So What Things Do You Find Satisfying?
In Blog on 4 February 2010
One might be tempted, in writing a poem about a difficult topic like the violence that underlies sexism (and makes it both possible and pervasive), to become didactic. One might also be tempted to be heavy-handed in the storytelling, or to draw conclusions for one’s reader or listener. What one doesn’t see often in such poetry is humor and a complicated speaker.
This poem by New Yorker Eboni Hogan is, among other things, a list poem. It’s not a typical list poem, however, because the speaker is repeating someone else’s list, effectively creating two speakers, the story’s narrator and the author of the beer poster. Hogan switches back and forth between telling the story and quoting the poster, sometimes cueing us with numbers, and sometimes simply weaving the statement into the poem so that there are moments when it’s difficult to tell whether we are hearing the narrator’s perspective or that of the poster’s author.
This structural device is quite effective, and accomplishes a lot in this poem. One of the most difficult things to pull off in a three-minute poem is to address a complex, nuanced topic without becoming academic or didactic. This particular topic has been addressed often and poorly, and here Hogan’s unique structure allows her to treat the topic with the sensitivity and complexity it deserves and yet still tell a powerful story.
How, for example, to explain, in three minutes, the complex relationship between a particular person and the larger social and political context that informs, enables and partly causes their behavior without stereotyping or resorting the very sort of academic language I’m using in this very sentence? How do we bring an audience to that kind of complexity without preaching at them and while entertaining them?
The concepts that sexism requires at least the threat of violence to remain powerful, and that to some degree a larger cultural set of normal or accepted ideas creates an environment whose existence surrounds woman making otherwise benign interactions deadly, that marketing continues to rely on sexist ideas about women to sell things like beer, and that participating in seemingly-harmless joking like that in the poster is really a connection to those deeper and darker tools of oppression are not the sorts of topics most except a small handful of people want to think about ever, but especially at a bar or while doing reading for pleasure.
So Hogan co-opts the rhetoric of sexism, weaving the statements on the poster into her narrative. Instead of going down the list in exact order, she’s taken some of the statements out of sequence and ordered them in the poem to align with what’s happening in the narrative.
What this does is help characterize the male character in the poem — as he takes actions, the poster “speaks” to us, so that we are led to make an implicit connection between what the poster is saying and what the man is doing. This opens up the topic of how advertising might create or undergird or enable the violent choices of the male character without actually saying as much. To put it another way, instead of delimiting inquiry on the part of the readers and listeners by making a declarative statement, Hogan encourages us to infer connections, which opens up inquiry into the larger world outside the poem.
Hogan uses this technique often in the poem. Imagine, for a moment, that in this poem, the speaker had been raped by the man or shot by him. The sympathy we as her audience would feel for the speaker would outweigh the thinking she wants us to do, necessary thinking about how sexism actually works, thinking we can’t do if we are feeling too much. So instead, Hogan has the male character head-butt the speaker (here I just want to point out that whether or not this happened in this way to Hogan in real life is beside the point in terms of how the writing is done). Here’s the speaker’s description of the head-butt:
He bowed like a gentleman,
body curled like so many question marks before him
and blessed me with a running start
a grand, glorified, dick-encrusted
American-as-apple-pie Rambo-style head butt
Note that the head-butt is compared with several overlapping modes of manhood: gentlemanliness, wholesomeness (American-as-apple-pie), militaristic (Rambo) and sexual (dick-encrusted). The head-butt itself can easily act a symbol for penetration, implying rape, or as the motion of a bullet, implying murder or (as the poem’s final image suggests) execution.
Sticking with one overpowering image would not allow Hogan to weave together so many manifestations of sexism, so she’s made the choice to back off what emotional power she could squeeze from the poem and instead offer us the chance to notice these overlapping concepts. Instead of being a woe-is-me poem about a single, sad moment, it becomes a poem addressing a larger, complicated topic — how sexism itself functions.
Part of that function includes how deeply-ingrained its ideas are in our culture so that women who are aware of and critical about sexism often report realizing that they have internalized sexist ideas and messages without being aware of it. Remember how at the beginning I mentioned that Hogan sometimes switches from the narrator’s account to a list item from the poster without cueing us, so that there are moments when the line between characters is blurred? What a masterful way to illustrate that internalization!
She gives the poster the final line of the poem. The effect of this is to both tie up the list and also make it clear that we’re meant to go back over the list and examine not only what is underlying the statements themselves, but also, how they connect to the choices the characters makes. The poem doesn’t tell us what to do about sexism or sexual assault. It doesn’t condemn anyone in specific. It never makes any proclamations. What it does very well is invite us to continue thinking about its subject matter long after the poem is done, the entire range of images and ideas echoing in our minds like the gunshot in the poem’s concluding image.