Linda A. Kinnahan: On "To Elsie"

. . . A poem that takes as its subject the very dynamics of representation it enacts, it turns essentialized conventions of the feminine inside out by situating them within material frameworks of power involving sex, race, and class. A poem also about the imagination, it ties a cultural diminishment of imaginative potential to the workings of masculine systems of control and desire marking the female body. The poem's first nine stanzas describe the "pure products" of America, the "peasant" class of workers and "mountain folk" who live "desolate" lives because their imaginations have been severed from "peasant traditions to give them / character." Escape from deprived conditions occurs through gender-specific means; the men can take to "railroading / out of sheer lust of adventure," their mobility assured by their sex, their "lust" assuring their mobility. The women may only escape through the stasis of sexual surrender, and the "young slatterns," in "succumbing / without emotion" to the conventions of male desire, face their submission through "numb terror / . . . which they cannot express. " The women are defined (as sluts) and silenced through the operations of male desire, or more precisely, when the mechanisms of male desire are enabled , through the severance of the "imagination, " through the rigidification of habits of thought rooted in male supremacy.

Elsie embodies both the result of this system and the potential to disrupt or break it. Recalling the feminized cross-culturization of Jacataqua as well as the old Carib woman who resists Ponce de Leon, Elsie is a product of a "marriage / perhaps / with a dash of Indian blood." Yet she is also "hemmed round," closed in by the conditions the poem has described in terms of gender and class. Her movement to better circumstances, financially speaking, retains much of the old, for as a young woman she remains "hemmed round" by the male-identified institutions that continue to define her: the agent who rescues her, the state who rears her, the suburban doctor who employs her—the "us" about whom Elsie's "broken / brain" expresses the "truth." Against these sanctuaries of public authority, this "us," the poem suddenly insists upon Elsie's body, the "voluptuous water," the hips and breasts; moreover, in a significant doubling back upon itself, the poem goes on to alert us to the process of reading the female body within the contexts of masculine power that the poem both describes and joins. The poem begins to deconstruct itself, its own representation and objectification of the female body linked to the hierarchies of state, class, and gender that "read" and "re-present" women in our culture:

. . . some Elsie— 

voluptuous water 

expressing with broken

brain the truth about us— 

her great 

ungainly hips and flopping breasts 

addressed to cheap 

jewelry 

and rich young men with fine eyes                                          (218)

The hips and breasts, "addressed" like a written text to the male gaze or the "fine eyes" of men, also undergo the objectifying gaze of the poet who here defines the female body according to cultural standards of beauty, male systems of desire. But even as we are told that her hips are "ungainly" and her breasts "flopping," the poem confronts us with the mechanism underlying definitions of the feminine, metonymically signified by the "fine eyes" of rich men. The devil-may-care men, the agent, the state, the doctor, the poet all join in creating this bodily text of "woman." The repressed, oppressed body, however, is a site for exposing this process, the "truth about us" that is revealed in how we "read" our culturally sanctioned texts of convention and meaning; the textualization of the female body, performed by the fine eyes of men and the representational gestures of the poem, is underscored by hierarchies of gender, class, and race that shape a reading of the female body and, furthermore, is self-consciously linked to a lack of imagination—a lack that "seems to destroy us." The objectification and suppression of the female body is contextualized within a denigration of earth and nature, a binarism necessary to perpetuate such hierarchy. Elsie's body is submitted to the male gaze

as if the earth under our feet 

were 

an excrement of some sky 

and we degraded prisoners 

destined 

to hunger until we eat filth 

while the imagination strains 

after deer 

going by fields of goldenrod in 

the stifling heat of September 

Somehow 

it seems to destroy us                          (218-19)

The "imagination " here is not liberating for it is not transformational; it is the imagination without peasant character, the imagination of the "plagiarists" earlier criticized in Spring and All. This imagination labors and strains after desired but absent forms of beauty rather than generating itself through contact with the material world; it reads itself through convention and habit of thought, the "stifling heat of September," longing for a pastoral or illusory vision of the world—deer in fields of golden rod. This seems a pretty poetic image precisely because we are taught that such subjects and images are "poetic." Here, the poetic privileging of tradition (suggested by the pastoral vision) is part of what denigrates Elsie and what seems "to destroy us."

Thus, in contrast with the young women who "cannot express" the sexual terror engendered by male authority, Elsie expresses "with broken / brain the truth about us." More precisely, the speaker's recognition of linked systems of power that inscribe, represent, and "hem round" the female body unfolds in the act of his own participation, through his inscription and representation of Elsie. The poem problematizes the act of representation and its place and power within a (masculinely authored) poetic tradition yearning after deer in goldenrod; or within a middle-class suburb where the exotic and voluptuous racially mixed woman represents an objectified sexuality of otherness to the "rich young men with fine eyes." The poem identifies itself as a "hemming round" of the female Elsie while seeking the "broken" expression she embodies and that conventions exclude. The final lines of the poem recall this expression, a brokenness that reveals "isolate flecks":

It is only in isolate flecks that something 

is given off 

No one to witness 

and adjust, no one to drive the car                                              (219)

This final stanza revises, in a sense, the earlier poem "The Young Housewife," which associates the car's power with a poetic mastery that destroys (through erecting metaphoric boundaries) the poem's subject (see Chapter 1). The car image in "To Elsie" recalls the railroading men of the first stanzas and stands as an emblem of male power and mobility, enabled in part by female submission and terrified silence. Here, though, there is no adjustment, no control of the car's movement; significantly, it is not that there is "no one to witness," but that there is no one to witness and adjust when the "driver" opens to the imagination's broken, isolate flecks. The labor of this process, a painful relinquishment of authority on various levels of language, culture, and epistemological habit, is a movement in and out of the "filth" that one discourse perceives and the deer that the plagiarizing imagination desires: "Somehow I it seems to destroy us." The poem itself moves in and out—Williams witnessing and adjusting, while realizing the "broken" truth and the "isolate flecks" such adjustment (or the habit of thought encouraging this adjustment) diminishes. Elsie is both diminished (by one reading of Williams's description of her) and stands free from diminishment through the deconstructive act the poem suggests, leaving us to strain after the isolate flecks, the traces, the feminine betweenness that the dominant text ("the rich young men with fine eyes"; Williams himself) overwrites. The poem is painful in its desolation over the loss of authority to "drive the car," yet by these final lines it has held this desire up for self-implicating inspection.

From Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Linda A. Kinnahan: On "To Elsie" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Linda A. Kinnahan Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser
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