L’animalité, s’il est permis de s’exprimer ainsi.
Diderot, article « Animal » de l’Encyclopédie
Femme entre les femmes, ou animal parmi d’autres.
Gilles Deleuze, Critique et clinique (12)
1The last decade of the twentieth century, which engineered the births of the cloned sheep Dolly and Polly, seems to have exacerbated the paradoxical perception that the meditation on animals, such as they had been conceived and thought of for centuries as distinct, separate, different, was drawing to an end. The “animal question”, pregnant with so many hotly debated issues—metaphysical, logical, eschatological, legal, epistemological, philosophical—, had reached a turning point in a now broken continuity, to be replaced by the newly emerging awareness that animals have a history of their own—not just an man-centered one— (Delort), that their Umwelt interacts with our own (Despret)—in short that the gap between the animal and the human realm was narrowing, nay virtually closing. Philosophers like Elizabeth de Fontenay began to put philosophy to the test of animality, and went about doing so by drawing on the paradigms famously set by Michel Foucault in his Histoire de la Folie, when he argued that madness was confined and excluded before it was silenced by Reason, thus losing its power to point to the limits of social order. However methodologically and morally shocking the move may appear, Elizabeth de Fontenay proposes to replace the words “fou” and “folie” by “animal” and “animalité” in Foucault’s magisterial attempt to establish “l’archéologie de ce silence”:
On pourrait faire une histoire des limites—de ces gestes obscurs, nécessairement oubliés dès qu’accomplis, par lesquels une culture rejette quelque chose qui sera pour elle l’extérieur; […] Est constitutif le geste qui partage la folie, et non la science qui s’établit, ce partage une fois fait, dans le calme revenu. […], parler de ce geste de coupure, de cette distance prise, de ce vide instauré entre la raison et ce qui n’est pas elle […]. Alors et alors seulement pourra apparaître le domaine où l’homme de folie et l’homme de raison, se séparant, ne sont pas encore séparés et, dans un langage très originaire, très fruste, bien plus matinal que celui de la science, entament le dialogue de leur rupture, qui témoigne de façon fugitive qu’ils se parlent encore (Foucault ii, Fontenay 20).
- 1 « C’est que l’animal est privé de la possibilité de témoigner selon les règles humaines d’établiss (...)
2Despite the fact that it would be even more offensive and problematic to suggest a proximity between madness, animality and femininity, such a theoretical conjunction may be ventured as it must have been floating at the back of (frequently) ostracized women poets, for this was the historical and cultural moment, and these were (more or less) the terms, they chose when they started writing for, and not about animals. Writing for, i.e. on behalf of, but not necessarily for their sake or benefit. In order to define herself as an active creator rather than as a passive inspirer, Mary K. DeShazer contends that “the woman must invent her own metaphor for poetic inspiration; she must name a muse of her own” (Bronfen 395). The choice—more a necessity, incidentally, than a truly free choice—of a Muse of their own that would be an Animal Muse, makes ample sense provided it is thus put in perspective. In choosing the animal, women poets inevitably elect its victimization—though not exclusively, let alone not essentially so1. Above all, they cultivate elective affinities with its instinctive savagery, its ability to suffer, endure and move one step ahead of man (“devancer l’homme”) in its modes of dying (Deleuze 1996), its vitally indispensable impact on an increasingly vulnerable eco-system, its mesmerizing untranslability, falling as it does between articulation and silence, silence and articulation. Last but not least, women (and) writers cannot but be drawn to its attractive conduciveness to alternative constructions of identity—the so-called “devenir-animal” advocated by Deleuze, fascinated as he was by nits, ticks, spiders and by the general alertness of animals (their “être-aux-aguets”):
Le devenir ne va pas dans l’autre sens, et l’on ne devient pas Homme, pour autant que l’homme se présente comme une forme d’expression dominante qui prétend s’imposer à toute matière, tandis que femme, animal ou molécule ont toujours une composante de fuite, qui se dérobe à leur propre formalisation (Deleuze 11).
- 2 Hence the variations on literary titles that head the five and a half sections of this paper.
3“La honte d’être un homme, y a-t-il une meilleure raison d’écrire?” (Deleuze 11). Reluctant to presume that the question begs the answer—for its equivocal wording may strike one as too complacently biased—, this paper will be arguing that what is at stake is not animality per se, but whether it can or may be translated into words, whether or not its non verbal language poses a challenge to the “voices of education”2—and to the voice of women poets, more specifically.
