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Note: this review was posted yesterday briefly in draft, and has been revised and tightened.  I excised most discursive references to myself as marginalized but indelibly self-empowered woman poet– a discussion for another day.  This review will be archived in the Review pages of this blog. Please comment; I’ll gladly respond.

Charles Ades Fishman is a poet well established in the milieu of the East Coast intelligentsia and literary elite.  He has spent most of his life on Long Island and taught in academe.  He is the poetry consultant to the National Jewish Holocaust Museum and is the recipient of numerous literary awards.  His collections The Death Mazurka and Chopin’s Piano have been acclaimed for their  evocation of the diaspora and the Holocaust, the former work having been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

In the Language of Women is Dr. Fishman’s latest collection and the second of his from the independent Albuquerque press Casa de Snapdragon.  Fishman’s socio-political conscience and the focus of his work–to illuminate and accurately show forth the horror of the “Shoah”– have led him to issue a book the premise of which, according to the jacket copy, is to honor and “empower” women.

When I was first approached regarding a review I had a minor reaction to the title of the collection that I hoped would not dissuade me from contending with the work itself.  I set the thought, “In the Language of Women— how can–or should– a man presume to know that language or speak as if there were such a language?”  to the back of my mind.  I read what I could of Dr. Fishman’s work online– a very able discussion of his oeuvre  is  here with an extensive and impressive biographical note.    I found his poetry about the Holocaust dazzling and heart-breaking– all of the things such a poetry should be. And there is no disputing Fishman’s capacities as a true poet in the following poems:

Mother of Silence

Rain on the sea, in sunlight,
or memory of rain, memory
of sea, memory of light: sun
on each patchy wave, each
swatch of wake green
as a camouflage jacket,
but translucent, the white
silk of crushed shells distant,
muted, an underness. Enter
this rain of ions, photons of tide
and body, your eyes darkly
glimmering in the dark trough,
in the plosive burr of ocean:
your eyes and their sadness,
wife, your deep sadness, and your
love: for me, for our children,
for the children of children—
even in this stark sun, your eyes
bring fresh rain to my spirit:
rain that bids roses drink deeply
and bend toward death, rain to wash
daisies white as new snow: rain
on the sea and on the earth . . .
rain that cossets and cleanses, rain
that quenches, that quiets the nerves
of the planet.

Charles Ades Fishman — from http://www.charlesfishman.com .

Landscape after Battle

For Andrzej Wajda

To a nocturne accompaniment —
Chopin—they perform Liberation.
As they starved to Vivaldi.
As they burned to Bach.

You ask us to remember when a corpse
was esteemed ‘incompletely processed’
that could not, of itself, rise
above the ashfields . . . and dance.

Andrzej, you understand the silence
of your poets: self-hate and catechetical
obedience; violent, unassimilable grief.

Life should taste sweet, milk warm
from the nipple, but in your language
it is salt and blood.

You give us a victim to remind us why we speak.

Her name is Nina and—offkey—she sings,
and we are moved by her bare legs
and her loose hair, and we are almost
ready to follow . . . Red leaves

build soft mounds under the emptying trees

Poland, here is your Jew!
She will swallow the wafer, translucent
as pale skin, and kiss your numb body
—unkosher meat!

And she will draw you out of your Christ-
blazoned prison, until each bloodied finger
wakens from its dream, until your strangled
voice bears witness:

One life is history enough to mourn.

From The Death Mazurka (Texas Tech University Press, 1989; first published in a letterpress edition by Timberline Press, 1987)

However, as nearly everyone knows, women writers in the United States have had to break down innumerable barriers to be taken seriously, to have their work published, to obtain degrees, to teach, to have a voice.  Therefore, I find it problematic to say the least, to encounter a book that has the chutzpah to speak for women as opposed to of them,  in any way.

Inn 2011 to issue a book under this title and with such a purported mission  as a man, a male poet, is to put one’s head in the lion’s mouth. Is this not the hijacking of history that belongs to those who have lived it?  To assume that any given woman at any point in the recent past–indeed, since the break-out feminism of the seventies in which Adrienne Rich published Diving Into the Wreck– needs a man to immemorialize her is the height of  folly.  To expect the small audience for poetry, made up chiefly of educated, informed women according to the stats, to warm to this book is to dream an impossible dream.

Consider “Diving into the Wreck,” a painful and explicit exploration of the oppression of women– by an eminent woman poet.  I will never forget how that poem empowered me to claim and celebrate my intellect, my body, my gender, my history.  It was a poem that healed many of us of our sense that we did not matter and that our gender meant a life in the background.  It would not have had the same effect upon me if it had been written by a man– I would have been sent the message that such exhuming of my cultural history was beyond me.

Just as I have no business attempting to write the Jewish experience or the African-American experience, I must assert that Dr. Fishman has  crossed the line.  In one poem he references a woman’s puberty and the arrival of her menses.  He writes of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings luridly, voyeuristically, not obliquely or erotically.

And, worse than merely taking an interest in some women’s lives with whom he is acquainted, it feels to me that this poet sees the writing of this book as a matter of personal destiny. Quite clearly,  and in a painfully narcissistic, grandiose, somewhat messianic  sense, he views himself to have been somehow “chosen” or foreordained  to sing/write of women: in the opening poem he writes ” I have traveled to the coast to write these words for you, sisters/ of a brave country. Drink each day like the deep red wine/that flows at your tables, let the sun of your history embrace you.”

