?Sloughing off Ribs’: Revealing The Second Sex
in Julia Kasdorf’s Poetry
BETH MARTIN BIRKY*
Abstract: This essay examines the way Julia Kasdorf’s latest collection of poetry Eve’s Striptease maps a female artist’s integration of body and desire and suggests the personal and creative power to be found in formulating an embodied identity. Finding little theoretical foundation in either radical feminism of difference or egalitarian feminism, I turn to Simone de Beauvoir’s early treatment of female identity in The Second Sex (1949). Beauvoir’s careful account of identity formation for the adolescent through adult female is useful for understanding the layers of influence in Kasdorf’s poems. Using Beavuoir’s analysis of sex and gender, I examine the way Kasdorf’s poems move from a young woman’s adolescent crisis of body vulnerability to the assertion of a confident female identity that integrates desire, body, and culture.
Those familiar with the title poem of Julia Kasdorf’s collection Eve’s Striptease will recognize ?sloughing off ribs? as the culminating metaphor for Eve’s creation and for the narrator’s expression of her own desires as a young woman. In the poem ?Eve’s Striptease? the narrator reflects on her mother’s advice for her wedding night: ?Whatever happens, remember this? / it keeps getting better and better.? The narrator concludes:
She let me learn for myself all the desires
a body can hold, how they grow stronger
and wilder with age, tugging in every direction
until it feels my sternum might split
like Adam’s when Eve stepped out,
sloughing off ribs. (28-33)
Eve’s creation and the fall are not generally associated with things ?getting better and better? for a woman, as many feminist writers and theorists have clearly established in the late twentieth century. In order to fulfill ?all the desires / a body can hold,? the narrator must still face both biological realities and gender constructions that define her female experience in a patriarchal culture; in order for things to get ?better and better,? she must ?slough off ribs.?
Offering scenes from adolescence to young adulthood, from childhood molestation to married sex, from early creative impulses to later mentoring of other female poets, the poems of Eve’s Striptease trace the physical and creative coming of age of a young woman who is driven by the desire to know and to create. In a culture that has during her own lifetime emphasized women’s freedom, equality and power, Kasdorf examines how a young woman and poet forms her identity within the framework of reproductive realities, broader Western society’s and her own Mennonite community’s expectations for women, and her own self-doubt. What Kasdorf portrays vividly and honestly in these poems is a young woman’s fear, particularly her own body vulnerability that surfaces initially in terms of the reproductive realities she faces as an adolescent and later in terms of human embodiment in general. Kasdorf’s poems name a fear few women readily share: the fear that body vulnerability will somehow limit or compromise her identity and her expression of her inner desires. Even though that fear provides the initial conflict in the poems? narratives, the narrator’s keen observations of the people around her guide her to accept uncertainty and to act on her desires by integrating body and identity.
This integration of body and identity is not new to Kasdorf’s work. In her collection of essays The Body and the Book Kasdorf describes the gulf between body and desire exposed in Eve’s Striptease. In an essay from that book titled ?Bodies and Boundaries? Kasdorf suggests that a woman must uncover the female body that is so easily dominated, devalued and exploited by society. Rather than transcend her own body, a woman must live in and with an embodied self if she is to know and fulfill her desires and write. Using the metaphor of the striptease, Kasdorf argues that creating an identity and acting on that sense of self requires more than tossing away her shirt and exposing what lies underneath. It requires understanding the context for the striptease itself, as well as acting out an embodied identity. In Eve’s Striptease Kasdorf’s poems do just that. They not only reclaim the female body through vivid description, but they also represent the negotiations a woman and artist undergoes to shape her sense of herself as a woman, her goals as a writer and her life in a female body. While honestly confronting the physical realities of the female body in refreshing language and powerful scenes, Eve’s Striptease portrays the pursuit of female desire with full knowledge of both uncertainty and fear. In fact, Kasdorf leads the reader through a young woman’s adolescent crisis of body vulnerability to a confident, or at least brave, female identity that integrates desire, body and culture.
In order to examine Kasdorf’s integration of body and desire, a feminist reading of Eve’s Striptease must do more than reveal Kasdorf’s portrayal of the female body. A feminist analysis must assume a theoretical frame that accounts for embodied female identity’a frame that is, unfortunately, not often found in the feminist critical conflict over essentialist and constructivist theories of female identity, a core debate that has dominated formalized feminist critical studies, particularly in the U.S. Kasdorf’s narrative of female identity is not readily illuminated by the radical feminism of difference, which argues for the centrality of women’s unique biological experience to her position in the world, or egalitarian feminism, which looks primarily to sexual equality as the only goal. My own analysis of these poems has been assisted most by Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal and comprehensive, albeit controversial, 1949 work The Second Sex, an early text that offers a feminist theory of the body. Pre-dating the debate over essentialism and constructivism that has plagued feminist theory in the past three decades, The Second Sex provides a useful context for analyzing Kasdorf’s integrated handling of body vulnerability and female identity formation in Eve’s Striptease. In her essay ?Do Bodies Matter? Sex, Gender and Politics,? Fiona Webster explains why feminist criticism has been so focused on what she calls the ?sex/gender distinction’:
The sex/gender distinction has been critical in this development at two levels, theoretical and political. Theoretically, it has provided a conceptual framework within which to analyse and assess the developmental processes through which the gendered identities of ?women? and ?men? are constructed, separate from the biological functions of our sex as ?female? and ?male’. Politically, it has served to support the claim that the natural functions of the female body do not necessitate a particular role or function for women in the political domain. The sex/gender distinction has therefore functioned to support the feminist battle against biological determinism and for a relation of equality between women and men. (191)
Webster herself returns to Beauvoir, who she says was ?germinal in the formulation of that distinction,? as a model for understanding the relationship between sex and gender in woman’s identity (191). Beauvoir’s integration of the desire to know, understand and create with the centrality of body vulnerability makes The Second Sex a helpful framework for understanding Kasdorf’s embodied female identity in Eve’s Striptease.
