Karen Schubert: “Everything Stuck to Her Skin”: Considerations of Gender in the Poetry of Nin Andrews


The poetry of Nin Andrews is a multi-faceted exploration of the experience of being female. Andrews writes as an insider; that is, she writes through the female body, through the persona of a girl evaluating cultural messages, and through a woman in relationship as daughter, mother, lover, wife. In The Book of Orgasms, she gives a playful voice to various aspects of female sexuality. Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane  interrogates the socialization of girls. Her newest book Southern Comfort is an autobiographical series of poems that examines her parents’ marriage and sexuality, the indoctrination girls endured at her Catholic school in Virginia, and the humorous and didactic stories her mother told Nin and her sisters about their emerging womanhood. Andrews works from the local to the global, grounding her stories in specificity yet connecting with broader female themes of relationship, work, humor and meaning. She also works from the global to the local, painting broad strokes and then drawing the reader in – Don’t you see yourself here? Her work is engaging, tough, intimate, tender, devastating, generous, forgiving, and laugh-out-loud funny.

Sex is a recurring theme in Andrews’ poems. Women in particular have a complicated relationship with sex. As girls they are warned away from the dangers. In “Bathing in Your Brother’s Bathwater,” Catholic middle school teacher Miss De Angelo instructs her adolescent girls never to use the same bath water as their teenage brothers. “Even if he doesn’t touch himself,/the water does./And it only takes one./One fast moving whip-tailed sperm./And you know how easy it is to catch a cold,/how quickly that little virus races clear through you./And once that happens,/no one will believe you’re any Virgin Mary,/no matter what you say” (Southern Comfort 9). This kind of indoctrination, however scientifically challenged, lays the groundwork for the female push-pull, attract-repel to sexuality and the sexual experience.

As Andrews girls grow older, they become aware of their longing, their power and their limitations. They also come to understand their relationship with objectification. The poem “Pants” is a metonymical exploration of the idealized female body:

Outside the apartment building a pair of women’s pants are walking away. They are slender pants, carefully tailored pants, sleek black velvet pants, subtle and suggestive pants, pants that are the envy of women whose calves can’t possibly enter such tiny, delicate leg holes, pants that speak of a sylph-like woman, an airy woman, barely a size five, possibly a model or a ballerina who no longer walks on earth while men stare after her hopelessly, while other women, ordinary women, watch and weep and the pants, those sensuous pants, simply sigh. (29 Orgasms)

The breathless hypotaxis feeds a light-headed illogic. The sexual ideal cannot be reached by women or men. Despite being warned about sex in their youth, women long to be desired, but now instead of being restricted by others, they conjure up the prohibitive voices in their own minds. Only the slenderest fraction of women are models or ballerinas, yet in this poem, all women who are not “watch and weep” over their perceived loss of perfection. Men who presumably have or could have access to other, less narrowly defined women also pine. Interestingly, the pants, who “simply sigh,” are unhappy too, perhaps because they are empty and walking away, since so few women fit into them. Or perhaps they realize the absurdity of the system – everyone wants to desire and be desired, yet  our self-imposed category of desirability is stupidly restrictive. It is worth noting that these are women’s pants, and not men’s pants, yet by narrowly focusing on one body type, competing men run up against the same loneliness, only on the flip side.

Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane interrogates the gender role instruction kids grew up with in the 50s and 60s. The pre-Seuss Dick and Jane readers taught schoolchildren much more than reading – it was Dick who played sports and ran with Spot the dog and rescued Puff the kitten. Jane stood by in her blue ruffled dress making monosyllabic exclamations. In Andrews’ re-examination, contemporary gender role values are imposed on the connotated world of white, middle class ‘50s suburbia. In one poem, a young girl named Stephanie writes to Jane, asking why she lets Dick win every single race. “Does he ever come in second, she asked. Didn’t Stephanie know? Jane’s job was to clap so Dick could run fast, to be silly so that Dick could laugh, to cry so Dick could comfort her, to scream oh no, so that Dick could save the day or Puff, the kitten” (23). In the end, however, Jane could not resist the radical feminist belief that women, too, should strive for self-actualization. In the poem “Fantasy Jane” she looks back on her life,