With this exhortation, the poet reveals much about himself, how he sees himself:  someone speaking to women from on high, making a grand gesture, dispensing permissions where no permissions are needed.

In this same poem Fishman writes,  “Sisters, the water is on fire…”  as if we are unaware, we women, of the urgencies of the moment, of who we are and our right to lay claim to our experience and our power, as if we are blind to the value of the lives of all women to all of humanity.

To be fair,  there are several poems in the book that measure up to Fishman’s previous work in their depth and lyricism, driven by his empathy with and respect for women who have exhibited great courage, several of whom are renowned political martyrs.  And there are passages of intense beauty and prowess: here are a few lines from “Starry Night”– In the black night of the universe/two stars fall/but do not die: /they flare in each other’s presence/they flame, and their burning/lights up the world….What are their names and how/do they exist with each other/blazing forever in the same orbit?/How do they survive the fire/that washes over them?

The stronger work in The Language of Women is countered, however, by the instances in which the poet’s attempts to pay court to a given woman backfire by defining her in terms of her weaknesses and as a victim. And sexism breathes from much of this work in covert and overt ways, simply even, in the diction. There is an unfortunate reference in some of the poems to a given woman’s “grandma”– with the relegation of a woman to little-girl status  such diction carries– would we hear any poet, man or woman, writing about a man’s “grandpa?”

Further, there is in a number of these poems a maddening appropriation of individual women’s experience and conjecture as to the meaning of that experience by addressing the subject of a poem with the convention of “You…”– the often used second person that in this case becomes preachy, intrusive, overly intimate, assumptive in some way hard to describe but profoundly irritating.  You this, you that together with the listing of superficial aspects of someone’s life in the vein of, you loved the old songs, you wore a fancy dress. Are these not gratuitous and diminishing details when it comes to writing about a woman who is a whole, full human being?

Here are the first few lines of “A Woman from Coimbatore”–

Your parents wanted a boy/and your Grandmom persisted–/already, her large family had too many/sisters.  How sad this caused you pain/and your parents sorrow.”…”Your father had wanted a boy but loved/when you lived your life.  No wonder/he’s your hero: you were his darling daughter.” Figurative language in such poems  is sacrificed for the mission, falling into the prosaic and sentimental– well beneath and unaccountably so, Fishman’s true poetry.

Worse, unforgivably and also unaccountably,  one poem begins with, “Imagine a woman/whose fingers are food….” followed by a list of…food.   Imagine a man whose hands were.. what.  Guns?  Hammers?  Pliers? I find it hard to fathom how it is that a poet lauded for his brilliance, his empathies and powers of discernment would write so insensitively.

In “A Dream of Morning” the poet writes of a woman dreaming of a lover  who finds herself in his arms, “For a split second you were whole.”  And there it is.  The old, eminently disempowering message: we women must be completed by a man.  We are not enough for or sufficient unto ourselves.

It is of great interest to me that the poems about women affected by the Holocaust are far better– more intense, more cleanly and passionately drawn.  Nothing in this section of the book is casual or diminishing.

It feels to me when all is said and done that the writer/speaker is a member of the male literary elite looking down not at or into— many of the women in his field of view–however unconscious this might be. These subjects of his poetic scrutiny he appears to regard as needing to be validated, reassured, and in a deeply troubling way for this writer, rescued/saved from themselves— by himself, the male narcissistic poet/therapist/, who hath so generously  bequeathed himself to us, so generously and nobly offered to sing of us, to us and for us.

In reviewing the glowing commentary on Fishman’s previous work by a number of literary luminaries, I conjecture that perhaps this poet has gone looking for a new cause celebre, some other intersection of time and place for the bearing of witness.  But a poetry of witness should never patronize or condescend.

In attempting to get at what is so discomfitting about the collection for me, I see a hydra emerging:  women poets and male poets.  Voice and gender.  Interiority vs. territory.  Power and lack of power.

As noted, it goes better for the poet in work with more poetry in it, as in “She Remembers Winter”– “She remembers the overpass/along Sunrise Highway/where she would sled all day/with friends in that winter’of 1970: how the sled would freeze/in late December coldness…”She remembers that downhill rush/as her first lesson in freedom/how her heart raced  with the sled/and beat with a frantic pleasure/that opened gates inside her.”  Even so, what about the inner life of this woman and that her life itself makes a statement that stands on its own?  

For Dr. Fishman has been justly lauded for writing an altogether different poetry than one finds in this book–of the vulnerabilities, courage and vagaries of humanity via exploration of his own close relationships, and as noted, in bearing courageous witness to the Holocaust. In those poems, he makes immediate the greatest self-destruction of the human soul and abrogation of conscience of  any time in history.  I wonder what would have changed in this work had he chosen the subjects of his most recent work in terms of their inspiring or equivocal humanity rather than their gender.

Finally, Dr. Fishman’s poetic empathies and indelible lyricism would be appropriate and valuable in writing  even of women whose strengths seem more evident to him and whom he therefore views as his peers; as I said, he seems to have written his earlier poems with passion and tremendous courage.  But the poems in The Language of Women do not have this passion.

Because it takes a village to make a beautiful book, and meaningful, beautiful books are not as prevalent as we all might wish, I wish that this book had rocked my world.  Dr. Fishman, the water is indeed on fire; this writer respectfully asks you to rethink the premise of this collection.