Two Poems by Steve Noyes: The Institutional and the Intimate
“The body has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit.”
― Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution
I’ve long thought Steve Noyes writes brave poems but what does that mean? Being unafeard, I think. Of lengthy pieces, of textured sounds that require tongue-calisthenics at times and most of all, in relation especially to these two poems published in Vigilance, a journal whose focus is fierce feminisms, of subject matter that can be wince-inducing (because of our endless bodily hang ups) or that requires admissions of vulnerability one often doesn’t hear a male poet making.
When I was in my twenties I read Rich’s Of Woman Born and although The Pessary has little directly to do with the horrors of patriarchally-controlled motherhood she addresses, it has a ton to do with how the medical system treats women’s bodies. In my forties, my uterus full of fibroids, I was told I needed a hysterectomy. I recalled the male doctor laughing at me when I asked about side effects of loss of libido and other sorrows. He quite simply made me feel that my womb was now a useless organ and that it, along with my fallopian tubes and cervix, should be readily cast away, that I should be overjoyed to no longer have my period and be otherwise burdened with these aspects of womanhood. Needless to say, I kept my uterus and found a way to shrink the fibroids, an option I had to research on my own. All this to underscore the intent of The Pessary, to show how these “solutions” offered women to relatively minor issues like occasional incontinence produce more problems like “bladder perforations” or “Inflammation, lancing pains./Putrid discharges. Zero sex.” Problems that are dismissed by a medical system intent on making money off women’s need to stay “womanly” or “youthful.” Rich listed a range of terrors inflicted on women’s bodies in the creation of birth control or medical devices. Noyes, possibly close to a woman who has dealt with this very issue, expresses a deep sympathy for the crass language, the taxing, the privatization, the refusals of reality. His lines are short and terse, his rhythms, as always, taut and resonant with internal rhymes (TP/panties) and alliteration (doom/diapers). He elaborates on the object of the pessary in detail and underlines the vagaries of a system to which women are held victim until (is this release?) the “unanticipated mercy/of happenstance, that other mesh” occurs and the product is withdrawn. But, in the interim, how much suffering, the poem asks.
Was a mesh or synthetic net
to firm up the vaginal floor
and prevent incontinence.
The initial evidence comprised
dozens of women sick and tired
of having to leave some meeting
to stuff TP in their panties,
hang out in the washroom
till the stain dried. Or doom
themselves to the indignity
of diapers. This welcome mesh
was staunch against leakage.
Bad outcomes? One perforated bladder.
Did that sink in? Perforated bladder?
“Normal surgical learning curve,”
we said, and approved the pessary.
“This device is medically necessary.”
An angry gynecologist wrote to us:
“Previously, these women could pay
to get this quickly at a private clinic.
Now, because it is a public benefit,
I have to vie for theatre-time
at the regional hospital. Voila--
they face a year-long waitlist,
the consequence of your decision.”
Elsewhere, though, the pessary was popular.
Let’s revisit “sink in” and “perforated.”
Once you implant and suture
the synthetic mesh, the flesh
incorporates it, and may reject it.
Inflammation, lancing pains.
Putrid discharges. Zero sex.
We de-insured the pessary.
“High risk of harm,” was the language.
A surgeon who perforce excised
many such bloody sunken wefts,
said the mesh was like rebar
clamped in concrete. Lawsuits ensued.
But here an over-taxed system nixed
the pessary. An unanticipated mercy
of happenstance, that other mesh.
Then, in delectable contrast, Noyes complexifies the relations between men and women in an intimate, rather than institutional sense. The title, Penumbra, refers to the darkened area around a body and one could read the male voice here as a resentful one, reduced to a shadow echo within the orb of the woman’s light, her structured design. But is he? He is evidently attentive to the specifics of her witness in his world. Perhaps this is not to his taste, the tchotchkes, the floral purple, but what would his domestic scene be otherwise. I’ve been faced many men who from time to time will snap, “what is mine in this place?” And I will reply, “what would you prefer?” They don’t know, mostly. And they feed mercifully more often on the order, the instances of beauty. Are these gendered roles? I don’t know. Have we been conditioned thusly? The poem is tight with the this-and-that of the homey environment, the reassuring or controlling actions of the woman who “plumps” and “fluffs” but who also snatches and devises with seeming avidity and almost cruelty, turning the man into a kind of infant who needs vitamins and wipes. But that last line! She gives him benison in the end, the bowl that shines with “paradise.”
I have lived a long time in the penumbra
of her order. The charity-shop tchotchkes,
the roll-call of egg-cups in the cupboard.
The sheets she snatched from the clerk
so eagerly, the last set of floral purple.
The streaky gilt edging on the end table.
Pleased, she plumps up sofa-pillows
that scrupulously match the carpet,
just as every night she fluffs the quilt.
It comforts her to tug it snug, to shoo
the spiders off. Enough! But she’ll devise
a further touch: the gummy vitamins,
the scented face-wipes I forgot,
a lacquered bowl depicting paradise.
About the Writers:
Steve Noyes is the author of six collections of poetry. The most recent ones are small data and Rainbow Stage--Manchuria. New poems are forthcoming in Stand, Queen's Quarterly, and Pacific Poetry. He lives in Sheffield, UK. He has also published two novels: November's Radio and It Is Just that Your House Is So Far Away.
Catherine Owen is the author of 15 collections of poetry and prose. Her latest books are Riven (ECW, 2020) and Locations of Grief: an emotional geography, 24 memoirs on loss and place (Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). Raised in Vancouver BC, she lives in Edmonton, AB, Canada.
You can read Catherine's poetry reviews on her blog "Marrow Reviews" at https://crowgirl11.wordpress.com/
Catherine Owen's literary magazine, thethe, is currently accepting poetry submissions:
Ms. Lyric's Poetry Outlaws, now in its fourth season, is a poetry podcast that focuses on renegade poet interviews, incisive questions, mini reckless lectures on contradictions in the poetry world, in-depth homages to decreased Canadian poets and random excursions into compelling poems. Hosted by long term liminal rebel Catherine Owen.