Robert Lecker (essay date spring 1978)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4953

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

Illustration of PDF document

Download Daphne Marlatt Study Guide

Subscribe Now

[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 heightened perception of an immanent world. The current joins each of her works, swelling into the torrent of impressions, sensations, and images which characterize Steveston. Linked to this inherent proclivity for movement is a need for poetic progress: each book can be seen as representing some form of search for an appropriate language of relation, for a form of discourse which will find a centre and render in clarity the instantaneous apprehension of things and thoughts caught in flux:

shapes flutter
glide into each other
but the hand
wanting to know
picks a thing
out from the center

Marlatt is involved in a quest for words which will give access to the truth of sight, reflecting not only the moment, but also the dynamic nature of experience and cognition. She arrives at a torrent, but not overnight. In fact, much of the power (and sometimes the weakness) of her earliest work lies in the tension between a tentative, frightened spontaneity, and an ambitious, robust control. So that in her first book, Frames, we find her hesitant about the plunge into this river of experience, content at first to watch this movement called Life from the sidelines, as if it were a show: “I'm / on the sidewalk viewing the procession.”

Gradually, she compromises, slowly immersing herself in the flow, thereby allowing Frames to become more than simply a poeticized version of Andersen's “The Snow Queen.” Marlatt reinterprets a number of the tale's motifs, and uses these to define and call into question her own situation as a poet. The result is an allegorical prose-poem dealing with a search for a form of aesthetic freedom in the face of limitations imposed by style and personal experience. The first lines acquaint us with the themes of imprisonment, escape, and search, while the book at large elaborates upon these themes by examining them in the context of restrictive private and aesthetic frames.

The protagonists are Kay and Gerda, two next-door playmates living in attic rooms. Through the frames of windows decorated with boxes of roses they watch each other watch each other. Sometimes Gerda visits Kay, and listens to his grandmother's stories. Clearly, Kay and Gerda lead a life dominated by images of enclosure which limit and structure their experience of the world. Grandmother's stories constitute the most potent image of confinement, for her words belong to a paralyzed, strictly ordered past divorced from process and liberty: “She hypnotizes me with the past fulfilled, / always filled, as if that should be enough.” Until Kay and Gerda and Marlatt herself are “lockt / in the grandmother's stopt voice,” and left with no alternative but to survive through fleeing into a story of flow which endeavours to obliterate the incarcerating influence of dead words and frozen time:

                                                                                                    (at your grandmother's
time is a glacier, bodies of ancestors keep turning up in
the shadows of afternoon … But here, if anywhere, is
a way out there

Marlatt has every right to join Kay and Gerda in flight, for their predicament, and the development of their story, serves as a metaphor for the problems of growth encountered by a poet struggling to break away from the frames imposed by established word patterns and the falsities implied by a worldview which categorizes experience, storytelling it in standardized form, as if the motion of living was always the same, always sane. Marlatt is not opposed to absolutes, but to the belief that absolutes can exist in isolation. Throughout her works, she insists that experience is a matter of relation. Hence stasis is validated by movement, stability assumes meaning in the midst of chaos, the individual realizes himself through others.

Frames represents Marlatt's initial attempt to formulate a poetry which would establish a correlation between perception and articulation. The task she immediately sets for herself is that of seeing herself seeing the world. She expresses a desire to unite the arts of seeing and telling in a bond so intimate that the eye will be interchangeable with the mouth: “as far as the eye can tell. …” Or, she sees herself as a digester of word-phrases-as-food, reorganizing, assimilating, and occasionally regurgitating the words, purging herself through the creation of new pictures which originate in the depths of her system:

                    thrown up
on each other in a
room word pictures be
come cru
                    /shall …

But she recognizes the difficulty of satisfying her own objectives, and in Frames we witness the struggle involved in achieving a balance between language and the reality it tries to describe. Because that balance never quite materializes here, language still manages to subdue the expression of reality, resulting in a strange mixture of fantasy, dream, and fact.

Significantly, both children are driven and controlled by the implications of language, and Kay is immediately presented as the victim of words which affect him in the same way as the fragments from the demon's distorted mirror do in the Andersen tale:

from this we know
two mirror chips divide
                    his vision of love
his heart

Kay suffers from the effects of a selective vision which ignores and destroys totality. Consequently, he cannot realize the complete poetic vision which, Marlatt implies, is composed of a blending of sight and emotion, heart and eye. The phrases which Grandmother casts upon Kay hypnotize him into believing that reality is the story itself, and so he is blinded to process and the world, stripped of his emotions, becoming a slave to the “Snow Queen” heroine whose tale has overcome him.

Marlatt sympathizes with Kay's plight, for it signifies many of the constrictions that she herself is trying to avoid. More important is the fact that she identifies with Gerda, whose activities assume the form of an aesthetic quest for experience inspired by a thirst for discovery. In the process of her quest for Kay, Gerda reads and interprets a phenomenological universe of signs which direct her towards the object of her search. Marlatt seems to admire Gerda's ability to leap into a flow of experience, and she emphasizes the power of the child's eyes, which are like nets capturing the multitude of images which constitute experience:

Can she see her seeing net
                                                                                                    sight, light
                                                                                                    start out of her eye!

There is an obvious envy of Gerda's camera-like eye, photographic in its ability to objectively capture the progression of moments constituting her search:

tells her tale
in camera obscura of her
history, an image
of the search

Clearly, one of the problems in Frames centres on Marlatt's dependence upon a character called Gerda: “Gerda, you'd better believe it! I'm clinging to you.” Marlatt's reliance upon Gerda signifies a reluctance to assume her own voice, and a fear at the thought of challenging the river alone. At the same time, she wants desperately to discover the child's sense of wonder and immediacy, to move into Gerda's world of relentless and varied experience. So like a child she cries: “Let me come too!” And she does go, but their voyage ends in failure. Although Gerda manages to locate Kay, the poetic release ostensibly to be derived from the movement towards cognition never materializes. The story ends much as it began, with Kay and Gerda once again depicted as prisoners: “Back to back to the room. Where / windowboxes with roses border their image of the world.” Any suggestion of the fairy tale is destroyed, and reality returns more heavily than ever, accompanied by a sense of defeat. On one level, the defeat is an aesthetic one, engendered by Marlatt's knowledge of the fact that she has relied upon the medium of Kay and Gera to transmit her own experience of the world. Like them, she has tried to escape a frame imposed by words, but ultimately she admits the impotence of her own attempt. This aspect of the poetry is best revealed through an examination of the titles describing the seven sections into which Frames is divided. She is found, static, in (I) “white as of the white room,” moving cautiously through (II) “shadows doors are” into colour and sunlight, where she experiments with poetry as painting in (III) “primarily colours,” gradually employing (IV) “light affects,” and realizing (V) “visual purple.” In (VI) “eye lights,” the eye is defined in a play upon the painter's word “highlight.” But in the last section, “Out a rose window,” Marlatt renunciates all claims to what she herself saw as progress, admitting that her art, which depended largely upon a voice at second remove, never managed to progress beyond a semi-real word encounter with experience. So the image of the window and “containment (not content—)” is reinstated as Marlatt confesses to a lingering predilection for rose-coloured vision.

The story of Kay and Gerda serves as more than a metaphor for an aesthetic impasse. It also describes the very real personal crisis of a woman who has recently abandoned a difficult relationship which threatened to enclose her. In this sense the children can be seen as representing two lovers who have parted. While Kay demonstrated the cruelty of a man whose heart has turned to stone, Gerda is the epitome of a woman enslaved to the memory of a man whose visage continues to haunt her. The distinct note of pain involved in the thought of a snapshot-captured past is relieved only by the glimpses of freedom and weightlessness which are features of a developing individuality:

But the whole weight of me shifted, changed value in fact. Without gravity I was absent too. Blown anywhere, clung to any personplace (for reprieval), had to begin to be a … will

It is this weight of the past which makes the act of seeing in the present so difficult to realize: “knotted in remembrance, not … / seeing.” The poetry of Frames may have frustrated its creator in her search for words and a style which would accurately reflect the sensation of being a consciousness in the world. But this does not detract from the fact that even in her first volume, Marlatt provides the reader with an example of creative brilliance and stylistic innovation.

One year later, in 1969, she returned to the public with Leaf Leaf/s, determined to purify both language and image, and to resolve any discord between perception, voice, and experience. In her second book, Marlatt dispenses with any reliance upon fantasy or assumed voice, and somewhat resolves the conflict between stasis and fluidity by depicting consciousness as a series of instants comprising a flow, rather than as fragments and fluid which cannot mix. Here, Marlatt speaks in images as sharp and precise as photographs. Language no longer reflects upon experience, but is experience—the work is concise, immediate, distilled, demonstrating a variety of instantaneous responses to surrounding phenomena:

that the
summit of mountains
should be
hot at that much
closer to
ah clouds the

Each poem in the collection can be seen as an image which expresses an abrupt combination of the thing perceived and its effect upon the perceiver. These imagistic poems exist as entities, but they act as a leaf amongst leaves (leafs/s), or as part of a larger totality (tree of life?). The result is a set of perceptions which mirror a portion of Marlatt's awareness.

Leaf Leaf/s appears almost as an exercise originating in reaction to Frames, and certainly, the reaction is complete. Whereas in Frames the syntax was often extended and complex, Leaf Leaf/s presents a streamlined and extremely pure arrangement of language. Frequently, words stand alone as poems within poems, or as precious moments related to the whole through imagistic suggestion. The poem bearing the significant title “Photograph” is a good example:

you sd a stalk I look
like a weed wind blows
          smokes &
unripe a colour but
elemental, grass
easily hugs
ground, that's you

Although Marlatt's second book resolves many of the difficulties connected with Frames, the feeling remains that there is an overreaction here, that by immersing herself so completely in the experience of a phenomenological universe she ignores several of the questions of relation that remained unanswered in Frames. Marlatt is at her best when she qualifies an experience of the moment by relating it to time. A reading of Rings (1971) and Steveston demonstrates the intensity she can achieve by utilizing public and private history. Both of these later books are strengthened by their depiction of a poetic encounter with diverse forms of process and instantaneity. In comparison, Leaf Leaf/s suffers, for it is solely concerned with a singular experience of the moment abstracted from duration. Nevertheless, its strong images form a powerful part of the foundation upon which Marlatt constructs the success of her later works.

Rings immediately recalls Frames through its introductory metaphors of enslavement, but here, the notion of restraint is highlighted by contrasting images of hope, release, and birth. In one respect, the birth of her child reintroduces the heroine to a whole range of apprehensions which had been stifled in the silence of a difficult marriage. The re-entry of perception is accompanied by a shift in language that becomes more dynamic as the newborn child grows. Although the problems of wedlock are never resolved, there is a progressive emphasis on movement and increased clarity of vision, suggesting the development of a healthy state of control derived from the mastery of language in terms of relation. Now, Marlatt manages to organize and coherently employ many of the qualities which she sees as essential to the poetic act: process intermingled with definition through stability, self-definition realized with regard to an environment of others, the development of a phenomenological approach to seeing matched by an identical approach to the mode of being.

The first words of Rings give voice to the heroine's conscious state: “Like a stone.” The initial image of weight and stasis gives way to a blending that establishes a correlation between the woman's stifled condition and the suffocating effects of a silent landscape and a brooding husband: “… smothered by the snowy silence, yours. Me?” This pervasive silence is quickly offset by a “jingling of rings,” the symbol of an imprisoning marriage. Finally, a myriad of sensory impressions combine, working together to define the consciousness of a woman pregnant not only with child, but with the tensions of a strained marriage. Characteristically, the fear of isolation-separation is linked to a problem of words:

My nerve ends stretch, anticipating hidden dark. I read too much in your words, I read silences where there is nothing to say, to be said, to be read. Afraid of your fear of the sea that surrounds us, Cuts off roads …

But this vision of being severed from the world (“disinherited from your claim to the earth”) is relieved by the waves of sun breaking through the window, and the ensuing realization that sight has the ability to penetrate barriers and join every object in a multilevelled vision of movement and birth. As the sun “pierces glass (cold) irradiating skin, water, wood,” every sense converges in the creation of a picture of hope, and the unborn child “kicks, suddenly unaccountable unseen.”

Rings “ii” continues to describe the woman's immersion in a multisensory universe, but an interesting shift occurs, for the barriers between inner and outer begin to disintegrate, making it difficult to distinguish between the seer and what is seen. Marlatt's attempt to communicate the belief that we are what we see finds its best expression in this section:

Back, back into the room we circle, It rings us. No, grows out of our heads like the fern in carboniferous light, smoke

The notion of perceptual and emotional intermingling develops in the woman's mind until every fact of experience, from the past into the present, intersects in the illustration of the functioning of a complex human state of mind. Marlatt's technical aims are also concerned with a blending, and so are governed by the belief in “image to outer”—the conviction that there is a never ending equivalence between landscapes of the world and mind.

Contained within the third section of Rings is the kernel of Marlatt's aesthetic. First, the familiar river image is evoked, signifying an ever-present state of flux and relativity, followed by a compact statement of the poet's concept of her art:

Like a dream. There is no story only the telling with no end in view or, born headfirst, you start at the beginning & work backwards

The emphasis is upon discourse as a spontaneous act unhampered by structures of plot or duration. Yet at the same time, creativity and movement are made possible only through a process of self-discovery which involves an investigation of causality. As the woman meditates upon the child floating within her, a parallel is established between birth and creativity. The poet survives in the stream of experience only by continually relocating the origins of flow:

is a coming into THIS stream. You start at the beginning
& it keeps on beginning

Although fragmented language and images continue to illustrate the presence of a multiphasic consciousness, the fourth section of Rings is primarily devoted to an examination of another relation: that between process, purgation, and birth. The metaphor is clear: creation can only be the product of a total release of consciousness. Spontaneity as a diarrhoea of words. The woman's desperate need for intestinal release is emphatically linked to the release provided by birth: “if only / it would all come out. But what if I had the baby in the toilet!” The greatest potential for poetry, however, exists in the actual movement involved in the process of birth, for only then is restraint destroyed to the extent that language cannot help but explode in expressing a tornado of sensation. No wonder the “birth” section of Rings is the most intense writing Marlatt has done yet. Absolute abandonment to flow.

The rush of language is succeeded by a placid language reflecting a calmer emotional state. Through the birth of her child, the woman herself is reborn into a world of innocence. In her desire to fulfil the infant's needs, the woman finds herself imagining (imaging) and finally becoming his conscious state:

                    this newborn (reborn) sensing, child I am with him,
with sight, all my senses clear, for the first time, since
I can remember, childlike spinning, dizzy

The section continues to evaluate the surrounding phenomena in a language as simple as childhood:

                                                            This world. Something precious,
something out of the course of time marked off by clocks

Reassembling the infant's astonishment. But not for long:

cars whirr by outside, gravel spews. (A certain motor.
Gears down, stops. News from outside coming home

Her husband's re-entry is matched by a return to more complex language and thought. Yet in the last section of Rings there is a sense of lingering tranquility, not because the marriage is better, but because the new child will add softness to experience. The book ends in an unsteady voyage away from the past and beyond familiar borders, suggesting the possibility of a marital recreation:

How do you feel about leaving? for good. That question. (If it is good. If we can make it so.)

The book's energy originates in the overall coherence that is established between a variety of conscious states, and in Marlatt's ability to realize a potent equation between sight, language, and thought.

Rings ends on a note of departure, to be followed by a poetry of return and recognition. Vancouver Poems (1972) is a collection of highly polished sketches of city life, made vital by Marlatt's knowledge of Vancouver, and by the research she has done to enlarge upon that knowledge. A glimpse at the credits on the final page serves as proof of Marlatt's increasing concern with an “expanded vision” that sees the present with the aid of historical and sociological information. She is trying to discover an underlying myth which binds the poet into a ritualistic identification with the environment and its history. Consequently, we find poems inspired by the reading of such diverse sources as the Vancouver Historical Journal, Art of the Kwakiutl Indians, Weil-Brecht-Blitzstein, and Vancouver from Milltown to Metropolis. The ritual is discovered as life itself, and the poet incarnates the ritual by becoming the word/world mouth which feeds on vision, growing on the nourishment of phenomena:

                                                                                We live by (at the mouth of
the world, & the ritual. Draws strength. Is not Secret
a woman gives (in taking, Q'ominoqas) rich within the
lockt-up street. Whose heart beats here, taking it
all in …

In these poems, Marlatt repeats her habitual contention that the self can be understood only in relation to external phenomena, insisting that “matter inserts relation.” Much of the book is devoted to the painstaking examination of the objects surrounding the poet. In fact, the success of Marlatt's effort is indicated by the difficulty which is inevitably encountered in any attempt to describe or classify the inexhaustible flood of images she incorporates. This phenomenological inundation forces the reader to see Vancouver as a tangible reality. It also provides a lesson in the way we can visually restructure (re/see) our own surroundings.

In many ways, Vancouver Poems serves as the testing ground for Marlatt's latest book. Every facet of her skill as a poet is demonstrated in Steveston. Here (as the epigraph from James Agee indicates), she continues her avowed intention of “seeking to perceive it as it stands,” creating word pictures which capture a set of momentary apprehensions. At the same time, she manages to blend those incredibly tight images with a flowing style that speaks for a Heraclitean experience of flux, discovering the voice which allows her to unite the acts of seeing and telling.

It seems only natural that in this volume, her poems are bound with (and to) Robert Minden's photographs, for her poems, as we have seen, always seek the precision, objectivity, and instantaneous image implied by the photograph, and her books are progressively characterized by an application of photographic principles. In Frames, she expressed her recognition of the imagistic power of the photograph, but tended towards the more traditional association between poetry and painting, perhaps because the snapshot then represented a verisimilitude that spoke with frightening ease about reality. Leaf Leaf/s represented an attempt to create a group of imagistic poems possessing a photographic appeal to exactitude. Then in Rings we witnessed Marlatt's endeavour to improve the coherence between several “exposures” of consciousness, and in Vancouver Poems she experimented with photographic impressions modulated by the introduction of personal recollection and historical data. Steveston is composed of a photographic poetry of immanence that improves upon the experiments of earlier works. But the book is much more than a refined expression of previous vision, for here, the maturation of Marlatt's voice is matched by a growth of self assurance that allows her to see herself in relation to a host of external questions. Throughout Steveston, Marlatt is continually examining the nature of her own poetic discourse, reminding herself of the need to remain attentive to the facts of physical reality:

                                        multiplicity simply there: the physical matter of
the place (what matters) meaning, don't get theoretical now …

Steveston is the antithesis of that reluctant trickling which began in Frames. Now Marlatt has unquestionably connected the story with a torrent of visual experience. For her, the book represents a visual reinitiation into life, and its structure describes an expanding rush towards a heightened understanding. At first, Marlatt confronts Steveston in the role of detached alien, capable only of seeing the town in terms of its exterior characteristics, or in relation to the publicized facts of its history. She knows that Steveston is the headquarters of B.C. Packers, but only in the course of her visit to the town does she realize the extent to which the canning industry has relentlessly exploited its resources, both human and environmental. In her desire to know Steveston's present, Marlatt begins by imagining the past of a town stricken by fire in 1918:

Imagine: a town
Imagine a town running
a town running before a fire …

Movement begins with this step into Steveston's past. As her perception becomes more acute (and involved), she works her way through history into the present, arriving at a characteristic immediacy of sight. From an investigation of the general, she moves to a consideration of the particular, concerning herself first with industrial buildings and groups, and then with individuals, their jobs, their outlook, their home life:

                                                                                To live in a place. Immanent. In
place. Yet to feel at sea. To come from elsewhere & then to
discover / love, has a house & name. Has land. Is landed …

As usual, Marlatt's perceptions transform her as she transforms through sight. In the end, the identification she realizes is so complete that she once again sees herself as performing the function of a mouth, giving voice to the sight of Steveston. Having assumed this primary role, she then associates directly with the mouth of the Fraser itself, indicating her willingness to explicate spontaneously and to become metaphorically the very symbol of Steveston's lifeblood. She is “at the mouth, where the river runs, in to the / immanence of things.”

This image of the poet-as-mouth-as-river is but another illustration of the repeated connection Marlatt makes between perception, digestion, and purgation. By allowing the phenomena which are Steveston to pass through her, Marlatt is able to “digest” the town, regurgitating it as a purged verbalvisual image. Similar images of purgation appeared in Frames and Rings.

The resulting pictures of Steveston may be pure, but they are not pretty. Dominated by a disinfected, punctuated industrial routine, a multitude of immigrant workers find themselves enslaved and exploited by a packing plant that “packs their lives, chopping off the hours.” Indeed, these people face the same fate as the fish which roll smoothly towards a mechanical death on the non-stop conveyor belts of productivity: “the blade with teeth marked: / for marriage, for birth, for death.” The mechanical precision associated with the factory also tyrannizes a community suffocated by an overdose of control: “& it all settles down into an order of orders …” Until consciousness itself becomes “silent, impassive,” waiting in futility for an impossible release from an existence where “nothing moves,” where even dream is shown to be an enslaved “pounding with the pound of machinery under mountains of empty packer / pens.”

The effects on an industry which thrives on the exploitation of human resources can be seen in an environment that is ravaged by pollution and destroyed through abuse. In this “decomposed ground chocked by refuse, profit, & the concrete of private property,” the inhabitants of Steveston live “as if the earth were dead / & we within it ash, eating ash, drinking the lead fire of our own consumption.”

But it is the Fraser River itself, “swollen with its filth,” “sewage,” and “endless waste” that reflects in its stagnant waters the most exact image of a town gone sour. Ironically, the inhabitants must depend for their living on the very river whose pollution and decay symbolizes a human degeneration flowing sluggishly to death. Their “lives / are inextricably tied with the tide that inundates their day,” and so “there's a subhuman, sub / marine aura to things,” with life seen as static, drowned. Every phenomenon in Steveston points to an overwhelming submergence and stasis exemplifying the predominance of impotence. This infertility is manifested in the undeniable absence of any form of material or human growth. There is only one growth:

                                                                      This corporate growth that monopolizes
the sun. moon & tide, fish-run …

Like fish, again, these cannery workers are involved in a futile cyclicality which ends only in the grave. But Marlatt discovers an heroic element in the lives of these people who demonstrate a Sisyphean urge to survive:

                              Somehow they survive, this people, these fish,
survive the refuse bottom, filthy water, their chocked lives,
in a singular dance of survival, each from each. …

Actually, Steveston can be seen as an historical, sociological, and geographical study of a region extending far beyond the bounds of Marlatt's consciousness. She moves outward, progressing beyond the Fraser to a vision of the sea. In order to facilitate this outflowing, she first seizes upon the minor phenomena which form the basis of larger vision, ultimately defining herself in the light of others. Because she takes the time to trade stories with an aging fisherman, he “connects” … “when the young woman from out there walks in.” After speaking with a Japanese sailor who insists that she's a hippy, Marlatt sees herself anew:

I'm clearly a woman on their float. Too weak to lift the pole,
old enough to have tastes

From “out there,” she comes to us, too, saying something radically different, allowing us to see ourselves anew. Definition, light (recognition) sight … Marlatt adds detail to detail (re)producing an onrush of purified visual discourse that balances the moment in flow. She remains with the river, writing poetry of immanence at its best.


  1. Daphne Marlatt, Frames (Toronto: Ryerson, 1968); Leaf Leaf/s (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1969); Rings (Vancouver: Georgia Straight Writing Supplement, Vancouver Series No. 3, 1971); Vancouver Poems (Toronto: Coach House, 1972); Steveston (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1974).

Barbara Godard (essay date winter 1985)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7832

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 title enacts a feature of contemporary feminist discourse, its tactics of marked appropriation, its flying away with language.3 It is a poetics of excess of signification. Through parody, feminist discourse draws attention to the materiality of the signifier. By disrupting our desire for a transparent language, it calls into question the possibility of representation. One word leads only to another, words interconnect. As Marlatt suggests: “fiction became just simply not as interesting as language, moving word to word, syllable to syllable. … All my poetics are is connections.”4

The complexity of Marlatt's poetry poses challenges for the reader who must make her way through its labyrinthean structures, the intricate “network” (to pick up a metaphor key to both Steveston and the selected poems, Network) Marlatt weaves. For Marlatt, truth is not singular, logocentric, but multiple, polyphonic. There is no single speaking voice, but many voices, many languages at play in her work. Without an author, the texts are unauthorized, subversive. Marlatt perceives the texts as a “palimpsest,” borrowing the term from H. D., “all the layers at once, all the levels at once,”5 all interconnected and contained within each other like Russian dolls. As she writes in Zócalo: “she thought, just glimpses of what it's like, this hidden life, bodies, within body, of land this island is, in the dark enveloping seas …”6 This regression to infinity is part of the section of Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women, a connection that underlines its feminine aspect. The complexity is expressed in convoluted paratactical sentences that resolutely avoid a dramatic climax:

she wonders what he has been thinking, his voice so fills space between them, resonant as a bell—but what was the church whose bell they'd heard only walking back, its levels of sound tolling toward them as they retreated through the streets, not streets, roads, not roads but channels, rapid with laughter, with conversation at open doors, small children crying or playing, parents exchanging talk in dimlit rooms she wanted to look in, but always their sidelong glances, slight hush in the talk as they passed, prevented her.

(p. 47)

While many women poets use condensation, the paring away of self to give space to the other,7 Marlatt attempts to give birth to an extended self immersed in something vaster than the individual. For some poets, implied silence unfixes the power of the signature. For Marlatt, the presence of more than one signature has the same unsettling function. Who is speaking, we ask. Languages are. Marlatt equates the short line with male power. Her collection Leaf Leaf/s is written in short lines and has cryptic, private poems full of puns. “Cocksure” appeared in this book, a poem Marlatt identifies as being one of her first explicit feminist statements about male “chauvinism”8

that lie that eyes
that we shd kiss & make
up he sd before
driving to

On the following page, a minimal poem enacts the woman's silent resistance to male drive and possession:

no willow draws
in green queen
anne's lace but wives
the wind
                              lace moves
will her

(p. 33)

In later interviews, Marlatt points to this collection as a turning point in both her art and her life:

I felt too confined by the short line and by absolute attention at every step to the word, so I decided to open up the line deliberately and to use that extended line which looks like prose—left margin to right margin on the page. … Like I wanted to move in larger units, in paragraphs, and I wanted larger rhythms than those very short lines would allow.10

These larger rhythms inscribe a different libidinal economy, one of excess. The change in line came because

I changed my life. I started living my own life. And I have a definite feeling of necessity to. My phrase for it was “taking on more ground.” I wanted to feel that I had a right to live in a world, & I didn't feel that I had a right in this book. I mean it's clear from the book that the thing you're picking up on, which is the observer, is a very passive stance. I'm there because I'm with someone …11

In “Musing With Mothertongue,” Marlatt expands on her theory of language. Because we learn words by ear, we spend our lives learning “what the words are actually saying.” Writing becomes a lifelong search for the mothertongue, Kore seeking Demeter. Language is the body that bears and births us “into cognition.”

the beginning: language, a living body we enter at birth, sustains and contains us. it does not stand in place of anything else, it does not replace the bodies around us. placental, our flat land, our sea, it is both place (where we are situated) and body (that contains us), that body of language we speak, our mother tongue.12

In analytic prose, Marlatt articulates here the web of fluid, mother, language, loss and recovery connected in the puns of “In the Month of the Hungry Ghosts”: “but it's the salt of the sea revives me, or memory, some further dimension,” “Memory, memor, mindful/mer-mer-os, one/anxious thought,” says the speaker, “abandoned” on the beach.13 Yet language, “the given,” has been implicated in male experience, “in masculine hierarchies and differences (exclusions)” (p. 47) and is thus often unable to convey the complex open-ended relating experienced by women. Marlatt asks: “How can the standard sentence structure of English with its linear authority, subject through verb to object, convey the wisdom of endlessly repeating and not exactly repeated cycles her body knows?” With Julia Kristeva, Marlatt argues that each of the sexes “has its own dream language and unconscious,” and that of women is “largely unverbalized, presyntactic, postlexical” (p. 56), anterior to the Symbolic, anterior to the mirror stage and the development of the subject/object split. Women's speech is outside the codes of language, “non-sense,” “chaotic language leafings,”14 a flux of shifting connections articulated through ellipsis and parataxis.

The reader of Touch to My Tongue will recognize the meandering, pointless flow of Marlatt's prose poems in the syntax and water imagery: “our mouths hot estuary, tidal yes we are, leaking love and saying it deep within.”15 This is the most disruptive of Marlatt's books to date in its challenge to the singular subject, to the concept of author and to the book. For the writing does not end with the book, but spirals out into dialogue with Open Is Broken by Betsy Warland. It is the movement which links (does and undoes) all dualism: it is the movement of production neutralized and deferred. This is Marlatt's “telling with no end in view,” open-ended. Her sinuous line is attentive to “the constant dance of interaction” of edges: “It's an act. It's a process.” It's “a performance of the relation, the relating, the relationships, linguistic and psychic,” that women experience.16 “To sound how everything is related and to reconstruct, in the face of these horrible separations and dichotomizations, the web, the network, the continual flux, the flowing, from one aspect to another aspect,”17 is subversive. This is women's “ecriture” as excessive expenditure, as continuity, abundance, flux, and swerve. It overflows the borders of the text, of the book—disseminating the publishing conventions of the literary institution. In the words of Hélène Cixous: “A female text is neverending, it goes on and at a certain point the book ends but the writing continues. … A feminine textual body is always without end. It is aimless, endless and pointless (sans but et sans bout), it never concludes. … What happens is an infinite circulation of desire from one body to another.”18 Through the collective weaving of a matricial fiction and the exceptional fecundity and ubiquity of this textual production, the feminist writer inundates (and so exhausts) the male text with “an amniotic flow” of words.

Both books of poetry are within the spiralling exchange of words—letters and diaries and poems—between Marlatt and Warland during their separation, an endless touching of tongues that speaks their desire: “blanda, to mingle and blend: the blaze of light we are: spiralling” (p. 31). These are the final words of “coming up from underground,” words of joy in the Eleusian mysteries which this cycle of poems enacts. These are the words that the initiates might have shouted on seeing the luminous form of the risen Kore. They are the words with which this Kore—the speaker in Marlatt's poem—who has been laid by Hades in the underground of the prairies (“Persephone caught in a whirlwind the underside churns up,” “prairie,” p. 26) greets her Demeter on their reunion. The movement of the poetic sequence is from “confusion” in “this place full of contradictions,” through darkness and separation in “houseless” and “prairie,” to “healing” and “pure glee.” Of all Marlatt's searches for the lost mother, this poem alone ends in joyful discovery. And in the Mysteries of the women's embrace, contradictions are expressed as paradox, one-within-the-other. Written under the double signature, of Demeter and of Kore, the text is double voiced. This may be the play on the homophony of “yu” (joy)/you (p. 23), or the double entendre of “bleikr,” black to us, but “in the old tongue,” white. Such slippery complexities unsettle the “given” in language. They are part of the “spurt/spirit opening in the dark of earth, yu! cry jubiliant excess” (p. 23), jouissance.

The tongue is the fuse/fusion, opening the word, opening the body: “that tongue our bodies utters, woman tongue, speaking in and of and for each other” (p. 27). This is a text of bliss, not two edges in sharp contact, but a female sext, an infinite circulation of desire from one (textual) body to another. A break in an epistemé, a new idiom, occurs when loving women's lips speak together. Demeter and Persephone come together in a loving embrace and her-story, interconnectedness, replaces the line of history. “tongue seeks its nest, amative and nurturing (here i am you) lips work towards undoing” (“Kore,” p. 23). This embrace is a preposterous paradox in that it confounds identity and difference, two similar women who are very different. The ardent female tongue is exploratory, rooting into the very root of the word to know her de-sire's etymologies. “Musing with Mothertongue” finds a different muse, different meanings to words in a matrilineal tradition. Here in the syntax (scentext) of Marlatt's de-sire, the reader recognizes as her own the tranquil voice saying, “consider me dangerous.”19 For there are no guides. Words flow over the open page, out of the book, breaking the sequence and the frame.

While Touch to My Tongue foregrounds its lesbian and feminist theoretical underpinnings, Marlatt's readers will detect echoes of earlier work. From Steveston, images of flux linger, of the river moving into the sea, la mer/la mère, and the weaving together of words and photographs, sound and sight, opposite in their perspectives, into a holistic image of the town. Marlatt's search for wholeness, her attempt to break out of an absolute subject position by using her proprioceptive eye to explore a field of forces, began much earlier. These images and concerns were present in her first book, Frames.

As the title suggests, this book is above all a study of framing devices. A story within a story, the personal story of Marlatt's troubled relationship with her absent love is set within the intertext of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, lyric sequences set into a fictional frame story. Unity is fractured: the book explores and explodes the boundaries between life/art, poetry/prose, separation/merging, stasis/movement. Self-reflexively, it foregrounds the act of enunciation, textual reproduction and reception. The speaker mediates on her repetition of Andersen's story, and of memories of the absent love. Writing covers absence.

                    Out? I can't imagine it, left here
holding the thread of out story, knotted in remembrance, not …
seeing …
                                                                                                                        invent shadows for
                    depth, in a false frame of reality;

(p. 15)

                                                                                                    walls act as a screen
for the shadow play of my mind …
Ah but imagination builds in a kind of mimesis of you there …

(p. 17)

She also foregrounds the activity of reading, her reading of the story of Gerda and Kay, which becomes a guide to our reading her version of it: “these paper characters of air?” (p. 3). “Dead is what the world said, of Kay gone off the edge of the papers—” (p. 19). The text to be read may be the body as, when having her palm read, she discovers long life lines (p. 23). But book and body remain separate, not yet fused. The resulting prose-poem is an allegorical search for aesthetic freedom in the face of limitations imposed by literary genres.

It is above all a quest for a writing that will enact the instantaneous apprehension of things and thoughts caught in flux:

shapes flutter
glide into each other
but the hand
wanting to know
picks a thing
out from the center

(p. 26)

The persona is hesitant to plunge in, watching from the sidelines: “I'm on the sidewalk viewing the procession” (p. 55). But in order to join the moving throng, Gerda must leave the contained space where she has been a prisoner to convention. This change involves a third strand in the story, the movement from childish views of love and life to a view that encompasses death and change. It is all a matter of a shift in perspective, but then such changes are the subject of the book. When Kay gets a splinter in his eye, his vision of the world is transformed. Weeping, he leaves his grandmother's house for the Snow Queen's palace, effecting the break that initiates the story. Gerda's transformation occurs when, in quest of Kay, she is propelled into adventures, rushed through the world in a train, “only a train of thought, alive-oh” (p. 36), and comes to see the trap of the fixed image. She becomes aware that Kay is a figure of fantasy, a made-up figure, and that holding on to his image has made her as frozen and lost a creature as he is:

tells her tale
in camera obscura of her
history, an image
of the search

(p. 37)

The transformation is conveyed in a series of images that evolve from stasis to movement, a shift from the single image of the still shot to the spinning, whirling kinetic images of the cinema, imagery foregrounded in the title of the book, and in a shift from images of ice and detached snowflakes to a whirling dance of snow. Gerda first perceives the danger of the photograph in the witch's house where she is held prisoner: “The tawny photographs she shows me are unreal—snap shots of her mind. … There's no connection. Except that she sees me as part of her story” (pp. 26-27). In the prince's castle where she is also detained, Gerda sees three shots of Kay each processed in a different manner—silver bromide, silver chloride, silver on copper—equally false, though more varied in their representations of the elusive Kay. But these still offer no way out of the plight of selective vision that is the Snow Queen's prison, blind to process and the blending of sight and emotion, heart and eye.

“And when you find yourself thus salted, when the photographer strokes his moustache satisfied at capturing you, do you feel luminescent? Or do you disappear at the outer edges of the negative?

It's getting harder to see for the telling, but the photographs were false & never sent.

(p. 39)

The synaesthesia of “see for the telling,” (with the earlier “they can see things, hear” p. 10) points toward the making of such connections for liberation even as it emphasizes Marlatt's frequent metaphorical link of narration and vision. But in the context of the prose poem, the narrative retreats to the fixed outlines of Andersen's already told story. Writing as research begins again after the terrors of confinement with the robber girl and an hallucinatory dream. Fear cuts through the emotional bonds that have held Gerda. Moving across the arctic wastes as she nears the Snow Queen's palace to free Kay, all now is movement:

                                        like a vanishing act
                    never remains but flies
                    as I am flying, a flake
                    a face
                    a light-headed dance at eyes' level disintegrates:
a granular screen one distinguishes no part of …
                    Hold on! (to his fur, to his real tangible hair) the reel's un-winding so fast frames are flying …

(p. 54)

And this power allows her to “break up” the ice holding Kay:

                    Begins to break up: concentric
circles flicker over the city field between her & them. Fabric
of time? …

(p. 59)

The images of whirling circles, spinning wheels and reels, Marlatt's metaphors for the poetic process—the poet as Arachne, the poet as Penelope, dispelling, spinning a-mazing words20—which dominate Rings and Steveston, come to the fore in the final pages of Frames as modes of conclusion. Closure is crucial to Marlatt's poetic. In later work such as Steveston and Rings, where the final lines focus on the river flowing into the sea and on birth, ending is the beginning. Frames plays with the formal requirement for a fixed ending and hints at opening.

In Marlatt's version of the story, the robber girl joins Kay and Gerda through the agency of a magic formula whose aural runs and sliding sound connections hint at Marlatt's later associative composition: “Snip-snap-snurre-basselurre. Sound of connexion breaking (its bas allure)” (p. 62). This swerve alters the formulaic ending for oral tales, “Snip snap snout, now my tale's told out.” The story goes on to offer, and to question, two more ritual endings. One is that of the grandmother, the all-powerful controller of the tale: Andersen's ending is also introduced. But here the grandmother's voice doesn't stop. It goes on forever “singing,” the story says, in heavenly sun—a type of angel extending “violets, long since dried,” a figure of death-in-life. Against this authoritative narrator who controls all the strings (Marlatt uses metaphors of knitting and knotting for the grandmother and metonymically, for storytelling/writing), there is the child's wish for order expressed in the ending she wrote in her own copy of the book. The adult Marlatt rereading Andersen's story, reading the childish desire for order in her own alternate ending, would like to make the conventional one hers again: “A child prints firmly in red, they lived happily ever / afterwards comma to the end of their summer.” But the consolations of art which block the processes of time and change are what the poem has taught her/us to fear. She can no longer remain within the old narrative modes she loved as a child. The story of her breaking out and growing up is what she has just told. Yet the possibilities for new narrative forms are still on the horizon. The book ends on a tentative note with an invitation to move out: “Step out of the doorway too, step out & sit down”; become “open to a concourse of coming & going” (p. 63). Although the new vision of the wider world is not yet clear, the initial situation of the book has been reversed. The door to the outer world has been opened. A new ending is being compared. No longer is there a little girl and boy sitting at the feet of a powerful grandmother, “lockt / in the grandmother's stopt voice” (p. 32).

This inversion of roles from listener to teller is crucial to Marlatt's feminist argument in this poem. The grandmother as embodiment of the wisdom and narrative forms of the past (“She hypnotizes me with the past fulfilled, always filled, as if that should be enough,” p. 25) paralyzes process and change. Most significantly, however, Marlatt uses stories to inculcate in the little girl a traditionally passive feminine role. The grandmother is presented in images of Mother Goose, Mother Huldra with her feather snowflakes: “Grandmother telling a swarm / of snow flakes' largest / queen bee” (p. 9). In her house, the “girls grow / sausages & pie / shape skirts (p. 12). But with Kay gone, Gerda comes to recognize this female role as imposed, not natural, and revolts: “No, here's the lie. Here where I sit waiting, forced, the female, to abide …” (p. 7). This recognition poses a problem for her as storyteller: will she tell the traditional tale learned from the past, or will she shape a new story to her own reality?

          … let me tell it, as who was the princess, who
would be. Within the story. Who tells it in-
side large tones of memory of the grandmother's ongoing
voice? (Grand mutter of a psalm
                                                                                /books us daily for who we
are. Strings tied & fingered in words of the story heard a
hundred times.)
                    No, let me tell it as I will
(willing the words you kept), would-caught, in midst of all
these roots, a wold, a forest of unmeaning—

(p. 31)

As the writer, Marlatt will unravel the grandmother's knitting, will undo the traditional story, will write against the grain, as she wills. But not without difficulty.

After the recognition of male chauvinism in Leaf Leaf/s, the next phase in the evolution of a feminine poetic voice involves a move from resistance to exploration to “telling it as i will,” in Vancouver Poems. Though some were written as part of Frames to be the new story of the wider world, these poems were published separately. Through this book, Marlatt finds a locale and empathizes with the prostitute “eyes of strangers reading you,” in “Femina,” and with the bleeding, flowing river in “Miz Estrus,” a prelude to Steveston. It is with Rings, however, that Marlatt picks up on her metaphors of the body as text to explore the female sext. Published first in 1971, this poetic sequence was reprinted as What Matters in an expanded version with journals from the period recording pregnancy and motherhood, and with the “Colombus” sequence of poems to/about her son, Kit.

