Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mother's Day Special: "Nothing Personal," by poet Marina Blitshteyn

Mother's Day has just passed. I'm interested in the variety of conversations it starts among women in our era. No longer a simple holiday of greeting cards, flowers from the garden, or fixing Mommy breakfast in bed, Mother's Day has become a subject for debate.

This year I heard among my acquaintance objections to a holiday initiated by a greeting card business (false: it was founded as a national holiday in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson; the commerce followed); complaints that not every woman is a mother; that not every mother is happy to be one or has the means to be one. In short, like every holiday celebrating any occasion, it is as exclusive as inclusive. As many people suffer it as celebrate.

So Mother's Day has entered the new mainstream, which includes a broader and more searching awareness of women's real lives. Women of no stripe can escape the culture-wide reexamination of traditional roles and society's gendered habits. All women live with daily testing and pressure from outside and within. Wars rage around the idea of feminine empowerment in the US contrasted with that in the developing world. Liberation of the female body is in the news daily—as are matters of family duty, poverty, and proscribed ambition.

Nothing Personal by Marina Blitshteyn is the first title from Bone Bouquet Books, which extends the excellent Bone Bouquet Literary Journal in New York, a small press that publishes women writers. Blitshteyn's volume has nothing that links it directly to Mother's Day, but everything to do with the being the daughter of a mother who, like most, haunts her. Her poems implicitly ask parents what they think they are doing and what world they think they are raising their child for. This book constitutes acute confessions of a brilliant, female outsider in the clubby man's world of letters. Her dreamed ghostly, primal parents offer little guidance and considerable obfuscation. Did they ever imagine such a woman in such a world? Did any of us, raising our girls?

Blitshteyn's world is one few of us visit, that of a young professor and a poet. It's Academia, and, as her poems demonstrate, it's a world that young women are even less likely to visit, let alone to prosper in. Sexism has its particular flavors, and she has savored Literature's, to exquisite effect. Using careful word choice and placement, Blitshteyn uses an everyday convention—the call for submissions to a literary journal—as a way to bring the reader directly into an emotional situation she experiences daily, which few of us even imagine:  


would like to solicit
YOUR work for its annual
WOMEN's issue. We're self-
reflexive enough to publish
the best in critical and hyper-
critical poetry, in any form,
style, or length. SEND US
your finest work on the theme
WOMEN, open to your
interpretation, along
with a brief bio and
cover letter, using our
online submission system.

Despite the specificity of the situation, Blitshteyn has written a poem that puts any woman directly in a position to feel red-hot anger while her blood runs cold. The journal dedicates an issue to "Women" yet advertises in a demeaning way. The editors get credit for their liberality while the poet feels twist of their deeply ingrained contempt. 

YOUR…WOMEN…SEND US…WOMEN. These words, suggestive of the Neanderthal with club in hand, stand out like the few blades of grass that haven't yet been salted in the landscape by withering phrases like, "we're self-reflexive enough to publish the best in critical and hyper-critical…" The editors set the standards; they are the best. But how do we know they are male? 

Because women are the "theme" of their journal issue. Theme is indeed open to "your interpretation." Theme has to do with qualities and major concerns that inhere in art. Editors feel free to judge anything in their domain of "critical and hyper-critical poetry."

Topic is the subject itself, which would include women's realities, their experience, emotion, or truth. This is not being solicited. Ambiguously then, Blitshteyn shows the editorial door opened enough to be slammed in a common and terrible tease. If it comes through the door, the editors are automatically authorities, empowered to judge.

"Journal of American Poetry" ends alluding ironically to another standard practice of the literary profession, getting one's poetry to the editors via the submission system, a phrase that Blitshteyn uses brilliantly for her feminist and personal purposes. That it is an online submission system highlights the permafrost that underlies the whole sham of this satirized journal's interest in "WOMEN, open to your interpretation." Submit, Dorothy. 

Several of Blitshteyn's poems bring the reader with similar directness into the professional world of a female academic. She invokes the misery of any academic conference in "Club," where females are scarce and automatically at a disadvantage. She tells another woman,

"All the boys here love each other
You'll get the hang of it

At night they go out drinking so they can talk
They won't invite you

Unless you give them something to flirt with…

They all get a hotel room together
But it's really not homosocial

I just mean they all stick together
In case there are too many of us here."

