by KRISTINA BOWERS and DONALD FERGUSON
Cassie Donish, The Year of the Femme (University of Iowa Press, 2019), pp. 92.
“What would it mean for the subject to desire something other than its continued “social existence”? If such an existence cannot be undone without falling into some kind of death, can existence nevertheless be risked, death courted or pursued, in order to expose and open to transformation the hold of social power on the conditions of life’s persistence?”
“She had been a gloomy boy.”
The twin epigraphs introducing Cassie Donish’s The Year of the Femme are signposts, simultaneously warning and welcoming the reader. The first, a compact progression of questions posed by Judith Butler that set forth the possibility of, and inherent danger in, existing outside of a socially constructed and enforced subjectivity. The second, a short, pithy, single sentence that reads as a preemptive “response” from Virginia Woolf. This collection of poems, published in 2019, is the second from Donish, an award winning poet, writer, and instructor at the University of Missouri. Along with these collections, Donish has produced numerous prose pieces, individual poems, and a nonfiction book. Donish’s collection explores the negative space that exists between these quotations by simultaneously and disjointedly questioning and answering, imagining and enacting, dreaming and existing in and around Butler’s “social existence(s).” The collection establishes a seasonal, circular architecture that is both fluid and natural while at the same time compelling the reader to contend with brutal, evocative notions of motion and memory.
With a total of five movements, the work is divided with titles that evoke seasons, weather events, and time of year. The second and fourth sections contain multiple individual poems while the first, third, and fifth are longer – the section titles act as the poem titles. The first movement, titled “Portrait of a Woman, Mid-Fall,” explores the tension between two stances by relying on a strictly gridded, left to right, top to bottom depiction of the feminine spirit. This spirit is self-objectifying, with the speaker constantly referring to herself as “she” rather than “I”. This action gives rise to a voice that stands outside of predictable constraints, be they societal, temporal, or linguistic:
“However, there are various temporal features to consider
A folding inward is a potentiality but one with a time limit
The way the ground rises to meet the bottom of a shoe”
This introduction to the folding inward of time and perspective, followed by the inversion of the traditional view of the autonomy and choice of the body to move itself, rather than the environment shifting to meet the body, prepares the reader for the upcoming movements in the collection that further explore these concepts. The questions the speaker poses to herself are not the weighty, collective questions of Butler, but private, introspective questions asked so often they lose their question marks: “What is it that she wants / Does she want a more assertive lover / Does she want to be a more assertive lover.” This intimate uncertainty is the internal landscape of The Year of the Femme, and the following poems explore this continuously shifting space.
The subsequent movement titled “One Fluid Green Blaze” illustrates Donish’s simultaneous razing and restoring of the reader’s expectations regarding both poetry and identity. Traditional spacing and alignment are broken often enough to force the reader to “[dress] in a gown of peripheries,” increasingly loosening canonical restraints. “Heat Waves,” a slant juxtaposition, reveals the benefit of destroying pre-existing intellectual and societal walls: organic growth. Growth where “The valleys proliferate/Yarrow proliferates/And the white bloom/That appears before/The blackberries…” All of this growth is a result of the “logic just undone.” The logics of gender, of space and time, of existence and death are broken down and reinterpreted. The last poem in this section ends with the speaker and a continuously oscillating mirror, reflecting “…alternately, a figure,/and a reflection of the figure/in another mirror—.” The subject continually recreates itself through the repetition of identity. Where, or what, is the naked core of being, of personhood?
The titular poem that ends this collection is appropriately inconclusive: anything concrete or definitive would undermine the purposeful and natural cyclical nature of the collection. Like the epigraphs, the spirit of the collection exists in the contrast and the negative spaces between the top and bottom half of the poems. Donish juxtaposes continuous moments and memories with discrete, warring abstractions and fragments, exemplifying how poorly our remembered lives cohere with the lives we are leading in the “real” here and now. This continuous reckoning is the tension between twin DNA strands of langauge and identity, and it is the essence of the Femme.