Janice Moore Fuller

“How at Fifty I Love Nakedness”:

A Review of Books by Three Female Poets

Packing Light: New and Selected Poems by Marilyn Kallet
Boston, MA: Black Widow Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9818088-0-2, 164 pages, $18.95

Poetry State Forest by Bernadette Mayer
New York, NY: New Directions Books, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8122-1723-1, 196 pages, $17.95

Persephone by Lyn Lifshin
Los Angeles, CA, Red Hen Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59709-124-4, 181 pages, $20.95

In “Vocation,” the opening poem in No Heaven (University of
Pittsburgh Press 2005), Alicia Ostriker’s speaker remembers herself
a child traveling downtown alone for the first time. The poem ends,

           I see her over a distance of fifty years.
           How small she is in her thin coat.
           I offer a necklace of tears, orgasms, words.

During the past year, three female poets have offered new collections
of poems that consider their lives and the world at a distance
of fifty years or so: Marilyn Kallet, Bernadette Mayer, and Lyn
Lifshin. While these poets respond to the passage of time differently,
each considers what Susan Elbe calls the “insolent betrayal” of middle
age (“Brooding Over the Body”) but also rejoices in the “necklace”
of experience—those “tears, orgasms, and words” that living
brings. Not only does each poet look back on earlier selves—both
human and poetic—the three also contemplate how ageing shapes
the body and the mind and, perhaps most importantly, whether
their “circus animals” will desert them or rally to their defense.


Marilyn Kallett’s cleverly named Packing Light is a volume of new
and selected poems. Unlike many new and selecteds, Kallet’s book
begins with new poems then proceeds to the older ones. I must
admit that, for that reason, I read the book from back to front and
then started again at the beginning — not a bad way of reading
any book, I think. In the selected section, she includes poems from
Circe, After Hours and How To Get Heat Without Fire and concludes
with “Early Poems.” The selections from Circe and How To
Get Heat both begin with poems about sex that are both sensual
and clear-eyed. “No Makeup,” the first poem in the Circe selection,
begins with an encounter with a prenuptial beauty consultant who
proclaims “Makeup can only do so much” then proceeds to a postdivorce
sexual rampage:

           I left him.
           The next years
           made sexual history.
           I’m no shaman, but I’ve lived and died
           many times, and here I am singing.

The poem concludes with an acceptance of the body and ageing:

           And how, at fifty, I love
           in my face and lines,
           and in your hands, dear reader.

Two of the first poems in How To Get Heat announce the importance
of sensuality and the body. “Forget the Silk” exhorts the
“you” of the poem to forget everything but the transformative
power of human sexuality:

           Forget the silk of poppies, the unrelenting red, I could
           take you to forgetting, lick amnesia across your lashes,
           make you forget half-learned love, forget your name
           and the world for blood, caress you with my breasts until you
           spill your hair over me and we’re lost in a silkstorm.

In “Why I Wear My Hair Long,” the speaker wants to “wrap it /
around you / like a silk shirt // button it / slowly / carefully, // facing
you / let the fringes / tickle your hips.” In both sections, these
sensuous opening poems make the poems about the wrenching loss
of parents and the horror of the Holocaust that follow all the more
painful by contrast. One poem in particular—“Trout”—blends
bizarre sensuality and the history of human atrocities, in an artfully
uncomfortable pairing:

           Beau is babbling about German phone sex,
           a pro on the cover of some slick highbrow mag
           mouthing “Give it to me!”
           in her gutteral tongue.


           Beau and I struggle
           with two different languages.
           He speaks twenty-year-old WASP on his way
           to the regatta,
           the rap of a beautiful man
           on his way to any woman he damn well chooses.
           I talk fifty-year-old wife and mother,
           Jewish teacher, for whom German jokes don’t
           come easy.

The tension between individual pleasure and the pain of history
sets the context for the “New Poems” at the book’s beginning.
These new poems fall into three sections: “Dear Swallowed,”
“Criminal Art,” and “Currents.” The poems in “Dear Swallowed”
treat mythological figures (most notably Jonah) and historical personages—
Pope Pius, Bo Diddley, the Beatles—with poignance and
wit. Some of the best poems here are persona poems—“Jonah on
Oprah,” “Pius with Hiccups”—that take their place beside Carol
Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife as clever renderings of historical/
mythological figures and minor characters close to those figures.

