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The Poetry of Lois Hirshkowitz: The Semiotics of the Private

Updated: Apr 5, 2023


by Walter Holland

The Poetry of Lois Hirshkowitz: The Semiotics of the Private:

Marking Her Questions, Mellen Poetry Press,

Lewiston, New York, 1993

The historical avant-gardes of the past have been perceived as primarily “masculine” phenomena. Elizabeth A. Frost in her fine review of both Megan Simpson’s Poetic Epistemologies Gender and Knowing in Women’s Language-Oriented Writing, and Ann Vickery’s :Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing in the Autumn, 2002, journal Contemporary Literature mentions the term of the “double margin.” This term of marginalization and exclusion was coined by Susan Suleiman “for the position of women in [primarily male-dominated] groups from futurism through the second generation of surrealism.” (p. 588). Frost points out that this double margin has remained “in the reception—if not the actual production—of English-language poetry.” And she speaks of the way feminist poetics, which coincided with the 1970’s renaissance in women’s avant-garde poetry and politics, “favored personal narrative, accessibility, and the self-present lyric ‘I’.” (p. 588) This conscious direction pushed aside experimental women writers in favor of a “feminist poetic” that left “little room for disruptions of a different sort—those that dismantled and otherwise experimented with traditional language and syntax as a means toward feminist ends.” (p. 588). Frost further cites the poet, scholar, and teacher Kathleen Fraser who says that “the emphasis on finding a common language through poetry was crucial to forging community and establishing a shared identity. But there never seemed to be a comfortable place for experimental women poets.”

Frost cites Megan Simpson’s emphasis on “what Fraser has called a ‘tradition of marginality’ among innovative women writers” (p. 590) and goes on to describe Simpson’s assertion that these innovative women reveal in their writing “the extent to which language creates knowing.” Simpson’s argument is that “language-oriented women writers couple epistemological and feminist concerns by exploring ‘the relations among knowledge, language, and gender, thus (re)uniting art with philosophy, and both with social critique.’” (p 590)

Simpson’s take on the experimental Language poet Susan Howe and her textual strategies include: “. . . prevalent intertextuality, collage, parataxis, the visual and sonic effects of language as textual ‘material’.” (p 592-593).

In Ann Vickery’s book, Frost highlights how Vickery’s critical approach shuns “lineage,” “traditions,” and “canons,” and the discussion of origins or influences. Instead Vickery sees “poetry as practice,” and embraces “the shifting ‘mess’ that encapsulates actual poetic practice through the traces it leaves.” (p594). In other words Frost highlights Vickery’s distrust of language writing being “read backward” through a few influential anthologies of works by a handful of practitioners, as though meant to “represent the ‘whole’ of a massive body of textual production.” (p. 594).

Vickery’s study is “a book of particulars” wherein she “seeks to recover and celebrate the work of women writers, including not only the poetry they wrote but their involvement in publishing, editing, theorizing, and supporting a broader poetic practice.”

In this spirit of recovery and avoiding reading backward, we turn our attention to the practice of poet Lois Hirshkowitz (April 24, 1936 – May 20, 2008), and to her book Marking Her Questions.

Hirshkowitz was born in Brooklyn and received her MA in English from Columbia University. In 1991 she took an MA in Poetry from City College, CUNY, having studied with William Matthews and Ann Lauterbach. She worked for many years as a New Jersey Poet-in-the-Schools, a Dodge poet, and also taught at The Writer’s Voice in New York City. In 1973 she founded an independent day school, Lakewood Prep in New Jersey, where she taught and acted as its Director. In 1998 she and a group of New York City poets founded Barrow Street, a literary journal devoted to publishing contemporary poetry. Her books included: Nurture & Torture, 1992, San Diego Poets Press; Marking Her Questions, 1993, Mellen Poetry Press; Pan’s Daughters, 1998, Chi Chi Press; and 3.14159+, Barrow Street Press, 2004. Additionally a special issue of Barrow Street was published in 2008 and featured a selection of her unpublished poems.

Hirshkowitz was an experimental poet. To this extent her creative works show a virtuosic attentiveness to the play of form and language, and to the melding of the personal lyric with the language-oriented interests of both Concrete Poetry in the 1950s and 1960s, and Language Poetry in the mid 1970s. But, unlike these movements and their forays into pure semiotic theory and textual analysis in an effort to question the subjectivity in lyric poetry, Hirshkowitz retained the lyric’s traditional domain of the personal subjective, explaining her observations of her day-to-day social and domestic life, while at the same time displaying a fascination with language as a construct, a process of ordination and relativity.

