Arms and the Woman
Marlys West is a woman obsessed with limbs. In her story, “The Church of Fat Lucky,” which won an Austin Chronicle Short Story Award in 1997, a motley group of congregants form their own “church of the negotiators,” led by a former prostitute who preaches that “in order to understand people, you have to love them as if they were your own arm or leg or heart or lung.” The narrator concedes that “it’s hard to love so much, but we try.”
In her first book of poems, Notes for a Late-Blooming Martyr, the 1999 Akron Series in Poetry winner, West expands her use of this figure to describe the route between love and understanding, and to name its perils. Through limbs–fleshy, prosthetic, seductive, leprotic, doll-sized, detachable, punctured, missing–she is in the process of developing a complex vocabulary of value and risk.
Other fetish objects besides limbs which make multiple appearances include tea parties, red dresses, white flowers, planets, sharp blades, thin lips, saints, pins, plums, sugar cubes, and bees. In West’s personal lexicon, each of these takes on the power of an idol or an ideal, with a significance beyond its immediate context: She rubs the thing until its genie comes out. Some of the meanings she discovers are universal, others original coinages. A red dress stands for the transgressive feminine; thinning lips denote emotional constriction; plums are loved ones falling away; and bees are the bothersome but reliable intrusion of the real.
But limbs top the charts for frequency and symbolic potency across this challenging, occasionally frustrating, and often brilliant collection. In poem after poem, limbs of the body remind us of the compositeness of every unity, of the potential for loss and separation within something integral, like a family or a self, and of the puppetry that personhood can entail. “It cost an arm and a leg,” we say. “I risked life and limb.” Listen to the mixture of drama, melodrama, and slapstick in these expressions, and you may catch the sound of what’s at stake in these poems.
Sexual power animates arms and fingers in the delicately ambivalent family poems early in the book, some of the strongest in the collection. We find the poet at her compact and suggestive best in “Beautiful Women Are Easy on the Eye,” in which mother and sisters contrive to lure father back from Hawaii, the land of native beauties who
… light torches wherever he goes.
Fabulous, says my mother, lips barely moving. My sister sings Aloha Oe in the driveway.
What she wouldn’t give for a real ukelele. My mother looks out and sees those chubby arms, tells me: Your father’s whoopingit up in the islands right now.
We are all learning a secret hula for when he comes back: arms likethis and pretty.
When there’s an absence as roomy as the space between here and Hawaii, the erotic has a chance to stretch out. Tighten the frame, though, and the appendages begin to get threatening. In “Loveladies, New Jersey,” a girl at the beach is caught between her mother’s sexuality and the scandalous innocence of her baby brother, whom the mother is tickled to discover with “[e]ach fat finger…stuck/inside a pink plastic tampon shell.” It falls to the girl narrator to put a stop to this fun: “I look at my mother in her nothing/bikini and make him take them off.”
The destructive or fragmentary aspect of creativity is, for West, another site of deep concern and ambivalence. Here, too, she would like to intercede, to call a halt. And yet she distrusts the impulse to put things back together or keep them whole in the first place. In the title poem she pleads with “all you people teetering on/parapets” to “come back inside/the buildings,” begs weapons to lose their killing powers, asks what if Christ’s crucifixion had been prevented at the last minute, and invites us to “[i]magine the world intact,/and the universe, too, the/earth’s crust lightly floating.”
What then? Her answer is surprising: “It makes you slightly ill/just thinking about it.”
It’s true, of course: the thought of a world in which nothing gets broken up or down is nauseating. But where does that acknowledgement leave the plea against self-destruction?
Fragmentation typifies West’s style as well as her subject matter. Most of these poems splice together multiple voices, perspectives, kinds of diction, and narrative threads, forcing the reader to rely on the logic of association, if it’s logic he’s after. In some places this approach works stunningly well; elsewhere it can leave you just puzzled.
A fiction writer as well as a poet, and a “performance poet” as well as a writer for the page, West has feet in several worlds. Some of the strongest aspects of the poems are savvy tricks of a fiction writer’s trade, too often neglected by poets, such as live-sounding dialogue and attention to ready-made sources of information other than the poet’s own sensory and emotional experience. West peppers her poems with stage directions, news bulletins, exclamations and muttering, snippets of song, slogans, queries, instructions, and impersonations, which inject the work with the persuasive power of “real life.”
