Alison Bechdel, Bisexuality, Creative Writing, Dionysus, Female Poets, Female Sexuality, Fun Home, Homosexuality, Leaves of Grass, Literary Canon, Literature, Male Sexuality, May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, Novel, Poetry, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Walt Whitman, Writing
My wife admits often, sometimes to my annoyance, that she rarely enjoys reading fiction that was written by a man because she has yet to see a male author accurately write from a woman’s perspective.*** This will become important later.
Now there are moments when reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic feels more like reading a reading list than an actual narrative. Each section of the book derives its subtitle from the title or line in a work by a famous author (James Joyce, Albert Camus, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust, Kenneth Graham, Oscar Wilde, and James Joyce again in that order) and each of these chapters follows a theme contained in these works. But it doesn’t stop there, because along with this subgrouping found scattered throughout the pages are images of books bearing titles that reveal a sub-sub-theme that relates to the major theme of the chapter while also demonstrating the tone and sub-sub-theme of the individual cell. Taking all of this into account it’s no wonder that Bechdel won the McCarthur Genius grant because only a genius could keep up with that line of logic. Or else she knows a leprechaun who granted a very complex wish.
Take for instance a section from the first chapter of the novel. Bechdel is establishing the differences in character traits between herself and her father
If you would please (I said please, that means you have to do it) focus on the first panel and the book Bruce is reading. Now right off the bat most people would, once they realize the book is about Bechdel’s father being a closeted homosexual or bisexual (we’ll never really know), dismiss his reading as luring gaze upon the male form, but this just isn’t the case once the context of the book is revealed. The book Bruce is reading is The Nude by Kenneth Clark which was a series of lectures published into a book about the concept of “the nude” in art and sculpture from the period of early mankind up to the modern era. Bechdel is able to balance the surface details of implication with hard reality keeping the idea of themes and subthemes constant throughout her work. This book makes an appearance later in the novel when Bruce and Alison have discovered a common ground on interest: the masculine form. Once again there is the subtext of homoerotic fixation for Bruce, but at the same time Alison is able to play on the context that both gravitate towards masculinity in some form or fashion.
The point of this exercise is not however to expand upon Alison Bechdel’s brilliance, I’ve done that in at least three essays already and the restraining order against me allows only three kiss-ass articles a year, the real purpose of this examination was to serve as a long lead-in to a novel that I doubt many people have even heard of. You see in the last chapter of Fun Home Alison begins a personal journey of her sexuality by reading a great many books on the topics of queer theory, sexuality studies, and of course various novels and poetry collections by gay authors. There was always one book that stood out during my reading because it was the longest title of a novel I believe I have ever read:
May Sarton is an author I never would have been able to discover on my own had it not been for the endless reading list that is Fun Home, so Miss Bechdel if you’re reading this, and I know you’re not, thank you. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is more than just the longest damn title of a novel in human existence, it is the also one of the fifty books that May Sarton published over the course of her lifetime.
In terms of plot there really isn’t much to the novel. Hilary Stevens is a seventy year old poet who’s living out her remaining years in an isolated cottage in New England. A young man by the name of Mar, a local boy who performs occasional chores for her, appears at her door in a confused rage. Mar has had his first sexual experience with another man and it has ended miserably leaving him frustrated, infuriated, and desiring to take it out on someone, in this case Hilary who he knows happens to be, at least, bisexual. Hilary talks to him, trying to impart some advice but there’s only so much you can do for a young man except listen and nod your head. After this the novel shifts to an interview that has been scheduled weeks before and Hilary wonders if she could duck out of it. A man named Peter, who has interviewed countless authors and has become famous for his ability to get many of them to open up, is joined by a young woman named Jenny. They arrive and the rest of the novel is a conversation between these three dealing with poetry, art, and how women and men are perceived differently in their approach to it. Once it’s finished the novel ends with Hilary and Mar by the beach discussing art and creativity.
It’s at this point my reader may ask: is that it? I mean, seriously, is that it? That sounds boring as fucking fuck why should I give a shit? To which I reply: Language sir! Fucking children read this blog!