Jane never knew how it happened. Her life, her love, her dreams… What were they? Had she always been just a fantasy, a fantasy of Dick’s? But of which Dick? Was that the question of her life? Her life of so many Dicks. Her father was a Dick, her brother was a Dick, her neighbor and her neighbor’s neighbor and of course her husband, too. (19)

Gender roles are further explored as well as complicated in Andrews’ most autobiographical collection Southern Comfort. The mother wears the pants in this household. After the father spills $105-an-ounce Christian Dior Diorissimo perfume on his favorite suit, he complains to everyone that “he couldn’t comprehend how a sane soul could live with a woman whose bathroom is nothing but a maze of perfumes, powders, lotions, elixirs, pills, douches, palliatives, and God only knows what all else.” (64) He doesn’t get the last word, however. As Andrews observes,

My mother had an instinct for retaliation. She began to inquire of guests at cocktail parties just why it is a man can’t learn to control his aim. After twelve years of marriage, not a morning had passed, she explained, when she had not had to Lysol and wipe up at least one splash from the rim of her toilet bowl or floor… She even began to wonder why some sort of disposable funnel had not been invented by Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson, which could be attached to a penis, perhaps with a rubber band or Velcro, and made to conduct the flow neatly into a toilet bowl without mishap. (64)

In the end, a sign goes up on the door: Women Only. She concludes, “In a house of many daughters, the message was clear. My father was not welcome” (64). In both poems, “The Fight” and “Fantasy Jane,” the penis becomes something of a joke, thereby subverting traditional male power. Word play softens the blow, and there is no blood – this time – but it is a theme that weaves in and out of the poems.

Andrews’ mother and father continue to compete, contradict and generally argue their way through the book, and their daughters sometimes have to choose which parent to align with – the northern, fact-stickler mother or the southern, mythmaking father; but in the end, Andrews uses humor and nostalgia to reveal the nature of her relationship to them. In the title poem, which takes place when the mother is away, Andrews and her father stay up late sipping whiskey drinks, even though Andrews is still a small girl. He sits on the couch and reads, and she lies belly-down looking at picture books she’d read “a thousand times,” and pretends that was all there was, “the two of us alone, together, on a summer night” (66).

Things don’t always work out so neatly, though. The collections Why They Grow Wings and Sleeping With Houdini give voice to women who would specialize in flight or other disappearing acts. They have nightmares of drowning or being eaten inside out by tigers. They have suicidal urges and are saved, perhaps by electro-shock, or are not saved. They are seduced away from everything they know, or they hurl themselves at unnoticing strangers. They are left by lovers and fathers. “The Kiss” is about the obsession that follows a break-up. The speaker begins, “At first I thought it would be simple to forget.” But it doesn’t work that way. “Days passed, so many of them, and in each one I saw you again and called your name like a chant, a song, a prayer. Soon I became so used to you, leaving your trace in my mind, like a shadow on the sea, a sea of shadows. Only the birds kept watching, lifting me each morning out of my darkness.” The poem continues to chronicle spiraling despair:

How I envied you, then, and all men like you, who float like milkweed in the wind, wandering through random cities, cities full of houses, houses full of rooms, rooms bleeding light in the darkness, the scope of their thoughtlessness extending infinitely outwards in a shimmering, an envelope of light, before vanishing forever.” (42)

In this poem it is he who seems to disappear, slipped from his underwater chains like Houdini. But that’s the illusion: it’s really she who has vanished, since her retreat into depressive sleeplessness prevents her from being a participant in her own life. Presumably, in the world, the actual world that Andrews inhabits, there are thoughtless women who float like milkweed in wind, but in this poem it is the woman who is left behind collapsing.

Sometimes the loneliness kicks in before anything else can happen. In the poem “Adolescence,” a girl finds her body is changing into something undesirable. Andrews uses the language and imagery of fairy tales (castle at the bottom of the sea), laced with contemporary details (blue jeans and Band-aids).