What matters? Language matters, is matter, mater:
there is only the one immediate, personal salvation of
the psyche, your own, without help since help is
maternal/paternal & that is the very caul that must
be thrown off. to be born:
made matter: the issue: what matters: issuing thru
the ring of the invisible to ground—or hearing: as
the vowel carries breath to make a sound
& sounding, thru the ring of surrounding phonemes, it
changes—hearing change the very matter of.(21)

Her concern here is “to understand the interrelating of bodies/words:” an “ecology of language: each word what those around it relate of it as it relates (to) them

                                                                                          (text, the weave, the net)
why these poems run on like prose—the ongoing line gives a
larger context while the short lines tend to stress the words in
isolation (Stein's nouns)”

(p. 153)

Marlatt's attention to the “simultaneity of experience” is expressed in metaphors of weaving and of the spiral, feminist theory avant la lettre.

to catch the web of experience itself, not as thought (pursuit of an idea) which tends to shortcut sensory input, but the interplay of sensory being-in-a-place and thoughts about (connections with memory or surmise).

it is not a linear extension but much more a spiralling—the foci are like complexes (light rings)—they expand & shade into one another.

(p. 26)

In this phenomenological approach, in mat(t)er, the poet finds “relief from the subjective (unreliable) where falsehoods are indistinguishable from the real” (p. 69). As in pregnancy and birth, “the importance here is on bodily insistence, the knitting of potential and actual.” “Poetics then consists of attention to extension (implication unfolded)” (p. 23). In What Matters, pregnancy (and birth) is the metaphor for this process of extension infolding, and the outering, uttering of a created self—text and child, and self. The ring, metaphor for the trap or net of pre-existent form, opens up the rhythms of the universe. From the contained, the given, something new emerges.

No one a mother to you, no—the uterus
itself contracts & pushes its burden out. At
a certain point (in time) ripe as a fruit,
a weight, the intimate night's expelled.
made light. made isolate one in the world, the wheel. My
arms make around you spinning as the world does
we wheel thru light & dark.

(p. 106)

The exchange is reciprocal: “News from outside coming home” (p. 107). This homecoming to self and ground, from the final lines of Rings, is confirmed in the closing lines of the book:

i am here, feel
my weight on the wet

(p. 168)

A loose quest narrative like all of Marlatt's long poems, What Matters explores the processes of production of text and self as they are constructed in and by language. What Matters, though, is the first of Marlatt's texts to be written from a clearly identified feminist perspective, just as Rings is the first to explore the production of a female self. The epigraph from Mary Daly draws attention to the subversion and inscribes Marlatt's text in a tradition of feminine meditation which merges ego in object: “In the beginning is the hearing.” In the discontinuous narrative of the birth of her son, the death of her marriage and the discovery of her poetic voice, Marlatt develops a theory of the female subject, similar to that of feminist theoreticians Nancy Chodorow and Julia Kristeva. Through this theory, she is able to accede to a subject position in order to voice herself, to find a female role related to growth and mutuality. This is not a thesis based on lack, on castration, as is the Lacanian description of the constitution of the subject through the Oedipal complex. In The Reproduction of Mothering, Chodorow22 has shown how the development of the woman is more complex than that of the man, involving the recognition of both identity to her mother and difference from her father. Consequently, the woman has less rigid ego boundaries and sees the world not as divisions and hierarchies but as an interconnected web. Recognizing herself in her (m)other, a process of doubling, is central to her accession to the subject position. To mother the text, then, is to allow for the circulation of repressed knowledges, to write from a relational rather than a hierarchical perspective. It is to write from a position in which there is no single authoritative view, no proprietorial and authenticating signature, but many voices.

In Steveston, her best known poem, the expansion of the self leads Marlatt outwards to explore the interaction of word and visual image, of imagination and history, of corporate industry and river delta, immigrant fishermen, Japanese and Finnish, and Kwakiutl myth of the river flowing north over the edge of the world. “Steveston as you find it: / multiplicity simply there: the physical matter of the place (what matters) meaning, don't get theoretical now, the cannery.”23 While Marlatt is attentive to the burden of the factory women (“Now she is old enough for the wheel's turn,” p. 45), and is conscious of the chauvinism of the men (“Vision. Seen by them as sexual obsession? … No, it's an old dream my hair, my body happen to fit,” p. 65), the feminist shaping in this poem is the “network” of the poet, the way she plays the line to spin threads of connectedness in order to defy patriarchical injunction to “divide and conquer.”24

Conquering is a primary concern of Zócalo, another work in which the expanding self moves outward into unknown cultures, in Mexico this time, where the speaking voice is confronted with yet “another unreadable sign” (p. 29) “not even the letters look recognizable” (p. 15), armed with guidebooks that can't get square with the actual ground (p. 71) and with cameras, so many traps to be caught in that “we will miss what we came for” (p. 57). Throughout this book, Marlatt is concerned with the implications of being a tourist, with the appropriating gaze, a theme that resonates through Canadian women's writing from P. K. Page's tourist to travelling Rennie in Atwood's Bodily Harm. To be really present is nearly impossible for the tourist:

she fingers the camera with its telephoto lens she wants to move into the street, through an eye that is an extension & even impertinent accessory to the act of her seeing, she wants, not to see but to be—him? impossible.

(p. 21)

This passage foregrounds the problem of representation, writing's impossible attempt to be the other, to speak the other's words as violation and fiction. Only when the speaker enters into a reciprocal relationship with the young Mayan hamaca vendor who dreams of travelling to the States and exchanges his Mayan words for her English ones, in mutual desire for knowledge, is there a shift away from the hierarchical connections of colonizer/colonized. But everywhere the Spanish conquistadors stand between the tourist and the place. Spanish names and Christian explanations of culture mask what is really here, the ancient Mayan temples and traces of a powerful feminine principle.

Losing herself in order to find something is Marlatt's habitual approach. Thoroughly lost, alone on a road after her guide has disappeared, a strange stillness in the air, the speaker receives an enigmatic warning from a native woman regarding the power of the sea and the dwarfs. Nothing is made of these fragments until the section “Uxmal,” which begins with a prophetic sentence: “Donde estan las damas?” (p. 51) Where indeed are the women? The speaker probes for the signs of the repressed feminine principle. Why is the statue in the temple she and her guide visit called the Queen of Uxmal “even though it shows a man's head emerging from the jaws of a snake?” (p. 56) The gap between word and thing is puzzling, a challenge. Later they came to the Pyramid of the Magician, and learn the story of a “dwarf whose mother was a witch & hatched him out of an egg” (p. 56). The speaker remembers nothing about the earlier prophecy when dwarf and magician were associated with a time of power. But the story haunts her as she walks through the ruins, climbing up the pyramid, going into the caves. The story is retold in fragments interspersed with descriptions and sensations of the place itself which the speaker is experiencing. We learn that the witch sent her son off to challenge the king and that she worked magic to help him. He killed the king and became King of Uxmal in turn. “She went off to live with a serpent in a waterhole” (p. 56). The witch exchanges water for the children she feeds the serpent. The puzzle persists, for the faces on the temple are of a rain god, Chac. Moreover, the guide books say that the Mayas didn't “have a goddess creator & destroyer” (p. 57). But what to make of the story? “And continuing her descent, wonders, under the name? dry land, no water anywhere, but caves, caves. Somehow the witch persists, chaotic mother, though all the images are male” (p. 59). In the iconography of cave, serpent and fertility source, the reader recognizes the signs of the goddess' presence. Confirmation of the speaker's awareness of this presence is denied, however, by the Spanish names given to the buildings, their original names lost in the jungle which has grown up through them. The buildings themselves are superimposed, five successive temples with three buried inside. Maybe “under the name,” cthonic mother? The only traces are fragments of a story which Marlatt's text pieces together, retracing the faint outlines.

Only this terrible mother is named and brought into language through the Mayan letters in Zócalo. In an earlier episode, however, the speaker has an experience of the nurturing mother when she swims through coral reefs with the fish, seeming to sprout gills in a return to the womb. This experience occurs at Isla Mujeres, the island of women, when she leaves the edges of the known, of the land, to venture into another world. “it's your element too. And she forces herself to let go of sky & fall into wave” (p. 44). Here she becomes one with the fishes, involved in a “slow underwater dance of follow the leader, she follows, through the channel & out to the deep end of the reef …” “almost, touches …” the fish (p. 44). Letting her air bubbles rise to the surface with those of the fish, the speaker is here totally immersed in the other, in what is simultaneously a return to the foetal stage, rocked in the feminine element. The archetype of the feminine remains an elusive sign, along with the Mayan alphabet that would name it, conveyed through imagery, apprehended by the reader's senses rather than by logic “under the name,” on the near side of language.

In “In the Month of the Hungry Ghosts,” the archetype moves from the unconscious, from a dream presence, into consciousness and into language through “mer-mer-os,” the operation of memory. In this sequence of journals and poems, Marlatt relates her return after her mother's death with her father and sister to the home in Malaysia where she grew up. In quest of this lost mother, whose reality is hidden within a thicket of names—“mem sahib, mah jon, mata, mata hari, mah mee, mummy” (p. 58)—the speaker finds another lost mother she had totally forgotten, Amah, her childhood nurse. Memories flood back about her, memories of standing in the gold fish pool while the fishy lips kiss their legs, of lying in the sun feeling warm, “a bellyful of power” (p. 82). Between these two mothers, mind and body split. The mem sahib “had the words, & the words could not command their lives, only their hands …” (p. 82), and has gone into the “black river” of death: Amah had the body, nourished and played with the children in a separate kingdom, in a world of revolt against the word:

two mothers, two, but one mother & the other someone we have claim to, we thought of almost as part of ourselves, her hands our hands to bathe us, dress us, & the gentle combing of our hair, … Amah, had seven children ‘& they all died, my dears,’ who cared for us too, sloppy & merry & what did it matter? except what the Mem says. What the Mem says goes (sometimes). what the Mem says exists as a separate entity in the house, to be listened to & walked around, with suitable contrition if asked (giggling in the back rooms) but separate, separate from the way life moves on.

(p. 80)

While the speaker has been in the flux of this life as a child, she slips into her mother's place when she returns as an adult and quickly picks up “that so stilted proper English. ‘To the manner born’” (p. 69), despite the fact that she spends most of her time “kicking against it,” “trying to rip out of myself all the colonialisms, the taint of colonial set of mind … that defensive set against what immediately surrounds as real on its own terms—because to take it on as real would mean to ‘go native’ & that was unthinkable to them” (p. 62). Marlatt's probing of imperialist domination goes much further in this poem than in Zócalo because the split sensibility is at the root of her being. There is no going back home to evade the tourist's condescendingly superficial gaze, because this is home. Simultaneously, her exploration of the domination and appropriation of the real moves further into reflections on patriarchal power. She explores the feminine archetype in its varied complexities.

What is most taboo, most a symbol of the wild, is the serpent, symbol also of the goddess's power of divination. The speaker discovers that the “snake signals off limits” (p. 53). Later she remembers an instance of her own revolt against the mem sahib's word which involved a flight into the jungle to pick a beautiful orchid, an adventure that led to an encounter with a snake. “I can't get past the snakes in my life” (p. 53), says the speaker. Nor does she escape this symbol of the dark powers, the remembered snake of a moment of daring and beauty, the snakes of nightmares when the unconscious surfaces. Indeed, “snakes” is the first word in this prose poem, opening the sequence of the Bangkok snake pit which provokes the snake dream. This pit is located at the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, for the snake in the orient, as in Mexico, is related to spiritual power. In fact, Buddha seeking enlightenment sitting under the Baobab was protected from the rain by the watersnake, whence he gained enlightenment. The speaker reflects on the Buddhist attitude to snakes, but cannot embrace it. “To be wrapt in that other, that so non-human, & not suffer revulsion, but see the snake's gift of protection—must be what we call “‘grace’” (p. 47). Elsewhere, snakes and dragons “with the appearing or disappearing heads of priests inside them,” are said to “signal a swallowing up of the real in another real” (p. 74). The snake becomes a symbol of the writer, devouring realities. To mark her progress toward that other, to indicate her blending into the Malay jungle of her childhood, the speaker has her picture taken holding a viper.

Yet this same Buddhist philosophy forces her to recognize the motivations of her desire to encounter the other. “Buddhism says it is want that chains us to the world, us ‘hungry ghosts’, & I see (just as I stands for the dominant ego in the world when you is not capitalized) that i want too much, just as, a child, i wanted affection” (p. 70). “how much of what we experience is made up by what we desire?!” (p. 74) she asks: “Questionings of the real, no quest.” “Passive resistance is a better stance.” While she prays (with Phyllis Webb) to have her wisdom and categories taken away (p. 91), to participate fully in the Chinese operas of this special month with their blurring of the boundaries between the living and the dead, she cannot be free of her desire. Just as when she was a child she ran into the jungle to pick an orchid for the mother who loved flowers in order to win that mother's affection, so too as a woman she is still Kore going into the dark regions of the mind and heart, into the Malaysian jungle once more, in search of the mother's affection. Her quest and her narrative are shaped by that desire for a mother's nurturing. Although Amah's heritage has been explored, her language and voice entering the work to make it a palimpsestic text in which multiple voices, diverse ways of seeing—through word and pictorial image—fracture the unity of the subject, the speaker remains Edry's daughter. Striving for the mother's affection, she works through the brothers' words, through Shelley's words quoted by this uncle, words covering up absence, “covering distance to get to you” (p. 94). The words come forth in answer to her overwhelming desire for the mother. Yet they are words divided between rage and love:

                                                                                “life's cheat,”
deprived of any truth, as you, long in tooth & nameless, recede from
imagination: one cloud of thought, one word of no earthly use,
                                        you knew the dark, conspiracy, how they
keep power in their hands, unnamed (you forgot, we give ourselves up to
                                                                                                    … gave yourself
to the dark of some other light, leaving me here with the words, with fear,
love, & a need to keep speaking.

(p. 95)

Going into the dark to find her, the speaker discovers the contradictions, the doubleness within herself. “O the disparities—how can I ever relate the two parts of myself? This life would have killed me—purdah, a woman in—the restrictions on movement, the confined reality” (p. 50). Writing becomes problematic: “How can I write of all this? What language, or what structures of language can carry this being here?” (p. 52). No single one, of course. As well as the use of Malay and pictures, Marlatt inserts the stories she told to her sisters as a child, and invokes the images of the lighthouse and moth from Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (p. 84) and Conrad's Lord Jim (p. 91); these intertextual plays further explode the unity of the text—so many words from a daughter to call a mother back to life:

there mother-daughter, i call you up through the spring of a new … word. seed. season … whole, it comes back, it fills always where you were.

(p. 83)

How Hug a Stone is also constructed on the absent body of this terrible and beloved Mother. This book extends the quest for the mother, digging into precolonial experience (three generations of anglo-Indians) in the mother country. Returning to England with her son, the speaker finds herself rooted in family, her self extended. She discovers herself as mother in contact then with “that other daughter—mother, my mother”25 who had accompanied the speaker and her sisters as children on visits to England. She also brings this dead mother back to life through the stories about her told by her family and friends. And she is enfolded in the embrace of her grandmother.

The self explodes in How Hug a Stone, through the exploration of the limits of language with other modes of communication; visual (maps, inscribed and signed by the speaker) and aural (the puns on old English words). For, as Marlatt writes in “Musing with Mothertongue”: “Sound initiates thought by a train of associations” (p. 45). More specifically, here is the daughter's search for a mother tongue, outering, uttering her.

On several levels—biological, familial, social, spiritual—the subject seeks to immerse herself in something greater than herself. But the expansion and transformation of the discovery of this new self, can only happen in language, which alone bridges past and future; “a strategy for survival. so it goes—transformative sinuous sentence emerging even circular, cyclical Avebury.” In a series of encounters of expanding significance, Marlatt travels to the Great Stone circles Celts built at Avebury and Stonehenge, ancient places sacred to the Great Mother, places of vision and transformation. Return to the earth, that “mother crust.”

how hug a stone (mother) except nose in to lithic fold, the old slow pulse beyond word become, under flesh, mutter of stone, stane, stei-ing power.

Hug the gravestone (birth mother), hug the sacred stone (Mother Nature). Mater, these paradoxes of the three in one are the matter of this poem; through the labyrinth of language to Demeter. To hug the stane brings the speaker back to her venerable maternal language, old English, to discover the root meanings of words, hidden meanings, the knowledge of the goddess repressed and buried in the his-tory of the words. With the aid of an etymological dictionary, she begins on a journey to “dis-pell” words, in the phrase of Mary Daly, to remove the accumulated layers of patriarchal discourse from them. It is the adventure of a “spinster,” a whirling dervish “who identifies with herself,” with the women within her and not with her relations to men. It is a work of “lucid cerebration” which, in moving outside the codes in order to question the symbolic order and the dominant discourse, becomes an interpretive conundrum, a “casse-te(x)te,” a text-breaker.

In its mobility, this text resists the closure of fixed meaning and offers many varied positions to the reader. Through their activity of decoding and recoding, of reading/writing, the readers are co-creators of meaning. So the text becomes multiple through the manifold interpretations it invites.

Through such explorations of the processes of textual production, Marlatt tries to free herself from a subject position of lack, of the gap, in discourse. She finds another space where there are no hierarchies, only differance, deferral. The active and exploratory eye has denounced the principles of exclusion on which the dominant discourse has constructed what may now be perceived to be a very limited subjectivity, middle class and masculine.


  1. Madeleine Gagnon, “Mon Corps est mots,” in Hélène Cixous, Madeleine Gagnon et Catherine Clement, La venue à l'écriture (Paris: 10/18, 1977). A section of this was translated as “Body I,” Isabelle de Courtivron, trans., in Isabelle de Courtivron and Elaine Marks, New French Feminisms (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), p. 179.

  2. This phrase is from Adrienne Rich. Marlatt writes in Frames: “She is. The other, incomprehensible & I wish I knew her knowing.” (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1968), p. 40. Further references are to this edition and are included in the text.

  3. Here I have stolen a phrase of Hélène Cixous, “La rire de la méduse,” Arc (1975), p. 39-54. “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Keith and Paula Cohen, trans., in New French Feminisms, pp. 245-264.

  4. Daphne Marlatt with George Bowering, “Given This Body,” Open Letter, 4th Series, No. 3 (Spring 1979), pp. 35, 46.

  5. Open Letter, p. 43.

  6. Daphne Marlatt, Zócalo (Toronto: Coach House, 1977), p. 47.

  7. Phyllis Webb, for example. See my discussion in “Pro(epi)logue: In Pursuit of the Long Poem,” Open Letter, 6th Series, Nos. 3 & 4 (Summer-Fall 1985), pp. 300-335.

  8. Bowering, p. 56.

  9. Daphne Marlatt, Leaf Leaf/s (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow, 1969), p. 32. Further references are to this edition and will be included in the text.

  10. David Arnason, Dennis Cooley and Robert Enright, “There's This and This Connection,” CVII, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 1977), p. 29.

  11. Bowering, p. 56.

  12. Daphne Marlatt, “Musing With Mothertongue,” Tessera, No. 1, Room of One's Own, 8, No. 4 (1983), p. 56. Further references are to this edition and are included in the text.

  13. Daphne Marlatt, “In the Month of the Hungry Ghosts,” Capilano Review, 16/17, (1979), p. 53.

  14. “Musing with Mothertongue,” p. 56.

  15. Daphne Marlatt, Touch to My Tongue (Edmonton: Longspoon, 1984), p. 21. Further references are to this edition and are included in the text.

  16. Bowering, pp. 76-77.

  17. Janice Williamson, “Speaking In And Of Each Other,” Fuse (February/March 1985), p. 29.

  18. Hélène Cixous, “Textes de l'imprévisible: Grace à,” Les nouvelles littéraires, 2543 (26 mai 1976), p. 18 (my translation).

  19. Betsy Warland, Open is Broken (Edmonton: Longspoon, 1984).

  20. Mary Daly, “The Metapatriarchal Journey of Exorcism and Ecstasy,” in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon, 1978), p. 422.

  21. Daphne Marlatt, Rings (1971) in What Matters (Toronto: Coach House, 1980), p. 127. All further references are to this edition and are included in the text.

  22. Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

  23. Daphne Marlatt, Steveston (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1974, Rpt. Edmonton: Longspoon, 1985). All references are to the 1974 edition and are included in the text.

  24. Daly, p. 421.

  25. Daphne Marlatt, How Hug a Stone (Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1983), p. 67. All further references are to this edition and are included in the text.

Di Brand (review date March 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1053

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 the centre of our collective and individual being. What we find there is terror, wildness, the dark, but in and through it also, a beautiful, calm strength: gradually, we come to recognize the object of fear, the monster, as another aspect of the unnamed, untamed desiring self, the unknown, wild place as home.

You might read this novel as a reply, in the feminine, to George Bowering's recent novel, Burning Water. Both investigate the history of territory, settlement, the rough beginnings of white civilization on the West Coast. Both explore conflicting loyalties between the immigrant needs of the settlers, the strangeness of native culture, and the haunting call of the new land. Both play with the discrepancies between memory and imagination, recorded history and lived experience, lamenting even as they celebrate it, the arbitrariness of the writing process, its intimate connection with loneliness, with absence and with longing. For Marlatt, however, these questions take a particularly feminine shape, and the ambivalent place occupied by the white women in that settlement, as both colonizers and colonized, becomes a perfect vehicle for exploring white woman's ambivalent and dual occupation in the making of North American history.

Or you might read this novel in the light of Marlatt's own growing oeuvre. There is the same breathlessness, the same attentiveness to detail, bordering on the claustrophobic, the same alertness to every gesture and nuance, every thought, every perception, which characterizes her previous writing. There is the same quizzical lostness, the hurt, the surprise of experience, how did I get here, what am I doing here? There is, as always, the persistent search for resonance, for illumination, the refusal to impose meaning from the outside, the refusal of metaphysics. Unlike Bowering, unlike most contemporary writers, Marlatt does not allow herself the consolation, the refuge, of irony. Her quest for understanding is relentless, shot through with the recognition that the world may not meet her gaze, that despite her attentiveness to every thing, there may not be a place where the world's lost souls meet. So she writes, always, close to despair, to abandonment, and yet, at the same time, there is probably no writer living today with a greater belief in the writing process as such, the ongoing search and hope of it, and this tension is itself a source of great strength in her words.

Her writing is also increasingly informed by feminism, theory and practice, and it is this, I think, which (apart from any personal sense of optimism) allows her to push the narrative, past loss, past irony, past the gaps and wounds in our collective histories, toward a vision of new wholeness. Against the poststructuralist dictum that absence is by definition a predominant feature of human relations, that it is in fact a structuring principle of history, of language, indeed of our desire (or was it Plato who already said that?), against the distorting absence of women's voices in that history, against that violent, massive cultural silencing, Marlatt seeks out, painstakingly, the language of the feminine body, the “mouth speaking flesh,” entreating, pursuing, demanding of it, “to make it tell her present in this other language so difficult to translate, the difference.”

The story revolves around Mrs. Richards, an historical figure without a story (her name appearing briefly in 1873 in the civic archives of Vancouver), and her alter ego, Annie, a contemporary, who tries to recover, through research and imagining, her omitted, lost history, and finds herself in the process of having to deal with her own effacement, her own lost place in the world. In recovering this double story, the narrative is pulled, gradually, out of shape: as the novel progresses, it becomes more and more the story of Annie, a young girl's growing up in Vancouver in the 50s, of the ghosts running through that girlhood, the mingling voices of Annie and her sisters, and most importantly, a running dialogue with the (now dead) mother.

Ana Historic is, finally, a quest narrative, a search through the feminine body's unconscious and inarticulate memory for the absent mother, for the full bodied woman spirit behind the mother's craziness, her betrayals, her love, a story also about a young girl's initiation into that absence in our culture. As with most quest narratives, the story ends where the quest ends, in this case not with closure, fulfillment, nor with silence and loss, but with the powerful act of renaming, remembering, reimagining the (hi)story, with an invitation, also, to read ourselves “into the page ahead,” into a newly visioned past/future.

A word about audience: Marlatt longs for, imagines a world in which women are real, are present to themselves and each other, not as psychotics or misfits but as lovers and mothers, readers and writers of a common language, “giving words, giving birth, to each other—she and me, you.” This is a (feminist) revisioning of the world, and it suggests, for us all, a way out of the old colonial story into a new, common ground of shared realities and shared truths. Where it takes us to, ultimately, in this story (as in much of recent feminist writing), is the promise and the possibility of a lesbian experience. This indicates the tremendous energy that is generated by “women associating with other women,” in Nicole Brossard's words (The Aerial Letter), and the need for women's solidarity in undoing their (our) common oppression. I have certain misgivings about the exclusivity inherent in a gender-defined (or any other clearly defined, for that matter) communal identity; however, Marlatt's self-consciousness and acute awareness of contradiction and ambivalence in the writing act, implies a complex notion of community and difference which stands as a model in re-visionary imagining, in the feminine.

Patrick Imbert (review date autumn-winter 1989)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 722

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 dispossession through men's values, men's language.

“True or cute, but not both, too true.” We could say that part of the story lies in this structure of declining to put two adjectives together. The narrative rests on a constant counterpoint between the unwritten story of a “cute” woman, Ana Richards, who (we sometimes would almost be led to write which, because she appears in archives as a mere commodity) was mentioned in the archives of the city of Vancouver. But like most women, she has no real identity of her own except as an appendix of a living or, in this case, of a dead man. Simultaneously, we read the story of a contemporary woman, Annie, who, as Lacan explains through his metaphor of the mirror stage, tries to re-member, to put the pieces of her identity together through the inscription of herself, of her body, of her being, in a language which (maybe who if the language and her self are one), more and more, changes and is inhabited by new paradigms.

What would it be possible to write about hystory? As the orthography suggests here, it is the connection between hysteria and a male-directed perspective towards the past and the present so that heroes, important people (that is, men only), are mentioned at length in books and archives. History is the effacement of women, up to the point of receiving electric shock treatment in case they are not “cute” but true. Here we see a denunciation which has already been made by A. Esterton or by R. D. Laing in The Politics of the Family. Both psychiatrists show that schizophrenia usually comes from a pathological environment and is a defence mechanism coming usually from adolescent girls or from women. The whole family has to be treated, says Laing. Esterton or Germaine Greer would say that the whole society would need to be treated; that is, revolutionized.

Thus, we read the story of those who have no history because they are dispossessed from scratch. “What is a world event?” “What is fact?” This was also put into question by Postmann and Weingartner in Teaching as a Subversive Activity following the General Semanticism (in the framework of a non-Aristotelian philosophy) by Alfred Korzybsky. Semantics is astonishing and we discover it through the poetic and rhythmic prose, uninterrupted, in its gentle and powerful flow (non-antithetical adjectives, as the Tao would emphasize) by capital letters: Vagina in French is masculine! “The worst is we had no say in how it was made.” All this leads to an absence linked to many knots, knots like the ones that were poeticized by R. D. Laing in his book entitled Knots. Here, however, knots leads to not, to the suppression of women, in Canada, in Europe, in the whole world, as has been forcefully demonstrated by Marie Cardinal in Les mots pour le dire or by M. Régnier in L'Humanité seconde. M. Régnier despises many intellectuals accepting clitoridectomy as another legitimate non-western custom, as if women were not human beings who suffer like us (who is us?). Genyside. Beside us. Now. Through language, through discrimination, through inequal treatment, defective but too well-accepted laws, economic restrictions and inequality.

Daphne Marlatt, like Nicole Brossard whom she translates and with whom she enters into a reciprocal intertextual creative process of writing/translating/rewriting (which emphasizes creation rather than a fundamental-ist meaning to be canonized and then conveyed at any price), shows the way, serenely, so that women are not alienated from their own body, their own sex. So that their difference leads to equality.

This has no end. “The story is ‘only a story’ insofar as it ends.” But Ana Historic has no end because desire, difference and imagination have taken over.

Margery Fee (review date autumn 1990)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

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 clearly indicated, only one of the violations of convention in this collection:

walking into the diner
‘are you ladies alone’
                                                                                                    ‘we're together’

Here are the two female negatives that make a positive, two Lesbian lovers who rewrite the train from inside as a womb, rather than from the outside as a phallus thrusting through the “empty” desert, which, since there was “nothing there,” could be used for nuclear testing. This writing is a “word to word fight for defining / whose symbolic dominates whose.” The “negative” images of women and of Lesbians are reclaimed on the train by two poets “thriving outside The Gaze,” who have turned the gaze around, looking out through the moving window as through a camera lens at the outside world, but also realizing that the world looks back at them as “night turns the lens around,” the gazes of emus eyeing them. The film image is repeated in Cheryl Sourkes' three negative collages which superimpose words, photographs and aboriginal images. The collages divide the book into three sections. Reel 1 consists of poems, each titled by the name of a place along the line and the time the train passed through. The next section, called Crossing Loop, is a three-page conversation written after the trip about both the experience and the difficulties of rewriting the world from a feminine perspective. Here Warland talks of finding the desert a site for Lesbian rewritings, as in Jane Rule's novel The Desert of the Heart. The third section, Real 2, consists of prose passages, relating the reel to the “real,” bringing in more social and political concerns. The desert, in male economic terms, is “not worth developing.” But the book reiterates that the boundaries that divide worthwhile from worthless are artificial, arbitrary signs of power:

“Welcome to Western Australia” the sign said
the desert on either side

Words are our boundaries, “but what if the boundary goes walking.” Women have been the negative that defines the positive term “man” for too long, and now go walking in the desert, getting off the train, at first blinded by 360 degrees of light, but recovering

then a gradual sensation
of the Great Wheel rolling under us
of the Great Womb we call earth
not solid not still
but an ever turning threshold

The train journey is over, but the poem still unreels, unrealing the world we've taken for granted for so long. …

Ultimately, however, what [Fred] Wah writes [in Music at the Heart of Thinking] can, more easily than what Marlatt and Warland write be co-opted into an avant-garde tradition that has little ultimate impact, however revolutionary its ideas. Perhaps this difference is simply the sheer scandal of their position, their need to ground their writing in their bodies, to oppose the conventional at every social level, not just at the level of language. As Shirley Neuman has said of Lola Lemire Tostevin's work,

one of the great strengths of the double discourse of feminist writing … [lies in] the difference it introduces into the dominant literary discourse [which] is not so much one of style—male writers use many of the same rhetorical strategies and women writers often learn from them—as one of ideology, an ideology of difference.

Stan Dragland (essay date 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9247

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 monstrous, to be safe is to be identified with the ideal type, of which a separate form exists for all ages, social groupings and classes. This template is an extension of symbolic logic acting in areas which are not properly its domain. In human beings variation is the norm. This variation is viewed as monstrous or entropic by the viewers who implicitly subscribe to the alibi of serial ideal templates.

Christopher Dewdney, The Immaculate Perception


To begin, two circles. The first appears in one of the passages of patriarchal discourse that provide the documentary background against which the lives of Daphne Marlatt's women are lived in Ana Historic. The second is William Patrick Day's tracing of the trajectory of the Gothic fantasy:

‘Women in their course of action describe a smaller circle than men, but the perfection of a circle consists not in its dimensions, but in its correctness, says the logical Hannah More.’


The Gothic world, like a black hole in space, allows no energy to escape, but traps it in a closed system. Action can never be progressive, only circular; whatever the protagonist tries to do, his action must result in his own disintegration. The more energetic his motion the sooner this will occur. Gothic fantasies portray actions that move from point a back to point a, except that in this movement, the identity of the actor erodes. The Gothic protagonist achieves only the illusion of meaningful action, for every movement is in fact the same movement, a downward spiral to destruction.


Nowadays Hannah More (1745-1833, author of Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education and other books) might be seen as kin to the sort of colonial Negro King who sells his own people into slavery in exchange for personal power or authority, granted by whites. Ana Historic dramatises the lives of three women history has invited to dream within Hanna More's “perfect” sphere, but who wake up instead in the gothic trap. These women are anything but serene about occupying this small circle, anything but happy with a correctness defined for, not by, them. Hannah More's circle, in fact, tightens around one vital life and chokes it to death. This is what happens to Ina, the mother of the principal narrator Annie. The strand of the novel that tells Ina's story is gothic. Strip away all the extravagant exotic paraphernalia of the gothic novel, that is, and you might be left with a story like hers.

This is a quicksand story, a nightmare story, with no rescue and no awakening. It is the more horrifying to observe, to watch the powerless Annie retrospectively recounting, because Ana Historic is not fantasy; its depiction of a routine that is domestic and banal is realism. What is this closed, constricting circle in the novel? It's the interior of Ina's house (“long hours of the mind alone in its trap turning the wheel” 26), the confining limits of social convention. Also it's a line of narrative, the script of marriage with a subordinate role already written down for women, or of history which erases these female lives of servitude: “history is the historic voice (voice-over), elegiac, epithetic. a diminishing glance as the lid is closed firmly and finally shut. That was her. summed up. Ana historic” (48). History: Ina's coffin: a “hope” chest. And there are other interlinked images of gothic confinement: impasse, frame, blank, silence. But Ana Historic is the act of an escape artist.


Ina's story is gothic, but Ana Historic is not a gothic novel. Rather, it's a feminist teasing or deconstruction of the gothic genre represented by Mary Shelley's no-outlet tale, Frankenstein. In Ana Historic, Shelley's monster serves as a vane for the anxiety and fear that afflicts the lives of the women characters. He enters the novel in its opening scene, as the present-day Annie awakes in anxiety and remembers the routine of checking for the monster in the family wardrobes on the nights of her girlhood when she was left alone to babysit her two sisters. Later he merges with the men her mother warns her about, maybe lurking in the woods behind the house where she always loved to play. And he is the one she hysterically seeks to throw herself at one night during her adolescence in the era when her mother is, perhaps, crazy and the family in danger of being poisoned. But the older Annie, the narrator, knows better: “it was night-it was moonlight and briars, it was the fascination of desire for what lay out of bounds. Not Frankenstein, but the touch of the terrible …” (77).


Out of bounds is outside the woman's small circle, the prison which Ina in her paranoia for her daughters represents to them as a charmed circle of obedience. Stay inside it—as good girl and then good wife—and the monster won't get you. Out of bounds is into “undefined territory” (81), which exercises a powerful, frightening attraction for Annie. She senses the flaw in her mother's small-circle version of life long before she finds herself closed inside it. She causes her character, Mrs. Richards, to throw the Frankenstein parallel into doubt quite early in the novel. “[T]his was not Europe,” Mrs. Richards feels, “and Mary Shelley's monster would never speak his loneliness here” (16). The adult Annie, figuratively looking over Mrs. Richards' shoulder as she (Mrs. Richards) writes, understands: “it isn't Frankenstein you're looking for but some elusive sense of who you might be: she, unspoken and real in the world, running ahead to embrace it. She is writing her desire to be, in the present tense, retrieved from silence” (46). The “you” here is Annie; the “she” is primarily (more on Marlatt's pronouns later) Mrs. Richards, functioning as Annie's probe for identity, as her surrogate adventurer in a gothic patriarchal world so familiar that its circumference is difficult to locate.


Not Frankenstein. The image of the monster is introduced and then allowed to metamorphose, is explored and eventually set aside as inapplicable to a woman's experience, for all that the creator of Victor Frankenstein, creator of the monster, was a woman. The monster, in a passage I'll return to later, turns into “a man's name for man's fear of the wild, the uncontrolled” (142), for the out of bounds. But before that understanding is reached, all the women in the novel try on the identity of monster. Mrs. Richards, addressing her English father, her personal representative of authority, has a backsliding moment when her desire for independence outside the circle allowed her sex falters: “Perhaps I am the monster you feared I would become—Is it that I want what womanhood must content itself without? (72).” An unnatural creature (a monster): a woman who wants to live “a man's life.”

“I suppose you see me as the monster hidden at the heart of [the story]”, Ina says (dead but, like Mrs. Richards' father, internalized and fiercely disputing with her daughter still), and her daughter replies no, “there is a monster, there is something monstrous here, but it's not you” (24).

On one level Annie's writing is her search for the monster's identity. She is tempted with the role of monster in her turn, when Zoe, her friend and reader, nudges her into imagining a lesbian relationship between two of her characters, Mrs. Richards and Birdie Stewart. Lesbian in 1873? That much freedom? “but this is a monstrous leap of the imagination,” Annie protests, immediately wondering whose voice has spoken (it's her mother, speaking from inside her).

so be monstrous then, [Zoe] says.

but the monster is always someone/something else. the real monster is fear, or the monster is what i always feared as real: the violence behind the kiss, the brutal hand beneath the surgical glove, the one who punishes you for seeing (through) him.


One of the reasons Ana Historic works so well as fiction, despite its component of overt feminist essay, is that Annie, narrator and principal character, is a character, one whose perspective on herself and her life is limited, if growing. She herself is learning and changing until the last page of the novel. She finds out how to analyse the gothic circle of patriarchy (replacing her mother's pain of obliviousness with her own pain of consciousness) long before she discovers she has a choice: in or out. Before she finds her lesbian identity. The last deflection of the monster she presents is on the last (numbered) page of her story, when she removes her fictional mask (Mrs. Richards) and cleaves to Zoe. She is now stepping out of bounds, into the undefined, into the space where fear and desire are one: “it isn't even Frankenstein but a nameless part i know, terror has to do with the trembling that takes you out of yourself” (142). This is what, without knowing it, she has been looking for through(out) her story: a passionate letting go, uninhibited expression of desire for/with another person, in complete safety. Why the terror, then?

The gothic circle has defined Annie's life into middle age; it has been her reality, a reality in which she was conditioned to be passive. Nobody just steps from one reality into another without suffering trauma, but, Annie (like many women), acting on what she finally sees to be true for herself, even obvious, braves a terrible feeling of transgression. Emotionally, declaring complete independence is like suffering a second fall. “i am trying very hard to speak, to tell it” (49), she says. One of the reasons Ana Historic doesn't (can't) settle into a single, stable narrative technique is the intense difficulty its narrators experience in constituting an unfragmented subject/narrator to act in the verb of the narrative.


Mary Shelley's novel would be merely one of the more important minor motifs in the novel if not for the way the spirit of the gothic genre fits Ina's story, if it weren't for the power of the gothic story/trap to attract women into it. “Bluebeard,” that folktale distillation of the gothic, is mentioned only once in Ana Historic (80), but even once is sobering: each of the wives hanging in the locked room of Bluebeard's castle represents one cycle of a story so plausibly horrible that it won't rub off, even after its monstrous “author” is eliminated.


When Annie drops her fiction of Mrs. Richards and calls out to Zoe, she escapes the gothic spiral she is in, the dissolution-in-progress of her identity (“falling apart. we are, i am. we have fallen apart. the parts don't fit. not well. never whole. never did. // Zoe!” 150). But not before she has tasted it, not before she has come to read the riddle of the circle: a thicket of thorns grown around her imperceptibly. Like her mother, she got married, had children, slid into middle-age with no sense of accomplishment, certainly not for her work as research assistant on her husband's “Big Book” (79) on Vancouver history. One generation later, then, history once again is repeating itself in a patriarchal arrangement for which no one in particular is at fault. The men in the novel (Ina's husband Harald, Annie's husband Richard) are no Bluebeards but decent people—Ana Historic is anti-patriarchy, not anti-male—themselves uncritical, because unconscious, of the patriarchal script. They don't experience “the small space a life gets boxed into” (59), so they can't understand what torments their wives.


If one could imagine Ana Historic having been written and published in the fifties or early sixties, one could also imagine its reception by reviewers then: “Some powerful writing, but the research shows; the raw materials have not been integrated into the narrative.” In Annie's imagined version of Richard's reaction to her bricolage, we have much the same response. Nowadays we're used to reading mixed-genre fictions in exploded form. It's no criticism to say of Ana Historic that it carries unmasked ideological content. The novel's thought obviously dovetails with that of feminist theorists of the male gaze, deconstructors of the feminine as lack and so on. The novel is a theoretical text, includable in but not quite covered by Linda Hutcheon's classifiction, “‘historiographic metafiction’—fiction that is intensely, self-reflexively art, but is also grounded in historical, social and political realities” (13). Ana Historic is nearer fiction/theory in Nicole Brossard's sense, but Marlatt herself has recently coined the term “fictionalysis” to describe the particular hybrid of fiction and autobiography in Ana Historic. “a self-analysis that plays fictively with the primary images of one's life, a fiction that uncovers analytically that territory where fact and fiction coincide” (15). To some readers, Marlatt's discourse appears not only explicit but simplistic, based in a binarism that splits the sexes and what they represent too neatly in two. Whatever one thinks of the split—Frank Davey objects to it in How Hug a Stone and Lola Lemire Tostevin has reservations about it in Ana Historic—there's no denying its presence in both texts. In the novel, male energy keeps that gothic circle turning; female energy shatters it.

