own life story. He is literally narrating from his past without making reference to himself. Neither does he illuminate the reader to other helpful monuments within his narrative; such as where he is, to whom he is speaking, or what he is doing while he narrates the story of this unnamed, dead, former girlfriend. In doing so, the characters exist as random mental notations and emotional reminiscences,

Of course, strictly speaking, she didn’t sleep with just anyone. She had standards. Still, the fact of the matter is, as any cursory examination of the evidence would suffice to show, that she was quite willing to sleep with almost any guy.

The reader is given a date stamp of October 25, 1970. Tokyo is referred to, soon after. The remaining where or what, time or place, are generic as if to suggest a sense of uniformity and interchangeability about the characters and their situations. Soon after and from out of the blue, we learn that the girl anticipates she,

“…is going to live to be twenty-five,” she said, “then die.”
July, eight years later, she was dead at twenty-six.”


With this, the story circles back to the obituary and the strange, foreign-feeling beginning.

All characters relate to the place they inhabit, whether they enjoy the place or not. Even if that place is completely foreign to the reader, it tells the reader how to relate to the character within the imaginative world of the story. As readers of fictional literature, we are predominantly human beings with critical responses to particular places and events that occur in familiar locations. Most fictional characters exist with human characteristics. Even in fantastical scenarios, robots, trees or barnyard animals exhibit human traits and emotions. As humans, we view the world and our place in it, not visa versa. Even the most self-centered or megalomaniacal personalities, who view themselves as the center of the universe, require a universe in which to be the center of. People relate differently depending on where they encounter each other. A reader relates to a character as defined by the world it inhabits. Character development within the author’s chosen world lends credence and a more detailed picture of that character’s social, economic and worldviews; Captain Ahab exists on a ship, not in a stagecoach; Scarlett O’Hara in colonial rural Georgia; Dorothy Gale lands in OZ, not the Riviera Hotel in Palm Springs.

In addition to setting, character and plot told via an authorial voice with narrative intention, there exists a circular story action common to the opening pages of many full-length fictional works. For lack of a better name, I call it Thematic Preamble to which the author makes callbacks throughout the story, in much the same way a composer uses leitmotif or standup comics call back reminders of successful jokes. A Thematic Preamble is usually two to four pages, although it can be much shorter, and focuses on a main character, a parallel story or a topic. In John Irving’s The Cider House Rules where, like a fable handed down from generation to generation, the preamble illuminates the naming process at St. Cloud’s orphanage where Homer Wells will be born in the next few pages. A Thematic Preamble is different from a prologue in that the preamble contains action and plot that contributes to the story’s narrative throughline. Most prologues introduce relative or parallel information that stands alone from the “real” story. In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight there is an exciting one page prologue of the narrator being stalked by her would-be murderer. This precedes about one hundred and fifty pages of “Good God, will something please happen!” Carson McCullers, in the thematic preamble of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, gives the reader a three-page overview of a typical day between two deaf and mute men before the story settles down to a slower pace with more specific personal information. One could compare a Thematic Preamble to the overture of a musical or operetta in that it prepares the reader with the sound and style of an author’s tone, without tasking the reader to remember specific details crucial to character or plot development. If one re-read the opening after enjoying the entire book, it would seem obvious that the author is providing more than just a moment to unwrap ones candy or bring one’s mind into reading mode. The Thematic Preamble is a platform from which major thematic elements are planted. In the case of Homer Wells and the orphanage in St. Cloud’s, the question of name, social position and the relation of father to son are constant, recurring questions of Irving’s work. Irving also establishes a subtle paradox in the setting, the town of “St. Cloud’s.” St. Cloud’s is a proper noun and possessive. It is as if the town has ownership over Homer and all the boys born there. Homer is the inferred possession of the orphanage itself; a St. Cloud’s boy.

Popular theory states there are only three story types: man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. Man appears in each case,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”[7]

Consider Dickens classically balanced opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities. With its rhythmic swing, the reader is drawn into the novel’s large thematic questions as well as acquainted what will drive the action: England versus France; Love versus Oppression; Family versus Hatred and more specifically Mr. Darney versus Madame Defarge. While Dickens doesn’t specify setting in his stylized opening paragraph, there was great public awareness around the larger events of the day. As in 9/11 and Falling Man, Dicken’s subtle indications became metaphor for the individual dramas and how they took place before a large public and historical backdrop.

In her chapter, “On Thinking Small” in The Making of a Story, author Alice LaPlante stresses how concrete details are the lifeblood of good writing, “…you won’t see the forest unless you see this tree and that tree and that tree.” (107) Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, also stresses the need to “think small”: “Often, if the triggering subject is big (love, death, faith) rather than localized and finite, the mind tends to shrink. Sir Alexander Fleming observed some mold, and a few years later, we had a cure for gonorrhea. But what if the British government had told him to find a cure for gonorrhea? He might have worried so much he would not have noticed the mold. Think small. If you have a big mind, that will show itself. If you can’t think small, try philosophy or social criticism.” (7)

In the notes of his unfinished manuscript for The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in capital letters, “ACTION IS CHARACTER.” Stahr, the character around whom the action evolves, is the head of a Hollywood film studio and a major player in the early movie business. Each of Stahr’s movements and decisions cause a chain of events that resonate throughout the Hollywood circle of influence affecting, not only Stahr, but each of the story’s other characters.

Even when a character is not a main character, they still drive the action of their own story and the story as a whole. Neither Nick Carroway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, nor Rosemary Hoyt, the young actress and object of desire in Tender is the Night, are central characters of their respective stories. Yet, when they have the opportunity to influence the main character against his destruction, they choose inaction, taking the road of least confrontation. Their inaction, a reflection of character deficit and Fitzgerald’s commentary of the American mindset of the time, contributes to each protagonist’s downfall. In each of their cases these characters act to avoid action, defining them by what they do, versus who they are.

The Catcher in the Rye is a character first story, similar to Stuart Little or The Great Gatsby, in that Holden Caulfield, as both narrator and main character, he is so overwhelmed by his situation that even after a lengthy preamble, excusing himself from disclosing anything of worth or value about himself, proceeds to narrate his story, as if speaking to an unseen interviewer. Like the narrator in Mirakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, J.D. Salinger’s narrator begins with the assumption that we already know the gist of his story and that we are comfortable entering his narrative in progress. The opening paragraph serves as a thematic preamble, a warm up of sorts, allowing Caulfield to settle in before getting down to the facts of his tale. The ensuing paragraph puts the reader onto more solid ground by introducing a verifiable setting to offset the potential unreliability of Caulfield as narrator on the facts of his life,

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.”[8]


Caulfield’s introduction runs parallel to his need for constant movement and entertainment. He is lost, but he is guided by his need for experiences, even juvenile ones. Caulfield is always narrating his story, even if he is incapable of representing himself accurately.

An author does not have to be gifted to write a good story. An author must be consistent and true to the world they create. Regardless of what the story is about, everything must relate back to the larger themes set up at the beginning. A reader should be able to finish a book, turn back to the beginning and see how the ending was set up in the first few pages. It is the author’s job to be as narrow and specific as possible, while providing as full and descriptive a world as necessary. It is imperative for the author to constantly refine his work for consistency. Promise an entire world, provide only what is essential to the story being narrated. Good stories move toward a good ending. Good stories don’t reveal the ending. Good storytelling keeps within a narrow bandwidth, otherwise it falls apart searching for new material. Surprise and discovery are excellent devices, but without consistent threads that support the narrative a story spins out beyond the scope of the story’s reality. Consider the relatively narrow motivating force that affects all the characters, tensions and their resulting actions in Gone With the Wind, “I want what I want because I deserve it… because I want it.”

I am acutely aware of how my blood pressure changes as a story’s authorial voice settles into my consciousness. As I feel the story wash over me, as the narrator and I become increasingly acquainted, my body gives over to the authority the narrator has over events and an intimate triangle is created between reader, narrator and story being created. First person narrators, such as the narrators in Twilight, Lolita and Mrs. Dalloway are particularly good at creating this intimate bond, whether they are reliable or not. They create an elusive plasticity through which the reader passes in and out of the story.

So, what did I learn by reading all these different first ten pages? Most obviously, novels are about character, even if that character is a kitchen sink, but they are about place first. Place is the springboard from which the reader understands the character’s relationship to the world and how the reader creates their relationship to the characters in the story.

Make inconsistencies facts. It will create future tension. Start narrow and stay narrow in order to maximize credibility within the bandwidth of believability created by the narrator, for instance Holden Caulfield keeps his narration within the narrow bandwidth of “I’m not going to tell you anything I don’t want to…” or in One Hundred Years of Solitude the main character opens the story “facing the firing squad” in the same way that the entire country is facing destruction and yet miraculously continues living on and on.

Implicate! With how few words can a writer create a place and characters using as much implication as possible? Budding writers tend to explain far more than necessary. Don’t.

Be specific over being descriptive. It will broaden the reader’s ability to co-create the story with the narrator, as the media images and the events of 9/11 co-created a reader’s experience of Falling Man.

Ignore what I think the reader needs to know. Instead, enmesh and entangle place and character, force the character to choose. Forcing change, by putting the characters in a position to choose, raises tension. Ignore the desire to describe until description supports conflict within the narrative.

Break down each sentence to see how it supports the whole. If the acorn of the opening pages grows into a Maple, something is terribly wrong.

Without characters who do something, there is no forward movement; without movement, no action; no action, no plot. “A bad beginning makes for a bad ending,” wrote Euripides, and indeed it is critical to know how to raise the curtain on a story. Mama Rose in the Broadway musical Gypsy, says, “If you have a great ending they’ll forgive you for anything,” and while it may be true of production numbers and fireworks pageants, it is unlikely that a reader will hang-out with dull material for a couple hundred pages on the off-chance of a spectacular finish.

“Begin every story in the middle,” says Louis L’Amour, King of the Great American Western. Chekhov told young writers to tear up the first three pages of what they had written in order to begin with a sense of momentum. In medias res, said Horace. L’Amour says it plainer. “The reader doesn’t care how it begins; he just wants to get on with it.” So what happens next? Get on with it!

1. Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell. 1936. 1,035 pages. First 10 pages = .97% of total story.
2. The Road. Cormic McCarthy. 2006. 285 pages. First 10 pages = 3.51% of total story.
3. Empire Falls. Richard Russo. 2001. 483 pages. First 10 pages = 2.07% of total story.
4. Falling Man. Don DiLillo. 2007. 244 pages. First 10 pages = 4.1% of total story.
5. Stuart Little. E.B. White. 1945. 138 pages. First 10 pages = 7.25% of total story.
6. Wild Sheep Chase. Haruki Murakami. 1989. 353 pages. First 10 pages = 2.83% of total story.
7. A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Dickens. 1859. 412 pages. First 10 pages = 2.43% of total story.
8. The Catcher in the Rye. J.D. Salinger. 1951. 277 pages. First 10 pages = 3.64% of total story.

Bryan Burch is a recent MFA graduate of University California Riverside – Palm Desert low residency Creative Writing program. He is co-editor of THE WHISTLING FIRE online journal and continues to contribute to his website

Beyond Description: Poetry That Stares–An Essay by Kurt Brown

It’s commonplace now to assert that contemporary experience has been broken up into fifteen second ads, rapid cinematic cross-cuts, bewildering language collages, and ephemeral sound bytes. Consciousness, we agree, has been fractured—perhaps beyond repair. It’s as though the whole culture were suffering from attention deficit disorder, unable to sustain collective thought. This frazzling of attention might be welcomed by experimental artists and merchandizing outfits of all kinds. Such shattering of awareness is relatively new, and as recently as a half century ago—certainly stretching back through preceding millennia—the human mind was capable of extended periods of concentration, of focusing itself on objects and events that moved relatively slowly, and which therefore yielded up more and more about themselves the longer the observer stayed put. A Zen-like meditative state might not have been widespread in the Middle Ages, but attention spans during that historical epoch were probably more durable than ours, and distraction—at least rapid immediate distraction—less a problem.

As one of the oldest human activities, poetry is still capable of evoking the meditative state, of recording an almost trance-like attachment to people, places, objects and events and allowing even ordinary experience to reveal depth and dimension, significance and substance, lastingness and solidity. Of yielding up, that is, the secret qualities of things—the deeper meaning of phenomena, the unseen reality that might begin to emanate from each object if only we could stay fixed and focused on it long and faithfully enough, for such subtle details, such essences, to be revealed. The modern mind, skating swiftly over the surface of things, making rapid surveys of all it sees, bouncing from perception to perception, cannot know—cannot get at—the secret life of things, to borrow a concept from Rilke. We might notice the gleaming torso of Apollo, while sprinting through the museum, but we can no longer experience the fact that it is also noticing us. That kind of dawning, radical awareness may now have been rendered passé.

All poems—at least traditionally—represent acts of attention more or less, though post-modernism delights in reversing conventional approaches to writing by favoring interruption, disjunction, floating pronouns, shifting grammar, fractured sentences, and so on, over what Tony Hoagland has called “the poetries of continuity.” The post-modern poem, then, seeks to imitate the fractured nature of contemporary experience, to mirror it in formal strategies and scattered syntax, rather than trying to reconstruct wholeness—to re-member the scattered corpse of the Muse—the dead Horus of all poetries leading up to Modernism which was the first to introduce fragment and collage into the mainstream of western literature. What I am calling “staring poems” then, is naturally inimical to the whole project of post-modernism. This is not necessarily a judgment, but an essential feature of post-modernism that excludes it from the possibility of producing poems of extended focus and attention and therefore separates it from the centuries of poetry that preceded it. Whatever virtues it may have gained by attempting to replicate contemporary experience, it can no longer partake in the qualities and discoveries of prolonged meditation.

A distinction has to be made, too, between poems of observation and poems that stare—though of course they are related, the latter being essentially a noticeable magnification of the former, a particular species of descriptive poetry that, by its sheer persistence, represents a higher degree of attention. The poem of observation has been with us for a long time, perhaps from the very first. All traditional poems describe things, and great poems describe them greatly. One of the glories of Homer, we are told, is the precision of his imagery—the physical, concrete, nature of what he presents to our senses—which critics have praised with such terms as “visceral” and “alive.” The wine-dark sea and the rosy fingers of dawn have come down to us almost undiminished in their imaginative rightness and surprising beauty. When Dante escorts us through hell, we shrink from the rippling tapestry of flames and the acrid smell of sulfur. Milton, too, allows us to see the huge body of Satan sprawled out in a lake of fire with the other fallen angels scattered around him “thick as leaves that strow the brooks in Valambrosa.” Modernism itself is founded on the idea of observation and representational aesthetics. Imagism, the movement that began it all, was fundamentally an effort to restore clarity and precision to poetry after the emotional fuzziness and haze of Victorian emoting.

More recently, Francis Ponge’s poems have received their fair share of admiration for the painstaking effort they make to focus attention on a single object—an orange, an oyster, a pebble, even roadside dung—though in Ponge’s treatment of things the mind travels side by side with the object, informing it, imbuing it with meaning, probing it and commenting on it at every step. The objects in Ponge’s poems are infused throughout with a fine, delicate subjectivity that heightens and illuminates them even further. One feels Ponge’s mind suffusing each article with an interior light, which is the dim light of partial understanding, an inkling as we say, even as the power of his attention surrounds each object with the fierce halo of his gaze. We are as aware of Ponge, the observer, as we are of whatever it is he is observing. That is to say, the presence of the observer is felt in every word of the poem; we are never allowed to forget that he is there.

