Making the Angels Wince
Reviewed: The Making of a Matriot by Frances Payne Adler. Red Hen Press, 2003. 100 pages, $13.95.
The Making of a Matriot is the sort of book that makes one embarrassed for poets in general, and Frances Payne Adler in particular. The author, who directs something called “the Creative Writing and Social Action Program at the California State University at Monterey Bay” will start a poem on the subject of health care with—
we’re here to talk about poor women and work, poor
women and work, as if they don’t work, but that’s
another story, we’re here to talk about poor women,
—lines so leaden that even sympathetic readers may find themselves moved to rage and mockery, like Congregationalists force-fed a sermon on universal goodwill and redemption by some stuttering preacher. These poems deliver messages the way bumper stickers tell stories—in three or four bold words, all capped in enormous type. Not that Adler minds angering her audience—being a self-described “social activist,” she probably delights in the agitation (even if it’s merely outrage at her crude polemics). Plato banned all the poets from his ideal republic, but you feel that he might have welcomed Adler—so naked is her message, so regular is her drum-beating—but then would Plato’s republic have lived up to Adler’s hopes for the socialist worker’s paradise?
Probably not. For such sloganeers, art has no place—its techniques are at once too subtle and too hard, its final meanings too ambiguous. Who needs art, even the most basic techniques, when you hear the burning bush of your politics? “If man needs bread and justice,” Albert Camus once wrote, “he also needs pure beauty, which is the bread of his heart.” How Adler’s poems smirk at poor Camus! To them, beauty is insufficiently serious or just unnecessary—mere ornamentation outlawed during the last revolution. Once you’ve read the titles of some of these poems, you don’t really need to read the poems—“A Call to Arms and Breast Cancer,” for example, provides you with all the education, and aesthetic experience, that Adler has to offer:
…I want everyone to know, I want to run up and up the streets
calling to women wearing prostheses, to yank them from their chests, to scatter
them on sidewalks, let everyone see us one-breasted women, millions of us
How long are we going to go on killing women, she says, a chant, how long
Indeed Lord, how long? Who is killing all these millions of women? And how? Is this Rwanda or Cambodia? Is this some sort of medical cleansing that the world is ignoring? Why, no—
And in her deathdream, breast cancer researchers collect the tossed prostheses,
Trade them in like used bottles for gold from corporations who made millions
From all the cars from all the beer that breasts sold
It’s those murderous, sneaky American corporations again, killing one-breasted women while no one notices. To elaborate on this “deathdream” requires a trip to the grassy knoll of Adler’s private fantasies, but suffice to say that DDT, chlordane, and the entire pharmaceutical industry are, well, implicated. Not all of Adler’s poems are this silly or stupid, but neither are they ever witty or gorgeous or profound. Even if we forgive her tendency to turn every private tragedy into a public service message, how can we excuse this poet’s disdain for the art of poetry? When fanatical sincerity is matched to the sensibility of a greeting card writer, the results can make even the angels wince.