The simplicity of the plot may not reveal much initial inspiration, but Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing offers up questions concerning the differences in human expression when it comes to gender. Throughout the novel there is the conflict of sexuality, for Hilary in her life gravitated towards women but married a man she did not love as much as she should have, and the very beginning of the novel begins with a young man dealing with his sexuality and the conflicted joy and frustration it has brought him. Mar has finally slept a man, but his partner immediately rejects him. Sarton writes:
There in a motel it had all happened, for Mar the first intoxicating experience of touch, of discovering inch by inch another body like his own, discovering it with awe, with tenderness, or being able to feel in the marrow of his bones his own sensation touching another in just the same way, above all of finding a climactic outlet at last for all the pent-up flood of feeling he had had to contain for so long. “I was alive!” He shouted in his rage. “I felt no guilt do you understand?”
“Do your what it’s like?” he asked in a hard voice.
“It felt holy. I felt I had just been born.” Hilary caught the rasp in the hard voice like weeping. “Next morning Rufus wouldn’t speak to me. He doesn’t answer my letters. He’s through.”
“It was too much for him” (30).
I’m sure for many homosexual people this passage may speak to some aspect of their own experience: either the rejection from a partner frightened by the reality of their sexuality or else the sublime joy of finally indulging in a passion that had seemed only a fantasy. That’s not to suggest that because a person is gay they will have a shitty first time, that’s just not true, being gay has nothing to do with it.
The opening passage with Mar at first appears to play little to any real significance to the rest of the novel which is the inevitable interview, but a quote later on reveals this assumption to be incorrect. Mar returns and Hilary and the pair discuss some poetry Mar has written, and when he suggests she simply had him do it as “poultice” or catharsis she snaps back:
“No you fool!” She was exasperated by the misunderstanding, so radical and so unexpected. “It’s because I feel your talent, real and gritty and uncompromising, a masculine talent, that I came to see just now that I could do you harm, not good, that I could be the short-circuit for you in the long run. Everything I said about you and Rufus, I meant. If this thing about Rufus broke through into the place of poetry for you, so much the better. If this was your path inwards, so much the better. If one unhappy homosexual experience taught you what you might become, all to the good. But if one dirty night with a sailor who stole your wallet makes you think this is your real life, Mar, you’re going to be in the fruitless Hell. You have to go on as a man, not a boy, don’t you see?” (218-19).
While I was reading Mrs. Stevens I was often fixated on a particular thought that in turn eventually developed into a mantra until the very last page: Is this really a novel? It’s an honest question. The story of an elderly woman remembering a lesbian love affair in her youth that seems to be the only happy love affair in her life before she grew up, married a man she didn’t really seem to love, all the while writing books of poetry and novels that make her famous, would sound like a fascinating read, however this is not the text the reader receives. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing delivers its presentation in its very title for throughout the work the reader is sung a song of philosophy concerning aesthetics and expression. The memories Hilary has of her love affair with her governess are interspersed between dialogues concerning the nature of poetry.
Now I know poetry in this Postmodern age (people always say modern not realizing we’re in a new period now. I say now even we’ve been in the Postmodern period since at least 1940) the word poetry is a dirty word. Poetry is either something smart people write using only vowels and publish in The New Yorker, or else it’s something college students write for a poetry slam in order to impress that hot chick from Chem 1301 who looks like Zoey Deschanel, or worse, it’s something hipsters write about in Starbucks in between their purchasing of Che Guevara t-shirts on their laptop. Poetry has, for the most part, lost its public credibility because poetry asks more from a reader than this generation of minds seems willing to give.
Poetry is music set to words. It is a combination of rhythm, image, and symbol. Words are carefully selected for the emotional, intellectual, and philosophical implication before they are then reassessed based on their auditory cues. Reading a poem is not just about reading pretty words, it’s about gleaming over the music set to words and attempting to decipher meaning. To which case most people would respond, “fuck that” and download a few episodes of Scandal on Netflix. Poetry doesn’t really seem to fit the mold of our current existence.
This situation makes a book like Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing at first appear irrelevant, but then all the more poignant. Sarton’s novel, I’m gonna call it that despite my reservations, is a novel of questions. It asks the reader to consider the established quo, namely, why is it that a man is far more likely to achieve greatness and renown as a poet than a woman?
