In 1987, when I was finishing up my bachelor's degree in creative writing at the University of Arizona (at that point I was still primarily a poet), a beloved teacher and friend loaned me a copy of Little Star, Mark Halliday's first book. I loved it. It was one of my major influences. The title poem is about wondering who sang lead on some 1950s pop song. Halliday acknowledges that the poem
is not the first time I've tried to
get a rock-&-roll song into a poem and it won't be
the last; it is my need to call out
This counts too!
After reading Halliday, I began writing all kinds of poems with rock & roll songs in them, or inspired by rock & roll songs; I wrote a poem about the video to Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" and I wrote a bunch of poems about death by hanging inspired largely by "Gallows Pole" by Zeppelin and I wrote a poem called "1812 Overture" but despite the reference to Tchaikovsky the poem is really about how much I love the song "Close to Me" by the Cure, how sad I always was when the song ended, how it was over far too quickly.
Because I was poor, I never bought Little Star; I just returned my teacher's copy after reading it once, then got a copy from the library and kept it until I finished my master's degree four years later. And then it went out of print and I didn't think much about it, aside from the poem "Why the HG is Holy," which is one of my all-time favorite poems.
But a few months ago, I mentioned to Tom how much I loved that book, and as he had a copy, he loaned it to me. And I got to reread a few of the poems I had rather forgotten about, including the longest poem (seven pages) in the collection, which is called "Venus Pandemos."
When I first read that poem, I thought it was funny, mostly because I didn't have much personal reference for what it was talking about. I was an incredibly naive Mormon virgin who had little experience with dating and had never been in love, and though at that point I quit riding the bus to campus because I found enduring the catcalls and whistles I got while I waited at the bus stop on a busy street too upsetting, I still laughed at this poem, thought he was saying something clever. In fact, I once read much of it aloud to one of my friends who ran the women's center before she stopped me, almost heaving with distress. The poem begins
What am I going to do with my desire
To be more specific, what am I going to do
with my interest in women's bodies?
and continues its exploration of this
I am a little excited just to describe it--
the quick expert evaluation of
and then the instant summary judgment:
"I crave her"
"I'd take her"
"Maybe if I was a little drunk and she threw herself on me"
or, more often:
"Forget it, honey."
Then he spends a stanza discussing breasts, and another discussing ass, and then wonders "if any intelligent feminists will ever read this poem." Then we get a section with a fairly explicit discussion of sex. He says it's not about conquest; rather,
to do something about
To do something about her beauty!
Is it a defining quality of beauty
that it won't leave us alone?
He also states that
of course what I'm talking about
has nothing to do with rape. (Nothing?)
So I'm left to rely on my technique of
I eat them with my eyes.
--Is it like eating? It's a job of
disposing of them, one by one:
All right, I see that body,
I have seen it.
--Which means, that body is taken care of now,
that body is disarmed, normalized,
brought under control, it is forgivable now:
I have disposed of it through ritual,
the ritual of snapshot glancing, and now
its power is dead.
ah. So is it, then, a kind of murder fantasy?
And ultimately, he acknowledges,
Yes. I guess that's what I'm saying.
--But it's your fault, baby,
for being so GOD DAMN BEAUTIFUL.
As for why he is writing this, it's because
I think about strange women, for quick seconds,
in ways I consider dehumanizing.
Should I be ashamed?
I suspect my sexual fantasies are
among the tamest (most repressed?) anywhere;
and I can claim that my relations with the women I know
nonsexist . . .
and he goes on for another page and a half before writing
In 1973 and '74 I worked in a feminist theatre group;
my awareness of the women's anger reached the point where
it seemed a crime for men to whistle at women on the street.
Now I'm not going to say it isn't.
But I'm admitting to an enduring energy in me that says
an attractive woman is not simply one more comrade on earth,
nor is she just another nice thing about life;
an ATTRACTIVE WOMAN is a PROBLEM.
And that's the real end of the poem, despite one final throwaway stanza.
Now, I'm not trying to dismiss Halliday or his work. I still admire a lot of the poems in Little Star and I was very inspired by his most recent book, Jab. I like how straight-forward and energetic his voice is. But when I reread "Venus Pandemon" for the first time in a long time a few months ago, I didn't react to it the way I did at 23. Eighteen years after first reading it, after enduring several incidences of sexual violence, after hearing a boyfriend say to me, "Look, I'm sorry I date-raped you" (which isn't really all that comforting), after being sexually demeaned by men who claimed simultaneously to care about my welfare and to be feminists, I don't find that poem funny any more. And I feel entitled to assert that a man who finds an attractive woman a PROBLEM, is something of a PROBLEM himself.
And as I listened to that panel on male Mormon feminists, I thought about the fact that any discussion of feminism needed to include a discussion of this issue.