The winter her body no longer fit, walking felt like swimming in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. Everything stuck to her skin: gum wrappers, Band–aids, leaves. How she envied the other girls, especially the kind who turned into birds. They were the ones boys hand–tamed, training them to eat crumbs from their open palms or to sing on cue. What she would have done for a red crest and a sharp beak, for a little square of blue sky to enter her like wings. But it was her role to sink so the others could rise, hers to sleep so the others could dance. If only her legs weren’t too sodden to lift, if only her buttons would unfasten in the water she kept swimming through, and she could extract from the shadow of her breasts a soul as soft as a silk brassiere, beautiful and useless, like a castle at the bottom of the sea. (Why They Grow Wings 23)

This young woman grieves much as the women weeping over the tiny velvet pants. They seem, either temporarily or permanently, to lack the ability to either present themselves as desirable despite their failure to match up with some ideal, or to say to hell with desirability: I’m doing something else with my life. In this way, Andrews shows us that the myth itself is failing women. She is serving in the role of Stephanie, asking if Dick doesn’t ever come in second?

Through humor, exposing taboo, and kicking sacred cows, Andrews shows us the folly of some of our traditional gender assumptions and their limitations for both men and women, with a particular sensitivity to women. She notes in an interview with MiPoesias Magazine that gender bias even slips into the way we read her work. I will give her the last word: “One question I am so often asked is, how can I write like that, meaning how can I write about sex. Don’t I worry that my parents will see? My first answer is no. Let’s face it. Few poets have high visibility. And if that’s ever a problem, then congratulations. And my second answer is, would you be asking me that same question if I were male?”

Works Cited

Andrews, Nin. The Book of Orgasms. Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2000.

— . Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane. Washington DC: Web del Sol Association, 2005.

— . Sleeping with Houdini. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd., 2008.

— .  Southern Comfort. Glen Rock, New Jersey : Cavankerry, 2009.

— . Why They Grow Wings Berkeley, California: Silverfish Review Press, 2001.

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Karen Schubert’s poems appear or are forthcoming in MUSE, Jenny, Penguin Review, Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar, Redactions and othersHer chapbooks are Bring Down the Sky (Kattywompus, forthcoming) and The Geography of Lost Houses (Pudding House, 2008). Nominated for 2011 Best of the Web, she teaches writing at Youngstown State University.

We Make Love the Two of Me: Persona in Mark Levine’s Debt by Karen Schubert


The poems in Debt are a simultaneously disorienting and poignant reflection on the inner landscape. Through the fragmentation, or disassembling and reassembling of persona, themes like alienation and the strangeness of identity, culture, work, war, illness and death emerge. The personae shift in and out of themselves, become objects, speak after death. This dislocation of a centered self allows the poems a tectonic exploration of the individual in community and of the deep inner recesses where the self resembles a fun-house mirror.

The poems work their way through a vast collection of geographical and historical backdrops (realistic and imaginary): Toulouse, the Crusades, Prussia, the Greyhound men’s room, the Volga, Poland, WWII, England, France, the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, Versailles, the Wild West, the Berlin Olympics, election night, an airport, the prophets, the hospital, the scene of a death, the bedroom. The place held by you or I or other shifts from poem to poem, and sometimes shifts within the poems.

There is a punched-in-the gut seriousness to the poems; the personae play the role of victim or perpetrator, who may justify or fail to understand. War and war language permeate the book: “dog tags,” “rebels’ compound,” “nerve gas,” “Uzi,” “uniforms,” “barracks,” “Commander,” and the language of work: “punched the clock,” “Door-to-door I give my pitch, clutching my sample bag,” “Boss,” “pink slip,” “worker.” The personae are most often caught in a Kafkian world—unable to make sense of what is happening and what is expected. The personae ask rhetorical questions: “Commander, can you hear me?” and may answer them: “I am here, clamoring to be let in./In. Where is that?” There is a weariness in the voice of many poems: “Ah, love, let us be true./We’re all a bit tired/to be killing too much, but we continue.”

