When a Woman Loves a Man by David Lehman
Nearly three years after it appeared, in late 2007, I came across When a Man Loves a Woman and quickly wondered why I hadn’t encountered it much sooner. David Lehman’s sixth collection is formally daring and full of trenchant social and aesthetic ironies. Lehman has authored an important book on New York School poetry, and this volume of poetry displays a strong inheritance of the pluck, wit, and elegance that the School’s admirers cherish.
At first glance, Lehman gives us six sestinas here. Only one, however, a collaboration with Jim Cummins (89-90), abides by nearly all of the form’s strictures. In “Sestina: When he called the lawyer” (30-31), one of the end-words is used twice, and “The Old Constellation” (38-39) shifts among different grammatical forms of end-words and even uses “anybody” to get away from “body.” “Big Hair” (62-3) goes as far as to include “gin,” “gym,” “Jim,” and “tonic” as a “single” end-word. While every single end-word in “Sestina” is the name of an American poet, and five poets are repeated in every sestet and in the envoi, seven different bards are placed in (what starts as) the third position.
Since the sestina is one of the more challenging traditional forms to pull off, it takes a special audacity to mar it deliberately—to break a rule or two and relinquish bragging rights. Yet the development of slight, subtle variations can be an exciting exercise of imagination; it seems more “nude formalist” (a la Charles Bernstein) than “new formalist.” For me, the result is most intriguing in the very simple end-words (“her,” “said,” “him,” “worst,” “him,” “for”) of “Sestina: When he called the lawyer,” in which Lehman strings together, not Ashberyan clichés, but, more often, fragments of them that register an eerie withdrawal from context-specific dialogue into a sense of ordinary language’s potential for both anxious hollowness and pathos: “But it wasn’t about him./ The money wasn’t meant for./ Their luck went from worse./ Everyone came home when mother” (30). A similar effect occurs in “The Double Agent”; detective fiction’s plot architecture is left out, and what remains is a conventional repertoire of images and abstract phrases that stands and also founders on vague suggestiveness:
The man reading the paper in the hotel lobby
heard every word. There was a short silence.
Suddenly he put the paper down.
“I am the stranger of whom you speak,” he said
in the formal English of a Spaniard
in a Hemingway novel. That was the tip-off. (18)
The reference to Hemingway indicates layers of textual borrowing that result in a signature style—like Raymond Chandler’s. There may be a “tip-off” of some mystery in a text from which Lehman has collaged, but our access to it is permanently deferred.
Aside from the modified sestina, Lehman also makes skilful use of the pantoum, Villanelle, stepped lines that can be found in the work of Mayakovsky and late William Carlos Williams, anaphora reminiscent of Kenneth Koch’s work, stanza patterns ranging from couplets to octaves, stanzaless poems, prose-poetry, and jagged strophic arrangements. One kind of ingenious experiment not involving a fixed structure is “Poem in the Manner of Wallace Stevens as Rewritten by Gertrude Stein,” where the fact that both precursors are mad about repetition creates a dizzying verbal excess: “If night were not night but the absence of night/ an event but not the same event twice then I would be I/ and this would be nice very nice as I write I write” (85).
Repetition in a pantoum should probably haunt a little, and “Space is Limited” (whose repeated lines are not always precisely the same as the first ones) surely does. Here are the first two quatrains and the final one:
You’re both going to die.
Have you remembered to adjust your asset allocation strategy?
You haven’t got any, as Marlene Dietrich told Orson Welles
When she took his palm in her hands and examined it.
Have you remembered to adjust your asset allocation strategy?
You’re supposed to do it once a year, like having a physical.
She took his palm in her hands and examined it, saying,
Are you on track for retirement? Is the window open?. . . .
What do your money and your future have in common?
You haven’t got any, as Marlene Dietrich told Orson Welles.
What do you and your money have in common?
You’re both going to die. (44-45)
In Touch of Evil (1958), Dietrich, playing a fortune-telling madam, informs the detective played by Welles that she won’t read his fortune because he doesn’t have any future. Not only does Lehman link material fortune and lifespan by not rushing to attach the adjective “any” to a specific noun, but there is also an implication of anxiety about sexual status in the pun-friendly terms “die” (coupled with “both”), “asset,” “do it,” and even “any” (as in getting any). The pantoum’s title emphasizes scarcity, as well as the idea that the form’s doubling almost halves the “space” of potential utterance, and reiterations bring home nagging doubts that a security measure like the adjustment of an “asset allocation strategy” will do any good. One cannot outsmart the stock market any more than one can ward off death or ensure one’s sexual potency and appeal. The poet’s final quatrain comprises an inversion of the repetition that occurs in a traditional pantoum, thus allowing the ominous declaration of mortality, with its accompanying connotations, to have the first and last word(s).
