August 3, 2011

Of Centaurs, May Swenson, and Androgyny

Oh hi there gender blenders,

I'll admit to being a total poetry junkie. A recent post by femme on a mission about a May Swenson poem reminded me of my love for another Swenson poem that involves gender bending. The poem is a bit long, but well worth it, I promise.

The Centaur
via The Poetry Foundation
The summer that I was ten--
Can it be there was only one
summer that I was ten? It must

have been a long one then--
each day I'd go out to choose
a fresh horse from my stable

which was a willow grove
down by the old canal.
I'd go on my two bare feet.

via poets.org
But when, with my brother's jack-knife,
I had cut me a long limber horse
with a good thick knob for a head,

and peeled him slick and clean
except a few leaves for the tail,
and cinched my brother's belt

around his head for a rein,
I'd straddle and canter him fast
up the grass bank to the path,

via Utah State UP
trot along in the lovely dust
that talcumed over his hoofs,
hiding my toes, and turning

his feet to swift half-moons.
The willow knob with the strap
jouncing between my thighs

was the pommel and yet the poll
of my nickering pony's head.
My head and my neck were mine,

yet they were shaped like a horse.
My hair flopped to the side
like the mane of a horse in the wind.

via Utah State Magazine
My forelock swung in my eyes,
my neck arched and I snorted.
I shied and skittered and reared,

stopped and raised my knees,
pawed at the ground  and quivered.
My teeth bared as we wheeled


and swished through the dust again.
I was the horse and the rider,
and the leather I slapped to his rump

via Goodreads
spanked my own behind.
Doubled, my two hoofs beat
a gallop along the bank,

the wind twanged in my mane,
my mouth squared to the bit.
And yet I sat on my steed

quiet, negligent riding,
my toes standing the stirrups,
my thighs hugging his ribs.

At a walk we drew up to the porch.
I tethered him to a paling.
Dismounting, I smoothed my skirt

via Goodreads
and entered the dusky hall.
My feet on the clean linoleum
left ghostly toes in the hall.

Where have you been? said my mother.
Been riding, I said from the sink,
and filled me a glass of water.

What's that in your pocket? she said.
Just my knife. It weighted my pocket
and stretched my dress awry.

Go tie back your hair, said my mother,
and Why is your mouth all green?
Rob Roy, he pulled some clover 
as we crossed the field, I told her.

("The Centaur" as it appears in Nature: Poems Old and New, 1994.)

The speaker imagines she is a a horse/human hybrid, which also highlights the amorphism of  her gender identity. As the poem moves forward, it becomes clear that her hybrid gender identity finds its most free expression in the way that she transposes it into her imaginative play. The speaker straddles the border of feminine/masculine and human/animal.

It is the confrontation with her mother that forces the speaker to stabilize her identity and force it into binaries. She claims the knife as hers, but at the same time, negates the possibility that its form could be mistaken for a part of her body--it is phallic, but it only belongs to her rather than being part of her. The exchange with her mother forces the speaker to position herself in a more stable way, which proves somewhat impossible for her.

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