An early work in academic feminist philosophical studies, Beauvoir’s text ranges exhaustively over the internal and external forces that have defined woman’s role in a Western-European context. In defining why woman has always been perceived of and treated as ?the second sex,? as Other, Beauvoir begins with two assertions that emerge from her own theoretical understanding of body and identity: first, body is integral to any human’s knowing and living and, second, female bodies shape a different way of knowing and living than male bodies do. Beauvoir’s thorough analysis of the origins of gender distinctions, as well as the stages of a woman’s life, draws the reader into a more careful consideration of body, rather than a rejection of body as essentialist.
Beauvoir begins The Second Sex with an account of biological difference between the sexes, concluding that the female is indeed an ?organism [that] is wholly adapted for and subservient to maternity? (23). Even though Beauvoir argues that such biological realities do not inevitably result in woman’s social inferiority, she recognizes that the human female, unlike the human male, must develop her identity in the context of reproduction from puberty to menopause. Although suggesting that the female human is the ?victim of the species? (23), Beauvoir asserts that woman’s reproductive concerns do not ?establish for her a fixed and inevitable destiny. They are insufficient for setting up a hierarchy of the sexes; they fail to explain why woman is the Other; they do not condemn her to remain in this subordinate role forever? (36). Instead, she urges the reader to note that ?these biological considerations are extremely important. In the history of woman they play a part of the first rank and constitute an essential element in her situation? (36).
Beauvoir’s desire to scrutinize this social inequality is emblazoned in her title The Second Sex, a clear indication that her work is about more than reinforcing woman’s physical enslavement or completely denying her physical reality. All humans strive to fulfill their potential, Beauvoir argues, and the ability to imagine and create a sense of identity from desire, rather than simply satiate an immediate physical need, is the mark of the human experience. But rather than assert that woman can pursue her own identity free from any constraints, Beauvoir examines, as do Kasdorf’s poems, a woman’s keen awareness of female body reality, the very visceral tugging and sternum splitting that the narrator describes in ?Eve’s Striptease.? Beauvoir’s description of the human impulse toward what she calls transcendence offers insight into Kasdorf’s narrator, who is driven by her desire to know; and Beauvoir’s careful analysis of the human experience of the body, or what she calls immanence, gives us a window into the narrator’s awareness that the physical ?curse? of reproduction is more than just a metaphor from Judeo-Christian experience.
Beauvoir’s careful account of identity formation for the adolescent female is also useful for understanding the layers of influence in Kasdorf’s opening coming-of-age poems. Beauvoir describes the crisis a young girl encounters when entering puberty, a crisis that Kasdorf portrays in her poetry. Beauvoir says:
But for the young woman . . . there is a contradiction between her status as a real human being and her vocation as a female. And just here is to be found the reason why adolescence is for a woman so difficult and decisive a moment. Up to this time she has been an autonomous individual: now she must renounce her sovereignty. Not only is she torn, like her brothers, though more painfully, between the past and the future, but in addition a conflict breaks out between her original claim to be subject, active, free, and, on the other hand, her erotic urges and the social pressure to accept herself as a passive object. Her spontaneous tendency is to regard herself as the essential: how can she make up her mind to become the inessential? But if I can accomplish my destiny only as the Other, how shall I give up my Ego? Such is the painful dilemma [emphasis mine] with which the woman-to-be must struggle. (377-78)
Beauvoir’s description of body vulnerability and identity crisis for women is amazingly relevant to contemporary concerns, and returning to Beauvoir’s elaborate account of femininity and culture offers rich insight into Kasdorf’s Eve’s Striptease, where Kasdorf grapples with what Beauvoir calls a young woman’s ?painful dilemma? and the female identity struggle in late twentieth-century America. To that end, I will first consider the feminist critical debate of body and gender identity, particularly as it was developed by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
REVEALING THE SECOND SEX
Recent feminist criticism demonstrates that Beauvoir’s work has been unfairly overlooked by contemporary feminist theory and is still very relevant to the analysis of women’s identity in American feminism. Hailed as a foundational text for the women’s liberation movement, particularly in the U.S., The Second Sex has been cited frequently as an early inspirational work by many feminist critics and theorists from Betty Friedan to Kasdorf herself. Today, rather than dismissing her work as outdated and irrelevant, important feminist critics like Toril Moi and Margaret A. Simons are excavating The Second Sex in light of new material from her life and work. Simons worked directly with Beauvoir in the late 1970s until Beauvoir’s death in 1986 and has been a careful critic and defender of her work. In her comprehensive study Beauvoir and The Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism Simons argues against what she calls ?dismissive readings of The Second Sex,? instead suggesting that Beauvoir is ?a model for later radical feminists, a social constructionist with a critique of Freudian psychoanalysis and a methodology privileging women’s experiences and rejecting essentialist definitions of woman’s identity.? In her introduction to Feminist Interepretations of Simone de Beauvoir, Simons summarizes the ?intense feminist criticism,? charging that Beauvoir’s work elevates a modernist, existential ideal of equality of mind and denies female embodiment, particularly in her account of motherhood. Others have criticized Beauvoir’s forays into biology and female psychological development as essentialist, reinforcing the centuries-old view of female biology as justification for women’s subordination to men.
The Second Sex was not just an application to women of her life partner Jean Paul Satre’s existential philosophy, but it was her own radical response to the male-dominated intellectual environment in which Beauvoir lived in the 1930s and 1940s. Beauvoir’s philosophical analysis of woman’s identity separate from that of man’s was unique, as was her assertion that woman’s identity is inextricable from a very unique body reality. Beauvoir navigates the demands of woman’s biological sex and constructed gender by showing that body and mind contribute to female identity; one does not preclude the other.
