“The Symmetry of Missed Appointments” (Helen Wong Huie, 1979)

Helen Wong Huie is another Chinese-American poet whom I discovered through the Sunbury Press anthology American Born and Foreign. I can find almost nothing about her online except that she was one of the guest-editors of that anthology, to which she contributed the poem below, and that she also contributed to the anthology Ordinary Women / Mujeres Comunes: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women, for which Fay Chiang was one of the editors. I am sorry that Helen Wong Huie did not publish anything that I can find after these two anthologies; I like this poem by her very much:

The Symmetry of Missed Appointments

There was no answer
to the knock.
The nameplate on the door
reads:

Drinking Apricot Nectar
without the image of the Tree
or its Fruit.
The symmetry of missed appointments.

I am going to get Ordinary Women from the library, so a few weeks from now I will have more poetry by Helen Wong Huie to share, as well as more by Frances Chung, who I wrote about last week.

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The Anchoress (Robyn Cadwallader, 2015)

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I liked the sound of this very much; a novel about a 17-year-old English girl in 1255 who chooses (as real medieval women did sometimes choose) to be walled up in a church, to live a life of solitary prayer and fasting and contemplation, supported by the local community and devoted to praying for that community’s spiritual welfare. It is fascinating that so many women chose to do this — 123 of them in England alone during the 13th century — and I was eager to read Cadwallder’s imaginative evocation of one such woman. Unfortunately, instead of a book which explores the relentless strangeness of the past, Cadwallader wrote a novel that uses its historical setting as a stage set for modern young people coming of age. Both Sarah, the teenage girl who becomes an anchoress, and Ranaulf, the priest who eventually becomes her confessor, could be transplanted to a (not very good) contemporary YA novel without missing a beat. Sarah’s reasons for becoming an anchoress have little to do with relationship to a personal deity, or a desire to enter into a larger spiritual reality by giving up the outside world; she is instead fleeing her own sexual desire, which she is terrified will lead to death in childbirth just as it did for her sister Emma. Ranaulf is a sulky teenage boy (however old he is actually supposed to be) who wants everyone to just leave him alone with his manuscripts, rather than having to go engage in the duties of pastoral care that his priesthood entails. They go through the motions of relationship, and eventually come to the end of the book larger, wiser, more mature people, all against a picturesque backdrop of stone walls and willow trees and self-starvation that leads to symptoms easily mistaken by those foolish medieval people for mystical experiences.

I am sure my mild contempt comes through; it is born of disappointment and frustration with the limits of Cadwallader’s vision. I have read numerous reviews of this novel, all of which enthuse over its psychological realism, its attention to details, its beautiful language. Yes, they admit, it is slow-moving, there is not much plot, but oh, how very relevant it is to our modern day! Even Cadwallader uses the term — in this interview with an Australian newspaper she discusses how her editors felt that the novel was “remarkably relevant” in talking about “issues we can all think about today.” All right, but when I read a novel set in 1255, I want to experience the interiority and perspective of people living in 1255, a time so distant and different from our own that it might as well be an alien world. Cadwallader seems to think 1255 was remarkably like 2015, except perhaps more thatched huts and less rights for women; an utter failure of imagination. This inability to respect the past comes, perhaps, from Cadwallader’s starting place; according to that same interview, when she first read about anchoresses she was “absolutely horrified, fascinated, really thought it was just a terrible, terrible thing.” She is, of course, welcome to feel as she feels, but to write a novel out of horror and fascination without questioning the assumptions which underlie those reactions destroys the respect an author must have for their material. Rather than exploring the beliefs, values and perspectives of people in 1255, Cadwallader writes like a bad anthropologist, coming up with modern explanations for everything she finds uncomfortable. The result is a very frustrating, unsatisfying novel, and I do not recommend it.

Untitled Poem (Frances Chung, 1979)

Frances Chung was a Chinese-American poet, born in New York’s Chinatown in 1950. She began publishing poetry in various journals during the 1960s, while working as a math teacher in the New York public school system, but unfortunately died in 1990 without having ever published a collection of her work. After her death Walter K. Lew compiled her manuscripts and published them in 2000 as Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple: The Poems of Frances Chung. I have not yet read that collection, but there was a poem of hers I particularly liked in the 1979 Sunbury anthology American Born and Foreign, so I am sharing it here.

do you remember when it seemed the whole world
was closed
on shrimp-gray days
the rain held us in
we saw Lincoln Center from a bus
elegance was a Greek restaurant
the New York Times was too big to fold
with too many dictionary words empty crosswords
they never reporting the killing
down the street
the clothes they advertised were unreal too
who lounged who wore bathrobes
who had a dining room
everything in life being guesswork
cooking without teaspoons
eternal windowshoppers
we women were sometimes like children

I like it for itself, the stream of images saying something clear and a little bitter without being direct, and I like it also that it connects to me; I still have many days in which, “everything in life being guesswork,” I feel that child’s confusion despite my adult self.

Spinster (Kate Bolick, 2015) / Live Alone and Like It (Marjore Hillis, 1936)

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Many months ago one of my brother’s girlfriends was reading this Bolick book, so I picked it up, and inspired by this LA Review of Books article read it together with the Marjorie Hillis. In the end, the Hillis was much more interesting to me; it is a guide for women living alone in the 1930s, and provides the dual joys of strange cultural assumptions and gritty practical advice about how to enjoy solitude when possible and, when not, how to make the best of it. Hillis takes it for granted that most of her readers have been taught to define themselves by men, and sets about arguing that this is not only unnecessary but counterproductive for women who, by choice or necessity, are going to be living alone. She tells her readers to develop passionate interests in things (not people) outside themselves, finding one hobby they can do within their own home, another which will be certain to take them outside of it; after all, Hillis says, “the more you enjoy yourself, the more of a person you will be.” She has no pity for women who mope, or who single-mindedly chase after the married state, but she does not assume that a woman living alone will be devoid of male companionship; she presents time with men as a choice, possibly pleasant, but simply one more option amongst many. I loved her insistence on both self-care and self-discipline and her belief that solitary women can live rich, fulfilling lives, discovering that they “are more of a person” than they may have once thought. It is a short, fascinating book, and I highly recommend it.

As for Spinster… well, I found Bolick to be an interesting author, and I enjoyed some aspects of her search for self-identity, but much of it was quite frustrating, the sort of book where I want to sit down and have a long talk with the author about all the things she seems to be missing. As best as I can tell, Bolick’s “spinster wish” that inspired the book is simply the desire to be a fully adult person, self-sufficient and competent, able to ride out the emotional challenges of her life without falling apart. A noble goal, certainly, but Bolick’s struggle towards adulthood is not inherent in being female, despite the many ways in which contemporary U.S. society still infantalises women; it is instead a problem that lies at the intersection of her whiteness, her upper middle class background, her family that has enough wealth and leisure to support her emotionally and financially whenever she wishes it, and her sense of entitlement that underlies her belief that her life must satisfy her in all ways or is otherwise flawed. I was floored by Bolick’s enthusiastic approval of Floyd Dell’s essay “Feminism for Men,” in which Dell argues that women should be allowed to work and be self-supporting so that men will have no responsbility for children and can thus live unfettered lives of adventure. People are, of course, complex, and everyone has values that they do not live, but for Bolick to sing the praises of this viewpoint while returning home to live with her father after a failed relationship is not just ironic, but signals a self-absorption which mars the book for me. Bolick seems unable to connect her emotional ambivalance about modern womanhood to the broader feminist struggles which have been going on for centuries. Women have not only fought for hundreds of years to live without the support of men, but to survive alone when forced by necessity to do so, and to have their lives respected as fully meaningful no matter how they end up living. To be a spinster does not have to mean (as Briallen Hopper puts it in that fantastic LARB essay I linked to above) being “a kind of dream girlfriend for Nathaniel P–type Brooklyn boys: exactly as man-oriented as every other girl, except maybe less interested in commitment.” It can be about living in a lesbian commune, or being asexual, or deciding that celibacy is the way to meet other goals, or it can be a bitter disappointment of never finding anyone interested, or anyone who interests you — and that is just the merest sampling. Women can live a thousand different ways, and for Bolick to position herself as the voice of spinsterhood without considering how unrepresentative her white upper-middle-class urban experience is annoys me to no end. If the book had been titled ‘My realisation that I can have a boyfriend whom I don’t live with’ I might have enjoyed it much more. As it is, I can only hope that the fuss around her work demonstrates to publishers that there any book about actual spinsterhood will have no problem finding an audience.

High Fidelity (Nick Hornby, 1995)

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Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity came out in 1995, when I still resolutely read only genre fiction, and thus although I heard of it as a popular novel that was being made into a movie and so forth, I never read it. I have finally done so, and while it was interesting, I did not enjoy much about it. It is very much of its time, a sort of ‘lad lit’ about men who refuse to grow up, men for whom women are alien creatures to be manipulated into providing sex and companionship and validation. Rob, the protagonist, reminds me of many men I knew in the mid-90s; he wears all black, works half-heartedly at running a record shop, and is an obsessive fan of ‘good’ pop music — that ‘good’ is in the quotes because it is not as though Rob has an aesthetic which is shared with the reader, he knows what he likes and he uses his opinions as ways to judge who is worthy and who is not. The unworthy he mocks; the worthy he half-befriends, but he is always waiting for them to fall from grace, and even more so he is always waiting to fall from their grace. For Rob and his friends, what a person consumes is who they are, taste is self, and those with bad taste are inherently bad people.

As the novel progresses it becomes clear that Rob navigates his life based entirely on these kinds of judgements. Reviewing his various failed relationships, he claims that people “run the risk of losing anyone who is worth spending time with, unless you are so paranoid about loss that you choose someone unlosable, somebody who could not possibly appeal to anyone else at all.” That certainty that people are commodities, objectively comparable with one another and able to be labelled and traded around, is at the heart of the book, and while Hornby makes some effort to question it with an excellent dinner party scene in which Rob really enjoys spending time with a couple only to discover that they have terrible taste in music, on the whole this view is allowed to stand. Indeed, when we finally hear Laura, Rob’s most recent girlfriend, speak at some length, she shares the same point of view; she is dating Rob not for who he is now, but because he has “potential as a human being,” and she hopes “to bring it out.” It is perhaps not an unusual worldview, but it makes my skin crawl.

The novel is not without its pleasures; Hornby is a funny writer, and I did have the sense now and again that he realised how limited his narrator was, that he was telling a story about Rob rather than voicing his own cultural point of view. When the women in the novel begin to speak it is more interesting, although I have my doubts about Hornby’s sense of women’s interiority. Still, in the end I found Rob to be yet another privileged white boy throwing little tantrums because he feels entitled to pleasure without effort, and while there is nothing amiss in writing a novel about such a person, I have known enough men like this in my own life that I do not gain anything by reading about one.