But this is true of most poems of observation, whether immediately or at some point later in the poem. Take, for example, the following poem ‘Snake’ by Francine Sterle, a very fine poem of close description that appeared in her book Every Bird is One Bird from Tupelo Press in 2001. Here’s the poem in its entirety, because it will be necessary to talk about it at some length in order to note the qualities of observation that may be found in most poems of this kind:

Saw it hatch from an egg
like a bird, saw it surge
months later from a mud hole,
glide across a log, wave upon wave,
into a dark crevice in the rocks,
saw its feathery tongue flicker
as its eyes went cold,
and it swelled thick-bodied
until it burst from its skin
in one luminous stroke, saw
the undulating string of chevrons
shiver down its back,
saw it slip into the world
in roots and umbilical cords,
wheels and smoke and curling hair,
saw it in the whip-tailed wind
hissing behind me, in the uterine earth,
the Great Serpent writhing under my feet
when I walked. Saw it coil
into a wreath, and still it stirred
without arms or legs or wings, slithered forward,
unlocked its jaws over a mouse, unlocked
something in me: Lord of this world,
Lord who delights in blood,
and my shovel crushed its head,
and this is how I yielded.

The first thing to notice about the poem is how Sterles seeks to detach herself from what she is observing, to direct the reader’s attention, not to herself, but to the snake she wants us to observe with her, something she partially achieves by dropping the subject of these sentences—the “I”—which would normally stand in front of those anaphorically migrating verbs: “saw.” “Don’t pay attention to me,” she seems to be implying, “look only at what I have to show you.” The observing consciousness doesn’t enter the poem until after line twelve, which ends a long list of details about the snake’s physical attributes and behavior. After that point, however, the observer’s presence is detectable to some degree in the metaphorical forays she makes into snakiness itself, the curling and writhing of other things—smoke, roots, hair—that resemble in some way the creature she has just described. But metaphor, we know, takes place only in the mind of the speaker and, for the first time, not out there in the world. Line by line, she continues to come forward until, finally, she steps completely into the poem by revealing herself—for the fist time—with the pronoun “I.” And that is where the poem, for the first time as well, comes to rest, before pushing on towards its inevitable disclosure, the revelation towards which it has been tending. Observation has done its work, and may be left behind. Statement—the framing of an idea—is now in order, and takes its place: “unlocked something in me…and this is how I yielded.”

Much more might be said about this poem, about its prosodic features—those anapests that advance trippingly after the clogged spondees of lines two and three: “saw it surge / months later from a mud hole, / glide across a log, wave upon wave, / into a dark crevice in the rocks”— its numerous enjambments and positional vagaries of the verb “saw,” which enact or at least underscore the sinuous movement of the snake, and the single long line that describes how the snake “slithered forward,” even as the line slithers forward to tell us so. It is an adept performance, in almost every way.

And of course it reminds us of other poems about snakes: Dickinson’s great poem that ends in “zero at the bone”; Lawrence’s wonderful meditation about “one of the Lord’s of Life.” It hardly needs mentioning that the whole myth of Eden lurks behind the words and images of “Snake,” contextualizing it even further to give it resonances and meanings not necessarily present in the poet’s actual experience of her particular snake. When she yields, here, it is to that urge towards violence that we associate with snakes, especially snakes that represent the Devil. This is a strong poem, one that uses observation skillfully and for a very definite purpose. What I’m looking for, though, is something more radical than this. Poems or passages of poems in which the observer all but disappears, all but vanishes into the background of the text while we, its readers, are left alone completely absorbed in what we are seeing, hearing, and experiencing, albeit imaginary, as art. In poems that stare so hard we become, in Emerson’s memorable phrase, “translucent eyeballs,” no longer aware of ourselves, much less the observer who is describing what we see.

Let’s begin with Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “At the Fishhouses,” which describes one of the coastal fishing villages of her youthful Nova Scotia. It is not necessary to cite every line of “At the Fishhouses”, as Bishop does appear—memorably—at various places in the poem. But not until thirty one lines have been spent painstakingly and beautifully observing the details of the fishhouses and the interesting terrain surrounding them. The staring here is selective, but intense, unwavering. From an old man working on his nets in the evening, we move to the “steeply peaked roofs” of the fishhouses, to “the heavy surface of the sea, / swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,” to “the benches, / the lobster pots, and masts, scattered / among the wild jagged rocks,” to “The big fish tubs…completely lined / with layers of beautiful herring scales,” and so on, so that when Bishop finally enters the poem at line thirty two by handing the old man a Lucky Strike, we are startled, shocked, as if she had just emerged from the twilight at our elbow to break the spell we’ve been under, a spell cast by the powerful manifestation of the landscape she has just been observing for us. The scene has been so potently depicted, and we have been so deeply drawn into it, that we had forgotten she was even there. Even brief moments of subjectivity—such as that suggested by the word “considering” above (who has this idea?), and the lines “The air smells strong of codfish / it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water”—fail to destroy the sense of detachment, the impersonal feeling built up over so many lines of painterly description, that we pass over them almost without notice, without considering how they might imply an observer, a speaker standing nearby in the gloaming with us.

Staring poems, almost entirely, resist the temptation to turn the object(s) of their observation into metaphor. At least, not at first, and not for a long time. Often until the very last lines of the poem. Though she is present, more or less, at various places from line thirty three on, Bishop continues to observe the landscape and the creatures in it, until she finally gets around to the revelation she’s been seeking—the master metaphor that will deepen and enlarge the significance of all that has come before. The sea, finally, is figured as something other than itself, something abstract and uncontained:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

This is effective as far as it goes, but feels rather operatic and self-conscious—worked over—in comparison to the acute observations with which the poem began (“from the rocky breasts / forever” seems particularly forced). What we remember about the poem, I believe, is not this final rhetorical summation, but “the small old buildings with an emerald moss / growing on their shoreward walls” and the old man with “sequins on his vest and on his thumb” who “has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away.”

Perhaps the weakest moment in Bishop’s famous staring poem, “The Fish,” is its ending as well, which many critics denounce, feeling that it adds a note of sentimentality, a predictable gesture of sympathy at the last moment which feels tacked on, moralizing at the culmination of a much more interesting, and powerfully obsessive description of the fish. Though Bishop is present in “The Fish” in first-person pronouns scattered throughout the poem, here again the force of observation is so intense it tends to overwhelm the sense of an observer by aggressively directing our attention to the object itself. Who really cares about those intersecting, oily rainbows, and the notion of fishly victory, when we are presented with such astonishing detail, such minutely observed specifics, as in the magnificent passage describing the fish’s skin: “Here and there / his brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper, / and its pattern of darker brown / was like wallpaper: / shapes like full-blown roses / stained and lost through age.” And she continues:

He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.

As if her obsession with describing the fish cannot stop at a presentment of its exterior details alone, Bishop now enters the fish’s body and describes what she can only imagine—but most surely has seen many times, while cleaning fish—that is to say, her depiction of these things is not fanciful, but literal. She speaks of:

…the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

The description, here, is riveting. Bishop’s gaze is so clear, so particular, that we again enter a kind of observational trance, an absorption in the object of contemplation so complete we forget about her and ourselves and perhaps even the fact that we are reading a poem, a representation of the thing, and not seeing the thing itself. After this interior survey of the fish’s principal organs, Bishop imaginatively exits the fish to take note of it’s eyes:

the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.

The notations here are so fresh and surprising, we feel that we could linger with her over every feature of the fish—lovingly, completely—until the creature has been thoroughly limned, thoroughly illuminated in words and images that possess the inevitableness Harold Bloom touts in his little book The Art of Reading Poetry as one of the most important values a poem might exhibit: the conviction that what is stated and presented could have been stated and presented in no other way. Nothing about the poem feels arbitrary. Everything about it feels determined, fated, having that exactly-this-and-nothing-else quality that satisfies our deepest sense of fitness and artistic achievement.

In what I feel is one of Bishop’s most successful poems, “The Moose,” she retreats even farther into the background to allow the landscape, other lives, and the moose itself to take center stage. In this poem, she is little more than a camera eye—perhaps a video camera, in this day and age—dutifully recording what happens during a bus trip through the Nova Scotia countryside at night. When she does enter the poem, it is not as a singular “I,” but submerged in a group, an indistinguishable member of the pronouns “us” and “we.” All her attention is directed outward, a mere amanuensis of what transpires, which is filled with both ordinariness and mystery, capped off with the appearance of the moose. Bishop is both eye and ear—both voyeur and eavesdropper submerged in the all-encompassing darkness—and even at the ultimate moment, when the moose steps out of the woods, sniffs the bus, and is left behind, she avoids drawing a moral, or turning the beast into a metaphor for primal nature, the unconscious, a pagan god or totem of any kind, or imagination’s awkward ambassador. All of these might exist as layers beneath the literal events of the poem, but Bishop remains an objective reporter throughout. She has been staring into the night for twenty-eight stanzas and is willing to let whatever emerges from it speak for itself. It is one of the great poems of prolonged attention we have, at least in contemporary literature, though it was written somewhat before the fracturing of our post-modern sensibilities had taken place.

Perhaps one of our most notable “staring” poets is C. K. Williams who, through a number of remarkable volumes since Tar, from Random House in 1980, has given us numerous examples of poems that are disciplined, alert, marvelously detailed, and unique for the way in which they can parse—not only physical actions and things—but abstract concepts, thoughts, feelings, as though they were as solid and visible as any object. Like Ponge, whom he has translated, Williams is capable of an obsessive, breathtakingly determined gaze. But unlike Ponge, Williams is almost exclusively interested in people—what they say and do, how they interact with each other, what they think, and feel. A poem like “Waking Jed,” will serve to illustrate the sheer hypnotic nature of his attention, a patience and dedication to getting it right that is almost preternatural in its power:

Deep asleep, perfect immobility, no apparent evidence of consciousness or of dream.
Elbow cocked, fist on pillow lightly curled to the tension of the partially relaxing sinew.
Head angled off, just so: the jaw’s projection exaggerated slightly, almost to prognathous: why?
The features express nothing whatsoever and seem to call up no response in me.
Though I say nothing, don’t move, gradually, far down within, he, or rather not he yet,
something, a presence, an element of being, becomes aware of me: there begins a subtle,
very gentle alteration in the structure of his face, or maybe less that that, more elusive,
as though the soft distortions of sleep-warmth radiating from his face and flesh,
those essentially unreal mirages in the air between us, were modifying, dissipating.
The face now is more his, Jed’s—its participation in the almost Romanesque generality
I wouldn’t a moment ago have been quite able to specify, not having its contrary, diminishes.
Particularly on the cheekbones and chin, the skin is thinning, growing denser, harder,
the molecules on the points of bone coming to attention, the eyelids finer, brighter, foil-like:
capillaries, veins; though nothing moves, there are goings to and fro behind now.
One hand opens, closes down more tightly, the arm extends suddenly full length,
jerks once at the end, again, holds: there’s a more pronounced elongation of the skull—
the infant pudginess, whatever atavism it represented, or reversion, has been called back.
Now I sense, although I can’t say how, his awareness of me: I can feel him begin to think,
I even know that he’s thinking—or thinking in a dream perhaps—of me here watching him.
Now I’m aware—again, with no notion how, nothing indicates it—that if there was a dream,
it’s gone, and, yes, his eyes abruptly open although his gaze, straight before him,
seems not to register just yet, the mental operations still independent of his vision.
I say his name, the way we do it, softly, calling one another from a cove or cave,
as though something else were there with us, not to be disturbed, to be crept along beside.
The lids come down again, ye yawns, widely, very consciously manifesting intentionality.
Great, if rudimentary, pleasure now: a sort of primitive, peculiarly mammalian luxury—
to know, to know wonderfully that lying here, warm, protected, eyes closed, one can,
for a moment anyway, a precious instant, put off the lower specie onsets, duties, debts.
Sleeker, somehow, slyer, more aggressive now, he is suddenly more awake, all awake,
already plotting, scheming, fending off: nothing said but there is mild rebellion, conflict:
I insist, he resists, and then, with abrupt, wriggling grace, he otters down from sight,
just his brow and crown, his shining rumpled hair, left ineptly showing from the sheet.
Which I pull back to find him in what he must believe a parody of sleep, himself asleep:
fetal, rigid, his arms clamped to his sides, eyes screwed shut, mouth clenched, grinning.

Anyone familiar with technical manuals might recognize the affinity this has to process analysis, whereby engineers or chemical workers might learn, step by step, how a particular sequence of mechanical or chemical events might unfold. With a crucial difference: no engineer would be expected to have to read, much less understand, the complex abstractions presented here. Even most poets might be satisfied to note that “a very gentle alternation in the structure of [jed’s] face” takes place without fine tuning this observation by pushing it farther, to include something “more elusive”: “the soft distortions of sleep-warmth radiating from his face / and flesh, / those essentially unreal mirages in the air between us, were modify- / ing, dissipating.” To be aware of such subtleties, much less finding the language to articulate them, is one of Williams’s gifts as a poet, and what sets his observations apart from many other poets engaged in describing the spectral or ephemeral qualities of things. Compare this, for instance, to Bishop’s beautiful evocation of the sea at dusk, in “At the Fishhouses”:

All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque…

and later, again:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.

The point isn’t that Williams is a better poet, or a more careful observer. It is just that he is after more liminal, elusive phenomena, states of awareness almost impossible to portray because of their frail, shimmering brevity, their almost-not-hereness, that only the most refined sensibility can detect. Williams is one of the poets who have made it possible again to partake of the widest array of terms the English language has to offer. His poetry is a far cry from the primitive “stone” “wind” “ice” and “star” vocabulary, mostly symbolic, favored in the 1960s when he began to write poetry for the first time.

In fact, it might be argued that Williams clutters his lines with too many heavy, abstract Latinate words, to many hesitations, second-guessings, and qualifications, and that these actually distract from the object of his attention rather than bringing it into sharper focus. But if we look closely at Williams’s sentence structure, the wide array of adjectives and adverbs employed, and his use of what I call “triadic focusing (which I will define shortly),” we might begin to understand how the apparent complexity of his style actually helps, not hinders, the exactness of his descriptions. In “Waking Jed” the observer is patient, fastidious in the details he selects for us to regard, and rigorously fixed on an object that is essentially still, or changing very slightly over a short period of time. The drama here is provided almost completely by the force of the observer’s gaze. The language is lavish, intricate, sometimes concrete, sometimes attempting to make the abstract concrete and, therefore, graspable. The long lines allow, even encourage the observer to take his time, to inch over his material with no pressure to hurry because he has plenty of room to do so. Roominess is a quality, a condition of long lines and almost guarantees a slower pace than shorter lines would provide.

There is a constant imperative to keep qualifying and revising himself, in the interests of getting it right, of nailing it down, of finally capturing those aspects of what he sees in words and phrases that will serve when no language, really, will serve in the face of such transitory, gossamer-like phenomena. So, his doubts and self-interuptions are scattered throughout—“or maybe…” ““or…perhaps “although…” “or rather…” and are reflected in provisional words like “seem” “as though…” somehow…”, as well as in the periodic sentences that appear here and there in his examination of Jed, marked by suspended clauses that clarify, en passant, the main body of his sentence. We are often told that a poet’s style mirrors, in some way, his or her thought processes. This is surely the case here, with the caveat that Williams’s poems, like any poet’s, only present the illusion of the thought processes that made them—not the actual process itself, which was messy, imprecise, halting, and unavoidably incomplete. Williams’s chief technique, however, the mechanism with which he most strenuously tries to “get it right,” is provided by what I have called “triadic focusing.” When Williams employs this technique, he is not stumbling. He is allowing the reader to move with him from the most generalized expression of a thought to a clearer, more pointed formulization of that thought which is probably the closest he will ever get to actually articulating what he observes.

So, at the very beginning of the poem, Williams moves from “Deep asleep” (most general), to “perfect immobility” (more specific), to “no apparent evidence of consciousness or of dream” (most specific) in the course of a single line, ratcheting his observation down with each phrase—adjusting the lens, as it were—until he is satisfied that he has found the best way to embody his thought, to clarify it as far as it is possible to do so with the clunky, imprecise apparatus of language. Not much later, concerned with what he senses is taking place “far down within” the remote being of the sleeper, he does it again—how to describe this? He starts by saying “something,” (most general), then decides he will call it “a presence,” (more specific), and finally settles on “an element of being” as the most precise way he can articulate the insubstantialness, the vapory half-life of whatever it is that begins to stir deep in Jed’s slumbering brain. In fact, the word “something” occurs twice in the poem and the word “nothing” five times. It is how Williams gets from “something” or almost “nothing” to “what will suffice,” as Wallace Stevens put it—some final compromise in words— that provides the poem with its raison d’etre, its challenge, which Williams keeps asking of himself, and meeting, and going on, and which is a measure of the poem’s ultimate value and success. To find language for what occurs on the fringes of consciousness, at the border between what is speakable and what is not, is one of the poet’s particular tasks, a constant wrestling with language that—even at its best—favors the generic over the specific, the approximate over the exact. That is why language has so many modifiers. Adjectives and adverbs are specifiers, various choke-holds for grappling with the generality of nouns and verbs in an attempt to pin them to the mat.

So the list of modifiers in Williams’s poem is impressive, and flies in the face of Pound’s generally accepted advice to avoid adjectives as much as possible in poetry. Williams employs the following in his struggle with the ineffable: deep, perfect, apparent, partially relaxing, exaggerated, subtle, gentle, elusive, soft, essentially unreal, almost Romanesque, denser, harder, finer, brighter, foil-like, infant, mental, great, rudimentary, primitive, peculiar, mammalian, precious, lower, sleeker, slyer, mild, abrupt, wriggling, shining, rumpled, fetal, rigid, shut, clenched, and grinning. As we can see from this list, the comparative (denser, harder, finer, brighter) is often used by the poet in his attempt to narrow things down to the particular. Woven in with this array of adjectives is an equally impressive array of adverbs: lightly, partially, slightly, gradually, tightly, suddenly (twice), abruptly, softly, widely, consciously, wonderfully, ineptly, and almost. Taken together, then, this dense web of modifiers helps Williams clarify his subject—what Jed looks like and what he does. Strip away this layer of modifiers, and the poem presents only the archetype of a boy asleep in a bed, waking up. Any boy, doing what any boy might. What Williams has given us is not a portrait, but an account of a particular boy in a particular moment in time, without preventing us from seeing some of the universal in it as well. And I believe the urgency to pay more than usual attention goes beyond a father’s natural interest in his child, but suggests the artist’s obsession with a subject—any subject—so long as it piques his interest and engages his imagination.

If, as Malebranche asserts “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul, ”then each of these poems, more or less, is a prayerful response to some aspect of the world, quotidian though it may be, on which the poet freely lavishes his or her attention. Poetry that stares honors reality and implies a valuation of its commonness, suggesting that much of importance—perhaps all we might finally know—can be found there. It is not anti-metaphysical, but pro-worldly, devoted to the manifest, the here-and-now, as the only sure locus of understanding and truth. It is, perhaps, related to another Williams’s famous dictum: “no ideas, but in things,” yet it is more than that. It involves respect, acceptance, even love of the actual, a curiosity and delight in what is, what exists, without an accompanying sense of judgment or degradation. It does not deny the horrifying or the ugly, but seeks beauty in the most unexpected places, the lowliest things—in gray, weathered fish tubs spangled with herring scales; in the cocked jaw of a loved one’s face misshapen by sleep. Considered as a noun, the venerable O. E. D. defines a stare as: “the power of seeing” and “a condition of amazement, horror, admiration, etc.” (“Why stand you,” writes Shakespeare in ‘The Tempest,’ in this strange stare?”). As a verb its definition is even more explicit: “to gaze fixedly and with eyes wide open.” Is this so different than what we normally think of as being enraptured by something that stops us in our tracks and compels us to attend? In the poetry I’ve been considering, that something is the ordinary world.


Kurt Brown founded of the Aspen Writers’ Conference, and  Writers’ Conferences & Centers (a national association of directors). His poems have appeared in many literary periodicals, and he is the editor of several anthologies including Blues for Bill, for the late William Matthews, from University of Akron Press and his newest (with Harold Schechter), Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems from Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series. He is the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, Fables from the Ark, Future Ship, and No Other Paradise. A collection of the poems of Flemish poet Herman de Coninck entitled The Plural of Happiness, which he and his wife translated, was released in the Field Translation Series in 2006.

Location: The Stealth Protagonist–An Essay by Monty Mickelson

“’Tell me,” I said, stammeringly, for I have no voice of my own, “what does this big—er—enormous—whopping city say? It must have a voice of some kind. Does it ever speak to you?’” (1)

From The Voice of the City by O. Henry

There are singular places in North America that are almost impossible to mistake for anywhere else. The Old Cité in Quebec is such a place; ditto for the French Quarter in New Orleans, the plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Mallory Square in Key West, and perhaps a handful of others. Their distinct appeal is part visual, part sensory—a jumble of smells and sounds that both evocative and indelible. And perhaps the most dramatic distinction in each of these locales is the people: you will not find a voodoo priestess in Quebec, and in Key West you will never see a voyaguer. You will not hear the Creole dialect in Santa Fe, but you will hear a Spanish accent that is neither Mexican nor Castillian; it is the inflections of New Spain, and it has been spoken there for 400 years.

My point is that these novel locations, when folded into the plots of novels, should elevate the story in the same way that unique characters and characterizations elevate great fiction. Location can be so much more than a functional setting, more than what author Leonard Lutwack describes as a “sub-regional influence”² on character and plot. There are fine books by superb writers (Amy Hempl’s collected stories comes to mind) that offer almost no descriptive setting, that provide only cursory orientation. Raymond Chandler, one of the most famous Los Angelenos in all of literature, leaves his gumshoe cityscape almost entirely to the imagination of the reader. Sam Spade wouldn’t care about the peculiar sway of palms in the Santa Ana winds, and neither does Chandler. These authors navigate sans location, and are very adept at it.

But for another class of author, location permeates story; setting and action are symbiotic and indivisible. It’s as if the locale operates as a concurrent character, a kind of stealth protagonist. I believe that writers with a special affinity for place can use this stealth protagonist to great advantage. It seems an ephemeral concept, highly subjective, but also serves as a potent weapon in the literary arsenal. Versions of this “protagonist” premise have been widely explored by critics and academics, including Leonard Lutwack in The Role of Place in Literature:

That place may have a significant influence on a writer is incontestable, though the proposition does not hold for all writers. That a geographical region with distinguishing features may have an influence on a number of writers is less incontestable. There is little doubt about sub-regional influences, such as the Lake District on English romantic poets, Concord on American transcendentalists, New York City on the Knickerbockers; but the more extensive the region and the wider its variety of places the less precise is the line from environmental cause to literary result and the more we must call on other factors—local history and culture, dialect and folkways—to establish the regional quality of a body of literature. (2)

Lutwack is saying, in part, that the American voice and American influence on world literature is much harder to quantify and discern than one good, rattling Chicago novel by someone like Theodore Dreiser. (Or one pithy and pungent New York story by would-be Knickerbockers like O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, or Studs Terkel.) Here is what Blanche Housman Gelfant says about Dreiser’s naturalistic depictions of Chicago in The American City Novel:

Dreiser never developed a keen sensitivity to the presence and implications of urban manners, except those of fashion and housefurnishings. Perhaps this was because of a temperamental way of seeing things, but more likely it was because as a newcomer to the city, Dreiser found his attention focusing upon gross social facts new to him, such as the economic discrepancies among city people and the common drive toward material success…Dreiser’s realism consisted in an exact registering of the objective details of the setting and in the creation of type-characters who exhibited type-reactions. (3)

Type-characters exhibiting type-reactions does not generally meet my definition of setting and action being symbiotic and indivisible. Location as stealth protagonist is certainly well-served by having that newcomer’s “temperamental way of seeing things,” by focusing attention on gross social facts. Mere facts, however, do not make for a location that pervades, that fully inhabits a work of fiction. Facts and observations are more the province of the travel writer, the vagabond essayist, the bon vivant. Take, for instances, this sample of travel journalism:

The roads in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula are like plumb lines drawn the scrub jungle—as straight and featureless as Dakota train tracks. Most homes erected near the road have stick walls and thatch roofs. The villages themselves have all the hallmarks of a Third World cliché; hogs roaming the yards, shoeless children chasing emaciated dogs, ramshackle cantina signs announcing Bienvenidos! And all of this just minutes beyond Cancun’s Zona Hotelera, where the construction boom rivals Waikiki. (4)

Thus we have a serviceable, albeit vaguely jingoistic lead paragraph that promises a culture of contrasts, viewed from the window of a moving bus. You can expect, in short order, to be told something about the exchange rate and the price of things, about the level of service, and perhaps a description of the archaeological wonders that have been reclaimed from the “scrub jungle.” I know this, because I wrote this paragraph (and the ensuing, predictable story) for an in-flight airline magazine some 18 years ago. It conforms to most conventions of the genré: Prices, accommodations, attractions; a cursory portrayal of what is undoubtedly an ancient, complex, and not-easily-codified native population followed by the ringing endorsement to by all means go!

Vladamir Nabokov, in his novel Laughter in the Dark, addresses this same issue of cursory portrayals and conventions of the travel genre:

A writer for instance talks about India which I have seen, and gushes about dancing girls, tiger hunts, fakirs, betel nuts, serpents: the Glamour of the Mysterious East. But what does it amount to? Nothing. Instead of visualizing India I merely get a bad toothache from all these Eastern delights. Now, there’s the other way, as for instance the fellow who writes: ‘Before turning in I put out my wet boots to dry and in the morning I found that a thick blue forest had grown in them (“Fungi, Madam,” he explained)…’ and at once India becomes alive for me. (5)

At its best, there is both nobility and some emotional resonance to travel journalism. Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast, Saint Jack) has moved between those two worlds with some facility for more than 30 years. In his collections of essays Fresh Air Friend, Theroux advocates content that is both “topographical and psychological.” In his essay, Travel Writing, The Point of It, Theroux says that astute and culturally savvy travel writers could have (and should have) predicted the social upheaval in China that resulted in the 1987 massacre in Tiananmen Square. He writes:

I have always felt that the truth is prophetic, that if you describe precisely what you see and give it life with your imagination, then what you write ought to have lasting value, not matter what the mood of your prose. (6)

Aspiring to “a prophetic truth” is a worthy goal for any journalist or fiction writer. However, journalism doesn’t have protagonists; journalism has sources, a point of view, and—most typically—a brief shelf life. An article about a place is evanescent; it is both topical and perishable, like a rumor that is quickly debunked. A travel journalist cannot (generally) become a character in a given community, toiling in the work force, cultivating friendships, navigating local statutes and customs, and perhaps the public school system in the course of raising a family. For a travel writer, there will always be that lack of assimilation, of being on the outside of an inside joke. Travelogue traffics in what Blanche Gelfant describes as “gross social facts.” And, sadly, we read see these cursory word collages in fiction all the time. An example:

Around the plaza itself, the old Spanish-Indio adobe buildings, while renovated and elegant on the inside, were studiedly ancient and crumbling on the outside. The showpiece was the original sixteenth-century Palace of the Governors. Some of the newer buildings were Territorial—remnants of the nineteenth-century Anglo takeover—and a few modern edifices in the same de rigueur style, such as the oversized new Hilton and El Dorado hotels, blocked the sunset views to the west. (7)

Author E.C. Ayers, in his novel Lair of the Lizard, gives a reasonable summary of the local architecture of Santa Fe; with a couple of inaccuracies. For instance, there is no “Spanish-Indio” school of local architecture that I know of; rather, it is called Pueblo Revival. And I’m not certain which nineteenth-century Anglo takeover Ayers is citing: New Mexico’s annexation by the Republic of Texas in 1836, annexation by Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny and the Army of the West in 1846, or a brief occupation by the confederates during the Civil War. But I quibble over this depiction because I have a dog in the fight. I have undertaken, in my master’s thesis fiction project, to add my voice to a long and distinguished list of fine writers who have set stories and novels in northern New Mexico. And although my prose will include some architectural detail, I will endeavor to humanize and populate the cityscape whenever possible.

For instance, the conformity of Santa Fe architecture that Ayers describes comes at a price; there are two design commissions operating under the auspices of city government that review (and frequently reject) development or renovation plans. These entities wield tremendous power, and they have sabotaged the career of one of my novel’s characters, Aubrey Cadeaux. For most of my story, Aubrey is basically at war with the civic authorities over his plan to develop prime foothills real estate. As a visitor, as a travel writer, I would never have discovered that conflict. Learning how Santa Fe city government operates (basically, like a Third World banana republic), came from living there for nine years. But I digress…

By process of elimination, we’ve determined what location depictions in great fiction are not: not topographical, not cursory, not a laundry list of Eastern Delights or a description of cultural contrasts. But what is it? What is this standard worth shooting for, and how does a writer know what he or she has achieved it? How do you find your equivalent of that insidious blue fungi that Nabokov describes?

Leonard Lutwack subdivides the American places that authors depict into three broad categories: America as Eldorado; America as a garden, and; America as a wilderness. Depicting America as a garden reflects an artistic choice that I would lump under a broader category of Veneration (more on this later); that is, setting stories in a context of bright promise, of limitless resources and possibility. That kind of veneration doesn’t offer the ready conflicts, strife, and obstacles that drive great plots. The idea of America as Eldorado, as Lutwack describes it, has its own peculiar narrative power:

As a generic place Eldorado had not value apart from its capability of being reduced to an abstract form of wealth by some extractive process. Land and its good are separable, and once the treasure has been extracted—whether it be gold, timber, oil or crops—Eldorado is abandoned, since there is no question of remaining in a worthless place.

By that yardstick, a typical American Eldorado book would be Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a tale of flight from Eldorado after rapacious soil management practices have left vast tracts of farmland a dust bowl wasteland. California, conversely, represents the Joad’s conception of a new Eldorado, a beguiling climate with abundant work for the able-bodied, even if that work is in an orchard as an itinerant picker.

