Forgive me if I emphasize the thought over the lyricism, but “everything goes/on the grill” in Alissa Quart’s capacious writing. Her recent prose (Squeezed, 2018) and poetry (Thoughts & Prayers, 2019) appeal to both my “Creative Writing” as well as my “Critical Thinking” sides—or what some college composition classes call pathos, logos, and ethos and some poets call music, logos, and image, and in the process, Quart is able to reframe the relationship between the ‘public’ and ‘private,’ commercial and non-commercial, seriousness and humor, work and care, as well as the stigma of the ‘Jewish mother’ stereotype.
in Thoughts & Prayers, the one poem that blatantly addresses specifically “Jewish themes” (“Pass”) is also a profound meditation on language & symbols, with no pretentions to adequately representing the physical world as portrayed in still lives, as she works dynamically in what gets referred to, often derogatorily, as ‘abstractions’—as if somehow that signifies a lack of grounding.
As she considers various connotations, and associations of the word “Passover”—and how previous Jewish writers have investigated the aporia between it and the phrase “pass over,” she wonders whether “appropriation rotted out/ the original” (28). While considering the symbolic rituals in which “flatbread stands in/for slavery,” she invites a linguistic skepticism into the Seder, or you could say thoughts into her prayers:
Because language and the physical
world don’t correspond
words don’t express
full internal selves
or space or time
Life mostly symbols, analogies that tie
us to each other, shadows
on the cave, the flickering
truer as we age,
an idea of the world in our head
composed of paper and mâché
Layers of different times
or selves. No real world
can resemble our inner
mentality without huge gaps
Grammatically, we can read the phrase “shadows/ on the cave” as characterizing the symbols, or “each other.” Is it the flickering that is “truer as we age” or the correspondences? Questioning the ‘transparent’ correspondence theory of language may be a crisis for a reporter and cultural critic (for as she writes in another poem: “we name stuff, hope/that’s proof. That’s how/reporting works,”(7) but the poet is not necessarily lamenting the lack of a fixed correspondence, but embracing the fluid mysteries of a transactional sense of language. I get a sense that even if there are no correspondences between word and thing, there may yet be correspondences between beings or minds here.
By embracing the gaps, she’s able to avoid seeing linguistic transactions in purely violent terms like Nietzsche’s “mobile army of metaphors,” or Balzac’s characterization of the militarized mind on coffee. In one sense, this poem stands in defiance of Facebook founder Zuckerberg’s idea(l) of “radical transparency,” the crafting of a one-size fits all social media identity, and the alienation that causes. Rather, Quart moves beyond—or at least between—rigid ideas of symbolism, away from stiff dogma, maintaining an openness, a critical eye, a sense there’s always more, if not yet to learn, at least experience—more people to correspond with, even if one has to use words as numbers more than words-as-things to do so…for instance, in “23andMe,” a witty satire of the DNA-testing craze, with its parenthetical spirituality:
Another entity that finds almost everything
Yet never what we need (the unseen). No, really. (62)
Passover can be a form of blessing, and also ushering in spring, but it can also mean skip past or ignore; by repeating of the word(s) “pass over” at the end after her passionate celebration of the under-appreciated Jewish poet Armand Schwerner (presumably for not being ‘experimental enough’), Quart also seems to reach out to the monocultural reader who might be tempted to “pass over” this poem as if its Jewish themes don’t make room for him or her….and, if they do, it’s their loss.
Her intimacy with the disturbing double meanings of other ostensibly individual stable referential words often is revealed with bitter warmth. For instance, in “Sakhalin”—the book’s first poem, in which the struggle to break free from the “media prison” is clearly evident, she finds the terror of the sublime in the pun:
Loud and silent islands. The Times
website blares as another
She implies, or I infer, that the increasing privatization of government agencies that protect us against the “unfettered free market” also just happens to coincide with a loss of what some psychologists refer to as an internal locus of control, as helplessness against some mythical 1% ideal of the autonomous, ‘self-made’ person has become a cultural epidemic in a world in which we’ve “been taught to seek only individual solutions for problems that are often systemic in nature.” (Squeezed, 171).
The title poem—a collage sample poem of public language in response to the school shooting epidemic that includes “the words companies use in fabricating souvenirs that commodify mass killings”—to some readers, may at first seem to be what Rush Limbaugh would call the smug secularism of the ‘coastal elite,’ but neither is this the mere ‘massaged text’ of racist conceptual artists like Kenny Goldsmith, nor a mere lampoon satire of doublespeak and the co-optation of phrases like “thoughts and prayers” by a clearly secular gun lobby and their media megaphones. It’s also a genuine cry to take back the power of thinking and praying in a culture in which G-d is often equated with a gun “shooting our prayers.” I believe that Quart’s work in the so-called abstract cultural superstructure is not opposed to, but rather, at the very least, a necessary complement, to physically trying to unarm a rabid white supremacist terrorist.
