No nothing accumulates there
not even mist
nothing but glimmering
making ready to manifest.
Alice Oswald, “Excursion to the Planet Mercury” (2005)
1At the close of his Defence of Poetry (1821), it will be remembered that Shelley promotes the poets into prophets, and more specifically, though quite not so transparently, into “legislators of the world”. Granted, their being still “unacknowledged” somewhat scales down the scope of his enthusiastic, not to say hubristic, claims. But the fact of the matter remains: Shelley, who, it should be noted, was probably lesser known at the time than his wife Mary, the author of Frankenstein, is fully convinced that poets are the true shapers of people’s lives, that their contribution to the general improvement of manners in human societies, as well as to the heightening of what might be termed democratic as well as artistic awareness, far exceeds the changes brought about by the politicians in charge of drafting and enforcing the laws of the land. “It is the faculty”, he argues, “which contains within itself the seeds at once of its own and of social renovation” (Shelley 687). Not a stickler for historical facts, Shelley carries out his demonstration by taking hair-raising shortcuts or by leaping over centuries, for the sake of shedding full light on some of the most salient transformations affecting the fabric of society. Chief among the sea-changes, which he believes to be poetry-led and driven, he ranks the “abolition of personal and domestic slavery, and the emancipation of women from a great part of the degrading restraints of antiquity” (Shelley 690). Indeed, his admiration of the glory of Greek arts in the fifth century B.C. never blinded him to the fact that such a golden age for poetry and drama must have represented an age of iron for the subalterns of that world. Hence his ardent embrace of the next great period of Progress, before and after the Reformation, when forms of worship were renewed, and hence, too, his fervent support of Dante as “the first awakener of entranced Europe” (Shelley 693). He contends in the same breath that this was also the time when “the freedom of women produced the poetry of sexual love”, resulting in the creation of paradise “out of the wrecks of Eden” (Shelley 690). Quite remarkably, the process is presented as a two-way or reversible one: women freely produce, i.e. inspire poets—but it could also be argued that they dictate the terms of the poems—, just as they are necessarily co-produced, i. e. transcribed or folded inside that “great poem, which all poets like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind have built up since the beginning of the world” (Shelley 687). That the great mind in question must needs be “androgynous”, rather than male or female, to use Virginia Woolf’s concept borrowed from her ground-breaking essay A Room of One’s Own, strikes one as pretty obvious, if only because Shelley can compare a great poem to “a fountain forever overflowing” (Shelley 693), and poetry to the implicitly more masculine image of “a sword of lightning ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it” (Shelley 685).
- 1 « Il n’est pas seulement question d’améliorer les salaires d’appoint. Le féminisme est une aventur (...)
- 2 “So I Climbed Out the Hatch,” a 1991 poem by Hilary Davies, which charts the literal and no doubt (...)
2Some two centuries later, the uninhibited freedom of women has “invented” a “revolution in opinions” (Shelley 679)—feminism—as well as “produced” the poetry of (more or less radical) emancipation from sex and gender. Women are now making history, by taking it in their own hands as well as by writing it; their history, even when it is Outside History (Bolland’s 1990) is news that stays news: when Mary Robinson took office as first woman President of Ireland in 1990 she read a poem by Eavan Boland during her inaugural speech; conversely, the fact that Carol Ann Duffy was ruled out as potential Poet Laureate by Tony Blair, allegedly on the grounds of her being a lesbian, is the sign that rear-guard battles, while still being fought and won by men, are soon to be consigned to dust and oblivion. As they emerge in ever greater numbers, with ever greater visibility, the contemporaries of Eavan Bolland and Carol Ann Duffy are clearly behaving as the self-appointed agents of an increasingly spectacular shift in the balance of power. Under the lasting impact of feminism, power is being transferred away from its traditional strongholds towards new constituencies that are at once poetical and political. Men and women are undergoing profound changes, with the former, as is repeatedly suggested, nay feared by some (Zemmour, Schneider), beginning to behave after the fashion of the latter, and the latter now feeling as free and uninhibited as the former in their writing. This groundbreaking “renovation”, in the form of a “collective adventure”1, can also be put down to the women poets of today, of whom this publication offers a wide-ranging account, going from the prominent to the excitingly young and promising, the popular to the experimental, the English to the non-English. They form the equivalent of a body of persons vested with power to make, amend and repeal laws—in short, they form a new legislature, but one that need not be vetted by Westminster for approval. As a matter of fact, its coming of age was never authorized in the first place—but was bent instead on wresting authority from the powers that be which had largely secured it for themselves. This could not be achieved via constitutional or statutory means. The body politic had to bear the brunt of a fierce all-out attack, and likewise the boat had to be rocked, if women were to come “Out of the Hatch2” and contemplate the overthrow of the male captain. In the seventies and well into the eighties, heads rolled, a few Bastilles were taken by storm and certain big names erased from certain tombstones, some privileges went down the drain, blood was spilled in the relentless war between the sexes, and, last but not least, the literary (all male) canon was blast to pieces. As a result alternative sites of opposition emerged, dissonant, not to say dissident voices made themselves heard and although the pre-eminence of male writers was never seriously undermined (who has ever heard of a male writer brought to the brink of abdication?), newer and fairer power-sharing agreements were negotiated in the nineties, in a general mood that was perceived on both sides of the divide as less confrontational, so much so that it paved the way to the virtual phasing out of rhetoric and the subsequently proportional increase of poetry produced and enjoyed in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
- 3 If unnecessary risks are to be taken, postfeminism may be loosely defined here as the moment when (...)
