Nina Corwin's "Conversations with Friendly Demons and Tainted Saints" is a compelling, imaginative volume of poetry by a vital Chicago writer. Corwin attempts to speak for the marginalized voices in history and mythology. It is highly appropriate that she holds a mask on the back cover because in effect she becomes the tainted saints and friendly demons when she takes on their voices.
Corwin is a practicing psychotherapist and graduate of University of Chicago. Her work has appeared in the late, lamented, "Tomorrow Magazine," "The Oyez Review." and National Public Radio. In addition, she has been a regular performer at Around the Coyote and the Bucktown Art Fest.
In the bold opening poem, "Eve Speaks," the mother of humankind eloquently voices her concerns to God after the fall. She expresses her fear regarding her mate's violent lust for conquering when she says: "He's got all your taste for dominion/With none of the mercy, and Lord, I am afraid." She also calls for a more sensitive, more feminine version of the divine when she pleads:
But Lord, perhaps you'll think of woman
next time you think to do a bit of making
Bring a woman's touch into the undertaking....
This confident work is reminiscent of former slam champion, Patricia Smith's "Medusa" poem that tells a classic mythological story from the oppressed gorgon's point of view. Both poems call into question the exaggerated patriarchal notions of divine punishment from the past.
However, it's far more difficult to make a case for Delilah as an oppressed victim. "Delilah's Rejoinder" is another interesting revisionist poem which challenges the one sided accounts that are presented in the Bible, and other sources (such as the Hedy Lamarr "Samson and Delilah" film). For the first time, Delilah gets to tell her side of the story in a first person monologue in modern, colloquial English. Although, she admits being guilty of the cutting Samson's hair, she denies the demonizing accusations that she is a Lorena Bobbit precursor or symbolic castrator.
She also tries to divvy up some of the blame for Samson's fall when she explains, "Hell, I was only the hired henchman for some essentially paternal grab/ for the brass ring (guys do it all the time.)"
Delilah asserts that Samson deserved his fate because any man or woman who relies on his or her physical attributes is asking for a comeuppance. But, her rationale for doing the same thing is weak when she says, " Sure, I flashed a bit of tits and ass/ I might as well/before they pass."
There are also poems which deal with the here and now. In "Looking for Mental Hygiene." she speaks for the refuse of society, the mentally challenged. She paints a bleak picture of patients without insurance, and a society that doesn't take mental illness seriously. At times, she actually romanticizes the patients that society deems insane, because they can travel to mystical places (such as "Strawberry Fields" and the garden of Eden) that no one else can see.
Ms. Corwin has a special interest in abused women, so it isn't surprising that she has a poem, which deals with this problem. In "Welfare Man." Corwin paints a sad portrait of a woman married to a desperate man. After he loses his job, he takes out his frustration by repeatedly beating her. It's a sad portrait of a person in a hellish situation.
There are a few typographical and editing errors in the poem. At one point, the text reads, "she quick put him down," instead of "she quickly put him down." At another point in the poem it's hard to tell which man died because of confusing subject usage.
Despite these quibbles, the book is a smart, insightful, and challenging read. It would make a great companion peace to the Elaine Pagel's feminist theology book, "Adam, Eve and the Serpent." because it manages to expose the misogyny in mythology in a clever, artful manner. The book takes on some important societal problems and stereotypes without resorting to sermonizing.
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