Real language, especially. West has a very keen ear for the punch of everyday idiom. “We never show up dead, now do we?” begins the first poem of the collection, “And who always does the driving?” A moment later the mother’s retort will have put these lines into their worldly context, in the mouth of the father at the wheel of the car on the way down the New Jersey Turnpike–but not before we’ve had a chance to contemplate the questions they pose in their disembodied, philosophical form. These questions are in fact tremendous ones, and the aftershock of their mundane context only helps hammer them home.
At the same time, in some of these poems the suppression of the narrative makes the metaphors difficult to read. Poems need plots at least as much as stories do–though they may be simply road movies starring the imagination. At such times one is left to wonder just how tongue-in-cheek the poet is actually being, and how generally the statement applies, when she writes in “Tea-Stained, Vermillion,” a captivating and self-aware poem, “To tell the truth, who knows what/happened?”
There’s no denying it though: She’s got the moves. Some of the preference for dramatic dazzle over narrative or rhetorical coherence probably derives from West’s experience as a founding member of Austin’s popular Blue Plate Poets, who began giving round robin-style group readings in 1993. The group aimed in part to foster the oral tradition in poetry, and many of these poems carry with them the acoustics of a performance hall and the rhythmic expectations of a live show. It’s not easy for an audience to follow the logic of a poem they’ve never heard before. Easier and more immediately gratifying is the saucy verbal duck-and-weave that West excels at. A sense of live drama lifts many of these poems off the page and embodies them, almost–puts them into a voice, a presence. I love it when she pulls cheeky maneuvers like these, in “Edward”:
I knew you like the flywheel or carburetor, which is to say I had no idea where to find you.
But I do know how you sound, your voice clipped like tin. Everything since is guttural
or too long in the speaking of. Anyway.
Anyway! How’s that for efficient? Funny, too. Her transitions often make use of the most utilitarian hardware. “Close-up to lips…,” she’ll write. “Also of interest:…”
West’s style is still coming into its own, despite the fact that she is good enough at doing the thing she does to apply for a patent. The matter of rhyme, for example, is unresolved. Occasionally she gets off a fine and subtle one, such as, “The birds were full of berries. We were /…catching/his words, but barely….” More often, though, she’ll drop a close and obvious one–fright and height, say–into the middle of an otherwise unrhymed poem, so that it seems like an accident that should have been edited out. On the question of musicality in general, she wavers. At times she can be quite lyrical, but then pull the rug out from under herself tonally, as though afraid to get “too pretty,” and settle instead for a more guarded and prosy blow-by-blow delivery.
Breaks and dislocations: The movement within the poems dramatizes an underlying anxiety about influence, audience, and authority, the grasping and passing of the baton. Evident throughout is a distrust of language as a material for bridging the gaps between people. Often we see it fail, for instance in the heartbreaking last lines of “Attar of Roses”: “What did he say? We lean forward.//The things I keep trying to tell you.”
West’s influences shine through a bit nakedly at times in her borrowings: Garcia Marquez lent her the conceit for “Attar of Roses,” in which a man is “shedding red flowers with every exhale,” and a younger Charles Simic could have written the opening lines of “Edward”: “The butchers knew a thing or/two, but they weren’t talking./just sawing away at another/old carcass….” But then, she’s working in a surrealist vein–it’s understandable that the masters should make their appearances from time to time.
Far more formidable bogeys for West, though, are the women, especially Plath. When she confronts her literary godmothers, we find her struggling against a strong tide, neck-deep in an argument over artistic responsibility and acceptable risk, and not always winning.
In “Plunge,” West takes on Plath’s “Cut.” Both poems feature meetings between kitchen knives and thumbs. Plath begins with a gasp at the moment of the accident: “What a thrill–/My thumb instead of an onion./The top quite gone/Except for a sort of a hinge//Of skin,/A flap like a hat,/Dead white./Then that red plush,” and goes on to build, through a series of audacious metaphors, a great charge of menacing eroticism. West’s concern, by contrast, is prevention. She would prefer that we be spared the sight of that red plush altogether. “Knives are dumb because/they don’t know what to cut./This is the bread, that’s my finger./Lay off the finger.” The poem goes on to remind the reader,
Watch out for the sides of your hands, those slender hams: they’re not for chopping.
