“Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian” by Margaret Hawkins

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her taut and witty story “Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian,” Margaret Hawkins sketches the evolving friendship between a very elderly former English teacher and her former student. Along the way, we discover that both women have surprising pasts and long-held secrets.

 

Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian

by Margaret Hawkins

 

Joan stood behind the circulation desk, checking out books to a middle-aged man with a shaved head. The man was wearing flip-flops and a stained sweat suit that looked like it doubled as pajamas.

The library, in the small Illinois town where Joan had grown up and to which she’d recently returned alone and without a plan, was full of hairless men on weekdays now. Shaving was cheaper than a haircut.

The man slid his books sideways across the counter to make way for the elderly woman behind him. They were chatting, holding up the line. The woman thumped the man on the chest and said something that made him laugh and blush.

Now the woman stood in front of Joan. Or rather, she leaned, bent so far over her walker that the belt of her trench coat trailed on the floor. She pushed a little pile of audiobooks across the desk. “Do you know Donnie?” She gestured stiffly with her head toward the pajamaed man who was now making his way toward the exit. She didn’t wait for an answer. “What a promising boy he was. Excellent speller.”

Joan smiled. They weren’t supposed to gossip. She picked up an audiobook and passed it under the scanner. Poetry—that was unusual. Kay Ryan. Underneath were two more, Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. She took the woman’s card.

“I find myself gravitating to the lesbian poetesses these days,” the woman said, as if she were making a public announcement and wanted to be sure to reach the hard-of-hearing in the back row. She made the lez in lesbian last for three beats. “They go for the gut,” she added, spitting out the t. “Don’t you think?”

Joan looked up from her screen. “Miss Cates?” She hadn’t seen her high school English teacher in over thirty years.

Which of them had changed more? Joan wondered, sitting at Miss Cates’s kitchen table two days later. Her former teacher was making tuna salad. Joan kept offering to help, but Miss Cates insisted that Joan remain seated, clanking her walker against the cupboards so she could lean her elbows on the sink.

She’d torn open a foil pouch. Dumped the tuna in a bowl. Slopped in a forkful of mayonnaise, some pre-cut celery. Squeezed lemon over the bowl without removing the seeds. Shaken some grayish flakes out of an ancient-looking jar. Dill, possibly, Joan thought. Whatever it was had long ago lost its nature.

“Family recipe,” Miss Cates said, dealing a few broken potato chips onto paper plates. She eased herself into the vinyl seat of her walker. To drink, there was tap water, with a generous glug of gin. “We call this a Presbyterian martini,” she said, not explaining the “we”. She clamped her glass with two hands and took a gulp. “A Presby, for short.”

At the library, Joan had had to tell her who she was. “Well, well,” Miss Cates had said, peering over her glasses. “Little Miss Joan of Arc arises, like the Phoenix I always suspected you were.” Thirty years earlier, there had been an incident involving a quasi-accidental brushfire behind the garage of a quasi-boyfriend named Robert that had garnered Joan unwelcome notice as an arsonist. Joan had hoped it was forgotten.

Me, Joan thought now, watching Miss Cates scoop a glob of tuna salad with a potato chip and ferry it shakily toward her mouth. I’ve changed more. Though Miss Cates looked different, that was true. Her queenly posture was a mere memory. She’d shrunk a foot, at least. She wore big white gym shoes now instead of those staccato-sounding spectator pumps. Her hair was a fuzzy, thinning mat, no longer the elaborately teased and frosted nest Joan remembered.

Miss Cates had descended from the wide, arid plateau of late middle age, where she’d dwelled when Joan had last seen her and which seemed from the outside to have no antecedent or borders, into the mysterious, frankly decrepit valley of end times. The body she inhabited now called to mind one of her beloved ruins, the very stones of which had crumbled. She had to be over ninety. Still, she, the essential Miss Cates, was exactly the same.

After Joan had gone for lunch three times at the tiny apartment—the menu was always the same—she got Miss Cates to agree to let her bring the food next time. Joan packed a picnic. Actually, she already had packed it, had in fact been driving around with the slightly obscene collection of imperishable delicacies in her trunk for over a month, waiting for the right moment to spring it on Robert. A pretty basket held a tin of smoked oysters, a bar of the darkest chocolate, a bottle of champagne. Linen napkins, a tablecloth. She’d pictured herself spreading the cloth on a motel bed or, if need be, across the seat of his reclining dental chair. She’d tucked bungee cords in the basket, imagined affixing Robert to a stationary object and force-feeding him, or lighting a match.

On her way to Miss Cates that day she drove out of her way to buy bread, soft cheeses, raspberries, a pot of liver mousse, one ripe quince, a lemon tea cake. Joan wondered if it was too much, or too obviously a lunch intended for a different sort of rendezvous. But food was food, she reasoned. Miss Cates would never notice.

“A meal fit for a king,” Miss Cates proclaimed, sitting up as straight as she could on her walker seat, smoothing a bright napkin over her lap. “Or fit for a concubine, I should say.” She patted her stiff, sparse hair.

“Though if you’re planning to seduce me with this sumptuous repast”—she smeared a huge glob of Roquefort on a water cracker—“you’ll have to produce a time machine from that cunning basket of yours.”

Joan poured fizzing wine into two juice glasses and held hers aloft. “To Cass,” she said.

Miss Cates had insisted that Joan call her by her given name, though Joan would have preferred to continue calling her Miss Cates. “All my friends call me Cass,” she’d said. “Or did. They’re all dead now.” She’d plucked a crumb off her blouse, flicked it on the rug. “Except for Aphrodite.”

Aphrodite was an enormous white cat whose strangely loud purr could be heard through closed doors. The cat’s fur was everywhere in the small apartment, especially in the sinks, which were coated. Aphrodite liked wet places, Miss Cates said. Often the cat lounged under the kitchen faucet, staring at the drain, expecting, it seemed, something to rise from it.

Miss Cates adored Aphrodite, despite her louche ways, perhaps because of them. For a while there’d been two cats, Miss Cates said, stroking a little metal tool through Aphrodite’s thick coat. Littermates. The other cat, Athena, had died of leukemia seven years before. Athena had been quieter, better behaved.

“You notice which one survived.” Aphrodite, spread possessively across Miss Cates’s lap, emitted a loud, somewhat threatening purr. “Miss brainy was brittle. Didn’t know what to do with herself once she’d proved she was right. But love—that’s you, my crumpet,” she said to the old cat. “Little miss love and beauty here is a tough cookie. Fickle. Gets what she wants and moves on. Don’t you?” She massaged the cat’s head. “You selfish hussy.”

Aphrodite sprang from repose to land a quick bite, then dropped to the floor. Departing the room, she raised her tail. The small, dark eye of her anus winked at them.

A month later, in the fading light of an October afternoon, they ate cheese cubes and sipped the gin Miss Cates had splashed in their glasses, not bothering with water. (“When you drink it neat, it’s a Methodist.”) Aphrodite lay heavily in Miss Cates’s lap, pinning her to the seat of her walker.