Structurally, Thoughts and Prayers tends to alternate between short-lined pathos-laden, ‘private’ lyricism, and long-lined more public poems composed from aphoristic and often humorous one liners whose very form bespeaks the difficulties of trying to construct an “attention economy” against the 21st ironies of century maleist “live fast, break things” attention-deficit inducing cultural epidemic. Lines like “Some students call their pain ‘climate anxiety’,” followed by “Bush II is now a Sunday painter, depicting the very soldiers whose mutilation he ordered,” speak volumes (“Late Capitalism,” 14).
Of the short-lined lyrics, “Coterie” is one of the most poignant grief poems I’ve ever read. Part elegy for an unnamed, but presumably semi-famous, friend, and finding oneself negotiating many other mutual friends’ or fans’ various styles of grieving, from the most speechless and sincere to the most flippant paparazzi, this poem is also lament for a social and cultural milieu, the dream of solidarity of a fin-de-siecle artistic coterie that has been destroyed, with the implication that this elegized subject was in a sense a casualty of the economic and cultural shifts she writes about in her prose, and, in Thoughts and Prayers, more comically, in “Apocalypse Anyway.”
“Apocalypse Anyway” (25), a quasi-narrative aphoristic romp through her 20s in the 1990s, the so-called ‘slacker’ era of the corporatization of hip-hop, punk and college radio—from Riot Grrrl to Spice Girl, happiness pie and Prozac nation before the internet had become a relentless cultural habit, juxtaproses the personal and the cultural with a healthy ambivalence. While in retrospect many fellow generation Xers may consider 90s to be a kind of prelapsarian time—“when the weather was literal, sometimes Modernist, but not yet political,” Quart also remembers the ways in which it was worse: “When female writers made their names denying other women’s suffering” (25)—not that such denying of suffering still doesn’t happen, as in her satirical portrait of women of the ruling class in “Enclave.” There’s always the possibility that it’s not the zeitgeist of that time we’re nostalgic for, but merely the fact that we were in our twenties, for as she reminds us in Squeezed:
“By the time I entered the recessionary job market of the 1990s (a time when young people assumed the identity ‘slacker’ partly in preemptive self-protection from the rejection of increasingly fractured careers), a lifelong job at a single company was already becoming quaint.” (171)
I detect regret and/or helplessness—if not necessarily guilt—in lines such as: “When elections went tabloid but we hadn’t realized yet what that would mean.”(27) And perhaps I’m projecting my own feelings onto this poem when thinking about those times, and wondering why couldn’t we see the signs of encroaching negative cultural change and do something to stop it! Ultimately, “Apocalypse Anyway” seems to end on a personal-crisis, or an attitude she now may consider immature:
when other people became my religion
when I didn’t think of anyone else
when all I thought about was other people (27)
This attitude could also be an occupational hazard in her present life as a member of the working class precariat care-force (whether as freelance journalist or mother), and this may help contextualize her appropriation of the Ashbery quote: “But the past is already here, and you are nursing some private project.” For despite these temptations of helpless nostalgia, the private project Quart nurses as an alternative turns out to be not so ‘private’ after all.
As she reminds us in Squeezed, nursing is one of the “traditional caring professions,” as are domestic workers—housekeepers, nannies, day care cooperative coordinators, teachers—whether college humanities teachers, or K-12—, and the domestic labor of birthing and motherhood:
“Today mothers still do most of our unpaid work. A 2015 McKinsey report calculates this as about $10 Trillion of output per year, 13 percent of the global GDP….yet informal labor doesn’t advance workers the way manufacturing jobs did during the last century” (and if men go into these professions—“where most of the employment growth is these days—they may receive the ‘traditional’ female lower pay” 5, 128, 285).
Much of the reason for this devalue and disdain of care workers, Quart argues, is the maleist ideology that “women ‘naturally’ serve others gratis.” (128). And as Squeezed shows, through meticulous research and personal accounts, this perennial ideology “for centuries and around the world,” has been getting worse in the 21st century economy, which Jeremy Rifkin terms ‘hypercapitalism.’ “As the market economy expands still further,” she asks, “What is left for relationships of a non-commercial nature?” (76)
Take, for instance, the human toll on patients—or ‘health-care consumers’—of the trend to replace hospital nurses and other health care workers—with robots. In Squeezed, robot-fearing nurses like Bonnie Castillo of the California Nurses Association tells Quart: “patients require a human touch. She meant that quote literally. As a nurse, she said, she would typically assess the texture of patients’ skin determining, for instance, whether their skin was clammy or sweaty.” (234)
Nursing also means breastfeeding, and in a world in which:
women are always
breasts and forced
yet clever surrealists…
covered in hot ejaculate
of sonogram… (51)
the speaker of the poem “Mammo” intersects with the health-care industry from a consumer’s viewpoint while also interviewing her “smiling blonde/ technician, a Chernobyl/ escapee,” to end on a note of the kind of pithy irony adept at drawing connections between the personal and the systemic. “Mammo” ends:
Her current job in
radiation is ironic,
the technician knows,
she says, “Distrust
still, it’s better here. For
example, the rain.