The concept of America as wilderness offers even more dramatic potential, for it has all sorts of wonderful portent; it connotes the Unknown, the Undiscovered, and the promise of rigors that test body and spirit. Wilderness offers, in the words of Josip Novoakovich, Setting as Antagonist. Novoakovich, in Fiction Writer’s Workshop (Second Edition), cites the man-against-wilderness formula as a classic Setting as Antagonist:

The Man-Against-Nature story (in which s character struggles, usually for survival, against a natural element) depends entirely on setting….For example, in “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, a man encounters a powerful antagonist, the cold, when he hikes in the Yukon territory in the middle of winter…In subzero temperatures, being wet means freezing to death, unless you build a fire. The man falls into a spring and builds a fire, but a wind buries it in snow, and he freezes to death. After reading this story, you will remember the cracking of spittle in the cold much better than the man…The setting is the main character in the story, as grand and unforgiving as God in the book of Genesis.” (8)

In London’s short story, Setting as Antagonist is pretty much synonymous with Setting as Stealth Protagonist. Thus, we’ve departed Lutwack’s “garden” territory and entered an entirely different, yet persistently familiar literary milieu. Antagonistic settings abound in genre fiction, typified by detective stories, crime novels—heist novels, serial killer novels, noir fiction—and in much of contemporary mainstream fiction. Characters in these books live in these places in spite of themselves, in a state of surly defiance. Antagonistic settings in these stories define the character more than any backstory recitations. Here’s what I regard as an excellent example of setting as antagonist from James Elroy’s L.A. Confidential:

Up to Hollywood, a loop by Stan’s Drive-in—Christine Bergeron slinging hash on skates. Pouty, provocative—the quasi-hooker type, maybe the type to pose with a ___ in her mouth.
Jack parked, read the Bobby Inge sheet. Two outstanding bench warrants: traffic tickets, a failure-to-appear probation citation. Last known address, 1424 North Hamel, West Hollywood—the heart of Lavender Gulch. Three fruit bars for “known haunts”—Leo’s Hideaway, the Knight in Armor, B.J.’s Rumpus Room—all on Santa Monica Boulevard nearby. Jack drove to Hamel Drive, his cuffs out and open.
A bungalow court off the Strip: county turf, “Inge—Apt. 6” on a mailbox. Jack found the pad, knocked, no answer. “Bobby, hey, sugar,” a falsetto trill—still no bite. A locked door, drawn curtains—the whole place dead quiet. Jack went back to his car, drove south.
Fag bar city: Inge’s haunts in a two-block stretch. Leo’s Hideaway closed until 4:00; the Night in Armor empty. The barkeep vamped him—
“Bobby who?”—like he really didn’t know. Jack hit B.J.’s Rumpus Room.
Tufted Naugahyde inside—the walls, ceiling, booths adjoining a small bandstand. Queers at the bar; the barman sniffed cop right off. Jack walked over, laid his mugshots out face up. (9)

Jack inhabits this lurid nightscape, not because he wants to, but because his job requires it…and the story requires it. The vice cops and the vices they investigate are symbiotic and indivisible. Elroy’s tough, cynical prose style is echoed throughout the noir genre, which has been formally anthologized in Los Angeles Noir:

Los Angeles is the birthplace of noir. Maybe it’s the overwhelming shadow cast by Hollywood, the blur of artifice and reality, the possibility of shucking off the past like last year’s dress and reinventing yourself beyond your wildest dreams. Maybe it’s the desperation that descends when the dream goes sour, the duplicity behind the stunning beauty, the rot of the jungle flowers, the rip tides that carry off the unwary. Writers like James M. Cain, Nathaniel West, and Raymond Chandler understood both the hope and the horror that Los Angeles inspired, and harnessed this duality to create their masterpieces. (10)

Novelist and former crime reporter Susan Straight, writing in the Los Angeles Times Review of Books, asserts that noir writers have a style advantage, a kind of genre-driven birthright to locations as protagonist:

…noir writers are best at giving readers a landscape and a specific place to move through and characters who are vivid and helpful and odd and suspicious. Noir means that place is vital, as in where the crime occurred and how it matters… (11)

The American southwest abounds in antagonistic settings, and desert neighbor Las Vegas has provided writers with a beguiling stealth protagonist. Charles Bock, in his mainstream novel Beautiful Children, populates his book with teenage runaways whose tawdry circumstance has landed them in Las Vegas. Their hardscrabble existence may not be much different from homelessness in any American Sun Belt city. However, the prurience of Las Vegas, its transient population and shape-shifting skyline compounds the whole funhouse-gone-wrong ambience that Bock so readily exploits. Take, for instance, this drive-by travelogue of Old Vegas:

Downtown was upon them, hotels and towers packed into that dense square district, tour buses parked like gigantic, end-to-end dominos along the right side of the street…Not too many people were underneath the dome to watch—a lone woman, elderly and stooped, had put down her overstuffed shopping bags and was looking up; a pair of undefined gambling fiends were making their way around the souvenir cart. A few other miscreants were out there too, swerving and staggering, the drunken dregs, the losers and the lost and those who knew they would keep on losing but were powerless to stop themselves.

Or this meander through the city’s strip bar district:

The warm summer night would have made for a pleasant walk from the closest casinos, except most valets and front desk workers discouraged such strolls, as thugs were known to wait in the shadows. A cab ride cost five bucks, plus gratuity, but was worth it, the taxis bypassing the sheet rock suppliers, tombstone wholesalers, and construction rental agencies, and pulling up to the street’s various gentlemen’s cabarets—spots like Spearmint Rhino, Cheetah’s and Little Darlings, where dancers bared heir breasts and stripped to their panties and beer and hard alcohol were served at the bar. Taxis also stopped at aptly nicknamed spread joints, such as the Can Can Room, Déja Vu, and Crazy Horse Too… (12)

Bock’s story is (quite deliberately) a grueling emotional exercise that tested both my patience as a reader and my forbearance as a human being. But this often nihilistic, bleak narrative is very location-driven, very much a survey of a certain class of individual that you would find there Bock populates this latter-day Gomorrah with characters who are circling the metaphorical drain. Characters who confront moral dilemmas in Beautiful Children choose chaos, malice, or self-degradation nearly every time.

The Las Vegas of Beautiful Children is all about artistic choice serving the characters. Most conventioneers would not recognize its squalor. Nevada makes an appearance in my own novel, Purgatory, a rural Nevada that transitions to a string of other antagonistic, roadside settings. My protagonist, Danny Castellano, is a cynical man adrift in a cynical landscape, all rendered through his jaundiced point-of-view:

Scotty’s Junction is stranded in the 1950s—a period piece right down to the thermometer on the Coca-Cola sign. Everything is coated in this fine, fallout dust, and at night it takes on this red glow from the neon out by the road. Just gas pumps, a diner, and a toy casino. Hardly worth a piss break. But that’s mostly what blows people in the door; collect a key on a block of wood and amble around the corner. The urinals have these little plastic targets. The HOT knob is gone from the faucet. No hand towels. No soap. You figure they’re conserving water because it hasn’t rained here in two hundred years. They’re also scrimping on payroll. The same girl who deals blackjack checks your oil. She’s also the postmaster, notary, and chef. Ask her name and you’ll get a look that would freeze the Panama Canal

Cowboy truckers spread their asses over the counter stools. G.I.s pass out on their duffels while they wait for the Greyhound. Frowzy girls swing past you with a load of breakfast platters. Everybody’s chain-smoking and picking their teeth and pumping the slot machines. It’s the kind of place that does a roaring business in Tums and clip-on shades. They sell Racing Form, National Enquirer, and those air-freshener cards with pictures of topless babes. Every desert state has a Scotty’s Junction or two. Their whole scam is based on the human bladder—they’re exactly one piss break from Vegas, or Phoenix, or San Bernardino. That third cup of coffee served two hundred miles ago is all that keeps them afloat. (13)

This location—a scruffy desert truck stop—functions as an antagonist that Danny seeks to flee. However, only the “toy casino” component is specific to Nevada; the American southwest is replete with tourist traps that “scam the human bladder,” and Danny’s vocation (like that of Jack in L.A. Confidential) keeps him captive in antagonistic settings, thus, the book title, Purgatory.

Antagonistic settings go hand in glove with crime stories; which is why some novelists seek to desecrate and—occasionally—putrify what most travelers consider an attractive locale. Anyone who cherishes Paris, who has vacationed in the City of Light could never imagine the 18th century Paris depicted in Patrick Suskind’s serial killer tale, Perfume. The Story of a Murderer. Here is how the novel opens:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stanch of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stanch of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench.
And of course the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city of France. (14)

This olfactory survey (All hail the rancid king!) presents a very specific antagonist: a location that punishes anyone who is afflicted with a truly refined sense of smell. And, in subsequent chapters, Suskind presents his deranged protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan born without any innate, bodily scent of his own, but who has, by his own proclamation, “…the finest nose in Paris…I know all the odors in the world.” And as the tale develops, as Jean-Baptiste apprentices in the perfume trade, he sets himself the goal of creating the most powerful scent in the world, one that drives chaste and demure people into throes of orgiastic lust. It is only an incidental problem for Jean-Baptiste that distillation of said perfume requires him to murder young virgin women. Thus, the very air of 18th century France becomes Suskind’s stealth protagonist; a character that permeates—literally—and defines the action.

Nautical locations—especially in the northern hemisphere where winter gales and fierce waves lash at jagged coastline—are another prominent example of antagonistic settings. In her novel of Newfoundland, The Shipping News, Annie Proulx examines emotional ligatures, the ties that bind castaway lives, and the various tangles and obstacles that humans confront on their way to a (often) watery grave. One of my favorite passages in the book is a bleak and yet very nicely capsulated description of the hardships of the sea, coupled with an inventory of the kinds of men (and women) who risk life and limb to draw a living from it:

These waters, thought Quoyle, haunted by lost ships, fishermen, explorers gurgled down into sea holes as black as a dog’s throat. Bawling into salt broth. Vikings down the cracking winds, steering through fog by the polarized light of sun-stones. The Inuit in skin boats, breathing, breathing, rhythmic suck of frigid air, iced paddles dipping, spray freezing, sleek back rising, jostle, the boat torn, spiraling down. Millennial bergs from glaciers, morbid, silent except for the waves breaking on their flanks, the deceiving sound of shoreline where there was no shore. Foghorns, smothered gun reports along the coast. Ice welding land and sea. Frost smoke. Clouds mottled by reflections of water holes in the plains of ice. The glare of ice erasing dimension, distance, subjecting senses to mirage and illusion. A rare place. (15)

And lastly, antagonistic settings can be particularly effective in war stories. War may indeed be hell, but the great European wars of the 20th Century were largely fought in civilized locales; pastoral France, Belgium, and Poland. Soldiers who were not in trenches could bunk in houses, villas, and even castles. There was running water in Europe; there were paved roads and modern bridges. Europe was an explicable landscape with prominent landmarks. Vietnam was the absolute opposite; a combination of rainforest, rice paddies, and third world “hooches,” it presented an impassible, inscrutable obstacle to modern warfare. (For instance, tanks and armored divisions—the stuff that made Gen. Patton’s career—were useless in Vietnam.) For a tactician, for the great military minds of West Point and the Pentagon, Vietnam was the ultimate antagonistic setting. That’s why it works so well as a stealth protagonist in the novels and short stories of infantry veteran Tim O’Brien. An example:

Late at night, on guard, it seemed that all of Vietnam was alive and shimmering—odd shapes swaying in the paddies, boggiemen in sandals, spirits dancing in old pagodas. It was ghost country, and Charlie Cong was the main ghost. The way he came out at night. How you never really saw him, just thought you did. Almost magical—appearing, disappearing. He could blend with the land, changing form, becoming trees and grass. He could levitate. He could fly. He could pass through barbed wire and melt away like ice and creep up on you without sound or footsteps. He was scary. In the daylight, maybe, you didn’t believe in this stuff. You laughed it off. You made jokes. But at night you turned into a believer: no skeptics in foxholes.”

One of the themes that O’Brien repeats throughout The Things They Carried is the hallucinatory aspect of the jungle:

And man, I’ll tell you—it’s spooky. This is mountains. You don’t know spooky ‘til you been there. Jungle, sort of, except it’s way up in the clouds and there’s always this fog—like it’s rain, except that it’s not raining—everything’s all wet and swirly and tangled up and you can’t see jack, you can’t find your own pecker to piss with. Like you don’t even have a body. Serious spooky. You just go with the vapors—the fog sort of takes you in….And the sounds, man. The sounds carry forever. You hear stuff nobody should ever hear.” (16)

Another aspect of war and combat locations worth noting is that the act of invasion, the carpet-bombings and artillery barrages can turn beguiling and otherwise idyllic places into smoldering, rubble-strewn moonscapes. Modern warfare is transformative in the worst possible way. This happened to London during the Blitz, to Rotterdam, to Dresden, and—most infamously—to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Each of these decimations went far beyond the cosmetic, the topographical. Each of these “targets” supported huge civilian populations. And because the falling bombs are random, there is a randomness to survival. And so, these beleaguered civilians would often cope by getting very blasé about the attacks, and attempting—whenever possible, to maintain social convention.

A quick story from my years as a travel writer: I was touring Antwerp, Belgium, with some other journalists. Our guide was an elderly man who had survived the bombings and German occupation during World War II. As we shuttled by van from one highlight to another, the Belgian described for us how, as a young boy, his family coped with the V-1 and V-2 buzz bombs. The Nazi buzz bombs were never tactical, they were psychological weapons; they had no pilot, and their crude guidance systems just carried them over a huge target area—say, metropolitan Antwerp—and then cut the engine. The V-1s flew low and loud; almost like a helicopter. You could hear them coming, the man explained, and when you did, everyone in the room would pick their drinks their teacups, and huddle under the hearth in the fireplace. They did this because there were no basements, and there was no underground network like London had. They did this because they had noticed, in the charred ruins of homes struck by buzz bombs, that the chimney and the stone hearth always survived. So the residents would cluster there and wait, listening for the V-1 engine to stop, and for the bomb to go into a whistling death-spiral toward earth. I cherish that image–the cringing families, teacups in hand—because it so humanizes the inhumane, it gives character and immediacy to all of those gutted European cities. It is my blue fungus of World War II.

Location as antagonist, however, has a counterpart in fiction, a place that Lutwack would describe as a garden, and I would classify location veneration. Singing the praises of a location can serve a story every bit as effectively as ridicule and squalor. In other words, your stealth protagonist need not be a vice cop’s netherworld, it need not be an obstacle to overcome, a rigor to be survived. For instance, let’s clear the air of Patrick Suskind’s Paris with the halcyon Paris from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast:

If I walked down by different streets to the Jardin du Luxembourg in the afternoon I could walk through the gardens and then go to the Musee’ du Luxembourg where the great paintings were that have now mostly been transferred to the Louvre and Jeu du Paume. I went there nearly every day for the Cezannes and to see the Manets and the Monets and the other Impressionists that I had first come to know about in the Art Institute of Chicago. I was learning something from the painting of Cezanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides, it was a secret. But if the light was gone in the Luxembourg I would walk up through the gardens and stop in at the studio apartment where Gertrude Stein lived at 27 rue de Fleurs. (17)

Granted, A Moveable Feast is nonfiction, but this Paris of the late 20s presents Ernest Hemingway with an abiding, beguiling muse. And I found it an interesting revelation that an impressionist painting offered Hemingway a truth could not find in other authors. But that is just one of the hundred bounties of Paris that present themselves as a character and a backstory. In another city, another genre and another time, we find a similar pattern of veneration. New York City is a character quite indivisible from the human protagonist in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City. McInerney’s tale of a young editor’s dissolute spiral into the cocaine-fueled 1980s has that same halcyon ethic that permeated Hemingway’s Paris:

On Bleecker Street you catch the scent of the Italian bakery. You stand at the corner of Bleecker and Cornelia and gaze at the windows on the fourth floor of a tenement. Behind those windows is the apartment you shared with Amanda when you first came to New York. It was small and dark, but you liked the imperfectly patched pressed-tin ceiling, the claw-footed bath in the kitchen, the windows that didn’t quite fit the frames. You were just starting out. You had the rent covered, you had your favorite restaurant on MacDougal, where the waitresses knew your names and you could bring your own bottle of wine. Every morning you woke to the smell of bread from the bakery downstairs. You would go out to buy the paper and maybe pick up a couple of croissants while Amanda made the coffee. That was years ago, before you got married. (18)

There were other yuppies in other American cities doing “Bolivian marching powder” and staying up really late in the 1980s. However, New York City is both inevitable and indivisible from the value systems detailed in McInerney’s popular novel. New York is most emphatically a stealth character in the book; providing the means, the motives, and the milieu in which Jamie Conway self-destructs. But it still qualifies as veneration because New York is a place that embraces Jamie, it’s a place he cherishes and doesn’t want to leave.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, has also been similarly elevated—venerated—by most of the novelists who situate stories there. Walter Satterthwait has written five Joshua Croft mysteries set there, but in none the books is the reader warned away, or presented with anything suggesting that Santa Fe is an antagonist. Ditto for Stuart Woods’ Santa Fe Rules, or Richard Bradford’s young adult classic, Red Sky at Morning. That beguiling red sky has fully seduced several generations of authors, beginning with Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, published in 1927:

As the wagons went forward and the sun sank lower, a sweep of red carnelian-colored hills lying at the foot of the mountain came into view; they curved like two arms about a depression in the plain; and that depression was Santa Fe, at last! A think, wavering adobe town…a green plaza…at one end a church with two earthen towers that rose high above the flatness. The long main street began at the church, the town seemed to flow from it like a stream from a spring. The church towers, and all the low adobe houses were rose colour in that light,–a little darker in tone than the ampitheatre of red hills behind and periodically the plumes of poplars flashed like gracious accent marks,–including and recovering themselves in the wind…

And later in the story, in homage to the incomparable skies:

…Coming along the Santa Fe trail, in the vast plains of Kansas, Father Latour had found the sky more a desert than the land; a hard, empty blue, very monotonous to the eyes of a Frenchman. But west of the Pecos all that changed; here there was always activity overhead, clouds forming and moving all day long. Whether they were dark and full of violence, or soft and wwhite with luxurious idleness, they powerfully affected the world beneath them. The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually reformed a recolored by the cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, this ever-varying distribution of light. (19)

Cather’s rhapsodizing about Santa Fe, about the region and its splendors doesn’t diminish its importance or its impact to the reader. Death Comes for the Archbishop is the story of one man’s spiritual quest, inextricably bound to the land and the region. The location is symbiotic and indivisible from Father Latour’s personal odyssey. It is an excellent example of a positive depiction of location as character, and location’s influence on action. Latour confronts rigors in this novel; there are human and wilderness obstacles in his way; but there is also a persistent theme of samaritanism, of benevolence and self-sacrifice. Over the course of a long life spent in the remote territory, a man of God is reinforced in his faith.

