O great classic cadences of English poetry We blush to hear thee lie Above thy deep and dreamless.—Denise Riley, Mop Mop Georgette
That tall white pasture clump that we call cow parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace magnified, are, in Latin, umbellifers, a flat-topped or rounded flower cluster. But sometimes people call them “umbrella flowers.” This work is closer to umbrella flowers than to umbellifers, down there on the ground with bricolaged theorizing practices, folk etymologies, my poetry, and intransigent details. That was a tribute to the essay as woodsy ramble [Good xii and x].
And to the essay as personal—a way of marking and mocking the professional codes and impersonal solemnities of the representation of thought. If saying “I” like a heroine will adequately undermine unsituated false universals, I’ll say “I” yes I will. “I” will report that in 1966 or so I diminished all the way down to a scant handful of one-line poems, and to gnomic statements, barely effective. The kind of development they needed was not rhetorical but historical.
I, Lady, you are my true love’s lady. You stand in the middle of the room, Sunlight streaming around you. Sunlight takes hold of the seeds in you And wets them. I want to hold myself to you, But you are myself. Can I?
This 1966 fragment issues directly from, and is a preternatural reminder of a passionate problematic—questions of gender, in relation to an engagement with poetry, poetry figured as a set of psychosocial and intellectual institutions imbuing a practice of writing in lines. This fragment knew and represented issues, points of political and cultural contradiction about the construction of authorship and the poetic career before their maker could see them as such. The fragment was a cognitive act, not just in autobiography. It functioned as a probe of a situation then almost invisible and always underacknowledged; to have understood it then, one would have needed the cultural apparatus precipitated (though not elaborated) by a social movement—second wave feminism, something that had not yet occurred.
Despite mirroring each other in a dramatic hinged appositive, with Lady as hinge (“I, Lady, you”), the female “I” is separated by the very concept “Lady” from her addressee, one traditional addressee of poems, the female “you.” “Lady” is both hinge and barrier; she belongs to “my true love”—a charming and smug ballad turn, filled with idealizations of class and sexuality. Yet the “I” wants to hold this “you” figure to herself, actualizing in female-to-female attraction the long half-life of a Petrarchan structure of feeling in order to create female authorship. Now that gesture could be interpreted as desire (in a [End Page 31] lesbian, matrifocal, or preoedipal plot), or as self-aggrandizing forms of egoistic desire. Is the desired embrace regressive? immature? narcissistic? self-serving? greedy? masturbatory? (all these having been thought of as bad attitudes with a bad press—one might now wonder). Fueled by an ambisexual or polysexual suggestiveness, the poem makes a wobbly declaration of vocation in its desire to embrace singular, hieratic woman herself, yourself, myself. Yet as pronouns multiply, a serious problem is accosted. “But you are myself. Can I?”
The fragment stops, startled, where the cultural problem began. Authorship was compromised and almost aborted; in any event, these issues, which seemed to me, in my (then commonplace) ignorance of female cultural production, to have no analogues, pointed me toward total blockage. The “can I” is not simply a personal questioning of my own powers, but concerns general contingencies of gender and female place in culture, a then invisible social horizon. Am “I” forbidden to poetry by one—but one key—law of poetry—the cult of the idealized female? Should “Lady” be ditched totally? or examined? both? and how to poke at a Petrarchanism that seems utterly belated, never uniformly hegemonic, and not, after all, the whole content of poetry? (As I bear down upon it, it recedes, is evasive.) Yet any number of writers do take “Lady” for granted as one of the institutional assumptions of poetry. Many male writers get to say Lady early and often...