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On "Sisters"


Annette Kolodny

In many ways, Amy Lowell anticipated the recent feminist critique of Bloomian poetics when, in 1925, she applied his question "For why do men write poems?" to "we women who write poetry":

Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot
We women who write poetry. And when you think
How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.
I wonder what it is that makes us do it.

She explains why there have been so few women poets by noting that women are "mother-creatures, double-bearing, / With matrices in body and in brain." "There is just the reason" for their relative scarcity, she avers, for in the societal trappings of female procreativity, "The strength of forty thousand Atlases / Is needed for our every-day concerns." As to "what . . . makes us do it," in spite of all, she consults a precursor/sisterhood that includes Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson. What she discovers, to her dismay, is "how extraordinarily unlike / Each is to me." "For older sisters are very sobering things," to be sure, but they cannot tell Lowell "which way shall I go" or answer for her "What it is that makes us do it." What her imagined afternoon visit to "these my spiritual relations" offers instead is both a recognition of just how little of that tradition begun by Sappho remains to "tell / The reasons, as she possibly conceived them" and, as a result, a heightened experience of participating in "a strange, isolated little family": "For we are such a little family / Of singing sisters."

The frailty which such an image conjures up denies the need for any Bloomian battle for "breathing space" because, clearly, the speaking voice here--presumably Lowell herself--does not regard Sappho, Browning, or Dickinson as having usurped her poetic possibilities by their priority. And so, in place of the Bloomian combat for psychic survival she can assert a sisterly intimacy:

I understand you all, for in myself--
Is that presumption? Yet indeed it's true—
We are one family.

At the same time, she accepts the inadequacy of that sisterhood to provide either solace or direction:

Good-bye, my sisters, all of you are great,
And all of you are marvellously strange,
And none of you has any word for me.

By thus invoking a female literary history modelled on sisterhood, Lowell not only does away with the Freudian romance of murderous competition; she also renders misprision--that is, the rewriting of the precursor--unnecessary to a dynamic of literary influence. The poem is composed, after all, though it corrects nothing that her precursor/sisters have written. On the darker side of Lowell's constellation, however, stands the tacit admission that sisters, unlike parent/progenitors, are somehow inadequate or insufficient: "And none of you has any word for me." The fact of their priority has helped Lowell ward off her anxious sense of isolation and aberrance, but she credits it neither with nurturing nor engendering her own poetic efforts. And, in the end, the imagined afternoon visit has still failed to answer for her "what it is that makes us do it."

At least in part, "what it is that makes us do it," and what it is women often do when they write, is precisely what Lowell's "The Sisters" is all about; that is, the woman poet's repeated need to assert for herself some validating female tradition and to repossess its voices for her own needs. In the continental United States, at least, this is the stance with which women's poetry begins.

From "The Influence of Anxiety: Prolegomena to a Study of the Production of Poetry by Women." In A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry. Ed. Marie Harris and Kathleen Aguero. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987. Copyright 1987 by University of Georgia Press.


Cheryl Walker

When Lowell wrote her important poem "The Sisters," late in her life, she went back to Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson. In "The Sisters" she certainly acknowledges the positive contribution each of these women made and she also revives them literally in her imagination, enjoying a romp with each, using the social energies that made her such a famous hostess. However, she also writes that they leave her "sad and self-distrustful." It must be said that Lowell, like H. D. and Louise Bogan, among others, was interested in superseding as well as giving acknowledgment to a feminine literary tradition. Furthermore, she associates such a feminine tradition with marginality, ascribing to men the primary authority for poetry. Lowell begins:

Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot
We women who write poetry. And when you think
How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.
I wonder what it is that makes us do it.
Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise,
The fragments of ourselves.

Since Lowell's poem is such an important breakthrough, the first grand attempt by a woman poet in America to situate herself within a feminine literary tradition, "The Sisters" is worth pausing over. From the eighteenth century forward, women have acknowledged the importance of other women poets, but usually their focus has been on a single individual like Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Felicia Hemans.