Character manifest in location has never been more intimately rendered, more skillfully women into the fabric of a story than in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The grand Mississippi defines the story, shapes Huck and Jim’s perceptions of their raw, pioneer nation, and offers a vivid series of life lessons as it carries them downstream. The river is a nurturing force (offering refuge and its bounty of fish), a trickster (they miss taking a tributary in the fog), and—always—a source of entertainment. If ever there was a stealth protagonist in American literature, it is Huck Finn’s Mississippi. The preamble of Chapter 19 is widely excerpted and quoted for its poetic grandeur. But its eloquence is deceptive, for its soaring language is entirely couched in Huck’s folksy patois:

It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee-deep and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just liked the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softening up away off, and warn’t blaock anymore, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading-scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds came so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other sde of the river, being a wood-yard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it! (20)


Novakovich, in Fiction Writer’s Workshop, offers a guiding formula for crafting fiction out of locations. It goes: Setting + Character = Plot. In thinking about location as a distinct character, as a stealth protagonist, I would offer this variation of the formula:

Setting Action
——— = ———-
Character Plot

Each of these elements is essential; and it is a popularly held belief that action springs entirely from character, from character motives, character flaws, and the myriad ways that people either disappoint us or restore our belief in humanity. And I believe that the thing you want to avoid, as a writer of fiction, is “type characters exhibiting type-reactions,” or fictional locales that sound like the Eastern Delights that Nabokov lampoons. You don’t necessarily have to construct an antagonistic setting, a setting “as grand and unforgiving as God in the Book of Genesis.” You can ask yourself, as O. Henry did, “What is the voice of the city? …Does it ever speak to you?” And it might not even be a city—it could be a river. But it will indeed have a voice, and out of that voice will spring specific characters whose specific actions drive the plot. The process of creating a stealth protagonist is, as I said, an ephemeral concept, highly subjective. But great writers have cracked that formula, have made that intuitive leap, and so can we.


1.) Henry, O., The Voice of the City, from Great Stories of O. Henry, Avnel Books

2.) Lutwack, Leonard, The Role of Place in Literature, Syracuse University Press

3.) Gelfant, Blanche Housman, The American City Novel, The University of Oklahoma Press

4.) Exploring the Lost Cities of the Mayan Yucatan, American Trans-Air Magazine, March, 1991.

5.) Nabokov, Vladimir, Laughter in the Dark, New Directions Press

6.) Paul Theroux, Fresh Air Friend, Houghton Mifflin

7.) E.C. Ayers, Lair of the Lizard, St. Martin’s Press

8.) Novoakovich, Josip, Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Second Edition, Writer’s Digest Books

9.) Elroy, James, L.A. Confidential, Warner Books

10.) Los Angeles Noir, Akashic Books, edited by Denise Hamilton

11.) Straight, Susan, Noir Writer Susan Straight Feels At Home in the Dark, Los Angeles
Times Review of Books, May 25, 2008.

12.) Bock, Charles, Beautiful Children, Random House

13.) Mickelson, Monty, Purgatory, St. Martin’s Press

14.) Suskind, Patrick, Perfume; The Story of a Murderer, Vintage Books, Random House

15.) Proulx, Annie, The Shipping News, Scribner

16.) O’Brien, Tim, The Things They Carried, Broadway Books

17.) Hemingway, Ernest, A Moveable Feast, Scribner

18.) McInerney, Jay, Bright Lights, Big City, Vintage Contemporaries/Random House

19.) Cather, Willa, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Knopf & Modern Library

20.) Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


Monty Mickelson is a novelist and a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.  His novel, Purgatory (St. Martin’s Press) garnered a Bush Foundation Artist Fellowship.  He recently received his M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of California – Riverside.

The Myth of Women’s Masochism–An Essay by Stephanie Cleveland

A few years ago, I read an essay in Boston Review on sex education in the U.S. public school system. In that essay, poet and Harvard lecturer Maureen N. McLane praised self-proclaimed “sex-radical” Pat (now Patrick) Califa as a sexual revolutionary. McLane identified Califa’s “infernal trinity—family, conventional sexuality, and gender,” as the fundamental institutions “sexual conservatives wish to defend” (30). She then assured her readers that, although, “From one angle, Califa’s work [] feature[s] defenses of man-boy love, [her] sex-positive embrace of critical sexual thinking, wherever it might lead, remains, if not a model an incitement” (30). My question at the time of reading McLane’s essay remains my question for those who identify as sex radical while simultaneously claiming an allegiance to feminism to date—namely, what exactly is a defense of “man boy love” an incitement to? Put another way, if feminism involves a commitment to social justice, equality, and respect of persons, and if it also involves a commitment to the emancipation of women and children grounded in a rejection of sexual abuse and patriarchal sex (Bar On 76), how then could any incitement toward acceptance of child rape be consistent with a feminist approach to sex?

Far from radical, I would argue that the practice of sexualizing the bodies of children for adult men is actually fairly conventional, as old as patriarchy. Feminism, conversely, affirms the radical (and comparatively new) idea that all practices which violate the rights of women and girls to determine what can be done to our bodies are morally and ethically unacceptable (Bar On 76). I bring up McLane’s essay here because I think it highlights the ways in which, in recent decades, feminism has been co-opted by a school of neoliberal individualism which aims at preserving—or at least making peace with—the sexual status quo. When pondered thoughtfully however, the fact of child sex abuse throws a pretty big wrench into the liberal argument that the right to individual expression in one’s sexual conduct needs to be upheld at all costs, as does the fact of rape. Our sexual relationships take place within a given social context, one under which all people do not have the same access to power. In order to deny a rapist the ability to “express” his sexuality on or in her body, a woman needs political, social, and economic equality with men; we currently have none of these. This means that a refusal to make judgments about sexual choices and sexual ethics, weather consciously intended or no, is a tacit endorsement of male-supremacy and a boon to those with the most power in contemporary culture—that is, white men.

Perhaps more importantly, abdicating the right to make ethical judgments about sex translates to an abandonment of the vulnerable and comparatively weaker; it is an extremely effective way of silencing victims of child rape. Critical sexual thinking on the other hand involves maintaining an awareness of the material context within which our relationships take place. It means choosing which versions of sex fit with the world we would like to create as feminists. This cannot be reduced down to simply following wherever sexual thoughts might lead—particularly not if they lead to acts of violation on or in another person’s body. That sort of following has more to do with cruelty, privileged laziness and irresponsibility than it does with revolution.

Sadly, I write at a time when postmodern ethical relativism has all but silenced critical thinking about sex in the academy. Many women working within the university system seem reluctant to challenge male-supremist ideology on sex directly; at a time when the predominant philosophical mode holds that nothing really means anything apart from the way we choose to interpret it, overt questioning of social inequity and misogyny do not win a female author any popularity points. But, if as Erik Anderson optimistically writes, “postmodernism as a loose set of aesthetic principles (or loosely principled aesthetic, or principally loose aesthetic) [may have already] ended or is ending” (1), I would argue that women’s poetry ought to be used as a weapon to help hasten that decline.

Instead of defiance however, in my reading of contemporary women’s poems I frequently find male dominance eroticized, masculinity deified, and the sexual subordination of women and children embraced or symbolically “played with,” but seldom challenged. The conventional notion of women’s supposedly innate sexual submissiveness seems to have saturated much contemporary poetic work as well, especially among women. We write as though we are afraid of creating anything that might dampen the erection of a male colleague. Men after all—even the sensitive, literary ones—have frequently laughed at our gentler, more egalitarian versions of sex; they’ve explained to us repeatedly that making love is dishonest, while fucking is truth. And we believe this, groomed to doubt ourselves, determined to prove we can succeed in the male dominated upper echelons of the poetry community. Thus, as women have relinquished the feminist goal of tender, humane intimacy, female poets such as Sarah Manguso explain for us on Here Comes Everybody how, “booze, rough sex, and rock and roll” are all essential for writing good poetry.

Before any kind of rebellion against this celebration of male supremist sexuality could take place, women would have to overcome both an internalized belief in our own inferiority, and the tendency among the relatively privileged among us to ignore the plight of women outside the elite world of professorships and poetry MFA programs. Postmodernism has had the effect of burying both poetry and feminism underneath mountains of terminology only a select few have access to or can even understand. As Catherine MacKinnon insightfully puts it:

Women have become “an ongoing discursive practice” or, ubiquitously, “the female body,” which is written on and signified but seldom, if ever, raped, beaten, or otherwise violated. [] Abuse has become “agency”—or rather challenges to sexual abuse have been replaced by invocations of “agency,” women’s violation become the sneering wound of a “victim” pinned in arch quotation marks. Instead of facing what was done to women when we were violated, we are told how much freedom we had at the time. (55)

This flight from reality is, of course, only available to those women fortunate enough not to have to face more overt forms of sexual violence. It discourages or ignores activism against the sexual violation of women and children by men, and in particular, it trivializes activism on the part of survivors who speak out about the pain of being raped. It denies that sexual violence is harm, or that the harm is even there. It is this denial, and the overwhelming complacency about it among contemporary poets, that makes Carla Drysdale’s Little Venus from Tightrope Books so shocking. Her tight, often sparse little poems turn out to be potential starting points for revolution. And in fact, if women cannot find the courage to reject the patriarchal fuck within the relatively safe spaces of our poetry, where on earth will we ever hope to find it?

To be clear, Drysdale’s work falls short of an out-and-out rebellion against patriarchal sex; her poems do however represent an overdue step in that direction. If one acknowledges openly what radical feminists have long noted, that as women, “we have become reluctant to be labeled as moral crusaders in an age when human potential has degenerated to ‘doing your own thing’ [and we] are numbed to the point of being at home with cruelty and despair” (Hein 88), then Drysdale’s poetry begins to appear incredibly daring. Her poems reject postmodern detachment in favor of reconnecting with the more accessible, heartfelt tradition of political poetry that characterized feminist writing of the so-called “Second Wave.” Drysdale is unafraid—well, at least part of the time—to make judgments, even judgments about sex; as it turns out, she judges some forms of sex (those that involve eroticizing women’s powerlessness, those that involve father-daughter-rape) unacceptable. This is very brave, given that criticizing any sexual behavior these days seems to mean a woman risks being labeled anti sex. In their lyrical accessibility and brutally straightforward precision, these poems hearken back, albeit a little timidly, to the feminist demand that we confront male sexual violence against women and children head-on without being coy.

If pretending that submission has its thrills has been revamped as feminism, Drysdale bucks that trend, speaking through the voice of the survivor. Her aim is not to coddle those who are powerful, and she writes, not out of a submissive, rigidly posturing femininity, but from underneath the silences of father-daughter rape. When the poet tells us how “Rising from the indifferent foam of his semen,/Little Venus learns from dad’s pen/graphic acts of Fucking,” she does not spare the reader by trying to make the picture seem erotic. In her poem, “Rape Is Not a Poem,” June Jordan wrote of the ways in which men’s sexual contempt leads both men and women to “this dismal place where (your arm/raised and my eyes lowered)/there is nothing left but the drippings/of power and a consummate wreck of tenderness.” (79) It is this wreckage of tenderness from which Carla Drysdale’s poems bleed; she writes to piece back together an authentic sexual identity in the aftermath of male sexual violence. Though the poet falters, and sometimes fails, there is courage here as well. It is this fighter-truth-teller-eerie-little-girl with the gumption to say, “You stuck your penis in me, and no, it did not feel like my emancipation,” who calls into question the privileged vantage point which allows men (and some women) to rename sexual abuse and subordination “transgressive,” rather than a reinforcement of male dominance. Little Venus is the poetic voice of the woman survivor of child sex abuse and adult objectification. She chases after, tries to recapture, sometimes remembers, sometimes shoves herself under a stifling heterosexual script for fucking first learned from her stepfather Ray, but ultimately, she succeeds at creating a poetry that is stronger than her abuser.

In Our Blood, Andrea Dworkin noted the ways in which “Sexual masochism actualizes female negativity [in the broader culture], just as sexual sadism actualizes male positivity. A woman’s erotic femininity is measured by the degree to which she needs to be hurt, needs to be possessed, needs to be abused, needs to submit, needs to be beaten[,] humiliated[,] degraded” (104-5). Women are shamed for failure to live up to this cultural standard of femininity, its perpetuation being so crucial to the continuation of the sexual status quo. Particularly, depicting sexual trauma as such is off limits to a woman writer, since, according to patriarchal culture, women are meant to enjoy being on the receiving end of men’s aggression during sex. Women’s writing about emotional events therefore—pain not called pleasure, and particularly the pain of rape—has frequently been trivialized as whining, and promptly written over.

Some of us respond to the wound of this trivialization by adopting a more sophisticated poetic approach, one under which we assure male readers that, as women, we enjoy humiliation. Many men, for their part, revel in hearing this lie, (or they certainly seem to, judging by what work they choose to publish). Learning to experience the pain of sexual violence as pleasure can be one strategy women choose to cope, and to secure male approval; it is a stance that assures men they need not examine anything about their own attitudes towards women in personal relationships. Thus, at a time when women are told we have achieved liberation and that a women’s movement may no longer even be needed, many women poets are creating poetry that celebrates highly traditional cultural assumptions about female masochism. In her poem “I Am the Supernova of Your Psalmistry,” Noelle Kocot gives us a female narrator who, in the style of a cheerleader for the sexual sale of women, eagerly proclaims, “I want to scream with aggravated pleasure/Like the woman with the pierced clit in the porno flick” (6). Fetishizing women who work in the sex industry, (despite the fact that many suffer horrible abuse there), the poet lets men know that she likes what they like—that is, a woman’s scream, transformation of women into consumable sex commodity, female genital flesh penetrated, pierced by metal.