41.1. When it comes to the bestiary, a daunting precedent was set by male poets: D.H. Lawrence, Ted Hughes. Echoes of “Snake” (1923) by the former are easily perceptible in the otherwise more contemplative “So Good of Their Kind” by Ruth Pitter (SWP 224). In the work of the latter, the law of nature “red in tooth and claw” is writ large (too large as some would no doubt argue). Hughes’s radically anti-Christian ethics, combined with a (not always) consistent anti-Romantic attitude, converge to produce at times embarrassing poems like “Thrushes”, in view of its “hardly covert apology of violence and barbarous behaviour, as the cruel, unthinking, performative thrushes are set as an example to be admired and pitted against human delaying, misgivings and reflection” (Moulin 38). “Pike”, “Hawk Roosting ”, “An Otter”, “The Bull Moses”, to select some of the strongest poems in his bestiary, focus on animals as animals, in that they register the intractable presence and material otherness of animals that remain finally beyond appropriation in human terms—“an otherness that resists the ego’s narcissistic tendency to seek its own reflection in things” (Bentley 18). And yet, of course, all the time they suggest a corresponding negotiation of similarly intractable energies within the self, the vocation of poetry being to seek access to those demonic facts of life, instead of even more dangerously denying or suppressing them. In an archetypal animal poem by Hughes, the exit line leaves the watcher/speaker “on the threshold of a psychical realm whose edges evade fixity, and whose aggressive, primordial phantoms threaten with engulfment the empirical ground upon which the rational self stands” (Bentley 18). “-- How could it be moved?” (l. 22), the question raised in “View of a Pig”, is indeed crucial, pointing to that which cannot be “moved” within or by language, “and is thus disturbing for a consciousness that constitutes itself through its ability to represent the world to itself” (Bentley 19).
- 3 The case of Sylvia Plath is too particular for her work to be tackled here. But she deserves to be (...)
- 4 “Going Swimmingly” (1995) is the title of a poem by Katherine Pierpoint.
- 5 The phrase “Lyre du larynx” is lifted from “Strophes élégiaques”, a poem in French by David Gascoy (...)
51.2. A similar disturbance is perceptible in the work of such women poets as strive to take his powerful influence in their stride3. Two poems by Carol Ann Duffy display all the signs of the “new seriousness” introduced by Ted Hughes, i.e. the “ability and willingness to face the full range of his experience with his full intelligence” (Alvarez 28). “Dolphins”, uttered in the super simple, super ugly language of mammals, spells out the dialectics of freedom and alienation experienced from within the dolphin condition. Trained as circus animals in a marina, playing the (childish) games men make them play, they are meant to elicit or arouse sympathy in the poet, and possibly in the reader. Sympathy for the tamed animal submitted to the whims of man (standing for mankind or for patriarchy?) is sympathy for the performing female voice: indeed, feminist concerns cannot be too far beneath the surface and the submerged meanings soon emerge, to climax in the last line of the poem (which speaks for itself, gathering the one cause and the many effects): “There is a man and our mind knows we will die here” (Duffy 26). Delivered in the first person plural, the dolphins’swan song is naturally attuned to that of women, thus problematizing and at the same time “swimmingly4”exploring issues of gender and identity. “Weasel Words” actuates the perception that our lives are governed by primitive forces which, in the influential words of A. Alvarez hailing the birth of a “New Poetry”, “have nothing to do with gentility, decency or politeness” (Alvarez 28). It presents the weasels/ferrets divide as implicitly analogous to the opposition between women and men. The speaker is a weasel, speaking on behalf of the entire community, or chorus, of weasels that cheer and applaud (as in a political arena); her aim is to fend off (traditional) accusations levelled at weasels, i.e. that they are ravenous and cruel predators. Her speech, articulate at first, finally degenerates into onomatopoeic sounds, as she drains the contents of an egg: “It is an egg. Slurp.An egg. Slurp. A whole egg. Slurp. … Slurp…” (14 Duffy 69). Introduced as an illustration of the phrase “weasel words” (words empty of meaning, like an egg which has had its contents sucked out by a weasel), the poem has a clear linguistic axe to grind, and a pretty contentious one, at that, but it also insists on acknowledging hitherto suppressed instincts of disintegration, which theologians would call evil, psychologists perhaps libido, “and which destroy the old standards of civilization” (Alvarez 26). Whether it does so on behalf of women, or whether it is betrayed into doing so (through the equivalent of a Freudian slip of the tongue), is not clear, but the Animal Farm accents of the poem are not to be missed. “Fish Daughter” by Pauline Petit goes one step further in that it quite openly enacts fantasies of violence and aggression directed against a father figure. Donning the extravagant clothes of exotic fish to address herself to her father, the speaker imagines herself as his swimming Nemesis. Ichthyology serves as a vehicle for the poet’s barbed “lyre of the larynx” to give free vent to its raucously murderous impulses5. Drawing on the knowledge acquired during her extended stays along the Amazonian River, Pauline Petit enrols the arapaima, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, whose bony tongue is used to scrape cylinders of dried guarana, and the candiru, or toothpick fish, in the war of attrition she wages against her lover-father. Legend has it that the candiru, also known as the penis fish, is the most feared fish in the River, more so than the fierce piranha, as it is allegedly capable of swimming up the stream of urine in mid-air to a victim standing on the shore or in a boat, and thus entering a man’s urethra. With a ferocity redolent of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”, Petit vicariously thrusts her “backward-pointing barbs/deep inside [her father’s] penis” (23-4 MWP 315). Targeting the phallus head on, as it were, the speaker also addresses herself to man’s immemorial fears of being castrated by the devouring genitals of woman, her vagina dentata: “you can see how everything/is toothed: my jaws,/ Palate, pharynx” (11-13 MWP 315). Her growing and shrinking in size, from being a giant pirarucu to a tiny candiru, carries echoes of Alice in Wonderland—with a sharp anti-patriarchal bias.
