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ERICA JONG CONTINUED...


THE WOMAN POET

In her 1997 essay "Fruits & Vegetables Recollected in Tranquility," Jong describes the raison d’être of the title of her first book.

….. If I was going to spend time in the kitchen, I wanted to learn how to look into an onion and see my soul, to reclaim for poetry the humble objects of a woman’s daily life….

"Poetry," Jong believed, "had been an elitist upper-class men’s club long enough. It was high time to welcome in the people who prepared the food!"

Before Jong—and before Plath—there was Anne Bradstreet, a seventeenth-century American poet who had also tried, as Jong put it, "to reclaim for poetry the humble objects of a woman’s daily life." Bradstreet’s most famous poem, "The Author to Her Book," is, like so many of Jong’s poems, about poetry itself—and about the challenge of writing poetry as a woman. Here Bradstreet writes of her book as if it were her child, using images drawn from the quotidian tasks of the housewife and mother:

I wash'd thy face, but more defects I saw,  
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.  
I stretcht thy joynts to make thee even feet,  
Yet still thou run'st more hobling then is meet;  
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,  
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i'th' house I find…

In nineteenth-century America, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson urged American poets to probe the meaning of the ordinary, the commonplace. ("A morning glory at my window, satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books," Whitman wrote in "Song of Myself.") Whitman also raised eyebrows and hackles—as Jong did—by writing the body in all its concrete specificity into his poems. All of this demonstrates not that Jong was a derivative poet, but rather that she IS a very American one, expanding traditions whose roots stretch back to a Puritan on the one hand and a Transcendentalist on the other.

Fruits & Vegetables is a crazy salad of poems and prose and aperçus. Sometimes Jong’s meditations skate the immediate surface at hand—letters on a page—while also delving into the metaphysics of the commonplace. Her reflections on the onion, for example, begin with the two letter o’s in the vegetable’s name, then explore the vegetable as metaphor for the psyche and the body, and finally merge the two perspectives unexpectedly, bringing it all together:

I am thinking of the onion again, with its two O mouths, like the gaping holes in nobody…. a modest, self-effacing vegetable, questioning, introspective, peeling itself away…unloved for itself alone—no wonder it draws our tears! Then I think again how the outer peel resembles paper, how soul & skin merge into one, how each peeling strips bare a heart which in turn turns skin…

At various points in the book, the poet links cooking, copulating and creating. In "Arse Poetica," for example, passages alternate between the gastronomic and the pornographic but are essentially about writing a poem:

II.

Salt the metaphors. Set them breast up over the vegetables & baste them with the juice in the casserole. Lay a piece of aluminum foil over the poem, cover the casserole & heat it on top of the stove until you hear the images sizzling. Then place the poem in the middle rack in the preheated oven…

III

Once the penis has been introduced into the poem, the poet lets herself down until she is sitting on the muse with her legs outside him. He need not make any motions at all. The poet sits upright & raises & lowers her body rhythmically until the last line is attained…. This method yields exceptionally acute images & is, indeed, often recommended as yielding the summit of aesthetic enjoyment…..

One of the most arresting poems in this volume is "Bitter Pills for the Dark Ladies," which begins with an epigraph about Sylvia Plath. Jong identifies with Plath to some extent, and appreciates her enormous talents (Plath’s ghost hovers both on and beneath the surface of several poems). But Jong is also terrified of that identification— in part because of the struggle Plath had to be taken seriously and to take herself seriously, but most of all because Plath ultimately took her own life. For Jong is, above all, determined to be a survivor—and a survivor as a poet, as well. Like Plath, and like Anne Sexton, as well, Jong would pioneer in writing about a woman’s body, in making visible aspects of human experience—such as menstruation—that had previously been largely absent from books.

In the concluding section, Jong bemoans the fact that the "ultimate praise" for the woman poet "is always a question of nots:"

viz. Not like a woman  
viz. "certainly not another ‘poetess’"

What they really mean, Jong writes, is, "she got a cunt but she don’t talk funny".

But how should a woman poet talk? In "The Objective Woman," the poem that immediately follows "Bitter Pills," Jong erupts in a wild Whitmanesque celebration of woman as consumer of the language and products with which advertisers target her.

For I praise the women of America…..  
For I praise the firmessence of their ultralucence  
& the ultralucence of their firmessence

How does a woman artist surrounded by critics who assume she has nothing important to say go about finding her own voice? This question will preoccupy Jong throughout her career as a writer.

Sylvia Plath is still a visible presence in the poems in Jong’s second collection of poetry, Half-Lives, which appeared in 1973, "The Critics," for example, subtitled "For Everyone Who Writes About Sylvia Plath Including Me," parodies the unsatisfying theories critics have generated to explain Plath and concludes with the lines—"She is patient. /When you’re silent/she’ll crawl out." And food is still a central element, as well. In place of the onions of her first book, this collection features we now have some very memorable eggplant ("The Eggplant Epithalamion" makes real eggplants and imagined eggplants more vivid than any previous eggplant in literature). There are poems about women who cook, poems about searching for poems, poems about divorce, about the challenge of maintaining wholeness, about paper cuts, birth, mothers, orphans, widows, love, and death.

Jong’s two debut books of poetry received positive reviews. Margaret Atwood, in the Parnassus Poetry Review, wrote that she read the poems in Fruits & Vegetables, in 

the way you watch a trapeze act, with held breath, marveling at the agility, the lightness of touch, the brilliant demonstration of the difficult made to look easy.

In Half-Lives Atwood found more of an edge, and more pain—but also much of the same whimsy, verbal dexterity and engaging self-mockery that she had enjoyed in the earlier volume.  


FEAR OF FLYING

Both books of poetry, however, would be quickly overshadowed by Jong’s explosive first novel, Fear of Flying. Shocked typesetters refused to set the book in type. Meanwhile, employees of her publisher stole copies of the galleys and excitedly shared them with their friends. Early reviews were lukewarm. But then the encomiums began to appear—from fellow writers like John Updike and Henry Miller.

Updike said the book "feels like a winner. It has class and sass, brightness and bite." Updike compared the book to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and characterized Jong as a modern-day incarnation of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Updike applauded the book’s "cheerful, sexual frankness," writing that the author "sprinkles on four-letter words as if women had invented them." The poet who ransacked her kitchen cupboards for metaphors must have been particularly gratified by one that Updike invented with: "Containing all the cracked eggs of the feminist litany, her soufflé rises with the poet’s afflatus."

Henry Miller declared that Jong was "more forthright, more daring than most male writers." He found the novel "full of meaning and…a paean to life." He compared it to his own novel Tropic of Cancer, finding it "not as bitter and much funnier." "It is rare these days," Miller said, "to come upon a book written by a woman which is so refreshing, so gay and sad at the same time, and so full of wisdom about the eternal man-woman problem." He predicted that the book "will make literary history, that because of it women are going to find their own voice and give us great sagas of sex, life, joy, and adventure." Time called Fear of Flying "a raunchy, anarchic account of a woman’s sexual escapades conducted with a Tom Jones lusty disregard for convention, taste or conscience…. It is also an ICBM in the war between the sexes." By 1999, there would be fifteen million copies in print.

Fear of Flying is the story of Isadora Wing, an aspiring writer in her twenties who accompanies her non-communicative psychiatrist husband to a professional conference in Vienna. At the conference she finds herself madly attracted to a British Laingian analyst, Adrian Goodlove. After much soul-searching and indecision Isadora takes off on a two-and-half-week camping trip through Europe with Adrian, during which period disillusionment begins to set in. Her disenchantment crests when Adrian (who has been largely impotent) abandons her in Paris to go to a pre-arranged meeting with his wife and children in Cherbourg. Isadora then tracks her husband down in London, and takes a bath in his hotel room, awaiting his return. In her capacity to stray from conventional morality and land on her feet, Isadora is a late twentieth-century sister to Sister Carrie, the eponymous heroine of Theodore Dreiser’s 1899 novel who, rather than suffer for the choices she made, became the toast of Broadway. But while Carrie seemed to drift passively into both perdition and triumph, Isadora was clearly the author of her destiny—whatever that destiny held.

Isadora (like Jong) is a Barnard-educated, middle-class, nice Jewish girl who was unafraid to break the rules: she is open about her body, candid about her sexual fantasies, honest about male sexual performance, and unafraid to express herself in four-letter-words. In Fear of Flying food and sex still mingled in Jong’s store of metaphors, much as they did in her poetry; but poetry reaches an infinitely smaller audience, and her earlier work hardly prepared the mass public for the frankness it encountered here. When the culinary-copulating images resurfaced in the novel, the results were explosive:

What was it about marriage anyway? Even if you loved your husband, there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese: filling, fattening even, but no thrill to the taste buds, no bittersweet edge, no danger. And you longed for an overripe Camembert, a rare goat cheese: luscious, creamy, cloven-hoofed.

I was not against marriage. I believed in it in fact. It was necessary to have one best friend in a hostile world, one person you’d be loyal to no matter what, one person who’d always be loyal to you. But what about all those other longings which after a while marriage did nothing much to appease? The restlessness, the hunger the thump in the gut, the thump in the cunt, the longing to be filled up, to be fucked through every hole, the yearning for dry champagne and wet kisses….

One of Isadora’s most engaging qualities (to her fans--perhaps one of her most exasperating qualities to her critics) is her self-consciousness, her insight into how gender roles are constructed in contemporary society:

Growing up female in America. What a liability! …. What litanies the advertisers of the good life chanted at you! What curious catechisms!

…. "Love your hair."…"That shine on your face should come from him, not from your skin."…"How to score with every male in the zodiac…" "To a man they say Cutty Sark."…"If you’re concerned about douching…." "How I solved my intimate odor problem…."

What all the ads and all the whoreoscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars—you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), and make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever.

The backdrop, then, for Isadora’s life and world-view, if you will, is none other than what Charlotte Perkins Gilman referred to as the ubiquitous "love plot" that tyrannized over every heroine in literature: the dream of total fulfillment through a man. That is what women in literature are supposed to do, Gilman told us in the early 1900s: fall in love. Convention dictates that it’s their most promising role. Jong’s Isadora, rather than breaking free of convention is, in this sense, completely conventional. Society tells her she is to seek fulfillment through a man. Very well, then, that’s exactly what she does. But Isadora comes up with a distinctive fantasy to deal with the contradictory "itches" she feels (she is "itchy for sex and itchy for the life of a recluse," "itchy for men, and itchy for solitude"):

My response to all this was not (not yet) to have an affair and not (not yet) to hit the open road, but to evolve my fantasy of the Zipless Fuck. The zipless fuck was more than a fuck. It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover.

For the true, ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never get to know the man very well….. So another condition for the zipless fuck was brevity. And anonymity made it even better.

Isadora enjoys sex and is open about that fact; but her obsession with the fantasy of the Zipless Fuck so directly mirrors the male fantasies that have objectified women throughout literary history, that it is impossible to miss Jong’s satirical thrust: what if we turn the tables for a spell, she seems to be saying—just to see what it looks like when women treat men as men have always treated women? To say that Jong is at root a satirist is not to say that she fails to take her heroine seriously. Isadora is a fully-realized character whose motivations are as clear or confusing to the reader as they are to herself. But through Isadora and her frantic efforts to find herself, Jong mounts an acerbic critique of the hand women are dealt (and have learned to deal themselves) in contemporary society. (Along the way Jong deftly satirizes many other things as well, from advertising to psychobabble).

Jong makes the time period covered in the novel—a little less than a month—resonate with the biological rhythms of the 28-day menstrual cycle that the book’s narrator lives. The body Jong writes into her text with such concreteness and immediacy is thus much more than a body who seeks and receives sexual gratification; it is a body that experiences ovulation, menstrual bleeding, tension, release. Isadora’s attraction to Adrian Goodlove coincides with the onset of ovulation. She tells the reader,

I seem to be involved with all the changes of my body. They never pass unnoticed. I seem to know exactly when I ovulate. In the second week of the cycle, I feel a tiny ping and then a sort of tingling ache in my lower belly. A few days later I'll often find a tiny spot of blood in the rubber yarmulke of the diaphragm. A bright red smear, the only visible trace of the egg that might have become a baby. I feel a wave of sadness then which is almost indescribable. Sadness and relief.

The cycle was, of course, familiar to every woman the narrator’s age, but absent from American literature until that thime.

Isadora’s journey cannot be reduced to a quest for sexual fulfillment—although sexual fulfillment is certainly an important part of it. Rather, her journey is one of self-definition. She needs to understand what makes her who she is and what kind of person she wants to be. That understanding takes her back into a past that she shares with the reader in fresh and poignant ways.

Really, I thought sometimes I would like to have a child. A very wise and witty little girl who’d grow up to be the woman I could never be. A very independent little girl with no scars on the brain or the psyche. With no toadying servility and no ingratiating seductiveness. A little girl who said what she meant and meant what she said. A little girl who was neither bitchy nor mealy-mouthed because she didn’t hate her mother or herself…. What I really wanted was to give birth to myself—the little girl I might have been in a different family, a different world.….

Feeling very alone, in a pup tent with a sleeping man whom she knows is no solution to her problems, Isadora tries to "remember who I was:" "Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing…. B.A. M.A., Phi Beta Kappa. Isadora Wing, promising younger poet. Isadora Wing, promising younger sufferer. Isadora Wing, feminist and would-be liberated woman. Isadora Wing, clown, crybaby, fool…. slightly overweight sexpot, with a bad case of astigmatism of the mind’s eye…." Women readers in the 1970s could identify richly with Isadora’s lack of confidence, with her self-doubt, her ambivalence, and confusion. The "zipless fuck" may have gotten all the press, but readers probably found the larger drama of the search for identity at least as compelling, if not more so.

Isadora Wing embarked on her quest for identity at a time when almost every aspect of a woman’s identity was contested and up for grabs. During the 1970s the women’s movement would transform American society profoundly. Jong’s novel, appearing as that movement was beginning to come into its own, became an instant icon, a cultural document. It wasn’t so much that it contained four-letter-words or was candid about sexual gratification and the lack thereof. It was that all this sex-talk happened inside a woman’s head and was told from a woman’s point of view. The sex object—the role into which women had traditionally been cast in literature in the United States—was talking back. What’s more, she was talking back assertively and aggressively. She was taking the initiative and suiting herself; no matter that her results were decidedly mixed. What mattered was the audacity of the venture. Conflicted, confused—much as her readers probably were—Isadora nonetheless broke out of the role in which society cast her in and gave birth to a new self. It was brazen and adventurous to be sure. And it was as American as apple pie—if you were a male. Self-invention (the self-made man) had been a staple enterprise on the part of American writers from Benjamin Franklin to Walt Whitman to F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it was largely a novelty for women (there were exceptions, to be sure: one thinks of Fanny Fern’s wonderful novel—Ruth Hall—about how she invented herself as a newspaper columnist published it in 1855, the same year Whitman published "Song of Myself." But Fern was one of those exceptions that prove the rule).

And if self-invention was a largely male prerogative, talking dirty in print was even more so. Four years before Fear of Flying appeared, Philip Roth published Portnoy’s Complaint, a book that foregrounded a man’s candidly-described sexual obsessions while aspiring to be more than mere pornography. Can a writer do this? Pack a book with sex and four-letter words and still get taken seriously as literature? Roth proved it could be done. If you were male. As Erica Jong found out when she wrote a novel four years later that tried to do just that—but from a woman’s point of view—the same rules don’t apply. Roth evoked titillation where Jong provoked outrage. (Critics Alfred Kazin and Paul Theroux, for example, both called the book hopelessly "vulgar.") While Roth was celebrated for breaking the rules, Jong was castigated. Jong, the sly poet who mined her vegetable bin for the stuff of seventeenth-century conceits, now found herself at the barricades of the sexual revolution, poster-girl for an Equal Rights Amendment for writers.

Critics who admired the book have looked at elements it shares with journeys penned by Homer and Dante, and have compared its author to Rabelais. They have valued the book as a feminist bildungsroman, a novel of female growth and development. Meanwhile, conservative critics who approved of the status quo in gender relations welcomed the chance to attack feminism by attacking this book. Jean Larkin Crain, for example, writing in Commentary, saw the novel as an attack on marriage as an institution, and accused Jong of having falsified reality when she suggested that women were victims of forces beyond their control. (Benjamin Demott, writing in the Atlantic, also saw the book as a "diatribe against marriage.") Patricia Coyne, writing in The National Review charged Jong with having been brainwashed by the "Woman’s Lib" movement, writing that "the author sees in life precisely what the women’s movement has told her to see." Meanwhile, liberal critics such as Ellen Hope Meyer writing in the Nation, complained about the solipsistic "Dear Diary" quality of the novel, maintaining that the heroine’s self-indulgent subjectivity provided no blueprint for social change.  

 

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Erica Jong
Photo Credit: Mary Ann Halpin