“While lesbian-maternal texts are crucial in exploring the unrepresented, the unthought,” Lemire Tostevin says,

it is important they not be prescriptive in their attempt to describe women's writing and lives. … Now that the leap of the imagination has been made, it seems more vital than ever that the mutual containment of binaries that has traditionally defined our society be deciphered and unraveled so that the female subject writing herself on to “the blank” page of history conceive herself not only as the difference, but as a multiplicity of differences that cut across sexuality, gender, form, class, race. It would seem more vital than ever that in our newly created spaces we discover not only the multiple differences that exist between men and women, between women and women, but perhaps more importantly, within each woman.


But might not this bothersome binarism have some important function in Ana Historic? Robert Kroetsch says, in Labyrinths of Voice that two good readers wanted What the Crow Said elaborated out of its skeletal patterning, but that he knew from what they told him about it that they got the story. Why finish it for them (11)? Perhaps one reason why I find the polarization of binaries, the ideological “incompleteness” of Ana Historic, appealing is that I feel competent to fill in the greys myself. I understand what Frank Davey says in Reading Canadian Reading, that “each text, through the language structures by which it constitutes itself, serves some ideology” (47)—though the word “serves” collapses a possible gamut of relationships between ideology and text—and I admire his reading vigilance, but I don't believe that the function of criticism is to correct a text's ideology. I expect the text to be a thread of what James Reaney, speaking of national identity, calls “a web of adjusting visions” (7). Criticism is a web of adjusting visions too. I read Marlatt's binarism as an armature of rhetoric about which play the eloquent multiples of language, characterization, narrative technique and structure. I read that aspect of the novel the way I read romance and satire, two genres (working incognito in Ana Historic) which intentionally polarize and oversimplify experience by way of clarifying it.

I read Ana Historic as an historical novel not only about Mrs. Richards of Gastown, but about Annie, who was a teenager in those technicolor dark ages, the 1950's. This is a novel that presents and explores personal experience of a sexism enlightened people naturally like to feel they're beyond. I am writing this on the day of the annual Take Back the Night March (dedicated this year to the women massacred at the École Polytechnique in Montreal), which is a sad reminder that Bluebeard lives, that women often have no choice but to divide the world's human population into Them and Us. Not only on this continent. Travelling by train with Betsy Warland in the Australian desert, Daphne Marlatt finds herself (her selves) still within the gothic cul de sac:

she wants to migrate she wants to mutate she wants to have no natural predators be nothing looking at nothing thrive in her own absence be out of focus out of range of The Gaze hide out from The Law under assumed names but there's no way out. …

(Double Negative 51)

“wants to have no natural predators”: a heartbreakingly simple desire.

Marlatt has always been searching for the grounding in herself of “a common condition,” sensing “a narrative that wasn't only mine, though i participated in its telling & was thereby told” (What Matters 7, 8). Ana Historic tells a very common story indeed, a story so grim that even if we were now beyond this tale of male power and violence on the one hand, women's fear and frustration and growing resistance on the other, the experience of feeling it's “them” versus “us,” would it ever be obsolete? “But The Somme, the Somme:” says Colleen Thibaudeau of the World War I battle so disastrous for Canadian soldiers, “could we ever live days enough / to give it enough holding?” (“Letter Six” 99). No, the indignity of being born and treated like nothing, like a blank, has to be lived through again and again, has to be told over and over. No one powerful text, no A Room of One's Own, can s/lay the ogre by itself.


In fact only one pole of the male-female binary is stable in Ana Historic. The novel itself answers Tostevin's call for female multiplicity. None of the female characters is unitary; Annie certainly isn't, often to her pain. She is her (patriarchal) mother and she is the instinctually enlightened Mrs. Richards. For much of the novel she is rended in mind and body, yearningly aware that no adult compensation has arrived for the oneness she felt before puberty. It's because she can't bear to see Ana boxed into the limited career of a wife that she resists and finally refuses to write her marriage to Ben Springer:

what if that life should close in on her like the lid of a hope chest? if she should shrivel and die inside, constricted by the narrow range of what was acceptable for Mrs. Springer? if all the other selves she might be were erased—secret diarist, pioneer pianist, travelling companion to Birdie Stewart—unvalidated, unacceptable, in short. because they weren't the right words. try artist, try explorer—prefaced always by lady, no, it wasn't a choice anyone sane would make.


Perhaps the best evidence of this multiplicity in characterization is the first name Annie gives to the woman she has discovered in the Vancouver archives bearing only her husband's name. Mrs. Richards, quietly on page 39, in a slightly estranging combination of Annie and Ina, becomes Ana. On one of the novel's six divider pages, someone (Ina? Richard? a skeptical reader?) objects to this invention and someone else (Annie? Marlatt?) responds with definitions:

you misspelled her name
Ana [this name is handwritten in a larger cursive font in the original]
that's her name:
                    back, backward, reversed
                    again, anew.


In Webster's Third New International Dictionary, the definitions of ana (prefix) are 1: up: upward, 2: back: backward, 3: again: anew. A fourth definition is inapplicable. “Up” is dropped out, to emphasize the “horizontal” return, renewal, that Annie makes through Ana. The addition of “reversed” calls attention to the palindrome (works both ways) in the name, less a proper name than a combiner or “intensifier” (Urday 26). Or a proper name that functions more like a pronoun, a shifter, than a noun. What frustrates the spelling police expresses out-of-rangeness, possibility. So when we read “that was her. summed up. Ana historic” (48), we have to look again. This is not “a-historic,” not a blank. The lid may be closed on the box, but Ana isn't in it.


The narrative multiplies too. The story of Mrs. Richards is foregrounded, because we see it in the process of being made (the story of Annie and her mother “just happens” to unfold in the background); we watch Annie struggling with it, trying different stratagems (first person journal, in which Mrs. Richards, like Annie, struggles to word her experience; second person address; or third person limited omniscience); we see her extending the story through her own editorial/narratorial comment on it, through discussions about it with Zoe, and through suffering the imagined hostile criticisms of her mother and her historian husband Richard.

But it doesn't do to think of the three stories as separate. Each of them infiltrates the other, as each is highlighted in various ways by the documentary voices woven through the novel; each story is an exploration for a different generation of the power of that gothic narrative. In life or fiction, can it be escaped? To pay attention to the telling of each story is to see that the total narrative technique, always metafictionally self-conscious, is extremely fluid. There is not only no single or stable technique for telling any of the woven strands of the narrative, but a definitive beginning of each of them is difficult to fix, and the beginnings are scarcely begun when the endings begin. In fact beginnings of one sort or another (of a story, in a story) are brushing against endings from the second page, when Annie's story begins with Ina's death. The technique is metafictional, metalinguistic, multiply multiple.


Of all the real life characters whose lives flowed into Ana Historic—“fictionalysis” is roman à clef with a mission—the most fascinating is Daphne Marlatt, because she is the maker of the fictional characters (who are not merely plucked out of life and tucked intact into the fiction). One has a pleasant, only mildly vertiginous feeling, imagining Marlatt writing Annie writing Ana writing … More importantly, Ana Historic dramatises the painful eking out of a feminist ideology and aesthetic, and much of what Annie discovers about language and writing has its parallels elsewhere in Marlatt's work, some of it written in her pre-feminist phase. Lorraine Weir calls Marlatt's “feminist ecological poetics” “part of a consistent pattern of critique and resistance reaching its logical outcome” (63n) in the revolutionary Touch to My Tongue and Ana Historic. At the core of that pattern is Marlatt's engagement with writing. What Annie says and does, then, mirrors what Marlatt does, and vice versa, though the reflection is inexact.

So Annie's writing is illuminated by something Marlatt says in the preface to What Matters, a much earlier text. I'm thinking not only of the echo in her identification of the problem of writing (“an effort to fight off the closed terms of our culture”) of the closure of a gothic life, but also of her constant employment of writing as a kind of close reading, as the only way she can truly find things out: “Making sense became the work,” she says of the urgency of her aesthetic, “generated by the fear that if i could not make sense of what was happening, then my life was indeed senseless and immaterial” (8).


Annie's writing has one sort of origin in the research for her husband's book. In fact it begins, hesitantly, as an answer to that book, to Richard's linear method, to the virtual absence of women from his sources; it begins as a reaction against history in which women are a-historic. But the main impetus is visceral; it's desperation, the need to find a way out of the closed system she inherited from her mother:

She was knocking on paper, not wood, tapping like someone blind along the wall of her solitude. … // but there was the page, her tapping there, looking for a way out of the blank that faced her—blankety-blank—and not that tug either, the elliptical tug of memory which erased this other. she was looking for the company of another who was also reading—out through the words, through the wall that separated her, an arm, a hand—


Knocking, tapping, tapping, looking, looking … reading: these are metonyms for writing. “Also reading” is a compact way of describing the way Daphne Marlatt's writing functions for her, as a reading of the world where she meets it in the body of language, where she meets others also reading.


In the novel, writing and reading are identical acts, a novelty a reader registers with pleasure, without prompting. Why it happens, though, what the shift is undoing, is explained by Marlatt in a meditation on writing and reading called “Writing Our Way Through the Labyrinth”:

writing goes back to a Germanic word, wrĩtan, meaning to tear, scratch, cut, incise. it is the act of the phallic singular, making its mark on things (stone, wood, sand, paper). leaving its track. “I was here,” the original one in the world. reading goes back to Indo-European ar-, to fit together, appears in Old English as rãedan, to advise, explain, read. advise and care for seem to be enduring aspects of its meaning and still survive in the word rede, counsel or advice given, a decision taken by one or more persons; or, to govern, take care of, save, take counsel together. always there is this relating to others.


Writing as reading is intended to detach the process of making with words from the Freudian “phallic signifier, its claim to singularity, the mark of the capital I (was here).” In a passage echoed in Ana Historic, one that I'll return to, Marlatt goes on to say, “language is no ‘tool’ for [women], no extension of ourselves, but something we are ‘lost’ inside of” (49). “writing my way through” (46) is what Marlatt has always been doing, though not always as a declared feminist.

In Ana Historic this writing/reading is a reaching, to go back to the “knocking on paper” passage—reaching to or for whom? Mrs. Richards? She is perhaps the one erased, all but erased, in the historical record. For Zoe? Zoe has not been introduced into the novel when Annie begins tapping, which means only that there is yet no name, no person, to make incarnate a need Annie can already feel. Annie may even be reaching out to the reader. But it's actually more than a person she's tapping for. Beyond the arm, the hand (beyond the dash) waits the whole body, erotically charged, of an other. When Annie arrives at this body, in Zoe, reading and writing are eroticized. The last line of the last, unpaginated, entry in the novel is an echo of its opening—that anxious awakening in the dark—but now “it isn't dark but the luxury of being has woken you, the reach of your desire, reading us into the page ahead.” “hot skin writing skin”—there has occurred a melting of difference not only between writing and reading but also lovemaking, between the physical body and the body of language, on the move.


Lola Lemire Tostevin says of the “powerful ending of the novel,” which she also calls “its climax,” that it is “unexpectedly conventional in its utopian vision” (38). She is referring to the scene, entitled “Not a Bad End,” in which Mrs. Richards admits that she desires Birdie Stewart. But that scene lasts only a page and a half, and there's a problem with declaring it the ending (in fact there is a different version of the scene at the end of section five), there being almost as many endings as beginnings in Ana Historic, and since the last line pushes ahead, into the page ahead, which is (or is it?) blank. Skin contains the body: the body ends where it meets the air. But it certainly gets around.

Insofar as it makes sense to speak of the closing pages of Ana Historic as ending (the feeling is of arrival and re-beginning), it's true that the ending is happy. “Utopian” didn't always have the connotation of idealist evasion it has picked up in some contemporary literary theories, though. The Greek origin of the word fits Ana Historic best: nowhere. That's where the novel arrives, at a space, a nothing, a by-now-plenitudinous blank. By the end, as in Marlatt's other books, there has been a gain in clarity for the writer/character, but, as is also usual, there has been much resistance to the straight-line approach to discovery. “the plot-line is the drift,” Marlatt says in What Matters, “which circles back on itself while still moving towards some recognition—this rather than a plotted crescendo of conflict & resolution” (71). This is circle as verb. This circling is of Marlatt's choice. In Ana Historic, technique contributes much of the buildup of centrifugal energy that shatters the gothic circle.

Ina's departure for boarding school as a “child with serious eyes and a delicate mouth” (89), is a beginning that appears in the middle of the novel; her death, her ending, is announced at the beginning of the novel, and then the circumstances of her decline to it are filled in in such a way that she dies, as it were, before our eyes. Annie's story begins (in 1950) where Mrs. Richards' does (in 1873), with arrival in Vancouver. Annie's discovery of the slight information about Mrs. Richards in the Vancouver archives is another sort of beginning—of the novel within the novel—but this one, like the writing Mrs. Richards does within it, is marked by “false” starts, crossed out words or parenthesized alternatives, and other signs of work in progress. There is the feeling that the novel is being made while we watch—a little reminiscent of James Reaney's drama in that respect, with its elimination of the line between stage and backstage. We're not simply watching the novel of Mrs. Richards unfold before our eyes; we're also being teased with alternative choices of narrative path and point of view. Choices are not made between these, of course (as they would be by a writer who wished to produce a transparent text), so we're left with a sense of narrative and subject in process, with a telling that is kept very loose (in the sense of flexible), very mobile. All three riming stories are dispersed between so many narrative stances that they get told, especially those of Ina and Annie, without seeming to, while the foreground is occupied by concern with the process (the problems) of writing Ana's story. Annie's difficulties with beginning and ending, leading to the crisis of her dropping Mrs. Richards' story entirely, are signs that she has not succeeded in getting herself together—“i don't even want to ‘pull yourself together,’ as Richard urges (myself? yourself? theirself?)” (17). But Annie's failure, if failure it is, is Marlatt's success. “Getting it together,” stringing it out in a line, imposing author-ity on the text—this is the way of telling that she associates with patriarchy, history, “relentless progress towards some end” (81); this is the way that has come to be associated with the exclusion of women. Marlatt lets the story lie there, apparently in pieces, “circling around the same idea” (81), the sum of Annie's indecisions and indirections. Which is not to say that Marlatt hasn't shaped her material. Ana Historic is intricately structured; it just isn't locked up.


After she drops her story of Mrs. Richards and calls out to Zoe (“which is not the end. the story is ‘only a story’ insofar as it ends. // in life we go on” 150), we are still in a fiction, one layer nearer the skin of the onion. Then, without forgetting the use of the term in shock therapy (see p. 144), Annie's ending/beginning with Zoe is glissando, a slide, into “the page ahead.” It doesn't come down any where. That Annie is happy in the last pages means that something has happened to the gothic blank, which appears in the novel as obstruction, impasse, wall, emptiness, silence.

One effect of the many spaces appearing in the text is to render the reading somewhat spasmodic, a physical punctuation of the thematic search among words and within a voice so deeply inscribed with male experience that the feminine skids right off it. The sense of displacement, of inauthenticity in occupying these words (“what if our heads are full of other people's words? nothing without quotation marks” 81), that makes Annie's writing such a struggle, is one of the commonplace urgencies of feminism. It's also uncannily like that expressed by Dennis Lee in “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space.” In fact an essay by W. D. Ashcroft, which quotes Lee's essay, helps me to see Ana Historic as metaphor for an intersection of oppositional elements in feminist and post-colonial discourse. “[F]or both feminism and postcolonialism,” Ashcroft writes, “the ‘authentic’ language is one whose authenticity itself is constructed in the process of constructing the feminine and post-colonial subject” (27). But first, for both, there's the burden of imperialism. “[I]f we live in space which is radically in question for us,” Lee says,

that makes the barest speaking a problem to itself. For voice does issue in part from civic space. And alienation in that space will enter and undercut our writing, make it recoil upon itself, become a problem to itself.


There is in fact a version of this particular problem, the large linguistic problem in little, in Ana Historic. Annie is growing up Canadian in an English household. She has “two languages. two allegiances” (23). One of these is the past and must be erased if she is to fit into the new Canadian context that her mother finds inferior: “my difference i was trying to erase. my English shoes and woolly vests. my very words. // impasse: ‘my very words’ were yours” (23). To the normal generational conflict is added this hassle over lifestyle and words.

But, more significantly, Marlatt's equivalent of Lee's imperialism—withering the roots of the very language he occupies—is history. Part of her disillusionment has been to discover that the language of history, which carries the past into the present, the language she was brought up in, is a foreign tongue to her as a woman. At least she can't find herself in it.

but i don't want history's voice [Annie says]. i want … something is wanting in me. and it all goes blank on a word. want. what does it mean, to be lacking? empty. wanton, vanish, vacant, vacuum, evacuate. all these empty words except for wanton (lacking discipline, lewd). a word for the wild. for the gap i keep coming to.


The wild, according to Hannah More and her ilk, is outside a woman's proper sphere, that invisible circumference Annie's mother did her utmost to accept, and to make her daughter accept, the limit that Annie raged against as adolescent and young woman, and still somehow ended up bounded by.

Marriage is the proper ending for the story of single maidenhood to those who hold that heterosexual relationships are the correct sort. But “what do you do when the true you feel inside sounds different from the standard” (18)? Annie's inability to locate herself in history, in her “own” language, has been a sadly common enough experience for women. But something else about Annie's identity is buried so deeply (there being virtually no public image to call it out): the true of her sexuality. That such a fundamental aspect of her identity could be so hidden from her is a measure of the power of the heterosexual script that was written for her. She is a middle aged woman before she finds out how to read the repressed inklings of lesbianism she experienced as a young woman. This she does by writing out the story of Mrs. Richards, writing Ana as a woman also struggling to account for herself, also looking for words that are her own. Writing to her father of her life in the new world, Ana breaks off in frustration, unable to convey anything “of these sawdust byways” (83). “her real story,” Annie says of Ana, “begins where nothing is conveyed. where she cannot explain, describe—” (83) and Annie, too, breaks off. The identity of these two women is established in the structure long before Zoe spells it out.


“A book of interruptions” (37), a book of blanks. Beyond the limit is the blank, the gap, the silence, the wild—all negatives? The novel pivots a reader into revaluing the experience they name. In it, one gradually realizes, nothing is conveyed. This nothing, zero, o, opposite to Hannah More's circle, is limitless, and, to overstate the matter, it's under the protection of a goddess. Let's return to Annie's assessment of Frankenstein preceding her release of the wildness in herself. We're now in a position to comment on the context: “—actually Frankenstein was the man who created him. did you ever read the book? and now we call the monster by his name. a man's name for man's fear of the wild, the uncontrolled. that's where she lives” (142).

Who is “she?” The italics confer importance on the pronoun, but the immediate context identifies no referent. A detour will bring us back to her, the long way round.

Daphne Marlatt's personal pronouns always need watching, never more so than in Ana Historic. Her sliding use of pronouns is in fact an index of the relational way her work makes meaning. Often the charge you feel a certain word or phrase emitting is not a property of the word or phrase in itself, but the halo of associations it has gathered, the aura of possibilities generated by the whole (finite but unlimited) verbal field. Meaning in her work doesn't seem quite so up for grabs as it does in a formulation of Charles Bernstein's, but Bernstein is helpful, especially as he makes personal pronouns the principal sign of the provisionality of meaning he endorses in poetics (and what he says about that subject transfers well, or should, to other sorts of imaginative writing, including criticism):

Strictly speaking, it's absurd to be for or against subjectivity; yet the subject may be an area of poetic contest that forces philosophically odd, but poetically comprehensible, polarizations. Key categories like these, or ones such as form, process, tradition, communication, subject matter, abstraction, representation, concreteness, plainness, voice, meaning, clarity, difficulty, content, history, elegance, beauty, craft, simplicity, complexity, prosody, theme, sincerity, objectification, style, imagination, language and realism have no unitary or definitive sense within poetics; they are, like the personal pronouns, shifters, dependent for their meaning on the particular context in which they are used.


Pronouns are very active in Ana Historic, often arranged for maximum shift (“a-historic / she who is you / or me / ‘i’ / address this to” 129), and the context for a pronoun, like the “she” in the passage about Frankenstein, is sometimes the whole novel. For this particular pronoun, in fact, I think the most important context is How Hug a Stone, with its core of feminine mystery, The Great Mother, discovered in the quest for Marlatt's own mother, Edrys, who “is” Ina in Ana Historic.

although there are stories about her, versions of history that are versions of her, & though she comes in many guises she is not a person, she is what we come through to & what we come out of, ground & source. the space after the colon, the pause (between the words) of all possible relation.


The Goddess is everywhere in the spaces, between the lines of Ana Historic. Bride (with the e pronounced)—the principal name she goes by in How Hug a Stone—makes a brief appearance in Ana Historic, as “Bridie or Birdie with the wandering ‘r’” (108). There need be no stampede to the conclusion that Birdie Stewart (reminiscent of Lulu Sweet—“White as the moon, who was she?—the madam who gave her name to Lulu Island in Marlatt's Steveston 21) is The Goddess. History is male myth in Ana Historic, myth as archetypal story is not much in evidence, though if one were picking up what there is in that line, then plain-speaking, self-assured Birdie Stewart, secure in her female lineage, makes a wonderful counterbalance to the Eve through whom women were cursed to shame and passivity in the Christian tributary to patriarchy. Annie has to prise this tradition out of her mother. It's hidden in the answer to questions like why must women wear hats to church? The other overt hint that the Goddess might be presiding over the narrative is the “rite, an ancient place [Ana] had been admitted to, this crossing over into life” (123) during Jeannie Alexander's accouchement. And I sense her presence in Ana's autoerotic fantasy of joining two women in a warm forest pool: “They beckoned to her. Rain fell warm around them, the brown water pulled at her skirts—it hadn't mattered, clothes fell away—she was about to change into something magical and sure … (86).

You tiptoe up to The Name and then withdraw, moving outward from The Goddess who is nowhere, back to Bride, to “she” in the passage we began with. Thence to other “shes” and “hers” in the novel whose identity is not exhausted by the possible referents nearby. They lift and shift as you watch, and many seem tinged with an unspecifiable largeness. Some hand or shadow moving through the words. Some readers may wish to slide back into the heart or the mind, the forearms or the womb—wherever she is felt—back, beyond gender, to Marlatt feeling her way with words about a nameless “ground” in a 1974 letter to Warren Tallman:

But what are these formless messages, these ‘vibrations’ we keep getting thru the grid of our own knowledge, & contain ones standing in the desert like crazy signposts gesturing: all meaning, every silhouette, every shadow (Don Juan), every contour of the landscape-language all previously established (brain) circuits make of everything OUT there shadowless & absolute, as if, we begin to see, thru the shadows our own forms cast, that there is some other ground these forms we take to be landmarks (ours) barely signify (anything) in.

I suppose that the only peculiarly American gift will be learning to be lost—unmapt country, over & over.

(“Correspondences” 13)

Then over to George Bowering, writing to Dennis Lee about the “nerve” of the man who, in “Polyphony: Enacting a Meditation,” tries “to speak those things that are unnameable but experientially there. Experientially? Pah. I mean there. There” (Tasks 196). “It” is approached again and again by the writers whose work is addressed in this book. The meaning shifters, sometimes under the sign of the trickster, are wording their way towards (within) Presence.


The writing, in Ana Historic, is formulating a poetics of cooperation with the nameless real, with “the thick being [Ana] could feel between things” (41). In the twentieth century Annie, this becomes also a poetics of opposition to a way of writing (reading) aligned with the axe, the saw, with technology. “our writing, which we also live inside of,” she says, “is different from men's, and not a tool, not a ‘pure instrument for getting a grip on the world.’ ‘it contains menaces,’ traps, pitfalls …” (133). A poetics which seeks to revalue what has been marked as lacking. In the passage just quoted Annie is working with the words (those in quotation marks) of Simone de Beauvoir, a “woman of your generation … Ina” (133), to sharpen the focus of the usual postmodernist critique of humanism, Charles Olson's for example, so that the particularly male component of it stands free. Here is de Beauvoir on the female body, a (one might say) gothic view that Annie inherited from her mother:

(Her body) is a burden: worn away in service to the species, bleeding each month, proliferating passively, it is not for her a pure instrument for getting a grip on the world but an opaque physical presence; it is no certain source of pleasure and it creates lacerating pains; it is no contains menaces: woman feels endangered by her “insides.”

(Marlatt 133; de Beauvoir 619)

Annie knows what de Beauvoir means; she lost her sense of unitary self when she entered womanhood (without much help from Ina, with no nurturing ritual to mark the rite of passage, beyond being furtively handed a box of sanitary pads). No wonder she is nostalgic for “that child, one with her body. not yet riven, not split into two—the self and the body that betrays the self. bleeding, leaking, growing lumps, getting pregnant, having abortions and miscarriage (89).

So Annie's Penelopean “untelling,” “trying to get back the child who went too far, got lost in the woods, walked into the arms of Frankenstein” (141), her reaching back into the “magic circle” (148) of once-intact family is motivated by no nostalgic expectation of return. Rather, she wants to counter the dominant view of it all as a fall, as the (gothic) inheritance of a curse. The main shift that Marlatt/Annie makes, recontextualizing de Beauvoir's words, is the substitution of “writing” for “body,” in answer to a need she calls, writing of Ana's writing, “the unspoken urge of a body insisting itself in the words” (46). Each of the narrative beginnings these two women make is an assertion of identity, a physical articulation, a bodily speaking or writing that carries much more than “menace.” With them, Ana Historic is annotating an assertion of H. D. that is one of the epigraphs to Marlatt's Touch to My Tongue. “The brain and the womb are both centres of consciousness, equally important.”


In this positive, celebratory view, menstruation—notwithstanding all the mental and physical difficulty associated with it (see Sarah Murphy's “Putting the Great Mother together again, or how the cunt lost its tongue” in A Mazing Space)—is writing, “a secret pleasure,” the source of

a childish astonishment, i made that! the mark of myself, my inscription in blood. i'm here. scribbling again.

writing the period that arrives at no full stop. not the hand manipulating the pen. not the language of definition, of epoch and document, language explaining and justifying, but the words that flow out from within, running too quick to catch sometimes, at other times just an agonizingly slow trickle, the words of an interior history doesn't include …

that erupts like a spring, like a wellspring of being, well being inside. …


Why all those beginnings in Ana Historic, then, all that resistance to endings? The book is a female body. The menstrual period is periodic; it describes a monthly circle. Begin, Begin again. It's the rhythm of a woman's body—in orgasm and in labour as well. That is clear in Annie's comments, unpunctuated for maximum flow, on Jeannie Alexander's labour. Her references to competition detach the female birthing scene from a race between two boats, the Pearl and the Annie Fraser, referred to in the documentary passages that are threaded through this section:

woman a rhythm in touch with her body its tides coming in not first nor last nor lost she circles back on herself repeats her breathing out and in two heart-beats here not winning or losing labouring into the manifest.


It's appropriate that Mrs. Richards witnesses this birthing scene, and narrates part of it, with Annie shadowing her closely (as earlier Annie watches at Mrs. Richards' shoulder while she writes), because this natural instinctive process of great power is analogous to her own struggle with writing. An ancient metaphor—literary creation as child-bearing—is given explicit physicality:

Ana caught a glimpse of dark almost purple flesh and stood up, shocked. How dark it looked, an angry powerful o, stretched, stretched, hair springing black above. This was Jeannie, this was something else not Jeannie, not anyone, this was a mouth working its own inarticulate urge, opening deep—.


And the mouth speaks: “a massive syllable of slippery flesh” (126), a baby, astonishing Mrs. Richards and filling her with wonder. “This secret place between our legs we keep so hidden—is yet so, what? What words are there? If it could speak!—as indeed it did: it spoke the babe, and then the afterbirth, a bleeding mass of meat” (126). Metaphor this may be, but it's also literal physical birth, a bloody marvel female flesh accomplishes. Not wishing to confine the feminine to women, one would not wish to dismiss those idea births that men have been so fond of—Dylan Thomas, for example, labouring to bring forth the poem—but they look bloodless compared to this. And in the absence of female writing on the subject, men are vulnerable to the charge of usurpation.


When Annie arrives at the body of Zoe, of the eroticized writing, their love feels to me as if it takes place under the aegis of The Goddess, who is retrospectively revealed to have been between the lines, in the spaces of this novel, from the beginning. Of course sometimes an attribute of her appears in the words. That's her o that Ana sees giving birth (a zero, vagina, become speaking mouth). In How Hug a Stone it, she, appears as “a hollow space or place, enclosing object, round object, a lump, mound in the surrounding sea of grass. Ku-, Kunte, to, wave-breaking womb: Bride …” (72) who, “winged from buried” (75), attends a seasonal and psychological birth/rebirth.

A man is writing this, fascinated by Ana Historic, this body, this “traffic of the mind around a gaping hole” (123), the cunt. Feeling sometimes like an interloper, but coming to understand some matters in the way that Marlatt wants to understand all things: for herself, “not as knowledge but as experience, that is where the writing [reading] starts” (What Matters 25). Experiencing in Ana Historic (as in “Rings,” Marlatt's poem of the birth of her son, How Hug a Stone and Touch to My Tongue) a hypersexual corroboration of my own fascination with the cunt. The marvel, for me, reading Luce Irigaray's This Sex Which Is Not One was not so much in how deftly the notion of penis envy is made to look ridiculous; the marvel was that I hadn't found the notion ridiculous when I first heard of it. Those who are called envious have incentive to original thinking on the subject, of course; males are even more subject to blindness than women who accepted so much of what they were told about themselves (Ana Historic is founded on this fact) though their very experience denied it.

The Stoned Horse in Ed Dorn's Slinger shakes his head at the narrow view of grasses taken by American suburbanites: “Out of all that great tribe they planted lawn grass” (Book III)! I shake my head too, wondering at that magnificent organ reduced to a hole to shove a prick into. The men who see it that way are the ones who seized the night. Freud, with his idea that there's nothing between a woman's legs, is somewhere behind them. Women have been finding the words to take back the night from Freud; men need to be doing this too, rooting their words in an instinctive granting of physical complementarity to the sexual organs of both sexes. There needs to be a felt basis for renovating patriarchal language and thought—by no means an easy task:

secretly looking [vagina] up in French [Annie] was astonished to discover it was masculine. le vagin. there must be some mistake, i thought, not knowing its history, a word for sheath, the cover of a sword, it wasn't a sword that i was promised.



The healthy Ina, most “herself,” “the mother who'd laughed at ‘Hokey-Pokey,’ loved Abbott and Costello, read ‘The King asked the Queen and the Queen asked the Dairy-Maid’ in funny voices” (144) is juxtaposed towards the end of Ana Historic with the Ina whose repression, depression, whose hysteria has fetched her up in a lull of unmotherhood caused by the shock treatment which destroys her personality. (In the Gothic, Day says, “The identity of the actor erodes.”)

The ending of Ina's story is intolerable; therefore it's a beginning. What she became, so will she always be to her daughter (a complex knot of the creative and the repressive, the rigid and the perceptive), but she bequeaths to Annie a blank of understanding that Annie must write her way into: however could her mother have ended that way, causing so much searing of her family in the process? Who is responsible? The answer lies in the quotations that Annie sprinkles (“improperly,” she imagines Richard saying about her technique) throughout her text, in the male histories that smugly ignore women; in the “how-to-heal/how-to-fix yourself books” (35) in which women try, within the circle described by Hannah More, to make a virtue of being a slightly less static part of a man's background than, say, his house; in the psychiatric diagnoses of hysteria made by men who fail to trace this vicious circle back to its social origins, leaping instead at a tangent to women's bodies, to a shocking fantasy of absence: no penis. Ana Historic raises to consciousness this sort of gothic circle. Against (around?) the background of the humanist/patriarchal line of thought, Marlatt weaves case studies, her own counter diagnoses, and a celebratory view of woman—mind and body—that is a new beginning.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, W. D. “Intersecting Marginalities: Postcolonialism and Feminism.” Kunapipi XI, 2 (1989), 23-35.

Bennett, Donna, Russell Brown and Karen Mulhallen, eds. Tasks of Passion: Dennis Lee at Mid-Career. Toronto: Descant, 1982.

Bernstein, Charles. “Optimism and Critical Excess (Process).” Writing 23/24 (Fall/Winter 1989), 62-88.

Davey, Frank. Reading Canadian Reading. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1988.

———. “Words and Stones in How Hug a Stone.Line 13 (Spring 1989), 40-46.

Day, William Patrick. In the Circles of Fear and Desire. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1957.

Dewdney, Christopher. The Immaculate Perception. Toronto: Anansi, 1986.

Dorn, Edward. Slinger. Berkeley: Wingbow, 1973.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern. Toronto: Oxford, 1988.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Kamboureli, Smaro and Shirley Neuman. A Mazing Space. Edmonton: Longspoon/NeWest, 1986.

Lee, Dennis. “Cadence, Country, Silence: Writing in Colonial Space.” Open Letter Second Series, 6 (Fall 1973), 34-53.

Marlatt, Daphne. What Matters: Writing 1968-70. Toronto: Coach House, 1980.

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

———. Touch to My Tongue. Edmonton: Longspoon, 1984.

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

———. and Betsy Warland. Double Negative. Charlottetown: Gynergy, 1988.

———. “Correspondences: Selected Letters.” Line 13 (Spring 1989), 5-30.

———. “Self-Representation and Fictionalysis.” Tessera 8 (Spring 1990), 13-17.

Murphy, Sarah. “Putting the Great Mother together again, or how the cunt lost its tongue.” Shirley Neuman and Smaro Kamboureli, eds. A Mazing Space. Edmonton: Longspoon/NeWest, 1986.

Neuman, Shirley and Robert Wilson. Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch. Edmonton: NeWest, 1982.

Reaney, James. “A Letter From James Reaney.” Black Moss Series 2, 1 (Spring 1976), 2-10.

Thibaudeau, Colleen. My granddaughters are combing out their long hair. Toronto: Coach House, 1977.

Tostevin, Lola Lemire. “Daphne Marlatt: Writing in the Space That Is Her Mother's Face.” Line 13 (Spring 1989), 32-39.

Urday, Lawrence and Alexander Humez, eds. Prefixes and Other Word-Initial Elements of English. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

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

Fred Ribkoff (essay date fall 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6172

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.

GB: One of the things that babies have—you're talking about how you feel as if you're reborn—is that the world & themselves are not separate. Is that the sense you got? That the outside world is body as well.

DM: Yes. The thing that just amazed me about Kit was how much at home in his body he was. It was all sensation.

—Marlatt, “Given this Body” 68

This exchange between Daphne Marlatt and George Bowering occurs within the context of a discussion of “Rings,” Marlatt's pivotal experiment with prose poetry, which is as concerned with the act of writing (and thus reading) as it is with giving an account of the birth of her son and the disintegration of her marriage. Pivotal because it is here, at the point Marlatt locates her own body (in relation to another body inside her) while writing “Rings,” that she finds the room (or form) to exercise the supreme sensitivity of her sharpened ear for language. In her essay “The Measure of the Sentence,” Marlatt outlines the reasons for her move into the “longline” poetics of “Rings”:

… i was still writing shortline poems concomitant with the longline ones, but it was the latter, which i thought of as “prose poems,” that engaged me most, most gave me room to play around. I wanted to build syntactic structures that i could sustain far longer than i could in verse, & i wanted to build looser & more complicated rhythms. It wasn't just a case of extending my line, i had to really believe i was writing prose, tho with a poet's ear on the pulse of language.

I was writing all of Rings this way, thinking i was writing prose, largely because i was fascinated with the sentence, its elasticity as it kept spinning itself along, drawing out threads of meaning in its extension across the page.


In “Rings,” Marlatt's “located” body, the “restore[d] … human house” (Olson, “Human Universe” 57), moves into a field of force by way of the sentence: “Our word ‘sentence’ comes from L. sentire, to feel, think—the muscularity, the play of thought that feels its way, flexive & reflexive, inside the body of language. In short, a proprioceptive (receiving itself) prose” (Marlatt, “Measure” 91). “Proprioceptive” is the adjectival form of the noun proprioceptor, which is a physiological term originally used to describe “a receptor located in subcutaneous tissues, as muscles, tendons, and joints, that responds to stimuli produced within the body” (Random House), and it was Charles Olson who introduced this term into the realm of postmodern poetics. The proprioceptive writer is at home in her body, as Marlatt's son is as an infant. The key is to stay in touch (in the sense of physical contact and communication) with the “stimuli produced within the body” as the body of the poet meets and responds to the outside world, which, to quote again George Bowering in his interview with Marlatt, “is body as well.” Olson attempts to outline the dynamics of this writing process in his essay entitled “Projective Verse.” In “Rings” Marlatt demonstrates and expands upon the Olsonic notions of the proprioceptive and projective as well as the poetics demonstrated and articulated by New American writers such as Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. In his introduction to Marlatt's Selected Writing: Net Work, Fred Wah also speaks of Marlatt's writing as proprioceptive. He quotes Marlatt from an interview entitled “This and This Connection,” in which she talks about the effects of being taught by New American writers in the summer of 1963 at the University of British Columbia: “Creeley, Olson, Duncan all talked a lot about language, its roots, the way it moves. I mean, this is so basic that I can't even think of it in terms of ‘influence’: simply, they opened up the whole activity of writing for me” (9).

However, by the late 1960s, when Marlatt began “Rings,” the tightly knit verse of poets such as Creeley and Duncan had to be expanded to accommodate Marlatt's own particular relationship to language. In the same interview quoted by Fred Wah, Marlatt remarks on how she arrived at the unique style of “Rings.” What she says points to her own development of New American poetics:

Well Leaf Leaf/s was really a poetic apprenticeship for me. It was the sharpening of my ear. … But I had begun basically with prose. In fact, Frames was originally entirely written in prose, and after Leaf Leaf/s, I felt too confined by the short line and by absolute attention at every step to the word, so I decided to open up the line deliberately and to use that extended line which looks like prose—left margin to right margin on the page. Compared to verse, it's an approximation of a line because internal punctuation is just as important. And the paragraph breaks are very important. Like, I wanted to move in larger units, in paragraphs, and I wanted larger rhythms than those very short lines would allow.

(qtd. in Wah II)

In “Rings” the “paragraph breaks are very important” as they often begin and end in mid-stream, leaving large spaces or gaps or silences that extend into the margins of the page. William Carlos Williams, a poet who also felt the constraints of (his own) short-line verse, was well aware of the need to work across the page in rhythms that were more tidal, and this becomes evident in the famed “descent beckons” sequence in book 2 of his long poem Paterson:

                                        a world unsuspected
                                                                                beckons to new places
and no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory
of whiteness


Like Williams's breath line, which floats across the page gesturing toward its outer limit while registering the whiteness of the page that becomes present in the reading process, Marlatt's paragraphs retain this spatial consciousness while encompassing larger rhythms in their ebb and flow. For the writer of the long poem working in Olsonian composition by field, it is necessary to find a way to allow in silences, memory, dream, “the simultaneity of experience” (Marlatt, What Matters 70).

In her collection What Matters, where “Rings” is newly contexted in larger book form, Marlatt includes this journal entry:

                                                                                          March 25/69

matter is opaque—mother is secret (inarticulate)—source of smothering yet skin as window (that's the solution): Lennart Nilsson's photos of embryo growing inside

the writing takes so long because it is attempting to get the whole field of consciousness (not linear logic) of any given “i” or “he”—the process of thinking is not logical, but the deepest reasons for action are tied to complexes of feeling not postulates of thought.

the whole field must be brought forward, or as much as possible, to understand a point of view.


Marlatt applies the theoretical vocabulary of New American poetics to her unique female experience of pregnancy. In a class conducted by Charles Olson at UBC on 31 July 1963, Daphne Marlatt wrote this note amongst several others: “to sit down and write what i did / do what is happening / to me—to count over—the minutest—to meet in that area ‘downstairs’ / where we all crawl around dumb, living animals—that simple!” (“Excerpts” [“Excerpts from Journal Kept during the Summer of '63 Conference, Vancouver”] 80). In “Rings” Marlatt does exactly this. However, she must come at this writing from the perspective of a s/mothering. She is so literally aware of herself as proprioceptive agent that the activity that is “downstairs” is absolutely tangible (90). She is the “inarticulate dark” (83), the medium through which another body materializes. She is the ring through which another will pass and make contact with other rings/bodies. Pauline Wah, in her “Notes from Olson's Classes at Vancouver,” makes this note: “O. [Olson] & metal—identification, not metaphoric / ‘I Maximus, a metal hot from boiling water’ / belief is substituted for metphor” (65). Marlatt's notes from another day state that Olson sees his body as in “a state of conduction (metals conduct): that / through which the poem passes” (“Excerpts” 83). In the late '60s, pregnant, Marlatt's body becomes one ring amongst the many. The “identification” has not only changed, from “metal” to “ring,” but it has also become that much more physical, organic, literal, and immediate. With the sharpness of her ear Marlatt can do nothing but break open the boundaries of verse if she is going to allow in the multiplicity of her bodily consciousness. Due to the sensitivity of her ear and her phenomenological sense, “Rings” is “a high energy-construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge,” to use Charles Olson's words (“Projective Verse” 16). And this is exactly what Marlatt is doing in a 1970 journal entry made in Wisconsin over a year after the writing of “Rings” in Vancouver: “my energy / (potential output) directly equal to the intake, the energy of the day I'd / tuned into—” (What Matters 155). Olson's poetics of “same energy” have been personalized and borne out in the writing of “Rings” (Olson, “Projective Verse” 16). Consequently, Marlatt can make some subtle distinctions about the nature of the writing process, as evidenced by the final note of this same journal entry: “no Martian (Spicer) writing the poem, tho it is in some sense / other (not-me), but energy of the whole stream—sensual in that way as / anything alive picks up sensation, reading it—the larger wave we live in” (155). Jack Spicer's poetry and Robin Blaser's “incredible essay” on Spicer (Marlatt, “Correspondences” 20), “The Practice of Outside,” provoked Marlatt to characterize her own sense of the other, which is grounded in her sensual body consciousness. In a letter to Warren Tallman in 1975, Marlatt says that “the self is not what is written about though it is written out of. Subjective insofar as it is proprioceptive & the body is ground, yes, self transmits” (“Correspondences” 14). And as a later letter to Tallman indicates, Olson's notions of energy exchange have been incorporated into a self-conception that operates at the level of embodied rings:

I suppose self after all is a sort of transparency, it's a frame like the edges of one's field of vision, it's a way of locating where the action stops. Otherwise that kick would resonate through the whole universe. (& maybe, given some other vantage on time, we'd see that it does, like a time exposure at night of traffic.) …

Enough! My capacity for “metaphysics” is limited by my needing always to return to the body, to sensation (the street simile arose, believe it or not, out of remembering what it felt like to give birth, something “like” a kick resonating through the whole universe, at least the closest I'll come to it as “I”). …

(Marlatt, “Correspondences” 17)

The extension of self is coincident with the location of body in the writing process.

