The ground, the tiles set into the plaza, are all covered with yellow snow, the pollen of the mesquite trees, which hangs in tassels, then begins to fall. Too thick to be swept up, too thin to be raked, the pollen is a drift of yellow footsteps, the snake like trail of the hose dragged across to water the plants blooming in pots, each pot assigned to a particular place with light enough to grow and enough shade to keep the leaves from crisping in the desert sun, the footsteps of the dogs running their rounds to this tree or that one or along the wall barking at the strangers that they can only hear passing by but not see, our footsteps, tennis shoes, sandals, flip flops, all leaving their marks in the drift, changing as a gust of warm wind blows the pollen into some other configuration. The steps are ours, going back and forth, walking out here to the other part of our house, the back building, where I write, in an office lined with books and swelter as the wall air-conditioning unit struggles and fades. Most of my writing life, I have been in my house but outside of it, on the margins, close to the threshold. In my house in New Mexico I wrote in the submerged solarium, below ground level, with windows slanting overhead, subject to the weather, hot or cold, as I was on the unheated, uncooled other side of the French doors that lead into the house. When I was a teenager still writing, I wrote on a typewriter in a bedroom that I shared with my sister, and my writing, the hours spent on a novel that I would later, after a few days of critical silence, burn in the fireplace, or the poems that I wrote gave me a way to make the space mine, and in a way, to take the space over, because the sound of the clacking keys would drive my sister out into the living room. And what does that phrase mean: “living room” as a definition of space? Not that I meant consciously to take over the space we were meant to share, but it became an inevitable consequence. Living in a trailer in the New Mexico desert when I had young children, I wrote at a table in the living room, on the other side of the room away from the TV and the kitchen, and the space that I had was that table against the outer wall. In Boston, I wrote in a room at the very front of our second story apartment, against the wall, looking out into the leaves of the street and into the street. So always outside the house, or at the farther margins of the house, against the wall that faces that street, in the room attached but outside of the house proper, in this office, which is on the other side of the plaza and the yard with its yellow drift.
Theft? What is the nature of it? An accidental encounter with a text, a name, on the Internet has just reminded me how more than once a friend, a fellow poet, has carried out the theft of my words. The words of one of my letters lifted wholesale into someone else’s poem, the passage that I had shared out of friendship, now caught in a poem bordered to look like a quilt (though it’s not by accident, I just typed “bordered to look like a guilt” and then corrected), given a title of girl’s names, and there (is that what bothered me the most?) the names of my children? For this theft bothered me more than another theft where again a passage in a letter to a friend became the substance of that friend’s poem, I didn’t mind so much that time, perhaps because it had just to do with me, not the names of my children, and that passage had in a sense been written for that friend, as if seeing through his eyes, so it had been ‘given’ to him in some sense in the mode of its inspiration. Well, who will ever know this? Does the thief know it? Or does one simply appropriate in the same way that one can be oblivious to privilege? A sort of assumption that whatever space is within one’s grasp belongs to one, is ours? So we pick up the drift of words, phrases, letters, and they become part of the ornamentation of our own poetic house. And is that house, like all others, partly defined as “private property?”
“A room of one’s own,” is Virginia Woolf’s famous phrase, though just as important is that so many pounds per month she included, the surety of a fixed income, in creating the independence to create. Women who are often ‘the lady of the house,’ where the house is defined as belonging to others, have had to struggle in order to create those separate spaces, wherever they are, in order to have the freedom to create. “The only museum solely dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements in the visual, performing, and literary arts,” is the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which opened in 1987 in Washington, D.C. In three and a half decades, not another museum with the same mission has been built. Why? Is it the idea that one museum dedicated to women’s achievements is enough, or, perhaps even, that one is more than enough? How much has changed since the Women’s Pavilion was opened in 1876 at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia, and a controversy erupted over whether the Pavilion was an inclusion of women, showcasing their expanding opportunities in society, or an exclusion, giving them a separate space where everything to do with women could be circumscribed in one area?
Recently I taught a class Women, Art, and Society, based upon the book of the same name by Whitney Chadwick. Women, Art, and Society is described in the publisher’s note:
This acclaimed study challenges the assumption that great women artists are exceptions to the rule who transcended their sex to produce major works of art. While acknowledging the many women whose contributions to visual culture since the Middle Ages have often been neglected, Whitney Chadwick’s survey reexamines the works themselves and the ways in which they have been perceived as marginal, often in direct reference to gender. In her discussion of feminism and its influence on such a reappraisal, the author also addresses the closely related issues of ethnicity, class, and sexuality.
