Friday, September 14, 2012
Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging
edited by R.A. Rycraft and Leslie What
Review by Alice Weiss
If there is an art to aging it is one we invent as we go along. Art involves at the very least a particular way of seeing experience. In this anthology there is a broad variety of such visions in poems, essays, memoir and cartoons from women writers engaged in the project of inventing their old age. The intended audience is also women and women “of a certain age.” But I don’t think this is unjust. Such an anthology has more than an underlying theme, it has a thrust, a purpose. That is to counter the messages of the dominant culture. It hardly needs mention that for women age compounds the already difficult project of creating and sustaining an independent and autonomous self. Speaking, writing words is a way of contending with that. These are the words of that project.
The scope of the material is broad and various, but the editors have not explicitly organized the material into themes, nonetheless certain themes do emerge, problems are defined, challenges explored. Without intending to limit the richness of the individual pieces, I will explore some of these as they thread through the collection.
Here is the first theme, the clear challenge of age: the body. It’s no longer the one you knew. Every piece deals with this one way or another, some explicitly. Here are only one or two examples. In a poem that regards the body as an ironic “House of Mercy” Hester L. Fury recognizes, “I have to live here/ in these guts, these bones.” In another poem, “The View from Here,” Betty Lynn Husted’s younger self cries out in horror at “A bent and hobbling woman /crossing the highway. . .” but now through “joint pain. Bone loss—lace designs on X-rays” she honors her. Now she understands something in her “is already broken,” but she is still dancing across the kitchen floor. Leigh Anne Joshaway in her essay “Facing Facts,” (note the pun) laughs her way through the shock of looking in the mirror and seeing, not her own, but Phyllis Diller’s lined and twisted mug.
Another challenge: age has a bad reputation. This is nowhere clearer than in Jan Eliot’s comic strip, “Stone Soup,” three panels of which are included. Grandma announces she is hosting her weekly poker game at their house, and the granddaughter says, “ I thought little old ladies played Bridge.” Grandma in a last frame, “I could arm wrestle you into the DUST, Missy.” Despite the bad rep or maybe because of it, age has hidden treasures and they are not here the traditional clichés. Elizabeth Murakowski, “I sin so much harder now.” Ursula Le Guin; “the expertise of being lame. . . the silent furtive welcome of delay.” Dorianne Laux, “Eventually the future shows up everywhere. . .[you] name the past and drag it behind/ bag like a lung filled with shadow and song,/dream of running, the keys to lost names.”
Michelle Bitting’s poem “Patti Smith after the premiere of ‘Dream of Life,’” takes that bad rep and shakes it like a dog shakes off water. She builds from complex series of traditional and pop culture allusions. The movie the title refers to is an account of the life of the seminal rock star as she returns to her career after a two decade break, a woman on stage with a “mannish mug,” “razor chin and dingy teeth,” “unshaven pits,” in short, a woman who defies conventions of female attractiveness yet who still brings an audience to “the hellfire heavens…[belting] the soaring refrain: G—l—o—r—i—a.” Imagined at first in the voice of two puzzled Jersey matrons wishing oddly to have been something like her, the speaker turns to her own sense of the singer in the final lines to address Patti Smith with this extraordinary invocation:
You are tracking Blake’s ghost
though the cemeteries, parks
and urinals of Paris,
every place his bony
is know to have squatted
and scribbled something beautiful
while taking an ordinary
everyday, entirely human piss.
To evoke Blake’s ghost is to remind us of another aspect of our lives, How things continue across time no matter what. Just as we still read long dead poets, our lives contain facts that move through time as if there were no change and yet we see them anew as we change. Diane McWhorter’s essay, “Stay Calm, Nothing Is Under Control” explores her life as an independent crafts person in a long lasting hippy community in California. She reaps the warmth and inventiveness of a life outside the ordinary institutions, but also recognizes the requirement to reinvent all the time grows wearying and dangerous she grows weaker. In Lauren Davis’s essay, “Breaking Down” the writer shows how age magnifies the always strange, strained relationship of mother and daughter. The disintegration of the mother’s body becomes a metaphor for the difficulty of the relationship. There is the failure of skin to maintain its protection of the body. She sees an elbow bone all too clearly as if the mother’s pain is demanding to be seen, as if that exposure were what love is.
Pain is not the only continuous thing. Pleasures continue. In Alicia Ostriker’s wonderful long poem, “Approaching Seventy,” she explores the presence of past in the loving relationships with nature and with her husband. Daring also continues. In ‘White Chin Hair and a Lonely Female Ccardinal,” Roisin McClean’s first person speaker relates an incident: she is masturbating in her bedroom with audible cries and sighs, sure that the house is empty, only to discover that her visiting daughter’s boyfriend had remained in the house and heard everything. This is defiance, the comedy of age. Everything continues.
And nothing continues. Finally we come up against the true thing, to age is to approach death. It is to feel a fear with an intensity only glanced at earlier, perhaps after one has avoided a car crash on a rain slick highway, slipped at the edge of a balcony, or at the Grand Canyon. In an essay notable for its calm acceptance, Supriya Bhatnagar’s “Memories and Misgivings: Death of a Friend” explores the imminence of death in the loss of a friend. She includes a careful and simple discussion of Ashrama, the four stages of life in the Hindu religion, information added, almost it seems, for our comfort. In Elizabeth Murawsaki’s poem “Incense of the Blythe” she holds on, with humor and beauty, “It kills. . .[ her]. . . to die/ in the midst of orchards.” And in another Alicia Ostriker poem, a confession and subtle metaphor in “Insomnia”
you brag to friends you won’t mind death only dying
what a liar you are—
all the other fears, of rejection, of physical pain,
of losing your mind, of losing your eyes,
they are all part of this!
Pawprints of this! hair snarls in your comb—
Now notice the clock is the single light in the room—
What the editors have done with this anthology is to define and redefine the “art” of aging. It’s unquestionably worth a good read.