back toJacket2

Fred Johnston reviews

Because Why: Poems
by Sarah Fox

Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, USA.. $15, pbck. 110pp. ISBN 1-56689-186-8

This review is about 2 printed pages long

Fluid beings

In The United States, as in Ireland for some time after the ‘Seventies and well into the ‘Nineties, there was a tendency for women poets to resort to myth, either genuine or self-generated, to try to find elements through which they might better describe their social or private condition. Irish poetesses called up the ghosts of Queen Medbh, or the ‘Pirate Queen,’ Grace O’Malley, amongst others, and strove to find affinity with a Mother Goddess. In the US, it seems to me, there was a fair amount of plainchanting around Native American mythography. Most of this work was quite transparent and seemed to echo, however faintly, an anxiety around identity which had been addressed already through earlier and major work of women’s liberation movements. There was in all of this, a sort of nostalgia.

On the other hand, mythologising distanced the writer from the actual and forced a confrontation on an imagined, and therefore unengaged, plain; in Ireland it was noticable that, for all the making-up of myth and designations of Earth Mother symbolism, women poets steered widely clear of politics, local or international. It was clearly more comfortable to be a goddess than an activist. It also sold more books; as in the United States, liberalism is a four-letter word in Ireland. Comfort-poetry is all the go.

When there is nothing to fight about, or nothing one wishes to fight about, one steps inside oneself. The real war for existence is not fought by middle-class women in First World countries, much as they might wish to create such a war or imply one; it is fought in countries where women are still treated as voiceless chattels, countries most Western women don’t visit. There is a considerable difference between living in a country where one can divorce a cruel husband and walk away, and living in one where talking back to him could have one killed.

I felt that I had to get all of that out of the way because I came to Sarah Fox’s collection with misgivings and prejudices. I gazed upon her Barbara Streisand lookalike photo on the cover; I read on the blurb that she was a ‘doula’, and thought yes, of course she is. I have never heard of the word. I saw that an organisation called The Bush Foundation had given her an award and also finances, with others, Coffee House Press, and I shuddered. I was pleased to have my reservations diluted as I read the work. I had been terrified that, apart from anything else, I was about to be hauled into a vacuous word-jungle of myths and philosophic sayings and the wisdom of the East translated into Americanese.

Sarah Fox takes her work very seriously. She also teaches creative writing to teenage girls who are also parents: she should come to Ireland, where teenage single-parenting, for instance, is at epidemic proportions. Unsurprisingly, a good deal of her poetry - though not all of it - concerns itself with divining women’s necessity, their place in the world. She also engages with the subject of love and, overshadowed, if not outrightly burdened by the crypto-fascism of the New America, is influenced by the atmosphere of impending doom nasties such as Homeland Security have drummed up. America-as-armed-ghetto. Her styles vary, she has even indulged in ‘cut-out’ poetry, an old but reasonable creative engagement; and though her occasional syntactical horrors, common to Americanese, can jolt and jar a non-American reader, there is a girlish freshness at work her. (On the business of American English and The Queen’s English, it’s interesting to note that French translations of novels and poems will state upfront whether the work first appeared in American English or English English).

There are nine short sections to the book, each comprising four poems, and one floating poem which serves as an introduction. The styles vary from the outrageously experimental to the slow and well-worked ‘standard’ poem. One can easily imagine their force in some cases at least being greater through a spoken delivery than merely reading them to onself on the page. The cloud of paranoia subtly weaving itself even into the American creative imagination blows fatly in the titles and subject-matter of some poems here, such as ‘Liberation Initiative # 27,’ (‘There was a boy who blew up/trains…’), and ‘Field Notes’ or ‘Field Notes of an Advance Scout…’, though this latter concerns itself more with myth and there a couple of similarly-headed poems. Yet it’s impossible, for the non-American reader, to avoid the notion that America has colluded in the militarisation of language in a way improbable anywhere else.

Some poems here are visually as well as verbally exciting. ‘My Edward Mary Smoking’ is a sheer verbal rush of a poem, imagistically blizzarding: “ …is a viola …/static & bragging & my/… cigarette creeps down…/with me my/ … blue viola … “ ‘Prosperous Earth’ is printed horizontal to the page, that is, it is necessary to turn the page on its side to read it. It is a sort of ‘Mad Sweeney’ poem, a medical or medico-spiritual glossary and a wonderful challenge to the notion that poetry has or should have a static form; ‘Imagining Girls’ was a ‘cut-out’ poem, which, in some respects, doesn’t read or feel like one:

A great vocation imagines the hectic in a presence.
Cold girls, their wild honey membranes…

[You can read this poem in Jacket 19. Ed.]

There are important concerns addressed in these poems, painful concerns too, which are not only about how women may suffer in themselves but how this suffering is read and interpreted, or not, in a wider context. I recall a woman explaining to me once how certain bones actually move and adjust themselves during menses, and I couldn’t help but think how static a thing is the average man; women mutate, change back, yet we remain the same, unmoving, unaltered. The fluidity of women, perhaps, is best expressed in a fluid and changeable poetics.

There are fragile poems here, moving as you read them over again; there are poems whose language borders on the shout, the expression of violent or at the very least passionate release. How women poets in present-day America, as fluid beings, come to deal with the rigidity, for the most part male-imposed, on their society, and the very male international posturing, the drawling Texas gunslinger diplomacy into which some women have been drawn as participants and in which they have been altered into almost sexless figures, remains to be seen.

There is no point in looking inside when the problem is outside. There are now soldiers on the borders with Mexico to prevent the magicians, sorcerers, heirs to old religion and native tradition, from getting in to America.

Arguably it’s time for American women poets to wonder what good their well-meaning faux-shamanic poetics are to the dead female wedding guests at an Afghanistan wedding, whose fluidity could not match the phallic rigidity of US rockets and bombs.

Fred Johnston is a novelist, critic and poet, born in Belfast, Nortern Ireland, in 1951. Founder of Galway City’s annual literature festival, Cúirt, he runs the Western Writers’ Centre ( and a novel, ‘The Neon Rose’, will come out from Bluechrome (UK) in September.

July 2006  |  Jacket 30  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |
about Jacket | style guide | bookstores | literary links | 400 book reviews |