“I’d freshen your drink,” Miss Cates said, during a lull in which Joan thought she’d fallen asleep. “But, as you can see, I am a prisoner of love.”

Robert notified Joan he would be spending Thanksgiving with his family and that she was not to call him. Joan roasted a turkey breast and drove it to Miss Cates. There, she mashed potatoes at the tiny stove. Later Miss Cates talked her through a brandied cranberry compote, inexactly. (“How much brandy?” “Gobs.”)

“What should we call this?” Joan was sloshing the glistening red jumble into chipped punch cups. She wanted to be inducted into whatever society owned this joke. “A Mennonite?”

Miss Cates looked thoughtful. “A Sufi,” she said.

Late Christmas afternoon, after waiting all day for a sign from Robert, Joan took the coffee cake and peppermint ice cream to Miss Cates. She presented her with a wool shawl, a CD player, an assortment of recorded books. Miss Cates gave Joan a shot of bitters over ice (a Cold Catholic), and her father’s Aeolian harp, wrapped in two stale-smelling pillowcases tied with the sash of her bathrobe. She’d kept it under her bed for forty years, she said.

“Named after Aeolus, Greek god of the wind.”

“I know,” Joan whispered. She was trying not to weep.

“It suits you,” Miss Cates said. “Passive instrument that it is. Put it in an open window. Aeolus will strum it for you.”

In January, Miss Cates stopped going out. Joan made regular deliveries of tuna in pouches, lemons, jars of Nutella, cat food in assorted flavors, extra-strength aspirin, jumbo flagons of Tanqueray. One day, after Joan had opened the cat food cans and stacked them in the refrigerator, then loosened the caps on the gin and the aspirin, while they were having what Miss Cates called tea—pound cake with their usual Presbyterians–Miss Cates told Joan about Francie Jane.

“Who’s this?” Joan had said when she noticed the photo on the bureau. She’d been folding Miss Cates’s laundry and seen the tarnished silver picture frame behind a stack of unpaid bills. There were other photos—Miss Cates as a lanky child straddling a horse, a studio portrait of what must be her parents, unsmiling long-jawed Yankees in Victorian wedding regalia—but here was a face that bore no family resemblance.

Miss Cates took the photo from Joan and held it in her lap. The picture showed a square-faced young woman in a jacket with military epaulets holding two koala bears.

“My WAVE.” Miss Cates drew out the vowel. “Frances Jane Harper Hunt. Served in the South Pacific, before I knew her.” Miss Cates clicked her yellow fingernail on the glass. Francie was older, she said. The photo was from her frisky youth.

“Gone many years. Cancer of the womb.” Miss Cates fluttered her fingers as if to rid herself of something. Turned to Joan. “Do you recognize her?” She had that look she’d got sometimes in class, posing a tricky question.

“Excuse me?”

“Think, now.” Her voice had gone teacherish. “Mrs. Hunt.”

Joan did remember someone, but Miss Cates couldn’t mean that Mrs. Hunt. Could she? The art teacher, that small plump angry woman with the tight gray curls who wore too-snug plaid skirts with sweater sets and shiny nylons and little high-heeled shoes that pitched her whole body forward? The frowsy one whose slip always showed, who threw temper tantrums and gave detentions, and smelled of stale sanitary napkins, whom Gail Pastorius called Mrs. Cunt? Joan tried to sneak another look, but Miss Cates’s big hand covered the picture.

“We were great friends for many years,” Miss Cates said. After a while, she added, “Once we took my Aunt Cecelia to lunch at the Walnut Room.” She chortled at the memory but didn’t explain.

“Francie’s fellow—husband I should say, though I hate the word—had a position with some financial outfit. Something like what you used to do, I suppose.” Miss Cates sniffed. “Nice fellow, in his way. Good provider.” She chucked the photo toward a chair and missed, then stuck her spoon in the Nutella and spread an undainty dollop on her cake.

“Tell me about your fellow,” she said, another afternoon. When Joan hesitated, Miss Cates prompted her, as if to jog her memory. “Your hubby?”

Joan slogged in, trying to simulate the impression of an answer while saying as little as she could, not mentioning Robert and coming up with a garbled nonstatement about two possible, sort of, fellows, if you counted almost-exes, then gave up. “Really, probably there’s none.”

“Good girl. Place the emphatic words in a sentence at the end.” Miss Cates had taken to quoting The Elements of Style in a pinch, without citation. Her bible, she said—comfort to the old.

Now she indicted that Joan should pour more gin into her glass and not bother with water. “When you top it up like that it’s called an Episcopalian.” Recently she’d told Joan the drink names had been a private joke between her and Mrs. Hunt.

On Valentine’s Day, arriving with the heart-shaped cheesecake she’d made the night before, Joan found Miss Cates unable to get out of bed, impatient to talk about the time she’d given Francie a kitten. “I made her promise to keep his name. Gleipnir.” She caught Joan’s eye. “Rhymes with sneer.”

Joan knew she was supposed to get this reference, but she drew a blank. Miss Cates waved her hand. “Never mind. Never liked the Norse much, except for that bit.”

Gleipnir, she reminded Joan, was the name of the magic chain, made of the noise of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of stones, the breath of fish, and the spittle of birds. She gave Joan a look. “Impossible things, you see, to do an impossible job.”

Joan took a sip of her Episcopalian.

“Little Gleipnir was supposed to be our magic chain. But he ran into the street and was hit by a car. A Rambler, Francie thought. That boy of hers left the door open. The little thing got out.”

On the Ides of March, Joan broached the subject of vengeance. She didn’t mention Robert. Had she ever felt spiteful, toward Francie?

Miss Cates hooted. Oh, all the time, she said. All the time. The night Francie dropped by after returning from a three-week trip with her husband, she’d thought about poisoning her. They’d gone to Paris. She wasn’t even sorry.

“But how would I have disposed of that chubby little corpse?” Miss Cates said she’d settled for beating Francie with an umbrella.

“Did it help?”

Miss Cates closed her eyes. “A little,” she said. After a while she added, “I regret nothing.”

She took a long swallow from her drink and set her glass in the air a few inches beyond the edge of the table. By the time Joan finished sweeping up the shards, Miss Cates was gone. Soon, Aphrodite appeared at Joan’s feet and demanded supper.

 

***

Margaret Hawkins writes fiction, essays, and arts journalism. Her work appears regularly in Visual Art Source and the Democracy Chain.  Her third novel (fourth book), Lydia’s Party, was published by Penguin in 2015.  Her work has appeared in the New York Times, ARTnews, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Art & Antiques, The Perch (Yale), Fabrik, and many other publications. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Loyola University.

 

 

 

 

Way Back, Well Before My Divorce

Equally comedic and poignant, Adam Prince’s story “Way Back, Well Before My Divorce,” winner of our 2021 William Peden Prize in fiction, examines the many faces of naivete, from hopeful crowd members betting on a rigged shell game to a young man unknowingly crossing an invisible boundary with his girlfriend’s sister.

