By Kathleen Rooney, Linda Bamber, Linda Pastan, and Hilma Wolitzer
Commentary by Katha Pollitt
Lake Michigan churns like a washing machine today. Buckets of rain mean I remain indoors. The distant thunder of the toilet flushing. The sky out the window a moody adolescent.
When was the last time I just sat by a tree?
Why do the woods have a neck anyway?
A week past the vernal equinox, it stays too cold for green buds or bugs.
When it comes to alcohol and cookies, why are grasshoppers minty?
Convolvulus is a gnarly name for morning glory. Ranunculus same, but for buttercups.
In Chicago, we call plastic bags blowing across the sidewalk Jewel tumbleweeds.
The wind runs up the street on invisible feet. Its breath is the shepherd, the debris its sheep.
There won’t be any sunset to speak of today, but all it would have said is Et in Arcadia ego.
Canada geese make a V in the sky, a reminder that in the end, victory shall be theirs.
Stare too long at a screen and the heart grows pathetic: misanthropic hamster, jogging on a wheel.
an idle merriment, nymphs and swains, ever attain on purpose what nature achieves spontaneously?
When I can’t visit nature, nature visits me: the fattest sparrow on the bare ash tree.
The Production and Consumption of Goods and Services
The etymology of economy lies in household management; thrift.
I’m not into real estate fantasies, but I can see the appeal of a cottage with a slate roof, copper gutters, and period shutters. A place to shut in, shut out, shut down.
Shut up: my comeback to Mammonites demanding blood sacrifice to the death cult.
Why should I die for the economy when it would never do the same for me?
Please respect others and only take what you need: the rule on complimentary tampons and pads in the bathrooms is basically my plan for the entire economy.
The tragedy of waste. The waste of tragedy.
Can material loss yield spiritual gain? Probably so, but not automatically.
What would you make if you didn’t have to make money?
I don’t want to go back to business as usual. I want to give business as usual the business.
France last executed someone by guillotine in 1977.
Freeze and put your hand where I can see it! (I said that to the invisible hand of the market.)
Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s, 2017) and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey (Penguin, 2020).
Kathleen Rooney’s poems are sharp and spiky, situated somewhere between comedy and rage. They take on big subjects: capitalism and its exhausting cruelties in “The Production and Consumption of Goods and Services”; alienation from nature in “Pastoral.” What does it say about modernity that the ocean can be compared to a washing machine? Rooney asks deep questions: “What would you make if you didn’t have to make money?” Not what would you do, but what would you create, invent, produce instead of moneymaking, which is not really making at all? (The very word “poem” comes from the ancient Greek verb that means “to make.”) I love Rooney’s funny questions that set language on its ear: “Why do the woods have a neck anyway?” Why indeed? Perhaps because we try to humanize the world outside us, to blend ourselves into it: the toilet flushes “like distant thunder,” the sky is “a moody adolescent.” There’s a kind of whimsical, feminist-Marxist sensibility at work in Rooney’s poems: “Please respect others and only take what you need: the rule on complimentary tampons and pads in the bathrooms is basically my plan for the entire economy.” A hilarious example old Karl would never have come up with.
Portrait of the Artist (with Wife)
I don’t want to play around with words all day.
After 4 pm I want to be Picasso at Antibes
fighting an imaginary bull
in front of dinner guests (assembled by his wife Francoise)
waving a cape, and dressed
in undershorts alone.
(Francoise, with whom
he’ll make love later.) (If he feels like making love.)
he’ll paint more bulls.
Now that you’re old
you were never young. Do you understand?
Also, when you die
you’re not immediately gone
but what’s left is brief
like the vibration of a twig when a bird
lifts off. Now there’s a sudden crunch
of gravel in the driveway
hidden by the neighbor’s house; and now
about a dozen crows
are screaming and shouting at once.
When you’re old, as I was saying . . .
After death . . .
Oh, what utter nonsense!
