The nomad’s identity is a map of where s/he has already been; s/he can always reconstruct it a posteriori, as a set of steps in an itinerary.
(Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjectivity 14)
- 1 A similar change is admitted by Cora Kaplan in her essay “Speaking/Writing/Feminism,” where she ar (...)
1“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” This is the quote from Virginia Wolf’s Three Guineas (1938) that Adrienne Rich decided not to use in a talk given at a “Conference on Women, Feminist Identity and Society in the 1980s” held in Utrecht, Holland, but which she argues she would have certainly used some years earlier. This apparent self-denial raises the question of what had changed in Rich’s sense of feminist identity in the period between the late 1960s and the mid 1980s. An analysis of her talk, which is published as “Notes toward a Politics of Location” (1984), belies that the change that Rich describes epitomises the paradigm shift in feminism that started to take shape in the early 1980s and that emerged out of the controversy between postmodernism and feminism over the issue of subjectivity.1
2In the context of the re-emerging feminism of the late 1960s, Rich would have argued against the common oppression of women around the world and would have spoken of a common bonding that would unite all women in their resistance against patriarchal power structures. Women would thus be united by the same suffering and common struggle under the banner of a unified gender identity, which would surpass national, racial, ethnic, cultural, class, sexual and age differences. In this context, Virginia Wolf’s words would gain full significance and validity and the whole globe would become for women a single nation united by a female gender identity. However, in the mid 1980s, feminism had already started to show signs of crucial changes.
3Like in the case of many other feminists, Rich realised thanks to the relationship of feminism with other anti-foundationalist movements that this all-inclusive feminism had reproduced the same mistakes that it criticised in modernist/foundationalist tradition. In its desire to move the female “I” from the margins to the centre, feminism had marginalised not only the male “I” but also all those women that would not accord with the category of Woman implicitly defined as white, middle-class and heterosexual. According to the postmodern feminist critics Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson, the dialogical relationship between postmodernism and feminism enabled that “unitary notions of woman and feminine gender identity [were replaced] with plural and complexly constructed conceptions of social identity, treating gender as one relevant strand among others.” (34-35)
- 2 Apart from Patricia Waugh (1989), other feminist critics that have explicitly pointed to the probl (...)
4However, not all feminist critics have praised the apparent benefits of postmodernism for feminism. Various feminist critics regard the relationship with postmodernism as specially problematic because one of its main claims, that of the death of the subject, comes at an untimely moment for the development of feminism. As Patricia Waugh argues in “Postmodernism and Feminism: Where Have All the Women Gone?” :2
At the moment when postmodernism is forging its identity through articulating the exhaustion of the existential belief in self-presence and self-fulfilment and through the dispersal of the universal subject of liberalism, feminism (ostensibly, at any rate) is assembling its cultural identity in what appears to be the opposite direction. […] As male writers lament its demise, women writers have not yet experienced that subjectivity which will give them a sense of personal autonomy, continuous identity, a history and agency in the world. (6)
- 3 Despite these apparently “opposite direction[s],” as Susan Hekman (1990) notes, the similarities b (...)
5Admittedly, there are differences between postmodern and feminist understandings of subjectivity which might apparently move these currents in “opposite direction[s].”3However, Seyla Benhahib’s Situating the Self (1992) is one of the best examples of postmodern feminist attempts to show the possible beneficial relationship with postmodernism for the (re)construction of women’s subjectivity. Like Waugh, Benhahib is also fully aware of the annihilating contradictions to which feminism might be led by a tout court acceptance of posmodernist epistemology. However, she also provides the solution to this controversy: instead of accepting what she calls a strong version of postmodernist theories, she argues that only a weak version can be incorporated into feminist criticism. Applying this strong vs. weak version of postmodernist tenets to the “death of the subject” means that, instead of accepting that Man is only “another position in language” in which his subjectivity dissolves into the chain of significations (214), the subject is situated in and, thereby, constructed by the socio-historical, discursive and linguistic context in which it is located. Consequently, subjectivity is not unified and stable, but dialogical, free-floating, unfixed and always under construction.
