Gentlemen (Remastered)

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Nature Isn’t Always Nice: On Megan Kaminski’s ‘Gentlewomen’


In Being Wrong, her insightful study on the importance of error in our lives, Kathryn Schulz writes that “however disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.” Upon initially seeing the title of Megan Kaminski’s third book, Gentlewomen, I had erroneously thought it might be a reference to and critical rewriting of Gentlemen, the 1993 album by the indie-rock group Afghan Whigs (much like Liz Phair’s 1993 album, Exile in Guyville, was a rewriting and critique of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street). While the wrongness of my first impression served a welcomed dose of humility, the mental redirect was equally helpful in reading Kaminski’s engaging and deft poems with a fresh perspective and without the weight of peculiar expectations.

Instead, the gentlewomen Kaminski refers to are the historically feminine Natura, Providentia (referred to as Providence), and Fortuna, which she imagines as sisters. Each of the sisters has a section of her own in the book along with two “Dear Sister” interludes, which function as part epistolary poem and part somatic song. Although the book has nothing to do with the Afghan Whigs, Kaminski’s poetic speakers take aim at patriarchal and humanistic hubris, the aggregating centuries during which men have bent both heaven and earth to their methods. As Kaminski notes in a recent interview, in writing the book she asked herself: “What would happen if Nature was given the chance to speak? How gentle would she really be?”

And indeed, in the book’s first section, we’re treated to Natura speaking for herself in the poem “Lake” when we’re warned that:
…Nature isn’t always nice but if you come inside
I’ll share my wardrobe, water-drenched by silken fine: kelp scarves
wrap necks and wrists, chiffon shroud violet-ribboned, pewter noose
saturated with precious stone. Lick ankle, calf, thigh––I devour with
satin tongue.
As it turns out, Natura––like many mothers, unfortunately––has to repeat herself to finally be heard. Kaminski reinforces this point by offering us five poems in the opening section entitled “the lost girls,” three called “Oh, Natura,” and several other poems noting the term lady in the title (e.g. “Velvet Lady”; “Furred Lady”). The serial yet dispersed poems of “the lost girls” sequence highlights, through sheer repetition, the myriad ways that losses compound: the loss of self (“we carry no I”); loss of consideration (“await whispers from mothers that never come”); and the general loss of a sort of Blakean innocence that was never allowed to take hold in the first place. In perhaps one of the most chilling lines from “the lost girls” poems, Kaminski writes that “a daughter who never returns / never disappoints.”

As the poem “Instructions (how to hold the world)” demonstrates, Providentia, for her part, is pluralistic and dynamic: “[t]he porous body of we and I and they and so. To contain to let wander to give and give and.” Moreover, “Instructions (how to hold the world),”which can be read almost as a kind of mantra amidst the blurs and folds of Pandemia, imbues the infinitive form with urgency, emotional resonance, and propulsion—and, when seen from Providentia’s point of view, reveals the all-too-real effects of planetary disregard on both micro- and macro-scales:
To give yourself until there is nothing left. To be broken into so many
pieces the only option to piece something new. To open to dust. There
is nothing and everything and perhaps no you anymore.
The subsequent poems in the Providentia section are a catalogue of “I”-cum-world, often pairing the environmental and the man-made, with poems such as “I am wind and hot wings” or “I am power line and brush fire”; there’s even a wink to Emily Dickinson in “I am fly buzz and oak blight.” In these poems, we’re treated to a toggling between “I” and “eye” that simultaneously extends empathy while also implicating us in our environmental inertia: “the beer in the ice bucket / the clock ticking into the wall.”

Kaminski says she is “interested in the lyric self as site for commingling with historical, cultural, and political systems, with genetic and projective ancestors, with the various plants, animals (including humans), and material objects that inhabit our worlds,” and these concerns are evident in the poems of Gentlewomen. The final section of the book, devoted to Fortuna, is a long poem assessing the price (and damage) of relentless want, as one speaker exclaims “Oh horror Oh longing for a new dinner jacket” and another exclaims “my palms tremble / wistful entreats for gouted legs to carry firm / and fast, currency-swapped and option-hedged.” The structure of the long poem envelops the reader in the ruthless consumption that Fortuna is barraged with, her much-deserved break from consumption forever out of reach.

In Gentlewomen, readers will find echoes and dialogue with the poetry of Lisa Jarnot, Sarah Mangold, Jennifer Moxley, Evie Shockley, Elizabeth Willis, and C.D. Wright, among others. Kaminski astutely shifts registers and formal structures in the book to give voice to often unseen or unheard ecologies, and the poems continually explore the sonic and somatic boundaries of the page. It’s a testament to Kaminski’s gifts as a poet that Natura, Providentia, and Fortuna are distinct characters even as they share concerns. She has written a captivating book of lyric poetry that radiates pathos and raw verve, but, as a withered Fortuna explains, that generosity comes at a cost:
and I and my sisters,
ever present always listening,
tended until our hands blistered
bent until our bones snapped
gave until lungs extinguished aflame
Amidst so much isolation and loss over the past many months, Kaminski’s laudable effort cleaves a space for us to listen a bit more attentively; to learn from the accretion of errors we’ve both inherited and bequeathed as a species (and not just in terms of my misplaced musical associations from the ’90s); and to empathetically navigate a way forward through the world she so heartbreakingly articulates and envisions.

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