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Patricia Hampl says, “Autobiographical writing is bedeviled,” and she is right. The struggle to translate lived experience into art is not unique to memoirists, however; it is the resident challenge of all writers who dip their cups into personal wells. Perhaps it is simply the resident challenge of all writers.
This month, A Midsummer Night’s Press & Sinister Wisdom joined literary forces to re-release Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Crime Against Nature, the Lamont Award-winning poetry collection, as a Sapphic Classic. In addition to the original assemblage of Pratt’s poems, this new edition includes an introduction by poet and Sinister Wisdom editor Julie R. Enszer, a transcript of Pratt’s acceptance speech at the Lamont Ceremony in 1989, and a contemporary afterword by Pratt titled “A Lesbian Mother Continues to Answer the Questions.”
What I admire most about the enhanced version of this book is the way Pratt and her editors (re)present Crime Against Nature as a vibrant, evolving work. The best art is never static, and as a consequence, the best art is never masterable either, even by its own creator. There is always more to the story, behind it and beneath it and around it, so in the spirit of ongoing inquiry and challenge, this volume places Crime Against Nature in relation to feminist history, in relation to Pratt’s personal history as a poet, lesbian, and mother, and in relation to all of us as readers caught in the larger constellations of literary and political flux.
Julie Enszer provides the initial historical context for Pratt’s poetry collection in her introduction:
Crime Against Nature is one of the most powerful collections of lyrical narrative poetry to emerge from the United States Women’s Liberation Movement in the twentieth century. Crime Against Nature explores the experiences of poet Minnie Bruce Pratt when she lost custody of her children in the 1970s because she was open about her lesbian identity. First published in 1989 by Firebrand Press, Crime Against Nature won the Lamont prize from the Academy of American Poets—one of the most prestigious prizes in American poetry. This, then, is the triumphal narrative of the collection: Pratt the poet survived and rendered sublime poems that received national acclaim and recognition.
In thinking of the “bedevilment” that often attends autobiographical writing, I am especially attuned to Enszer’s last observation here: that Pratt was able to render (such a lovely, active verb!) “sublime poems” wrought from a painful, personal struggle. That is, in creating Crime Against Nature, Pratt the Poet was able to translate the experiences of Pratt the Woman, Pratt the Mother, and Pratt the Lesbian into a cohesive and compelling work of literary art. How is this done? What can we learn from Pratt about the role of craft in writing that is aptly termed both “personal” and “political”?
In an essay titled “The Semiotics of Sex” (Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, 1995), Jeanette Winterson self-identifies as a lesbian and a writer and goes on to make the following provocative and potentially incendiary claim:
The Queer world has colluded in the misreading of art as sexuality. Art is difference, but not necessarily sexual difference, and while to be outside the mainstream of imposed choice is likely to make someone more conscious, it does not automatically make that someone an artist. A great deal of gay writing […] is therapy, is release, is not art. It is its subject matter and no more and I hope by now that I have convinced my readers […] that all art, including literature, is much more than its subject matter.
Later, in the same essay, she states:
Art must resist autobiography if it hopes to cross boundaries of class, culture…and…sexuality. Literature is not a lecture delivered to a special interest group, it is a force that unites its audience. The sub-groups are broken down.
When I first read this essay many years ago, I (mis)interpreted Winterson to mean that in order to “resist autobiography,” we must disguise ourselves, hide our personal histories inside fictional characters. But think what would be lost if the word “my” were removed from Pratt’s poetic invocation, “Poem for My Sons”? There is such power in the intimacy of her autobiographical message, in her harnessing of that most personal, maternal voice:
When you were born, all the poets I knew
were men […]
Your father was then
the poet I’d ceased to be when I got married.
It’s taken me years to write this to you.
So why isn’t this poem simply a letter, an artifact Pratt might have mailed to Ransom and Ben, speaking only as the mother she is and not the poet?
One answer is the way Pratt moves at once to place her personal story within the larger frame of history. She probes the larger story of poetry as a male-dominated genre:
Coleridge at midnight,
Yeats’ prayer that his daughter lack opinions,
his son be high and mighty, think and act.
