Book Review: LANDSCAPE WITH FEMALE FIGURE by Andrea Hollander
|Landscape with Female Figure: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2012
Poems by Andrea Hollander
|Autumn House Press, 2013
Andrea Hollander’s book Landscape with Female Figure is comprised of 27 new poems and selections from three previous books (Women in the Painting, 2006; The Other Life, 2001; and House Without a Dreamer, 1993). Given the breadth and scope of Hollander’s work, the selections are notable; the consonant themes are duplicity, betrayal, and the reconstitution of belief: in love, self, and language. Hollander works these themes not as cause and effect, but as aspects of one another: duplicity (of desire, of language) leads to betrayal; as well, betrayal is worked by duplicity (a violation of trust).
In Hollander’s anthropology, humans are essentially constituted of language and desire. She suggests that thought (desire) precedes language, and that language names desire. However, language, due to its nature, is always in the process of unsaying itself as it says what it qualifies; for example, language unsays desire (qualifies the subject as subject), as opposed to unqualified desire existing for itself, in absolute relation to its subject. Because a word is not the thing it names (the relationship is associative, not indicative), language shifts perception, identity, subject, and object.
Desire necessitates relationship, which in turn necessitates language. Meaningful relationships are qualified by trust; in a marital relationship, for example, the benefit of giving yourself wholly to another person, making yourself wholly available, is also a surrender of your self-protection. The trust is that a partner who has the means to hurt you will choose not to do so, and vice versa. Nothing less than human society is built on this kind of trust. Hollander writes, in “Woman and Husband,”
When I first conceived him in my life
I craved the softness of his voice, his eyes
that penetrated mine. Disease
is made of less.
The break in the third line is crucial; with that choice Hollander associates sex with disease by isolating the terms in a single line. This is typical of Hollander’s craft; she is attentive to the shifting semantic fields of her terms and allows them to flow into each other (as in the example of penetrated and disease, above).
Similarly, in the poem “Black”:
What little she has known of passion. It takes in
everything, seduces the most innocent.
Only road kill seemed to own that road: skunk, skunk,
armadillo, possum, possum, possum. Passion
travels in the dark — the animal
we do not truly know, the one
we never pet . . .
Hollander’s tally of victims in the fourth line includes, both alliteratively and symbolically, passion as a death on that road. But if passion is a kind of death (in terms of seduction of the innocent), it is also fundamental to life, as she indicates in “When She Named Fire”:
It was a sound
she uttered, not a considered thing, nothing
her mind did. It was a sound
that burned her throat to come out
and announce itself for the thing
burning outside her
where the trees had been down for years . . .
When she named the sun, she didn’t think
of fire at all. Sun, she claimed,
because it was big and unexplainable,
a oneness that she loved
for its ability to command
the whole sky and the earth too — . . .
She didn’t name the moon at all.
That was the name it gave itself.
At night she heard it call.
She thought she gave love’s name
to love, that beating thing she could not
still. She might have called it bird. Or fire again
for fire inside that gives no light
but burns and burns and does not
stop until she touches
what she loves, and then it only burns
again and makes her want
to name it something more.
Hollander’s strategy is to reimagine a common creation myth to highlight on the eternal presence of desire. In Genesis 2:20 Adam gives names to the animals, but Hollander grants Eve a more difficult task. When an animal is named, it remains in itself unchanged; naming an animal doesn’t change its essence. But Eve names fire, and Eve’s fire (as we know from the correlations in Hollander’s other poems) is desire. Eve knows, fundamentally, that when desire is named it becomes a subjective totality that affects everything it touches; when desire is embodied, it becomes seductive (which in Hollander’s equivocation is always duplicitous). Desire is contagious, and according to Hollander’s mythos is not sated until fixed on an object — but only to burn again. Her pitch-perfect closing lines — makes her want / to name it something more — is also a condition of Hollander’s semantically overdetermined terms that fail to qualify (or better, fail in the fact of qualification). As well, the lines set up a repeating condition, the motivating consumption that is desire; or at least, a desire that is named and therefore fixed on an object. This naming, an ongoing concern in Hollander’s work, is perhaps best expressed in her important poem “Longing”:
I say this: if words could be laid down,
If they could be held,
my longing would end.
But words are not what they say.