Here’s what novelist Michael Byers, the guest judge who selected this story as the winner of our annual best-of-volume prize, had to say about the story:

“It builds a portrait of a clueless young man who thinks he has all the answers while also, and this was especially gratifying, making me appreciate the form of the short story in a new way, i.e., it never says what it’s about but is firm enough in its shape to be entirely clear; it asks questions rather than delivers answers; and it too is vivid and memorable–all while being quite short! In itself a kind of sleight-of-hand game.”

 

Way Back, Well Before My Divorce

by Adam Prince

There was this other thing that happened. Or really two things bundled. While visiting my then girlfriend’s older sister in New York City, I got pulled into a shell game. Then, later that night, the sister asked me to help wax her armpits.

It was a day approaching Thanksgiving—clear and wincingly bright. Just off Washington Square some guy shifted a raw pea under three shells on a cardboard box. He was balding and potbellied with a five o’clock shadow—or more like nine thirty. And something wrong with his eyes. One of them pulled toward his nose.

Five or six people gathered around: a white guy in a gray suit, a black guy in a white suit, a gypsy-looking woman with ragged flowers on her hat. Some others.

I liked their diversity. Their liveliness, too. Jumping around when they won. Throwing their hats down when they lost.

I’d just moved east for college Upstate, and remembering this now feels like watching an early-twentieth-century melodrama, with the villain twisting his mustache and the naive young man.

What happened later that night resembled no genre I’ve ever heard of.

In a narrow apartment, my girlfriend’s older sister and I were eating Ethiopian food off the same plate with our hands—which is how you’re supposed to do it—when she said, “So Gwendolyn tells me you’re into processes.”

I’d never thought about whether I was into processes or not but guessed it was probably true. Gwendolyn had gone to a better high school than me and attended a better college. And once, out of nowhere, she’d proclaimed that I was interested in the way men and women interacted. I’d never thought of it before but then realized she was right. It was one of my main interests.

So, “Yeah,” I said now to Gwendolyn’s sister about the processes.

And the sister said, “I thought you’d want to help wax my armpits.”

Which I did. But I mean, who wouldn’t? Or maybe it’s just me, interested in processes.

This shell guy had all kinds of tricks. A shift. A mix. A back-and-forth where they ended up in the same place they’d started. Still, I could tell where that pea went.

“Young man knows,” said the shell guy to himself, while the gypsy kept losing dollars, crumpled and ragged as the flowers on her hat.

“Where ya think?” she whispered to me.

I told her; she won. It made the shell guy mad. He looked me in the face—or as much as he could with his eyes the way they were—shifting the shells as he did.

“Where’s it at?” he asked.

“I don’t want to bet,” I told him.

“Never mind the bet. No bets. Where’s it at?”

I pointed. And was right.

Now, I admired my girlfriend’s older sister. She was in graduate school doing gender studies. She identified as bisexual and looked like a Norwegian milkmaid, but an empowered milkmaid who sometimes wore a beret and totally pulled it off. Blonde and broad-shouldered, a dusting of freckles on her wide cheeks.

For the record, though, I didn’t see this as any kind of sexual invitation. More like a dare.

The whole family was very open-minded. They traveled to Kenya every Christmas. The dad kept almost winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry; the mom did metal art with a blowtorch. And though I’d never actually seen it, I knew for a fact they walked around naked at home.

Open-mindedness was another thing I was into.

So, “Okay,” I said. “Sounds good.”

She heated the green-gray wax in a saucepan, stirring with a popsicle stick applicator, a good start for a process.

Then she took off her shirt. Stood in the middle of the tiny bathroom while I backed up against the tile wall, trying to be polite.

She aimed her sky-blue eyes at me. And casually slung off her bra. Which I didn’t understand at all, since anyone could see that the armpits were perfectly accessible with the bra still on.

I said, “Those look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.” Because they did look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts: exact same areolae and everything. Except the sister’s breasts were bigger and firmer and honestly more appealing overall, which I absolutely did not say.

Anyway, I meant it in a friendly way, a breezy, beret-wearing casual way, like “Hey, wouldn’t you know it, those look a heck of a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.”

And the sister said, “Thanks. I guess.” Which could have meant almost anything.

A cheer went up. The young man was right! The beleaguered, hat throwing crowd had their hero.

The shell guy said, “One hundred dollars to this boy if he’s right again.”

“I don’t have any cash. I don’t want to bet.”

“No bet. One hundred if you’re right.”

The shells went around, circling and shifting and blurring all over. The pea ticking from one to another.

I picked the shell on the left.

“You sure?” asked the shell guy.

“No!” cried the crowd. “Not that one!”

But I was sure. The young man knew.

Shell guy tipped up the left. And there it was.

But this shell guy, he just shrugged. “No bet, no money.”

The rest of the crowd knew an injustice when they saw one. They’d thrown down hats before. The white guy in the gray suit came over, leaned close. He looked like my dad, except with a ketchup stain on his tie and like he’d made worse life choices

“This son of a bitch,” he said, “been screwing us all day.” He walked me to a nearby ATM. “You’re gonna take out fifty and stick it to this son of a bitch,” he said.

I told him the ATM only gave out multiples of twenty, and then I suggested we take out forty instead.

But this guy who looked like my dad, whom I’d always admired— very straightforward—said, “Sixty. We’re gonna go for it.

***

Gwendolyn’s sister raised an arm, applied the goo to a furry armpit, and told me to rip it off.

I’d peel; she’d wince. Flushed and sweating. And when she moved, her breasts moved, too. They swayed and wobbled.

The green wax came off with the hair stuck to it, standing up as if the roots grew there from this whole other Frankenstein skin.

“Let’s wax you next,” the sister said, her bra still off.

She spread hot wax over my armpits. I was running out of places to put my eyes so tried keeping them closed. But then she ripped off the wax. And sudden, burning pain forced them open again. I had to make sure my skin hadn’t peeled off with the wax, and god, those breasts were close. Sweat running down them.

She grunted each time she peeled. And I grunted, too. Sexy and gross and painful all at once—but mostly just confusing—while I tried to pretend that this was how sophisticated, open-minded grownups behaved.

***

The guy who looked like my dad and I strode back to the shell game like lions of Wall Street. Or anyway, that’s how I felt.

I laid my money down on the cardboard box. Real money. Ten hours at the college cafeteria where I worked. A real bet from the young man who knew the pea.

He started his shifty business. All kinds of shenanigans. Shot the pea into the middle nut. Shot it to left nut, then back. But I knew. Called out middle nut.

Then he moved it left. I saw. Or, I mean, I was pretty sure. But I’d already called out middle, and he pulled up middle nut to reveal no pea.

I said, “You moved it after I picked!”

And the crowd said, “He moved it after you picked!”

And I said, “Did you see him move it after I picked?”

But none of them could say for sure.

