by Marie Howe
During each reading of Patricia Traxler's third book, Forbidden Words, I kept hearing Jane Cooper reminding us of the writing assignment Muriel Rukeyser would give her students. Rukeyser would ask them to begin a poem with the words "I could not tell..." because she believed that our true poems come from those sources that had been stopped up in secret. "I could not tell...," I kept hearing, because this is a spooky, unsettling book, muted like a trumpet can be muted, haunted by women who have not told, who will not tell, cannot tell -- but who speak anyway: hoping we'll get it by what they do not say, or by the look in their eyes we cannot see. The book itself is an enactment of the process of coming into speech: a living history of voices that write but cannot live, or live but do not say, then break out into confession and splendor.
What's subtle and wise about the book is that its people (including the "speaker" of many of the poems as differentiated from the "personas" in others) are searching for speech; they want to tell us the truth about their situations but their language itself eludes them: not words but the words for it, a human problem certainly, but in this book a particularly female one. In one of the most moving poems, "The Widows Words," the widow, remembering love-making, admits:
And sometimes then I wished
to tell him where my deepest
pleasures lay, but I didn't know
the words, the way to say them,
if there was a way...
and in a later section of the same poem:
And in those days a man was in the world
more in the world than a woman could be --
women's world was home and close
to home. I have no memory in another country
or even in another language. Sometimes
I wonder just a little what might've been
if I'd known the words to converse with
other worlds. What would I be now?
Gorgeous writing and devastating: here are women who do not have language for their own desire, who have never spoken words that describe their own bodies -- without language, no memory. Here are women struggling to remember by pointing and omission (in the way women still point to their own genitals, or refer to parts of their own bodies as "you know" or "down there.")
Forbidden Words opens with "The Words," a small poem that attempts to state the problem: "It wasn't the words that killed, it / Was the wilderness between the words, / Like the wilderness of God." This poem is followed immediately by "The Driver," a six-part poem in which a woman is driving across the country, a contemporary woman, independent and bewildered, her spirit crowded with voices she carries with her on her way: overheard voices, remembered voices of lovers and family, a poet grandmother who wrote "housewife" on her voter registration "though she had no home / Hadn't been a wife in sixty years," the inner voice of the driver, the suicide note of a woman friend, the instructive voice of dreams and imaginings. And this speaker driving across the midwest, overhearing speech in cafes and dreams, gazing into the sleeping face of her lover -- this speaker and her deep communion with the poet grandmother stand as living telephone poles and the wires between them sizzle with dialogue.
The Grandmother lived in the "wilderness of God," --what "killed"
... a nervous liaison,
a bargain struck late in life as a hedge
against eternity. She wrote poems, she
rooted in her books, couldn't trust
life that ran loose past the page."
("The Rules Of Joy")
The grandmother who writes and dies surrounded by "small, indecipherable messages / in a converted garage" is carried in the heart of the driver who remembers her. And that driver, who is our guide through this book,
...makes her way
through daylight till in darkness a field of milo
becomes a milling crowd on asphalt, she drives
herself through the dream she'll call America"
when she gets past it or deep inside it finally,
to somewhere that seems to be home..."
There are beautiful lyrics in this book: "Heart at the Window," "The Sign," "Cantamar, Before," "Silks," "The Return" -- all love poems in the voice of the speaker-guide -- graceful, passionate poems muted by "a hope that doesn't speak, a name that / Can't be spoken." But the poems that move me most are the persona poems spoken in the voices of women who decide to give it a go and the energy released in these attempts to find the words for it, no matter the cost, exhilarates.