3Politically, the shadow of a coincidence is discernible—but it will not resist close scrutiny. On the surface, the transition from feminism to postfeminism3 may indeed echo the passage from an impossible, because largely unwanted, revolution to the very practical devolution that is currently changing the face of the United kingdom, no doubt for the better rather than for the worse. Indeed, there is a by no means negligible degree of chronological overlap between the long march towards political devolution and the far longer march towards a greater amount of equality between men and women, since they both tell a somewhat similar story of bringing power closer to the people, of challenging the centre, assuming that the centre is Patriarchy, Big Government, and turning towards the regional, the local, the marginal, the feminine. But similarities and figurative discourse soon collapse in the face of a single fact, namely that the whole political move, a process rather than a single defining event, was masterminded and implemented by Westminster, and that the devolved institutions that saw the light in 1998 remain subordinate to the UK Parliament, for which the whole operation is at least nominally reversible, for which again power devolved is power retained, in spite of appearances to the contrary. On the one hand, no one, let alone a woman, is sufficiently naïve to believe that the sharing of power was implemented, or even conceded by men for reasons of fairness and decency, lest power should be abused when not spread. On the other, few women, let alone women poets, would willingly opt for the surrender of their hard-won sovereignty and return to the infamous “Themes for Women”, (Elizabeth Bartlett, 6WP 48), even for the sake of retrieving domesticity. Postfeminism is definitely not the other devolution, not even figuratively speaking, and yet Shelley’s equation of poetry with politics holds more than ever.
4Intended as a follow-up to a previous survey (Porée, in Brugière), the aim of this issue is to bring into critical focus the extraordinary outburst of women poetry as experienced in the British Isles over the past two decades. While affecting all kinds of literary and artistic genres and productions, the impact of such an unprecedented explosion of creativity has been most conspicuous in the field of poetry, where it has reached cornucopian proportions, as illustrated by the sheer number of collections of women poetry published in the course of those twenty years, generally in mainstream publishing houses into the bargain. Initiated in the seventies, when it first proceeded from a sense of rage explicitly directed at centuries of masculine domination and “the horror of our oppression” (in the words of anthologist Lilian Mohin), the movement has lost some of its initial bitterness over the years, to gain an exhilarating sense of confidence in its own strength—something like the striking of a fine balance.
5Strike is the right word, it should be acknowledged, in view of the uncompromising nature of this newly regained poise (confer the title of the 1994 collection by Carole Satyamurti, Striking Distance). As it happens, violence remains part and parcel of the poetry written by women, a fact both undeniable and understandable, necessitated as it was by the need first to “kill” the Angel in the House before they could write uncensored, as recommended by Virginia Woolf, and second to seek revenge on man, masculinity, patriarchy, and phallocracy (often equated to thanatocracy) if they wanted to make a living at all. Images of death as the product of furious female vengeance abound in the work composed in the last twenty years. It could very well be that the example set by the violence of Emily Dickinson (who stood “a loaded gun”), of Stevie Smith (according to whom “Poetry never has any kindness”), of Sylvia Plath (for whom Daddy-bashing had become second nature as well as a matter of life and death) and even of Anne Sexton (who composed “Sylvia’s Death” and repeatedly invoked her suicide attempts, her own fascination and desire for death) was not lost on the following generations. The latter have felt and probably still feel like “The Handless Maiden” imagined by Vicky Feaver, crying for “the hands/my father cut off”, the “silver hands/My husband gave me—that spun and wove/but had no feeling”, “the handless hands/that let my baby drop”—wanting their poems to come out of their own hands and body, regenerated in the resuscitation of their daughters, be they real or figurative. Judith, also the title of poem by Vicky Feaver, is, or rather was, another great favourite murderess.
6Elizabeth Bronfen goes one step further when she brings light on the disturbing conjunction of beauty, morbidity and the feminine that pervades Western culture as revealed in the representations of the female corpse. Over her Dead Body, incidentally a brilliant title, takes stock of some of the numerous occasions when a dead woman is the source and the address of poetic inspiration, thus focusing on decades of aesthetic misogyny (that turned the murder of beautiful women into one of the fine arts). Its last chapter, called “From Muse to Creatrix: Snow White unbound” and devoted to the recent period, begins to reverse the trend—while remaining just as macabre. The fact that women poets and artists have now taken over the business of representing female death (allegedly with an eye to creatively resurrecting the represented woman) hardly lessens the thrust of her broadly pessimistic thesis. In the main, the body of “materiality-maternity-mortality” remains unencompassable, articulation of the female voice inevitably spells in terms of (self-) effacement, and last but not least, predetermined images and stereotypes are here to stay, however ironized and deconstructed they may be. As long as the masculine gaze remains self-consciously present, texts written by women will repeatedly and compulsively disclose “the point of non-existence beyond which a woman writing as yet can’t move” (Bronfen 407).
7 While these are pretty definitive words, quite inkeeping with the cutting edge of her dissections of Western culture, it is to be feared that they have aged badly, eclipsed as they have been by the post-eighties offensive “beyond the point of non-existence”. As it happens, Shelley’s idiom can once again stand us in good stead: while poetry written by women has always been strong in the British Isles, it is their difficulty in getting the fact “acknowledged” that has constituted an, if not, the, obstacle, as noted by Sean O’Brien. In recent years, women poets have been most fortunate in being able to rely on Fleur Adcock, Carol Reumens, Linda France and Deryn Rees-Jones—to name but a few talented editors of women-only anthologies (whatever the value and relevance of the sub-genre)—to make their works known to an increasingly large audience.
From the standpoint of the present, it looks as if a scaffolding of assumptions has been removed—for example that the woman poet is in some sense peculiar or a special case—and the power and range of women poets has been made plain (O’Brien xxxiv).
8Unfortunately, O’ Brien’s necessarily synthetic presentation ends thus: “one constant strain is the sensual and the erotic” (xxxiv). While this is all too true (Catherine Lanone on Duffy’s intertextuality of love), it considerably limits the scope of the achievements under consideration, falling back as it does on a traditional province or property of the feminine and even running the risk of endorsing anew such hidebound clichés as womanly rapture, as opposed to the masculine premium on reason. A fact well evidenced by the dual body of theory available to critics and poets alike—the English-language tradition and the French, more text-oriented, perspective, as pithily summarized by Paul Volsik in Etudes Anglaises (January-March 2001)—combined with what Frédéric Regard has most judiciously termed La force du féminin. Theory has been tremendously helpful towards raising the level of awareness concerning what one is to make of the new feminine “disposition” (also spelt “dysposition”), and its various intrinsically “stylistic” or performative operations: the play on impropriety, delinquency, incongruity, irony, sophistry, bent on enforcing “the passage from reproduction to production, from maternity to effectivity” (Regard 117). Fundamentally alien to any “assignation à résidence” theory has been averse to proceed to any further redistribution of “cartes d’identité sexuelle” (“Choreography”, quoted by Volsik 151). Behind the derridian insistence on “la chance de quelque turbulence aléatoire dans l’assignation des places” one finds experimental poetry and its own opposition to all that symbolizes the stable and the monolithic (i.e. identity, as the concomitance of gender and sex), together with emphasis on dissemination, heterogeneity, instability and ramdomly centrifugal forces in relation to a fascinatingly complex textuality (Vincent Broqua on Bergvall andOlsen).
9Clearly, whether experimental or not, the emphasis is on making (and enjoying) poetry. What if the force of poetry all boiled down to the force of habit ? Such at least was the case when women poets were still on the defensive. Getting used to and falling into the pattern of writing on a daily basis, with no exceptions tolerated, as urged by Elaine Feinstein by way of protection : « How then should it defend us ?/ unless by strengthening/ our fierce and obstinate centres » (« Muse », 6WP139). « Women’s Work » (1998) by Gillian Clarke, while recalling the familiar household chores of yore, encourages indulgence in new rites, « like this desire for poems,/ our daily offices » (MWP193). The force of habit was redefined and thought through by Anne Stevenson, one of the great inspirers, for whom “ ‘You have to inhabit poetry/ if you want to make it’ ” “And why”, she asks in a poem most fittingly titled “Making Poetry”, “inhabit, make, inherit poetry?” To inhabit poetry is to wear words as clothes, “sitting in the plainest light,/ In the silk of morning, in the shoe of night”, is having to find “one of those haunted, undefendable, unpoetic/crosses”, is steering clear from some of the pitfalls awaiting the woman poet on the road to creative accomplishment, as the following lines quite comprehensively indicate, in what resembles a feminine agenda:
To be and to become words’ passing
weather; to serve a girl on terrible
terms, embark on voyages over voices,
evade the ego-hill, the misery-well,
the siren hiss of publish, success, publish,
success, success, success. (10-16 SWP 274).
10Making poetry, as one drafts, amends and repeals laws, to take up once more the critical metaphor of the legislature, or, more specifically, as one subjects the entire body of Western myths underlying male domination to a cutting and long overdue process of revision by way of irony (confer Duffy’s The World’s Wife). The poetry thus made and being made simply defies any attempt at classification or categorization—–“That the science of cartography is limited”, as Eavan Bolland would concur—, ranging as it does from the tongue-in-cheek celebration of the female form and condition advocated in Carol Ann Duffy’s Feminine Gospels to the use of surrealism’s angst-ridden and visually provocative dream images implemented by Selima Hill and Pauline Petit, via the syntactic disruptions sought by abstract language poets such as Denise Riley. Consequently, what follows will limit itself to a mere presentation of three of the (very) general directions in which the legislative ground work is carried out, spanning the private and public spheres, and touching upon such issues as intimacy, domesticity, privacy, identity (individual as well as collective), among so many others.
11Regardless of how provocative this might appear, the survey of innovation and renovation at the hands of women poets will focus at first on “Ironing” (1994). The poem by Vicky Feaver records three distinct periods: when ironing was practised (“I used to iron everything”) then discontinued (“Then for years I ironed nothing”) and finally resumed. The three ages may roughly correspond to the different stages in the progression of female consciousness, from compliance with the traditional female role to feminist rejection (“I converted to crumpledness”) to postfeminist reappropriation of a former chore:
Breathing the sweet heated smell
Hot metal draws from newly washed
Cloth, until my blouse dries
To a shining, creaseless blue,
An airy shape with room to push
My arms, breast, lungs, heart into. (24-29 O’Brien 261)
12While retaining a strong sense of physical actuality, which has enabled Feaver’s poems to strike a powerful chord with her audience, the quiet surface of the poem proves misleading as it conceals an alarming power of concentration never free from the violence of identification with or projection into a female persona. In the process, and however out of place it may appear, the gothicism of the Iron Maiden, and its gruesome paraphernalia reminiscent of Angela Carter’s treatment of the genre, hovers somewhere in the background of the poem. “Tinderbox”, by Ruth Padel, points to the (all too vaguely contemplated) possibility of a rebellion on the part of the apparently conventional and conformist female speaker; the moment she gets “to the forbidden mountain’s heart”, she might stop saying “Our father” in that “narrow space/between the bath and the sweat-foxed/mirror”: “There’ll be iron/ With its cruel ideas” (O’Brien 329). Unfortunately, even the subliminal presence of a tinderbox, a thing of tinder, flint and steel, easily combustible and highly inflammatory, fails to bring an answer to her ceaseless questions.
