Refractions of Reflections: on Judith Wright’s “Naked Girl and Mirror”

An autographed sepia photo of the Australian poet, Judith Wright, sitting with a sun hat as an older woman.

From time to time I come across some thoughtful commentary about the absence of solid examples of masculinity in modern culture. Any discussion of positive role models is less common than that of its ‘toxic’ counterpart—and is often portrayed by those who fail to embody it. It makes sense that this would have negative effects on young men. But it also seems to me that young women are dealing with a counterpart sickness—one of surfeit. You can binge for hours without ever being satiated, if what you’re consuming lacks substance. Even the most intrepid attempts at “validation” wither when untethered to reality, and so much of what’s held up as models of femininity is shallow and incoherent.

But then consider the issue of “representation” in general. Fair enough, as it’s undoubtedly important: both in terms of who gets to have their work taken seriously, and in what subject matter gets taken seriously. In the sense that insofar as art can distil aspects of reality with a unique power, it’s just nonsensical to arbitrarily exclude whole domains of life from this. But one of the issues with an excessive focus on representation creeps in here, as quality art just can’t be subjected to a quota, and have this result in anything constructive. Inevitably, laziness sways, and it is simply much easier to quantify how many authors published by a certain press have vaginas as opposed to penises, than it is to tease out the particulars that distinguish a masterpiece from a mediocrity.

The consequences? On the one hand, considering how many of the proverbial Dead White Males were themselves trivial, literarily speaking, what harm is there in adding a few more living, be-melanined, or female dull equivalents to their number? The other problem is a little subtler, based on not who gets to write, but what gets written about. Why should representation be aspirational? The idea that art has a duty to present some kind of wholesome moral message (nuance need not apply) seems omnipresent these days. Even putting aside the fact that it’s been proven throughout history that the greatest works tend to chafe against the pettier needs of their times—well. Yet an excellent poem (for example) can offer a vivid representation of life through being able to capture more of its layers and complexities than is possible through any other means. Enough talking about this. Let us look.

Australian poet Judith Wright’s work has been examined on this site before, but what the hell, a poet of this quality deserves more than a bit of correction of the silence surrounding her poetry in the Northern hemisphere. At her best, Wright has a knack for character sketches and brings just the right amount of philosophical detachment to subject matter and imagery that could risk becoming saturated with saccharine. She is able to refresh predictable classical tropes (even her lesser poems tend to be mediocre at worst, simply falling victim to a more typical, pat trajectory, although usually even these contain a couple of nice phrasings). It’s this constant itch to twist the expected that is found in all the best poets—yet is often ignored in those whose work lacks the patina of experiment. I would place Judith Wright as akin to someone like Countee Cullen, another poet whose subversive tendencies thrive not despite, but because of his poetry’s formal and classical leanings. As with Cullen, her poems on political and social topics especially benefit from this approach.

“Naked Girl and Mirror” is one of her finest. It showcases some typical Wright virtues—a skilled yet unforced use of form, musical phrasings, and psychological nuance. Have a glance, then another:

Naked Girl And Mirror

This is not I. I had no body once –
only what served my need to laugh and run
and stare at stars and tentatively dance
on the fringe of foam and wave and sand and sun.
Eyes loved, hands reached for me, but I was gone
on my own currents, quicksilver, thistledown.
Can I be trapped at last in that soft face?

I stare at you in fear, dark brimming eyes.
Why do you watch me with that immoderate plea –
“Look under these curled lashes, recognize
that you were always here; know me-be me.”
Smooth once-hermaphrodite shoulders, too tenderly
your long slope runs, above those sudden shy
curves furred with light that spring below your space.

No, I have been betrayed. If I had known
that this girl waited between a year and a year,
I’d not have chosen her bough to dance upon.
Betrayed, by that little darkness here, and here
this swelling softness and that frightened stare
from eyes I will not answer; shut out here
from my own self, by its new body’s grace-

for I am betrayed by someone lovely. Yes,
I see you are lovely, hateful naked girl.
Your lips in the mirror tremble as I refuse
to know or claim you. Let me go – let me be gone.
You are half of some other who may never come.
Why should I tend you? You are not my own;
you seek that other—he will be your home.