THE BODY AND THE BOOK
In Eve’s Striptease Beauvoir’s categories of immanence as female and transcendence as male are evident in the young narrator’s encountering of physical desire and her own immanence and the options society offers her for expressing those desires, that is, her transcendence. The space between desire and body is established in Kasdorf’s first two poems, ?First Gestures? (3-4) and ?Freight? (5-6). In ?First Gestures? Kasdorf frames human experience as structuring the relationship between body, language and identity:
Among the first we learn is good-bye,
your tiny wrist between Dad’s forefinger
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom,
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield. (1-4)
With the first wave goodbye, the father models the symbolic gesture signaling the separation of the child from the mother’s physical body and alluding to the classic Freudian narrative of self, identity and gender. The boy, Freud argued, must relinquish maternal identification and assume his place in the patriarchal order to establish a sense of self. While he seeks re-union with the maternal for the rest of his life, he seeks something that is biologically different from his own body, something that a patriarchal society constructs metaphorically as Other.
The girl, Freud offered as an afterthought, experiences a more confused journey to self, because her first gesture toward maternal absence forces a confrontation with her biological similarity to her mother. She encounters what is present and devalued’her own female body. The young girl must recognize herself as the second sex, a discovery that Beauvoir argues dominates the female experience, permeates her psyche and limits her potential to desire, discover, claim, possess and assert her identity. Relegated to being ?Other’-than-male, she must wave goodbye to her sense of self, at least her early conceptions of self as shaped by predominantly Western European values.
A young girl’s biological reality intensifies her consciousness of the limits that all humans face, but that many women face earlier and more intensely than most men do. In spite of the social and political advancements of the women’s movement, generation after generation of adolescent girls succumb to body fears. Because a woman’s identity incorporates body knowledge, particularly an awareness of body vulnerability, especially in her early and reproductive years, her search for identity is marked significantly by a sense of losing control of her body. In her 1990 work on female identity The Girl Within, Emily Hancock describes this awareness:
Both historic and contemporary constructions of femininity thus thrust a woman down a path that has little to do with who and what she really is, impelling her toward a destiny that is hardly her own. Each does so by forcing a single aspect of female identity into the foreground to the exclusion of the whole’the historic by excluding all but servility and nurture, the contemporary by severing the personal from the professional and blocking out all but competence. Taken separately, either of these forces makes for a threat to the self. Taken together . . . they strike a blow to identity and make it impossible to shape a meaningful life as a fully human being.
This identity pattern, similar to that described in The Second Sex, is played out in many variations in part I of Eve’s Striptease.
In ?First Gestures,? the narrator moves from child to adolescent, from the metaphor of a wave goodbye for body separation to the metaphor of music for body change:
Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging,
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars
for each place the world would not give
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord
that hangs in a guitar’s blond torso. (12-24)
Thoughts and aches, mind and body: what is absent and what is present. The physical guitar creates the sound, but the sound that lingers and enters the body is also outside and beyond the guitar. ?First Gestures? offers metaphors of embodied discoveries that resonate throughout the entire text.
After establishing this general relationship between symbol and meaning, body and self, the poem identifies the way this process of memory, knowledge and self are gendered, moving beyond a genderless child to woman’s sense of body and identity:
Think how a particular ridge of hills
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light?
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines
across the wall of a tiny, white room
where a girl makes love for the first time.
Its leaves tremble like small hands
against the screen while she weeps
in the arms of her bewildered lover.
She’s too young to see that as we gather
losses, we may also grow in love;
as in passion, the body shudders
and clutches what it must release. (25-38)
Kasdorf’s observations in this early poem about desire and loss are illuminated by Beauvoir’s description of body realities and human desire. Beauvoir argues that both male and female bodies share many elements: the pain of desire and loss, movement in space and time, the relationship between body and self. But a woman, especially as she encounters her female self in puberty, in childbirth and in menopause, experiences and knows very different things than a man does in the male body. ?First Gestures? establishes this distinction between male and female discoveries. While the narrator asserts that humans experience life through the body, the girl must learn in adolescence something that her adolescent male lover, bewildered by her response, does not yet know. Her future is linked to a very physical experience of accumulating and losing, clutching and releasing, as she grows more conscious of the body that defines many aspects of that self.
Differences between individual bodies, and especially the difference between female and male bodies, translate into very different life experiences, different reactions and different identities. For the female body, movement toward the future, toward pursuing desire, includes the incorporation into self of many things unknown and uncontrollable. In building a sense of identity, a young woman understands that her desires for the future must incorporate body vulnerability and the capacity she holds for carrying otherness within her body during pregnancy.
While puberty is equally disconcerting to both boy and girl, a girl’s awareness of physical vulnerability and society’s expectations for passivity results in a very different sense of self. The change is different for the male, who feels the forces of his own body exerting their power in a changing voice and fuzzy chin. But for a male in a patriarchal society, these physical changes are signs of the man he is taught to become, with all the freedom, responsibility and power that society’s construction of masculinity confers on him. Kasdorf’s second poem ?Freight? offers the narrator’s realization in the context of her life experience that male and female lives can follow very different paths. The male may actively move forward, while the female might passively wait:
Now I see that the first boy I loved
loved speed for its own sake the way
we all loved our bodies before learning
to feel ashamed. (1-4)
. . .
Yet he could be patient, sweet,
. . . when he took me in his arms
in the dark in the woods when I would not
refuse what I knew must be the drive
that can wreck a girl, despite her own
The masculine is equated with movement, and this boy’s life speeds ahead unimpeded: the narrator describes him driving vans, ?delivering papers too precious to fax,? and running freight trains. She describes feeling her ?body stunned by its great momentum and a halting restraint? (21-22), overwhelmed by ?desire, / dense and pure as lead? (24-25). She senses forces she cannot explain, movement forward that cannot be stopped or redirected but can only be refused or restrained, ?despite her own / intentions? (18-19). When she later hears train whistles, she says, she thinks of ?his engine somewhere in the mountains / rushing toward Baltimore or Williamsport,/ nothing to stop him? (36-39). She understands the differences only later in life, opening the poem with ?Now I see.? And the lesson is this: nothing stopped him but something stopped her.