The poems in “Criminal Art” are more political, beginning with
“You Weren’t There,” a persona poem in the voice of one of the
soldiers at Abu Ghraib. As a Southerner, Kallet devotes several
poems to the “terrible inheritance” of slavery and racism (“Ode to
What Cannot Be Praised”). Perhaps most moving is the speaker’s
account of her personal involvement in this heritage, as she makes
her “Apology”—“thirty-five years late”—to her African
American friend who was “cancelled / as bridesmaid” because of
her race. The remaining poems of this section recall visits to Jewish
museums and Holocaust memorials in Poland and Latvia, where
the speaker chants the Kaddish

           for Freddie and Hilde Lemberger,
           the Schwarzes from Horb,
           Hilde and Max Kahn,
           Jetchen Strauss,

           and Wolf Kappel,
           whose neighbor forced him
           at gunpoint
           to dig his own grave
           in his own backyard.

                                 (“Passport Control, Riga”)

Even when she encounters a “sculpture so ethereal you can stroll /
through it” and “almost forget what happened here, winter, 1941”
(“At Bikernieki”), horrific images overwhelm her: a sleeve made of
“Fabric from Jewish hair” (“Sleeve Under Glass”) and stories of a
road once “strewn / with suitcases, prayer books, / family photos”
(“At Bikernieki”).

The poems in the third section—“Currents”—explore “deep
France,” its food, its wines, its culture, its absence of Jews: “In deep
France one finds Catholics / and roosters, but few Jews in the /
house, save us—we’re boosting her. / Further south, others remember.
// In deep France, it looks good, few Jews” (“Two Jews”).

While Kallet is an accomplished craftsperson and a versatile formalist
in all the poems of Packing Light, it is in the “Currents” section
that her mastery of form is most pronounced. Her sense of lineation
is impeccable, as in this sample:

           The mussels emerged
           pale as tourists who won’t risk the sun

           and though we politely ate them
           all of us dreamed

           hideous deaths on the banks of the Garonne
           pirate ship agonies

           bowel indignities
           in this Frenchtown with no hospital.


These poems include unrhymed Shakespearean sonnets (“Two
Jews,” “Poor Monsieur,” “Amiable”), an open form poem worthy
of Williams’s “The Wind Increases” (“Currents”), and a nonce
form—a pantoum modified into a sonnet—(“Goodbye, Deep

Early in the new poems Kallet’s persona asks, “What will you take
with you / into your 60th year?” (“Packing Light”). She answers this
question by addressing concerns typical of middle-age: the loss of
ancient pets—“For some, hospice… / For the old cat, less” (“With
Dignity”) and the decline of parents—“Doctors were so indifferent
to old Mom / they didn’t bother draw any [blood]” and “Dad?
He’s spray in the air / like a Fauré Ballade” (“Charon”). In
“Galactic Cosmic Rays,” a pre-Facebook persona longs to reconnect
with “Bad Caren,” her long-lost best friend:

          Where are you, my pummeled ray? Last we spoke,
          you and your mother were moving to Israel.

          You claimed you had forgiven her.
          What of your matzo-chomping best friend?


          How could one of us go on alone?
          We split the distance between us,

          until you were cast out,
          our girlhood smashed into strangelets,

          the world we knew dissolved.

Sex seems to play less of a role in the new poems than it does in
her earlier selected works, but when it appears it is handled with
the same sense of humor and irreverence: In “Father Trey Makes
an Offer,” she fantasizes about the friar who “stride[s] like Bull
Durham” and offers to do her wash:

                              If you insist,
                              we could go down
                              to the nunnery basement
                              with its old vibrating
          wash and spin,
          gas-fired pilot lights,
          huge hot dryers,
          like on the sturdy table for folding
          holy briefs
          on top of immaculate towels.

In “Is There Lightning on Venus,” she asks a question any of us
ageing poets might pose: “When was the last time lightning
slapped? // When you turned your back / for a moment on your
respectable life // and glimpsed Eros.”


In her book Poetry State Forest, Bernadette Mayer announces “my
thought is much more haphazard than it once was” (“40-60”). That
randomness is reflected in the wild assortment of materials she
includes in this volume: diary entries; political manifestos; dialogue
between a persona and a house; poems based on the “Scrabble word
of the day”; unrhymed, odd-lined “sonnets”; and a traditional pantoum
and sestina. Her Whitmanesque embracing of all subjects and
the variety of forms she creates are breath-taking. Her range of tones
is also startling; in consecutive pages, she can be fiercely didactic and
unabashedly silly: “then I wonder why anybody would conscience /
this current war in Iraq as if the killing / of anybody on either side
makes even amoral sense” (“Howard Zinn Sonnet”) contrasted with
“the world is weary as helen must / be weary of being called the missus,
eek!” (“Poem That Begins and Ends With So”). Perhaps the
greatest fun in the book comes from Mayer’s bouts of metapoetry.