13Together with countless other women poets, “The Women”, by Eavan Boland, picks up once again the topic of domesticity:
Into a landscape without emphasis,
Light, linear, precisely planned,
A hemisphere of tiered, aired cotton,
A hot terrain of linen from the iron,
Folded in and over, stacked high,
Neatened flat, storing heat and white. (27-32 MWP 223)
14The desire is clearly to “retrieve the forgotten and unjustly despised experience of women”, opening up for poetry “spaces that are ‘outside history’—the domestic, the suburban, etc.” (Volsik 151). Not to be underestimated is the element of risk involved in the rehabilitation of the prototypical suburban housewife (Pascale Amiot), even if it is part and parcel of a broader phenomenon, the legitimation of the domestic in British poetry since the early fifties and the influence of Lowell in the late seventies (Volsik 155). Unworthy, neglected or spurned as such, the space “without emphasis” is granted all the poetic attention it can get, given contradictory relief (“neatened flat”) and made to generate maximal satisfaction or pride, in view of the orderliness, neatness and whiteness (stabilizing and cathartic in the extreme) that pervade the finished product, hypostasized as an unassuming albeit substantial work of art. Well-ironed, it seems, is synonymous with well-made.
15 “St Bride’s” (1999), by Kathleen Jamie, dedicated to her first child and excerpted form a volume, Jizzen, childbed in Scottish, conflating biological birth and the refoundation of the Scottish Parliament, holds together two modalities of womanhood: the domestic or realistic and the legendary or fantastic (in Scottish mythology, selkies can transform themselves from seals to humans, by shedding their seal skins), the quirky or eccentric and the maternal :
So this is women’s work: folding
And unfolding, be it linen or a selkie-
Skin tucked behind rock. Consider
The hare in jizzen: her leverets’ears
Flat as the mizzen of a ship
Entering a bottle. A thread’s trick;
adders uncoil into spring. Feathers
of sunlight, glanced from a butterknife
quiver on the ceiling,
and a last sharp twist for the shoulders
delivers my daughter, the placenta
following, like a fist of purple kelp. (MWP 375)
- 4 Confer the folded wings of “A Lecture on a Bat” (2001), by Catriona O’Reilly, connoting self-withd (...)
16The poem’s fine grasp of folding and unfolding as identical with the womanly, far from being essentialist, is more performative than really functional; it calls for textual unfoldings (mirrored in the numerous run-on lines), for energetic uncoilings, for urgent followings. In a cascading series of chain reactions, a sense of becoming is produced, nay engendered, punctuated by the endless succession of “pli selon pli4”:
Plier-déplier ne signifie plus simplement tendre-détendre, contracter-dilater, mais envelopper-développer, involuer-évoluer. L’organisme se définit par sa capacité de plier ses propres parties à l’infini, et de les déplier, non pas à l’infini, mais jusqu’au degré de développement assigné à l’espèce” (Deleuze 13).
- 5 Jankélévitch’s book has a picture of the face of Flora on its cover, a detail from Botticelli’s pa (...)
17A possibly more trenchant engagement is on the agenda, when women poets purport to iron out differences (between the sexes), and resort for that matter to the irony of the eiron, their best weapon against the self-deceiving and stupid (male) alazon. If a philological “sharp twist” may indeed be allowed, the move from iron to irony is justified by the ideally paradoxical nature of the stylistic operation of irony : “l’ironie est le sens du détail, et, du même coup, l’ironie est la pensée de l’universel” (Jankélévitch 161). Attention to detail, therefore, always a forte of women poetry, broadens out to include an evening out—which is also a coming even: “l’ironie, quoique toute hérissée de sarcasmes, de pamphlets et de fines aiguilles, est le pouvoir d’envisager les choses sous un certain aspect de généralité: le détail appelle l’ensemble d’où on l’a ironiquement extrait pour le monter en épingle” (Jankélévitch 161). Irony, and its ability to disintegrate by a mere twist or brush of the pen, is a constant feature of women’s poetry (Daniel Szabo) conveying at one and the same time a profoundly seated anxiety about one’s identity—“l’ironie, c’est l’inquiétude et la vie inconfortable” (Jankélévitch 182), and this at the heart of otherwise bourgeois or suburban interiors—as well as a more or less deliberate lack of gravity: “L’ironie manque donc bien de pectus, comme dit Amiel, entendez: de zèle, d’assiette et de pesanteur” (Jankélévitch 156)5.
18 Bearing in mind Kathleen Jamie’s selkies or seal-skins, it might be tempting to elaborate on the fact that too many of the most conspicuous figures in women’s poetry of the twentieth century not only destroyed themselves in a variety of ways but are valued for poetry that registers and documents that process. In Slipshod Sybils, Germaine Greer argues that “poetry as presented by the male literary establishment which Tsvetaeva, Plath and Sexton wooed all their lives, enticed the woman poet to dance upon a wire, to make an exhibition of herself and ultimately to come to grief” (Greer 422). The legacy of the deaths of Plath and Sexton, coupled with the murderous impulse of Edith Sitwell directed towards images of the maternal, has indeed contributed to what Derynn Rees-Jones views as “the deathly configuration of the woman poet” (Rees-Jones 26). Likewise, Sitwell’s and Stevie Smith’s attempts to circumvent their feminity through a carapace of eccentricity also makes them difficult models for women poets who write after them.
19Hence Germaine Greer’s (crudely simplified) preference for poets of all sexes “with their skin” on. Let them be “a woman poet”, she recommends, “not the woman poet.” Good women poets now travel the length and breadth of our world, performing their work with wit and style, and “their verse does not incessantly vibrate at the highest frequency; because they fail to flay themselves alive, they will be called minor, and forgotten…until such a time as we come to prefer our poets of all sexes with the skin on” (Greer 424). Alive and kicking, and with their skin on, this is indeed how they appear to us. But which skin, it may still be asked ?
