University of New Mexico Press
80 Pages; Print, $17.95
Each semester I teach a set of American Indian stories about women who marry bears. I like these stories for many reasons, but one special reason is how they resist easy understanding. Like relationships, these stories about relationships can be contradictory, mystifying, and dynamic. Relationships that start off badly can become satisfying. Others can be going well and then suddenly end very badly for all involved. In his commentary on a suite of bear marriage stories, Karl Kroeber praises them for their “intense focus on the central ambiguities of social life” and their portrayal of “human life as a tissue of ambivalences inseparable from pain, error, and suffering.”
Some of this can be said about Tiffany Midge’s new collection of poems, The Woman Who Married a Bear. But do not think that all of her poems are about “pain, error, and suffering.” Many are about laughter, sex, and meditations on those “central ambiguities,” especially between lovers. The collection is the result of a thoughtful poet considering the mysteries of being a complicated human relating to other complicated humans (or bears).
The first poem in the collection, “The Woman Who Married a Bear,” establishes a pattern that can be found in many of the poems that follow. Five stanzas of varying and concrete images describe the strange nature of sexual attraction. The lover’s eyes are “black hooks” that have “pierced her heart into the darkling of his body,” that have “winched it out, a spent, stained prize.” On the one hand, saying we have won someone’s heart is to suggest that person has fallen in love with us, and we might describe falling in love as having our heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow. Having that heart pierced with black hooks and then removed with a winch? That is saying something else. I will present the final stanza whole to preserve the strength and sound of Midge’s poetry: “She had a lover who spooned her body at night, / who drank from the full cups of her breasts, / who hungered for her shoulders, her mouth, her belly– / who fed on the pounding in her chest.”
The erotic language here is paradoxical enough to please the ghost of Cleanth Brooks. The lover desires her, hungers for her, engages her body in ways that we might all enjoy being enjoyed, and the “pounding in her chest” suggests she enjoys it too. However, we might ask how she is being fed in this exchange—the second stanza describes her alone in the woods as she waits out his hibernation; she forages for food and relies upon the “mercy of trees.” Is their passion reciprocal? Perhaps it is. However, the language that describes erotic desire can sound like the language of an attack. Is this a description of lovemaking or a scene from The Revenant? If her lover is a bear, might he be consuming her, eating her alive? I prefer the former possible meanings to the latter because, you know, it’s hot. But the possibility for both meanings exists.
This contradictory reaction to desire is made explicit in “Desire: An Inventory.” The speaker says the audience might think desire is “a delicate impulse,” that would be wrong. If desire had a face it “would resemble a troll, or worse, a gargoyle.” The speaker says desire is “the most monstrous emotion since envy, since / hubris.” Desire is “utterly fickle,” coming and going with few reasons that we can understand. We resist our desires even when we give into them, the poem suggests, perhaps protecting ourselves in that most vulnerable encounter between two people. The poem concludes:
“Tell me what you want,” he said.“You,” she said. “I want to want you.”
“Tell me what you want,” she said.“You,” he said. “I want to not want you.”
Several poems observe intimacies between lovers that do not express conflict (like that with a bear eating you alive) but express awareness that our lovers have lives that are...