JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“Either She Was” from Either She Was by Karin Randolph
Either She Was
Nothing about her will be the same. She was either a child or a mother, how to be sure? Both moved morosely from room to room, necks like ropes, needed a second opinion. Each complaint noted and parsed. She detested the soothing voice of the sock monkey. A change of scale, mortal. Which species is a true friend to woman? Turtle nibbles, she barely feels it. First she’s cold next she’s burning up.
Often, during this project, I find myself drawn to either the first poem in the book or the title poem. It’s because I was raised on LPs. The first track on side one is carefully chosen to grab the auditor’s attention. Same with the last track on side one, by the way (think about it: they make you want to turn over the plastic) and the first track on side two, … but that’s neither here nor there at the moment. I figure the same is true with title poems, in a way. Something about that poem struck the poet.
“Either She Was” is in no other way particularly different from the other poems in Randolph’s book. Each poem is a single prose poem paragraph. They’re all about the same length. And, each is constructed about of apparently – apparently – simple sentences. And each is disjunctive, in that it’s not immediately obvious how one sentence follows from the next. So, by choosing this poem, I am choosing a piece that is more or less representative.
“Nothing about her will be the same.” We do not know what triggered that sentence, that thought. An event? A memory of Heraclitus? I’m not sure we need to know. But one fortunate/unfortunate mental function is the automatic creation of narrative out of events/thoughts, etc. (in fact, I think that if consciousness has a function, that’s it. It bodes well for our survival if we can connect this feeling (“hunger) with “well, last time I felt this way I ate something, so …”) I mention this because it seems natural to me to attempt to see whether the next sentence illuminates this one.
[Note: I’m well aware that it might not. I’m well aware that disjunctive poetry works against creating narrative. Nevertheless, I believe, and will maintain, that what gives disjunction its interest is the tension it sets up between the tendency to narrative and the frustration of it]
“She was either a child or a mother, how to be sure?” So, perhaps “Nothing about her will be the same” because of something having to do with her mother or her child. Or perhaps because of the realization that no one is simply child or mother, mother or child, her ”how to be sure” is a red herring, it’s never either /or, it’s always both/and. I’m reminded of a sentence in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” That we are ourselves alone is delusion, to say the least.
But: I saw, what if we read each sentence individually, as utterly disjunct? Then all that disappears is the “because” that I’ve inserted to create my narrative. Each sentence becomes an object of contemplation in itself. Though we need not know why “Nothing about her will be the same”, we can still contemplate it, mull it over, etc etc. Same with the second sentence.
But there’s another factor, there are two other factors, in fact there are three, which mitigate against the utter separation of these sentences, that insist there’s no relation between them. First, they are in the same poem. Second, the rhythm. It’s impossible to miss the music, which runs the first into the second. And finally, and most important, the third sentence: “Both moved morosely from room to room, necks like ropes, needed a second opinion.” It is possible to accept that this has nothing whatsoever to do with “She was either a child or a mother, how to be sure?” but I find this a difficult and very counterintuitive move to make.
Why. Because the “Both” seem to link together the mother and child, as may the necks like ropes (tho that’s a little less certain “necks like ropes” being a pretty open-ended metaphor) (could indicate a noose-like feeling?), and as may the need for a second opinion (something that will help her decide the either/ or?) (tho the “both” may be an indication that she’s beginning to believe in a both/and, instead …). (or it could indicate that two people are prowling the rooms. Tho that doesn’t feel quite right, to me, can’t put my finger on quite why …) I don’t really know why she’s morose. I’d have to invent something at this point, and I’d rather not.
So, if sentences two and three seem connected somehow, it’s not unreasonable to assume that sentence one is as well. And that so are the following sentences.
“Each complaint noted and parsed.” Complaints? Something to do with the moroseness, perhaps. Something to do with the “is she a mother or child” question? Noted and parsed would seem to indicate that she’s spent some time with these complaints, gone over ever word and intonation for each’s infinite nuances. Again, recall the quotation from Marx.
“She detested the soothing voice of the sock monkey.” Is the sock monkey hers? Her child’s? (It’s not likely it’s her mother’s). In any case, she does not want to be consoled out of her moroseness. Is she “putting away childish things”? [1 Corinthians 13:11]).
“A change of scale, mortal.” Consolation from the sock monkey is a change of scale, a reduction to childishness? Or is this sentence a little more disjunct, a new thought. One relating to why “Nothing about her will be the same”? Because either she, or the mother, or the child, is now mortal?
“Which species is a true friend to woman?” Not the sock monkey. More importantly, however, is the phrase “true friend to woman”, I think. As opposed to “man’s best friend.” I am reminded of the Muriel Rukeyser poem, “Myth”:
Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the
roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was
the Sphinx. Oedipus said, “I want to ask one question.
Why didn't I recognize my mother?” “You gave the
wrong answer,” said the Sphinx. “But that was what
made everything possible,” said Oedipus. “"No,” she said.
“When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
Man. You didn't say anything about woman.”
“When you say Man,” said Oedipus, “you include women
too. Everyone knows that.” She said, “That's what
Whatever is happening in this poem, it’s a “woman thang.”
“Turtle nibbles, she barely feels it.” I take it that here she stops to feed/play with an actual turtle. It’s her pet. This follows on the “what animal” question, and actually probably triggers it.
“First she’s cold next she’s burning up.” OK. It’s obvious to me what this poem is “about”, now. (I say this laughingly, since I could be SO WRONG.) This is a menopause poem. Why do I think this? Well, Kathy is in her late 50s, and she experienced years of this. So I’m conditioned to take broken thermostats literally, and to associate them with menopause.
Plus, I can now tie together the semi-disjunctions into a reasonably satisfying narrative. Note the word “reasonably”. I don’t pretend that this reading does to every last word or detail what a pin does to a butterfly:
“Nothing about her will be the same.” Check.
“She was either a child or a mother, how to be sure?” Menopause is a passage to a new state, in which the old definitions must be rethought. Yes, if one is a mother one is still a mother, if one is a child one is still a child, if one has a child one still has that child. But it gets all different. I look up the word crone and find:
The crone eludes precise definition. Some traditions, organizations, and individuals variously define the crone as a woman who is either 50, 52, or 56, post-menopausal, consciously aging, willing to acknowledge her shadow side. Crone is a term used to describe an ancient archetype, an aspect of the triple goddess (maiden/mother/crone), and the third phase of a woman's life. When a woman is near, in, or past menopause, she is potentially a crone. The designation refers to a perspective or point of view rather than a specific age or physical event.
A woman who calls herself crone is willing to acknowledge her age, wisdom, and power. Through conscious self-definition, she helps to reverse hundreds of years of oppression, degradation, and abuse aimed at old women. Although she may prefer to be called elder, grandmother, or wisewoman, she does not dismiss, disavow, or use pejoratively terms such as crone, witch, or hag.
(“Crone: Empowered, Wise, Self-defined”, at http://www.moondance.org/1997/autumn97/nonfiction/crone.html Moondance.org)
Menopause is something a woman has to come to terms with.
And so on. I could walk again through every sentence. But I’d like to bring attention to one in particular: “A change of scale, mortal.” Yes.
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.