Yet I pity your eyes in the mirror, misted with tears;
I lean to your kiss. I must serve you; I will obey.
Some day we may love. I may miss your going, some day,
though I shall always resent your dumb and fruitful years.
Your lovers shall learn better, and bitterly too,
if their arrogance dares to think I am part of you.

This is a striking title. Is it pointing towards a scene of vanity? Of voyeurism? Of self-examination? It feels a bit classical, even—after all, the nude female form has long been a favourite object for an artist to lavish his skill upon. Of course, post-feminism (and being written by a female poet), most people would probably expect something a little more complicated than that. Or at least, something trite in a feministic manner.  But either way, Wright crafts an effective poetic title: both cueing a clear scene, and being evocative enough that the following poem can benefit from its friction with whatever raw assumptions the reader brings.

This is not I. I had no body once –
only what served my need to laugh and run
and stare at stars and tentatively dance
on the fringe of foam and wave and sand and sun.
Eyes loved, hands reached for me, but I was gone
on my own currents, quicksilver, thistledown.
Can I be trapped at last in that soft face?

Despite a fairly tight rhyme scheme (ABABBBA), the form does not overly draw attention to itself—aided by some nice off-rhymes and the fact that it does not solely rely on rhyme for its music. The language is heightened, but flows. There is an arresting first line, followed by an explanation of sorts that gestures more than clarifies, in long rolling alliterative sentences. The imagery has a dreamy quality as it wonderfully evokes both the unselfconsciousness of childhood, and the kind of magical thinking that is so easily dipped into during those years. Especially vivid on a reread, one of the poem’s central dilemmas is hinted at here: the speaker’s lack of body is associated with their freedom of movement and play—what they had merely existed to “serve their need”. The speaker seems almost some force of nature. You are left wondering what exactly it represents, in relation to the naked girl? There are a number of ways this could be interpreted, as the poem goes on, and that very ambiguity is part of what makes this poem so well written.  Wright’s final line/sentence brings you sharply back to the “reality” of the poem, while remaining mysterious, drawing you to read on and find some clarification.

I stare at you in fear, dark brimming eyes.
Why do you watch me with that immoderate plea–
“Look under these curled lashes, recognize
that you were always here; know me-be me.”
Smooth once-hermaphrodite shoulders, too tenderly
your long slope runs, above those sudden shy
curves furred with light that spring below your space.

The opening line of this stanza offers a good twist of an image that could’ve otherwise been kind of stock melodramatic: the eyes are not “brimming” with fear—rather, they are what is feared. Now we get some clarification of what exactly has unsettled the speaker so (“curled lashes”, “too tenderly” “curves”): its fear and disdain seems bound up in these markers of femininity that it sees in its reflection. The 4th line is enigmatic, evoking some kind of dissociation. At first, I thought the enjambment of the 6th line was a bit weak, mainly existing for the rhyme, but after rereading, I actually find the pause it creates quite effective—almost like the speaker is struggling to even acknowledge the “curves”. The final line is just wonderfully phrased. In its sheer musicality it momentarily veers the poem towards a more conventionally “pretty” depiction of feminine beauty.

No, I have been betrayed. If I had known
that this girl waited between a year and a year,
I’d not have chosen her bough to dance upon.
Betrayed, by that little darkness here, and here
this swelling softness and that frightened stare
from eyes I will not answer; shut out here
from my own self, by its new body’s grace–

But now we return to something stranger. The dualism is reinforced again, with enigmatic and poetic little images: “I’d not have chosen her bough to dance upon”.  And isn’t this an effective description of puberty! The impetus of this drama is now made clear. We’re all more than familiar with the acne and angst of pubescence—here, it is enough to sketch those bodily changes with “that little darkness” and “this swelling softness”. The very vagueness of the descriptions captures the self-consciousness and discomfort of this time well. But there is something more complicated here. The speaker’s alienation, its sense of betrayal, is not merely because of the body’s changes, but because of the “body’s grace”. Judith Wright’s poem has a monologue-esque quality, and it makes good use of the tension between line breaks and sentence length (an underrated aspect of poetry, in my opinion). See how the last four lines of this stanza are comprised of one (part of a) sentence, in contrast to the shorter ones that come before. It gives it the sense of a rant, of the speaker being overcome with its reaction to the “betrayal”.

