book Among Women

reviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 47 ~ April, 2001

What does it mean to be among women? As an insider, or as an outsider?
By necessity or by choice? Does being among women mean being in
community, or being alone? Jason Shinder’s new poetry collection
approaches these questions obliquely. Although his language is simple,
his answers aren’t.

I had heard some of these poems before, at faculty readings at the
Bennington Writing Seminars, of which I am an alumna. In the interest
of honesty, I should disclose that Jason was one of my advisors there.
He is a tremendous teacher and a kind man. This has bearing on his
book of poems only in the sense that, when one reads a book this good,
one wants to imagine that one would like the writer if one knew him in
real life. I’m here to tell you: you would.

Among Women coheres, like Donald Hall’s Without or Marie
Howe’s What the Living Do. This is a book about love and
loneliness, identity and loss. Despite the lofty topics, there’s
nothing bombastic or overblown about these poems. In fact, it may be
the disjunction between quiet voice and intense subject matter which
makes this book hit so hard.

The first poem is a long one, but it sets up the book so well that I
am quoting most of it here:

The One Secret That Has Carried

     Irene loves a man

          who is afraid of sex –

               she’s attended

     to everything,

          said it was okay,

               held me until I slept.

     She says, Why don’t you just

          not think about it?

          But I want to know

     every sensation,

          nothing untouched,

          though I pull my hand away

     once she’s found it.

          I can’t be around a woman

          too long,

     too much.

          I say, I was mistreated.

          She says, A cup of tea?

     I say, I can’t start a thing

          and then

          describe the kind

     of thing I’d start….

     Later, I leave a note:

          Sorry for the difficulties.

          Meaning: how come

     you don’t leave?

          I’ve never told this story.

          Even at the moment

     of dying,

          I would say

          it was someone else’s.

The poem’s shape and structure, common to most of the poems in
this book, serve to emphasize its restrained voice and pace. As a
result, what might be sensationalized in someone else’s hands
becomes a measured recitation. “Irene loves a man/ who is afraid
of sex.” Who has the chutzpah to begin a poem (hell, begin a
book) with those lines and segue immediately into the first person?

The last five lines may be the best part of this poem. The near-denial
calls the narrator’s reliability into question and raises
questions about who, exactly, speaks these words.

I have been schooled not to confuse narrator with author. Poems can be
written in personas; I know this. If Eminem writes racist or
misogynist rap, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is racist or
misogynist. If I write a poem in which I kill someone, that
doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a murderer.

That being said, I have trouble reading Among Women as a collection of
persona poems. Some part of me thinks these poems couldn’t be so
startling, so honest, if this were merely a voice. Does that mean I
think everything in every line is literally true of Jason Shinder? No,
of course not. But I suspect the central issues that make the book
resonate – identity, sexuality, time, loss – are ones with
which he has himself engaged.

“My father worked/ behind a counter/ of meats// in a
delicatessen,” begins “My Father’s House,”
early in the first section of Among Women. Reading these lines reminds
me of the poem “Marriage,” from Shinder’s first
collection (Every Room We Ever Slept In, The Sheep Meadow Press,
1993). “The woman I marry/ will walk into my father’s
delicatessen,/ buy the same tuna and cheese sandwich/ she’s
bought since 1975,” Shinder wrote then. The father was
peripheral in that poem; he is central in this one. He is described
lying down and pressing

          â€¦his face

               into every pore

     of a pillow.

          Even his new green

               four-door sedan

     drifting above

          the open roads

               could not make him

     feel at ease….

The four-door sedan is referenced as holding promise of happiness,
which feels postwar to me, early1950s, when people still believed in
the combination of technology and the open road. The father’s
depression echoes in the poem’s quiet melancholy.

“He taught me/ to work// without knowing/ I was working,”
Shinder writes. The line echoes one of his favorite sayings, which I
suspect any of his students could quote: “Whatever gets in the
way of the work is the work.” Work, in both his aphorism and
this poem, is something one continues no matter what, even if one must
fool oneself into continuing. There is a description (cigarette, open
shirt, boots), although it’s intentionally unclear whether son
or father is being described. The poem ends with a declaration:
“I only appeared/ to be Among Women./ I was already his.”

The poems feed into each other. From this line about being among
women, we move directly to “Among Men,” which begins
“Even at the moment/ of kissing a girl/ because// I was a boy/
there was always/ another boy// looking to see.” In the image of
the other boy looking to see how long the kiss would last, of the boys
asking each other if they’d “gotten any,” Shinder
has captured what I remember hating about adolescent sexuality.
There’s a tinge of sexual uncertainty here, too: “kissing
a girl/ because// I was a boy” suggests the kiss is motivated
out of obligation, not genuine desire. The poem ends with his father
asking, “Why don’t you/ just get laid?” The next
poem is “Getting Laid.” In this way the book moves us from
one poem to another, seamlessly.

Shinder’s mantra about what gets in the way of the work came to
me again when I reached “What Gets in the Way of Love is
Love.” This is another poem almost brutal in its
matter-of-factness. “Irene was on her knees,/ filling her mouth/
with my penis// when I turned my head/ and became dizzy…”
Reading these poems I resemble the proverbial passer-by slowing down
to gawk at a car accident. Reading such sexual poems is frightening,
but I can’t turn away.

Although the father is clearly a critical figure, the mother gets her
moment of fame in “My Mother’s House,” which begins
“My mother sat/ by the window/ waiting// for my father/ to
return.” Her silent anticipation reminds me of Shinder’s
narrator, the way he seems to be waiting – for his father, for
love, for something that would prove who he isn’t or is.