Katy Lederer has her own version of this woman-as-sexual-masochist shtick:

Slick in the yellow light [h]e is wanting to fuck./[…] He must straddle her ass. We are patient. Here, his organs begin to swell—/[…] we have here/Great depths—trimmed by delicate vulvic folds. Flesh dangles, cut…Her hand…grabs at his…polished cock…He is raping her. The situation is complicated…He slaps her. She grabs at his ass….The episodic nature of her pain is obscured by the sublime action of his cock. (43-44)

The poet mocks the feminist claim that women do not enjoy rape. She does that which garners men’s approval, celebrating sexual brutality and choosing to hold herself accountable, not to women victims of sexual assault, but to those male readers who can experience the idea of forcing a woman into sex as erotic. She chooses the word “rape” specifically, a word which speaks to her female character’s lack of consent. Her narrator worships the penis as “sublime,” the ultimate symbol of male power. The woman in this poem is cast as fragile, a delicate, pain-loving hole. We have here nothing new or remotely original—not even the betrayal by which one woman has her fun at the expense of others (that is, women raped for real) is inventive. Women have long been encouraged to sell each other out under patriarchy, yet, what the poet fails to grasp is that rape can serve as her sexual toy only because male dominance continues to exist, because rape continues to be carried out by real men in the bodies of real women.

If, as its defenders might claim, this type of writing is meant as parody, it should also be noted that

any ideology which presupposes the context of dominance and submission (masculinity and femininity, master and slave) is hardly capable of breaking free of it…while those parodying authoritarianism may expose it for what it really is, they are hardly able thereby to release themselves from it and so are not rebels in the sense either of resisting or striving for change.” (Hoagland 159)

Lederer evidently feels she has little responsibility to women and girls who have experienced sexual violation. Instead, she seems eager to prove how well she has learned the standard patriarchal script for sex. Although with a poem like this, a poet may successfully desensitize readers to male violence against women, she also ensures that questions of what happens to those women who do not enjoy rape are never asked.

In another poem eroticizing power, Kim Addonizio writes, Some men will want to fuck your poems, and instead will find you./…Some men, let’s face it, really are too small./ Some [] are too large, but it’s not usually a deal breaker./…Some men will slap you in a way you’ll like” (APR). This is female masochism with a twist, for although the poet makes clear that she embraces being sexually done to, she also implies that women are equally able to wound men via digs about penis size. The penis continues to be worshipped as a symbol of male control—Addonizio simply allows herself the luxury of making fun of men with small ones. This, the poet would presumably have us believe, is representative of an empowered female sexuality. Are the men she ridicules—those who lack massive dicks—more pathetic and worthy of sexual contempt, not “real men” in the poet’s estimation? If so, what is effectively being said here is that, with a small penis, a man will not be able to fuck, stretch, plug, tear up or otherwise show a woman’s “hole” who is boss—and “real women” want to be stretched, plugged, torn, dominated. The idea is that a woman gets the most sexual fulfillment when a man abuses or injures her; the poet assures us that she likes being slapped, has no need for tenderness during physical intimacy with a man. As with any subordinated class of people, some women do attempt survival through cozying up to power. Men have been thrusting into us, ridiculing our pleas for connection and love during intercourse for so long; it is little wonder that some of us may eventually try learning how to get off on that violence.

The poet explains that, if a penis is too big “it’s not usually a deal breaker.” What does too big mean here? Is this when a man’s erection is large enough to cause discomfort, even vaginal tearing? Addonizo tells us that women enjoy this sort of pain. And make no mistake—the poet is not saying that she alone enjoys it; she addresses her reader directly—you will enjoy it; you and I will make peace with violent sex, eventually accepting that, when a man slaps or beats us, that is pleasure. Perhaps the poet has come to the conclusion that brutality is inevitable in sexual relationships with men, given that, as far as most men are concerned, no other offer is generally on the table.

Men who enjoy feeling they have the power to cause a woman pain during intercourse exist. Thoughtful examination of some of the lines generated by male poets might even lead a female reader to conclude that such men are in the majority. “A birthmark which I mistook for a drop of blood/on the body during an affair and proud/of myself for working you that hard/and specific,” writes Joshua Beckman (49). Richard Meier creates a male narrator who, remembering a longed for sexual encounter, recounts listening to his female lover ask to be thrust into with greater force: “arms pass through and listen to harder,/exactly, more” (69). Addonizo is simply writing the female counterpart to these male poems of eroticized dominance. A man prefers to hear his woman say, “fuck me,” so she says it obligingly—harder, more, exactly. He puts the words in her mouth in his poetry, that there should be no confusion about the fact that he is he, while she is Other, different species of human who enjoys subordination. He likes breaking the skin, watching what his dick can do; she surrenders, pretending to be less than he is, letting him turn her vagina into something bloody—defeated pierced flesh beneath his working prick. She murders her soul in this way, letting him fuck out any trace of a desire for sexual dignity. For her, the possibility that she may at some point have wanted sex to be different than this eventually vanishes.

In other instances, women poets try making peace with masochism against inner misgivings. These are poems in which women, having accepted that men enjoy feeling powerful during sex, negotiate to tone the roughness down a bit. “You should have put your hand over my mouth/at least once/preferably lying behind/this is not an erotic disclosure/you can take it however you like,” writes Lisa Fishman in her poem “Strewn” (61). The pun on a man “taking” his woman, possessing her through fucking, is less overtly violent, but the image of a silent woman, effectively sealed at both ends by her male lover—whose penis blocks her vagina and whose hand covers the place where she breaths, speaks—is heartbreaking. The narrator cannot quite bring herself to say she wants this: “You should have,” she thinks, but never actually speaks it. She knows what excites him, wants to please, would if he pushed, but her pride won’t quite let her suggest this. Similarly, Sarah Arvio writes in “Neck,” “That isn’t done Grabbing your girlfriend’s neck/….I love you with all my soul/….Grab my neck my shoulder or my breast/but sweetly if you must” (62-63).

Women frequently fall in love with men, and oftentimes we will go to great lengths to win love back from them, or at the very least to keep them in our lives. Any woman socialized into contemporary American culture has been told throughout her lifetime to varying degrees, that without male approval she is of significantly less worth. In these poems, the sadness of female narrators trying to reconcile themselves to sex “men’s way,” wanting to be approved of, or at least close to him, is palpable behind a mask of “chosen” degradation. I am not suggesting women be ridiculed for embracing sexualized violence or female masochism. Nor am I saying that a feminist-identified woman cannot have sexual responses to such material. I do think however, that it is important to ask why patriarchal scripts for fucking which eroticize female powerlessness feel so compelling to so many presumably intelligent women at this point in time.

In The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis explore some of the ways in which

the context [] we first experience sex [in] affects us deeply. Often there is a kind of imprinting in which whatever is going on at the time is linked together. So, if you experienced violation, humiliation, and fear at the same time as you experienced arousal and pleasurable genital feelings, these elements may have twisted together, leaving you with emotional and physical legacies that link pleasure with pain, love with humiliation, desire with an imbalance of power. (263)

Though these words address female survivors of child sex abuse specifically, given the misogyny of patriarchal culture and persistent social inequality for women, they lend insight into the situation of women as a class as well. Yet, as Bass and Davis also note, “it is possible to change [one’s sexual associations] …to create a truly chosen sexuality that embodies passion and excitement” without inequality (263-64).

If we allow for the possibility that sexual masochism is not some innate part of women’s psyches, but a conditioned response to male-supremacy, then we can begin to ask questions about the implications of our sexual choices and the motivations behind them. I think these questions are important, particularly if we plan on putting our sexual politics forward as public statements via poetry. Linda Phelps has suggested that, if we

Think of the erotic themes of all the novels, comic books, movies, jokes, cartoons and songs you’ve ever experienced. The major theme which appears over and over is the drama of conquest and submission: the male takes the initiative and the female waits, [but] when he takes the initiative [and] maneuvers her into the bedroom, [w]hat is it that makes such descriptions arousing?” (13)

Phelps answers this important question by observing that women live in “a world whose eroticism is defined in terms of female powerlessness, dependency, and submission” (13). For the majority of heterosexual men, masculinity and dominance during sex may feel familiar too, even if not initially chosen. Women are encouraged to value male opinions above our own in the realm of the sexual; if men are encouraged to see themselves as dominant, we hesitate to challenge that experience. Instead, we write, and act out, the masochistic compliment to male sadism. We can become quite adept at this. Unfortunately, it does little to transform male supremist culture or empower individual women who seek an integrated sexual identity that includes sexual dignity.

Good feminist art can challenge oppression and inequality. Jennifer Moxley has written of women’s poetry as, at least in part, the project of answering the question, “‘how given chorus/a she complete’? My ‘she’ meant to stand for women in general: i.e. how sing a fully realized female life?” (56). As women poets, we need to ask ourselves if a woman can ever truly sing a fully realized female life while a male hand presses over her mouth. Appreciating what is most remarkable about Drysdale’s poetry—that is, her reluctance to make sexual submission for women seem an inevitable pathway to erotic release—requires putting her poems in this broader context. Contrast Little Venus’s unapologetic rage in a poem like “Revenge Fantasy #1: Oh to Chop with a Guillotine” for example, in which L.V. unabashedly tells about how “Beets Seethe on a plate made to carry/his severed head” in reference to her stepfather Ray whose gaze is already on her even as a four year old, with Katy Lederer’s rape fantasy poems. Drysdale’s poetry breaks with the tradition of eroticizing men in power positions over a female body. Little Venus channels her energy not into trying to enjoy Ray’s masculinity, but instead, into reclaiming pleasure for herself via passionate dreams of violating him.

If we think of non-violence for women as partly about doing that which is necessary to resist male violence, then L.V.’s revenge fantasies, which repeat throughout the first section of the book, form a valuable line of resistance. She gives herself permission not to feel guilt over her anger or for refusing to forgive. Instead, she thinks gleefully about decapitating Ray, whose blood could be pouring from his neck or the shaft of his penis; in this way the rapist’s genitals, used to effectively kill off any sense of sexual wholeness in L.V., are themselves violated. Although men’s sexual fantasies of violence against women have been widely accepted as normal, the idea of women sexually violating men is generally met with great hostility. The realization that rape can be carried out on a penis however, challenges the notion that female submission and men’s rape of women are natural or biologically predetermined.

Women have typically been expected to adapt our sexual desires to those of men, rather than the reverse; Drysdale offers unique insight into this situation, writing about how incest shaped L.V.’s sexuality before she had the chance to build it. These poems highlight how little choice many girls have about what form their sexuality will take. Drysdale bravely implicates manhood and masculinity, with their emphasis on power and women’s wild, animalistic “Other” sexual nature: “He didn’t read Shakespeare/thought he was John Wayne, a man/to tame the tiny slut.” L.V. relates how, as a young girl, she wanted, “to grow up/to be a lady with a Barbie tan/and black hair like the ones/in Ray’s Playboys,/under his bleached shorts/in the top drawer.” The confession is startling. Having learned as a child that sexual touch is the only attention she merits, L.V. looks to the most easily available model for how to be sexual as an adult woman; she finds it in her step-father’s Playboys. This direct mention of pornography as having been implicated in L.V.’s abuse is a gutsy move on Drysdale’s part, given contemporary support in many artistic circles for pornography as liberation for women. Drysdale does not shy away from drawing our attention to the fact that, beneath the clean, bleached façade of the “good Dad,” L.V.’s stepfather is a man who feels entitled to purchase sexual access to women’s bodies. Interestingly, the father who looks at “normal” pornography of presumably adult women is not dissuaded from raping his step daughter by being given other female bodies to use. Instead, he imposes early on L.V. a view of what women are expected to be—Barbie-ish, exposed, always available for sex, stripped of individuality and bodily privacy. Drysdale’s feelings of needing to conform to this standard bring up questions about how many girls begin even in early childhood to apprehend that serving as sex for men will be their prescribed adult role in life.

Notably, Drysdale never mentions L.V.’s rape as a “complicated,” potentially enjoyable experience a la Lederer. In rejecting this more capitulatory stance, the poet points to ways in which privileged women who have not had to endure child rape may feel the luxury of being able to fetishize other women’s violation only because they themselves have been lucky enough to escape it.

The second section of Drysdale’s collection opens with what the reader might think of as Little Venus unfiltered—a fierce indictment of male sexual abuse of women and girls. This is Drysdale at her best, speaking directly about the too common self-destructive patterns women survivors can fall into: “Debbie grew an armor of fat to keep her dad away/Give this man a bullet in the head, let him die.” There are no apologetics here about the importance of forgiveness, no survivor guilt, only righteous contempt for the rapist. The poet continues to directly accuse men who rape:

Helen’s father made her pregnant twice…Kaye’s father licked between her thighs/She still fucks strangers in her middle age/….Chris’s father sucked her infant genitals dry/leaving holes in her mind, red drawings of rage/Let [these men]take a bullet and die.

This sort of poetry, in which a woman writes clearly and directly against male sexual violence, is fantastically refreshing. Rather than suggesting those women with perhaps the most profound ability to understand male-supremacist sexuality on its deepest level—that is, women who have been raped, incested, or prostituted—learn to experience being sexually possessed as pleasure, Drysdale takes the tremendous risk of calling out the abuser. She does not apologize to men, but rather, tells us that those who rape inculcate women with a broken, humiliated sexuality. For this affront to women’s humanness, she considers that these men deserve death. Feminist psychologists have long noted that anger can be a great motivating force for women, particularly if we learn how to direct it outward (Bass & Davis 150). Drysdale taps into this kind of unapologetic rage in order to challenge the rape of women, for if men who rape meet no resistance, why on earth should they change?

Unfortunately, Drysdale is not immune to pushing down her anger, at times re-inscribing on her adult relationships the kind of self-loathing sexuality her step-father gave. And in fact, how could any woman speak about being raped without shame or self-hate, given that her rape will, in all likelihood, be sexualized in the minds of any men to whom she tells her story? If, as Dworkin suggested, feminism is hated because women are hated then our refusal to keep silent about the pain of sexual violation may be hated even more. Men often do not care to hear about how a rape permanently damages a woman’s spirit, particularly if they have experienced arousal over using some degree of force during sex with women throughout their lives. For many men, male poets included, part of the thrill of fucking is the charge of overpowering a female Other, being able to act on her and control her responses. Men conceptualize themselves as the active principle during sex; he gives her an orgasm, experiences his manliness via her reactions. He does to her; the reverse is never true. The doing can be written as comic, titillating. In “The Great Submarine Race,” Mathew Rohrer describes penises as metaphorical submarines (that is, warships) which slumber in the bloodstreams of all men. These “submarines” want desperately to “burble [i.e. shoot off] in shallow slips.” Erection and ejaculation are the primary focus; the woman’s vagina becomes passive, a port where the poet docs his sub:

A man in the square nudged his wife/and told her they were Mammary clouds. Everyone’s bloodstream burbled faintly./ The wife loved the lumpy clouds, the man’s submarine slipped its mooring/and nosed her coral arches. Simultaneously, all the world’s submarines exhaled and plunged deep into the shifting water, with their little engines racing (65)

Men fuck women as a collective entity, bonding through what Tony Tost has aptly poeticized as “the ancient male ritual of penetrating” (49). Some envision themselves as charming submarines who “enter her” magnanimously. For women, to reject this image of being plunged or parted by a man’s ship is to hurt men’s feelings, to risk making a male partner feel less substantial, less like a man, and potentially less willing to stick around. Every one else is fucking this way, every other woman in the world waits eagerly to be nudged by her partner’s penis; the male poet assures us this is so; every woman is happiest in her natural role of passive port directed were to look by an erection-wielding husband. So too should we be, (unless we are frigid, prudish, undesirable). The cherished man-fucks-woman paradigm is preserved for male readers, but the poet cleverly sugar-coats things in order to make them more palatable for women. This presumably is his idea of granting equality. A wife likes it when her husband thrusts into her—a male poet has created her, so it stands to reason she would endorse his preference. Man still gets the all-important sensation of penetration and powerfulness while his woman should also be happy, because her degraded role is now less overt. The woman who finds herself unable to obligingly spread her legs in order to act as meek water split by his U-boat is effectively written out of existence.

