Daphne Marlatt Criticism - Essay

Robert Lecker (essay date spring 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lecker, Robert. “Daphne Marlatt's Poetry.” Canadian Literature 76 (spring 1978): 56-67.

[In the following essay, Lecker traces the development of Marlatt's phenomenological aesthetic in her early poetry, from Frames of a Story through Steveston. Lecker draws attention to Marlatt's effort to translate into language the immediacy of consciousness and visual perception, as found in her recurring evocation of the river as a metaphor for purification and release.]

It is difficult to read Daphne Marlatt's poetry1 without seeing the river. Behind each of the books she has published to date, there is a current which flows toward a...

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Barbara Godard (essay date winter 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Godard, Barbara. “‘Body I’: Daphne Marlatt's Feminist Poetics.” American Review of Canadian Studies 15, no. 4 (winter 1985): 481-96.

[In the following essay, Godard examines Marlatt's exploration of female subjectivity and self-identity in her writings, including her effort to deconstruct patriarchal hierarchies and masculine discourse through alternative feminist language, storytelling, and adaptations of cultural myth and history.]

The title is borrowed from Madeleine Gagnon.1 It underlines the “drive to connect” with the other,2 a holistic blurring of boundaries that is the source of Marlatt's poetic. Simultaneously, the...

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Di Brand (review date March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brand, Di. “The Absence at the Centre.” Canadian Forum 68, no. 779 (March 1989): 38, 40.

[In the following review, Brand provides a favorable evaluation of Ana Historic.]

Reading Daphne Marlatt is scary, she takes us so quickly, always, into the dark, the lost place, the unnamed and unnameable, below words, below the “real”: “Who's There? she was whispering, knock knock, in the dark.” Ana Historic pushes us back, through memory, through history, through old written records with their blatant omissions and concealments, through the throbbing pulse spots of old wounds, old fears, to the “gaping hole,” the “(blank blank),” the absence at...

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Patrick Imbert (review date autumn-winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Imbert, Patrick. “Hystory.” Canadian Literature 122-123 (autumn-winter 1989): 199-200.

[In the following review, Imbert discusses the problem of linguistic and historical representation and offers a positive assessment of Ana Historic.]

This story is real cute: “Canadians don't know how to speak proper English.” Both themes—the question of the story (the title, Ana Historic, questions the subtitle: “a novel”) and the question of power and exploitation—are built into language and into society. Society was, in 1873, very much dependent on the colonizing power. This leads us to the main problematic: the status of women and their...

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Margery Fee (review date autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fee, Margery. “Double Discourse.” Canadian Literature 126 (autumn 1990): 132-33.

[In the following excerpt, Fee offers a positive review of Double Negative.]

When Marlatt and Warland read from Double Negative at Mrs. Dalloway's Books in Kingston, they explained the book's origin as a way to share the experience of travelling from Sydney to Perth along the railway line that contains “the longest stretch of straight railway in the world.” Each wrote two poems a day and then they exchanged, discussed, and revised the results—at first with no thought of publication. Although Marlatt's poems alternate with Warland's, whose poem is whose is not...

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Stan Dragland (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Dragland, Stan. “Out of the Blank: Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic.” In The Bees of the Invisible: Essays in Contemporary English Canadian Writing, pp. 172-90. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Dragland explores Marlatt's radical feminist subversion of patriarchal discourse in Ana Historic, drawing attention to the novel's revision of the gothic genre, complex linguistic and narrative dualities, and Marlatt's evocation of the female body and creativity.]

The ideal template is held up in front of every person observed in daily transactions. This means that variance, when perceived, is viewed as...

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Fred Ribkoff (essay date fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ribkoff, Fred. “Daphne Marlatt's ‘Rings’: An Extension of the Proprioceptive.” Essays on Canadian Writing 50 (fall 1993): 231-46.

[In the following essay, Ribkoff examines Marlatt's adaptation of Charles Olson's “proprioceptive” poetics in “Rings,” as evident in her shift to prose poetry, a more expansive form, and her effort to evoke the immediacy and simultaneity of physical experience through dynamic linguistic and syntactic effects.]

DM: … I'd say that what happened was that Kit's birth finally located me in a tangible & therefore absolute way in my own body. I'd been lost from my body until that point.


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Pamela Banting (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Banting, Pamela. “The Reorganization of the Body: Daphne Marlatt's ‘Musing with Mothertongue.’”1 In ReImagining Women: Representations of Women in Culture, edited by Shirley Neuman and Glennis Stephenson, pp. 217-32. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Banting discusses Marlatt's poetics of the physical body and her effort to relocate language and writing in the human organism itself, which Marlatt identifies as the literal and metaphorical source of all experience and signification.]

We have seen previously that, caught between the sense we give to reality and the non-sense patriarchal...

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Manina Jones (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Manina. “‘I Quote Myself’ or, A Map of Mrs. Reading: Re-siting ‘Woman's Place’ in Ana Historic.” In That Art of Difference: ‘Documentary-Collage’ and English-Canadian Writing, pp. 140-60. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Jones examines Marlatt's feminist subversion of patriarchal history in Ana Historic, where historical discourse is identified as a coded, exclusionary narrative of male politics, power, and domination. Jones focuses on the novel's intertextual appropriation and reinterpretation of authentic historical texts to create a “documentary-collage” that she contends works toward reclaiming and...

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Daphne Marlatt and Janice Williamson (interview date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Marlatt, Daphne, and Janice Williamson. “Daphne Marlatt: ‘When We Change Language …’” In Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers, by Janice Williamson, pp. 182-93. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993.

[In the following interview, Marlatt discusses her interest in French feminist theory and Freudian psychoanalysis, the significance of the mother-daughter relationship, the portrayal of the female body and lesbian eroticism in her work, and the way in which her postcolonial upbringing shaped her feminist perspective.]

