Publication Date

April 2016


Douglas Martin




English (United States)


Burning Women is a book of poetry exploring the Dido archetype of Vergil’s Aeneid. The female characters represented are women similarly consumed with love to the point of self-destruction—a phenomenon most luridly depicted by Dido’s initial self-immolation. And yet her plight is relived through this day, both on paper and in life, with only one key difference. It is Venus, goddess of love, who forges the original bond between Dido and Aeneas. No woman since has been given such an airtight excuse for the lengths to which her ardor drives her, and yet— As the number of viable deities shrinks, culture continues to represent this woman, replacing the phantom limb left by the role of Venus with the explanation of obsession, hysteria, the assumed overall fragility of the female emotional life. I prefer an explanation given indirectly by the poet Marge Piercy, in titling a poem “When You Love For a Living.” I would like to posit that Dido and her fellow burning women did just that. In both the Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno, Dido is pictured standing within literal flames. Vergil sees a suicide, Dante sees her punishment, and I see a woman, calm at the heart of a fire, staring into the eyes of these two authors and terrifying them both. To love for a living is dangerous, is often ill advised, but requires a courage and depth of feeling that is remarkably difficult for authors and humans alike to acknowledge. All love requires a certain degree of insanity, to the extent that one must repeat the same actions and hope for different results. It is only the love Dido exemplifies that is actively labeled as insanity because the results go beyond what is expected of heartbreak. The results always will when the heart broken belongs to a woman who loves for a living, because the action she performed went so much farther as well. She was willing to give more of her heart, and so more was broken. I do not find it coincidental that flame is so often associated with passion. It is the woman who seeks the strongest fire love can afford her who learns to withstand the crueler fire it may bring. I did not read Dido as a victim of Aeneas. I read her as a victim of the strength of her own love. Neither my research nor this work answer the question of why this phenomenon exists. Rather, it adds my own fascination with the topic of all-consuming love to the well-documented and extensive fascinations of authors from antiquity onward. Burning Women is steeped in reference and quotation, a carefully curated selection of proof that I am not alone in finding a love like Dido’s compelling. The works from which they are taken fall largely into three distinct categories: antiquity, Modernism, and contemporary literature or film. The necessity of the first category is self-explanatory, with the added note that authors of the latter two are equally guilty of similar references, lending an air of continuity to the palimpsest of Dido’s plight I have aspired to create. The Modernists, no strangers to palimpsests of their own, were influential in terms of both style and content. In The Waste Land, an early inspiration, T. S. Eliot presents an aimless opulence in the private sphere, beside a greying ghost town of a public sphere, drawing my attention to a trend: when the man’s sphere (public, war, Aeneas on his way to Rome) appears as a waste land, the woman’s sphere (private, love, the life that exists within a home) comes roaring to the foreground. The period of time between WWI and WWII is something of a historical equivalent to the time it took Aeneas to repair his ships at Carthage: if nothing else, not going off to war forced Modernist male authors to dwell on the female entities around them. Men re-adjusted to lives at home, and (perhaps unwittingly) in relying on the women around them for comfort, ushered in a new era of women who rose to the occasion of caretaker: who were asked to give and gave happily, who gave too much, who became more burning women. The contemporary authors I have included are largely female poets with an equal interest to mine in the extremes of love, and an equal inability to explain it, though their eloquence on the matter often outweighs my own. Finally, the stylistic influence of the Modernists provided the overall framework for Burning Women. A number of Modernists attempted to replicate the epic poem form introduced by Homer: not just Eliot with Waste Land, but Hilda Doolittle with Helen in Egypt and Pound with Cantos. Each author took a markedly different approach, as did I, as have later replications of the style such as Anne Carson and Alice Notley, but all share an understanding of the volume of material the form can hold, the power of any level of narrative over a reader, and the inherent nod of the style to its predecessors. The second stylistic technique I lifted from the Modernists is their use of stream-of-consciousness, though more in the sense of walking through the author’s mind than attempting to represent thoughts exactly as they appear. Many Modernist works themselves are highly referential and indicative of the (presumably influential) culture their authors consumed. I intended Burning Women to act as an index of the literature, film, and music both presented to me and chosen for myself, (an experiment that may appear beside the point.) I chose this style, however, because I wished to depict the author’s presence, the “LB” of Chapter 4, as a burning woman herself. Burning Women is a collection of repeated emotion through time, but it is also the living embodiment of this emotion, the writing of a woman who has acutely felt what she records. The Dido experience is described in Burning Women by figures who are lovers, friends, men and women alike with varying degrees of sympathy for the condition, and lastly, by the woman herself: standing within the flames, meeting the reader’s eyes, and offering herself as final evidence.



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