Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “Eve Recollecting the Garden,”
by Grace Bauer

A long tradition associates the action of naming things with that of writing poetry, an interesting subtext here. “Poet” is from the Greek word for “maker,” and in the best poems the poet is like God, creating a world. In this context I like to remember a line by Roethke, something to the effect of “I say bird, and lo, it flies.” Look at how that idea is restated in these lines from today’s poem:

[You whispered]   .    .    .   Lion

and something roared beneath
the ribs you claimed

you’d sacrificed.

The Judeo-Christian God created the world with his words; he spoke to part darkness from light, sea from land, and earth from sky. Likewise, when we think of something, it exists—consider the phrase “to conceive an idea”—and we birth it into the world by naming it; that is, saying it aloud or writing it down. In the poem, Eve sets the record straight about who gave names to—and so helped to create—the creatures of the world. Adam’s been taking all the credit, but it was she who perfected his “knack for naming.” At minimum, Eve was Adam’s brilliant editor, Gordon Lish to his Raymond Carver. Much of the poem focuses on this wonderful, magical naming process that also serves the dramatic purpose of setting up the poem’s central conflict: Eve versus Adam, or woman versus man. Words generate life, but they also are the source of the “first quarrel” and a wedge between Adam and Eve.

Let’s look for a moment at how the poem moves. It opens with a question, a reliable device for drawing readers into the action of a poem because it sets up suspense that most readers will want to see resolved. The question, posed directly to Adam, also sets up the conversational tone. “Nakedness” goes a long way toward establishing that intimacy, and at this point Eve seems very positively disposed towards Adam indeed; she has “learned to love” him for his physical attractiveness as well as for his sensitivity and facility with words. His power is alluring: he speaks and evokes animals that live and move and are gorgeous. In an amusing feminist twist, Adam’s way with words is ultimately a testimony to another woman’s—Bauer’s—own naming and language skills. This poem is mimetic in the best sense of the word, actually doing the thing it describes: the poet is the one who actually finds the best names before putting them into Eve’s mouth; the poet chooses words that make the reader taste that bee-sweetness and feel that lion-rage.

Adam is able to evoke a strong response in Eve—the “lion” roaring in her chest—and here is where we see the first indication of conflict, developed further in “the ribs you claimed / you’d sacrificed.” Eve is saying something subversive here: not just that she was not made from Adam’s rib, but also that he has lied about it to indebt her to him, that is, to have her in his power. Those few words conjure the human history of gender oppression, and they remind Eve of the darker aspects of her shining Adam. She recalls their “first quarrel” over what to name the creatures we now know as “dogs” and “orchids.” “First” quarrel suggests there have been other quarrels. And will be more, a prediction proved by where the poem goes next, into an actual argument.

Again using direct address, Eve gives Adam a tongue-lashing in the exclamatory injunctive “Admit it!” and ramps it up to outright accuse Adam of purloining names she had conceived, “syllables you stole.” In her view of history, it was the naming activity that led directly to the temptation of the tree of knowledge, and it was Adam, not she, who was responsible for eating that apple, the debacle leading to original sin. We can feel Eve getting more exercised as the poem progresses. She is tired of taking the rap for the fall of humankind, and you can hear her exasperation in that expletive “godforsaken” in the poem’s last line. That word, by the way, works on at least two levels: as a curse word, and also literally to describe a tree that God has turned away from.

In this feminist revision of traditional Old Testament theology, it is Eve who comes out on top. She is the one who is better at naming, and she is the only one who actually says anything in the present tense of the poem. All we hear from Adam is recounted dialogue; that is, what Eve tells us he said, in past tense. Adam’s “knack for naming” sounds like a compliment, but doesn’t the word “knack” rather trivialize the act of creation represented in the naming process? Eve is the real talent here, and she would never have made the inelegant mistake of calling dogs “dogs” or orchids “orchids.” Adam comes off as the weaker of the two, needing to take false credit for Eve’s existence and also needing to blame her for everything wrong in the world. Eve, in contrast, is confident, strong, able to stand up to Adam and call him out.

I want to close here with the words of Alicia Ostriker, written in praise of Grace Bauer’s last book, but really on point for today’s poem:

If you are a reader of contemporary poetry, you will have encountered midrash, whether or not you recognize what it is you are reading. A term with numerous branches of meaning, and with a three-thousand-year history, midrash has come down to our time as the questioning and re-telling of biblical tales in ways that speak to audiences in their own terms. Midrash is the imagination at work on the most basic narratives we have, keeping them alive.   .   .   . Bauer gives voices, personalities, and motivations to women whose voices have been silenced and forgotten and denied. She gives these women their own bodies, their own histories, showing us how much they resemble us and we resemble them.

Bauer’s characters are so believable that we inevitably accept the spins she puts on them. And because of this, we are led to a genuinely fresh understanding of faith and doubt.

—Alicia Suskin Ostriker,
author of For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book and The Book of Seventy

 

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  • Kelly Cherry January 20, 2018 at 10:57 am

    Beautiful.

    Reply