[Williamson]: I want to begin by asking you about your current work. Your project...

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Keith Green and Jill LeBihan (essay date fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Green, Keith, and Jill LeBihan. “The Speaking Object: Daphne Marlatt's Pronouns and Lesbian Poetics.” Style 28, no. 5 (fall 1994): 432-44.

[In the following essay, Green and LeBihan examine Marlatt's assimilation of French feminist theory and her critique of phallogocentricism in Ana Historic. The two critics also focus on Marlatt's use of interrelated narrative voices and grammatical juxtapositions to reaffirm connections between mothers and daughters, lesbian lovers, and women and history.]


The discussion of much recent feminist theory is centered on what might be meant by a woman as subject in discourse...

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Kathleen M. Scheel (essay date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scheel, Kathleen M. “Freud and Frankenstein: The Monstered Language of Ana Historic.Essays on Canadian Writing 58 (spring 1996): 93-114.

[In the following essay, Scheel explores Marlatt's critique of Freudian pyschosexual theory, particularly Freud's postulations about the female body and hysteria, in Ana Historic. According to Scheel, Marlatt's novel reveals how patriarchal language and history projects the misogynistic anxieties of male-dominated culture onto women, who in turn are rendered silent, aberrant, and without independent identity—a condition shared by Frankenstein, a manmade gothic monster.]

In Daphne Marlatt's book Ana...

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Lynette Hunter (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hunter, Lynette. “Language Strategies: Personal Memory As Public History.” In Outsider Notes: Feminist Approaches to Nation State Ideology, Writers/Readers, and Publishing, pp. 231-71. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Hunter discusses issues of historical, linguistic, and national representation in postcolonial Canadian literature and provides analysis of Marlatt's feminist reinterpretation of women's sexuality, historical imagination, and personal memory in her poetry and in Ana Historic.]

The three writers to whom I now turn are different because they focus on language rather than genre, although in no way exclusively. Robert...

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Marlene Goldman (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldman, Marlene. “Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic: A Genealogy for Lost Women.” In Paths of Desire: Images of Exploration and Mapping in Canadian Women's Writing, pp. 101-32. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Goldman examines Marlatt's feminist revision of patriarchal linguistic, historical, and symbolic constructs in Ana Historic.]

I do not think we can live as human subjects without in some sense taking on a history; for us, it is mainly the history of being men or women under bourgeois capitalism. In deconstructing that history, we can only construct other histories. What are we in the process...

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Beverley Curran (essay date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Curran, Beverley. “Swimming with the Words: Narrative Drift in Daphne Marlatt's Taken.Canadian Literature 159 (winter 1998): 56-71.

[In the following essay, Curran examines the shifting, “porous” interaction of language, narrative, and meaning in Marlatt's writing, particularly in Taken, contending this technique reflects Marlatt's preoccupation with the inseparable link between linguistic expression and bodily sensation and the malleable border between inner and outer worlds.]

In her Foreword to Salvage, her last solo book of poetry, Daphne Marlatt described the process of writing those poems as “aquatic”:

working with subliminal currents in the movements of language, whose direction as “direction” only became apparent as i went with the drift, no matter how much flotsam seemed at first to be littering the page.


In writing Salvage, Marlatt translated herself from reader to writer, returning to poems she had written in the early seventies and re-reading and writing them again “on that edge where a feminist consciousness floods the structures of patriarchal thought” in an attempt “to salvage the wreckage of language so freighted with phallocentric values it must be subverted and re-shaped, as Virginia Woolf said of the sentence, for a woman's use” (n.p.).

The reader and writer find themselves in a fluid narrative in the drifting space and time and half-light of Marlatt's latest novel. In Taken, as in much of Marlatt's writing, one genre interrupts another, the lesbian body swimming with the words of memory and mother against the current, but with the drift that moves language in new directions, and, thus, lives to change. Strands of gender and genre, of the real and the imagined, break and attach, tangling stories and lives with past and place. The tangle, the interruption, the flow, and the drift are ways to write about how closely language and the body are intertwined for, as Marlatt asks in her Preface to Ghost Works, how can “autobiography be seen as divorced from poetry—… or lesbianism divorced from heterosexuality—that haunting family” (viii)? Breaking one script, threads are salvaged to weave another story, and to those salvaged strands cling still others, the “stories that we invent or refuse to invent ourselves by, all unfinished …” (Taken 130).

In Marlatt's porous narrative is her recognition of a permeable body; her awareness of how our sense of ourselves as “isolated, self-contained creatures”1 is as artificial as the closed construction of a story, and as limiting as language, when it encourages the illusion that we do not form part of an interactive field that extends beyond the human to “another here” (Taken 111), where our words do not exist, where the living body is its own language.

Understanding the connection between language and the body, or, as Marlatt calls it in “What Matters,” “the interrelating of bodies / words” (153), is to understand the relation of touch to tongue. As Lorraine Weir describes it,

language makes us things to each other, puts us in the same relation to other humans as we are to things and, on those rare occasions when a response comes which is not silence but the discovery of place in an/other, makes possible community which is con/text. Relating words to each other as we do things in the world … we create a possible world through an act of love. …


Swimming with the words, Marlatt's narrative drifts, urges, draws us to consider the relationship of words and things, to feel then and there as ‘another here’, part of us: “not to take but to fill place” (“Taking Place” in Net Work 97). In Taken, Marlatt is reaching “for another kind of story, a story of listening way back in the body” (25), to imagine all that we are. In this paper, I would like to look at how her narrative lets bodies drift beyond human relationships, and language, letting the reader listen through the body, through her body, to what haunts us, and to those who “skim the air … swim in the water breathing there” (25), wordless.