Linda Bamber is a Professor of English at Tufts University. Her poetry collection, Metropolitan Tang, is from David R. Godine, as is her fiction collection, Taking What I Like.
I’ve loved Linda Bamber’s poems for many years, for their delicacy, their watchful, edgy humor, their resistance to cliché, not just in language but also in thought and feeling. She always resists the easy way out. “Metaphysics” gives us the beautiful image of an afterlife “brief / like the vibration of a twig when a bird / lifts off”—but just as you’re charmed and comforted by that simile, the cacophony of real birds—crows, no less, the traditional bird of death—makes the poet lose her train of thought and exasperatedly reject the image as “utter nonsense.” In “Portrait of the Artist (with Wife)” Bamber takes a comic swipe at Picasso—his genius, his egotism, his easy dominance of Francoise, arranger of dinner parties and provider of sex—but also admits she envies him. There’s a complicated feminism here, so much more interesting than merely attacking Dead White Men for their conceit and self-centered exploitation of women’s energies. Because what woman, in some corner of her mind, would not want to “be like Picasso at Antibes,” at least a little bit?
Rereading Anna Karenina for the Fifth Time
I’m still looking
for the translation where
she says no to Vronsky;
where despite Chekhov,
a dangerous train at the beginning
doesn’t have to mean death by train
at the end. Meanwhile I can
concentrate on Levin and Kitty,
on that happy domesticity
we all surely wish for.
In Russia, the temperatures of passion
and weather are both extreme.
I must wrap
my delicate hands in a muff
to keep out the cold.
I must let my desires
not between the covers
of a carved, four-poster bed,
but between the worn covers
of this book.
Linda Pastan’s sixteenth book, Almost an Elegy: New and Later Selected Poems, will be published in 2022 by W.W. Norton.
"I have a natural impulse to condense,” Linda Pastan has said of herself. Pastan’s poems are usually short, colloquial, intense. (She is also, fortunately for us, prolific: her next book will be her sixteenth.) “Rereading Anna Karenina for the Fifth Time” says so much in so few words: who hasn’t read Tolstoy’s great novel of a woman doomed by her adulterous passion for a worthless man and wished for a different ending? There’s a reason, though, that the novel is not called Kitty and Levin—as Tolstoy himself acknowledged in the novel’s famous first line about happy families being all alike, the story of two well-suited, loving, conventional people is just not as compelling as that of the discontented wife who strikes out on her own, knowing her whole society will condemn her as it would not condemn a man. “I must let my desires / burn safely,” Pastan warns herself, by reading instead of experiencing. But also, I would add, by writing poems like this one, at once chaste and passionate.
Sometimes I Tell Myself
Don’t just lie there! Keep moving and
you won’t ever stop. The law of perpetual
motion or something. Then I remember
how we used to say so-and-so had dropped
dead, as if fallen from the great height
of felt life, and that motion, like emotion,
always has a fixed shelf life, even as we
travel our lighted rooms and the world.
Hilma Wolitzer’s novels include An Available Man, Hearts, and The Doctor’s Daughter. Her most recent book is Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket.
Hilma Wolitzer is one lucky writer—not only has she had a long career as a novelist and author of short stories, but she writes poems as well. I’m jealous. “Sometimes I tell myself” is a like a little time bomb—abrupt, with an aftershock. Don’t we all secretly tell ourselves that we can postpone death, maybe almost forever? “Don’t just lie there!” Exercise! Move! Stay active! Travel! We go to great lengths to forget about the “fixed shelf life.” Even the phrase sounds so shabby and depressing, as if in the end we are all just slowly spoiling cartons of milk. Fortunately, there are also “lighted rooms and the world.” Reasons for living.
Those cartons of milk remind me to mention Wolitzer’s new publication, Today a Woman Went Mad at the Supermarket, short stories mostly from the 1970s, when the women’s liberation movement was taking off. Read them for their compassion, their sharp observations and flashes of icy wit—reminders both of how far we have come and how far we have to go.