In Poem, which seems to take place in a village during WWII, there is a woman who must be killed for her own good. The speaker says: “I had to tear her apart to free her,” representing the kind of twisted thinking mankind hires to wage war. Self as misguided reasoning,

Those villagers dug my stake

straight through the belly of a woman

who – who knows – might have been my mother.

The dead we kill in war are a part of us, “might have been my mother” – identity is not delineated so neatly in these poems. The personae overlap and react endlessly to the others in the poems. In Morning Song the speaker says of “Boss”:

I remind him

of his mother, and his sister, and his son, and himself.

I bring tears to his eyes.

He’s been to me like the father he killed.

This blurring of self/other prevents the poems from becoming didactic, and reinforces the idea that humans live in a collective. These poems are not about a speaker walking through the woods and feeling kind of religious. They are about what it is to live in a complicated layer of contexts – blood relatives, time and place, scientific, economic and historical backdrop, individual role in the workplace – many factors affect our experience.

Several of the poems in this collection touch on death. In Sculpture Garden, there are three voices: the speaker, the father and the mother. Mother is dying: “My mother in bed with a ten-syllable disease.” The father is metaphorically “crumbling” over the reality of the mother’s death. There is a shift in the roles of the characters: the father, once metaphorically monumental in the speaker’s life, cannot speak or sleep or care for himself, seems to blame himself for the mother’s death:

But my father, not

sleeping for six weeks, turns

into the crumbling Czar-on-horseback

statue in the central square of his birthplace.

He just stands there, life-like.

Later, “They died. He didn’t. It wasn’t his fault.” [author’s emphasis]. The breakdown of the mother’s role decimates the father’s ability to act out his own part. The speaker doesn’t know how to cope with this shift in role; where once his father had substance and authority, there is a void: “Why am I looking at him like this?” “Should I talk to him when he doesn’t talk back?” “Should I touch him?” It is the same with the dying mother. The speaker is separated from her as she lies “in the sickbed”; he can no longer find an intimacy with her. “Once in a dream I made love to my mother./It did no good.” He cannot heal the wound his birth made, nor give back the life that he took from her. He cannot take the place of the deteriorating father.

There is an alienation in each voice in the poem. In addition to his loss of footing in the family dynamic, the father has already lost cultural identity. His birthplace is apparently Russia, where there is a Czar-on-horseback statue, and now he is apparently not in Russia, but in some new place (America?) where he rakes dirt into a Japanese garden, under French windows. There are other cultural identities available to him, but they are inauthentic, not his. The house is crumbling—a place where one would seek solace—“There is a crack in the living-/room wall. There is an icy roof./ He is watching the plaster./Certain the house will collapse.” The father is losing all exterior and interior markers that tell him who is he is. The mother is also losing everything, to death. The speaker tries to make a connection with the mother and father, but he can only stand separate from them and observe what they are doing. When mother and father are unable to know who they are, or be who they were, it leaves the speaker with an utter breakdown of hope and meaning. The last lines are the speaker:

6

I sit in my room hands blackened with newsprint.

Why not believe the papers.

Things turning wrong.

Gets in the dirt gets in the water.

7

Gets in the dirt gets in the water.

What the speaker learns soils him; he learns that we will die, that we will lose everything we try to hold onto. When he no longer receives information within the context of his familial and cultural meaning, he is overwrought with the darkness of knowing. It can’t be denied; it is everywhere.

Not all the death poems deal with death as a third party might experience the death of someone, or might learn of their impending death, or imagine a future death. These poems are in and out of a death reality; some of the personae are corpses; sometimes death has impermanence. Poem has a speaker persona, an unidentified “you” and others – villagers, soldiers. It takes place on a battlefield – there is fire, gas and death. The speaker is both dead and not dead:

They prop my mouth open with splinters.

They carve their initials on my thighs.

Their placard hangs from my cock.

Their time clock ticks at my feet.