- 6 The authors of Literature and the BodyEssays on Populations and Persons (1988) demonstrate how lan (...)
20The skin of women, first and foremost, is recovered (“Three Ways of Recovering a Body”, by Helen Dunmore) or endorsed in a mood of (more or less grudging) acceptance: “I accept the repetition/that is always different,/I accept the enclave of the month.” (“Fosse” by Penelope Shuttle). The menstruating body, spanning countless generations of women (three in “Women’s Blood” by Vicky Feaver), returns to the fore, and so do breasts (“Look at These”, Helen Parish). The hidden, occulted, more or less shameful body comes out of the closet, as the pendulum of language, “continually regulating the appearance and disappearance of the body” (Scarry ix6), swings the other way, causing the body (of women poets) “somehow to be adapted to the book” (Woolf 84). The anatomy of anatomies, young and old, is both thematized and textualized (Adrian Grafe) At first, the statements seem quite old-fashioned, pre-feminist, as the former site of lesser importance, the maternal function, is unrestrictedly reinvested: “This is the best I can be, / Housewife to this nursery” (“Night Feed”, by Eavan Boland, SWP 66). Contrary to the linear language of men, the traditional message of the women is hailed by Jeni Couzin as that of “love”, cast as “the luminous shining/ under the substance/opaque stickiness of pain and grief/greyness of wanting, heaviness of getting” (“The Message”, SWP 95). But the take is so unashamed, or imaginative, that the appearance of regression is virtually reversed: in “Domestic poem”, by Helen Dunmore, a pregnant mother waits to be rushed off to the hospital, where “a blown-out dandelion globe/might choose my laundered body to grow in” (MWP 305). Ostendas corpus, let one exhibit the body, becomes the motto of Kathleen Jamie’s hypersexed “Queen of Sheba”—with extra cocky emphasis on the she of Sheba: uncontainably exotic, her “gorgeous breasts” that Baudelairian “Spangles scarcely cover” incongruously intrude into the “Presbyterian rooms” of Scotland, where they deliver the full impact of dissonance, dissent and “dysposition”.
21In the last analysis, reluctant to be tied to or bound by the biologically gendered body, or “corps propre”, women poets take to the dramatic monologue by storm. They find the medium ideal for projecting oneself into the shoes of other bodies, of otherness incarnate. U.A. Fanthorpe, an early practitioner of the genre, pulls off the trick with gusto: “Not My Best Side”, written in the shape of a triptych after the painting St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Ucello, presents successively the persona of the monster, of the “girl”, ending with a sharp parody of a man’s ruthless technological bombast : “You’re in my way” (SWP 128). Filling other bodies—with a marked preference for male psychopaths, phallic women, mythical and historical figures—becomes an all-pervasive female signature (Larissy).
22On display, too, is a fondness for jumping into or under the skin of animals—in a spirit largely different from the bestiary composed, say, by D.H. Lawrence and Ted Hughes (Marc Porée). “The Woman Turns Herself into a Fish” is a poem in which the influence of Sylvia Plath is perceptible. Heightened sound-effects, combined with a conspicuous shortening of the lines, underscore the speaker’s self-denying reification of her body: a somewhat counter-natural metamorphosis is underway, allegedly a self-willed one (“It’s what/ I set my heart on”), although one suspects it may have been prescribed or enforced from outside, at men’s bidding. Drawing on the immemorial resources of prosopopeia, the hybrid speaker spells out her inner dialectics of freedom and alienation, of liberty and determinism:
the flanks back.
of the rump.
brow the eyes
in these hips,
It’s done. (1-25 O’Brien 705)
23Eavan Boland’s poem does not stop there, however; it continues by way of presenting a counter-statement, urged by an ever more powerful undertow, dictated by the counter-pull of the moon:
in me. (55-8 O’Brien 706)
24—the monosyllabic diction forcefully conveys the persistence of cosmic laws, of a periodic, seasonal nature. No amount of (self-inflicted) unsexing, of (enforced) de-womanizing, of deliberate stripping/slimming/shedding can unmoon the mooning in women. This a plain fact, a regulation as old as the hills which no man-made (not even woman-made) legislation, however advanced, is likely to deregulate or disestablish, at least in the near future and given our present level of scientific knowledge. In the process, Boland adjusts the un-podded, flapped (slapped flat?), clipped body of her hybrid speaker to the body of her poem: a shrunken, much reduced and pretty ascetic book (“shed/ of ecstasy”), reminiscent of the shape of “Anorexic”, another poem in the same minimalist vein, albeit written in an even more savagely punishing mood. Like her fellow-poets, she works the body into the warp and weft of the text. But while she seems to favour folding, as a metonymy of guilt-hampered containment, it must be said that unfolding prevails around her, prompting Shelley’s words, quoted above in the preterit, as they pertained to the poetry of the Middle Ages, to be paraphrased in the present of the indicative, so as to cope with the new Zeitgeist: the freedom of women produce the poetry of sexual love. “Drought”, by Maura Dooley, unfolds a parallel between the scorched and parched earth and the starved body of her speaker—as the old connection between earth and mother is restored:
I can’t slake this thirst,
Can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t work, can’t breathe,
My skin is scorched : the earth is tinder,
For nights I watch the hillside burn,
Sparks hanging in the dark, like stars
And all the time your postcards come. (19-24 SWP 106)
25 “Not the flowers men give women—”, “It taunts me/ like the muzzle of a gun;”: similar incipits abound in the poetry written by women. They speak of desire, bluntly and (more or less) openly. The first comes from “Marigolds”, in which the flowers elected by women remind them that they are killers, that they “can tear the heads/off men’s shoulders.” It is still “secretly and shamefully”, however, that their flowers are brought into the house:
Our arms and breast and legs
With their hot orange fringes,
The smell of arousal. (22-25 SWP 135)
26The second opens “Desire’s a Desire”, by Selima Hill: it triggers a lengthy enumeration of similarly bold statements that denote possession (“it itches my thighs/like rampant vaginal flora”, “it nuzzles my plucked armpits like fat dogs”, “it plays me/like a piano being played”) and climax in the naked confession of an impasse:
My only desire’s a desire
To be free from desire. (27-28 SWP 157)
27In Hill’s case, the guiding spirit is surrealism and its characteristic vindication of desire as the most potent and uncontrollable of impulses, unconsciously allowing her own subjectivity to become submerged in a well—a web—of dreams and longings common to all women. Sexual roles also begin to change hands, emotional moorings shift, as imprisoning gender roles are left on the threshold of the bedroom where, in a poem by Vicky Feaver, “our shared penis” slides “between us”, where the man soaps and rinses the woman the next morning “with a woman’s tenderness” (“Hemingway’s Hat”, MWP 220-221). Gradually, but irresistibly, the boundaries separating male from female space dissolve or break down, heralding the birth of a new dispensation.
28There might be something laughable, “when poetry is so far off the radar of both the general population and the power elite” (Ladkin, Purves 12), to venture the idea that the “art or sullen craft” of poetry matters, and, what’s more, that it matters to the nation. Women poets certainly believe this to be the case, something which they are to be heartily thanked for, especially as their stand towards politics differs markedly from that of their male counterparts, as they tend to react less to History itself, and in less hectoring tones, than to the harm it is likely to inflict on the flesh and soul of the body politic. The fact that in the first half of the historical period under consideration, the Prime Minister was a woman was hardly an asset for them, to put it mildly. The second half, the Blair years, was not much easier to tackle for poets, writers and artists, once the initial rejoicing at the liberation heralded by the end of Tory rule was over. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, whose antagonizing policies and abrasive personality fuelled the opposition, making it sound almost exhilarating, Blair remained a soft target (a damp squid?) for quite a while, before his misguided engagement of British troops in Iraq brought back to life a long-standing tradition of poetry about current affairs and affairs of state.
29Three different trends may be detected, regarding the women poets’ approach to politics. There is the personal voice, speaking as a private citizen, recording and responding to historical events. Belonging to the earlier period, a poem like “Mirror’s Song” (1982) by Jacky Kay, dedicated to filmmaker Sally Potter, mentions, almost in passing, the “Greenham summons” (court summons for women arrested for protesting at the U.S. Trident airbase at Greenham Common). But instead of resorting to the traditional opposition between women who are pacifists and male war-mongers, the poem treats the event as one (searing) memory among others, no more, no less, being part of an ensemble about the difficulties of a woman “giving birth to herself” amid the images, languages, and rituals of Scottish culture. One of her later poems, “Severe Gale 8” (1991), charts the life of the poor in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, mixing documentary detail, protest and fairy-tale fantasy. A feminist and “an internationalist of the imagination” (O’Brien 287), Carole Rumens’s work ranges widely from personal lyrics to powerful historical-political works such as the Holocaust poem “Outside Oswiecim”: she also counts among the most astute readers of the Thatcher years (From Berlin to Heaven, 1989).
30There is the histrionic voice in disguise, Carol Ann Duffy’s, taking aim at the popular press, inveighing against the arrogance, chauvinism, xenophobia, misogyny and egregious foulness of the tabloids. The scathing irony, of a mimetic type, of “Poet for our Times” goes to the heart of what writing to and for the nation has been shamelessly reduced to. Her speaker writes headlines for a Daily Paper, just bangs the words down “like they’re screaming fire” and likes “to think that I’m a sort of poet/ for our times”. Beyond the offensive nature of the crude headlines reproduced in the poem, what is at stake is the responsibility of the press in the disastrous abasement of democracy, culture and language, via the capacity to degrade all that is fed to white uneducated males in England: “The instant tits and bottom line of art” (Tuma 854). In that respect at least, Duffy’s denunciation does not differ from that of a male colleague of hers, Benjamin Zephaniah, whose poem “The Sun” covers the same issues in almost identical fashion. “Translating the English”, one of Duffy’s most famous works, is again a brilliant example of mimetic parroting: it parodies the tone and idiom of a guide offering foreigners a guided tour of the country, which reads like a crash course on the English way of life in just over 25 lines (no time for more). The deliberate frivolousness cum hollowness of the memorabilia thus itemized and ticked off as so many entries in a quiz looks forward to England, England by Julian Barnes, a hilariously cynical satire of theme park England and the commodification of culture (Tuma 853).
31Finally, there is the collective voice, speaking in the first person plural, eager to herald and promote a shift from “hi/story” to “Ourstory”(1994): when it comes to praising women, it is “not the patient, nor even the embittered/ ones who kept their place” who take pride of place,
But awkward women, tenacious with truth,
Whose elbows disposed of the impossible;
Who split seams, who wouldn’t wait,
Take no, take sedatives; (…)
Our misfit foremothers are joining forces
Underground, their dusts mingling
Breast-bone with scapula, forehead
With forehead. Their steady mass
Burst locks; lends a springing foot
To our vaulting into enormous rooms. (5-8, 10-14 MWP 200)
32Carole Satyamurti’s lines ring like a deleuzian “agent collectif d’énonciation”, after which a joint, and potentially subversive, “devenir-mineur” becomes possible, at least imaginatively.
33Quite a large body of work by women poets is actually concernedwith resisting Englishness, and the refutation of cultural configurations that equate the female body with the nation (as mother-land, mother tongue). As Deryn Rees-Jones strongly puts it, “none of the women suggest in their writing that there is something intrinsic or essential about heir gender or their nationality; rather, they question both gender and nation as fixed entities to explore the tensions which arise between them” (175). In that respect, Devolution has changed the pattern of the relationship of the (former, so-called) margin to the centre (and vice versa), thus allowing Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland nationals to adjust, reconsider or reignite their affiliations or loyalties. Liz Lochhead’s “Bagpipe Muzak, Glasgow 1990” responds to a moment when Scottish devolution was becoming a real possibility. The poem is bent on ridiculing the debased rhetoric of those for whom politics is little more than middle-class fashion, in a cosmopolitan Scotland where Robert Burns is long dead:
So – watch out Margaret Thatcher, and tak’tent Neil Kinnock
Or we’ll tak’the United Kingdom and brekk it like a bannock. (52-3 MWP 739)
34A moving balance of power, however limited the shift, is an interesting opportunity that no poet, male or female, can fail to engage with: place and language grow less certain, shifting territories become the norm, in the words of Joe Shapcott, a strong supporter in that respect of Elizabeth Bishop’s nomadism (Rees-Jones 215). Modes of engagement vary considerably, needless to say, and range from Shapcott’s attempt to come to terms with what she views as her inner exile from Englishness (“Motherland”) to the linguistic issues voiced in the bilingual poetry of Gwyneth Lewis, and of Kathleen Jamie, to a lesser extent. The former has evolved somewhat along the lines explored by Deleuze & Guattari in their discussion of Kafka’s “littérature mineure”. The question of identity is further compounded in the work of Jacky Kay, who reflects on what it means to be an adopted black child in Scotland, via polyphonic insights into the reality of difference and the impasses of belonging (The Adoption Papers).
- 7 « Les artisans, dit Platon, ne peuvent pas s’occuper des choses communes parce qu’ils n’ont pas le (...)
- 8 The poem moves one step beyond “The Privacy of Rain”, also by Helen Dunmore.
35Beyond the topical politics of devolution, stand the general politics of literature, and “le partage du sensible” which the latter implies, at least in Jacques Rancière’s understanding of the notion. The kind of redistribution of tasks and sensibilities which Rancière construes as a new understanding of what is felt (on the pulses, on the senses) to be common, i.e. held in common, to coincide with a new distribution of politics along aesthetic lines (and vice versa),7 is easily perceptible in women poets. “Taxing The Rain”, by Helen Dunmore, is a good example of how subtle a political poem can be, when handled in the right “disposition”, neither rancorously militant nor tacitly complicit8: addressing itself to the fantastic idea floated by some (whose identity is never mentioned) that rain, a common good or wealth, be taxed “for its privileges”, the speaker who confesses her love of rain, “the weakest and strongest of us all”, fondly evokes its “sensible” (in the French sense of the word) properties, as it touches our lips, slakes out thirsts, balms our skins, in the shape of “hot needles” or “scented baths”. Resistance to the voices that whisper “it [taxation] can be done, it must be done” has obvious political resonances, bringing to mind Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax project that caused her downfall (O’Brien 332).
- 9 For a sociopolitical accout of the politics of sexuality, confer the work of the French sociologis (...)
36Conversely, an impossible “partage du sensible” is staged, as unemphatically as can be, in “Close Shave”(MWP 366), not an explicitly political poem, but in the process of becoming just that, owing to its situation, at the point of intersection with sexual politics9. Adopting the guise of the dramatic monologue, Jacky Kay conceives the persona of a male homosexual within a community of miners (who, it is implied, pride themselves on their masculinity): “Course I can never tell the boys down the pit. / When I’m down here I work fast so it hurts”. The memory of moments shared with his lover, suppressed while “down the pit”, is so quietly moving that it sheds light, as no manifest would, on the bitterness of exclusion, of not being able to confide in anyone. By way of its crossing over to the other side of the gender gap, and being devoid of any cross-dressing sensationalism, the poem is quite emblematic of the sense of active solidarity produced by literature, when written from the margin of one’s own fragile community. Emblematic, too, of the enduring appeal of romance in the poetry written by women, evidenced in the closeness of the shave received at the hands of the speaker’s friend, “an act of trust”. In that respect, women poetry does not necessarily comply with at least one of the “opérations singulières” mentioned by Alain Badiou in his discussion of the political agenda set by the “Age of Poets” (ranging from Hölderlin to Paul Celan). Of the three strategies—“detotalization”, “counter-romanticism”, “diagonality”—he singles out as partaking of a common goal, which is to “raturer poétiquement la présomption d’une Histoire orientée” (Badiou 35, the second is probably the hardest to implement for women poets. While Eavan Boland makes no bones about writing Against Love Poetry (2001), many of her fellow-writers are often at pains to extricate the poem from the persistence of the romantic mythos, which frequently translates in the field of politics as prophecy, meditation, contemplation—even though one should hasten to add that there is nothing prescriptive or mandatory about this opposition to romanticism favoured by Badiou.
