As a fellow poet-critic, I approached An Alchemy of Genres with excitement. It claims to argue that the white, lesbian and/or women of color poet-critics whose work it examines cross borders "both textual and psychological"; purports to analyze how their genre-blurring writing "changes word and world"; and wishes to locate itself at the borders of academic feminist debate about critical and theoretical discourse. I was attracted as well by the claim that Diane P. Freedman herself demonstrates "the power of cross-genre writing." And the trope of alchemy, transmuting one substance into another more valuable one, with which Freedman characterizes poet-critics' writing, is a nifty—if value-laden—idea; I was interested in seeing how she would develop it. [End Page 381]
As it turns out, she doesn't, much. The four chapters that comprise the book are organized by themes, all of which engaged me, especially "Border Crossing as Method and Motif" (Chapter 2) and the thrift-conscious, pragmatic "Ecology of Alchemy" (Chapter 4). But that organizational strategy often results in cursory overviews, as the following passage illustrates:
Poetry both prepares one for and expresses a life of change, of both aiding and evading conventions. [Gloria] Anzaldua is as much a "protean being" as the poem she begins with these two words. "Poetry is no respecter of convention" agrees [Susan] Griffin. . . . [Marge] Piercy, who says she writes in organic verse, "the predominant poetic form of our time," . . . observes that . . . "the observers change what they observe."(Freedman's emphasis)
What do "aiding and evading conventions" and "protean being" imply? How does Piercy write both "anomalously" and in "the predominant poetic form"? Freedman rarely elaborates. Rather, she will engage in the above sort of listing or compare herself to the poet-critics she discusses. For me, the absence of more sustained analysis diminishes the study's contribution to the field.
But more problematic, because this study is part of a major university press's feminist theoretical series, is that Freedman takes general issue with theoretical discourse, and then remystifies terms—poetry (or rather "a spirit of poetry"), "self," and "authenticity," for example—that post-structuralist theory has, for better or worse, demystified. It is, at the very least, confusing (or confused), to offer a truncated discussion of Lacanian notions of subjectivity, cite a person, not a text, as source, and then uncritically reassert that these poet-critics express an "authentic self." Throughout the book, poetry remains an idealized, catch-all word, and assumptions about it remain unexamined. And for a study that foregrounds race and sexual orientation as well as gender as constitutive of poetic identity, the descriptions of the poet-critics' textual strategies make them all sound alike. Are they? Or has Freedman suppressed important differences in order to exemplify her thesis too neatly? The study needed to anticipate such questions from its intended audience.
An Alchemy of Genres has merit but might have done much more. And be forewarned. Freedman's "alchemical" writing is a cautionary reminder that personal academic writing can require as much patience as theory, though for different reasons. [End Page 382]