Victorian Bad Boys and the Satisfying Murder of the Angel in Your House

I first read Mrs. Dalloway in my late twenties, after the idealistic phase of early adulthood and before I had much perspective on life. Virginia Woolf’s novel follows an older woman, as she prepares for a party she’s throwing that night. Through stream of consciousness, the reader learns of her early interactions with some of the guests at her party. As a youth, she had three love options. (Well, if we’re being honest, she only had two.) The person she seemed to feel most affection toward was her friend, Sally Seton. As a woman in the late 1800s, of course, this match would have brought her poverty and ruin. Her other two options were male: Peter Walsh, a passionate man whose neediness would have driven any woman up the wall by year-two of marriage; and Richard Dalloway, a nice—although a bit boring—man who was kind and had the means to support a wife. The latter was particularly important to women of that era, as it was unusual for them to secure financial independence.

As a woman in the 21st century, who had the privilege of earning a Ph.D., living on my own, and owning a car, I recognized Mrs. Dalloway’s plight but did not directly relate to it. I felt bad that she could not marry Sally. Peter just reminded me of bass players I used to date. I can understand the initial appeal of that archetype: broody, dark, artistic. In my experience, though, those traits eventually morph into whininess and immaturity. That type of man becomes tedious and a relationship with him, laborious. 

Given that new same-sex marriage laws were over a century away, I think that Clarissa made the right choice. Not only did she make a good business deal (an aspect of marriage that we oft forget in contemporary times) she chose someone who gave her space and respected her independence, which Clarissa deeply cherished.

However, when I taught Mrs. Dalloway, a few years later in an intro to lit class, my 20-year-old students had a very different reaction. They glossed over the whole bisexual aspect of Clarissa’s narrative and zeroed in on what they considered a crime. In their words, she had chosen money over love, and for that act, they could feel only disdain. I couldn’t figure how they could not appreciate Clarissa’s decision. From my point of view, she saw beyond her moment of passion for Peter (which she admits, years later, still burns) for a relationship that made her happy with a man whom she also loved (although perhaps not as hotly as for Peter). What I understood, then, was the limited perspective of the very young. It’s definitely not due to a lack of intelligence. I think that, only with time, does one truly begin to understand happiness. Clarissa played the long game. She found a man who loved her, and, perhaps more importantly, gave her space to love herself. Had I read Mrs. Dalloway earlier, I don’t think that I would have understood the finer nuances of love and happiness. I, too, would have lamented the loss of the bass player…uh, I mean, Peter Walsh. 

Recently, I taught Woolf’s “Professions for Women” (taken from a speech she delivered to The National Society of Women’s Service in 1931) which is another work I haven’t read since grad school. I remember liking it and experiencing some kind of “girl power” reaction to the notion that women need space (see her essay, “A Room of One’s Own”) and independence (in the form of a salary) in order to truly reach their creative potential. I read it now at 43 years old, six years shy of the age that Woolf wrote it. The first thing that struck me about the speech is that she begins the way women often begin now: she justifies her work. Don’t get me wrong; I think she does so in order to shine a light on the patriarch’s misgivings regarding the expansion of “women’s work” beyond the domestic realm. Even so, it rattled me. I could hear my own voice in her sentiment, how many times I had to prove I was doing no harm in my work. I was just going through grad school. I like poetry; I’m good at teaching. I can make a living at the latter. I also had to prove that I was intelligent—more so than the men around me, just to break even—but also appear that I was somehow not intimidating in that respect. I had to show deference without presenting as “available” to some of my male professors, while at the same time, not “act like a bitch.” (I confess that I often chose to disregard the latter, when pressed for time.)

What struck me the most was Woolf’s description of the “Angel in the House.” In Victorian times, the poet Coventry Patmore, dreamed up the Angel in the House image as the perfect woman who essentially sacrifices everything for her man, while maintaining her beautiful smile. Damn, I would bet money that if I told a group of intro to lit students that the Angel in the House was created five years ago, they’d believe me (at least the women would, and I’ll bet, many of the men). 

