Concubines and Amazons

February 14, 2013

At one time, “when there was little contact with the outside world or with China, the Japanese people thought a leopard was a female tiger…”


Is it the shape of the torso, the way hair is worn, voice timbre, muscular apportionment?

If you can’t have a concubine without hinting that an amazon is coiling to spring, that is an active metaphor, an engine of incomplete desires that practically writes its own poetry. Femininity is an impersonal juggernaut in that respect, one that can exploit the language of gender conventions to dance around the concept of masculinity.

The feminine seems radical in its relationship with the transformative, embodying inversions and attempting appropriations of the masculine as a way of recognizing, or stress testing, what is unique about men among women.

A Greek in Alexandria admired
this in a dervish, his sensuality.
More illicit than yours, nightly tired
in the arms of strangers,
“Pleasure itself enjoys his blood,” he wrote.

The green sea in our bay is a moral element.
Sailors know her dice are always loaded;
quick to judge and clear in ascertainment,
even handed and respectful of talent.
You headed into her paladin intrigues

among sleeping sharks and nesting eels, every
ordeal complete in turn. She did not blind you, fatigue
couldn’t catch you, trailing you by a league.
The workshop of the sea furnishes love
every breath, communion with the heady sky

above, busy with intentions toward the water,
fluency in the shapes of fish, their
movements and resting places, an
urge to sail over unmeasured
mysteries, touching just their surfaces.

Putting either gender on a pedestal at the expense of the other means asking for trouble. If system as defined by dualism were an organic mutation it would spit bile at birth until dead. But there is a sinusoidal boundary snaking between them in symbol and myth.

Philosophy’s childish little charmer Montaigne claims that stature is the only kind of beauty at hazard in the lottery of birthrights among men. Set a woman on high and she won’t be bothered to jeopardize her ankles, even if it was the heels that got your attention.

Virginia Woolf pegged the pessimistic critic of all domestic affairs “the angel in the house,” arguing the voice of negativity chooses a feminine persona. The angel looks to have fat miniature wings because schoolteachers and housekeeepers only flatter each other’s tacky jokes in subversive little forays of spite. But what can you do when your job is to dust the “negative space” of the built environment, the quiet parts kept cozy for rest and relaxation?

“When you love you have an indefinite lease of it. When you approve you only approve single acts,” warns Silvia Plath about mothering. Today’s mother has an unfunded mandate to talk about, for fulfilling her personal ambitions and desires, yet she is less often hysterically frustrated for all this self-absorption. She is not limited to being “unrelated instead of independent; compulsive instead of energetic .. hostile but not legitimately angry” any more.


Not by natural force, just by the ample embrace of a convenience lifestyle announced to her at an impressionable age by her built environment, and the complacency it inspires. Yet it is well put how Jane Wheelwright warns that a woman seems “objectionable instead of objecting” if she feels put up against a wall on every side for having an ego of her own, left no stamina for finishing a single thought.

No wonder the inherited (albeit invented) tradition of attributing to one’s gendered identity-group no apparent capability for cogency, a convincing “less than” among men familiar with the means of public discourse and curt about its innate limitations, rather than fascinated by the traction they give to a rhetorical skateboarding act. A know-nothing card for every occasion.

In literary adaptation, women who flee the domesticity-mongering of marriageable men for the company of wolves can hardly be distinguished from the furies in the poetry of sublimated jealousy – as if they cared when war would seek out havoc over rhetoric.

“O Earth, unhappy planet born to die,
What wonders must you not relate to me
.. you have not learned in all these years
To tell the leopard and the newt apart;”

“let him twist, and ape
.. – his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing ..
where, in pious rape
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
.. I shall not even force him to confess;

– Both Edna St. Vincent Millay

A very constant alibi, worn under the bra but not invisible exactly, the shirt is a bit displaced.

Her unmarried protégés “investigated; they disarranged” and called it breaking gendered glass ceilings and breaking taboos at the same time. Child, don’t. Advocating experimenting with the forbidden because it’s forbidden, violating contracts and secretly reneging on requests out of prurient interest in the pea, information hoarding is asymmetry and the social transition sits its little fence, catty and snide.

Sphinx, what are you hiding where? Blood is for writing in, as far as love poets are concerned with the spilling of it. Getting a scribble in while the blood was wet must have been enough for them.

One imagines the writers in social science somehow lost traction with the lived experience around their gendered assumptions. Their job in thinking through the group dynamics of everyday life was robbed of much gendered significance, working with a diminishing pool of rude metaphors in currency or palpable innuendo in contemporary expressions.

The gears let all slip through their teeth when it was down to “kind and very clean without ostentation .. has no imagination” as opposed to “feathers and torn taffeta .. but she is not kind.” Duller than a great thaw. Don’t play dumb, there’s a hidden meaning in that, be belligerently obtuse and try to get diagnosed on your day in court.

There would be an origin story about how “traditional” gender roles came to be entrenched. People peddling these stories as theory need to be reminded that taste applies in science as well as art. The art of governing unfolds in public in the good old-fashioned blur of theatricality without genre that lives among us.

