A Simple Song

 A review of Body & Soul, poems by Sharon Doubiago, Cedar Hill Publications, 2000, ISBN: 1-891812-24-6, $15.00, paper [3722 Highway 8 West / Mena Arkansas / 71953]

 

The intellect thinks. The body dances. And the spirit sings. A song, a simple song. When love and memory are overwhelming, the soul, though crushed, takes flight, it does so in a simple song.–Allessandro in Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War

 

Thomas Rain Crowe, reviewing Doubiago’s work compares her to Hilda Doolittle, though with this provision: “This is what HD might have written had she been born into the 60s generation, using a lengthened line that stretches out into American mainstream culture from the heart rather than the mind, alone.”  I’ve thought a lot about that sentence. At first it bothered me, that he emphasized more the long lined poems; most are, though not all. And my favorites are not the long lined ones. But I realized it was the comma, the comma after “mind” that concerned me. Why was it there? I think it’s there to draw attention to HD’s circumstance, the comma adding the emphasis to being alone. I don’t know. Perhaps it means nothing at all. But when I am confronted with poems that mean so much to me as do Doubiago’s poems, and when I read a review by someone who I know knows her poetry as well as anyone else that I know, then everything matters: everything is potential meaning. HD was alone. Doubiago also. They truly under-stand their art. And they stand alone. But when Thomas Rain Crowe draws attention to HD, he makes me think more of those short lined poems of hers, and that, in a typical round about fashion, takes me to that other master of the short lined poem, Emily Dickinson. It’s not HD but  E.D. that Doubiago reminds me of the most.

            Allen Ginsberg on her reading at Naropa states: “I was amazed. This whole soul came out and in detail and quite complete” [from the rear book cover]. Her poetry readings are memerable events; I’ve experienced two. I was as moved as Ginsberg. And then there is this quote from the writer who best understood Doubiago’s poetry: Meridel Le Sueur on Hard Country –“This is an angry and loving woman writing and it is dangerous….”  What, then, about Dickinson? The connection comes with these questions: What do we want of a review of poetry? What do we want of poetry?

From most reviews I’ve read and from most poetry I’ve read, we want both, both the poetry and the poet. We want both because there is a need for both: the artistry of the poem, the authenticity of the poet. We want the poem of the page and the poet’s voice. This is our essential split, the literary and the oral, the isolating quality of print and the unifying quality of sound. Ezra Pound used to rail against reviews that started with the person rather than the poem, yet of all modern poets, Pound’s biography is the most difficult to separate from the poetry. When I read first read Doubiago I could imagine how it must have been when readers first encountered Dickinson, not only Dickinson’s poetry but also the poet. We have the record left by Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”  And in a letter to Higginson, we have Dickinson’s own requirements for reading poetry:

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way.

 

Is there? And then there are these two other lines from her letters to Higginson that remind me of Doubiago: “I find ecstasy in living—the mere sense of living is joy enough” and “Today, makes Yesterday mean.” And it is the double sense of this last line that is especially telling because for Doubiago memory is essential; what we know today informs, like it did for T.S. Eliot, the past, making it mean more and making it more mean, mean and true.

The Body is the locus for memory; it hasn’t taken Freudian analysis to show us this. Such analysis has been shown to shift the blame (for the “true and mean”) onto the victim. Le Sueur understood, and she recognized in Doubiago’s poetry, that the Body is common ground, and the poet can make memory liberation not a shared victimization. What is needed is poetry more aware of how the Body must inhere in the writing—a writing of Body and Soul. Here is Le Sueur on the Body:

 

Sisters, the predators plan to live within our bodies.

They plan to wring out of us unpaid labor.

Wrench their wealth from our bodies.

Like the earth they intend to bore inside the woman host,

Open the artery like weasels, use, consume, devour, drill for

Oil, eat the flesh of the earth mother.

 

Beyond the obvious identification of the body of women with the earth is the demand for responsibility of language to extend the personal into history beyond what Charles Olson called “the private self at the public wailing wall.” A perfect example of such extension is Doubiago’s birth poem, “Son.”

 

This is the opening stanza of the poem:

 

The bullet went through me

and lodged beneath my heart

and swelled and grew until the birth

was a man I rode between my legs

into the bloodstained hands of the world

 

Later in the poem, after the violence:

 

It was you

coming, my son so bright

it was the golden garden of your hair

I first saw, so large, the light

 

And later,

death

was born to me when your were born

 

my heart    broke

open    my

baby    boy

 

opened

 

me

 

I had not known

love before.

I will not know

love again, no man

 

could ever pull me     like you

turned me

back around

down to you, so small at my breast

too large

            I was not

                                    Prepared

 

And later:

 

your birth the birth of love for me

 

your birth the birth of death for me

 

your birth the death of God for me

 

God died when you were born

He was too small.

 

I brought you home

the house was too small

the father too small, I

 

was too small

 

the end of the poem:

 

and I broke open

 

to where you are always birthing

 

to where you are always leaving

 

            this too-small girl

            who birthed a giant

            this too-small girl who raised a giant

 

is pulled and bled and ripped and grown

into the larger world and comes down

 

large     into the world   I follow you out

 

you said grow

 

you lifted my arms, my son

no longer my son, the son

I love you, you leave me

now I will always be pregnant with the world

you arrange my arms around it.

 

Doubiago’s refusal to deny the self-shattering meaning of the event the poem celebrates results in the rarest of combinations: a poetry of absolute control and remarkable courage. And there are many such poems in this collection. Perhaps there are too many; we are not used to so much honesty.

            In “The Buck” we see not only the connection of violence and love but an elaboration of identification with the hunted. The poem begins:

Driving Lightening Ridge he slugged me, back of his fist

Across the seat on the hairpin turn. My face

Again. In the holy faith of the married

I threw myself out. He braked,  ran around

To where I lay on the edge. Even as he came toward me I noticed

His beauty, the fall colors of Vermont. Then the black boot

To the stomach, the fall down the ravine…

 

Ending with:

 

hunted the same as I, female. Because

We love. Wrote in the ice of the field

I will never forget this.

 

This identification of the poet with the animal spirit inheres in this poetry, extending the memory of the Body into History and Nature, a quality of her poetry familiar to all who have read her epic poem Hard Country [now re-issued by West End Press after 24 years]. In her poems, she hasn’t forgotten Vietnam, her own history intimate to the country’s (as in Hard Country), the Gulf War, the continual destructive presence of the CIA and FBI. Her last poem is for Leonard Peltier.

            I return to the connection with short lined poems that provoked this review. “Forests Forever” is a long poem that Doubiago says of it: “This is the only poem I’ve ever written on consignment.” She was asked to show “the connection of feminism and environmentalism.” On May 24, 1990 Judi Bari and Daryll Cherney had almost died in a car bomb assassination attempt. And, as is the history of the oppressor, the FBI blamed the victims, reporting that it was their own bomb what nearly killed them. But Doubiago keeps the memory alive as she tells the whole story, not just of the bombing but of the struggle, the women’s struggle, nature’s struggle, our struggle, the poet’s struggle to get it true. The last section of the poem is worth repeating in full:

 

The hatred of the Feminine

which is the fear of Love

is as the Heart

of all the issues. She

 

is hated the most

 

            the mother of the son

            the root of the tree

            the womb of Life

            the Core of  Earth

 

                        as in Kore

                        Demeter’s Daughter

                        still imprisoned in Hell

                        with her infant Son

 

The issue is not

jobs or trees.

Redwoods and cornrows

are not

comparable.

The issue is

 

sustainable growth

 

The issue is

 

Life

 

which is a feminist issue

 

which is

 

Love