- Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-Po LISTSERV
Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-Po LISTSERV is the result of an ambitious and unusual goal—to publish an anthology composed of poems submitted by poets who subscribe to a particular electronic mailing list, in this case Wom-Po, a discussion list with women’s poetry as its primary topic. As the introductory material indicates, the process of compiling and publishing this book was more democratic, or perhaps collectivist, than any other I am familiar with. The only qualification for submission was that a writer be a subscriber to Wom-Po; each contributor could submit one poem. Submissions were not otherwise formally vetted. That is, although three women are listed as editors of the collection, they did not exercise the power of acceptance and rejection. Rather, submission constituted acceptance. This could have led to disaster. The fact that Letters to the World is as strong as any other broad anthology of contemporary poetry speaks to the collective competence of Wom-Po subscribers.
The anthology consists of poems by 259 poets (258 of them women). Most of the poets are Americans, but enough other countries—Greece, the Philippines, Cuba, South Africa, and more—are represented to provide the book with an international flavor. Diversity of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation also enhances the collection, but the most significant diversity, I think, is illustrated by the range of styles illustrated by the poems. Many poems are written in received forms—villanelle, sestina, haiku, acrostic, sonnet—though more are written in free verse (but we all know that as a form “free verse” contains multitudes). The anthology does not claim, in other words, to represent any particular group or school or to include the “best of” poetry from a specific time or place, yet the poems are often intriguing, evocative, and memorable. But rather than attempt to generalize further, I would like to take a closer look at a few poems, selected neither because they’re the most accomplished (although they are accomplished) nor entirely at random (though at some point, selecting a handful of poems to discuss from a collection of 259 does become arbitrary) but because they are stylistically distinct.
Anny Ballardini’s poem “Apples” evokes and critiques one of Judaism and Christianity’s foundational myths; her matter-of-fact tone ironically magnifies the startling effect of the bizarre incident she describes. Her halting lines skitter across the page, compelling us forward as they simultaneously [End Page 201] pull us back—we think we know the story of Christmas, and we think we know the story of the fall, but this story we don’t know. The poem begins:
I remember it was Xmas when you arrived arms full . . .
Through these early lines, I’m expecting a cozy Christmas to follow (despite the potential warning of “Xmas,” for imputing tone to an isolated “Xmas” is hazardous; the X could be merely a convenience rather than a statement in itself, and it fails to erase the “Christ” from Christmas entirely, X being the initial of the Greek word translated “Christ”). The “you” who arrives steps under mistletoe like some god or Santa, “hair white with snow” and bearing gifts. The “you” holds forth a basket of apples “covered by short moving gray and black vipers.” While some of us might find this image repulsive, the speaker feels “awe,” even as she restrains herself from reaching into the basket because “the apples might be poisoned.” What kind of gift is this? Yet it is the sort of gift the world offers. On one level (“Xmas”), the poem denies redemption; on another level, it suggests redemption is unnecessary. The world is what it is, filled with beauty and poison, beauty in poison, poison in beauty. The poem is as successful as it is because it supports multiple readings thematically and also because its jagged form, emphasizing white space as much as text, forces interruptions upon the reader, insisting that we reinterpret nearly before we interpret...