They echo the sound
of a voice, a remnant, itself
Such is the poet’s despair: that which is fundamental to human life and society, that which names what we most want, and need is, at best, only nearby, an echo of an echo.
In the poem “Anniversary,” from the new group of poems, Hollander writes:
Last night I set the dining room table
he’s never seen. He’s never seen
this apartment or the street where I live.
The duplication contained in the second line accentuates the absent mate. Likewise, the end stopped stanza asserts a matter of fact statement of loneliness. However,
The river light brightened as the moon rose.
I watched that. Breathed in the fruity redolence
of the chardonnay. Sipped. I ate a chicken breast
marinated in champagne and limes. I ate white rice
and fresh green beans from my neighbor’s garden.
I ate alone and wanted nothing.
The brightening moon (the feminine image of the moon recurs frequently in this collection), the reportorial list of the dinner menu, the introduction of neighbors, and even the frothy lightness of the expression fruity redolence suggests a woman far from despair. But, as is typical of Hollander’s craft, even the assertive images may be read two (or more) ways. The speaker may want nothing because she is restored to herself. Or, she may in fact want nothing, that is, no / thing. Or, she may want nothing because the desire to want has deserted her. This last idea is perhaps reinforced by the poem’s last line, another of Hollander’s fatalistic declarations:
Whatever comes next will happen anyway.
Again, while this sounds like Hollander’s fatalism at work, it might also be a mature resignation not to the inevitable (loss, betrayal) but to the flow of human life that, finally, has not assured her despair but sharpened her sense of self. In any case, the only assurance of her resignation in the line is that language, and her orientation to the world made of language, is always uncertain.
Hollander approaches this concern from the perspective of the writer in “Writing Studio,” one of the strongest poems of the new work. She begins by comparing writing poetry to planting a newly plowed field, watching crows feeding on seeds. Then:
Do not fool yourself.
Do not think yourself
some all-powerful god
free to invent the world
according to your whims.
You are a watcher
at the edge, a gleaner.
After the harvest is over,
you may take what you can,
but only after the crows
This is the most clearly wrought statement of her methodology. The poet doesn’t create the world, but observes it and feeds on its leavings. Hollander articulates a sort of poetic deism here. As well, in terms of the dominant themes of the book, and particularly the restructuring of the self after the loss of innocence, this is the poet’s most mature vision: it is a fatalism that does not necessarily invoke despair.
Art is, fundamentally, the expression of the essential nature (and, in the case of poetry, ontology) of its materials, wrought by the artist. Hollander’s poems are crafted such that at times her mechanisms are clearly on display; with the poems she has selected for this book, her material is the duplicitous essence of language — the ability to say more than one thing at once (for example, in “Wood Thrush,” It doesn’t surprise me that the male can sing / two notes at once; or, in “Delta Flight 1152,” It’s so easy, all you must do / is answer this man’s questions with truths / you’ve just invented), or the ability of language to not say anything at all. Consider her poem “Wander”:
What we don’t know we don’t know,
so accept it. If your mother wandered
when your father was stationed in France
during the war before you were born,
before you were even conceived, so be it.
The tautology of the opening lines betrays a casual fatalism, too generally stated to be of much use to the speaker other than mere pacification. The next stanza localizes the information behind the tautology, but note that Hollander does not use this information to change the endless cycle of the tautological structure. That is, specific information is contrary to the un-provability of the tautology; but for Hollander, the tautological condition is necessary, keeping with the ongoing theme in her work that what is necessary is not always what is true (and vice versa). Later in the poem she writes:
Your job is to be the daughter,
to stay open to where you are,
your ear toward the glistening insects
that draw your eye to the wild azaleas
The pronoun indicates the speaker and her role in her relationship with her mother, as well as her understanding of herself. She conflates the “I” with “eye,” centralizing her perception of her role; she exists insider a relationship and outside of it as well (a situation that is echoed in the opening tautology).
These insects must be honeybees heavying
with nectar — so many lifting in and out
of the wild azaleas you can almost smell their
desire. Wild like your mother’s may have been.
Like your husband’s was. But you don’t know
In clarifying the sexual imagery as well as her perception of it, Hollander comments on both aspects of her condition. And later:
You sit on the porch
of this emptying house and think
whatever you think. . . .
Your job was to be the wife and mother,
the daughter. To be whatever you are now.