6Location. The position of the subject. Situating the self. The radical situatedness of the subject. (Benhahib 214) A politics of location. All these are words and phrases that have recurrently appeared in this article so far and which point to a second major concern that has been dominant since the mid 1980s, not only in postmodern feminist theory, but also in the fields of literary criticism and among women poets in the British Isles. After accepting the validity of the claim for the existence of a female subjectivity, the main concern becomes the need to redefine the location of this female subjectivity. For the purpose of this article, I have decided to focus on the poetry of Fleur Adcock, Eavan Boland and Carol Rumens because I would argue that their poetry is doubly enticing: firstly, because their work is representative of the paradigm shift within feminism that was occurring in the mid 1980s specifically in the British Isles, secondly, for the redoubled efforts as women and poets that they had to make to locate themselves in literary tradition.
- 4 A thorough analysis of the difficulties of women poets to work in the British literary and publish (...)
- 5 Other coetanous women poets who expressed their sense of isolation in a male-controlled literary w (...)
7These three poets started to write in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at a moment in time in which the literary and publishing world were still virtually male-controlled.4 They were among those women poets who had to open new ground with their work and to struggle in order to find a place for their agentive writerly selves in a British literary tradition that had relegated women to the passive role of muses, objects of desire or hatred, or nationalist emblems.5 As representatives of women’s poetry in the British Isles, they were often elicited a clear compromise with feminist politics, and their response to such pressure started to be openly stated in the mid 1980s, especially through their prose writings.
8In the landmark anthology Making for the Open: The Chatto Book of Post-Feminist Poetry 1964-1984 (1985), Carol Rumens expresses her intention to distinguish this volume from anthologies of women poets published in Britain and the USA in the previous two decades. She opens her introduction suggesting that the zeal of feminists since the 1960s has affected the critieria for selection of women’s poetry to the point of subjecting “excellence” to the category of gender and, therefore, elevating “the message [focusing on women’s experiences] at the expense of the medium.” (xv) Rumens’s aim is thus to counter this practice and make this anthology “different from its predecessors in that the poems proclaim only themselves.” (xv)
9Like Rumens, in editing The Faber Book of Twentieth Century Women’s Poetry (1987), Fleur Adcock engages critically with previous feminist attitudes and rejects the construction of a female literary tradition completely separate from traditional (and dominantly male) literary currents and movements. Adcock argues against the unified and, thereby, dangerously generalising view of women’s poetry, and against the need to consider its “value” as depending on its political commitment to the second half of the binary male-female. She acknowledges that poetry by women “has been undervalued and to some extent neglected,” (1) and claims that “the situation now is quite different,” not because this masculine bias has disappeared from critics and editors, but because attitudes among female readers and poets, and in the publishing world have changed. Despite acknowledging various distinctively positive features in women’s poetry, Adcock is well aware of the dangerous consequences of subjecting women’s poetry to political interests:
Part of this [women’s poetry being shunted into a ghetto] could be blamed on women themselves, or on certain women writers, who take a radically separatist attitude, rejecting “patriarchal standards” and “the language of the oppressors,” claiming that men do not understand the tones of voice in which women express themselves, and addressing their work exclusively to other women. (My italics, 2).
- 6 For these criticisms, see Vicki Bertram’s “Postfeminist Poetry?: ‘one more word for balls’” (1995) (...)
10This reproval of a “radically separatist attitude” gained these three poets various criticisms for their lack of political compromise and for defending an attitude that was interpreted as implicitly preor even anti-feminist.6 Thus, between the late 1960s and the mid 1980s, these three women poets had to overcome two main stumbling blocks: (i) a patriarchal literary tradition that had marginalised and silenced women’s agentive voices, which was a difficulty common to other women poets at the time; (ii) a universalising and separatist radical feminism against which very few women’s voices had already been raised in the mid 1980s — from here derives the relevance of Rich’s talk in June 1984. Positioning themselves against a postmodern context that was overtly distrustful of the lyrical “I,” and against the limitations imposed by the radical feminism that had been dominant since the late 1960s, Adcock, Boland and Rumens had to work to construct through their poetry a sense of identity that would overcome the givens of patriarchal literary tradition and the impositions of separatist feminism. In order to describe their process of (re)construction Lawrence Grossberg’s concept of the “nomadic subjectivity” and its (re)interpretation by Elspeth Probyn in her article “Travel in the Postmodern: Making Sense of the Local” (1990), as well as Rosi Braidotti’s postmodern feminist definition of the concept in Nomadic Subjects (1994) are highly useful.
