In “The Looking Glass” Kamala Das searches for self-identity in the male dominant society where a woman has to give up everything to satisfy the male ego by accepting masculinity as superior to femininity. The poem is an externalisation of her humiliations and frustrations, the woman in the poem is every woman who seeks love, the man, is every man that wants a woman to satisfy his desire. The lyric is a looking-glass, a mirror that presents a genuine, practical picture of the lustful relationship between every man and every woman, and of the frustrations that inevitably accompany such a relationship, at least for the woman. Thus, the “Looking Glass” is a mirror that faithfully reflects the ego of a man and the degrading lot of a woman in a male-dominated society. Social norms have worked out their role for them, and they must accept it passively. Kamala Das herself was called upon to play such a role in a bond that she could not untie, and lifelong dissatisfaction was the result.
This poem is about physical love between a man and a woman. It is ‘both patronizing and indulgent in tone’. The woman in it is every woman that seeks love, and the man is every man that wants a woman to satisfy his sex-hunger. The poem faithfully reflects the mutual need of man and woman for physical enjoyment and a woman must be truthful to this need of hers.
According to the poetess, a woman should be honest about her wants and requirements, and then it would be easy for her to get a man to love her. For physical gratification, she should draw close to him. She should not hesitate to stand naked before the looking-glass with him so that he sees it clearly that he is stronger and she is weaker, younger and lovelier. This will satisfy his male ego and excite his passion for the weaker sex. She should also accept his praise of her beauty and youth. In order to satisfy his male ego, she should point out to him that he is bodily perfect, and notice that his eyes getting red in passionate excitement. She should also mark his shy walk across the bathroom floor, covering himself in the towel, and his jerky way of urination. She should, in short, admire him for all his good points and let him feel that he is her ‘only man’ for sexual satisfaction.
As a woman true to her nature, she should give herself over to him totally. She should offer to him the scent of her long hair, the musk of her breasts, and the warm shock of her menstrual blood. She should allow him to have his fill of sexual pleasure and indulge in it with all her ‘endless female hungers’. He would then feel that she is not only satisfying his lust, but also hers.
Again the poetess returns to the initial impulse in the poem and asserts that it is easy to get a man to love a woman, but that it is very difficult to carry on her life after he has gone away forever. For him, it is simply a sexual encounter with a lustful woman, but for her, it entails all difficulties and tensions. On his desertion, she feels totally stranded in life, suffering humiliations and miseries of a forlorn woman. She was once in quest of emotional fulfilment, but she received only tears and sobs, in coming into contact with ‘strangers’. Her body, which once gleamed under his touch like burnished brass, becomes now ‘drab and destitute’. She is no more than a melancholy woman having onslaughts of disease and decay and deformity.
Speaking of this poem M.L. Sharma writes as follows: “In this poem, the poet offers a cool, almost a cold-blooded, dispassionate and clinical analysis of the different stages of falling in love, the Machiavellian strategies to hold that love and the inevitable decline and fall of the heart’s empire. The title of the poem could better have been ‘Loves’ Progress’”. And further: “I find that the poem partakes of the mature attitude of W.B. Yeats when he was at one in love, to be passionately gripped by its storms, and out of it to take a cool clinical stock of the whole situation. The poem does not merely celebrate the passions of love; it simultaneously views the climax and the anti-climax through a bifocal vision which renders the complexity, ambivalence and the irony of the total situation in a much greater depth than is normally available to the Newtonian ‘Single Vision’, to adopt a Blakean phrase”.
The poem is simple and straight forward in its diction. It is highly charged with pulse and power. Passion seems to leap out of every line. A sharp feminine sensibility is at work here. As a full-blooded woman, Kamala Das makes an honest confession of her wants for her sexual gratification.
The poem is decidedly a psychic striptease. It powerfully evokes the image of a lustful relationship between the two sexes. Nothing is, in truth, concealed from the reader, not even the ugly and the forbidden. There is a subtle psychological analysis of the male mentality in the first part of the poem, just as the second part is totally pervaded by a feminine consciousness. The cumulative effect of the poem is one of sterility and futility of sexual love.
