Canadian writer Elly Danica is the author of Don't: A Woman's Word (Gynergy Books, 1988), a short book of prose poetry which charts her experience growing up in a violent family, her entrapment in an oppressive marriage, and eventual solitary existence. My life experience also includes a history of family violence. Full-length published poetry books on surviving family violence are hard to find and, as a young poet, I was thrilled to discover Danica's work and a kinship with another poet.
After reading Danica's book, I felt a stronger sense of direction in my poetry writing. Not having a supportive relationship with my own mother I looked for other women, other mentors, for guidance. Like Danica, my experience of family violence includes sexual violence (though not gang rape). I wrote a short chapbook called adventures of amelia about my experience of childhood sexual violence and departure from home.
Danica is an extraordinary writer. It takes a lot of fortitude, strength of mind, psychological insight, and skill to produce such a lucid, readable, and educational account of an experience of domestic violence. Some published literary writings on incest over-emphasize forgiveness and avoid a deep exploration of normal feelings of hate and rage. Danica's book Don’t, in contrast, acknowledges and works through negative feelings and shows why this is important in developing a greater capacity for love. Her book reflects emotional realism and psychological depth. I also strive to manifest these literary qualities in my poems on child abuse issues.
In Don't Danica is always mindful of never presenting the young Danica as a passive victim and always as a thoughtful, reasonable, and creative person, making intelligent choices despite severe constraints. I too have sought to present girls in an empowering way in my poems.
Don't received a lot of media attention and Danica became engaged with public speaking on child abuse issues. In Beyond Don't: Dreaming Past the Dark (Gynergy Books,1996), she notes a struggle with the dilemma of how to divide her energy between helping society with child welfare issues and doing creative work (p. 100). This is a problem that I too struggle with, and also with deciding how much attention to devote to child welfare issues in my poetry and essay-writing.
In Beyond Don't, Danica movingly explores her relationship with her mother. As a girl she had sympathized with her mother's difficulties as a new immigrant lacking the regular support of her Dutch mother living in Holland and had promoted communication between them. She also discusses her own plight of being stranded between two cultures and of not feeling at home in either. I too have explored cultural and immigration issues in my writing. My book Noble Orphan (Demeter Press, 2012) includes several poems about an ESL class of immigrant women. I explore some of their adaptation challenges and those of their children, whom I privately tutored.
In Beyond Don't, Danica writes about the public's reception of her book Don't. Some reviewers treated her book Don't more as a self-help or therapeutic book than as a book of prose poetry, calling it courageous, inspirational, and healing. Others saw it as a lurid sex book or, finding the book aggressive, saw her as a man-hater. Most did not engage with the issues and feminist perspectives presented in the book or situate it within the context of Canadian or North American literature and discuss it in relation to other books.
I received some similar responses to my first book of poetry, Welcoming (Inanna Publications, 2009), which explores diverse topics and includes some poems on incest and surviving chronic childhood trauma. Despite good blurbs from other poets, a reviewer wrote that because I had dedicated the book to incest survivors, (people with whom I feel a strong kinship), and it contained some poems on incest, the book was more therapeutic than literary. Many poets explore family relationships and experiences, and so why should poems about very harmful experiences in the family be treated differently?
I hope that by honouring Danica here as a literary mother other survivors of family violence will feel that they too have a right to write about their life experiences and be included in Canadian literature.
Andrea Nicki is a poet, essayist, philosophy professor and disability activist who lives in Vancouver. She has two poetry books published by Toronto presses: Noble Orphan by Demeter Press (2012) and Welcoming by Inanna Press (2009). She is currently finalizing a new collection. Her poetry explores social, cultural, and environmental issues and has been published in Canadian and American journals, such as Rampike, The Goose, The Brock Review and Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. She teaches graduate courses on professional ethics and human rights issues in the workplace. She is a member of the editorial board of Understorey Magazine, which publishes literary writing and visual art by and about Canadian women and seeks out underrepresented stories and voices.
Monday, June 26, 2017
Monday, June 19, 2017
A text is a body, not only of words but of flesh.
As such, prose is open wound, aching limb.
And so, a book isn’t shaped by story.
It takes root in sensation.
