Lerman, Eleanor 1952-
LERMAN, Eleanor 1952-
PERSONAL: Born 1952, in New York, NY.
ADDRESSES: Home—10460 Queens Blvd., #20H, Flushing, NY 11375-7325.
AWARDS, HONORS: Juniper Prize from University of Massachusetts, for Come the Sweet By and By; recipient of fiction grants from New York Foundation for the Arts.
Armed Love, Wesleyan University Press (Middletown, CT), 1973.
Come the Sweet By and By, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1975.
The Mystery of Meteors, Sarabande Books (Louisville, KY), 2001.
Contributor to periodicals.
SIDELIGHTS: Eleanor Lerman has drawn praise for her three books of poetry that depict in graphic terms what one critic described as "glimpses of life in a drug-torn Lesbian ghetto." Lerman's works show an unease with mundane living and a preference for the heightened tension—and occasional horrors—of love. Her poems touch upon suicide threats, Lesbian infidelity, and torture, both physical and mental. Poetry contributor Sandra M. Gilbert described Lerman as "a notable scholar of cruelty and despair," noting also that the poetry "is tender, witty, elegant, even beautiful. . . . Here . . . is an intensity of vision that tells us we're in the presence of something wholly authentic—love poems, hate poems, horror poems, written with scalpels on the nerve-endings."
Lerman, who published her first volume of poetry at age twenty-one, is adept at presenting herself in a variety of moods. "Fresh resilience rather than wry weariness is her hallmark," noted Sally M. Gall in Shenandoah. "Sometimes she flaunts a heroic Lesbianism in the fatuous face of the establishment. At other times she reveals all the vulnerability and romanticism of a sensitive girl in her very, very early twenties. She can be lighthearted, toughminded, fierce, tender, mystical, and romantic." Sewanee Review essayist Paul Ramsey observed of Lerman's work: "The poems are clear in wildness, disturbing, brilliantly lighted, often felt as wholes. . . . [They] are not easy to forget."
Lerman's blatant baring of both emotions and surroundings has disturbed some critics and impressed others. "Such terrifying simplicity, such hunger for love are bound to unnerve us and stir us," wrote X. J. Kennedy in the New York Times Book Review. "Much of the time, though, the raw facts just remain on their page like meat left in its butcher's paper, untouched by deep understanding or by art." In a contrasting review in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Mark Halliday expressed favor for that which Kennedy disdained. "There is a raw meat quality to Lerman's work: it shows no signs of academic curing, no workshop seasoning, nor does it smell like any dish cooked in the kitchen of a major American poet past or present," stated Halliday. "But what lies thick and red on the page is not a catalogue of facts—Lerman's poetry is too (literally) fantastic for that—but of emotions, volatile and potentially volatile." Halliday considered Lerman's first volume, Armed Love, "a bravely naked book, far more alive than the tidy intellectual constructions of the other young poets I had in hand. . . . After reading Armed Love I felt I had been taken somewhere, to a special place with uncommon noises and colors."
While Armed Love drew comparisons with Rimbaud, Jerome McGann found parallels with Emily Dickinson evident in Lerman's second collection, Come the Sweet By and By. "The traumatized settings are familiar enough," McGann commented in a Times Literary Supplement review. "What distinguishes her work in this mode is its humaneness, as if ordinary people in very typical American places, doing commonplace things, had unexpectedly discovered themselves and their environment to be possessed. The poems record how people try to maintain their most basic human feelings—love in particular—despite the fearful sense that the world they live in is out of their control."
Halliday expressed some frustration with Come the Sweet By and By. The poems, he wrote, "tend to merge into one endless demented monologue, with pauses only for breath. If you read three or four poems in a row you are lulled (despite the vigor and pain of the voice and the extremeness of the imagery) into a dazed, non-discriminating mood whose dominant thought is merely, What will she think of next?" The critic continued: "[Lerman] fears the reader, she fears her own memories, and she fears poetry—because all of these are forces calling upon her to impose order on her emotions. Lerman thrives on painful passion. She doesn't want anything to be wrapped up neatly and put away; she cherishes the vibrant irresolution that washes over from one fiercely unhappy poem to the next." McGann offered a counter opinion, maintaining that Come the Sweet By and By "moves so far beyond the tortured power of her first volume . . . that one hardly believes she has reached this level of rhythmic competence and emotional wisdom so quickly."
It was a quarter century between the publication of Come the Sweet By and By and Lerman's next poetry collection, The Mystery of Meteors. During the interim, she told Gavin Grant of Booksense, "I was doing some writing for a while," such as short stories. "But mostly, no, I was just living my life—the wrong kind of life, as it turns out. I wish I could make my absence from struggling with literature into something romantic . . . but it's much more mundane." Lerman added that during her hiatus from writing "I thought, for years, that I had absolutely nothing to say, but as soon as I decided to try to write poetry again, wham—I couldn't stop. It surprised even me."
The Mystery of Meteors takes on a wide range of subjects: ancient Egypt, physics, memory, the Internet, and love. Sandra Yannone of Lambda Book Report wondered if some of Lerman's earlier gifts had grown rusty with disuse: "Lerman's poetry certainly reflects her ability to have adapted her style to the times," noted Yannone. "However most of the poems lack a certain focus as well as a certain precision of language." More impressed was Library Journal reviewer Louis McKee, who said that Lerman "has returned, older, wiser, and stronger, with poems of depth and resonance." Indeed, the poet that emerges in this collection confronts "the static but unrelentingly demanding realm of middle age," in the words of Booklist's Donna Seaman.
Comparing the "angry young poet" of the Armed Love days to her more mature incarnation, Lerman remarked to Grant that "I'm so much more amused now than I was when I was younger. (It was not politically correct to find anything amusing when I was in my twenties.) But I can go back and read what I wrote and understand how strong my feelings were—they're equally strong now, only not so angry. I've gone through some mighty struggles with myself—I'm sure we all have . . . so I'm trying to enjoy the calm. And be philosophical about whatever comes next."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 9, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1978, pp. 328-332.
Booklist, March 15, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of The Mystery of Meteors, p. 1347.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2001, review of The Mystery of Meteors, p. 152.
Lambda Book Report, April, 2002, Sandra Yannone, review of The Mystery of Meteors, p. 24.
Library Journal, February 1, 2001, Louis McKee, review of The Mystery of Meteors, p. 100; April 15, 2002, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Mystery of Meteors, p. 90.
New York Times Book Review, February 17, 1974, X. J. Kennedy, review of Armed Love, p. 6.
Parnassus: Poetry in Review, spring-summer, 1976, Mark Halliday, review of Armed Love, pp. 235-242.
Poetry, October, 1975, Sandra Gilbert, review of Armed Love, pp. 53-54.
Sewanee Review, spring, 1974, Paul Ramsey, review of Armed Love, pp. 404-405.
Shenandoah, fall, 1974, Sally Gall, review of Armed Love, pp. 59-61.
Times Literary Supplement, December 10, 1976, Jerome McGann, "The Love That's Left," p. 1563.
Washington Post Book World, May 26, 1974, Norma Procopiow, review of Armed Love, p. 3.
Booksense,http://www.booksense.com/ (July 16, 2002), Gavin J. Grant, "Very Interesting People."*