Women Have I Loved: Sara Majka & Lucia Berlin

In past posts, I've dedicated this column to women from the past. But I am currently reading Sara Majka's debut collection of stories and find myself in that lovely place of reading where you do not want to stop but you want to stop in order to write something that might rival what you are reading. Her work is inspirational and engaging. She creates characters I think I could be because she creates flawed characters who are not sure they are doing the right thing, not sure they'll take any action at all.

I've also been reading Lucia Berlin's collection of short stories that came out last year, A Manual for Cleaning Women.

Both women write in unadorned language with scathing, precise detail. Both women write about people who need money or need love or need something. I find that I often write about what character's have lost and now wonder what will happen if I reframe that loss into need.

Le rêve est arrivé

Not sure what I love more, Robert Walser (the RW of the title), Cole Swenson, or Omnidawn Press, who put out incredible translations. It might turn out that Jean Frémon tops them all. 


So, o.k., at the moment, RW is more or less alone in the world, but it hasn't always been like this. There was a time, he remembers, when the girls would crowd around him. He was young then, sure, and wore a proper suit and tie. What they loved in me was my reserve, he says to himself, thinking back on that time. My reserve, that's my secret weapon, he thinks; above all, don't ever give it up. 

—Jean Frémon, trans. Cole Swenson

Take a deep breath.

When I need a boost in my resolve to continue to write poetry, to choose the life of the mind over the life others might choose for me, I turn to poetry. Is it pathological to ask advice from the thing you can often distrust? Last week, I was reminded of "Adam's Curse" by W. B. Yeats. Someone had been telling me how physical poetry is, how it embodies the moment of thought, the physical moment of realisation. And then he read me this poem. 

Adam's Curse


We sat together at one summer’s end,

That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,   

And you and I, and talked of poetry.

I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,   

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.   

Better go down upon your marrow-bones   

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones   

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;   

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet   

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen   

The martyrs call the world.’

                                          And thereupon

That beautiful mild woman for whose sake   

There’s many a one shall find out all heartache   

On finding that her voice is sweet and low   

Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—

Although they do not talk of it at school—

That we must labour to be beautiful.’

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing   

Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.

There have been lovers who thought love should be   

So much compounded of high courtesy   

That they would sigh and quote with learned looks   

Precedents out of beautiful old books;   

Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’


We sat grown quiet at the name of love;   

We saw the last embers of daylight die,   

And in the trembling blue-green of the sky   

A moon, worn as if it had been a shell   

Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell   

About the stars and broke in days and years.


I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:   

That you were beautiful, and that I strove   

To love you in the old high way of love;

That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown   

As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

Women Have I Loved: Lydia Davis

I have not read a lot of Lydia Davis's work. I came to this latest book mostly via her reputation and the beginning of an earlier novel I had tried to read but could not. I had put down that other novel because her work demanded that I think, dynamically, while reading it and I was trying to read in 20 minute snatches while breastfeeding my daughter. Lydia Davis just wouldn't take. This year, however, I picked up Can't and Won't through affection for its title. I, too, am a contrary, difficult woman. Which, it turns out, might be the worst kind of woman––  

I had the chance to discuss this book, its innovative style, its humour and its pathos, with a group of writers and was surprised how many were turned off because of the apparent "game" of her stories. The stories seamed arbitrary. How dare she include "dreams" as stories? If only the subject of this terse style was more weighty. If only she was as important as Hemingway. If only the entire book was letters by Flaubert. I heard them call out Lydia Davis's celebrity and accuse her of being lazy when she included very short shorts. They referenced her previous marriage to a more mainstream, less daring author because gossiping is fun.

Many of these criticisms only arose because of Davis's gender. It made them read her terseness as shrill, her subjects (everyday, at times domestic) as light and her experimental short shorts as lazy. Criticisms that would most likely not be levied at a male author. I called them on it and the room (full of women writers, I'll add) largely agreed they had fallen through the rabbit hole of society's latent misogyny.

I took a long time to read this book (I wasn't in a hurry this time around) and I read it in order (not skipping around) the way I read poetry collections. The book is very funny. Its craft is exciting. Davis demonstrates the minimal limit of narrative. At times she seems to be purposefully mundane, for pages, as part of her strategy. She proposes a book of stories that reads like prose poems and like short stories and asks to be read all together. 

The stubbornness in many of the voices in this book, for example in the title story that recounts others accusing her of laziness (!), I see in myself. It's a reluctance to be told how to write, what a story is, what a good attitude is, how to behave. 

Women Have I Loved: Emily Dickinson

I could never condense my love for Emily Dickinson into a short post and struggle to even completely understand myself what I find in her lines, both mysterious, awesome and beckoning. I did, however, recently encounter Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, a collection of facsimiles of her late poems written on repurposed envelopes and other scraps of paper, and it has made me return to Dickinson in a way that I haven't in years. Her handwriting. Her Handwriting. Her Hand––Writing. 

I've also taken a lot out of the feeling that Dickinson made her poetry fit into her life. She wasn't concerned with other reading too much of it. She answered to Art. It's centred me. 

The essays in this book are really wonderful and thoughtful, too. 

Women Have I Loved: Mary MacLane

If you haven't read I AWAIT THE DEVIL'S COMING by Mary MacLane, you have missed one of the strongest and most tempestuous voices of the early 20th century. At 19 years old, Mary MacLane presents her manifesto-memoir with the bravado of Marinetti and in the face of his misogyny. She loves her body. She loves her mind. She is in love with the devil, in love with duende. It has the pitch of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. But she's woman and American and all her own: 

I have eaten my dinner.

I have had, among other things, fine, rare-broiled porterhouse steak from Omaha, and some fresh, green young onions from California. And just now I am a philosopher, pure and simple––except that there's nothing very pure about my philosophy, nor yet very simple. 

Let the Devil come and go; let the wild waters rush over me; let nations rise and fall; let my favourite theories form themselves in line suddenly and run into the ground; let the little earth be bandied about form one belief to another; but, I say in the midst of my young peripatetic philosophy, I need not be in complete despair––the world still contains things for me, while I have my fine rare porterhouse steak from Omaha––and my fresh green young onions from California. 


I am obscure; I am morbid; I am unhappy; my life is made up of Nothingness; I want everything and I have nothing; I have been made to feel the "lure of green things growing," and I have been made to feel also that something of them is withheld from me; I have felt the deadly tiredness that is among the birthrights of a human being; but with it all the Devil has given me a philosophy of my own––the Devil has enabled me to count, if need be, the world well lost for a fine rare porterhouse steak––and some green young onions. 

pp30-31, The Neversink Library, 2013