Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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The subtitle tells us much, maybe most especially through the fact that it does not include the word “writing,” nor the word “lives.” The entanglement or the overlap, the patriarchal-capitalist declarations of a divide between the two: these are guiding concerns for Russo, who, in these elegant pieces, investigates gender and its relation to writing, to life, beginning with Wordsworth, from whose journals “trivial details” were omitted by a (male) editor and culminating in Bolinas, at Joanne Kyger’s table, in what Russo calls “the tea zone”—a time as much as place, a temporary assemblage of community as much as a matter of food for sustenance and pleasure, drinks (“chamomile tea in small jade-green cups, sparkling water in translucent blue glasses, white wine in stemware”), and aesthetics (“a centerpiece of pale purple Hydrangea and a few sprigs with tiny white flowers all fringed in broad, sphere-shaped leaves”). Gathering for tea is part of the art, reception and creation; there are no trivial details but, rather, a whole.
For Wordsworth, for instance, walking is key, each walk a “swerve out of domestic terrain . . . ungendering her.” Walking is understood as a wandering that is like—or, Russo suggests, also itself is—writing. Still, the writing that gets written is that which can be passed on, received by future generations. On Hettie Jones, Russo talks of all the poetry that was not written, that thought “while doing dishes” which she insists “is making poetry, but not making a poem” because it is not written down, recorded. That which Wordsworth, likewise, wrote down in her journal has a privileged place in considering her life and wider writing simply because it is all we have, these redacted journals with their talk of weather and walking and the work of the garden. Russo “inhabit[s] her words,” rewriting lines from the journals in longhand to “feel them take flight” and simulate some connection to the writer sticking peas and sowing beans and broccoli.
Objects also survive, like relics. Russo visits two shrines to Emily Dickinson—one at Harvard, ostensibly a study center; the other in Amherst, a museum. Her recounting is redolent in the trappings of ritual. “I am given a quarter and directed to the lockers,” she writes, then muses that the ban on photography is a way of preserving the aura of the objects locked away in those regulated places. “Dickinson’s now fragile herbarium—dried specimens of flowers she collected and grew and labeled and arranged in a book—is kept permanently out of view,” we are told. And are such specimens poetry—if not poems—writing as part and parcel of life and vice versa? “In the archives and sheltered rooms, one enters into a circumscribed relation to the materials and their conditions. Still, one begins creating a web of associations that weds one to their time and place and use, that deepen one’s sense of these things.”
Other rooms are lost to us, or otherwise inaccessible. Hettie Jones’s kitchen, with its “turbulent cupboards” rich with “ingredients . . . for making poems without any help” or that time around the table in Bolinas, for which we have only Russo’s account, of poetry in the doing as well as of a communal reading and living out of a text, in which case Waldman’s Iovis, a work “in that moment directed specifically toward me,” as Russo puts it, for, as “a great epic work” it is characterized by that fact “that we feel articulated in and through it....”
These are loving pieces, reverent in their attention to detail, their reconstruction—again, perhaps, like that love-labor which is curatorship, the arrangement of a museum—to what remains and to the context that has been lost to time or, worse, dismissed as “trivial” and redacted by some hand more focused on product than process, commodity instead of experience, authorship instead of community.
This is a book worthy of study by all who align themselves with the latter, an important contribution to thinking on—and sensual engagement in—issues of gender in art and, simultaneously, the multivalent realities of art as lived and as living.
Official Subito Press Web Site