Book Review

In this book of essays, Rachel Zucker acknowledges that being heterosexual and white confer privilege that today makes both her and her world so very wrong. But then, even to say she’s wrong is wrong. Yet not saying is wrong, especially for a woman, because reticence is wrong, and then assertiveness is wrong. Every effort to candidly depict her life encounters contradiction.

However, this isn’t a book about wokeness, but the obstacles to developing a poetics centered on motherhood and a woman’s experience, events that in Zucker’s view need revelatory telling in order to develop poetry that is distinctive. Her previous book of poems, Sound Machine (2019), paid close attention to her domestic and professional life in New York, the particular experience of being white, Jewish, a mother, writer, teacher, wife, subway rider, and chastised listserv participant. She seeks validating poetics. For her, the issue is not abstract. Her own dying mother asked Zucker not to publish her book MOTHERs (2013), but she did, although the guilt about the rightness of doing so did not go away. Can she shape her questions about ethical responsibility into a wrongness poetics? Isn’t a writer’s first responsibility to her craft, to her attention and to her experience? The issue that urgently dominates this book is whether a writer’s obligation is to the others whose lives are part of her experience, or whether all of her experience is legitimately her material to use in her art, even when its use may cause others unhappiness or pain.

Initially meant to be comprised of four lectures on the topic, with an Author’s Note and an Appendix, The Poetics of Wrongness is fully engaged with its topic. Investigating all aspects of her feelings of inauthenticity, she considers the epithet confessional as applied to poetry by women. Personal revelation in poetry by women has a long history, which she explores in a richly detailed second lecture that traces the development of the term’s misogynist connotation, centered on critical writing about Robert Lowell’s indiscreet and, many felt, exploitive book Life Studies (1959), in which he reproduced parts of letters written by his former wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Subsequently the term was applied to the then sensational work of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, though interestingly, for example, not to work by Alan Ginsberg, a gay man, or Lucile Clifton, a Black woman. The negative place of privilege that white women are said to occupy has made them vulnerable to charges of exploitation when writing intimately about others in their lives. The “rule-setting” first chapter is knowingly, amusingly, ironic. The reader should consider everything she says as wrong, that poems should be beautiful, indirect (“slant”), short, timeless, universal, and godly! These restriction on a woman’s writing have been implicitly absorbed, the legacy of a canon that was mostly white and male.

Especially likable is her unwillingness to simplify a solution. Despite the tilt of the first lecture on “wrongness,” she emphatically rejects limits on what anyone can write. Does this rebut the hot topic of appropriation when writing about the experience of others? She doesn’t quite say, although more than once she will say that what one writes cannot be dictated. The third lecture on the ethics of “say everything” tries seriously to come up with guidelines that might help a writer find a middle ground, how to stay in control of one’s material and still determine when others’ voices should be heeded. Even journalists have codes of ethics, she argues; however, poets have less at stake, not gaining much financially and also existing at literary margins—given poets’ relatively small reading audiences, violations of privacy are not their major worry. She arrives at a handful of simple guidelines—be truthful, responsible for content, “punch up not down,” focus on the ultimate well-being of others, and take risks. An important point for her is that poetry is not primarily self-expression, but a form of communication with the larger world, and therefore relevant to the responsibility one bears as a member of a larger community. She cites C.D. Wright’s comment that “the radical of poetry lies not in the resolution of doubts but in their proliferation.” In other words, to raise questions about the ethics or morality of your work is your responsibility even when the resolution is problematic.

By the fourth lecture, which was to be given on the poetics of motherhood, the arrived-at guidelines are useful only to a point. Questions that feel unresolvable bring to a halt Zucker’s ability to go forward with the lecture. Even the techniques of formal structuring—opening paragraph, central topic—seem reductive (a procrastinating writer will find the week-by-week then day-by-day chronicle of the effort to write the lecture weirdly familiar). In Zucker’s case, personal and cultural obstacles overwhelm the effort to write.

But then she experiences another existential crisis, something she can only compare to the death of her mother. The outcome of the 2016 election endangers her sense of commonality with other women:

There was no way to look away from what she had never imagined: the majority of white women had not voted for a first woman president, for a first mother president, they had instead voted for a racist misogynist, anti-intellectual, rapist lunatic. She felt a precipitous hatred for white women, of which she was one. She felt hatred particularly but not only for cis white men, of which her husband and beautiful sons—how could she ever untangle this hatred of hatred with anything other than hatred?

Who, then, is the community whose well-being should concern her? This dark night upends every moment that has been part of her woman’s experience—different from nights of nursing a child or miscarrying, bleeding, and waiting. Different from the night the doctors had turned off the heart-lung machine of her mother “and she had listened to the change of the sound of the room without the heart-lung machine that had been forcing the blood and oxygen into and through her mother’s body and then a long single sound and no sound.” Feeling the betrayal by her community of women, she struggles with the belief that she is part of it, and also in the moral necessity and possibility of a poetics of motherhood. She avers she still believes in it, that there really is a poetics of motherhood; it began with time and is even larger than the understanding of time. It may be that caring for another above oneself makes us human.

About the Reviewer

Karen Kevorkian has published three poetry collections, including Quivira (2020, 3: A Taos Press). Poems recently appear in 4Way Review and New American Writing. Online discussion of poems is at LA Review of Books, LA Review, and LA Poets.