Of Metaphors and Menopause
Moira Egan ’84 makes sense of midlife through poetry in her book Hot Flash Sonnets.
Interviewed by Elizabeth (“Libby”) Mosier ’84
Hot Flash Sonnets (Passager Books, 2013) is the latest book from award-winning poet Moira Egan ’84, following Cleave, Bar Napkin Sonnets, La Seta della Cravatta/The Silk of the Tie, and Spin. In spring 2014, peQuod (Ancona, Italy) will publish her sixth collection, Strange Botany/Botanica Arcana.
Egan lives in Rome, where she teaches and translates poetry with her husband, Damiano Abeni. She sat down with the Bulletin to tell us the story behind these “hot flash sonnets,” which wryly explore the physical and emotional changes experienced in midlife and menopause.
Elizabeth Mosier: “Mood Swing (3),” especially, struck me as a perfect metaphor for the midlife change the entire book captures: the physical/emotional symptom and the shift in perspective from mindless drift toward death to mindful gratitude for life. When did you sense this shift beginning to occur in your work?
Moira Egan: I’ve always had a strong sense of the limited nature of our lives here: “time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” Part of that certainly stems from my father, Michael Egan, who was a poet and who had a clear and pressing sense of the work he wanted to achieve in his lifetime. And then didn’t. And my father’s father, Ed Egan, who was a master woodworker, was also a big influence. One day, when I was quite young, I had the scary epiphany that someday there would be no more things made by Grandfather, because he would be gone. These feelings have stayed with me.
I started writing Hot Flash Sonnets as a kind of in-joke with myself, even as a comfort, as I began to deal with the changes that were happening in my body, in my psyche. And the sonnet, of course, is one of the forms that can best embody a change of idea, a change of heart, a change of mood. (Or a mad swing of mood, for that matter.) And so, though there’s a lot that’s intentionally goofy or arch in the sonnets—as I’m constantly making fun of myself—there is also some serious meditation on that increasingly intense sense of mortality.
Mosier: As a poet, what is most useful to you about the uncertainty we face at 50?
Egan: One of the little leitmotifs running through the book is grappling with the liminal zone that is “middle age,” a time of change that, in my mind, is quite analogous to adolescence. In these transitional phases, when the hormones are going all to the wacky, we have to redefine not only who we are inside but also what we will make of how the world perceives us and what we want to do with the next phase (if we are lucky enough to have a next phase). I approached these sonnets with a great deal of gratitude for having the opportunity to “keep on keepin’ on.” Not everyone gets that chance.
“I Can’t Do That Anymore” addresses the time when things that used to come easily to us don’t anymore—whether it’s headstands or splits, or remembering the name of the goddess of memory, or staying up all night and not being a wreck the next day. And the volta of that sonnet turns toward things for which one can in fact be grateful she can’t do anymore: putting up with various forms of BS, silly talk, things that are no longer useful or productive.
Mosier: You’ve talked about the sonnet form, with its formal constraints, as an effective vessel for your “naughty poems,” providing a crucible for opposing “Apollonian and Dionysian” drives. In your life and work, what constraints enliven your inner rebel?
Egan: These days, alas, sometimes I think my inner rebel is off somewhere taking a nap.
But seriously, I believe that continuing to pursue a life in the arts is a way in which the inner rebel gets to have her say. It’s so rewarding to get an email from someone—a student, a young woman—who tells me that a poem has meant something to her.
And it means a great deal to me when the message is about what a woman can do in sonnets, that medieval poetic form that was seen for centuries as the province of courtly men in neck ruffs speaking to unobtainable women. Recently, a doctoral student included in her dissertation some of my sonnets as a representation of the third wave of feminism. That made my sometimes-napping inner rebel very happy.
Mosier: “Clarity” perfectly expresses the wisdom gained from attending to the senses, “fashion(ing) ways to celebrate” how we mark time. At 50, what does the body know that the mind needs to learn?
Egan: One of the more frequently quoted lines from one of my father’s poems is, “The body tells us what the body knows.” We don’t always listen, however, especially with our frenetic, 21st-century schedules. I’m glad that there seems to be real attention paid these days to the idea that wisdom, like good wine, improves with time.
In that vein, I think we have to recognize that sometimes we need to slow down. It’s a good thing to take time, to read a poem or a passage from a novel carefully and slowly, to be truly in the moment. I tell my students, we have slow food, slow art; let’s do slow literature. That’s a lesson I’m always trying to take home to myself, as well.
Notes on selections from Hot Flash Sonnets
“Insomnia (3)” contains a flashback to freshman year in Rhoads, dancing like crazy to AC/DC with Gina Spinelli ’84 as we tried to keep ourselves awake to finish some paper or other. This sonnet ends with a line that was inspired, years later, by fellow Rhoads denizen Phebe Liu Garvin ’84. “Bright Stars” is a poem that responds to the first and, I hope, embodies a little of that wisdom I was talking about, questioning those “nocturnal existential angst attacks” and coming to a sense of gratitude for the beauty that is out there, if one can only take a moment to find it. And both of these, funny enough, have something of Keats in them. That takes me back, Libby, to our shared English 015 experience with the very dear Professor Christopher Kendrick. It’s amazing to think what that class inspired in us, and I’m so grateful for it.”
– Moira Egan ’84
My husband doesn’t hear the nightingale
outside our window, chirps and trills that take
me back some thirty years to midnight oil
and coffee, pizza, Smith Corona’s clack
of intermittent inspiration. “Back
in Black” kept us from four to six awake,
then sunrise panic. Oh, a lass, a lack
of a final draft was all that I could say.
Back then, I held to hopes for greater things
(what were they? life in Europe? some big prize?
a studio of well-received designs?
can’t even recall). Tonight, that self-same song’s
a dirge to rêves perdus. O Morning Star,
this turning fifty thing is looming large.
And yet, O Morning Star, look what you’ve done.
Of late I’ve been obsessing (tendencies?
you know, the Plathy and poetic ones?)
so you bust out this pre-dawn pageantry
including, though not limited to, two
extremely gleaming planets (Venus & Mars
just for tonight inveigled into truce?)
the moon a perfect curlicue of butter—
a scene to lull even the most sleepless
(at least a while)—to be wakened by the boom
of sunrise synaesthesia, whose luscious
colors, tisane, grapefruit, infuse the room
so fully I forget the walls are white
and why I lay there worrying all night.