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Rita Gabis

Alice James Books, 1994

By Don Share

Female poets have been rightfully claiming their place in American poetry for some time; but there is now another generation of women who receive scant attention in anthologies, reviews, and other wings of the poetry apparatus. While they follow with keen interest the careers, literary and political, of poets who are sometime their mentors -- Sharon Olds, Eavan Boland, Marge Piercy, for instance -- these women, in their twenties and thirties, may feel that their own interests and issues are not necessarily reflected in what women sometimes just a generation removed have been saying. The young poets to whom I refer -- Laura Kasischke (Wild Brides; Housekeeping in a Dream), Rita Gabis (The Wild Field), Erin Belieu (Infanta), Jennifer Barber (editor of Salamander), to name a few -- have writing careers, professional employment, and responsibilities as mothers and wives; thanks in great measure to those who've come ahead of them, they find themselves working more comfortably than their slightly older sisters alongside men who are their colleagues and partners, but nevertheless have new battles to undertake. I suppose that if there were literary equivalents of Glamour, Mademoiselle, and New Woman, these might be called "Superwomen" -- poets whose days are longer, whose pay is more precarious, and who therefore have little in the way of time or other resources to engage in polemic. Their books are not political, as such; the very existence of these volumes, the voices they transmit, are argument enough. As far as I am aware, this is the first review of Rita Gabis's book, The Wild Field, and that in itself is a specific injustice, for it is a work whose subtlety should not be mistaken for reticence; only its author demurs, and that is precisely because she has a full life beyond the printed page.

The words women and poet, as Boland has documented, have historically denoted two areas of experience not simultaneously inhabitable. In observing her own beginnings as a poet, she says this about the difference she felt between herself and the male poets she knew:

I felt less at ease, less equal in conversations with them... My kisses didn't appear in my poems. I did not feel like a poet when I kissed a boy... Increasingly it seemed that the power I felt when I wrote came from an avoidance, and not a resolution, of the powerlessness I felt in other ways. No matter what I did, the gap widened (Object Lessons [hereafter OL], p.105)
Might this gap finally be closing? In her reading of poetry, Boland found "a perception of powerlessness and therefore a true understanding of the power of language" (OL, p. 108). But among the strengths of Gabis's work is the poet's continual discovery and cultivation of strengths in and for herself: erotic power; an illusionless, but not disillusioned comprehension of personal history; the palpable mystery of giving life and nourishing it by making -- often out of very little -- a home, a meal, a community. For Gabis, then, it's not so much a question of being equal to a man, but instead "To be a woman, with a man / walking though we are tired..." ("Wishes," p.42 -- emphasis added)

The most striking aspect of this book is its frankly muscular poetic diction. Here are poems that are as strongly in the world as the objects and subjects they describe, without ever sounding strident or self-involved:

... so many things call me violently to stand-
stones, white-notched bark of birches, dirt...
... I am located by breasts and bones,
by water. The ant crawls through sand building
my house. I live in the sand, with love and
self-cruelty, sticky with blood...
... I prepare myself each day to give birth,
out of lichen and the pine sap dried on the cone,
and the saw-throated crow, and speckled leaves
dying into the ground broken by my feet.
A daughter or son waits to be wrenched
through me from the rain.
(excerpts from "I Make A Place Here," p.18)

There is no sense of powerless here. But in documenting her strengths, Gabis is careful to acknowledge both her debts and her grief. Early in the book there is an astonishing pair of poems, one, "Gold Bowl," concerning her mother, the other called simply, "Father." In the former, a woman punches down dough in her mother's old bowl: "She never told me women become what they make." It's not indictment, but a fact that "My mother's food wounded me" -this, the poet comes to understand, is why, in preparing a feast for her own family, "I salt the blood in the stew, pepper my lips / and arms."

... I make too much at every meal,
leftovers to spoon into the mouths of ghosts,
their crevices and grief holes.
In "kneading the muscle out of the wheat," in preparing a meal, one has to be mindful of, or, if there could be such a word, remindful of the recipe followed, of the efforts made, "because the spirit of the bread can disappear / like the spirit of a woman." It's as if her mother's voice calls to her hungrily from the bottom of the bowl, "her thin voice almost lost" -
I won't go down there,
I won't become just another hunger
dressed in women's clothes.
(p. 7-8)

Of her father, on the other hand, Gabis says, "I thought he knew about darkness... I thought he was there with me... I thought he could carry the moon." Yet

... a man can't carry the moon,
a man cries into his fists,
made out of bone, made out of water.
I'd put on my father's shirts when they were old,
mixing my odor with his, rubbed into
the cloth from his walking, his reaching, his stooping,
his breathing, and it did not make me stronger

To paraphrase another poem, "Grandmother in the Garden," Gabis discovers that at the end of loneliness lies loneliness, a kind of female reworking of Larkin's "Man hands on misery to man." Though her grandmother may have warned her, "Don't be like me, I've had a horrible life," Gabis knows that she can't help being like those whose flesh engendered her. Like the threading on her grandmother's workdress, if you tug at too hard at one's bloodline, something precious unravels: that woman's hands "dug the sour ground of a family, / planted chokecherries and ash trees, / freesia so sweet it hurt / to breathe it in." Tug too hard and "the source / of the blossoming will root deeper into memory." (p.12)

The strengths and clear sustaining complexities of this work are too numerous to take full account of in a brief review. I've left room to mention briefly my own favorite poem here, "The Woodpile," which holds a conceit as fascinating, and as erotic, as any of Donne's, but without any of his terminating regrets. In this poem, a woman and her husband stack a cord of wood together in a shed. As they work, she becomes aware of "the space where we meet midway, our hips / that change places as the woodpile diminishes ." (p.45) Boland writes that for over a century the poet's life has been "edging away" from the life lived in houses (OL, p.108). While she felt that "the poetic tradition itself was a house which held out an uncertain welcome to me" (OL, p.107), Gabis shows how she, like so many woman, has helped build a house that is inhabitable, welcoming, hard-earned, and durable -- a place where tears, time, and flesh are real, not to be run away from, a place where all of a woman's muscle and dream are required. In this place, it isn't so much that there are men to whom the poet must be equal, but that a life is lived there in which, as Gabis writes in "Two in The Morning," a woman must be "equal to its beauty" (p. 58). It's a form of equality our greatest poets, whether men or women, have striven for through the ages.

Originally published in the October/November 1995 issue of Boston Review

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