When I read Helene Cixous’ The Third Body, I realised that literary prose could be the excrescence of sensation. The book is the product of the narrator and her lover’s relationship: the third body is what their two bodies produce when conjoined. More importantly, the book is a corpus that allows the female body speak to itself. If I’d read The Laugh of the Medusa I might have said that ‘l’écriture feminine implodes female difference in text’, but I hadn’t read it, and turning the pages of The Third Body could only marvel at this female flesh living a life of paperly inscription.
…your womb is not dreaming, your body is not mistaken… yes, flesh has an undeniable memory…(82)
When I read Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, I realised that not only could a novel be an excrescence of sensation, but that it could bend and break in time with the body it depicts. The narrator’s body is generating the prose, and so the two run in tandem. Trauma befalls A Girl, and so the prose breaks: their meaning must be intuited. Sensation is once more the driving force, but rather than induce an expansive intertextuality, as with Cixous, the intensity of pleasure and pain reduces the scope of expression. In this hemmed-in state, language falters but literature still plays an expressive role:
Sting and itch. Not from disease. From new stretched and snapped skin. Up inside that will not fit in time. Expand and let him lurch there… Almost too much of my body taken up. The air squeezed our. The air pushed to the edge. Coming out my eyes. My ears. Too much. Where is the room for. Too much so much. It. Is too much then. (58)
When I read Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal: a project for future children, I realised that not only can text be rooted in and embody sensation, that its undulations can match the body it pursues, but that it can capture sensation never before signified. It can serve bodies previously outside the realm of representation, and fashion for them vocabularies that also track the method and impact of their marginalisation. The role of the text, then, is to bring new kinds of corporeality into the world.
A feral body, for instance, is one that lives by its senses and produces feral knowledge.
A feral body is the body of a girl who had a wolf for a mother and so walked on all fours, and had her legs broken when a reverend tried to return her to society.
If a feral girl opens her mouth to speak, what does she say?
I bit my own arm and ate it. Here is my belly, frosted with meat. (13)
When I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water: a memoir, I realised that not only can prose be pure sensation, that it can follow the patterns of sensation and embody as well as represent sensation never captured before, but that it can alter the way the reader inhabits her own body. The act of reading can destabilise our relation to prose, to the fact of the page.
Literature is, foremost, a call to the body, and can alter the kinds of corporeality already at play in the world. It is suffused with carnal reminders that your body can, at any time, generate new meaning.
…who would have thought of it but you – your ability to metamorphose like organic material in contact with changing elements. (37)
Sometimes you read a phrase, and then you read it again, and then again, and then put the book down. Only a while later, you realise why it has affected you: it has made it a little easier for you to be a woman moving through the world.
This world that is predisposed to forget, undermine and hurt you. This world that seeps into even the smallest space: the space between your mouth and the cup you drink from in the morning, the space between your lover and the sheets. It steals there and scalds you, chafes you. Doesn’t mind your skin has been made red, so long as its point has been made. You are a woman and so, in even the safest of spaces, are often obliged to seek shelter.
These writers have all been integral in presenting ways in which writing is a ladder, a weapon and a buoy. It is a means of shelter but also one of resistance: it is another limb, unbreakable. Another dexterous tongue that sits under your own.
They are also all an assurance that writing – an act preformed in solitude, a performance which is guaranteed no audience, a labour whose fruits may not ripen within your lifetime – can affect poetic and ontological change in the world.
Writing is the tool by which you take your body back from ideology.
It is how you bring your female body – alive with anger, slippery with sex – into the world.
It is a practical, volatile gift to the woman behind you.
Cixous, Hélène. The third body. Northwestern University Press, 1999.
McBride, Eimear. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing: A Novel. Crown/Archetype, 2014.
Kapil, Bhanu. Humanimal: A Project for Future Children. Kelsey Street Press, 2009.
Yuknavitch, Lidia. The chronology of water: A memoir. Hawthorne Books, 2013.
Sue Rainsford is a writer & researcher based in Dublin. A graduate of Trinity College and IADT, she recently completed her MFA in Writing & Literature at Bennington College, Vermont. She is editor of the limited edition publication some mark made, a Ploughshares blogger for 2017, and recipient of the VAI Critical Writing Award 2016/17. Her practice is concerned with hybrid texts and radical experience, the intersection between visual and literary arts practices, and fusing embodiment with critical inquiry.
Monday, June 12, 2017
Beyond the Sheltered Garden: In Search of a Muse
Forty years ago, when I chanced upon H.D.’s autobiographical novel, Bid Me to Live in a bookstore, something stirred in my solar plexus. There was the title, of course, that beckoned me out of my malaise. And the story about writers living in London during the 1917 air raids, their romantic and literary tensions. But it was H.D.’s poetic prose that caused the biggest flutter: it seemed like a kind of golden joinery for her characters’ fractured worlds. I immediately tracked down a second-hand copy of The Sheltered Garden.
O to blot out this garden
to forget, to find a new beauty
in some terrible
What’s in a name? I disliked mine. Lauren as in Lauren Bacall would have been fine, but not Lorin with an “i”, often mispronounced as the masculine, “Lorne.” Hilda Doolittle was equally underwhelmed with her name. Do little. She determined to write herself into being. At various times, she called herself Edith Gray, J. Beran, Roda Peter, Helga Dart, Helga Dorn, D.A. Hill, Hermione Gart, Julia Ashton, Delia Alton. Sigmund Freud called her “the perfect bisexual” and Ezra Pound called her “Dryad,” his wood spirit muse. When Pound scribbled, “H.D., Imagiste” on a napkin and then sent three of her poems off to Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine, H.D. embraced her nom de plume. Neither male, nor female, it offered freedom from binary gender constraints.
At school in 1976, I worked hard and followed the rules, but apart from Lit class, life seemed humdrum. I envied the girl in the drama club with long black hair like Cher’s streaked chartreuse green. Back in 1905, at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College, H.D. was that girl: tall, smart, exotic looking. She once shook ink from her pen over her clothes as a warmup for writing. And, just as I would drop out of university after my first year, H.D. dropped out of college after only three semesters. Still, she had her poet friends: Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and the young man to whom she became engaged, Ezra Pound.
In my twenties, I spent hours in Special Collections at the University of Victoria transcribing the poems of a man I’d met in the bar while drinking underage. He would hold court on the virtues of Thomas Wolfe, cats, the Montreal Canadians, Robert Creeley, and Ezra Pound. His flaws are inconsequential—he had that quality I craved: a poetic mind. We lived together for seven years, but there comes a point in a relationship where you must choose between the comfort of adoration and the terror of growth. I took H.D.’s lead. She rejected marriage, but followed Pound to London to pursue poetry.
I know that you are singing;
your husk is a skull,
your song is an echo,
your song is infinite as the sea,
your song is nothing
H.D. “The Poet”
World War I changed everything. Artists, poets, and musicians tried to reassemble a fragmented world. Picasso painted Les Desmoiselles. Varese reorganized sound. Pound and his circle of avant-garde modernists (William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, H.D.) called for a new poetic style based on “direct treatment of the thing, whether subjective or objective.” Something spare, modern, less metred and more musical: wet petals on a black bough, a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater.
Fruit cannot drop through this thick air --
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.
Despite the recognition she had earned, H.D. outgrew the Imagist birdhouse.
you are true
to your self, being true
to the irony
of your shell.
H.D. “The Poet”
The call to poetry is a call to self and that requires both human and spirit guides. H.D. suffered a breakdown after the war and the muse failed her. With the support of her longtime lover, Bryher, she sought help from Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. Feminism and penis envy may seem like an odd fit, but help can arrive in unexpected packages. Freud helped H.D. explore “the hieroglyph of the unconscious” (Tribute to Freud 93), her bisexuality, and all things Oedipal. He recommended that she write about difficult events without embellishment or a distancing mask. It worked: her writing block lifted.
H.D., I hear you: my biggest fear is to be without words.
H.D. explored archetypes and mythical patterns that resonated with her experience in a male-dominated world. In her last major work, Helen in Egypt, she offered a feminist perspective to the story of a woman conceived after a rape and whose beauty was blamed for starting a ten-year war:
All Greece hates / the still eyes in the white face
I love the claustrophobic assonance in that line, the close attention to syllables.
In her rendering of “Eurydice,” the long-suffering, previously silent Eurydice screams back at Orpheus:
At least I have the flowers of myself,
and my thoughts, no god
can take that;
I have the fervour of myself for a presence
and my own spirit for light.
H.D. had many visionary and paranormal experiences, including a gift for astral travel passed down from her grandmother. Her later poems incorporated teachings from the occultist Ambelain and his goddess-centered vision of spirituality.
I had psychotherapists and medicine women as guides. On retreat in Ontario’s Horseshoe Valley, I participated in sweat lodges and shamanic journeys. I learned to trust my intuition and listen to sources outside everyday experience.
H.D. describes her method as “a matter of being quiet and heeding the mental pulse of sound.” My numbed self—timid bird with its monotonous note—woke up to H.D.’s incantatory poetic voice. She taught me that we can grow into our writerly selves by dismantling the forces that would hold us back and looking for beauty in uncultivated places. Above all, she showed me that there is a palimpsest of poetic spirit that breaks through day-to-day life if we let it, if we hunker down in the lonely wind and listen.
Lorin Medley is a counsellor and writer from Comox, BC. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The Puritan, Portal, and an upcoming (Fall 2017) poetry anthology with Caitlin Press, Refugium: Poems for the Pacific. She won the 2014 Islands Short Fiction Contest and the 2015 Books Matter poetry prize and was long listed for the 2016 Prism International Poetry Contest.
Monday, June 5, 2017
“There’s no word for the ‘floating’ gender in which we’d all like to rest.”
– Anne Carson
In an interview for the Paris Review’s Fall 2004 issue, Anne Carson addresses what has been, for her, a lifetime of fluctuations in her gender identity. However, so casually does she gloss over this fact that you know, at least for her, this is natural. This is a part of life. This is who she is. She addresses that she has never felt entirely female – and neither have I. I am not a woman, nor am I man, and although I use pronouns commonly ascribed to men, I do it because, as Carson says, “when you’re talking about yourself you only have these two options.” Of course, for many, this is not true – pronouns go far beyond the typical hem and haw of him and her. But I’m inclined to think that, like Carson, I am ascribed to one over the other based on my experience drifting through this world as always-Othered on the gender spectrum.
It is this gender spectrum that often comes up when we address motherhood. So closely linked to the biological function of giving birth is motherhood (and the gender binary) that we forget that not all women are mothers, and not all mothers are women. Mothering is an act in all iterations of the word. But at its core, to mother is to embody a continuous act of care, consideration, and guidance, something that anyone, in my opinion, can do (whether or not they have a knack for it, at first – like writing, for example, mothering requires practice).
Carson, for me, is someone who acts as mother to her own body of work. Her close connection to her texts is often explicitly stated. She has a stake in her poetry, in her prose, in her unconventional bodies of work like Nox (2009) and Float (2016). But don’t all writers (and mothers) have a close connection to their creations? Yes, of course – but Carson’s writing, I suppose, feels as if it took some effort to give up, as if she waited until it matured before sending it out into the world, and continues to feel some worry over how it might fare out there.
Perhaps I’m projecting here. I certainly feel this way about my work. I often don’t want to give it up, if only because there’s no telling where it will go, and with what or who it will interact with. Writing as Other means that readers often look for you in your work, as they can’t separate your position in the world from the positions of those present in your writing. This can be good, or bad, or both – but above all, it is worrying. Like a photograph wherein you are the one asked to assert your pose, that moment of panic leads to retroactive who-am-I statements and ultimately sends you into somewhat of an existential crisis – at least until you take a seat and awkwardly smile for the camera.
Maybe Carson’s statement on her own gender identity stuck out to me because she seems to unhindered by this seemingly necessary crisis. She seems comfortable with the knowledge that she may be viewed, in terms of gender, as both, neither, or some other entirely. She floats in that ocean of Otherness without fear of being dragged under. Her work buoys her, work which reflects her stunning inability to conform to conventions of poetry, essay, novel, and beyond. To reach that level of self-acceptance seems impossible to me at times, but to see someone like Carson, in all her gendered invocations, reach a point in her life where she can address her long history of identity in a single breath is as comforting to me as the presence of any mother has or ever has been.