62.1. Probably reacting against the over-representation in poetry of the feral, the blood-thirsty and the bestial, many women poets have gone about promoting the pastoral, the innocuous and the stolidly domesticated. Cows, sows and ewes: such is their new (secular) Trinity, in open (and humorous) defiance of the taboos, prescriptions and strictures issued by feminism. Not seeming to mind being assimilated to the bovine, the ovine, the porcine, they get a kick out of representing themselves as bulky child-bearing, breast-feeding, milk-producing organisms on four feet. The days when killing the Angel in the House was the most pressing duty awaiting women seem to be over; the Cow, or the Pig, is reinstated in the House, where she lords it, nay queens it, in the image of “Alice”, a poem by Penelope Shuttle, in which a talking sow basks in the glory of forthcoming maternity. The speaker is only too pleased to turn the one and only room she owns into the place where she is waiting to give birth to fifteen squealing piglets—“a chute of pig” (18). “One room” is not a problem, and the fear of “assignation à résidence”, the slightest of her concerns. Is the move a regressive one? Are we witnessing a back-pedalling return to “reproduction” which, it was presumed, had to be thrown overboard, as too conspicuous and ideologically over-determined a sign of the biological function or attributes of women? Are traditional, stereotypical archetypes rehabilitated? Only in appearance. As is frequently the case, terms of abuse (“you pig”, “you cow”) are being recuperated, reappropriated and turned to advantage. Indeed, the angle adopted is that of hyperbole. Alice’s pregnancy is “hénaurme” (in the Rabelaisian sense of the word), virtually farcical, in excess of all norms: “My stretched belly-skin is near splitting” (8 SWP 264). Her pleasure is immensely “public”, for all to see, and she is proud to exhibit the uninhibited dimension of her jouissance; unlimited and all-pervasive, it saturates her discourse and the poem in an orgy of prolixity, creativity, fertility—to be read in the contrasting light of dropping fecundity rates in women and of the contemporary promotion, in the field of culture and the arts, of exhaustion, minimalism and barrenness. Penelope Shuttle goes the whole hog, quite typically, for women poets are fond of taking such metaphoric or metonymic devices to excess, testing them, as it were, to destruction, parodying and burlesquing them in the process of using them—thus seeking escape from their tyranny. The gusto and energy of analogic over-kill, however, are only part of the answer. “Cow”, by Selima Hill, is also a poem of longing, but of minimal longing: the speaker longs to be a cow, so as to stop being her mother’s daughter, and “not in love with you” (4). The appeal of the cow-condition (alliteratively conveyed) stems from its vacuity, its lack of complexity and complications. Negative syntax prevails (“she doesn’t do homework or worry about her appearance” 30) as the girl is made to envy the cow’s restricted desires, limited prospects and unadventurous needs (“only this -- / the farm I want to be a cow on” 35-6). Her dream is a dream of passivity, subjection, disappearance, anonymity; the girl is “not coming home”, she longs to be “a cowman’s counted cow” (46 SWP 157). “Undisturbed” animality is elected here as the reverse of the human condition’s countless worries. The irony becomes increasingly perceptive, and it works both ways, directed at women, but also at men. “Jungian Cows” by Penelope Shuttle is a charmingly humorous evocation of Swiss farmers who cross-dress so as to be accepted by the most sensitive of their cows, spoilt by the formerly more skilful ways of their wives and daughters. Their donning “cotton skirts, all floral delicate flounces” (14), their walking “smelling feminine and shy among the cows” (18) finally leads the men who work the milking machines to be accepted—but only “as an echo of the woman” (23). The end of the poem, coinciding with the gift of “milk’s sweet traditional climax” (24 SWP 263), marks the triumph of pantomime, set to the tunes of a pastoral symphony: in the process, the superiority of (Jungian) Anima over Animus is mischievously celebrated, showing that feminist concerns have not altogether vanished.
- 6 One thinks of Anne Sexton’s poem, “Consorting with Angels” (1963), in which the speaker declares h (...)
7 2.2. Jo Shapcott’s “Mad Cow” poems of 1992 offer a postmodern view of identity as (generally) ecstatic, fluid, and open: the cow suffering from BSE loves “the staggers” and the “wonderful holes in my brain”, adding that “most brains are too/ compressed. You need this spongy/ generosity to let the others in” (Tuma 842). The “Mad Cow in Love” is a love poem of sorts, consisting in the cow’s intimate address to her lover: she wants to be an angel, dreams of sharing the domesticated life of a “you” (a man, the master), also an angel6. Her fond and fanciful imaginings unroll until their somewhat idle absurdity is suddenly punctured, as the rush of panting desire makes its powerful presence felt in the raw language of carnality, of animality:
I want you earthly,
including all the global terrors and harms
which might come when we fall backwards
into the world of horn and hoof. (29-32 Tuma 844).
8Underlying the poem and its explicitly sentimental or erotic dimension is a hard scientific fact: the fatal disease of the cattle causing deterioration of the brain can be passed to humans, when infected meat enters the food chain, thus establishing the permeability between two realms (the human and the animal) hitherto thought of as strictly separate—hence the spectre of regression, of falling backwards: qui fait l’ange, fait la bête revisited, in short. In “The Mad Cow Tries to Write the Good Poem” (MWP 312-13) the device is again direct enunciation, delivered straight from the mad cow’s mouth and lacunar brain. She cooperates, however lamely (“tries to write”), in her own alienation and surrenders willingly to the demands made by the all encompassing “good poem”—with its intimations of the good word, the Gospel and Government propaganda or ideology. This covertly political poem reflects obliquely on the organized decerebration conducted on people—not just on cows—submitted to the discourse of the media in charge of enforcing the Doxa (“the nation’s smeary dailies”, 10). The vocabulary is kept deliberately at a neutral level: “shed”, “hut”are preferred to “stable”, so as to foster obvious analogies with the world of humans. The construction is largely paratactic, and the language “super ugly” (like the language of the Crow poems by Ted Hughes): the cow writes or is written “in her own messing on the floor” (20). The exit line, terrifyingly paradoxical, in view of its implications (“because I know what it looks like with my eyes closed”) underscores the helplessness of victims—all victims, animal and human—being conducted to the slaughter houses of History. More specifically, however, the graphic mention of “opera”:
They’re dressed in red and
Stand formally around my skull as though staged
For an opera (13-16)
- 7 « L’opéra est une affaire de femmes. Non, pas une version féministe ; non, pas une libération. Tou (...)
- 8 « Le délire est la mesure de la santé quand il invoque cette race bâtarde opprimée qui ne cesse de (...)
9reminds one of Catherine Clément’s reflections on the patriarchal construction of opera as semantically (libretto) and structurally (music) geared towards the undoing of its female characters. By way of analogy with the angle adopted in L’Opéra ou la défaite des femmes, Shapcott’s farmyard stage is set for the ultimate sacrifice: the culling of millions of cows, preceded by the decontamination of stables (“I hear it written in the streaky emulsion on the walls”, 19), interpreted as the pursuit of the lethal logic of Over her Dead Body (Bronfen) via other means7. “Mad Cow Dance” (Tuma 844-5) picks up the popular, uniquely English folk dance known as morris dance that goes back to the fifteenth century and is (still) played to the sound of pipe, tabor or fiddle. Here, it is set to the somewhat more modern rhythms of jazz or rock and roll—“Bang”, “Stomp”, “Swoop”—which bring it up to date, together with the lingering echoes of the rattling bones of medieval “Danse macabre”. Explicitly addressed to a “sitting-down reader” (18), it is aimed at demonstrating the superiority of quadrupeds over bipeds; as such it is shot through with the all-pervasive frisson experienced when romping, stomping, pushing, thwacking, kicking, hoofing it “till dawn”. The added bonus of “difference” in the shape of four legs makes for a poem full of bounce and swing, filled to the brim with the tricks of the poetic trade (“Four legs increase splits into splats”), at once kinetic, elastic, dynamic, electric (“such a charge”)—and comic into the bargain. It sounds like an intellectually advanced combination of innocence and experience, voluntary and involuntary irony, with intimations now exhilarating, now chilling. Indeed the poem is full of clever double entendres, hinting in a back-hoofed kind of way at the grimmer reality of the culling of cattle, as well as at its “purification”, its ultimate commodification (“pure / use”) as “pure perfume,/ jasmine and fucked”. A distinct thrill of jouissance (“Pleasure. Local pleasure.”) exudes from the verse, locally at first, reflecting on the ability of language to move in a not necessarily coordinated way, to proceed free from restraint and decency (“faces would be red if you knew what/ was next”). As such, it proves typical of what happens when a serious disease (spongiform encephalopathy) is turned into a serious joke, providing readers with food (fodder?) for thought and laughter—typical, last but not least, of the eagerness of women poets to embrace spirited incarnations of eccentricity, literally de-centered, un-brained and therefore non human. Their siding with madness translates as the vindication of delirium, nicknamed “ligne de sorcière” by Deleuze8, for whom one arrives at true literature only via crooked ways, those of “détours féminins, animaux, moléculaires” (Deleuze 12).
