ABSTRACT: In her doctoral thesis The Postdomestic Woman: Divorce and the Ex-Wife in American Literature, Film, and Culture, Deborah Marie Sims explores female characters who have experienced divorce, a character type which she has labeled the “Postdomestic Woman.” While Sims explores this character type in fiction and film, she does not explore postdomestic women in biographical texts, nor does she explore postdomestic women in other literary genres, such as poetry. Roberta Beary’s The Unworn Necklace, through its implied narratives, serves to document the process of a woman going through the process of divorce, in other words becoming postdomestic, and the struggles and ultimate triumphs of that character as she works to reclaim herself and her identity after divorce. By examining the juxtapositions within various haiku in this collection, as well as the juxtaposition of haiku against each other, it’s clear that The Unworn Necklace serves as a Postdomestic text, capturing the moments of a postdomestic woman, as well as challenging the clichés and stereotypes associated with that character type.
by Joshua Gage
As Rachel Bowlby argues in her essay “Domestication,” the word domestic has a fairly harmful etymology. It originally meant the subjugation of a tribe to a colonizing power. The “domestic” represented the civilized, orderly authority of the colonizer, and the wild, untamed, “other” was seen as something that needed to be brought under control. Later, when it was transferred to ideas of home and home life, the “domestic” was seen as the central locus, a safe place from the dangerous outside, or undomesticated, world. For the bulk of the 19th and 20th century, the home, the domestic, was the location of the woman, specifically the wife. It was her domain to command and make pleasant for the husband, who was meant to brave the wild and dangerous world outside the home, the undomesticated parts of life. While some theorists argue that women, in their domestic roles, had a subversive power over men, specifically when it came to the raising and moral guidance of children, for the most part feminist critics have eschewed the idea of the domestic woman. The home is seen not as a safe haven, but as a patriarchal cage or prison. Bowlby argues “As far as domestication gets a thematic mention in these theories, it is to perpetuate the assumption that of course women would and should want to leave home and enter the workforce; or at least, not to be spending their days solely as housewives, a situation still implicitly marked by the imagery of confinement within a space that excludes participation in a real world elsewhere” (86). She cites authorities like Friedan and Beauvoir, who argue that domestication represents a deprivation of full human potential and is associated with a false version of femininity.
What then can be said of a woman who escapes this domesticity through the dissolving of the marriage? Deborah Marie Sims explores this very sort of figure, which she has labeled the “Postdomestic Woman,” in her doctoral thesis The Postdomestic Woman: Divorce and the Ex-Wife in American Literature, Film, and Culture. She defines the postdomestic woman as
a female character who has been married and occupied the role of wife but has since rejected or been excluded from that role. Frequently this character has purposefully severed her marital relationship and thus deliberately operates as an independent agent based on her own desire and willingness to do so. Regardless of intention or desire, the postdomestic woman must renegotiate her identity with society. Issues of freedom, femininity, family, and love are central to the postdomestic woman, as she must resignify these once (seemingly) stable concepts according to her new postdomestic identity. (1-2)
Sims explores the history of divorce in the United States, tracking changes in attitudes towards divorce and love-based relationships. She then examines postdomestic women in film, exploring relationships between child custody, feminism and antifeminism in Hollywood over the last fifty years. After that, she explores the concept of single, black motherhood in postmodern African American novels. To end her dissertation, she explores postmodern canonical novels written by white men. She does not explore postdomestic women in biographical texts, nor does she explore postdomestic women in other literary genres, such as poetry; the purpose of this paper is to delve deeper into these categories of literature, focusing on the haiku collection The Unworn Necklace by Roberta Beary. Beary’s text, through its implied narratives, serves to document the process of a woman going through the process of divorce, in other words becoming postdomestic, and the struggles and ultimate triumphs of that character as she works to reclaim herself and her identity after divorce.
