A Poem I Do Not Hate: The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Sealing the Deal: The wet and wild world of selkie romance novels
It began with my friend Julie. At some point in our early adolescence, she started giving me her mom’s romance novels, helpfully dog-eared at the raunchy bits. My parents were into mystery and science fiction—my copy of Judy Blume’s Forever was probably the smuttiest book our house—so Julie’s supply of mass-market romances provided me with a welcome surfeit of sexually explicit scenes and situations.
Now, decades later, I know that the books I was skimming for words like “shaft” and “thrust” were a direct result of the awesome success of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower. First published in 1972, this novel reinvented romance fiction by making explicit what had previously been decorously implied—which is to say, penetration. While there are still readers who prefer a chaste romance, and while there are still publishers happy to cater to this audience, sales figures for The Flame and the Flower made it abundantly clear that most romance fans wanted action, and lots of it. The book was a bestseller as a hardcover original—most romances debut as paperbacks—and more than four million copies had been sold by 1978. The Flame and the Flower is still in print. It’s even available in electronic editions.
Woodiwiss’ breakthrough provided the formula for pretty much every romance I read in the ’80s. As I worked my way through Julie’s mom’s castoffs and rummaged through neighborhood bookshelves during babysitting gigs, I encountered the same scenario over and over again: Naïve young woman experiences sexual awakening when she succumbs to older, very powerful man, while older, very powerful man is domesticated—but not in any way emasculated!—by aforementioned naïve young woman. True love and lots of intercourse. This is the formula that helped romance dominate bookselling. (Romance consistently beats every other category in consumer publishing, and the genre has, in recent years, proven itself recession-proof, continuing to grow even in a shrinking economy.) This is also the formula that inspired the pejorative “bodice ripper”—a reference to both the bosom-heavy art on the cover and the many garments torn from women’s bodies within—and earned the genre the enduring scorn of literary critics and feminists.
Indeed, if you’re not a romance reader, your perception of—and disdain for, perhaps?—the genre is probably based on the typical romance of thirty years ago. To be sure, there’s plenty to hate about the form Woodiwiss pioneered. The Flame and the Flower itself makes for difficult reading—and not because it’s intellectually challenging. The characters and conflicts are thin, insipid copies of prototypes by Jane Austen and the Brontës. (I am not alone in recognizing this: Scholars of the genre have long identified these nineteenth-century authors as the progenitors of modern romance fiction.) Heather Simmons, the protagonist, is like Jane Eyre without Jane’s intelligence, passion, and self-reliance. Innocence is a vital component—perhaps the vital component—of her appeal as a heroine, but her much-discussed naiveté manifests mostly as the most exasperating kind of stupidity. This line is not the best example of the aforementioned dynamic, but it’s probably the most (unintentionally) hilarious: “Her eyes traveled downward innocently to his pants.” Brandon Birmingham (the man with the pants) is, like Rochester, a hero in the Byronic mold—Heather even compares him to Satan—but he’s only like Rochester if Rochester raped Jane while under the impression that she was a prostitute, which brings us to the most troubling feature of the subgenre Woodiwiss spawned.
For more than a decade after the publication of The Flame and the Flower, rape-as-a-plot-device was a nearly ubiquitous element of the successful romance novel. The best explanation for this phenomenon is that it was more socially acceptable—within the pre-twentieth-century settings of historical romance, but also within the modern contexts in which readers were consuming historical romance—for a man to assault a young woman than it was for that young woman to willingly have sex. In a chapter devoted to rape in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan summarize the situation thusly: “[R]ape scenes gave the heroines permission to explore their sexuality without appearing to be sluts.”
I would like to say that I stopped reading romance novels when I realized how regressive they were, and that my budding feminist sensibility was shaped by my outrage at their persistent portrayal of women as victims, but that would totally be a lie. What really happened was that I could no longer take the tendency of romance authors to build a plot out of a stupid, easily avoidable misunderstanding that metastasizes. Also, I discovered Showtime After Hours Presentations, the nation’s premier source of softcore porn during my most hormone-addled years. My surreptitious reading was replaced by late-night cable viewing—with the sound turned way down to avoid waking my parents—and that was it for me and romance novels.