Even though a man’s experience is embodied, he may not be taught that physical vulnerability is the condition upon which he must take his place in the world. A woman’s sense of self, by her very biological make up, can never include impenetrable boundaries.  In fact, even her own body contains an alien force, the potential to reproduce, ?the drive/ that can wreck a girl.? As Beauvoir argues, ?The individuality of the female is opposed by the interest of the species; it is as if she were possessed by foreign forces’alienated . . . . The female feels her enslavement more and more keenly; the conflict between her own interests and the reproductive forces is heightened? (28). A woman’s embodied life has nothing to do with how she sees herself on one level, but everything to do with it on another level. During a woman’s menstrual cycle, Beauvoir suggests, a woman ?feels her body most painfully as an obscure, alien thing; . . . Woman, like man, is her body, but her body is something other than herself? (33). Beauvoir’s description of a woman’s body as the ?theater of a play that unfolds within her and in which she is not personally concerned? (31) offers a useful insight into the the pull of recognition and alienation that Kasdorf constructs in her narrator.
In ?Sinning? (9), the narrator encounters gender constructions that place social and spiritual value on female sexuality. In her church community she learns ?cautionary tales? that are spun from lessons about rabbits, about crossing her legs, about the rejection of ?blighted roses? and ?handled merchandise,? and about public confessions. She asks, ?What other sin got such attention’? (22), and she discovers the ?freight? a woman must carry throughout life. She concludes, ?No wonder / I grew weary of bearing that cargo? (23). The caution, the fear, the anticipation of how her body impacts her life hovers over and around a young woman’s emerging identity.
One example of a young girl’s awakening to body vulnerability is in the poem ?The Knowledge of Good and Evil? (19-20), where the narrator describes her reaction to seeing her first movie Snow White. After watching Snow White die from eating the poisoned apple, the narrator runs screaming out of the dark theater into the lobby where she was ?grateful it was still light/ outside that story? (14-15). The story, she says:
was worse than disobedience
or the snake I saw slithering beyond the frame
of my Bible story page. I’d studied Adam’s face
and Eve, who tempted him, hair hiding her breasts
as they walked in that exotic garden, already bent
over with guilt. (15-20)
Even when her mother promises that ?The prince / returns! She comes back to life! Go in and see!? (22-23), the narrator refuses to believe that ?she was alive and happy ever after? (27). ?I was a heretic,? she says, ?too insulted by the cross/ to accept resurrection? (28-29).
Beauvoir’s addressing the effect of a girl first discovering her body vulnerability suggests that a girl’s fear may be heightened by society’s:
attempt to explain to her that one day neither defloration nor childbirth would seem so terrible to her, that millions of women have gone through with it all and have been none the worse for the experience. When a child has fear of some external occurrence, we rid her of it; but if we predict that later she will accept it quite naturally, then she feels dread of encountering herself’changed, astray’in the distant future. (342)
The resulting emotional and psychological crisis can be dangerous, Beauvoir says, especially in situations where a young girl finds herself sexually vulnerable. The result can be a woman’s mistrust of and a distancing from her own body. ?The Knowledge of Good and Evil? suggests that the stories young girls are told, if only through popular culture, set them up for alienation from their bodies.
In fact, sexual vulnerability and a young woman’s distancing of self from body runs through Kasdorf’s poetry as well. The poem ?Ghost? (12-13) offers a powerful representation of the disintegration of identity that can occur when a female faces a crisis of body fear:
In stories brought back from brief deaths,
ghosts hover above frantic doctors,
hoping they will not find a way to pull souls back into wracked bodies.
One of those ghosts slipped out
when I was a child and a man caressed
the cleft in my panties. In all memories
I see the scene from three feet away.
Later, the ghost sat in a backseat
admiring my boyfriend’s face
as it shifted in a kiss,
his hand drifting across a shoulder
to a breast. Even in marriage, the ghost
taunts from above the bed: Is it good?
Walking home late from the train,
I press a key between each knuckle of my fist.
(Why don’t I think it would help me to scream’)
Instead the ghost foresees it all from above,
and I rage against the vulnerable socket
I cannot gouge out of this body. (1-20)
When confronted by the female self as a ?vulnerable socket,? a woman might create another ?self? to inhabit, a self shaped more by society’s desire for her female body than by her own inner desires. In fact, Kasdorf actually draws on visual codes of a media-saturated culture to construct the imagery of this poem: themes from made-for-T.V. movies about after-life experiences, sex scenes offered in everything from advertisements to television shows, and, of course, the vulnerable lone woman as the inevitable victim of violence in a horror film. Many of our culture’s popular stories reinforce female passivity, and affect a woman’s sense of self.
As women gain an awareness of body vulnerability, some accept the patriarchal construct of the female body as Other, an identity that is constructed externally by social expectations and media portrayals, rather than internally with knowledge of inner desire. Unfortunately, a young woman’s assertion of power over her body is a familiar pattern, evident today with the ever-increasing numbers of eating disorders and the continuing escalation of violence against girls and women on many different levels. Current research demonstrates that adolescent anorexia, cutting, destructive sexual activity and suicide are closely related to a young girl’s discovery of her body vulnerability and fear of impending changes. By causing the pain herself or by controlling her body, she inflicts pain and, perhaps as a result, can control the fear. As books in the last decade have demonstrated’Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Promiscuities, Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project and Fasting Girls?the physical crisis for adolescent girls is a crisis of identity and self-esteem, a crisis that can have very tragic results. And Kasdorf’s early poems in Eve’s Striptease pose a similar crisis. Encountering her adolescent body, a young girl finds that her youthful sense of power and identity is threatened by society’s valuing or devaluing her power. The poem ?Ghost? describes the narrator’s response to body vulnerability:
To keep the ghost in place, I lift weights,
strain against that good force
binding me to earth. Mine, I instruct
my brain, my strong arms, my fists,
my sweat, the ache of myself in my calves. (21-25)
The loss of power described in Kasdorf’s poems was noted by Beauvoir already in 1949. Beauvoir details these risks as well: ?These sado-masochistic performances are at once an anticipation of the sexual experience and a protest against it; in passing these tests, one becomes hardened for all possible ordeals and reduces their harshness? (397).