“Rings” opens with an absence, and we (reader and writer) are dropped into it “Like a stone” that breaks the surface of a body of water (Marlatt, “Rings” 79). Where are we in this poem (field) that has no (conventional) beginning, as it begins (“Like a stone”) in midstream? What is “Like a stone”? The sentence (simile) is incomplete. Is it a sentence at all? There is a period at the end of it. This is disturbing. Is the poet disturbed? What does it mean? I guess we'll have to go on and begin again.

As our consciousness is engaged and intruded upon, our normal expectations with regard to reading are upset, but as the next fragment indicates there is sense in going on if we read with a negative capability. As we move into the body of language (like a stone that descends to the bottom of the sea) and the language continues to disperse (like the expanding rings that move outward from where the stone made contact with the surface of the water), it resonates in our consciousness and ears. Tension and delay operate to generate the words' meaningful arrangements. The reader-writer is implicated in the process, subject to it, not subject. Like a word or stone, the reader is one of many “Objects, at sea within me [Marlatt's body, text's body, and ?], unseen medium thru which / chemicals reach” (“Rings” 79).

The poem is continually extending and doubling back upon itself within the context of the whiteness of a page, and in Marlatt's “Rings” the typewriter becomes important to this process. The line “chemicals reach” breaks off into whiteness abruptly with the halting effect produced by the pronunciation of the ch sound of the word “reach,” resonating and rhyming with the last word of the previous line, “which,” as well as creating a visual rhyme with the ch of “chemicals.” (Moreover, this particular paragraph is full of breaches, and the fact that a word such as breach appears in my consciousness while composing this essay is exactly the point. As readers we participate in this ever-extending process of moving through a body of language.) The rhythms of the paragraph are registered with the help of the typewriter as another “medium thru which / chemicals reach.” In “Projective Verse” Olson stresses the role of the typewriter in the act of composition:

But what I want to emphasize here, by this emphasis on the typewriter as the personal and instantaneous recorder of the poet's work, is the already projective nature of verse as the sons of Pound and Williams are practicing it. Already they are composing as though verse was to have the reading its writing involved, as though not the eye but the ear was to be its measurer, as though the intervals of its composition could be so carefully put down as to be precisely the intervals of its registration.


In “The Measure of the Sentence” Marlatt states that “in the gap, the brief time it took for my typewriter carriage to return to the left margin, the statement the line was carrying would jump in an unfor[e]seen direction as that word called up a pun on itself, a rime, or an odd association” (91), such as the association and off rhyme (with “which”) that materializes in the phrase “chemicals reach.” The next sentence in Marlatt's essay reads: “That happens to words when they are isolated on the space of the page, they radiate possible significance in all directions, not just one way, driven by the governing idea of the phrase they occur within, but open-ended, & against conclusion” (91).

From the first line of the first word cluster or paragraph of “Rings,” the reader is caught in the syntactical insistence of the poem. The going is slow and the atmosphere is one of utter constriction and doubt, but the pressures of the process insist on the “open-ended” condition. And although the words “My what's the matter? dropt as” (79) follow a period, “to articulate that sense of AKK!, CLUMP!” (Marlatt, “Given This Body” 62), they seem to jump back referentially and grammatically to “Like a stone,” as if it were her question “what's the matter?” that is “Like a stone.” Of course, although the words “dropt as” seem to pick up where “Like a stone” left off, what seems most central in position and significance is the intrusion of the question, and the question mark in particular. Doubt is expressed in midstream thereby resisting the linear push of the sentence itself. The reader, like the unsure writer, must traverse the gaps and fragmentations of a sentence that is both flexive and reflexive. The next line has its own intrusion just prior to the sentence's potential conclusion: “mothering smothered by the snowy silence, yours” (79). Who is the “you” of “yours”? Is it the reader, writer, or some other object in the field? The significances radiate. It is not only the words “isolated on the space of the page [that] radiate possible significance in all directions,” but also the given word caught in the flux of a line (open to “the simultaneity of experience”) by punctuation and grammatical incoherence. The poet, whose attention is submerged in the leafing of language, moves within the confines of a tension-filled writing that insists on a flexible reader for a state of “same energy” to take place.

The poem is doing things to me as I am to it, and within this momentary interchange or vortex I find myself in space and time in relation to the objects with which I interact. The boundaries of self are permeated by the multiplicity and immediacy of the experience in the emergence of a creative, projective act.1 Clark Coolidge, in his “Notes Taken in Classes Conducted by Charles Olson at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, August 1963,” mentions some evocative instances of proprioception:

one instance of proprioception
                              hearing a drum beating in your stomach
… … … … … … … … 
Indian drum beating (“Huge!”)
                                                  they are “bringing the gods in”
Indian exercise: to focus the eye on a single
                                                                      constellation for a whole night
                                                                                          (follow its movement)
                                                                                “and this
                                                                                          went on
                                                                                                    for years!”


Coolidge also notes Olson saying that “before 2100 B.C. you were not allowed / to speak, if the word sounds / were not used in sacred sense / (excitations)” (48).

It is here, at the level of sound, that I find Marlatt's writing most proprioceptive. In her journal she documents her growing sense of the importance of sound to the ongoing process of writing:

made matter: the issue: what matters: issuing thru the ring of the invisible
to ground—or hearing: as the vowel carries breath to make a sound
sounding, thru the ring of surrounding phonemes, it changes—hearing
change the very matter of

(What Matters 127)

The “drum beats” and “excitations,” the “hearing,” dictate the movement of the poem. The poet must be lost in the field of their relations as well as the radiating significance generated by the syntax so that the relations are internalized, specialized. As Marlatt herself says in “Given This Body,” “You can only locate by putting yourself in the context of all the relative points that surround you” (63).2 For Marlatt words are absolutely material; they are matter that issues (tissues) through her body, which is continually leafing itself outwards onto the page of relations. The long-line prose-poetry format of “Rings” enables her to follow the constellations of her speech as Olson's Indians follow the stars “for a whole night.” The first three lines of “Rings” are: “Like a stone. My what's the matter? dropt as / mothering smothered by the snowy silence, yours. Me? / the morning? or?” (79). The m of “My” (its ring) is mimed in the word “matter,” and the personal nature of these words (utterances or matters) is established. “[M]atter,” the only two-syllable word in the first line, rhymes or echoes with the words “mothering” and “smothered,” both words carrying the m sounds through the second line. The dichotomy between being a “mother,” a figure of fertility, and “mothering,” the activity that can lead to a “smothering,” a dying, is instantly at play in the progression of the sentence. The sm of “smothered” leads the poet's ear into the sn of “snowy” as the sounds and ideas of weight and suffocation overlap into the dissipation that accompanies the sss sounds of “silence.” After the intrusion of the comma and the words “yours,” followed by a period, the line breaks with the capitalized “Me?,” which echoes the capitalized “My” of the previous line in its shape and sound. The question mark also echoes the doubt registered in the preceding line, except this time the doubt is immediate, attached to the word “Me?” itself. A growing identity crisis is mimed in the encroachment of the question mark on the personal pronoun. There is a pause with the line break of the second line, and the poet attempts to shift her attention outward into the world with the third line: “the morning? or?” But once again the writing is plagued by question marks. The identity crisis seems to lead to an effort to connect with the outside and establish a relationship. However, the connections occur within the field of the poem and it is through this medium that meaning accumulates (and matters). “[M]orning” carries the m sound into the next line as well as picking up the mo combination begun with the words “mothering” and “smothered.” Moreover, the word “or” drops the m out of “morning” and rhymes with the word “yours,” which ruptures the previous sentence. In sound and meaning, the o of this first paragraph is connected with the feeling of weight in words such as “stone,” “dropt,” “smothered,” “snowy,” “yours,” and of course the word “or,” which drops off into the blankness of the page in anticipation of a new beginning.

In the next paragraph Marlatt's phenomenological sense and supersensitive ear regenerate the poem by paying attention to “The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) … treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem” (Olson, “Projective Verse” 20). The first line moves according to this dictum, carrying over the ringing of the m sounds and feelings of the writing moment as well as those of the poet's memory of the morning activity. In “Given This Body” Marlatt sheds light on the nature of the complex process of composition involved in “Rings, i”:

DM: The first section was written precisely at the time that it was being written about, at the time of the time that was being written about.

GB: Oh, so that was that sense that you were talking about.

DM: Of charting a territory that was unknown, that I found myself in, & having to map it out in order to discover where I was. I.e., what's going on here.


The complexity of feeling in the first line of the second paragraph of “Rings,” “Metal clangs in zero weather cold hands” (79), becomes more apparent as memory surfaces. The “Metal clangs” could be the noise of the poet's typewriter as well as the “Noise [that] occupies a room” in which “coffee seethes” as the remembers sitting “here, seething” (79). The writer remembers as the language bubbles up in rings. The memory of the “noise” and “zero weather” mingle with the rhythms generated by the language itself to push the line outward. The first line operates under the dictates of the poet's ear and not a given syntax. Each group of two words—“Metal clangs,” “zero weather,” “cold hands”—operates both independently and with the others semantically and in stress patterns. The poet hears the “Metal clangs” as she feels the “zero weather” on the “cold hands” that she sees. After the two-syllable words “Metal,” “zero,” and “weather,” there is a caesura and the energy of the line trails off into the monosyllabic words “cold hands,” echoing the line break of the first line of the poem in which the words “matter? dropt as,” appear. Sound and the poet's attention to its manifestation is at the forefront of Marlatt's writing and the constriction, “cold” and “weight,” of “Rings, i” reflects the absence of communication between a husband who sees his wife's attempts at communication as “word games” (81), and a woman who is struggling to understand what it means to be a mother, to matter, to utter.

By locating herself in her own body Marlatt is gradually able to utter the silences of her predicament, but, as she says in “Given This Body,” “you have to experience a constriction, you have to go thru that very small opening in order to get out of it” (61). In “Rings, i” images of darkness, silence, and tightly shut eyes predominate. The “i” or “eye” is constantly being cut off from the outside light as the blocks between Marlatt and her husband accumulate:

                                                                                                              … Something's
got to give (our street tilts, our horizon does. while eye,
stand at the window, frozen.
                                                  You'll just have to cut down.
“You.” as if i do all the eating (“for 2”).


The speaker is without a ground, alternating between being an “i,” a “you,” and an “our”: “where do i end & you begin?” (82). It is not until the climactic scene in which the first kicks of the foetus register in the writing that “the front room's sun!” breaks through (“Rings” 83). The poet then ceases the attempt to define herself, identifying her body as a ring through which matter passes and her skin (the text) as the point at which she passes through, extending herself:

Kicks, suddenly unaccountable unseen, make their way felt thru skin anyway a fact beginning. Heat. Pierces glass (cold) irradiating skin, water, wood. & snow crust isolate in crystal flake like mica or micro-point all joined uncountable thousands & one-cell, each a room, internal, order in time runs
                                                                                                                                                      on, in
me, pierced, clouds uncountably moving body works, his light foot within.


What becomes important is the sensation of the “kick,” which triggers the extended line instead of definition. Everything is “unaccountable,” “unseen,” “un.” … The “irradiating skin” and irradiating surface of text become synonymous. “Time [no longer] passes” (83), it “runs” in space, “in / me,” in body time. The “foot within” is the measure by which this poet will write. In the summer of 1963 Marlatt makes this note:

my body as universe—cells as whole brains in themselves mnemonics under “hallucinogens” (LSD) as our future not past—that which is to be lived—that almost “fore-known” in the cells themselves—“whole landscapes” he says

(“Excerpts” 77)

Marlatt has understood and applied this sensibility in the midst of the writing process where her body is localized in “the simultaneity of experience.” With the “kick” from inside her body and the experience of the “heat” of her skin juxtaposed against the “cold” “glass” of the windows that meet the “heat” of the sun's rays, Marlatt's prose line is free to stretch across the body of the page in words (or cells) without punctuation: “flake like mica or micro-point all joined uncountable thousands.” “Rings, i” ends with the “uncalled for” memory triggered by the poet's sense of the foetus's desire to “break / thru” (83). The memories include fragments of a Chuck Berry song and a descent through a “red crayon” (84), until the echoing voices of memory break into those of Marlatt's husband and herself speaking to one another in short, fragmented phrases in the present with her pointing out the sun's presence to him.

“Rings, ii” begins with a fragment from a blues song and phrases of the song appear periodically throughout this section of the prose poem. Isolated and centred at the top of the page, the fragment is italicized:

I'm goin ta
Move up to the
Country, babe, 'n
Paint my mail
                                                  box blue


In “Rings, ii” the colour blue takes on many forms, such as “blue truck,” “blue light,” and “blue / dream” (89, 87). The blues songs that Marlatt's husband, Al, enjoys singing in “that funny toneless voice he never hears / himself in, singing” (87), dominate the scene as does the presence of Al's “blue dream”—“HIS sound, HIS memory” (87). Unlike the woman of “Rings, vi,” who has located herself in her body and found her own voice after the birth of her first child and who writes “your brighter dream: / blue mailbox house in the country, nashville …” (108-09), the woman of “Rings, ii” is ringed in by the male voices of Al and his friend Bob, who has dropped by to smoke some drugs. The “smoke” (85), the “small blue light” (89), and the “curtains” (86), which Al yanks closed, constrict this female poet who desires to move outside of self and into otherness: “Those particular / little houses lockt, particles all, cut off from the silent, the / unused street flow, outside our enclosed & cavernous selves” (86). Language enables Marlatt to extend and express (press) herself out into space—onto the page—because the language is common, like the skin, something we are born into and breath through. Recording another level of consciousness with the use of parentheses at the end of “Rings, ii,” the poem reads: “(me turning in, it's time / yes, to sleep, dream out to a larger space) in the meanwhile in / the man's voice …” (91). Yes, a space in which a sentence can suddenly turn inwards and register another level of consciousness, a space in which the poet's husband's “toneless voice” has no place. In “Rings, ii” Marlatt's ear is absolutely “cued to sound” and the configurations of language (85). On its first page (unlike “Rings i”) the paragraphs are large, and the words move across the width of the page consistently. Phrases such as “cave we're into” in the first paragraph and “cave i make” in the second echo one another (85). In the second paragraph the syntax is broken and the punctuation frequent, but there are larger units of rhythm operating within the particles of speech:

Rocking. Eases its bulk, hardly separate tho i envelop. cave i make, my flesh weight his movement thru, water kicks, independent of, the room? my thought? all ringed in smoke (curtains) shift. through us. What we live, this air thick with its changing, colours his, father's face far from thought of it, cued to sound, the knob, 2 knobs turning slowly. bass creeps further into the room, insistent. roots. tree sound. Heart beats (mine must be for him a constant ambience, yes, recording, over & over) one trunk we leaf up thru, this smoke a mist, a mystification, leaves us


The recurring c's generate or ring (signal) one another's appearances as is the case in the movement from “changing, colours” to “cued” and down into “creeps.” The f's in “father's face far from” spin off one another. The word “thru” transforms into its conventional spelling, “through,” miming the activity of moving “through us” with the longer spelling. The word “thru” is repeated three times in the paragraph. It appears in lines 2, 4, and 9, acting as a kind of refrain. The th sound appears at least once in each of the first six lines, incrementally working its way from the far right of the first two lines to the left-hand margin in the fifth and sixth lines, giving the reading experience a symmetry of both sight and sound. The ou sounds of “thought” (repeated twice), “through,” “colours,” and “sound” (also repeated twice), resonate with one another. The double e sounds of “creeps,” “tree,” and “beats” rhyme and resonate with the word “leaf” and the punned word “leaves,” located in the final two lines of the paragraph. The subtle rhymes of the second paragraph work into the more obvious rhymes of the third, where “recall” and “all” ring out the line breaks of the paragraph's second and third lines, and the sharp t sounds of “extent, spent” serve to reinforce the feelings of death and entrapment this housebound woman is experiencing (85).

These feelings are turned inside out in “Rings, iii” while Marlatt is alone in the bath experiencing “a fresh wind … streaming, round the house, / like a dream” (92). The rings she is inside are physical, natural: “In the bath a sea my belly floats in, i float / relieved of his weight—he floats within” (93). Naked and free of her husband's memories and music, with the weight of her body buoyed up, she remembers her own dreams as the narrative of the poem becomes more conventional and readable, although her ear is always on the pulse of language. The processes of life and writing merge as Marlatt realizes that “There is no story only the telling with no end in view” (92).

In the last three sections of “Rings” her baby is born, the other is externalized, and Marlatt's narrative, like her body, moves freely in its contact with the outside, sensual world of light. The more fluid lines find their source in an “ecology of language: each word what those around it relate of it as it relates / (to) them” (What Matters 153). The sensuality and connection experienced in relation to her son amaze and locate, freeing up Marlatt's voice:

Tho it seemed so thin-looking when it first came, in a milky water. all the nutrients are there. & still it runs. more as you want more, grow more. Amazed, at the interconnection still. Those first days how, with every suck, i could feel the walls of uterus contract. You, isolate now, & born, healing my body for me.

(“Rings” 105)

The alliteration, the repetition, the unorthodox syntax that allows the afterthought and the idiosyncratic use of the period, which measures the breath's heave, are all there in the line “still it runs. more as you want more, grow more. Amazed.” The line radiates in all directions, embodying the poet's desire for, and fascination with, the movements of language (“still it runs”) as well as the infant's own primal desires.

In language Marlatt is whole in a field of relations. “[T]hese poems run on like prose [and] the ongoing line gives a larger context while the short lines tend to stress the words in isolation,” writes Daphne Marlatt in 1970 (What Matters 153). In 1950, Charles Olson “hazard[ed] the guess that, if projective verse is practiced long enough, is driven ahead hard enough along the course I think it dictates, verse again can carry much larger material than it has carried in our language since the Elizabethans” (“Projective Verse” 26). Writing her way through “Rings” enabled Marlatt to locate herself in her body, and in so doing account for “the simultaneity of experience” in the larger and more flexible rhythms of her unique, proprioceptive prose poetry.


  1. In his study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael, Olson gives an excellent example of this proprioceptive state:

    [Melville's] natural sense of time was in its relation to space. … To Melville the intimate and the concrete of the present, as for example he felt it at Constantinople, enabled a man to loose himself into space and time and in their dimensions, to feel and comprehend such an object as the Pyramids, to create, in like dimensions, an Ahab and a White Whale. Time was not a line drawn straight ahead toward future, a logic of good and evil. Time returned on itself. It had density, as space had … men could move as they moved in space. The acts of men as a group stood, put down in time, as a pyramid was, to be reexamined, reenacted.


  2. In the preface to his Bending the Bow, Robert Duncan lays out the particularity of the process:

    The poem is not a stream of consciousness, but an area of composition in which I work with whatever comes into it. Only words come into it. Sounds and ideas. The tone leading of vowels, the various percussions of consonants. The play of numbers in stresses and syllables. In which meanings and ideas, themes and things seen, arise. So that there is not only a melody of sounds but of images. Rimes, the reiteration of formations in the design, even puns, lead into complexities of the field. But now the poet works with a sense of parts fitting in relation to a design that is larger than the poem. The commune of Poetry becomes so real that he sounds each particle in relation to parts of a great story that he knows will never be completed. A word has the weight of an actual stone in his hand. The tone of vowel has the color of a wing.


  3. Marlatt's “light / foot within” (“Rings” 83) may be an allusion to the opening line of Robert Duncan's poem “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar,” which reads: “The light foot hears you and the brightness begins” (62).

Works Cited

Coolidge, Clark. “Notes Taken in Classes Conducted by Charles Olson at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, August 1963.” Olson 4 (1975): 47-63.

Duncan, Robert. Preface. Bending the Bow. 1963. New York: New Directions, 1968. i-x.

———. “A Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar.” The Opening of the Field. New York: Grove, 1960. 62-69.

Marlatt, Daphne. “Correspondences: Selected Letters.” Line 13 (1989): 5-31.

———. “Given This Body: An Interview with Daphne Marlatt.” With George Bowering. Open Letter 4th ser. 3 (1979): 32-88.

———. “Excerpts from Journal Kept during the Summer of '63 Conference, Vancouver.” Olson 4 (1975): 76-85.

———. “The Measure of the Sentence.” Open Letter 5th ser. 3 (1982): 90-92.

———. “Rings.” Marlatt, What Matters 77-113.

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

Olson, Charles. Call Me Ishmael. San Francisco: City Lights, 1947.

———. “Human Universe.” Olson, Selected Writings 53-66.

———. “Projective Verse.” Olson, Selected Writings 15-26.

———. Selected Writings of Charles Olson. Ed. Robert Creeley. New York: New Directions, 1966.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. 1967 ed.

Wah, Fred. Introduction. Selected Writing: Net Work. By Daphne Marlatt. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1980. 7-21.

Wah, Pauline. “Notes from Olson's Classes at Vancouver.” Olson 4 (1975): 64-69.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. 1946. New York: New Directions, 1963.

Pamela Banting (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6632

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 reality constitutes for us, we are most often forced to adapt our lives to simultaneous translation of the foreign tongue.

Nicole Brossard, The Aerial Letter, 112

Sober and enraptured, already familiar with the place where you know how to put your hand so as to bring about the effect of reality: lovhers. While i am still trying to read/delirium.

Nicole Brossard, Lovhers, 29

The body is not nature. The body is not a woman. The body is not a mute. No. The body is a persistent and perpetual translator. Jouissance ceaselessly circulates and recirculates pictogrammic, ideogrammic, and phonetic signifiers so as to avoid congealing the body around a single organ, a single frozen drop of flesh. The body is not only a sum of its visceral organs but a series of contiguous libidinal surfaces and striations. The body is its own signifier. The body is a lifesize, mobile, and audible pictogram.

Daphne Marlatt's ‘Musing with Mothertongue,’ the poetic essay which follows the serial poem, glossary, and photo-collages in Touch to My Tongue,2 restates and elaborates upon her thoughts concerning the relation between language and body in her work. Marlatt has always evinced a strong drive to literalize the body. The issue for her is, given this body, how do we stay contained within it and not interpose our own ego between ourselves and that body?3 How do we avoid constructing, or at least how do we from time to time puncture, or punctuate,4 the interior volume of a logocentric self which reduces the body to gross matter?

In the following passage from a 1988 interview Marlatt talks about how her view of the relation between language and body led her, in her novel Ana Historic, to defer the seemingly inevitable lovemaking between the characters Annie and Zoe. She did not want the narrative's ending to be a conclusion, she says, but only another beginning:

I suppose this has to do with where I place myself against Christianity, which has taught us to defer bliss to life after death. But language itself, especially writing, is another kind of deferral. In the humanist tradition it was thought to be a vehicle pointing to what was real beyond the writing. And we've now come to think of it very differently as a signifying process present to itself. To speak of what has been excluded from the world of literature, which is women's desire, and to make that present in a language of presence is a big challenge.

(Williamson, ‘Sounding’ 52)

If writing is a signifying process present to itself alone (or, alternatively, deferred only from itself rather than from a transcendental signified), then the problem of how to speak of women's desire (largely absent from discourse, latent within the body) in such a writing is addressed by our desiring, deferring, and deferred bodies. Just as writing refers to writing, so the desiring body, as, for example, in Marlatt's poetry, signifies itself. The desiring body, the body of jouissance, has its own compositions and positions. Desiring and loving bodies collect a history, a language, and a skin of their own. Because ‘my body does not have the same ideas I do’ (Barthes 17), it must not be spoken of and represented in standard models of spoken and written composition only. The erotogenic body can be spoken, and listened, to and inscribed in intersemiotic translation.5

The body cannot be divided from language, because language is, as Marlatt writes, ‘a living body we enter at birth’ (Touch 45). Language shapes, configures, and partially but not entirely determines our bodies. Our bodies are part language. Our physiological body parts are also grammatical organs, diagrammed, conjugated, and mobilized by cultural inscriptions. In bpNichol's phrase ‘syntax equals the body structure’ (Nichol 25-31).6 Syntax is not identical with but equivalent to the body structure. Most assuredly, though, for Marlatt language ‘does not stand in place of anything else, it does not replace the bodies around us’ (Touch 45). Language, in other words, is not only referential. The body of language is also our horizon, ‘placental, our flat land, our sea’ (Touch 45). Both topos, ‘place (where we are situated),’ and trope, ‘body (that contains us),’7 the flesh of language is the flesh of our world. Language as a living body envelops our lived world and lived body. As Marlatt said in 1974 with regard to Gertrude Stein's work, ‘Well, she sees language as a code. I dont want it to be a code. I want it to be the transmitting itself’ (Bowering 68). Throughout her work Marlatt consistently demonstrates a concern for access to the literalness both of the body and of language. For her, articulation, especially by women writers, is ‘a visceral event’ (Bowering 68).

A crucial aspect of the literality of language is what Marlatt calls its musicality. In ‘musing with mothertongue’ she says that ‘language is first of all for us a body of sound’ (Touch 45). Language's physicality derives primarily from its oral/aural qualities. For babies, as we know, the world and themselves are not separate. The outside world is body as well. Children learn language non-referentially because, as Marlatt insists, ‘language is literal … Any word is a physical body. It's [sic] body is sound, so it has that absolute literal quality that sound has, which connects it up with sounds around it’ (Bowering 69). ‘It can never be referential, because you simply arent given, in reality, that other out there’ (Bowering 79). It is only a gradual and lifelong process whereby we learn ‘what the words are actually saying’ (Touch 45).

For Marlatt, language works by evocation, not invocation, and thought works by association. The physical bodies of words provoke each other into utterance by attraction along an associative, metonymic chain. Association is ‘a form of thought that is not rational but erotic because it works by attraction’ (Touch 45). Like attracts like. Even difference attracts liking. Words, like lovers, ‘call each other up, evoke each other, provoke each other, nudge each other into utterance’ (Touch 45). The rhetoric of our thinking is erotic. Thus for Marlatt the simile is more than a comparison between two objects using the words like or as. In her view, words, phonemes, and syllables like one another.8 She uses like as a verb rather than as a preposition.

Marlatt also uses the fulcrum of the word like, not to subsume one term by another, but to highlight the metaphoricity of the body. In common rhetorical usage the tenor of a metaphor is the discourse or subject which the vehicle illustrates or illuminates (Holman 525). A comparative term is invoked to clarify, brighten, or render poetic a primary term. The traditional definition and usage of the simile is essentially Platonic in that two things, essentially unlike, are juxtaposed by virtue of a resemblance in a single aspect of their being. In the simile it is forms which are analysed and compared. The traditional use of the simile thus reinforces metaphysics. In this formal analysis there is no room for erotic attachments. However, as Marlatt points out, the Germanic lik- refers to ‘body, form; like, same’ (Touch 45). Therefore the etymology of like can be read as positing a different (not an original) dynamic at work in similes.9 The idea of sameness is present in this new dynamic, but it is not necessarily a sameness in the sense of an irreducible similarity of being or nature. It is sameness by virtue of the mutuality of attraction or the pull of two or more bodies towards one another. Erotic attraction is not always or even necessarily based on similarity: erotics is based upon the play of both sameness and difference. Rather than producing analogy, this other kind of simile is based upon the physical attractions of speech and the sounds of a given language or languages. Thus Marlatt might define the simile as the process of attraction between two bodies (words as particles of language, or human bodies) by virtue, not of the fundamental similarity of a single aspect of their being, and thus a reduction of the two to one, but rather by virtue of their multiple and contingent physical (signifying) attributes.

Marlatt's erotics of rhetoric works to develop parallels between the human body and the body of language without privileging either term, tenor or vehicle, of that simile. In the following passage Marlatt explores some of the attractions between the physical body and the material body of language,10 and in the process traces familiar, forgotten, and novel circuits of exchange between these two bodies:

hidden in the etymology and usage of so much of our vocabulary for verbal communication (contact, sharing) is a link with the body's physicality: matter (the import of what you say) and matter and by extension mother; language and tongue; to utter and outer (give birth again); a part of speech and a part of the body; pregnant with meaning; to mouth (speak) and the mouth with which we also eat and make love; sense (meaning) and that with which we sense the world; to relate (a story) and to relate to somebody, related (carried back) with its connection with bearing (a child); intimate and to intimate; vulva and voluble; even sentence which comes from a verb meaning to feel.

(Touch 46)

The serendipitous similarities between the language used to describe the body and that used to refer to language itself are not used by Marlatt to transport us back to some ur-text, some utopian or matriarchal era, or to some original innocence of union between body and language. Rather, Marlatt uses this attraction between parts of the body and parts of speech to form new alliances. It is not her desire to erase the present or to move backwards in time. She is translating forward, forging sense where there has been only non-sense, aspects of our lives which have been invisible to us because, as she says, ‘in a crucial sense we cannot see what we cannot verbalize’ (Touch 47).

When she draws an analogy between poetry as a form of verbal speech and lovemaking as a form of organ speech (Williamson, ‘Speaking’ 28), Marlatt is using the word speech metaphorically in order to point to the signifying capacities of the body itself. In turn, this new awareness of the body's sign production rereads or unsettles that which we presently understand as verbal speech, poetry and texts. As readers, we must become oriented to traces of the body in the text. Our responsibility in this regard is not merely to assimilate these traces as metaphoric. As if we were reading a translation, which we are, an intersemiotic translation, we must not privilege only the target text. Instead we must read the marks, gestures, and postures of the body too. Within this translation model we must allow ourselves to be ‘lured beyond equivalence’ to ‘a new skin.’11 The reader reading, like the writer writing, must translate bi-directionally between text and body, body and text.

Marlatt's emphasis on sound and speech, though, does not place her within a solely oral poetics. She draws upon the lineage of poetry, ‘which has evolved out of chant and song, in riming and tone-leading’ (Touch 45). However, her poetics also derives from the prelinguistic and non-referential significations of the child and the current gaps in our language for the inscription of women's bodies. Etymologies, which she uses liberally to generate her texts, depend upon dictionaries and literacy. Moreover, Touch to My Tongue includes photo-collages not just as illustration but—insofar as they invoke the intersemiotic translation between words and images, and pictogrammic writing—as instructions in how to read the interlingual, intralingual, and intersemiotic translations of the poem series. That is, Marlatt, like Hélène Cixous, does not pre-configure the body as external to words nor as entirely coded by them either. She strives not to locate the body in either of these epistemes but instead to continue to translate between epistemes.12 For her, just as the text metaphorizes or translates the body, so the body metaphorizes the text.13 When body and text as two material substances or tissues are invited to attract, metaphorize, and translate one another, different textual practices are initiated, and different bodies constructed.14 The body is both translatable and untranslatable: translatable in this intersemiotic exchange between two material substances; untranslatable in that like a proper name or any other untranslatable word it transfers nothing except itself as pure signifier. The smooth and slippery body, like the proper name, announces paradoxically ‘translate me’ and ‘don't translate me.’

In addition to sound, etymology is a force of attraction among words that allows various forms of translation to take place. Etymologies form the ‘history of verbal relations (a family tree, if you will) that has preceded us and given us the world we live in’ (Touch 46). Marlatt's translation poetics contains a genealogical component.15 Language and its history of verbal relations, etymology, like our own mother's body, is ‘the given, the immediately presented, as at birth’ (Touch 46-7). Hence language and the etymon are part of the phenomenological horizon of our lives, which is never really given (in the same way that etymologies do not allow us to time-travel back to a prelapsarian, maternal, or matriarchal condition). As a feminist writer, Marlatt ‘take[s] issue with the given, hearing the discrepancy between what our patriarchally-loaded language bears (can bear) of our experience and the difference from it our experience bears out’ (Touch 47). Because both history and language are constructions, says Marlatt, we can change the reality we live in: ‘We're not stuck in some authoritative version of the real’ (Williamson, ‘Sounding’ 52).

Of course, one very important aspect of the real which is also a function of translation is gender difference. Marlatt lists examples of some of women's experiences which have been invisible to patriarchal language. These include gestation, menstruation, body cycles, breast-feeding, intimacy, and lovemaking. If the real is a construction, and if the body is the medium of the real, then through translation between the body and language the body can be not just represented but reconstructed, re-realized, reorganized. Marlatt describes the act of writing as a translation between the prelinguistic given (this given can be equally the body or the external world) and language. She states: ‘Everything is prelinguistic, & as soon as you get into linguism, language, humming it, uttering it, you get back into the problem of translating … Plus the fact that it's even more complicated than translating, because language has its own presence & its own insistences & its own connections, which you have to take into account all the time’ (Bowering 58-9).

Here it is necessary to make a distinction between the prelinguistic and presignification. The body conceived of in phallogocentric terms exists prior to language. However, it is accurate to say that the body is prelinguistic only if language in turn is conceived to be entirely absorbed by or identical with its referential functions. The problem is that we lack names for different signifying practices of the body. Some, such as dance, have been culturally assimilated as art forms extraneous to language (although certain avant-garde artists incorporate language into contemporary dance). This is why we have to research such practices as, for example, hysteria and lesbianism in order to excavate and provide provisional names for alternative signifying practices. These not yet completely theorized modes are sources of information about the body. Without retaining the phallogocentric body, then, but without wholly discarding it either for the moment, since it is the only one Western culture recognizes, we must add other signifying practices of the body to speech and writing, and we must read traditional rhetorical devices differently—not as referential only but as erotic, attractive, metonymic.

Certain experiences of women's bodies have been invisible. In a similar way aspects of the body of language can be equally overlooked or misread. In ‘Translating MAUVE: Reading Writing’ Marlatt sums up what are for her the similarities between writing and translating:

Translation has always stood in an intimate relationship to writing for me, not the same but similar to, and it is this shade of difference that is fascinating, that is exactly the area—i might even add ‘shady’ area—that the process of translation works. Writing this, i'm assailed by words like ‘ground’ and ‘basis’ which want to insert themselves, but what i want to say about translation denies those terms. For me translation is about slippage and difference, not the mimesis of something solid and objectified out there … Since it is impossible to ‘bring over’ all of the complex of meaning in French, the difference is crucial. And fascinating. And for me a clear instance of what writing itself 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. So that what one ends up saying is never simply one with, but slipping, in a fine displacement of, intention.


Even as they constitute it, both body and language escape signification. When Marlatt writes about the call of feminist writers in Quebec for a writing that returns us to the body and the ‘largely unverbalized, pre-syntactic, post-lexical field it knows’ (Touch 48), she clarifies that what she means by this post-lexical field is the site of the erotic attraction and proliferation of words. Within a translation poetics the term post-lexical can be read not only as pre-existing and exceeding the limits of the dictionary. Instead of a regression towards a dubious site of origins, it can also be read as a translation, using the etymological roots of words contained in the dictionary, towards a language which no one at present speaks or writes or performs but which perhaps subsequent women writers will be able to inhabit. In the meantime experimental feminist writers such as Marlatt translate, not back to a utopian vision, but within and towards a target text and target language. Marlatt and writers like her write in a (m)other tongue or ‘interlanguage,’ a separate, yet intermediate, linguistic system situated between a source and a target language (Toury 71).

At this point in her poetic essay, the penultimate paragraph, where the figure of a new woman writer emerges, Marlatt accretes to the problem of ‘the given,’ which she had previously used solely in a phenomenological sense, the same associations Hélène Cixous borrows from Marcel Mauss on the logic of the gift (Cixous 252, 263-4). The given is not just that which pre-exists. It also partakes of the nature of a gift. Like Cixous's figure of the woman writer, Marlatt's ‘Alma,’ ‘inhabitant of language, not master, not even mistress … in having is had, is held by it [language], what she is given to say. in giving it away is given herself …’ (Touch 48). Alma is the writer as translator. Her writing/translating works off of ‘that double edge where she has always lived, between the already spoken and the unspeakable, sense and non-sense’ (Touch 48). Her source language is ordinary speech and writing, but her target language is not. This is translation between the articulate (the already spoken) and the inarticulate (the unspeakable), language (sense) and the body (non-sense), the vernacular and an unknown language, the mother tongue and a (m)other tongue. Marlatt touches on a similar point when she says in an interview, ‘okay, interface is a better word for the meeting of what is knowable & what is unknowable. So all writing is a kind of translation … From that which is inarticulate but sensed, deeply sensed … In translation you're always making choices because you cant get the whole, the original, in fresh’ (Bowering 57). There is always excess, spillage, and loss of signifiers and signifieds in translation. At the present stage in her work the seepage inherent to translation has become an intrinsic part of Marlatt's theory of language, writing, and the body.16 The gift is, paradoxically, this seepage, this loss, this drift.

In the final paragraph of ‘Musing with Mothertongue’ topos, ‘place (where we are situated),’ and trope, ‘body (that contains us),’ have coalesced again:

language thus speaking (i.e., inhabited) relates us, ‘takes us back’ to where we are, as it relates us to the world in a living body of verbal relations. articulation: seeing the connections (and the thighbone, and the hipbone, etc.). putting the living body of language together means putting the world together, the world we live in: an act of composition, an act of birthing, us, uttered and outered there in it.


Language speaking is language inhabited by a body. This body in turn is situated in a network of verbal relations. Marlatt's use of the terms ‘speaking,’ ‘articulation,’ and ‘composition’ are inconclusive with regard to the differentiation between writing and speech. When she refers to language speaking, she immediately modifies that term with ‘inhabited’ so as to insist on the bodily incarnation and articulatory or joining function that signifying in general enacts. The root of ‘inhabit,’ ‘ghabh,’ means, among other things, to give or receive, which in the context of Marlatt's modification creates a kind of equation such that to speak is to inhabit is to give or receive. Language speaking is language inhabiting our bodies, but there is always a surplus of the given, of both body and language. Language exceeds us; there are many languages and discourses which are unheard by us. In turn, the materiality of our bodies supercedes the referentiality of language in countless ways.

Thus Marlatt's conception of the relation between the body and language is close to the idea of hysterical translation.17 Unlike Cixous, who theorizes an alternate relation between body and language on the basis of the hysterical body, Marlatt's focus is the lesbian body. However, what is important to note in terms of the present discussion is that hysterical bodies and lesbian bodies alike disclose both the feminine erotogenic body and processes of signification in general.

Hysteria, as the name suggests, was traditionally considered a reorganization of the body arising from the wandering or displacement upwards of the womb. Freud's theory of somatic compliance, conversion or the transposition of psychic pain into physiological symptoms, superceded this view. But hysterical translation is not the translation of psychic blockage or pain into bodily symptoms. It is not the expression or imitation of madness, or of femininity. Hysterical translation is the intersemiotic translation from one signifying system to another. Hysterical translation does not represent18 the body as ill, pathological, or diseased; it presents the body as pictogram. The movements of the hysterical body are ‘the perceptible appearance of a signifying system or a language that plays upon the visible’ (David-Ménard 20). Insofar as it marks the physiological body off from the signifying but non-verbal body (David-Ménard 21), hysteria is an anti-metaphysic, a new epistemology, a new ontology. Ironically, then, hysteria thus rethought, not as the picaresque wandering of the womb nor as a dutiful somatic compliance, but as a translative process along the lines of the translation between writing and speech, for example, does in fact lead to a reorganization of the body.

Therefore when Cixous, for one, posits women writers as hysteric, she is not suggesting that they are afflicted with hysteria. Contemporary experimental women writers do not recapitulate the gestures of that malady as hysteria illness, nor do they valorize this sense of hysterical illness. The woman writer is not the double of the classic hysteric, because the writer writes. Inasmuch as she writes, she may draw on the philosophies posed by the hysterics. The same is true of Marlatt's tracing the significations of the lesbian body. Just as Jean Martin Charcot found hysterics to be photogenic because of their play with the language of visibility, so Marlatt explores and translates the erotogenic ‘organ speech’ of the bodies of lesbian lovers. The erotogenic body is the literal body, but it is not the materialist or essentialist body we have inherited from Cartesian metaphysics. The erotogenic body is located in the spaces between signifiers. Between one kiss or embrace and the next. Literally, between two mouths.

