Review of First Wife by Laura Madeline Wiseman
Pittsburgh: Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013. 41pgs. $6.00.
Lilith is often seen in visual art as hypersexual, curvaceous, with long, lustrous hair, sometimes fondling a snake or even as half-snake with a snarl. The Jewish legend dating back to BCE labels the first wife of Adam as a demon who literally flew away from Adam when he began fighting against her sensible request for equality. Eve, of course, was thereafter made from Adam's rib, so as to prevent any refusal of submission, to be blamed for earth's sins when she took the bite of the fruit. In literature today, Lilith is a feminist heroine, embodying the refusal of this male-dominated society.
As Laura Madeline Wiseman's First Wife exquisite cover art by Megan Loudon Sanders displays, Wiseman recreates this narrative—not of a triumphant super star Lilith, but of an unfeigned, oft-downtrodden and self-questioning woman, who quietly lives and fights solo against patriarchal society. Lonely as she may be at times, she continues, century after century, worn-neck atilt, to get along by choice and utter strength.
Throughout the book Wiseman puts forth a familiar woman; she's in our mother, in our neighbor, in us. The modern story tells of the relishing the forbidden fruit (Eve's fruit), and re-evaluates the symbolic saga's significance. Wiseman upends the role of the demon and Eden, while showing us the confused, patriarchal world we still live in, but can, with a heavy head-up, potentially get through.
"From Clay" alludes to Lilith's legendary claim of equality for their having been made from the same earth. Wiseman's begins a recognizable tale of every-girl in youth, strong, liberated, unknowing of what is to come and be expected as a woman. At once, her warmth of scarf is taken from a mysterious source and the foreboding reveals itself; "It could be anyone, a bully, a lover, some god, or herself. (Aren't they all the same?) To her, we murmur of the loss of such things as innocence. She knows nothing of perspective." (1)
Themes and allegories bring the story of this familiar woman to light. Indeed, light is interwoven as Lilith comes-to in Section I, guiding us through the tunnel of confused masculine power before us.
She wears a dress of "the darkest of silk" in her "Engagement Photos" (7); views her husband under a "yellow glow / of the lamp" as he watches sports in "Newlyweds" (8); appreciates "the way the light falls just this way" in "Lilith Pauses" (9); witnesses people's throwing around the term equality as "a lightness to be spoken anywhere" in "Word Puzzle" (10); and squints under straw visors listening to endless preaching in "Sunday Hats" (11). "Praying Mantis" "disappear into darkness" upon crawling out (12); "geese / arrowed the sky toward spring" in "Another Gift"; her apple shines like "a red sunrise" as she hides it in "The Apple: Lilith Remembers" (14). The light fades to confusion as we fill in the blanks ourselves in "Lies Upon You: In Fragments" (17-18) and "Even the sun / seems an accidental" as Lilith is "pulled by a stronger current I cannot quite make out" in "Flight" (19).
The wrestling escalates in "Word Puzzle." Amongst a common Christmas morning of family and meals, Lilith ponders the false promise of equality, and her lack of ability to understand: "ÉI am forever the outsider / because I don't know this tongue." (10)
Again speaking volumes, playing with a well-known positive idiom, Lilith with her husband "our glasses full" around the kitchen table, ponders twelve tumblers in "Another Gift:" "I didn't know what they meant, / these gifts, but I took them as omens." (13)
In "The Apple: Lilith Remembers," Wiseman tells of Lilith stealing an apple, an "orb of knowledge and sin,"—not just the sin of stealing, but knowledge as sin—or, for women, one and the same. Wiseman gives a tastefully visual description of Lilith cherishing her apple after sneaking it across a border without getting caught (an allusion to her "young, married, middle-class and white" privilege, thus so celebrated by society, so tempting and easy to consent; yet ironically letting her out of the very sphere).
An authentic call-to-arms, "Red Sky, Red Sea" follows Lilith as she throws out her clothing "too revealing" after a frustrating incident as a female professor. Recognizing her culturally constructed feminist self, she adamantly decides: "ÉI too will abandon pretty. I choose me."
Not without hesitation, though, as "Honeymoon Album" and "The Tree" give intimate and rhythmic consideration to her potential life with children, in the famous garden. To no avail, as "Sororal: Eve's Visit" entertainingly reminds her. As Eve "admits she's thinking of leaving Adam—that man who names the world as he sees fit, who rules over beasts, who husbands the land, who begets children he doesn't want," she too admires the outside, seeking "autographs from stars who sing of Alice and the rabbit hole." (26)
Wiseman breaks from the literal story as she plays with perspective in "At the Museum: Two Interpretations of Isis," the Greek goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility. Wiseman writes vividly of her reaction to a statue of Isis at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site; she, too, a professor, admits the irony of the ancient woman who is still covered with a veil to prevent provokers.
Perspective play continues in the last delicious poems as we witness Lilith accept and savor her role of empowerment with happy confidence, and even a glimmer of hope, or is that this reader's perspective?
She's still appeasing in "Yearly: On Our Anniversary," as she travels annually to the garden store in Eden where her ex buys her a gift card, observing, "Eden isn't all that pretty." (30)
More obvious in the next trio of poems, we see her imagine her grave decidedly away from her ex; her own bodiless self-portrait; and a telling, humorous and ironical wake-up in "This Could Be You: Lilith Considers."
The closing poem "Drinking the Witch's Brew" is the epitome of redefinition and perspective, as Wiseman shows Lilith enveloping the serpent, "knowing / in another time such hard, raised bumps / meant poison." She challenges beauty, offering others to "bring the brew to the lips in an offering to flight." (35)
Such is Sander's lovely cover art, a woman adorned with a green snake tattoo on her arm rejecting cultural standards, sitting solo, worn from the plight, but not undone. Wiseman too not only challenges women's status quo using this historical figure, but its validity. First Wife not only offers a deep, dark reinvented modern classic of an powerful female (which is few and far between), but reminds us, with her colorful and rhythmic flair for detail and narrative between the lines, to look closer and with new eyes at our surroundings and to define ourselves. As art is a very personal interpretive experience, read First Wife for yourself and find your own conclusion.
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