Book Reviews -- Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poerty and Theory Edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller

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Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller, eds. Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. x + 410 pp. $49.50 cloth; $22.95 paper.

The most widely and frequently cited author in Feminist Measures is Adrienne Rich. This seems completely appropriate; as a major figure in women's poetry and feminist theory, Rich is a natural authority for work that considers the intersection of poetry, feminism, and theory. But more often than not, Rich appears in these essays as an authority to be challenged, a theorist whose categories and analyses now seem more limiting than liberating. One way to see the collection Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller have assembled is as an early post-Rich volume of feminist theory.

Even the essay devoted to Rich in Feminist Measures, Elizabeth Hirsh's "Another Look at Genre," is post-Rich in its treatment of Rich's theoretical trajectory. Hirsh returns to Diving Into the Wreck (1973) and sees that volume as anticipating recent work by Luce Irigaray that in turn subverts Rich's own post-Diving theoretical directions. Lynn Keller's contribution, "Measured Feet' in Gender-Bender Shoes," makes a case for the radical feminist potential of Marilyn Hacker's sonnet sequence Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons, in which intricate schemes of meter and rhyme fly directly against the theoretical contention by Rich and others that traditional form in poetry must necessarily be repressive--and, specifically, patriarchally repressive. Cristanne Miller cites Rich in "The Erogenous Cusp,' or Intersections of Science and Gender in Alice Fulton's Poetry," using Rich's call for a women's poetry that touches "the corporeal ground of our intelligence" (330) as a contrast to Fulton's sense of the quantum uncertainties of embodiment. In their individual essays, the two editors of Feminist Measures use Rich's feminism as an emblem of limit, and value women poets who transgress against Rich's sense of the forms and epistemologies that are decorous for women's poetry.

I use the word "decorous" advisedly, but there is no other way to convey the sense that essay after essay in this collection conveys of such radical feminist thinkers as Rich, Alicia Ostriker, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler. For the authors collected in Feminist Measures, these thinkers represent decorum, and the indecorous possibilities of a new feminist poetic theory inhere in rhyme, meter, spiritualism, Christian theology, images of Queen Victoria, quantum mechanics, and the jamettes or street women of Trinidad--not all at once, but in essay after essay that spirals outward from the central decorum of earlier feminists. The shifting ground of feminist poetic theory in the last decade is nowhere better indicated than by the contribution "Corpses of Poesy': Some Modern Poets and Some Gender Ideologies of Lyric," by Rachel Blau DuPlessis. DuPlessis's "For the Etruscans" was the most transgressive of the pieces collected in Elaine Showalter's pivotal collection The New Feminist Criticism (1985); her essay on modernism and gender here is easily the most conventionally academic, indeed magisterial, in the volume.

Any theoretical collection in the 1990s will be an intervention in canon debates. Feminist Measures reconstructs a canon for women's poetry as it reconstructs a canon of feminist theory. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's DICTEE becomes an important text for several of the book's authors, especially Shelley Sunn Wong, who treats that long poem as a provocative challenge to the paradigm of the Bildungsroman in Asian-American writing. Janel Mueller returns to the beginnings of women's poetry in English to recuperate Aemilia Lanyer's "Salve Rex Deus Judaeorum." too often read as a conventional patriarchal Christian text but emerging in Mueller's reading as a blistering challenge to misogynist theologies. And while Emily Dickinson remains central to the provisional and disparate canon(s) of Feminist Measures, this is a new Emily Dickinson, one who reaches back beyond the Kristevan thetic boundary to explore the pre-verbal mother/daughter relationship and who is discovered in Suzanne Juhasz's brilliant re-vision of "Joy to have merited the pain. …