Like “Space is Limited,” many successful poems in When A Woman Loves a Man rely a good deal on the force of cultural allusion, along with the problem inhering in the questions that begin “Denmark: A Tragedy”: “Who’s there?/ Who is it that can inform me?” (64). “Poem in the Manner of the 1950s,” a prose-poem, uses a mass of allusive detail that could be said to build a commemorative wall for white, male, middle- or upperclass accounts of this time in the U.S. against revisionist or subaltern counter-histories, except that Lehman, an undergraduate at Columbia University during the anti-Vietnam War protest, is actually parodying the wall and building it with cracks: “There were no homosexuals yet one of them was expelled and no heroin addicts except jazz musicians and no card-carrying Communists except nondescript men in suits carrying briefcases with film canisters in them” (93).
Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC’s attempted purge of supposed Red influences in Hollywood stemmed from the sense that the multitude of Americans’ genuine ideological purity (i.e. faith in unbridled capitalist expansion) must be protected from contamination by a small group of misfits. While Lehman’s speaker, of course, does not mention how the Civil Rights movement took shape in the fifties or how the Southern backlash against it became especially vicious, the stereotyping of “heroin addicts” as “jazz musicians” not only serves as a favorable comparison of the “squeaky clean” fifties to the drug-infested sixties but, since jazz is a major form of black expression, implicitly restricts African-Americans to a pathological margin so that they are not part of a characterization of “healthy” mainstream fifties “America.” As for the assertion of a gay-free America, one irony is that Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s main henchman, was a closet homosexual, and the fiercely anti-communist J. Edgar Hoover is another example. Surely, many found to be homosexuals suffered “expulsion” from good positions in U.S. society. In the fifties, Allen Ginsberg included openly gay references in his anti-establishment poetry, and three of the founding members of the New York School (O’Hara, Ashbery, and Schuyler), which started to gain poetic momentum during the decade, were gay. “Poem in the Manner of the 1950s” derives thematic energy from the tension between what it includes as “things that made America great” (94) and how it signals the matter excluded by its limited perspective. This is especially true of the treatment of gender in the text’s opening sentences:
Meet Doak Walker, the last of the all-American glamour boys. Say a
prayer for Gil Hodges, who went 0 for the World Series. There was
one big secret that separated the men from the boys, and that was
what a woman looked like without her clothes on. A naked girl in
1959 was not the same as a naked girl in 1939 or 1919, wasn’t that
true? It was indubitably true, but how would we get the girls to prove
The hyperbolic advertising for fifties NFL football star Doak Walker—as though “all-American glamour boys” would not continued to be manufactured by the mass media!—is comparable to the exaggerated pity accorded to baseball star Gil Hodges, whose slump during a World Series early in the decade prompted a Catholic priest to urge his parishioners to pray for him. If athletes like these men exemplify adult masculinity for the era in question, the “one big secret” (perhaps shared in the locker room) that ridiculously provides a big part of the definition of maleness has a significant crack: is a man defined by his possession of carnal knowledge or by an access to pictorial knowledge conferred either by age or stealth?
Playboy magazine, emblematic of the mainstreaming of pornography, emerged in the fifties; it may be accurate to say that the specifics of the visual presentation of “a naked girl in 1959” in erotica or pornography differed greatly from the one two or four decades earlier. Yet the speaker’s rhetorical question is even relevant to women’s bodies. As Susan Bordo and other scholars have documented, patriarchal culture’s demands on women to develop particular kinds of bodies through diet, exercise, and the use of many consumer products tend to fluctuate, along with fashion, from generation to generation. The cheerful “voice” that Lehman gives to his speaker states norms of gender socialization as though they are “natural” propositions. Such dubious “knowledge” is not only so dated but so inescapably “socially constructed” for most contemporary readers who were not adults during this period that we can wonder what current mainstream commonplaces will seem ridiculous to educated people in another half century. (Note the reference to “the camel route to Iraq,” which must have simply meant romantic wanderlust to Frank Sinatra’s listeners in the fifties but now signifies ominous political adventurism as Bush Junior’s second Gulf War continues disastrously years after he declared victory.) Further, even though the prose-poem’s coda may play on an understandable nostalgia for drive-in movies, “a red Coke machine” that “dispensed green eight-ounce glass bottles, and certain comic books, the idea that a bunch of particular consumer products established the U.S.’s “greatness” is a fatuous hyperbole that serves to point all the more strongly to the anxiety, authoritarianism, and unjust exclusion that the serene “manner” of the historical collage would glide over and thus occlude.
