A mother and daughter pair, poet Alison Deming and painter Lucinda Bliss, set out to find the answer. Working independently and together over a period of approximately eight months, the two women produced a collaborative piece of poetry, Anatomy of Desire: The Daughter/Mother Sessions. They've set up their book as a dialogue on sexuality, with split pages side by side carrying their separate words, though they say that at some point the writing became an independent "third thing." Bliss also contributes a series of oil paintings on paper inspired by the written work. The art is now on view at the Arizona Gallery at the UA Student Union, and a poetry chapbook is available from Kore Press.
Woman is a fleshy creature in their constructions, a body that births and nurtures the species' young, but one that's also driven by her own intense desires. Telling of that body, Deming, the former head of the UA Poetry Center, a much-honored poet and now a professor of creative writing, writes:
The clay and salt of it, the yeast and wetness
and blood -- the rupture and coming and
crying and flow.
Bliss agrees that the body is hardly a sum of tidy separate parts. Rather, she says, it's a mass of "bodily forms -- spiked, liquid, sprouting, burnished forms, their fragmentation subverting the illusion of the isolated organism." Her paintings offer corresponding imagery: distorted female bodies that are all buttocks and breasts and vulvae; floating penises joined in uterine forms with vaginas; beloved children pictured in their lovely nakedness.
Bliss the poet doesn't shy away from the physical pleasures of mothering, praising "maternal heat -- a longing for gentle breath, for my son's small, firm arm to snake through my hair and pull me into him."
The mother/lover dichotomy has always been difficult; it gave us not only the Virgin Mother but the almost universal squeamishness people feel about their parents' sexuality. Almost nobody likes to think about mom in bed. Deming and Bliss, a painter who lives in Maine, confront this problem with some soul-baring about their own sexual practices. Mother tells daughter, and daughter tells mother. They relish the disruption of the traditional family hierarchy that their investigation requires. It's important to bring sex out into the open, they say, because "Desire enlivens our art and our lives."
Their innovative project is only partly successful. The analysis of their own relationship can tend toward therapy-speak. It's a grand thing to tell the truth about women's desires, but some of their tales of sexual prowess -- an episode of oral sex enhanced by Gerber's strained baby peaches and the memory of a "cock in my mouth...a beauty I could never resist" -- are eminently resistible. And for all their daring genital imagery and hot color contrasts -- orange against cerulean -- Bliss' paintings are a bit too tidy, little pictures neatly drawn side by side. They don't possess the messy fecundity that they're addressing.
Bliss' poetry occasionally gets bogged down in the lugubrious language of feminist theory: "Just as power structures are internalized, so is the compulsion to keep oneself under surveillance" is one example. But much of the poetry, particularly Deming's, is a lovely, and true, evocation of life within the body. One piece reads:
Everything flies apart, stars spill away from
each other, cells grow toward decrepitude
and organs fail. Welcome to life, my little
one, welcome to death. The body's not a
temple, but an animal trail -- evolution
sniffing its way.
The chapbook, Anatomy of Desire: The Daughter/Mother Sessions, by Lucinda Bliss and Alison Deming, is available for $10 from Kore Press (882-7542). After April 1, it will be available at Antigone Books (792-3715).