A Word Virtuoso:
Excitement practically made my fingers tremble as I leafed through Erica Jong‘s first poetry book, Fruits and Vegetables, in the public library in the early 80s. As I remember, the poetry section was pretty slim back then. What a discovery her book turned out to be for me. I was blown away. As a young poet (by young, I mean career-wise, as I was in my late thirties and married with children), I thought her metaphors were startling, and loved how she twisted them into something beautiful, poignant and so very human. So swift. So sweetly crafted. So bitingly funny. Her artistic sensibility awakened my dormant creativity.
I went on to read everything she wrote from essays to fiction. She became my inspiration to work hard at my art and writing. This quote of hers was my mantra: “There is nothing fiercer than the failed artist. All that energy remains, but having no outlet, it implodes in a great black fart of rage which smokes up all the inner windows of the soul.” Years ago, battling depression and deep-seated anger, I feared I was in grave danger of becoming that failed artist. She gave me courage. I didn’t want to be a farting failure.
Her writing also encouraged me to write honestly. Fear of Flying, (pub. 1973), gave strong women a voice and the courage to embrace our sexuality and desires. What a revelation at the time – to think that healthy women had fantasies!
Erica says “Feminism is really the right of women to be full human beings and to not be defined only by their childbearing function…Feminism is really the right of women to be human beings. That’s it, yet that’s so frightening to a lot of people.”
Frightening, yes. She dealt with a lot of negativity about her work in the 70s. Consider an early Kirkus Review of Fruits and Vegetables:
The weakest poems in this first collection relate to the title and they are tense and forced, apparently struggling with themselves. Those concerning women and sexuality and liberation suffer from the same weakness compounded by the fact that they are hysterical in an unpleasant and sometimes confused way. But there are some that are successful and which have a unity and passion — “”In Sylvia Plath Country”” and “”The Saturday Market”” for example. It is an uneven collection with however an indication that its author will write better poems in time.
Hysterical? I’d say that review had to be written by a man. Compare that to the text on the release of the 25th anniversary edition:
… a surrealistic, funny, gastronomic, erotic, serious look at being human and female and American….Fruits & Vegetables, originally published in 1971, offers a glimpse into the daring, erotic imagination of a young author of great promise. Throughout her debut collection, Erica Jong demonstrates a remarkable adventurousness, erudition, lyricism, and command of the poetic form. At the same time, she examines many of the themes she will pursue in years to come.
Quite a difference.
I believe Erica will continue to be a voice for feminists. In many ways women seem to be losing ground, especially with the threat to pull health coverage on maternity care, mammograms, birth control, abortion and to defund to Planned Parenthood, and the dismissal of women politicians, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren being told to shut up and sit down by McConnell.
In a 2014 HuffPost interview on Feminism for the Future, Erica says:
I think we’ve only accomplished about half the revolution. Every time women make tremendous strides, the right wing gets terrified and creates laws making it hard to get an abortion or birth control. Most of these laws are struck, but we spend an awful lot of time reacting and undoing. We don’t have a clear path forward, and that’s been the case for feminism since the 18th century, when the idea of the rights of women actually began.
We’ve shown again and again, in every UN report on the status of women, that wherever women control their own bodies and have access to education, societies prosper. Men’s fortunes go up, children’s fortunes go up. This is not news—it’s been proven repeatedly. Anywhere those things are threatened, we have to defend them.
My birthday wish for Erica is that she continues to inspire women, and writers, all around the world.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of the award-winning novel In the Context of Love, a story about one woman’s need to tell the truth without shame.
2016 Sarton Women’s Fiction Finalist
2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
2016 Readers’ Favorite Finalist
2016 USA Book News Best Book Finalist
2015 Great Midwest Book Fest Honorable Mention.
“…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River,and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters