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One Notable Problem With Despair

One notable problem with despair
is subjectivity. An outside view
shows everything is swell, and still,

the subject says she feels despair.
Whenever Richard Corey went downtown
And the subject feels more despair,

knowing she shouldn’t despair,
that lots of people would be grateful,
happy even, to exist in circumstances

that prompt only her despair. Who
does she think she is, anyway?
And what does she want? A million bucks?

A gold star? Season tickets? A pet sloth
named Amarillo? Life’s not like that
though the subject thinks maybe

the sloth would help, could beguile,
with its haystack hair and silence,
her despair into smiling, for a while.






Another Notable Problem With Despair

Another notable problem with despair
is impurity. Sadness is pure,
loneliness is pure, rage is purely

incandescent, while despair is muddy,
and worse, indefinite, like the bottom
of a pond you wish you hadn’t

stepped into. Ugh, what even is this?
Despair isn’t anything fully, that’s the rub,
useless as a hatstand that’s also a blender.

No one wanted that. So it’s hard
to get rid of. Bury it, burn it, set it adrift,
but you can’t make art from it. Not even

some kind of outsider thing, despair shellacked
over and spray painted with words
from the Bible, The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall not want not to want not to want






Geographic Aspects of Despair

Outside despair there are places with jokes.
But inside it, nothing is funny, or ever gets better.
Despair is unincorporated, has mission creep,
grows a little each day. So there are fewer other places,
fewer jokes, and more space where nothing is funny,
or ever gets better. When despair encounters a mountain,
it flattens it, not with explosions, but like a shadow.
Despair does not respond to organized environmental action.
It slops over walls, through doors marked “Staff Only.”
Still, sometimes it retreats. Even then, it takes a while to notice
it’s gone. 






If a woman chances during her menstrual period to look into a highly polished mirror, the surface of it will grow cloudy with a blood-colored haze.

—Aristotle, On Dreams

Some say the eyes are the windows of the soul; others say they are the soul’s mirror.

The truth is they’re both: while I regard my reflection in your eye’s convex surface, you see me through it.

Jean Cocteau once admonished mirrors to “reflect a little more before sending back images.” Good advice for the lenses of our eyes, too.

I lurk in a Facebook discussion regarding an article that features young women poets accompanied by overtly sexual photographs. The discussion turns to the arbitrary dividing line between the youthful-and-hot and the not-so-youthful, and how this line implicates experience versus naïveté.

Soon, the conversants are talking about Medusa.

I imagine Medusa’s mom catching her posting selfies, giving duck face, trying hard not to turn the screen into stone.

The notion that the act of seeing can alter the thing seen would seem to be confirmed, if on a tiny scale, by quantum physics.

Of course, the inverse is also true. Seeing alters the seer.

In her introduction to The Poethical Wager, Joan Retallack writes that “the image of horizon that has been so crucial to romantic idealist philosophies and literatures may not be a threshold of possibility at all, unless one locates possibility in a mirror.”

Instead, Retallack advocates “radical unknowability as the only constant.” When her alter ego, Quinta Slef, calls that “a daunting view if part of your program is ethical or political,” Retallack retorts that “it’s daunting if your primary concern is control.”

Well, and if it is?

The word panopticon comes from Argos Panoptes, a hundred-eyed giant who served Hera, and who Hermes slew to free a nymph coveted by Zeus. Panoptes’ eyes slept in turns, so that some were always open, making him an excellent guard. But Hermes managed to put all hundred eyes to sleep by telling the giant boring stories.

Who watches the watchers? Why, we watch each other. You know, until we get bored.

Thinking of how many of my female friends set their twitter profiles to “private.” A gesture that could be read as both coquettish and self-protective – to cast the eyes down, at once to refuse a look and to limit what can be seen.

Or maybe they’re just tired of curating only the most generically presentable selves.

The eyes are the social media platform of the soul?

Medusa defeats the male gaze by turning lookers-on into stone, and is in turn defeated by a mirror.

Her example makes the female gaze seem essentially self-defeating. But there’s also Diana, who turns lookers-on into deer and hunts them down.

Pedagogical theory tells us that books, like eyes, should act as both window and mirror – reflecting the reader while expanding her horizons.

But I’ve always thought of writing as a way of asserting control.