Hirshkowitz is an acute observer of her domestic life, and is ever aware of the relations between language, gender, social behavior and knowledge. The drama of old age in her father and demented mother; the frenetic experience of raising young children and managing a family; driving a car to shuttle family from place to place, and the constant interruptions of thought that caregiving demands; are all material for her poetry. However, Hirshkowitz is also interested in the ways such experiences are processed and understood.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, that Hirshkowitz, unhappy with the educational opportunities available to her young children by the local New Jersey school system, founded her own school to instruct them. It is toward this end, that Hirshkowitz must have studied the learning sciences, or had at least some awareness of cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, data analytics, linguistics, statistics, and psychometrics as well as a grounding in childhood and young adult cognitive development theory. This experience might have influenced her poetry with her schematic use of language and its syntactic play to express socially conscious and subconscious thoughts, and the rudiments of language development And it is no surprise that Hirshkowitz thesis at Columbia was on Wallace Stevens, a poet who perhaps bar none according to Stevens scholar Julianne Buchsbaum wrote a poetry of “anxieties and disruptions,” and created a “space of doubt in which ideas must continually be overturned and revisited.” Stevens sought to show us how the piecemeal of reality is given meaning and shape by the organization of the imagination.

As Wikipedia summarizes Steven’s viewpoint:

Reality is the product of the imagination as it shapes the world. Because it is constantly changing as we attempt to find imaginatively satisfying ways to perceive the world; reality is an activity, not a static object. We approach reality with a piecemeal understanding, putting together parts of the world in an attempt to make it seem coherent. To make sense of the world is to construct a worldview through an active exercise of the imagination. This is no dry, philosophical activity, but a passionate engagement in finding order and meaning.

Hirshkowitz as well finds in the piecemeal realities of her everyday personal life a deeply active engagement in constructing order and meaning through language. Hers is no dry, philosophical exercise but full of personal concern and concrete thinking. But nonetheless she is captivated by the complex and uncertain structure and architecture of language.

Her visual agility and deft, articulate intelligence are fully evident on the page. Typographical variations are found frequently in every poem. Parentheticals and italicizations often signify leaps in tone, “volume,” and emphasis of thought, inner and outer deliberation, conflicting opinion, and active reasoning. Her poems are short for the most part and resist narrative closure. They often show a circularity of thinking that is altered by the addition or subtraction of a single particle of speech.

Numerals are frequent. There is a strong mathematical sense of paradoxical logic which often offers no clear or certain outcome. Indecision and regret, vigilant worry, guessing, and a sense of immediacy that contains ruminative fragmentation and the sense of multitasking are ever present.

Details gather and decisions are made, facts or information are sometimes incomplete and faulty, threatening the speaker as well as the poem’s integrity.

In a feminist way, she effectively reflects the immense juggling she is called to do as mother, wife, caretaker, social member, teacher, and lover. Her poems often present highly adaptive actions to restore domestic order, fulfill social obligations, continue personal relationships, avoid threats, and prioritize emotional tasks. All this illustrates the many roles she must play and the incapacity at times to fully express herself and interpret others around her.

Hirshkowitz has a mind of uncommon intellectual nuance. She is perhaps a poet of interiority. Like Virginia Woolf who used language to convey stream of consciousness and the complexities of emotion and experience, memory, and time, Hirshkowitz finds a language of her own, a style, to claim as unique.

Two poems which amply illustrate this are “nine, one one” and “Marching in Her Place” which both appear in Marking Her Questions. These are the first three parts of “nine one one”:


At nine when she awoke to use the bathroom

her grandson was asleep in his crib

bigger than she would have expected him

to be at three weeks and two days

Start crying baby boy


How long will the pain that hasn’t started yet last

Don’t leave her here

Dr. Endodontist tightens a rubber mask across her face

She is opened wide


No one is ever out on her street

Once a door across the way opened

A woman looked out stood there

in the crack of the door looked out

for a moment didn’t say anything

stood there and cried

Hirshkowitz leaves out all punctuation and in this she creates a sort of liminal sense of furtive immediacy and worry. Her observations are often disjointed juxtapositions, leaps in thought and temporality, narrative threads that are dropped and then picked up somewhere else, and parataxis where conjunctions and narrative links are purposely omitted.

We hear her running thought, detailed scenes are truncated or abridged. The style while not fully collage is not fully consistent narrative. Distant characteristics of Hirshkowitz’s language can be found in Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian, two much-celebrated Language poets of the seventies and eighties. Simpson describes in her book Howe’s: “intertextuality, collage, parataxis, the visual and sonic effects of language as textual ‘material,’” traits that also could apply to Hejinian. But unlike Howe or Hejinian, Hirshkowitz remains committed to the subjective narrative, to the personal, psychological and cognitive interpretation and representation of real life experience.

There is the real representation of “maternal” vigilance in Hirshkowitz’s poem, a sense of immediate menace. We hear this in the disjointed presentation of the speaker’s thoughts, the hasty gestures toward emotion, uneasy images of warning, implications of alarm, or even violation.

The second stanza of “nine, one one” presents Hirshkowitz in the role of grandmother, taking her granddaughter to the Endodontist, presumably for braces, but of this we can’t be fully certain. The details are spare. The lack of clarifying conjunctions makes for confusion and yet we have the call for quick action and decision-making. The syntax is strange, disrupting the sequence of events and its temporal continuity. Hirshkowitz opens: “How long will the pain that hasn’t started yet last” Why is Hirshkowitz interested in how long the pain will last? And why the strange and awkward use of tense and subordination? Without the guidance of traditional punctuation or clear exposition we cannot tell.

Hirshkowitz maintains in her poem tight control. She never lingers too long to afford the reader full understanding. One is swiftly engaged in a fretful interior dialogue. Here Hirshkowitz inverts the old writer’s adage of “show don’t tell” by choosing to “tell and show” at the same time; by both the alterity of her grammar which shows her anxiety and the narrative telling of the actions and visual details she observes.

In the first stanza or part 1 of the poem she refers to her grandson as “bigger than she would have expected him/ to be at three weeks and two days” only to have three stanzas later in part 4 the statement repeated and oddly completed:


Later that morning her grandson rushed over to her

How old is he she asked

Three weeks two days and two hours they said

How could that be

“Three weeks two days and two hours they said”. This broken fragmentation adds to the disassociate quality of what we are asked to accept as specificity and fails to answer the reply the grandson gives to her question “How old is he she asked” or is the question directed to other family members, “they”? Perception and apperception are expressed impressionistically at the same time. Her poems invite horizontal and vertical readings where meaning is a process or choice. In this regard mathematical structure and probability loom large in many of Hirshkowitz’s poems inviting multiple readings and interpretations. This can be to humorous effect. It also can project an overload of information and actions which require swift identification, understanding, and response.

“nine one one” includes the suggestion of harm. We are told that the Endodontist “tightens a rubber mask across her face” and that “She is opened wide.” Who is the “she”? The young granddaughter? Is she threatened? Her mouth is opened wide. But why the single subject “She” and the passive form, if it is “her mouth” that is receiving the dental procedure. Hirshkowitz leaves this out. We have only that one singular transitive verb “opened” in the line to guide us. The same is true with the line above it, in which we have another transitive verb “tightens” applied to the direct object of the “mask.” Both verbs are strong and aggressive, their “actions” powerful and by their spare placement in a poem of few details, they create a more ominous tone. In the second line of the stanza, Hirshkowitz interjects “Don’t leave her here,” an inner deliberative command that functions as cautionary warning.

In part 3 we have the image of a woman crying, but again who is she? We do not know exactly. Is it a neighbor?


No one is ever out on her street

Once a door across the way opened

A woman looked out stood there

in the crack of the door looked out

for a moment didn’t say anything

stood there and cried

What is the cause of her crying? And how does it fit in the context of the rest of the poem. Is it a cause for alarm? Does it suggest tragedy? Is it the result of some violation, perhaps domestic abuse? And how does this image relate to the girl in the Endodontist’s chair? Do we sense the speaker lives in a neighborhood, a world, where women are often under duress, seeking escape?

The poem’s title “nine one one” we understand as the universal code for emergency calls, but Hirshkowitz is a facile wordsmith, and must have some measure of familiarity with the semiotics of Chomsky, Peirce, Saussure, Barthes and Hjelmslev. To these semioticians language consists of arbitrary symbols which we call words that in turn represent meanings. Hirshkowitz often signals in a fragmented manner. She employs language paratactically as we have seen, favoring short, simple sentences, often admitting their conjunctions. Time is convoluted, past actions and present actions defy and interrupt the poem’s narrative. Hirshkowitz, as well, in other books shows a fascination with the language of dreams, their disassociated decoupling of concrete images, thoughts, and logic.

This decoupling calls attention to Saussure’s breakdown of signs from signified, which led to later concepts of signifier and signified. The result has been an entire science involving robust discussion and study of the relationships between symbols, signs, forms, referents, to the concepts they embody. The linguistic scholar Hjelmslev called it “expression” and “content.” And this has gained further importance in our digital computer age, where “languages” are highly-programmed mathematical codes.

Roland Barthes differentiated: “connotation—cultural meanings attached to words —[from] denotation—literal or explicit meanings to words.” As we see in “nine one one” the entry of specific words, active verbs of a cultural nature, could suggest female abuse rather than the simple professional actions of an Endodontist. It all depends upon both the context and organization of the words to effect the reader’s interpretation.

The poem continues:


His father was like that she recalled and smart too

he talked to her before he slept through the night

told her he would leave soon


On Yom Kippur at Neilah service her last time to ask

forgiveness who shall live and who shall live

only repentance and prayer can revoke the sentence

Lately there are more and more faceless women

in her arms in her dream


H. Selah in a Hebrew text has no meaning in and of itself

signifies the end of a line


like the empty square [ ] at the end of the article


like the final t that is not on her typewriter

What is a Country Townhouse

Who needs a final t


Later the blue sky is turning angry

Is someone else crying

Someone is crying out

There’s always someone crying or

Thunder storms tonight


Come and get her leftovers

She can make so much out of so little

Yesterday’s breast milk mixed into

today’s spinach sauce over

tomorrow’s wild rice

her Lifetime Protection Plan

As we can see “nine one one” is a poem broken into 9 numbered stanzas with two final stanzas each numbered as “1” and “1” respectively instead of ten and eleven. Thus the overall formal organization of the poem mirrors the numeric code in its title. Further if we number the stanzas in their traditional sequence we would have 11 stanzas in total.

The poem itself is thirty-three lines in length or 3 groupings of 11 lines; 11 being the sum of 9 plus 2, and 3 being the square root of 9. This complex mathematical structure indeed might be Hirshkowitz’s way of alluding to the complex linguistic history of the Hebrew language and the scripture of the Torah, its sacred significance which for centuries was the purvey of males only who were the only ones permitted to attend the traditional yeshivas. One technique used by those early male scholars to study and more fully understand the Torah was the practice of gematria or the spiritual interpretation of numbers used in the text. “Nine” signified finality, judgement, harvest, fruition, the womb and a woman’s nine-month term of gestation; whereas “one” represented unity, oneness, primacy, wholeness, the beginning—one hope, one God, that is not subject to multiplicity or division.

This study led in the 12th and 13th centuries to the extremely mystical and esoteric discipline of Jewish kabbalism. Here emphasis was placed on the interpretation of the letters, words, numbers of sacred scripture. Wikipedia writes:

Kabbalistic thought extended Biblical and Midrashic notions that God enacted Creation through the Hebrew language and through the Torah into a full linguistic mysticism. In this, every Hebrew letter, word, number, even accent on words of the Hebrew Bible contain Jewish mystical meanings, describing the spiritual dimensions within exoteric ideas, and it teaches the hermeneutic methods of interpretation for ascertaining these meanings.

Perhaps Hirshkowitz is appropriating with some irony in mind this sacred and mystical methodology which was once denied women. She does so by incorporating these highly esoteric formal considerations into her poem, a poem which in its last stanza interestingly enough returns to the image of “She,” either Hirshkowitz herself or her daughter now mother or women in general. This final stanza seems to emphasize the experience of women as creators in themselves, capable within their singular bodies to produce and multiply, to nurture and sustain. “She” does so out of “so little,” her 1 body, her 1 “ovum” dividing and reproducing into a complex number of millions of cells in just 9-months- time. In this she even challenges the male God’s rigid oneness and absolutism. And she does so by nurturing this new life from breast feeding to soft foods to finally solids, thus sustaining the baby through all phases its human life. Interestingly Hirshkowitz uses the 3 temporalities of “yesterday,” “today,” and “tomorrow,” in her narrative. This trinity might also symbolize the 3 stages of man: infancy, adulthood, and old age. And so we are returned to a numerical equivalency.

