Twenty Years Ago in Winslow Homer's The New Novel

Book in hand, this young woman
reclines on her side.

For all we know, right now
she walks the deck
of a fighting ship, love's
swashbuckler; dances all night
in liquid candlelight — the waltz!
the waltz decadent!; spits elegant
retorts from overstuffed chintz.

Oh, I know. I ran away and lived
on My Side of the Mountain,
with a carved fishhook; transformed myself
into a witch, with all the spells
of Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth;
made my first love Forever.

Just like the women reading
The New Novel, I go to books
when I lose like the 5th grade spelling bee
out on except, accept,
back at my desk, cheeks burning.
I ride books every plane trip locked
and bored, constricted on all sides.
I fall into them every night.

It's the way one leg bends,
the reader's white bow loose,
her red dress looser.
the way her face angles
to the open page. Oh, peace.

My Daughter Reads Books

on the ugly white couch with the half-slipped cushions
when she is supposed to be setting the table
as she walks from kitchen to dining room,
blue plastic plate in one hand, paperback in the other.

In Winslow Homer's time,
just a hundred or so years before my daughter,
the good reverends let us know
novels burn the heart, dwarf
the mind, pervert life's duties until
we slither in the hoofprints of Satan.
My daughter slithers through books,
a very hungry caterpillar.

My daughter reads books
surrounded by corn muffin crumbs,
dripped syrup when she is supposed to be
clearing the table. She reads in the rocking chair
when she is supposed to be clearing the table.

In 1860 women read the Good Book,
a couple psalms, raised,
as we were, to useless
lives as Victorian gentlewoman.
Florence Nightingale
screamed in drawing rooms, burst
into flames.

My daughter reads books
in the bathroom when she is supposed to be,
I said now, clearing the table.

It wasn't all judge a girl's character
by the books she reads. We got books
as prizes, books as bonds, books
our women teachers gave us
from their own small stocked
polished shelves. They gave us
solace and laughter, they gave us ourselves.

My daughter reads books
waiting at the passport office,
in the car on the way to synagogue when she is mad at me,
in the car on the way home from synagogue no longer mad.

But then there's 1886 homeschooling pioneer
Charlotte Mason who made sure women heard
a woman reading a novel
takes a knife to her innards,
a woman's brain's not
constituted like a man's, reading sabotages
her vital metabolic economy.

My daughter reads books
in bed,
in bed past bedtime,
while picking the icing off her donuts at breakfast,
while picking her nails.

The girl who sits for hours, poring over a novel
to the damage of her eyes, her brain, and her
general nervous system, is guilty
of a lesser fault of the nature of suicide.

My daughter reads books
while I try to cut her nails,
when the phone rings with a friend.
when the doorbell rings.

She will stun her heart, break her ovaries,
bring on menstruation, masturbation, insanity.
Pernicious, she draws away
the blood for babies.
I had babies. I read to them
day and night.

My daughter reads books
on the couch when she is supposed to be
clearing the books off the couch,
in the bathtub with me reading my book.

They Are Always Calling Our Girls Sluts

She has secret passions While her intense
She doesn't need him
engagement in the book excludes
the reader from her gaze,
Homer needs her vulnerable,
titillating. Lying on the same plane
as those who are drawn in,
succubus. The buttons of her dress
invite undressing, judgment.
Bold red locks fallen
from the grace of God. Red lips,
red dress Personal pleasure
supersedes social duty.
Fiction stirs a provocative
promiscuous siren.

The New Novel Today

This time I see that she is all flames;
the fire laces her as she lies
in front of the abyss. That she is not afraid
while she sinks in, does not believe
wolves will sleek out of the forest.

I am afraid of the train stuck
in the mud, sliding off track,
traveling back while the 19th century
reverends wipe their brows with white cloths,
books struck from my daughter's hands,
of everyone I love
losing their minds.

She looks cozy my daughter says
As we stand in front of The New Novel,
I wonder if she's reading All-of-a-Kind Family,
the part where the sisters hunt buttons.

This woman has no part in her hair, her ear lit
by sunlight, buttons meander
down her front like stepping stones across
a river, her dress shifts and folds
the breeze, the forest seems lighter today.

I want someone to greet me. I think
there is an old love letter I should reread.

This time I see how young she is.
Fire flows over her hips, the woods
pant with desire, the painter too close.
I am more aware
of her power now, how she is bigger
than anything else in the world.

Deborah Bacharach

Listening to Women

Deborah Bacharach is the author of the poetry collections Shake & Tremor and After I Stop Lying. Her work has been published in Cimmaron Review, New Letters and The Writer’s Chronicle among many others. She is a reader for Whale Road Review and SWWIM and a mentor for PEN America.