Poetry Sunday: “Bitch,” by Carolyn Kizer



Now, when he and I meet, after all these years,
I say to the bitch inside me, don’t start growling.
He isn’t a trespasser anymore,
Just an old acquaintance tipping his hat.
My voice says, “Nice to see you,”
As the bitch starts to bark hysterically.
He isn’t an enemy now,
Where are your manners, I say, as I say,
“How are the children? They must be growing up.”
At a kind word from him, a look like the old days,
The bitch changes her tone; she begins to whimper.
She wants to snuggle up to him, to cringe.
Down, girl! Keep your distance
Or I’ll give you a taste of the choke-chain.
“Fine, I’m just fine,” I tell him.
She slobbers and grovels.
After all, I am her mistress. She is basically loyal.
It’s just that she remembers how she came running
Each evening, when she heard his step;
How she lay at his feet and looked up adoringly
Though he was absorbed in his paper;
Or, bored with her devotion, ordered her to the kitchen
Until he was ready to play.
But the small careless kindnesses
When he’d had a good day, or a couple of drinks,
Come back to her now, seem more important
Than the casual cruelties, the ultimate dismissal.
“It’s nice to know you are doing so well,” I say.
He couldn’t have taken you with him;
You were too demonstrative, too clumsy,
Not like the well-groomed pets of his new friends.
“Give my regards to your wife,” I say. You gag
As I drag you off by the scruff,
Saying, “Goodbye! Goodbye! Nice to have seen you again.”


From Mermaids in the Basement. Copyright © 1984 by Carolyn Kizer. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Copper Canyon Press, and available for order at that website.



Poet, essayist, and translator Carolyn Kizer was born in 1925 in Spokane, Washington. From her early poems in The Ungrateful Garden (1961) to the Pulitzer-Prize winning Yin: New Poems (1984) to such later works as Pro Femina (2000), which satirizes liberated women writers by mimicking the hexameter used by the ancient misogynist poet Juvenal and her retrospective Calm, Cool, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000 (2001), Kizer’s work has received acclaim for its intellectual rigor, formal mastery, and willingness to engage with political realities. Allan Jalon, writing for the Los Angeles Times, described Kizer as “tough without being cold, sometimes satirical,” and noted that “her work expresses a worldly largeness that repeatedly focuses on the points at which lives meet. ‘That’s my subject,’” concluded Kizer in their interview. “No matter how brief an encounter you have with anybody, you both change.”

Kizer earned a BA from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945, did graduate work at both Columbia University and the University of Washington, and during the mid-1950s, studied under Theodore Roethke. In 1964, she went to Pakistan as a US State Department specialist and taught at the distinguished Kinnaird College for Women. Kizer was the first director of literary programs for the then-newly created National Endowment for the Arts in 1966, a position she held until 1970. In addition to teaching and lecturing nationwide, she translated poetry from various languages, including Urdu, Chinese, and Japanese poetry.

Kizer’s experience as a woman and poet in the male-dominated world of 1950s America has shaped her work in countless ways. In the early years of her career, male poets and critics tended to undermine so-called “female poetry,” and Roethke even composed a list of common complaints made against it, such as a lack of sense of humor, narrow subject matter, lamenting the lot of women, and refusing to face up to existence. In Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States since 1950, Richard Howard maintains that Kizer overcame these criticisms, saying: “She does not fear—indeed she wants—to do all the things Roethke says women are blamed for, and indeed I think she does do them. . . . But doing them or not, being determined to do them makes her a different kind of poet from the one who [merely] manages to avoid the traps of his [sic] condition.”

Kizer’s essays and criticism have been gathered in several volumes, including Proses: Essays on Poems and Poets (1994) and Picking and Choosing (1995). She edited a number of anthologies and coedited American Poetry: The Twentieth Century (2000). Her numerous honors and awards include the Frost Medal, the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Award, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and service as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She divided her time between California and Paris before her death in 2014. [Note: Most of this biography is taken verbatim from www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/carolyn-kizer]



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