for I am betrayed by someone lovely. Yes,
I see you are lovely, hateful naked girl.
Your lips in the mirror tremble as I refuse
to know or claim you. Let me go-let me be gone.
You are half of some other who may never come.
Why should I tend you? You are not my own;
you seek that other—he will be your home.

Yet I pity your eyes in the mirror, misted with tears;
I lean to your kiss. I must serve you; I will obey.
Some day we may love. I may miss your going, some day,
though I shall always resent your dumb and fruitful years.
Your lovers shall learn better, and bitterly too,
if their arrogance dares to think I am part of you.

And then that long sentence from the 3rd stanza is closed here, in a short exhale. We return to relatively short sentences and phrases—brisk, as if the speaker is reasserting control of itself. Unfortunately, the images of the “body” here, trembling lips, eyes “misted with tears”, are a little more trite, but they exist mainly to play against the blunt assertions and negations of the speaker, and are rich with assonance. The ambivalence—this nude is both Object and Subject, both “lovely” and “hateful”—does more to get at the “female condition” than reams of Feminist scholarship, in just two stanzas, with poetic density and very little wasted space!

We are given probably the most direct look at what is driving the dissonance here: “You are not my own;/You seek that other – he will be your home.” There is the fear of burgeoning sexuality, its demands and drives and conflicts with other motives—the way you are made complicit in succumbing to the complications it brings to your life. Is the speaker mourning its former freedom from such concerns? This new body is one that “seeks” the male other. Must this lead to some kind of self-abandonment? (That the poem makes so clear both the female “complicity” in this dynamic, as well as a discomfort with it, is refreshing and realistic. After all, most women do desire men and seek out relationships with them [and vice versa], no matter how gloomily sexual dynamics get portrayed).

“Naked Girl and Mirror” ends with a vague possibility of compromise—ambivalent to the end. Now it’s the speaker that must “serve” this body and its drives. There is a condescension in how it addresses the body, but also a possibility of an accord between the two, if only “someday”. The speaker acknowledges that it may miss this “dumb and fruitful” form, when it’s gone (an acknowledgement of the benefits of youth and sexual desirability?), while also resenting it (perhaps for the reductive assumptions that are the price of those benefits?). The final couplet is defiant, yet unfolds more questions. Does it gesture towards something beyond the fixations of sexuality? Beyond the constraints of femininity? The limits of how men and women relate to each other in sexual dynamics? The nature of the Self? Again, it is the very mysteriousness of what exactly the speaker represents that heightens the power of these lines. Just the fact that you can spend a good chunk of time considering potential implications of the closing couplet is part of what lets you know this is far more than another preachy polemic on sexual politics.

Another interesting aspect of Naked Girl and Mirror” is that the conflict is a wholly internal one—not something external, being merely passively responded too. I’ve read many poems (and other writings) on what you might call “the female condition” that take the more predictable route of focusing on the external pressures, cultural expectations, misogyny, etc. You know the score. How much better is this poem for taking this alternative tack? Sure, some of the conflicts depicted here could be influenced by social stereotypes, but that’s not the point. By focusing on how this turmoil plays out within a person, Judith Wright allows for those interpretations as well as a myriad of others, and gets at something more universal, and more poetic.

You may not have ever experienced female puberty (or, even if you have, you may have shrugged off the struggles of this poem’s protagonist), but likely you have had the experience of grappling with what you see in the mirror, someway or other. How’s that for representation?

Take it in, and reflect.

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More from Laura Woods: Art As Issue: On Peter Mullen’s “The Magdalene Sisters” (2002), Myth in Motion: Review of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927)Imagined Shores: on Frank Capra and Akira Kurosawa