Neilah service in the Jewish faith is the final service of Yom Kippur. It means “Closing of the gates” and was recited at the end of the Day of Atonement when the Temple gates were shut. Symbolically, however, it has been linked with the closing of the gates of Heaven and is the last chance for final prayers and supplications. The service comes with a sense of urgency, and this urgency seems emotionally connected literally with the title and figuratively with the mood of Hirshkowitz’s poem. The service is the final hour when one may ask for forgiveness of sins and possibly find divine pardon as a written decree and inscribed in the Book of Life before the book is sealed. Someone cries out. There is a gravitas to this poem but also an aura of doubt, even fear of death without redemption. But whose supplication for forgiveness and continued life is being represented? Is it Hirshkowitz the speaker? Is it the grandchildren? Hirshkowitz’s own father, mother?

“H. Selah” perhaps refers to the Book of Habakkuk in the Hebrew Bible, where the term “Selah” is found used three times. “Selah” has various interpretations in meaning. Some sources have seen it as meaning to “pause” or a call to “silence” in a sung text; or the suggestion of stopping for deep reflection and quiet contemplation; while others find its meaning as a call “to lift up, exalt,” akin to verbally saying “Amen” or “so be it.” But Hirshkowitz reminds us that it “has no meaning in and of itself.” It is just a symbol, a signifier uncoupled over the course of centuries from its true spiritual meaning and purpose. It is a textual signal that is ultimately “empty” and like the final letter “t” missing from her typewriter, unneeded in the long run by her, as much as the severity of Yom Kippur and an orthodoxy of faith, ritual, and belief may be hollow signifiers of outdated tradition, a fading tradition no longer with the promise of consequence, meaning, and transformation.

In the end Hirshkowitz describes ironically “her Lifetime Protection Plan,” a protective plan that focuses solely on the physical, on nurture and sustenance, to maintain health. Perhaps this is all we have to promote a long life. Perhaps this is all we can do or do for others to revoke the sentence of an early death or a failing mind.

In “Marching in Her Place” Hirshkowitz writes:

And now it’s raining

Can(not) go (now)

She’ll double time it in place

Must push herself

(must) Catch up

She’ll find the others

She hates to (be alone)

She tries pushing off

Her neck is not stiff enough

When did it start to rain

The roads will be icy

She should try it

Should she wear her heart-shaped beads

No She puts those back in the box

Picks up others

The faceted glass drops

(At least) she won’t (be) hurt

Tossed around maybe

She fastens the others around her neck

Why look for trouble

There are other ways to look for it

She remembers the times she thought

She thought she knew (what they wanted)

They wanted (her) to know

They wanted to know (her)

They wanted (what she wanted)

She is (not) going (to stay)

She recalls (she left)

Her message

She is (not) going to stay

Here parenthetical entries create subtext, the way the elements of language and grammar act to express thought reversals and contradictions. The mechanics of “negation” in syntax is nicely illustrated by the insertion of “not” into key places. The programmatic way language works by addition and subtraction, order and sequence, grammatic relationship to derive intent, authority, resolve. And Hirshkowitz enjoys this. She finds intellectual humor ever present in language play and language’s use as ordering agent for thought; thought which might loop around in endless perseveration and indirection without closure. Doubt, deliberation, vigilance, speculation. Hirshkowitz likes this comedy of signifiers and speech gestures.

In her next to last stanza Hirshkowitz dwells on what “They wanted” to obsessive lengths. She becomes a vaudevillian of sorts, aware of language, quick thought, and all its pratfalls. Her verbal “performance” of trying to guess and fulfill the desires of an unknowable social “they” in the poem, becomes a skit of timing and word juggling. Finally after many permutations we learn “They wanted (what she wanted)”. Her anxiety as to what socially is being expected of her, finds no clear answer or resolution. The reply is inconsequential and unhelpful throwing its burden back on the speaker. Lost in the signs and referents of an ever confused assembly of language is a thwarted understanding, specificity and conviction.

We’re reminded of slapstick comedy, agile physical comedy, where the oddly amusing physical gesturing is done linguistically. Perhaps Hirshkowitz draws from Jewish humor and her cultural roots. She gives us a monologue with dead pan delivery to portray her hectic topsy-turvy world and sometimes baffling social role in it. This “patter act” of linguistic “running gags” and “quick changes” of grammar, visually conveys a kind of poetic “sight gag.” It’s pure gestural delight on her part, but also hints at tragedy and pathos at root, and human truth. Hirshkowitz invites us to both enjoy and think hard about language’s clever performance.

