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Reviewer: Ann Wehrman
It takes courage for a modern, intellectual, female poet to oppose current literary style and write serious poems that speak of the bright, glowing, soft topics: love, angels, and sacred sexuality—topics of “light,” hope, and virtue. One might ask: where are the angst, the darkness, and the edginess that signify mature awareness, craft, or at least worldliness? In her 2016 poetry collection, Still Howling, Mary Dezember maintains a balance between advocating as an experienced and often angry feminist and reveling in an ecstasy of art, forgiveness, compassion, and love. Angst is there, but so are ineffable sweetness and faith. Some of her poems testify to the struggle between the sexes, to being ignored and cheated as a woman, and to sex that feels tantamount to oppression. In “A Wedding,” Dezember explores lust and fear, speaking as a bride who accepts a dominant mate:
Secure in your hold – Enchanted
By the danger – of you poised over my fur and skin – I
Felt the glint from your black eye –
As you cocked your head –
And it was in that one – blazing – second – I
Understood what marriage to you meant – You
Plunged your greedy beak into my heart – I
And married you anyway.
One encounters the contrast between that mythic dynamic of animal and often competitive passion and a more tender, ecumenical relationship. In “Clearstory,” the weary speaker reflects, feeling used and objectified:
Men take the quiet.
They put their legs over me,
their arms tighten on my chest
like traps, and they press
their faces against my face, and
they snore in my ears.
They are big, heavy aggressors.
The speaker laments the loss of her peaceful space, the lack of gentleness, and the lack of freedom: “I need sleep. // I need peace.”
Such stormy depths alternate with expressions of tenderness, sweetness, and transcendence that testify to ideal love, both romantic love and of children, nature, and art. In “Pure Poetry and Art,” Dezember writes with visionary delight of the birth of her daughter:
fuchsia-violet, yellow, green and blue and indigo and red and
my daughter being born, her tiny
body emerging from mine,
she popping out like a cork from the finest champagne,
her birthing waters christening the room that
filled with angels,
hundreds of angels
hovering about us,
and me seeing my baby’s pure body and hearing her pure cry,
and me feeling love in the purest sense…
Ultimately, the poems of suffering resolve to poems of joy. Dezember leads the reader on an inner journey in which pain, anger, and resentment ultimately yield to transcendence, forgiveness, and exultation, as expressed in “Walking a Bridge of Fire”:
Saying no to disease, no to injury, no to pain
while asking each – because each has wings –
why were you sent? and what can you tell me?
And, after listening,
Saying thank you, now go
. . .
Saying yes to conviction and faith
Saying yes to this moment…
Some poems in Still Howling are ekphrastic in nature, such as “Sun Shining Through” and “Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris III, 1926,” which is a snapshot of O’Keeffe’s painting (one feels that O’Keeffe would probably approve):
And what we see is sexual –
The graceful soft, soft folds –
A defining femininity.
To enter appears dark.
To leave appears dark.
But look how it illuminates from within.
Within is where every human begins.
This is a sacred illumination.
Within, a message awaits.
A primary theme in this collection is the beauty, creative power, and sacred nature of sexuality. “Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris III, 1926” exquisitely affirms the yin side of sexuality, the feminine creative power. Although Western culture tends to pathologize the yielding, indefinite, and silent nature of darkness, it remains a truth that out of darkness life is reborn, the inevitable return to darkness in death leading to new forms, new creations. Darkness thus may be seen as a blessed, fertile realm of rejuvenation, akin to a midnight walk with one’s lover on an ocean beach, with stars lighting the way.
“In Worship, Discovery and Reclamation,” Dezember explores transcendence and forgiveness, writing of the passion of a couple with a less-than-perfect shared history, who are growing closer in their love:
When he says God oh God, she knows that he is praying. She can’t help thinking how it wasn’t always this way. She recalls the years of nights when he’d come to be with her, she knew for sex, just sex, and she hated it really, hated him really, but she couldn’t tell him, because she had never told herself.
The collection ends with the nine-page title poem, “Still Howling,” along with its briefer follow-up, “Endnote to Still Howling.” Readers will need no introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and “Footnote to Howl,” and Dezember’s tribute pays them homage with a feminist twist. Echoing Ginsberg’s tone and meter skillfully, Dezember addresses women’s buried outrage, her lines simmering and ultimately erupting like a geyser, the reader taken on an exhilarating ride. Dezember testifies to pain that women everywhere have borne and still bear, as she pleads with men to take more responsibility: “how about the message to everyone that your word / should be true and on your honor so you can be honorable?” In “Endnote to Still Howling,” Dezember changes focus, writing a poem of forgiveness, urging the reader to find compassion:
Humans, let humans be human.
Man, Woman, the human step is compassion.
The superhuman step is forgiveness,
And then, Superman, Superwoman, we fly.
We’re closer to the divine than we know.
It takes a great deal to forgive the agonies, small and large, incidental and lifelong, that humans inflict upon each other. Dezember asks much of the reader, but in the end, she is right to stress the indispensability of compassion and forgiveness. With ultimate understanding of the other, an awareness that makes room, too, for faults and weaknesses, indeed celebrates them, forgiveness comes as pain and anger dissolve via compassion into the infinite, dark sea of cosmic rebirth.