A Human Lyric: James Cihlar on Julie Enszer’s Handmade Love

Handmade Love, Julie R. Enszer, A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010

Handmade Love by Julie R. Enszer is an unabashed, irreverent, authentic hymn to feminism, the body, and queer culture.
The opening poem, “When We Were Feminists,” sets the stage for the following poems that cover both coming out and living out. This first poem records the aging of a generation formerly known for its youth, measuring idealism versus reality. Avoiding the twin temptations of mocking her earlier naiveté and mourning her adult compromises, Enszer instead provides a where-are-they-now candid snapshot, showing the once famous movement now happily existing outside the limelight, in the throes of family and work, even as they honor their origins. An obsession with books—reading, loaning, glossing, organizing, and displaying books—was a hallmark of the era, and a repeated image in Handmade Love:

When we were feminists . . .
          we planned to have clean house with walls of orderly books. . . .

Because we lived in small spaces; because our relationships
          were without demonstrated endurance.

Now equality in a relationship is piled in the corner next to a
          stack of books all covered
With a thick layer of dust. . . .

Divided into two numbered sections, this slim volume shifts from self to others between parts I. and II. Throughout, the voice is candid, funny, and direct—inspiring trust from the start.

In observing the flipsides of classicist attitudes regarding homosexuality, “You Are Not Like Them” marks changes in cultural attitudes, of a sort. In the past, the poet’s mother wished her daughter different from the “filthy lesbians” who do mannish tasks like mowing lawns; today a gay, urban friend urges that she is different from “all the homos living in the suburbs.”
In complement to the sweetness of poems knitting childhood memory to adult domesticity, including the title poem, many other poems celebrate desire, attraction, and romance in lesbian relationships in language admirable for its matter-of-factness. “First Kiss” describes burgeoning teenage awareness of sexuality in terms recognizable to all. “Conceptual Sex” is a funny, punning poem that plays with the childhood confusion spurred by adult euphemisms. Poems such as “Morning Pant,” “Jade Ring,” “In My Fantasy Single Life,” and others unapologetically and unpretentiously praise sex, befitting the title, Body Language, of this series published by A Midsummer Night’s Press.

Earthy and grounded, the poet also comments on popular culture without risking camp. “Seeing Annie Leibovitz’s A Photographer’s Life 1990-2006” attempts to mediate the poet’s disappointment in Susan Sontag’s closeted relationship with the photographer, richly evoking the knot of emotions involved with asserting identity in any given place and time. “When Grace Got Married” supplies perhaps more substance than this lightweight sitcom deserves by comparing a fictive Platonic friendship with a real one. Several of the later poems in the book dedicated to friends are elegiac and beautiful, including “Couplets for Jeff,” “unofficially, Detroit’s gay mayor.” Many of these poems supply wish-fulfillment endings for their lives, as Enszer uses poetry to mediate the world for her own understanding as well as for posterity. Tributes are paid to iconic figures such as Elizabeth Bishop and Georgia O’Keefe, in humorous and authentic poems that allow Enszer to laugh at herself.

Although containing some political poems, such as one protesting restrictions on gay marriage, Handmade Love more frequently offers frank, everyday observations on lesbian lives. These poems embrace human shortcomings along with our ideals, including the closing poem, “Making Love After Many Years.” Lyrical, human, and down-to-earth, this book is a portrait of life and community too often misrepresented and distorted by commercial media, making it a refreshing addition to any reader’s list.