As if there were too many women there. But her point is made with a loud, resounding slap. Of course the boys avoid the women. And it has to do with more than the flirting and sexual objectification. Can anyone talk about the possibility of their fearing the woman who has had indeed to be better educated, have a better strategy, to be better turned out and quicker on her feet? By appearing to instruct her colleague in the inevitability of the boys' hegemony, she adroitly shines the light on the deeper issue of protecting the power status quo.

Blitshteyn's daily experience of womanhood, no less feminist, is equally powerful, poignant, satirical, and funny. Trapped with no way out from masculine inspection and rules as she pursues her academic and literary career, she struggles even more with her heritage as a girl raised by parents with acculturated gender expectations. She is influenced by her mother's domesticity and by her father's wish for women to be just that way. How do we grow past our parents' wishes into the ideals we, in our own era, wish for ourselves, especially if we are in the vanguard of our times?

Nothing Personal opens with the poem, "I'm good," a title that certainly sets on edge the reader with any shred of feminist self-awareness. Every little girl is raised to be good. Feminine goodness can become a chronic disease of adulthood, often passed to daughters as if it were a gene to select for. Blitshteyn communicates the struggle with goodness in lines that cross the whole page, breaking in the middle instead of at the ends and changing modes as quickly as tired, useless habits rip us back from acting on liberating knowledge. Her confessional form leads us to expect a certain linguistic registers, and she foils this expectation with formidable skill. From early in the poem:

                                                                                                 it's about a power dynamic
particularly with respect to sexual politics        the man dominates, he communicates
in particular forms of violence                        I also occasionally enjoy the sensation of 
feeling trapped or suffocated during the act               with a woman the dynamics
have not been culturally enforced and are more ambiguous                I want to add
that at no point have I felt myself devoted to                            a particular kind of
domestic existence         short of my infatuation with my professor no man has ever 
made me feel in danger of kitchen work      my mother still lays out clothes for
my father             insofar as I am my own woman I believe it's time to experiment
with a particular kind of sexual freedom    the loss of one's virginity is a turning
point in any young writer's development   depending on the conditions and 
social pressures of her time, a woman can feel abandoned or exposed during 
the sexual act…

The wit in this passage ("short of my infatuation with my professor no man has ever/made me feel in danger of kitchen work;" "the loss of one's virginity is a turning/point in any young writer's development") is winning in any event. But in the big picture, here Blitshteyn brings together an amazing assortment of topics. Who would think to put these side by side, in the open? It no doubt takes years to develop and refine the high level of self-consciousness that permits the poet  to create so many concurrent streams—her thoughts about the sex act, her memories of her parents' relationship, and her fantasies about her professor as both dominator and husband. She confesses her bisexuality; her intimate feelings about the violence of the sex act and its implicit power struggle. She tries to separate sex and domesticity; she recognizes the unhappy connection between her intimate and her public, professional life. Does sex make her more vulnerable to the powerful? Did the loss of virginity give her more material, or more access? 

I think this is an outstanding passage for the way it unties a knot and shows us each thread of a tangle that adds up to something surreal, something that sounds insane. But it also reveals a perfectly logical and not unfamiliar way of being a woman. When and how can she be who she is? How would she know? When is she not in a power relationship, from cradle into maturity and career? How does she keep power voices out of her head? Why can't sex itself be freedom or bliss? Goodness is servitude, defined as it from without. Whose poem is this, anyway?

Nothing Personal is unusual for being both poetry, narrative, and sourcebook all at once. Surely Blitshteyn speaks to us through personae, but they are so deeply drawn on believable experience that every poem feels transparent.  

I suspect that many readers recoil at the very idea of feminist poetry. No doubt about it: This is feminist poetry. And does it ever merit widespread attention. It is keenly observed, self-aware, funny and sharp. It isn't mean, but it is smart.  It asks as many questions of the self as it does of a misogynistic society. Best of all, there are no stereotypes here, but an introduction to one very intelligent, capable artist in whose voice I can hear my own. Many will hear theirs too.

Nothing Personal by Marina Blitshteyn, copyright 2015, ISBN: 978-1-934819-52-4, is available from

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