Poetry Sunday: “Bitch,” by Carolyn Kizer

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

There’s a lot to admire in this week’s poem with its free-verse variable-length lines organized into one stanza, but in these comments I’ll discuss just my favorite elements: the use of humor to intensify the emotional punch, the use of dialogue to capture the poem’s backstory and further its action, the complexly nuanced tonal modulation, and finally, the brilliant manipulation of point of view.

The poem makes us laugh when we read it, but like all the best laughter, it comes with a gut punch. The idea of having an inner bitch who gets to unreservedly express our feelings towards an ex—well, that is funny. But also painful. The word “bitch” carries with it a social stigma we feel the second we read the poem’s title. Additionally, a lot of what the inner bitch does is not attractive, embarrassing, and not the way nice women are supposed to behave. The gap between what the speaker wants to say and what she actually says out loud carves out an ironic, painful, funny, and very cathartic liminal space.

Most of the poem consists of dialogue; of its 34 lines, at least half are spoken, either aloud by the speaker to her ex, or internally, by two characters: the bitch in her barking, whining, etc., and the speaker in response to her inner bitch. Through this dialogue, we come to apprehend details of the speaker’s painful and failed relationship with her ex, a subject never easy to relate and always posing the risk of tipping into melodrama or self-pity. Use of dialogue to convey the details of the ex’s indifference, dismissiveness, and ultimate betrayal artfully avoids those pitfalls here. I am always encouraging students to communicate details through action or dialogue, and this poem is a testament to the efficacy of that practice.

On its surface, “Bitch” describes the speaker’s chance meeting with her ex and recounts the banalities of their casual conversation, submerged like opera recitative beneath an inner, much more important and interesting conversation the speaker is having with herself. When actually talking to her ex, the speaker’s mouth is moving and sounds come out, but the words are essentially trivial, meaningless, and insincere. The truth of the poem resides in its inner dialogue between two aspects of the speaker’s personality: her out-of-control inner “bitch” and the admonishing voice of reason who keeps that bitch on a short leash.

The range and modulation of tone in this poem are just remarkable. Remember that tone is the expression (some people call this the angle) of a person’s attitude towards their subject. My theory is that the speaker in this poem registers threeparallel voices and tone, each one corresponding to aspects of the self that Freud would call id (the inner bitch), ego (the rational inside voice reacting to the dog), and superego (the false exterior voice that maintains social politesse).

Let’s look for a moment at the three dialogue streams in the poem: what the speaker says out loud to her ex, what the inner bitch “says” (also internal in response to seeing the ex), and what the speaker says internally in response to her inner bitch.

What the speaker says out loud to her ex

“Nice to see you,” [line 5]
“How are the children? They must be growing up.” [line 9]
“Fine, I’m just fine,” [line 15]
“It’s nice to know you are doing so well,” [line 28]
“Give my regards to your wife,” [line 32]
“Goodbye! Goodbye! Nice to have seen you again.” [line 34]

As mentioned above, this is surface conversation observing social niceties, essentially empty and insincere, and the tone is the same throughout: brittle, controlled, bright, and superficial.

Now let’s examine what that inner bitch says, only to the speaker because the ex cannot hear her.

What the inner bitch says to the ex

[Implicitly growls at the beginning—line 2]
the bitch starts to bark hysterically. [line 6]
The bitch changes her tone; she begins to whimper. [line 11]
She wants to snuggle up to him, to cringe. [line 12]
She slobbers and grovels. [line 16] [the speaker is disgusted]
[Says the bitch, referred to as you]: You gag [line 32]
As I drag you off by the scruff, [line 33]

The dog’s tone—her angle of attitude toward the ex—is one of vigilance (incipient growling) followed by panic (hysterical barking), abject fear (whimpering), longing (wants to snuggle), outright debasement (cringes, slobbers, and grovels), and finally, disgust when she gags. Taken together, these lines seem almost to encapsulate and recap the emotional backstory of what the speaker endured during her marriage, summed up in “the casual cruelties, the ultimate dismissal” (line 27). And like all of us upon encountering our exes, the speaker cycles through those feelings again, actually and painfully reliving them in the encounter.

The dog’s final tonal register is expressed when she “gags.” Notice how that line break proliferates meaning; the inner bitch is gagging first from disgust at her mistress’s sycophancy and then in the next line we see that, no, she is literallygagging on the choke-chain wielded by her mistress. When I first read that line, though, I assumed the gagging is the dog having had enough of her mistress’s pandering to her ex, and I further see it as the moment when the three aspects of self finally converge. That is, the dog gags at the same time that the self-reflective ego, after hearing her outside voice asking after the ex’s “new wife and children,” likewise gags, likewise fed up with the pandering to the ex. This is also the moment when the superficial superego decides to terminate the conversation. The scene captures an experience that feels universal. I’ve found myself more than once exchanging social pleasantries with someone who’s wronged me, someone I’d really rather slug or at least verbally resect, cell by cell—haven’t you?

Finally, let’s have a look at what the speaker’s ego, or most rational self, says to her id or “inner bitch” in the poem:

What the speaker says to her inner “bitch”

don’t start growling. [line 2]
He isn’t a trespasser anymore, [line 3]
He’s just an old acquaintance tipping his hat. [line 4]
Where are your manners, [line 8]
Down, girl! Keep your distance [line 13]
He couldn’t have taken you with him; [line 18]
You were too demonstrative, too clumsy, [line 30]
Not like the well-groomed pets of his new friends. [line 31]
“Goodbye! Goodbye! Nice to have seen you again.” [line 34]

The tone here begins as apprehensive and admonishing but modulates in the last four instances above from apologist (“He couldn’t have taken you with him’) to critical (“you were too demonstrative”). Remember that when the speaker is being critical towards the inner bitch, readers, she is actually criticizing herself. After feeling bad about having been too “demonstrative” during her marriage with her husband, the speaker’s ego rallies, and her tone sharpens into sarcasm directed at the ex (“Not like the well-groomed pets of his new friends”).

The poem’s very last line, “Goodbye! Goodbye! Nice to have seen you again,” is spoken out loud to the speaker’s ex, but I think it can be read also as a more genuine statement of fare-thee-well from the speaker to her inner bitch. We get the sense that although she’s struggled to control her id, the speaker is not altogether sorry about having seen her out and about again. In any event, it is the speaker who prevails at the end, winding up in charge, both of herself and of the conversation. Notice that the ex has not been given even a single line of dialogue in this poem— and that it is the speaker’s best self, the ego mediating between sycophancy with the ex and hysterical barking at him, who terminates the encounter.

Point of view is an important tool in allowing the author to express these many nuances of tonal register. On the surface, the poem is recounted in first person (“I”), but the speaker also expresses an aspect of herself in third person when she refers to her id as “the bitch” and “she” for most of the poem. At line 29, though, there is a change when the speaker begins to refer to her inner bitch in the second-person “you.” This change communicates closer identification and intimacy, a softening that allows the speaker to let up a bit on her inner restraints. That, in turn, permits a franker expression of rage towards her ex in the form of sarcasm in line 31. “Not like the well-groomed pets of his new friends” is the speaker’s most direct expression of rage; all the others are nonverbal and have been put into the mouth of the dog. It’s a zinger line that, although not spoken aloud, allows the speaker to, in this painfully universal encounter, have the proverbial and very satisfying (even if unspoken) last word.

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