by Evangeline Riddiford Graham, summer 2020
On hubris and humility, Dog Woman, and why
Then the interviewer pivoted. Why, she asked the ornithologist, was he drawn to birds in the first place?
“Imagine being a bird weighing little more than a paperclip,” the ornithologist said in a tone of wonder, “going into the air every day to fly.”
This was on the radio, a few days after a video went viral of a white woman in Central Park calling the police and telling them “An African American man is threatening my life,” in response to a birder—a Black man—asking her to leash her dog.
The image of the small bird taking to the air seems to me the perfect encapsulation of humility and hubris coexisting, even interlocking. In order to be seen as having hubris—moving through the world in defiance of one’s shape or scope or size—maybe one necessarily must be perceived as having humility, some smallness. To have hubris is to wear a body on the scale of stationery and with it leap into the wind, ecstatic and vulnerable. Once you see a bird that way, what other reason could you possibly need to go birding?
What’s good for the ornithologist is good for the poet. If a writer is to convince reader, she must humble her own ego before the text: The reader should attend to the poem and not the poet. Even in apparently confessional or autobiographical writing, what makes a poem “sound” true is not a string of facts but the conviction of the voice that delivers them. It’s flight I’m looking for—not feathers.
* * *
When I read Melinda Freudenberger’s poem “Dog Woman: Doing What It Takes,” I immediately fell in love. Dog Woman, the poem’s narrator, has a woman’s body but she approaches the world like a dog, on her hands and knees, tail wagging. Doing everything she “shouldn’t,” Dog Woman is so unrepentantly herself and so honest about questions of sex, violence, and female/femme joy and pain, that I experience this poem at a gut level: It’s physically hard to read. And yet, because of Dog Woman’s voice, I’ve read this poem again and again. In this not-all-woman, not-all-dog mask, Freudenberger has found a poetic voice that can borrow from the “primitive nature” of an animal to embody the “unattractive side” of sexual assault survival, such as obsessive behavior, the perpetuation of violence, and submission as a form of resilience—while simultaneously sustaining a sense of humor, energy, and savage delight.
In her poem “Snake-Light,” Natalie Diaz writes, “I can read a text in anything. // To read a body is to break that body a little.”
Each new line its own body, made possible
The final test of a poem is what happens when it leaves the page, and lighter even than the smallest bird or paper clip, travels on the air as words spoken aloud. That journey to the ear is, I think, the poem at its most exposed, a moment when all control is lost. The static visual bearings of the page are gone; the words are unfixed, passing through time, unmoored from their notional permanence. As radio artists know, each second of sound matters and is tested by the air. On the page, lesser lines can hide among their betters. Spoken aloud, they don’t stand a chance.
While sending words forth as fleeting sounds as may feel like an act of crazy hope, the best lines have a chance to be made new: broken and reformed and reverberating inside the ear. “Lines are shed like snakeskin,” Diaz writes:
Or, as Sylvia Plath wrote in “Words,” the closing poem of Ariel, “echoes travelling / off from the center like horses.”
Art has the potential to both create our myths and destroy them. I feel the tension between the two impulses very strongly when I make or encounter work that touches on notions of femininity and femaleness: What to cement? What to obliterate? There is an exhilaration in kicking those questions away with one thrust of a leg that is webbed, cloven, or hoofed.
* * *
Dog Woman, the sound project that resulted from Freudenberger’s poem and my interview with her, is, in many ways, about reverberation. The notions of obsession, submission, and cyclic behavior are made manifest in Dog Woman’s body. Troubling a cultural equivalency between women and dogs, Dog Woman obsesses over her relationships “like a woman”—or is it that she can’t stop scratching an itch “like a dog”? As Freudenberger pointed out in our interview, once you notice the convention of portraying women as dogs, you can’t un-see it. And then, as she notes, you have to ask: Why?
The ongoing trauma of this itch-and-scratch is part of what makes Dog Woman frightening to read and intimidating to transmit as sound. There are conventions around the way we talk and write about sexual assault, too, which sometimes flatten or restrict the portrayal of survivors. Just because she subjugates herself, even begs for more, doesn’t mean Dog Woman isn’t defiant: For Dog Woman, submission can be a form of strength and resilience. And it’s Dog Woman’s “untrained” voice that created the possibility of her existence on the page—a means for her author to write about experiences and feelings that are vicious, wild, unclean.
A mask can make a work sound more true, rather than less. Behind a mask, a poet can transform her voice from its recognizable, day-job, human-body-vocal-cord sound, into a roar, a whistle, a screech—the sound that articulates her meaning. Plath, Seamus Heaney notes, took on the persona of the Oracle. (The hubris! But if your aim is poetic persuasion, why not choose the mask of truth itself?)
The Oracle is not entirely human—she’s super-human, semi-human. She is therefore also ultra-female—and simultaneously, only partially female. The narrator of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” for instance, is several times dead. When I read Ariel, Plath’s final collection, I read a writer who has simultaneously elevated and disappeared the “femaleness” of her authorship. Expectations? No, ma’am!
In creating a “Dog Woman” sound work, I wanted to aurally weave and then unweave the various voices that make up the sound of “Dog Woman: Doing What It Takes” read aloud. There are multiple component voices in this one short poem, and these multiply (and amplify) when the poem is read aloud. Dog Woman the character is herself two-fold; her voice is both a woman’s utterance and the bark of a dog.
Read aloud by Freudenberger, there is the additional voice of the poet—already present in the text, but now obvious to a listening ear as the body through which this story is enacted. And while my interview questions are not audible in the final production of “Dog Woman,” I wanted the final version to reflect the element of subjective outside response that also shaped the production: The pulse of the producer, panting, ears pricked. The approach that I eventually settled on weaves “responsive” tracks around the central text of the poem read by Freudenberger, so that even as Freudenberger herself reflects on and contextualizes the poem she has read, the text itself reverberates and refracts into looser fragments of language and sound—the way the poem has echoed in my ears since I first heard it.
Many viewers of the video from Central Park noted that as the dog-walking white woman moved forward to threaten the bird-watching Black man, she dragged her small dog by its collar, choking it.
* * *
What does it feel like to weigh little more than a song and be lifted on a gust of cool air and blow past everything that is big and heavy and to have wings and raise them upwards?
I am frightened of Dog Woman, and fearful for her. I am embarrassed by her abandon, and radicalized by her lack of remorse. I want her to “get better” (that is, reunite with a conventional femme identity), and I want to be more like her.
In arranging and reacting to Dog Woman in sound, I wanted to create a way for the listener not only to experience the sense of risk and revelation that I admire in Dog Woman, but to linger longer with that danger than they expected to—enough time to accept the fact that they are terrified, and listen more closely to the question of why.