And, yet, more than once, it seemed to me incredibly ironic that Chadwick’s book which documents carefully how important women artists were to various eras became the basis for a course which looked at the role of women, as artists, as subject matter, in terms of social, class, ethnic structures, as if in isolation. Rather than incorporating the work of Leyster or Kauffman or Charpentier into the respective art courses where their work would fit by time frame and style, women artists are often still left out of the conventional courses, and given one course that is meant to cover everything to do with women in art and redress their having been forgotten. They are still kept in a room of their own, even if that room is one made of time, like “Women’s History Month, ” as when the Guerilla Girls in performance said “oh, we have an invitation, it must be Women’s History Month!”
Where I work, we have had a good number of meetings lately, sometimes with an emphasis upon the core meaning of words. The idea being that if I can say why I teach this particular course of art history, that I can make a more vital connection with the student’s curiosity than if I only describe and give them what’s. At first, I think I resisted, for the language of meetings is often pedagogical or psychological or bureaucratic, not poetic. And yet I began to see that this search for the why, the core meaning of the words bore some relationship to my poetic and translating practice. When translating I will look up every word, even those so common words that I can assume the meaning of, just as in writing a poem, I may go back to the OED and look for the root of a word, that origin where the concrete and abstract are entwined. So in a sense the division between my work mind, my translating mind, my teaching mind, began to dissolve. I realized the space, partitions, I kept between the various aspects of my daily life were not a defense or a strengthening but in fact a weakness, that as soon as a separate space is created, the process of dismantling its separateness must begin. For what happens in those margins, is that the margins become part of the space of the house; this office with its separate enclosure for books and writings becomes a gathering place as my son comes out to chat, to ask about dinner, to tell me something from his day, or as my partner does likewise, while the dog sleeps under my desk, and the yellow pollen that was plastered all over the ground outside can as a result be found drifting across the interior concrete floors. Under my feet, on my feet, in the separate space of this office, the same yellow drift of desert trees flowering.
Pollen, the seed of it, the beginning, the origins of roots, the ground of it. In my latest collection, which I’m still putting together, language itself is envisioned as a kind of space, a field, a forest, or even as the particular space that is created in random encounters between strangers who may not speak the same tongue. As a child, what was in the house often drove me out of the house. I had three lives, one at school where I wished mostly to be invisible and learned that good grades were a way to avoid any difficulty that might make my presence obvious. Another was in my parents’ quarreling house, and the third was outside, in the forests of Vermont or Colorado, the wild berry patches of Montana, the plains of Wyoming. The third was my real life, by which I mean, the life of my imagination, where with a group of friends I would invent these elaborate games and characters that we all would embody and play out, though, just as often, I spent time alone in the woods or whatever wild place was near our house. It was another kind of house, one made out of pine branches, selected for an overhang of tree and rock, a kind of natural shelter that could be improved upon, fortified with extra branches, leaves for shade, the floor swept clear of pine needles or yellow pollen. The house of the imagination, and it was in that space that I first felt the ability to create and embody in external realities what I felt within. When I began writing, it was at the age of being on the cusp between childhood and being a teenager, when it was no longer possible to play those old games as seriously as they were meant to be played, and yet it was not possible to give up that house of the imagination either.
So language itself became that space, a place in which the interior is embodied forth, what is unique and mute becomes tongued to speak to others. Language is a house that belongs to no one, where if one clears away the property markers, the stakes defining the terms and the limits, a space is created that is both welcoming and challenging. In a sense it is like being in a forest where by not being, not claiming, not asserting, just sitting on the edge of the meadow, some rare creature may step into the clearing into full view, and that rare creature may just be oneself. So I’ll end with a poem that plays upon Deleuze’s idea of “becoming woman,” of expectations of femininity, how our culture is in many respects on one hand creating spaces which include and spaces which exclude any she who already exists.
that girl of endless becoming
shy as the hind who steps only into the flowering quiet
of the meadows, who knows her translucent body
makes her a target of desirous arrows, she does not
speak in a room full of barbed nets and wire, does not
step forth into the snaring gaze, the eyes rolling toward
the ceiling and the contempt of the back of the head, how
else do you think this happens that one so delicate
and soaring of gesture, whose body itself is a living word
becomes unknown, numb, incognito, is never heard from,
whatever you say about the silence of or the silence in,
it’s the sound of beauty fleeing from you, withdrawing
at the sound of the hooks, the knives, the beaters
driving her out into a clearing, a shadow beneath
the moon smoking with fires, no space within
ear, heart, meadow, or world for what
she is, an ephemeral gesture of possibility,
where she already exists
and yet you will say she never arrives