22 Apr The Political is Personal: Two for Poetry Month
This year during April (designated by the Library of Congress Poetry Month), I’ve been offering us all a break from prose, instead devoting the blog to some of my older poems—specifically poems about the making of poetry itself, even though these two below diverge slightly from that theme. The first, a light verse (growing darker) piece titled, “On the Watergate Women,” was written in the 1970s but seemed ripe for revisiting this particular week, although some younger readers may want to look up now forgotten names that are indelible for those of us who survived this kind of national trauma before. The second, “Lithographers,” does return to the theme of creating art but the metaphor is visual: print-making. The arduous process of “making” is the same, however, and “Lithographers” is about the forging of art and, not incidentally, the forging of love.
ON THE WATERGATE WOMEN
Maureen Dean, wearing persimmon summer silk,
sits smiling, silent, in the Senate Hearing Room.
Her eyelids droop. She must not doze.
She bolts upright.
But if she cannot doze, she finds she thinks.
She is the second wife.
The first says that he never lied.
The musings of the second are inadmissible.
Martha Mitchell, Cassandra by extension,
nurses the bruises from her beatings,
nurses her mind from the forced commitments,
waits at home, alone, with the terror that all her truths
will be seen as comic relief.
clutching the heart she was permitted to keep
alive, in payment for her scandal’s death.
Rose Mary would
if she could, but she can’t;
lips sealed by loyalty (for which, read: fear),
a faintly ridiculous scapegoat
as any Good Friday girl could have predicted.
The Committee wives watch their husbands on TV,
alone, preferably, so they can smile to themselves
at the righteous purity of such judges.
All the secretaries hunch at their IBM’s,
snickering at the keys.
What they know could bring down the government.
The maids, the governesses, the manicurists,
the masseuses avert their eyes.
What they know could bring down the family.
The mistresses wait for their phones to ring.
Afraid to miss the call, they hurry
through their vomiting.
None of these witnesses would be believed.
Some do not believe themselves.
And Dorothy, Mrs. Howard Hunt, tucked into her coffin,
could hardly testify
to the cash, nestled in her lap like a rapist,
to the plane’s dive through a bleached spring sky,
the taste of arsenic on her teeth,
the enormous dazzling wisdom that struck all her braincells
at the impact.
Her silence should bring down the nation.
But all the while, one woman, sitting alone
in rooms and corridors thick with deceit;
familiar, by now, with an unimaginable weariness,
having smiled and waved and hostessed her only life
into a numbness that cannot now recall
even the love
which was once supposed to make all this worthwhile—
having slept out summer in a wintry bed,
having borne children who were neither of them sons,
having, for years, stood at attention
so close to power, so powerless—
not, oh not
Thelma Catherine Patricia Ryan Nixon
blamed by the Right for her careful stupidity
blamed by the Middle for her cultivated dullness
blamed by the Left for her nonexistent influence
blamed by most men for being unbeautiful
blamed by some women for being broken
blamed by her daughters for their father
blamed by her husband for her cherished mis-memory
of him as a young Quaker—
not, oh not
Thelma Catherine Patricia Ryan Nixon
who, as a young girl, loved Scarlatti,
who wanted to become an actress playing Ibsen,
who lost her own name somewhere along the way,
who now sits alone in some oversized chair,
watching with detached interest
how her sedated visions do their best
to picket before so many defilements.
This is no melodrama.
Here is no histrionic pain.
This quality of grief
could bring down
Lithography, the gallery program states,
is based on the mutual antipathy
of grease and water.
We paced another rainy afternoon
slow in this my autumn
elsewhere on our planet
someone’s spring, our footsteps
echoing museum marble corridors.
Mostly women, motionless, gazed back
at us, two women strolling past them
where their images hung, printed, framed:
a woman bathing, a woman sleeping,
a woman waking tousled after love,
a woman dancing, two women dancing
together, a woman with green-lidded eyes
waiting under a streetlamp, a woman
singing soundlessly, a woman smiling at a man
but looking away, a woman doing up her hair.
The stone will not retain its image
unless its surface structure has been changed.
Acid, for this, is necessary,
the program cautions, so that the surface will accept
the image only where it is intended.
The stone is indiscriminate, like love.
It must be drenched and drenched again
to forestall the natural inclination
of the surface which otherwise would welcome
any and all impressions—those hinted,
those never meant for permanence, and those
deliberately impressed to last, etched into stone.
This is the work of loving (I did not
say aloud), to drench and drench again
and etch itself in acid, to forestall
the natural inclination of our surfaces
until the structure that we are is changed.
The artist alters, embellishes, or simply
continues to build the composition, the program warns.
This is the skill of loving (I did not
name aloud), the process—lonely, patient,
taking, as they say, great pains
toward the perfecting, making trial proofs
experimental proofs, progressive proofs . . .
The stone must be run through a press
under considerable pressure.
This is the weight of loving (I did not
cry aloud), the flattening crush of its imprint
intaglio beyond one’s surfaces, transfiguring
pores of stone past welcome or resistance,
bearing down the burden of its message
terrifying as an annunciation, until
the simplest elements, like grease and water, combine
with vitriol, seethe back against the pressure,
billow sudden azure silk out
from the dancer’s scarves, execute a woman
waking tousled after love, two women
dancing together. And if the artist risks
stone-calloused fingers, acid-splattered eyes
(I did not ask aloud), who is to judge
it was not worth the hazarding?
Perhaps you noticed
(for I could not point it out)
the small sign to remind us:
Only a limited number of such prints
are ever possible.
“On the Watergate Women” appeared in Lady of the Beasts
Robin Morgan, Random House 1976
“Lithographers” is from
Upstairs in the Garden: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1988
Robin Morgan, W.W.Norton 1990
Both books are also available in all e-formats