Here Lowell brings together three strong poets instead of one. She also acknowledges the autobiographical focus of women's poetry when she says that these poets scribble down the fragments of themselves. Of the Lesbian Poet she writes:

Ah me! I wish I could have talked to Sapho,
Surprised her reticences by flinging mine
Into the wind. This tossing off of garments
Which cloud the soul is none too easy doing
With us to-day.

In addition to what may have been Lowell's sense of continuity with Sappho as a lesbian, she also sees both the freedom and the limitations inherent in a poetic mask. For Browning, Lowell has particular sympathy because "her heart was squeezed in stiff conventions," just as Lowell's was at times.

However, Browning's connection with a powerful male poet (which might have helped her scribble down "man-wise" her fragments) leads Amy Lowell into dangerous territory. She imagines Elizabeth deferring to her husband, "for Robert is a genius." This makes Amy uncomfortable and she adds that she doesn't much like "the turn this dream is taking." Yet this dream moment is significant. The daunting presence of male achievement continued to haunt Lowell's imagination throughout her career, rendering her deferential as well as defiant.

Leaving Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lowell imagines an afternoon with Emily Dickinson, which seems to delight her more. (In fact, she began a biography of Dickinson though she never got very far with it.) Despite the fact that her assessment of Dickinson is skewed by the early twentieth-century vision of the Amherst poet as a frustrated spinster, Lowell intuitively grasps the complexity of the earlier poet's demanding psyche.

    I think she'd be exacting,
Without intention, possibly, and ask
A thousand tight-rope tricks of understanding.
But, bless you, I would somersault all day
If by so doing I might stay with her.

Each of these poets excites Lowell’s admiration and respect. However, at the end of "The Sisters," Lowell insists that she will not be restricted by the heritage they represent. Her "answer," she says, will not be any one of theirs. Why did Amy Lowell summon these women poets only to reject the traditions they represent? In the last lines one can actually hear Lowell imperiously hurrying her guests to leave, as she might have done at the end of an evening at Sevenels. "Put on your cloaks, my dears, the motor's waiting." Then, shooing them out the door with assurances that they "have not seemed strange to me, but near, / Frightfully near, and rather terrifying," she breathes a sigh of relief as she wishes them "Good night!"

Clearly, her need to separate herself from these women was complicated. In addition to her ambition to compete with a masculine tradition to which, she perceived, they did not belong, she also found that they made her self-distrustful, wondering as she did after writing the Keats biography if her commitment to invading the masculine sphere was the right one.

However, her desire to distance herself from these women also derives in part from her discomfort with the female roles they represent. Sappho's is the least objectionable. Yet Lowell admits that she knows only "a single slender thing about her"--that she was a lover. The role of the lover, especially the lesbian lover, is one Amy held dear. And, in fact, she may be singling Sappho out for special intimacy: "we two were sisters / Of a strange, isolated family." Yet Lowell wanted to be more than a love poet. She wanted to compete in the intellectual realm, a territory traditionally belonging exclusively to men.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning she sees in the guise of the female invalid, a common figure in the nineteenth century. She pities Browning for being bound by Victorian conventions, yet she admires her "over-topping brain." Then, with typical Lowell perversity, she actually criticizes Browning for being overly intellectual, saying she needed to escape "to freedom and another motherhood / Than that of poems." The love sonnets are the first Browning poems Lowell finds "fertilized" for, she concludes, "A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain." In her demand for balance between heart and head, we can hear the androgynous Amy speaking. Yet she finds Browning in any case "vastly unlike" herself, for the earlier poet was "very, very woman." Did Lowell insist on seeing her this way in order to be able to dismiss an intellectual rival? Did she see herself as also potentially guilty of one-sidedness?