103.1. In 1607, Edward Topsell published the first edition of his Historie of Four-Footed Beastes, listing and judging the various antiquated beliefs about the Sphinx—to conclude that there was no such monster, but asserting the existence of a member of the ape family, an ape with the face, breast and voice of a woman, and, except for the face, covered with hair. The work was extremely popular and ran through countless editions. In 2003, Julia Copus whose work takes a strong interest in fairy tale, myth and science, recalled Topsell’s treatise of zoology for the sake of a poem titled “Topsell’s Beasts”, in which she begins with a willing suspension of disbelief:
Who can say for certain that such creatures
Don’t exist—sea-wolves and unicorns,
And lamias with their exemptile eyes
Which they can never lever out and lay aside
For rest after kill? Why can’t we believe,
As people like us used to believe,
That lemmings graze in clouds,
That apes are terrified of snails (1-8 MWP 400)
11Quite spontaneously, the speaker sees herself as a “camelopardal” with his fifteen-foot long neck diversely coloured, and assures her partner that she is so “easie to be handled” that even a child can bring it home, quoting Topsell. No doubt that a note of warning and admonition is to heard between the lines, but what matters the most, however extravagant the idea of becoming a cameleopardal may sound, and no matter how scholarly the references may prove, is the imaginative availability, and proximity, of such hybrid creatures. The same applies to the belief that “Zoology is Destiny” (italics mine), in the words of Linda France (O’Brien 455)—the equivalence is perceived as a plain fact, not “a parable wishing itself/would happen”; a fact the speaker of the poem can only confirm, her discourse having mutated into that of the “vatic utterance/ of a white rhinoceros who knows/ the difference between rocks and crocodiles” (16-18 O’Brien 455). The equation is immediately transitive, bespeaking the lack of barriers between the animal and the human realm. Circulation between the two is as fluid and swift as can be—the time it takes to slip a “Snake Dress” over one’s head (Pascale Petit) and the Ovidian metamorphosis is under way. Women poets have a knack for tapping the unlimited resources of dreams. Theirs is a dream menagerie, where girls dream that the man they love is a horse, that they ride him on his broad back: “Your Girl” by Penelope Shuttle delineates the contours of an oriental dreamscape, in which the girl features as a “bédouine” and the man wakes up to his nocturnal, equine side, in what resembles a cunning inversion of Füsseli’s famous Nightmare (SWP 266). Reality is transmogrified, as befits the demands of poetry: the ease with which sheep are changed into “walking clouds” walking across the sky “upside down in special pumps” matches the facility with which the human speaker of “Goat” (SWP 259) by Jo Shapcott starts growing horns and goes “horizontal”. Only the mood changes. While the former poem, “Lies” (SWP 258), is fanciful, demonstrating to the full the appeal of imaginative topsy-turviness, the latter is more melancholy and disquieting, standing half way between a post-darwinian fable on the reversibility of evolution and a fantastic tale of metamorphosis à la Kafka. Entry into the poem is sudden and arresting: “two minutes”, and the speaker has traded her human loneliness and isolation for the huddle and the press of promiscuity and gregariousness. Wallowing in goathood, she enjoys the sheer bliss of licking, snuffling and nibbling, until, after swallowing an office block, the poem comes full circle at the end, and the “tiny human figure” returns—like the return of the repressed.
123.2. Imaginative identification with animals is one of Selima Hill’s most distinctive features, evidenced in Bunny (2001), My Darling Camel (1988), Trembling Hearts in the Bodies of Dogs (1994). Her poetry is erotic and anxious, funny and alarming, and infuriating to some critics in its abrupt similes, in which animals of all ilk feature, nearly always disturbingly:
It screams between us like a frozen street
With stiff exhausted birds embedded in it (6-7 O’Brien 306)
when my eyes blur
Like the graceful giraffe’s of Clot Bey (27-28 SWP 79)
You’ll have to be perfectly still
Like a nude with a rat ( 1-2 O’Brien 307)
13Bizarrely incongruous photographs of a cow, a dog, a duck, a goose (Violet), a kangaroo (Red Roses) stare from her covers, creating a palpable sense of malaise. On that of Portrait of My Lover as a Horse (2002) is a photograph by Neil Ashley, featuring a horse absurdly standing in an empty room. The collection offers 100 portraits of the Lover as anything from an Elephant to a Zebra, from a Swan (with echoes of both Mallarmé and Yeats) to a waterbeetle—anything, except a Horse (!). Selima Hill’s imagination, writes Jules Smith, “is indeed an anarchic zoo, farmyard and private menagerie: animals are both themselves and metaphors, family pets that recall love—or disturbing images of threat and sexual yearning”. She moves beyond sentiment to blur the mental boundaries between humans and animals. Some of her poems are explicitly dedicated to a dead pet (“The Voice of Bobo”), which does not mean that her poems are biographical; on the contrary, they are unplaceable, for her ideal location is a “secret palace” “between the land and the sea”:
Balanced on the cliff among the predators
To take advantage of the sweeping views (19-20 O’Brien 305).
14It is from such a vantage point that she writes of the adventure of desire, in terms that recall at times those of the French surrealists. “Monkeys” is distinctly Rimbaldian in that it features the transformation of a bed—the bed that she “became a woman in”—into a barge, the equivalent of a “Bateau ivre”, launched on a perilous but exciting voyage, in which the most intimate parts of her anatomy are set adrift:
And sent my long gold clitoris to sea
Between my legs, streamlined and sweet
Like a barge
Laden with sweetmeats and monkeys
Bound for some distant land; (13-17 NP 86)
- 9 “Glow Worm” by Vicky Feaver offers the ideal paradigm of the way in which a “body in love” shines (...)
15Barely present as such, the eponymous monkeys provide the exotic counterpart to the chickens she saw running from the same bed, “without their heads”. Another bedroom features prominently in “Don’t Let’s Talk About Being In Love”. Animals furnish the poem with the stuff of dreams, easily malleable material for explicitly sexual or erotic scenarios9:
At night I dream that your bedroom’s crammed with ducks.
You smell of mashed-up meal and scrambled egg.
Some of the ducks are broody, and won’t stand up.
And I dream of the fingers of your various wives
Reaching into your private parts like beaks.
And you’re lying across the bed like a man shouldn’t be.
And I’m startled awake by the sound of creaking glass
as if the whole affair’s about to collapse
and water come pouring in with a rush of fishes
going slurpetty-slurpetty-slurp with their low-slung mouths (11-20 NP 82)
16Which brings to mind the words of Octavio Paz in « L’au-delà érotique » : « Le mot comme est un jeu érotique, le chiffre de l’érotisme. Seulement, c’est une métaphore irréversible : l’homme est lion, le lion n’est pas homme. L’érotisme n’est pas une simple imitation de la sexualité : il en est la métaphore » (Jean 26).
- 10 The term was coined by Françoise d’Eaubonne in Le féminisme ou la mort (1980).
174.1. The critique of phallocentrism and of the misogyny that is part and parcel of it is inseparable from the critique of the Cartesian subject’s rejection and domination of Nature. They tend to be presented as part and parcel of the same perverse penchant, to be opposed as such—but the assimilation of womanhood to Mother Nature is also felt to be andocentric, proper to a masculine imagination, and is also to be combated as such, either frontally, or obliquely. Hence a dilemma, the terms of which are spelled out by Joanny Moulin in a recent Etudes Anglaises special number on contemporary British poetry. Marking the second stage of the development of “ecofeminism10”, a belated realization set in: since the refusal to locate the feminine within the natural amounted to perpetuating the hateful andocentric attitude, a more welcoming attitude towards the natural world had to be rekindled. Three characteristic modalities came to the fore, thus synthesized: topophilia; gynocentric modes of expression (marked by the prevalence of the semiotic à la Kristeva); ecocentric empathy (Moulin 326).
- 11 The same kind of eco-empathy permeates Alice Oswald’s recent collections, Dart (2000) and Woods et (...)
18“Cuckoo-spit” by Katherine Pierpoint is characteristic of the last of the three trends11. A sharp quality of attention is brought to bear on the minute white froth found on the stems and leaves of plants, produced by froghopper larvae which feed on the plant juices. Cuckoo spit, an ingredient in witches brew, as in Macbeth, brings to mind ancient superstitions about spitting, whenever a cuckoo was heard, to avoid bad luck. The poem is finely gendered, contrasting the Beauty and the Beast, in the guise of a little girl, scared at first by the sticky substance, and a male “froglet”, “wicked looking” and waiting inside the plant, which he has turned into a vaguely obnoxious “castle”. The archetypal interaction between innocence and experience is repeated, as the girl overcomes her initial disgust, “returns and looks again” (8 MWP 370). While Lawrentian echoes are not to be ruled out, it is the strong visual appeal (“bilious bright green”) of the natural world that is ultimately vindicated, together with the premium laid on going beyond inaupicious appearances.
