Review of Veronica Golos’ Girl
by Phillip M. Richards
Girl, the most recent book by Veronica Golos, is a central addition to a body of explicitly political poetry grounded in historical experience. That political consciousness dominated Golos’ earlier accounts of the pre-Civil War freedom struggle of John and Mary Brown in Rootwork, the Iraqi War in the Vocabulary of Silence, and maternal escape to freedom on the part of biblical and black antebellum slaves in A Bell Buried Deep.
In Girl, Golos makes use of the conventions and motifs of the fairy tale to translate its realistic subject matter into symbolist levels of meaning. Her narrative turns inward, producing an autobiographical tale reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s early essays “Nature” and “Self- Reliance,” Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and Adrienne Rich’s middle-period collections, Diving into the Wreck and The Will to Change. Girl gives us not a factual history, but an extended poetic myth of an evolving inner self and political consciousness.
As Golos’ sustained reference to “Girl” suggests, the central persona of the poem is an important embodiment of the feminine. Girl participates in the crises that women face in their relationship with men—husbands, lovers, and father—who appear in the poem as larger than life, creating a fairy-tale-like version of sexual politics. Here the mother speaks, back to the daughter, the daughter who has saved her from suicide.
in my father’s basement
he’d offer a tin
Because my hair of coal-ash
my mother’s fox red hair
I was beautiful
(Girl, p. 54)
The symbolist of Girl is also a realist student of the material world. This stance, which Golos shares with Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca and Theodore Roethke is the symbolist imperative behind Whitman’s celebration of the physical world. And one finds direct echoes of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” in Girl’s imagery of the Canal Street fish markets of Manhattan, and the summer camp.
Golos has appropriated for Girl, the narrative structure, characterization, and imagery of Grimm’s “Little Red Riding Hood.” Here, I believe the wolf and heroine of the tale are an external projection of womanhood entrapped within a masculine presence and beset with maternal prerogatives. It seems to me that the Wolf is a super organic male aggressiveness which threatens to overcome the female as it does in the fairytale, but in Golos’s retelling, Rouged Woman sees the wolf’s natural environment inside him, though his senses of hearing, sight, and smell. From this physical encounter with the wolf’s world, she comes to a sense of her relation to his power.
What I know is more than thorn
and thistle whistling through
the oak forest, trees large as barns
What I know is Wolf,
and that cannot be reckoned;
for I have been inside
Him, and have seen through His gold eyes
and smelled the world.
Later in the book, poems describe the crisis in the girl’s relationship with her mother, who it seems to me has explicitly rejected her as a “child.” The maternal figure takes the prerogative of explaining to the girl the masculine pull that has led to this abandonment of maternal duty. Like the mother, the man is an embodiment of a larger mythologized gendered figure. And all three, taken together, is a place where I see the daughter has been caught. This knowledge from the beginning of the girl’s life has created an existential crisis: the poem’s persona realizes immediately that she must escape or face destruction, not by the Wolf, but by society.
This was the choice: to be taken whole
as I was then; or,
to be eaten
bit by bit –
By whom? You ask By all of you, my dear.
(Girl, p. 15)
Girl commences therefore upon a life. She grows up, internalizing the earlier threatening maternal force. In “Daughterspeak: A Haunting,” Golos depicts a vision in which the once aggressive submits to the girl’s wish-fulfilling mastery. Harkening back to The Vocabulary of Silence, this is a poem about war, about the lapse of compassion in the Girl as a woman, in her haunting.
Daughterspeak: A Haunting
I rise into fever, haunt the empathy of rooms.
Kettles boil over. Scalding truth. An old woman pisses in the street, lifting
her eight skirts above her knees. Each skirt a pennon, a place she’s been.
She is residue, sperm-colored, and the stink of her
is ox blood, a wound left untended; I shudder. Her hands are nettles
and hook. I whisper, Don’t you see? Snakes writhe in her hair.
She fuses my dreams, the ones of barbed wire, the sun a dull blow in the sky.
I see her when young, her rags above her waist, against a wall, gnawing
chunks of bread while the soldier pounds her closer and closer to stone.
I stand by while she and her child drink mud.
(Girl, p. 61)
Jack Zipes, a scholar of fairy tales, has argued that their primary literary feature is their capacity to adapt strategies for courtship to particular situations. The payoff for the daughter’s achievement of autonomy and internalization of wolfishness is sexual independence. In my perspective, in Girl, the daughter predicts from the beginning that she will internalize the wolf. Through this inversion of the fairy tale, she mobilizes her resources for the rejection of the mother whose life she must otherwise repeat.
here, you caught
my voice in your white
hands, long fingers and vermillion nails
caught my voice mid-air, as i was
calling out, my crazy words
i am unwilling you
the cold mud of your eyes
how sweetbitter un-mangled love
can steal in—with pity pooling
inside the flecked edge of the
all this grief splashes
what could be stronger than
A rope, yes, of course
The wrecking against sleep
(Girl, p. 62)
In my reading, Girl conveys a feminist politics that advocates the self-creation of personal autonomy in a world where women may be oppressed by the culture’s ethos of manhood and womanhood. The poem advocates an awareness of these oppressive cultural formations in society. While this may not seem to be as overtly political as Golos’s other poems, Girl brims over with wisdom about the political nature of women’s personal lives lived in a society fraught with the constructions of gender.
Phillip Richards is a professor of literature and writer with a longstanding interest in political and social affairs. Besides a number of scholarly articles, he has published essays on race and education in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Harper’s Magazine, and Dissent among others. He has recently published An Integrated Boyhood: Coming of Age in White Cleveland, a memoir about growing up black in the segregated world of Cleveland during the fifties and sixties. He has held visiting professorships in Gabon (French Central Africa), France (the University of Grenoble), and Germany (the University of Freiburg). He has a long standing interest in both the Peace Movement and Conflict Resolution. Richards is a member of the Writing for Peace Board of Directors and Associate Editor of DoveTales, An International Journal of the Arts.
Join the May 29th Writing for Peace Friday Live Reading with Veronica Golos
On Friday, May 29th, at 8pm EDT, Veronica Golos will read from her latest book of poems, Girl, published by 3: A Taos Press. We hope you’ll invite all your friends and join us on Zoom to ask your questions and hear Veronica Golos read her work. You can purchase her book by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meeting I.D. 827-5887-0958 Password: 690434
You can purchase her book by contacting her at email@example.com.
Veronica Golos, Girl, Denver, Co: Three: A Taos Press, 2019
……………….A Bell Buried Deep. Ashland, OR: Story Line Press, 2004
Vocabulary of Silence, Red Hen Press, 2011
………………Rootwork, Denver, Co: Three: A Taos Press, 2015
Jack Zipes, “The Changing Function of the Fairy Tale’, The Lion and the Unicorn, Vo. 12. No. 2 (Dec. 1988), pp, 7-31
…………“What Makes a Repulsive Frog So Appealing: Memetics and Fairy Tales” Journal of Folklore Research”, Vol. 45. No. 2 (May –Aug., 2008), pp.109-143
…………“The Meaning of Fairy Tale within the Evolution of Culture,” Marvels & Tales. Vol. 25. No. 2 pp. 221-243
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