Nothing for me to do but give up the money. Walk away. Out into the bleary light, figuring out the con as I went and feeling as foolish and ashamed as I have in my whole life.

Except for maybe later that night, when we were all done with the wax, and Gwendolyn’s sister shrugged her bra back on.

Or maybe on Thanksgiving Day in the shower with Gwendolyn, showing off the wax job and walking her through the story—breezily, open-mindedly.

But Gwendolyn’s face didn’t seem open at all. It had this rigid, judgy look.

“What?” she said. “Wait, wait, what? She did what? And you did what? And you were thinking what?”

But all that was a long time ago. Way back, well before my divorce.

 

 

***

Adam Prince earned his B.A. from Vassar College, his M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas, and his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee. His award-winning fiction has appeared in the Mississippi Review, the Southern ReviewNarrative Magazine, and Sewanee Review among others. His short story collection The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men was published with Black Lawrence Press in June of 2012. He is currently at work on a novel and several screenplays. He serves as the visiting writer for the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama and works as a freelance editor. See Dr. Adam Prince – Writer, Freelance Editor (adamprinceauthor.com) for more information.

“Girls and Horses” by Ron Tanner

BLAST, TMR‘s new online-only prose “anthology,” features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a journal. Our second selection, new nonfiction by Ron Tanner, speculates about the long association between girls and horses–and provides some wonderful illustrations and asides along the way.  We hope you enjoy “Girls and Horses.” You can also listen to the essay here.

 

Girls and Horses

by Ron Tanner

 

[I think] all the time about horses, all day and every night. . . .

—Velvet Brown, National Velvet (1944)

 

When I was eleven, my family took a car trip out West, where I saw what “big sky country” meant. In Montana, I was able to buy a cowboy hat—the real thing, not a toy—and for the rest of our vacation I fancied myself a genuine cowboy, taking every opportunity to gallop on my imaginary horse. I promised myself that as a grownup I would wander the West on horseback, following the sun and camping on the prairie. But then, summer vacation done, I entered fifth grade and, shortly thereafter, turned twelve and suddenly everything changed for me. No one announced the change. It simply happened, like a turn in the weather. Now, at recess, instead of charging around—riding our horses and ambushing bad guys—my friends and I gathered in somber clusters and talked about cars and sex (as much as we could fathom) and cigarettes. That’s right; I started smoking at twelve. But the girls: they seemed unchanged, galloping across the hockey field on their imaginary horses. As I watched them, some inarticulate part of myself ached for my loss. I knew I would never mention my cowboy hat, much less my cowboy dreams. As for the horses, well, the girls got those.

Recently, my wife Jill and I bought a farm with five acres of open fields. We were surveying our newly acquired land when Jill said, “I want a horse.”

I thought she was joking.

I said, “Owning a horse isn’t like owning a dog.” We owned two dogs.

“I know about horses,” she said. “We have plenty of pasture.”

“What do you know about horses?” I asked.

“I love horses,” she said. “I’ve always loved horses. I used to ride when I was a girl. And I had all those horse figurines.”

I could easily recall the horse figurines I’d seen in girls’ possession: plastic, porcelain, lead, plaster—not toys, exactly; more like totems: precious things we boys didn’t own. But at the same time I vividly recalled the heroes we boys (born in the 1950s) idolized: Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey, Lone Ranger—men on horses. Most girls I’d known were horse-crazy. None of the boys were. Now, I can only conclude that a cultural rift occurred at some point to create this gender divide, and it troubles me because it seems that this divide has persisted in some pernicious ways.

Boy on a hobby horse, from Bruegel’s “Kinderspiele,” 1560.

Pernicious? I would not have chosen this word had I not discovered the girls-love-horses phenomenon in a backhanded way. As a collector of antique toys, I have seen, examined, and owned all manner of playthings: horses were among the earliest toys, dating back to the Egyptians, circa 500 BC. Take a minute—right now—to do an Amazon search for “toy horse.” What do you find? Tens of thousands of results! The most common toy among these is the “hobbyhorse,” a cloth horse head mounted on a broomstick. In the toy industry, this is called a “ride-on,” in the same category as bicycles and wheeled carts. It’s an ancient toy. You can find that very same kind of hobbyhorse in Pieter Bruegel’s 1560s painting, Kinderspiele (Children’s Games). It’s prominent in the painting’s foreground, a boy hunkered over—galloping on—his stick horse.

As Bruegel’s painting suggests, play with horses was associated more with boys than with girls. In fact, “horseplay,” roughhousing—a word that originated in Bruegel’s day—was almost always a term applied to males. When I was in third grade, I had the pleasure, for a time, of running from a posse of girls every day during recess. They galloped after me as if I were prey, though it wasn’t clear whether they were supposed to be riding horses or were themselves the horses. I heard, behind me, much whinnying and neighing. Whatever the case, I knew they meant no harm because girls never played rough. Grabbing, pushing, tackling, wrestling, head-locking—that was for boys.

Always a man on a horse: penny toy, circa 1900.

Having examined hundreds of tin and cast iron toys of the nineteenth century, I have found only male riders of horses and male drivers of horse-drawn vehicles. Predictable, I know. A similar search reveals this bias in advertising and popular art. A print ad for Post Toasties from 1922 seems to say it all: the girl, poised before a cereal bowl at the breakfast table, appears content with domesticity, while the boy nearby, whipping his rocking horse, runs away with his imagination.

Illustration from Post Toasties magazine ad, 1922.

Ironically, this ad illustrates a larger divide, as it could be emblematic also of man’s abuse of the horse, a concern championed by women in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when horses were routinely whipped—sometimes to death—in the busy streets, where horses were urban America’s only engine for cars, trollies, carts, and wagons.

Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) pleaded the case for humane treatment of these burdened beasts. Though written initially for adults, Black Beauty became the first of a new genre: the girl’s horse book. In this story, told from the horse’s point of view, women claim dominion over the horse’s welfare. Says one horse of his abusive masters, “If he had been civil, I would have tried to bear it. I was willing to work, and ready to work hard too; but to be tormented for nothing but their [human] fancies angered me. What right had they to make me suffer like that?” I can well imagine women saying this about their relationships with men. In one scene from the novel, as a carter is whipping Beauty to pull his overloaded wagon up a steep hill, a woman stops him with heartfelt protests, then sweetly suggests, “[Y]ou do not give him a fair chance; he cannot use all his power with his head held back as it is with that check-rein; if you would take it off I am sure he would do better—do try it . . . I should be very glad if you would.” Reluctantly the dunderheaded carter takes her advice and, now given more liberty, Beauty does the job.