Virginia Woolf suffers with this bitch’s…uh…angel’s voice in her head claiming backwards garbage like “My dear, you are a young woman. You are writing about a book that has been written by a man. Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” One thousand memories come to mind of times when that voice was not only in my head but speaking right in front of me. I remember one male student claiming that I was not “being very nice” when I told him that his thesis statement lacked an argument. My former female boss once told me that, despite the clear policy allowing me simply to decline an administrator’s unreasonable request on behalf of a student, I should, instead, play email tennis for days until the other party “believed that they’re the ones who are telling you it’s a bad idea.” Virginia Woolf states that “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” Although sometimes the Angel in the House is impossible to ignore (especially when they are your flesh and blood boss) I agree that the ghost of any such angel needs killing, even in 2018.

Near the end of her speech, she addresses the women in the audience, telling them that she has stressed her professional experiences because “they are, though in different forms, yours also.” In 1962, biologist Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring, which warned of the harmful affects of (now banned) DDT. The onslaught of criticism often included “rebuttals” that claimed that a woman without children couldn’t possibly care about humanity’s future, and therefore, her study is bunk.

Now, we live in a time that is moving very quickly. Women are standing together more often, and the world is propelling forward. Nevertheless, I feel disappointed that Woolf’s speech resonates with me now, nearly 90 years after she gave it. However, I am heartened that the closing of her speech expresses the same hope that I feel for the future of my female students: “But this freedom is only a beginning—the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared. How are you going to furnish it, how are you going to decorate it? With whom are you going to share it, and upon what terms? These, I think are questions of the utmost importance and interest. For the first time in history you are able to ask them; for the first time you are able to decide for yourselves what the answers should be.” 

After the 2008 election, Oprah Winfrey asked prominent feminist, Gloria Steinem what she thought about republican party’s questionable vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. Steinem’s response reminded me of why I so admire her intelligence and thoughtfulness. I expected her to criticize Palin, but instead, she said that it will be interesting to see if Palin recognizes all the different ways that she had been used during that election. I never forgot that response and have often thought about the different ways that women are used on a daily basis. Sure, everyone gets used, but for women, it cuts down to the bone of our existence. The heart of the argument that excuses the mistreatment and manipulation of women claims that we’re not as human as men. We don’t deserve the same rights and privileges because, by nature, we are less worthy. It’s taken me into my 40s to get a clearer picture of the verbal gymnastics I had once mastered just to get my foot in the door, the physical agility it’s taken to maneuver around men’s wandering hands, and the alertness to outwit their stalkings. I honestly cannot imagine spending my energy toward those life-draining tasks any more. Age is a privilege. I’m a bit more tired, physically, but as a consequence, it affects my willingness to shoulder other people’s crap. I have too much writing to do to justify managing both.

Of course, at times I still do shoulder the nonsense. I’m still deciding how to furnish my room and with whom to share it and under what terms. And I’m living in an exhilarating time of rapid change, just as Virginia Woolf was. I wonder what she would think of us now.  

Women and Demons

A few months ago, I wrote about the way I’ve been remembering Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Security Chief, Tasha Yar (“Well, It Used to Be: Thoughts on Evolving Perspectives”) as a much stronger character than she was actually written. I’m glad to look back and see how narratives about women have improved. Even in the year between the release of Wonder Woman and Black Panther, I see a shift from using women’s strength as a punchline (Wonder Woman) to expressing it as a simple fact (Black Panther). 

The other day, I watched the first episode of Picnic at Hanging Rock, an Amazon Prime series based on a novel that, I admit, I have never read. The show seems ripe for drama, with a seemingly overstrict all-girls finishing school in 1900, run by a mysterious widow, played by Natalie Dormer. 

SPOILER ALERT FOR EPISODE ONE AHEAD:

In the first episode, I felt creeping dread as I watched the young women get sexually harassed, assaulted, and generally treated like a decorative side dish. (Although I didn’t mind that one of the girls stuck a pitch fork in that jerk’s foot.) It’s not that I’ve never seen or read this type of narrative (and it is, indeed, a valid narrative that is lived by many women, even in 2018) but I’m tired of it. 

I believe that words cast spells. While I do think it’s important to recognize the wrong direction, it is equally important to steer the ship toward the desired destination. So, imagine my relief, when I learned that the true villain in Picnic at Hanging Rock appears to be just some sort of demon. Somehow, it was a great relief to me that the dark and drunken force that lures the vulnerable teenage girls into…well, wherever they are…was not another misbehaved dude who needs anything from sensitivity training to a prison sentence. Demons, I can handle. Maybe, later in the series, the demons will reveal their misogyny. I don’t know. I may or may not finish the series; I’ve recently gotten into Samurai Jack. I’m a bit TV flaky, these days.