It was the poem called "Confession," though, that broke open the book for me. I kept thinking of Frost's "A Servant to Servants" another poem where a woman is trying to explain how things were and are with her -- its hesitation and restraint, its layering of voices within the speaker's voice: what she keeps hearing, what haunts her. Here, too, the act of speaking provides the speaker with the next word and I love how this poem proceeds:
"He never really hit me,
and anyway it was so long ago. Yes,
there were some other things, but never
was there hitting. Sometimes he'd twist
my arm hard behind my back, then push
it up until it felt as if it might
The lines and the line breaks enact the act of confession and reservation:
"and anyway it was so long ago. Yes,"
"there were some other things, but never"
articulate the difficult collision of desire for accuracy pushing against the defensiveness of low self esteem -- the double-speak of the victim emerging into her own sense of responsibility. Throughout this poem that voice does not waver and the poem terrifies and relieves:
Occasionally he'd hold
my shoulders tight then yank me to him
and lean down until our faces were so close
that I could see his pores and then he'd
scream You are so weak, what have you
DONE the last ten years? And then he'd throw
me backwards in disgust; I'd fall
against a table or a chair, or, one time,
back into an empty tub..."
Begin your poem with "I could not tell" Rukeyser said because for the speechless, the telling alone has power and provides a resolution in the life if not the plot:
"And why do I bring up all of this now, after
so many years? Because I still shake, remembering.
And I'm tired of it, sick of it, and I'm sorry, I can't
seem to stop talking about all of this now that I've
started. It almost feels like I'm back in that car again..."
She might be back in the car again, but this time we're there with her-- a retroactive redemption.
In "The Wife Talks in Her Sleep" the "truth" is told in convergent voices:
"listen" the poem begins
"it's as if / there's some essential language / I haven't ever learned,
a tongue / which everyone of like mind speaks..
I want to tell you: I dreamed last night / that I was in your house
The fugue of what can be said, and what must be whispered mirror the merging and alienation of speaker lover wife -- a three way relationship expressed in the very body of the speaker as if the word spoken/unspoken between the two women is the man himself:
"...I hold my own arms; I know
when you turn to her in your sleep."
But the culminating triumph is enacted within the poem called "The Widow's Words," a poem in seven sections that embraces the spiritual, erotic, political, maternal and work life of the woman speaker -- an ambitious poem which employs the full range of the poet's skill -- and results in a voice convincing and exultant in its own speech.
In section 1 the speaker remembers a girlhood standing above a pasture on a hill, watching the red ants and digging in the dirt "waiting for something to speak" that will not.
In the exquisite section ii the past is compared to the fruit her mother preserved in jars "the nourishment put by there for a day / she thought would come" -- the mother, "calm" and "orderly"
of private things, women didn't then
and there was no one
to ask, no one ever, not her
or even him when we were married..."
The speaker takes comfort in the reality of the unspoken acts of the body:
"I'd move his warm hand from my belly / or my arm from beneath his head"
or the sound of domestic life alive around her
"the flap of wet / sheets, that slap of clean on clean, the children's / voices in the open..."
"all those words that live in the night air."
But the act that illuminates her life is the act of moving into encounter with the origin -- full circle to section 1 again -- when the speaker moves across the frozen field at night towards the doe, the female animal who gazes at her calmly until a truck comes by. I couldn't help but think of the couple startled by the doe and then the buck in Frost's "Two Look at Two," returning down the mountain "certain the earth returned their love." This time it's one doe one woman, animal and animal "away from the highway's drone": the man-made world of commerce and trade, the noise that disturbs the night where the does eyes store moonlight. In this mute encounter something happens in the woman--she's restored to her own body, back in her bed, under her own sheets and she lets herself have "what I didn't have words for" -- and in that auto-erotic act the poem celebrates an active speechlessness and resolves.
It's too easy to say that Forbidden Words is a journey from speechlessness to speech -- the voices tremble and go back, they will not utter names, they take refuge in image, or use image to speak as from behind a mask -- and finally, in some cases, they break out and tell their stories and the grandmother and the grand-daughter speak, and between them maybe the mother listens, the mother and the lover's wife.
What I love and honor about this collection of poems is the honesty of the struggle -- the interrupted speech itself, the voices that live on in me long after I've closed the book and set out towards the post office or grocery store. Patricia Traxler has done crucial work here: rigorous, faithful, tragic, hopeful, true.