Book review: When She Named Fire

An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women
edited by Andrea Hollander Budy
Autumn House Press
Pittsburgh, 2008
ISBN: 978-1932870268

reviewed by Mike Walker

Most of us who enjoy poetry—who enjoy reading—know about collections and thematic anthologies mainly from our seminars and other literature courses: most classes that are topical will include an anthology as a text, be it one of Irish poetry, contemporary short fiction, early American poets, or whatever the focus of the course. Most such anthologies are, if seen as such by the student, actually a delight as far as textbooks go: few cost over thirty to fifty dollars making them some of the least expensive of college texts and unlike your biology or organic chem book, these anthologies are often very interesting to read. Moreover, they do what they say on the tin when they’re well-edited: you can read one of these tomes and come away with a fair impression of the diversity of depth and scope of whatever period and genre of literature it covers. Certainly, that beats seeking out the best of Irish poetry (or whatever is the topic at hand) on your own. I will let you in on a nerdy secret: when in college, I often would scan the textbook shelves of the college bookstore for anthologies and readers for courses that interested me but which I didn’t have any real rationale to take, and many times I’d buy one—at fifty dollars or sometimes much less, it sure beat the cost of course tuition.

I cannot know if Autumn House Press planned for When She Named Fire to serve mainly as an anthology for classroom use, but given that many colleges will have both undergrad and graduate courses on female poets—possibly even specific to contemporary American women who write poetry—planning such a volume would seem apt. At just over four hundred pages, the size and heft of a good Bible, and with a light yet sturdy enough paperback cover, the book is perfect for a backpack or reading on the train on your way to class. It is, of course, perfectly at home on a shelf, nightstand, or desk, too, but my first thought when I opened the package holding my review copy was that it would make a fine classroom anthology. Scanning the back cover’s list of included poets only reaffirmed this: while a few of my favorite contemporary American women poets are missing—Jorie Graham and Brenda Shaughnessy come to mind—other favorites such as Linda Pastan and Sharon Olds are thankfully included. There were some names I’d not heard of before, but not as many as I’d hoped but I suppose it is only a good thing that I recognized most of them. I would have loved to have seen some of the younger underdogs whom I feel never get their due yet who are writing mercurial, jaw-dropping, and very humanistic poetry like Autumn McClintock included, but as the list stands it’s a wise and varied selection. Paisley Rekdal probably is my new favorite from all those included whom I’d not read much of before: her poems are sweeping expanses that use up most of the page’s space and throw at you a barrage of ideas all at once. She, like Lorine Niedecker long before her, just takes over and draws you in, to hell with the rest of the world around you. She’s also a black belt according to the short author’s biography provided. You cannot help but to like this woman; I will confess there were a couple poets included who didn’t capture my heart as Rekdal did and I even wished they could have been discarded to allow another five pages or so for more Rekdal poems. That said, in poetry no matter how educated you are in it or what you’ve written yourself, personal taste still accounts for a great deal, so I won’t dare demerit or even name the poets I didn’t fancy as someone else obviously has and obviously will. Overall, the selected poets are strong, worthwhile, and diverse.

The question of inclusion is always a difficult one with any literary anthology and beyond the poets included, there comes the question of whether their work included is the best selection to offer of each poet. In this regard, the editor, Andrea Hollander Budy also seemed overall to do a fine job. I would have liked a few more poems per poet but then you’d easily move the book past the four hundred page mark and wind up with a beast of an anthology which no one would want to cart around nor pay for, either. With a poet like Linda Pastan, narrowing down the included work has to be tough but the task has been done justice as it has with Claudia Emerson, a poet who is both very easy to access in the topical matter of her work—daily affairs rendered with care, calmness, and insight—but at the same time one who deserves a close look and the chance to be understood in all the nuances she provides. Terry Blackhawk is another poet who is very hard to capture in only a few poems, yet the ones selected are fair enough examples, certainly. There are simply some poets who are easier to place in an anthology than others: Victoria Chang, who sadly was not included in this book, would be easy to select from given her overwhelming leitmotif of gloom and sorrow—always knit with the most haunting care, but always a slightly gloomy edge to her. Had I been given the task of putting some of Sharon Olds or Deborah Nystorm’s work in an anthology, I would probably still be debating over the best poems to include a week later. The editor accomplished this task with grace and still with economy, which is often the highest praise one can furnish any editor of an anthology.

Beyond the consideration of who was included and who was not of contemporary American poets—female or not—we have to consider who deserves to be considered such a poet: is it always someone who is plying the MFA and teaching track, publishing in the right journals? Or do we reach out to less-known writers if we can locate them? Do we dare include songwriters, who beyond whatever else, do reach more people with their lyrics than the majority of actual poets? The strongest theme going here seems to be one of what women write about: they write about relationships, about men, about divorce, about having kids, about illness, about injustice, about nature, about careers. If considerations such as topical writing on faith, religion, and womanhood are considered worthwhile in producing such an anthology, I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of the hymnist Twila Paris: yes, she’s best known as a Christian singer-songwriter, but she’s also published books and has the unique position of being one of very few living, accepted, hymnists writing hymns for church use. There were places where her work would have sat very well beside the work included in this anthology. Of course, had that been done, we would have to open the floodgates to a swarm of other female songwriters. It’s a tough call, but the poems—and poets—included do strike me as keenly interesting when taken as a whole because of the spectrum of topical foci of their work. Most are middle-aged or older and most are poets who have established careers as writers and teachers of creative writing and/or English, yet this is where they find the greatest degree of unity and otherwise, there’s ample racial, ethnic, geographic, and other measures of diversity.