“But we are so terribly afraid of feeling,” Jenny uttered on the wave of assent.
“Still,” Mrs. Stevens barely acknowledged the statement. “The problem remains. Why can’t there be a female Dylan Thomas, for instance? Can you answer me that? She turned rather aggressively towards Peter.
Catching the ball, he held it a moment in his hands. But it was Jenny who answered.
“The Dionysian woman would be mad!” (149).
If I count the number of female poets that I have immediate knowledge of, there are three: Emily Dickenson, Elizabeth Barret Browning, and Christina Rossetti. That’s it, at least that’s what my initial reflection is. When laid against my experience with male poets…I can’t even begin because that would entail more pages than currently exist on the internet. That’s hyperbole but you get the idea. Now it’s possible that this predicament is just the result of patriarchy influencing my education, and I won’t deny that. The drawback of being a literature major in the United States is the reinforcement of the canon which favors old dead white dudes, as opposed to the rest of humanity. This ongoing male centered Eurocentrism, the tendency to look upon European culture as innately superior to any other culture, is as annoying as it is depressing.
If a woman wants to abandon her mind temporarily to her passion, then she’s just being crazy, or Dionysian*(see below for explanation), however when a man surrenders his reason for the purpose of drinking in his passion then he’s exercising his craft. To put it another way if a woman decides to drink and celebrate, enjoys sex, or expresses her feelings then she’s just being a PMSing emotional nutjob like the rest of her sex is, however when a man gets drunk, makes dick jokes, enjoys sex, and then writes of his experience and the emotions that led him to the writing of that poem, well then he would be Walt Whitman.**
The problem society seems to have with a woman writing poetry is ever always wrapped up in her sexuality. The fact that Hilary Stevens seems to be a lesbian, but has had a relationship with a man continues to dog her throughout the novel, and therein lies the importance of Sarton’s text. The approach a woman makes when writing will be entirely different than a man, not superior nor inferior, but different. Creative writing relies upon a person’s experience, but also, to some extent their sex.
I haven’t really dug into Sarton’s novel as much as I should have in this essay and I apologize. Allow me just a few more points and then you can return to Gaston Memes
I do believe that my wife is correct in one regard, see I told you we’d get back to her, the way men approach creativity often seems possessed by an aggressive force and perhaps that’s why it’s been easy to negate the creative achievements of women. But to continue to do so will only further that perception that there is a real difference between the genders, and reconciliation is impossible.
I have seen people freeze when they hear I am a writer—that, or they pour out their life story and tell you it is a gift and you can use it for your next novel! Or—even worse—they imagine you are so eager for experience that they can make a pass and get away with it…You are never, never treated just as a woman….” (79).
I would never have read this passage if it wasn’t for Bechdel’s graphic novel, and it would never have led me to the conclusion that it’s not just immortality that divides the men and women who have become great writers, the audience has a part to play as well.
Dionysian is a reference to the Greek god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus to the Romans. His mother was a mortal but his father was Zeus. God of Wine, Revelry, and debauchery, he was unable to remain with the other gods of Olympus because Hera was playing that shit. As such he traveled the world surrounded by a group of wild women and a satyrs who always possessed erections. Dionysus, for the record, is more or less the god of tits and wine that Tyrion from Game of Thrones is always looking for but alas, never finds.
What Whitman was a poet and the author of Leaves of Grass, a compilation of various poems dealing with his emotional state, homosocial/homoerotic attachments to other men, and the general drunken stupor that lead him to be one of the most important poets this nation has ever produced. He’s also a lousy kisser and cheap little tart who has yet to call back. I swear you let a man into your heart or into your…well, not important. He’s a poet.
The Author’s wife would like it to be made clear that she does not appreciate her husband mentioning her in the beginning and end of this essay. She would also like it to be known that she passed on the opportunity to marry that Swedish model named Johann who had abs as well as his own private jet. Did she mention that he owned a snake, because he did. The author’s wife was saying something but is now staring dreamily off into space while the author grumbles and opens a beer.