Later, “Where is the spot on your body where I’m planted?” Yet the speaker says “I smell gas,” and “I drank my radium today. It’s made me brave”; the speaker is both dead and capable of thought and experience.

Judaism is a thread that runs through the poems, and again, gets mixed up deeply in the personae. In the title poem Debt, the “I” at the end is named “Jew Levine.” He goes through the poem being singled out, separated from his efforts to be integrated into a work and social community. The “debt” he is strapped with is his historical identity as a Jew: he must pay for the reasons people have hated Jews. He must endure their proselytizing. The poem is devoid of emotion on the part of the speaker – he gropes around looking to find out what it means to be a Jew – how it refocuses his past, but this persona is disconnected from human emotion. The poem begins in media res, “That reminds me,” an insouciant beginning for a poem about persecution.

The narrators often speak in short, clipped sentences; most of the lines are end-stopped. It gives a kind of truth-telling feel to the voice, each sentence building up the story, bit by bit:

The moat is nearly done. That was one of my projects.

I can’t complain. Boss has his moods,

but I know my value.

There is a visceral quality to the poems: the personae are often sentient beings, the poems are corporeal. Not just life and death, but body parts: “I pull my head from my scissors,” “He ripped the skin/off my family and kept that too,” “He says his tongue/will be arriving in the mail.” “I get paid to stand with my mouth open.” This enhances the perception of a fragmented self, a collection of parts having separate experiences.

It is not just parts that separate from the whole; the personae themselves sometimes break into other selves. In the poem Self-portrait, the narrator both sees from within himself, and sees himself from outside: “I wake next to me on the too narrow for two bedcage.” The body, a self distinct from the persona, is ill, “scrawled with tubes.” While in the act of trying to see oneself, there is a risk of myopia; in this poem the speaker is too invested in the other self to see it with any more clarity: “At last I see myself a box of sorts a picture window who am I kidding.” The self resists definition by its measurements on hospital equipment. Others, outside the two selves, visit, but cannot meaningfully connect with the speaker. “They stuff towels in their mouths,” they don’t want to speak of their fear or repulsion. They don’t want to be there. “They seem bored…” The speaker looks at himself. One self looking onto the other self does not provide a more objective way of seeing the self; there is no clarity in this view, but a kind of intimacy with self, perhaps the way the mind loves the body:

Late night I crawl back into bed very slow not to hurt

the one lying there hard flesh and cold.

I turn him I open his gown I am gentle God I do love him.

We make love the two of me like a beautiful machine

The machine in this poem is a humanizing biology, not the dehumanizing machines that some personae become.

Levine is in dialog with other poets from various schools throughout his body of work. The poems have a confessional feel to them – in the way they deal with personal failure and disappointment, in their unabashed nudity. However, unlike confessional poems, there is not a singular persona in these poems who is an obvious extension of the life of Mark Levine. Some of the poems have a Frank O’Hara feel to them, in the way they place a persona in some kind of (largely speaking) neighborhood. There is also a New York School familiarity in the characters, yet we don’t know if they are real or invented. Capitalism takes up Charles Olson’s critique against an economic system that damages the individual (not that Olson was the only one to make this charge); Olson also wove historical elements into poetry. Levine’s work also shows influence of Language Poetry in its disjunctive nature; however, the poems in later books Enola Gay and The Wilds reflect more of a trend toward the lack of narrative and summary.

Work Song is a poem that echoes of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. In Work Song, the persona is Henri, a French version of Henry, just as impulsive. Sabrina Orah Mark asks, “Who, after all, is Henri if not Berryman’s Henry started up again, like a sputtering machine, at the end of the twentieth century?” (37). As in Dream Songs, the identity of the persona shifts, dream-like, begins with a strong first-person voice and imperative: “My name is Henri. Listen. It is morning.” Then Henri refers to himself in the third person: “It’s easy to replace a child./Like my parent’s child, Henri.” Then Henri takes on non-human forms: “I am a zipper. A paper cut…I am confetti.” Then Henri is outside of himself, looking on, “I am an astronaut/waving from my convertible at Henri.” Then he makes a commentary on the Henri he sees: “Henri from Toulouse, is that you?/Why the unhappy face? I should shoot you/for spoiling my parade. Come on, man,/put yourself together!” (An interesting thing to say to someone with a fragmented identity. Parallels Berryman’s narrator remarking on grouchy Henry). Then the persona explodes, back into one voice of Henri who embodies history, religion, tradition, witness, accomplishment, sexuality, objectification, obsolescence:

My name is Henri. I am Toulouse. I am scraps

of bleached parchment, I am the standing militia,

a quill, the Red Cross, I am the feather

in my cap, the Hebrew Testament, I am the World Court.