Dickinson, the great experimenter, is the closest to Lowell in many ways, and therefore--as Bloom might predict--she comes in for the harshest reproach. Though Sappho "spent and gained," and Browning, after a miserly youth, "cut the strings / Which tied her money-bags and let them run," Emily

        hoarded--hoarded--only giving
Herself to cold, white paper. Starved and tortured,
She cheated her despair with games of patience
And fooled herself by winning. Frail little elf,
The lonely brain-child of a gaunt maturity,
She hung her womanhood upon a bough
And played ball with the stars--too long--too long--

None of these women fully represents the poet that Lowell wished to be: intellectual but passionate, sensitive to self and others but able to capture, as she praised D. H. Lawrence for doing, "the real throb, and misery and gusto" of life. For Lowell this meant choosing an androgynous persona. The spinster self was a greater liability, despite her capacity to "play ball with the stars," than the tough, manly self whom Lowell had never yet seen represented in a woman poet.

From Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Copyright 1991 by Cheryl Walker.


Betsy Erkkila

The difficulty and complexity of sisterhood as an affirming model of women's literary history is suggested by Amy Lowell's "The Sisters." Against the emphatically masculine genealogies of male modernist poets, "The Sisters" is a revisionary attempt to establish a distinctively female literary genealogy that runs from Sappho, to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to Amy Lowell herself. Representing women poets as an exclusive, rare, and even "queer" group, the poet begins with an act of historical (mis)interpretation that immediately consigns to invisibility the large numbers of women poets who had been writing since at least the end of the eighteenth century, and who were particularly visible in the literary landscape of 1922, the year the poem was published:

Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot
We women who write poetry. And when you think
How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.
I wonder what it is that makes us do it,
Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise,
The fragments of ourselves. Why are we
Already mother-creatures, double-bearing,
With matrices in body and in brain?

The category woman poet and the possibility of literary sisterhood are, from the outset, uncertain and fraught with contradiction. Are women poets "man-wise," and thus like men? Or are they different, with a "double-bearing" power as "already mother-creatures" to produce both poems and children? Or do they represent some other possibility, neither "man-wise" nor "mother-creature," but lesbian, for example? What is at stake in the poem is not only the category "woman poet" as a potential contradiction but the definition of womanhood itself--who does, and who does not, belong. Split between Victorian and modern discourse about the nature of woman, the poem locates itself within early twentieth-century debates about modernity, women's sexuality, the New Woman, and the mannish lesbians

Given the anti-Victorian thematics of the poem, Sappho is--or at least should be--its heroine:

There's Sapho, now I wonder what was Sapho.
I know a single slender thing about her:
That, loving, she was like a burning birch-tree
All tall and glittering fire, and that she wrote
Like the same fire caught up to Heaven and held there,
A frozen blaze before it broke and fell.

Sappho is at the origins of a specifically female lyric tradition and a female desire uninhibited by the traditions of the Church Fathers and the prohibitions of Queen Victoria. Even more importantly, though more covertly in the poem, Sappho represents the beginnings of a tradition of women writing love poems for and about each other; thus she validates Amy Lowell's own lifelong love relationship with Ada Dwyer Russell as subject, audience, and context of many of her poems. The poet's fantasy encounter with Sappho is erotically charged, as the speaker appropriates the traditionally masculine position, and gazes lovingly at her:

                                just to watch
The crisp sea sunshine playing on her hair,
And listen, thinking all the while 'twas she
Who spoke and that we two were sisters
Of a strange, isolated little family.
And she is Sapho--Sapho--not Miss or Mrs.,
A leaping fire we call so for convenience.

Lowell's sexually nuanced bond with Sappho represents a different kind of sisterhood from the more general sisterhood of women poets with which the poem began. As a "strange, isolated little family" of self-identified and woman-loving lesbian poets, this sisterhood underwrites the poet's sense of identity and legitimacy as a lesbian poet even as it becomes the grounds for the exclusion of other women.

This process of exclusion is enacted in the poet's evocation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which begins by drawing "the perfect line" between Sappho and Mrs. Browning, "between sea-cliffs / And a close-shuttered room in Wimpole Street":

Sapho could fly her impulses like bright
Balloons tip-tilting to a morning air
And write about it. Mrs. Browning's heart
Was squeezed in stiff conventions. So she lay
Stretched out upon a sofa, reading Greek
And speculating, as I must suppose,
In just this way on Sapho . . .