19In the course of her Hölderlin-inspired reflections on “How to live,” and how to dwell poetically, the Scottish poetess Kathleen Jamie is also concerned with establishing “hame” through an exploration of the wonders of the natural world. “Basking Shark” stages her rather ambivalent encounter with the eponymous shark, the second largest fish in the world, found in temperate coastal waters, and often floating at the sea surface. A creature imagined as other and questioning the speaker as to how to access the “beyond”, in Volsik’s insightful reading of the piece. The poem is steeped in Keatsian echoes, reminiscent of the proto-Darwinian section featuring at the end of “To J. H. Reynolds Esq.” Standing “Upon a Lampit Rock”, Keats looked too far into the sea and seeing “too distinct into the core/Of an eternal fierce destruction,” was dismayed by the sight of “the shark at savage prey—the hawk at pounce” (86-105 Keats 184). What is striking is that the poem, and many others built on the same pattern, is essentially unironic in its desire to approach the irreducible mystery of what might be called the “Versant animal”, after Jean-Christophe Bailly. Which is fine, but is not above posing a critical problem: how is one to characterize this growing trend: neo-romantic, neo-lyrical, romantic with a twenty-first century spin, traditional ? The terms may vary, but all are redolent of a certain malaise: how is one not to see the poetic manifestations of this eco-empathy as too conservatively pre-modernist (Volsik 360)? The answer adopted by critics like Jonathan Bate is to insist on the degree of imaginative engagement with the non-human. “Frogs”, also by Kathleen Jamie, is a case in point. Following a circular shape, the poem goes from a she-frog to an explicitly gendered woman, “with her hands cupped” (25), in a vaguely pictorial attitude. Three stanzas are devoted to the evocation of a pair of copulating frogs: their mating takes place somewhere in the dark, it is predictably instinctive (“held to some bog-dull/imperative” 14-15) and yet somewhat mysterious. The fourth and fifth stanzas elaborate on the fact that a car has run over the frogs, reducing them to pulp, smearing them “into one”. The poem is at pains to move beyond the obvious (the vulnerability of the natural world exposed to human indifference) and to rise above the contingent, the accidental (in all senses of the word). The reference to “the slow/creatures of this earth”, animal and human “passengers” of the same time-bound car, is a brave attempt at enforcing a hackneyed motive—transcended, and transfigured, by the final apparition of the woman “by the verge” (24 MWP 376-7). Obviously, the “verge” is more than the grass border by the road, from which the unnamed woman may have witnessed the whole scene. Irrespective of its phallic connotations (probably out of place here, even though the frog’s tongue was said to be thrust into “soft brain”), it may stand for her position as a poet, on the periphery of things (in a position reminiscent of Philip Larkin?); it could also signify her desire to reach the limit beyond which something occurs, in an attempt to probe further and further into the mystery of things. It might therefore be argued that the phrase “by the verge” brings together many of the issues raised in this paper: the closeness to their subject experienced by women poets, whether out of empathy or dislike; their new area of jurisdiction; their power or control; their “vergency”, in short, or the condition of being inclined toward some object or in some direction (O.E.D.).
205. 1 Fleur Adcock had shown the way as early as 1979: “The other option’s to become a bird”. The first line of “A Way Out” is both blunt and allusive—leaving the reader free to guess that the choice is between remaining a human being—and more specifically a woman (?)—and evading one’s terrestrial lot “by a pair of wings” (24). Envy of the bird’s condition is a topos of classical and romantic poetry. Seeing no disadvantage in the transformation, even though it may sound escapist, the speaker seems to voice a common desire of elevation above the “clogging multiplicity of things”: “Up’s the way to go” (27 MWP 186). The idea of the woman as a bird in a cage is the alternative common place, which even a poet as brilliantly innovative and strongly supportive of écriture féminine as Medbh McGuckian (in the wake of Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray) cannot quite steer clear from. At the close of “Aviary”, in what reads like an implicit address to the male partner who designates her by means of her “aspen, tree of the woman’s /Tongue” (9-10), the female voice openly celebrates the reversal of the polarities of liberation and imprisonment brought about by the fulfilling act of love making, by which the male desire for flight may be countered:
Yet any wild bird would envy you
This aviary, whenever you free all the birds in me (26-7 MWP 275).
21“Translating Birdsong”, by Jean Sprackland, raises the poetic question par excellence: “But what are birds saying?” (16). The enigmatic impenetrability of the birds’ language, forever beyond human articulation, can only be approached obliquely: “Our best shot is metaphor and mimicry” (17). But even that remains largely deficient. The resilience of their song, its resistance to annexation and colonization, makes of them potential alter egos or look-alikes for a speaker who feels “on their side”. But the language barrier remains impassable:
Longing to connect, but getting only
the syntax, never the meaning,
nothing at all of that. (35-7 MWP 385)
22Maggie Sullivan’s visually exciting, albeit somewhat abstruse “Starlings”, begins where Jean Sprackland ends. She takes up the challenge and attempts to convey non mimetically the singularity of starlings, by projecting them into an approximated three-dimensional medium, where variations in the size, shape and “signifiance” of words call for tentative analogies with tiltings and bankings in aircraft:
CONTORTIONS— (19-22 Tuma 796)
23The blackish plumage and the short tail of the starling are little in view—instead references to “Pelage” and “aqueous bobbles” suggest the presence of water and of animals living near the surface of the ocean, but what is emphatically on display is energy, of an electric and electrifying nature, with its sudden jolts or contortions, evocative of the crazed rhythms and riffs of electric guitars (Maggie O’Sullivan is drawn to rock music). The words CLOUD-SANG, in capital letters, form the equivalent of the skywriting scene in Mrs Dalloway, the birds playing the part of the aeroplanes, producing their own system of aerial cum synesthetic signs that are bound to appeal to a poet so strongly invested in the physical and visual properties of language.
