R.I.P. CAROLYN KIZER
December 10, 1925 – October 9, 2014
She made the battle of the sexes
Humorous, a fact that vexes
Feminists who are no wiser
For the efforts of Ms. Kizer.
By Lewis Turco
Unlike Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Kizer never forgot how to keep an eye on the language and make it dance and go deep simultaneously. Born in Spokane, Washington, in 1925, she was educated at Sarah Lawrence College. She held a number of positions both in and out of academics; her academic career included teaching stints in the Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa, Ohio University, University of North Carolina, Barnard College, Columbia University, and the University of Washington in Seattle.
Kizer's first book, The Ungrateful Garden, was published in 1961. Her long poem "Pro Femina," from Knock Upon Silence (1965), was an early feminist work which, in the opinion of some, has never been excelled by any other poem on the same subject before or since. She speaks in this poem "about women of letters, for I'm in the racket," and it's a man's world in which she must make her way and find her place. Her third collection, Midnight Was My Cry: New and Selected Poems, appeared in 1971, Mermaids in the Basement and Yin in were published in 1984, and The Nearness of You came out in 1986. In each of these books her wide range of emotion appeared packaged in all sorts of formal bottles — she has been accused by critics of using her technical skills to "distance herself from pain." However, Kizer was well aware that humor is a weapon with a sharp edge, keener even than a sharp tongue.
Another element of Kizer's success is that she never forgot how to tell a story, and no one told a story quite the way she did, as a slow passage down the pages of Yin demonstrated. Though her material was topical, it was also timeless, and Kizer remembered how to get and keep the reader's attention without resorting to the sensational or the hortatory. In "Semele Recycled," for instance, the poet told a narrative out of Greek myth, but she made it so near, familiar, and compelling; loaded it with so much resonance, that the reader wanted to keep going and going.
Semele was the mother of Dionysus — god of wine and fertility — by Zeus, the supreme father-god. Semele asked Zeus to appear to her in all his majesty, but the apparition was so terrifying that she died. Semele's various body parts were scattered and had undergone transformations and sundry adventures, but then her lover returned, and the body parts, hearing the rumor, "leapt up" and as many as could do so reunited themselves.
"This empty body danced on the river bank. / Hollow, it called and searched among the fields / for those parts that steamed and simmered in the sun, / and never would have found them." Then Semele and Zeus were reunited; their "two bodies met like a thunderclap / in mid-day — right at the corner of that wretched field / with its broken fenceposts and startled, skinny cattle. / We fell in a heap on the compost heap / and all our loving parts made love at once,..."
When the poem ended, the reader might have wished to read it again immediately to savor its richly concrete language, its psychological complexity, the narrative embodiment of the war between the sexes, and the eternal truce that is struck again and again. Then the reader may have turned the pages to find another poem as good — and one would be found, over and over.
Although Mermaids in the Basement was subtitled Poems for Women, for many years Kizer wrote with real power for an audience that was wider than the special interest audiences that so many Post-Modern American poets tried to reach during the period following the Second World War: Kizer kept her balance with The Nearness of You which was subtitled Poems for Men.
Excerpted from Dialects of the Tribe: Postmodern American Poets and Poetry, by Lewis Putnam Turco, Nacogdoches, TX: Stephen F. Austin State University Press, www.tamupress.com, 2012, 336 pp., ISBN 978-1-936205-30-1, paperback.