"Danger and Beauty" by Jessica Hagedorn -review by Jennifer Curry
"Danger and Beauty"
by Jessica Hagedorn
229 pp City Lights Books
N. Y. 2002
In the Arms of a Demon Lover
by Jennifer Curry
Noted academic Patricia J. Williams wrote of her sincere belief that, using our creative powers, we can envision a new structure for society, freeing ourselves from the "habit of human imagination, deflective rhetoric, and hidden license" that sustain racism. Poet Jessica Hagedorn--who came of age in 1970's San Francisco--has rooted her art in the prevailing philosophies of the time. Her collection of 33 years of work, "Danger and Beauty," tilts at rebellion against race and gender oppression, but lacks the vision that Williams calls for and is mired in the constructs defined by the establishment.
Hagedorn states her attachment to identity politics in the introduction, declaring herself an "artist of color" in the second paragraph. During the 1970's, identity politics served to bring special attention to the needs of particular communities and assisted in the demise of melting pot ideologies. Today feminists have confronted the obvious theoretical limitations of identity politics. In her assessment of feminism at the turn of the century, Critical Condition, Susan Gubar asks,"How can any one individual--with all the eccentricity life affords each human being--possibly represent a group so heterogeneous as, say, African-American women or Asian-American men, when even these composite categories hide multifaceted variants?" Ultimate freedom from the fetters of racial and gender constructs lies in our ability to imagine new models--not to simply respond to current ones. According to feminist Diane Elam, in some instances "identity politics promote the very stereotyping and tokenism that they allegedly fight against by trying to solve complex problems by merely invoking oversimplified labels." The limitations that identity politics can place on a discourse become more glaringly apparent when applied to the subtleties of poetry. Hagedorn invests so much of her energy in trying to encompass the Filipino experience that we are rarely allowed a glance at her experience as an individual. The vision fails on both ends; she creates neither adequate breadth nor emotive depth. For example in "Song for My Father," the poet spends most of the poem recounting the general atmosphere of her visit to the Philippines instead of delving into the cultural and emotional tensions: "roaches fly around us/ like bats in twilight/ and barry white grunts/ in fashionable discotheques/ setting the pace/ for guerillas to grind."
There probably is room within any cannon for a technically and emotionally apt art that has been informed by nuanced identity politics. Frida Kahlo could arguably be pointed to as an example. Kahlo, however, unlike Hagedorn, attacked the patriarchal foundation of both the dominant racial philosophy and the subculture. Hagedorn uses a feminist rhetoric to translate (though surely unconsciously) the patriarchal underpinnings of the culture her identity is planted in. It seems shortsighted to create conceptual divisions between people that also further andocentric mythos simply because it comes from the mother tongue. Maybe this is why Hagedorn's early style consists of mostly two-dimensional imagery and cultural markers layered in list upon list, as in "Filipino Boogie": "Is this San Francisco?/ Is this San Francisco?/ Is this Amerika?/ buy me Nestle's Crunch/ buy me Pepsi in a can/ Ladies' Home Journal/ and Bonanza/ I seen Little Joe in Tokyo/ I seen Little Joe in Manila/ I seen Laramie in Hong Kong/ I seen Yul Brynner in San Diego/ and the bloated ghost/ of Desi Arnaz/ dancing/ in Tijuana." She offers the second half of a conversation, a response to the question posed by the white patriarchy.
Granted, Hagedorn came of age in a time when identity politics were first emerging, and it is always easier to criticize a philosophical approach after academia has had time to digest it--but shouldn't longevity factor into the measure of good philosophy and art? It doesn't seem as if Hagedorn was trying to speak beyond the immediate community of which she hoped to be a part. The dynamic of the community isn't explained through the personae presented; whatever humanity could have drawn the outsider into the discussion is lost. Many of these poems consist of lists of people, events and places that only evoke emotional response from someone who understands the context. Though regionalism has it's place, any assessment of Hagedorn's work is greatly influenced by where the reader stands on the importance of universality.
While identity politics are a likely influence in any feminist work from the time period, the presence of what feminist Robin Morgan termed the politics of Thanatos is unnerving. The andocentric mythological tradition--common across cultures--has birthed an aesthetic vision closely linking violence and sexuality, romanticizing the destruction of women. In The Demon Lover, Robin Morgan outlines the dynamic that created this mythology: "If she can give life, then he will give death. But much as he can conquer her, possess her, own her, kill her--he cannot become her. He has made of his power what the Greeks termed thanatos, what the Buddhists call mara: the force of hostility, the magneticism of death."
According to Morgan, the politics of Thanatos effect an obsession with the theme of ravishment: "As rape, as possession, as a ticket out of the state of consciousness, as an obliteration of the self--the theme of ravishment saturates phallocentric world art, literature, culture. It is the Demon Lover who stalks in beauty, like our nightmares."
Violent and sensual imagery are intertwined throughout Hagedorn's work. "Souvenirs" jumps from a colonialist raping Hagedorn's grandmother to the sensual, sexual imagery of women giggling "from behind handpainted/ pink ivory fans/ scented with jasmine." In "The Leopard,"a poem that embodies the danger and beauty suggested in the title, the narrator reclines--a hapless victim--into the arms of her predator: "you slip a hand/ into my dress/ tenderly fondling/ each breast/ as if/ i didn't know/ about those claws/ pulled back/ inside the fur." Hagedorn places her narrator in the same position that the male cannon has always forced her--prone, vulnerable, and aching for violation. In later work, Hagedorn seems more aware of the legacy she is passing on to her daughter: "a heritage/ of women in heat/ and men/ skilled in betrayal/ dancing to the song/ of bullets."
This awareness reflects the changing attitudes of feminist philosophy. Her earlier works were more clearly influenced by the aesthetics of Thanatos, which, as Morgan points out, deems "stately, tragic, or perverse"material profound. It is truly discouraging, however, that, while Hagedorn attempts to play representative of the Filipino experience, she spends so much time recapitulating patriarchal mythos dressed in the accouterments of another culture. Further evidence that participation in identity politics may only serve to reinforce pre-existing structures.
Even the cover image indicates how blind rebellion has influenced Hagedorn's aesthetic. A cold, white statue of the virginal, pious woman is set off only by only the florid red lipstick painted on her once milky white face. Hagedorn is still playing within the Madonna/whore dichotomy established in the male literary cannon. Even 19th-century women writers, who couldn't publish in their own name for fear of reprisal, strained more against the confines of the masculine aesthetic than this poet does. The women who populate Danger and Beauty--"tubercular sparrows/ with bony throats and sooty lashes"--are more limp than Charlotte Bronte's crazed rebellion rattling at her cage door in the attic of the male establishment.