Sandeep Parmar, Faust (Shearsman, 2022): Mary Leader, The Distaff Side (Shearsman, 2022)
Reviewed by Anna Reckin
If the review of these two collections were to have a title, one possibility would be ‘The Shovel and the Distaff,’ referring to the tools that provide their central metaphors. In Parmar’s case, it’s the shovel (or fan) used for threshing. ‘My mother’s first memory,’ she writes, in one of two essays in Faust, ‘is of a grain harvest in Punjab, of a winnowing shovel throwing freshly threshed wheat into the air and the hot chaff sticking to her face’ (p 51). Leader’s tool is a distaff, a wooden rod that holds a mass of fibres ready to be spun into a thread using a drop spindle. One process has to do with scattering and outward movement and is subject to the elements (air, wind and heat), the other involves drawing together, using gravity and the tendency of fibres to twist around themselves to make a line.
For Parmar, the winnowing shovel has a specific place in her family’s history, a history of migrations (voluntary and involuntary) across and between continents, and the changes that necessitated them. Importantly, she is not writing nostalgically about an ancestral heritage of farming. For her ancestors, as she describes it, work on the land was contingent on nineteenth-century British colonial policies: specifically offering forest land for cultivation to those who would undertake to clear it – only for them to be failed by the Green Revolution. Previous to that, ‘[while] they farmed a little, largely for their own use, they made their living twisting reeds into rope and baskets’ (p 48).
I am reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,’ a set of witty proposals for narratives (and histories) based on technologies of containment and storage, a counter to those structured around ‘the Actions of the Hero.’ The shovels, ropes and baskets invoked by Parmar, and Leader’s distaff with its hank of fibre ready to be spun, are things used to hold and contain, to store things (food, clothes, household goods) and move them around. The first word in Le Guin’s formulation is as important as the second. Carrier bags are for carrying things, and storage is always more or less temporary. And as Le Guin points out, homes too may be considered to be containers.
Counterpart to Parmar’s winnowing shovel is her engagement with the figure of Faust, as shown in the structure of the first half of the book, which consists of a long sequence of poems in many different forms – list poems, lyric open-form collage, prose poems and more – followed by a substantial lyric essay, ‘A Winnowing Shovel,’ densely argued and brilliantly digressive. The poems expand on the essay and vice versa, to make an interrogation: ‘. . . the questions I put to Goethe’s version . . . bring together three strands: striving as a fear of and countermeasure against mortality; a critique of globalisation and technology; and the female element counteracting male aggression, destructiveness and desire.’ (p 48) Running through this is a challenge to the figure of the wandering hero, drawing on Jane Harrison’s writings on art and ritual.
Some of the most compelling writing in Faust is precisely here, where ‘wandering’ is recast as ‘striving.’ ‘The work of return is never done,’ Parmar writes, ‘ . . . perhaps this is the migrant’s striving: to make home where home can never be made, to carry what is familiar into a place of unfamiliarity and to repurpose it in a place of unbelonging, a place where you risk being no one.’ (pp 50-51) Nonetheless, the migrant has no choice but to continue onwards, battling an irresistible urge to reconnect with the familiar only to find, repeatedly, that this is impossible. Drawn in here too is Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, where the hero, in hell, tries to hold his dead mother in his arms only to find that she ‘dematerialises, a phantom form, unreachable.’ (p 50) One could say that the loss is palpable, except that the point is, of course, that it isn’t. (At the risk of sounding trivialising, I could mention that the act of reviewing the poems in this part of Faust is similarly frustrating: I reach for telling lines, only to see them fall apart when taken out of the context of Parmar’s loose-weave open-form lyrics.)
