After a completely sane, reasonable, temperate email exchange with Andrew Merton following my review of some of the poems in his book, Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs, I feel like it’s important to share a couple of the poems from the book that didn’t get my knickers in a feminist lather.
Also, it begs repeating: Merton is, himself, a feminist. He’s written extensively on womens issues and is one of the few men to have ever been published in Ms. Magazine.
As I mentioned in the original post, there are a lot of poems that are really funny and can’t be read as anti-feminist at all. So I’m going to share some of these with you now.
Here’s one of the funniest ones:
My favorite line is, “because astrology is serious business.”
And I think the last stanza here shows–in particular–Merton’s personal sympathy with women.
Here is another funny one about the moon’s cliches.
And finally, “Why I Left The Poetry Reading Early” beautifully describes a writer’s sense of awe and neurosis around writers she admires.
I liked to imagine while I read this one that the poet Merton was talking about here was Billy Collins, a former US Poet Laureate whose work is also frank and funny.
Whenever I read, I’m always dissecting the author’s psychological process. Not, I promise you, whether the events of a story or poems mirror an author’s own life. I am a fiction writer, so I know that it’s almost always synthesis or loads of practice or having paid careful attention. It is hard to write interestingly about one’s own life. Unless you’re David Sedaris, and when it’s brass tacks, it’s probably hard for him, too.
What I’m looking for in the words of other writers is clues about how they feel about things: issues, people, events; or insights about their writing process: sometimes you can tell when a writer gave up and took a short cut, or you can locate his “real” story in the words that are there–that is, you can see a writer’s affection more clearly than the writer himself can, if you read carefully.
If you read here regularly, you know that I’ve been feeling a little bit militant about injustices toward women and the way we American women seem to be keeping ourselves in these corners of oppression, and how our politicians are happy enough to help us stay there.
Imagine my fancy when I read–perhaps erroneously, more on this later–some poems that seem to be truly angry at women in this utterly delightful collection.
Don’t misunderstand: I am not calling Merton a misogynist. The poems are art, and exist outside of Merton’s consciousness, or perhaps in spite of it. Perhaps I’m identifying Merton’s anger with his mother or wife, isolated to those two people and nothing to do with women in general. Or maybe I’m misreading it all together. The book provides for much thematic wrangling, to review each poem or theme would be to write a second book. So I’ll take a closer peek at these few poems I read as being non-feminist.
Perhaps Merton’s poems that deal with women angrily are presented as a critique of the things men say about women, I’m thinking specifically of one called, “The Way Women Are,” whose first two lines are, “She says there’s no reason for me to be jealous,/ even though he’s good with his hands.” The implication here is that the woman in the poem is being unfaithful and lying about it, but the poem is about the speaker’s experience of that phenomenon, which he attributes to “the way women are about these things” in the last line of the poem.
There is one that he writes to the speaker’s progeny, “Advice My Daughter Will Probably Ignore,” in which he describes an eel of a man who is setting himself up to take advantage. The last two lines of the poem may indicate something of Merton’s observance of The Way Men Are. It goes, “by then,/you’ll have heard it all before.”
Taken as a collection, the poems are funny and insightful and largely unpretentious. They are short, simple, revealing of the human condition. Merton writes with sensitivity and freshness. Former US Poet Laureate Charles Simic said it best in the foreword, “…he knows what it’s like to be at the other end of the stick.”
Another thing I love about these poems is the way the ones with epigraphs interact with them. The poems literally speak to the epigraphs, often in humorous ways. Here’s a great, short example:
God does not play dice
Not, at least,
since that day in the garden
when He rolled snake-eyes.
Back to the women
Here is a full example, and the first poem in the book, also set in the garden:
The Original Sin: Adam’s Story
God saw that I was lonely.
He was right about that.
The rib thing, though–
consider the stars,
the beasts, fish,
birds, all that.
Don’t tell me he had nothing left.
What I saw
when I saw Eve–
her long hair, breasts,
the absence between her thighs
That was all right
until the business with the snake,
the rising of my desire.
I have read this poem now four times and re-typed it one time. I can’t not read the tone of blame in the last stanza: Eve was all right till she made me sin.
And maybe Merton’s intention is to draw attention to the absurdity of this social trope: the notion that all of men’s misbehavior can be attributed to women in some way.
But then there’s the poem, “All Hallow’s Eve,” in which Merton invokes both Joan of Arc and the witch who tried to eat Hansel and Gretel after the speaker “taste[s] his mother’s ashes.” How is it productive to compare any woman to a misunderstood (probably delusional) warrior and a cannibalistic witch? I want it to be productive.
