Daphne Marlatt Critical Essays

Introduction

Daphne Marlatt 1942-

(Full name Daphne Buckle Marlatt) Australian-born Canadian poet, novelist, critic, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Marlatt's career through 2000.

Distinguished as a daring experimentalist and one of Canada's leading feminist writers, Marlatt has created a complex, multifaceted literary style aimed at dissecting gender politics and male-biased histories. In such volumes of poetry as What Matters: Writing 1968-1970 (1980) and Touch to My Tongue (1984), and in her historical novel, Ana Historic (1988), Marlatt employs sophisticated poststructuralist techniques to unmask and subvert patriarchal linguistic hierarchies that have traditionally silenced the voice of women in literature. Marlatt is also a noted critic; her collection of essays, Readings from the Labyrinth (1998), placed her at the forefront of feminist theory and established her as a leading historian of feminist thought in Canada. Marlatt's aesthetic approach, while intensely personal and sensuous, is lauded for both its academic rigor and its avoidance of concrete, binary paradigms, allowing her readers to find their own meanings in her work.

Biographical Information

Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1942, Marlatt moved with her family to Malaysia at the end of the Second World War. Her parents, Arthur and Edrys Buckle, were British citizens; Marlatt's father was a successful businessman. After a brief stay in England, the Buckles moved to North Vancouver, Canada, in 1951. Marlatt would later credit her early experiences in Malaysia with fostering her awareness of colonial oppression and her appreciation for the rich diversity of language. Marlatt studied literature at the University of British Columbia, earning her bachelor's degree in 1964. She married Alan Marlatt, a psychology student, in 1963. The couple pursued their respective academic careers at various schools in Canada and North America throughout the 1960s. Soon after graduation, Marlatt began publishing poems in Canadian literary magazines. In 1968 she completed her master's degree at Indiana University and published her first poetry volume, Frames of a Story. The next year, Marlatt gave birth to a son, Christopher, and published another volume of poetry, Leaf Leaf/s (1969). By late 1970 Marlatt had separated from her husband, returning to Vancouver with Christopher. In 1971 Marlatt published Rings, a volume of poems on motherhood, which she followed with Vancouver Poems (1972), a collection of poems about the city and the surrounding area. Marlatt took a teaching position at Capilano College in North Vancouver in 1973, where she taught and edited the school's literary journal until 1976. In 1974 Marlatt published Steveston, which earned positive reviews and cemented her growing national reputation. Marlatt's success was enhanced in 1980 with the publication of Net Work: Selected Writing, and What Matters, an ambitious volume of poetry and prose considered to be her first truly feminist work. In 1982 Marlatt began an affair with poet Betsy Warland, with whom she published two volumes of collaborative poetry, Double Negative (1988), a series of lesbian love poems, and Two Women in a Birth (1994); their relationship came to an end in 1994. In 1983 Marlatt joined a feminist literary collective along with Barbara Godard, Gail Scott, and Kathy Mezei, and the group published the journal Tessera with which she remained affiliated until 1991. The 1980s were a fertile period for Marlatt, during which she published How Hug a Stone (1983), including poems that recount a trip to England with her son, Touch to My Tongue, a poetry volume in which she solidified her ideas about language, and Ana Historic, a major feminist historical novel. Throughout her career, Marlatt has taught at various colleges, including University of Western Ontario, Simon Fraser University, and the University of British Columbia.

Major Works

Although an overt concern with feminist theory did not emerge in Marlatt's work until midway through her career, a preoccupation with gender politics and oppression is present even in her earliest writing. Likewise, while her early work pre-dated her relationship with poststructuralist concepts, she always exhibited strong experimental tendencies. As a result, the arc of Marlatt's career can be seen as simultaneously tracing the crystallization of her avant-garde sympathies along deconstructionist lines, and the development of her notions of womanhood into a fully evolved feminist worldview. Marlatt's first volume of poetry, Frames of a Story, provides an example of her early experimental style and concern with themes of empowerment. The poems tell the story of two sisters who wish to break free of the boundaries of their strict upbringing. Marlatt intertwines this narrative with a revamped version of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy taleThe Snow Queen. Metaphorically, the sisters' efforts to re-“frame” their own lives are reflected in Marlatt's reworking of the fairy tale. Marlatt alternates sections of short-lined verse, which isolate particular moments and ideas, with sections of longer-lined, prose-like verse, which drive the two narratives forward. By breaking free of traditional poetic forms, Marlatt's poetry itself becomes part of her contention that changing linguistic constructs can shape reality. In her next volume, Leaf Leaf/s, which includes some of her first feminist poems—such as “Cocksure”—Marlatt returned to more conventionally structured short-line poems. However, in Rings, a poetic cycle revolving around the theme of motherhood, she reintroduced the longer, prose-like lines that she has since favored.