In the longstanding Jewish tradition that stretches from Sholom
Aleichem to Hal Sirowitz, the poems in Among Women are sad and funny
at the same time:

Growing Up

     The trouble with me

          is I don’t know

          if my penis

     is too small

          and I don’t know

          who to ask.

     Sometimes, for days,

          I don’t think

          about it

     but then I wake,

          T-shirt ripped

          from which it seems

     the sea

          has been dripping,

          wool blanket

     turned down low

          on the bed

          which has something

     to do with dying.

          If only the world

          were blind.

     If only

          my fingers

          would fall off.

     Something can be done?

          I asked Doctor Goldstein,

          his left hand

     round the bottom

          of my balls

          when I coughed.

     Why don’t you

          save your money,

          he said.

Like Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman stories, like Singer’s
“The Spinoza on Market Street,” like Sirowitz’s
Mother Said poems, in this poem humor and melancholy inform each
other. The beginning is funny; by the time we reach “If only/ my
fingers/ would fall off” the humor has a poignancy and an edge,
and by the ending the poem seems only as funny as it is sad.

The doctor’s exhortation at the end of the poem echoes the
father’s Why don’t you just get laid? I love the way the
poems double back on themselves this way. There is a repetition of
phrases and images: taking out two drinking glasses, talking to
oneself before a mirror. Again and again we see blouses unbuttoned,
shirts torn and opened, suggesting a ribcage peeled back to reveal
what’s inside. Here’s what I love: despite the fact that I
am not Jason Shinder, am not a man, do not share the experiences his
narrative voice presents – reading Among Women feels like my own
ribcage being opened.

Towards the end of the book Shinder has placed the poem “Another
Man,” which begins:

     I am afraid to look

          at the beauty

          in a man’s face

     whiskers collecting

          on his cheeks,

          scruffy with romance.

     I was thinking

          of something different,

          I guess –

     as if the body

          were single-jointed.

          What is it that the heart

     does not want

          to attend to?…

This is the book’s first overt recognition of the possibility of
queerness, although the anxiety of impotence and the narrator’s
simultaneous distance from, and kinship with, women suggest a subtext
of gender and sexuality from the first poem’s first stanza. I
love the transition from the line about the body being single-jointed
to the question about the heart. If the body is not single-jointed,
can it bend in both directions? Can the heart also love both ways?

Although this is the first poem to mention male beauty, the rest of
the book holds hints. In “Madness Frequently Discovers
Itself,” Shinder gives us these lines:

     I hate him because

          to say he is mad is to say

          his troubles are not

     like mine. I find others

          like me, hands in pockets,

          walking into the movie theater,

     their voices softening

          with a faint melody

          as the houselights go

     off-white to yellow, black –

          all of us partners

          against the bright world.

“Others/ like me.” What does it mean to be other, to be
like? The dark movie theater makes me think of Delmore
Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” of
the analyst’s couch where stories are replayed; “hands in
pockets” has a hint of naughtiness, a hint of sex.

Of course, Among Women doesn’t focus only on sex. The specter of
loss is implicit throughout, like a note played so low it can be felt
but not heard. The last few poems speak more directly about loss and

The Future

     Right now, somewhere, you are forgetting me.

     My God, I’m vanishing!

     Am I dead?

     Not quite – but undesired.

     What was it I was that should be remembered?

To be forgotten is to die; the idea’s at least as old as
Shakespeare, but somehow Shinder has made it new. He suggests that
memory is a form of desire, that being desired keeps one real or

Soon after “The Future” comes “Man Dying.” In
the middle of that short poem is the couplet, “Something can be
done, always? I ask/ folding every shirt.” An echo of the
question he asks the doctor at the end of “Growing Up.”
What makes these poems so heart-breaking is the implication that
nothing can be done; what makes them so hopeful is that, despite the
inevitability of loss and death, they have still been written.

Shirts, this time on hangers, play a large role in the book’s
next poem, one of my favorites in the collection.

Man Dressing

     When I am dressing

          I sit a long time

          looking at my shirts.

     I do not know

          which one will be

          the one I choose

     but I see each one

          has taken a style

          of its own….


     slipping my arms


          into their sleeves

     I unbutton

          the buttons

          and press

     every pore of my face

          in their chests

          and sometimes


          their armpits.

          When I have

     stepped inside

          of the one I choose

          I stand

     before the tall mirror.

          I love to see

          if I have changed,

     if I’m less worried.

          I’m so lucky

          I have found

     the one.

          It is the only one

          I could have found.

     I am

          the only one

          who could have found it.

Again, every pore of a face is pressed here into cloth. Again, someone
is chosen, although this time Shinder seems to be choosing a persona
rather than a lover. (Still, the sexualized wording “inside/ of
the one I choose” can’t be accidental.) Pressing his face
into the armpits of his shirts reads to me as erotic, blurring the
line between self-love and love of someone else.

This poem can be read in half a dozen different ways. Is it about
finding romance, about coming out, about psychoanalysis, about
self-acceptance, etc.? To me, that ambiguity is one of its strengths.
What’s clear to me in the poem is that it reflects a
transformation. The only man who whom this voice has let himself
belong, until this point in the book, is his father. “Man
Dressing” seems to be establishing that Shinder, or his speaker,
is finally his own.

Among Women is one of the most beautiful books I have read in recent
memory. I want to say I drank it like water, although water is an
ordinary liquid and this book is not ordinary. Then again, water is

These poems have a truth that transcends questions of poet vs.
narrator. They are unsettling and sharp and strong. I am reminded of
Without and What the Living Do not only because of how each book fits
within itself, but also because Among Women shares with those two
volumes a feeling both of loss and of overcoming. I feel like these
poems tell me something that I already knew but had forgotten,
something that I am supposed to know.

account_box More About

Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at