I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been travelling and I’m on a break from school at the moment, but I have this one last annotation that I wrote for this past semester that I hadn’t posted yet, so here it is! It’s on Carol Guess’s book The Femme’s Dictionary. This book, according to my advisor, was supposed to be my “candy” at the end of the semester, something fun and refreshing after all the hard work, my dessert. It was good, but it wasn’t my favorite thing of the semester. Anne Carson has to take that place!
Of course, I have lots of other thoughts on writing and gardening and life, etc., and I do want to get back to posting more regularly. But for now, here’s Carol Guess:
Dealing with Cliché Head-on
The title of Carol Guess’s book The Femme’s Dictionary sends me right into the confusing land of lesbian slang and queer terminology in general. I’m a lesbian, and I’ve had plenty of thoughts and conversations about the butch/femme dynamic, trying to explore and understand these words that were presented to me as I became aware of my sexuality. Once you “come out” to the world, there’s a huge expectation for you to apply labels to yourself. Queer. Bi. Gay. Questioning. Butch. Bull. Femme. Top. Bottom. Lipstick Lesbian. Etc. This book, calling itself a dictionary, could be placed in my hands just to explain all that. But am I a femme, and is this my dictionary? I am female, and happy to be so, but I don’t necessarily define myself by how feminine I am. I don’t wear makeup. Where does this place me between butch and femme, and is this book meant to speak to me?
Of course, these terms “femme” and “butch” and all the rest are clichés, oversimplifications of a spectrum that really exists only in a very nebulous way, describing only small parts of a person’s entire personality. Carol Guess is perfectly aware that these words are overused and limiting. She uses them in this book not at the level of their cliché value, but at the level of a conversation with cliché.
I would say that Guess’s method of interacting with overused words and ideas is a very reliable technique for the creation of quality in politically-charged or politically-motivated poetry. What she does is to turn each cliché completely inside out. Instead of stating any kind of message or opinion overtly, which would have forced her to use tired language-to adopt some of the very words that she’s at the same time attempting to dissect-she creates poems completely out of images. This doesn’t sound revolutionary as I’m describing it here, but it works wonders to create complex, sometimes confusing, but always interesting poems with real people as characters rather than the flat, paper people of a cliché. Speaking as a reader, these poems are a bit of a challenge, but in a very good way. As I read through the surprising and complex imagery of each poem, moments of understanding felt treasure-like, the effort of considering a poem’s images was rewarded with a feeling of discovery.
The poem “Which One of You is the Man?” is an excellent example. It titles itself with one of lesbian culture’s frustratingly-overused ideas. This is a question that I’ve personally been asked multiple times. Sometimes the question comes sarcastically, implying something invalid about a same-sex relationship. Sometimes it has come with genuine curiosity from a person trying to understand how two women can function as a couple. In both cases my standard answer has become to say that there is no man. We’re both women. That’s kind of the point of the whole idea of being a lesbian culture. I feel a sense of annoyance just typing those sentences, though, and I’m certain that my annoyance would show up very clearly if I tried to write a poem with that same title.
Carol Guess’s poem does not seem annoyed to me at all. But I suppose the one thing it has in common with my response to the man question is that it refuses to answer that question at face value. The question implies that only “A” or “B” are possible answers. To which I said, crudely, “neither,” and Guess says, beautifully, “I’ve seen a tie undo itself/ because it felt the pulse of her throat/ and admired the precarious math of human life.” This is a powerful image because it hints at the idea of the cliché-a necktie is a strong symbol in our society of the man, the businessman, the holder of power. But in the poem it is clear that the wearer of the tie has power over it as an object, and then the tie removes itself, leaving the wearer free to be simply human.
Later in the poem the speaker brings in another of our culture’s favorite ideas about manhood. That is, that the man is dominant in every way, right down to being the person on top while a couple is having sex. Guess gives this idea its own question in the poem: “Which one of us lies/ on top of the other, steering until pleasure/ feels simple, because detached from choice?” Asking more questions is another way to avoid answering that first question. And not giving an answer to a question can be a way of saying that the answer doesn’t matter. The poem does not state which one, A or B, lies on top and steers, because to answer would be to give value to the initial question.
The images of the necktie and the embrace of sex, although not giving in to cliché, are at least examples of images that have associations with the idea of manhood. But there are other places in the poem where the images are completely unrelated to that cliché, and this gives a whole new layer to the poem’s response to the title question. The first line of the poem says, “The flecked eye of a fish is a window.” This is a surprising idea on its own, and its position at the beginning of the poem gives it even more power to surprise. This is the sort of thing I was talking about when I described Guess’s poetry as sometimes challenging. Because it’s confusing. What does a fish have to do with any of this? And what is the eye a window to? But Guess follows this with other images of food animals (cows, and hearts for sale at the grocery store), and images of seeing inside things. This creates not a simple answer, but a structure in which I can find my own meaning within the poem. Something about humanity and life trumping any question of gender.
I’m very impressed with Guess’s success in this book, her ability to move so far away from the questions asked by cliché, and yet still sort of answer them in her own way. The poem I’ve just discussed did give me a message, but it was a very personal one, and it didn’t force any opinion on me. On the following page sits a poem with the title “But You Two Girls Don’t Have the Right Equipment,” a placement that bolsters the message of the first poem. I just hope that when I set out to write about things that are politically important to me, maybe even some of these same subjects that Guess tackles in this book, that I can do it with as much power and subversion of the expected.