A rawer social parody than “Poem in the Manner of the 1950s,” the sonnet-length “Jew You” is equally effective. The singular or plural or false past tense verb form of “Jew” is used in every line, sometimes twice, and if we also count the name “Judy” (and Judith derives from Judea) which is attached to the ultra-Jewish last name “Levi,” we have 18 instances of the key-word, including six end-words. Such words are repeated often by anti-Semitic characters as curses in plays like Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to reinforce a badge of negative identity. This excess of repetition, though it does not necessarily support the overgeneralization that “Jew” is “the one irreducible word in the language” (112), does emphasize how virulent and irrational the anti-Semitism that, historically, has kept flaring up at certain points has been and continues to be:
Dear Jews: We liked you better as victims.
Jews were chic in 1946 and West 12th Street.
The car was a lemon how come you bought it he jewed me down. . . .
Judy Levi was a vandalism major in college then she went to Jew school
and became a lawyer for the criminally insane. She defended the Jew
who said: the Jews are behind everything and you know who’s
behind the Jews? The Jew fucken mafia in Jew York City.
I am a Jew and my mother was a Jew
and when Lionel Trilling asked Allen Ginsberg why he, a fellow Jew,
had written “fuck the Jews” in his dorm room window,
Ginsberg sighed: “It’s very complicated.” Now there was a Jew. (112)
A full appreciation of the poem’s ending requires background information. Ginsberg was expelled from Columbia University in 1945—a year before “Jews were” allegedly “chic” in the lower west side of Manhattan and the same year that the Shoah ended—for writing the sentence cited above, as well as a slur against the University’s President, and for allowing Jack Kerouac to spend the night in his room. The literary critic Lionel Trilling, twenty years Ginsberg’s senior and probably one of Lehman’s professors as well, was the first Jewish professor tenured at Columbia, yet he identified strongly with the British-American culture of the literature he studied and downplayed his Jewish origins, perhaps because the university tended to marginalize Jews. In other words, when he tried to assist his student in this crisis by speaking to Columbia administrators on his behalf, Trilling would have found Ginsberg’s words disturbing but might have understood both his sigh and the complexity of his motivation. Of Trilling, it could also be said, “Now there was a Jew” (of his time and social context), and thus, the teacher and student are not merely “fellow Jews” but fellow Jews working through somewhat similar issues of assimilation and identity. If the future Beat poet could not precisely be called “a vandalism major” like “Judy Levi,” who went on to defend “the criminally insane,” including anti-Semitic Jews, Trilling counseled Ginsberg to plead insanity during Columbia’s review of his case, and the latter took his favorite instructor’s advice.
Much has been written on this incident, including an account by Trilling’s wife Diana, and there are various interpretations of Ginsberg’s motivation. The most obvious is that Jewish self-hatred involves the internalization of mainstream prejudices and a desire to negate one’s cultural identity to gain the advantages of fitting into society. However, if oppressors (perhaps including many Columbia administrators, faculty, and students) “like” Jews “better as victims,” to use irony to beat them to their denigration, pretending to put oneself down, is to refuse victimhood by taking the authority of interpretation and thus to thwart their perverse desire with one’s own canny perversity. Thirdly, Ginsberg’s cleaning woman, the one who reported Kerouac’s overnight stay, was reputedly anti-Semitic, and some have supposed that Ginsberg wanted her to have to confront her own prejudice and be forced into the position of erasing it by cleaning the window. Finally, especially because it was the goyish Kerouac who was staying in the room and whom Ginsberg evidently desired, it has been advanced that the word “fuck” is intended to mean “make love to” Jews rather than to discriminate against them.
The range of interpretations of Ginsberg’s shocking gesture can be plugged back into Lehman’s poem as a whole. We can say that Lehman is a Jew who is simultaneously giving voice (perhaps with a mixture of fascination and horror) to the virulent tones of hatred against his people and wondering aloud why some Jews are “insane” enough to believe in the omnipotence of some “Jew fucken mafia” and, with various techniques, enclosing this danger within the corrective frame of parody and putting it out there to hold the mirror (window) up to those who “like” Jews “better as victims” and to goad anti-Semites into cleaning the filth from the window and perhaps even calling for Jews and non-Jews to embrace what is “very complicated” in Jewish self-fashioning as it negotiates with others and otherness.
The humorous, deliberately simplistic “A History of Modern Poetry” begins: “The idea was to have a voice of your own,/ distinctive, sounding like nobody else’s/ The result was that everybody sounded alike” (66). A major “idea,” exemplified by “Jew You,” in When a Woman Loves a Man, is to realize—and one could invoke Bakhtin—that what you think is your own voice is inhabited by other voices, and so you should let those voices surface and challenge each other rather than repressing them. It’s not a question of everyone sounding “alike” or different but to allow both similarities and differences in a kind of dialogue to produce effects with multiple consequences for social and cultural interpretation and behavior—and to have fun while doing it.
Thomas Fink is the author of "A Different Sense of Power": Problems of Community in Late Twentieth Century U.S. Poetry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001) and five books of poetry, including Clarity and Other Poems (Marsh Hawk Press, 2008). His paintings hang in various collections.