This month, I offer you two performance pieces: Sarah Jones’ “Your Revolution” and Joy Harjo’s “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear.” Both poems describe moving forward in a new and improved direction. Enjoy!

UPDATE: I finished Picnic at Hanging Rock last night. Apparently, it was inner demons and the relentless patriarch and corsets. Fair enough.

 

Well, It Used to Be: Thoughts on Evolving Perspectives

In autumn of 1987, I was twelve years old, had just gotten my braces off, and had entered the horrifying world of junior high. I won’t discuss, here, all the ways our culture disempowers women and enables men’s bad behavior, all the while giving young people absolutely no clue how to understand adulthood (unless it involves marketable rebellion). I will say, though, I was told that I had to be pretty, which I was, even though I never saw it. Men did, though, and I was often reminded that, because I was pretty and had big breasts, their behavior (which included stalking, threatening, groping, exposing themselves, masturbating at me, and calling out vulgarities) was just a burden pretty girls had to bear. Once, when I was fourteen, I was at my friend’s house and her grandfather hit on me. I felt scared and embarrassed, but he had no qualms with doing it in front of everyone. His parents laughed it off with an “Oh Grandpa!” reply. People were right; that burden was mine to bear: alone.

However, on September 28, 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, and my twelve-year-old self was transfixed by Lt. Tasha Yar, Security Chief. I watched her bark orders and flip big men as if they were rag dolls. I loved how she stood up straight and strong on the bridge, not folded into herself as women are often taught to stand, as to show that we are diminutive and never in the way of men. Lt. Yar had grown up orphaned and alone and had experienced constant threat of rape gangs. I don’t know whether or not the men who harassed me had also intended to rape me, but I always felt on edge around them and physically threatened on my walk home from school.

Screenshot 2018-02-23 19.22.34

Last autumn, I decided that my next book of poems will all be about Star Trek: The Next Generation. I have been having so much fun writing new poems about characters and episodes, and I have also been “watching around” the series on Netflix. The latter is nothing unusual for me. In fact, I often spend my weekday lunch breaks watching part of an episode. However, since I’m writing the book, I thought I’d revisit season one, which I never do. Season one was not the most well-written of the series. Nevertheless, I started with “Skin of Evil,” the episode where Tasha Yar dies. I’m not ashamed to admit that, after thirty years, I still got a little teary eyed at her funeral. (Side note: Tasha bleeds like a Kandinsky painting.)

 

Next, I watched the first episode of Season one. Here are my general observations:

  1. Damn, Troi’s dress was short. When she sits down, it looks like she’s wearing a shirt and underwear to work. Don’t get me wrong; she’s got a rockin’ shape. She just looked more comfortable, in later episodes, when she got to wear pants.
  2. God, I love Picard.
  3. God, I love Q. Have you heard the theory that Q is really Picard’s shadow side?
  4. Worf eventually grew into his growl. Love him.
  5. Awww…young, bright-eyed Riker!

What really struck me, though, was realizing that I have been remembering Tasha Yar very differently, all these years. As a kid in the 80s, I had viewed her as strong and in charge. I realized after re-watching the series premiere, however, that even though she throws people around and defends the crew, she’s really whiney about it. She cries, or is near tears, several times during the episode. She also flies off the handle and orates a desperate speech, despite the captain’s direct order to stop and the presence of trigger-happy militants. I’ll be honest, if I were the captain, I would not feel comfortable with her in charge of security. Picard acts fatherly and gentle with her, which at the time, I thought was sweet of him. Perhaps teaching college for the past eighteen years has hardened me a bit because I can tell you that, if I had been the captain, I would have told her to get her shit together. For heaven’s sake, one of her tearful outbursts gets her literally frozen solid, which in turn, makes Troi cry, too.

Screenshot 2018-03-05 16.22.49

Well, it was 1987, and Tasha Yar was still stronger than most females on television. Also, I’m sure my twelve-year-old lens made Tasha’s mood swings appear not as melodramatic as I see them today. I guess I have been remembering Yar more like Gwendoline Christie’s Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, who is strong, tough, committed, smart, and loyal. She’s allowed feelings, but as a protector, she controls them and performs her duties first.