In this formulation, Sappho represents the freedom, mobility, and sexual desire associated with the New Woman in early twentieth-century discourse; Browning represents the entrapment, stasis, and bodily repression of the Victorian era. As "an older sister / And not herself so curious a technician / As to admit newfangled modes of writing--," Browning is represented as the very figure of the quaint, old-fashioned, and tradition-bound Victorian poetess from whom Lowell seeks to escape and against whom she seeks to authorize and validate her own identity as an adventurous, experimental, modern woman poet.

Compared with Lowell's loving evocation of Sappho, her representation of Mrs. Browning seems rivalrous, hostile, and at odds with the sisterly context of the poem. This may be because Lowell, as the daughter of a prominent and genteel Boston family, also suffered bouts of nervous prostration and thus knew firsthand the repressiveness of Victorian convention:

For we are such a little family
Of singing sisters, and as if I didn't know
What those years felt like tied down to the sofa.
Confounded Victoria, and the slimy inhibitions
She loosed on all us Anglo-Saxon creatures!

But something more than common oppression is at stake in Lowell's apparent hostility to Browning, for why blame the victim? Or even Victoria for that matter? Browning, in fact, had something that Lowell did not. She is the very model of that "double-bearing" creature--a mother and a poet--that Lowell cannot finally be:

It seems miraculous, but she escaped
To freedom and another motherhood
Than that of poems. She was a very woman
And needed both.

For all Lowell's attempt to escape the inscriptions of Victorian womanhood, the poem still seems embedded in a Victorian sexual ideology that locates womanhood--and indeed woman's sexuality--in reproduction and maternity. If Browning's other "motherhood / Than that of poems" makes her "a very woman"--a phrase Lowell repeats twice in the poem--then by implication Lowell may not be a "woman"; she may indeed be the very image of the sterile, brainy, unwomanly poet--the mannish lesbian--who haunts the subtext of the poem.

In her attempt to find a positive lesbian identification as a poet, Lowell seems particularly hostile to Browning's heterosexuality. "I do not like the turn this dream is taking," Lowell quips, when "Robert" intrudes upon the "doubtful" scene of her encounter with Browning. Moreover, Lowell suggests that Browning's heterosexual love poems to Robert have been "fertilized" and legitimized in ways that, again by implication, her own love poems to Ada are not:

Suppose there hadn't been a Robert Browning,
No "Sonnets from the Portuguese" would have been written.
They are the first of all her poems to be,
One might say, fertilized. For, after all,
A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain
And Mrs. Browning, as I said before,
Was very, very woman. Well, there are two
Of us, and vastly unlike that's for certain.

The speaker not only asserts her difference. She also suggests that even for Mrs. Browning the lesbian position would have been the most effective means of reconciling the potential contradiction of being woman and poet:

                            But Sapho was dead
And I, and others, not yet peeped above
The edge of possibility. So that's an end
To speculating over tea-time talks
Beyond the movement of pentameters
With Mrs. Browning.

But while Lowell seeks to legitimize a line of lesbian poetry that runs from Sappho to herself, she, too, resists giving up being "very woman," a concept which, in the context of the poem at least, cannot finally be loosened from its Victorian inscription as reproduction and maternity.

And thus the poem comes to turn on problems of sterility, unwomanliness, and doubt that cloud even Sappho's radiant image. Although Sappho is associated with the "glittering fire" of passion, it is a "frozen blaze" that "broke and fell"--lines that suggest a sterile passion that expends itself upon itself. More to the point, the lines suggest the legend, first articulated by Ovid, that Sappho abandoned women and writing for the love of Phaon--a love that ended tragically when he rejected her, and she leaped in despair from the Leucadian cliffs. Whatever its precise reference, this "frozen" image appears to make any fully empowering bond with Sappho impossible.

