Eleanor Lerman Critical Essays

Lerman, Eleanor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lerman, Eleanor 1952–

An American poet, Lerman depicts in her poetry the seediness and despair of the underside of an American culture that is caught up in drugs, lesbian love, and violence.

If volumes of poetry carried letter-ratings the way movies do, then "Armed Love" would deserve at least a double X. In their glimpses of life in a drug-torn Lesbian ghetto, the poems talk to us in a voice that wavers between self-deprecation and self-righteousness. At its clearest, its tone is absolute candor.:

    I guess some of us are born to be charming and
    run gaily by the evening shore for
    feminine deodorant commercials while the rest of us
    end up poor and incoherent
    babbling about drunken visions
    and dying with people we don't know

Such terrifying simplicity, such hunger for love are bound to unnerve us and stir us…. Much of the time, though, the raw facts just remain on their page like meat left in its butcher's paper, untouched by deep understanding or by art. At too many crucial moments, the poet falls back on words like shining, incredible and terrible; on sentimentalities like your frail dreams, my terrible dreams and your shining, dancing heart. "The Graceless Years," one of the grimmer failures, is about the speaker's obsessive desire to slash her own throat; and another poem, about doing "terrible things" to a girl named Angelica, lamely concludes: "I hate to think/what all this means." Although Eleanor Lerman has an infectuous contempt for "clean living," for the dull typing jobs farmed off on women and (in general) for North American civilization, it would take the skill and intelligence of a Sylvia Plath meaningfully to relate her private agonies to those of a larger world. (p. 6)

X. J. Kennedy, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 17, 1974.

Eleanor Lerman's book Armed Love is about Lesbian promiscuity, drugs, theft, suicidal threats, psychological and perhaps physical torture of people, disorder, mockery of real and fraudulent ideals—also passion, also love. It attacks moralists with wit and polemical skill ("Graduate School"), yet the moral understanding is greater than Plath's or Berryman's, whose desperate poems have granted their authors fame. The rhythmical movement is dislocated, representing brokenness of view, jumps of impression, hysteria, events collided and ungrasped. Such a technique is common in modern poems, but seldom so successful as here. The poems are clear in wildness, disturbing, brilliantly lighted, often felt as wholes. "Shotgun Days" is an extraordinary blues poem; the last poem in the book and "Will Someone Who Is Not Guilty" are not easy to forget; and "The Alchemist Lost to Human Gifts" and "As in a Dream I Would Yet Remain" are starkly beautiful and tender. (pp. 404-05)

Paul Ramsey, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1974 by The University of the South), Spring, 1974.

[Armed Love] looms like a defensive banner over the lesbian world [Eleanor Lerman] portrays. Monologues, encounters, details, read like data from a sordid casebook…. [The] hell that unfolds appears pasteboard. The reasons are technical…. [Her poems] would not survive critical scrutiny as heterosexual love poetry. How, then, as lesbian poetry? It is neither parody nor burlesque of conventions. It is, forgive the pun, straight. The injection of mock rhetoric … into otherwise simple diction, blurs the tone. Genuineness of sentiment becomes suspect.

A dual pattern emerges in the imagery of Lerman's poems. The normal world is presented in flat nominatives—"The candy bride my mother kept for me/in a blue tray with all those bangly earrings";—while the deviant world is suggested by remote, arcane metaphors: "I had revealed the translation of the Martian obelisk/and promised you the crushed disk of the star-mined silver." Because the two modes are not integrated, the poems lack a tension necessary to dramatize suffering. (p. 3)

Norma Procopiow, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 26, 1974.

Eleanor Lerman is most enthusiastic indeed about presenting her life and loves. Her New York is … disastrous … and her humorous efforts to overcome her situation are [, in Armed Love, somewhat] energetic. Fresh resiliance rather than wry weariness is her hallmark. Sometimes she flaunts a heroic Lesbianism in the fatuous face of the establishment. At other times she reveals all the vulnerability and romanticism of a sensitive girl in her very, very early twenties. She can be lighthearted, toughminded, fierce, tender, mystical, and romantic, primarily over her beloved Frances. At times she is a little too exhaustive on the subject of Armed Love: after a while the attitudes she strikes or the mystical/romantic language she slips into become too familiar…. And despite the limitations of her subject matter, with the very narrow focus on herself and her fantasized, shifting roles in a limited milieu, she has written what is for me [an] exciting [book]. (p. 59)