Until, one fateful day in 2008, when I got a call from my friend, Sarah. She was standing in line at a drugstore, and she had, on impulse, plucked a novel from the rack. “You have got to get this book,” she told me. The novel Sarah recommended was Sea Witch by Virginia Kantra, and, just looking at the cover, I knew that this was not the romance novel as I remembered it. There’s no passionate clinch, no heaving bosoms—no bosoms of any kind, actually—simply a lone woman, naked and viewed from behind, rising from the ocean beneath a full moon. The novel’s opening line is just as arresting: “If she didn’t have sex with something soon, she would burst out of her skin.” Clearly, this was a heroine who did not need a man to force her into sex. She just needed a man—as soon as possible.
Horror Fiction by Women: An Appendix
During the semester just past, I took a seminar on horror fiction by women. It was a great class by any measure—it was wonderfully well-organized, the professor pushed us in our writing, and my fellow students were sharp as tacks—but the reading list was particularly superlative. We started with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I had never read before. I got exciting new insights into one of my very favorite books ever, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. And I was introduced to the awesome Elizabeth Hand; after I read Generation Loss—an odd and satisfying thriller—I continued through much of her oeuvre. The high point for me was rereading Kathryn Davis’s Hell, a novel that should be on anybody’s list of contemporary American masterpieces. I chose Hell for my final paper, which allowed me to write about food refusal among medieval holy women, Victorian “fasting girls,” and Julie Kristeva. That alone would make me love this book, but it’s also brilliant and funny and creepy and heartbreaking.
Anyhow, as the semester has progressed, I’ve been compiling a kind of shadow syllabus composed of books that complement those we read or bring something new to the mix. This is that list.
O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker
This book occupies the same space in my mind as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, although Barker is not nearly the misanthrope that Shirley Jackson is (few of us are, for which we should be thankful). I haven’t read this book in several years—I found the experience overwhelming, and I am still not sufficiently recovered to attempt it again—but I did write about it when my feel for the story was still fresh, and you can read that review here.
by Hilary Mantel
Mantel has long struck me as an author who does not have the audience she deserves. I realize that this is largely because I am American, rather than British, but I will also note that the latest editions of these two books represent a second attempt to get us to read them. When they were first launched into the American market—along with Fludd—I discovered a new favorite author, and I was lucky enough to interview her at the time (you can read the interview here). I just reread both books, and they lived up to my memory. I imagined the interiors in a completely different way this time—which was pleasantly disorienting—but my sense that Mantel is able to perfectly balance the perfectly nasty with the utterly humane remains intact.
Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Having just revisited Every Day Is Mother’s Day and Vacant Possession, it occurs to me that Mantel is assaying, for a second time, much the same material she addressed in those earlier works. This is not a criticism. Beyond Black is a wondrously funny, moving, chilling work of fiction on its own merits, and Joan Acocella explains why much better than I could.
The Keep by Jennifer Egan
I read this novel soon after giving birth, but I feel confident that the eeriness I felt while reading was enhanced by—rather than generated by—the weirdness of mothering a new person and the attendant sleeplessness. This is a tour de force of postmodern Gothic, which is to say that Egan understands that the Gothic is inherently postmodern, and that the postmodern is inherently Gothic. Or something. I will say that Egan’s grasp of the uncanniness of telecommunications put me in mind of Dracula, and that it’s one of the topics we discussed in this interview.
Cold Earth by Sarah Moss
Ghost stories are, by definition, stories about the past refusing to stay in the past. Moss amplifies this dynamic by setting her story on an archaeological dig, the site of a lost Viking settlement. Cold Earth is a remarkably creepy story, and a very strong debut novel.
Affinity by Sarah Waters
Spiritualism has, at this late date, become a bit of a punchline—it was already a joke when Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House. But Waters understands the very human desire to connect, and that infuses her eerie narrative with pathos. Prepare to be chilled, and prepare to be heartbroken.
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
I’ve only read this once, right before it was published, and what I remember is being anxious from start to finish. (NB: Fans of The Secret History seem to uniformly dislike Tartt’s second novel. Consider yourself warned.)
The Observations by Jane Harris
Kind of like if Jane Eyre was a prostitute before she landed at Thornfield.
In the Woods by Tana French
French has a very weird way with the police procedural—and I mean “weird” in pretty much every sense of the word.
My Happy Life by Lydia Millet
I have not been able to bring myself to read Emma Donoghue’s Room largely because I am still recovering from this.
More than You Know by Beth Gutcheon
When the subject is scary stories, I can’t not mention this book. I reviewed it here a few years ago.
Today is Jennifer Egan Appreciation Day
Jennifer Egan just won the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit from the Goon Squad. If you have not read this book, you should. You totally should. You may also enjoy my piece on this amazing novel in the most recent edition of Women's Review of Books, and I would also like to recommend my interview with Jennifer Egan, conducted in 2007, when the also awesome The Keep, was published.
A Poem I Do Not Hate: The Mermaid in the Hospital
to find her fishtail
but in the bed with her
were two long, cold thingammies.
You'd have thought they were tangles of kelp
or collops of ham.
"They're no doubt
taking the piss,
it being New Year's Eve.
Half the staff legless
and the other half
Still, this is taking it
a bit far."
And with that she hurled
the two thingammies out of the room.
But here's the thing
she still doesn't get—
why she tumbled out after them
How she was connected
to those two thingammies
and how they were connected
It was the sister who gave her the wink
and let her know what was what.
"You have one leg attached to you there
and another one underneath that.
One leg, two legs...
A-one and a-two...
Now you have to learn
what they can do."
In the long months
I wonder if her heart fell
the way her arches fell,
her instep arches.
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
The Fifty Minute Mermaid
A Poem I Do Not Hate: Why I Am Not a Painter
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.
A Poem I Do Not Hate: To His Coy Mistress
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
A Poem I Do Not Hate: Black March
I have a friend
At the end
Of the world.
His name is a breath
Of fresh air.
He is dressed in
Grey chiffon. At least
I think it is chiffon.
It has a
Peculiar look, like smoke.
It wraps him round
It blows out of place
It conceals him
I have not seen his face.
But I have seen his eyes, they are
As pretty and bright
As raindrops on black twigs
In March, and heard him say:
I am a breath
Of fresh air for you, a change
By and by.
Black March I call him
Because of his eyes
Being like March raindrops
On black twigs.
(Such a pretty time when the sky
Behind black twigs can be seen
Stretched out in one
Cambridge blue as cold as snow.)
But this friend
Whatever new names I give him
Is an old friend. He says:
Whatever names you give me
A breath of fresh air,
A change for you.
In Honor of National Poetry Month
8 Reasons Why I Hate Poetry
- It’s too short.
- Or it’s too long.
- It’s too fancy.
- Or it’s just words broken up into weird lines for no good reason.
- No dialogue.
- No narrative.
- No wizards, no space ships, no mystery-solving medieval monks.
- Performance poets. All of them.
Archival Interview: Virginia Kantra, Author of the Children of the Sea CycleNOTE: Virginia Kantra is my favorite author of paranormal romance. I conducted this interview last year, before the release of Sea Lord, and I'm republishing now to celebrate the launch of Immortal Sea, the latest installment in the Kantra's Children of the Sea series.
If she didn't have sex with something soon, she would burst out of her skin.
So begins Sea Witch, the first novel in Virginia Kantra’s Children of the Sea trilogy. While most paranormal romance authors deploy incredibly complicated plot devices to make it acceptable for their heroines to go all the way with sultry strangers within the first thirty pages or so, Kantra refuses to offer any sort of narrative apologia. Instead, she presents readers with a protagonist who is driven purely by her own physical need. Of course, it makes a difference that Kantra’s heroine is a selkie—a seal who assumes a woman’s shape on land.