At other times, men go to less trouble about making the fuck look sweet. In “Violence and Love,” Tomaz Salamun writes of the female body during sex: “You are in two bodies [presumably the labia are referred to] as in two bowls [empty space needing to be filled, even created incomplete without him]. I am/a mushroom. I erase the blackboard….Gondolas. They are on their backs” (19). Here, woman is allowed to see herself in the eyes of a man as he fucks her. To his mind, her vagina is space to be conquered; he claims that she has always been like this, hollowed-out boat made specifically for him. Her body and sexual organs are certainly not her own. Female genitalia are places to be done to, erased by him; he is the doer; he will therefore push in his mushroom.

In order to enjoy this kind of sex (the kind most men are accustomed to) a woman must learn to eroticize her comparative weakness. There is something deeply humiliating in this. In “Sacred Hen. La Notte Di San Lorenzo,” the poet again returns to the patriarchal image of a woman’s body as “split in two,” bringing violence into the very definition of femaleness. Using more overt cruelty this time, the narrator, a sadist, indulges an obsession with his prick. The violence it can do, according to his view, is normal, the natural use of her. “Poof! I send a train,/ a steam engine. [up you is implied] It runs to widen you, finally you/split in two” (38). The woman is stretched, widened, ultimately sliced into two pieces by his fucking; this is violence, yet she is supposed to desire it. Some instruments typically used to split are weapons—knives, axes, daggers; Men envision themselves cutting through women’s flesh with these—and how could women be expected to find sexual dignity, or not grow to hate our own bodies, knowing that even the “normal” male thinks of consensual sex in this way? “Hooked to your body, it goes no further” (38). The narrator continues to pierce, though his focus is not so much on her as on it, his all important erection. Her humiliation is total; she is depicted as putting up no resistance, perhaps enjoying this contempt. The narrator’s penis becomes a hook, lacerating her, doing harm; and she likes this, because women are like that, different. “The steam engine leaps. Only it should come out at the neck./I would like to keep the head clean, the skull with all the skin, all the hair, all your arranging of your hair.” This image, for all its lyricism and poetic beauty, depicts a man literally fucking through a woman. The poem’s narrator will use his penis to push into her genitals so far and with such force that he eventually ruptures her neck, bursting through her skin. This would, of course, cause death.

And in fact, men frequently equate sex with dying, insisting women must also have the same experience. Donald Hall writes, “She died a dozen times before I died,/…I plunged, I plugged, I twisted and I sighed/While she achieved death’s Paradise routinely” (New Yorker 90). Valuing this erotic death ethic above love or compassion—certainly above women’s need for self-respect—the narrator of Salamun’s poem turns his female lover into a joke, sacred chicken. Femininity and all her time spent arranging her hair only heighten his pleasure at destroying her. This is the final insult, the ultimate gesture of contempt. He will leave that part which she objectified for his benefit, pushing his erection through just beneath. The poet does not seem to condemn the narrator’s cruelty, but rather, reports, in great detail, on this man’s perceptions. The woman he brutalizes noticeably remains voiceless. This is male-generated poetry about sex elevating male-supremist ideology about women to the level of the sacred. It is part of why bitterness and reluctance about being fucked are reviled and deemed inappropriate to women’s poetry.

To get along with the vast majority of men, a woman needs to learn how to adjust to this sort of sexual annihilation. She should consent, acknowledging the strength of cock. Never mind the fact that any woman who has looked at or touched an erect penis knows it has little resemblance to a fish hook (unless something is medically wrong with it). Never mind too that a woman may know, through touch, memory, her own perception, that the skin there is soft, warm, completely exposed, easy to scratch or make bleed even with something as insubstantial as a fingernail. Never mind that women may comprehend how vulnerable the male body becomes during arousal; completely muscle-less, an erection is noticeably temporary; it is blood-filled skin, easily used up or even hacked away. Many penises are small—all are, when compared with the muscles lining vaginal walls; these stay long after an erection vanishes, can clamp down with conscious force around it, choke it in their grasp, or alternately, push a child out into the world. Do men sense their vulnerability relative to women? Is this why so many seem so bent on warping women’s sexuality into something degraded and weak? Is this a form of self-protection via self-deception? If “the male’s normal compensation for not being female” really is, as Valerie Solanas quipped, “getting his Big Gun [or big submarine or big steam engine…] off,” then maybe he really does have “no compassion or ability to empathize or identify, [such that] proving his manhood [becomes] worth an endless amount of mutilation and suffering and an endless number of lives, including his own” (38-9).

Women have been reluctant to accept such notions of male inferiority, choosing instead to keep on believing in men’s human potential. Despite disappointments, we continue to search, as Robin Morgan writes, for our consort, for

the Man who is capable of acute sensitivity to [our] desire and vast tenderness for [our] need [,] capable of strength equal to [our] own. Man has feared his inability to succeed [at] understanding her, learning her, knowing her, [and] Woman, after centuries (years of one human life) of trying to reveal to Man or obtain from him the authentic response, begins to settle for [] pretense, finding it, in lack of what she truly wishes, somewhat stimulating. (118)

This “pretense” is the standard patriarchal way of having sex. He lazily (or fearfully) avoids knowing her as his equal, forbids her from knowing him, thereby skirting his own vulnerability. He insists on a mode of sexual expression through which he can experience himself as possessing her, conquering and degrading her, until she is finally brought down to his level. In order to survive this situation,

she must convince herself first of its relevance and then of its inevitability, and construct an effective pleasure out of that very situation. This is the only way she can retain any pride. She even feels an echo of some ancient, almost forgotten [] creativity in the way she has instinctively known how to divert her pain into pleasure. I know this. My cells remember. (Morgan 120)

Adopting this self-abnegating stance constitutes a traditionally feminine approach to sex. It does not ruffle men’s feathers, but it also locks both men and women inside a rigidly gendered charade, one that precludes both love and women’s emancipation:

All along, Man has not known her, not understood any of her real unshameful [] desires. Now that he has corrupted his own attempts to fulfill them [h]e glimpses that only she holds the key which can unlock them both from these postures. Yet all of his energies are bent on convincing her that, while she indeed holds the key, she has no power to use it. Because she may be wrong. Because I may not be as she is. Because I may not be capable…” (Morgan 120)

His worst fear is of not being able to match her depth of spirit, particularly during sex, where he is supposed to know everything, has convinced himself he must govern. He chooses to feel superior, at ease with fucking her; he is a “real Man,” one whose heart is safe-guarded. On some level, it may feel easier for her psychically to play along with this, to accept sexual subordination as her lot in life. This feels preferable to admitting that, despite her giving of her whole self—and despite even her love—he cares so little about her freedom, chooses not to fight alongside her, readily sacrifices her equality to his own cowardice.

It may be this fear of confronting men’s betrayal that leads Drysdale to shy away from the anger of her child narrator in the poems that follow. Whatever the reason, Drysdale’s poetry about sex with her husband feels colonized by comparison. With few readily available contemporary models for feminist sexuality, it becomes difficult for individual women to dream, write, or imagine alternate versions. Instead, women may direct our frustrations at one another. In “These Four Walls,” Noelle Kocot chastises a “Christian woman” who has experienced reluctance about sex with her husband. The poet writes off this woman’s doubt as puritanical and ultimately to the woman’s detriment:

The enemy fell through a trap door,/….So fast that the Christian woman/Didn’t have time to pray that it/Would get away. Then the woman/Felt badly for the Enemy,/….I’ve been praying for/You to leave for so long, and now/I’m lonely, and I want you back. (44)

Any feelings of humiliation a woman might have around being thrust into are portrayed as silly religious worrying. True, a failure to accept sex “men’s way” does often lead to abandonment and loneliness for women. But is it really fair to blame women for this? The poet continues to paint “the Enemy,” that is, the man, (and of course, referring to men in this way takes a sarcastic jab at feminist critiques of male dominance) as guiltless and affable.

‘Sure,’ the enemy replied, ‘Anything for you,’….So the woman and her/Enemy ascended through the many/holes in the universe, and broke/Bread together, and ate to their heart’s content. Driftwood fell/From the sky and the woman for once,/Didn’t blame the enemy, as the rigid/Fixings of a superior lunch left/Its seeds in her garden [and] the Enemy lived there forevermore,/Whispering curses, which she broke/Happily…like a string/Of wanton pearls. (44)

Here, the poet seems to be trying to demonstrate how comfortable she is with sex as male supremacy frames it. The penis is hard, rigid wood the Christian woman (finally having come to her senses) admits is superior to her own pliant body. She is mute soil in a garden, dull and incomplete without him, made for him to plant himself in. He will spread his seed there, ejaculating all over the place permanently. Women are expected to twist ourselves into all sorts of metaphorical knots in order to show men we appreciate their semen. Being a receptacle for it may feel more bearable if one pretends it is a string of pearls, and the Christian woman is portrayed as having been moronic to resent this wondrous treasure. How dare she have wanted anything other than to be sewn with his ejaculation like so much dirt? And yet, might a woman also dislike having to accept men’s subjective conception of her body as acted on and dug around in partly because this passivity feels pathetic? Her reluctance may have more to do with a desire for dignity than prudishness. Accepting that one’s body really is a kind of helpless space, and that, for such a person, surrender will be experienced as pleasure, represents a loss of self-respect. The irony of Kocot’s poem is that this unequivocal willingness to be sexually accessible is precisely what traditional patriarchal religious norms have always demanded of women. Under a Judeo-Christian religious ethic which women have historically had little say in shaping, husbands have long been expected to get exclusive sexual access to their wives. Wife’s in turn, are expected to let their husbands fuck them. A significant number of men on the Left have sought to secure for themselves greater public sexual access to more women’s bodies via “free love,” pornography, and legalized prostitution, but religious women have always been expected to supply their husbands with sex in private. It may understandably feel easier for women to critique other women than to look critically at the dehumanized role men have outlined for us.

Drysdale too struggles with the pressure to accept that sex must involve female subordination. In particular, she seems to believe that as a woman, she must learn to eroticize some degree of sexual passivity on her part if she is to fulfill her partner. The poet adopts violent, patriarchal sex language like that men have traditionally been most comfortable with. Her narrator struggles to make relative peace with this pretense. Not only is it true that admitting male sexual violence causes pain means a woman risks being ridiculed as a victim; sexual abuse can also numb us to our own potential for experiencing pleasure in less destructive ways. Often men who find sexually dominating women erotic explain their behavior by appealing to the notion that sex is beyond political discussion, and must instead be focused on the release of tension and intense feeling. But as Sarah Lucia Hoagland notes,

It is important to remember that to simply relieve tension is not to address the cause of anger….When the relief of tension is then associated with orgasm, the recurrent building of tension and the need for release will not be perceived as a result of failing to address the cause of anger or oppression. Instead it will seem to be part of the natural recurrence of sexual appetite. The process will thereby be embraced in the name of sexual pleasure while those questioning the process will be labeled anti sex and puritanical. (160)

Women are sometimes told that healing means not remembering anything about the ways in which men can and do sometimes use sex to hurt. Such memories might force men to question their own sexual responses. Women and men both learn to think of sex as something enacted upon a woman’s body; we are even told that women may even have a residual, primal need to be forced. Denise Duhamel writes in, “A Nap on the Afternoon of My 39th Birthday,” about how a dream about sexual assault may be linked to “[some] primitive fantasy that I want to be taken, no matter how brutal” (276). Acceptance of one’s “instinctual” masochism is widely assumed to represent female sexual maturity. If femininity is constructed around the alleged allure of this acceptance of discomfort and male superiority, it stands to reason women should enjoy being propped up on high heels, hoisting our breast into cleavage, painting our lips and faces with cosmetics, and all the other masochistic cultural expectations for women in the West. For women survivors of child sex abuse however, the idea that female surrender is sex has profound implications. This ideology can take hold early, and women may feel guilt over the ways our bodies responded physically even to sex we did not want. It is thus frequently claimed that, for men, indulging sexually sadistic impulses can be cathartic, and that for women survivors of rape or abuse, submitting under circumstances a woman “controls” can bring about healing also. However, while this method of channeling rage and sexual trauma may

provide temporary relief, the recurrent pattern often leads to emotional numbing since there is no change or growth. (That there is sexual numbing is also suggested by sadists and masochists who can no longer enjoy gentle, affectional sex.) What is purged in this catharsis is one’s sensitivity to oppression, to domination and humiliation, not one’s internalization of it. (Hoagland 160)

Historically women have not had an equal say in defining the terms of sex. The ways we envision our bodies and what happens to them during sex (rarely what they are capable of doing to the body of another), have largely been defined for us by men in ways that eroticize female powerlessness. It is difficult for a woman who is not able to numb herself to this on some level to get through sex with the average man, let alone an abuser. For survivors of sexual assault, numbing may be the only readily available coping strategy. Section two of Drysdale’s book doesn’t begin from this numbed state per se, but the poems do highlight the wounds both life as a woman and a survivor have left imbedded on her narrator’s sexuality. In “New Home,” a love poem to the narrator’s husband, she tells us that she herself is now softer with a partner, though she never comments on whether or not her husband is also softer now as well. Still, “We lay down together where we wake from sleep” offers an egalitarian look at love minus the powerlessness L.V. knew in earlier years. In an interesting twist on the old patriarchal, biblical metaphor of woman as pierced flesh, Drysdale writes, “Blue skies over a place you love can pierce you.” Though the fear of abandonment is clearly present in these words, the reader may also imagine that the narrator is beginning to think about her body once violated as capable of piercing a male partner to the core. His love joins them; her love binds him to her, vulva, vagina, heart. If a woman’s body is typically thought of as a home for men where they can expect to receive succor, this inversion is unique for here the narrator’s new home or new sexual-self is responsible for cutting out a space in the heart and bodily embrace of a male other.

Yet, to overturn entirely the patriarchal metaphor for sex as man-occupies-woman risks alienating those male readers who have learned to operate their penises in a certain way. Drysdale, whether consciously or no, seems aware of this dynamic, and her sex poems gradually become more traditional. She first begins to assume a more capitulating tone in “Love Pitches Its Tent.” Proclaiming in Romance-Novel-esque language, “You tango me around the kitchen,” the narrator stands in awe of how her husband is able to twirl her as one might a doll. The highly conventional “Les Amants” progresses further down this path of meekness: “Ninety degrees in a Provencal kitchen/our bodies slick in the molten moment;” Drysdale seems to want us to feel as though inside this quaint kitchen we are about to find radical passion, but sadly, the sex that follows is traditionally hierarchical. “You sit alert green eyes fixed/on the feast of me.” Here, the poet demonstrates the extent to which women can be numbed to our own desires; rather than showing an awareness of what she enjoys and longs for about her lover, Drysdale’s narrator provides a description of what it means to be looked at by him; she thereby allows male readers to ogle her vicariously, conflating sexual seeing with being sexually looked at. The narrator’s husband’s gaze becomes the poem’s focal point, while her passion is rendered all but invisible; likewise, the male body remains forbidden to female readers here. The narrator accepts that her husband has a legitimate right to consume her through sexual use; she is not a unique human being recognized for herself, so much as a feast to sustain and nourish him. He for his part enjoys feeding on her; readers are meant to assume that this sexual offering-up of one’s self for consumption is different from L.V. being raped by her step-father because now the narrator is old enough to give her consent. We are not told, however, where this adult narrator is to find her own sustenance, or why she seems so timid about asking for it. Men have been feeding on her for so long that, through abuse, the L.V. who once wrote angrily about another woman being sucked dry by her father finds herself unable to face the similarities between that use and what her husband does with her body now.

