|cover credit: Headmistress Press|
Headmistress Press (2014)
Reviewed by Mindy Kronenberg
Co-founded by Mary Meriam and Risa Denenberg in 2013, Headmistress Press is an independent publisher of books of poetry by lesbians. As stated on its website, it is “dedicated to honoring lesbian existence, discovering a range of lesbian voices, and promoting lesbian representation in the arts.” Girlie Calendar is the last volume in the “Lillian Trilogy” (the first two books were Word Hot and Conjuring My Leafy Muse) and dedicated to the poet’s creative mentor, scholar, and educator, Lillian Faderman. Mary Meriam’s voice joins an established and recognized canon of gay female writers (Marilyn Hacker, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, June Jordan, and Joan Larkin among them) with her own brand of self-declaration and exuberant chutzpa.
The visions conjured by the phrase “Girlie Calendar” rouse images of sirens posed in risqué postures, sultry but coy, beckoning and somewhat vulnerable, teasing an audience with the promise of carnal conquest and unimagined sexual pleasure. Meriam cleverly plays on the clichéd and misogynistic notions of this familiar cultural artifact by creating a catalog of poems that cross a decade and address the desires, promises, gifts, and, occasionally, disappointments of each month.
In the May section, “Hot Spell” opens with a glimmer of optimism: “This sonnet holds the hope of something hot: / a summer night with soft cicada din, / a sultry rush of fingers on the skin, / a tender lightning bolt that hits the spot.” So much of the magic in Meriam’s verse lay in her deft use of language, often like a sleight of hand as she uses rhyme that subtly rears its head in elongated lines. For example, from “Beginning with a Line by Robert Frost” in the January section, she writes:
The pile of rotten branches and gold leaves lies there dead and swirled.Some poems reach for words to celebrate sensuality or express a quixotic sense of joy or despair. In the July section, the poems “The Romance of Middle Age” and “Lingua Lesbian” are back to back, the first articulating the realities of an aging body, and the second softly expressing a memory of blooming libido. From the first, the warning signs: “…It’s strange / how people look away who once would look. / I didn’t know I’d undergo this change / and be the unseen cover of a book / whose plot, though swift, just keeps on getting thicker. / One reaches for the pleasures of the mind / and heart to counteract the loss of quicker / knowledge…” From the second, we learn of the “language that was hidden,” passionate gestures that bring the poet and her lover together, beyond the use of words. Meriam describes:
It would take every court in the countryside to count the fallen leaves.
The judges must number themselves among the dirt-thirsty thieves.
I live in a room of cold-toed winter glowing with no relief.
Wandering silent, muttered about, I move from grief to grief.
Her curls of silky sunny light,Meriam can be skillfully playful and witty, as in “Workshop Romance” (…I like your smile, I like your frown, / but darling, must you always shun / my adjectives? Are you a nun? / Am I a silly, sorry clown? / I like your verb! I like your noun!”). She sloughs off modest success and minor defeat with good humor and an eloquent kvetching in “The Loser’s Lament,” where the poet extols the virtues and prized lives of “The winning wealthy poets” whose coveted works “dribble from their mouths.” Of herself and her creative labors, which answer to a different authority, she states:
blond blooming in my hand
entangle me and turn the night
gentle where we stand.
Her Russian babbles in my ear,
mon francais sways her hips,
we laugh, go quiet, I draw near
and kiss her rosy lips.
But I’m a poet of a single table.With its periodic bravado and good natured posturing, sexual dynamism and moments of vulnerability and isolation, Meriam’s seasonal catalogue of poems is an honest and honorable series of rites of passage. Girlie Calendar is a robust collection of free verse and formalist work that explores a seasonal spectrum of a gay woman’s emotional and physical experience—aching, wistful, hungry, indignant, and determinedly satisfied.
I wash my dishes at the kitchen sink.
I have nowhere to go, and so I think
I’ll sit and write a poem at the table.
The price I pay for every line I write
is measured by the gods in bloody light.