The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: Two “poem-novellas” you wrote, The Life of Mary and The Marriages of Jacob, were retellings of Bible stories; specifically, you call them “feminist biblical re-visions.” What inspired you to choose these stories? Are there any other texts that you want to retell in your own voice?
Charlotte Mandel: By what inner charge do I choose themes in my poetry? In my poem-novellas, The Life of Mary and The Marriages of Jacob, I have sought to give voice to biblical women sealed into attitudes projected upon them by society. The story-told virtues and faults of our foremothers form mythologies which continue to control the lives of present day women. Recent feminist literary research has helped us understand cultural constructs that affect women’s feelings about themselves. Whether or not one has been brought up to read Judaic or Christian scripture, words which speak to our places in society as women originate in the Hebrew and the Christian Bibles. The passive qualities admired in the Virgin Mary are expected of the perfect wife and mother in secular life. Because I had been a young wife and mother trying to personify such virtues, I could identify with Mary as a woman.
Towards structuring The Life of Mary, I was inspired in large part by H.D.’s wonderful long poem, Helen in Egypt, written as a sequence of non-chronological lyrics. My long poem takes place within the consciousness of a modern American Jewish woman, articulating scenes of her daily life, dreams and fantasies as she projects her own fears during pregnancy onto Michelangelo’s “Pieta” figure. Eventually, the modern Mary does save her son, and reaches an epiphany in a dream of her own strength.
In the biblical story of Jacob, his wives, Rachel and Leah, and their handmaids who exist only as names, many parts are ignored. My book may be a form of “midrash”—the many commentaries which tell stories to fill in gaps in scriptural stories. But through the centuries, most interperetations of the women were depicted by male writers. I began to think about the four women living in intimate closeness with one man. What were their actual lives and emotions? For instance, in all the listings of “begats”, and although thirteen children are conceived and borne by the four women, not once is the profound female experience of childbirth depicted. The Marriages of Jacob enters lyrically into the labor and delivery of Leah’s first child, and the women assisting. The entire work took me two years to accomplish, using research into recent biblical archeology for actual details of their daily lives.
I’ve also written a verse play, The Gardener’s Wife, dealing with Eve, revising Lilith as a helper to Eve rather than a demon, and exploring relationships between the original couple and their sons Abel and Cain. An excerpt appears in Verse Wisconsin and my audio reading of the complete play is available on my website, charlottemandel.com
I have thought of writing about Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of famous Felix, a fine pianist and composer in her own right, who was not encouraged to publish because she was a woman. But at this time, I’m working on individual poems without any comprehensive theme, although a theme may emerge, as some of these poems ponder about the passage of time.
RR: Your ninth book of poetry, Through a Garden Gate, features both your poems and photographs by Vincent Covello. How do your poems and his photographs interact? Do you think more poets should experiment with combining their works with visual mediums?
CM: The garden created by Vincent Covello has been a source of calm beauty where I’ve written some of the poems directly as I walked or rested there. His photographs bring the garden to life whenever I look at them. The plan of the book offers the viewer/reader opportunity to interact with his/her own responses to images and words; each photograph faces its poem on the opposite page, so that the poem and photograph fulfill each other. We’re grateful to publisher Kevin Walzer for accomplishing this beautiful color publication for David Robert Books.
I believe multi-sensory poetry forms can be exciting and stimulate audiences in new ways. I’ve presented a reading of Through a Garden Gate with the photographs projected on screen. Previously, I’ve read my poems written in response to works of art at the Montclair Art Museum with images of the art works projected on screen. It occurs to me now that my long poem The Life of Mary has ekphrastic sections in response to Michelangelo’s “Pieta”. For people unaccustomed to reading poetry on the page, visual counterpart may offer a pathway to enjoyment.
RR: You seem to be experimenting with an interesting form in your poem “Japanese Studio.” What inspired that form?
CM: In Japan, I visited a studio and was greatly impressed by the skill of the artist able to cut delicate paper stencils without measuring, by eye/hand coordination alone. I wanted to try to express the artist’s fine delicacy of movements as well as his expectation that the spaces will take on meaning. What is left out is equal to the framing retained. The form of the poem works with spaces as does the stencil.
RR: The conversation that exists within your piece appears to undergo an interruption. What prompted this?
CM: That “interruption” represents what the visitor now can see and imagine as she gazes at the finished stencil artwork. The Japanese form of haiku, for example, leaves such a space for meaning to arise by juxtaposition of images
RR: With nine books of poetry published, do you ever have a desire to go back and revise any of your previous pieces, or do you constantly push forward with your work?
CM: On very rare occasions, if a poem is to be anthologized or reprinted somewhere, I may choose to revise a phrase or line. But otherwise, I do not go back to rethink or revise. Each book represents a time and place in the movement of my work. I hope to continue to discover new meanings that may find life in poetry.
Charlotte Mandel’s work in Issue 2.3: