It was a joy to rediscover the work of Alison Stine – her first book of poems, Ohio Violence, fascinated me with its depiction of a Midwestern landscape that many book reviewers have termed “gothic”. Stine’s second book, Wait (U. Wisconsin, 2011), returns to this same territory, but with a different sense of purpose. In these poems, which chronicle the year before a woman’s marriage, we witness a transformation in the narrator’s understanding of the dynamics of gender in the particular setting of the Midwest.
In Stine’s work, the relationship between humans and the natural world is a powerful source of instability. In many instances, the land is an embodied victim of machinery; ponds fear to make a sound in the face of people forever plowing and hunting. The precision of her agricultural descriptions takes these connections beyond a simple predator/prey relationship, however. For example, farmers bury live asparagus stalks to keep them white and pristine. Yet, the natural world creates its own disturbances, as water “slices from the sky” and birds peel bark from the trees. Homes appear fragile against these forces.
The persistence of this instability allows Stine to begin drawing gendered connections across the landscape. In the hands of men, tools inflict pain and create vulnerability, whether through farming equipment scarring the land or a photographer blurring the faces of women in his images. In one vivid example, priests crush the mouth of a statue of the goddess Nefirtiti to prevent her from sharing information. Women are often configured as prey or the constant subject of the male gaze. Women’s bodies fill dresses rather than possessing innate form, and even their own actions preserve their vulnerability, like the bareness of shaving their legs or the exposure of a pregnancy test. Stine draws us to reflect on not only the use of force against women and nature, but also the silencing effects of these actions.
Into this world, Stine inserts an observant narrator, one who is both subject to these forces and, by the last poems, able to manipulate them in her own interest. As the title suggests, the narrator is interested in what it means to wait, whether in the context of women serving men, the eventual arrival of a male protector, or for personal growth. Stine’s narrator moves toward recognition of the ways women gather power in the face of this landscape, as she learns to “separate sex from pain” and experience alternative options for language, such as signing. Perhaps the most interesting is her recognition of women’s control over violence against themselves, as in several suicide narratives. One jarring instance seems to posit suicide as a form of control and escape – a woman presses 30 pins (“women’s tools”, in Stine’s words) into her chest rather than face a jury trial.
The last 15 pages of Wait propel the narrator into a different setting as she discovers her future husband – still gothic in many respects, but now populated with children and construction. For some, this ending might wrap up the horror of the book too neatly; we have witnessed immense change in the narrator, only to have her satisfaction come not from this strength but from a man. However, the narrator begins the book with hope for rescue by an imagined lover; by the end, she supposes a partnership with a real one. This book provides a stark and complex version of the events during that period of wait and growth, a unique opportunity to observe the maturing of a woman in this cultural setting. The questions Stine poses about how to navigate such a landscape are certainly worth the read.