Am I reading too much into this depiction if I see a critique of imperialism, slavery, and even capitalism? Although women claimed dominion over the horse’s welfare, that claim was thoroughly debated and frequently dismissed. As long as the horse was a primary engine of industry, men resisted or flatly opposed women’s involvement with the animal. This opposition reached its apex when men insisted that women ride sidesaddle or not at all. As the renowned horse trainer, James Fillis, asserted in Breaking and Riding (1890): “The great want in a man’s seat is firmness, which would be still more difficult for a woman to acquire if she rode in a cross-saddle, because her thighs are rounder and weaker than those of a man. Discussion of this subject is, therefore, useless.” An accomplished equestrienne and the paragon of propriety, Queen Victoria herself rode on a sidesaddle, an accoutrement defined in most dictionaries of the nineteenth century as “a woman’s seat” (Webster 1854). The origin of the sidesaddle dates back, at least, to the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Although touted as an accommodation that allowed women to wear dresses while they traveled on horseback, it was widely understood foremost as a measure of modesty—keeping the woman’s legs together to prevent the public from viewing her netherland. When Princess Anne of Bohemia traveled on horseback to marry England’s King Richard II in 1382, her sidesaddle was said to preserve her virginity, announcing the (male) assumption that riding astride would break the woman’s hymen.

I know, it all sounds laughable nowadays. Or does it?

Before she was Mrs. Moore, Alice rode her horse every day.

Come on: women have been riding horses as long as men have, and you can bet that outside the realm of high-born ladies both genders were sitting on their horses in the same way—like my mother’s friend, Mrs. Alice Moore, who grew up on a ranch in Arizona, during the 1920s and ‘30s. She rode her horse to and from school until she graduated from high school. I’ve pored over the photographic record of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and am relieved to report that girls like Alice were riding astride because, like the boys, they had work to do. In other words, the debates about how a woman should ride a horse had nothing to do with the everyday, working world. Rather, they had to do with privileged women in the public eye, where men were quick to censure and control them. Still, the issue was serious enough to compel the Georgia state legislature, in 1909, to debate a proposed statute that would have prohibited women from riding astride a horse.

Calamity Jane, 1852-1903.

Male resistance to women’s interest in horses has been surprisingly tenacious. Not until 1948 were women able to establish their own rodeo. A woman jockey was not invited to race in the Kentucky Derby until 1970. Recently (April 7, 2005), sounding very much like his nineteenth-century predecessors, Ginger McCain, another renowned horse trainer, asserted, “Women don’t win Grand Nationals,” England’s most grueling steeplechase. “They don’t have the fitness to ride the distance over fences on those chasers.” Such statements leave me breathless with dismay because they’re so dishonest. American history records an impressive number of daring women riders, among them Calamity Jane (nee Martha Jane Canary), Kittie “Kit” Wilkins, Sally Skull, Josephine “Little Jo” Monaghan, and Mrs. “Libbie” Custer, wife of the famous general. Their American Indian contemporaries include renowned women warriors on horseback: Strikes Two, Finds Them and Kills Them, The Other Magpie, Buffalo Calf Robe, and Elk Hollering in the Water, among others.

It appears that debates about women’s fitness and ability were loudest in the last decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries because that was when women were increasingly gaining privilege and buying horses and, not coincidentally, voicing their opinions about how horses should be treated. As mechanized vehicles—automobiles, trucks, and tractors—replaced the horse in the working world, horses were more available for leisure activities. At the same time, an improved standard of living gave middle-class women time and money for riding as recreation.

Already, in the 1890s, the horse was not as common a fixture of daily working life as it had been, as one etiquette writer of the day observed: “in earlier days horseback riding was almost universal.” According to the writer, that formerly common practice of riding was now merely “a fashionable diversion and healthful exercise.” By 1920, after the introduction of mass-marketed tractors like the Waterloo Boy (1918), petrol-powered machines began replacing the farm horse in significant numbers. Having just stumbled to a horrific close, World War I had shown the limitations of the horse in the face of tanks and machine guns, limitations that led, finally, to the dissolution of the U.S. Cavalry in 1942.

At 12 horsepower, even the earliest tractors must have seemed remarkable by comparison to the now humbled horse. Without a tractor, I couldn’t do half the work my farm demands: moving stones, digging postholes, grading roads, knocking down trees, uprooting stumps. A hundred years ago, I would have had a horse. A horse demands far more maintenance than a tractor—more maintenance than most people nowadays can fathom. Not only is there the daily feeding and stabling of a horse, but also grooming and nutrition. Horses need the services of a farrier (to trim their hooves) every month. They need to see a vet every three to four months. They also need supplements, in addition to feed. As of this writing, it costs approximately $400-500 monthly to care for a horse. That’s like a hefty car payment, except, unlike your car note, this one persists for twenty years or more. If you don’t have a place to keep it, then add anywhere from $100-500 per month for stabling. If the horse is merely for leisure activities, it’s a costly proposition for most families.

I asked Jill when she first knew that she wanted a horse.

“Always,” she said.

“Always?”

“Horses were everywhere when I was growing up. There were ponies and horses in most of the advertising I saw,” she said. “There was a riding school near where I lived—they boarded horses and taught riding. I loved going there. I always thought the girls there, grooming their horses and dressed in their riding gear, were so cool.”

“You asked your parents for a horse?”

“Whenever they asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I answered, ‘A horse!’ And my dad would always say in return, ‘And where do you want to keep it, in your room?’ I knew we didn’t have the money for a horse, but I never gave up wanting one.”

“Even now,” I joked.

Jill, age 4, living the dream.

Jill never played with dolls. She was interested only in caring for animals. As a teen, she raised rabbits. In lieu of owning larger creatures, she collected antique plush animals made by Steiff, a high-end German toy maker that is still in business. Jill’s collection is quite large now, and she’s become expert at cleaning and repairing these toys, which include, yes, many horses. In grade school, I loved my imaginary horse as much as a child could, I suppose, but it never occurred to me that I should ever groom my trusty steed. Sure, I’d saddle up and be mindful of the times my horse might have to graze. But the rest: curry combs, brushes, ribbons and bows for its mane? All of that was beyond my ken.

***

New Spain, 1520: What must the “natives” have thought when they first beheld the horse, transported by barge across the bay by these bearded, barrel-chested men whose language sounded like burbling bird-talk?

Surely these strangers worshiped the elk-sized creatures whose massive heads, heavy as carved oak, nodded knowingly, as if they could see farther than paradise. Imagine the natives’ amazement when the armored men saddled their snorting steeds, then stirruped up and sat astride while those gods shook their muzzles and tossed their manes as if in disbelief.

The world would never be the same, would it? There would be horses, so many horses, prairies of them, herds stampeding in breakneck glee, as if the earth beneath them were theirs alone.

A 1915 car ad.

If you’d like to see a vivid illustration of the horse’s decline in American life, I recommend the 1928 Harold Lloyd silent comedy Speedy, about New York City’s final replacement of horse-drawn cars with electric trolleys.

Perfection circa 1900: a beautiful woman with a beautiful horse.

The movie argued that although machines were fast and efficient, they could never replace the stalwart, ever faithful, often courageous horse. The eponymous “Speedy” is the avatar for all these equine attributes: loyal and warm, with a unique personality and a fierce work ethic. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the lament was loud for the “passing” of the horse, but there was no turning back. So during this transitional period, as the horse transformed from industrial engine to rarefied pet, advertisers and other arbiters of taste reconstructed it for public consumption. The obsolescence of the working horse relegated it to the realm of recreation—polo, racing, and hunting, all of which demanded considerable leisure and often considerable funds. That’s why automobile manufacturers in their print ads frequently displayed their latest car models next to horses. As a luxury, the horse was both desirable and dismissible: desirable because of its associations with wealth and leisure but dismissible because it was no longer central to successful work. Very quickly, the horse became a romanticized totem of beauty and freedom and American individualism. And just as quickly, popular art linked the beautiful horse with the beautiful woman. At a glance, it seems an odd, even bizarre, pairing. These artful portraits, often featured on early twentieth-century postcards, almost always show the horse embraced or stroked by the woman. They advertised the Victorian stereotype of the woman as domestic goddess, the woman who can tame the beast: she is the civilizing force, the ur horse-whisperer. What’s more striking in these photos, however, is how neutralized both the woman and the horse appear to be. There’s no sense of the horse’s tremendous power or the will a woman might have to control such an animal. This pair might as well be preserved in amber.

Calendar art, 1936.

This ideal—the refined (neutralized) woman—could be found in all kinds of print ads that featured horses. Even if the woman is wearing riding attire, she is almost never shown on the horse. And, in the rare cases where she’s on the horse, she’s usually not wearing riding attire or actually riding: almost always she’s sitting as if on a sidesaddle, even though there’s never a sidesaddle in sight. The 1930s print Refreshing Ocean Breeze, reproduced on calendars of that decade may best illustrate the prevailing attitude. This painting shows a young woman wearing a polo outfit and standing beside her horse, which she clearly rides astride. While she remains static, striking a fetching pose, a sailboat in the distance speeds past in one direction and, overhead, a biplane flies past in another direction. It is as if the worlds of commerce and vigorous sport lie beyond the reach of the woman and her horse. Never mind the polo gear she wears; it’s just an outfit, the picture seems to say.

Family Christmas photo, 1922.

In private collections, I have found dozens of antique photographs of children that in various ways illustrate vividly the divide that separated girls from boys. The most striking of these sends a message much like the one in the Post Toasties print ad. In this case, I have a 1920s photograph of a brother and sister with their Christmas toys. The boy has gotten a car, which already he is attempting to drive away two-handed with a look of determination. The girl has received a rocking horse, upon which her parents have placed her sidesaddle (Do you really believe she ever rode it that way?). The boy, like the culture that embraces him, will drive away shortly with the latest technology, leaving the girl in the yard with her old-fashioned horse, which no doubt she will spend hours grooming, for grooming is what she has been taught to do expertly.

By the time National Velvet became an international best-seller in the late 1930s, the horse had been relegated once and for all to leisure activities. Now, in increasing numbers, middle- and upper-class girls—like Jill—were horseback riding, if not begging their parents for a horse of their own. Margaret Cable Self, a noted riding instructor and writer on horsemanship, speculates that girls took to horses and boys did not because girls, at an early age, have the patience to sustain the grueling training and practice necessary to become equestriennes, whereas boys—even if interested—could find more immediate gratification in organized sports, an option girls did not have.

Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, about a fourteen-year-old girl who disguises herself as a jockey so that she can ride her horse to win England’s Grand National, was a gentle form of protest that most girls, it seems, took to heart. The 1944 Hollywood movie was as big a success as the novel, launching the career of Elizabeth Taylor and winning two Academy Awards. The book illuminates every issue surrounding the horse at mid-twentieth century: men want horses for work, women want horses as pets; men think women’s feelings for horses are frivolous, women insist that such feelings are good and sound; men believe women cannot and should not attempt to race horses, women believe they can do anything they put their hearts and minds to. Although Velvet Brown, the heroine, showed girls that they could ride and win, the primary message was that girls know horses best and that, like Velvet, they could live happily ever after without winning races. Velvet’s motivation, after all, was to show that her horse—not she herself—was a winner. And so, at the book’s end, “Velvet was able to get on quietly to her next adventures.”

In 1950, the Breyer Company offered realistic plastic models, at a 1/9 scale, of horses without riders. The availability of numerous accessories, which included saddles, bridles, and so on, suggested that grooming and outfitting were the ultimate aims of playing with these toys, not the imaginary rider’s performance on the horse. Each horse was presented in a box that depicted a pastoral background—and never on the toy shelves was there a rider, trainer, or groom in sight. Horse toys prior to this time had been limited to pull toys, rockers, and ride-ons, as well as the occasional plush animal. Small figurines made of lead or wood accompanied soldier sets for boys, but no company had offered the horse in the way that Breyer did: as an icon of leisure and fantasy. Notable too was the premium price Breyer charged for their high-quality product: currently, new toys of this sort cost from twenty-five to fifty dollars each. It is as if, in buying a Breyer, the consumer is indulging in the luxury that horses have come to represent.

Riderless horse toy, 2005.

At present, there are approximately 20 companies manufacturing plastic Breyer-type horses for sale to children. Although there are no statistics that pinpoint the demographics of buyers, a perusal of national horse-model clubs and organizations suggests that most buyers are girls and women. Virtually all these horse models present the horse alone, cantering, galloping, or rearing, without a saddle or a rider and boxed in an unpeopled pastoral scene. The riderless horse model is very much in keeping with the tradition established early in the twentieth century as the horse transitioned from engine of work to family pet—exemplified, again, by Velvet Brown who, after winning the Grand National, retired her horse to leisure activity, much to her father’s chagrin.

The riderless pose of the horse toy emphasizes “pet” in the most literal sense, as if the horse were only ornamental, to be groomed, stroked, and admired but never sat upon, much less ridden. In stark contrast, horses marketed to boys always featured a rider in a saddle, starting with Roy Rogers and other cowboy heroes in the 1950s and continuing through recent fantasy figures, such as Lord of the Rings warriors. Not surprisingly, until recently, illustrations in toy catalogues always showed male riders on horses, never female. This is ironic because toy manufacturers sold many more horses to girls than to boys. Despite the examples set by historic women such as Calamity Jane, television stars such as Dale Evans, and fictional heroines such as Velvet Brown, girls have followed the examples set by toy makers and gravitated mostly to the ornamental horse. There have been exceptions, such as the series of riding horses for the Barbie doll, which have been steady sellers since their first appearance in the late 1960s. The rule, however, is best exemplified by the My Little Pony series, which Hasbro began selling in 1981.

The first issue of My Little Pony included seven different figures, each one small enough to be handled easily by the average eight-year-old. Made of bright pastel-colored vinyl, with long synthetic manes, doll-like painted eyes, and painted floral decorations on their bodies, these ponies were cartoonish and cuddly. And every one was made for grooming, as the original My Little Pony jingle made clear:

My Little Pony, My Little Pony . . .
I comb and brush her hair.
My Little Pony, My Little Pony
Tie a ribbon to show how much I care
My Little Pony, My Little Pony . . .