The second essay, ‘An Uncommon Language,’ more straightforward, focuses on one particular, particularly harrowing, form of loss, miscarriage. Parmar herself has described this powerful piece as ‘a triptych . . . , a sort of academic essay that gives way to lyric essay that gives way to a poem’ (interview with Ilya Kaminsky, 2022). It’s a good example of her expansiveness and versatility. Here is a poet who can write as devastatingly directly as ‘A folder, yellow, the word baby / on its cover, re-filed as miscellaneous’ (from the poem that forms the final section of ‘An Uncommon Language’ (p 62)) or produce a poem as quietly, insidiously, sad as in ‘Something Particular’, in the last section of the book, a prose poem where a bereaved mother’s freshly made tea is ‘another drink, an elsewhere’ that when poured away hot and ‘already sweetening the metal socket of the drain . . . means nothing or something particular to her.’ (p 84) Or who can summon up Marilyn Monroe at the Waldorf Astoria: ‘Stunning serpent / in the long grass of fluted columns. ‘(p 80)
Very different is ‘The Nineties,’ a virtuosic set of documentary prose poems reporting from the front line of racial tensions in California. Vivid, fast and furious, they run from the LA riots of April 1992 via the 1994 Northridge earthquake to the exultant response of a classmate (‘the only black student in the twelfth grade’) to OJ Simpson’s acquittal in October 1995, dashing out of the classroom and round and round the building: ‘they pull the doors shut and let Seneca run himself tired.’ (p 71) Here, perhaps, is where the chaff flies back in your face, a series of rebuttals. ‘This is not your city,’ the opening and closing words of the first poem (p 67), sets a chain of ricochets echoing across literal and metaphorical fault-lines: ‘This is not your history,’ and, reportedly, a school student’s comment on a visit to LA’s Museum of Tolerance, ‘’’I don’t think I should have to take that history” . . . “I don’t even know my own history” ‘(p 70).
If one of the themes of Parmar’s book is the open, existential terror that underlies the American Dream, exposed in the act of striving, Leader’s collection calls attention to limits and constraint. In a series of shape poems titled ‘Spindle,’ published first in this magazine (LPM 26, Autumn 2021), threads of life-stories fly out only to be caught back in. These are a graphic representation of the ‘distaff side’ (also known as the spindle side; the opposite, tellingly, is the ‘spear side’) of the collection’s title: the female line, starting with Leader’s daughter and going back through eight generations, from Oklahoma to County Mayo. Except, of course, as in all genealogies, it’s full of dog-legs, nothing like as continuous as it might appear. Particularly noticeable is the way that names slip horizontally as women marry (all the women here are married).
Reaching across lists of places of birth and death and ‘dwellings in order’ are attempts at lines of communication. Voicemail greetings for Leader and her daughter spool out across the page, to be followed, further in the sequence, by a hesitant ‘Hello?’ for Leader’s mother (p31) and ‘Hello . . . / (hard of hearing, tended to miss calls)’ for her mother’s aunt (p33). For a great-grandmother, the direct connection is lost, and then there is a hiccup of speculation: ‘Telegram or Post / (at some later point, I expect, one of those / two-piece telephones on a stand in the hall)’ (p 34). Thereafter, the threads become more tenuous, the spindles smaller. The final spindle is a long list of ‘mother’s mother’s’ ending in a cipher: the word ‘Mother’ in decorative capitals, with a floral sprig beneath it: a device that might appear on a transfer sheet for embroidery – or on a headstone.
Mother figured as pattern. Leader’s mother, to whom this book is, partly, a tribute, heartily despised needlework, even as a leisure activity. Instead,
. . . my
mother’s hobby morning after
morning after morning, every morning,
every morning, was reading and writing
poetry, smoking all the while. (p 6)
Although her poems were published in a variety of small magazines, they were never brought together in a book. Leader finds herself left with this ‘matrimony’ (her variation on ‘patrimony’), a typescript with its cover letter to a publisher and experiments at a signature, showing her mother’s attempts to navigate the conventions that then governed a married woman’s name (pp 8-9). One poem by Katharine H. Privett, the name she finally settled on, appears in The Distaff Side. ‘Watching My Daughter Sew,’ exquisitely apposite and beautiful in its own right, adds another dimension to the book through its very different poetics; as, for example, when the speaker goes below the sparkling busy surface of the daughter’s clever stitching in search of darker tones, a kind of threnody. Beyond the cosy circle of domestic lamplight, mother and daughter pay attention to the whippoorwill, whose ‘nest is woven of shadow and smoke’ and who ‘surer in the dark / than we are in the light’ is also, by the end of the poem ‘surer of her name / than we are of anything.’ (p.15)
There’s a significant small snag (a silent nag) in this last stanza: ‘I also don’t ask,’ the mother says, ‘Why do you sew faster / when you’re running out of thread?’ In a similar vein, in the long penultimate poem of the book, a retired teacher of Home Economics complains about the people she sees ‘around town / with plaids unmatched at the seams’ though
. . . truth to tell, a lot of them
cain’t afford the extra fabric it takes
to match plaids, which is one of the
main reasons I don’t wear them myself. (p 87)
Instead, she prides herself on ‘making do,’ hunting out fabric remnants whose value per yard she can calculate exactly. One must cut one’s coat according to one’s cloth.
