Sisters and Courtesans by Anna M. Evans. Kelsay Books, 2014.
Reviewed by Judy Swann
One of the apologias for poetry is that its techniques facilitate the seeing of worlds in grains of sand. Metaphor, paradox, anaphora, rhythm, metonymy, polysemy – all these and more hang from poetry’s toolbelt, but they do not ensure that everyone gets to the same place. As Adrienne Rich writes in “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev”:You climbed here for yourself/
We climbed for ourselves
The discourse of social justice, on the other hand, is more concerned with the triumph of sameness over difference. The Sex Workers Outreach Project, for example, while it has goals specific to the work itself such as decriminalization and danger reduction, is dedicated to the achievement for its cohort of the same set of fundamental human rights enjoyed by CEOs, farmers, and kindergarten teachers.
In her book Sisters & Courtesans, Anna M. Evans marries the concept of a common humanity for sex workers to the dramatic monologue, metonymy, and for the most part, the sonnet. Depictions of other persons has a long tradition in literature. In the first century C.E., for example, Plutarch biographied famous men – most notably the slutty Alcibiades. More recently, Gertrude Stein after reinventing biography (via cubism) as portraiture said, “I wrote portraits knowing that each one is themselves inside them and something about them perhaps everything about them will tell some one all about that thing.” And then she went on to write her lover’s autobiography. In 1909, Ezra Pound launched himself as the author of Personae, a collection of dramatic monologues that place the reader in the role of the listener, à la Robert Browning (fl. 1800s).
It is this method of portraiture that Evans practices, but with a twist. Evans wrests the sonnet, love’s traditional vessel, to the self-portrait. And she writes the mini-autobiographies of several dozen characters, including a Han Dynasty concubine, a docta puella, an Aztec sacrifice, a Ventian courtesan, one of King
Charles II’s mistresses, a Hollywood madam, and a saloon girl. These are not Elizabeth Barret Browning’s perfect soliloquies, nor the work of the silver-tongued Christina Rossetti who in her “Babylon,” subverts the sonnet’s hold on love: Foul is she and ill-favoured, set askew:/Gaze not upon her till thou dream her fair,/Lest she should mesh thee in her wanton hair,/Adept in arts grown old yet ever new./Her heart lusts not for love, but thro’ and thro’/For blood, as spotted panther lusts in lair./
The personification of Babylon’s hair as “wanton,” the symbology of Babylon as “panther,” the identity of Babylon with the heart that lusts, this is classic Rossetti. Don’t discount “dream” as a transitive verb. And don’t the sonics just make your hair stand on end?
Now take a look at the gynoprimic images from Evans’s “My Life as Genghis Khan’s Morganatic Wife” where the great Khan is shown to be both cowardly and passive: Some nights he would have nightmares and awake/all drenched in sweat. I dared not ask him why,/and so I’d just distract him, aim to make/him laugh or turn him on. He was quite shy/in bed—I always tried to drive him crazy,/yet he preferred to lie there, let me do/the work. In truth he was a little lazy…/
Evans’s eminently speakable, nearly metaphor-free portraits capture the subject’s response to the sex-defined role she is given, even in the few cases where the speaker is not providing actual sexual comfort. Here’s the beginning of “My Life as an Apache Scout”: White men are afraid of me. Their wives/simper in long skirts. I ride and fight,/sworn to defend the honor and the lives/of the Apache people. In the night/I sometimes fox walk through their clumsy camp/and listen to them snoring. In the day/I track them clearly by the noisy tramp/as they pass through our woods. They’re easy prey.
Here, as in all the poems in this volume, we see Evans’s mastery of the details of the staging. “My Life as a ‘First Fleeter’” is an especially good example of Evans’s historical realism: I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or wail/when the Judge said, “Transportation.” We all knew/that still meant death or worse. The fleet set sail/in fine May weather. Soon enough the crew/were looking for pretty girls to screw./I caught a break and turned the surgeon’s head./His quarters were just big enough for two./He was all right—I knew we couldn’t wed/but I was safe from bother in his bed./Eight months at sea, then Botany Bay./Of course it was a while since I’d last bled—/and so I knew a child was on its way./He’ll be bright as brass and tough as nails,/the firstborn citizen of New South Wales./
Evans’s women speak from the point of view of someone who has accepted her label. Recently at a prisoner justice seminar that I attended, one of the organizers asked us all to close our eyes and bring into our memory the worst thing we ever did. “Now imagine,” he said, “that for ever after, people will only know you through the prism of this thing, the worst thing you ever did. This is what we do to the incarcerated.” Clearly, people are more than their label. Nevertheless, these monologues on sex-role labels are a good read: At first I loved the pomp and elegance—/elaborate make up, hairstyles, fancy dress./My favorite was to have men watch me dance/(and size up their erections I confess.)/But soon, it all got old, the endless tea,/the small talk that was always about them./I wanted to scream, Come on, look at me!/Aren’t I supposed to be a priceless gem?/
(from “My Life as a Geisha”)