So then, do I read this mother in this poem as Merton’s mother, so it is about one woman instead of all women? Or do I read her as any mother, which would be sensible considering the references to well-known historical and literary female figures? Do I interpret the reference to Joan of Arc as someone who was strong and impressive and unconfined by the cultural moment in which she lived (but then ultimately was when she burned as a sorceress and adulteress), and the reference to Hansel’s witch (Gretel’s apparently already been eaten) as something about hunger instead?
Now two things: These are five poems in sixty-some that it’s not even absolutely clear are overtly antithetical toward women as a group. And they are still good poems. In 1980, Merton wrote a book called, Enemies of Choice: Right-to-life Movement and Its Threat to Abortion. It’d be hard to mistake the thesis of that book. So clearly, Merton himself is fond of the notion of women as people with thoughts, ideas, choices, and rights.
But I think that the best poems offer multiple valid possibilities for interpretation, and I think the best poets are ready for questions like these. So, Andrew Merton, write on. I can’t wait to read your next book.
This Post originally appeared in Center for Health Media and Policy out of Hunter College. This post is an eloquent meditation on Andrew Merton’s poem, “Coming Out of a Depression.” Thank you, Joy. Enjoy, everyone.
Joy Jacobson is the CHMP’s poet-in-residence. This week Andrew Merton’s first book of poems, Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs, is being released from Accents Publishing. Merton may not be typical of a debut poet: he is an accomplished journalist and chairs the Department of English at the University of New Hampshire, where I was his student 30 years ago. I got in touch with him again when the founder of UNH’s journalism department, Don Murray, died in 2006. Murray and Merton had a strong influence on my writing life at that time, and now that I teach writing I’m grateful to recall what they taught me.
With this new book of poems Merton is instructing me in another way. As poetCharles Simic writes in a foreword, Merton’s “chief subject may be described as our human comedy mixed with tragedy.” A good example is this poem (reprinted with the author’s permission):
coming out of a depression
sleet gravel in a chicken’s gut
flies buzzing feebly against a screen
morels at the foot of a dead apple tree
shadow of a hawk, receding
whisper of snakes on stone
the sun that powers the heart of a flea
a history of oceans
written on the underside of clouds
in a worn wicker basket
abandoned by a stream,
We might see this poem as a topographic map, demonstrating in relief the hills and valleys of a particular psychic landscape. Or maybe, more aptly, it’s a travelogue of the byways leading out of Hell. Regardless, we have little choice but to trust our guide.
We start in a season of bad weather. A single word, sleet, acts as both noun and verb of its own endless sentence. This is a place of ineffectual flies and of many birds, caged or scavenging or predatory. One life form here, the morels, are saprotrophic, feeding on dead things, and I imagine the apple tree to be reaching for the memory of the forbidden fruit it once bore. Thou shalt not eat of it, God warned, and I wouldn’t dare. In this place I wouldn’t even gather the morels for consumption. It’s an environment that reduces its raptor to shadow and retreat.
Those first six lines seem to me to be in whispered conversation with some other famous literary depressives: Yahweh, Poe’s raven, Keats’s narrator “half in love with easeful Death” from “Ode to a Nightingale.” But in Merton’s seventh line a movement evidenced only by the swish of snakeskin on stone changes the view. It’s a sound I can see. I’m reminded of a friend’s sumi ink-stick drawings; one in particular depicts a gray road winding through gray-black trees. A simple, colorless elegance.
Now with the eighth line a real and measurable power asserts itself. It may be no more significant than the electroconductivity taking place in the heart of a flea, but a life can revolve around that sun. And it does, here. A couplet emerges, and in it a pairing of water and language—a natural history written in clouds that must fall inevitably down.
A rain of words: a poet’s dream of redemption.
Merton’s final tercet calls forth a basket, left behind and emptied, apparently, of its cargo—the infant Moses, perhaps? And why not? The poem has recovered itself enough to form a stanza, a complex interplay of lines and images. It’s a free-verse universe but it’s ordered. Even during a clinical depression, involuntary body processes like heart rhythm and respiration are kept up. You’ve survived it again, the poem says. You walked through sleet and ate gizzards, and your powers of observation were never lost to you. Take a peek inside the basket, the poem invites. Go on: you’ll be stunned all over again to discover galaxies so numerous they can’t be counted. But they can be contained in the worn wicker of your mind.