Fine adjustment is one of the themes of ‘Dwindle’, a riff on haberdashery and how it is stored, sold, organized; how it travels from one set of circumstances to another:
. . . My pins
won’t stay in their cushion much longer – well,
the pins will stay but the cushion will not
stay in the pie-safe drawer. It will not
be bought at the estate sale, not by
itself. A pincushion has to be put
in a quart-sized baggy along with packets
of needles, snaps, hooks-&-eyes,
bias tape, velcro dots, such packets
still in their original cellophane or if
previously opened, at least still supported
by the rectangular cardboards that bias tape
comes wrapped on end-to-end . . . (p 18)
This wonderfully minute attention to the minutiae of materials and their presentation is paralleled typographically in Leader’s use of the printed symbols of dress-making. ‘Raiment,’ for example, a sequence otherwise conventionally presented about her mother’s friendship with two sisters, is numbered with small images of scissors – as used to indicate ‘cut here’ on dress patterns (and money-saving coupons): one pair for the first poem, two for the second, and so on. The poems recount the women’s connections over their lifetimes, but the scissors suggest another story, echoing ‘Spindle’ in its play with names, places and repeated, circling journeys, while also marking fissures and re-fashionings, not least as Kate and Mary and Martha become Kate and Mary and Sister Mary of the Trinity. Pattern (as in dress pattern, mother as pattern, as in Mother Mary as pattern) is both restriction and inspiration. Two long dictionary definitions appear at the beginning of the book: for ‘Distaff’ and for ‘Toile,’ with the latter explained as a stage in dress-making where the design is first ‘made up in cheap material’ (more fine adjustments: this is to check that it will fit and drape correctly when put on the wearer’s body). ‘Toile [I]’ is the title given to the first sequence of poems, about the poet’s mother, while ‘Toile [II]’ is the heading for Katharine H. Privett’s own poem, described above. Elsewhere are quilting patterns, knitting patterns, stencils, designs for embroidery, with names and repeats shown directly on the page, as in concrete poetry. This is an act of reappropriation:
I am tired of being accused of lack of seriousness when
I feel the need to use wingdings as stitches in my poems.
I put it to you: the following ought to be compliments:
Gimmicky, Girly, Fancy, Sly, Decorative, Frivolous,
Labored, Fontish, Ornate. I claim that to demonstrate
alignment of poetry & needle-art is to say: I am among
those historically not taught to read. (‘Argument,’ p 43)
She goes on to argue for the visual as an alternative means of communication (a modality that elsewhere in this long poem represents what is silent, stigmatised and coded as female):
. . . When writing mimics needlework,
You see before you read: movements, patterns, alphabets &
diacritical marks, contrast, all of it perceptible as:
beautiful, meaningful, expressive, intelligent, heart-
breaking. (p 44)
But this may not match the reader’s experience. While symbols like the scissors work directly, other pictorial treatments remain static: affectless until you engage with words and letters. For instance, my immediate reaction to ‘Spindle,’ before I read it closely, was that it was a simple exercise in shape-making. The paired concrete poems preceding ‘Argument’ run that same danger. The first looks like a wordsearch puzzle, with a blanked-out ‘E’ in the centre; the second is a solution, with arrows outlining a shape that might be a template for sewing. If you then go back to the first page and use the arrows to trace the words, you find that they spell out ‘EACH INTO ITS NEXT’ over and over again. The process of reading feels laborious, a demonstration perhaps of the repetitive, painstaking labour involved in working such emblems in needle-art, rather than a direct apprehension of beauty.
Very different is the last poem in the book, a rich collage of acrostics, symbols and quotations plus names – for places, people, female poets from past and present, as well as friends and relations, crammed into a rectangle, with words and letters making straight edges on all four sides. This is ‘the distaff side’ in the form of a sampler. Included are items that look like a writer’s notes; for example, the title of a poem by Susan Stewart, and two of the most poignant lines from Leader’s mother’s poem on her daughter sewing. Unlike the precise alignment of the ‘E’ emblem poem, where one pattern maps onto another, this is something heterogeneous, part rag-bag, part-archive, an assortment of odds and ends. The strict outline makes it look settled (deceptively settled, as a written record may appear) but perhaps it’s really another container: a sewing basket, maybe, full of loose ends, somewhere to put things of use in a poet’s writing life.
Ursula K Le Guin. ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,’ 1986, available at https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ursula-k-le-guin-the-carrier-bag-theory-of-fiction
Ilya Kaminsky, ‘Short Conversations with Poets: Sandeep Parmar.’ McSweeney’s, November 2022, available at https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/sandeep-parmar