Beginnings and endings are tricky things. For words, for bodies, for ideas. Where does the body end and the social construction of the body begin? The borders of the body and the expression of gender do not cease with bone and skin and muscle. Rather there is ambiguity–a clouded border that fluctuates with language, time, and other processes of interpretation and adaptation. The same can be said for the beginnings and endings of poems.
Elaine Kahn’s Women In Public is about moms, peaches, bodies, and garbage, among other things. Things that decay. Things that are often undervalued. Where one poem leaves off, the next begins, hardly giving us time to digest the barrage of images so dexterously strung together. There’s a velocity to Kahn’s words: a body plummeting through space in a fog of language.
It was Paul Valéry who once said a poem is never finished, only abandoned. In Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, Ruefle describes his idea that the opening line of a poem “is like finding a fruit on the ground, a piece of fallen fruit you have never seen before, and the poet’s task is to create the tree from which such a fruit would fall.” With Women In Public, Kahn has created an entire forest, one in which a bounty of language simultaneously blooms and withers, begins and ends, and begins again.
Kahn’s poems don’t end on the page. The ideas bleed from poem to poem, constructing a venous universe surging with the complexity of meaning making and the numerous contradictions so often forced upon the gendered human form. The poem “A Voluptuous Dream During An Eclipse” ends with the lines:
I won’t say a thing and I won’t notice
god you are
kind of jerk
and yesterday is gone
and I had nothing to do with it
Kahn packs her poems with a density as complex as the systems regulating the human body itself. However, where there could be claustrophobia, Kahn creates an opening, a portal for new meanings and definitions. The poem ends with these lines and on the next page, a new poem picks up exactly where the last left off with its title “Yesterday Is Gone And I Had Nothing To Do With It.” In moments like these, Kahn’s poems don’t finish with the last line; she always leaves the door slightly ajar.
In one of the collection’s shorter poems, “Having Never Read Adorno,” Kahn writes:
I understand myself
as it is funny
I remember as a child the moment I realized I would never be allowed to be funny. I was watching a Blink-182 music video–the one for “What’s My Age Again.” In the video, the band runs naked down the street, dressed only in mid-calf socks, sneakers, and pixilated genitalia. Just three dudes jogging down a sunbathed sidewalk singing a whiney pop-rock anthem about aging (Maybe you remember the catchy chorus: “No one likes you when you’re twenty-three”). I didn’t have cable at the time; it was the type of thing I watched on Sunday morning MTV following a sleepover at a friend’s house. Watching the music video for the first time, at the age of seven, it was at this moment I realized I wasn’t in on the joke. The boys got to have all the fun, exposing themselves to the public, and I realized my body would always be sexualized, that the medium was the message and my body would forever be burdened with a message I never signed up for. (Disclaimer: I am not saying women are not funny. Women have disproved this accusation time and time again–I am only referring to the limitations I perceived as a child to be set upon the female body.) I was seven years old and I realized I inhabited a gendered body.
Adorno, of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, wrote extensively about the role of the private sphere versus the public sphere in his essays on capitalism and the culture industry. Along with peers such as Max Horkheimer and Jürgen Habermas, Adorno studied the ways in which the private sphere operates differently than the public sphere and its constant struggle to assert itself. While Blink-182 was free to literally expose themselves to the public without shame or consequence–for humor!–the female form is too often confined to a sexualized realm, one in which even nipples cannot appear on Instagram. Going off Adorno then, the female form gets cloistered away in the private sphere and is only allowed to be visible when it satisfies the male gaze—like the red-bra-wearing nurse in the “What’s My Age Again” video—while the male form is allowed to parade uninhibited through the public sphere, pixilated genitalia and all.
A favorite quote of mine (one I stumbled upon in Dana Drori’s excellent essay “Penis Rising” for Adult Magazine) is John Ashbery’s “When is a nude not a nude? When it is male.”
An equally compelling question (although this one comes without an immediate answer): “What does the world hate more/than women/in public?” This is the question Elaine Kahn posits in the titular poem of her collection and the resounding heartbeat that pulsates beneath each page of the book. It’s a fair question. A woman wears shorts in ninety-degree weather and is suddenly reduced to an exhibitionist who is “asking for it.” A female artist gets naked for art and is accused of being a narcissist trying to seduce a male audience. A woman writes about her feelings and is condemned for “over sharing.” One of the most controversial actions a woman can undertake is to merely exist in public.