- 7 Probyn defines “locale” as “a place that is the setting for a particular [gendered] event;” “local (...)
11Within the context of the postmodern revalutation of the local over the universal(ising), which is so convenient for the feminist stance of these three poets, Probyn aims to explore the interrelationship between three spatio-temporal concepts which she calls “locale,” “local,” and “location.”7 These terms serve as the basis for the individual woman to understand “how we come to know” (Probyn 178) about the world outside, about our relationship with it, and, thereby, about one’s sense of identity and of belonging to a particular place and tradition.
- 8 This concept of a nomadic subjectivity is relatively new, since the Spanish modernist poet Antonio (...)
12As Probyn notes, the nomad or the tourist are figures that have recently become more present as models of the Western construction of the postmodern subjectivity, in which the individuals constitute their sense of identity out of their interaction with the various locations they pass through in their wanderings.8 According to Lawrence Grossberg, in this “nomadic subjectivity,” “individuality functions as, and is articulated out of, a nomadic wandering through ever-changing positions and apparatuses.” (38) The mutability of these locales and locations or systems of “how to know about the world” also determines the instability of the individual sense of identity and the construction of a “nomadic subjectivity,” defined by Braidotti as the site where various axes of differentiation “intersect and interact with each other in the constitution of subjectivity.” (Nomadic Subjects 4) This figure of the nomad or tourist is significantly used by Adcock as a metaphor of her own relationship with places and as a means of portraying the problems she encounters in her (re)construction of a sense of identity.
13A New Zealander of British and Irish descent, Adcock spent most of her childhood in England, including the time of the Second World War, when she moved from one school to another due to her father’s job as a teacher, and went back to New Zealand at the age of thirteen. Adcock studied Classics at Victoria University, Wellington, and by the age of twenty-four she had married the New Zealander poet Alistair Campbell, had had two sons, had divorced and had decided to move to England for good. This brief biographical account may help to reach a better understanding of the origins of her deeply ingrained sense of rootlessness that pervades her poetry. This physical and psychological displacement which she was forced to practise from her early age turned her into an eternal outsider, which she has regarded as a “fruitful position for a writer, if it means one takes nothing for granted.” (Couzyn 202) Thus Adcock becomes as expressed in her poems an epitome of the tourist or the nomadic subject: the individual with a permanent residual feeling of not quite belonging combined with a desire to belong, to set roots into the locales she visits, and to be part of the local traditions and their peoples.
- 9 To analyse Adcock’s metaphorical use of the tourist in these poems it is useful to resort to what (...)
- 10 The term is borrowed from T.S. Eliot and his attempt to construct a theory of objectivity in poetr (...)
- 11 This term is understood here not only as the place where an action or event occurs, but it is also (...)
14Adcock has taken up in her poetry the role of the tourist visiting various locales, different places that contain part of her own individual history or of the history of her ancestors, or even places which she can recreate and incorporate in her process of construction of her own location.9 This last case is best exemplified by the final poems in The Scenic Route (1974). In these poems, Adcock’s experience as a tourist in Nepal is apparently used as an objective correlative10 to express her own experience of cultural displacement, which she only started to articulate in her poems after going back to Great Britain in 1963, finding New Zealand “stifling.” (Couzyn 202) In “Naxal,” Adcock recovers the figure of the tourist in a foreign country to convey her feeling of estrangement. The poem presents an image of this Nepali town transfigured into an ideal location11 by the sense of communion that she seems to perceive there, and in which she longs to participate. This leap from harsh, objective reality to subjective perception and self-exploration is suggested by the movement from the urban concrete road that seems to lead to public places, such as the palace, the cinema (1) or the Chinese Embassy (2), to a tentative road that leads her to the privacy of the people immersed in the everyday life of the country.
- 12 Baudrillard’s definition of the effects of travelling is only partially applicable to Adcock, beca (...)
