Online Edition: Summer 2007

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The Wife of the Left Hand

Nancy Kuhl

Shearsman Books ($15)

by James Berger

Nancy Kuhl’s first full length book of poems tells, or suggests, stories of women’s lives wildly disparate in action, but connected in feeling: of the adolescent Salome; of Amelia Earhart; of St. Catherine; and of the primary character, a composite, unnamed woman whose title is that of the book. This Wife is privileged, but constricted. Her life, like those of the other characters, is the stage of a continual struggle between desire and boundaries.

The central question that animates these beautifully crafted poems, however, is form. The most overt theme of the poems is the constriction of social forms and conventions, how desire is repressed and re-channeled into forms that are detached yet expressive. The Wife, Salome, Amelia Earhart, and St. Catherine all participate in these ritual entrapments and unleashings. Form constricts, but is all that separates one from a terrifying chaos of violence and sexuality. So there is a need for form and a need to escape it. Apparently, the woman is caught between the equally unappealing alternatives of chaos or slavery. Male desire and power are dangerous, but also a kind of relief in that they supply the existing forms. It’s really one’s own desire, as a woman, that is more dangerous. But then, once the dangerous desire inhabits the form, the form is redrawn. Creation means to extract, through the chaos of violence and desire and through repression, the form within the form.

Social form in the poems can be a figure for poetic form. The same repressive and creative possibilities are at stake. This sense of the book as allegory is strengthened by the book’s “decor,” that is, the choice to locate the principal social repressions in an imagined 1950s suburban world (which then is replicated and varied in the other sites of repression and rebellion). Kuhl has retrieved this housewife from parody and nostalgia and restored her to an archaic terror and dignity. The ‘50s, of course, is a moment just prior to contemporary; this is not H.D. with her Greeks or Pound’s China. But, still, it is past and has already taken on a mythological aura. Such a life(style) still exists, I suppose, in Greenwich Connecticut and elsewhere, but one can’t write of girls around the pool in tennis dresses with tall drinks, etc., or such rigid dinner parties and think to invoke something contemporary. The poems inhabit another place, and so their dramas of desire and repression, chaos and form can be displayed without the distractions of contemporary reference or subjective, personal imperatives.

Thus, this collection can be purely about the violence of desire and the attractions, beauties, and horrors of form: about the way, for instance, that “relentless charm leaves the housewives translucent” or that “a bride can fit her whole breath inside a crystal vase.” Kuhl has constructed a world that’s utterly recognizable, whose conventions are understood—a world that is not one of myth, yet carries mythical implications. The result is a perfectly balanced unity of what we know and what we think we remember.

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