Paul Stephens

Now The Winter Sex of Our Discontent, or, Do Schools of Poetry Still Matter?

Winter Sex
Katy Lederer
Verse Press, 2002

Such might be the thoughts of a skeptic in the bookstore:

"Oh no, not another 'I graduated from Iowa and moved to New York or San Francisco' first book of poems—more polished than provocative, more emo than punk, more neo than new, more filtered Heidegger than straight-up Marx, more James Tate than James Tate, less Ashbery than Ashbery, too cool for school, out Jorie-ing Jorie in the recuperation business, straddling the fence (read Fence) but not suffering the bodily consequences… Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new genre of American poetry born out of the poetry wars: from the no-man's land between the avant-garde and the rear-guard, we have a movement born against most of what has been taught in the Iowa tradition, the New Iowanism—or, as Cal Bedient lewdly calls it, 'soft-core avant-gardism.'"

Katy Lederer is a fine poet, and it is impolite and somewhat unfair to begin a review of her nuanced and genuinely new Winter Sex by situating it within the institutional contexts of American poetry—but the reality is that poets come to us with brand names, allegiances, implications, compromises built into the books they publish and the blurbs which adorn them. Everything about the way that contemporary poetry is taught, published, marketed, and read (or overwhelmingly not read) in American culture suggests that contrary to what Horace thought, poets are not born but made. We hardly need Pierre Bourdieu to tell us that there is no tabula rasa for either the reader or writer of contemporary poetry—every time we pick up book of poetry an act of selbstüberwindung (self-overcoming) is required so that a reader can grant a writer some small measure of imaginative autonomy from institutional considerations.

The New Iowanism may represent the most serious challenge from within yet mounted against workshop culture-its most prominent representatives (Mark Levine, Joshua Clover, Geoffrey G. O'Brien, Rebecca Wolff, Matthew Rohrer) have learned a good deal from Language poetry, and knowing many of their workshop teachers' opinions (or generalized repression) of the hated and feared Language writers, the New Iowans have largely refrained from joining in the Hundred Years War that has raged within American poetic culture. More elliptical than the New Ellipticals, not William F. Buckley Jr. meets Harold Bloom like the New Formalists (dear reviewer, tell us what you really think), the New Iowans have avoided making large claims for their poetry, and like their workshop forebears they have also avoided writing much in the way of criticism. The non serviam of the New Iowans is an implicit one. In contrast to the Language poets, there are few direct references to the critiques of subjectivity, culture, and communication (by such familiar figures as Marx, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Foucault) which have affected virtually every area of the humanities, except perhaps for the strange anachronistic preserve of the Romantic ego within the poetry workshop. The New Iowans may not be so confrontational as their Language poetry counterparts, and they may not be lining up the heavy hitters of philosophy for their team, but they are unmistakably familiar with what is most radical in both intellectual and popular culture, and they are not writing lyric crisis poems. Iowa has surely produced more prize-winning books of poetry than other writing school-it also produced writers like Bob Grenier and Bob Perelman. The New Iowans are not alone among American poets under forty who now believe that the factionalism in American poetry is no longer a problem. Some of the New Buffaloans and New Brownians seem to feel the same way. But one wonders if the new non-factional, non-ideological, kinder, gentler poetry world will be a world of even further diminished expectations for poetry-in terms of political commitment and in terms of linguistic innovation.

The New Iowans in the long run may transform workshop poetry, and if they do it will be by means of subtle subversion. The question is whether subtle subversion is still subversion. In the world of American poetry, (which is dependent on American higher education to a greater extent than perhaps any other creative genre) subtle subversion may be as effective as open warfare. Katy Lederer's Winter Sex is a subtle book, studied in its wanderings, controlled in its effusions, not likely to offend anyone to the left of Genghis Khan or William Logan. Living in a country where George W. Bush is president and Billy Collins is poet laureate has redefined our conceptions of tragedy, of farce, and of the surreal. The tragic, the farcical, and the surreal are all represented here, and in the most difficult of ways: intelligently. The book is alternatively gentle and violent-sexuality here is represented as tender in a poem like "In Brooklyn" and brutal in a poem like "The Epithet Epic." The bluntness of the book's title is a warning of the juxtapositions we are up for, as in these metaphysical conceit laden lines:

for the truth is that skies as done masturbate lubed up 'gan sloshing
O arthritis in the stars signals messengers to flee flee
and no rhythms to it, nothing to it but quick snaps and wings
on feet. Strange in bed. Talked of a lot and beaten into their heads
that there is a deformity. It brings out my sympathy.
It is sad.

There is an unmistakable Steinian quality to the ending of this passage. Lederer's lyricism is often punctuated with the tautological, the truistic, the what-goes-without-saying, and the humility of Lederer's quasi-conclusions can be a winning quality. The poems are often amped to the point that the filament in them appears ready to burn, and then at the last second Lederer seems to know how to reduce the current without losing the illumination. The studied emptiness characteristic of Michael Palmer or Fanny Howe doesn't always work, however, as in a poem like "Untitled," which ends:

Lodged in strict formation
            we are diffuse,
and so we wonder
            what we are. 

Yes, "we wonder/ what we are." So? On to the next poem…

The best poems in the book, like "Dulcinea," "An Interrupted Question," "Remedy," "Around a White Orchard, a Frame" have an almost Jabèsian quality to them: patiently, forcefully resisting simplification as mere superficiality. Lederer has the rare talent of knowing how to write projectively when she wants to, and for placing words in the right spots on the page, as in "Remedy":

Put shit in a jar
                      Restore it—
the barren Will
            Find its remedy in the half-contained
                       jewel box
With four of your fingers
                       the jar to your mouth—

Hot water and rose petals
            you will have to own up
                       to this.

And the poem ends:

                        The madrigal song
                                              of renewal
             will lease out your heart to your body—
                                   and your soul will
                                                          solicit your soul

On the Romantic side perhaps, almost Duncan-esque—but very typically well-executed and smart.

One small qualm: the book is divided into four sections for no apparent reason. This is almost a cliché of first poetry books-a quick survey in the bookstore will prove this. A friend of mine had a prominent poet tell her in class that all poetry manuscripts should be divided into three or four sections so that they look more professional and polished to publishers. Why waste the paper? How about eight extra pages of poems instead?

Such a qualm is entirely moot under the circumstances of so fine a book as this—subtly subversive or not, as the case may be. In the best New Iowan style, there is something here for the softcore and the hardcore fan base. Books like this require a readjustment of many of our assumptions about the schools and traditions of American poetry. There is a growing quantity of well-packaged New Iowan material, and it is becoming more difficult to differentiate the poets from one another—Katy Lederer will remain distinct.

To quote from the poem "In Las Vegas": "I read things that make me jealous."

True that.



© 2002 Electronic Poetry Review