- Women Who Burn So Bright They Melt
When I was a little kid, about twenty years ago, sex had no particular meaning to me. All I knew was it could not be spoken about openly, only whispered here and there. Later, when I got the talk, it became a monolithic thing: an action that I knew the definition of, but which didn't have much character. Then, it fragmented along lines of good and bad, because I had to be warned about bad; if anyone touched me in a way I didn't like, I should scream my head off. "Good" was still monolithic. I was aware that some people were into kinky sex—a mixture between bad and good—but I didn't really know what that meant, or how to know if you were into that. If you were into that, you knew. In high school, good sex fractured along different lines, into boring, loving sex and interesting, joyful sex.
I never recognized any of these; none of them were familiar to me as categories of experience. Most of all, the sex you were supposed to want—the joyful kind—did not bear out the darkness that can drive sexuality.
"Until recently," wrote Adrienne Rich in 1971, "this female anger and this furious awareness of the Man's power over her were not available materials to the female poet, who tended to write of Love as the source of her suffering, and to view that victimization by Love as an almost inevitable fate." When we think about "Love" as the source of women's suffering, it sounds like a Victorian affair: wringing one's hands over an unreturned glance; or, more aptly, ignoring one's daily life in the search and expectation of an ideal of Love.
There are two poets, both female, who I think throw off the normal evolution of love that society has handed down, and in so doing, discover an anger that fuels not only their sexual desire but their poetry: Anne Sexton and Forough Farrokhzad. There's no particular reason I would group them together, except that they lived in the same era, the era that Rich identifies above. They both wriggled under the yoke of marriage.
Farrokhzad, a gifted Iranian poet and film director, married as a teenager, had a child, got divorced, and lost custody before the age of 20. Her poetry is full of raw emotion, but also the wisdom of someone who has lived many lifetimes (common, it seems, in Iranian artists). She died at the age of 32 in a car crash. While premature, many of her poems prefigured her own death, as if she could already see the end of her compacted life. Her iconoclastic poetry, her strong poetic presence and frank female perspective, was so extreme as to be unsustainable—though it earned her fame in Iran and a spot among the most respected Persian poets of the century.
Anne Sexton suffered from severe post-partum depression, committing suicide in 1974. In a short essay on Sexton's suicide, Rich classifies the ways in which women destroy themselves. #4a is "Addiction to 'Love'—to the idea of selfless, sacrificial love as somehow redemptive, a female career; to sex as a junkie-trip, a way of self-blurring or self-immolation." Set apart by a semicolon, these are two different types of women. Sexton and Farrokhzad fall on the right side of it.
In poetry about sex, you can tell who's calling it in, who's talking about Love and not sex. While women are the ones who are typically blamed for such Victorian doting, more often than not, Rich writes (in a different essay), it's male poets who mistake Love for sex. They "suffer from this divided consciousness, know they are suffering, yet seem unaware what it is about." Rich scathingly points to Neruda's "Not Only the Fire": the "ecstasy" he shares with the woman is balanced by an image of her doing the washing: the erotic woman is incongruous with the woman made humble by doing domestic work. Neruda's mistake is to identify the cleave between these two...