The Unworn Necklace is a seminal collection of haiku and senryu by one of the masters of the form. It won the Merit Book Award from the Haiku Society of America, and was a finalist for the Poetry Society of America award. While this collection is multifaceted and has many narratives running through it, one of the more prominent subjects in the collection is the demise of the speaker’s marriage. This subject is first directly addressed in the ninth poem of the collection:
again he tells me
she means nothing (17)
However, two haiku earlier, the poem
on my finger
the firefly puts out
its light (15)
indirectly creates an image of a marriage dissolving. Part of Beary’s brilliance in this collection is the way she juxtaposes haiku against each other to add richness to the narrative. Haiku lead into each other thematically, and while there seems to be a seasonal progression through the book, the poems also work to reinforce the underlying narratives present within the text as well.
The first sense of the speaker dealing with a postdomestic identity occurs with this senryu
slicing his shirt
for the ragbag (37)
Keith Heiberg, when reviewing this collection, made special note to criticize this poem: “If a haiku or senryu is seeing ‘the extraordinary in the ordinary,’ this poem only gives us the latter. The experience may have been moving for the speaker, but here the form and content are so commonplace, the poem fails to connect for the reader.” Heiberg seems to be reading this poem only as a senryu; however, read as a postdomestic text, the poem is lush with meaning and resonates well.
“it’s over” works as a blanket statement here in that Beary has already addressed the issue of divorce and deception in previous haiku. This, however, is the first poem presented from the point of the speaker AFTER the divorce; as such, it works as a turning point in the collection, setting up a new identity for the speaker. “it’s over” identifies this shift for the reader, and presents the speaker beginning to wrestle with her new identity. The rest of the senryu is a poignant act both of defiance and determination, as well as reclaiming lost territory. The male figure, who has cheated on the speaker in previous poems in the collection, is literally being cut from her life. She is severing ties to her identity as his wife and working to create a new identity. The idea that this is a domestic chore — cutting up clothes for cleaning rags — is important. The speaker is not seeking to separate herself from the home or home life completely; she is not completely abandoning the role of domestic caretaker. However, she is claiming it for herself. Instead of the traditional idea of wife taking care of the house for the comfort and succor of the husband, this speaker is taking care of the house for herself. She is splitting herself, literally, from the role of “wife” and recreating herself and the home as independent from the patriarchal structures which betrayed her.
This independence can be seen three poems later.
seeing his arms cross
i uncross mine (40)
Peter Harris, when analyzing this poem, argues that the attitudes are indeterminate. “When the speaker sees the husband cross his arms, does she uncross hers to induce him to keep open to negotiation? Or is she conceding something in the custody arrangements?” (284) Taken in juxtaposition with the senryu “it’s over,” it seems that both of these possibilities are unlikely and that the speaker’s motivation is one of independence and defiance. The “he” in this poem is no longer a husband, but an ex, and the speaker is working to establish her postdomestic identity in opposition to this ex. Readers have already seen her destroying his clothes for this purpose. Now, even her gestures are important. She very clearly is uncrossing her arms because he crossed his. She is gesticulating a visible difference between herself and him, emphasizing her new identity as postdomestic woman. The fact that this is a custody hearing is equally as important. While it conjures up images of two parents sparring with their lawyers across a courtroom, it also works to reinforce the speaker’s identity. She is not abandoning her role as mother; if anything, she is seeking to protect it. This is part of her new identity as a postdomestic woman, that of single motherhood. In uncrossing her arms, she is opening herself up to this new identity and showing the obvious difference between herself and her ex-husband. This is a conscious, calculated move by a woman creating a new, distinct identity for herself and viewing herself through a postdomestic lens.