Ms. Lerman runs into a bit of trouble with her paradoxical armed love. One of its aspects is the violence directed towards her lover, expressed sometimes by the vampire image that emerges and submerges in the book. Another is uncontrolled violence undertaken on the beloved's behalf, an upending of chivalric values: "In Your Movements I See Drownings" and "I Will Teach You About Murder" are particularly explicit. The drive towards absolute secular power is allied to the motif of the alchemist reshaping the world for his beloved. And at a third level tyrant and alchemist merge into fantasies of power over the whole universe ("Finally I See Your Skin"):

     my mouth cracks open and planets start to pour out
     universes form and begin to show
     signs of life

These seem to be perilous, drug-induced hallucinations which lead her farther and farther from an exploration of the true nature of her relationships. Her vocabulary changes and we are suddenly in the mystic misty realm of romance, fairy tale, astrology, and science fiction, with a dash of dream and film imagery. Her sharp sanity dissolves in too much drifting and warring, light and dark, gold and silver, and the amalgam starts to cloy. I prefer the clear vision of "As in a Dream I Would Yet Remain." The scene of the poet cradling the trusting Frances against the river wind is desolate, but it has the kind of life-giving perceptiveness that her cloudier visions of a mystic love do not. Here they are simply two youngsters lost in one of our "intricate american cities."… (pp. 60-1)

Sally M. Gall, in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Fall, 1974.

Violence, blood, and shooting "your way out of/the women's museum" haunt Armed Love—the title is suggestive—like persistent aches. One comes to think of Lerman as a sort of latter-day Rimbaud, "babbling about drunken visions" as she bleeds metaphors in dark doorways, or perhaps as a member of some literary SLA, a guerrilla in the wars of love and art.

Yet at the same time, though she's a notable scholar of cruelty and despair, her poetry is tender, witty, elegant, even beautiful. For along with the anger that drives poets like Spivack and Swenson, she inherits the sheen and music that distinguished, say, Garrigue…. Here … is an intensity of vision that tells us we're in the presence of something wholly authentic—love poems, hate poems, horror poems, written with scalpels on the nerve-endings. (pp. 53-4)

Lerman's revelations glow in the dark, wickedly phosphorescent. Like all visionary "babblers", she's a shameless braggart, a charming liar, an elegant lover, a Casanova of the imagination…. (p. 54)

Sandra M. Gilbert, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), October, 1975.

Suppose someone came running at you screaming "Yes! Yes! How romantic it was! See how carefully we died for each other! See her teeth still embedded in my hands!" How would you react? Would you be interested? At first, yes, startled and therefore engaged. But suppose the screamer merely continued repeating that same aggressive invitation. Suppose you realized that she was alluding to the death, or departure, of her lover, and you saw that there were not, in fact, any teeth embedded in her hands. You might feel pity or a bit disgusted by her hyperbole and solipsism; you would hope that she'd feel better soon, and that she would get professional care if her frenzy persisted; but your interest would probably wane rapidly, and soon you would leave her alone.

The speaker of one of Eleanor Lerman's poems ("Romance, I Think, Must Remain") describes herself screaming those words, and though this speaker intends a bitter irony about her painful addiction to her love-relationship, the effect of Lerman's poetry on the reader is much like the effect that hysterical accoster would have on you if you met her in the street.

There was much to admire in Lerman's Armed Love when I read it two years ago. It seemed a bravely naked book, far more alive than the tidy intellectual constructions of the other young poets I had in hand. My impulse was to defend Armed Love against the kind of disapproval summarized so well by X. J. Kennedy [see excerpt above].

There is a raw-meat quality to Lerman's work: it shows no signs of academic curing, no workshop seasoning, nor does it smell like any dish cooked in the kitchen of a major American poet past or present. But what lies thick and red on the page is not a catalogue of facts—Lerman's poetry is too (literally) fantastic for that—but of emotions, volatile and potentially lethal. Lethal, because they threaten to overwhelm the poet; and lethal too (I have to admit now, having read Come The Sweet By And By) because they threaten to bore the reader to death.

It becomes apparent reading through Armed Love that the author is a lesbian; yet this is never openly stated. It would be possible (though not easy) to construe every utterance as that of a heterosexual person sympathizing with the oppressed. This central reticence amid such voluble anger and resentment is disappointing, but it reminds us how dangerous an open acknowledgment of unorthodox sexuality is still felt to be in our society. Lerman shows she is aware of the political nature of sexism, though she wishes she didn't have to think in political terms…. Despite her political consciousness, Armed Love is not an indictment of America, or of men…. [She] seeks an individual rather than a collective-political identity: "They can't simply belong to the community of women." Armed Love dives again and again into personal misery. Lerman shies away from any generalization and is tempted to reject thought altogether. (pp. 235-36)

One of the distinctions of Armed Love is that all the poems emanate from the same place, the same small world—violent, claustrophobic, sex-obsessed, hopelessly urban. This sort of unity invites redundancy, but it gives us carnivores something to sink our teeth into. After reading Armed Love I felt I had been taken somewhere, to a special place with uncommon noises and colors.

Now, however, Lerman's second collection has appeared, and it forces me to take a jaded second look at her talent…. [Come The Sweet By And By] has no overarching scheme, and if it differs from Armed Love by being less New York-oriented and more concerned with memory, this difference does not amount to a unifying identity. Come The Sweet By And By mostly sounds like Armed Love, Part Two: there is no reason to believe that these poems were written after those in Armed Love. Perhaps the two collections are merely two arbitrary handfuls from a gigantic pile on Lerman's desk. This is no crime, of course, but it's disappointingly unambitious: a mere encore when one hoped for a fresh concert.

Unless you linger patiently to analyze a single Lerman poem, the poems in Come The Sweet By And By tend to merge into one endless demented monologue, with pauses only for breath. If you read three or four poems in a row you are lulled (despite the vigor and pain of the voice and the extremeness of the imagery) into a dazed, non-discriminating mood whose dominant thought is merely, What will she think of next? Lerman's mind jumps from image to image, situation to situation, and attitude to attitude, almost never sustaining one tone or metaphorical scene for more than five consecutive lines. Each poem seems to be an almost random grouping of five or six image-clusters and dramatic attitudes (e.g., pleading, mourning, suspecting, berating, deriding) which are linked, if at all, only by a general emotion (yearning, or regret, or resentment) which reappears often enough in the poem to seem its basic impulse.

If you resist being dazed, however, the rather limited pleasure of being repeatedly surprised disappears and you grow frustrated as you try to dig into an individual poem. Lerman's poems are particularly frustrating because her use of long lines and (often) complete grammatical sentences seems to guarantee that she will make clear narrative sense, or at least that a given poem can be heard as the controlled utterance of a rational speaker who is willing to converse with the reader. Instead, you find that the poem is not like rational conversation at all; not only is it not prosaically expository, it also refuses metaphoric coherence. You face the job of studying the poem's various images to see if they ultimately can be shown to reflect a particular state of mind which would make the speaker interesting as a particular character. None of Lerman's characters sounds very trustworthy; they coyly dodge the reader's questions. In giving her poetry its illusory surface readability Lerman resembles one of her characters, "pretending it's going to be a normal day/when I know it's going to be a mood piece/from start to finish". The reader should be warned by the fact that Lerman never uses periods, although she does often capitalize the first word of each new sentence. In Lerman's universe, nothing ever ends; indeed, nothing ever even stops long enough for the poet to ask herself whether something—an idea, an outcry, a poem—has been finished.

Poetic form holds no charm for Lerman—she never uses rhyme, metrical schemes, or traditional verse forms. Perhaps she has grimly decided that such pleasant techniques are unavailable to honest poets in the modern world—"If only there were reason to believe/in some ancient artistry," she laments in "Nuns, Geometry, Grief."

Nor is Lerman always artful in her diction. At times her language strays so far into prosiness that it begins to sound like poor, overblown essay-prose…. In such lines the writing works neither as poetry (bringing emotions and ideas to life before our eyes) nor as exposition (developing a clear thought); rather, it sinks to the level of notebook jottings which have value only to the jotter, if even to her. Every poet has wanted to write lines like the two below, but most of us have been wise enough to destroy the poems in which we succumbed to the temptation: "I can't stand it any more / everything goes on on on on on." (pp. 237-39)

[For Lerman] the reader (other than her lover) is eternally an outsider, an intruder who can't adequately sympathize. In Come The Sweet By And By Lerman echoes Armed Love's resentment of society's intrusions upon her private life. She wants to be free to immerse herself in the joys and griefs of her personal relationships, but an awareness of public issues and struggles such as the feminist movement cannot be banished from her mind….

