THE POETESS AND THE MOONCALF
I saw a post on Facebook recently by a man whom a woman had defriended because he objected to her use of the word poetess. (From my knowledge of him, I doubt that he did it unkindly.) My immediate reaction, as I began to read the comments, was that poetess was kind of like shepherdess or songstress, with its own period charm. But the certainty of the commenters that poetess was not only derogatory (it generally has been for a long time), but that anyone who referred to herself that way “in the 21st century” was worthy of ridicule, reminded me of how even writers—which most of these commenters were—can be tone deaf about how words change their meaning; and, more to the point, how individuals can find different meanings in words. A Facebook page, is, after all, a personal statement, not a newspaper article or a college text.
This comment thread began to feel more threatening to me when one of those claiming that poetess was always derogatory compared it to the word mistress. I was a mistress once; that is, I had a long affair with a married man. (I was also married, and still am—living apart, with no secrets—while my lover is now a merry widower.) He was uncomfortable with mistress because it made him feel like a user. Well, he was a user. I felt no need to hide from that aspect of our relationship, and enjoyed waving it in his face now and then. But the part of me that was supposed to feel degraded by the idea of being a mistress was too busy being enchanted by early associations.
My first memory of the word is from Albert Payson Terhune’s pastoral-romantic dog books (Lad, a Dog, etc.), in which his wife is referred to as The Mistress whom all the prize collies worship. She’s not a character so much as an offstage radiant presence. And the dogs are not ordinary dogs, but complex, heroic beings. Further meanings adhered through an early immersion in French novels, from which I took away an image of languor, beauty, erotic finesse, and the remarkable power of the sexual women. That such stories usually end in death—of the body or the beauty—didn’t trouble me then. Further reading had little effect. The French trumped Updike and squalid tales of tycoons and their strumpets. The era of my youth, the swashbuckling ’70s, made the whole system of male-female relations seem quaint. We’d taken back the night; I assumed the afternoon couldn’t be far behind. Mistress was kitschy.
But mostly it was the Terhune books that influenced me. “Puppyboy,” I used to call my lover. “I am your puppyboy,” he said. “And you’re my puppygirl.” This was true. I’d never felt doglike devotion before. Its early stages are better than champagne cocktails on the beach.
But by the time I was reading the Facebook thread this winter, the love affair had soured, and I felt enough anger and humiliation to identify with Madame Bovary rather than Colette, with the shivering stray at the shelter or the woman whose beautiful animal has suddenly lunged for her throat. Still, I’m not really prepared to let go of what the experience felt like as it happened.
I was a girl like that
So, now, poetess. A poet with extra sibilants, halfway into essence. It reminds me of priestess, which conjures more power—the moon, blood, silence, oracle—than the word priest, which makes me think of dangerous pedophiles or sticky-fingered celibates. (I know there are wonderful priests and the word has deep resonance for many; I’m talking about my personal associations.) But even when I cast my mind back 20 or 30 years, and remember what the word poetess used to evoke: a girl in a flowered gauzy dress, unshaven legs visible beneath, barefoot and likely to fall over the cliff up ahead—the one she doesn’t see because she’s gazing at the stars—I can’t help but remember, I was a girl like that. My poems had moments of real mystery and strength, but relied too much on the singsong stasis of buried longing.
I’m not that girl anymore, so perhaps I’ve graduated to poet. But then who were those boys I took workshops with in college? They wrote poems that had moments of real mystery and strength, but were still, if not poetesses, certainly mooncalves.
Mooncalf is defined as the aborted fetus of a cow, the term coming into use because the moon was blamed for this misfortune. It came to refer to unnatural or grotesque beings (such as Caliban in The Tempest) or fools, particularly of the youthful sort. Having learned most of my vocabulary from reading, I got the basic idea of this, but loved the word so much that I thought mooncalves must have their own magic, which humans did not suspect. (Apparently J.K. Rowling had a similar reaction, as she used the term for creatures that dance in the moonlight and are responsible for crop circles.)
So I would say: we begin our writing lives as poetesses and mooncalves; we cloak our amorous blunders in the uneven wisdom of French literature, queer studies, or celebrity memoir; and eventually we become capable of our own fragile wisdom, sustained by the ongoing task of not scorning these younger and not yet vanished selves. And always we play with words, we crawl into them to find ourselves and then crawl back out again, leaving the word a bit misshapen but more familiar, a place to return to, a memory palace.—MARGARET DIEHL