For Marlatt orality is not entirely tied to speech, conversation, the vernacular, or even whole words. She differentiates within and supplements the traditional model of signification.19 Asked in an interview about the relation of writing to speaking in her work, she responds, ‘I think my writing is fairly oral’:

When I'm writing, I'm writing it as I'm hearing it … But I'm not too concerned with it on the page. When I was writing verse, when I was using the space of the page, then it would get in the way of the words coming out … I'm concerned with how it sounds, with how you speak it, and how it can be heard … What most intrigues me is what I think of as the sound body of the work. What kinds of sounds bounce off, echo off, call up other sounds. How the rhythms elongate or slow down, or suddenly pick up and run.

(Williamson, ‘Speaking’ 29)

Marlatt focuses on the sound body of language less for the sounds of speech than for the sheerly physical sounds of language—semiotic, prelinguistic, or post-lexic. Although she is concerned with speaking and hearing the vernacular in her work, she is more responsive to and absorbed by the purely material element of sound.

Marlatt's concern with the sonority of words and the materiality of the body is not incompatible, though, with composing on the typewriter. When George Bowering remarks in ‘Syntax Equals the Body Structure’ that ‘you can almost bypass the body when you're composing on the typewriter, that it's the brain just using part of the body to get out onto the page’ (Nichol 27),20 she objects, declaring that she does not feel that the body is not present in such compositional circumstances: ‘I always compose on a typewriter, and I don't feel that the body isn't there. In fact, I find that there's a kind of rush possible on the typewriter—because you can type that fast—that equates very definitely with certain body states’ (Nichol 27). The difference in opinion between Bowering and Marlatt on this point stems from the fact that he is working from a conventional distinction between oral and written forms, whereas she differentiates within the oral model.

Marlatt's project is to diffuse the mother tongue beyond and in excess of logocentric or patriarchal speech. Sensing her way through the sentence, she performs a bi-directional translation between the physical organs, senses, and perceptions of the body and a language yet to be spoken by anyone. Moreover, by factoring in the signifying practices of bodies themselves, she diversifies orality and disperses signification, beyond the privileged organs of the phallogocentric body, over other corporeal surfaces. ‘Poetics,’ she writes, ‘is not a system of thought but a tactic for facing the silence’ (‘Listening’ [‘Listening In’] 36). Instead of a strategy for hearing-oneself-speak, ‘poetics is a strategy for hearing’ (‘Listening’ 38). Her poetics does not give a hearing to the evidence of the phallogocentric self but rather to ‘every comma, every linebreak, each curve thought takes touching nerve-taboo, the empty space where speech, constrained by the “right form,” the “proper word,” is gripped (passive voice) by silence’ (‘Listening’ 38). Marlatt's poetics translates between the audible and the inaudible, the visible and the invisible, speech and writing, the body and language. Poetics is not a method of composition so much as a way of translating the body, of composing and reorganizing it.

Marlatt's writing proposes that the mother tongue both is and is not our first language (which in fact is usually a father tongue spoken and transmitted to us by our mothers). She writes towards a (m)other tongue that will de-territorialize the phallogocentric body. She wants both to map other areas of the body with language and to translate the body literally into her texts. For Ezra Pound a ‘periplum’ was the geography ‘not as you would find it if you had a geography book and a map, but … as a coasting sailor would find it’ (43-4). For Daphne Marlatt the periplum is the body as mapped by the tongue in translation.21 Writing this (m)other tongue is a literal and a littoral translation:

it moves mouth to ear (nipple to mouth), the fine stream that plays in time across a page, under pressure from all there is to say, so much we start again, starting from the left, starting from the silenced, body the words thrum. waiting to hear with all our ears. listening in, on …

(‘Listening’ 38)


  1. A draft of this paper was presented to the seminar on ‘Textual Bodies: Writing as Material Substance and/or Figurative Organism’ at the Bodies: Image, Writing, Technology Conference, University of California, Irvine, 26-8 April 1990. I gratefully acknowledge the support of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada doctoral fellowship during the period in which this paper was written.

  2. I am using the version of ‘musing with mothertongue’ published in Touch to My Tongue. Page references are to that book. As the essay is quite short and my analysis proceeds through it in the order in which it is written, readers will not find it difficult, if necessary, to consult one of the two other published versions. The essay appeared independently in the first issue of the journal Tessera, in Room of One's Own 8, no. 4 (1984), 53-6, and in Dybikowski et al., eds., In the Feminine: Women and Words/Les Femmes et les mots Conference Proceedings 1983, 171-4.

  3. Here I am deliberately echoing American poet Charles Olson's statement: ‘Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects’ (156). In her work Marlatt considers this problem from the position of a Western woman.

  4. The words puncture and punctuate share a common etymology meaning to mark with a point; pricked mark, point; to prick, pierce. Marlatt's idiosyncratic proselike long line, interior punctuation, and her notation in general can be read as simultaneously ‘kicking syntax’ (Touch 49) and marking, pricking, and piercing the logocentric interior.

  5. Some of the methods feminist writers implement for speaking of such absence in a language of presence are not to defer to phallogocentric authority, not to defer speaking or writing, and not to defer pleasure. To refuse to defer to the real and/or the transcendental beyond is to position oneself, not in logocentric presence, but in the interval between words, phonemes, gestures, arms, lips, pelvic bones, tongues, etc. It is to defer deferral. If, as Marlatt insists, we are simply not given in actuality the real out there, then there can be no absence pure and simple. In an essay on Marlatt's long poem How Hug a Stone I have called this writing in the intervals between bodies and among body surfaces ‘writing under embrasure.’

  6. That is to say, syntax is not identical with but equivalent to, not the body, but the body structure. I discuss Marlatt's contribution to this discussion with bpNichol and George Bowering near the end of the present article. See also Marcel Mauss on what he calls ‘body techniques.’

  7. I am using the term trope here in a very general way—as figure of speech. As Gérard Genette demonstrates, a figure is simply one signifier offered as the signified of another signifier. In actuality, both signifiers are merely signifiers. Neither can legitimately be claimed as the literal of the other. Both are literal signifiers (Genette 47). Hence I am using this sense of the word trope to underscore the literalness of the body in Marlatt's writing. This sense of trope as two signifiers in a relationship of otherness parallels the relation between two languages, bodies, or words.

  8. See Marlatt's comments on metaphor in Bowering, ‘Given,’ 43.

  9. This is not to suggest that there is a prior or original meaning to the word hidden in etymology that authorizes such interpretation. What I am suggesting is that Marlatt uses such a root to think otherwise, to translate beyond metaphysics.

  10. We must remember that the word body is just that, a word. Body is no more referential to the human body than it is, for example, to the body of language.

  11. In her essay ‘Translating MAUVE’ Marlatt quotes part of a letter from Colin Browne. Browne had written to her asking whether she would like to participate in a translation project involving the work of Québécoise writer Nicole Brossard. He gave the series the name ‘transformances,’ ostensibly to distinguish what he wanted from more traditional and faithful interlingual translations. Marlatt quotes one of his definitions of ‘transformance’ as ‘reading reading, writing writing, writing reading—that flicker pan-linear, lured beyond equivalence: a new skin’ (‘MAUVE’ 28).

  12. This may partially account for the current disagreements about her work and the censuring responses to it of critics who are searching for consistency and a purity of post-structuralist, reader-response, or Marxist conscience. I am thinking of articles by, respectively, Lola Lemire Tostevin and Frank Davey and of a chapter of Sarah Harasym's dissertation.

    Marlatt read Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the late-1960s, very early in her career, yet she does not adopt his term flesh, as it is usually translated. She retains the word body. Thus she avoids placing her work within a strictly phenomenological poetics, acknowledging that, like Merleau-Ponty himself, we continue to struggle with Descartes and the mind-body problem.

  13. In Marlatt's Rings (1971), for example, a long poem about her pregnancy and the birth of her son, the title, overall shape, and form or design of the poem metaphorize psychic confusion as well as various literal rings (the wedding ring, the ring of the cervix, the cyclical rhythms of women's bodies).

  14. Here I am using ‘metaphorize’ and ‘translate’ in a similar way. Both terms contain the sense of ‘to transport’ or ‘carry across.’ I am letting them float together for the moment in order to invoke Barbara Freeman's work on Cixous's metaphorization of the body and Gérard Genette's work on the metaphor as one signifier masquerading as the signified of the other.

  15. Just as the movement between languages for Canadian poet Fred Wah involves primarily intralingual translation as a substitution for interlingual translation between English and Chinese (a language which he does not know), the translation in Marlatt's poetry is also intralingual from English to English. Wah's translation poetics emerges from a desire to connect with his father, Marlatt's translations using etymologies take on a new importance in How Hug a Stone, the first book in which she begins to deal with her mother's life as an immigrant and with what Marlatt has inherited from her.

  16. See Marlatt's use of the metaphor of seepage in ‘Translating MAUVE.

  17. As Jacques Derrida observes in ‘Roundtable on Translation’: ‘When one speaks of hysteria, of oneiric or hysterical translation, one is speaking of translation in [Roman] Jakobson's third sense, the passage from one semiotic system to another: words-gestures, words-images, acoustic-visual, and so forth’ (108).

  18. Hysterical translation does not re-present the body in the sense of presenting it over again, a second time. As David-Ménard argues, the hysterical body itself thinks (12). Her book is very helpful on the ways in which a pervasive dualism conditions Freud's theorization of hysteria and on reconceptualizing hysterical practice.

  19. As Marlatt suggests in ‘Writing Our Way through the Labyrinth,’ writing, unlike reading, seems to her to be phallic, singular, proprietory, and self- rather than other-directed. As she says, ‘writing can scarcely be for women the act of the phallic signifier’ (49). Women, she suggests, are ‘lost’ inside of the labyrinth of language. We must ‘(w)rite [the word itself is an intralingual translation] our way … in intercommunicating passages’ (49).

  20. This is Bowering's interpretation of Charles Olson's thoughts on composing on the typewriter.

  21. Marlatt's translation poetics has always been taken up with translating between topos and trope. In an interview with Eleanor Wachtel published in 1986 Marlatt updates her preoccupation with topos. She says: ‘And my region, i mean the region i'm writing out of, is not so much place or landscape these days as life as a woman’ (13). Topos has become trope.

Works Cited

Banting, Pamela. ‘How Hug a Stone: Writing under Embrasure.’ In ‘Translation Poetics: Composing the Body Canadian.’ PHD Diss., U of Alberta, 1990, 207-22

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. Note by Richard Howard. New York: Hill 1975

Bowering, George. ‘Given This Body: An Interview with Daphne Marlatt.’ Open Letter 4th ser., no. 3 (1979), 32-88

Brossard, Nicole. ‘From Radical to Integral.’ In her The Aerial Letter. Trans. Marlene Wildeman. Toronto: Women's P 1988, 103-19. Another English translation of this essay appeared in Trivia 5 (1984), 6-15

———Lovhers. Trans. Barbara Godard. Essential Poets Series 27. Montreal: Guernica 1986

Cixous, Hélène. ‘The Laugh of the Medusa.’ In New French Feminisms: An Anthology. Ed. and introd. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken 1981, 245-64

Davey, Frank. ‘Words and Stones in How Hug a Stone.’ Line 13 (1989), 40-6

David-Ménard, Monique. Hysteria from Freud to Lacan: Body and Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Catherine Porter. Foreword Ned Lukacher. Ithaca: Cornell UP 1989

Derrida, Jacques. ‘Roundtable on Translation.’ In his The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation: Texts and Discussions with Jacques Derrida. Ed. Christie V. McDonald. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Schocken 1985, 91-161

Freeman, Barbara. ‘“Plus corps donc plus écriture”: Hélène Cixous and the Mind-Body Problem.’ Paragraph 11, no. 1 (1988), 58-70

Genette, Gérard. ‘Figures.’ In his Figures of Literary Discourse. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Introd. Marie-Rose Logan. New York: Columbia UP 1982, 45-60

Harasym, Sarah. ‘Opening the Question: A “Political” Reading of Texts by Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Spivak, Roland Barthes, and Daphne Marlatt.’ PHD Diss., U of Alberta, 1988

Holman, C. Hugh. A Handbook to Literature. Indianapolis: Odyssey P 1972

Marlatt, Daphne. Ana Historic. Toronto: Coach House P 1988

———How Hug a Stone. Winnipeg: Turnstone P 1983

———‘Listening In.’ Contemporary Verse 2 9, no. 2 (1985), 39-9

———‘musing with mothertongue.’ In her Touch to My Tongue. Edmonton: Longspoon P 1984. Also in Tessera 1 [Room of One's Own 8, no. 4] (1984), 53-6; and in Ann Dybikowski et al., eds., In the Feminine: Women and Words/Les Femmes et les mots Conference Proceedings 1983 (Edmonton: Longspoon P 1985), 171-4

———Rings. Vancouver: Georgia Straight Writing Supplement 1971. Reprinted in What Matters: Writing 1968-70 (Toronto: Coach House P 1980), 77-113

———‘Translating MAUVE: Reading Writing.’ Tessera 6 (1989), 27-30

———‘Writing Our Way through the Labyrinth.’ Tessera 2 [La Nouvelle Barre du Jour 157] (1985), 45-9

Mauss, Marcel. ‘Body Techniques.’ In his Sociology and Psychology: Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster: London: Routledge 1979, 97-123

Nichol, bp, Daphne Marlatt, and George Bowering. ‘“Syntax Equals the Body Structure”: bpNichol, in Conversation, with Daphne Marlatt and George Bowering.’ Ed. Roy Miki. Line 6 (1985), 22-44

Olson, Charles. ‘Projective Verse.’ In The Poetics of the New American Poetry. Ed. Donald Allen and Warren Tallman. New York: Grove P 1973, 147-58

Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. 1934; reprint, New York: New Directions 1960

Tostevin, Lola Lemire. ‘Daphne Marlatt: Writing in the Space That Is Her Mother's Face.’ Line 13 (1989), 32-9

Toury, Gideon. ‘Interlanguage and Its Manifestations in Translation.’ In his In Search of a Theory of Translation. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University/The Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics 1980, 71-8

Wachtel, Eleanor. ‘An Interview with Daphne Marlatt.’ Capilano Review 41 (1986), 4-13

Williamson, Janice. ‘Sounding a Difference: An Interview with Daphne Marlatt.’ Line 13 (1989), 47-56

———‘Speaking in and of Each Other: An Interview with Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland.’ Fuse 8, no. 5 (1985), 25-9

Manina Jones (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9361

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 reaffirming the place of women in history.]

This is a vast commonplace of literature: the Woman copies the Book. In other words, every body is a citation: of the ‘already written.’ The origin of desire is the statue, the painting, the book …

Roland Barthes, S/Z

‘Citing Resistance’ pivots on the multiple sonoral play of the law (cite), of space and place (site); and of vision and the senses (sight). The verb ‘to cite’ means both ‘to set in motion, to call,’ and ‘to quote implying authority.’ The contradiction between the unsettling disturbance of the former meaning and the legal authority of the latter suggests how women writers negotiate their inscription in language.

Janice Williamson, Citing Resistance

In the course of conducting historical research for her history-professing husband, Annie, the (anti-)heroine of Daphne Marlatt's (anti-)novel Ana Historic: A Novel, finds herself reflecting on—and reflecting—significant gaps within the language of history, the story it tells, and the stake it claims to ‘truth.’ The literally subversive alternate text she furtively scribbles, half-hiding it beneath the documentary records of her husband's project (78), like the novel itself, both incorporates and overturns the disembodied, ‘neutral’ language of those records, countering them with a gendered reading and writing that exceeds the authoritative, monologic historical economy within which they traditionally circulate. This strategic act within—and of—the novel puts into play intertextual relationships that constitute what Evelyn Voldeng calls a cultural misappropriation or overturning [détournement] that may be seen as engaging a political subversion (524).

Ana Historic embeds not just historical, but medical, philosophical, and economic discourses within it, revealing the degree to which each is implicated in the others and is always (rhetorically) embedded in relationships of power. It places documents associated with these institutional practices in relation to the stories of three women: the contemporary narrator Annie's autobiographical story, her recollections of her mother Ina, and her imaginary reconstruction of the life of their historical foremother Mrs Richards, whom Annie encounters during the research she conducts for her husband. Pamela Banting writes that in Ana Historic, ‘Marlatt takes on the problem of how to write a book about an historical woman, a contemporary woman, and the relationships among women, when the traces of women's history have been obliterated, and the official version, that is, men's history, is a narrative of subjection, exploitation and domination’ (123). Banting continues, ‘When both speech and writing are coded as masculine then, how does the woman writer write a novel?’ (124). The relational, citational approach Marlatt takes to this problem both constitutes and provokes a re-reading of the institutional writings she cites, from positions of difference and resistance that are, in a sense, made possible by the dis-location of authority through documentary citation.

As Glen Lowry points out, in a male economy of language, ‘it is “wrong” to read factual documents outside of their proper field of discourse’ (93). Marlatt's work, as a documentary-collage, literally moves documents out of their proper field of discourse into the realm of fiction/theory. The transgressory or ‘wrong’ reading of documents also takes place as an event within the narratives of the novel. For example, Annie's imaginary enactment of husband Richard's reading of her work-in/of-process has him questioning her method because it does not logically and linearly work a problem through to its conclusion, because it does not follow proper citational convention and respect the integrity of the texts to which it refers, and because it violates the teacher-student model of authority that governs both their husband-wife relationship, and, implicitly, the relationship of ‘respect’ between text and reader on which Richard insists: ‘but what are you doing? i can imagine Richard saying, looking up from the pages with that expression with which he must confront his students over their papers: this doesn't go anywhere, you're just circling around the same idea—and all these bits and pieces thrown in—that's not how to use quotations’ (81). The citational method of Ana Historic, with all its ‘bits and pieces thrown in,’ is similarly transgressive. Marlatt, its female author, deliberately adopts the traditionally feminine role of the researcher who copies out extracts from historical texts, which are, traditionally, consolidated by someone else (the authority) into a ‘definitive study,’ just as Annie contributes to what her daughter Ange calls Richard's ‘Big Book, in which it is written: “and to my wife without whose patient assistance this book would never have been completed”’ (79). Ana Historic is, however, no such definitive Big Book; its author's assumption of the subordinate (non-authoritative) role of copyist is a subversive gesture that interrupts the various discourses she transcribes—the very discourses that underwrite her own subjectivity—allowing an interrogative rereading of them. This interrogative rereading works to ‘unfix’ the female subject in/of history. In Convergences, [by Lionel Kearns] the narrator's rereading of historical documentation unsettles the very position of stability from which he speaks as a white male of European origin, playing out, as Lianne Moyes puts it, the contradictions ‘which both lyric and history suppress in order to constitute themselves as complete and authentic sources of meaning’ (‘Dialogizing the Monologue’ 19). Annie's reading of historical materials in Ana Historic, conversely, disturbs the conventions that prevent her from speaking, the constructs that situate ‘woman's place’ in history as a fixed and unchangeable position of silence. P. Merivale calls Kogawa's similar, although more culturally directed, interrogations ‘an oblique feminism of marginality, of a silence finding a voice’ (74).

As Douglas Barbour has recently remarked more generally of Marlatt and Betsy Warland, they ‘engage what they perceive as a masculinist misuse of monological discourse from a feminist perspective that insists on heteroglossia’ (‘Transformations’ 40-1). In so doing, they are able to resist falling into the trap of mirroring the ‘singular discourse’ of what has come to be known as ‘phallocentric’ writing, and merely reproducing ‘a new and opposing monological speech’ (ibid. 40). Or rather, in the very act of self-consciously reproducing monologic speech, Ana Historic draws that speech into a dialogic economy. This re-creative gesture of transgression through transcription suggests the parodic act of mimicry described by Luce Irigaray, in which a woman's ‘playing with mimesis’ may be an attempt ‘to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it’ (76). A woman may thus, according to Irigaray, ‘resubmit herself’ to ideas developed within ‘masculine logic,’ ‘but so as to make “visible,” by an effect of playful repetition, what was supposed to remain invisible: the cover-up of a possible operation of the feminine in language’ (76, emphasis added). Thus, Ana Historic gives (documentary) evidence of the repression of the feminine in history and in so doing it reactivates historical conflicts, and as Dennis Cooley emphasizes, bases its struggle within language itself (see ‘Recursions’). In this novel, Marlatt plays with the ‘merely reproductive’ feminine position of historical researcher and with the mimetic function of historical writing itself, in which ‘woman's place’ is inscribed within the ‘real.’

Ana Historic is structured as the site of a number of interrelated dialogues that tend to unsettle the historical ‘given.’ Annie, for example, like Naomi in Obasan, and the contemporary speaker in Convergences, engages in an ongoing discursive exchange with the historical research project in which she is involved, and the particular texts that endeavour requires that she read. Her responses to those texts might be seen as counterproductive to what E. L. Doctorow would call traditional history's prescriptive ‘power of the regime’ (216): they include, for example, Annie's informal musings on the language of history and the history of language, as well as the fictional account that both arises out of and provokes those musings, the story of Mrs Richards, an inhabitant of early Vancouver who is acknowledged (that is constructed as knowledge) in the historical record in a passing reference to her in the history book Vancouver: From Milltown to Metropolis as a ‘young and pretty widow’ (Ana Historic 48/Morley 48) and who is known to history, significantly, only by her husband's name. Ana Historic becomes a kind of ‘hyst(o)rionic’ stage for what Brenda Carr calls ‘the drama of a writing woman reading and writing another woman's life/text,’ who engages in an ongoing dialogue with readers of her life (as) writing (4). Stan Dragland draws attention to the way this reading/writing takes in the author of Ana Historic: ‘One has a pleasant, mildly vertiginous feeling, imagining Marlattwriting-AnniewritingAnawriting …’ (‘Out of the Blank’ 179).

Annie's re-naming of Mrs Richards, as ‘Ana Richards’ alerts the novel's readers to connections between the historical figure and Annie, the contemporary writer-researcher: because the latter also appears in print within her husband's writing, under his name, she is, as Linda Hutcheon observes, at least partly ‘Richard's Annie’ (‘telling accounts’ 17). The name also points to the necessity of ‘rereading’ both Ana and Annie as heterogeneous subjects composed of multiple discourses that break down the boundaries between the ‘historical’ and ‘extra-historical,’ since ‘ana—’ as a prefix means ‘back’ or ‘again’ (see Ana Historic 43), and as a noun (or suffix) refers to a collection of anecdotes or literary gossip about a person. Like Kroetsch's The Ledger, then, Ana Historic engages in a kind of colloquial historical ‘back talk.’ Mrs Richards, a schoolteacher, is described in Annie's account as carrying the materials of her trade, ‘the recitation book from which she must choose a passage, the test papers which must be marked’ (41). Ana Historic may be seen—by ana-logy—as a kind of re-citation book in which ‘memory work’—the revisionist project of historical research—involves more than simple repetition: in choosing ‘passages’ of/through historical writings, and using the ‘truth-testing’ methods of the documentary-collage, the novel is able to re-mark (on) the past.

Annie's research also elicits recollections of her own unresolved family history, provoking imagined exchanges between Annie and her dead mother, Ina, whose name—An(n)i(e) pronounced backwards—points once again to the role of a ‘retroactive’ rereading or re-enunciation of personal history in Ana Historic's more general reconstitution of historical subjectivity. Ina's ‘hysterical’ behaviour during Annie's youth is diagnosed by medical authorities as a mental illness and treated, finally, with electric shock therapy. This scientifically sanctioned ‘cure’ effectively silences Ina by cancelling her relation to the past: ‘they erased whole parts of you, shocked them out, overloaded the circuits so you couldn't bear to remember’ (148-9). As one piece of cited medical evidence shows, the shocks, to put it mildly, would make Ina ‘absent-minded’: ‘The stronger the amnesia, the more severe the underlying brain cell damage must be’ (146/cited in Frank 58).1 Freud writes that ‘the hysteric suffers mostly from reminiscence’ (cited in Wills 141); electro-shock therapy eliminates this symptom. The imagined mother-daughter conversations in Ana Historic take shape as Annie is coming to terms with the terms of a history that represses both the feminine and the personal or ‘subjective.’ These conversations become, like the ‘therapeutic’ act of assembling documents in Obasan (see Willis 242), literally, a talking cure for that other cure, fictionally refiguring Ina's voice, and, in effect, regenerating elements of Annie's (absented) heredity.

Ana Historic is punctuated at several points with quotations from psychiatric sources that situate Ina's ‘illness.’ The acknowledgments at the end of the text indicate that Marlatt found these citations in Leonard Roy Frank's book The History of Shock Treatment. This work might itself be considered a fascinating example of the documentary-collage. Frank is an ex-psychiatric patient who lost two years of memory through electro-shock treatment. His book pieces together conflicting perspectives on shock treatment from a variety of sources and discourses covering a wide span of years. It includes, for example, excerpts from psychiatric journals (both defending and attacking shock therapy), cartoons, the personal accounts of psychiatric patients, correspondence, and newspaper articles and advertisements for medical products: it is, in other words, a therapeutic text on/of (the treatment of) ‘madness.’

Ana Historic recopies an excerpt from one such advertisement that promotes electro-shock treatment by minimizing the onset of its immediate effects through the appealing musical term ‘Glissando’ (144/cited in Frank 48), as well as a psychiatric text that identifies the mental patient's behaviour as pathological and thus ‘treats’ the family by absolving them of any accountability for her condition, or perhaps for the consequences of its treatment: ‘The patient is clearly identified as the “sick” member of the family and the family is reassured they don't need to feel guilty or in any way responsible’ (145/cited in Frank 91). The novel also cites a female patient's description of the consequence of shock treatment: ‘It was something like science fiction. I was alive. I could feel. I felt as if I could think. But the fuel of thinking wasn't there. And it didn't come back’ (149/cited in Frank 95).2 These non-fiction citations work to implicate medical authorities in constructing the fictions of science, the apparatuses that frame both physical and social norms, while appearing simply to describe medical histories. The novel similarly cites a number of newspaper articles from the Vancouver area during the nineteenth century, among them a gossipy column called ‘FALSEHOODS OF THE HOUR’ (69-70, 114, 116, 121), a title whose citation in Ana Historic points to the newspaper's complicity in erecting the fictions of history.

The fragmentation and juxtaposition of public, institutional discourses with unofficial, private testimony, both in the instance cited above and elsewhere in Ana Historic, itself may be seen as enacting a kind of ‘hysterical’ disposition. Clair Wills sees an analogy between this sort of disruptive gesture in women's texts and the Bakhtinian carnivalesque's upsetting of official public norms, both of which are linked to the persistent representation of the past within the present:3 ‘[the hysteric's] cyclical return to the past mirrors the relation to the past Bakhtin takes as the mark of carnival: in opposition to “official” time, which presents a linear and hierarchical teleology of events, carnivalesque time is aware of “timeliness” and crisis in the version of history which it represents’ (130-1). In her discussion of hysteria and Bakhtinian theory, Mary Russo expands on the significance of ‘hysterical’ representation and the representation of hysteria: ‘hysterics and madwomen generally,’ she writes, ‘have ended up in the attic or in the asylum, their gestures of pain and defiance having served only to put them out of circulation. As a figure of representation, however, hysteria may be less recuperable’ (222). Ana Historic's carnivalesque recirculation of official and unofficial discourses of the past both violates what Russo calls ‘the political economy of the sign as it is produced in dominant discourse’ (222) by exceeding the ‘original’ ‘denotative’—or ‘recuperable’—significance of the texts it includes, and in so doing resists the ‘recuperative’ discursive project that seeks to ‘cure’ those who do not conform to its codes by silencing them.

The process involved in such silencing is indicated obliquely when Annie looks up in the dictionary the apparently dismissive word Ina uses for women's writing—‘scribbling’—only to find that it means ‘writing’: ‘why do we think it so much less? because a child's scribble is unreadable? (she hasn't learned the codes, the quotes yet.) scribe is from the same root, skeri, to cut (the ties that bind us to something recognizable—the “facts”)’ (81). This passage draws attention to the authority of the verbal given, or the inheritance of ‘quotes’ in defining and enforcing what it is to be normal. Its etymological ‘excavation’ of the verbal site/cite—in this case a single word—reads historically (both in terms of etymological history and personal history), rerouting/rooting significance, and exposing the value judgments at work in simple ‘factual’ definition that may, like the psychiatrist's quoted assurances to the mental patient's relations, cut ‘the ties that bind,’ making the feminine somehow un-familiar. In a system where norms are male, the feminine must be a kind of ‘skeri/scary monster.’ The term is not a frivolous one. Later in the novel the monster ‘Frankenstein’ is pointedly feminized. Readers are reminded that, like Mrs Richards, the monster is, correspondingly, situated as monstrous within a certain circumscribed gendered definition of the normal: ‘now we call the monster by his name. a man's name for a man's fear of the wild, the uncontrolled. that's where she lives’ (142).4

In her essay ‘musing with mothertongue,’ Marlatt describes how etymology can refamiliarize readers with a network of verbal signification: ‘in etymology we discover a history of verbal relations (a family tree, if you will) that has preceded us & given us the world we live in’ (172, emphasis added). As Dennis Cooley perceives, etymology in Marlatt's work announces an engagement with the textual world (‘Recursions’ 99). It also acknowledges historical determinants at work in textuality. The dictionary, Cooley argues, presides over both Marlatt's interest in origins and in reflexive writing within a system (ibid.). These two concerns, I would argue, are indistinguishable in Ana Historic.5 The dictionary helps Annie redefine the ‘real’ as a discursive product; it helps to open up the authority of the written documentary past: it ‘saves me when the words stop, when the names stick’ (17). Indeed, it ‘unsticks’ truth itself, offering an alternative definition that demonstrates the extent to which, far from being an absolute, ‘truth’ depends on assimilation to a ‘recognizable’ predetermined system of signification. The novel offers this alternative definition: ‘true: exactly conforming to a rule, standard, or pattern; trying to sing true’ (18).

Lola Lemire Tostevin pursues the correspondence Marlatt suggests between the history of verbal and that of family relations. She objects, however, to a perceived essentialist ‘originary’ bias in Marlatt's recent work that links these two concerns: ‘This genealogy, the filiation of a direct line leading back to a fundamental original signification, parallels the search for the lost mother on which traditional Western philosophy and literature are based and contradicts the open-endedness and new beginnings of l'écriture féminine which attempts to displace and exceed authority, truth, and the illusionary essence of origins’ (35). Lianne Moyes responds to Tostevin, however, that Marlatt's use of etymological connections multiplies and disperses origins, displacing authority in a manner perfectly consonant with the practices of l'écriture féminine: ‘Root words are … a site for word-play, a way of disturbing the historical and institutional privileging of certain forms and meanings’ (‘Writing’ 209).

In Ana Historic, etymology does, in fact, ‘parallel the search for the lost mother’ (Ina is Annie's ‘Lost Girl’ [11]), but not in the essentialist sense to which Tostevin takes exception. Rather, as in Obasan, the search is associated with a ‘radical’ opening up of language to heterogeneous, contradictory, disruptive traces of what Julia Kristeva calls the ‘semiotic’—forces that predominate before the child's sense of separation from the mother and entry into the Symbolic, and which may continue thereafter to undermine the definite, reified, articulate linguistic Law of the Father that represses these forces (see Revolution in Poetic Language 48-51).

The mother as subject in Ana Historic becomes what Nancy K. Miller refers to in a more general context as a maternal text (798). The novel engages this text in an intertextual relationship. As Miller argues, in representing her mother, the daughter who writes, who writes herself, cannot but begin from that which is always already there (797-8). In Ana Historic, Ina is (like Frankenstein's monster) a composite, contradictory body of (non-original) citations, the verbal matter/mater that contributes to Annie's inheritance of genetic/gender/linguistic codes. One strand of Annie's etymological investigation of her mother's use of the restrictive term ‘woman's lot’ as ‘what you learn to accept, like bleeding and hysterectomies, like intuition and dizzy spells—all the ways we don't fit into a man's world’ (79), for example, evokes just such arbitrary ‘genetic’ codes that determine her (subject) position in life and are determined, figuratively, by written symbols: ‘woman's lot, lot: an object used in making a determination or choice by chance (X and Y or XX or XY and all that follows from that chance determination); a number of people or things … a piece of land … one's fortune in life; fate …’ (79). Ana Historic ‘relativizes’ history and subjectivity by ‘characterizing’ origins as historical/cultural ‘pretexts.’ Marlatt's novel reinforces the point by citing the Bible, the great ‘genetic’ code of Western culture, and one powerful (textual) source of women's subjugation. Ana Historic quotes this passage from Genesis, in which the authoritative voice of God the Father designates woman's lot, tying it to biology: ‘To the woman he said: I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children’ (Genesis 4:16/Ana Historic 118).

Annie finds herself repeating (and finds herself, repeating) such inherited codes: ‘echoing your words, Ina—another quotation. except i quote myself (and what if our heads are full of other people's words, nothing without quotation marks?)’ (81, first emphasis added). Annie's very subjectivity is determined by previous texts, ‘other people's words.’ As Linda Hutcheon puts it of the female protagonist of Thomas's The White Hotel: ‘she is presented as the “read” subject of her own and others' interpretations and inscriptions of her. She is literally the female product of readings’ (Poetics 161). Annie's subjectivity is, therefore, paradoxically, intricated (in much the same way as the subjectivity of the narrators of The Ledger, Convergences, and Obasan) in her own altered reiteration or rereading of those texts in the process of historical re-search: ‘i quote myself.’

This act of reiteration of the various codes of the past involves remembering, a rejoining of misplaced branches or limbs of Annie's family tree, forgotten etymological branches of meaning, and that which has been cut off from or ignored by the category of the historical. This is, Annie affirms, a creative gesture: ‘now i'm remembering. not dis- but re-membering’ (51). The novel's appropriation of one particular historical text both enacts and thematizes this process, reconnecting the account's economic concerns with a broader ‘political economy of the sign,’ and in so doing unsettling that economy. Pamela Banting calls this a process of ‘translation’ in which ‘the language of history breaks down into its components, namely, the language of nominalization, categorization, hierarchization, domination, colonization, subordination, and control’ (125). The cited text describes the important ‘productive’ role of certain types of trees in the development of British Columbia: ‘Douglas fir and red cedar are the principal trees. Of these, the former—named after David Douglas, a well-known botanist—is the staple timber of commerce. Average trees grow about 150 feet high, clear of limbs, with a diameter of 5 to 6 feet. The wood has great strength and is largely used for shipbuilding, bridgework, fencing, railway ties, and furniture. As a pulp-making tree the fir is valuable. Its bark makes a good fuel’ (13-14). This passage locates the tree within both a masculine linguistic economy (it is ‘named after David Douglas’) and within a utilitarian monetary economy in which de-limbing or dis-membering is necessary in order for the tree to be made into a coherent, objectified, and hence valuable commodity; in the logging business it is economical to trim off the excess: ‘clear of limbs? of extras, of asides. tree as a straight line, a stick. there for the taking’ (14). The novel's next words align the dual linguistic-financial economy of technological dominance with the economy of a monologic historical line of enquiry: ‘Mrs Richards, who stood as straight as any tree (o that Victorian sensibility—backbone, Madame, backbone!) wasn't there for the taking’ (14). Except in her noteworthy ‘post’ (14) as schoolteaching widow, in which she does, temporarily, fit into the historical economy, Mrs Richards is in excess of historical commodification. When she takes up the position of schoolteacher, Mrs Richards fills a gap in that economy since the post had been ‘suddenly vacated’ by the marriage of its previous occupant (21). Ana Historic cites A. M. Ross's appropriately titled ‘The Romance of Vancouver's Schools,’ drawing attention to the processing of single women through the historical economy, and their displacement/recuperation into marriage: ‘Miss Sweney was shortly succeeded by Mrs. Richards, who soon became Mrs. Ben Springer and cast her lot with the struggling little hamlet, giving place to a Miss Redfern … great difficulty was experienced in keeping a teacher longer than six months’ (Ana Historic 39/Ross 13). Annie recalls the logging image of trimming back excess, obliquely relating it to both financial privation and familial excommunication when she wonders about Mrs Richards's relationship with her father at one point, and asks, significantly, ‘Did he cut her off, disallow her?’ (55).

Ana Historic's extension of the meaning(s) of history, particularly through its recontexualization of documents, responds to the kind of selective ‘illiteracy’ by which dominant historical discourse may strategically foreclose on or ‘cut off’ signification, inscribing women within its codes as ‘unreadable’ or ‘unrecognizable.’ Ina's own shock-induced amnesia is related to the economical ‘cutting back’ of ‘excesses’ of the biological/botanical/significative body. Placed in juxtaposition with the quotation on brain-cell damage and amnesia mentioned above is a response that relates the historical text's concern with the economics of the production of lumber with the male-defined ‘economics’ that regulate a woman's reproductive body, as well as her position as product in the marriage market: ‘taking out the dead wood. pruning back the unproductive. it was all a matter of husbandry, “the careful management of resources.” for everybody's good, of course. a matter of course. (by definition)’ (146-7).

Ina's amnesia is related to the enforced ‘forgetting’ of women within the restrictive monologic narrative of official history, a mute-ilation connected in Ana Historic with the surgical mutilation of women's ‘excessive’ bodies: ‘hystery. the excision of women (who do not act but are acted upon). hysterectomy, the excision of wombs and ovaries by repression, by mechanical compression, by ice, by the knife’ (88). Glen Lowry reads ‘Ina as a version of “the other” who exists outside the realm of meaning, and who is unable to fit the confines of her body as it is imagined in phallogocentric bourgeois society. She is victim to “women's trouble” …’ (88). A cited passage from James Hillman's The Myth of Analysis gives troubling medical evidence of the literal repression of women's bodies, evidence that also testifies to medicine's historical and philosophical grounding: ‘Mechanical devices were invented for compressing ovaries or for packing them in ice. In Germany, Hegar (1830-1914) and Friederich (1825-82) were using even more radical methods, including ovarectomy and cauterization of the clitoris. The source of hysteria was still, as in Plato's time, sought in the matrix of the female body, upon which surgical attacks were unleashed’ (Ana Historic 89/Hillman 89). Annie's frustration with history's claim to ‘closure’ of its narrative line is also phrased in significantly medical terms that stress the teleological linear progression Bakhtin associates with ‘official time’: ‘that fiction, that lie that you can't change the ending! it's already preordained, prescribed—just what the doctor ordered—in the incontrovertible logic of cause and effect’ (147). The ‘closed’ historical narratives that Annie reads as part of her research, ordered by her husband Richard, that scholarly Doctor of Philosophy, might be deemed official ‘master narratives’ in several senses, but their dis-ordered re-inscription within the documentary-collage reveals and to some degree ‘controverts’ or opens up their logic, counteracting their prescriptive value.

These narratives tell the story of male dominance over the environment of early British Columbia, a ‘historical romance’ of possession, construction, and completion, as this exuberant fragment from M. Allerdale Grainger's Woodsmen of the West leaves little doubt:

Watch Carter when the ‘donk’ (his donkey!) has got up first steam; and when the rigging men (his rigging men!) drag out the wire rope to make a great circle through the woods. And when the circle is complete … and when the active rigging slinger (his rigging slinger!) has hooked a log on to a point of the wire cable; and when the signaller (his signaller!) has pulled the wire telegraph and made the donkey toot … Think what this mastery over huge, heavy logs means to a man who has been used to coax them to tiny movements by patience and a puny jack-screw …

(Ana Historic 25/Grainger 74-5)

Ana Historic's re-citation of the passage asks readers to re-‘think what [and how] this mastery … means to a man,’ accentuating the extent to which this account enacts a politics of power, not simply by describing the domination and commodification of the landscape as a heroic act, but also by authoritatively asserting the reality of what is provisional and contingent on the gender-specific codes of history. The passage uses an ejaculatory language of possession, but it also relies, implicitly, on a sense of the possession of, and dominance over, language itself as instrumental. This interpretation is reinforced if readers violate the declarative ‘intention’ of the passage and reread it, drawing out the figurative implications of Carter's ‘mastery of logs,’ ownership of the ‘signaller,’ and control of the ‘wire telegraph’ line's circuit. As is the case in other examples (and as we shall see for this instance), Marlatt's own poetic refiguring of language used ‘prosaically’ in documentary citations provokes just such a strategic rereading of that language.

