by Margot Kahn | Contributing Writer
This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Thursday, March 2, Kate Baer will read and discuss her work at 7:30 pm Pacific time. Tickets to this in-person and online event can be purchased at the SAL website.
The trouble with wanting, at least so far as I can tell at this juncture of my life, is that the relationship between the public and private self’s desires is an ever-evolving matter. What one was taught or conditioned to want likely overlays some hidden or secret desires, which grow into more complex or perhaps simpler desires as we get older. What seems so clear and static in, say, our twenties will turn out to be just a passing moment: desire shifts and evolves—sometimes dramatically—as our circumstances, politics, culture, relationships, life experiences, hormones, and emotional weather change. The idea of thinking ahead to what my future self will want as a barometer for how I should conduct my life in the present is a concept I now see as a sort of hoax, a fake religion.
Kate Baer’s new book, And Yet, is dripping with desire and its attendant vulnerability, and her wrestling with the concept has resonated with readers the way any work does when it speaks a certain universal truth. There’s maternal desire for the health and well-being of the children, and for the personal satisfaction of those small hands, that “silk and honey breath.” There’s a carnal desire for sex on the carpet and up against the bedroom wall. There’s desire for freedom, independence, time, another kind of body, self-acceptance, and cultural change. In a recent exchange with Baer over email she said, “So much of my work is me simply grappling with what I was taught about women and what we are allowed to like, allowed to ask for, and allowed to be.”
Take, for example, the poem “Thirties,” a three-liner that comes about a third of the way into And Yet:
I wanted everything.
It was obvious and everybody saw it
and talked about it with one another.
That’s the poem in its entirety, surgically perfect in its exactitude: three lines to sum up a decade. At the same time, the linguistic complexity of the poem makes it utterly human. Is the “everybody” referring to a collective group of friends in their thirties understanding the same moment of wanting as the narrator? Or is the “everybody” talking about the narrator behind her back, in hushed tones at the coffee shop as she enters or leaves? Is the “everybody” a declaration of the self, or an assumption of the other? I think it’s both.
“Thirties” makes me laugh out loud, mostly because I recognize the same feeling from my own life. That ambition I felt before becoming a mother; then, bewilderment when years flew by while nursing, playing trains on the floor, goals unmet, and the world in its spectacular unstoppability going on and on around me. “Children getting older helps,” Baer emails, as if speaking directly to my own insecurity. “As they age, their needs become so much less physical. In those early years it feels like the body is constantly sacrificing desire to keep someone else alive. Yes the years are short, but when you are giving up almost everything—it feels like an eternity.” Then, just as soon as you thought you knew what you wanted, the desires change and crash into each other. You want the house, the children, the marriage. You want a divorce, a lover, a lobotomy.
Sometimes, when it feels like there’s more desire than we can handle, more desire than is acceptable, the realms of fantasy and speculation open their doors. Baer delightfully plays in this space in a handful of poems. In “Without a Moral, There’s Just a Happy Ending,” a woman wins the Powerball jackpot of 100 million dollars, stuffs the cash in her bra, “tells her husband she is going on a trip,” takes off, and lives happily ever after. Of course, we can’t know, assuming this luck befell us, if we would miss our partners, our children, or the homes we so painstakingly built out of flour and glue and construction paper. But in the bounds of the poem, it’s no matter—this is a new kind of fairy tale. One where the key to happiness is not the slipper or the prince but plain-and-simple, no-strings-attached independence.
In another fantastical poem, “Mixup,” that appeared in The New Yorker during the pandemic, a wife wakes up one morning to find, a la Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” that she has become her husband. She puts on his pants, goes to his office. And what started as a small horror turns out to be strangely pleasurable:
It’s upsetting, the whole charade,
except at lunch when she orders fries and no one says,
We’re so bad,
or at the meeting when she gives the room all her best ideas
and they say, Man, where have you been?
Here, Baer does the poem’s ultimate work of shapeshifting, slipping into another skin, using language to understand the other to better understand the self. It’s a simple recasting, but effective. And about those men? “I’m not ashamed to admit there have been many times I’ve written something that I hope gives some man somewhere pause for reflection,” Baer admits to me.
Often, for desire to exist, there is a necessarily opposing lack. In her poems, Baer plumbs the depths of her lacks with shame and rage, exhaustion, and naked vulnerability. At the same time, she juxtaposes these investigations with moments of clear-eyed acceptance. The quotidian nature of her poems, often set in facing-page pairs, seem to say: you know, sometimes you can fill the lack just by looking—by seeing the thing that’s already there and deciding that it’s good. Two poems that sit next to each other, “Invitation” and “Still Married” demonstrate this with echoes of Mary Oliver and William Carlos Williams.
They say do one thing a day that scares you—
but I say find someone else to scare.
Remove your face.
Break the bed with your morning loving.
In the evening, go down to the water
and wait for no one.
Let your life rest
on what is already good.
The children are getting older and
I don’t know how we ever managed
with the dark nights and heavy car-
seats and babies nursing at my bleeding
breast. Nothing is easier and yet
here we are making pancakes
with the radio on.
In all the time I’ve spent recently thinking about desire, I’ve come to realize that the mystery of why we want what we want is far more interesting than any specific thing we can point to. “One of the greatest joys in my life so far,” Baer writes to me, “has been simply getting older. What a privilege. How eye opening to learn over and over that there is only this one precious life and what a waste it is to use that life worrying about thigh gap or what some dude thinks about the feminine mystique.”
What do you want, and why do you want it? These poems turn the thought over and over, let us luxuriate in the complexity. And yet. And yet. And yet . . .
Margot Kahn is the author of the chapbook A Quiet Day with the West on Fire (Floating Bridge Press, 2021). Her poems, twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, have appeared in the Hopkins Review, New England Review, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. She’s also the co-editor of two anthologies: the New York Times Editors’ Choice This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home (Seal/Hachette, 2017) and Wanting: Women Writing About Desire (Catapult 2023).