Analysis of The Looking Glass poem
Culled from The Descendants (1967) ‘The Looking Glass’ is a highly erotic poem by the ‘Queen of Erotica’ Kamala Das. Sex as a means of transcending the physical is crucial to Kamala Das’s vision of love. The present poem establishes the mutual need of Man and Woman for physical pleasure. In her characteristic bold and unconventional manner Kamala Das presents a description of male and female bodies and the acts. The ironic tone and the intermittent unpoetic matter makes readers see the futility and sterility of such a lustful relationship.
The female persona guides a supposedly women’s audience about the suitable course of action to be taken by women who wish to have a lover. For procuring a man’s love what a woman ‘needs is only the desire for physical gratification in her and her confession of such a desire before him. He will be pleased with the thought that he is the ‘giver’ and she, the ‘receiver’, and it is her lust that he is going to satisfy, not his. To further satisfy his male ego, a woman should stand naked, initially, not in front of him but in front of the mirror. Kamala Das endows her male and female personae with the traditional attributes – the male has only physical strength and female has softness, loveliness and youth. When they stand in front of the mirror together, man will be able to literally see himself as the ‘stronger’ one and perceive woman as tender, younger and beautiful one. Her feminine softness and loveliness would excite his passion and also glorify his vanity as the superior male.
Kamala Das advises the women to play a more active role in this foreplay drama. A woman should praise the masculine prowess of the male and should notice the perfection of his limbs. She should also admire the arousal of passion in him – his eyes reddening under the shower, his ‘shy-walk’ across the bathroom floor and his dropping towel revealing his masculine firmness. Freeing herself from inhibitions, a woman should appreciate:
All the fond details that make
She should also make him feel that he is her ‘only man’ for sexual satisfaction.
A woman should be a full-blooded participant in the physical act. She should uninhibitedly give herself completely to him:
Gift him all
Gift him what makes you woman
She should gift him all – not only the poetic but also the unpoetic. Along with the scent of long hair, musk of sweat
between the breasts, the woman should also not hesitate in giving him the ‘warm shock of menstrual blood’. Her
‘endless female hungers’ can be satiated only after such full participation and involvement in the act.
The poet returns to her initial premise:
Getting a man to love is easy
Physical intimacy is not a problem but the consequent tensions and complications abound. For a man, it has simply been a sexual encounter with a lustful woman but she will undergo the pangs of emotional vacuum and lonely existence. It will be a death-in-life experience for her. She will be once again among ‘strangers’, with ears hearing ‘his last voice calling her home’ and her lacklustre eyes which have given up all ‘search’. As the lover deserts her, it
will be a painful contrast:
Your body which once under his touch had gleamed
Like burnished brass, now drab and destitute
Once she was all aglow with passion, but afterwards, she is a forlorn, melancholy woman ravaged by disease and decay. The poem concludes with a prediction of transient nature of sexual love, a statement without which the poem would have lost its appeal and message.
The poem is highly charged with passion and passion leaps out of every line and diction. It is a powerful evocation of the passionate relationship between the two sexes. The poet builds up the passion step by step and the release comes with ‘gift him all’ to satiate the hunger. The poem is unparalleled in its uninhibited expression of female sexuality. The poet has dauntingly gone ahead to celebrate Body and included even ‘unpoetic’ details like ‘jerky way he urinates and ‘the warm shock of menstrual blood’.
However, the beauty of the poem lies in its psychological validity and underlying irony – the subtle psychological analysis of the male mentality in the first part and the feminine psyche in the second. The poet has not been swept off her feet by passion. She has retained her awareness throughout – awareness of climax, awareness of the impending anti-climax, awareness of male-ego, awareness of mutual need and awareness of the transient nature of the physical act. This bifocal vision is expressed through the ironic mode.
The poet has made deft use of alliteration throughout. Repetition of phrases – ‘Gift him, gift him’ and lines ‘Getting a man to love you is easy’ enforces the thought and emotion.
The poem is rich in corporeal imagery and body language. It can be compared with Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’. Plath makes the mirror a dramatic persona that talks. The strength of Plath’s poem lies in her greater control of tone, language, verse and imagery and the strength of Kamala Das’s poem lies in its passionate intensity.
The poem is remarkable for its uninhibited and daring portrayal of the theme of physical its assertion of female sexuality and its exploration of male and female psychology.
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