Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Not Enough Pronouns

Some more thoughts about "universality" in art and entertainment, which I wrote about last week.

Look at this excerpt from the poem "Cats Like Angels" by Marge Piercy, from her book The Moon Is Always Female (Knopf, 1980):
           When I was a girl
I loved spiny men with ascetic grimaces 
all elbows and words and cartilage
ribbed like cast up fog-grey hulls,
faces to cut the eyes blind
on the glittering blade, chins
of Aegean prows bent on piracy.

Now I look for men whose easy bellies
show a love for the flesh and the table,
men who will come in the kitchen
and sit, who don't think peeling potatoes
makes their penis shrink; men with broad 
fingers and purple figgy balls, 
men with rumpled furrows and the slightly
messed look at ease of beds recently
well used.
Now, like most good poetry this is both concretely specific and figuratively general.  The concrete details signify and symbolize.  The poet is a mostly heterosexual woman (though with considerable homosexual history, especially when she was a teenager), married to a man, fourteen or fifteen years my senior, Jewish by ancestry and by observance.  I'm a homosexual man, uncoupled, gentile by ancestry and atheist by choice and the grace of God.  (Joke.)  What we have in common is mainly our working-class backgrounds and that we interact erotically with males.  People who claim to prize "universality" in art, like the interviewer and singers I wrote about last week, would perhaps fault Piercy for using too many nouns instead of comfortably unspecific pronouns: she is explicit that she is a woman, and that her loves have been men, and only certain men at that, though the types have changed over the years.

Yet I recognize a lot of my experience in this poem.  I also liked those lean hungry-looking boys when I was young, and with age I've come to appreciate the different beauty of men with comfortable bellies.  I still like looking at lean men, and wouldn't turn one down if the opportunity arises, though I have come to believe it possible to be too thin; though it's also possible to be too fat, I've come to be more interested in heavier-set men.  Piercy's change of heart as described in the poem is too simple to describe my life exactly, but I wouldn't be surprised if she too lets her eye rest pleasantly, from time to time, on lean angelic boys.  But I return to "Cats Like Angels" regularly over the decades.  It sums up a general change in the way I relate to men; it may even have subtly encouraged that change.

What about lesbians?  Could they relate to this poem?  Maybe: maybe they once liked slender girls but came to relish women of girth and cushioning.  Heterosexual men?  They might enjoy Piercy's lesson that we don't have to look like fourteen-year-old boys forever.  Or not.  Other heterosexual women might disagree with Piercy's tastes in men, but like all of the rest of us, they might be intrigued by an account of someone who is different from them in this respect -- which is part of the work of art and entertainment, just as identifying and recognizing sameness is.   No work can be all things to all people, but gassy indistinctness and lack of specificity won't fix that.  A lot of the problem of "universality" is in the eye of the beholder, whether he or she is willing to find similarities and appreciate the differences.