|by Merri Lisa Johnson||
My youngest sister brought me a book of poetry last week as a way of trying to establish an adult relationship with me by sharing something we both enjoy. The book was Oedipal Dreams by Evelyn Lau. I was struck by the cover-the author's face a white apparition emerging from intense darkness, blackish red lips, full like pockets of blood. This book seems to seduce me at first glance. I have been curious, lately, about contemporary women's poetry, wanting to study it both as a scholar and a writer, so I started here. I read the back cover: "these are raw, angry poems." I flipped through the pages to see if my sister had marked anything. She had. One page with its corner flipped down, the poem "Father." I began to see my sister's attraction to this work.
As I read through the first third of Lau's poems, I noticed repeated images: needles, broken glass, wounded flesh, ashes, amitriptyline. The book's atmosphere reminds me of a movie my other sister, the middle sister, lent me last month, "Gia," starring Angelina Jolie, another dark work with characters desperate for love, settling for heroin. I dimly recognize this world my sisters conjure around them, remember seeking out this sort of pained art to deal in some tangible way with my own hurt. For me (as for many) it was The Bell Jar in high school, Tori Amos in my early twenties. I see in this book, this movie, a dark connection between my pain and theirs: three sisters terrified of abandonment and misunderstanding, tuned into the sharp pains of late twentieth-century familial dispersion, howling, not being heard.
I, eldest sister, left them when I was eleven. J was five. M only barely two. I had to go, couldn't stay with my mother without the buffer of my father, and he had already gone. He let me follow, but the other two were left behind. He had his reasons, everyone does, but sixteen years later, we have not yet gotten over it. Each of us lives our loneliness in a different way every day.
Between our parents, our father was the nice one, the nurturing one, but after he and I split, he became to the other sisters, "the girls" as we called them, something more complex: first, the every other weekend refuge, then paradise just out of reach, and as the years dragged on and the girls got bitter, he turned hard in their eyes- abandoner, refuser, first daughter favorer. He became their story of what might have been.
Lau's poem, "Father," must have captured something for M about her feelings for our father, the one who left before she spoke in full sentences, the one she grew up with as absent. "you fall through a shower of splinters and light," the poem begins, "you dance with glass embedded arms / ten feet tall in my dreams, disguised perhaps / but look how small I have become." At two, she must have really seen our father ten feet tall, a superman, face so far from her child's stature. She was one of those babies filled with joy, cheeks bunched tight with smiles. But in the house where she lived, where sarcasm and suspicion made the air heavy with nerves, she didn't stay joyful long.
Oedipal Dreams reads like a bed of broken glass; I imagine M feels cut already to explain why she seeks out this familiar atmosphere. Lau says what M can't:
Taught like all women to hold her anger inside, in check, in the quiet dark silence of insomnia and bad dreams, M lets this loss burrow inside her like something small with many sharp edges. Will it come out of her face someday like the piece of my windshield pulled from my cheek two weeks after totalling my car?
There's very little I can do about having lost the connection we had as children, built on rocking her back to sleep in the middle of the night, bathing her dirty body, bringing food to her mouth, holding her when no one else would or could. The one thing I can do now is try to make some new connection, to follow this thread of poetry she has strung tenuously between us. To offer her more. So I sent her three books: Adrienne Rich's Diving into the Wreck, Gwendolyn Brooks' Maud Martha, and Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street. My sister has dropped out of high school at seventeen, moved in with her boyfriend, started some kind of adult life away from organized education, so I want to share with her the books she might have encountered at a community college, want to foster her like a student, give her some of what she might have gotten in classes like the ones I teach. Evelyn Lau was a runaway, is a self-taught award-winning poet. I have hope for M.
The books I sent her are markedly different from Oedipal Dreams, though. They speak of salvage, self-discovery, the alchemy of language on the hard-tasting metals of childhood, womanhood, and other disappointments. These are books filled with feminist images, distinguishable from Lau's work of ashes and self-sacrificial blood letting, which might be termed "postfeminist" according to the paradigm set up by Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt in "Feminism, 'Postfeminism,' and Contemporary Women's Fiction" (1991). "Feminist novels," she writes, "narrate a mythic progress from oppression, suffering, victimization, through various stages of awakening consciousness to active resistance, and, finally, to some form of victory, transformation, or transcendence of despair" (269). "Their characteristic tone," she continues, "compounds rage at women's oppression and revolutionary optimism about the possibility for change" (270). Postfeminist novels, on the other hand, are "less clear about what can be done, and more likely to grieve and worry than to rage and hope" (270); they find feminism "naively optimistic." This paradigm might be extended usefully to distinguish between generations of contemporary women's poetry.
I used to prefer literature (and music, and people) that grieved and worried; now I like the hard-edged emotions of rage and hope.
Every time I make the point I'm about to make, I feel the need to emphasize that I am not calling for naive optimism, and if you knew me, you'd know I'd make a really bad Polyanna. But what I have found as I move through the second half of my twenties is that part of my own survival requires an ability to choose a perception of my life and relationships that allows me a degree of peace. In fact, maybe the most important insight I have had so far in life is that I have control-not over what happens to me-but over how I experience it, whether it tears me up . . . or not. It's true I've been torn in so many pieces I thought I'd never walk again. But in the process of putting it all back together, which I'm sure is not even yet fully done, I learned that I get to decide what matters to me, what drives my life, and whether that thing centers on pain or joy. I choose joy. Or at least I try to, every chance I get. And I choose literature that does the same, chooses joy in the midst of life stories that could crush a person with pain and regret.
This is what I want to pass on to my sister, although I kind of know it's one of those things you have to come to on your own, but my hope is that by passing on, if not the lesson, then some of the books that guided me there, to see her through as well-books based on self-constitution-that maybe in some way I am helping her, like getting up in the middle of the night and comforting her when she was a baby. I want M to dive into the wreck of her childhood, her glass-embedded rage at our father, "to see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail." I want her to learn, like Maud Martha, what it is that she likes, what her woman's life can be outside the perameters of fathers and live-in boyfriends. I hope she finds inspiration in Cisneros' writer-protagonist and recognizes the potential of language to save her own life. I want to urge her towards a literature of self-recovery. Something like vintage Denise Levertov: