Several years ago, Moira Egan and Clarinda Harriss edited a collection of poems entitled Hot Sonnets, a collection of fourteen-line gems that address the wide range of feelings and reactions to carnal love, from desire to disappointment, from longing to ecstasy to regret. Meaning "little song," the sonnet, which originated in Italy, was conceived as a vehicle for the expression of love. Think of Petrarch. Think of Dante. And yes, think of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans.
Egan has also published an ingenious sonnet cycle of her own entitled "Bar Napkin Sonnets" (a prize-winning chapbook that is included in her 2010 collection, Spin), which likewise deals with what Kim Addonizio calls "looking for love in all the wrong places…witty, irreverent, self-knowing poems." In other words, hot sonnets!
So it is in this context that Egan's new collection, Hot Flash Sonnets, should be read, a natural extension. Yes, she's writing about those hot flashes that come with age, a 28-sonnet sequence dealing with the physical and emotional manifestations of menopause, and the opening sonnet tells you what to expect.
What the Flesh Is Heir To
Our mothers never told us there'd be days
(and weeks and months and years) like this; you think
they took a vow of silence? Anyway,
I think somebody needs to make a kit
like the one they gave out in sixth grade,
the pads and belts, Something Happens to Girls:
it's normal, said the booklet, don't be afraid.
I need a book like that, with homey pearls
of woman wisdom for this later stage.
We have some suggestions.
We need Kleenex, Lightdays, and also sage
advice about the menopausal question:
To HRT or not. Soy? Calcium?
And could you please throw in some Halcion?
The book cover is a painting by Suzanne Valadon of a nude middle-aged lady, called Catherine nue assise sur une peau de panthere (Catherine sitting naked on a leopard skin) – sagging breasts, bulging stomach, unflattering rump and thigh. It's more or less what the speaker of these poems feels like she has become. Laced with a good deal of humor, an ironic, occasionally mock-elegiac tone, these poems are not at all self-pitying, but rather they are the expression of astonishment that any human being, male or female, feels watching his or her body age. "Beats the alternative" is always implied, after all. ("How did I get so fucking old? I ask/aloud, then answer, Well, I haven't died." Egan writes in "50th Birthday")
But yes, specifically, these poems chronicle the changes experienced with menopause. "Mood Swing" (3 times) and "Insomnia" (4) are recurring titles, to go along with "Weight Gain," "Dryness," "Confused Complexion," "Sisters in Sweat" (which includes sly commentary on Rush Limbaugh) and "Things that Disappear." And did I mention "Hot Flash" and "I Can't Do That Anymore"?
Titles like "Two Middle-Aged Women Walk into a Bar" clue you into the humor bubbling just below the surface of what is, after all, a serious subject. "Not Flashing but Waving" is another ("My poet girlfriend says she asked her Doc/when these things stop. Her Doc said, Maybe never.)
Egan is especially charming and hilarious when she addresses those ubiquitous strategies to combat aging. Her sonnet addressed to a product whose advertising copy claims it is "a sensual arousal gel featuring... exotic oils that will enhance a woman's sexual pleasure... designed to heighten sensations and increase excitement for more explosive encounters" is an example and equally demonstrates her fascination and playfulness with language.
Our eyes lock in confession. Can it be
the truth? We former horn-dogs, floozies, tramps;
[much] (dated:) scarlet women, tarts, hussies,
old-school sluts, harlots, trollops — we strumpets,
can't seem to get it up. What's happened here?
O fucking menopause. O for a muse
of estrogen. You've left us stranded, dear,
upon the shore of oistros-lessness. Who
would have guessed? Oistros as in gadfly
(its roots, to goad or spike, ah yes) and frenzy
(O.F.: frenesie: from the Greek, phren, mind).
O for a muse of silm, of slick and plenty.
I like the sleek pink tube and Sixties font,
its promise to swap (noun) want for (verb) want.
Egan is such an accomplished sonneteer; you can't praise her too much for her mastery of the form. She's so near-perfect you don't even particularly notice the rhyme scheme, it's so natural, so "unforced." If for nothing else, the artfulness of her verse makes these poems worth reading.
The collection ends with these lines from the poem called "Clarity," full of good humor:
I know that the alternative is cold
and darkly permanent, and so despite
the minor aches of starting to grow old,
I'm trying to fashion ways to celebrate
the scintillant of silver, each fine line,
the tiny crow's-feet tracks that mark my time.