Lowell's imaginary encounter with Emily Dickinson is similarly troubled by images of sterility and unwomanliness. Their meeting seems at first promising--in fact "even better than Sapho"--as the poet encounters Dickinson in the garden "Engrossed in the doing of a humming-bird / Among nasturtiums." Lowell appears to admire Dickinson's intellectual difficulty and her hide-and-seek gaminess:

Sapho would speak, I think, quite openly,
And Mrs. Browning guard a careful silence,
But Emily would set doors ajar and slam them
And love you for your speed of observation.

But as a model of how to resolve the apparent split between woman and poet, Dickinson, too, proves inadequate. If Sappho erred in the direction of too much body and too much passion, and Browning in the direction of heterosexual love, marriage, maternity, and "very" womanhood, Dickinson erred in the direction of too much brain. Having begun in the sentimental mode of nineteenth-century romantic friendship among women, Lowell's evocation ends in the gothic mode, with Dickinson figured as a sterile and fragile Victorian anorexic who gave up "womanhood" for poetry and metaphysics:

But Emily hoarded--hoarded--only giving
Herself to cold, white paper. Starved and tortured,
She cheated her despair with games of patience
And fooled herself by winning. Frail little elf,
The lonely brain-child of a gaunt maturity,
She hung her womanhood upon a bough
And played ball with the stars--too long--too long--
The garment of herself hung on a tree
Until at last she lost even the desire
To take it down.

As a New England sister, Dickinson is in some sense meant to figure a fate that Lowell herself all too narrowly escaped. But for all Lowell's desire to present herself as a "modern" sister in relation to her Victorian predecessors, Lowell's representation of Dickinson is once again embedded in a nineteenth-century sexual discourse that emphasized the natural balance of an essentially maternal female body against the neurasthenia, hysteria, and even insanity caused by overuse of the brain. And within this discourse, Lowell's own "womanhood" is also in question.

Although Lowell continues to insist on the metaphor of sisterhood, by the end of the poem what is most striking is the problem of difference:

Strange trio of my sisters, most diverse,
And how extraordinarily unlike
Each is to me, and which way shall I go?

As it turns out, none of the poet's literary sisters provides an adequate model or direction:

Good-bye, my sisters, all of you are great,
And all of you are marvellously strange,
And none of you has any word for me.
I cannot write like you.

Still preoccupied by the problems of womanliness, maternity, and reproduction, the poet dreams hopefully forward, imagining herself as the progenitor if not of children then of some writing woman who will look back on her as she has looked back on her own literary precursors:

I only hope that possibly some day
Some other woman with an itch for writing
May turn to me as I have turned to you
And chat with me a brief few minutes.

But given Lowell's contradictory and troubled impulses toward her own literary ancestors, even this dream of literary progeny seems inadequate to lift the pall of sadness, fear, and self-doubt that hangs over the final passages of the poem.

Rather than empowering Lowell, her literary sisters leave her feeling "Sad and self-distrustful / For older sisters are very sobering things." For all their seeming strangeness, they are also paradoxically "near / Frightfully near, and rather terrifying" (461). The poet's initial desire to retrieve a distinctively female literary genealogy ends as a drive to exorcise her sisters as a frightening and terrifying presence. And thus what begins as an affirmation of literary sisterhood ends as a cautionary tale about sisterhood as an impossible and ultimately terrifying relation. What the poem suggests finally is that women poets and the concept "woman" itself are so written over and overwritten by the misogynist inscriptions of classical authorities, a "long line of Church Fathers," and the sexual ideologies of the Victorian and early modern periods in England and the United States, that any complete sisterly identification is impossible and, indeed, "rather terrifying."

