Review of Hard Country by Sharon Doubiago, West End Press, 1982
On the back cover of Sharon Doubiago’s Hard Country Carolyn Forche writes, “I have tried for months to compose adequate praise for this work. Sharon Doubiago is ‘a complex of occasions’, a brilliant response to Whitman, and America poet, free, spiritual and gifted.” I have only been trying for a couple of weeks but share Forche’s anguish in attempting to be adequate to the task of taking the measure of this book—to match the criticism and the praise with what Sharon Doubiago has done. It is easiest, and not either is it appropriate, to just record more of what Carolyn has said: “Hard Country is one great poem, an epic in the proper sense, a personal journey but also the foundation myth of a culture ....” And then there is Thomas McGrath, he says, “It is a unique search for the meaning of personal and national history narrated by a woman seeking her own liberation and fulfillment through struggle against the reactionary mores and politics of her time.” And, Meridel Le Sueur: “This is an angry and loving woman writing and it is dangerous .... It is a long saga, a woman’s history and the history of us all.” Yes, it is all of that. And I assume that when Meridel says “the history of us all” she means men, too. Because Hard Country is that also.
It will not see one more copy of the book for me to add my praises to those of these powerful and distinguished poets. By placing my copy of the book in another's hands or by reading a poem or two from it I can more likely do that. But I am moved by the book, and in spite of the felt impossibility of being true to the experience of reading the book by writing a review —a re/view, God but I'm not even sure that I've seen it once in its manifold accomplishments— I feel also that it is necessary to not only promote the book—promote it because it is also a man's story, one that needs to be more well-known— but to also point to a few of its accomplishments as a part of what I believe will be a number of readings— unfoldings— of this book that will help us, help us to reveal just who we as American lovers, poets, questioners, questers, in fact, are.
I have loaded this book with so many claims that I may sink it before your eyes, before your eyes catch the rhythms, before they measure a sample of the work itself. Hard Country is a poem and it is hard to take only pieces of it. A poem called “Father” on pp. 62-63 (of a book that goes for 200 pages more):
I am like you, Mama always said.
Often we went fishing.
It takes patience and silence
to be a fisherman.
Most fail, you always said.
(I want to quote the whole poem but it is 60-70 lines, so I will even take this in pieces but I must talk about them, even the little things that continue to surface, the little things done so well they point to greatness. The refrain “mama always said” opening the stanza, repeated twice more —enough times to establish the rhythm, make it solid enough so it sounds shattered when she breaks it. And then there is the opposition, opposition tied with love, of the parallel— a rhyme of thought— of “I am like you” with “Most fail”. It is this statement of theme, played on and against as the poem moves along in time that illustrate that its music is not confined only to sound of syllables.)
The old men danced as the day
moved on, those
fishers, those broken
bearded kings, those
As the flaming ball fell
to the water line between my thighs
I was a drowned creature
drifting hundreds of years
in the unspeakable foundations.
From the “I” that begins the poem, then the family, the activity (“only” fishing), to literary allusions, cosmic myth— how can we look at the sun setting except in cosmic / sexual terms (Doubiago must have Aztec blood in her)— cosmic myth seen in the repeated round of the planet: the many themes that inform this book are here. (And the “water line” her own process of writing, establishing measure in her poetry, “between my thighs” is also a sign of the terms of the risk her poetry makes on our ability to see the connection of writing with sexuality, that too). But this poem is not special in that the skill in this poem is not an exception. There are 200 more pages as rich as this. Later in the poem the lines:
to an old white whale
cruising the pelvis of the world
So natural, so easy she makes it seem, to make the movement, which is a leap in the music— I suspect she is also a jazz fan or musician‑‑ the movement from the whale to sperm and then to end with another variation on the great them of the whole book: Isis re / membering the dis-membered Osiris, demonstrating just how much this book is an necessary for men as it is for women:
until our story (You, the ruthless boy
so young even still
I see you outlive me)
is turning into
and the great birth
for your severed and flung