Dangerous to Know is Patricia Brody’s second poetry collection, her first – American Desire – having won a 2009 New Women’s Voices Award. In Dangerous to Know, feminist Brody uncovers literature’s hidden women; Dorothy Wordsworth, Anne Donne and many more,”the women we’ve been taught to forget”, who wrote their journals and diaries while their male relatives produced ‘great literature’. Brody’s stated mission here is to rescue these women and rouse them from centuries of restless death to speak of their own experiences.
Those experiences encompass different kinds of love; familial, sibling, parental, and romantic. Yet the front and back covers feature a naked female torso which seems misleading and, to my mind, is perhaps an over-eager marketing ploy. Even the title comes from Lamb’s famous journal entry describing the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Byron, which may itself somewhat narrow the expected scope of “love”.
The collection is divided into three parts and I was surprised to be introduced immediately, in the first section, to two women whose achievements more than transcended their status in life. “When You Meet Her” is for Artemesia Gentileschi – the female Italian baroque painter –
Enter her sun-washed studio,
Behind the drape of silk,
her outrage. Her affair with colour.
Not as other lady painters of the day
who hide in still-life.
She is the figure in blue.
“Althea’s Game” finishes this section in the voice of Althea Gibson, the first black athlete (of either gender) to cross the international tennis racial divide.
Mulberry lips dusky skin
limbs quick and light as if I leapt
from an Isadora dawn.
I didn’t laugh or wink. My long swing
broke the barrier for Venus & Serena.
Brody’s use of onomatopoeia and beautiful imagery voices Gibson even in defeat –
Such delicacy. Iron limbs,
the p-l-o-ck! of catgut on wool-skin,
the crowd’s gasp.
My shadow leaps, my stroke is black
How do I not die?
In Part II, Brody gets to the heart of birth, motherly love and, ultimately, death and loss. “The Refusal”, dedicated to Brody’s pioneering psychoanalyst father, gives voice to a mother’s eternal worry –
Our firstborn will not eat.
Blue-white and withered to a wraith, isn’t he
lording it over us, the little prince
In “Stopping by106th and Broadway”, Brody uses anaphora to move the poem forward:
It is snowing on the synagogue across the street.
It is snowing on the mourners, swaying in the snow.
It is snowing on the deli, the sliced meat.
It is snowing on the lamppost with its other-century glow.
This alternating rhyme scheme provides a delay and an echo, devices the poet uses with great success to heighten the emotional intensity. In the midst of this poignancy, Brody offers the memorial to Isador and Ida Straus, who refused to be parted as they drowned on the Titanic:-
It is snowing in Straus Park, the lost Titanic story:
culminating in the stomach-punching last line –
It is snowing on my father.
Just as we had parental anxiety in “The Refusal”, here we have a daughter, voicing her sadness and loss.
The final section brings alive the voices ardently spoken of in the introduction; Dorothy Wordsworth in “William’s Shy Romantic”, Caroline Lamb in the titular piece “Dangerous to Know”. In “Undonne” Anne Donne’s pain is realised through rhymes, full, half and internal –
After they hauled you off to jail,
leaving me the ruined bed
the moist ache there
I staggered in cold air
Brody’s premise, imagining voices lost because of their sex and overshadowed by their male counterparts, is a good one but on first reading I found many of the poems inaccessible and the subjects often obscure. However, on subsequent readings, supplemented by research, I more readily heard their voices. After a millennium of neglect for some of these women, that is no small achievement.
Ed note: quotes may not appear on the DURA page graphically as they do in the original due to the system’s line alignments.