"Lesbians are not women," Monique Wittig famously and provocatively wrote in her article "The Straight Mind." Her words mark the distance and difference between the Sapphic communities of the early modern period and the theory and politics of lesbianism in the eighties and nineties in the United States, Britain, and France. Whereas in the later period several lesbian theorists would seek to escape the category "woman" and to use their position "outside" as a lever to criticize the heterosexual binary man/woman as a social construct rather than as an ontological given, Amy Lowell appears to have been struggling to stay in the category "woman" at a time when early modern discourse on the mannish lesbian was telling her that lesbians were indeed "not women." She appears to have been looking for a way to be woman, man-wise, mother-creature, sexual, lesbian, and poet at a time when the only choices available to her were man, woman, or pervert.

From The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. Copyright 1992 by Oxford UP.


"Very,Very Women: The Erotic and the Poetic in Amy Lowell's 'The Sisters'"
by John Marsh

Near the end of Amy Lowell's, "The Sisters," the narrator offers to explain Emily Dickinson's "despair," her "[s]tarved and tortured" life, and her failure to give herself to anything-or anyone--except "cold, white paper":

                                        ...Frail little elf,
The lonely brain-child of a gaunt maturity,
She hung her womanhood upon a bough
And played ball with the stars-too long-too long-
The garment of herself hung on a tree
        Until at last she lost even the desire
        To take it down. Whose fault? Why let us say,
        To be consistent, Queen Victoria's.
        But really, not to over-rate the queen,
        I feel obliged to mention Martin Luther.... (152-161)

I start with this passage for two reasons. First, it reasserts the poem's preoccupation with and regret for what we might call the Cartesian split between mind and the body, especially how this split has affected women poets from the 18th Century forward. Dickinson has, for "too long--too long," sacrificed her "womanhood" for an overly intellectual, unnecessarily isolated chasing after the ideal. She is "a lonely-brain-child" playing tether-ball with her own abstracted thoughts until she loses even the desire for the possibility of erotic desire, "the garment of herself." Second, the passage suggests in its inquiries about the cause of Dickinson's lost desire the shift in tone from censure and regret to something more playful, less absolutely serious.

I'll return to the issue of the role of the erotic and the poetic below, but what is most surprising about Lowell's poem (at least to this reader) is its discursiveness, its playful chattiness. "The Sisters" as a poem seems far away from the sharper, more condensed poetics associated with orthodox Imagism as promulgated in Pound's ABC of Reading and figured, most famously, in his "In a Station of the Metro." These images remain in "Sisters"-"Sapho could fly her impulses like bright/ Balloons tip-tilting to a morning air"-but they are intermixed amongst passages of self-reflection and a witty self-consciousness noticeably absent from much of Lowell's other poetry, especially the minutely rendered "The Weather-Cock Points South" or "Madonna of the Evening Flowers." Thus we could read the above lines on Martin Luther as genuinely accusatory, as desirous of indicting Luther equally with "Confounded Victoria, and all the slimy inhibitions/ She loosed on all us Anglo-Saxon creatures" (86-87) and condemning the whole lot to hell. We have equal warrant, though, for reading these denunciations as imbued with some irony. As though the narrator had transcended "all the slimy inhibitions" and no one-least of all the narrator-takes or should take these inhibitions or the queen or the Church Fathers at all seriously; they are only to be regretted, like misguided, though indiscriminately destructive, children from history. I find it difficult to talk about tone, but perhaps it's enough to compare Lowell's poem with Emile Zola's "J'accuse" or (a poem from the same year as "The Sisters") Claude McKay's "Mulatto." Lowell's speaker does not share the same sense of outrage against the excesses of unjust persons or an unjust system. In other words, there are ways to poetically cue anger and bitterness, and "Why let us say, to be consistent" is not one of them.

This discursiveness and self-conscious playfulness prevents me from reading the poem with as much gloominess and doubt (for Lowell) about the status of a feminine poetic tradition as do Annette Kolodny, Cheryl Walker, and Betsy Erkkila. And since my own reading of "The Sisters" works counter to so much of what Kolodny, Walker, and Erkkila argue, it may help to summarize their readings. Nevertheless, I should disclose at the outset of this discussion that I leave the poem with an almost opposite reaction to Kolodny, et al. The narrator of "Sisters," far from anxious about the imagined failures of a feminine poetics, is so confident of her poetic abilities and her sexuality that she can playfully entertain, praise, damn by faint praise, knowingly critique, and yet still find solidarity with her predecessors.