As in Armed Love, most of the poems in Come The Sweet By And By refer obliquely to problems in the love-relationship between the speaker and a mysterious "you" whom she addresses. This common set-up for a poem nowadays (and in Donne's day too, indeed) always runs the risk of shutting out the reader, making him feel like an unwelcome eavesdropper unable to crack the lovers' code. (p. 240)

There are, happily, a few exceptions to the above remarks about Lerman's solipsism, notably "Poet For Time." This too is an address to the poet's lover, but here her tone is calm, melancholy but not morbid, warmed by an affirming spirit of love that emerges freely. This spirit, unlike the doubts and fears that energize many Lerman poems, seems to foster (or at least permit) a lovely clarity. The poem deals directly with the problem all lovers have of accepting the fact that their beloved has a past that excludes them. This unavoidable and quite reasonable truth can seem terribly unjust to a person in love, and Lerman expresses both the pain and a mature response to it in "Poem For Time." It may be judged a simple poem, but it has the virtue of being candidly simple, and it achieves poignancy in such clear lines as these…. Similarly, scattered throughout Lerman's work are brief moving evocations of lovers' mutual dependence…. (pp. 240-41)

But too much of the time Lerman remains evasive, as if she must address her lover in their verbose code because she knows we are going to overhear and, despite her drive to understand her love problems (the poems are full of anxious question marks), she doesn't want us to get too sharp a picture of them, lest we employ our insight against her as part of society's repression of unusual love…. [In "Return"] Lerman seems to be aware that much of her language does not come across to the unknown reader, and to admit that her first intention is to communicate with her beloved. She fears the reader, she fears her own memories, and she fears poetry—because all of these are forces calling upon her to impose order on her emotions. Lerman thrives on painful passion. She doesn't want anything to be wrapped up neatly and put away; she cherishes the vibrant irresolution that washes over from one fiercely unhappy poem to the next: "Is it possible perhaps, never to be completed?" she asks in "The Common Fate Of Objects." Apparently she sees completion—of the self and of the poem—as synonymous with death. But she courts the other kind of death that comes from submission to chaos and the misunderstanding that flows from chaos; too many of her passages die on the page because the poet has not cared enough about our comprehension. (pp. 241-42)

Mark Halliday, "Passionate Jottings," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring-Summer, 1976, pp. 235-42.

Eleanor Lerman is an important new poet, and a strange avatar of Emily Dickinson. Come the Sweet By and By, her second book, moves so far beyond the tortured power of her first volume (Armed Love) that one hardly believes she has reached this level of rhythmic competence and emotional wisdom so quickly….

The traumatized settings are familiar enough. What distinguishes her work in this mode is its humaneness, as if ordinary people in very typical American places, doing commonplace things, had unexpectedly discovered themselves and their environment to be possessed. The poems record how people try to maintain their most basic human feelings—love in particular—despite the fearful sense that the world they live in is out of their control. The theme is announced in the strange and lonely narrative which opens the book, with its wonderful dislocating pun on "bows" in the first line:

                The Texas girls make deep and
                      courtly bows for each other
                in chambers adjoining the ballroom
                Their silence is secretive and
                                     serious …
                The never-to-be husbands stand
                waiting for them in the carpeted
                whispering across clear, ribboned
                       boxes of white carnations
                about how ephemeral and
                the debutantes' bodies have
               And will they ever walk through
                          that doorway again?
                           ("The Texas Girls")

This goodbye to the empty love rituals of debutante balls also establishes the book's world, which is feminine….

Most of the poems in the book are scenes—in scattered American localities, and often while travelling—of these lovers trying to get by and (to borrow a peculiarly appropriate old-fashioned term) cleave to one another…. [As] the book's title suggests, the poems are haunted with a sense of final things. Love in these poems, as Ms Lerman has also said, is a way of "getting by—no matter how strange, difficult, absurd or grievous are the circumstances you find yourself in, there must be a way to survive them". Love here occupies small and suffocating areas, and seems a seed fallen among the thorns and stony places of typical American scenes. Nevertheless, as all the poems show, such love does not seem to need to fall upon a rich ground to live. It sprouts, survives; and it even translates its surroundings. Every day seems lived as if it were the last day, which is cherished as a weird promise of yet another final meeting "on that beautiful shore" in the sweet by and by. Lerman's people are "waiting for time to be repealed."…

Always about to die, for love; to occupy such a position continually is a manoeuvre of terrible desperation, a hunt among stones ("but we are running out of surplus marrow/and have had to utilize the family pain supplies/Eventually we will be too crippled to separate"). Living this way, in poetry, is a way of showing what being alive means ("we go together, you and I/to make the summer games for us all"). The device is like the romance conventions of fairyland, which in fact these poems continually reproduce. Fairyland (terrible, wonderful, impossible) is not itself our attachment, or what we are meant to long for; it is the occasion for revealing precise and memorable images of true human attachments. This is why the enamelled surfaces and ritual localities and events in these poems are so important, and why they would evaporate to nothing if they were not the manifesting (and disappearing) frame for all the common, small talk. The power of these poems issues out of that necessary marriage of the strange and the piteously familiar.

Jerome McGann, "The Love That's Left," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 10, 1976, p. 1563.