An electric fan blows

beneath my black robe. I am dignity itself.

I am an ice machine.

I am an alp.

This rings of Dream Songs Of 1826:

I am the enemy of the mind,

I am the auto salesman and love you.

I am a teenage cancer, with a plan.

I am the black-out man.

I am the woman powerful as a zoo. (Berryman 103)

It is also hard to resist conjuring up Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in Work Song; besides the obvious name references there is a synchronicity in a socially marginalized character painting the seamy side of things in garish colors, in using color and image to produce illusion: “I live in Toulouse, which is a piece of cardboard./Summers the mayor paints it blue, we fish in it.”

Compared to Levine’s subsequent books, the idea of persona was particularly cultivated in Debt. Levine writes that

in writing my first book, Debt, I experienced as a liberating gesture the assumption of persona… I insisted on placing my speaker in what felt like a specific place and a specific moment, and I tended to activate some kind of narrative to guide my way through the poem. (“Statement” 28 )

If we as readers experience either a sense of discovery or an unresolved disorientation in these poems, we are fulfilling Levine’s plan – a kind of unintentional unintentionality. In an interview with Srikanth Reddy, Levine notes,

It always surprises me (and sometimes worries me) to realize, long after the fact, how little aware I am—or how ill-informed I am—of what my preoccupations are when I’m writing, and how very partial is my understanding and command of what I’m saying…It may not be very respectable to admit to being clueless about what could be considered very fundamental questions of subject matter in poetry, but that’s how it is for me…It troubles me a bit that, as poets, we seem to be required to pretend that everything we put in poems emerges from a very supportable rationale… But why, with all the hand-wringing poetry talk out there—our own, no doubt, included—are there some matters that, it seems, are very rarely aired…? Embarrassing questions, like: How much do you know what your poem is about when you’re writing it? Do you know who is speaking? Do you know what the situation is? Do you know what your themes are? When you get right down to it: Do you know what is happening—what is going on—in your poem when you are writing it? I don’t know about you, Chicu, but I’d often be lying if I answered most of these questions in the affirmative. I don’t even want to be able to say “yes.” If I could, I’d wonder why I was writing a poem. (jubilat 24)

Even when Levine is speaking as Levine the writer, the ideas shift; he does not decide whether or not he wants to completely know what his poems are about. Earlier in the interview, Levine tells Reddy of the importance and authenticity of uncertainty in contemporary poetics. We, the readers, experience the poems in Debt in this fluctuating way of perceiving. We are drawn in to the immediacy by the use of “I” and “you,” we may have in common with the personae psychological experiences of alienation, disappointment, revulsion, memory, as well as any cultural references of Europe or Judaism, the common experiences of work, family, illness, death. We experience the poems through the body’s perception as well. These personae and their voices and attributes are the anchoring force in an often unclear and unresolved narrative; for their uncertainty, they are, ironically, what give the poems their grip.

Works Cited

Berryman, John. Selected Poems. Kevin Young, ed. 2004, Library of America: New York.

Levine, Mark. “Interview With Mark Levine.” Srikanth Reddy. jubilat,13 (2007).

Levine, Mark. “Poetics Statement.” American Poets in the 21st Century. Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell, eds. 2007, Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT.

Levine, Mark. Debt. 1993, William Morrow: New York.

Mark, Sabrina Orah. “Mark Levine’s Poetics of Evidence.” American Poets in the 21st Century. Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell, eds. 2007, Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT.