The Negative Space of the Page
A Review of “His Journal, My Stella” by Emily Bowles
In my Survey of British Literature class in college, I remember learning several new words reading Milton.
He’s credited with introducing several words to the English language, but I remember one he didn’t invent: amanuensis, “a literary or artistic assistant, in particular one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts.” The image is familiar – blind Milton, leaning back in his chair, surrounded by his daughters. There’s a painting in the New York Public Library that shows Anne, Mary, and Deborah, each engaged with their father’s work. Milton wrote Paradise Lost, and later works, with the help of a number of amanuenses. His daughters, a nephew, and some people paid to do the work. But I was most interested in his daughters then – and now.
The stories that make up our histories are ever shifting. One story is that the muse would visit Milton during the night, and he’d repeat lines over and over to himself, getting them right, committing them to memory, until someone arrived to write them down. He described his own process in several places. The youngest daughter, Deborah, worked with some biographers later in her life, so some of her impressions may have survived. Other biographers wrote of how the daughters hated their father: his demands, the tasks he set before them, his hypocrisy about the very notion of liberty, his re-marriages, the household where he kept them prisoner. Milton was a man of his time perhaps. Perhaps somewhere between the voice in blind Milton’s head, and the hand that wrote down the lines, some whiff of Anne, Mary, or Deborah survives.
Emily Bowles’s chapbook His Journal, My Stella explores a similar situation in some ways. The relationship between Esther Johnson and Jonathan Swift is introduced in a prefatory note to Section I. “Miss” establishes some basic parameters for their relationship. It is a fatherly, mentor relationship. She is eight. He is an “authority.” Later, perhaps, their relationship changes. The poems in Bowles’s collection traverse the grid of this shifting relationship, between powerful established man, and “pliant, pleasurable” Stella – who wants to be seen as “more than a child, better than a woman.” The deftness of these poems is the way they are sketched only, paired with modern-day experiences and relationships, stretched across the negative space of the page, leaving the reader more gaps than knowing. The repetition of “Miss” to signify young unmarried woman/girl, and “miss” to signify something lost, and the line-ending that splits “miss / take” recur over and over to fragment idea and thought and concept. Who can know what happened in Milton’s household? Who can know what was in Stella’s heart? Or Swift’s? The opening note makes clear: “This is and is not something we now refer to as grooming.”
Another classroom wells up at me in the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais.” The speaker has “missed / The Point.” The speaker has gone off topic, writing about something she shouldn’t have, questioning something outside of the poem. This is not an approved topic. “It is not valid,” the “[male] professor” points out. The final stanza of the poem is arranged in opposition to itself, a form that happens again and again here: “you” aligns itself with one margin, but the story occurs on the other margin, in the gutter of the page.
By the end of this poem, the speaker has become fragmented, both second-person (a person to see through) and an “I” still inhabited. She is two-personed, unable to withstand the weight of male authority, but uniquely situated to watch her failure and write it down.
While the story of Stella and Swift forms a framework for Bowles’s collection, the poems aren’t confined by that relationship. Many of the poems don’t reference that relationship explicitly but could be about it. Or not. They navigate the see-saw between specific and universal, but all traverse scaffolds of power, and specifically the power between men and women, that differential in romantic and sexual relationships, in marriage. Each poem calls forth “an act of sexual / textual / violence.” I said the poem “Misogyny in Rabelais” reminded me of a classroom – it does. A graduate school classroom where I asked if we could talk about a poet’s ethics, and the professor said that “wasn’t an interesting question.” An undergraduate classroom where a visiting poet told a round table of eager women poets that “no one wants to read about these things”; he told us, we earnest women-college students at our glossed wood table to “think about your audience.” We had been rapt.
In the article “Experts in the Field” published in Tin House, Bonnie Nadzam writes about abusive men in the writing world – and she touches on exploitive practices and the long-term effects they can have on students’ writing, careers, and voices. Power and authority can have long-reaching effects; power and authority can silence. As mentors, those who seek to harm can control their victims into their future. They are gate-keepers – they control access to jobs, residencies, contracts, networks. Most importantly, they can control access to our very selves, and the way we see ourselves. Through their reputations and classrooms and programs, they can “[teach] the rest of us how we should tell our stories.” In several poems, Bowles gives texts, criticism, judgement literal weight: “I wore the allusions, / those critical garments, / until they didn’t fit anymore.”
Bowles takes on structures beyond the classroom and criticism, exploring marriage and the home. In “Cedar Waxwing in Our House” the speaker finds kinship with a cat, noting the way we choose kitty litter and grain-free food to further divorce the creature from the wild – leaving us all “neutered.”
can feel like a form of
terrorism, and sometimes
a feral urge creeps in
on mouse feet or cedar
There’s that fragmentation again – separating words we expect to see together, perhaps the way the bird’s wings were separated by jaws and claws. In the short poem “I Went Missing,” Bowles makes of words fragments, so they can be read multiple ways. I like to imagine hearing this, as well as reading it, inserting a long pause at the line breaks, giving the page its due.
It was a miss
his name. I went
missing when I
for his Mistress.
Perhaps the speaker of this poem is Stella, perhaps it’s the poet, perhaps it’s any married woman who regrets marrying. Or not regrets entirely, but just wonders about things lost in the joining. Things like names and the identities they signify. I appreciate the slight form, the symmetry of the lines.
The final section of Bowles’ book, Section IV, is titled “Missed.” The note describes how Stella fell ill, died. Swift lived on and mentions of Stella continued. Perhaps she lived on in his fiction, fictionalized. Perhaps she animated Gulliver’s Travels. A poem from this section complains “I am an envelope, sent back and forth / between men . . .” Perhaps whoever survives ensures their version of the story survives, but it isn’t that simple, not between women and men. Not when the context of history has its own rules, in its own places, and one party holds more cards than the others. Not when the negotiations take place behind closed doors in dimly-lit rooms. Witness Deborah, Milton’s surviving daughter, whose voice still wasn’t strong enough to trouble her father’s legacy much.