24The same applies to Helen MacDonald. “Poem” responds to an article by Bill Girden Helen MacDonald had read in the falcon anthology A Bond with the Wild. It describes a hawking expedition in the New Mexico desert in which Girden, a writer from New Mexico unknown to the poet and who died shortly after the publication, flew his trained Cooper’s Hawk in the dawn light. Helen McDonald’s experience of the hawk is purely verbal or bookish, to which one might add that it is a quintessentially literary experience, in view of the obvious precedent set by G.M. Hopkins’s “The Windhover”. “Poem” is about “our struggle with ineffable experience in muddled words, the otherness of the natural world as it competes with the history of symbolic systems limiting or deflecting our engagement with it” (Tuma 931). The bird rouses the mind of the poet from “safety and tameable illness/to beautiful comprehension” (5-6) of the natural world, of which the bird is at once pith, pitch and movement. The tension on which the poem’s entangled knot of words is based is that between the being of the bird (it simply “is”) and the quasi mallarmean hermetism of its rendition at the hands of the writer, when it is said to drop “in abeyance of song to mitigate sward” (17). It is not clear whether the pen does justice to the bird when the former “crumbles into a swan” (18)—the ambiguity of “crumbles into” may point either to a harmful shrinkage or to a transfiguration. Only the last stanza can tell, as it marks a return to elliptical simplicity:
I am glad. Some evidence a hymn without light. Fracas.
History. The building of a condominium.
It was true I had never met.
There was a strike on the glass; it was a bird.
I have never been to the desert. (20-24 Tuma 934)
25Nominal sentences. End-stopped lines. Laconic and matter-of-factual tone. Poetry in the form of a brief; poetry “clipped” that strikes home never the less—like the common bird at the window, as a substitute for the distant hawk unseen.
“The Lady and the Hare”
The pulse of a hare,
That zigzag between
Breath and the moment –
Mantegna’s hares, still boxing
Beside the agony in the garden. (Stainer 17)
- 12 “About suffering, they were never wrong, / The Old Masters”—such was W.H. Auden’s construction of (...)
- 13 There might be a hint of the tale The Lady of the Hare (1944) by the English anthropologist and Ju (...)
26Pauline Stainer’s short poem was composed after a painting by Mantegna, Agony in the Garden (1455, National Gallery, London). It focuses on a particolare, as Daniel Arasse would have it—on the right hand side of the painting, two tiny hares (rabbits ?) can be seen, contrasting with the massive human figures in the foreground and exchanging blows in jest more than in earnest, or so it seems. They appear to be totally indifferent to the gravity of the circumstance, but no more so than the disciples of Jesus Christ, fast asleep in the foreground. One is not certain whether the master intended to introduce a modicum of comic relief into the painting12; there is no gainsaying, however, that their playful agon proleptically mirrors the forthcoming tragic Agony in the Garden. Far from dislocating the painting, or distracting the viewer by generating a riot of details that are neither here nor there, the scene brings together the level of sermo humilis and that of sermo sublimis (according to Eric Auerbach’s distinction). Stainer’s take on the motive registers a sharp shift in the emphasis. The stress is first on empathy, to be felt on the pulses (although the singular is preferred to Keats’s plural form), then on the zigzag, the syncopation that foreshadow the Event, when everyone’s breath is suspended or hushed. By way of an enjambment (lines 3-4) the interval is bridged, and the scene is both spatially and symbolically foregrounded (“Beside the agony” meaning both close and in addition to). Besides, Stainer introduces a woman in the painting, via the ritualistic dimension of the title, with its medieval and anthropological connotations13. The formally commanding Belle Dame (“Give me”) is cast somewhat in the image of the woman poet: she excels at seizing the fleeting gesture, is quick to condense and force the hidden meanings all the way through to their earth-shattering consequences. Wary of momentous over-dramatization, she inclines to elect the in-betweeness of Between the Acts, and the priority of the prima inter pares.
- 14 “The hare is a blood-song, / a song in the blood, a shivering / up and down the spine, from a time (...)
27The rest is silence, or belongs to a time “before words outsped their meaning”14—the silence advocated by Hugo von Hoffmansthal in his Letter of Lord Chandos. To explain to his addressee, Francis Bacon, the reason why he has given up writing poetry, Lord Chandos compares himself to the Roman orator Crassus, who had fallen madly in love with a tame lamprey, a dumb, apathetic and red-eyed fish, and whom one of his opponents in the Senate tried to pass off as mad. The infatuation reverberates in the interior consciousness of Chandos, as the reflection of an interior revolution. Formerly attached to the perception of the grand unity of existence, conveyed by way of a kind of perpetual intoxication, Chandos is suddenly overcome by a total dispossession of language: he begins to “ferment, to effervesce, to foam and to sparkle”, hence the choice of silence and his preference for a medium that is “more liquid, more glowing than words”. The discovery made by Chandos is a groundbreaking one, summarized by Christian Doumet in a chapter of Faut-il comprendre la poésie? entitled “Le poème nous parle-t-il la langue de l’animalité?”:
Celui [le procès poétique] grâce auquel le sujet découvre non pas un instant privilégié de sa vie, mais son échappée hors de la condition du langage et, avec elle, la remise en cause de toutes ses relations au monde—de la représentation du monde elle-même (Doumet 68).