A nun spikes her drinks with sacramental wine and wears red lace underwear. A soldier's wife sits by the bed of a man whose legs have been blown off, and writes his story. In the hands of the poet, Sleeping Beauty has an MRI and Red Riding Hood becomes a femme fatale. Though rich in social commentary, these three American women poets tell their stories, not in generalisations, but through each well-honed line. As Wallace Stevens admonished, "Conceptions are artificial. Perceptions are essential." The perceptions of these three are sensuous, evocative, and riveting.
Annette Spaulding-Convy's In Broken Latin (University of Arkansas Press, 2012) addresses the female body in service to a calling--first as a nun, then as a mother. Each section of Spaulding-Convy's collection is prefaced by pairing a quote from a female saint with a quote from a "bad girl" such as Madonna, Mae West, or Sylvia Plath. These binary views of womanhood are exemplified by professional men in "from Uterine Dogma", where the doctor signing off the pre-convent physical wonders whether she is a virgin as he "rubs my back, tells me / he wants his own daughter // to have a calling" and the dentist says the same while "brushing his crotch / too close to my cotton- / packed mouth."
Such imposed views from the male world coalesce in "Everything Except her Head", which begins with a bulletin about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger arriving to inspect the seminary to ensure that women are not actually studying, but instead assisting "with the preparation of desserts and cocktails". Part II of the poem, "Severed Hagiography", catalogues the parts of female saints preserved by the patriarchy as relics, underscoring the double meaning of the main title through the church's most conspicuous omission--their heads.
Spaulding-Convy's longing for motherhood is depicted in her "Saint Valentine's Dinner with Nuns" in the image of conversation hearts that "spill like fire into our empty laps". She transitions poem-by-poem from the "scoured compassion" of the spiritual body to tending the "cracked nipples, vaginal stitches" of the postpartum body, seeking out the "darkness of God" through the Via Negativa and listening to the "shrill psalm" of an ordinary barn owl. Along the way, she illuminates one woman's struggle to unite the spiritual and sensual in service to a calling, forging an integrated sense of identity that transcends imposed definitions.
Whereas the male world is imposing for Spaulding-Convy, in Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier's Wife (Finishing Line Press, 2012), Abby E. Murray struggles with distance. In a telephone conversation between Vancouver and Baghdad, the outer worlds are in obvious contrast: while her soldier-husband describes surprise mortar attacks incinerating the Forward Command Center, the speaker has been cleaning windows and making jam. "You sounded fine," she addresses him, "until I told you / about the yellow irises I bought / last minute at the store tonight."
So, too, is there a gulf of distance in the social realities, as male soldiers stash Betty Page pinups in their hundred-pound packs and slap each other on the backs like baseball players while collecting the dismembered body parts of their compatriots. Murray is concerned with the corporeal body, and its betrayals, as in "Bones", where she describes the impact of an explosion on the lower limbs of a soldier whose demolished body tries to act on the "memory of nerves" to continue running for safety. The mind also betrays the body, as in when soldiers try to rescue melting troops from a bombed humvee, screaming, "There are faces!" while their commander pulls them away to safety.
Homosocial relations are equally strained with fellow officers' wives, discussing "the price of / American flags purchased in bulk." In "At a Military Ball, The Fallen Soldier's Table", they toast the "Guest of honor" while the speaker imagines his casual sexism, "Nice tits, he'd say, as we, the wives, parade by, / holding up our gowns to step over / the empty boots." In the end, it is writing that fends off the surreal alienation of so many types of distance. The long poem "Deployment: Day One" exemplifies this trajectory, as it begins: "Skip mass. / Start laundry. / Find the six words he wrote / on a yellow post-it: / I love you, See you soon. / Tape it to the kitchen wallpaper" and ends with a single word on a single line: "Write".
While Spaulding-Convy treats the spiritual body and Murray treats the corporeal body, in Unexplained Fevers (New Binary Press, 2013) Jeannine Hall Gailey addresses the fantasy bodies of women like princesses and mermaids. Such fairy tales take on a sinister tone in the telling of the poet, where instead of "happily ever after" the poem "Once Upon a Time" concludes with the speaker almost hissing, "it wasn't as they had told us."
These poems are infused with the threat of sexual violence, as in "Snow White's Near Miss" where the huntsman is a psychopathic killer who laments, "Girl or deer, you never quite get used to the cracking / of bones". The relationship between genders is embattled in this book. In "The Knight Wonders What, Exactly, He Rescued", his "feral" bone-collecting damsel was hardly ever in distress (though he now certainly is), and in "Red Riding Hood at the Car Dealer", the tables are again turned as she invites the wolf into her car and "The wolf / senses danger, despite the daisy appliqués on her purse."
However, not all of the poems in this collection are told through masks of personae. In "The Wished-For Child" the speaker, a seemingly real and contemporary person, reflects on the poignance of being unable to have children. Disillusionment, real and imagined, pervades this collection and in "Advice Left Between the Pages of Grimm's Fairy Tales" we are encouraged: "Read the subtext."
Like the previous two collections, this work progresses, line-by-line and poem-by-poem, from deep disillusionment to a more reconciled worldview that we might simply call "demystification". After a transformative grappling with a figure of feminine evil in "The Trail Grows Cold", the final poem "At The End" concludes with a scene of collective awakening, where the voices of archetypal mothers advise the awakened to, "Try not to expect too much magic."
Each of these three perceptive and original works carves a hard-won path into a more integrated view of gender concerns in the midst of, and perhaps catalyzed by, very difficult personal circumstances. Each is, in this way, a gift to the reader. These three collections not only depict but enact transformation, through unique perspective and careful telling, in ways that only good poetry can.