The authors of paranormal romance regularly borrow from folklore in their search for resonant tropes and characters, but Kantra makes particularly deft use of her source material. In Sea Witch, for example, she exploits her heroine’s non-human status to teasingly challenge readers’ expectations. She is working within the genre while pushing against its boundaries. Her subtlety is exceptional. One of the big surprises in the interview below is the revelation that Sea Witch was, in part, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid.” Magred’s slow transformation from selkie to human shows no traces of Andersen’s heavy-handed moralizing. Kantra is able to give her heroine a soul while preserving the ambiguity and ambivalence of the folkloric selkie.
On your Website, you say that you’ve always enjoyed fairy tales. Have you had a lifelong interest in folklore, as well, or is that something that you’ve only recently begun to study? What folklore are you interested in at the moment?
Virginia Kantra: As soon as I had a library card, I read my way through Andrew Lang's collections of fairy tales—all twelve volumes!—which were originally published around the turn of the century. A lot of those are based on folk tales from all over the world.
Growing up, I didn't make a distinction between fairy tales and folklore. My father was an English professor. The bookshelves in our living room were jammed with Aristophanes, Ovid, Pope, and Milton on one side of the fireplace and Chesterton, Belloc, and Frazer’s The Golden Bough on the other. I categorized everything as either "stuff I could read" or "boring stuff."
I'm developing more Children of the Sea stories, which as you know use the legend of the selkie, but I'm expanding the role of the finfolk, based on another bit of Orkney folklore. I'm also intrigued by the legend of the njugl, the Shetland water horse, and trying to think how to fit that in with my current project.
The Children of the Sea novels are not, of course, your first works. What inspired you to embark on this series?
VK: At the same time I was writing my first two romantic suspense novels for Berkley, I also did a couple of novellas based on legends about the fair folk. I had what I thought was the idea for another contemporary romantic suspense: police chief on a remote island in Maine finds a naked woman who’s been attacked on the beach.
And then I thought . . . What if she wasn’t human?
The “naked” bit set me off, I think. There are folk tales up and down the British coast about the selkie, shape-shifters who take the form of seals in the ocean and cast off their pelts—get naked—to come ashore as beautiful men and women who have sex with humans. Which is a fabulous fantasy if you are a lonely sailor and a pretty unarguable explanation if you are an unmarried village maiden who can’t possibly name, say, the married butcher as the father of your baby.
It was that juxtaposition, that tension between land and sea, between the contemporary, pragmatic, police procedural world of my hero and the timeless, sensual, magical world of my heroine, that totally hooked me into the first story and into the series.
One of the things that I found most striking when I read Sea Witch was the beginning: Magred is a female character looking for sex—not love—when she goes ashore. It struck me that an author can do things with a non-human character that might be difficult to do with a human character; that is, behavior that's acceptable for a selkie might not be acceptable in a human. Do you find it liberating to work with supernatural beings?
VK: I did reverse gender expectations a little there, didn't I? Genre expectations, too, perhaps. At least one reviewer criticized Margred for not falling in love sooner, for not being "human enough."
For me, non-human characters are a way to explore what makes us truly human: the capacity to choose, to love, to commit. I wanted to take Margred's "otherness" seriously, both as a non-human character with a unique point of view and as a way of exploring human relationships. I had to consider how Margred’s experience and emotions within her element—her environment, the sea—would affect her thoughts and decisions on land. There’s a recurring line in the books that I use to capture the children of the sea: “We flow as the sea flows.” I adored writing Margred because she’s so amazingly sensual and sexually confident, but has so much to learn about faith, love, and tenderness.
Romance novels are often compared to fairy tales, and they do share many structural similarities. And paranormal romance novels, in particular, borrow from folklore. But paranormal romances also tend to have a sense of cosmic danger—the heroine is often caught up in a battle between vast forces, a battle with far-reaching consequences—that is generally absent from folktales. How does this tension between your folkloric source materials and the demands of the genre affect your work?
VK: What you're saying is probably true about the majority of paranormal romance, but frankly, I don't think about the "demands of the genre" when I'm writing. For me, high personal stakes trump cosmic consequences every time.