Marlatt has said that “writing is about sensing one's way through the sentence, through (by means of) a medium (language) that has its own currents of meaning, its own drift” (“Reading MAUVE” 27-8).2 The suggestive texture of Taken resists airtight arguments and lines of reasoning; it is difficult to document the experience of transformation.3 Indeed, Marlatt writes against the definitive: “the holes we make in such a definite body leak meaning we splash each other with” (“Between the Lines” 81). In the contradictory currents of Taken's drifting prose are found the twinning of celebration and resistance that Weir has found in Marlatt's poetry, the “process of invention that gets you here, heals lostness, [and] resuscitates memory which is imagination (60). Marlatt's immersive texts flow, seek openings. Her language, “leafings out and leavings, these passages” (Taken 6), is pulling at the ghosts that haunt us, and branching beyond what limits us from opening to other possible worlds.

In Ana Historic, Marlatt was reaching for a different kind of story, too, looking for the women lost in the archives of patriarchal, heterosexual history. The historical research Annie had been doing for her husband turned into the writing of her own story. Annie became the writer, and her reader, Zoe, her lover: the woman writing, the woman reading, “we are, i am … swimming, swimming to save herself” (150). As Marlatt explained, the reader enters into “the generation of the work so the last scene represents the author making love to her reader, which is perhaps what all writing is about” (Marlatt 1996). Julie Abraham points out in are girls necessary? that tangling lesbian love and the act of writing inextricably together creates

a non-narrative model of the relation of lesbianism to the literary (“love is writing”) that undercuts the heterosexual plot by shifting the focus from narrative … If love might be writing, or writing love … plot is no longer the repository of value.


In Ana Historic, with the use of “the metaphor of the continual turning of the page as the working of desire,” the linear narrative is translated into “the moment of writing” (Marlatt 1996), as transient as conversation, and the inevitability of closure into the anticipation of “the next page, even if it's not yet written” (Interview 180). Marlatt refuses to “follow … the plotline through” (Ana 17), interrupting one story with another, with conversations over what she has just written, or what she has never imagined.

The site of the story is not a solid construction built to hold us in, or keep us out, but rather a tidal ebb and flow: it is “out and in. out and in” (AH 125). In “musing with mothertongue,” Marlatt wondered, “where are the poems that celebrate the soft letting-go the flow of menstrual blood as it leaves her body” (47)? In Ana Historic, she writes that flow, Annie Torrent's story resisting closure, the period/full stop giving way to the period, “bleeding and soft. her on my tongue” (152).

The powerful freedom found in that moment of writing/loving is intoxicating, and full of possibility, the “reach of your desire reading us into the page ahead” (Ana n.p.). But Taken turns on a different idea of a story; that it is not one's own, but constrained by other and others' stories; that desire is complicated by complicity; and that like the past, ‘the page ahead’ is a palimpsest. Against the current of their mothers' expectations, Suzanne, and Lori, her lover, take “issue with the given” (“musing” 47), breaking “the marriage script … the familial ties we each were meant to perpetuate” (Taken 77-78). But in spite of that conscious resistance to the destiny script, both are still susceptible to “the claiming currents of that mother-pull” (47). When Lori leaves, returning to her mother, Suzanne uses words as a talisman, words her mother taught her, to try to “alter the destiny freight” (77), and bring her lover back. One story of family is rejected while another continues, like a “thread of magic litanies running back, uncut, like Ariadne's to a safe place” (77).

Just as Suzanne had received a destiny script from her mother, Esme, so Esme had been loaded with one by hers. But Suzanne, because “she has had access to so much more thought about women's position in the world” (Marlatt 1997), is able to deconstruct the script that her own mother was unable to escape. Esme could rarely see “beyond the uncertainty she was intimate with and by which she defined herself” (24). The destiny script works its spell on Esme. When, at a party, her own name and fate are spelled out on her mother's ouija board, she cannot read that as an example of her mother's power over her; as a medium, the mother is “colonizing the daughter for the sake of social magic” (Marlatt 1997).

Marlatt is very aware of the inheritance of “scripts (the opposite of gifts)” (Labyrinth [Readings from the Labyrinth] 3), and their tenacious grip:

I don't know if we can escape them completely. … The fragments are so deeply embedded in us; they have so much emotional resonance for us that it would be a shame to lose them completely. You can't just throw them out. The task, once you've broken them apart into those resonating fragments, is to reconstitute them so that you can write a different story but with the same elements … to think in a different way from the thoughts that the scripts represent.

(Marlatt 1997)

In her novel, Marlatt ‘reconstitutes’ these scripts in a fluid narrative where time and space leak. Words are broken by hyphens, and sentences fade rather than finish. Ellipses abound, like loose threads. And everywhere is the sound of water: rain dripping from the cedar boughs, torrential tropical storms; splashing pools; waves and waterfalls, the running tap; dew, mist, wet skin.

Taken surfaces and fades in the “half-light” (3), that “transition hour just before dawn, when light begins to intimate the differences between things still rooted deep in earth's shadow” (129-30). The story hesitates, tentative, beginning without words, with listening, “behind the hand over my mouth (my mouth, as if i should not say anything, not yet, now now)” (3). “Ghost leaves,” the threads of stories, are “translating themselves” (3) into hers. These stories, the residual energies of “the ghosts of the psyche, the so-called dead who haunt us, whose words so easily stir to the surface of memory,”4 not only arrive in the resonance of words or thoughts, but through the body, through a faint scent carried on a breeze, or a touch.

In her conversation with Janice Williamson, Marlatt talked about the “murmur in the flesh,” the “very deep subliminal connection with the mother”:

what we first of all remember is this huge body which is our first landscape and which we first remember bodily. We can't consciously remember it, but it's there in our unconscious, it's there in all the repressed babble, the language that just ripples and flows—and it isn't concerned with making sense. It's concerned with the feel: the ‘feel’ of words has something to do with the feel of that body, of the contours of early memory.

(Interview 185)

Suzanne is haunted by her mother's words, her parents' lives, “the ambience … what they took for granted, the smell the feel of their time my own beginning intercepted” (Taken 25). She remembers Lori's essentialist opposition to the ghostly presence of Suzanne's mother, Esme:

But she's not a ghost, you said once. She's in photos, on film, in letters. You have all these mementos you carry around with every move

Yes, but—mementos is not a word i wold have chosen for the evidence i felt compelled to keep … Maybe ghosts have something to do with presence and absence, both

But how is that different from memory?


Memory holds some of our stories, but there are others, as Marlatt explains:

There's a lot that stands outside of language because it stands outside the systems of thought which allow us to recognize anything. And it's often written in the body, it's kept in the body, in the cells, in the neural sheets of the brain, and it's a kind of residue that language can't reach. … Sometimes … we begin to recognize what these pieces are so that [they] can be pulled at through language … [These] I think of as the ghosts. These are what haunt us, what lies outside the systems of thought that we're trained in.

(Marlatt 1997)

As a writer, Marlatt is trying to find “a way of writing that will bring in more of what haunts it, what lies outside the conventionally linear” (Marlatt 1997). Interrupting the habitual modes of daily life, of reading and writing, is one technique. Another is working the shoreline of meaning: “bringing each little piece to the edge it cannot go beyond, and then putting it next to another edge and seeing what happens” (Marlatt 1996). Another is using reading to write, to become aware of meaning, and see beyond the chosen foreground. As Marlatt describes it,

I think reading is a very essential part of writing, and I don't mean reading other work; I mean reading what the words are saying on the page, because language has this incredible facility for saying more than our willful reading of it. And you can see that if you just accidentally misread something; you just transform a letter and the whole word changes or you suddenly hear an echo with another word in a preceding sentence that you've never heard before and you see what the connection is. The unconscious plays a large part of writing and I suppose reading is becoming more aware of that.

(Marlatt 1996)

And there is writing as reading. Using words and voices as openings,

the words i've heard, the phrases i seem to remember, part of a background that shaped me, take on a glow of meaning i never sensed. To make this strange composition, fiction and memory, so interlaced it is difficult to tell the difference.

(Taken 30)

The photograph, too, bears “witness in the imprint of place or person on the ‘taker's’ imagination.”5 Suzanne sifts through the evidence of photographs and films of her mother and father, and wartime correspondence between them, searching for clues to who they were, who she is. She reads one of her father's letters, filled with restraint and the cautious phrasing of an intelligence officer with much at stake. A letter from Esme follows the prescribed narrative patterns of a dutiful wife's correspondence (“Her duty, as her mother would remind her was to stay here with them and cheer him on from the sidelines” [11]) until in the postscript she writes against that duty, and “against his absence, against fate to bring him close” (13). Reading these letters, Suzanne realizes how much of the story was not written down, how many feelings were left untranslated into words; how the story “involving certain feelings gets passed on in an intonation, a hesitation, a gap between two sentences” (42).

The story is in the connection between things. In a photograph, the story is written in light, and, as Roland Barthes remarks in Camera Lucida

[a] sort of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze: light, though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.


In “On Distance and Identity: Ten Years Later,” Marlatt cites Camera Lucida, quoting Barthes' description of the still photograph as “a kind of Tableau vivant, a figuration of the motionless and madeup face beneath which we see the dead” (32), the “that-has-been” (94). But if the photograph presents the ‘that-has-been,’ Marlatt recognizes that the poem, or the immersive text of Taken, “less presence than presentiment, runs in a sort of controversy between what can be identified and what remains nameless, what has been said and what is unsayable” (“Distance” 94).

There are many careful descriptions of photographs, as Esme, Charles, and Suzanne, each in their turn, search the images of absent others for clues. Marlatt admits a fascination with the image, even as she writes against it:

The image on the one hand is equivalent to the story in that it is a self-representation. It helps in the construction of our identity. We look at these photographs of ourselves over time, and we say this is me then, this is me now, and each image—I learned this from Robert Minden when we were working on Steveston together—the image is as much the intention of the subject as it is the intention of the person who takes the photo. The subject poses himself or herself in a way they want to be seen. Now what Susanne and Esme do looking at photographs is they try to see through that.

(Marlatt 1997)

A photograph seems to be fixed, a frozen image, but that is nothing more than an optical illusion; “the frozen moment is a lie, and in that way it is equivalent to a script” (Marlatt 1997). There is movement in the photograph, connections behind and beyond it. Consider the photograph of Esme, walking with Suzanne's father, Charles, just after a visit to the doctor has confirmed her pregnancy:

There they are … The forward motion of their step stilled for a second by some street photographer she is smiling for, having just caught the camera's swivel towards them … yes, they are at the turning point of history in this part of the world, though she hadn't known it then. She'd been too thrilled by the turn in their own private history.

He is looking askance, frowning slightly at something he doesn't approve of, or something that worries him, more probably … What was he looking at? A newsboy, she thinks now, a headline. Already preoccupied with war, the signs of destiny running ahead of their moment …

But she, she was only there in that moment given back to her, the surprise and pleasure of a stranger's snapping them on that day, in that split second.


With the knowledge of her pregnancy, the confident delight written across the face of Esme is a look ahead to an imagined future. In capturing that delight, the camera caught the significance of the pregnancy, a ‘turn in their own private history’, but in the background were also details of the impending war, details that went unnoticed until a later viewing saw the tangle of history and personal stories.