But like Ginsberg, Mayer seems unable or unwilling to omit anything
that has become a poem. Even though she seems to consider what
her poetry will add up to in the end (“Winner of the Bad Poetry
Contest”), in assembling the book she seems almost defiantly selfindulgent,
asking the reader to consider thirty-five pages of an old
notebook, including a grocery list, lists of authors, a list of “cold”
letters of the alphabet (A, B, D, E, F, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, T, U, V),
and a seven-page catalogue of words beginning with “phil.”

Waiting in this mass of material are exceptional poems about ageing
and the process of recovering from a stroke. In these poems, Mayer
is sometimes concerned about the way time causes us to lose control
of our bodies, as we undergo knee surgery or relearn how to walk
after a stroke. In “Easy Puddings,” she jokes about buying a bra: “I
measure myself / I have a 38-inch bust, as they used to say / But
with nipples excited by the tape measure / It’s only 36.” In “Eye &
Brain,” she dreams “of practical / things, that is, what happens all
the time like / the seams of your pants give way & the fluids of /
your body emerge, fluids.” Overall, though, she seems less bawdy,
less propelled by sexual energy than in her earlier poems. Her most
overtly sexual poem “Ode on Periods”—a prickly, sardonic poem
in dialogue with Sexton’s “In Praise of My Uterus”—becomes a
treatment of sexual politics born out of anatomical difference:

          the penis is something that fits into the vagina
          so’s the tampon or sponge
          therefore Aristotle never thought of women at all
          the penis like a tree fits into mouth, hand and asshole too
          it can be the subject of an academic poem
          disguised as a sloop, catapult or catamaran’s mastpole.

Even “fucking” (one of her favorite words) becomes a politicized
abstraction rather than an entry into the sensual. In “The
Flooding,” it becomes a tool of anarchy: “In the old
church/synagogue / nearby we swim naked, eat human flesh / &
fuck till the cows come home to scare / our new neighbor.”

The greatest power in Poetry State Forest, though, comes from the
troubling poems in the middle of the book in which Mayer worries
(as so many of us do) about the slippage of the mind. In “A
Hundred Eggs,” she uses the pantoum form to move incrementally
toward the poem’s final concern for loss of memory:

          It’s all wrong, my thoughts were lost
                              I saw a person intact, this sound
          Had me fooled and I had everything
                              I was taking over the world

          I saw a person intact, this sound
                              Lost memory of the world for me
          I was taking over the world
                              Again I was so much like everyone

          Lost memory of the world for me,
                              Lost everything momentarily,
          Again I was so much like everyone
                              Now, recovering, I don’t like it

          Lost everything momentarily
                              I love to be recovering
          Now recovering, I don’t like it
                              Dumb pipes fill with water

This is followed by the pivotal six-page prose poem “40-60,” in
which the speaker describes the process of recovering the use of
language after a stroke at 49:

          using memory makes writing different. I’ve gotten used to knowing
          ahead of time what I’m going to write, that is, actually thinking. I’m
          glad I had 49 years to not think exactly, to type as fast as I thought,
          without typos & to expend boundless energy on writing instead of
          walking which I can now do. it’s hard to write this kind of work
          now because I’m thinking too much. let’s see what happens.

This poem and several that follow are so convincing in rendering a
damaged thought process, that I must admit I had the troubling
sense that the poems may not have been crafted to be fragmented
and wandering—that, instead, the fragments might be all that the
ageing, post-stroke mind can do. I asked myself, are we just humoring
her by reading them? In the future, will someone humor me?

For that reason, it was a relief when poems began to appear that
seemed to be the product of Mayer’s typically quirky disjunction,
when the poet seemed back in control. I was almost relieved to
rush through the lists, diaries, notebooks toward the end, knowing
that a recovered mind was at work. In fact, Mayer ends the collection
with two accomplished poems that affirm the power of the
poetic imagination in concert with the concrete world. In the penultimate
poem, “All Aboard,” she meditates on the ability of the poet
to find permanence in the ordinary:

          At Bartholomew’s Cobble; a coneflower appeared

          As did a lupin, even some alyssum
          Be forewarned: the eternal perennial

          Is not immortal, though rooted in the ground
          & coming back, it might disappear

          In a wild fire, tornado or apocalypse
          Or move over in a spring flood

          Or earthquake; you move over & you’ll see
          The same thing you saw yesterday, maybe

          It’s the welcome wagon, here’s
          A cherry pie; the cherries are eternal

Like Stevens’s paradoxical claim that “There is not any haunt of
prophecy, / Nor any old chimera of the grave…that has endured /
As April’s green endures; or will endure,” (“Sunday Morning”),
Mayer’s assurance that “the cherries are eternal” may be the best
consolation we ageing poets can offer.