I take her wherever I go.
My Little Pony, My Little Pony . . .

Oh I love her so.
I love you, My Little Pony!

A My Little Pony knock-off, 2002: there are dozens of brands.

My Little Pony has been revived and aggressively marketed several times, most recently in 2010. Sales of the toy line gross over a billion dollars annually. Many other toy makers have produced similar pet horse figures, usually equipped with combs and other grooming accessories and always targeted at girls.

I’m aware that there does exist a male-centric My Little Pony following called the Bronies, which is an indication—I hope—that Americans are getting more generous in what they consider acceptable play for boys and girls. Had I picked up the equivalent of My Little Pony when I was eight, I would have been bullied and ostracized.

At the start of this essay, I used the word “pernicious.” As I contemplate the empty stalls in my barn, I can’t help but feel that, when it comes to the love of horses, men have been cheated and women have been duped. Even now, there are few horse toys marketed exclusively to boys and certainly no toys that have the allure of the Breyer and My Little Pony series. In the boys’ world, the horse has always been a means to an end. My fellow hombres and I liked our horses more for their speed than their personalities. Similarly, Roy Rogers may have had a special relationship with Trigger, but, above all, he valued the horse for its utility. Girls, by contrast, have asked nothing of their horses—except love. The romance of this connection has allowed more fantasy and more play possibilities. Novelist Jane Smiley seems to be speaking for a large number of women, my wife included, when she writes, “I discovered that the horse is life itself, a metaphor but also an example of life’s mystery and unpredictability, of life’s generosity and beauty, a worthy object of repeated and ever-changing contemplation.”

So, for now—after centuries of being locked out of the paddock—girls get the horse. But what does this mean? While it is obvious that girls today enjoy riding, showing, and even racing, that nobody asks them to sit sidesaddle anymore, and that popular art seldom depicts them in this compromised pose, it is obvious too that, in the many decades since the first appearance of the girl-specific horse toy, little has changed: the best-selling horse toys remain the riderless, plastic figures designed for grooming. These are decorated and “shown” by girls and women in more than sixty-five model horse clubs in America. As girls continue to read novels and stories that tell them the love of a horse is all they need, the ornamental horse has prevailed as an emblem of girlish fantasy. As a result, a great number of men continue to view women’s interest in the horse as frivolous. This explains, in part, why women jockeys still struggle for respect and support in the racing world, even though women and girls account for 80 percent of the participation in equestrian activities nationally.

I wouldn’t begrudge girls the fun of playing with their pink ponies, but at the same time those pink ponies are a disturbing image, if the horse as “feminized” pet is all that’s left of a campaign for cultural change that should have been more triumphant. Recently, I went to a huge Midwestern state fair, where I saw preteen cowgirls gallop through their routines in a dirt ring. These girls were strong and confident and seemed destined for good things. Next, I walked into the pavilion that featured teenaged girls barrel racing. I had never watched barrel racing and hardly knew what it was about. It is exclusively for girls and young women, a race against time as each contestant sprints her horse around strategically placed barrels. I was quietly amazed at how fiercely these young women rode, how it seemed they’d let nothing get in their way, leaning into their horses, the reins gathered expertly in one hand, the other hand free to ride the air: each girl drove her horse like a joyful demon whose hooves dug deeply into the sawdusted ground, rider and steed steeply angled as they pivoted and lunged. After the race, I caught my breath and looked around, wondering why everyone appeared so nonchalant about what we had just witnessed.Wasn’t that amazing?” I wanted to shout.

From “The New Horse,” 1880.

 

***

Ron Tanner’s awards for writing include a Faulkner Society gold medal, a Pushcart Prize, a New Letters Award, a Best of the Web Award, a James Michener/Copernicus Society Fellowship, and many others. He is the author of four books, most recently Missile Paradise, named a “notable novel” of 2017 by the American Library Association.

Anxiety of Influence

You may have heard of the poet Patricia Lockwood. Her poem Rape Joke made quite a stir in 2013, and her recent book, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals was reviewed widely (see, for example, The New York Times, Slate, and The Rumpus, and, for commentary on the discomfort of male reviewers of the book, The Toast). Over 50,000 people follow her on Twitter @TriciaLockwood.

lockwood picture

By Leanna Petronella

She’s one of the scrappy up-and-comers in the contemporary poetry world, and while “Rape Joke” has deservedly garnered much attention as a cornerstone of her book, there’s another poem in there that keeps blowing my mind for its wildly irreverent, wildly thoughtful treatment of literary ancestry. This poem is “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics.” In this long poem, Lockwood declares Walt Whitman is the “mother” of American poetry and Emily Dickinson is the “father.” She turns the question of influence on its head with her gender-bending, hilarious, oddly touching reverie on narcissism, writing, and American poetry.

Every writer struggles with what Harold Bloom termed the Anxiety of Influence. We wonder if we stray too far away from literary traditions or if we stagnate within them. The brains of other writers sit on our shoulders like slimy, lumpy, terrifying birds. Lockwood’s poem uses the outrageous metaphor of “tit-pics” to mull over the impact of the two biggest icons of American poetry. The poem begins with Emily and Walt (the poem uses a first-name basis, so I will, too) having returned from the dead for a day. They climb out of their graves and their first act is to exchange tit-pics with each other. Then Lockwood says,

When you want to say a poet is mysterious, say, “Very few tit-pics of him exist,” or “Reading his letters and journals, we are able to piece together a pic of his tits—they loved butter and radishes and were devoted to his sister.”

Here, “tit-pics” act as a metaphor for some private internal secret that is the “key” to Emily and Walt’s poetry. The phrase suggests that our hunt of this key, or our exposure of it, is unseemly. In terms of literary influence, this excerpt implies that our relationship with those who came before us is prurient and inappropriate. We want too much from them. We need to stop acting as paparazzi to their souls.

Lockwood builds on the tit-pic metaphor when she turns her camera towards the speaker. She says,

I admit that I brought them back from the dead because I was standing in front of the mirror taking picture after picture of my tits in order to establish once and for all time what a tit actually looks like, since according to the dictionary lots of things can be a tit, even including a bird and an idiot.

Now the tits seem to represent poems and poem making: the speaker wanted pictures of the poets’ tits (their poems!) so that she can make her own best tit-picture (her poem!). This ridiculous metaphor refuses to be only ridiculous, though—it’s trying to tell us something about how writers use writers, and how that use is fraught.

The poem gets even stranger when Lockwood reverses Emily and Walt’s genders. She turns Whitman into quite the exhibitionist with,

Walt Whitman with a bra on his head, which is keeping his thoughts from being totally bare. The bra is too small and the bra is made of lace and his friends are saying, “Walt you are falling OUT” and “Wow Walt you are giving everyone a show” and “Why are you giving away the cow for free when I only wanted to hear the moo.”