I think that our cultural view of strength is shifting, slowly. In the 90s, I admired Special Agent Scully’s strength, intelligence, and rationality, and although I did fall for the whole potential Scully/Mulder romance, I also wanted her just to find someone who treated her right.

Scully had to bottle her emotions, most of the time. In “Never Again,” she goes on a date with a man who tries to kill her that night. When she returns from the hospital, Mulder slut-shames her. Funny, I don’t remember Mulder having to pay, even when he slept with other women.

Dana Scully GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I can’t even bear to watch the currently airing eleventh season of The X-Files. It’s too rapey. I’m tired of Scully being the object of dark, misogynist sci-fi. I love her too much.

Recently, I saw Black Panther, which I highly recommend. One of the many reasons that I liked it so much was because the strong women characters needed no explanation. As much as I adored Wonder Woman, at this point, I find it tiresome when scenes revolve around witty banter that explain how strange and humorous it is that a woman is strong. Also, actual women cannot be strong like Wonder Woman because we are just regular mortals.

Screenshot 2018-03-05 14.14.48

In Black Panther, the women found strength through discipline, wisdom, and intelligence. Some women were more physically strong; others were more intellectual. The old women exuded confidence from experience that married the head with the heart. Women’s strength in Black Panther is obvious and presented as accepted fact.

Oh, and their armor makes sense.

Screenshot 2018-03-05 14.15.39

Although Wonder Woman’s costume is skimpy in both Wonder Woman and Justice League, notice how her sister Amazons get dressed in Justice League. At least Wonder Woman’s costume protected her internal organs (although not much else).

 

What does any of this have to do with a poetry blog? Well, for this month’s post, I want to think about poetry that explores a shift in perspective. A few months ago, I wrote about Carolyn Kizer’s poem, “Bitch,” that describes an interaction between a woman and her ex, and the change in dynamics. Here are three poems that discuss shifting or evolving perspectives. If you, dear reader, can remember any poems with a similar theme, I encourage you to post them in the comments below. The three I’ve chosen to include, here, all recall parent/child relations, but you may find poems that embody different themes.

Photographs Of My Father

On my walls there are three
photographs of my father.
In one he is a young recruit
standing at ease,
third from the left
with his platoon.
In another he has rank
on his cap—a formal
pose in a studio,
intended for his mother.
In the last, a blowup
from my mother’s wallet
taken by a machine
in a foreign port, he is
a melancholy petty officer
in navy blues. Hazy
like a ghost sighting,
creased form her handling,
it is my favorite.

These are the survivors
from a day of fury.  One morning
in my childhood, on his way
out to sea, he had sat
alone in the living room,
and without hurry, with care,
cut himself out of our family.

Book after book.
I watched him work
from my room, knowing
his actions were prelude
or aftermath to family strife.
My mother in the kitchen
holding her coffee cup
with both hands, also waited.

On the floor
my father’s image lay
like peelings from an apple.
In his hands the scissors glinted
at the eye and snapped
like a live thing.

Nothing more. Just picture albums
shameful as a vandalized church,
never seen by me again. And years
after his death, my need to find
his face revealed in innocence,
unguarded, as I never knew it.
This vulnerable young man, this face
that fills me with grief and longing.
I am trying to believe in this boy.

by Judith Ortiz Cofer
from Reaching for the Mainland & Selected New Poems
Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 1995

 

Macaroni & Cheese

One day you may be asked, “How
was it that God brought forth
being

out of nothing?” Then, “IS
there no difference between them—
nothing, and being?” Outside

a strange slow snow, and a big
black bird hunched
over something in the road. The sky

will be a pale

reflection of itself,
like a woman making dreamy circles
at the center of a dish with a cloth.

Love. Hunger. Other alchemies.
You may be asked, “What

Are my eyes made of? Can
Santa’s reindeer be burned by fire? In
heaven, does Jesus eat?”
In the oven, something breathing. Rising. Melting.
Shifting
Shape and sweetening
in the heat. Now

You can see that the bird in the street
is wrestling something bloody

out of a carcass, trying
to expose its heart. You

put the dish beside the cloth, and say,
“Darling, I don’t know.”

by Laura Kasischke
from Gardening in the Dark
Copper Canyon Press, 2004

 

You can hear Li-Young Lee read this next poem: https://vimeo.com/36988030

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

by Li-Young Lee
from Rose
BOA Editions, Ltd., 1986