Monday, June 19, 2017

Sue Rainsford on Cixous, McBride, Kapil and Yuknavitch

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.

works cited
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.

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