It is worth reiterating here that apparent masculine control over language stands in contrast to an alternative carnivalesque linguistic model, related to Kristeva's semiotic, which is associated in the novel with the reinscription of a feminine body (of writing). The novel quotes a fragment from Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex on the repressed ‘hysteric’ body of women in general, which is ‘worn away in service to the species, bleeding each month, proliferating passively, it is not for her a pure instrument for getting a grip on the world but an opaque physical presence (Ana Historic 133/de Beauvoir 619). The quotation is retroactively readdressed to Ina, and then reread in terms of women's relation to language: ‘perhaps that explains why our writing, which we also live inside of, is different from men's, and not a tool, not a “pure instrument for getting a grip on the world”’ (133). In Ana Historic, this ‘feminine’ approach to language counters both specific official discourses and ‘the abstracted, disembodied concept of meaning that the Platonic philosophical tradition has favoured’ (Glazener 113). Annie's rebellion against Richard's research project happens when her mind will no longer ‘come to grips with lot numbers and survey maps’ (79). Instead of ‘coming to grips’ with historical documents—and the place they map out for women—the novel's carnivalesque use of citation materially em-bodies (or re-members) their language, allowing it to be seen as ‘an opaque physical presence.’ The documentary-collage also allows that language to be intertextually infiltrated, engaging it in dialogue and weakening its grip on the ‘real.’

For example, while the Grainger citation reproduced above seems to construct the kind of ‘joined story’ Robert Kroetsch associates with historical claims to ‘authenticity’ (‘For Play’ 93), its citation in the novel un-joins it from its narrative context. Further, the remark that follows the citation points to ‘mastery’ not just as what is described in the passage, but as the rhetorical effect of its narrative: ‘history the story, Carter's and all the others, of dominance. mastery. the bold line of it’ (25, emphasis added). In a passage early in the novel, Annie recalls a forest landscape of her childhood, a landscape from which she is forbidden: ‘those woods men worked in, building powerlines and clearing land for subdivision’ (12). In its implicit claim to neutrality, to comprehensive referential mastery over the raw materials of history, its appearance of telling the story of the past, Woodsmen of the West also builds a linguistic/narrative power line that short-circuits the representation of/by women. This ‘power line’ is connected to the ‘overloaded circuits’ of electro-shock therapy that stun Annie's mother into oblivion.

In the course of her historical education Annie learns to recognize and question, however parenthetically, this closed ‘patrilineal’ circuit: ‘i learned that history is the real story the city fathers tell of the only important events in the world … so many claims to fame. so many ordinary men turned into heroes. (where are the city mothers?) the city fathers busy building a town out of so many shacks labelled the Western Terminus of the Transcontinental, Gateway to the East—all these capital letters to convince themselves of its, of their, significance’ (28). Letters themselves are here shown to be powerful producers of the ‘real story.’ They are conceived as valued property, ‘capital’ for the historiographic venture. Annie's focus on Mrs Richards's refusal to adopt the role of Proper Lady, ‘Lady capitalized,’ is one way she pursues a reading of the teacher as rejecting a commodified ‘woman's place’ as real estate within this truth-telling historical economy: ‘it is barely sounded,’ Annie comments, ‘the relationship between proper and property’ (32). As Linda Hutcheon observes, ‘The brief accounts of such women that do exist in the historical archives place them only as ancillary, as adjuncts to men and their capital. (Hence, perhaps, Annie's reluctance to “capitalize” her first person pronoun “i”)’ (‘telling accounts’ 17). In this reluctance to ‘capitalize,’ Annie attempts to reconstruct by reappraised repetition of the given (capital ‘I’ becomes small-case ‘i’) a subjectivity that unsettles the existing patriarchal discursive economy.

The comments on Annie's historical education quoted above are juxtaposed with an excerpt from J. S. Matthews's historical study, Early Vancouver, describing the process of making Vancouver a capital(ist) or first-rate city: ‘A world event had happened in Vancouver … On the eve of the Queen's Birthday, 1887, the Canadian Pacific Railway … closed the last gap in the “All-Red Route,” and raised the obscure settlement on the muddy shore of Water Street, sobriquetly termed “Gastown,” to the status of a world port. Major Matthews’ (28). Matthews's description of this event gives the local incident the authority of global significance: it is a ‘world event.’ In Ana Historic, the story of the closing of the last gap in the railway may be read meta-historically; it comes to signify narrative closure itself. Reaney's Sticks and Stones makes similar use of the railway image: in it, black settlers are ‘railroaded’ off their land—and out of the historical record—in order to make way for a railway and the Irish. The railway image is also associated with the mastering narrative impulse in Obasan, in which Japanese-Canadians who refuse to ‘entrain’ to work camps are entered on a ‘wanted list.’ In chapter 6, this image is deconstructed via the fabric train (wake)/railway pun suggested by the novel's narrative strategies.

The railway is first associated with prior masculine control of the processes of signification in Ana Historic when, in the disoriented opening passage of the novel, Annie awakens to ‘the sound of a train, in some yard where men already up were working signals’ (9, emphasis added). Formally, Ana Historic, like the other works just enumerated, derails monologic historical narratives using the methods of the documentary-collage, fragmenting and disrupting the impetus of the given story, and incorporating alternative historical tellings. In Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks investigates the steam engine in a number of nineteenth-century texts as a figure for narrative desire (see 37ff.). Using railway imagery, Ana Historic refigures this desire, effecting a kind of ‘derailment’/deraillement (‘talking nonsense’) of narrative and even syntactical sense in which the parenthetical becomes primary, and (the) story gets off track, or, to return to the language of logging, it deviates from the ‘trunk line.’ Annie, for example, says she ‘can't seem to stay on track, nor can my sentence, even close its brackets’ (17). She cannot, in other words, conform to established norms of behaviour, which are elsewhere imaged as a matter of training: Richard assures Annie that if she cannot complete the research project he ‘can always train one of my grad students to replace you’ (147, emphasis added). An obvious example of ‘off track’ historical narrative is Annie's novel-within-the-novel, which fabricates and revalues the story of the ‘insignificant’ Mrs Richards by interpreting the personal journal Annie discovers in the archives, an account labelled ‘“inauthentic,” fictional possibly’ (30) by archival authorities, for whom it is ‘a document, yes, but not history’ (31).6

Annie's fictional return to Mrs Richards's private history is an alternative to Richard's version of documentary history. It is an attempt, not simply to fill in historical blanks, but to theorize the construction of the (absent/inauthentic) feminine within the authoritative fiction of history. This aspect of the novel draws on the premises of ‘fiction theory,’ writing so called by feminist writers because it, in Marlatt's terms, allows its readers to identify ‘the fiction we've been conditioned to take for the real, fictions which have not only constructed woman's place in patriarchal society but have constructed the very “nature” of woman’ (‘Theorizing Fiction Theory’ 10). Fiction theory, Marlatt continues, both deconstructs such fictions and proffers an alternative, self-consciously fictional ‘angle on the real’ (ibid.).

Annie's ‘derailment’ or deviation from given narrative/syntactical codes is produced by her perception of incoherences in both historical accounts and the plot-lines within which she is asked to live. As Annie says to Ina, ‘you didn't teach me about asides, you never told me the “right track” is full of holes, pot holes of absence’ (17). Next to two conflicting documentary accounts of Mrs Richards's place of residence, one of which says that she lived in Gastown, the other that she lived in a cottage with her new husband, the novel ‘settles on’ neither one nor the other, but opts for the space of fictional possibility between the two citations: ‘for that is where she is. in the gap between two versions’ (106). Annie's own ‘incoherence’ is associated with her inability—and unwillingness—to adopt a stable, coherent subject position from which to speak authoritatively. She is, as she illustrates, the site of contending forces: ‘i don't even want to “pull yourself together,” as Richard urges’ (17). Like Mrs Richards, she is ‘subject to self-doubt in a situation without clearly defined territory’ (32).

On the other hand, both apparent narrative coherence—the ‘right track’—and the coherent, effective subject of historical enunciation are linked with the construction of the main line of the railway. Two first person historical documents that gain authority via their historically specific numerical and spatial detail (28-9) are followed by this remark: ‘I/my laying track with facts rescued against the obscurity of bush’ (29). The novel, however, as we have seen, questions the constitution of such facts. In this instance, it formally breaks down the word ‘fact’ itself: ‘what is fact? (f) act. the f stop of act. a still photo in the ongoing cinerama’ (31). In this fictional etymology (a parallel to the fictional narrative of Mrs Richards), ‘fact’ turns out to be an act that brackets the feminine [(f)], making the latter parenthetical to ‘the only important events in the world.’ The ‘obscurity’ of that which lies outside the realm of the factual is literally ‘dark,’ but the ‘obscure’ is also both that which is ‘not clearly expressed’ (or incoherent) and what goes ‘unnoticed.’ These qualities, the novel reveals, are not absolute but are measured by the standards of the instrument of representation itself, in this case, the ‘f stop,’ literally a photographic gauge for calculating the opening of the lens aperture, which regulates the amount of light reaching the film, thus predetermining the ‘obscurity’ of its subject, just as conventional history prescribes what constitutes the ‘significant.’ The instrument of representation is here also responsible both for limiting the scope of what it represents, and for ‘stopping’ or reifying it: it produces a ‘still photo’ as opposed to the process-oriented wide-screen motion pictures of ‘cinerama.’ Finally, in appearing to be true and objective, fact also ‘stops up’ gaps that might reveal its provisionality.

As in Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, photographic framing is associated in Ana Historic both with the objectifying language of historical narrative, and with a juridical setting in which an individual is convicted through ‘framing,’ or the construction of an incriminating plot. Framing, in its judicial sense, is often accomplished by the marshalling of damning—but fictional—evidence against the individual charged. In traditional historical narrative, paradoxically, documentary evidence damns women by giving them what amounts to an alibi: it testifies to their absence as effective subjects. If that evidence is revealed as a construct, or fiction, however, the alibi can be broken. Ana Historic compounds the notion of historical/photographic/legal framing with a gendered scenario in which women are reified by the male gaze, a ‘look’ Annie is taught to solicit, first incestuously from her father, then more generally within patriarchal society. As film theorist Laura Mulvey puts in her well-known essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ ‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly’ (11). The ‘female figure,’ one might say, is a rhetorical figure in a male-defined discursive situation. In this passage from Ana Historic, Annie relates a concept quite similar to Mulvey's to the notion of truth as styled to historical norms: ‘whose truth, Ina? the truth is (your truth, my truth, if you would admit it) incest is always present, it's there in the way we're trained to solicit the look, and first of all the father's, Our Father's. framed by a phrase that judges (virgin/tramp), sized-up in a glance, objectified. that's what history offers, that's its allure, its pretence. “history says of her …” but when you're so framed, caught in the act, the (f) stop of act, fact—what recourse? step inside the picture and open it up’ (56). The novel's re-citative rereading of historical materials is accomplished precisely by a re-course that goes back over the narrative ‘tracks’ of history with a disruptive, interrogative effect that ‘steps inside the picture,’ appealing (to) the definitive sentence (‘the phrase that judges’), and incriminating the evidence itself. The extended network of significance put into play by intertextual citation thus produces what Laurent Jenny appropriately terms ‘a definitive rejection of the full stop which would close the meaning and freeze the form’ (60).

Ana Historic's re-contextualized quotation of historical texts also re-sights the masculine eye/I behind the (historical) camera, itself subject to historical determinants. To refigure the sexual trope, the novel solicit(e)s the documents that constitute the male gaze, but suggests the empowering possibilities of returning that gaze through rereading. Annie, looking through photographs of herself and her sisters, reverses the subject-object scenario described above, remembering the historiographic act of ‘our father invisible behind the camera imaging moments of this female world’ (51). Roland Barthes asserts that the objective ‘reality effect’ (Historical Discourse' 154) of historical writing is ‘a particular form of fiction,’ linked to the realist novel, and based on the suppression of the ‘I’ that would make the narrator visible: ‘the historian tries to give the impression that the referent is speaking for itself’ (ibid. 149). Using the language of documentary-film sound (where voice-over narration is often used), Ana Historic refers to that voice as a retrospective, interpretive meta-voice, identified with the reductive male gaze that closes the past off from reinterpretation by seeming to offer a final account: ‘history is the historic voice (voice over), elegiac, epithetic. a diminishing glance as the lid is closed firmly and finally shut. that was her. summed up. Ana historic’ (48). As Derek Paget observes, the montage strategy disrupts any single context, providing a ‘complex seeing’ in which ‘no one position achiev[es] pre-eminence for long enough to acquire the reassuring tone of the voice-over commentary’ (48).

In her writing of Mrs Richards's life, Annie re-stages a ‘looking back’ on/in history similar to the memory of Annie's own framing by her father's eye behind the camera. In this incident, Mrs Richards becomes aware of the fact that she is being visually framed by invisible observers. Her solitude in her cabin is invaded one night by ‘a sudden rapping at her door’: ‘she opens the door—onto darkness, obscure as black pall in the drumming rain. she hears feet thudding back up the trail, stifled laughter, someone shouts, “Knockie Knockie, Run Awa'” and sees herself as she must be seen, caught in the doorway in nightclothes’ (65). This incident is reminiscent of the self-conscious ‘see-sawing’ of perspective evoked in Reaney's Sticks and Stones. Ana Historic's self-conscious use of documents extends the scenario: the woman reading reads herself as she is read in the texts of history. Unlike Mrs Richards in the particular incident described above, however, the novel offers potential responses to the historical reading. The knocking at Mrs Richards's door recalls the opening of Ana Historic: ‘Who's there? she was whispering. knock knock. in the dark’ (9). As Linda Hutcheon writes, documents are ‘signs within already semiotically constructed contexts, themselves dependent upon institutions (if they are official records) or individuals (if they are eye-witness accounts)’ (Poetics 122). Ana Historic's interrogative ‘Who's there?’ addresses just such contexts. The novel describes and enacts a kind of responsive knocking back through/as recontextualized readings of documents. Annie, for example, sits at her desk, extending her research by typing a fictional story and (re)defining the limits of ‘woman's place’ as it is given in the writings she studies: ‘she was knocking on paper, not wood, tapping like someone blind along the wall of her solitude’ (45).

The question, then, is from the beginning one of positionality and address. Mrs Richards's journal runs out at the same time the record shows that she married Ben Springer. Her silence, like Ina's, ‘was all a matter of husbandry’ (146): ‘Entered as Mrs., she enters his house as his wife. she has no first name. she has no place, no place on the street, not if she's a “good woman.” her writing stops’ (134, emphasis added). As a wife, she has, in other words, no position from which to speak, no appropriate form of address. Ana Historic adopts the same ‘wifely’ position, but only as a pose, since its appropriative or inappropriate reading of past writing is itself a form of address that talks back to history by reiterating it: it is, simultaneously, a ‘mis-reading’ of history, a Mrs (or wife) reading history, and a rereading of Mrs (Annie/Ina/Ana)/misses in history. It offers, in other words, a feminist rereading of the past in which, as Barbara Godard suggests, the ownership of the discursive property that defines ‘woman's place’ is itself placed in dispute: ‘Alerted to the ways in which woman is eternally the object, the absence, the minus in patriarchal discourse, the feminist reader confronts the issue of control. Who owns the meaning of the black marks on the page, the writer or the reader?’ (‘Becoming My Hero’ 144-5).

The appropriation of a series of newspaper excerpts in Ana Historic effects one such contestation of ownership. The newspaper account describes a boat race in which, as is traditional, all the boats have feminine names. This cited description asserts the importance of primacy associated with official narratives. The competition takes place on Dominion Day, and includes an official who judges the positions of the boats: ‘It is, as a general thing, a rule in these cases that the first boat to pass the Judge wins—in fact, the one which comes in first. This was to be the rule, too, in the race on Dominion Day. But as the ‘Annie Fraser’ came in first, the ‘Pearl’ could not do more than come in second, and was consequently beaten; while the ‘Annie Fraser’ came in first, and consequently won. That is really the true solution of the whole matter’ (124). The novel's appropriation and recontextualization of the boat-race passages calls attention to the hierarchical positioning of historical subject-matter, which is, after all, a matter of judgment. The description is interspersed with the novel's fictionalized description of a ‘first place’ that does not appear as such in the historical record: the site of the first white birthing, a communal, woman-centred event at Hastings Sawmill (intermittently, on 120-7). This place appears in the historical record, but is identified in a photo caption only as ‘Hastings Sawmill. First dwelling of R. H. Alexander, afterwards manager. Later occupied by office men as bachelors hall’ (120). The fictionalized account, in effect, re-occupies the historical cite/site as a woman's place.

In Ana Historic citation is a playfully feminine ‘reproductive’ gesture that breaks the closed patrilineal circuit in which the documents of history circulate only within a masculine discursive economy. As Janice Williamson seems aware, the question ‘Who's there?’ at the beginning of Ana Historic can be directed to various places, and in fact puts positionality itself in question: ‘Is this addressed to another character in the novel? To ana herself who asks it? Or does the question interpellate the reader herself into the text, calling to her, to him, to interrogate her/his own relation to the writing at hand?’ (7). As Linda Hutcheon adds, ‘None of us/you escapes this address, escapes being written into this woman's history, her story’ (‘telling accounts’ 19).

Annie's writing is a ‘looking for the company of another who was also reading—out through the words, through the wall that separated her, an arm, a hand—’ (45). It is a form of reading as re-membering a highly provisionalized, carnivalized ‘body of knowledge’ that, as Williamson and Hutcheon indicate, takes in both the past and the historical present, transgressing the boundaries that separate reader from text. Annie finds a woman reading in her friend (and eventual lover) Zoe, who asks, ‘don't you think we read with a different eye?’ (107). Or, perhaps, with a different ‘i,’ a different subject position, or relationship to the text.7

When Zoe takes Annie to her home, Annie finds a group of women engaged in informal conversation, at the same time literally addressing letters that disseminate their version of ‘woman's place’ as a site of dialogue: ‘Eunice and Zoe were talking at the kitchen table while they folded and applied stamps to a pile of flyers’ (151). Annie joins in this activity, in which she appropriates the historical image of a woman (as she appropriates the figure of Mrs Richards in her writing), but subjects it to a new use: ‘hundreds of tiny images of the Queen, passing under my thumb’ (151). The activity of these women in sending out ‘flyers,’ as well as the name of the historical lover Annie imagines for Ana—Birdie—evokes Hélène Cixous's punning play on the French word voler as both a transgressory feminine stealing of language, as well as a taking off from the ‘solid ground of fact’ as it is established in male discourse (Ana Historic 111). In a passage that might be used as a general description of Ana Historic's feminist use of the methods of documentary-collage, Cixous elaborates on the significance of the pun:

Flying is woman's gesture—flying in language and making it fly … We've lived in flight, stealing away. finding, when desired, narrow passageways, hidden crossovers, It's no accident that voler has a double meaning, that it plays on each of them and thus throws off the agents of sense. It's no accident: women take after birds and robbers just as robbers take after women and birds. They [illes] go by, fly the coop, take pleasure in jumbling the order of space, in disorienting it, in changing around the furniture, dislocating things and values, breaking them all up, emptying structures, and turning propriety upside down.


Ana Historic acknowledges that since it is impossible to forget or completely neutralize the language of history, ‘one might as well,’ as Laurent Jenny puts it, ‘subvert its ideological poles’ (59), turning propriety—and linguistic property—upside down. The novel does so, in part, by effecting the kind of radical intertextual return to past writing described by Jenny in which ‘the possibility of a new parole will open up, growing out of the cracks of the old discourse, rooted in them. In spite of themselves these old discourses will drive all the force they have gained as stereotypes into the parole which contradicts them, they will energize it’ (59). It is precisely such an energized economy of reading that Ana Historic fosters, a ‘feminized’ economy in which a woman seizes the occasion to speak, and in doing so ‘transform[s] directly and indirectly all systems of exchange based on masculine thrift’ (Cixous 252). Cixous writes, ‘As subject for history, woman always occurs simultaneously in several places. Woman unthinks [dé-pense] the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield’ (252). This economy of un-thinking at the expense of the given is neither outside history (a-historic) nor assimilated to it, but ana-historic: it redefines an intertextual space in which the writings that map out ‘woman's place’ are forced to ‘finance their own subversion’ (Jenny 59).


  1. Marlatt's source is Leonard Roy Frank's The History of Shock Treatment. Frank cites Manfred J. Sakel, ‘Sakel Shock Treatment,’ in Arthur M. Sackler et al., eds, The Great Physiodynamic Therapies in Psychiatry: An Historical Perspective (New York: Hoeber-Harper 1956), 69.

  2. The last three quotations are from an advertisement in American Journal of Psychiatry (Oct. 1954); Viscott's The Making of a Psychiatrist (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett 1972), 364; and Marilyn Rice's ‘The Rice Papers,’ The Madness Network News (April 1975), respectively.

  3. Glen Lowry's recent article ‘Risking Perversion & Reclaiming Our Hysterical Mother: Reading the Material Body in Ana Historic and Double Standards’ uses Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque to posit that the texts of Lola Lemire Tostevin and Marlatt ‘(re)present a world view that reincorporates the Grotesque body within a dialogic relationship with the atomic individual’ (85). Lowry's article also usefully incorporates elements of Allon White's ‘Hysteria and the End of Carnival,’ which reads Freud's studies of hysteria through Bakhtin's notion of the carnival or the Grotesque body (88-9).

  4. See other references to Frankenstein or monstrosity on pages 10, 16, 46, 135, 141, and 152 and in Stan Dragland's article ‘Out of the Blank: Ana Historic,’ which deals with gothic elements in the novel.

  5. See Lianne Moyes's article, ‘Writing, the Uncanniest of Guests: Daphne Marlatt's How Hug a Stone.’ Moyes argues that in How Hug a Stone, ‘origins are marked by the difference of writing, inscribed in the order of the “always already written.” The text has a stake in exploring the largely unrepresented and perhaps unrepresentable material contingencies of beginnings’ (203). She discusses the figure(ing) of the mother in How Hug a Stone in a way that is also relevant to Ana Historic: ‘the mother is not a person as such; she is a subject written, a subject writing. Double within herself, the mother is one of the ghosts of the text’ (210). I am indebted to this analysis.

  6. As Marlatt comments in an interview, the diary is invented (Bowering, ‘On Ana Historic’ 98).

  7. In a conclusion Lola Lemire Tostevin calls ‘unexpectedly conventional,’ this feminine discourse is aligned with a lesbian relationship between Annie and Zoe, and in Annie's novel between Ana and Birdie, an enterprising bordello owner. Tostevin writes that, ‘while the radical rewriting and rereading of dominant forms aspire to displace master narratives, whether they be historical, mythological or literary many women may find solutions to complex social problems limited if confined to the sexual sphere’ (38). Tostevin's point is well taken, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the social and textual significance of Marlatt's revision of the heterosexual romantic love plot. As George Stambolian and Elaine Marks point out, ‘homosexuality perpetually questions the social order and is always in question itself’ (26). It also becomes, in Ana Historic, the site of an extended economy of erotic/textual exchange based on difference rather than opposition and dominance: ‘we give place, giving words, giving birth, to / each other—she and me’ (152). Shirley Neuman comments, too (discussing Nicole Brossard's L'Amer), that lesbianism supplements ‘the reproductive sexuality of women with the excess that is female sexual pleasure, sexual difference,’ and may conquer ‘the Oedipal incest that theoretically prohibits women's entry into language unless they are phallicized’ (‘Importing Difference’ 399). Marlatt ironically titles the final section of Ana Historic ‘Not a Bad End’ (138), refusing to reinstall, by simply reversing, the conventional heterosexual/homosexual good/bad binary opposition.

Daphne Marlatt and Janice Williamson (interview date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4717

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 Salvage is a rereading or revisioning of earlier writing in the light of your developing feminist consciousness. Is this a critical consciousness that recalls the feminism implicit in your early writing, or is it a consciousness which looks back and recognizes gaps?

[Marlatt]: It's more looking back and recognizing, not so much gaps, but places where I was blocked and I couldn't see my way out because I didn't have the theory that would have helped me do that. So now with the benefit of some of that theory and having done a lot more writing of a different kind, I can go back and read my way through those earlier texts for the hidden dynamic that's operating. For instance, a piece which Penn Kemp published in the women's issue of IS (14 [1973]) in the early seventies, ‘Steveston. Support. Fish,’ has become ‘Litter. wreckage. salvage,’ and I discovered it took a veer from Steveston to skid row in the original because it's really about how difficult it is for women to be on the street and how they don't occupy the street in the way men do because it's a public space that's basically male. I realized that the buried image for this was agoraphobia, quite literally ‘fear of the marketplace.’ We've had this long tradition of women on the street being seen as available somehow—they get whistled at, stared at, yelled at by men, because women on the street have been seen as being there for men, to service men, they're on the sexual market in some way.

You talk about the rapport between your writing as a feminist and your reading of feminist theory. What feminist theories have influenced you?

There's so much, it's hard to say. I became very interested in the kind of theory that Nicole Brossard was writing, which I first encountered in the issue of Ellipse (23-4 [1979]) that was devoted to La Nouvelle Barre du jour and Open Letter, and I loved the piece—it wasn't even the full piece, it was just excerpts from ‘E muet mutant,’ the silent feminine e. I began to get very interested in the possibility of writing carrying the feminine, so that led me to French feminist theory, and I started reading Cixous and Irigaray and Kristeva—Duras before that, but not so much for theory. The thing that drew me to what Nicole was doing was her writing always as a woman in the process of writing. I'd been reading Anglo-American theory before that, I mean in the seventies, women like Greer and Friedan, some of Juliet Mitchell, Elizabeth Gould Davis, and that spoke to me too, in the same way that when I read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex in the sixties I just felt devastated, because there was so much that she was naming that I recognized. Always that's the excitement in reading feminist theory—having names and articulations put to what you've been aware of, but you haven't been able to articulate in any clear way. But it was an even greater excitement reading Nicole because she was talking about an approach to writing as a woman. It was the same kind of excitement reading Mary Daly's work with language. So then I got into reading Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering—I seem to have approached Freudian theory first through the Americans, through Chodorow and, more recently, Dinnerstein. And as I've been circling around the subject of mother for a long time in my own writing, I find the writing these women are doing, talking about what Freud didn't manage to talk about, that pre-Oedipal stage and its extreme influence on us, I find how that links up with Kristeva's sense of the semiotic in language very illuminating.

Traces of this fascination appear in your Ana Historic. The rapport Annie has with her mother is very powerful and complex. As a woman reader, I recognize the compelling ambivalence of, on the other hand, being nurtured by and identifying with the mother, and, on the other hand, feeling overwhelmed and repulsed by her.

That's right, a lot of the feminists who have worked out of Freud's theory talk about this, about how difficult that bond is between the mother and the daughter, because the mother herself is ambivalent towards her daughter; she wants to be nurturing, she wants her daughter to have everything she didn't have, but at the same time she's raising her daughter to accept the limitations of being a woman in a patriarchal society, and so she's always setting limits to her nurturing.

How much does the writing free you from ambivalence? I'm thinking of feminist theories of individuation as well as of my own experience as writer and critic. Acknowledging my own ambivalent relationship with my mother and working through to a deeper understanding of her helped empower me to write.

Oh, I think that's the key: it is empowering, and it's such a mishmash of very primal emotion that, well, working with it probably occupies a lifetime. I'm not finished working with it. I had a very close bond with my mother, I realize now looking back to when I was little, and I can actually see in my relationship to her such an appreciation of her femininity that it almost supports Freud's notion (although I dislike this notion because he couldn't recognize a female libido as female; it always has to be modelled on the male libido) of the little girl as the ‘little man’ courting the mother. I can recognize that behaviour when I look back. But then we went through such a difficult time together during my adolescence when she had such a bad time. We ricocheted away from each other, and she denied me and I denied her, and we never really got back to any kind of rapprochement before she died; so writing about her is my way of doing that, of getting to a place where I can feel some of that affection and empathy and understanding. It's a really different bond from the little girl's bond, because my understanding comes from empathizing with her experience as a mother, having had my own experience as a mother. And recognizing in myself the difficulties I had as an immigrant, and seeing how those were magnified for her. I can only realize what we had in common by also expressing where I felt she betrayed me as a mother, because she was in such deep psychological trouble herself that she couldn't go on mothering.

You write about memory as overlap. Louky Bersianik writes about ‘rites of memory, memoir, that is a portmanteau word, sometimes mother, mine? and sometimes me, condensed word.’ Is there a memory-mine-me-mother in your work?

I was amazed when I read that passage in Louky, because it reminded me so much of what I was working with in the memory poem ‘“abandoned,”’ in ‘The Month of Hungry Ghosts,’ the experience of being back there in Penang so many years later and remembering, and yet not consciously remembering, having a memory that was in the body somehow, but wasn't consciously accessible until I got there. I couldn't have said how to get from A to B, but at a certain point, rounding that corner, I got an immediate flash of what I would see when I got around that corner, and I could not have foretold it until I was in that actual movement around that particular spot. And memory seems to operate like this, like a murmur in the flesh one suddenly hears years later. There is in memory a very deep subliminal connection with the mother because what we first of all remember is this huge body which is our first landscape and which we first of all 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. The wholeness of memory, these early memories that suddenly flash upon you, probably has something to do with the earliest sense of a whole body image, and later, much later, a whole landscape. Anyhow, it's only later that we separate ourselves and everything into subject and object.

There's a moment early on in Ana Historic when the mother says something like, ‘I am not your mother,’ and the daughter cries.

She says, ‘Your mother's gone.’ Yes, I think that's a very primal experience to have the mother turn into this person who denies that she is the mother figure, that she is the one who is always there, always nurturing, always patient, that figure the child counts on as some kind of basis for existence. It's a very early lesson in language, because she is saying what the child feels has to be impossible, and yet, because she is saying it, language makes it real and her absence is suddenly there as a frightening possibility.

Toni Cade Bambara talks about how she's trying to break language open and get to the bone. She's trying to find out not only how a word gains its meaning, but how it gains its power.

I wouldn't call that ‘the bone.’

No. What would you call it?

Well, in How Hug a Stone the bone is like the seed, the germ of the word, using that neolithic concept of the bones being planted back into the earth in order to bring forth new life. I saw that bone in the Anglo-Saxon root of the word and wanted to revivify it by putting it in a contemporary context. But in terms of how the word gains power through usage, through time—that's really a history of political usage. Mary Daly did a primary job of renewing certain words for women and showing how they had been turned from their original usage, which didn't involve a negative value, as the oppression of women increased.

Thinking about this question of language and power: I was teaching Adrienne Rich's lesbian love poems, and my students were embarrassed about naming the female body and female desire. The power embedded in the classroom made it impossible for them to identify what they have been socialized to ignore, and they simply could not find words.

Woman's body is never present in its own desire, so if you start writing about it, you have to combat a kind of fear that you feel because you know you're breaking a taboo. Di Brand has talked about this, and it's something that I recognize very strongly in her work where, in order to make it present, she has to write so-called ‘scandalous and heathen’ things, scandalous and heathen from a conventional Christian point of view. The only way you can bring the significance of our sexual being into the language is by making it so present that you can't get around it, you can't deny it, you can't euphemize it.

It's interesting to me how in some lesbian writing the body is absent, as in Phyllis Webb's Naked Poems, where the female body's being is its absence; the furniture is rearranged around a poetics of loss and longing.

That's true, and the lover's body is also evoked through absence so poignantly by her blouse, those little details. It's like drawing everything around it, and the thing itself becomes simply the white face of the page, its contour outlined by everything around it.

There's something different in your lesbian love poems than that absent presence. Your lesbian body is excessively present.

Yes. Okay—why? It has to do with my attitude to language, I think. I feel language is incredibly sensual. The more musically we move in language, the more sensual it is, I suppose, because, as Kristeva would say, it's the closest that we get to that early sensual experience of fusion with the mother's body. And lesbian eroticism involves this incredible fusion, this merging of boundaries, because our bodies are so similar in their way of touching, of sensing each other, so I'm always wanting my language to somehow bring that into itself, that opulence of two incredibly sensual bodies moving together. I want that movement there in the way the words move.

I don't know what I'm going to say after that except to recall a different sensuality: Toni Cade Bambara's ‘touch talking.’

That's it. That's a lovely metaphor for it. There's a kind of push and pull in Touch to My Tongue which has to do with touching even though the book was written against the lover's absence. Most of the poems were written on my way to, and while I was in, Winnipeg—and later in Vancouver when Betsy was ill. They're written with longing, and I suppose longing always does have an aim. Desire as moving towards, and specifically moving towards that arrival point of being together. [The poem] ‘down the season's avenue’ is the epitome of that, driving down a street here imagining her there. There's always this longing to go where she is, but also there is this conjuring of the actual lovemaking, as a presence that is triumphant because it combats the absence the yearning is trying to do away with, trying to elide, trying to collapse into the moment when I'm together with her and all there is is our being together.

I'm wondering, too, if this writing of lesbian desire isn't simply a representation of a transgression of a heterosexist culture.

It's not ‘simply a representation of transgression’ because that overlooks desire which is ongoing in this movement towards the other woman's body—it fails to be erased finally when that movement is concluded, it's never concluded, that's the point with desire, especially women's desire. I had that problem structurally with Ana Historic. Once I had located Annie as a very sexual woman, the writing kept moving towards her actually making love with Zoe, and yet that could only come at the very end of the book, because she had to go through all these shifts of identity and coming to consciousness of what the latent desire really was. Yet I didn't want that final scene to be the end of the story, because it's never the end, it's always the beginning of new stories, so how could I honour that? The only way I could honour that was by moving back into the writing and the reading, using the metaphor of the continual turning of the page as the working of desire. There is always the next page, the next page, even if it's not yet written, it's imminent there. I suppose this has to do with where I put myself against Christianity, which has taught us to defer bliss to life after death. Yet language itself, especially writing, is another kind of deferral. In the humanist tradition it was thought to be a vehicle pointing to what was real beyond the writing. And we've now come to think of it very differently as a signifying process present to itself within the writing. To speak of what has been excluded from the world of literature, which is women's desire, and to make that present in a language of presence is a challenge.

Ana Historic interrogates notions of history as a story of dominance, mastery. In Mrs Richards's journal there's slippage between fiction and historical document. In the novel you write: ‘What is a fact, (f)act? the (f) stop of act, a still photo in the ongoing cinerama.’ What is the relation between language and women's history?

If history is a construction and language is also a construction—in fact, it actually constructs the reality we live and act in—then we can change it. We're not stuck in some authoritative version of the real, and for women that's extremely important, because until recently we always were—the patriarchal version was always the version, and now we know that's not true. We can throw out that powerful little article. When we change language, we change the building blocks by which we construct our reality or even our past ‘reality,’ history.

I'm interested in Annie as the hysteric Anna O, the German feminist Bertha Pappenhiem treated between 1880 and 1882 by Josef Breuer, who called the psychoanalytic cure ‘the talking cure.’ Juliet Mitchell writes about women's novels as hysterical, as women's simultaneous acceptance and refusal of patriarchal capitalism. When I first read the excerpts of your novel published in Writing, I was in the middle of my own analysis with a feminist psychoanalyst and reading feminist revisions of Freud's work. I was excited by your ‘hysterical’ narrator, your dreaming voice which opens an interpellation to the reader—‘Who's there?’ As a reader, I'm called by Annie. I'm the intruder into your writing asking myself, how did I get here? how do I enter this text? who am I? As a woman reader, I can feel threads of my being pulled through the narrative.

This brings up the notion of audience: who do you write for, and how does that actually shape the writing. I began to feel that as a very important element of what I identify as feminist writing, and I don't want to say it's the only element or that all feminist writing has to have this, but, as a reader, when I feel that pull, when I feel that I'm being directly spoken to and drawn into what I'm reading, I'm answerable in some way, I create some kind of response to this writing that speaks to my own experience as a woman. When that happens, I am so compelled, I underline these books, I make notes in them, they make me think of my own writing, they give me ideas. I want to open similar spaces for this kind of conversation with readers of my own writing. It makes for a different sense of writing. I first began to feel it maybe in How Hug a Stone, because I knew I was working in the mother area, the mother's so strong, and we all have this in common, we all have these ambivalent relationships with our mothers. It has increased with Touch and now with Ana, and the experiences of reading to that audience last night [29 Nov. 1988, at Common Woman Books] was a delightful experience for me, because in that laughter I could hear so much recognition, and it wasn't the men's laughter I was listening to, it was the women's: it's almost a painful kind of laughter, and it's releasing when you can laugh like that and it's named collectively, then the pain of it begins to dissipate.

Not everybody touches you with unconflicted identification. Yesterday we heard Claire Harris read ‘Where the Sky Is a Pitiful Tent.’ Afterwards Claire talked about her dialogue with Guatemalan revolutionary Rigoberta Menchú's oral testimony and the complex thoughts she had about repeating another woman's story—how, as a Canadian Black woman with Caribbean roots, she related to a Latin American Indian woman's words in terms of both her difference and her identification.

Right, and whether she's exploiting it.

Whether she's exploiting the other woman's experience and appropriating her world of daily political oppression.

Perhaps anyone who has felt any oppression at all can use that anger to help her understanding of much worse oppression. You know that you may not have felt anywhere close to the intensity of oppression in Guatemala, but you know as a lesbian what it feels like to live in a patriarchy, and Claire knows as a Woman of Colour what it feels like to be erased by racism. So you're never entirely an outsider. You can certainly question how you're using that material because we have so much privilege, and here my ‘we’ is a very doubtful we, because as a White woman I have even more privilege than a Woman of Colour living in Canada, but both of us, as women living in Canada, where freedom of speech and the freedom to act are more extensive than in Guatemala, we have this privilege, and yet we also have some consciousness and we know we can build from our own experiences of oppression, we can imagine ourselves into a little bit of that life, and it's very important to do that imagining. Exploitation happens when you as the writer remain on the outside of the experience, but if you can move even a few steps towards the inside—and I don't mean take over, appropriate, someone else's experience, I mean evoke the grief and rage and pain it brings to you as a witness, a person involved, and make that real to others—Claire's poem did that for us.

I'm having flashes about the reader and the therapeutic power of writing. Writing as homeopathic, as an inoculation and healing process, a recognition in difference and identity, and as catharsis.

And that is political.

Ah, is that one of the connections between feminist writing and feminist political action?

I don't think you can have action without consciousness first. Consciousness precedes action, because if you don't act with consciousness you act irresponsibly and you may end up supporting exactly the thing that you're trying to undermine. So you have to have consciousness, and consciousness is constituted by language, so you have to look at the language first of all. It's a very complicated interaction. Changing consciousness by itself isn't enough; you can change the consciousness of individuals, but if they don't get together and act collectively, nothing in the social world changes. So the two have to happen together.

You've written poems which are explorations of your own experience in a colonial culture, Malaysia; as a young child, you lived in a very privileged class position. ‘In the Month of Hungry Ghosts’ explores that experience of trying to find a structure of language to ‘carry this being here.’ What conflicts do you feel as a writer about an experience which appears intrinsically contradictory?

I haven't finished exploring this yet; in fact, in some ways I feel as if I've only just begun, and I don't think very clearly. It's difficult to write of my childhood experience or my parents' experience without sounding like an apologist for colonialism, which is definitely not what I want to do. But the issues of racism and classism are so subtly bound into that experience, even though, as a child, I wasn't aware of them—or maybe especially as. The patriarchal oppression of women and colonialism are two different faces of the same coin, and I can see that in my mother, who knew nothing about feminism but was in some ways an instinctive feminist, even in that colonial situation—and despite the really deep habits of classism she also had. I don't think the conflicts of thinking women in a colonial situation have been adequately explored. My mother could identify with the women who were her servants to the extent, on one occasion, of standing up to the Catholic priest who was visiting one of her servants to rail against her, a Tamil woman who was a Catholic and, according to the priest, living in sin because she wasn't married to the man she was living with although she was about to have a child by him. My mother was furious and threw him out of the house and was herself aware, not only of supporting this woman's desire and this woman's lived reality, but also aware of the social system under which Tamil men often left their legal wives in India and came to Malaysia to work, sending money back home to support their families. This might begin as a temporary situation but didn't end up being one because there was no work for them in India and so gradually they made a life for themselves in Malaysia and had another family. There were also the kinds of conflicts my mother felt being a woman and being limited in the ways a woman is limited in that society to the domestic realm. The resentments that she felt about having a life that had no meaning, that wasn't valued as productive—that was all there. But there was also this, that although my father might be dining out with wealthy Chinese business colleagues, my mother was at home where she was in close touch with the domestic necessities of the Chinese or Tamil women who were working for her and also living with us. For instance, we had a gardener who would get drunk and systematically beat up his wife, and my mother was always trying to figure out how she could intervene in this, respecting the fact that it was, after all, their marriage, and their relationship, and yet trying to stop the beatings. In some senses the colonial women were brought in closer touch with the realities of the lives of colonized people than the colonial men were, and I think they felt the conflicts more deeply and saw the effects of colonialism on a day to day level more clearly than the men did. On the other hand, I don't know what our servants really felt about my mother—I mean, on the surface, there was a feeling of loyalty and this feeling that she was a good ‘Mem,’ but what did they really think underneath that? I think she used to worry about that too. She wasn't really committed to that system as a way of life and in fact gave it up quite readily, and I think this was because as a woman she had a political awareness my father didn't have—or maybe I should say a disinterest, a political disinterest in upholding the Empire, and I mean ‘political’ in the broadest sense of power relations.

One of the things that comes up when you talk about this colonial setting is the material world. The contradiction you're trying to locate in your mother in this colonial setting is between gender and class. The material conditions of class and race are central to your early work, including Steveston. Later gender as an issue becomes predominant. Can we talk about this shift?