Kolodny reads the poem as an expression of "the woman poet's need to assert for herself some validating female tradition and to repossess its voices for her own needs." She recognizes Lowell's narrator's ambivalence to this female poetic tradition and its voices, arguing that it "has helped Lowell ward off her anxious sense of isolation and aberrance, but she credits it neither with nurturing nor engendering her own poetic efforts." Similarly, Betsy Erkkila takes "The Sisters" as Lowell's ultimate alienation from the models of both womanhood and woman's poetry represented by, in turn, Sapho, Browning, and Dickinson. "What the poem suggests finally is that women poets and the concept 'woman' itself are so written over and overwritten by the misogynist inscriptions of classical authorities, 'a long line of Church Fathers,' and the sexual ideologies of the Victorian and early modern periods in England and the United States, that any complete sisterly identification is impossible and, indeed, 'rather terrifying.'" Erkkila is right to argue that the speaker has no complete sisterly identification with her predecessors; however, her claim that Lowell and the poem as a whole rejects the concept of womanhood imports a feminist critique that Lowell's poem does not have much interest in making. Similarly, Kolodny's reading does well to point to the speaker's ambivalence and ultimate solidarity, but it underestimates what the narrator has learned from her poetic tradition and its (sometimes flawed) voices, what this tradition has nurtured and engendered--that is, a lesson about the enervating split between the erotic and the transcendent.
Further, such theses leave out what is especially rewarding and provocative about the poem, namely, its articulation of the relation between womanhood and poetic production.

Since both Cheryl Walker and Erkkila address the following passage, it might be useful to start a reading there. Imagining Elizabeth-not Ba-Browning supine on a couch, the speaker writes:

So Mrs. Browning, aloof and delicate,
Lay still upon her sofa, all her strength
Going to uphold her over-topping brain.
It seems miraculous, but she escaped
To freedom and another motherhood
Than that of poems. She was a very woman
And needed both. (53-59)

Walker wants to read this sequence as evidence of Lowell's distance from Browning; in other words, since the speaker later admits that she is "vastly unlike" Browning, so too must she be vastly unlike that which makes Browning "a very woman." Erkkila reads this passage from a similarly pessimistic perspective: "For all Lowell's attempts to escape the inscriptions of Victorian womanhood, the poem still seems embedded in a Victorian sexual ideology that locates womanhood-and indeed woman's sexuality--in reproduction and maternity. If Browning's other 'motherhood/ Than that of poems" makes her "a very woman..." then by implication Lowell may not be a "woman"; she may indeed be the very image of the sterile, brainy, unwomanly poet--the mannish lesbian--who haunts the subtext of the poem."

Both Walker and Erkilla, though, too narrowly read what Lowell means by "a very woman" and "another motherhood": it is not (or not exclusively) reproduction and maternity. Most pregnant teenage girls can tell you that motherhood was not the irresistible impulse for sex; rather, it is that "The huge, imperious need of loving..." that, in Browning's case, was "crushed / within the body" and "squeezed under stiff conventions" before she "escaped to freedom" (43). Sapho, given her sexuality, was not likely to share Browning's "motherhood," but she could share her "womanhood," since Sapho did not have a Confounded Queen or a Martin Luther to chafe her poetry or the expression of her sexuality. Indeed, Lowell's speaker "knows a single slender thing about her:/ That, loving, she was like a burning birch tree/ All tall and glittering fire, and that she wrote/ Like the same fire caught up to Heaven and held there,/ A frozen blaze before it broke and fell" (14-18). In other words, that Sapho was a very woman, because she was a very lover, and because she was a very woman and a very lover, she is, for Lowell, a very poet.