In this way, the poem is personal and more-than-personal at the same time. Pratt’s life experience is her own, but the page allows this experience to function as a metonym—to stand in for more than her own. The pluraling of the isolated self is “a force that unites [the] audience.” We may not all be mothers, we may not all be women, but as readers, we feel for and with our speaker as if we were:
When you were born, my first, what I thought was
milk: my breasts sore, engorged, but not enough
when you woke. With you, my youngest, I did not
think: my head unraised for three days, mind-dead
from waist-down anesthetic labor, saddle
block, no walking either.
How do I know this is not merely a letter to Pratt’s sons? Another answer is the power of the imagery, the deliberate nature of the enjambments. We are told as writers to “show, not tell.” In our personal—that is to say, our uncrafted—correspondences, we mostly tell. We say what we think and name what we feel in simple, expository prose. By contrast, Pratt crafts her recollection of birthing each of her sons so that we as readers inhabit with her for a moment that body “engorged,” that head “mind-dead.” How different this is than the declarative sentence, “Giving birth to you was hard.”
Surely there is something therapeutic about these poems. I hope Minnie Bruce Pratt experienced some of the “therapy,” some of the “release,” that Winterson describes in her essay. We know that Pratt
wanted what had happened
to be a wall to burn, a window to smash.
At my fist the pieces would sparkle and fall.
All would be changed. I would not be alone.
Instead I have told my story over and over
at parties, on the edge of meetings, my life
clenched in my fist, my eyes brittle as glass.
In this poem called “Justice, Come Down,” I hear Pratt the Poet translating what Pratt the Mother and Lesbian endured as “people turned their faces away/ from the woman ranting.” But the poem itself is not a rant. The poem itself is not a mere re-telling of Pratt’s story but a literary re-inhabiting of it. Pratt’s poetry exceeds its subject matter and unites its audience through the vehement specificity of the diction, the viscerally engaging personification of otherwise abstract emotions:
grief still sits
and waits, grim, numb, keeping company with
anger. I can smell my anger like sulfur-
Jeanette Winterson writes, “How each artist learns to translate autobiography into art is a problem that each artist solves for themselves.” Pratt is a woman, a mother, a lesbian, and a poet; in all of these roles, she is nothing if not a problem-solver.
Sometimes I think Pratt’s greatest strength in reconciling lived experience with artistic enterprise is through her mobilization of meta-discourse, as in one of my favorite poems, “All the Women Caught in Flaring Light.”
First, Pratt the Poet places me in scene the way a painter would:
A grey day, drenched, humid, the sun-
flowers bowed with rain.
Then, Pratt the Poet acknowledges her identity as a poet, the challenges she faces in making a poem:
I walk aimless
to think about this poem.
Later in the same poem, Pratt the Poet connects her poet-self with other facets of her identity and in turn unites herself with others, including the reader, all of us likewise complex and multi-faceted, familiar with sorrow and capable of empathy:
I often think of a poem as a door that opens
into a room where I want to go. But to go in
here is to enter where my own suffering exists
as an almost unheard low note in the music,
amplified, almost unbearable, by the presence
of us all, reverberant pain, circular, endless
No easy ending to this pain. At midnight we go home
to silent houses, or perhaps to clamorous rooms full
of those who are now our family. Perhaps we sit alone,
heavy with the past, and there are tears running bitter
and steady as rain in the night. Mostly we just go on.
Pratt does not speak solely for herself, and yet she cannot speak decisively for everyone else either. She can only speculate and “possibilize” on their behalf, as an artist does. In particular, Pratt unites her audience by incorporating the plural first-person pronouns of “our” and “we.” Again and again, she reminds us: the poem is not her story only, but a rendering of many, collective truths. The struggle she articulates is both “individual” and “doctrinal.” The crime for which the book is named is a crime we all share, at least metaphorically:
the crime of moving back and forth
between more than one self, more than one end to the story.
Crime Against Nature
By Minnie Bruce Pratt
Sapphic Classics from A Midsummer Night’s Press & Sinister Wisdom
Paperback, 9781938334047, 144 pp.