While the title of Lyn Lifshin’s Persephone seems to promise a thematically
bound collection, the volume instead includes poems
arranged in a hodgepodge of nine sections, some consisting of only
two or three poems. “Awaiting Alma” includes three delicate
poems about a writer and her husband’s adoption of a child from
Guatemala. Short poems with haiku sensibility fill the section “On
the Other Side of the Bridge: Poems of Place.” In the final section
“Flame Birds,” Lifshin presents the quotidian actions of a series of
post-9-11 “someones,” whose lives will never be the same:

          Someone eats, not tasting
          what she swallows.

                              (“Someone Says They Looked Like Cartwheeling Birds”)

          who used to talk to
          her mother kneels near
          the fish tank, still
          sees her car in the drive
          way, talks to the fish
          now, tells them it’s just
          us, Sarah is gone

                              (“After September 11”)

Perhaps most notable in the book are the poems about persecuted
women. The section “Life Leaves Marks: Other Voices” includes a
haunting sequence of poems about the Ice Maiden Mummy and her
cries for help:

          they slashed my skull,
          there were no ghosts to
          keep me company but
          moonlight, no chit chat,
          no lilac wind. No wine
          dark lips moving over
          me. The darkening
          vowels were my dream
          of an ocean, the leaves
          brushing a last sentence
          south until they sounded
          like the sea or the moth
          I was merging with fire

                              (“The Ice Maiden Mummy’s 78th SOS”)

These urgent poems join the others sprinkled throughout the volume
that sympathize with exploited women, most notably the poems of
“Mad Girls, Strangers, Women with Wings and Without Wings.” In
addition to the poems about Barbie and the “Mad Girl” included in
this section, Lifshin devotes three poems to the plight of Leda’s daughter
whose voice appears at the end of the last poem in the series:

                              I’m Leda’s
          girl she whispered cowering inside those
          wings that were like a screen I imagined
          her camouflaged behind, some Gipsy Rose
          Lee doing a costume change, coming out
          with a basket of fruit on her head. “The
          daughter of rape,” she hissed, more like
          the geese, getting bolder. My mother was
          ravished, raped. Without arms, I could be
          Venus. Without arms, she could have loved
          me but these wings remind her of that day
          everything changed. Now I crouch like
          statues of angels in the gardens rain and
          sleet pelt, earthbound and cracked,
          still dream of flight

                              (“For Months She Came at Night, a Strange Presence”)

In talking about Persephone, I have trouble ignoring the cover
image—a photograph by Norm Darwish of the back of a naked
woman. A tear in a spider-web fabric frames her buttocks, which
are cupped by two ageing hands, a male hand and a flame-nailed
female one. The image led me to expect poems about sexuality and
ageing—an expectation that the collection does not explicitly fulfill.
Instead the beginning of the book is filled with poems about
the kind of wild, almost dangerous exploits one associates with the
young. Except for a fantasy about sleeping with Lorca and a fling
with a college professor (“This time I was the / lure, the flash of a
new verb and / he canceled classes, took off work”—“When I Was
No Longer My Leather Jacket”), these are poems in which one
“you,” one unnamed lover, morphs into another who either finds
the person impossibly alluring or violates and abandons her.

These are poems of immediacy—the live-in-the-moment attitude of
a 60's world in which a girl might choose to be a biker chick or a
poetry groupie. The sensuality in these poems is untouched by time
or a concern for ageing. No wrestling with what sex and the body
might be like for a middle-aged woman.

And yet, in perhaps the most compelling sections of the book,
“Deserted Rooms: Family” and “Bay of Love and Sorrow: Mother
Poems,” Lifshin seems to displace concern for her own ageing by
worrying over her mother’s declining state:

                              My mother’s
          breasts, once 38 D’s, now
          are little droopy thimbles

                              (“Around the Table”)

          My mother doesn’t want to
          sit downstairs in the
          cool dark with the
          dog tho my sister has been
          yelling on the phone,
          says the dog doesn’t
          like to be alone

                              (“The Old Dog”)

          When her hair was being done, her head looked
          already skeletal.

                              (“My Mother Hated the Song of the Whales”)

The connection between her mother’s ageing and her own is something
the speaker finally acknowledges in the poem “Asparagus”:

                              I’m wearing her socks,
          her ring, find myself with saltine crackers,
          bran waffles, asparagus, strawberries
          as if the bits of her I carry inside me,
          as one writer said we do our mothers,
          like dolls, each with another inside, are
          with me in the supermarkets

Despite Lifshin’s nostalgia for youthful adventures, she recognizes,
as all we middle-aged writers must, that her mother’s decline contains
her own.