Watch, too, for the tips of thumbs. They go like sticky butter pats, fall to the floor with a slap like a mouse dropping from a building out of fright.
Chances are good he’ll dent your car if he fell from a far enough height. Somebody’ll ask if you hit hail.Oh, no, it was a rodent. He was plastered all over: the bon vivant of his crowd.
At this point the attention turns for a moment to a girl who fell from the roof of the Empire State Building into a yellow sedan. Her demise is treated at least as lightly as the mouse’s: “She had a lot of velocity/by the time she struck.//Did some damage, lost a shoe.”
Aesthetically, “Plunge” is not a great success. The joke, if that’s what it is, seems a bit forced, a bit hasty: a pot shot. Still it calls Plath’s bluff, and that’s important. Plath fell victim to her own too-perfect dramatic conceit, namely martyrdom. A butter pat, a mouse, a yellow sedan, a shoe–West undercuts that drama with tricks of scale and perspective that render it ridiculous, an unacceptable solution.
Both poets seek a solution to the age-old problem of audience which confronts women artists. An artist’s job is to plunge the instruments of attention into the world, to puncture appearances. Women aren’t supposed to do things like puncture and penetrate; they’re not even supposed to know how to use those verbs, except to describe what’s being done to them. Public attention, especially male attention, can be a tiger by the tail: There’s always the danger of winding up exposed rather than heard, received as a spectacle rather than an author. In too many cases the solution has been to point that creative aggression the wrong way, slicing into the self. “Plunge” is not without sympathy for Plath’s dilemma; near the end we’re told that “there’s a falling that’s lurching/from not being caught,” which lays at least part of the blame at the door of that unreceptive audience. But West pointedly rejects the one-sided logic of self-destruction and other forms of exhibitionism. In “Tea-Stained, Vermillion,” that red plush appears as a woman who once “talked too much at/a party of men, even her dress/ was just much too red, meaning//please, please pay attention,/meaning she wasn’t listening.”
Other foremothers get similar treatment. In “On Refusing Poison,” which begins, “It’s true, isn’t it? A fly/midway between your ceiling/and the tiled floor is dying?” seems to give a nod to both Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died” and Woolf’s “Death of a Moth.” But whereas those two both pass through a death and come out on the other side to tell the tale, West stands at a great distance, concerned again with prevention, associating her fly’s slow dying with that of an unseen friend and concluding with the plea, “Do not subside, oh lungs, brain, or/heart. Black fly, if only I could//put you out and let the wind life/you, put the tick, tick, tick back/in your memory of things to do.”
If only, indeed. West doesn’t really want to be a martyr, and who can blame her? But she hasn’t hit on the solution yet, and she knows it. The women she references took the risks they did because they feared muteness, death-in-life for a writer, more than they feared death.
In writing from perspectives beyond death, each transcended the threat it poses to imagination: faith enacted.
West does in fact “show up dead” in the well-chosen final poem of the collection, where all these issues meet. In it a dead woman rises from her coffin, apologizes through stitched-together lips for the accidental exposure of her breasts, and waltzes out the door past the mourners, who are amazed, charmed, yet afraid to touch her. (“She’s a wildebeest.”) She follows an exit sign and winds up alone among orderly parked cars in the lot outside. The book ends on a note of concern and rue, in an internal monologue:
She thinks to herself: I better get my mouth back open.
She better put on some decent clothes. God, she thought, What have I done now?
That tense change, which looks accidental, nevertheless underscores the open-ended nature of the trouble. It’s significant that the Maker himself should be invoked at this point, if only in an oath. Having looked for and found many gaps in what earthly negotiations can achieve, these poems are in search of something solid to stand on. As our own makers, the poems suggest, we are inadequate to stand against loss, or even to speak properly about it:
We fall through it all like two red plums, four hands out to catch us– throats tight when we don’t.
Rosemary Hutzler is a writer living in Brooklyn.