No moment is fixed, no story is free of other stories, no body unconnected with another, and yet so many assumptions are made about the time and place we live in, about the stories we are told and which we tell ourselves, about what is real and what is fiction. Rituals and scripts contain us, and because they are there when we arrive, we think of them as inevitable, not as constructions that we might change. We are taken by both history and photography. Each deceives

not because it distorts what is out there and presumably real, but because it seems to reproduce it with such an excess of clarity that it leaves us no other option but to believe blindly in it. This is the precondition of all magic; not the suspension of belief, but its exaggeration to a numb certainty in which the repetition of a thing is enough to make it a truth.

(Morson 273)

From photograph to home movie, the technology of image-making continues to evolve, so that by the time the Gulf War is taking place in 1991, the media can supply images of war, often digitally processed, of distant, impersonal destruction. On the rainy west coast of Canada, as they watch these mediated images of that war, Suzanne and Lori are “appalled for different reasons, historically accountable and furious at a complicity neither … wanted to recognize” (81). Both recognize connections to a war in Southeast Asia. For Lori, “this is another Vietnam, stacked in much the same way” (35). Her anti-war response is unambiguous, her perspective narrow. Suzanne finds herself “caught in the echoes of an earlier war, caught in the meshes of defending brutality to stop brutality” (38). The lovers frustrate each other, and a chasm opens between them.

As war becomes the concern of all the media, Suzanne reads newspaper stories, spun from the rhetoric of politicians, introducing the new vocabulary of this war in the Gulf, and words for the magic charms which will ward off war:

This new obsession with high-tech fighters and tanks: charms against evil, against the threats of a “mad-man” who spent $50 billion on armaments in the last decade but is not considered mad for that reason. Mad because he takes on the world's mightiest power, this two-bit dictator invoking “the Mother of Battles.” And our media repeat his rhetoric so they can celebrate the American arsenal (equipped of course with Canadian components—yes Lori, i read that, too).


As a young girl, Suzanne had “half-listened to the names that preoccupied” her mother and the other women waiting for the war to end so their own lives could begin again: “Changi, Burma, Geneva Code, dysentery. She didn't know these names” (101). Now she hears more words for war. “Operation Desert Storm is underway and our papers are alive with threats of terrorism. A new vocabulary has taken hold: Tomahawk cruise missiles and Stealth fighters, plague-laden warheads, a holy war” (19). But is this vocabulary new? ‘Tomahawks’ and ‘holy wars’ mark the bloody clash of colonial and religious aggression in other times, “this sense of the enemy again” (19).

The Gulf War on “the other (the same?) side of our world” (19) translates the relationship of Suzanne and Lori. Their preoccupation with the images of war on the television screen, edited to threads of the big picture and sound bites, seems to create another gulf between them, makes them feel irresponsible to curl their bodies around each other's and let the days pass without “any consequence. The fatal idea of islands cut off from the main” (16): “the mainland, the mainstream, the main thing” (85). But Suzanne thinks it “is not this war that divides us. … It's something further back in our own lives. Still unread” (81).

When Lori leaves to help her mother, and to be part of things that matter, Suzanne writes ‘her’, reaching for what is not ‘here’, across time to find Esme, across the world to Lori in ‘another here’:

Anxiety pushes me out of bed in the dark, to write her, reach her, bring her bodily out of nothing, which is not nothing because she is there, leaning against me on the other side of a thin membrane that separates, so thin we communicate, but not in words. I reach toward her with these half-truths, half-light fading into ordinary time and space.


Esme waited for her husband, waiting for life to resume, but Suzanne's world is not on hold, even as she writes Lori, as imagined dialogues with her lover play in her head. Her body remembers “the murmur, mer-mère” (“Booking Passage” in Salvage 117) of mother and child, the “nameless interbeing we began with” (Taken 21); the “[k]notting and unknotting” of lovers, “… our own foetal curl, soft gone and long gone, impossible to know where each of us ends” (15), the interbeing of mother and infant daughter played out again between lesbian lovers in their exploration of intimate geography. But with Suzanne and Lori, “the permeable bond between mother and daughter [is] being replayed with a whole lot of junk in it” (Marlatt 1997):

Even as i dream you, desire that bliss of total surrender, bliss at the dissolution of blockage—old wounds, the ones we tell over and over as if they were our selves. “You” escape, you other than my dreaming designs. I forget (are we always complicit?) that dreams are drawn to the blurred ideal each of us carries—home, the impossible place, love, the mother our own mothers, amid the urgent particulars of their lives, could never live up to.


There is so much ‘junk’ that “the loss of Lori feels like the loss of everything” to Suzanne, but her relationship to the “sensual environment is almost as important a relationship for Suzanne as the relationship with Lori” (Marlatt 1997). Her body, the present, her body in the present, can give Suzanne a feeling of home without mental and emotional anxiety. The sensual floats, letting the images of otters who “live here with all the pleasure of beings who belong … sliding into water, their dark coats slicked back” (15) lap up against Suzanne while making love: “Knotting and unknotting ourselves by candlelight, i think of them even as we submerge in hunger searching out the soft parts, undoing nipples, lips with tongue talk …” (15)

Even as she makes love, Suzanne is thinking. Our propensity to constantly assess, compare, evaluate, and question; “can human beings ever feel at home?” (Marlatt 1997). It is this non-thinking, the envy of beings without words, that lets a narrative drift to find itself, not in the story line, or the rigid constraints of a particular genre, but in a flow of words which lets the body go, a narrative that is feeling its way through what is not known: the aquatic narrative dives and surfaces, replaying the past, surprised by the new in what has been before, letting the ear hear what the eye cannot see, and changing the rhythm of writing into a process at least as sensual as it is cerebral. As Marlatt describes it in “Writing Our Way Through the Labyrinth”:

the labyrinth of language … requires an inner ear, a sensory organ i feel my way by (sentence, sentire, to feel), keeping my feet by a labyrinthine sense of balance as the currents of various meanings, the unexpected “drift,” swirl me along. of course the labyrinth is filled with fluid, as the membraneous labyrinth of the inner ear is, women know the slippery feel of language …