In some regards, Hirshkowitz’s theater of semiotic antics is not too far off from the theater of Samuel Beckett or Berthold Brecht. Beckett is well-known as a linguistic and aesthetic experimenter, a master of the tragi-comic. His plays are often black comedies. His bleak and minimalist style of course, applied to bizarre and irrational loops of language and thought, earned his work the label of “Theatre of the Absurd.” As with Beckett, Hirshkowitz is capable of her own brand of existential tragi-comedy.

Wikipedia describes Beckett’s theater this way: “Broadly speaking, the plays deal with the subject of despair and the will to survive in spite of that despair, in the face of an uncomprehending and incomprehensible world.” In speaking as well of the essential thematic of a Beckett play we are told:

. . . the essential theme seems to be the conflict between the voice's drive to continue speaking so as to continue existing, and its almost equally strong urge towards silence and oblivion. Despite the widely held view that Beckett's work, as exemplified by the novels of this period, is essentially pessimistic, the will to live seems to win out in the end; witness, for instance, the famous final phrase of The Unnamable: 'I can't go on, I'll go on'

Hirshkowitz’s “In Place of An(other)” is starkly aware of Beckett’s vision only here Hirshkowitz chooses the real-life scene of her mother’s descent into dementia and a daughter’s fraught and moving struggles to listen and care for her. Hirshkowitz must at least try to decipher her mother’s words and to understand her mother’s wishes, even as she must acknowledge the futility and absurdity of this task. And, while not taking her mother’s verbal and physical assaults personally, Hirshkowitz must confront her own sense of bleak mortality.

She writes:

The m(other) waves her

Steak knife at the (other) daughter

Sprays her half-chewed meat at

What is her name Pass the salt

She’ll pour it on

An(other) teaspoon filled with it

Into a glass of comfortably hot water

Thank you she said

She doesn’t want any(other)

(Other) is suddenly too large

To pronounce and She doesn’t want to be

Last in this house

If no (other) one is

Left and how long

Will she last

In the (other) chapter

Was it one

Was it two

Was it two

This Beckett style vignette is heartbreaking as it is existentially crushing. By careful attention to the short rhythmic beat of each line in succession, Hirshkowitz echoes the spare and hollow precision of a Beckett dialogue. She summons and matches his haunting and nihilistic austerity. The mother in question is both the same mother of the speaker’s childhood but at the same time is the “other,” which is typographically signified parenthetically by revealing how the “other” is ironically embedded in the word “mother” itself, i.e. “m(other).”

The line breaks, the end words, the use of capitalizations and again the lack of clarifying conjunctions portend complex feelings: “She doesn’t want to be/ Last in this house”. Is the mother merely conveying that she does not wish to be left alone in the house now that her husband has died? Does the daughter not wish to be left alone after her mother dies, leaving her an empty house as its final lonely caretaker? Does the mother no longer wish to exist physically, “to be,” or is the one wishing to not “last” the daughter? Should we enjamb these two lines so that the latter is true? The daughter literally or figuratively does not want “to be/ Last” ?. Does the capitalization of “Last” imply an incomplete sentence fragment and thus merely a gestural non-sequitur? Is the whole poem one of fragmentation?

Sonically the words “Last,” “Other,” “m(other) and the phrases “to be,” “pour it on,” “filled with it,” “too large,” and “how long” convey the vocabulary of despair, a state of being “Other” too large and overpowering or incomprehensible to deal with. Of being estranged and no longer “part of” the comfortable role of “daughter” when the mother’s mental capacity is essentially null. How do we live with, endure, and go on when even language itself is uncoupled from meaning?

Hirshkowitz does understand acutely this sad predicament. Is Hirshkowitz using the final stanza figuratively to concede her mother’s end-of-life situation with no further “chapter” to come? The repetition of the phrase “Was it two” to end the poem has a sobering effect as it is unexpected and surprising. It seems to trail off with a double weariness, a double dose of reality and realization, which might apply not solely to the mother’s age and mortality, but to Hirshkowitz’s own stage in life, no longer young daughter, but fully adult middle-aged woman.

Hirshkowitz’s experimentation with language is a constant hall of mirrors throughout her poems; questioning and second guessing thoughts, conclusions, social relationships, emotional investment in the moment of experience. Language is slippery and thus for Hirshkowitz existence and consciousness can be mysteriously both comforting and uncomforting. Meaning is uncertain, and the mind is trapped in its own endless contemplation.