Are the poems still tits? In that case, is this a form/content dichotomy, in which tits equal content and form, as the scrap that’s barely restraining the breasts, is the bra? Whitman’s lines are long and meandering, so is Lockwood slyly insinuating that his form is minimal? Lockwood spends a long time lovingly details Whitman’s breasts, declaring,

 I mean he’s had two hundred years to develop them.

 Perhaps that’s why breasts have gotten bigger, because American poetry is accumulating in our lungs and has to push its way out somehow.

Lockwood is insisting that we view American poetry through the lens (fatty tissue?) of the breast, and yet that comment about lungs rescues the image from total silliness: breath gathers in our lungs. Breath is part of speaking. We have so much breath in our lungs, so much American poetry, that it is desperate to get out.

Tit-pics as anxiety of influence, tit-pics as narcissism, tit-pics as American poetry—Lockwood keeps turning and turning her metaphor-wheel. I find the metaphor to be quite gutsy. While some critics might brush it off as reveling in shock value, I think it’s building towards an argument about how we use our literary heritage (a boob-bard thesis, if you will). I’d argue that Lockwood actually uses these two primary figures in American poetry to do something not particularly related to these poets. She’s using them, but not in imitation: she’s creating her own idiosyncratic argument about influence.

The poem ends with Walt and Emily dying again. They are once more inside the grave. Lockwood says,

Above them floating their tit-pics.

And floating above their tit-pics our eyes.

If the tit-pics are, in some sense, Emily and Walt’s own self-reflection (the metaphor wheel still spins!), then our eyes gaze at their introspection. It’s a pretty apt encapsulation of what many writers (perhaps especially poets) do with the Keats and Bishops of their pasts: they stare obsessively at others’ words, which are allegedly mirrors to the soul.

Is that what writers do with other writers? What’s the problem with having a relationship with these foremothers and fathers, any way? It seems easy enough to see the problem in zealous imitation. At the very least, this produces unoriginal work; at the very worst, plagiarized. Yet don’t most creative writing teachers assign imitation exercises? At what point do these exercises stop being generative? I wonder, too, how the market plays into this. As a poet, I find that many literary journals seem to publish the same kind of poetry, in the same kind of style, with the same kind of content. If the same kind of poem appears everywhere, it means this poem is getting published. A poet who wants to make a living off their poetry (read: residing in academia) needs to have published a book, and, often, in order to publish a book, needs to have a healthy number of published poems. I don’t know any poet who consciously writes to the Fad Poem, but does it seep into us unconsciously?

These, in my mind, are some of the dangers and issues of investing in a reading relationship with current and past poets. What about the other way around? Can a writer have too shallow a relationship with authors of yesteryear? I always recommend Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell to my beginning poetry students who write in a Confessional vein. But why do I do this? I suppose I assume it’s wise for a poet to be familiar with their ancestors, but to what ends? So they don’t repeat what’s been done before? In other words, do I want my students to familiarize themselves with similar styles and subject matters in order to depart from them? Maybe. Or maybe I want them to join the voices, to riff off of past members of the school. That kind of riffing, though, would only be evident to a very select group of well-read readers. By cultivating a relationship with our literary ancestors, do we risk insular, elite readership?

At the same time, if we don’t cultivate that relationship, it seems like we risk sounding ignorant. Perhaps we lose out on inspiration. Ultimately, perhaps influence, or even cross-pollination, is simply inevitable. While I didn’t find Lockwood’s poem to be in the vein of Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, I did wonder about John Donne. Lockwood’s poem essentially turns on an extended metaphor, known otherwise as a conceit. The metaphysical British poet John Donne was known for wacky conceit-driven poems such as “The Flea,” which uses a flea as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. To me, a flea representing sex is no stranger than a tit-pic representing American poetry. Does it matter that Lockwood’s conceit recalls Donne’s? If so, in what way? Perhaps I feel like I understand the poem better. Clearly, it makes me begin to invent a sequence of literary heritage. I know that in my own poetry, I find it useful when others see echoes of certain poets, as it helps me frame myself to myself. It gives me a reflection that is not overwhelming, a small pool of poets that I can try to swim around in. Perhaps knowing who your influences are is as much as knowing who they aren’t. To make my own (terrible!) metaphor, in a vast sea of porn (contemporary poetry!), it helps to know which tit-pic is actually going to turn you on.

Gendered Reading and Discomfort in the "Man Cave"

Here is a generic man cave, maybe in somebody's basement. This is not a picture of the cave in the school library.

Last weekend I learned that my relatively progressive, moderately diverse and reasonably funded, suburban, hometown school district was going to allow a self-described “man cave” reading area in a school library. Before I was able to comprehend the dangerous consequences of what gender-assigned reading would mean for literature and education and what kind of political norm my suburb was representing for the rest of the nation, I had to get past “man cave.”

I hate the term when it is used on HGTV, TLC, E!, any sitcom, by a friend’s mom or in an elementary school library. The purpose of the cave, besides reiterating the tired stereotype that men are comparable to cavemen, is to provide the man of the house a separate leisure space. Man caves have pool tables and the kind of leather couches that always look menacing or sad or obese. Sports memorabilia, animals innocently lumped in with that previous categorization and stuff from a garage floor (i.e. license plates and street signs) are nailed to the walls. These are the decorating generalizations that appear over and over even in a Google Image search of “man cave” and reflect an outdated image of masculinity. The decor does not (always) offend me; if a stop sign would look best above the fireplace, level it out and nail it up. I take issue with two components of “man cave,” the “man” part and the “cave” part, especially when implemented by a school library.

For the reading space itself to be likened to a cave is symbolic of the confining, backwards nature of the concept. The reading spaces I remember in elementary school were designed to be areas of comfort and it was a privilege to read in a corner of pillows our teachers probably brought from home. In Kindergarten our classroom designated this space to a loft, lifting us higher as we read. A girl named Annie and a boy I forget supposedly French kissed up there, but that kind of gender interaction wasn’t the fault of the loft.

I remember getting some flack when I read The Pleasure of My Company in seventh grade. My oversexed peers wanted to know what a girl like me was doing with that “racy” cover and maybe what a girl like me was doing later. I carried the book around cover-up and read it wherever I felt because no librarian had ever told me that I wasn’t adult enough, funny enough or man enough to read this book or any other. By the time a child has entered the education system, they have been bombarded with society’s gender expectations. Boys are supposed to like blood and bugs and baseball while girls remain equally confined to categories where what little sexuality is present in Steve Martin’s book cover image is taboo. To condone such arbitrary divisiveness in a library misses the point of literature and education. Students will be turned off of reading before they learn that the best books are about human experience. It has been hard enough to begin to undo the notion that writing is a boys club or that teaching is a woman’s job. That we wonder what it means when a girl relates to a science fiction book and question the validity of feminized book covers speaks to the hazy categorizations of genre versus gender that remain engrained even in book lovers. I hope that the term “chick lit” disappears with “man cave,” but it certainly won’t happen if we’re keeping our next generation confined to the same deer-decorated walls we’ve built for ourselves.