by Nancy Reddy
|Milkweed Editions, 2015
What if Eve told the story? That’s a question raised by Nancy Reddy’s poem, “Inventing the Body.” Exploring the discovery of Ardipithecus ramidus, the earliest known hominid, Reddy asks, “Did she feel / the tender humming jumplily, catfish, / the rapid flare as she lit / on the precise right name?” Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer; this daughter of Eve is never allowed Adam’s powers of signification.
That glory is left to the team of male paleontologists who stumble upon her remains. “Her bones become a body / in their hands. Touched, / she breathes again.” In Reddy’s debut poetry collection, selected by Alex Lemon for Milkweed Editions’ National Poetry Series, even the ancestral mother of women is subjected to the Double Jinx all women face while living in a man’s world. Or, as Lemon writes, “her poems… unravel and embody the seething mystery, the metamorphosis, the inherent violence in womanhood,” “the brutality of being the girl not chosen by the boy, as well as the cruelty of being the girl who is chosen.”
Boys are not quite the center of Reddy’s collection—that honor is reserved for her fellow women—but they keep coming up. The girls are defined by them, seen by them, pursued and spurned by them, and ultimately contorted into paper doll versions of themselves. The sources Reddy returns to—American history, popular literature, science, fairy tales and folklore—allow her to turn the traditional narratives of womanhood on their heads. Here, women are wholly women again, trying their best to escape the restrictions of marriage, their family’s expectations, the space cut out for them in society.
Reddy’s reinventions of famous female characters always force her readers to see these stories in a new way. What if Little Red were abandoned by her mother? What if the prince never again came looking for Cinderella? But for all their strength of craft, these poems seem to exist uncomfortably within their predecessors’ old parameters. The poems that don’t rely on familiar stories and outright moralizing, those that seem to come from Reddy’s personal history, are the strongest of the collection. In these, she is able to take to task the damaging aspects of femininity, and, for that matter, masculinity, with greater specificity.
“Why the McKean County Lifeguards Left Town” revisits the mire of adolescence at an inland swimming hole. “When a girl went out into the water there, you / couldn’t say for certain / what would seize her.” Taught by their mothers all the joys of swimming, the young women quickly tire of Heimlich practice and recreated beaches. “We gassed up our cars and hightailed it for the coast. / Before our mothers / could call us to our dinner tables, we sped off / down the forest highway— / its logging trucks, its bait and beer shops, already / going out of season.”
This fear of expiration carries throughout the collection. The beauty queen deposed by middle age, the spinster, the other woman who overstays her welcome—Reddy writes an elegy for each of them and the ways they are not allowed to overcome their stories. As she shows, everyone loses in this culture… even the men. Fathers prone to violence, husbands ignoring their wives to gaze dumbly at unattainable women—the confines of femininity, masculinity, monogamy, heterosexuality.
In the end, the freedom Reddy’s speaker finds is to be complicated and unapologetic. She masturbates to depictions of Christ, “hung there / an object lesson in desire.” To a gone-away husband, she laments, “I was good for you. I was on / my best behavior.” She waits in the window for a strange man outside and “when he lifts her nightdress— / she won’t say no, won’t be sorry.” This voice rings dissonant to everything its parents ever taught. Woman, finally reinvested with creative power, begins her own imperfect story and waits to see the ending.
“My Love, / my Frankenstein, I made you up. I built a model lover,” she declares.
When you loved me
you called me on the telephone. Now I stitch a voice box
from cable and string. When I can figure out this radio,
its glitchy dials and rusted-out switches, I’ll make you sing.