Sunday, March 10, 2019

Ways of Looking at a Woman – Caroline Hagood

I took a couple of days off after reading Ways of Looking at a Woman because I wanted the roiling, frolicking notions implanted by this droll, ingenious look at writing, academics, mothering, movies, womanhood, self-hood, and probably a few things I’m not remembering at the moment...I wanted them, the notions, to sort themselves out unmolested so I could see if the buoyant, sparkling mood this brief dance of poetic prose put me in would last beyond violent interruption by the book about an insane US president I had to read, and, if so, if it survived, to see if a closer look might reveal just how Caroline Hagood worked her literary witchcraft.
My Ways-induced euphoria’s intensity, as I’d suspected, bullied me to cancel the experiment for fear intentional exposure to something notably obnoxious might unfairly dilute this sweetly sensual spell. It became a struggle of willpower, which I won, possibly with the serendipitous help from a silly ditty making the rounds on social media. The lyrics parodied a popular tune for children:
If you’re happy and you know it, overthink
If you’re happy and you know it, overthink
If you’re happy and you know it,
Give your brain a chance to blow it
If you’re happy and you know it, overthink

How could it help, you wonder, when the ditty was in-my-face indicting me, a chronic worrier that happiness is a sham, simply a sly subconscious mechanism for avoiding the ubiquitous signs of decay and injustice and suffering and death and hideous executive hairstyles. Well, it didn’t help. Not me. Not directly. Indirectly it did, because as I knew its taunting, rhymy little message with its insipid tune insinuating itself into my brain as a damnable ear worm should have deflated the euphoria Hagood’s magic had given me, but it didn’t! And Hagood clearly was more vulnerable to overthinking than I am. In fact overthinking is the wings of Ways: extended angsty juggling of interplaying expectations, obstacles, disappointments, writing failures, academics, mothering, movies, womanhood, self-hood, and those other probable things I’m still trying to remember. Hagood lays out the challenge with her first two paragraphs:
It electrocutes me in the best possible way to watch the thoughts marching from afar like a terrifying army.
What’s this sick compulsion to shatter the celluloid that encases me, write my way out with a lyric essay, pervade, project light through light, wrap my head around what I am: a movie in the shape of a woman, seeing and being seen, writer-mother, a mixed genre, a person with another person growing inside her?
I had to look twice to find the counterpoise among the negatives, the “terrifying” and “sick compulsion” and “celluloid” encasing her, but there it was: the incipient spirit that graces not only the opening but the entire piece: a sense of irrepressible ebullience, of joie de vivre, of wry, self-effacing humor that underlies virtually every thought, hell--every word in Ways of Looking at a Woman. “It electrocutes me in the best possible way,” she says of the “army” of thoughts marching toward her to conquer her happiness. She’s ready for them. Her hardy, drolly welcoming nature beckons them to bring it on. And they do, and one helluva fight ensues. And me, watching from the catbird seat, I’m gasping with admiration, interspersed with honest laughter, taking notes like crazy, all the way.
I might have missed the whole show, tho, had I been a creature of academia and discovered at the very beginning this woman’s doctoral dissertation was quite the inept, fumbling, disorganized, hootenanny ramble of scrambled notions daring to go public before enduring the de rigueur gauntlet of peer and advisory reviews. Sacre bleu!, I might have ejaculated flinching at the “research proposal” section's failure to conform strictly to the ivoried rigors of academic structure. These reviewers would have withheld their horrified gasps reading the first two paragraphs, quoted above, granting a brow-cocked pass on a presumed cleverly outré lead-in to the coherent, no-nonsense hypothesis with its sufficient data/citations and perhaps a preliminary pie or bar graph or two before launching into the deadly serious “abstract,” with more of the same rendered more cautiously and, most importantly of course, delivered in a timidly passive voice. Here is where I, were I the hypothetical bowel-constricted peruser, would have blown into a bewildering profusion of dancing question marks, each presenting a smirking little face forcing me upon my gown-muffled oath, were I an 18th century diplomaed pirate, to utter the dreaded ARRRRRRRRRRR and hurl the blasphemous excuse for a dissertation as far and wide as its unbound, coffee-stained leaves would carry it. Here precisely is where it would have happened, when I read these very words: And what will happen if I can’t? Will my skin curl, crack, and harden till I’m mummified, bundled beetle-like in my own ambition? If only someone had told me early on, ‘You will never get the orange peel off in one clean spiral, but more haunting shapes will come out of it in the end.’”
It was here, still trying to imagine what new license had been unleashed in the ivied walls of higher learning, that I glanced at the table of contents and then scrolled quickly through the essay to learn to my raucous amusement that Caroline Hagood was making fun of traditional strictures, that her essay, which, while properly peppered with sources and hedged arguments complete with big words, was really just a cap-and-gown garbed poem about the inner and outer life of a brilliant, original, contradicted, adventurous, questing poetic mind that paid no heed whatever to its faux-architectural disguise. She leaps and somersaults and backflips and handwalks her words down page after page, ignoring such divisions as “methodology” and “acknowledgments,” with its “introduction” in the middle, and its real acknowledgments in the “appendices” at the very end.
Involuntary giggles continue to diesel in my throat every time I recall Ways to Look at a Woman’s send-up of ivory-towered pomposity. And this, while knowing she’s busy working on an actual doctoral dissertation, to which she refers with gentle, respectful humor time and again.
The only catiness I found in Ways of Looking at a Woman was directed at Norman Mailer, who, altho profoundly influencing my outlook coming of age, I see now most definitely deserves the hisss and scratch of Hagood’s claws in her book. I shan’t include any quotes, as I’d hate to instigate a futile brouhaha here in the relatively chaste cloister of my blog.
Male Ego Personified

I said earlier I took a lot of notes. That was understatement. I copied twenty-six pages of quotes from the book to my offline review document. I cannot share many more with you, as the review then would risk straying into legal jeopardy as plagiarism. Yet, I cannot pass up, for example, something like this: “Mostly I didn’t write a memoir because nobody wants to read something called The Subtle Art of Writing While Covertly Watching a Zombie Movie, Playing Make-believe with a Tantrumming Kid, and Eating Taquitos.”
Or this: I started wanting to use ‘I’ in the dissertation where it didn’t belong. On every page, Caroline kept popping up—making lewd gestures behind a footnote, mooning me from behind a piece of particularly dry text.”
I’m gonna pound away at my computer to create the perfectly positioned thought UFO to abduct my reader. – Caroline Hagood, Ways of Looking at a Woman
Dear Reader, she tells me, and only me, I’ve taken the liberty of imagining you as my soul mate, lover, best friend, that person I’ve been looking for my whole life who will make me feel less alone, understand my ravings, my UFO to nowhere. The point is I see you. Consider yourself seen.” I suppose this should be at the top in one of those full-disclosure boxes disqualifying me as an objective reviewer. You can fool some of the people...
Meryl Streep?

Anyone so enticed by this thoroughly subjective rave they might wish to read a real review should click here, on Pank Magazine, for Dr. Patricia Grisafi’s knowledgeable, academically sound look at Ways of Looking at a Woman.

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