The effectiveness of her long lines is displayed in Steveston, Marlatt's first major work. As with several of her other volumes, Marlatt frames the poems around a travelogue—in this case covering her first trip to Steveston, a small fishing village on Canada's Pacific coast. Marlatt lovingly renders images of the rustic immigrant community, but the book's focus gradually shifts toward the town's past as the setting of an internment camp for Japanese immigrants during the Second World War. The poems covering the prison camp constitute the emotional crux of the book and feature Marlatt exploring themes of oppression and subjugation. The book also marked Marlatt's maturation as a poetic technician. Previously, Marlatt had forged a style that relied equally on sound and image to create precise sensory impressions of the world as it appeared to her and to the characters in her poems. This style was partly based on the postmodern concept of “proprioception,” which asserts that a writer must focus on the sensations of his or her body as it interacts with the world around it. By Steveston, Marlatt had expanded her technique to the point that she was no longer describing images, but rather creating sensory and bodily impressions for the reader to take on as his or her own. Marlatt's first novel, Zócalo (1977), incorporates many of the same lyrical techniques of her early poetry. Marlatt's next major work, What Matters, revolves around its long title poem, another quest-cum-travelogue, in which Marlatt details her 1970 divorce and return to Vancouver after years of travel. This poem is the first to encapsulate Marlatt's intellectually informed feminist terms. Many of the poems in What Matters incorporate a psychoanalytic conception of womanhood, positing that, for women, early childhood identification with the mother creates ego boundaries that are more permeable than those found in men, who tend to see boundaries as both hierarchical and solid. In Touch to My Tongue's long, prose-like verse—particularly in the poetic essay titled “musing with mothertongue”—Marlatt further developed the literary corollary to the psychoanalytically inspired feminist ideas that drove the poems in What Matters. Borrowing ideas from poststructuralist literary theorist Julia Kristeva, Marlatt created a work of literature in which calculated ambiguity, double meanings, and other wordplay epitomized the permeable ego boundaries and non-hierarchical relationships that characterize the female psyche. Through this effective blend of poststructuralist form and feminist content, Marlatt sought to create a new feminine poetics to liberate language from the constraints of masculine power structures such as linearity, hierarchy, and rigid meaning. She subsequently published Salvage (1991), a volume of early, unpublished poems that she revised in light of her newfound feminist perspective, and new poems in Ghost Works (1993).

The novel Ana Historic, one of Marlatt's most critically acclaimed works, revolves around the story of Annie, a Canadian housewife bored with her role as her historian husband's research assistant. When Annie discovers a journal kept by a school teacher in the 1870s, she begins to investigate the woman's life, and is shocked to find that documentation of the lives of nineteenth-century women is virtually nonexistent. To breach this historical gap, Annie writes a novel based on the schoolteacher's life, using her imagination to fill in the omissions created by a male-dominated society. Annie enlists the help of her friend Zoe, and as the imagined life of the schoolteacher blooms, so does a love affair between the two women. In Ana Historic, Marlatt is able to draw a parallel between women's reclamation of their physical bodies and the corpus of their history, describing the linguistic basis for both. Marlatt published another historical novel, Taken (1996), which revolves around the break-up of a lesbian couple in British Columbia, set against the contemporary backdrop of the Gulf War, and the narrator's reconstruction of her own mother's experience in Australia during the Second World War. These two stories are interwoven with a third narrative involving an unnamed woman's struggle to escape internment as a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore. Marlatt's collection of critical essays, Readings from the Labyrinth includes brief introductory sections to each of the volume's seventeen previously published essays, providing them with personal and historical context. The book chronicles not only Marlatt's own feminist awakening and maturation, but also the development of feminist thought in Canadian literature and society. Marlatt has also edited Steveston Recollected: A Japanese-Canadian History (1975), an oral history project; Opening Doors: Vancouver's East End (1979), a volume of essays about Vancouver, coedited with Carole Itter; Lost Language: Selected Poems of Maxine Gadd (1982), a volume of selected poems by Maxine Gadd, coedited with Ingrid Klassen; and Mothertalk: Life Stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka (1997), a memoir by Roy Kiyooka.

Critical Reception

Marlatt has been praised by reviewers as a skilled practitioner of poststructuralist literary techniques, an insightful feminist writer and critic, and a major figure in Canadian letters. To a large extent, these three spheres have both defined and limited Marlatt's career. Marlatt's flair for linguistic experimentation had initially attracted the attention of the Canadian literary establishment and, as her work has matured, critics have continued to laud her use of the poststructuralist idiom. Reviewers have also been impressed with Marlatt's use of sound, and her willingness to let it guide the content of her poems as well as their form. Her use of “proprioception” has also attracted critical praise, as has her ability to deconstruct hierarchical oppositions. Nevertheless, while critics from the postmodernist school have admired Marlatt's sophisticated techniques, more traditional critics have often found them off-putting. While academic critics have praised Ana Historic, it has received mixed reviews in the popular press and has failed to win a large audience. Marlatt's strong feminist orientation has also resulted in a solid but rather circumscribed critical reputation. For instance, while her contributions to feminist literature, both as a creative artist and a high-level academic critic, have been recognized worldwide, she has remained largely pigeonholed as a feminist writer. One result of this narrow identification is that the bulk of serious critical analysis of her work has come from the relatively small school of feminist critics. Likewise, Marlatt has also been predominantly identified as a regional writer. Though works such as Vancouver Poems, Steveston, and Ana Historic are decidedly Canadian in their settings and content, critics note that Marlatt's ambitious feminist themes and sociolinguistic philosophy transcend national boundaries.