Beauvoir’s consideration of the body vulnerability in relationship to her developing identity does not suggest that women are only body or that they must control the body in order to be like men, as some more nave readings of The Second Sex would suggest. Beauvoir’s philosophy of female identity emerges from her belief that ?existence is not merely an abstract destiny set down in city records; it is the rich fleshly future [emphasis mine]. To have a body no longer seems a blemish to be ashamed of; . . . The flesh is no longer a defilement: it means joy and beauty? (407). The development of a male identity, in her paradigm, might involve projecting into the future without considering species-related issues. The male body, though, is also an important aspect of his existential condition. Beauvoir asserts that:
man, like woman, is flesh, therefore passive, the plaything of his hormones and of the species, the restless prey of his desires. . . . In both sexes is played out the same drama of the flesh and the spirit, of finitude and transcendence; both are gnawed away by time and laid in wait for by death, they have the same essential need for one another; and they can gain from their liberty the same glory. (806)
In her chapter titled ?The Independent Woman? Beauvoir argues that in order to truly ?liberate? a woman, she must be able to live in her body, live with her reproductive self, and still develop a sense of her self as a human being capable of putting the self forth into the future, of undertaking a project that examines or creates something from her self.
Beauvoir’s encouragement explains Kasdorf’s shift from a young woman’s fear to confidence and creativity at the end of Part I. Constructed internally or externally, a young woman’s desire for power can be intense, and the narrator admits from the start in ?Eve’s Striptease? (21) that, even as her community showed her the limits placed on her desire, her mother helped her trust the role of her own desire:
The tiny bird she set loving in me must
keep on, batting the bars of its cage
in a rage only matched by my cravings
for an ample pantry and golden anniversary. (24-27)
The presence of very real physical risks and cultural limitations does not preclude the pursuit of female desire. But even in a young adult woman’s growing experience and confidence, body vulnerability asserts itself in terms of a lack of choice about motherhood. In ?Mother Love? (23-24) the narrator considers her desire for a career, ?each year growing more accomplished? (8); her questions about her possibilities for motherhood, with eggs that ?wait in their dark carton, / marked with dates for release / and expiration? (9-11); and her mother’s craving for a grandchild. She addresses uncertainty, which in an individualist society that worships self-control is one of the most difficult elements of encountering the female self. The narrator reflects that:
Ancient Hebrew texts used the same word
to name Adam’s toil and Eve’s labor
pains: humanity’s curse is work
toward no certain end, the anguish of love
and not knowing. (16-20)
In this poem, the cultural gendering of the body feeds into larger existential questions, but the narrator still asks what body knowledge means for her desire to write. This particular passage offers the reader a turning point in the narrator’s struggle to slough off ribs, project herself into the future and cope with the pervasive uncertainty of her female self. Males and females cannot live in absolutes; to be human means to desire more and achieve less.
GESTURES TOWARD ABSENCE
The end of part one in Eve’s Striptease contains a series of poems focused on Kasdorf’s New York life, the context for Kasdorf’s early independence in her twenties, her first writing and her marriage. Kasdorf’s poems shift from adolescent body crisis to a young adult’s struggle to face the uncertainty of the future and her place in unfamiliar places. In Eve’s Striptease the narrator’s Brooklyn life is marked by her desires as a poet and by the acceptance of that desire as a part of the human, not only the female, condition. In ?Our Last Neighborhood in Brooklyn? the nave narrator mistakes robed garden statues as representations of the Virgin Mary, although they are actually ?Saint Anthony of Padua, patron/ of barren women and all things lost? (6-7). In the discovery of newness, the foreignness and uncertainty of the self that she encounters in her young adult years, the narrator observes a very tangible symbol for the relationship between loss and hope in the human journey. Saint Anthony cradles a child in his arms, which the narrator confuses for another symbol of loss and hope, the baby Jesus.
Kasdorf’s move beyond the difference of sex and gender in her identity journey is underscored by Beauvoir’s own move beyond the Manichean opposition of male and female to a less gender-specific pursuit of human desire:
The fact is that every human existence involves transcendence and immanence at the same time; to go forward, each existence must be maintained, for it to expand toward the future it must integrate the past, and while intercommunicating with others it should find self-confirmation. These two elements’maintenance and progression’are implied in any living activity. (480)
In later chapters Beauvoir describes how women in Western culture are prevented from pursuing their transcendence, particularly if they confine themselves to the roles of mother and wife as society defines them. Kasdorf’s narrator, while acknowledging the way society attempts to define her, demonstrates that woman can formulate an identity that incorporates her biological difference. She does not want to accept a role that does not include risk or possibility.
In ?On Leaving Brooklyn? (45) the narrator offers Babylon and Jerusalem as metaphors for her youthful desire, the fear she has navigated as a young woman, and the desires she has chosen to pursue. ?If I forget thee,? she says, ?let my tongue forget the songs / it sang in this strange land / and my heart forget the secrets / only a stranger can learn? (1-5). She offers up her personal identity and her biological womanhood if she loses the ability to desire more than she herself can know:
Let my blood forget
the map of its travels
and my other blood cease
its slow tug toward the sea
if I do not remember,
if I do not always consider thee
my Babylon, my Jerusalem. (11-17)
A double self’made up of ?my blood? and ?my other blood’?emerges from these first poems; the biological self (the ?slow tug toward the sea’) and the creative self (the metaphoric map of travels) must both be remembered. The first part of the book has revealed the intertwining of reproduction and physical vulnerability with sexual and creative desire. As the narrator matures, she faces physical pain, loss, vulnerability, along with her growing desire and burgeoning creativity. As she follows the ?map? of her travels from child to woman, she accepts that the tension between desire and body is inherently human, an incarnation of the divine in the human body. In ?Living Large? (38-39) the narrator recalls how on a camping trip she and her husband ?knew to lock food and utensils in the trunk, / that bears will maul a menstruating woman, / and a sow and cubs were feeding on a carcass / not distant. Nonetheless we filled our tent / with good human scent.? Humans follow desire, and desire always includes absence, risk and incompleteness. The gesture to replace what is absent never actually becomes a universal truth, but the gesture still has meaning.