15In her travel to Nepal, Adcock partially experiences the effects of travelling as defined by Baudrillard:12 “Rouler est une forme spectaculaire d’amnésie. Tout à découvrir, tout à effacer.” (quoted in Probyn 183) Thanks to the “amnésie” of travel, the tourist can recreate any part of the world and make it stand for another. This is precisely what Adcock, the tourist, does with Nepal: she recreates it in her mind and makes it stand in her poem for other places in the world in which she has experienced a similar sense of estrangement. Thus, her encounter with deepest Nepal revives in her the sense of rootlessness, of being like a tourist in places that have seen her grow, like New Zealand or England, and this renews in her a painful desire to belong to and share in the most intimate life of the country where she finds herself: “I covet their fretted lattice window-frames / and stare slightly too long into back rooms.” (19-20) The lack of barriers in the rural Nepali’s everyday life — “There are no screens at the carved windows, no filters / for the water[…]” (21-2) — seems to intensify her desire to belong to that community “and drink at the common pump.” (22) However, this wishful thinking of being culturally rooted seems to be superseded by her return to an awareness of her own rootlessness and the harsh conditions in Nepal:
But finally, stepping over the warm threshold
of the temple courtyard, I feel a tentative itch;
passing the scummy tank, a little sickness;
touching an infant’s head, a little pain. (24-7)
- 13 Braidotti also argues that the “nomadic consciousness” emerges within the new historical trend tow (...)
16At this stage, Adcock still experiences a longing for the traditional understanding of identity to place, defined by Linda McDowell as the sense of being a member of a local community with long-standing traditions, and restricted to a specific and reduced geographical area. (2-3) However, McDowell argues that the process of globalisation occurring at the end of the twentieth century, characterised by the great migratory movements mainly enabled by the improvement and increase of communications, has produced a change in the understanding of localities and of the individual’s sense of place, which has now become more fluid and uncertain. This shift in the concept of the individual’s sense of place is also perceived in Adcock’s poetry.13
17At the time of writing The Scenic Route (1974) Adcock is at the early stages of her learning process in which she will come to apprehend, on the one hand, the changes and contradictions of a sense of place in a globalised and postmodern world, and on the other, the subsequent changes in the relationship between place and identity, which will lead Adcock, as her œuvre develops, to progressively (re)construct her sense of subjectivity as contingent and provisional. Thus, five years later in her poem “Instead of an Interview” from The Inner Harbour (1979), Adcock can already define her sense of home as located in the interstices of the different locales that inform her:
Home, as I explained to a weeping niece,
home is London; and England, Ireland, Europe.
I have come home with a suitcase full of stones −
Of shells and pebbles, pottery, pieces of bark:
Here they lie around the floor of my study
As I telephone a cable ‘Safely home’. (19-23)
- 14 This is linked with Braidotti’s philosophy of “as if,” according to which the nomadic subject is c (...)
18Like Adcock, Carol Rumens has established strong relationships with places and it is only in the interstitial spaces that she has been able to find the site of her own location, i.e., where the interconnection of her experiences in these various locales with her own past experiences are hierarchically organised to form a system upon which she can construct her own renewed subjectivity.14
19In the “Author’s Note” to Thinking of Skins: New & Selected Poems (1993), Rumens describes her sense of location as the “instability of the ground beneath me,” (11) a remnant of her troublesome childhood in post-war London and which she has felt inevitably compelled to cultivate throughout her life. Through her poetry, Rumens maps her own subjectivity, outlined by her experiences in her numerous temporary homes and by her reflections about the private and the public and their interconnectivity evoked by the locales she has passed through. Her poem “A Cloud House” from Best China Sky (1995), captures the contradictions that nurture her poetry and enrich her sense of identity:
[…] I’m only playing
At exile, I’m disturbed by fixity
Yet wish there were no choice but to be fixed. (53-5)
20Only after her long wanderings, literary and psychologically through her poems, and geographically mostly due to her different posts as a writer in residence, does Rumens reach a serene understanding of her interstitial identity which she terms as her “holding pattern,” also the title of the poem and of the collection which it closes (1998):
And then I knew − this was my holding pattern:
To circle hopefully, never admitting
Before this moment (and not really now)
Which self, which well-embroidered plot, which mainland,
Which graveyard, I was travelling with my back to. (13-17)
- 15 Rumens has thus become an epitome of Braidotti’s figuration of postmodern feminist subjectivity as (...)
