Barbara Edelman

The idea for this essay grew out of conversations with one of my colleagues about new stumbling blocks we encounter in our writing as we get older. I realize that for me, the number fifty carries enormous weight: In writing this, I actually picture fifty as a gigantic Five - O about three stories high, sculpted in gray stone, with me stepping through the hole of the zero. Like the speakers of most of my poems, I’m navigating a space made alien by my tenuous or conflicted connection to it. I have no idea where to step and I’ll probably fall on my face. Only, now that I’ve crossed to the other side of fifty, this bumbling persona strikes me as unacceptable. I should be wise by now. I should have a map. I should be making grand assertions about how the world works. I should have put down roots. I should have a family and should feature them in poems, or at least reference them peripherally as footnotes to my stature in the field of personal experience. Because if I can’t be either Emily Dickinson or Oprah, don’t I at least need the authority of motherhood to make me worth listening to?
Clearly, some new censors have stepped into my writing space. The two nastiest voices likely to whisper in my ear are the one who says, “Is this persona appropriate for a fifty-two-year-old woman?” and the one who says, “Who in the world wants to hear about the wild and wacky adventures of a fifty- two-year-old woman?”
I trace both of these voices—the fear of inappropriateness and the fear of irrelevance—to an admission that on some deep level, I buy into the idea that my only power as a woman comes from sexuality. And even if it’s just my warped lens that presents it so, that notion keeps getting reinforced. In just about any situation, I’m treated better when I look better. So if I go out to buy a lawn mower and I think I’ll need advice from the sales person, I put on make-up and flattering clothes. If I’m returning stale Grape-Nuts to the Giant Eagle and there’s some chance I won’t get my money back, I do the same. I have a low-power, unstable teaching job, and I figure that, in addition to performing well, if I do my best to make sure they don’t mind looking at me, I may have more security.
So, no, I’m not sending out 8 x 10 photos with my poetry manuscript; therefore, where’s the connection? It’s that I’m afflicted with the suspicion that the voice and experience of a woman in her fifties is past sexual, thus past powerful, thus not very interesting. It has less to do with feeling barred from writing sexual material than with believing that if I’m not perceived as sexual, nothing I say is relevant: this despite all evidence and propaganda to the contrary—despite Diane Sawyer, despite Tina Turner, despite the sustained juiciness of Sharon Olds’ Blood, Tin, & Straw, despite the issue of AARP magazine that arrived unbidden on my doorstep the minute I turned fifty with its slick and gorgeous cover photo of Lauren Hutton above the caption, “Sixty Is the New Thirty.” I truly hope most women my age disagree with me, but I find that, at least for the less stellar among us, all this gleaming media insistence on the relevance of older women in our culture simply reinforces the opposite: our widespread powerlessness, and hence, the desperate need to say it ain’t so. How can I fight this pessimistic stance when every time I click on the tube I face an invasion of cookie-cutter, flesh-cutter, make-over shows?
The worry over constructing an age-appropriate persona connects to qualities I’ve thus far seen as strengths in my work, including a fairly merciless eye trained on myself and everyone else, down to the sweaty, saggy details. Not that my subject matter could rank as shocking, but that the poems are rooted in the physical and propelled by sexuality or a spirit of adventure—I’m always crashing up against the shores of propriety, mostly my own; the voice derives a lot of energy from irreverence, ambivalence, and anger. Throughout my forties, I wouldn’t consider tempering the wildness of the poems’ personae or the sharpness in the voice—even though the tone put some readers off (mostly older male poets who critiqued my work). I still don’t want to back away from those qualities in my writing, but I’ve heard how observations of women as they age can change from “Oo, isn’t she sassy” to “Yikes, isn’t she shrill,” or from “Oo, isn’t she courageous” to “She’s got a screw loose”; and, unfortunately, these labels are lining up like armed guards inside my head.
While I like reading all kinds of poetry—most poets I know do—the majority of my own poems continue to emerge as fractured narratives: lyrical language that wraps around personal experience. Poems centered on personal narrative are still, too, what I most love to read, and I admit that, no matter how I urge my students not to assume autobiography in each detail of a writer’s work, that very curiosity is in fact a huge part of my own enjoyment of the poem. I don’t want a lot of information. I mean, I really don’t want a lot of information. I’m less interested in most prose memoir, which tends to reveal more. On the far extreme comes the bombardment of reality TV, a few hours of which could likely obliterate my last, cherished speck of curiosity about the lives of other human beings (except for the question, why’s everyone watching this?) But what excites me in poetry is the suggestion of true story, the quick glimpse into someone else’s life, woven into the mesh of language—the material through which we generate music, pictures, ideas, and choice details like stars of a constellation—where imagination combines with identification and true nosiness in the spaces between. Because my favorite kinds of poems depend to some extent on the reader’s curiosity about the speaker, my fear is this: If the speaker at the center of that constellation is too middle-aged to compel curiosity, then, like, who cares?
Partly it’s just difficult to teach nineteen- and twenty-year-olds without imagining myself through their eyes. My introduction to poetry writing class last semester read a volume by a male poet a few years younger than I whose work combines personal musings with sharp cultural critique, some directed specifically at my students’ age group. A lot of class members reacted angrily to the text, and one student really shocked me by spitting out (in reference to the author), “He’s old. He’s going to die soon!” I understood some of this young man’s vitriol as defensiveness, but that outburst is particularly hard for me to dismiss because it came from someone I’d actually considered to be thoughtful and open.
I know that, finally, I won’t be shut down by that voice or by others bouncing around in my head. True, I don’t want to be the mad poet ranting outside the gates of the city—I want in, dammit. But I doubt I’ll tailor my observations or couch them in a palatably diplomatic tone in order to seek acceptance in a literary market that may be just as youth oriented as other media. The bad/good news is that within America’s current political climate, I’m not alone among contemporaries in stumbling around displaced and baffled. This is no time for middle-aged ladies or anyone else to curb their barbed tongues. The good news on the teaching front is that my intermediate poetry workshop read Kimiko Hahn’s Mosquito & Ant, and (though, I admit, the speaker is in her forties not her fifties) I took heart from the thoughtful, cross-generational discussion her work provoked in class. Male and female students alike were drawn to her feminism, her intellect and scholarship, and her defiant sexuality; they listened even when they may have felt themselves critiqued or competed with, as in these lines from the poem, “Wax”: “And the young now listen / to fifty-year-old rockers. / No wonder they don’t think / they invented sex. Fuckin-A / we did.” (Mosquito & Ant, p.17, Kimiko Hahn, Norton, 1999)
As for my internalized censors, I hear the voices but I’m breaking the control of their gaze. In a locker room on the campus where I work out—not the university that employs me but the one where I still sneak in on my seven year old I.D.—I looked up one day, spacey from exercising, at the faces of students in the mirror next to me. My first, semiconscious response, before social conditioning kicked back in, was to feel sad at the sight of all that blankness. It wasn’t lack of intelligence—students at this school are a formidable crew—it was the lack of aging on their faces that made them uninteresting. I looked at myself among them and remembered how much I had loved, as a college actor, the craft of applying age make-up to my face under hot, dressing-room lights—how I’d felt myself, stroke by stroke, working from the outside toward a character I was building on the inside. For a second in the locker room, I looked at all that young skin and thought, “Those faces need some work.” I saw my own lines as art, art moving inward. It’s a place to start.