MAPPING THE KNOWN
In Part II of Eve’s Striptease, ?Map of the Known World,? the negotiation of the female body and identity continues, but the narrator no longer waits passively for her desires to be filled. In this part of the book, desire does not necessarily lead to vulnerability, at least not the sexual and social vulnerability she traversed in adolescence. No longer a young girl examining lost dreams, lost virginity and lost sense of her youthful, invulnerable self, the narrator now examines those losses as the source of life and language. In ?The Use of Allusion? (49) the narrator embraces the ambiguous dynamic between absence and presence, claiming, ?I’m beginning to understand the use of allusion’:
how one scent or gesture can stand for
all absent others. In these clear eyes, for instance,
I can almost peer through to all the eyes
I’ve loved since mother. Aligned like this,
each one grows more precious in a complex
lineage of attachment and loss, gathering weight
in the body, even as it shrinks toward death. (9-16)
Growing toward self, the narrator points out, involves finding words to represent the absence, maps to guide her through the ?vast territories? of life. Kasdorf asserts in the second part of the book that knowledge and meaning can be found through relationship to others, where a woman lives among and discovers ?the secrets/ only a stranger can learn? (?On Leaving Brooklyn,? 4-5).
Kasdorf poses questions about transcendence and creativity in general, but she also questions female transcendence and creativity in particular. A series of poems show Kasdorf looking for models of how to live life in a female body and pursue her own creativity. She learns from her mother’s body, while washing her scarred shoulder in ?Map of the Known World? (50-51) and watching her ?striding toward? her on the beach in ?July 1969? (52). Even the bodies of strange women in ?Ladies Night at the Turkish and Russian Baths? (53-54) teach her about acceptance of one’s body, noting that the women are ?grateful to show and view the real shapes / of ourselves.? Unfortunately, the temporary comfort modeled by the older women in the steaming bath is disturbed by the pain she senses in a ?stunning young woman? whose ?tears slide like sweat into the turban? as they lie on the rooftop in the afternoon sun. ?Whatever the reason,? the narrator notes, ?I feel bound to her weeping.? These women share their body truths, but they also suffer together.
But determining her own self in relationship to other women’s bodies, hopes and roles is only one part of her journey toward an identity as a woman and a writer. She turns to female models for her work. In ?Black Dress? (75-76) Kasdorf represents the strain on female creativity with the metaphor of a black dress shared by poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. The narrator wonders why Sexton took her own life, while her close friend Kumin did not. Kasdorf concludes:
I need to know how Kumin finally survived
her own beauty to keep writing alone,
and finally stand here before me in defiance
of anyone who’d concoct a cautionary tale
of her life. (28-32)
But the tension between creative desire and social constraints is not limited to female experience. In ?Letter to Timothy Russell from Lewisburg? (74) she asks a male poet to ?Please tell / how you do it: keep both your self and your job / without bursting from laughter or crashing / right out through the glass? (16-19). We are not given Russell’s answer, but the questions are most revealing. Transcendence is not something that comes naturally to men or women; Kasdorf knows she must consciously choose and actively pursue. Creativity is the fulcrum of both her self and her job. Transcendence for a female poet requires body pulling against work, but it also includes both body and work.
Kasdorf’s creative battle with body is often linked to the metaphor of the window or mirror common in women’s writing. Whether it is Alice falling through the looking glass or the stepmother asking the ?mirror, mirror on the wall? for affirmation of her beauty, a female artist invariably encounters social categories for her work, ?the glass ceiling.? When shown the potential results, the narrator recognizes that the outcome of her desire could easily be like Sexton’s suicide or Kumin’s success.
The uncertainty of a female artist’s survival is reinforced when Kasdorf tries to assure an aspiring young female student who wonders what it is like to be a poet. In ?Eve’s Curse? (77) the title emphasizes the link between body vulnerability and female creativity already established in ?Eve’s Striptease.? Kasdorf contemplates the battle this young woman will encounter between her ?self? and her job, the desires of her female body and her creative impulse. ?This work,? the narrator reflects, ?will drive you away from us; it will make / you strange in the end.? And as with any woman, whether able to slough off ribs or not, her ?curse / will be to ache as you’ve never imagined: / . . . as Eve’s curse was to crave for her husband.? In this paradigm, a woman’s desire is a curse, the body the path. The models around her and her own experience suggest that the future may hold unavoidable pain.
In addition to turning to women for maps, Kasdorf looks to men for guidance in forging her future and facing the uncertainty of its outcome. In ?Brooklyn Bridge Showing Painter on Suspenders, 1914? (68-69) the narrator admires the confident male workers who impose a new physical reality on the world. Rather than being intimidated by what they cannot do, they create the seemingly impossible. Although she could interpret the ability to create as solely a masculine trait, she concludes that ?we dare not let go of even sorrow, / that hanging on, fearless and afraid / . . . is our only home.? Kasdorf’s association of her own creativity with masculine models does not preclude her knowledge of the way body and gender constructions may shape her future; she does, however, include herself in the possibilities she sees.