How do women write differently than men, if at all? Now, in a time when women lead nations and even command combat forces—Major General Margaret Woodward of the US Air Force commanded the air war in support of Libya’s revolution recently, a domain even ten years ago that was fully the realm of men—do women still, even now, write differently than men? Is there a natural, basic, drive of what topics and approach women take that is something distinct from what approaches and what topics male writers would select? Had this been an anthology of contemporary American poets, could we read the poems without looking at the writers’ names and know in most cases who was of what gender? I mean no disrespect in asking this, and feel it’s a valid question: after all, it’s a core question such feminist theorists as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray have been asking for years. I have always felt that Pastan, for instance, spoke as a poet, period, and her gender neither mattered nor certainly mitigated her voice as a writer—or even defined her voice as a writer. I can understand how being a woman, being Black, being Native American or of any minority provides a writer with a viewpoint, an experience, and a focus that no matter their greatest empathy a writer outside that specific experience may never conjure. That point allowed, and not detracting at all from the importance of such voices, I did note that the women included here in many examples have focused on topics we could fairly call “women’s issues”. Is this the presentation of a voice that is necessary and desired in women poets and thus providing agency to women as readers? Or, is there a feeling of obligation when you represent any minority group’s writing to focus to an extent on the traditional issues of that minority?

Allow me to explain my concern here in another way: A few years ago I wrote a feature for a regional newspaper on the naval stores industry (that’s turpentine-making and all that goes along with it, for those who live outside the Deep South) and encountered in my research a sociologist named Cassandra Johnson. Dr. Johnson had co-authored a chapter in the anthology entitled To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History. After reading the chapter which was germane to my research for the article, I read through the rest of the book and was amazed at its variety because when you read most any writing by African-American writers in a college or grad school class, much of the focus is on racial issues or specific cultural experiences. Here, due to the somewhat narrow focus of the anthology, was a beautiful array of work by Black Americans on the environment, on nature, on wilderness. So while I understand the imperative to write about—and seek publication of—the core experiences that define a cultural vantage point, I also felt I’d been cheated as a reader, cheated out of the great work by African-Americans on topics I care about deeply. Work that would not make the cut much of the time in an anthology of African-American writing and had to await such a special volume to appear. With anthologies of women writers, you have to wonder about the same issue.

Part of my personal situation here may be that, as a young white male, I struggle to identify with an older, female, poet when she writes about divorce or weight problems (although, Nancy Pagh’s included poem “A Fat Lady Reads a Book” is really awesome and pithy). Perhaps that’s why I would desire to see Autumn McClintock—who is probably just a year or two either under or over thirty years old now— included. One of my poems was published in the same journal as one of hers once, and I could see—or at least dream—of walking into a bar in Boston and seeing her chatting with some friends and asking if we might have known a couple of the same kids at Brown or RISD. Perhaps this is also why I was drawn so to Rekdal, with her relative youth, black belt, and fresh tones. I do not doubt the worth of a woman writing about divorce or childbirth, but I am all the more thankful for those who write about skydiving, about running a bank, about karate or whatever else. The goal of equality I have always understood as to be one of being able, on fully equal terms, to do anything. There are, thankfully ample poems included that reach into topics and issues women of Celia Thaxter or Alice Cary’s time would not have written about and women even fifty years ago probably would never have seen published in the mainstream. There are poems that attest to the triumph of civil rights which allows General Woodward today to command her combat forces and allows women to run seriously for the office of president in these United States. As important as I know a book of poetry by contemporary women is, I also very much like the idea that gender is no longer a fulcrum in determining whether or not something is accomplished. A few years back, a friend who was an architecture student professed that his favorite architect was Zaha Hadid and how much he loved this man’s work: this woman, I had to explain to him, this woman’s work.

The question therefore perhaps is one of, in this day and age, how do women writers represent their unique experience? Some poets here I feel do this better than others: Susan Ludvigson an Rachel Hadas provide poems that are powerfully focused on the entire scope of world around them, delving into the daily affairs of raising a child (Hadas) and furnishing him with both protection and independence but also looking at world expansive that once was mainly, to write about for publication at least, the domain of men. There is the recent scandal of V.S. Naipaul unkindly, unintelligently, suggesting that no female writer—not even the great Jane Austen—could understand or write of the entire spectrum of worldly experience for, as he claims, a woman doesn’t command a household, much less anything grander, as does a man—this incident shines light on the plight women writers still apparently face. Of course, Naipaul was wrong: just as certainly as General Woodward can give orders to her fighters and bombers, a woman today can write about anything. A woman in Austen’s time even could have, and Austen and certainly Emily Brontë very much did, but it is true that publishing constraints were much more limiting. The joke in the end is on Naipaul in any case: most of my friends, even those who are not especially literary, know exactly who Jane Austen is whereas they guess, if pressed to, that Naipaul was a dictator in some far-off land or a celebrity chef. In contrast to his claim that no woman commands even a household as a man does, his own name commands only so much fame while a woman has owned fame beyond his ten times over. Meanwhile, the Rekdals of the world are pushing boundaries and these are not the boundaries of gender but of writing—the boundaries either a Naipaul or an Austen of today must face as a writer.

Overall, this anthology is powerful and provides a great selection of work from essential American female poets. Having seen a number of anthologies of contemporary women writers, I daresay that they are constantly improving insofar as my main concern, which as stated in so many words above, is seeing that a real diversity of topics is represented. I would love to have the poetry about a lady neurosurgeon or helicopter pilot page by page next to poems detailing the experience of the mother or wife. For there are women today who operate on brains, ones who fly aircraft with spinning blades. The present anthology is one of the best to showcase the wealth of diversity women poets in America today present.

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