Yes. I suppose what feminism forced me into was an examination of the creation of my female psyche—it was a very inward thing. It forced me to look at childhood, it forced me to take Freud seriously. It forced me to look at the origins of consciousness and how deeply in conflict we are at that level. So in that sense it's a retreat from an analysis of class and race, which are large problems that feminists have to address, and, in fact, the feminist movement has seen that that is number one on the feminist agenda right now. I guess I don't want to be forced into an over-generalized position, one that would say that women's psyches have all been formed in the same way, because clearly they haven't—the historical and class and racial conditions all have a different part to play in shaping us. But maybe this shift has something to do with coming to terms with the actual material of my existence as a writer: language. I had to come to terms with the oldest layer of my language, the language I inherited from my mother, which was generated within certain national class and period mores. Victorian stifling of female sexuality is something that comes under severe attack in Ana. I had to come to terms with this before I could do anything else, and I don't really know where I'll go from here.

Keith Green and Jill LeBihan (essay date fall 1994)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5945

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 when that discourse is ordered by “phallogocentric” power. The question revolves around how a woman might represent herself within a symbolic structure and how she might do this as an active subject or agent. One of the precepts of some feminisms is that relationships between mothers and daughters, between women as lovers and as friends, and between women academics require representation in ways that conventional linguistic systems do not offer. Canadian writer Daphne Marlatt attempts to articulate a new kind of subjectivity for women in her poetics and in her subversive text ana historic (1988). We examine here both the demands for alternatives to phallogocentric language from the écriture féminine and the ways in which Marlatt herself gives voice to the relationships between women by creating a nonexclusive pronominal system.

The unconventional narrative interrupted by poems within ana historic works somewhere between what is permissibly confessed and that which is unsayable under the oppressive rules of patriarchy. The text is a collective effort of story telling. Different voices collaborate: one of the narratives belongs to Annie, disenchanted “faculty wife” and secretive researcher of other women's lives; another belongs to Annie's mother, Ina, but it must be told through her daughter; similarly, the story of nineteenth-century school teacher, Ana Richards, must be told through “Richard's Anna,” the academic's wife. The text contains mental dialogues between Annie and long-dead Ana, Annie and recently dead Ina, Annie and her new lover Zoe; it sets out to represent these women either as speaking subjects themselves or as speaking through the subject (Annie).


The construction of ana historic is based on the supplements provided by Annie's narrative, which fill in the gaps opened up in her own life and in her mother's by the silencing of women under patriarchy. A linear narrative of the lives of the two women is ruptured by Ina's psychological disorders; thus the daughter dutifully tells her mother's story and thereby supplements her own autobiography. The supplements also operate as Annie's attempts to complete the spaces in the misty life of Ana Richards, the late nineteenth-century school-teacher, outside of the lines she is given in the Vancouver archives. Annie's own consciousness is supplemented by the resurfacing of her unconscious, in the reconstruction of her childhood terrors, and in her endeavour to explore beyond the limits of heterosexuality. In a more conventional narrative of a woman's life, Annie's stories would be unusual and certainly not seen as crucial to a linear biography, which is supposed to be sufficient in itself. However, Annie's reconsideration of the politics of her mental illness, her uncovering of her own fears, and her discovery of her lesbian identity imply a lack in the supposed plenitude of a story with one main narrative.

A dialogue between Annie and her mother, Ina, offers a confrontation about what is marginal to a history and what is central. Annie is thinking about Ana Richards's father. The only document she (perhaps) has that suggests what his relationship with his daughter might have been is a letter in which Ana writes (or which Annie reconstructs) about her new social sphere: “You would say, Father, they are a Rough Lot. … Still, I would rather be here than cooped up there as your handmaiden” (55). This leads Annie to imagine what the role of “handmaiden” might mean in this context, and she suggests that Ana's father may have been “overbearing, a clergyman with absolute authority” (55). But in the reconstructed internal dialogue that characterizes some of Annie's narrative, Annie's mother, Ina, protests against her daughter's filling-in of the gaps in history:

—now Annie, now you're indulging in outright speculation. this isn't history, it's pure invention.

—but what about the personal history of Mrs Richards? (so personal it is hidden.) with what irony can we imagine her writing Mrs.?

—you're simply making things up, out of a perverse desire to obscure the truth.


Ina's side of the argument is for a referential certitude. Annie explicitly challenges her mother's notion of historical accuracy and certainty, a notion that is effectively a document-based theory of truth with faith in an objectivity produced by a modern sense of science and philosophy. Annie, wedded to an historian and working as his research assistant, recognizes that there is only so much evidence and only so much that it can be used to say, given the strictures of a contemporary humanist truth.

“Richard's Annie” is writing one narrative to accompany the documentary evidence, the “quotations from archival material,” “the sheets of Xeroxed photographs,” “the facts” (78), which she collates in her attempts to attain the status of “good faculty wife,” the good girl. But on her desk, underneath all this material, is a concealed scribbler, an alternative narrative accompaniment. Annie's mind “will no longer come to grips with lot numbers and survey maps, will no longer painstakingly piece together the picture he wants” (79). What she wants to do instead is to tell her own story, or at least this is what the voice of Ina suggests from its hanging indent:

—the truth is, you want to tell your own story

—and yours. ours. the truth is our stories are hidden from us by fear. your fear i inherited, mother dear.


Here, the “you” is repeatedly extended morphologically until the second person possessive “yours” is juxtaposed with the first person possessive “ours.” Many possible second persons become speaking subjects, “us” rather than objects of address. You is again made into first person in the phrase “your fear i inherited.” A syntactic ambiguity results from the possibility that it could be read as an inversion of the straightforward subject-verb-object clause (“i inherited your fear”). But it could also be read as a single noun phrase where the “i” and the “your” are not in subject-object relation (“your fear that i inherited”). The “your” in this case takes the place of the more usual determiner, article or demonstrative, and suggests that the second person is the locus of referential activity. The relative clause with the elided relative pronoun is restrictive, and there is a close association between the “i” and the “your.” Through the syntactic ambiguity and ellipsis of relation, the paradigm of first- and second-person pronouns—that is, of discourse participants—is foregrounded. That which is “you” is passed on (“inherited”) to “i.”

This piece of dialogue holds in tension the dialectic between center and margin, between “good faculty wife” and subversive “scribbler,” between obedient daughter and a daughter who wants to tell more than conventions will allow. Ina implies that her own and her daughter's stories are not important and are not connected to other individual women's stories from the past. The dialogue also suggests a complex psychosocial reason for the suppression of women's histories and hints at a notion of a cumulative narrative, one that develops from mother to daughter, despite its constant denial. Annie suggests that her story is inseparable from Ina's, just as her inherited fear is inseparable from that of her mother. Annie emphasizes that the story she is telling is not an individual one. She denies here the possibility of a personal, biographical truth and substitutes in its place the narrative of censorship through fear.

The collective effort of story telling is signaled in the different voices that collaborate in the text: Ana's, Annie's, Ina's, as well as quotations from “authoritative” sources. The effect produced by so many narrative voices is not one of cacophony, but of structured polyphony. This carefully organized text is not about randomness or chaos, just as it is not about a simple version of truth, nor is it about a single version of tale telling. It does, however, resist an orthodox comprehension of rationality and presents itself as an “assemblage of facts in a tangle of hair” in the words of Susan Griffin, quoted on the frontispiece.

The different typefaces, with one kind of type style or layout assigned to a person or “institution,” provide the reader with a way of distinguishing voices within the narratives. To elaborate, Ina's indented dialogue with “i,” Annie, is the most obvious example. The “i” associated with Annie writes with no capital letter, and her prose builds upon itself, so that initially it describes what appear to be random incidents, out of which are later constructed condensed paragraphs, offering recurring vocabulary and turns of phrases perhaps in another context or with a different ironic weight, so that the reader needs to go back and reassess the first reading. The graphology disrupts the syntax: sometimes noun phrases are isolated; sometimes a verbal process is left hanging in nonfinite form. Subordinate clauses often form single syntactic units. Annie's condensed paragraphs diminish in size as the narratives and dialogues move on, and her words become more and more frequently subject to interruption from the other kinds of text.

Other aspects of the narrative are told in the third person with regular punctuation and capitalizing. The prose of these stories is more formal, not just in its graphological presentation, but also in its approximation to the free indirect speech that is characteristic of nineteenth-century realist fiction. For example, a section headed “Walking to Gastown” tells of a woman's fears of walking alone, and it has all the narrative characteristics of a realist novel:

Now she was at the last bend of the trail, steadying her feet on the two-plank walkway which was slippery with moss from months of rain. And now she was leaving it, she let the quiet grow around her, clung to it, letting go of the wariness that always gripped her when she walked this mile alone. What was she afraid of? Not the deer, who were startled as she. Not bears or cougar. … Madmen, then? Drunken seamen, Indians running amok?


The constant shifts from detailed observation of character and place, temporally ordered, into representations of the perspective of the protagonist evoke the voice of an earlier age, the voice of Ana Richards. Markers suggest the perspective of the protagonist here, but the voice really emerges with the interrogatives in the final lines. The opening “now” is typically the experiencing “now,” which is offset by the past-tense verb forms of the observing narrative voice. On two occasions the deictic “now” picks up different points on the journey, and this temporal intimacy is echoed in the noun phrase “this mile alone,” where the proximal demonstrative determiner similarly indicates the protagonist's perspective. The interrogatives allow the narrative voice to give way to a more full-blown introspection especially when they finally drop the copula verb and become simple noun phrases (“Drunken seamen, Indians running amok?”).

The women's voices are interrupted periodically by italicized quotations. These interrogations are voices of authority. They quote the (patriarchal) facts according to medical psychiatry, the truth according to academic history and documentation, the law according to the Bible. However, the interventions of the “masculist” voice, these Laws of the Father, occur at points where the voices of women's experience undermine the authoritative version that would otherwise describe (and de-scribe, or disempower, them from writing) their lives.

Ina's psychological illness is characterized through the conflict of the authoritative italicization and the view of Ina provided by Annie:

“The patient is clearly identified as the ‘sick’ member of the family and the family is reassured they don't need to feel guilty or in any way responsible.”

when Harald brought you back from the hospital he brought back a stranger, a small round person collapsed in on herself, who drifted in her blue dressing-gown in a fog. …


The woman's subjective narrative is positioned against the supposedly objective theoretical text, where the noun phrase “the patient” is opposed to the discourse participant “you”; and this juxtaposition asks that the reader recognize the horror of the theory when it fails to perceive precisely its own lack of objectivity in its discussion of women. The theoretical discourse is not inherently repressive in itself, and its lack of objectivity is not the source of feminist objections: rather, the lack of awareness about the capacity for abuse of power, justified by theoretical structures, is the point of contestation. The dialectic between the two forms of prose in Marlatt's text serves to question the orthodox notions of truth and fact and the accompanying discourses of power.


Much criticism of Marlatt's work makes certain assumptions in its readings, based on post-Freudian psychoanalysis as a poststructuralist theory of language (Banting; Dybikowski et al. 1985; Godard; Tostevin; Williamson). One of these assumptions is that Marlatt's writing participates in an écriture féminine, a collection of discourses that struggle with the apparent and damaging split between a woman's body and her location in the structures of language. The contribution to the field made by ana historic could be interpreted in psychoanalytic terms as the narrative analysis of the absence of the other (the mother) under the law of the father. This is an operation that correlates with feminist versions of Lacanian theory of the formulation of subjectivity. We want to argue, however, that the text resists easy assimilation into a pattern provided by any one psychoanalytic metanarrative.

ana historic emerges from a context that is characterized by the disquiet about the location of feminism and feminists amongst academic women in the late eighties and early nineties, a disquiet that is discussed in such texts as Tania Modleski's Feminism Without Women (1991) and Jane Gallop's Around 1981 (1992). A crucial element of this disquiet is the ever-strengthening position of feminism within the academy at a time when to belong to the establishment and the mainstream appears to be unfashionable, given the fetishizing of the fringes as a feature of much postmodernist literature. In her chapter “History Is Like Mother” Gallop explains that the “good/bad split, in feminist discourse, is shot through with irony” (231). That is, labels that once were applied to marginal and mainstream positions can easily be detached:

Center and margins interact with the good/bad dichotomy. If we take the center/margin structure straight, the center defines itself as good and relegates its others, presumed bad, to the margins. But in feminist (or postmodernist) discourse the center tends to be suspect, i.e. bad, and the margins have the moral authority, that is, it is good to be marginal. Thus marginalized by her badness, the bad girl is good.


Marlatt's novel is an example of the bad girl-good girl dichotomy in action. Written in a way that appropriates feminist “high theory,” Marlatt could be seen to be part of the unapproachable “French-feminist” élite that has received so much criticism from antiessentialist pragmatists. But, as we are arguing here, she can equally be seen as being in line with very recent rereadings of “French-feminist” work that counters some of the hostile, often reductive approaches of some pragmatists to this kind of abstract theoretical discourse.

In reproducing a mother-daughter dialogue, in presenting a narrator with both lesbian and heterosexual relationships, in using extracts from historical and scientific documentaries as part of a fiction, and by creating psychological fantasy, ana historic both claims and rejects reassuring points of reference. Marlatt rewrites feminist psychoanalytic discourse in a way that makes it less open to the accusation of essentialism, that big “Baddie” of contemporary criticism. “History Is Like Mother” is the proposition challenged by Gallop's essay. Marlatt's novel similarly resists the smothering of seamless identification with a single, all-embracing, maternal feminist theory. For Annie, reconstructing her mother's words and the words of her foremother, Ana Richards, is a painful process of both dutiful observance and rebellion. The same applies to the novel's relationship to an écriture féminine: it is partly conformist and partly critical of the discourse, but it nonetheless contains the writer's efforts to represent the dialogue between the various kinds of women's writing.

It is the crucial point of the interconnection between language and gender position that is the concern of the writing of Luce Irigaray. Irigaray's writing is seen as being at the core of the apolitical, idealistic theoretical discourse that is resisted by pragmatist feminists (see, for example, Cameron), but our focus is on the way in which her theories have recently been reconsidered by feminist philosophers and theorists, most notably and helpfully, by Margaret Whitford. To emphasize the point, rereadings of Irigaray are at least as significant to this paper as the original writings themselves. Of particular interest in relation to Marlatt's novel is Whitford's focus on Irigaray's “unsymbolized mother/daughter relationship,” on the “absence of linguistic, social, cultural, iconic, theoretical, mythical, religious, or any other representations of that relationship” (Whitford, “Rereading” 108). Marlatt's struggle in ana historic is to represent that which Irigaray argues, parodying Freud, is “the dark continent of the dark continent” (Whitford, “Rereading” 108). She must do this within the terms offered to women, those of Western patriarchal psychoanalytic literary geography. Marlatt, like Irigaray, would seem to accept that there is no “outside” of the Symbolic. Her women characters see themselves through the male gaze; they are written in and out of history by the values of patriarchs, and they are inscribed in the text in relation to the phallocentric discourses that are quoted ironically in italics. A heavily determining presence in ana historic is that of the masculine gaze, and it is in these eyes that women are seen to come into themselves, or, rather, they learn about their not selves, identities produced for them by their gender, which they are obliged to take on as their own. What Marlatt's women learn “so fast” is “this other looked-at image of ourselves” (52). Entry into a patriarchal symbolic structure is what constitutes a subject as sane, capable of communication, literate, normal, and—something that is not often discussed in the context of psychoanalytic theory—heterosexual. It is an image of subjectivity that women learn they are expected to create in the presence of men. As Annie explains in one of her dialogues with Ina:

the truth is (your truth, my truth, if you would admit it) incest is always present, it's there in the way we're trained to solicit the look, and first of all the father's, Our Father's. framed by a phrase that judges (virgin/tramp), sized up in a glance, objectified. that's what history offers, that's its allure, its pretence. … step inside the picture and open it up.


Marlatt's Annie describes the acquisition of femininity as the objectification of the woman into a passive and stereotypical role (“virgin/tramp”) under the gaze of the authoritarian father figure. The sexual woman is required to be completely visible yet still maintain her erotic mystery. Her sexuality is supposed to be entirely Other to that of the man, yet also under his control.

Irigaray argues on this issue that women's positions are inevitably inside the Symbolic:

There is no simple manageable way to leap to the outside of phallogocentrism, nor any possible way to situate oneself there, that would result from the simple fact of being a woman.

(Irigaray; qtd. in Whitford, “Rereading” 110)

Phallogocentrism creates “the dark continent of the dark continent” and expects this place to be a reasonable location for a Symbolic subject. One may object, but it is the only location available to women, and it is from this place, according to the terms of phallogocentrism, that they must articulate any objection. Irigaray's utopian approach to this problem (and following Whitford, we see this utopianism as a political stance) is to suggest an alternative “‘syntax,’ another ‘grammar’ of culture” (Irigaray; qtd. in Whitford, “Rereading” 113). Irigaray argues her case for a restructuring of language using the unrepresentable mother-daughter relationship as an example of where phallogocentrism fails female subjects:

But there is no possibility whatsoever, within the current logic of sociocultural operations, for a daughter to situate herself with respect to her mother: because, strictly speaking, they make neither one nor two, neither has a name, meaning, sex of her own, neither can be “identified” with respect to the other. … How can the relationship between these two women be articulated?

(Irigaray; qtd. in Whitford, “Rereading” 113)

Under the Symbolic order, women are always linked to the maternal function: they are always (potential) mothers. Women are constantly, consistently identified in terms of their reproductivity. As in Irigaray's writing, there is an acute awareness in Marlatt's text of the problem for the daughter situating herself with respect to the mother. In a sequence in which Annie is recalling her relationship with her mother when she was a girl, she (Annie) finds herself repeating her mother's English turn of phrase, even as she is trying to erase it. She hears herself say, “woolly vests. my very words. … ‘my very words’ were yours” (23). In thinking of what her linguistic relation might be with her mother, she offers another of her internal dialogues with Ina:

O the cultural labyrinth of our inheritance, mother to daughter to mother. …
                    —and i suppose you see me as the monster
                              hidden at the heart of it?
there is a monster, there is something monstrous here, but it's not you.


The labyrinthine quality of the mother-daughter relationship in Marlatt's novel shows this relationship to be something that is difficult to navigate, something winding, intertwining, doubling back: an unmapped territory that marks out the threatening, fantastic, ultimately unrepresentable aspects of the matrix under patriarchy.


The construction of a subject inevitably denies “the Other,” always already establishing a power struggle through grammatical structure between the subject and the object in what Irigaray calls “the economy of discourse.” But we have seen in Marlatt's prose an attempt to give voice to that “other” by making “you” the discourse centre, or, in Karl Buhler's terms, the origo. Irigaray speculates what would happen “if the ‘object’ started to speak” and queries “what disaggregation of the subject would that entail?” (Irigaray 135). Irigaray's utopian linguistic structures identify the need for a radical approach to subject positions in terms of gender politics.

In discussing her own work, Marlatt has articulated some of her poetic strategies for taking up some of the radical suggestions offered by Irigaray and others.1 Speaking of her essay “musing with mother-tongue” (1985), she emphasizes that her engagement with écriture féminine is with the creation of a “presyntactic, post-lexical field” of discourse. Her writing, she states, attempts to evade the linear and to find ideograms for radiating meaning. The linear, sequential aspect of syntax, through which subject and object are realized in relative positions, is rejected in favour of associative, or paradigmatic, relations. Yet this new field of discourse is defined not merely in terms of not being one thing, but being another: it is, on the contrary, defined in terms of linguistic temporality. Marlatt's claims are for presyntactic and postlexical structures, implying a discourse that is psycholinguistically determined. Such a discourse functions presyntactically in that the subject and object positions predicated by syntactic chaining have not yet been realized and postlexically in that the paradigms for the “radiation” of meaning are already in place. A presyntactic and postlexical discourse is thus a discourse in which choice, selection, and association are dominant functions unfettered by the tyranny of chaining and the realization of subject-object positions. Although Marlatt's autocritique here is primarily of her poetry, her philosophy about writing is evident in ana historic, which calls itself “a book of interruptions … not a novel” (37), within one of the inserted poems in the text.

A close look at Marlatt's comments does not clarify what a practice of producing “presyntactic, post-lexical” discourse might mean in terms of her publications. Pragmatically, that is, speaking from within a post-Enlightenment rationalist philosophy, it seems to be impossible for her to adhere rigorously to this statement in her writing and our reading of her work. We do not claim that Marlatt practices the theory that she discusses. Her writing is always a blend of what one might call, on one hand, fiction or poetry and, on the other, theoretical treatise, and the symbolic system within which she works and publishes is irrevocably syntactic and lexical. However, although the actual practice of her writing philosophy may not be possible, her writing and criticism serve to indicate the hierarchies of power that language use under the patriarchal symbolic creates. What is put under scrutiny in Marlatt's work are the limitations on meaning that the patriarchal Symbolic enforces, and this scrutiny provides possibilities for evasion of those limitations.

The return to a presyntactic condition and the movement into a postlexical discourse are precisely unimaginable within the current linguistic systems that Marlatt herself uses. Her gestures, as we interpret them, are towards the utopian possibilities similarly offered by Irigaray and suggest a form of language that favours the paradigmatic over the syntagmatic, as we have shown. The ideogram that Marlatt uses to represent this utopian form is that of the dandelion flower gone to seed. It is a concentrically organized structure, rather than a linear formation, that suggests the combination of multiple elements that she calls postlexical without the rigorously hierarchical selection process that she refers to as presyntactic.

The final section of Marlatt's novel produces a more certain narrative subjectivity than is offered by earlier parts of the novel. Although the self-conscious lesbian identity that is developed in this last section is not articulated as an inevitable result of the hostile environment, a metafictive, sexualized subjectivity is produced. Marlatt's focus, though, is on the ways in which such an identity might be struggled through in language: by subverting the “othering” procedures of conventional pronominal usage and stressing connections between women rather than alienation from each other, men, or the world, Marlatt finds a distinctive way of representing this struggle. The final section of the novel begins, as do all the other sections, with a poem:

worlds apart she says
the world is
she who is you
or me
address this to


Marlatt's deliberately evasive deictic strategies are evident throughout her text, but they are strikingly littered in the seven brief lines of this penultimate poem. Although other poems in the novel refer explicitly to “ana,” this poem more readily participates in the discourse of lyric poetry because of its pronominal reference and lack of antecedent or cataphoric full forms. The poem is thus a deictic center whose references form a large and significant paradigm of participants. The pronouns could be attached to any of the women in the narrative (Annie, Zoe, Ina, Ana Richards) since these characters are directly addressed in dialogic exchange elsewhere in the novel. The “you” and “me” could plausibly be directed towards women outside the text too (the reader, the writer). Locating a speaking subject in the poem proves astonishingly difficult. Should the poem be read as though everything before and after the inquit “she says” were in quotation marks, the words of one of the possible women to whom the “she” might refer? Marlatt's unconventional use of punctuation, a characteristic of all her work, would make this one possible reading.

The fourth line denies the stable location of the speaking subject, however, since “she” is either “you / or me,” and “i” both claims authorship and undermines it by its quotation marks and its lower-case form. Marlatt also subverts conventional pronominal use by drawing the usually excluded third-person pronoun “she” into a dialogue with “me” and “you.” Marlatt extends the possibilities of selection beyond that of subject and object and explodes the paradigm to include the shifting “she”: “she is my first, my ongoing reader. you, i want to say” (132). Here, although the pronouns occur in linear fashion as part of the syntactic arrangement of the text, they primarily occur as realizations of a discourse-participant paradigm. The closed paradigm of the I/you of discourse participation is extended to accommodate the “other” of discourse, the third person. This move is precisely what we have seen earlier: the paradigm supplants the syntagm. In the same way that the pronominal paradigm disrupts the subject-object relation, the poem itself disrupts the syntagm of the narrative text: what takes place within the microsystem of pronominal usage is replicated analogously in the macrostructure of the text itself.

The poem could also be read assuming the “this” of the last line to function as a proximal demonstrative referring to everything prior to the “‘i.’” “This” is discourse deictic and metatextual, referring to other portions of the text. Such a reading would make the first-person pronoun into the speaking subject. However, the small-case letter and the quotation marks again offer resistance to such a stable location for the poem's voice, and as in the first reading, the “i” could be “you” and “she” also.

Crucially, the pronouns are all gendered—they must all be capable of being “she”—and it is in this way that Marlatt seeks to present a sense of the relationships between women in her writing, representing the mother-daughter bond, the connections between women as lovers, and the ties between women through history, which, restating the theoretical frame of reference for this novel, have been denied and excluded by phallogocentrism. Her strategy is not only to include the normally excluded third-person in the dialogic exchange, but also to insist that its feminine gender is a factor that controls the gender of the first- and second-person pronouns. Whereas Irigaray has argued of the difficulty of representing dialogues between women, in this poem, discussion can only take place if it is between women.

Marlatt's poetic strategies are made most explicit through the character of Zoe, with whom Annie enters into dialogue in the final section of the novel. Zoe says that women “give birth to each other” (131), and when Annie adds that “we give birth to men too,” Zoe responds:

no, we don't, she says, we give birth to boy babies and men make men of them as fast as they can. they try to make us think they make women of us too but it's not true. it's women imagining all that women could be that brings us into the world.


Marlatt's characters explicitly focus on the Cartesian mind-body dichotomy that is continually reasserted in the face of the challenge posed by écriture féminine and other feminist critiques that argue for the engagement of the physical with the intellectual—not to mention the biological with the cultural—as fundamental issues for women. This philosophical history—despite the challenges posed to it by postmodernism, poststructuralism, and feminism—continues to inform contemporary thinking. As Zoe, like some postmodernists, says: “that's the trouble with history—it never is” (132).


The relation of the revisionary subjectivity to the constructs that it challenges can be read as an example of what Monique Wittig calls the concept of the lesbian, something that is “beyond the categories of sex” (qtd. in Butler 19). Teresa de Lauretis adds:

Wittig's “subjective, cognitive practice” is a reconceptualization of the subject, of the relation of subjectivity to sociality, and of knowledge itself from a position that is experientially autonomous from institutional heterosexuality and therefore exceeds the terms of its discursive-conceptual horizon.


De Lauretis argues that, unlike the politicized utopianism of Irigaray, Wittig's “lesbian” exists in the historical and social present as “the consciousness of a ‘something else’” (145). As she reads Wittig, the term “lesbian society” can be taken to mean “a conceptual and experiential space carved out of the social field, a space of contradictions, in the here and now, that needs to be affirmed but not resolved” (144). Marlatt's novel concludes with just such an unresolved positioning of a lesbian relationship, a creation of a subjectivity “in the feminine”: “we give place, giving words, giving birth, to each other—she and me. you … it isn't dark but the luxury of being has woken you, the reach of your desire, reading us into the page ahead” (153).

Ultimately the pronouns point to metatextual implications. “We,” “she,” “me,” “you,” “your” become “us,” projected by “the luxury of being” into “the page ahead.” Annie's relationship with Zoe allows these women to create their own place in language, to enjoy “the luxury of being,” of occupying space in discourse as desiring subjects. They are able to read themselves on the page of the future; they are reinstated into a symbolic system, a recognition that is denied women, lesbians in particular, within the patriarchal Symbolic. As Whitford explains in her gloss of Irigaray, “the fundamental ontological category for men is habiter (dwelling). … [M]en live in ‘grottoes, huts, women, towns, language, concepts, theories, etc.,’” whereas for women, their condition is one of “dereliction” (“Rereading” 112). Where, according to Irigaray, the reflection that creates the subject in the patriarchal Symbolic is formed in a flat mirror that perceives “she” as being defective, Marlatt's text attempts to create a “speculative” reflection of women, something provided by the differently curved lens of language.

Our argument has been that ana historic can be connected to écriture féminine at least as it has been most recently figured: as a radical critique of phallogocentrism that acknowledges questions of subjectivity, however they are constituted, as being part of a real political agenda. If this is the case, then Marlatt's final poem seems to offer optimism for women and for feminist theory on “the page ahead.” In finally naming herself on the last-but-one page of the novel, Annie Torrent fuses the “i” with the excluded “she,” denying the difference between subject and object: “Annie Torrent, i said” (152). She claims for herself both first- and third-person positions, both participant and nonparticipant, for this act recognizes the other in the m/other as being the self, the act that exorcises her childhood nightmare of Frankenstein, infamous creator of monstrous progeny. It is the act that reclaims “a nameless part i know” not as a secret horror, but as a lesbian sexuality that needs to assert its rightful place in the narration of women's stories and histories.


  1. Marlatt discussed her poetics in an informal seminar held as part of the “Borderblur” conference, hosted by Leeds University in April 1992.

Works Cited

Banting, Pamela. “Translation A to Z: Notes on Daphne Marlatt's ana historic.Beyond Tish. Ed. Douglas Barbour. West Coast Line 25.1. Edmonton: NeWest, 1991. 123-29.

Buhler, Karl. Sprachtheorie. 1934. Stuttgart: Fisher, 1965.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 1990.

Cameron, Deborah. Feminism and Linguistic Theory. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1985.

De Lauretis, Teresa. “Eccentric Subjects: Feminist Theory and Historical Consciousness.” Feminist Studies 16 (1990): 115-50.

Dybikowski, Ann et al., eds. The Feminine: Women and Words/Les Femmes et Les Mots. Edmonton: Longspoon, 1985.

Gallop, Jane. Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1992.

Godard, Barbara. “‘Body I’: Daphne Marlatt's Feminist Poetics.” American Review of Canadian Studies 15 (1985): 481-96.

Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillian Gill. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Marlatt, Daphne. ana historic. Toronto: Coach House, 1988.

———. “musing with mother-tongue.” Dybikowski et al. 171-74.

Modleski, Tania. Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age. London: Routledge 1991.

Tostevin, Lola Lemire. “Daphne Marlatt: Writing in the Space That is Her Mother's Face.” line 13 (1989):

Whitford, Margaret. “Rereading Irigaray.” Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ed. Teresa Brennan. London: Routledge, 1989. 106-26.

Williamson, Janice. “It Gives Me a Great Deal of Pleasure to Say Yes: Writing/Reading Lesbian in Daphne Marlatt's touch to my tongue.Beyond Tish. Ed. Douglas Barbour. West Coast Line 25.1. Edmonton: NeWest, 1991. 123-29.

Kathleen M. Scheel (essay date spring 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9072

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 Historic: A Novel her character Annie writes: “(caught in a fix, castrated—what is the female word for it? i mean for the psychological condition?)” (35). This parenthetical remark encapsulates the struggle of woman as the silenced other to speak herself as subject against the dominant discourse of Sigmund Freud's psychosexual theories of female development. Annie's recollection of her experiences of childhood and adolescence provide the framework for Marlatt to undertake an interrogation of Freud's female psychology. Marlatt argues that a theory based on castration anxiety legitimizes and institutionalizes the notion of woman as inadequate and lacking. Furthermore, Freud's proscriptive theory deems woman's inability to reconcile herself to her anatomy as either “hysterical” or “homosexual,” providing the double bind that perpetuates her continued oppression and marginalization. Annie's (re)membering of her mother, Ina, as well as the (re)construction of the life of the other Ana, Mrs. Richards, missing from historical accounts of the Hastings Mill Settlement in Vancouver, juxtapose Annie's interior world of thought with the male voices of psychoanalysis and history. By reappropriating the language of the patriarchy that has excluded women, Annie is able to amend Freud's theory by “languaging” the previously silenced female experience.1 This process enables her to (re)present woman as an active, desiring subject with an alternative psychology of sexuality.

In the wake of his repudiation of his theories on the origins of trauma, Freud proposed his oedipal theory of infant sexuality in 1897.2 His theory postulated that the definitive event in a male child's development of adult sexuality is his first sight of female genitals, which causes him to perceive his mother as castrated and assume that he, too, will be castrated by the rival for his mother's attention, his father. In Freud's theory, this is a necessary and beneficial step in male development. However, as a consequence, the boy continues to see women as castrated and regards them with “a certain amount of disparagement” (On Sexuality 376). The female child “acknowledges the fact of her castration, and with it, too, the superiority of the male and her own inferiority; but she rebels against this unwelcome state of affairs” (376). Freud wrote that

When the little girl discovers her own deficiency, from seeing a male genital, it is only with hesitation and reluctance that she accepts the unwelcome knowledge. As we have seen, she clings obstinately to the expectation of one day having a genital of the same kind too, and her wish for it survives long after her hope has expired. … [I]t follows that femaleness—and with it, of course her mother,—suffers a great depreciation in her eyes.


In Freud's eyes, possession of the penis designates man as the active subject; woman is therefore the passive object (312). Because the penis is the defining norm, to be without one is to be in need of a “fix” or repair. Women are in a state of dis-ease, the parameters of which are defined by men and patriarchal institutions. Marginalized as deficient, women are then not allowed to speak their experiences of their bodies or their sexuality.

As Annie discovers, the phallogocentric language available to her fails to convey her experiences of her body or her sexuality:

it sounded so royal, regina, vagina, so foreign a word for something that was simply there, warm to touch, nice to rub, parting a little in the warmth of the bathtub. secretly looking it up in French i was astonished to discover it was masculine. le vagin. there must be some mistake, i thought, not knowing its history, a word for sheath, the cover of a sword. it wasn't a sword that i was promised.


A sense of betrayal is conveyed here in the implicit breach of promise: language is gendered and exclusionary. Referenced through its utility to male endeavours, the word vagina defines women through male experience so that women do not “own” their bodies. Unable to define themselves, they are silenced and excluded from entering the dominant discourse. They are compelled to take on the identity given to them as other. While Freud cannot be held accountable for a root word originating in Latin, his comment that the vagina is “valued as a place of shelter for the penis” legitimizes previous expropriations of women's bodies (On Sexuality 312).3

As Annie's childhood experiences reveal, her role as other has been “scripted” in advance, even in Peter Pan:

(and why weren't there Lost Girls in Never-Never Land, only Lost Boys and Wendy who had to mother them all, mother or nurse—of course they fought the enemy, that's what boys did) and what i did when i was she who did not feel separated or split, her whole body trembling with one intent behind the knife. and it was defense (as they say in every war). no, it was trespassing across an old boundary, exposing my fear before it could paralyse me—before i would end up as girls were meant to be.


Freud might argue that Annie is manifesting castration anxiety, refusing to acknowledge her place in the world as passive object or caretaker, due to her lack of a penis.4 Annie would seem to suggest that she fights to protect her territory and her initial sense of herself as subject against male expropriation. In her story, girls are doomed to lose their territory in the Old Wood to the conquering boys:

what if the boys came down from their fort in the Green Wood with slingshots and air gun? would their own string bows and crookedly peeled arrows hold them off? … she despaired of herself, her sister-archers, her camarades—their arrows fell of the string, plopped on the dirt like so many cowpies. who cares? they said. they hurt their thumbs, they got tired, they went off to read Little Lulu (not even Sheba, Queen of the Jungle).


A traditional Freudian reading would argue that Annie begrudges her limp arrows, which are analogous to her lack of a penis. Certainly, she notices the discrepancy of power; the girls are doomed to be overcome by superior firepower. The problem is how to survive without taking on the methodology of the oppressors. While Annie identifies with the hero's passion, she has contempt for his goals: “as if only boys could be spirited. who read Robin Hood, wore scarlet, identified with Lancelot and the boy who wanted to join the knights of St. John (all trespassers, law-breakers in the guise of saviours. what did ‘useful’ mean to them?” (13).

Marlatt's text works to subvert the paradigm of castration anxiety by showing that colonization of the land—or women—is not necessarily a desirable end. Nor is it the end that Annie and her female friends would have chosen. The tension is due not to Annie's penis envy, or even power envy, but to her struggle to maintain her subjectivity in the face of male endeavours based on a quest and domination motif rather than on enhancing the community. Women are then designated “mother or nurse” to male aims, as if their sole purpose is to patch up the damage incurred. The urge to exist as something outside those limits is always thwarted by the double bind of Freudian theory; to want “territory” is to crave the role reserved for men, but to resist the role of passive object is to be guilty of penis envy.

Reaching adolescence, Annie finds her behaviour further circumscribed. Culturally sanctioned images of women define them not only as passive but also as the object of male desire: “‘feminine’ translated a score of different ways: doll, chick, baby, kitten. diminished to the tyranny of eyes: ‘was he looking at me?’ ‘did you see how he looked at you?’” (52). These terms all suggest passivity—they describe a toy, pets, and an infant. The phrase “tyranny of eyes” conveys very well the sense of oppressive authority that controls by the gaze, defining women through images based on male need.

This female passivity that serves male ends is normalized and legitimized by Freud's theory. Freud posited three possible routes to adult female sexual development. Normal sexual development is predicated on the female child accepting her innate inferiority and passivity and coming to terms with her lack of a penis. If she does not, she may become neurotic and devoid of sexual interest, or she may persist in her wish for a penis by engaging in masculine activity, which, if taken to the extreme, results in homosexuality (On Sexuality 378-79; “Psychology” 174-78). The normal daughter must turn away from her mother and fix her desire on her father, or a father substitute, finally realizing her desire for a penis by giving birth to a child, preferably a male one. Annie suggests that once again, this is a culturally determined “norm”: “the truth is (your truth, my truth, if you would admit it) incest is always present, it's there in the way we're trained to solicit the look, and first of all the father's, Our Father's. framed by a phrase that judges (virgin/tramp), sized up in a glance, objectified” (56).

Marlatt suggests that the girl is “trained” to relate to the world as a sexual subordinate. According to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the word solicit means “to entice or lure,” “to proposition,” and “to offer to have sexual relations with someone for money.” These definitions imply an imbalance of power, in which the woman must work to gain the recognition and protection of an all-powerful yet benevolent man. The inclusion of the binary “(virgin/tramp)” makes the sexual connotation explicit. Like all binaries, it controls by what it excludes. Freud located the formation of this binary in a combined longing for and horror of sexuality in men (On Sexuality 237). He wrote that the male dread of women was perhaps based on sexual-performance anxiety, because woman is unknowable, “different from man, for ever incomprehensible and mysterious, strange and therefore apparently hostile” (271). His comments are interesting because they suggest that his theories of female castration anxiety and woman as deficient are actually a projection of men's own worst fears onto women. Freud said that “The antithesis here is between having a male genital and being castrated” (312). Woman, as difference, is thus a continual reminder of male castration fantasies. The fear of castration or impotence is then displaced as hostility to woman. She is defiled and ultimately reviled as “soil[ed], base matter” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 133). She is viewed as “wounded or sick” (62) in a cultural repression of that displaced fear.5

Nature/woman must be shaped by men into monuments and mementoes of phallic sexuality or colonized and organized to remove all traces of threatening difference. Trees must be “clear of limbs,” acceptable only “as a straight line” (14) so that they are suitable for “telegraph poles and fence posts” (19-20). The citation from historical accounts of logging the “virgin” country—“Why! the country hadn't been touched!” (63)—is reread as a reenactment of the male sexual act: “Up Mack! Bright! Ham! By the jumped up devil that's in you, lean into it! Moony! Blackie! By God—I'm comin'!” (53). Annie sees the “mastery over huge, heavy logs” (25) parallelled by that over women, who must be “touched … felled and shot,” “as if the male touch (topping and felling) required its polar opposite to right the world—split, split” (65; ellipsis in original). It is no accident that the loggers of 1873 at Hastings Mill have as their contemporary fictional counterparts Annie's father, Harald, “totting up logging accounts” (64), and Annie's husband, Richard, writing the history of “lot numbers and survey maps” (79). Women must be organized into subdivision and (plot)line.

Not surprisingly, Annie internalizes this perverse dread of and longing for the female body and perceives herself as a walking target. A fear of violence permeates Ana Historic. There is the fear in the opening paragraphs, poignant in its intensity, of both the male intruder and Frankenstein's creature, hiding in the wardrobe: “would she kill if she had to?” (9). Annie fears the bears in the forest, which are “said to be temperamental. You never knew when one would rear up from behind a bush and slash out at you”; she also imagines her fictional character, Ana Richards, stalked by bears (103). The bears, described as “four-footed men in shaggy suits, intent on a meal” (18), become associated with men, and Annie marvels at her mother Ina's audacity in presenting herself as bait: “but you, a woman, walked with the possibility of being seen, ambushed in the sudden arms of bears or men” (18).

It becomes clear that Annie manifests not penis envy but rape anxiety, a fear of the erasure and annihilation of herself as female. Her existence is threatened by man's tendency to project his psyche onto the world. Ina validates and escalates Annie's fears, schooling her in the ways of the victim: “you taught us your fear, you taught us what you knew about a world where even uncles were not to be trusted. you grew more afraid as our sexuality came budding to the fore …” (34). Having completely internalized the male hatred/dread of the female body, Ina ensures its perpetuation: “to repeat history. to put me through what you went through. … the sins of the mothers. hating our bodies as if they had betrayed us” (62).

