Louise Gluck Poems
A Prisoner to Her Sex: The Hauntings of the Female Genitalia in Louise Glück’s “Mock Orange”
In Louise Glück’s poem, “Mock Orange” (Glück 1995) the female flesh interferes with the speaker’s search for a desired full presence or wholeness. Through her representation of the mock orange flower as the female genitalia, Glück attempts to transcend the speaker out of her own body to find a personal identity not established by gender. Through the speaker’s victimized demure and self-hatred towards her own feminine desire for companionship, Glück challenges the hostage-like expectations society holds for women. Although Glück makes great effort at transcendence for her characters into a new social identity, she creates the resonating theme throughout all her works that a woman will always be held prisoner to her sex.
“Mock Orange” is not the only poem that Glück writes that signifies the paralysis a woman faces because of her sex. Take for example her poem “The Chicago Train” (Glück 1995). The poem reads, “And they sat- as though paralysis preceding death had nailed them there. The track bent south. I saw her pulsing crotch… the lice rooted in that baby’s hair (“The Chicago” 4-8).” This self-hatred and offensive nature can be found throughout many of Glück’s poems including “Mock Orange”. It is clear that Glück feels revolted by her own bondage of her body to the physical world. The “pulsing crotch” can be seen as sexual arousal, either willing or unwilling.
The desires that the woman on the train faces are similar to those that the speaker in “Mock Orange” faces. Glück highlights these desires to voice her opinion on the fact that women have little control over such things. The view of sexual desire as a disgusting act bears the weight of the hatred Glück and her characters feels towards the hold their sex has over them. The paralysis in “The Chicago Train” can be seen paralleled in “Mock Orange”. Instead of the paralysis of being love-struck, Glück implies that a man restricts a woman’s capability to act as her own woman. “The man’s paralyzing body (“Mock” 7-8)” does not refer to the individual man that the speaker has relations with, but to all men. The image in the poem carries a heavy weight that quite literally makes even the reader feel weighed down by the burden of male companionship for women. Despite her selflessness in the act, she is still struck immobile by the man’s power. The patriarchy in relationships restrains the woman’s role within society. The idea that the man “wears the pants”, creates a submissive female. Her body is a locus of silence and disempowerment, and yet is still a house to her feminine desires. It is this reason that the speaker not only goes against the beliefs of female expectations in relationships, but she completely disregards her own body as feminine. This idea goes back to the mock orange flower that may look like an orange blossom but the fruits the mock orange bears are not the same.
The speaker may look like a woman however she does not bear the same fruits or desires of union that ‘normal’ women wish for. She does not find wholeness through her submission to a man, as implied by the expectations she faces. Another one of Glück’s poems that holds the victimized vulnerability is “Aphrodite” (Glück 2012). The speaker in the poem is a goddess who no longer feels as if she has the ability to affect men. The poem reads, “A woman exposed as rock has this advantage: she controls the harbor (“Aphrodite” 1-3).” It is the goddess’ sexuality that gave her the power, however now she no longer has the power and is armless. “Her thighs cemented shut (“Aphrodite 17)” is all the power she has to prohibit the man’s penetration. The erotic longing as a form of self-hatred is portrayed in all three of Glück’s poems. The damaged female sex symbolizes the woman’s powerlessness and prohibition.
In “Mock Orange” when the speaker addresses sex with a man, she draws on the oppression that the patriarchal power in communion holds on women. Instead of presenting the speaker as a goddess as she does in “Aphrodite” Glück presents the speaker as a victim to the mans predatory habit. Much like the flower whose fruits they bear are poisonous, the fruits of her sex will very well kill her freedom. The speaker holds no power over man but instead the man holds power over her. The poem reads, “the man’s mouth sealing my mouth (“Mock” 6-7).” If Glück wished to demonstrate a romantic relationship she would not have used the forceful language of seal. The word “sealing” brings an authoritative, masculine aspect into the poem. The word “seal” makes it seem as if the man wished to lock the power of femininity inside the woman and prevent it from escaping. It is not a gentle kiss of love for which the speaker hopes but an act of dominance. Her muteness is used to show the rejection of female identity and self-hatred that the speaker feels towards damaged female sex much like in “Aphrodite”.
The false images inside “Mock Orange” derides the reader just as the flower mocks the speaker. The poem reads, “It is not the moon, I tell you. It is these flowers lighting the yard (“Mock” 1-3).” The civilized yard should be a peaceful image basked in the moonlight instead it has become a symbol of the domestic world. In that domestic world the feminine expectations hold her hostage. This image creates a delicate hopeful feeling, for the fruit these flowers will bear, but the speaker soon turns away from that by expressing her hatred for the flowers and ultimately the female expectations. This hatred forms from the promise of companionship that is broken in her union with the man. Her sexual union does not give her a sense of self or personal identity as promised by the flowers but instead takes away from her personal identity. It is as though the female identity can only be measured and created by a masculine entity. Through the speaker’s union she loses the power she once held, the desirability factor, just as Aphrodite loses her sense of self in her union with the seafarer. The belief that they’re union would make her whole as a woman is common among the feminine expectations that the speaker faces.
In public expectations it is stated that a woman’s worth is measured by the desire of a man. If a woman is more desirable then she is wholesome, if she is not desirable then she must make herself so. These expectations are lost upon the speaker. The speaker does not find herself becoming whole in the union in the man but instead finds herself withdrawing from the expectations set forth and even rejecting the fruits that her sex bears. Glück’s rejection is not only for the romantic expectation and convention of flowers, but also for the promise they held for a new profound identity and wholeness she is seeking through her sexual transcendence. Using the feminist critique of objectification, Glück presents an argument not only through her imagery but through her perspective in the poem. Classic Hollywood cinema was once organized by the binary opposition between a masculine spectator as the subject and the object or the feminine spectated. In Parker’s words, “The masculine subject gazes, and the feminine object is gazed at (Parker 170).”
In the poem “Mock Orange” the object being gazed upon is the mock orange flower, which in turn means that the speaker is the masculine object. The flower as a representation of the female genitalia becomes quite literal through this critique. The speaker has thrown away feminine figure, forcing the flower to become the sexual object. Although the man in the poem can be considered masculine, he is not the spectator. This power of the spectator transforms the woman from a sexual object to the infinite being she desires to be. This role reversal depends upon the patriarchal expectations that it reverses. To many it would seem as if the speaker would be the object in the way that the mean overtakes her, however it is through her perspective that we see the symbolization of the mock orange (Parker). Flowers have been known to be a symbol of feminine sexuality. When Glück rejects the idea of flowers she is rejecting her own role as a woman and ultimately rejecting her female body. Many feminist artists and writers use flowers to portray the female genitalia. For example, British artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s floral artwork are assumed to be depictions of the female genitalia. The Freudian theory of her art being a close study of the female vulva first emerged one hundred years ago, but even in 1993 Glück uses this idea to form her own art work in her poetry (Wikipedia). Instead of the beautiful images of the female sex presented by O’Keefe, we are met with humiliation and paralyzing oppression that the speaker faces just because she has a vagina.
Glück writes that union is a “humiliating” cry; there is no magical joining of two bodies into one flesh, or rebirth in the sexual act. Like the flowers, the act bore no fruit of its hopeful promises. For the speaker sex is an excuse to create the shame that she wishes upon herself while pretending to bond to something greater. She tries to measure her own value through the love and desire of a man. The speaker feels as if her femininity is a curse, that she must bear the fruits it brings, no matter how much she wishes to cast her sex away. The erotic desires the speaker faces, threaten the persona Glück wishes her to have, a powerful feminist that needs no man. Her flesh interferes with her search for a desired full presence and wholeness. The poem reads, “We were made fools of. And the scent of mock orange drifts through the window (“Mock” 18).” The scent of the flowers is a reminder to the speaker of her own fate sealed by her sex. The scent that the flowers gives off, reminds the speaker of what she is meant to be; gentle and nurturing, submissive to man. The original orange blossom can be seen as a symbol for marriage and companionship in which the speaker wishes for, but the mock orange blossom is a meaning of counterfeit that creates the artificial companionship that the speaker receives (AuntyFlo). The sexual act does not grant her the ecstasy of freedom she wishes for but leads her further into her oppression. The flowers scent drifting through the window is a constant reminder of her sexual identity, the identity she is given at birth. Sex has been an illusion. Again, the symbol of inedible fruits and hateful flowers really highlights this idea.
Like the flower, the speaker’s expectations of a personal presence through sex do not bloom. In her union, the man and woman do become one but only to grow apart again- going back to their “antagonisms” (“Mock Orange”). The romantic self-seeker does not find ecstasy, dissolution of self, or freedom but finds that the act does not give her the feeling of eternity she desires. She is searching for the infinity in her sex but falls short in her search. Using sex as transcendence, Glück wishes to create a new identity that is not considered to be feminine or masculine, but is instead a sense of self. To find self presence and wholeness Glück deems impossible due to the binds that sex has to identity. The speaker desires to find a sense of self through companionship with a with her rejection of flowers and her feminine body. For Glück romance and love go hand in hand with subordination and false hope. The images presented in her poem are symbols of hope but the speakers rejection challenges feminine expectations. Highlighting failed attempts at intimacy, Glück created the speaker’s rejection of the sex of her body. Her identity is not defined by her sex as the mock orange implies but yet she is held captive by it. When social expectations get in the way Glück often uses self-hatred and negation through her speakers. She does not give her character a resolution, so it is left to believe that women are truly a prisoner to her sex.
“Georgia O’Keeffe.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 2016. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.
Glück, Louise. “Aphrodite.” Poems 1962-2012. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Print.
Glück, Louise. “The Chicago Train.” The First Four Books of Poems: Firstborn, the House on Marshland, Descending Figure, the Triumph of Achilles. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1995. Print.
Glück, Louise. “Mock Orange.” The First Four Books of Poems: Firstborn, the House on Marshland, Descending Figure, the Triumph of Achilles. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1995. Print.
“Orange Mock.” Flower Meaning. Aunty Flo Blog, 2010. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.
Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.