Despite her best efforts, the narrator finds being visually consumed uncomfortable. She struggles to overcome this feeling, chiding herself for her shame and accepting that this is the way sex must happen between a woman and a man. The subordination of the female character in these poems is dismal: “I languish on the marble countertop, not sure how I got there, legs dangling, muscles taught./Your hands rub olive oil and strawberries/over my belly and breasts as I open to you.” These lines feel almost clichéd in their repetition of a patriarchal script for intercourse. The narrator does not act upon her male love’s body, but instead “opens” to him, her husband, the one who will penetrate while she pushes down any sense that this diminishes her. If women have historically felt discomfort about being sexually done to, we have also been punished for those feelings, encouraged to allow men to do whatever they allegedly need to do in order to orgasm. His body will not open to her; she would be foolish for expecting it to do so. This fear of ridicule may have much to do with why Drysdale’s narrator in these poems seems to be trying so hard to get comfortable with sex on her husband’s terms. And her husband’s terms appear to be traditional and old-fashioned. As Maeera Shreiber points out, the bible itself is rife with longstanding assumptions of female vulnerability and submissiveness, “textual example[s] of the widespread symbol of nation-as-woman, ever vulnerable to foreign invasion [;] women are cast as the ideal speakers of loss and rupture, [a] condition [we are understood] to embody.” (129) Under patriarchal traditions that have shaped Western sexual attitudes about women, we have been expected to make peace with the idea that our genitalia are predestined to be dominated; women are also expected to attempt orgasm underneath men’s sexualized rupture of our bodies. Yet, if we were to imagine a man languishing before a woman, his legs dangling, his flesh made sugary-sweet like ripe fruit for her consumption, her rubbing strawberry oil on his breasts, that is, his “erect nipples…hav[ing] no known purpose, and yet arous[ing] us none the less” (Moxley 56), and ultimately opening himself to a female partner, what would these types of images do? I would argue they could potentially challenge sexist assumptions about women’s bodies, while also helping to correct the “contemporary dearth of representations of female desire, especially towards the male” (Moxley 56).

Drysdale sadly opts out of this project: “Your lips drip with cinnamon liquid of me,” she continues, echoing Girls are sugar & spice & everything nice. Her poetry loses honesty here, conforming to femininity and rigid “beauty” standards which insist a vagina ought to smell like flowers or sweets. Honesty about the taste of vaginal secretions—learning to appreciate and experience them for what they are—acidic, tasting of the body of a human being—would seem to me a truer rebellion against male-supremist sex, and more conducive to healing from the history of contempt directed at our genitals. The poet’s comparison to ginger later is arguably less inauthentic, but it is worth noticing that nobody seems to care whether or not women pretend semen tastes like vanilla frosting or white truffle oil—women are expected to deal with the taste of it regardless.

The narrator says she hears sea wind across the red tiles of her kitchen, presumably as her husband lies on top of her. This line completes the image of consent to humiliation necessary for “female sexual health.” Woman is made to be fucked on the kitchen floor, and L.V., or whatever is left of her, tries to see this as satisfactory passion; her focus on what goes on outside and in the distance rather than the sensations of her own body however, bear striking resemblance to experiences reported by rape survivors who may have felt as though they were watching what happened to them during an assault from some place outside.

The theme of a woman not being allowed to look at her husband while he has total freedom to ogle her is further developed in the appropriately titled, “You Watch Me.” The narrator begins once again, not with a description of the trembling of her husband’s chest as he draws breath, or the way the colors and textures of his thighs, belly, penis, might change during arousal—instead, we see her through her husband’s eyes again, described voyeur-style. The poet carries out a kind of self-mutilation via self-objectification, using the male lexicon to speak about her body. Words like vulva and vagina, women are told, are too clinical to invoke passion. In truth, these words lack the excitement a word like cunt generates for many men, since cunt, via its continued use as an insult and frequent use in pornography, has connotations of violence and women’s alleged sexual filth. The man becomes aroused by the idea that, not only is the cunt a cunt, she even orgasms when called one. “Spasms criss-cross from my cunt to vocal chords” the narrator tells us; she moans dutifully for her husband, though we are not told anything about whether or not he is sighing, giggling, crying out. Again Drysdale references food to speak about her narrator’s body: “Scent of cardamom, sweat, and ginger root rises.”

In the poem’s first stanza, the poet chooses only passive verbs and sentence constructions to describe her sexual responses—spasms crisscross her, her scent rises, her muscles slacken; she is like a sort of phantom, used up by the end of sex. This contrasts with her male partner’s behavior: “your hands hold my face/your eyes open mine.” He holds all the strength in the encounter, holding her in place, opening her eyes as though she were not even capable of seeing without him. The L.V. of Part I who wanted to look, rebel, and take action, seems long gone in these later poems. In her place reclines femininity, with its prescribed sexual moaning. The narrator’s only actions are reactions to a male partner. “You say, ‘Do you know/how that was, watching you? Your head/turning side to side./ Your hand was a blur.” If sex, as De Beauvoir wrote, is an act during which human beings seek to be recognized, simultaneously knowing and being known by another, here is powerfully presented one way in which sexual dehumanization strips women in a broader sense. The narrator’s husband knows her, sees her react to his thrusts and is able to experience himself via her responses. He thrills at the realization of his power to make her tremble, yet the narrator does not get to see—or even know how to begin trying to see—herself as capable of acting upon him. “I close my eyes/shamed, loved/in your precise questions,” she admits, not without sadness. Sex with men will always mean shame and humiliation for women, so long as it involves being done to and acted on.

Yet, learning to take one’s pleasure from reacting and affirming men’s desire remains the prescribed model for women. The narrator, having already mentioned her fear of abandonment and the problems with trust many survivors struggle with, seems to be trying to demonstrate she has healed successfully by successful performance of femininity during sex. But can this gender role, with its fetishizing of female weakness and presumed willingness to submit to men, ever truly be empowering for women? Do we learn to conform to it because conformity brings freedom, or because we feel afraid of failing to win male recognition? In her critique of a sexual ethic that eroticizes inequality, Audre Lorde explained how the assumption that

there can be no passion without unequal power [] feels very [] lonely and destructive to me. The linkage of passion to dominance/subordination is the prototype of the heterosexual image of male-female relationships….Women are supposed to love being brutalized. This is also the prototypical justification of all relationships of oppression—that the subordinate one who is “different” enjoys the inferior position. (17)

Lorde further suggests that, “As women, we have been trained to follow [and therefore] must educate ourselves, at the same time being aware of intricate manipulations from outside and within” (18). The fusing of sexual response and sex itself with humiliation and self-abnegation is particularly relevant for women survivors of abuse, making it all the more important to question the ways in which women’s sexuality is constructed under patriarchy.

Lorde’s words stand in stark opposition to the postmodern ethic of reclaiming male-dominant/female-submissive sex roles. She urges the creation of a truly feminist sexual ethic instead, and views the patriarchal family not as a separate entity standing outside the woman-hating of the larger society, but a reflection of it, mirror and model for male-supremist culture on a smaller scale. When Drysdale’s step-father asks “do you like it,” in response to her noticing his rough beard, (and implicitly the roughness of his sexual use of her), he is not simply exemplifying, “the failure of some families” as Drysdale’s back-cover reviewers suggest. Rather, Ray embodies a specific, widespread cultural assumption—that women experience pain as pleasure. Drysdale’s reviewers claim she is “tackling the hard subjects of child abuse [and] sexual exploitation,” while skirting any direct mention of male sexual violence against women specifically. Laying blame on masculinity and male-supremist ideology can feel intimidating, given the celebration of “playing with gender” and “butchness” among queer theorists in the academy right now. But, as lesbian feminist Sheila Jeffrey’s has rightly pointed out, the problem with a refusal to question masculinity is

that [it] cannot exist without femininity.…the behavior of the dominant in a system of domination actually would not have any meaning, could not even be envisioned, if that system of domination did not exist; [to claim otherwise is to] essentialize[] masculinity into something which just is. (136)

Instead of using her marriage as a place to question the ways in which she learned to eroticize men’s power, Drysdale’s narrator seems to fall into old patterns, focusing on flattering her husband. For women who first experience being noticed or valued primarily through sexual use, it can be extremely difficult to challenge the men in our lives as adults on the ways they relate to us during sex.

Drysdale’s narrator thus treats the penis as the superior center of sex itself. When she dares to look at her husband’s body, it is only in terms he will presumably feel comfortable with—those that allow him to maintain a sense of machismo and hardness. “Your cock, absurdly jutting beneath your trousers as you, undisturbed walk across the room./On the bed, I crouch/in dark blue silk/ready to gorge on it—”. The narrator has transformed herself into a pornographic cliché reminiscent of Ray’s Playboys. She dresses up for her husband in lingerie, describes herself as crouching in front of him, a verb choice suggestive of both female animalism and willing submission. She wraps herself in silk in order to appear more fragile. He in turn strides across the room like a sadistic daddy, approaching her, the one whom he will prove his manhood through. She worships his penis, mindful of his ego, ready, not to engulf it as something tender under her own body’s strength, but to submit to it.

Drysdale’s narrator never once lets herself think of her husband’s penis as capable of potentially gentle motion, an internal caress—she has perhaps learned the difficult lesson that men are not aroused by such cuddly nonsense. Assuring her husband that she wants his dominance, she will not just kiss or touch, but gorge on his penis. The verb “gorge” suggests roughness, overt violence. The narrator sticks with what she knows, male aggression and fear-inspiring strength. “What’s beneath the rough cloth/held by a belt around your waist?” she asks, and indeed, this questions would seem more appropriate, not for a woman in love with a man who sees her as his equal, but for L.V., attempting survival under her step-father’s assaults.

Being with a man still feels frightening, masochistic, about emotional and sexual dependence: “I’m afraid of what you don’t give/Afraid I’ll starve, ragged for love.” The narrator intuits that being in this state of perpetual weakness takes vital energy away from her, but, estranged from her own desires, she seems terrified of working towards sexual egalitarianism. L.V. retreats and the narrator plays it safe, speaking the kinds of poems she assumes her husband wants. His erection, described in terms of its manliness, becomes proof that she registers. “Thick with longing, you stroke yourself/eyes hard on me.” That these lines typify a patriarchal script for sex becomes particularly clear when they are compared with a poem like Lynn Lifshin’s, “Years Later Lorena Thinks Of The Penis She Had For A Day,” in which the poet allows herself to experience male vulnerability, “how, in her hand, [a partner’s erection] was so much/less angry, more like a/sacred bird not the weapon/she’d known but shriveling,/scared, a wounded kitten coiled” (48).

I do not mean to ridicule Drysdale; her narrator’s assessment of her husband’s desire seems to hint that he views marriage as a kind of ownership of his wife and her sexuality. In guessing at his thoughts, she assumes he would say, “You: I want my wife, mi vida,” and though women are encouraged to experience this type of sexual possession as romantic, it does involve a forfeiture of one’s sexual self. If she is his life, is that because he has the luxury of “hiding from power in her love like a man” (Rich 11), feeding on her, despite the fact that she also merits sustenance? “I let you comb Brazil nut cream into my hair/ ‘Because I’m your husband’ you say.” The narrator accepts her passivity, lets him do this. No way exists for her to style his hair or quip, in the same way, “I am doing this to you because you are mine, because I am your wife”—“wife” has too many connotations of the one who serves rather than the one who lays a claim. The rigidly gendered nature of her marriage keeps Drysdale’s narrator locked in a pattern of repeating her relationship with Ray—a dominant male treats her as his sexual possession and she marvels at how powerful he is.

The poet thankfully redeems the collection, moving past poetic celebration of female masochism and admitting that these behaviors have not brought L.V. fulfillment. In Part IV, the reader finds even a rigidly self-imposed adherence to the role of wife/woman/fucked-one has failed to bring the narrator closer to peace. She continues to explore relationships with her mother (whom she never condemns, directing the brunt of her anger at her male abuser) and revisits mentally the house where her rape occurred. But healing still isn’t there, “The door unlatched and closed again, so God/could enter, spread her rage among debris, and lick the sutures clean between our ghosts.” In “House: Unlit” the narrator alludes to her female body, invaded by a man-made, male god, entering after each closing, constantly rupturing the sutures. But, despite the lower cased “h” in “her” here, the reader might wonder if this God could also be imagined as female, spreading Her rage around like fire to consume and finally burn L.V.’s old house to ashes. In that case, rage would transform a woman’s sex into a place for healing, inside herself, for herself—rather than a shelter men will dwell in.

Ending the collection with this series of “house poems,” the poet plays with the very old metaphor of a woman as an inanimate house of residence for men, where, as men have seen it, a man may presume the right to “[move into] the depths of a woman’s body….dismount at the door/and tie up [his] horse….nobody who enters ever leaves” (Montejo 70); Unfortunately, L.V. seems unable to get beyond the notion of herself as created for this sexual occupancy. “I understood how hearts could open if the knock were right,” she writes; her search is to find a normal, livable way to accommodate possession by a man, not to break free from it. The line, “How two might dine inside a heart like mine,” suggests the narrator equates her vagina with her heart, strength, self, but also a place made to be consumed and feasted on by a male partner. It never seems to occur to her that she too has a right to ask for access to the body of another—her husband—finding shelter and love there, dining inside a heart like his.

And yet, the narrator is being realistic too, knowing that asking for such a place to inhabit and be nourished and cared for by men is a request many males would be baffled by. Even those men who claim to care about women’s comparative lack of sustenance in the world often expect to be nurtured like little boys again eventually, taken back into a woman’s body during sex, as though women were interchangeable mothers. Man fucks woman, plants himself in a cunt; man is mothered by his wife; he does not mother her.

Drysdale’s narrator, like many contemporary feminists, ends disillusioned, unwilling or unable to let herself imagine other ways of loving. She mourns for this loss: “A heart like mine,/that wants to trust/But can’t hear laughter’s voice in rooms of rain.” Perhaps women can be broken down so early by sexual violence that to entertain the possibility of gentleness from men afterwards simply feels too painful. Surviving sexual possession and male dominance may require numbing on women’s part, but we must be careful not to lose ourselves in a learned passivity that persuades us we do not have the right to consider our own needs. If Drysdale’s poems prove anything about recovering from child sex abuse, they show that total healing for women may not be possible without larger, fundamental changes in the ways both women and sex are perceived.

For women who dream about ways of sexual relating that could embody tenderness and a constant respect for our dignity, many of us may choose to kill off those dreams, in a world where men continue to be socialized into masculinity. Rethinking patriarchal sex means admitting that our dreams are very far from the reality we have now. And that is painful, maybe more so than more physical forms of abuse. We live with the insult of being made into houses filled with rain, semen, men’s violence—everything that is left after a person is used rather than loved, fucked rather than allowed to assert herself. But, if we are ever to reach something different, women must not fall back on the familiar—the old belief that we secretly wanted it. Knowing and holding the laughter of true sexual joy in our lives will not be possible without men’s cooperation. It will also require a willingness to confront the lies women have believed about ourselves. This means a radical rethinking of the ways in which each of us relates during sex, and the ways our sexual relationships impact everything beyond them.


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Stephanie Cleveland’s poems have appeared in VOLT, Denver Quarterly, Women’s Studies Quarterly, LUNGFULL!, Conduit and others. She lives in Manhattan.