Friday, October 26, 2007

Two poems about breasts

Jill McDonough needs a thicker skin and a perkier attitude, as she seems way too concerned with the fact that men like breasts, and worse, seem are going to remain men after all the social revolutions that have wasted our time in the last five decades. "Breasts Like Martinis", the current selection in Slate, would have us believe the girls are going along with the joke in an sexist terrain and manage to best the best efforts of the men who seek to demean them, but it all seems like a set up. A network TV drama couldn't be more black and white; someone is right, women, and someone is wrong, men. This is a fill-in-the-blanks formulation.I wonder why she and her partner were in that bar to begin with, and why didn't just leave the place which was giving them the creeps? McDonough remained and just leaned into the punch she saw coming, and goes home with her girlfriend in order to write a poem about the thin layers of her issues with men and their fascination/obsession with women's mammaries. There's nothing "tits up" about this poem.

In a discussion on Slate's Fray Poems forum,someone who was not enamored of McDonough's poem posted what she considered a "good" poem about a man's relationship to a woman's breasts, Stephen Dunn's queasy "The Routine Things Around the House":

When Mother died
I thought: now I’ll have a death poem.
That was unforgivable.

Yet I’ve since forgiven myself
as sons are able to do
who’ve been loved by their mothers.

I stared into the coffin
knowing how long she’d live,
how many lifetimes there are

in the sweet revisions of memory.
It’s hard to know exactly
how we ease ourselves back from sadness,

but I remembered when I was twelve,
1951, before the world
unbuttoned its blouse.

I had asked my mother (I was trembling)
if I could see her breasts
and she took me into her room

without embarrassment or coyness
and I stared at them,
afraid to ask for more.

Now, years later, someone tells me
Cancers who’ve never had mother love
are doomed and I, a Cancer

feel blessed again. What luck
to have had a mother
who showed me her breasts

when girls my age were developing
their separate countries,
what luck

she didn’t doom me
with too much or too little.
Had I asked to touch,

perhaps to suck them
what would she have done?
Mother, dead woman

who I think permits me
to love women easily
this poem

is dedicated to where
we stopped, to the incompleteness
that was sufficient

and to how you buttoned up,
began doing the routine things
around the house.

I'm underwhelmed.Stephen Dunn is a good poet quite a bit of the time, and it's a stretch to say he's done some writing that is quite exquisite. This is not one of them; it's not enough to assert that one must admire how unembarrassed he is to address his childhood curiosity about his mother's breasts, and hence furnish us with clues to his later ideas about women. This poem stinks , since it's written to argue a point, a rationalization of what one puts forth as an invisible truth about men and their mothers. It's an essay, a loose-limbed formulation , a dubious dialectic. It leaves what is interesting, the actual experience and the paradigm shifting potential it can give us, and turns into a lecture. It's hard, I suppose, for males to confront their mother's influence on their personality
in a voice that doesn't approach the smarmy, the smug.Dunn's poem was a queasy bit of lecturing disguised as unadorned honesty; it reeks of an odious smugness. I assume that he wrote the poem because it is impossible to attack; no one in the world really wants to talk to another about times they were in the same room with their naked mom. It's a gutsy poem, and a bad one. Maybe he wrote it on a dare.


  1. i love this poem.

    its humorous and interesting.

  2. I assume you mean the poem I linked to by Jill McDonough. It is funny in a condensed , ranty kind of way. The Dunn, of course, is more problematic.

  3. Interesting. Oh, you want me to say something smart. I was rather disgusted with the thought of any child well over nursing age wanting to suck on their mother's breasts.

    I thought the image of the poets mother exposing her bare breasts in this way repulsive. It smacks of bad parenting, and reminds me of how my own mother used to walk around without her shirt as a quick way to get my teenage brothers to put their own shirts on. That worked wonders by the way. No normal teenage boy wants to see their mother walk around in a bra. I'm sure Frued would have a field day with this poem.

    1. Anonymous10:52 PM PDT

      This poem is beautiful, truthful, and raw. The things he has written here are probably the most humanistic and egalitarian rhetoric used by a man in a poem about women's breasts.


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