In ?The Streak? (70) she describes her father as a boy who ?hammers a piece of lead pipe,? ?cuts it into slender strips his sister will pinch on her snake-black braids.? The young boy acts, creates and ?learns / even heavy, hard things can be beaten / into other things, transformed entirely.? Indeed, in ?The Streak? his creation serves to constrain a woman’s hair, a symbol of female sensuality and original sin. The symbol of temptation is reinforced by calling the hair ?snake-black.? In sex, the male turns ?from sleep to rouse a woman, then / turns back, the streak on her thigh, / a slug’s bright leaving.? The female passively accepts his imposition of body that leaves very physical remnants on her body, ?leavings? that hold the very real possibility of pregnancy, which would, in turn, transform her own body.
Although the masculine creativity presented in ?The Streak? is not identical to the feminine creativity characterized in Eve’s Striptease, the narrator connects the masculine and feminine forces shaping her identity and work. The narrator literally emerges from her father’s impulses: ?and I, / his only daughter, will come of that.? In ?Learning the Names? (72) she describes the way her father taught her ?to love nature / by naming it.? She learns the power of the symbolic order: ?I learned to carry the names / of whatever God made in my head.? Kasdorf learns the gesture’s power and claims that power for herself: ?I learned this is how you use language / to know what you will never possess.?
Although the poems that address her masculine role models contain clearly gendered categories of action and inaction, authority and obedience, they do not contain simplistic generalization of the masculine as dominant and transcendent. In Kasdorf’s poems of death, divorce, despair, suicide, she acknowledges that the incarnation of spirit in body is difficult to grasp, but it must be done by males and females. The narrator recognizes the shared uncertainty and pain of human existence, or the shared Hebrew word for ?Adam’s toil and Eve’s labor / pains,? as she notes in ?Mother Love? (23-24). Whether gendered as man’s creation and woman’s reproduction, pain and uncertainty are a part of the human experience. The poems in Part II indicate that in the world Kasdorf observes, gendered as it is, both men and women experience gain and loss. A body with no identifiable gender gives way to cancer in ?Lymphoma? (56-57). Both male and female react instinctively to a mugging in ?Why I Ran.? One male friend succumbs to heart disease in ?To Honor the Dead? (64-65), another to the grief of divorce in ?Houseguest Confession? (66-67). She and her father share the curse of painful headaches in ?Migraines, for Dad? (71), and both know the delicate balance between body and mind. In ?How My Father Learned English? (73) the narrator explains that his learning was more intuitive than conscious: ?At some point, he says, it just / began to make sense, sounds gave / up significance as neatly / as the clear and yolk slipped into batter.? The certainty of life and identity, the certainty assumed by many (in Western culture, in particular) to be a masculine prerogative, does not exist and that discovery is nothing new. Only the striving toward transcendence is possible, and living with the uncertainty becomes the norm for the embodied spirit. In ?Flammable Skirts Recalled? (58) she asks her friend Ellen, ?Haven’t we’like at least / a quarter million others’always been living like this’?
In the remainder of the book, the narrator looks outward at women and men negotiating both accumulation and loss, people continuing to live in the uncertainty of miracles and the certainty of loss. Although encouraged by these models, she recognizes that their efforts were not without pain. In ?First Bird? (82) she offers:
We know nothing can be whole
that hasn’t been torn.
There is no holy thing
that hasn’t been betrayed,
the way notes, once forced
into her tiny throat,
come out this dawn as song. (11-17)
Rather than look at creativity as an aberration’the torn whole (like woman’s vulnerable socket), the holy betrayed (like fallen Adam and Eve)?she claims brokenness and betrayal as the source of wholeness, of the holy, of the poet’s song. Transcendence’to use Beauvoir’s terminology’is the act of living in the body, of offering the gesture in the absence of certainty.
In the concluding poem ?Flying Lessons? (83) Kasdorf reinforces the need to continually hope for a miracle and risk failure. A male mentor, recalling his earlier days at Harvard flying planes at night, offers this advice: ?fling yourself / farther, and a bit farther each time, / but darling, don’t drop? (22-24).  Kasdorf’s search for creative transcendence in her life as a woman requires such fearful flinging of self, of acting with the confidence of an embodied identity, such as the one Beauvoir mapped out in great detail half a century earlier. In that context Eve’s Striptease is a female poet’s creative coming of age without relinquishing either the desires her body holds or the knowledge of her body’s vulnerability. But her transcendence does not come from control of or freedom from her female body. Her creative voice comes from the journey of spirit in body, from flinging body and mind farther, from living in uncertainty and through the gesture.
The poems themselves are the striptease act, the gesture, the performance that reveals that the ideal can never be attained. Understanding comes through the gesture, and the female poet is poised on the shore of self-discovery and her own career as a mature female poet, prepared to fling herself into the future. Kasdorf’s narrator learns her desires, but she also learns her body. And in Eve’s Striptease Kasdorf shows a woman encountering fear, pain and loss but never relinquishing her desire. Kasdorf’s effort has been nurtured by women, such as Beauvoir, who have flung themselves from that same shore and shared the story of the journey. Eve’s Striptease encourages a tossing aside of restrictions on desire, a sloughing off of ribs, and an embodying of the human spirit that will indeed keep getting better and better.
[*]Beth Martin Birky is Associate Professor of English at Goshen College.
1. Julia Kasdorf, Eve’s Striptease (Pittsburgh: U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), 21-22. Numbers in parentheses following the poems cited below refer to line numbers. Numbers in the text following poem titles from Eve’s Striptease refer to page numers.
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. A bibliography on these issues is far beyond the scope of this paper. Some important critics responding to Beauvoir and exploring feminist theory of the body, in particular, include Judith Butler, Margaret A. Simons, Moira Gaten, Roberta Rubenstein, Fiona Webster, among others. French feminists Hlne Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and, later, Monique Wittig are also central to the ongoing feminist debate of the female body as essentialist or constructivist.
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. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley (New York: Vintage Books, 1974). In her 1983 essay ?The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir: Guess What’s Missing from The Second Sex,? Margaret A. Simons revealed serious mistranslations and deletions in H. M. Parshley’s 1952 edition (still the only English translation of The Second Sex available).? Margaret A. Simons, Beauvoir and The Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999). See also Toril Moi’s more recent examination of the Parshley translation in ?While We Wait: The English Translation of The Second Sex,? Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 27.4 (2002).