21Her holding pattern is precisely constructed on her unwillingness to fix her subjectivity to a single self, to a specific and clearly defined sense of place or to a single and stable sense of tradition. Her identity is based on her “unstable location” (Thinking of Skins 11) formed by the interrelationship of her various selves and experiences in the various locales or chronotopes that she has passed through in her nomadic existence.15
- 16 It is necessary to remember here Braidotti’s remark about the figurative meaning of nomadism, whic (...)
22In the case of Eavan Boland, her nomadic subjectivity is not so heavily marked by her geographical wanderings, although her life has been divided since her early childhood between Ireland, England and the States.16 In her poetry, Boland is more deeply concerned with a necessary revisitation of her Irish literary tradition so as to reconstruct the givens of a markedly male Irish national and literary identity. Thus, the most common locale in her poetry, which Probyn defines as “a place that is the setting for a particular event,” is the female body, which is the setting where the event of its objectification and appropriation as a nationalist emblem takes place, and where, in its turn, the event of reappropriation is performed by Eavan Boland.
23As Boland states in her essay “Lava Cameo,” (1995) her male-ridden literary and nationalist tradition would drive her to the writing of a “disembodied verse,” (26) a poetry in which the words woman and poet could not be brought to coexist. In this process of necessary (re)definition of her tradition to find a location for her own female and writerly self, Boland has had to vest those female myths and nationalist legends with the human qualities − feelings, sufferings, memories, stories and voices − that they had been denied in Irish nationalist tradition. However, what is most significant in Boland’s poetry is not only her (re)definitions of male representations and utilisation of the female body, but her revisitations of various aspects of her identity which are differently perceived and reimagined throughout her work: sense of motherhood, mother-daughter relationships, bardic tradition, Irish literary tropes and myths. These revisitations directly link Boland’s perception of her identity as being under continuous reconstruction with Braidotti’s nomadic subjectivity:
The nomadic subject functions as a relay team: s/he connects, circulates, moves on; s/he does not form identifications but keeps on coming back at regular intervals. […] Identity is retrospective; representing it entails that we can draw accurate maps, indeed, but only of where we have already been and consequently no longer are. Nomadic cartographies need to be redrafted constantly. (Nomadic Subjects 35)
24The epitome of Boland’s process of continuous redrafting of her own identity is to be found in what can be called her three suburban poems that are located at key points throughout her oeuvre: “Suburban Woman” in The War Horse (1975), “Suburban Woman: A Detail” in The Journey (1983) and “Suburban Woman: Another Detail” in Code (2001). These poems portray Boland’s perception of the innerly experienced conflict between her female self and her writerly self at various points in the formation of her own identity. The differences in form, content, poetic voice and tone are reflections of the differences within her own sense of identity that have been modified by the changes in the chronotope in which they have been formed and by the modifications in her relationship with herself and with the world around her.
25As has been observed in this paper, Adcock, Rumens and Boland set off in their respective literary and existential journeys towards a renewed subjectivity. On their way, they have had to overcome the postmodernist scourge against the subject and the vicissitudes of an overzealous feminism. They have been occasionally unsettled by the winds of change and subsequent instability. However, and to borrow Rich’s words, instead of drowning while “diving into the wreck” of a tradition that has silenced their voices, these three poets have been able to come up to the surface again, take the helm of their own boats and salvage from these troubles their own subjectivity by incorporating the continuous mutability of their own selves, of the world outside and of their relationship with it as a definitory characteristic of their own identity. They have become lifelong nomadic subjects that construct their own subjectivity through their revisitations of literary and geographical locales, public and private (hi)stories, myths and legends, nomadic wanderers for whom what is important is not to arrive, but as Tennyson states in “Ulysses,” a poem on the experience of probably one of the bestknown forceful nomads of all times, “to strive, to seek and not to yield.”