The narrator of Lowell's poem, then, does not reject that which makes Browning or Sapho a "very woman," erotic involvement with another person-indeed, this eroticism is the point of their congruence and solidarity, poetically and as women. Neither does Lowell's "The Sisters" normalize womanhood as motherhood or heterosexuality. That Browning's eroticism is directed towards a man while Sapho's towards a woman seems less important than its mere existence and what it can offer to the production of poetry. . (If the narrator resists anything about Browning, it is not her eroticism or womanhood but her metrical conservatism: Browning is too orthodox a technician "As to admit newfangled modes of writing..." (72), newfangled modes in which Lowell no doubt imagines her own poetry to work.) Who gets left out of this after-school erotic club, then, is, alas, poor Emily Dickinson. Although the narrator admires Dickinson's leaps of poetic imagination and should think her time "with Emily" is "'even better than Sapho," Dickinson ultimately disappoints since, drawing on the metaphor of eroticism as capital,

Sapho spent and gained; and Mrs. Browning,
After a miser girlhood, cut the strings
Which tied her money bags and let them run;
But Emily hoarded-hoarded-only giving
Herself to cold, white paper.... (146-150)

Dickinson fails as a poetic model for Lowell's narrator since she capitulates to her status as victimized subject of Victorian discourses on women's sexuality. (Dickinson does not fail as a formal model for Lowell's narrator, though; note Lowell's playful use of dashes in "Emily hoarded--hoarded" and the only previous use of a dash, in the line quoted above about Browing's skepticism about "newfangled modes of writing--") For the purposes of "The Sisters," Dickinson was not a very woman: too
much poetry, too much playing ball with the stars, and too little tossing off of garments. (Or, we might add, the Dickinson available to Lowell in 1925, which was partial and highly mediated in terms of selection. Presumably, Lowell's overly prude Dickinson is not the Dickinson of "Wild Nights--wild nights--.")

Thus I'm inclined to read "The Sisters" as following Whitman in its attempts to revitalize and celebrate the place of the body and the erotic as the basis for the production of poetry. "Strange trio of my sisters..and which way shall I go?" Her answer is implies in lines on Elizabeth Browning:

Suppose there hadn't been a Robert Browning,
No "Sonnets from the Portuguese" would have been written.
They are the first of all her poems to be,
One might say, fertilized. For, after all,
A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain
And Mrs. Browning, as I said before,
Was very, very woman.

We can ask whether the metaphor "fertilization" implicitly re-inscribes poetry as "man-wise," but the weight of the poem, both intellectually and politically, seems finally to rest with something closer to an affirmation of the erotic, specifically for and sometimes towards women. "The Sisters" wants to recognize an equality of erotics-whether lesbian or heterosexual, reproductive or not--as a prerequisite for poetic production and, indeed, for womanhood. (Formally, the poem enacts a similar poetic politics, with its move away from the stylized and cold imagist poetics to a more chatty, playful, and intimate voice.) Whether it be Sapho with her lovers, Ba with Robert, such erotic involvement produces more "fertile" poetry. "A poet," the speaker reminds us, "is flesh and blood as well as brain" (91).

Admittedly, such a formulation seems unfair to Dickinson and anyone (including this reader) who might not think that erotic involvement is the sine qua non of meaningful poetry. Similarly, Michel Foucault has persuasively argued that the discourse of liberation from Victorian sexual conventions actually constructs the sexual subject as much as it frees it from those conventions. A Foucauldian might also object to what appears in the poem to be the all too facile equation of the self with sexuality, particularly in the narrator's denunciation of Dickinson's "lost garment of herself." Nevertheless, such an assertion on the part of Lowell for the equality and necessity of the erotic does meaningful political work towards legitimating female sexuality and homosexuality at a time when neither, despite our collective fantasies of the liberated 20s, were generously perceived. Further, I hope a reading that privileges the universality of the erotic--as sometimes happens with critics of Whitman's (homo)eroticism--doesn't also have to obscure or closet the specifics of the homoerotic. I don't think that need be the case: it certainly isn't, I would argue, for Lowell in "The Sisters."

Copyright 2001 by John Marsh.


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