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. Webster cautions that ?this distinction between sex and gender is not drawn unproblematically, and even in the work of Beauvoir . . . it is debatable whether the category of sex can be conceived of as wholly distinct and separate from the cultural construction of gender.??Ibid, 191.
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. Simons offers a clear explanation of Beauvoir’s purpose for establishing woman’s existential reality of reproduction:
Beauvoir’s own profound alienation from woman’s traditional role of wife and mother can provide insight into her angry, sometimes ambivalent but largely negative view of motherhood in The Second Sex. The philosophical challenge that Beauvoir faced in her analysis was twofold. She had to provide a serious philosophical description and analysis of women’s experience, which other, male phenomenologists such as Jean-Paul Sartre had failed to do. She also had to combat the conservative position exemplified by Hegel’s philosophy that woman’s differences from man define/confine her to the limited sphere she then occupied.?Simons, ?The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir,? 77.
Rather than seeing Beauvoir’s own choice to remain childless as evidence that she was completely male-identified and anti-female, Simons urges the reader to consider that ?Beauvoir radically called into question the philosophical foundations of woman’s traditional role,? not necessarily the choice to bear children (86). From this perspective, Simons is able to ?acknowledge Beauvoir’s insight and achievement in locating within her description of women’s consciousness the existence of a desire for individual achievement and for the expression of productive cultural creativity that is properly understood as not being the sublimation of a supposedly more authentic desire for a child? (88).
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. Although Beauvoir uses a word translated as ?maternity? here, I caution the reader to avoid equating maternity with motherhood. Identifying the vulnerability a woman experiences because of the ongoing reproductive potential does not eliminate her choice to prevent or pursue pregnancy. Pregnancy also cannot be conflated with social constructions of motherhood.
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. By referring to Kasdorf’s poetic narrative of a woman, I am not suggesting the universality of her experience without consideration of race, class, ethnicity, etc. I do find in Kasdorf’s exploration a paradigm for exploring identity within the shifting and context-based experience of body and mind.
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. In The Body and the Book (82) Kasdorf refers to Beauvoir in her essay ?Bodies and Boundaries,? noting the significance of Beauvoir’s analysis of body and identity for Kasdorf’s own work.
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. Freud’s ongoing concern for the relationship of anatomy and identity is well known and the subject of much feminist psychoanalytical criticism from his contemporaries in the 1920s and 1930s to the present. Key essays on Freud’s use of the Oedipal Complex in examining identity and sexuality are ?The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex? (1924), ?Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes? (1925) and ?Female Sexuality? (1931), all of which can be found in The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (New York: Norton, 1989).
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. Toril Moi offers a very thorough analysis of Freud, Beauvoir and biological determinism in ?Is Anatomy Destiny? Freud and Biological Determinism,? What is Woman and Other Essays (New York: Oxford U. Press, 199), 369-93.
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. While acknowledging that masculinity and femininity are constructed differently in different cultural contexts, Beauvoir argues from a white, Western European, patriarchal context that privileges individual self-determination as the ideal.
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. My reading traces the metaphor of sexuality and agency. Consideration of the poem in a different context might indicate that class plays a role as large as gender does in establishing the differences between the narrator and her first love.
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. In The Girl Within Hancock describes the physical developments that influence adolescent sense of self:
With a girl’s earlier puberty comes a lag in growth; with the boy’s comes an increase in mass. As he catches up to and surpasses her in height, weight, and muscular force, the boy, for the first time, is bigger and stronger than she. An exuberant athlete at nine, many a girl is a careful young lady at eleven as female appendages begin to intrude on pure physical prowess: unwieldy breasts, broadening hips, softening contours, clutter the taut streamlined body of her androgynous youth. No matter how proud she may be of ?becoming a woman,? these physical changes hamper a girl’s freedom and weaken the confidence she earlier placed in her physical skills. . . . He is encouraged to explore; she, cautioned about her feminine vulnerability, is expected to stay close by.?Hancock, The Girl Within, 19-20.
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. Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (New York: Anchor Books, 1991); Naomi Wolf, Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood (New York: Random House, 1997).
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. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Vintage Books, 1997) and Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (New York: Penguin, 1988).
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. Another reading of this poem might consider Kasdorf’s allusion in this poem to the Christian Church’s historical usurpation of feminine symbols of fertility and assertion of male control over reproduction, an interpretation teased out at the end of the poem with a reference to the New York subway and Dutch colonialism. In the context of my reading, I see Kasdorf embracing the symbol of Saint Anthony as a gesture toward facing loss while asserting confidence, an attitude that is intentionally separated from gender constructions.
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. See Kasdorf’s consideration of vocation in her first book of poetry Sleeping Preacher (U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1992). In the opening poem ?Green Market, New York? the narrator concludes, ?I don’t like New York, but sometimes these streets/ hold me as hard as we’re held by rich earth./ I have not forgotten that Bible verse:/ Whoever puts his hand to the plow and looks back/ is not fit for the kingdom of God? (17-31).
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. The masculine transcendence in this poem closely echoes Beauvoir’s description. A man, Beauvoir notes, learns quickly that ?if he quickens his strokes on the anvil, he finishes his tool sooner, whereas nothing can hasten the ripening of grain. He comes to realize his responsibility for what he is making: his skill or clumsiness will make or break it; careful, clever, he develops his skill to a point of perfection in which he takes pride: his success depends not upon the favor of the gods but upon himself. . . . Man learns his power? (85).
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. Kasdorf plays with the relationship of mind and body through the egg metaphor, using a domestic image that references female fertility and intuition to both the masculine and feminine.
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. Kasdorf has identified this man as J. Lawrence Burkholder, Goshen College president from 1972-1982.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Revealing The Second Sex in the Poetry of Julia Kasdorf