Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Cures for Cancer: Norman Mailer's Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters)

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Cures for Cancer: Norman Mailer's Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters)

Article excerpt

DEATHS FOR THE LADIES (AND OTHER DISASTERS), published by Putman in I962, has the distinction of being the only volume of verse Norman Mailer would publish until the much later Modest Gifts (2003). (1) Formal criticism has tended to neglect Deaths for the Ladies, but the text may be seen to serve as a kind of shorthand portfolio of Mailer's recurring themes and tropes at the beginning of the 1960s. Mailer himself proposes that the text be read as "a movie in words," but the text itself undermines the validity of any such governing metaphors, and instead valorizes an aesthetic of improvisation and discontinuity. The complexities of the text insist that the poems be approached as carefully shaped fragments that address, in fascinating ways, Mailer's complex dialectical conception of growth and stasis--his ever-evolving politics of growth.


This is
One thought
at a time
Deaths for the Ladies

Deaths for the Ladies

The text consists of a series of short, generally unrhymed, poems on unnumbered pages. Barry Leeds, in his essay on Deaths for the Ladies, suggests that the lack of pagination contributes to a sense of the book as a unified whole (151), an interpretation supported by an Introduction Mailer wrote for the volume in 1971. In this Introduction, Mailer explicitly frames Deaths for the Ladies as a unified single work, rather than merely a collection of fragmentary texts:

I felt that all of Deaths for the Ladies made up one poem, not at all a
great poem, never in any way, but still a most modern poem about a man
loose in our city, for one cannot talk of New York without saying our
city, there, majestic, choking on its own passions, New York, the true
capital of the Twentieth Century. (3)

Retrospectively, then, Mailer frames Deaths for the Ladies as a work with a single determining structure and subject: "a man loose" in New York, the representative "capital" of the century. This recalls the importance of Hollywood in The Deer Park, which Sergius O'Shaugnessy describes as the "capital of cinema" (Deer Park 9). The use of the word capital, in The Deer Park, connotes not just capitalism itself but also capitalism's proliferating and determining power to shape "the superheated dream life" (Papers 52) of post-war America. Here the word seems to assume a looser set of connotations--as befits the nature of Deaths for the Ladies. The text offers a set of variations on some of Mailer's characteristic themes and tactics. In Deaths for the Ladies, however--unique in Mailer's corpus--coherence of narrative or argument is not a determining priority. Significantly, the fragmentary nature of the text works to undermine Mailer's own prefatory claims of unity. In addition, there are important absences from Deaths for the Ladies. Firstly, there is no sustained or coherent critique of the postwar world--the kind of critique that so preoccupied Mailer in Advertisements for Myself and in the novels that preceded and followed it. Secondly, there is no easily paraphrased structuring conceit or narrative. To read Deaths for the Ladies as explicable in straightforwardly narrative terms--as Mailer in his Introduction hints that we might be able to do--is to overemphasise a concern with formal structure and narrative unity that the text itself tends to subvert or undermine.

The longest poem in Deaths for the Ladies is described as "A Wandering in Prose," and the collection as a whole tends to valorise the idea of "wandering"--of improvisation and discontinuity--as a governing aesthetic. That the collection's key poem should be described as a wandering in prose also suggests that Deaths for the Ladies as a whole is engaged in a number of formal processes or procedures that tend to subvert the idea of the book as poetry. In his Introduction, Mailer employs specifically (albeit problematically) the metaphor of the film as a means of subverting or undermining the validity of the work qua poetry. …

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