(Labyrinth 33)

Words, worlds, lap against each other, and change the way we see them. In writing Taken, Marlatt sought to make meaning mobile, “trying to get as many different associations as possible” (Marlatt 1997), letting consonants shift and vowel sounds surprise, and moving words to new meaning by evoking images through different collocations and connotations. ‘Taken’ is played with, turned over and over, so that all its usages are found in the context of the novel. There is the nebulous meaning of ‘taken’ in the title6 and its crucial connections with photography; with capture and seduction; with giving; with the occupation of space; and the success of a seed. No meaning stands alone; the porous relationship between bodies is evident in the relationship of words, as well.

At the same time that she tosses in her useless bed, missing her absent lover, Suzanne is haunted by the images that place human activity in a wider context: “The image of a greased cormorant struggling to lift itself from oil-thick waters in the Gulf of Bahrain repeats and repeats” (92). Just as the entwined lovers' bodies evoked the slick bodies of otters utterly in their element, Suzanne's thoughts move from the distress of oil-covered birds to ponder the loss of her own place in the arms of Lori: “how could the tenderness that soaked our skin have come to this?” (92)

Marlatt's narrative drift writes the interbeing of women's bodies, in the mother and in the “particular murmur” (Marlatt 1997) of the lesbian lover, as it writes a profound ecological consciousness, for if “dreams are narratives made of those words which arise from the flaming of things within us, their opposite is the poisoned world of the ‘exploited earth’” (Weir 61). How does lesbian love and the sensual environment of body and nature make sense of human war? The distinctive construction of Suzanne's questions, “How put it together with the news we are occupied by, preoccupied” (15), and “How put together a narrative” (26), recalls the title/question of Marlatt's How Hug a Stone. In her discussion of Marlatt in Body, Inc.: A Theory of Translation Poetics. Pamela Banting suggests that that title is a question as to “the possibility of embracing the family of ancestors and of replying to the wild heartbeat,” that it asks “how we can deploy our bodies in relation to the physical world of which bodies are a part” (176). These issues seem to aptly apply as well to Suzanne's questions of how to connect writing, somatic memory, heterosexual history and lesbian love in a wholly present narrative.

“Where can we be if we aren't where we are, inside so many levels of connection” (86)? Wrapped in layers of other lives, the desire to be at home with ‘where we are’ is a thread of connection between the war in the Gulf and Suzanne's life on the island and the memory stored in tissue. Suzanne's yearning for an inner and outer geography of home is like the desire of

[m]igratory birds flying, whole flocks across the oil-slick in that other contested Gulf. Driven by homing desire past fire, through impenetrable smoke. While below them the bombing and the firing go on.


These threads connect the reader with other writing in which Marlatt has posed the question, “[W]hat attaches her to the world?” and brought women's bodies, memory in the tissues, war, and exploited species together. In “Litter. wreckage. salvage” she writes:

                                                                                … What matters, mattered
once has seeped away. like fluid from a cell, except she
keeps her walls intact, her tidal pool the small things of
her concern still swim alive alive-oh-
The salmon homing in this season, spring, the sewer out-
falls upstream, oil slick, the deadly freight of acid rain—
she reads the list of casualties in the ongoing war outside
her door.

(Salvage 15-16)

As she digs into the earth, planting lettuce seeds and thinking of the past, of Lori gone—“Lori has become one of her ghosts” (Marlatt 1977)—Suzanne simultaneously thinks of “death again, of burned bodies in desert sand.

Perhaps we don't deserve this place …

Perhaps thinking that is the problem … Perhaps we don't understand where we really are


Too much thinking, and yet not enough. Marlatt is concerned with the thinking that gets in the way of being at home, as she is with the habitualization, the “assumptions the daily is grounded on, housed in” (113):

I think that we spend huge amounts of time in our daily life trying to forget everything except what immediately concerns us, because this is how we construct our inner narrative which allows us to be who we think we are. And we know far more than we think we know, than we allow ourselves to know. We carry all this stuff with us.

(Marlatt 1997)

Suzanne cannot remember what was eaten at dinner the night before Lori's departure, and “this seems terribly important, like a sign i haven't read” (52), as a sign lost in the automatic, unconscious response of living every day.

We tend to prioritize our own lives, our individual futures, and to think of the past as finished, over and done with. Marlatt feels “it still present. And the consequences of that keep getting played out.” (Marlatt 1997) Sites of past and ongoing pain exist and affect all of us. The Gulf War; the bombing at Hiroshima; the lime pits and ovens of a concentration camp; the insidious colonization of a Native child in a residential school: these are not “elsewhere so much as another here” (111) that we do not recognize, and “what we cut off from us by cognitive amputation, comes back to haunt us” (113). The nameless narratives of suffering in war camps in the italicized passages within the novel tell us of women, taken, “yes, but not completely” (67), acquiring strategies for survival; learning new definitions of time and space, of family: “your heart swells to hold this ragtag retinue lost somewhere in a mapless world” (88). These stories of war, of women taken prisoner, are written here, not forgotten. But along with such human suffering, there are the circumstances of “an oil slick on a different gulf drift[ing] toward a herd of breeding sea cows soon to be forgotten, immaterial finally in the human struggle for dominance” (86).