In the poem “You Don’t Know How to Make Love,” Kahn writes:
It stuns my stupid head
still ringing with the deluge
of having a body
This is exactly what it feels like to be six years old and realize you are expected to be a groupie, when all you ever wanted was to be in the band itself.* The burden of the body–and all the confusing, contradictory, infuriating expectations that come attached to gendered perceptions of being. It all comes back to beginnings and endings. Once a body is entered into the public sphere–say the streets of downtown L.A. or wherever it was Blink-182 is gallivanting through in their super-nude music video–where does that body’s flesh end and the perception of flesh begin? And why does the world get so upset when female bodies finally leave the private sphere and reveal themselves to the public?
One of the women referenced in Kahn’s Women In Public is artist Hannah Wilke. Depending on whom you ask, Wilke was either a self-exploitative exhibitionist or a progressive feminist artist (after all, divided opinions like these are what happen when women get naked in public). Wilke is perhaps best known for her S.O.S. Starification Object Series (1974), a series of self-portraits in which Wilke stripped down to next to nothing, adorned her body with tiny labial sculptures made of chewing gum, and mimicked pin-up posturing (a proto-Cindy Shermanesque performance of sexualized identities).
Following this series, many criticized Wilke, including critic and curator Lucy Lippard, for playing to the male gaze. However, perhaps the key to understanding Wilke’s work is that Wilke herself was in on the joke, understanding that “the basic problem that most women have had making things, is that people would rather look at women than . . . look at art.” In the poem “All Natural: After Hannah Wilke,” Kahn writes:
A story the mind tells itself.
Made out of the body.
Wilke knew the difficulties of escaping the medium of the female form–for unfortunately, beauty and youth seem to be one of the rare sites where women are attributed any value–and exploited this knowledge for her own objective. She made herself the object, and by doing so, thus mocked the spider web like narrative that her own body was so entangled with.
While Wilke took a rather biologically determinist approach to her work (I mean, it was the 1970s after all), Kahn uses language to continue this excavation of meaning making through physical form. Kahn writes, “When the whole world is made of plastic/the whole world is smiling with you.” To have a body is to begin the unending work of self-expression, self-preservation–existing as a sort of labor when one must constantly rail against external perception.
Women In Public is a ultimately a book about the tensions that exist when living within that spider web of expectation: the tension between beginnings and endings, the tension between public and private, the tension between perception and identity. To know oneself extends beyond physicality. As Kahn puts it in “I Know I Am Not An Easy Woman”:
I have seen a million
pictures of my face
I have no idea
Identity is not static or cemented in permanence, but a process of diverging tides, performances, and choices, changing with the day, week, month, season, year, or even just the weather. The body–such a sorry placeholder for identity–reflects only an iota of the myriad contradictions that complete human experiences. And fortunately for us, Kahn knows contradiction well–she writes of garbage with beauty, sexuality with humor, frogs with “presidential teeth.”
There’s something remarkably organic about Kahn’s treatment of her poetic subjects. An easy humor permeates Kahn’s poems, leavening even the heaviest of topics with a wry wink. It’s no wonder Kahn writes about Wilke, an artist who clearly had some sense of humor, a woman who sculpted vaginas out of chewing gum–the ultimate disposable material, something chewed up, and spat on the ground–a not-so-subtle symbol for the treatment of women in the public sphere.
At the end of Wilke’s life, while dying of lymphoma, Wilke began a new project, her Intra-Venus series of photographs. The photographs, taken by her husband Donald Goddard, depict the artist’s body ravaged by illness, transformed by chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants. The images show Wilke naked and tired, her body decaying before the viewer. However, it is not weakness that is captured here, but rather a rejection of shame, a reclamation of an ending. Wilke adopts many of the same poses she did with S.O.S. Starification, confronting the audience with the truth of her personal reality. Still as clever as ever, Wilke’s title Intra-Venus pokes fun at the idealized (and impossible) form of female beauty immortalized by Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. In 1994, Intra-Venus was exhibited posthumously, proving that even after her death–this death symbolizing both an end and a beginning: the end of her life and the beginning of a new body of work (no pun intended)–Wilke was still unwavering in her commitment to living life as a woman in public.
* It’s worth mentioning that my despair over the Blink-182 music video was short lived, thanks to my later discovery of women like Kim Gordon (who actually blurbed this book, writing, “Elaine Kahn’s poems touch me somewhere deep. I don’t know how or why, but I’m willing to go wherever she wants to take me.”)