The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

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JUL-AUG 2019 Issue

Caroline Hagood’s Personal as the Poetic Politic

Caroline Hagood
Ways of Looking at a Woman
Hanging Loose Press, 2019

Ours is a Time’s Up era, where mothers and children alike are on the front lines of the revolution. And although poet and essayist, Caroline Hagood writes her latest book, Ways of Looking at a Woman (Hanging Loose Press, 2019) with lyrical rhetorical punch, it reads more like a call to arms. This is no manual for insurgency mind you, as its messaging is more subtle and seemingly slippery. But that’s often how change happens, by slipping into the crevices of consciousness and unfurling bit by bit.

Hagood has created a hybrid text that marries memoir, criticism, and poetry, calling to mind Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. But the insistence of the personal as the poetic politic is reminiscent of Second Wave feminist, Betty Friedan’s seminal text The Feminine Mystique, only reimagined for the Instagram generation.

Giving readers a montage of her “experience of womanhood, writerhood, [and] motherhood,” Hagood explains how looking at a woman is indeed worthy of a revolution in 2019. Injecting the narrative—which pared down, arcs around raising two kids as a working writer—with epiphanies on the creation and consumption of art, Hagood nails how motherhood has the uncanny ability to bend time. This is not a new trope when it comes to poetry. Certainly the Metaphysical poets and Romantics emphasize a fractal perception of time. Poets from both schools creep up in Hagood’s text, which is a mash-up of literary references throughout, much like an academic thesis.

However, the personal anecdotes—as the narrator struggles to understand Derrida, or describe the sound of her son’s heartbeat—prevent the book from being a collection of theoretical musings and allow readers an intimate glimpse of the author. In this space, Hagood gives equal weight to academic and domestic meditations, which is no doubt, a political choice that underpins this hybrid memoir.

The text, drawing its structure from a doctoral thesis, (beginning with a research proposal, abstract, etcetera) was inspired by the author’s own doctoral dissertation called Women Who Like to Watch on “female poets writing on and revising male filmmakers.” Hagood, and the text itself, is in awe of women and the beautiful trauma of motherhood. This conceit makes a handy metaphor for the artist. Again, this is not a new metaphor, but by presenting womanhood as a “case study,” Hagood reaffirms that in 2019, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” 70 years after Simone de Beauvoir’s aforementioned claim, Hagood writes, “Clearly I needed to do a lot of detective work on ‘women.’” And, in Hagood’s hybrid feminism a biological and sociological feminism make sense when learning how to re-see womanhood.

There seems to be a conflation of womanhood and motherhood at play, which might be problematic until you remember that the text is a memoir, and hinges on Hagood’s experience. “On every page, Caroline kept popping up—making lewd gestures behind a footnote,” the author reminds readers, just in case they forget. Central to understanding Hagood, is her fascination with the science and poetry of motherhood, which she discovered after the birth of her son. She writes, “The uterus is like women; it’s capable of so much but still has to defend itself against absurd accusations.” The unobtrusive politics of these lines evoke the collective experience of social injustices people scroll through everyday and have to live with internally as trauma. The narrative is just as obsessed with pop culture, referencing the lowbrow television the narrator indulges in, as it is with personal history, hinting that in 2019 ontology is itself cross-genre.

When it comes to gender, the author acknowledges the relational phenomenon of the construct, and even suggests that masculinity is threatened by femininity. She writes, “Freud said the terror Medusa sparked in males was also linked to the fear of having their members lopped off.” Here, she brings up the ancient trope of male impotence that calls to mind a modern three-headed monster of the Weinstein/Kavanaugh/Trump variety. Monsters are another obsession of the author, a topic Hagood explored in her 2015 book of poetry, Making Maxine’s Baby. Like Shelley’s Frankenstein, one cannot fully grasp the conception of creation without an acknowledgment of its opposite. And destruction is never far from the haunting corollaries of the text. In fact, you’ll find nods to Shelley, Wollstonecraft, (her mother) and monster throughout the book, which makes sense to Hagood’s schemata in seeing a woman.

Finally, there’s plenty of references to Laura Mulvey and John Berger, the Phenomenological theorists with whom much of the book is in conversation. In 2019, the act of looking is tangled up in the act of liking, eroticizing “ways of seeing” and what it is to gaze. This book—which defies genres and makes readers question how they see themselves and the women in their lives—explodes the code of so-called women’s work. But it does so with lyricism and kitschy allusions, a most convincing way to argue a point and spark a revolution.


Jill Di Donato

is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2019

All Issues