Adjusting this mirror.  Drawing that curtain.  Showing just what I want you to see.

A writer, too, should reflect a while before sending back images.

When Foucault wrote that “isibility is a trap,” he meant for the person observed. But consider the wages of seeing: Turned to stone. Bored to death. Ripped to shreds.

What I mean is, you’re getting off easy.

But what about me? Trying to catch your attention over the page’s horizon, I may be showing more of myself than I mean.





His Masterpiece


If a woman chances during her menstrual period to look into a highly polished mirror, the surface of it will grow cloudy with a blood-colored haze.
—Aristotle, On Dreams



In the middle ages, a story about Aristotle became very popular.

It goes like this: Aristotle advises his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, to leave off all relations with women, the better to concentrate on statecraft. Alexander’s spurned consort Phyllis sets out to take revenge by seducing Aristotle. After rendering the philosopher completely besotted, Phyllis informs him that she will submit to his advances only if he comes to her on all fours and lets her ride him around like a horse.

Aristotle, of course, goes for it.

I learned the facts of life after watching – yes, this is true – an episode of “The Facts of Life.” My mother evidently felt the show told me just enough about sex to get it wrong.

Once she filled me in on the birds and the bees, I was appalled, as any self-respecting eight-year-old would be. Still, I got over it.

Iris Murdoch once described Aristotle as the “Shakespeare of science.” I take this to mean that, though Aristotle was not a scientist in any modern sense, he provided useful metaphors by which to get at the truth.

The “birds and the bees” isn’t a metaphor so much as euphemism, a circumlocution.  Humans like those. We just aren’t very good at facing facts. We’re very good, actually, at deciding that certain facts aren’t worth our time.

Consider that while Aristotle knew that not just humans, but all animals, reproduced sexually, the fact was virtually unknown among Europe’s upper classes until the Enlightenment.

A well-bred Frenchman of the sixteenth century, for example, would have believed that mice just sort of spontaneously organize themselves out of garbage.

Emily Dickinson wrote that, “the truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.” I’m not sure that she accepted, however, that we would often rather stay in the dark.

A refrain for human history: “I don’t want to know, do I?”

“Confirmation bias” is the social psychologist’s term for the tendency to cling to one’s conclusions or opinions even more strongly when faced with contrary evidence. And so “I don’t want to know” becomes “I refuse to know.”

Perhaps capitalizing on Aristotle’s medieval association with both ribaldry and esoteric knowledge, there was a popular Elizabethan sex manual and midwifery guide titled Aristotle’s Masterpiece.

Printed in multiple and various editions, copies of the Masterpiece were available in brown paper well into the 1900s. People still needed it, you see. It talked about things no one would talk about.

I once knew a medical student who graduated without learning how birth control pills – probably the most-prescribed medication in America – actually work. In fact, he had no idea how any part of the female reproductive system functioned.

When I mention this to people who work in reproductive health circles, they’re not surprised at all.

“We have been a little insane about the truth,” wrote Wallace Stevens. He was talking about poetry, but he could have been talking about, well, all aspects of human endeavor.

Preparing for the weeklong mission of the first female astronaut, NASA engineers asked Sally Ride if 100 tampons would be the right number to include in the ship’s stores. No, she informed them, that would not be the right number.

When I first read this story, I laughed in disbelief. But at least the engineers asked. They appear to have been more concerned with getting it right than looking foolish.

Still, they look pretty foolish. That’s how learning works.

The second edition of Aristotle’s Masterpiece lifted large chunks from an earlier guide to the amorous and reproductive arts, called The Sick Woman’s Private Looking-Glasse.

The title embeds an idea that continues with us today – the notion that sexual matters, and specifically those of women, are a kind of private sickness, that there’s no need for anyone – including women themselves, ideally – to know about.

The story of Phyllis and Aristotle was meant to warn young scholars from female company. But the story could easily be read with other morals in mind.

Consider that Aristotle fails to take his own advice. I like to think it was his curiosity, and not his lust, that got him on his knees.






Maureen Thorson

Maureen Thorson is the author of two books of poetry: My Resignation (Shearsman 2014) and Applies to Oranges (Ugly Duckling Presse 2011). Her latest chapbook is The Woman, the Mirror, the Eye (Bloof Books 2015). Visit her at


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2017

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