Reviewed by Erin McFarland
Nancy Kuhl’s first poetry collection, The Wife of the Left Hand, details the emergence of the contemporary housewife, as brides-to-be and domestic veterans exist in the midst of literary and historical feminine archetypes. Multiple versions of the feminine suffer in suburbia, vacillating under a taut doctrine of womanhood and the plight of sexual freedom. Pages of chopped verse, clean prose, and found phrases generate a web of naïve concealment, voyeuristic desire, and defiant feminine opposition, stemming from the legacies of Salome, Amelia Earhart, and Saint Catherine. Manifest in themes of love, marriage roles, and betrayal, Kuhl’s poetry warns the modern bride of domestic despair, a living remnant of the feminine martyrs’ curse.
The Wife of the Left Hand asserts its intent from the start, positing the woman as a wavering creature attempting to master the art of housewifery. The first poem, “Almanac,” illustrates the feminine figure: “Everywhere women press the heels of hands to eyes. Swaying and unsteady.” The book’s second poem, “On Summer Street,” positions this unsteady female in the confines of domestication, “the narrative of a house / with its unswerving spine exposed,” revealing a common locale for the poetry yet to come. But even as the first section of Kuhl’s collection progresses, steeped in the context of weddings and dinner parties, The Wife of the Left Hand never fails to breach the stale maxims of desperate housewife mentality. Kuhl introduces Salome midway through the collection’s first section, disrupting the notion of the bride as “utility,” a “synonym for sex” and a being who “aspires to want nothing.”
Salome, a power player in Left Hand’s triumvirate of femininity, conjures the agency necessary to bring Kuhl’s passive narrative of domesticity to an exhibition of feminine prowess. Perhaps a mere historical allusion, but more likely drawing from the motifs and thematic content of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Kuhl’s three-part introductory biography arrives at an immutable yet evolving character. Bathing after a bee sting, “water will not make her / different but her / skin won’t ever / feel like this again.” As a woman, Kuhl’s Salome masks strength in her sexuality, employing an active indifference to the bee’s penetration, as her “arms are strong / as a man’s, powerful as / a swan’s striking neck.” Assuming command in her feminine role, Salome claims to recite her intended lover’s name, presumably John the Baptist, and reveals “midnight,” a recurring time throughout Left Hand, as the moment of wanton desire. Yet images of the window and the moon serve dual roles, asserting Salome’s ability to “lean from the window” in an active fashion, while forcing her to observe, from the limitations of a window, “which moon will rise,” indicating the narrow frame of feminine expression and an ultimate lack of choice. Nevertheless, Kuhl’s biographic, prose-style stanzas roll off the page in confident ease, evoking an element of obtainable, even if tainted, feminine control.
Salome’s thread resumes in the second section, where “Should Salome Apologize” notes her power over the life of John the Baptist. According to Wilde’s play, Salome wills the death of her mystic lover, who, devout in faith, refuses her advances. By her own volition, Salome kisses the severed head. As the poem’s title suggests, Salome wavers between authority and remorse, which “grows round and fat as a plum.” Still, embedded in the poem’s final prose paragraph, Salome retracts her hesitant apology: “I am sorry not sorry. I wanted the man’s mouth on my skin--lips parted, a kiss, an answer.” Yet in section four Kuhl offers a final encounter with Salome that revives the hesitation of her apology, portraying the demise of the strong-willed woman and paralleling Salome’s death in Wilde’s play. “Salome Means Peace Be With You” provides praise for the martyr of feminine rebellion, recalling Salome’s influential existence as “The One Who Burns the Black Ironwood,” while ultimately reminding the reader that her efforts, though admirable, are fleeting:
The tree will burn
and burn, will go slowly, will vanish
to cinder glow. Smoke tree, cloud tree, tree
of forgetfulness, I am not afraid of tongue
hours licking by, of being kissed
in this house where blossoms sick
with fragrance bend almost in half.
When I lay down the crackling
ironwood calls me, calls Swift River Sweet
Voice Hush-Hush, a feverish solution, my old name.
Salome acknowledges that the price of feminine derring-do, premature in a world of male supremacy, results in her own fatality. Images of smoke clouds muddle her presence, erasing her power; this final time, she burns with the ironwoods she once burned herself. Kuhl allows her image to “crackle” with the fire, summoning traces of Salome’s former self with “Voice Hush-Hush,” a solution stripped of agency that translates with ease into the minds of modern brides and housewives alike.
Salome’s apology lives in Left Hand’s discourse of the modern woman, with traces evident in the third section’s “Apology for New Wives.” Ironically, the poem’s brief images provide a disclaimer for any rash behavior, or schemes “luminous as a pearl,” playing with the concept of concealment: “Hidden: flimsy telegrams / and torn-envelope letters, / clear-eyed jewels; all of it / bundled, pushed deep / into a hole in the wall.” As with Salome, this false apology, rooted in the desire for control vis-à-vis a veiled betrayal, remains inconsistent with many of Kuhl’s domestic pieces. Amidst poems dedicated to archetypal feminine heroines, Kuhl summons the rigid code of housewifery, looming over women like a “mandorla.” In a four-part treatise, “Panels: The Dinner Party,” Kuhl provides three clean, brief synopses of the hostess, idle-minded in a world of “open-mouthed irises, blinking / sugar bowl, finger-thin flutes.” Part four, “Study for Searchlight,” conjures imagery from the first three dinner party scenes, toying with the housewife’s suspicions of her husband’s infidelity. Breaking in form, the disjointed pairs of lines, conforming to no pattern of alignment, cast the hostess as a composed, aloof creature of the domestic. Yet she remains “cool as a dime” as Kuhl illustrates her plight: a keen awareness of the “helicopter,” the “starfish pinwheeling,” and the “crossed lines” on her husband’s back from his “raspberry-skinned lover,” all with due silence.