Beckett writes in his prose piece “Comment c’est” (1961, “How It Is”): "You are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it's over you are there no more alive no more than again you are there again alive again it wasn't over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another as when another image above in the light you come to in hospital in the dark"

Brecht also has some bearing with Hirshkowitz’s. In Writing And The Modern Stage: Theater Beyond Drama from the Cambridge Press, the author Julia Jarcho in Part 1 “Modernism’s Negative Theatrics,” quotes from Theodor Adorno “. . . what is wants the other:/ the artwork is the language of this wanting.” Additionally in her Introduction “Negative Theatrics” to Chapter 1, she quotes a line from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot”: “ESTRAGON: [gesturing towards the universe]: This one is enough for you?”

In a chapter subtitled “The presence of the stage, again” Jarcho discusses Brecht’s “call for the ‘literarization’ of the theatre.” (p 12) Just as Brecht was a skilled dramatist and believed in realistic representation of human characters, conflict and behavior, he was also language-oriented seeking to “alienate” the theatergoer into considering the ideals, concepts and political ideology behind the “entertainment.” In perhaps like fashion Hirshkowitz is oriented toward captioning and literalizing her thoughts to create a more convincing reality in her verse. Brecht wrote:

Someone with an academic approach to drama might object to the titles on

the basis that the playwright should be able to say everything that needs to

be said through the action of the play—that the literary work should be able

to express everything within its own confines. The corresponding attitude

for the spectator is that of not thinking about the subject but within the

confines of that subject. But this practice of subordinating everything to

the single idea, this urge to propel the audience along a single track where

it can look neither right nor left, up nor down is something that the new

dramatic writing must reject. The use of footnotes and the comparing

points on different pages need to be introduced into dramatic writing, too. (p 12)

It is Hirshkowitz perhaps who wants us to avoid subordinating the reading of her poems to the “single idea” and that everything should be expressed within the confines of the poem. In other words, Hirshkowitz wished to avoid “single track” thinking in the reading of her work, which sustains a multiplicity of private thoughts and feelings by the unconstraint of their structure, permitting us to read right and left, up and down, and thus be not denied a more complex experience of meaning and being.

The title of Hirshkowitz’s book is Marking Her Questions.” Interestingly her title engages in word play for here she inverts the order of “question mark” to “mark[ing] [Her] question[s].” The question mark itself we understand to be a punctuation mark which symbolizes in most cases the interrogative in a language. In English it mostly occurs at the end of the sentence where it replaces the full stop of the period. But it also can occur at the end of a clause or phrase replacing the comma. In this case, it might follow questionable data. In Spanish, however, an interrogative requires both an opening question mark and a closing question mark, represented by first an inverted question mark superseded later by an upright question mark. So in most instances the interrogative functions by use of an abstract symbol, a signifier, to denote an uncertainty. Question marks even appear in the writing of computer programming codes: e.g. one is used to denote: "zero or one instance of the previous subexpression", i.e. an optional element.”

Wikipedia observes: “The question mark can also be used as a meta-sign to signal uncertainty regarding what precedes it. It is usually put between brackets: (?). The uncertainty may concern either a superficial level (such as unsure spelling), or a deeper truth (real meaning).”

“Marking her questions” is thus a collection of poems which more often than not are about the poet’s uncertainty, either of a superficial level or in the deeper life truths or real meanings everyday world of experience presents to her. And with her title Hirshkowitz also calls attention to the linguistic history where language and punctuation are intrinsically linked to manual gestures in primitive man. In fact written language and spoken language are both gestural in nature, physical bodily sounds or manual visual marks that at their most basic were once accompanied by physical gestures. And then written language expanded to ideograms which by one figurative image, pictorial gesture, when strung together in a series could convey more complex concepts.

Hirshkowitz scrambles things further. Hirshkowitz ‘s poetry is ever aware of the personal uncertainty and certainty which coexist in our complex world of social interaction and communication; how we think and experience simultaneously our conscious and subconscious system of language, how our higher functions of perception and organization must constantly interact and make decisions. Hirshkowitz knows this conundrum cannot be fully solved, and so accepts it with a goodly amount of humor, irony, and Jewish moxie. At the start of her ending, she has left us a remarkable structure of a complexly private, loving, and playful being.

by Walter Holland, copyright September 23, 2021, All Rights Reserved

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