If I Am Burning
by Rachel Marie Patterson
Main Street Rag Publishing, $10.00 paperback, 32 pp.
Rachel Marie Patterson’s debut collection comes to us in the form of a chapbook: If I Am Burning. And what a remarkable collection it is. In 16 poems, Patterson explores the confines of femininity in American culture. In the beginning poem, “I Am the Match,” the speaker states: “What blinks / below my skin I’ve never seen, but I think / it’s harmless.” And later, “I’m not anything you ought to want, / or anyone—still, I’m the electric fence / you keep touching.” If the woman is fire, then she is bad news. Of course, this poem could ring true for either gender, but because this book is filled with women who must keep a man’s obsessions silent or who are lobotomized because they don’t fit an ideal, then the woman of fire is one men should steer clear of, even though there is nothing wrong with her, but what she represents.
“Piano Lessons” is the story of a girl whose piano teacher is attracted to the way she looks. Even when telling the story, the girl is never sure exactly what to say because she has been silenced: “He never touched me, it wasn’t– / It was just the too long hugs.” The speaker knows that something is strange, but she’s doesn’t know how to voice it: “Mr. G. / was always kind to us.” Is this what the girl has been taught to say? A little further: “he wanted me to wear the necklace. / The door was shut, he’d shut it. / I asked my sister, and he never gave her / anything.” Later, when the girl tells her mother about the incident, “She told me / I imagined things.” This poem gets right to the core of what so many women are taught: that the strange or awful things that happen to them aren’t real. (Later, in “Stigmatic,” the speaker states, “I am a woman: / this is why / no one believes / me.”) Does our culture believe that a man has a “reason” for touching a woman when or where he shouldn’t? Should these instances be ignored? Why are the experiences of women silenced? The saga continues: the piano lessons continue, and Mr. G. is a constant houseguest on holidays: “He brings his Polaroid camera, / wants to take my picture.” The obsession is allowed to continue.
Something is amiss here. We know it, the speakers of the poems know it, but the rest of the culture ignores it, or, in the case of “For Rosemary Kennedy, Lobotomized Age 23,” tries to fix it. Rosemary Kennedy was the older sister of John F. Kennedy, and was institutionalized for most of her life, believed to be “mentally retarded.” Patterson’s poem tells a different story, of a young woman who, when she spoke, “spoke out of turn; you rode / in that boy’s car; you broke / out of the convent on a rope / of knotted sheets.” This is a woman who roars, who hisses; “there was no place for a woman / so dumb and so fierce.” This is a woman who might bring her high-standing family to shame, so she needs to be “fixed.”
Lines in other poems give readers an answer to this tragedy, offering honesty as the beginning of a real solution: “Daughter, / someday you will understand what it means / to be defined by what you lack” (“Spider Girl, Green Car”) and:
Some people tell you to count
your blessings, to praise even
what is terrible, to swallow
the sweet grief of compromise.
(“Letter To a Young Girl”)
There are no quick solutions to the puzzle of how to live as a woman in American culture, but Patterson has given us a start by bringing the honesty of women’s lives to the page. Read these poems. Share them with every woman you know, whatever age. I applaud Main Street Rag for bringing these poems to print, for giving a brave young poet a voice in the large world of American poetry.