Thursday, November 21, 2013

"First Wife," a chapbook by Laura Madeline Wiseman, reviewed by Stacia M. Fleegal

Laura Madeline Wiseman is a busy woman. She edited Women Write Resistance, and she gives great interview (and interview part II), but she's also steadily publishing poems of her own. To cap off our focus on her efforts with WWR, I thought I'd also review her latest collection of poems.

In her chapbook First Wife (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013), Wiseman has done a difficult thing in manifesting the story of Lilith in modern poems chronicling the demise of a marriage.

Difficult because, let’s be honest, you say “Lilith” and some people think antagonizing uber-feminism. They think anger. But though I believe there’s a time and a place for strategic anger, these poems aren’t angry, aren’t based in that time or place. These are solemn poems that make the point that true feminism is more concerned with women’s individual and interconnected lives than in defining us according to our significant others and children—the more “traditional” relationships many of us experience and have in common.

In her identification with the biblical Lilith, who, to quote Alicia Ostriker’s blurb, is “the mythic first wife of Adam, who escaped subservience to her husband and her husband’s God and became stigmatized as a demoness,” Wiseman’s speaker proves without preaching that self-respect is a survival tool in a patriarchal world.

How many do you think are out there?—women whose husbands refuse to be the metaphorical bottom? And how many Liliths? And how many poet Liliths? Telling our truths remains an important way that women connect with each other and hear from others who’ve survived what they’re trying to survive.

Framing the myth revision poems are examinations of the typical milestones in a heteronormative, socially obedient relationship; in “Engagement Photos,” the speaker is “a dark-eyed chimera stepping from the foliage.” The reader gets the idea very early on that this speaker sort of knew what was coming, as she took her turn and posed for posterity, “regal / in the darkest of silk” (p. 7). Flip the page and she’s a newlywed, already mired in a life of predictability as she tells of the husband who simultaneously watched sports on TV, listened to them on the radio, and read the newspaper.

Our first glimpse of Lilith comes, where else, in a poem about gardening, called “Lilith Pauses.” A husband and wife are working outside of their home. The husband moves a wheelbarrow out of view and the wife takes a break to reflect on “the stories of our house.” As soon as she “hear[s] the wheel turn,” she “jump[s] up to rake as if [she] never stopped”—but not before admitting, “I think, if this has to be my life, it’s okay.” Do we believe her? Or is the “pause” mentioned in the title actually referring to a break in Lilith’s normal character, not in the composting? Is there not literally the shoveling of so much shit that often comes with a marriage, with “all the fruit [we] can eat” (p. 9)?

A pair of longer poems come at the almost end of the first section. In “The Apple: Lilith Remembers,” Wiseman turns the ancient connotations of forbidden fruit into “a border crossing thing,” where a couple in a foreign land smuggle an apple past border patrol. Unlike in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Adam isn’t complicit; he doesn’t know about his first wife’s contraband, which is a nice metaphor for the fact that, in crass terms, he never got to, ahem, eat Lilith’s fruit, because he didn’t want to do it her way. Not that Lilith didn’t try: “I nudged you, tried to mouth my knowledge / of the apple in my bag.” The pair escape being searched and the apple is later “enjoyed singularly” by the wife (p. 16). Next is “Lies Upon You: In Fragments,” a poem of disturbing images and snippets of dialogue with even more disturbing omissions, set off by brackets enclosing white space. Anchoring the poem is a dream the speaker is having, of intimacy with Lilith, before she is awakened by her husband. The presumed scene of domestic rape is also the presumed fate of Lilith had she given in to Adam. Wiseman’s speaker here is a broken woman holding onto the image of one (she believes, in her despair) stronger than she.

The second half of this short collection, though, presents a more confident speaker. She’s escaped; the last poem of the preceding section is “Flight.” Then comes “Red Sky, Red Sea,” and with it, the speaker’s rejection of “pretty”—because who always seems to decide what is pretty, likeable, acceptable to be in this world? Men. Wiseman’s speaker “choose[s] me” (p. 23). In “Honeymoon Album,” she unearths a photo album and calls it an “island” (p. 24). When she gets a visit from the second wife, the proverbial Eve, she firmly states, “I would never go back to him, to her, to that garden” (p. 27). Instead, she aspires to be another mythic female power figure—Isis—after a trip to a museum. In “This Could Be You: Lilith Considers,” the now unencumbered speaker has moved on to observing other presumably unhappy unions: a young woman pushing “an oversized stroller in the heat” while the child’s father strolls ahead, smokes, scowls, “curses at her” (p. 33). You get the idea the speaker is watching a former self when she observes the man’s t-shirt—“This could be you” scrawled over a man pawing the outline of a curvy woman—and thinks, “Sheesh. / I wish all red flags fluttered this brilliantly” (p. 34). But they don’t. Not when it’s you. Most red flags, we don’t see until we’ve moved past. Until we’re no longer “wife,” only “First Wife.”

Here, Wiseman’s poetry is concerned with putting personal experience into historical context, and legitimizing that experience with borrowed power that she makes her own. At turns elegy and dramatic monologue, her poems display a great sense of phrasing and the line. I look forward to more from her, and from Hyacinth Girl Press.

Pick up a copy of First Wife directly from HGP.

1 comment:

  1. I like stories told in the poetry-chapter book format. I also like Stacia's review of it. The questions and insights Stacia pulls from the book bring considerations every woman should think deeply about--married or single. Each woman needs to be aware of her power and strength and purpose as an individual first and foremost. Only then can she bring to the world everything she has to offer.