Even “Open House,” a selection from Left Hand’s fourth section, details the “charm” which “leaves the housewives / translucent,” while they “twist in their tea cups / screw slender black heels into plush / carpet. A camera lens turns open / wide and wide to eat more light.” The window, much like the constraints of the camera lens, plays a central role in the life of the housewife. As with Salome, windows offer the woman a restricted perspective, a distorted lens through which she views life outside the domestic microcosm. In the prose poem “Windows,” Kuhl describes windows that “wear whatever light they can grab hold of,” framing “the street from here, the room from there; the panes throw pale streaks toward every corner,” with the power to obscure the woman’s view and harness her independence.
Perhaps, then, Kuhl introduces Amelia Earhart as a primary feminine presence in Left Hand to defy the limitations of the window, transcending the constraints of perception in full flight above the world of man and woman. In “Cursing the Equator,” Amelia discovers the fabrication in the map of housewifery. Outside the window, she travels “numbered crosslines on the map lines / announcing here and not but / she does not consent there are so many / false maps so many liars.” Yet even in her active support for women in male-dominated fields, even in her liberal marriage to George Putnam where she refused to take his last name, Earhart’s attempt at circumnavigation classifies her as a martyr in a world where males triumph: “she saw clouds gathered like skirts baring blood- / less knees, she saw the vast unraveling / night, she saw reflected in the windscreen / her own face, gray and metallic as a gun.” Kuhl illustrates Earhart’s disappearance, obscured with clouds in a Salome-like fashion, evoking the image of a window where she sees her own tragic reflection, a look of death.
Strains of martyrdom continue to haunt Left Hand with Saint Catherine, completing Kuhl’s dynamic force of feminism. The fourth section’s “The Catherine Wheel,” a found poem, splices and integrates pieces of text from the Oxford Dictionary of Saints. In a non-linear fashion, Kuhl crafts the feminine that “triumphed over the philosophers,” dying as she refuses to marry a man she does not love. Uninhibited, Catherine remains steadfast in thought and action, telling the emperor “No, said love despised marriage to the Emperor, is not found in your crooked limbs.”
Kuhl’s passages both encourage domestic sovereignty and acknowledge the burdens placed on the housewife as a result of feminine martyrs. Recurring images of red and the moon occur in instances of betrayed passion, concealed in midnight, annotating moments of sexual desire and a longing for freedom from the husband. Instances of male infidelity spark moments of feminine jealousy, yet this jealousy is not directed at the husband’s lover; rather, the female covets her partner’s sexual freedom and his ability to live outside the world of secrecy. Left Hand’s second section offers “The Ordinary Husband,” detailing the obscured account of a husband’s matter-of-fact affair: “Saffron clouds sag into the yard; it wasn’t accidental and it’s hardly a secret. I know what I heard and the damn voice clings to her hair.” For the housewife, sworn to concealment amidst male exhibition, life provides “Comfort of ritual and no surprises.” Even Kuhl’s “Keys,” a unique selection from the third section, involves a hybrid of recipe, color descriptors, animal imagery, and cityscape that bind the woman into subjected wifehood. A Wives’ Tale returns to the image of red, recounting that “Vinegar will dry / up all your blood (not true).” In a prose section, a woman runs, attempting to dodge divorce papers, “her red blazer flapped behind her like a cape. By block two I was gaining. She wasn’t one of those pumps-in-handbag-gym-shoes-to-work types.” Kuhl reminds the reader that even the resistant feminine, running from the reigns of man, remains ill-suited for survival in the world outside the window.
In the poem that shares its name with the collection’s title, Kuhl demonstrates the curse of the housewife one final time. “The Wife of the Left Hand” reiterates feminine strife in remaining concealed, a voyeur rather than an actor, as fear of death, in the vein of Salome, Earhart, and Saint Catherine, harness all agency. Indeed, the housewife knows desire, even in feigned ignorance: “The body, no / good house, wants what it / wants; does not listen. / Careless breath, all wave / and sky, sneaks / under her eyelid. She / pretends not to hear / the persistent knock / on the screen door.” Indecision plagues the housewife, yet in a final attempt at resistance, the feminine ignores the knock on the door, adhering to her own perceptions. Even in high praise of feminine prowess, the acquisition of that “flawless plum” and “sweet red bite,” Kuhl’s The Wife of the Left Hand serves as a severe warning to women, one-sittings-worth of advice for the modern bride: the feminine must “Keep / even the smallest betrayal / distant as a wild past” in a reality where domesticity thrives.