Just So stories are either morality tales or comedies, and anything short of a dirty joke is likely to render the topic painfully political and irreverent. Politics, after all, is just the anecdotal style of tragedy and comedy.


A poet with a love of concretisms would warn against letting “love’s spaciousness” invade the nature of all manner of things, even petty garden pots.

There “love’s gibberelllic wish” would add monstrously ambitious means to the pitiful ends of “the great world’s flowering.” It is a trite comedy if potting soil marketing has come to this, eminently plausible, politic, very possible to read the nicest thing between the lines:

“.. if love goes leaking
outward, ..
Deliver us from its giant gardening, from walking
all over the earth with no rest from its disproportion.”

– Elizabeth Bishop

Some theorists speculate that in primitive human social groups, hierarchical culture defined men’s values, and a more egalitarian culture applied to women’s, that the first prizes egoistic achievements like military valor, the other trying to minimize pain while relying on agreements (such as trading) for comfort and convenience.

As if it were up to women to tempt men into noticing sensation, seeking out luxury, or liking pleasure.

If a mast could be a tree and
flower, if its boughs could bend with the wind
and sing a little with the birds, your hand
would be pursed leaves twinned
on either side of the fruit’s stem, bright skinned
and long limbed, perfectly symmetrical.
You were meant to shadow purple finned
porpoise and roseate pandora and pull
the secrets from the sea and its jewel caves.

Your body is not so many parts to me.
Biceps femoris, sternum, radius,
every outline in your flesh seems to be
drawn without lifting the pencil,
anxious to say something,
precious in the immediacy
of feeling and the completeness
of every conscious movement. Your smile
is felt in your curving shoulder’s cusp,
trapezius, tender, knowing.

Fear of pleasure, skepticism of beauty, and the conviction that work by definition entails steeling oneself to sacrificial pain are built into the Stoic tradition, into law and citizenship in ways that show to this day. There’s a reason.

For those who have no gentler sense of humor than to address cruelty to all the things that bore them or make them feel ignored, pleasure and affection aren’t that hard to weaponize themselves.

You can impose an artificial scarcity, manipulate someone’s locus of control by making them experience contrived futility from striving, tantalize them even as a punishment, trade on their trust to make them internalize negative self-evaluations and deepen their sense of exclusive dependency on you for emotional support, or use a non-reactive demeanor to make them feel ignored while you study them for other vulnerabilities to exploit.

There are alternatives, and if your fear of pleasure runs deep enough, you may be more conscientious about pursuing some of its more convincing substitutes. In this paper on the neuroscience of pleasure, Siri Leknes and Irene Tracey argue that because the pleasure and pain-relief circuitry in the brain runs roughly in parallel, the conceptual referents those neurochemicals address with enthusiasm are easily confused, enmeshed and contested at the same time.

One can become accustomed to substituting pleasure for the satisfactions of achievement, or vice versa, while calling them by one another’s names from not having noticed which is which, or in what ways they already mingle in ordinary experiences that don’t feel like premeditated indulgences (to gratify the ego, or the senses). 

If someone were socialized to pursue one and not the other, they might not really guess what they were missing. Even if they were habitually on the look out for newfangled pastimes out of “fear of missing out.”

Maybe repression only succeeds in sharpening the knife, and it becomes stupid not to try and beat cupid at sport. You liberate a woman and, suddenly free to take the use of soft power for granted, magic explodes with uncharacteristic disorder that makes little of its scope for enlightening fantasy. Maybe mustached hypnotists and sorcerers are an at large Greek chorus resorting to extreme measures, trying to fend off the neighbors with thinly veiled satire.

And all writers just like a turn of phrase, whichever way it take the sentiment to better strike a note. If Shakespeare’s lovers frighten the word out of its right sense, the poets of Sapphic tradition frighten Aphrodite, she gives pause in the bedroom:

“All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
Stood and beheld me” (Swinburne 1925).

Maybe it’s not all that strange for whole periods of the history of civilization to have tried anyone suspected of involvement, seduction. Go out the front door, see what happens, die in public, on the curb just there. Enough, that’s an easy one, you bluster now and with such little words, “I can imagine” that, too obvious.

(Inside you tremble to have homey, private denial interrupted, fact huddled upon fact.) So. Hello to madness, nevermind despair. There are no bystanders, my mind does not exist to those who supposedly “stand by” for they stand incuriously, this is make-believe. The ideal kept alive in rumor is preserved as one considered high and formidable.

whistlerAnd the Symphony in F? “F, F, F … Fool.” – Whistler

No sense of proportion, no respect for their own right to want to live, to enjoy elbow room. Everything has to be more drastic than that to come close.

At least some fear of consequence must inhabit the person to be feared. They are so afraid, of being enslaved by any touch less cold than the seat of a toilet. Afraid enough to be badly forgetful.

Concretization can flummox an effort to describe what’s in front of your face without belying the continuity of fluid dynamics in a world that suffers solids only as optical illusions and lived experiences in mentionable collision, incident.

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