37Andrea Brady might be the exception that confirms the (unwritten) rule. An American academic, she has lived and worked in the UK since the mid-1990s, and combines a strong political commitment with a fierce attachment to lyricism—construed as “the only mode of writing able to ward off its own corruption” (John Wilkinson). Embrace (2005), her second collection, features a certain Lynddie England, the American soldier who was convicted of torture in the Abu Ghraib jail—“a fall-guy for the Bush administration’s policy of torture in Iraq” (John Wilkinson’s review in the Chicago Review of Spring 2007). This gives the author a “direct means of channelling a waiting well of fury about the inequality of women and their own passive collusion with that inequality” (as reviewed by Marianne Morris on the Web, Jacket 29, April 2006). But she also stands metaphorically for the country that allowed itself to be dragged by the Bush administration into the catastrophic Iraq war, for which Tony Blair and the Special Relationship are both to be blamed, and leading to images of an American girl and the country of England both being shafted, and both being complicit in the rape. Her poetry is difficult by design, but thought-provoking too. Tracking Wildfire (homed at www.dispatx.com/show/item.php? item=2062), is a long work in progress, inspired by the use by American troops of forbidden white phosphorus to bombard the inhabitants of Fallujah (Iraq), and which goes out of its way to chronicle the history of the use of incendiaries and obscurants as anti-personnel munitions in (modern and ancient) warfare. This documentary style poem, after the fashion of Auden, MacNeice, Madge and Macleod in the 1930s, Brady has come to see as a possible way out of the cul-de-sac of personal impression. “I got sick of writing occasional poems which flex sceptical registers of public events through homespun analogues of private feeling. There’s more than to do than stand aghast, brushing my hair”. “We need to keep an eye on citizenship, she claims, but also to regroup and recharge our connection to history and to teach each other that we might eventually make it a material irrelevance” (interview by Andrew Duncan, The Argotist On Line). This shows a reenergized engagement with critique in the tradition of Hegel, Marx and Adorno, the latter arguing that forms of communicative discourse that help to sustain structures of unequal exchange must be dismantled and rearranged in ways not assimilable to the interests of consumer capitalism—a strategy that would have appealed to Shelley and is somewhat reminiscent of his own starkly prophetic condemnation of “the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty” (694).
- 10 Helen Farish, quoted by Adrian Grafe, see below.
- 11 “Domestic Interior”, by Eavan Bolland, is built around a reference to The Marriage of Giovanni Arn (...)
- 12 Helen Dunmore, for one, has written extensively about the parallels she finds between protein crys (...)
38 It is important to write about women poets “because they never receive the same level of academic interest10”. While “never” is probably an over-exaggeration, the present issue of E-REA was conceived with an eye to partly redressing the imbalance. That the “Redress of poetry” (to borrow Seamus Heaney’s notion) should address itself to correcting that disequilibrium, along with so many others, is something that goes without saying—but saying so, in as many words, cannot and will not harm. Obviously, one would have wished for a larger selection of women poets presented and topics discussed. One would have liked, in particular, to look at the poets’ conspicuous use of painting, and more generally, at their resort to artistic intertextuality, often as a means of assessing their individual stand against a backdrop of inherited and predominantly male traditions11. Nevertheless, enough has been said, one hopes, to convince readers not just of the growing importance of women poetry but also of the substantial evidence of its shaping role and impact on the contemporary scene. A case in point is their confident inclusion of the discourse, imagery and problematics of science(s). Women poets have moved into the territory of science, a field hitherto traditionally reserved to men, are taking it into their stride, embracing its esoteric complexity with a mixture of glee and authority, pleasure and expertise (Raphael Costambeys on Lavinia Greenlaw). Thinking in terms of quantum physics and theory, Pauline Stainer expresses less the desire to prove to men that their superiority is a thing of the past than the need to explore new dimensions (in whatever field), to break out beyond the familiar, the known, the given. Opening up new avenues of meaning, by keeping abreast with the changing and previously undisclosed warp and texture of reality, is the new frontier awaiting women (poets). Far from trespassing by stealth, or loitering with intent—and being told off by the inevitable Beadle—they stroll, they pitch tent, they are here to stay12. A poem like “Les jets de la Poupée” (2000) by Caroline Bergvall stands at the crossroads between art and science. It draws on the anagrammatic writing of Unica Zürn and the dolls and colour photography of Hans Bellmer’s Les Jeux de la Poupée to address itself, sixty years after Bellmer’s Les Jeux de la Poupée, to such forward-looking issues as the prosthetic body and state of the art genetic engineering (doing so in the spirit of post Beauvoir constructivism):
“finely structured mesh”
seed a kleenex today
to marrow the world
“growing an arm and hand”
mol assumule eculargesse
bandaged on not born slurpy
Quote Somday Independent
22 Febr 1998
“The hurdle is nerve tissue.” (295-305 Tuma 919)
39Indeed, the name given to the doll in the poem is “Dolly”, in memory of the cloning of the first sheep in Scotland, and the work ends by addressing itself explicitly to the mind-boggling possibility of growing human flesh and limbs for reconstructive use (and the ethical and physiological obstacles thereto). In the words of Keith Tuma, the work is situated exactly “at the centre of questions destined to be crucial in the twenty-first century and involving sexuality, technology, agency, ethics, and identity” (Tuma 912).
- 13 The title of a 1988 poem by Sujata Bhatt, born in Ahmedabad and living in Bremen, who writes in Gu (...)
40It will easily be agreed that such questions are the stuff of what progressive politics should be all about. They form the complex matter of what preferably enlightened and acknowledged “legislators of the World”, to return to Shelley for the last time, will have to come to terms with, if they are to serve as “mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present” (Shelley 701). Far from constituting a small brigade anxious to serve their own vested interests, the global concerns of women poets make them as little inclined as their male counterparts “to resign the civic crown to reasoners and mechanists” (Shelley 693). Being full-fledged members of a new legislature, theirs is “the influence which is moved not, but moves” (Shelley 701). Which translates, with only very little getting lost in the process, as theirs is the transforming force of Poetry, “replenishing and renewing the fire of language and creation which by tradition Prometheus stole from the gods” (O’Brien xxviii)—arguably an even greater force than the by no means inconsiderable one of “Muliebrity13”.