The next pairing of haiku that concerns the divorce is another victory for Beary’s speaker. The two haiku occur on facing pages:
i take up her unfinished
the new wife’s rump
bigger than mine (43)
serve to further distance the speaker from the ex-husband and have her not only accept, but almost champion, the mantle of ex-wife. In the first poem, we are shown the protective nature of the speaker as mother figure. The first line “court-ordered visit,” sets a very specific scene. This is a visitation visit, court-ordered, which makes sense post-divorce; however, the fact that the speaker, the biological mother, stays on the scene alludes to the fact that this is not a mutual visit. She stays to protect her child and to witness the father’s interaction with the child. As a postdomestic woman, she is fully embracing single-motherhood and total care of her child. She no longer trusts her child’s father, and thus stays with the child through the court-ordered visit. This idea is emphasized in the second line, “i take up her unfinished” The fact that Beary broke the line here is important, as it puts emphasis on the word “unfinished.” Readers are left wondering what is unfinished, and realizes that, in the speaker’s perspective, the new wife is incomplete as a maternal figure and wife. The new wife leaves things incomplete. Paired with the first line, this is clearly a commentary on the new wife’s relationship with the child in question. The new wife is unable to replace the speaker as a maternal figure, and the speaker maintains her dominance as a postdomestic woman in the realm of motherhood. That Beary ends with “crossword” serves almost as a punch line to a joke, making this poem more of a senryu than a haiku. The crossword serves as a symbol for all the things the new wife is unable to complete, including the parental role implied in the first line. There is humor here, to be sure, and commentary on human nature, but more importantly a reaffirmation of the speaker as postdomestic single-mother.
That this poem is juxtaposed with “family picnic” further develops this idea and the relationship of the speaker with the new wife. This poem reads more like a haiku, with “picnic” working as a summer kigo. However, the postdomestic commentary is still present in lines two and three. While this may seem to some readers petty and even anti-feministic, as the speaker is clearly comparing her body image to the new wife’s, there is a sense of postdomestic triumph here as well. As an ex-wife, as a postdomestic woman, the cliché would be that the speaker let herself go. The image of the single-mother who is out of shape, overweight, with no make-up and a simple ponytail or bed-messed hair is a classic trope in American culture. The idea, of course, is that a woman simply cannot keep up with her kids and work schedule enough to put herself into any semblance of healthy, positive projection of self-image, and thus let’s herself go. This poem challenges that notion by comparing the speaker to the new wife, a woman who theoretically has more time and support to keep up her body image due to her relationship with the husband and his support. The fact that the husband has admitted to cheating in previous poems in this collection means that this woman also could be his former mistress, and thus has everything to prove at a family picnic. The fact that she is seen as more out-of-shape than the speaker is a victory for the speaker, both over the woman who stole her husband, as well as the ex-husband himself. This poem a commentary on the ex-husband, who is seen as in particularly bad taste for not only showing up at a family picnic, but for bringing his new wife, too, but also on the new wife as well. The idea that the speaker looks better than the new wife shows that she is not only able to survive without the husband, but to thrive without him. She is a postdomestic champion, capable of living a healthy, independent life as woman and mother, free of the constraints of marriage without any ill-effect on herself.
At this point, readers might expect the relationship narrative to be over. As Sims points out throughout her thesis, the traditional postdomestic narrative — again, often those written by men or where the man is the protagonist — creates a series of binaries to trap women. A woman can either have a career OR be a mother, a woman can either be nurturing towards her children OR cold and heartless to her husband, a woman can either stay with her husband OR live a life of solitude. There seem to be few options for postdomestic women that do not exclude other roles. Beary’s challenges that notion with her speaker, who is capable of being a mother, a housekeeper, and, as it turns out, a romantic partner as well. Beary’s speaker’s life does not simply end with the divorce; if anything, she is now in complete control of her destiny, and capable of pursuing new and different avenues of intimacy on her own terms.
This can be seen with a series of poems where the speaker begins dating again. The first of these explores the joy and uniqueness of a new romantic relationship.
first date —
the little pile
of anchovies (49)
The idea of a first date, and all its complications and awkwardness, works as a solid juxtaposition against the image in lines two and three of this poem. There is something elegant, perhaps even exotic, about being served anchovies. One assumes the anchovies are an accompaniment to a larger course, perhaps served with an appetizer tray of crackers, cheeses and spreads, or maybe served on top of a rich Italian pasta dish. However they are being offered, they are a unique choice, and thus catch the speaker’s attention. They offer a commentary on the uniqueness, and perhaps foreignness, of the dating experience for the speaker. She is in new territory; presumably, she has not dated in a while, having just gone through the disillusion of a marriage. Furthermore, there is always the uniqueness and difficulty with a first date in general. There is also the feeling of hope that this might become something new and exciting, if only an opportunity for a second date. Beary is able to capture all those emotions with the focus on the unique, somewhat awkward, somewhat foreign, somewhat intriguing food offering of anchovies.
The next two haiku in the collection pursue this narrative further.
crushed by snow
. . . waiting for him to call (50)
third date —
the slow drift of the rowboat
in deep water (51)
The first is a great early spring haiku that captures the anticipation and anxiety of a new relationship. The couple has had a first date, and now the pressure of waiting for a response from that date is perfectly juxtaposed against the crushing pressure of the snow on daffodils. On one hand, the reader can mourn that these flowers are being crushed, possible killed, by the cold and the snow; however, it’s also possible that the plants will be resilient and will thrive despite the snow. Beary’s narrative of a strong postdomestic woman leads readers towards this second interpretation. Readers know that this woman has already survived so much, and more than that, has thrived in spite of all her trials. It is fully expected that she will survive this new, minor trial in tact as well.
Readers are, of course, immediately rewarded by the facing poem. The new couple has advanced in their relationship to a third date. Beary artfully juxtaposes the relationship against the image of a boat moving into deep water. Readers will be careful to note that neither she nor the man are propelling the boat forward; the boat is drifting of its own accord. They are letting the boat, and thus the relationship, steer itself forward. That the boat is moving towards “deep water” implies the deepening of the relationship, too. This is an interesting change for the speaker, and one that adds depth to her character. For the most part, readers have seen a postdomestic woman who is completely in charge and in control of her fate. Now, she is letting go a little, and allowing the new relationship to take its own course; however, this should not be interpreted as a weakness or relinquishing of control to the other person. Both of them are clearly taking their time, allowing the relationship to mature and deepen as it will. She is not relinquishing control to this new man, but simply taking a hands-off approach. This challenges the notion or stereotype of the postdomestic woman as control-freak or power-mad dominant, and again upturns some of the clichés and binaries which Sims explored in her thesis. Beary’s speaker, while fully capable of being in control when necessary, is also willing to loosen her grip on the reins when the time calls for it, allowing things to naturally take their course, thus adding depth to her role as postdomestic woman.
In the postdomestic narrative that runs through The Unworn Necklace, Beary creates the identity of a postdomestic speaker, a woman who has, as Sims puts it, “occupied the role of wife, but is narratively showcased after she has ceased to occupy that identity. In other words, the moments and experiences captured in the text — and, by implication, worth capturing — occur after and outside of a traditional marriage” (6). Beary uses haiku to capture these moments and experiences, detailing the heartache, struggles and successes of a woman going through the process of divorce and ultimately triumphing as a postdomestic character. Beary is also able to use this character as a way to challenge the preconceptions and clichés of a postdomestic woman, as well as dismantle some of the exclusionary binaries offered to postdomestic characters. In her thesis, Sims only explored works of fiction and film to discuss postdomestic characters, but it is clear that other works of literature, such as poetry, can be used to explore postdomestic women and their roles and relationships in society, and it is hoped that further study will occur concerning these works of literature and the commentaries they make on postdomestic characters.
Beary, Roberta. The Unworn Necklace. Ormskirk, Snapshot Press, 2017.
Bowlby, Rachel. “Domestication.” Feminism Beside Itself, edited by Diane Elam and Robyn Wiegman, Routledge, 1995, 71-90.
Harris, Peter. “In A Sea of Indeterminancy: Fourteen Ways of Looking at Haiku.” A Companion to Poetic Genre, edited by Erik Martiny, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, 277-292.
Heiberg, Keith. “book review: The Unworn Necklace by Roberta Beary.” Modern Haiku, 39, 2, 2008.
Sims, Deborah Marie. The Postdomestic Woman: Divorce and the Ex-Wife in American Literature, Film, and Culture. Diss. University of California Riverside, 2011.