If we cannot recognize the suffering of other human beings in our own lives, our complicity in the creation of their stories, and theirs in ours—“We are complicit, yes” (130)—how difficult it is to imagine lives beyond our human ones. Indeed, how does one species of life understand another? “What do cat and deer make of each other?” (19), and what does either make of the speeding car, “this apocalyptic machine splitting their world for an instant” (19)? There are worlds beyond words, beyond human stories, and to recognize them is to situate one's life in an eco-system, “the largest sense of what we're involved in as living beings” (Marlatt 1997).

Marlatt recalls the profound sense of a system not built on a human scale that she encountered on a visit to Steveston:

First of all, you're standing on an island that's below sea-level so it's an incredibly liminal place between water and earth. But especially if you're standing there in the Spring, with the freshet pouring down the Fraser, you get an incredible sense of the power of that water moving out to the sea.

(Marlatt 1997)

In Steveston (1974), she was trying to write that, to “imitate the flow of the river in long, long extended sentences,”7 writing “the motion of fluid space” (118) as Smaro Kamboureli describes it, but she “didn't have any theory for it then,”8 hence the attempt to rewrite those poems again in Salvage. Feminist theory familiarized Marlatt with the idea of foregrounding the background, of making present what was absent.

The unspoken of women's experience until recently was the background; it was what never was acknowledged. And now we've been making it the foreground, foregrounding it over and over again, so it's now visible. We can now recognize it. And we have all kinds of language for talking about it. But then what about the area that lies beyond the human? You know, the interdependency of all beings; the eco-system?

(Marlatt 1997)

Narrative drift recognizes an ebb and flow in background and foreground, in the oscillating rhythms of reading and writing:

reading our world, we act upon it, are acted upon—inter/read, inter/act—receive the earth's reading of us, are netted in a context which we mime, which we are as, netting ourselves we encounter death.

(Weir 62)

Language is mortal, too, Marlatt knows: it “generates itself & it dies, but it's all there in the body” (Interview by Bowering 60).

In Taken, Marlatt reaches for the language, for ‘how put it together’, a story profoundly present, yet pregnant with past and future, and with the interdependency of all living beings, of the energy of place. She writes “as an inhabitant of language, not master, not even mistress” (“musing” 48) of discourse, letting her attention drift, demonstrating for us a narrative in which, as Sue Ellen Campbell suggests in her essay, “The Land and Language of Desire,” “we pay attention not to the way things have meanings for us, but to the way the rest of the world—the nonhuman part—exists apart from us and our languages” (133); that the “systems of meanings that matter are ecosystems” (134).

To open ourselves to answers other than our own, to listen with our bodies and drift beyond cognition to the feeling of home in the skin: “the body being in its place”; to open our minds, and “take in everything around it without getting caught up within analysis” (Marlatt 1997): how does one position oneself to write that? Narrative drift is an immersion in the process of writing/loving. The sensation of a body in water is that of a body aware of its element. The differences Marlatt perceived between writing poetry and transparent prose can be applied to her narrative drift:

It's like the difference between being land animals &—we don't usually experience air, you know. We breathe in & we breathe out without being aware that we're breathing any medium at all … Once we get into the water, which is a foreign element to us, we're very aware of the difficulty of moving thru that element … You are aware that you are moving in an element, in a medium, & that there is a constant resistance to your moving forward. And that, in fact, any moving forward you make is thanks to that element that you're moving in. So that language … writes the story as much as you do.

(Interview by Bowering 62)

The medium rubs against the skin, is as tangible as the skin. Immersed, the body/text floats, drifts, aware of the support and the risk of this essential component of our inner and outer worlds. Slowing time down, slowing everything down, there is a rhythm writing against the pace of information. In wet, sensuous writing, ‘the interbeing we were born with’ is played out (again) in writing the woman reader here:

I want to write you here, translate you, into this fabulous air so drenched with the syllables of birds. I want to pour you into this bowl of misty half-light, everything merged, submerged. …

(Taken 77)

This is writing in the threshold between breaths, where words give way to a sense of being home, in her element.


  1. This quotation is from one of two personal interviews with Daphne Marlatt which took place at her home in Victoria, BC, the first, in April 1996, and the second, from which this quotation is taken, on August 27, 1997. I thank Daphne Marlatt for permission to quote from these interviews. I also gratefully acknowledge the participation of Mitoko Hirabayashi at both interviews. I thank Steve Cornwell for his careful transcriptions.

  2. I thank Carolyn Guertin for bringing this quotation to my attention.

  3. Indeed, as Carolyn Guertin so persuasively argues in her paper, “Gesturing Toward the Visual: Virtual Reality, Hypertext and Embodied Feminist Criticism,” “Using our bodies to reorganize our thoughts as critics, we need to reinsert our proprioceptive sense and our material awareness of the body. … [W]e as critics must plug ourselves back into the territories of the unspeakable that our artists are exploring by using the same narrational and navigational tools.”

  4. From a letter following the 1997 interview, dated September 2, 1997.

  5. From “On Distance and Identity: Ten Years Later,” the afterword to the Longspoon edition of Steveston, 92.

  6. The novel's working title was Taken By Surprise but was shortened to increase its mobility, its mutility: “I wanted all those usages of ‘taken’ to be played out in the context of the novel” (Marlatt 1997).

  7. From an interview with Ellea Wright, quoted in Smaro Kamboureli's On the Edge of Genre 118.

  8. Marlatt discusses her introduction to theory in her interview with Williamson (Interview 182-3).

For my title I have borrowed a phrase from Nicole Brossard who spoke of “a space to swim with the words” to describe her relationship with her translators, her active readers, who share a “network of minds, a connection of consciousness … in the way they posture themselves within language and in their relation to the act of writing.”

Works Cited

Abraham, Julie. are girls necessary? New York: Routledge, 1996.

Banting, Pamela. Body, Inc.: A Theory of Translation Poetics. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1995.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Campbell, Sue Ellen. “The Land and Language of Desire: Where Deep Ecology and Post-Structuralism Meet.” The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens, London: The University of Georgia Press, 1996. 124-36.

Guertin, Carolyn. “Gesturing Toward the Visual: Virtual Reality, Hypertext and Embodied Feminist Criticism.” Online.

Kamboureli, Smaro. On the Edge of Genre: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Marlatt, Daphne. Readings From the Labyrinth. Edmonton: NeWest, 1998.

———. Personal Interview. By Beverley Curran and Mitoko Hirabayashi, August 28, 1997.

———. Personal Interview. By Beverley Curran and Mitoko Hirabayashi, April 1996.

———. Taken. Concord: House of Anansi Press, 1996.

———. Ghost Works. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1993.

———. Interview. “When we change language. …” By Janice Williamson. Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993. 182-93.

———. Salvage. Red Deer: Red Deer College Press, 1991.

———. “Translating MAUVE: Reading Writing.” Tessera 6 (1989): 27-30.

———. Ana Historic. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1988.

———, and Betsy Warland. “Reading and Writing Between the Lines.” Tessera 5 (1988): 80-81.

———. “musing with mothertongue.” Touch to My Tongue. Edmonton: Longspoon Press, 1984. 45-49.

———. Steveston. Edmonton: Longspoon Press, 1984.

———. How Hug a Stone. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1983.

———. Net Work: Selected Writing. Vancouver: Talonbooks. 1980.

———. What Matters: Writing 1968-70. Toronto: Coach House. 1980.

———. Interview. “Given This Body.” By George Bowering. Open Letter 4.3 (1979): 32-88.

Morson, Gary Saul. Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1994.

Weir, Lorraine. “Daphne Marlatt's ‘Ecology of Language.’” Line 13 (1989): 58-63.

Marlene Goldman (review date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldman, Marlene. “A Book of Mornings.” Canadian Literature 159 (winter 1998): 185-86.

[In the following review of Taken, Goldman commends the novel's fragmented narrative structure but finds shortcomings in its “disappointing and heavy handed” conclusion.]

Marlatt's latest novel, Taken, reads as a companion piece to Ana Historic. Both works are lyrical, densely imagistic ghost stories, composed by daughters desperate to communicate with the dead. As the narrator explains, this is “a book of mornings.” In keeping with the play on words, the novel both records the beauty of morning, “that indistinct time” which greets the...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Lynda Hall (review date winter 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hall, Lynda. “A Phrase Petalled Deep.” Canadian Literature 159 (winter 1998): 186-88.

[In the following review, Hall offers a positive evaluation of Readings from the Labyrinth.]

In Readings from the Labyrinth, Daphne Marlatt offers her readers intensely personal reflections on more than two decades of her theoretical and fictional writings. The sensual charm of her voice and language reverberates throughout the text, seductively embracing the reader and encouraging connections. Approaching the project autobiographically, Marlatt collects together many familiar theoretical essays (some of which are significantly revised), and new essays. These are...

(The entire section is 1165 words.)

Jonathan Kertzer (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kertzer, Jonathan. “The Nation as Monster.” In Worrying the Nation: Imagining a National Literature in English Canada, pp. 117-59. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Kertzer discusses the problem of Canadian national identity and historical consciousness, referring to Marlatt's feminist revision of postcolonial Canadian history in Ana Historic as a case study.]

Michelet's work also presents, however … an alternate vision of the Other, one that expresses both the urgency of the historian's desire to justify and sanctify the historical process and his fear that it may not be possible to do so,...

(The entire section is 8990 words.)

Marie Vautier (essay date March 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vautier, Marie. “Canadian Fiction Meets History and Historiography: Jacques Poulin, Daphne Marlatt, and Wayson Choy.” Colby Quarterly 35, no. 1 (March 1999): 18-34.

[In the following excerpt, Vautier discusses the development of Canadian historical fiction and contemporary approaches to rewriting the postcolonial Canadian past, including the “historiographic metafiction” of Marlatt in Ana Historic.]

In the late twentieth century, traditional methods of “doing history”—what the French historian Paul Veyne calls the “histoire-traités-batailles” school of thought—have been challenged by more contemporary theories regarding the writing of...

(The entire section is 4668 words.)

Joanne Saul (review date winter 1999-2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Saul, Joanne. Review of Readings from the Labyrinth, by Daphne Marlatt. University of Toronto Quarterly 69, no. 1 (winter 1999-2000): 351-52.

[In the following review, Saul offers a positive assessment of Readings from the Labyrinth.]

Readings from the Labyrinth, the sixth in ‘The Writer as Critic Series’ from NeWest Press, extends the ongoing preoccupation with genre-bending in all of Daphne Marlatt's writing. According to its general editor, Smaro Kamboureli, the purpose of this series is to invite readers to read criticism as literature by helping them ‘identify the shifting boundaries and intentions of the artist creatively writing...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

Deborah M. Mix (essay date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mix, Deborah M. “An Erotics of Collaboration: Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland's Double Negative.Contemporary Literature 41, no. 2 (summer 2000): 291-322.

[In the following essay, Mix examines the collaborative lesbian feminist writing of Marlatt and Betsy Warland in Double Negative. Mix draws attention to the way in which their overlapping contributions defy binary conceptions of power and subvert patriarchal linguistic conventions, especially those of traditional love poetry and notions of authorship by linking “sexuality and textuality.”]

Lifting belly.
How are you.
Lifting belly how are you lifting belly.
We like a fire and we don't...

(The entire section is 11933 words.)