The moon has its own job. The house
will fill again. Perhaps you are tired
of watching the bees. Of noticing how
the petals of the azaleas strain upward
to right themselves after the bees
have finished with them. Tired
of the questions that repeat themselves
like the fat predictable moon, and the doubt
that manages, no matter what the truth is,
to never run out.
Hollander determines — better, she allows full determination to occur — of the companion terms heavying and emptying (sexual imagery; family / children / domesticity; relational fulfillment and expectation) and creates dualities that again echo the tautology in the opening stanza. The doubt of the last line is a counterbalance to truth, to knowing; this poem, like many in her section of new poems, does not resolve because it cannot resolve. Hollander explores the ephemeral nature of language to inscribe the ephemeral nature of desire / sexual complication / social instability / the ineffability of language. The tautological condition, then, is best suited to describe the ineluctable fact in Hollander’s poetry: that language cannot qualify the truth of our roles and desires, a fact we either endlessly combat or reluctantly accept. But the final resolution is that language is all we have — which is, of course, no resolution at all.
Hollander resigns herself, in “The Other Life,” to the acceptance of unfilled desire: in this case the desire for a more exotic, more fulfilling life than the speaker has lead: The Other of the title is Levinas’ “Other,” the recognition of the personhood (we might say the soul) in another human, but Hollander takes the idea a step further: in a woman separated from her sense of trust (indeed, her sense of self), she sees the “other” in herself. Even as the poet qualifies life with the image of a scarf, and then further removes the scarf image by qualifying that as perfume, the poet is herself two removes from who she once was, or perhaps once wished to be:
The life you wish you had lived
inhabits the lavender scarf
you lift now and then
from the dresser drawer.
Like perfume, it invades
every room in your house
until your body is filled —
anyone can touch.
The availability of the body is as well the poet’s desire for the availability of herself to herself. The “Other Life” is thus necessary, and is, as she writes,
. . . the life you covet and protect,
the one you invent and invent
because it invents you back.
The manifold life in this poem is part of Hollander’s anthropology, at least as it describes a person separated traumatically from herself.
“The Other Life” appears roughly at the midpoint of the book, and given the repetitions in the last stanza, we might despair of the poet ever finding grounds for a reintegration of her sense of trust with her experience of the world. But by the end of the book that process seems to have, in a sense, begun. At the end of the book Hollander’s work becomes more focused on a summation of what she’s learned in poems with the revealing titles “What I Want,” “Advice,” and “Dawn.” In “What I Want,” she writes,
. . . I want
to change this longing if I can.
I want to stop discounting
what I am. I want whatever’s out there —
perhaps a word, perhaps a man — to part
to clear the road ahead,
to signal dogs and rabbits,
to want oncoming traffic
that someone mean and tired of longing
is speeding down this forlorn
road . . .
The closing poem, “Dawn,” is a poem of liminality, a poem of transition states, the poet’s reawakened desire to be between absolutes, between (we might say) the present and future tense of existence:
I want to know the precise moment
today becomes yesterday —
tomorrow, today. . . .
I need to know so urgently exactly how
the woman who lies awake at night
becomes the sleeper, then the dreamer,
then the dream. I want to know why
the words I am saying seem to be spoken
by somebody else. . . .
I have to know what it’s like
the moment that ice is not ice anymore
but isn’t yet water.
In seeking the answers to these questions the poet seeks, as she writes, not scientifically / but with my whole body. The speaker has reentered the world of transitional states, of spaces between words, feelings that cannot be scribed without being unfairly qualified. Hollander alludes to distinctions between kinds of loss and species (though not degrees) of pain, specifically pain which betrays all of our illusions, even that of the signification of truth in language. But I would contend that, particularly in the poems centered on betrayal, the distinction doesn’t matter. When trust is violated, the pain reaches to the core of what and who we are. When this violation is evoked in language the assumptions we carry about language — that it says what it means — reveals itself as the eggshell veneer upon which human society rests. (None of us live our daily lives at the semiotic level.) At the level of pain (which is also the failure of identity) the poet describes, the niceties of qualification and analytic assessment is simply irrelevant. A drowning woman doesn’t need a lecture on hydrodynamic theory (or semiotics); she needs a life preserver. Only then can she begin to learn to swim.