But even in fairy tales, you'll notice, the characters' choices often have implications for their larger worlds. We miss that sometimes as modern readers because we don't think of princes and princesses as part of a recognized social order. "Cinderella," for example, hinges on dynastic realities—the prince must marry because the kingdom needs an heir. When the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast" offends the witch, his entire kingdom suffers for his sin. Even the superstitions surrounding the practice of the corn maiden have implications for the harvest. So once I have the characters and their personal conflicts in place, I do look for those kinds of larger consequences as a way of upping the stakes.
Have you been inspired by any particular folktales—rather than just the idea of selkies—in shaping the plots or characters of your Children of the Sea novels or "Sea Crossing"?
VK: Absolutely. I got the idea of linking the first three books from an old shanty, "The Keeper of the Eddystone Light": "My father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light, and he married a mermaid one fine night. Of that union, there came three..."
Sea Witch borrows pretty freely from Hans Christian Andersen's original "The Little Mermaid," especially in terms of Margred's search for a soul:
“So I shall die,” said the little mermaid, “and as the foam of the sea I shall be driven about never again to hear the music of the waves, or to see the pretty flowers nor the red sun. Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”
The whole mythology I created for the elementals and the "First Creation" is of course patterned on the Creation story in Genesis.
Sea Fever doesn't draw on any particular source, but the upcoming [at the time of this interview—JLJ] Sea Lord was definitely inspired by Hades' abduction of Persephone, including the rape in the garden and the setting of the story in fall and winter. Perhaps because I was already using all that harvest imagery, I also used the tradition of the corn maiden.
Since you can't get a look at that book before May, I'm pasting in the relevant bit below.
An unexpected twinge caught him beneath the ribs. He used sex as a tool, a weapon. He did not expect it to turn like a knife in his hand. But his feelings, her feelings, could not be allowed to matter. He did what he must do.
Her breath escaped her lips in a silent cry. A drop of blood beaded at her scalp, but his magic compelled her to sleep.
He set his teeth, touching his finger to the blood and then to the center of the bundled corn, the claidheag, where the corn maiden's heart would beat. If such a creature had a heart. His fingertip burned. He felt the heat flow upward through his arm, power building and pulsing like a headache. He tied the seven strands of hair over the twine at the top.
"Know," he commanded. The pressure hammered at his temples. He blew into the featureless face. "Breathe."
He pressed the heel of his palm between Lucy's legs, still wet with her essence and his seed. The magic gripped his neck like claws, sinking fangs into his skull, squeezing his brain. He smeared his wet hand over the dry husks of the claidheag, anointing it with life. "Be."
He felt the surge, the shock of focused power, leap from him to the sheaf on the ground.
The power ebbed away, leaving him drained, his head throbbing with the aftermath of magic, and the claidheag stiff and still.
Conn inhaled, holding his breath to fill the sudden emptiness of his chest.
Lucy slept, unknowing.
He lifted her body in his arms and carried her away, leaving his handiwork lying behind them in the field.
The wind whispered. Breathe.
The earth radiated warmth. Be.
The breeze teased the bundle on the ground. The claidheag's hair, the pale gold of corn husks or straw, fluttered, smoothing, softening. Beneath the swaddling clothes, its limbs swelled and grew supple, taking on substance, taking on flesh.
From the branches of a spruce, a crow launched, squawking in protest or warning.
The corn maiden opened its eyes, the green yellow of pumpkin vines. Lucy's eyes, in Lucy's face.
It lay in the field, watching the clouds chase across the sky, absorbing the last rays of the sun, listening to the chatter of the wind.
A catbird landed on a nearby stake, cocked a fierce, bright eye and flew away again. An ant, wandering the furrows, traced a trail over the claidheag's motionless hand. Slowly, thought formed, a pale shoot from a kernel of consciousness.
It did not belong here, cut down, cut off from the earth.
Sighing, the claidheag raised on one elbow and then to its knees. To its feet. It should go...The word was buried deep, a fat, round word, moldy with disappointment. Home. It should go home.
Following the tug of blood, the stir of memory, it shambled toward the road.