There is a serious problem with how we write obituaries for great women. When rocket scientist Yvonne Brill passed away in 2013, The New York Times praised her beef stroganoff, child-rearing abilities, and spousal loyalty before her scientific accomplishments; later that year, several memorials for Doris Lessing drew criticism for focusing more on her personality than her work. Dated, oversimplified ideas of what defines women, and the activities and accomplishments they are praised for, are thrown into sharp, uncomfortable relief at these moments, exposing the innate dualism that still defines the way we think about and value gender.
In her third poetry collection, Laisha Rosnau rails against these societal expectations, shuddering at the thought of being remembered for her stereotypically female achievements: “I love a canned peach but, good Lord, if anyone mentions / mine when I’m dead, my time was not well spent.”
Rosnau wrestles with her abject horror of the traditionally feminine and domestic in the pages of Pluck. Her language is direct and straightforward, forcefully specific, as she squeezes, muscles, and manipulates the various and ever-changing constellation of gendered expectations she encounters. In “Accumulation,” she explores the weight and drudgery of domestic labour; in “Varanasi,” she discusses the way she is perceived as less feminine when her body changes due to illness and dramatic weight loss.
Pluck is not a rejection of the feminine, however: Rosnau has a complex, sometimes embattled relationship with sex and gender, but she also fiercely defends and deeply explores it. In “Hard-Won,” she talks about the challenge of breast-pumping and the intensity of her physical attachment to a new baby with the proud and tireless tone of a soldier. The female experiences she writes about are visceral and complicated, sublime, or disgusting. While her metaphors are often reductive to the point of cliché, in these poems Rosnau nevertheless sees no simple binary, either conceptually or narratively, only messy plurality.