Grasping Men's Metaphors


98 pages
ISBN 0-919754-50-3
DDC C811'.54





Reviewed by M. Morgan Holmes

M. Morgan Holmes teaches English at McGill University.


Montreal poet and feminist critic Sharon H. Nelson’s seventh
collection of poems is a politically motivated attempt to undermine the
mythologies of sexist, patriarchal authority in the household and the
wider world. As its title suggests, the book largely concerns the
parallel destructiveness of language and more overt forms of physical
abuse. In her long poem “Songs of Innocence and Experience”—which,
indeed, self-consciously echoes William Blake in several places—Nelson
points out that “we have been taught / that to unclothe meaning, / to
strip away the flesh of its expression, / is to achieve a greater /
clarity.” Quite rightly, Nelson’s ironic point turns on the fact
that this quest for so-called clarity is often at the expense of the
vital subtleties of human experience.

Connected to her awareness of linguistic complicity in social violence,
many of Nelson’s meditations pivot on the destructive continuity
between received wisdom and static cultural norms. For example, in
“Invidious Comparisons” she quotes rabbinical lore, which says that
“in a place where there are no men, / strive to be a man.” The
counterpoint to this is spoken by a woman: “and we said to our
brothers: / there must be other ways to be a man, / to be manly.”
Throughout the collection, Nelson interrogates gendered subject
positions, asking her reader to reconceive the social basis of
masculinity and femininity.

A telling area in which Nelson’s thought on this intriguing subject
reveals its limitations is in its reliance on a suspect paradigm of
heteronormative interaction. In her thoughts on the false importance of
penis size, for instance, Nelson observes, without any detectable irony,
that “woman’s power / is to clench with pleasure / to any size at
all.” Not only does this entirely erase any lesbian desire, but it
unproblematically assumes that all heterosexual women similarly take
pleasure in all men’s cocks. Surely, this image of indiscriminate,
voracious sexual appetite returns women to the same model of patriarchal
stereotyping, which Nelson more often disparages, and which makes this
book a worthwhile, if politically underexamined, endeavor.


Nelson, Sharon H., “Grasping Men's Metaphors,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 23, 2024,