More than a collection of poems, Pamela L. Laskin’s latest book is a statement of faith in the strength of women. It has a rhythm not of music but of rivers and streams bumping into and over the obstacles that stand in their way. Much of the time, instead of power, we feel the women’s anger, which may be the first step toward empowerment, even when that anger leaves them temporarily weak. Indeed, the cover shows a framed picture of a strong-looking woman (Georgia O’Keeffe, in fact), and the frontispiece of each of the two sections that divide the book carry out the theme of women in a frame.
The title of section 1, “Defiant Dreams: Voices from the Plates,” implies that these are photographic plates, although many of the poems throughout the book are about women who lived before the advent of photography. So for me, the conceit of the plates doesn’t really work in a lot of instances. However, in part 2, “Daring Daughters,” when the plates become the kind that we eat off of and women serve meals from, the image is sharper. Still, while reading this book, especially the first section, I felt as if I were witnessing a dance choreographed by the ghost of Martha Graham. I wish there had been a poem for her.
In the nitpicking department, the book could have benfited from another pair of editorial eyes. Among my complaints are hyphens that should be em dashes, and these interfere with the flow in many of the poems; the new-ish word “barfing” instead of the stronger “vomiting” used in “Hatshepsut as a Bulimic (1512–1482 B.C.),” followed in the next line by “into” a tombstone instead of “onto” it; a “cauldron of cornucopias”?; “cheerios,” the trademarked cereal requiring a capital C, as opposed to meaning “byebyes.” Worse, I was struck by the inappropriateness of direct quotations noted as such within the body of several poems, plus the use of parentheses and asterisks, which brought some of the poems closer to reportage than to poetry. In addition, phrases such as “matrimonial tradition” and “claim to fame” deaden otherwise interesting poems and stopped me short.
Confusions abound, as in the back-to-back poems “Ishtar” and “Asherah (Ishtar)”: According to Wikipedia, Ishtar is the Assyrian and Babylonian goddess of fertility, war, love, and sex; Asherah is her Semitic counterpart. However, in the first poem, Ishtar is “the brazen and treacherous mother” who declares war on her children; in the second one, Asherah kvetches, “Son,/when I bore you/it was for you to reign/not/storm me/into obsolescence.” Can these be virtually the same woman? Not in my book.
Long before we get to recent times and Laskin’s own lineage of difficult relationships, we have a bevy of strong women who fought against the tyranny of bad men or “murderous mothers,” such as the one the mythological Python had to contend with. Or Sophia, “Supreme flower/of light/of Dante’s illustration,//(but mother/your bile braided me/to Hade’s bowels).” (This is also an instance where the parentheses seem gratuitous.) The poems about real people include dates and places of origin alongside the title, which is a nice touch, and the one use of parentheses that I found useful.
One of the more successful poems in the first section is “Judith (6th Century B.C.),” a sort of incantation that ends, “Let me inspire my people/to dance the nightmares/into oblivion.” There are not many references to actual sex in the book, although the one “lesbian poem,” “Natalie Barney (1876–1972, U.S.)” comes close with “Ready/for a night of love/with a lovely woman.”
“Sacagawea (1790–1812, U.S.)” is a poem I would have liked better if I wasn’t drawn into an argument with the the lines, “strength and fight,/but no fame/to go with it.” Isn’t Sacagawea at least as famous as...