Book Review

In 2007, the railroad flat in Cooper Square in which Hettie Jones both made and became part of literary history was nearly demolished to make way for a hotel. In a profile in New York Magazine, Jones explains how she showed the developers the history of the site—still her home—and thus saved it from destruction. In Linda Russo’s essay on Hettie Jones, “Tired Machines and Non-Visible Women,” this apartment at 27 Cooper Square is monument to a different kind of poetry—a word, after all, rooted in deed, in making and doing. Russo suggests that Jones’s early poetry is entirely uncollectable: “singing to the baby was made, clean dishes and a house and bills paid were made.”

Today, Jones is the author of twenty-three books, three collections of poetry among them. But the early poetry of Hettie Jones, specifically between the years 1958 and 1962, was rarely in the form of graphemes on paper. Russo writes, “her poems died aborning”—died, the implication is, for her work as an editor, typist, typesetter, and designer for the little magazine Yugen and for the poetry press Totem, died for her work as the mother of two young children. Died, too, in the shadow of a taller poet, her husband LeRoi Jones, who later erased his name, and her married name, to become Amiri Baraka.

To Think of Her Writing Awash in Light then is partly a quest to find poetry in the blank pages of women’s biographies. The essay on Jones in particular may bring to mind treatises on social conditions surrounding women’s creativity, like Tillie Olsen’s Silences or Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Yet the book overall—celebratory, scholarly, poetic—is as complex as the women’s writing it profiles. At base, To Think of Her Writing Awash in Light is a collection of lyrical essays or long form reviews on four books: The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, edited by William Knight; The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, edited by Jen Bervin and Marta L. Werner; How I Became Hettie Jones by Hettie Jones; and Iovis by Anne Waldman. But its cumulative effect is of a book-length exploration of the question, “What could it mean to read like a woman?”

The answer, this book suggests, is to abandon the pursuit of a single, authoritative reading in favor of imaginative, collaborative readings made flesh. In the case of Dorothy Wordsworth, who never published her writing (“the irony of authority of the published poem is that poetry is not made by publication”), Russo collages poems out of Wordsworth’s journal entries on gardening and on walks with her poet brother in Dorset and Alfoxton Park, entries that were edited out (for their triviality!) from The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth. The resulting essay, “Weeding/Sowing/Stucking/Walking,” is itself one overall collage that is meant to bring Dorothy into focus (and perhaps her brother William out of focus) by highlighting the movements of her feet and hands. And then Russo liberates Wordsworth’s writing from the straight line (“walking ungendered her”) by making letters form hills, and causing the readers’ eyes to walk up and down the page.

Wordsworth and Jones are linked—by their proximity to “taller” male poets and their making of an ephemeral and unpublished poetry. In the case of Emily Dickinson, with approximately 2,357 extant poems or drafts, there is not much for Russo to uncover or preserve. Dickinson has such height that Russo can no longer “see to see.” Inspired in part by The Gorgeous Nothings, a full-cover fascicle that presents all fifty-two of Dickinson’s envelope poems in life-size images, she travels to the Dickinson Room at Harvard and the Dickinson Homestead at Amherst’s Emily Dickinson Museum in an attempt to strike up a physical relationship with what is normally a mediated, intellectualized one. In “The Light of This: An Itinerant Essay,” she seeks to see how the shadows fall in Dickinson’s bedroom, wants to feel the weight of a paper scrap, hoping these objects have “the residue of inhabitance,” hoping, out of the corner of her eye, to catch Dickinson in the act of writing. Again, it’s the movement—the making of—that ultimately feels important to Russo, and her aim is not to add to the mountain of scholarship a fact or an argument but an invitation to “human imagination, selfhood, and connectedness . . . [and to] experience these as conjoined and always in motion.” Her essay on Dickinson ends in Mount Auburn Cemetery, at Robert Creeley’s gravestone—a diversion wholly in line with the horizontal way these essays move—where, inscribed vertically, she finds the line, “Look at the light of this hour.” Russo later notes “the generosity of this parting (or greeting) gesture,” a generosity mirrored in her book, which draws its readers to its subjects and leaves us alone with them, with only the injunction, “look!”

Finally, balancing out the scraps, erasures, ephemera, and certain slants of light is “Reading Iovis in Bolina,” on Anne Waldman’s epic trilogy Iovis. The book is so big that when Russo sits down at Joanne Kyger’s kitchen table to read aloud from it with friends, she watches Kyger struggle to drag its 1,013 pages to the table. The description of its heft is thrilling. A woman has written this real live epic—a feminist epic that took twenty-five years to unwind from within her. As Waldman explains in a Rain Taxi interview, the book’s title is taken from Virgil: “Iovis omnia plena,” meaning all is full of Jove. And if all is full of Jove, if all is full of the patriarchy, how can a woman “see to see?”

In her essay on Iovis, Russo suggests that feminist reading is an embodied act. Four friends read Waldman’s words aloud, around a table, enacting the metaphorical collaboration between readers and texts that is everywhere in the book, and attesting to Russo’s deep belief that “the heroics of deep inquiry are those of listening.” It is also a kind of heroics, her book implicitly suggests, to make poetry that is nearly unpackageable, virtually unsalable—a poetry that is out of line.

It may also be heroic to write a book of critical prose that resists authoritativeness at every turn. Russo invites us into her inquiries, making a space for other readers at her table, so that her kind of horizontal, peering, collaborative reading becomes available to each of us for any poem—on or off a page. I want to add that Russo is VASTLY INTELLIGENT and ABSOLUTELY RIGHT, in that kind of all caps volume, because dictatorial verdicts appeal to readers. But that would be falling short of the very high bar that Russo has set for critics. What could it mean to read like a woman? It could mean to resist the allure of ego and authority. To stop trying to prove mastery and instead cultivate the text’s mystery.

About the Reviewer

Darcie Dennigan's most recent book is Palace of Subatomic Bliss. She writes plays and poems and lives in Providence.