Although Carolyn Kizer has asserted that her poems are “very clear” and lacking in “interesting ambiguities that appeal to the critical mind,” a number of them show considerable complexity of style, tone, and subject. Her poems based on Greek myth are an example of one kind of complexity, a complexity that has irritated at least some readers, who wish that she would express herself directly, without using myth. To this complaint, Kizer would undoubtedly respond first by pointing to a large number of her poems in which she does express herself quite directly and second by observing that not everything can or should be so expressed. As Robert Frost said in a talk titled “Education by Poetry,” “Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, ’why don’t you say what you mean?’ We never do that . . . being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections.” With characteristic insight, Kizer observes that people need to use metaphor, to speak of one thing in terms of another, because “the metaphor, like love,/ Springs from the very separateness of things.” Additionally, she has spoken of the need to transform grim or painful experience by imposing a form on it through imagination and language.
The Ungrateful Garden
Not all of Kizer’s poems that use myth are difficult and obscure. The title poem in The Ungrateful Garden uses the familiar myth of King Midas and his golden touch to underscore the ironies of human attitudes toward nature. Having made nature unnatural, Midas is maddened by the results. Furious to find his eyes blinded by golden flowers, his ears assaulted by “the heavy clang of leaf on leaf,” his fingers pricked by golden thorns, his feet cut by golden stubble in his garden, he concludes: “Nature is evil.”
At other times, Kizer uses Greek myth to write poems of metaphysical wit, such as “The Copulating Gods.” The deities are amused by the way mortals have misunderstood the frank carnality of the gods. Unable to comprehend the gods’ sensual pleasure, humans have invented histories for them and made them into a confused religion of “spiritual lust.” “The headboard of our bed became their altar,” declares a lascivious goddess as she returns to dalliance with her lover:
Tracing again the bones of your famous face,I know we are not their history but our myth.Heaven prevents time, and our astral rapturesFloat buoyant in the universe. Come, kiss!Come, swoon again, we who invented dyingAnd the whole alchemy of resurrection.They will concoct a scripture explaining this.
In another poem inspired by Greek myth, “The Dying Goddess,” Venus is no longer the revered love goddess. The poem is a witty comment on a degenerate society in which love has been replaced. Some men are looking for mothers, others are taking to drink; still others join “odd cults . . . involving midgets,/ Partial castration, dismemberment of children,” but none are worshipers of Venus. In the end, her image disappearing even from her own mirror, “she turns her face from the smokeless brazier.” Kizer’s attitude toward the modern world frequently conveys a feeling of decline or loss. In “The Old Gods,” a lament for the lost splendor of the classical world, Zeus and his pantheon have fallen on hard times, replaced by Christianity (“that God-kissed girl, and her God-given Son”) and other “windy deities” of disgusting meekness. The speaker in the poem is ambivalent: “You old Gods, I never cared about you./ I don’t feel for the Greeks; I loathe the Romans.” Still, the speaker’s resentment at what has replaced the old gods rouses him to fight on their side, even knowing it is the losing side in this “battle of the Gods.”
In other poems, Kizer uses Greek myth to develop feminist themes. In “Hera, Hung from the Sky,” Hera is punished for having the audacity to dream of sexual equality, to imagine “that woman was great as man.” Zeus punishes his wife by hanging her by her heels from the sky: Having “lost the war of the air,” she is left “half-strangled” in her hair, dangling, “drowned in fire.” “Semele Recycled” is a quasi-comic, surreal account of what happened after Semele, a mortal, was burned to ashes when her lover Zeus appeared to her in all his blazing glory. The scattered parts of her body are horribly degraded but are magically reassembled at the god’s command. God and mortal, their bodies meeting “like a thunderclap/ in mid-day,” startling the cattle and bystanders, make love on a compost heap. Besides being a comment on the male god’s absolute command over life, death, and rebirth, the poem is interested in the relationship between the “sacred” and “profane” aspects of love. Yeats’s perception that “fair and foul are near of kin,/ And fair needs foul” is relevant here, as is Crazy Jane’s statement that “Love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement;/ For nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent.” Presumably, Kizer’s Semele agrees.
In “Persephone Pauses,” the goddess Persephone’s bondage to Hades and the Underworld is a metaphor for woman’s bondage to a sensual desire she is powerless to resist. Persephone’s “dolor” and “dower” are the “sweet Hell” of female sexuality. The equivocal tone of the poem is perfectly conveyed when Persephone, realizing that her bondage means that only half her life is “spent in light,” nevertheless descends with an almost cheery “Summertime, goodnight!”
“Pro Femina,” which first appeared in Knock upon Silence, is Kizer’s fullest and most celebrated treatment of feminist themes. It does not use myth, but its form was inspired by classical literature. A three-part witty verse satire about “the fate of women,” it turns the tables on Juvenal’s Tenth Satire, which attacked women’s vices, particularly vanity. Kizer’s cunning strategy is to begin by conceding, “We are hyenas. Yes, we admit it./ While men have politely debated free will, we have howled for it,/ Howl still. . . .” The poem’s catalog of injustices and outrages that women are expected to suffer in a male-dominated culture explains why women are “hyenas.” Kizer’s honesty compels her to acknowledge in some cases women’s complicity in their own suffering—for example, the “cabbageheads” “who, vague-eyed and acquiescent, worshiped God as a man.” Far worse are the women who sold out, became “scabs to their stricken sisterhood,/ Impugning our sex to stay in good with the men.” Kizer’s sardonic comment: How the men “must have swaggered/ When women themselves endorsed their own inferiority!”
With a canny eye for telling detail, Kizer loads the poem with examples of the ways women are dehumanized and trivialized, as in the culturally mandated feminine concern with “surfaces,” with dress and appearance: “So primp, preen, prink, pluck and prize your flesh,/ All posturings! All ravishment! All sensibility!/ Meanwhile, have you used your mind today?” Some women writers try to escape marginalization by “aping the ways of the men,”...
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