For those interested in exploring Quart’s sense of the genre-division between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose,” one could compare this to perhaps even crueler forms of capitalist irony, like the fact that “24% of housekeepers and 82% of live-in nannies leave kids behind.” This separation of families, of which the Ice Detention Centers are only the tip of a systemic iceberg, leaves these working mothers with choices at least as difficult as, and more widespread than, the traditional maleist tragic hero, for instance Blanca from Paraguay’s choice between “paying the price to get her son back by replacing his middle-class life in Paraguay with becoming part of the working poor in America.” (Squeezed, 112)
Another poem that harmonizes her lyric and journalistic skills is “Clinic,” a five-page lyric suite in 6 sections, which she characterizes as a “meta-text” around her journalistic account of abortion clinics. In this gut-wrenching portrayal of: “women afraid of dying while/ they are trying to find their life” (18), Quart steps away from her journalistic detachment to advocate for the difficult choices women, ranging from 19 to 41, who work at K-Mart, Home Depot, at daycares, at hospitals at night,” must make:
one boss wouldn’t let
the woman sell car parts
if she was pregnant…
the soldier who
“Said she was
so I can fight
for this country (19)
Like the photographer Peter Hujar celebrated in “Against Amnesia,” Quart looks “into the sitters/eyes then out of them, all at once.” (41). In an era where “being a pregnant woman in America, no matter how many reality shows and greeting cards say the opposite, is a stigmatized identity,” (Squeezed, 28) and women and doctors are murdered at abortion clinics by zealous hypocrites who are pro-life until birth while cutting any vestige of social safety nets that would allow many of these working-class mothers to actually care for the children, Quart’s poem is “civic poetry” at its best (and, yes, it’s a rare poem that can make me cry).
Throughout, both books strive to embody the “ethical ideals of interdependence, flexibility, relatedness, receptivity…preservative love, discipline, flexible thinking” which some feminists term “maternal thinking,” and though Quart herself resisted becoming a mother until her late thirties because she “had to deal with my own suspicion that caring and mothering were somehow not intellectually or critically headed enough” and the “fear having a baby would annihilate [her] own identity,” (Squeezed, 259). But despite the fear of “permanent marks” she mentions in the poem “Pre-Natal,” “I found the opposite to be true.” Indeed, in several of the poems her daughter becomes a muse-like figure whose “face illuminates mine” (14) even better than “noise-cancelling head/phones” (5). Against the contracts and financial instruments,
Her questions remain free.
Why do boys
Have beards? Why
Do women give birth? (In Ballard, 5)
By contrast, in Squeezed her daughter’s questions turn more difficultly to economic class.
At this juncture, I can imagine a reader criticizing this review for mixing up her poetry and prose, but, for me, the question of whether Thoughts and Prayers “stands on its own” (by the still lingering ‘New Critical” standards of lyric poetry) is as moot as the question of whether a great song lyric can ‘stand up on the page,’ when you’ve already heard the music. And just as reading Shakespeare’s plays, or Baraka’s prose, helped me appreciate their poems better, Quart’s argument in Squeezed about the value of a “feminist ethics of care” can be useful in considering the “private project” she nurses in Thoughts & Prayers.
In seeking antidotes, or at least proactive alternatives, to the blame epidemic—whether directed to self or to others—that has arisen in the wake of the disappearing middle-class, Quart argues that we need to reframe care:
“Why do we identify care with weakness? Can’t we push back when people make remarks indicating that they find caring labor of all kinds, including birthing, intrinsically less important and intellectual than other kinds of labor? Why don’t we ask why many people think of care as boring, soft, and submissive, not up to the standards of pace of our hard edged time? And why do we so often prefer the opposite of care? (260).
“If we thought of care as a form of knowledge, we might recognize, as Daniela Nanau did….that parenthood, rather than being the negative image of traditional work, actually prepares and even sharpens us for the workplace; (262) affection would be not just a sentiment but an ethical practice and also a form of accepted work: it would be legitimate that we could be paid to love.” (244).
“If automation forces us eventually to uncouple income from work—to recognize that robots have truly replaced us and as a result we need to pay people for not working—we will have to cease making moral arguments, from both left and right, about the value of work. But even more, we’ll need to think differently. We’ll need to learn to value various kinds of nonwork behavior that we do not honor now—and also to protect and honor the kind of labor that incorporate these nonwork behaviors. What happens to love after work becomes obsolete?” (246) “The warmth and feeling of human beings must be honored, at the very least.” (248)
These prose passages could also be read a defense of (her) poetry, for those who care. Or, as she puts it in the poem, “Cancel This,” “women’s minds are wild. Protect their honor. It is yours as well.” (63) And even if she can’t convince a patriarchal CEO or Techie of her argument (though one could pray) to—essentially recalibrate the economy—maybe she can at least convince enough of the precariat guys, whether in the care-industry or truckers replaced by bots, that such feminism would actually help us too.