Monday, August 22, 2022

Jill McConough and Stephen Dunn discuss female breasts

 Jill McDonough needs a thicker skin and a perkier attitude, as she seems way too concerned with the fact that men like breasts, and worse, seem are going to remain men after all the social revolutions that have wasted our time in the last five decades. "Breasts Like Martinis", the current selection in Slate, would have us believe the girls are going along with the joke in an sexist terrain and manage to best the best efforts of the men who seek to demean them, but it all seems like a set up. A network TV drama couldn't be more black and white; someone is right, women, and someone is wrong, men. This is a fill-in-the-blanks formulation.I wonder why she and her partner were in that bar to begin with, and why didn't just leave the place which was giving them the creeps? McDonough remained and just leaned into the punch she saw coming, and goes home with her girlfriend to write a poem about the thin layers of her issues with men and their fascination/obsession with women's mammaries. There's nothing "tits up" about this poem.

In a discussion on Slate's Fray Poems forum,someone who was not enamored of McDonough's poem posted what she considered a "good" poem about a man's relationship to a woman's breasts, Stephen Dunn's queasy "The Routine Things Around the House":

When Mother died
I thought: now I’ll have a death poem.
That was unforgivable.

Yet I’ve since forgiven myself
as sons are able to do
who’ve been loved by their mothers.

I stared into the coffin
knowing how long she’d live,
how many lifetimes there are

in the sweet revisions of memory.
It’s hard to know exactly
how we ease ourselves back from sadness,

but I remembered when I was twelve,
1951, before the world
unbuttoned its blouse.

I had asked my mother (I was trembling)
if I could see her breasts
and she took me into her room

without embarrassment or coyness
and I stared at them,
afraid to ask for more.

Now, years later, someone tells me
Cancers who’ve never had mother love
are doomed and I, a Cancer

feel blessed again. What luck
to have had a mother
who showed me her breasts

when girls my age were developing
their separate countries,
what luck

she didn’t doom me
with too much or too little.
Had I asked to touch,

perhaps to suck them
what would she have done?
Mother, dead woman

who I think permits me
to love women easily
this poem

is dedicated to where
we stopped, to the incompleteness
that was sufficient

and to how you buttoned up,
began doing the routine things
around the house.

I'm underwhelmed.Stephen Dunn is a good poet quite a bit of the time, and it's a stretch to say he's done some writing that is quite exquisite. This is not one of them; it's not enough to assert that one must admire how unembarrassed he is to address his childhood curiosity about his mother's breasts, and hence furnish us with clues to his later ideas about women. This poem stinks , since it's written to argue a point, a rationalization of what one puts forth as an invisible truth about men and their mothers. It's an essay, a loose-limbed formulation , a dubious dialectic. It leaves what is interesting, the actual experience and the paradigm shifting potential it can give us, and turns into a lecture. It's hard, I suppose, for males to confront their mother's influence on their personality in a voice that doesn't approach the smarmy, the smug.Dunn's poem was a queasy bit of lecturing disguised as unadorned honesty; it reeks of an odious smugness. I assume that he wrote the poem because it is impossible to attack; no one in the world really wants to talk to another about times they were in the same room with their naked mom. It's a gutsy poem, and a bad one. Maybe he wrote it on a dare.

Stephen Dunn swings for the fence with his poems, and when he connects, the crack of the bat is loud and the ball is lost to the suburban trenches. What I enjoy about this poem, "And So", is Dunn's clarity and the ease in which this sequence of images, with the tone modulating ever so from point to point. It's a poem about nothing in particular and things in general, about the things that come into the narrator's field of vision and the memories that are sparked after his failed phone call and his resulting walk through the town he lives in. I especially liked the Nina Simone citation, since one of my absent-minded habits is to start thinking of or even hum a sung a phrase someone else had said had inspired; it's like a private intermission from the affairs of the day. This is a record, also, of the narrator's own thinking, thinking, in this sense, being not an interior essay one fashions as if preparing for debate, but impressions of what's seen conveyed in broad strokes, sketches of the real-world one is lost in. Less argumentative than reflective, with the reflection being refreshingly profound yet elegantly modest, it is a poem of someone starting a point of the day in a casual funk who comes to realize that the world in miniature, his suburban (or exurban) locale, is abuzz with others wrapped in their chores, their jobs, their hobbies lest they think too much on the emptiness around them and drive themselves desperately crazy.

And So    

Stephen Dunn

And so you call your best friend       

 who's away, just to hear his voice,

but forget his recording concludes

with "Have a nice day."

"Thank you, but I have other plans,"

you're always tempted to respond,

as an old lady once did, the clerk

in the liquor store unable to laugh.

Always tempted, what a sad

combination of words. And so

you take a walk into the neighborhood,

where the rhododendrons are out

and also some yellowy things

and the lilacs remind you of a song

by Nina Simone. "Where's my love?"

is its refrain. Up near Gravel Hill

two fidgety deer cross the road,

white tails, exactly where

the week before a red fox

made a more confident dash.

Now and then the world rewards,

and so you make your way back

past the careful lawns, the drowsy backyards,

knowing the soul on its own

is helpless, asleep in the hollows

of its rigging, waiting to be stirred.

This reads effortlessly, and it's an easy mistake to assume it came to him effortlessly .It has the breezy informality of what Ted Berrigan could do with this remarkable faux sonnets. It's hard thing to pull off , the moment-to-moment progress of someone moving and thinking as they move about a community they know, and even Berrigan was, much of the time, a little too much off beat personality, too little genuine poetry. Dunn is a bit more formal than Berrigan (whose charm lies in his shambling verse), and that bit of reserve brings us a sharper focus as his gaze and thoughts engage. It's a swift stream .

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