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 â€“
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
though I pull my hand away
once she’s found it.
I can’t be around a woman
I say, I was mistreated.
She says, A cup of tea?
I say, I can’t start a thing
describe the kind
of thing I’d startâ€¦.
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
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 â€“ identity, sexuality, time, loss â€“ 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
into every pore
of a pillow.
Even his new green
the open roads
could not make him
feel at easeâ€¦.
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 dizzyâ€¦”
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 â€“ 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:
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
but then I wake,
from which it seems
has been dripping,
turned down low
on the bed
which has something
to do with dying.
If only the world
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,
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 â€“ 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
on his cheeks,
scruffy with romance.
I was thinking
of something different,
I guess â€“
as if the body
What is it that the heart
does not want
to attend to?â€¦
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 â€“
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
Right now, somewhere, you are forgetting me.
My God, I’m vanishing!
Am I dead?
Not quite â€“ 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.
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 ownâ€¦.
slipping my arms
into their sleeves
every pore of my face
in their chests
When I have
of the one I choose
before the tall mirror.
I love to see
if I have changed,
if I’m less worried.
I’m so lucky
I have found
It is the only one
I could have found.
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.