Freud's theory predicts that Annie will feel betrayed by and enraged at her mother for her failure to provide Annie with a penis.6 There is no doubt that she feels “ill equipped” to deal with what she perceives as a hostile male world, but her rage at her mother is twofold. Initially, Annie blames her mother for reinforcing culturally determined misogyny and for her failure to provide adequate survival strategies. Subsequently, she feels abandoned by her mother's inability to provide a viable alternative to objectification: “my fear began when i realized you never saw, as you turned away with a sudden frown or laugh, the you that was you, invisible in the mirror, look out at last” (58). Ina, also a victim of a patriarchal society, lacks sufficient sense of herself to “mirror” Annie back to herself. Annie cannot form a valid identity for herself because her mother has not got one.7 Annie's rage is directed not at Ina's failure to give her a penis but at her failure to free herself from this enslaving view of femininity. Co-opted by the patriarchy, Ina can only reinforce culturally sanctioned routes for Annie: “trained to exhibit a ‘good mind,’ but only ‘within reason’—reason being utilitarian, education as part of ‘attractiveness’ leading to marriage—i ended up doing what i was meant to, i followed the plotline through, the story you had me enact” (17).

Ina's own attempt to follow the plotline takes its toll in “(sleeping pills and social smiles, ‘i'm fine, fine,’ hanging on)” (17). The parenthetical setting apart of this remark from the main text conveys the sense of Ina's double self. The plotline contains her attempts to fulfil externally generated expectations, but the text within parentheses describes her feelings, which are never accounted for by the dominant discourse. The strain of maintaining those two disparate selves leads Ina into “growing naps, obsessive washing of the kitchen floor, chronic exhaustion” as she becomes “tired of trying” in the “endless effort to live a lie (the loveable girl in her Lovable Bra, the Chanel femme fatale …) how measure up?” (34, 49, 57; ellipsis in original). This vague ideal to which Ina aspires is a male creation, which leaves women powerless, as Annie discovers: “and this is what you were trying to live up to. the neuter” (35).

“Neuter” is an interesting word choice. Marlatt, so conscious of etymology, must know that the Latin origins of “neuter” are ne and uter (OED). Uter is the root word for “uterus.” It can mean a leather bag for holding liquids, “which of two,” or “either.” Ne(uter) literally means no uterus, but has come to mean “not either” or “neither,” hence “neuter” or castrated (OLD). The language has been perverted to remove traces of the feminine. Castrated implies a male norm for physiology; no uterus implies that the female physiology is the starting point.

Faced with the continued neut(e)ralization of her differences, Ina erupts in a torrent of speech, rage, and finally “hysteria” in the ultimate rejection of her offending body: “‘women's trouble.’ the body that defeats the self. the body, not even your body. split off, schizophrenic, suffering hysteric malfunction” (89).

Freud's theory predicts hysteria in women as an outcome of their inability to adjust to the lack of a penis.8 It is therefore not surprising that two of the symptoms of hysteria outlined by Freud are repressed sexuality and a dread of the body: “The character of hysterics shows a degree of sexual repression in excess of the normal quantity, an intensification of resistance against the sexual instinct (which we have already met with in the form of shame, disgust and morality), and what seems like an instinctive aversion on their part to any intellectual consideration of sexual problems” (On Sexuality 78).

Ina does manifest such a fear and disgust of her own body. But her symptoms are a reflection of the cultural misogyny to which she is subjected. The psychiatric diagnosis of Ina as a hysteric, based on Freudian psychology, confuses symptoms with causes in a gross misreading of female experience. Freud's prediction that women are predisposed to hysteria is a further scripting of female behaviour that has particularly ominous implications for women. Should a woman be unable to reconcile herself to cultural misogyny, she is deemed hysterical. Ina's “hysteria” has its roots in the cultural misogyny to which she is subjected. That hysteria is then legitimized so that woman's reality is trivialized and ultimately denied. Ina's Ouija board prediction, “you will die insane in a foreign country,” is borne out as her inevitable fate (98). Hélène Cixous has described the hysteric as “the Absolute Woman, in culture, the woman who really represents femininity most effectively … who is closest to femininity as prey to masculinity …” (47; first ellipsis in original). Her role is scripted for her, but it is the role of woman as “the unorganizable feminine construct” (47). The binaries of woman as virgin/tramp and femme fatale/neuter are extended to include efficient homemaker/uncontrollable hysteric. The only alternative to the role of the effaced wife and mother is that of the hysteric: “—self-control, the by-word you threw out the window—bye to all that you inherited you'd push on me. a roundabout word for blocks and stops. it wasn't control but repression they were after when they taught you that” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 60). There is no room within the binary for female subjectivity, female desire, or the female body. Annie suggests that the hysterical diagnosis is a convenient means by which men hide their agenda to control through repression and erasure. Failure to conform to this male organizational fantasy results in the label of “hysterical” or “insane.”

It is possible to view hysteria as a point of resistance, as a retreat from the plotline. As a hysteric, Ina defies interpretation: “—‘going off the deep end’ where the divers went. it was nothing so controlled as a dive, more like smashing into black waters where there were no limits to what could be said, no up nor down, no boundaries to respect, no real” (88). However, as a form of rebellion, it is flawed. As Stan Dragland has noted (173), Ina's Gothic story has the traditional no-win Gothic ending in which Ina is forced to submit her (dis)order to patriarchal control: “we let you go into the hands of the doctors who ‘punished’ you for not shaping up. they said you suffered from delusions, said you were paranoid, said they were doing what they did for your own good” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 134). Ina does not receive a cure; she is delivered into the hands of the psychiatrist who “masters” her madness and returns her to the plotline. The hysterical diagnosis is another incidence of “colonizing” the offending female body: woman as unorganized, virgin country, once subjected to “logging” and “colonization,” requires, in a modern context, electroshock therapy as a realignment strategy. The italicized accounts of traditional history in the text are now supplanted by italicized accounts of psychiatric practices: “Glissando in Electric Shock Therapy is the method of applying the shock stimulus to the patient in a smooth, gradually increasing manner so that the severity of the initial onset is minimized” (144). Annie's descriptions of her mother's precarious postshock condition vie for space with the medical jargon that sanctions a clinical “excision of women (who do not act but are acted upon)” (88), in what Manina Jones has called a “documentary-collage,” which works to disrupt the official, legitimized accounts and force their rereading (13-14). In a further and more horrifying conflation of fictional texts, the vision of the monster with electrical wires applied to his head as Victor Frankenstein struggles to jolt him to life is echoed in the image of Ina with electrodes taped to her forehead in electroshock therapy. Psychiatry can then be seen to “create” the monstered version of woman who, like Frankenstein's creature, has no identity of her own, no language of her own to speak her experience, and becomes a blank or absence to mirror man back to himself. Hysteria, the languageless resistance to objectification, results in annihilation for Ina, just as the monster's rage at his creator's refusal to recognize him as a desiring subject leads to his destruction.9

Freud cannot be blamed for either the etiology or the etymology of hysteria. The word is derived from the Greek hystera, for “womb,” but it was Renaissance doctors who explained women's diseases with the theory that the movement of a detached womb caused uncontrolled behaviour (see OED; and Walker 421). Freud worked to demystify hysteria in ascertaining that a number of disorders grouped as hysteria had diverse causes. His work, and that of Joseph Breuer with Anna O., led Freud to reject the more orthodox treatments of the day—such as shock therapy, hydrotherapy, massage, et cetera—in favour of hypnosis, which in turn led to his immense body of work.10 The “talking cure” for hysteria, which later became Freud's technique of “free association,” developed out of Breuer's work with Anna O. Apparently, she required little hypnosis, and “She produced streams of material from her ‘unconscious,’ and all [Joseph] Breuer had to do was sit by and listen to them without interrupting her” (Strachey xvii).11

There are some striking similarities between Anna O. and Annie, a comparison invited by the nearly identical names and the obvious pun of Anna/Ana Historic on Anna Hysteric.12 Both Anna O. and Annie have repressed sexuality and engage in imaginative fictionalizations; moreover, the constructed narratives of both have the nature of “freely-created poetical compositions” (Breuer 29).13 Anna O. experiences “absences” in her train of thought, which were “observed before she took to her bed” (24). Annie seems obsessed with absence, speaking of “this absence here, where the words stop” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 11), the “pot-holes of absence” (17), the “lure of absence” (24), and the “book she is writing against her absence” (47). Both women suffer from a partial amnesia and are troubled by reminiscences.14 Both have peculiarities of speech. Breuer comments on the “deep-going functional disorganization” of Anna O.'s speech: “she was at a loss to find words. … Later she lost her command of grammar and syntax; she no longer conjugated verbs …” (25). Annie's relating of her interior world is somewhat a stream of consciousness. Idiosyncratic in construction, it does not follow the conventional rules of grammar. Most sentences fail to begin with capital letters, and many are incomplete, consisting of a single word or prepositional phrase. It is essentially “a book of interruptions” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 37), with no linear narrative. While Anna O. complained of “having two selves, a real one and an evil one which forced her to behave badly” (Breuer 24), Annie's other is “the sound of her own voice …, heard like an echo asking, who's there?” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 9). Annie fears that in the “wardrobes. wordrobes. warding off what?” are the hidden creature of Frankenstein and “that other breathing on the other side of the door she could almost hear” (10).

My intent is not to simplify the obviously complex dimensions of Anna O.'s illness, nor to denigrate the existence of repressed memory and the utility of appropriate therapeutic efforts to retrieve that memory. It seems to me, however, that Breuer and Freud misinterpreted Anna O.'s “functional disorganization” of speech as symptomatic of hysteria when the roots of hysteria likely lie in the disallowance and disavowal of that speech. Anna O. needed to talk. She was astute enough to provide both her diagnosis and her treatment. Breuer observed that “on the day after her giving verbal utterance to her phantasies she was amiable and cheerful, on the second day she was more irritable and less agreeable and on the third positively ‘nasty’. Her moral state was a function of the time that had elapsed since her last utterance” (32). It was not talking, as well as not being heard and acknowledged, that disturbed Anna O.

Annie also needs to speak. But her story has previously been excluded from the dominant discourse. The writing of her text as “talking cure” allows her to retrieve from her memory and unconscious that self which has not been acknowledged in the legitimized accounts of history and psychiatry: “if i'm telling a story i'm untelling it. untelling the real. trying to get back the child who went too far, got lost in the woods, walked into the arms of Frankenstein—” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 141). The (un)telling of “the real” is a process of self-empowerment in which Annie adjusts the dominant discourse to include her experience.

She cannot speak when the only available language is one in which she is always object. The exclusion of the female voice from the dominant discourse, except when labelled as “hysterical,” prevents it from ever gaining credibility. In this way, the language of female experience becomes “monstered.” That “other,” rejected self becomes anathema. Frankenstein, Annie discovers, is “the man who created him. … and now we call the monster by his name. a man's name for man's fear of the wild, the uncontrolled. that's where she lives” (142). The “other” breath on the other side of the wall is her sense of herself as Frankenstein, as the monster who is outside the societal bounds of normalcy. Just as Frankenstein recoils in horror from his first glimpse of himself in the mirroring surface of a pool (Shelley 80), Annie is terrified that a glimpse of her self will be equally monstrous: “(don't let me see! don't let me!)” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 10). The misogynistic image of woman is created by the dominant culture and then rejected as the repository of all that the dominant culture fears. The “uncontrolled” where woman lives becomes the other side of the binary established to ensure that the object never speaks—woman is always other/monster, other/hysteric. For Annie, to open the wardrobe and let out the other is to expose herself to the male intruder, who fears the uncontrolled where women live, to risk annihilation—a possibility and not a fantasy, given her mother's fate. Frankenstein is “what i always feared as real: the violence behind the kiss, the brutal hand beneath the surgical glove, the one who punishes you for seeing (through) him” (135). Frankenstein becomes both woman as the monstrous object and Dr. Frankenstein, pursuing his errant and rebellious creation, who refuses to remain the desireless object.

“[T]hat other breathing on the other side of the door” (10) is also, in a larger sense, the lost (m)other. It is not only that Annie connects, by free association, her fearful childhood memory of the wardrobe and intruders with her absent mother; it is also the way in which Marlatt uses this memory in a deliberate echo of a childhood nightmare of Freud's. In his description of screen memories, Freud, as he so often does, turns to his own experience. He recalls a dream in which, as a three year old, he sees his brother open a wardrobe; when young Sigmund sees that it is empty, he begins to scream. He then sees his mother walk in from the street. Freud the psychoanalyst can find no way to make sense of these two seemingly disparate events. Upon questioning his mother, he ascertains that his dream formed a screen for a memory of his mother's absence during her pregnancy with his sister. This interpretation leads him to postulate that screen memories are “mistakes in remembering,” the repression of other unconscious but important memories (Psychopathology 45). Through a series of associations and childhood misunderstandings, Freud believed his mother to be locked up in the wardrobe, and, as he says in a footnote to his discussion of his self-analysis, “The wardrobe or cupboard was a symbol for him of his mother's inside” (51).

Marlatt shows through the intertextual reference that the repressed sexuality predicted by Freud's theory is the repression of female sexuality from his theory, from culture, and from history. As Mary Jacobus has pointed out, in choosing to privilege the myth of Oedipus as that which structures childhood sexuality, Freud represses his own experience of his mother: “The story that Freud ‘forgets’—the story screened by the Oedipus myth—is not simply the story of the pre-oedipal, but the main narrative of feminism” (“Freud's Mnemonic” 132). His empty wardrobe symbolizes the repression or closeting of the feminine and the mother whom he never recovers, who remains for him the “Minoan-Mycenaean civilization behind the civilization of Greece” (On Sexuality 372). Annie, however, is able to (re)member her mother and the traumatic account of her mother's demise when she recognizes that the monster in the wardrobe is the culturally distorted image of the feminine and “shifts Ina's sickness from the individual to the society” (Lowry 89). In recovering her memories of her mother, Annie restores the pre-oedipal “Minoan-Mycenaean” to consciousness. But Marlatt is not merely struggling to recuperate the good-enough mother, what Jacobus has called a feminist agenda to recover “the unremembered heroine of the psychoanalytic text—she who would make it whole if we could only tell the entire unexpurgated story” (“Freud's Mnemonic” 133). Rather, Ana Historic is an act of self-definition. When Frankenstein is seen as an internalization of male dread of the female body, Annie is able to reappropriate her “other” self as valid and worthy of representation within the dominant discourse. The talking cure provides for a recovery of her childhood self, before she was split into Frankenstein and the silenced other.

Annie's talking cure also subverts Freudian psychosexual theory and patriarchal discourse by voicing the hysteries: that is, “all the ways we don't fit into a man's world” (79). The use of ambiguity and the interrogative are particularly suited to the retrieval of those moments excised from the traditional male narrative; both work to deconstruct the binaries assigned to women by “male” culture by disrupting homogeneity with self-reflexion and lack of closure. The gaps and absences make for a listening and leaning into the silence to hear what has been omitted. The absence of conventional plot foregrounds the “archetypally feminine story,” which is the one never told (Rabuzzi 155). Annie cannot mimic male speech; she is, as Luce Irigaray has said, “castrated of words” (“Any Theory” 47), and so she uses the language of her body to create and maintain a space for female subjectivity. Her writing forces men into the double vision of “diplopia at least” and resists the male movement to “plan/e,” plotline, and the erasure of difference (47). The site of the victimization, of the “castration,” is then reclaimed so that it no longer originates in the defining act of the other. Hysteria is valorized, not as the pejorative site of woman as unorganizable, but in the root sense of the word as “womb,” recognition of woman's body. The extensive use of parentheses works to bracket those voices that originate within the female speaker—in the body—but are not admitted to the dominant discourse. Annie's removal of the parentheses that bracket off her interior self from her exterior self is a moment of epiphany: “break the parentheses and let it all surface! falling apart. we are, i am. we have fallen apart. the parts don't fit. not well. never whole. never did” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 150). The “feminine act” is redefined as that of writing oneself as subject, of languaging oneself into desire.

Nina Baym has argued that this sort of “open, non-linear, exploded, fragmented, polysemic idea of our speech is congruent with the idea of the hopelessly irrational, disorganized, ‘weaker sex’ desired by the masculine Other. The theory leads to a language that is intensely private, politically ineffectual, designed to fail” (50).15 Baym, while not writing specifically about Marlatt, seems to argue that this approach is essentialist and that, like Freud's theory, it locks woman into the role of subversive, in which she can disrupt but never transform. However, Marlatt, in an interview with Janice Williamson, describes the languaging act as a transformative one:

If history is a construction and language is also a construction, as we know—in fact, it actually constructs the reality we live and act in—then we can change it. We're not stuck in some authoritative version of the real, and for women that's extremely important, because we always were—the patriarchal version was always the version, and now we know that's not true. We can throw out that powerful little article. When we change language we change the building blocks by which we construct our reality or even our past “reality,” history.

(“Sounding” 52)

The mechanism of marginalization is a deliberate yoking of some innate quality, such as sexuality, with a repugnant quality, such as illness or disease. It then becomes impossible to disavow one without the other. What Lola Lemire Tostevin mistakes as essentialism in Marlatt's work is Marlatt's effort to salvage those marginalized qualities in order to facilitate reappropriation and redefinition (38). In response to Tostevin's criticism, Marlatt says that the necessary recognition of the marginalized space occupied by lesbians “is not to displace ‘phallocentrism’ with ‘vulvalogocentrism’ … but rather to change the focus from a male-positive one to a female-positive one” (“Changing” [“Changing the Focus”] 129). Nor is it a valorization of negative stereotypes such as hysteric, castrated, or deficient but an attempt to overcome the “Frankenstein syndrome,” in which even the languaging of self-experience is “monstered.” It is a process that necessitates a confrontation with the internalized loathing of the self as other. Claims of essentialism are, I believe, rooted in a resistance to those negative images of self, but the alternatives are a retreat to the binaries and an entrapment in the neuter—both of which are male-created paradigms. To find a language that relates female subjectivity is to transform words such as “neuter” and “vagina” so that woman is not scripted as castrated, hysterical object. As Marlatt says, “How do you think differently in a language structured by male domination where one term in any comparison has to come out ‘on top?’” (“Changing” 130).

When Annie steps out of the plotline, she opens the novel to both the possibilities of multiple endings that her reader(s) construct and the alternatives to narrative as mastery and domination. This postmodern ending addresses the omission of the female perspective from the dominant discourse by decentring the male perspective. The transformative potential of the language is borne out by Annie's “coming out” of repression and erasure at Zoe's communal house. Tostevin has called this ending “unexpectedly conventional in its utopian vision,” presumably in its presentation of a world devoid of threatening men (and bears) (38). I would hardly call a lesbian ending conventional. As Annie says of the two lesbians she saw in her childhood, “they had chosen the woods, despite loggers, bears and God. i was struck by the daring of it: it wasn't road one would easily drive down” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 107). Furthermore, to posit a lesbian relationship is to finalize the disruption of Freudian psychosexual theory. Freud links homosexuality with those masculine aims that Annie clearly rejects early in the text, and in his identification of extreme penis envy with homosexuality, he makes both homosexuality and subjectivity abnormal or pathological states for women.16

We should also note the ways in which Annie's relationship with Zoe nurtures Annie when the traditional family structure does not. Zoe reflects Annie back to herself as subject, in the way that Annie imagines for her characters Birdie and Ana: “—you reflected differently in Birdie's eyes. you see yourself, or a part of yourself you hadn't known before” (108). Like Ana, Annie has never before had a sense of herself. As Zoe says to her, “you haven't even begun to think about what it would be if it could be what you want” (90). Annie has never before imagined an i that could want.

Marlatt further disrupts Freud's positing of homosexuality as pathological in her intertextual reference to his article “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva.” Freud analyses Wilhelm Jensen's story of the archaeologist Norbert Hanold, who has no interest in living women but falls in love with a Greek statue of a woman. Hanold then meets a woman named Zoe who is identical to the statue. Zoe in Greek means “living,” but she is always a failed representation of his ideal woman, the statue, just as Frankenstein is the failed vision of his creator. Annie is like the archaeologist, digging about in the past, in the “Minoan-Mycenaean,” for clues to the present. Zoe provides her with a living counterpart to her fictional character Birdie. But unlike the male archaeologist, who defines Gradiva/Zoe through the male gaze by staring at the objectified statue, Zoe mirrors Annie back to herself, so that Annie comes to be subject rather than object, as they are “giving birth, to / each other” (153).17

Annie is able to find the necessary validation of her new, whole self among these women, in what she calls “this world of connection” (151). Community becomes an occasion in which “a collective ‘social construction of reality’ [can] be articulated. Other social witnesses from the oppressed group must express their views, to validate one's own truth, that one may name it. This is the process of coming to consciousness described by Paulo Freire and others, a form of praxis as revolutionary activity that leads to social transformation” (Donovan 101). The four women at Zoe's are working collectively to stamp flyers, engaged in a mutual purpose antithetical to that of the hero's isolated quest. The specifics of that purpose are never given, but it is clear that it forms an alternative to the life of stasis that Ina led and that Annie fears for herself.

Annie authors herself by languaging herself into desire. Confronting Frankenstein and recognizing her fear for what it is, she is able to give herself the authority to exist as subject. “Author” and “authority” have the same root word, the Anglo-French autour, which means “to increase” or “to augment.” Kathleen Jones has used authority in this sense as the “construction of a meaningful world,” a sense at odds with the male view of authority as a “disciplinary, commanding gaze” (126, 120). She argues that “we purchase the distinction between authority, coercion, and persuasion at the expense of recognizing certain dimensions of human action and speech that would make authority more humane, although more ambiguous” (122). As Marlatt shows, patriarchal society does not offer women authority as a communal activity among equals; rather, it marginalizes and “monsters” women by excluding ambiguity and by “framing” them in binaries constructed through history, psychiatry, and language.

It would be reductive to view Ana Historic simply as a critique of Freud as a representative of the patriarchy, or as a critique of psychoanalysis itself. Marlatt, after all, uses Freud's psychoanalytical method in its concepts of the repressed and the unconscious, in dream analysis, and in her free-associational writing to retrieve the repressed and distorted memories of the mother, the female body, and the feminine. Clearly, my reading of her text relies on an appreciation of those Freudian concepts. And Marlatt distinguishes between the violence done to Ina by psychiatry, with its medical basis, and the benefits of the quasi-psychoanalytical interaction between Zoe and Annie. While part of the methodology of psychoanalysis “consists essentially in bringing out the unconscious meaning of the words, the actions and the products of the imagination (dreams, phantasies, delusions),” it must occur in the presence of both a speaker and a listener (Laplanche and Pontalis 367). Zoe's mirroring of Annie back to herself is not unlike the ideal psychoanalytical interaction: Zoe recognizes Annie as subject and validates her experiences. Additionally, Annie's imagined relationship with Ana and Birdie provides an opportunity for Annie to imagine a self that desires, as well as potential outcomes that are not part of the traditional “frames” or narratives assigned to women. She is then able, through the creation of her own narrative and the transformation of language, to disrupt the patriarchal narrative that has objectified her. The irony is that she uses Freud's methodology to recuperate those aspects of female experience that have been excluded from his theory in order to develop her subjectivity.

Ultimately, Marlatt changes the story. When Annie says “but when you're so framed, caught in the act, the (f) stop of act, fact—what recourse? step inside the picture and open it up” (56), she frees herself from the frame of binaries, in which she can only react and, as Marlatt shows, be further marginalized. By languaging her experience, woman becomes active subject and creates her world. In this way, the ending of the text provides more than a view of utopian isolation, a retreat into essentialism, or a victim's complaint; it provides a female epistemology.18


  1. The word languaging is itself appropriated from Fred Wah's Waiting for Saskatchewan (15).

  2. Freud discovered, in conjunction with Joseph Breuer, and simultaneously with Pierre Janet in France, that hysteria, obsessional neuroses, and paranoia resulted from repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. This theory was not well received by the scientific and medical communities. As Judith Lewis Herman has pointed out in Trauma and Recovery, neither Freud nor Viennese society was prepared, given the large number of his patients, for the realization that sexual abuse could be so pervasive among all levels of society. Freud was ostracized by his peers, and he repudiated his theory about the origins of trauma within the year. Herman argues that the cultural milieu of nineteenth-century Europe was a determining factor in the resistance to his theory that Freud encountered as well as his eventual retraction of it: “No matter how cogent his arguments or how valid his observations, Freud's discovery could not gain acceptance in the absence of a political and social context that would support the investigation of hysteria, wherever it might lead” (18). See Freud, On Sexuality, for his oedipal theory and the essay entitled “Infantile Sexuality.” First published in 1905, Freud's correspondence traces the origins of these theories to 1897. See Freud, On Sexuality 19-30 (editors' notes); and Sprengnether 22-38. Freud's culminating essay on female psychology, “The Psychology of Women, Lecture XXXIII,” was published in 1933; see Freud, “Psychology.”

  3. See also Oxford English Dictionary; the Latin vagina means “sheath” or “scabbard.”

  4. Freud wrote that “She is wounded in her self-love by the unfavourable comparison with the boy who is so much better equipped …” (“Psychology” 172).

  5. Madelon Sprengnether has articulated this dual dread of and longing for women in Freud's own repression of the pre-oedipal mother from his theory. The mother is viewed as the combined source of (fantasized) ultimate gratification and terror of death. Because male development is predicated on abandoning the mother due to castration anxiety, the mother's body comes to signal mourning and is thus associated with a fear of annihilation (230). Other writers have suggested that the memory of the infant-mother dyad remains intact into adulthood, and that the man fears the feelings of powerlessness that accompanied his dependence on his mother (Flax 161). See also Rabuzzi 146-47, who suggests that it may be “less fear of women per se than an associated fear of women's time. Entrapment by a woman—a pervasive theme in numerous variations throughout literature—is life in a time frame so at variance with the quest mode that it feels like living death by contrast. … The stare of Medusa is an extreme instance of a male being so ‘stuck’ or trapped by a woman that he cannot move at all.” Freud, of course, reads the Medusa as symbolic of “female genitals devoid of a penis” (On Sexuality 311).

  6. See Freud, On Sexuality 381. He also wrote that the daughter may have a fear of being killed by the mother due to the restrictions imposed by the mother in childhood (see 373). Annie and her sisters do fear “the probability of their mother's poisoning them in the food. … their house was full of accident: peaches from the basement cupboard rife with botulism. contaminated meat. ‘mother’ in the vinegar. in the cupboard as if embalmed. a body, bodies somewhere” (Marlatt, Ana Historic 77). Annie's version of this paranoia, however, is rooted in a fear of being left unprotected in her mother's mental and/or physical absence.

  7. Freud theorized that separation from the mother and subsequent autonomy of the child develop through an awareness of castration. Sprengnether notes that D. W. Winnicott has contradicted this theory by arguing that “The mother's role as an agent in the process of reflection means that her responsiveness to her infant has a profound influence on its subsequent development. The more she resembles a mirror, in fact—passive, distracted, or withdrawn—the less her infant is able to use the image she provides. Such a circumstance, according to Winnicott, fosters the emergence of pathology. In an optimal situation, the infant perceives itself as organized through its mother's attentive gaze, an essential step toward the condition of autonomy and the feeling of being in possession of one's own reality” (185). Many feminist writers have taken issue with Freud on the means by which the girl makes the turn away from her mother to her father. Nancy Chodorow, for example, argues that the daughter never gives up the mother as love object. While the father is the primary erotic object for the daughter, the father-daughter relationship is always secondary to the mother-daughter relationship. This partly symbiotic relationship between mother and daughter may result in low self-esteem in the daughter if the mother is socially devalued, has a passive role within the family, or has low self-esteem herself. If the mother fails to develop an individuated self, she may be unable to assist her daughter in the development of an individuated self, because the mother may experience a blurring of ego boundaries with her daughter. See also Irigaray, “And the One,” who suggests that the mother's role has a greater significance than Freud has given it.

  8. Freud believed that women's tendency to hysteria is rooted in their sexuality: “The fact that women change their leading erotogenic zone in this way [from clitoral to vaginal], together with the wave of repression at puberty, which, as it were, puts aside their childish masculinity, are the chief determinants of the greater proneness of women to neurosis and especially to hysteria” (On Sexuality 144).

  9. Stan Dragland has discussed some of the intertextual references to Frankenstein with a somewhat different emphasis than mine.

  10. J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis have written that “It was of course in the process of bringing the psychical aetiology of hysteria to light that psychoanalysis made its principal discoveries: the unconscious, phantasy, defensive conflict and repression, identification, transference, etc.” (195). Yet as Herman notes, “The dominant psychological theory of the next century was founded in the denial of women's reality” (14).

  11. Breuer wrote of Anna O.: “She aptly described this procedure, speaking seriously, as a ‘talking cure’, while she referred to it jokingly as ‘chimney sweeping’. She knew that after she had given utterance to her hallucinations she would lose all her obstinacy and what she described as her ‘energy’ …” (30). This suggests that she was able to determine the course of her therapy as well as her treatment.

  12. Janice Williamson has noted the similarity between Anna O. and Annie without developing it further (see Marlatt, “Sounding” 52).

  13. Breuer noted in Anna O. that at twenty-one years of age, “[the] element of sexuality was astonishingly undeveloped in her. The patient, whose life became known to me to an extent to which one person's life is seldom known to another, had never been in love; and in all the enormous number of hallucinations which occurred during her illness that element of mental life never emerged.

    This girl, who was bubbling over with intellectual vitality, led an extremely monotonous existence in her puritanically-minded family. She embellished her life in a manner which probably influenced her decisively in the direction of her illness, by indulging in systematic day-dreaming, which she described as her ‘private theatre’. While everyone thought she was attending, she was living through fairy tales in her imagination; but she was always on the spot when she was spoken to, so that no one was aware of it. She pursued this activity almost continuously while she was engaged on her household duties, which she discharged unexceptionably” (21-22).

  14. Anna O. repressed the memories surrounding her father's illness (see Breuer 38-41). Annie suppresses the memory of her mother's electroshock therapy, her subsequent feelings of abandonment, and her lesbian sexuality. See, in particular, Marlatt, Ana Historic 143-44.

  15. See also Flax 178 for a discussion of the limits of “femme speak.”

  16. Manina Jones has commented on the ways in which the homosexual ending also works to further disrupt the text by breaking down the binaries of heterosexual/homosexual and good/bad (171-72). For a contemporary theory of lesbian sexuality, see de Lauretis.

  17. I am indebted to Mary Jacobus's article “Is There a Woman in This Text?” for insight into Freud's analysis of Jensen's Gradiva.

  18. I would like to thank Dr. Michael Zeitlin for reading the draft of this essay and for providing invaluable comments on the psychoanalytical method. I am also indebted to the reviewers of the manuscript whose remarks helped me to shape my thinking about Marlatt's text.

Works Cited

Banting, Pamela. “Translation A to Z: Notes on Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic.Beyond Tish. Ed. Douglas Barbour. Edmonton: NeWest, 1991. 123-29.

Baym, Nina. “The Madwoman and Her Languages: Why I Don't Do Feminist Literary Theory.” Benstock 45-61.

Benstock, Shari, ed. Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

Breuer, Joseph. “Case 1: Fräulein Anna O.” Breuer and Freud 21-47.

Breuer, Joseph, and Sigmund Freud. Studies on Hysteria. London: Hogarth; The Inst. of Psycho-Analysis, 1955. Vol. 2 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Gen. ed. James Strachey. Trans. Strachey et al. 24 vols. 1953-74.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: U of California P, 1978.

Cixous, Hélène. “Castration or Decapitation?” Trans. Annette Kuhn. Signs 7.1 (1981): 41-55.

de Lauretis, Teresa. The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.

Donovan, Josephine. “Toward a Women's Poetics.” Benstock 98-109.

Dragland, Stan. “Out of the Blank: Ana Historic.The Bees of the Invisible: Essays in Contemporary English Canadian Writing. Toronto: Coach House, 1991. 172-90.

Flax, Jane. Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund. “Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva.Art and Literature: Jensen's Gradiva, Leonardo da Vinci and Other Works. Trans. James Strachey. Ed. Albert Dickson. 1985. London: Penguin, 1990. 33-118. Vol. 14 of The Penguin Freud Library. 15 vols. 1991-93.

———. On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works. Trans. James Strachey. Ed. Angela Richards. 1977. London: Penguin, 1991. Vol. 7 of The Penguin Freud Library. 15 vols. 1991-93.

———. “The Psychology of Women, Lecture XXXIII.” New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. W. J. H. Sprott. New York: Norton, 1933. 153-85.

———. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. London: Hogarth; The Inst. of Psycho-Analysis, 1960. Vol. 6 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Gen. ed. James Strachey. Trans. Strachey et al. 24 vols. 1953-74.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic, 1992.

Irigaray, Luce. “And the One Doesn't Stir without the Other.” Trans. Hélène Vivienne Wenzel. Signs 7.1 (1981): 60-67.

———. “Any Theory of the ‘Subject’ Has Always Been Appropriated by the ‘Masculine.’” Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Trivia 6 (1985): 38-51. (Excerpted from Speculum of the Other Woman. New York: Cornell, 1985.)

Jacobus, Mary. “Freud's Mnemonic: Women, Screen Memories, and Feminist Nostalgia.” Women and Memory. Ed. Margaret A. Lourie, Domna C. Stanton, and Martha Vicinus. Spec. issue of Michigan Quarterly Review 26 (1987): 117-39.

———. “Is There a Woman in This Text?” New Literary History 14 (1982): 117-41.

Jones, Kathleen B. “On Authority: Or, Why Women Are Not Entitled to Speak.” Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance. Ed. Irene Diamond and Lee Quinby. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1988. 119-33.

Jones, Manina. That Art of Difference: “Documentary-Collage” and English-Canadian Writing. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993.

Laplanche, J., and J.-B. Pontalis. The Language of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Norton, 1973.

Lowry, Glen. “Risking Perversion and Reclaiming Our Hysterical Mother: Reading the Material Body in Ana Historic and Double Standards.West Coast Line 5 (1991): 83-96.

Marlatt, Daphne. Ana Historic: A Novel. Toronto: Coach House, 1988.

———. “Changing the Focus.” In Versions. Ed. Betsy Warland. Vancouver: Press Gang, 1991. 127-34.

———. “Sounding a Difference: An Interview with Daphne Marlatt.” With Janice Williamson. Line (1989): 47-56.

Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. 10th ed. 1993.

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

The Oxford Latin Dictionary. Ed. P. G. W. Glare. Oxford: Clarendon, 1982.

Rabuzzi, Kathryn Allen. The Sacred and the Feminine: Toward a Theology of Housework. New York: Seabury, 1982.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1831. Dover Thrift Editions. New York: Dover, 1994.

Sprengnether, Madelon. The Spectral Mother: Freud, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Strachey, James. “Editor's Introduction.” Breuer and Freud ix-xxx.

Tostevin, Lola Lemire. “Daphne Marlatt: Writing in the Space That Is Her Mother's Face.” Line 13 (1989): 32-39.

Wah, Fred. Waiting for Saskatchewan. Winnipeg: Turnstone, 1985.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper, 1983.

Lynette Hunter (essay date 1996)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6679

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 Kroetsch, Daphne Marlatt and bpNichol are each concerned with a radical destabilizing of the representative media for ideology that encourages notions of a fixed identity and the private individual. At the same time they are also concerned with the construction of closeness that builds communication or communicative groups made up of interacting individuals with different grounds for action.

Devices of genre foreground the commodities of culture, particularly of national culture, only at the point where they lose their power. Indeed challenging the significance of those commodities may contribute to the loss of power. Differently, devices that throw into relief the media of representation, the process of the production of the commodity, make significance out of structure itself and watch the result. Dislocation and relocation of the production of ideology is contradictory work. It moves toward the closeness of newly held common ground at precisely the same time as it resists and alienates from the ideological grounds holding people together. The contradiction in the work also results more intimately from way it brings people into a community at the same time that it articulates difference.1

Although the closeness focuses on the construction of new common ground while the resistance and alienation focus on the destabilizing of habitual common ground, distinguishing between the two is not easy.2 Even within the construction of new common ground it is not easy to distinguish between a response to present need and an evasion of it: between the construction of a common ground which has a temporary solidity that can make possible necessary social action, and the building of a new alternative space with a coherence that permits escape from social action and the repetition of habitual patterns. Sometimes the two sets of grounds, for action and for withdrawal, are structurally the same but used differently. More often, the devices used to structure the ground or space themselves have certain ideological weight or emphasis that encourages one response rather than the other. For example the genre of utopia has carried different cultural valuations in different historical periods, ranging from intellectual discourse to fantasy to the marvellous.

Another example of the ideological weighting but also affecting the destabilizing of habitual common ground might be the use of neologism which is frequently necessary to articulate concepts or precepts that we want to distinguish from the conventional: the literary critic's shifts between meaning and significance, or subject and topic, are but two instances. However, this careful and painstaking attention to the ideological loading of a word can also become a jargon. Nearly all groups of people have corporately-agreed languages which are both generative and exclusive, generative because habitual language often has to be resisted and changed if it is to be adequate to the articulation of new experience, but becoming exclusive and alienating itself when it is used as a private code either when its articulation is so difficult to understand that it obscures or when it is used purposively to create a private group.3 The privacy of club culture language, when exacerbated into fantasy by national ideology, is one of the problems for this group of writers which is so centred on linguistic detail and frequently criticized for elite isolationism.

Authoritarian political systems exploiting a national ideology have become highly effective with the sophistication of economic control over technology, particularly the control over information technology and communications4 (Gifford 1980), which has allowed for extensive manipulation of the media conveying that ideology.5 As the state nationalisms of Germany in the 1930s or of the USSR in the 1950s or some Latin American countries in the 1960s and 70s can underline, small group megalomania or oligarchy becomes successful when it can turn its desires into populist issues acceded to and implemented by large numbers of people.6

There is an extensive literature on such political rhetoric that lies parallel to the literature on strategies for postcolonial domination.7 Essential to the success of the rhetoric is that the making of power, or the construction of the ideological assumptions, be obscured. The less complete the obscuring, the more violent must be the coercion.8 The more complete the obscuring, the more the strategy can be seen to start with some conventional common grounds and build them into a systematic structure of seemingly unquestionable ideological representation: Or, the more the strategy can be seen to start with a conventional public memory and build an acceptable group history. There is nothing inherent in state nationalism that should ally it with this structure, but the coincidence with economic controls of capitalism and technological controls of information management allow it to exploit the rhetoric.9 Those controlling power are precisely those who must be capable of the ‘doublethink’ process—knowing the ideology is constructed yet simultaneously forgetting.10 What is interesting is precisely that a group acceptance of a particular public memory or national history constructed in this way allows for the acceptance of a set of ‘self-evident’ grounds that can provide justification for group action. Justification of individual action is more difficult.

Postmodern strategies for challenging such systematic and mapped control over public memory derive from the coincident emergence of structuralism, poststructuralism and deconstruction, each of which aims to indicate exactly that ‘making’ or ‘construction’ that state nationalism needs to obscure.11 But the economic structure has not changed. The postmodern world is faced either with the crisis of recognizing the ‘doublethink’ process as a necessary to live within, a problematic that has drawn heavily on the psychoanalytic tradition for psychoses and split ‘identity,’12 or with the politics of ‘small communities’ where the construction of the grounds for agreement and social action can be handled by individuals (oligarchy without the populism) but only at the expense of ignoring global and multi-national power structures13 and always with the imminent possibility of consensual agreement eliding into the corporate basis for new state control.14

These options within postmodernism have quite different implications for groups within first, second and third-world countries. Postcolonial parallels for writers concerned with the issues of (what used to be called) third-world countries,15 have gone a long way toward using the issues emerging from ‘split identity.’ They have provided strategies that continually assess, particularly via personal memory and the public memory of history, the appropriateness of any ground for the present needs of a country or a people.16 But the second set of issues around ‘small community’ politics have proved less amenable to shift. This set forms the basis of one of the increasingly frequent uses of the term ‘solidarity,’ but it does not deal with the problem of ‘ghettoization’ which denies the simultaneity of different voices.17 It may be that these political issues are more difficult to shift despite their drawbacks for addressing nation state problems at a time when state control is passing inexorably to multinationals, because state control is still largely in place as the dominant ideology of most first-world countries, like English Canada. Yet unlike the U.S., Canada has always lived with the presence of a more-powerful state: Britain or the United States itself.

Canadian postmodernism, as Canadian postcolonialism, has since the late 1950s been in the position of recognizing that its nation state is always subject to a greater economic power.18 The English-Canadian literature being discussed here is alienated from itself not in terms of national identity as with the locus of much third-world literature and classic post-colonial theory, but in terms of economic identity which affects not national ideology so much as its modes of representing itself in for example publishing. There can be little impetus to write ‘the great Canadian Novel,’ which would give the ‘novel’ a distinctive Canadian difference, when the genre of the novel itself and the inexorable web of commodification, publication, and distribution in which it is caught, is perceived as the problem. This recognition of the problem as allied with economic identity is an indication of the extent to which Canada sees its national culture in a global rather than national power structure.

Some postcolonial literatures have used postmodern strategies to question and assess self and history, often through the working of memory. Many are now beginning to act upon the appropriate grounds of these assessments, sometimes using them consciously to build different national identities—an essential strategy for negotiating with much of global politics which still functions, at least culturally and diplomatically, through national identities. Postmodern literature, from countries such as the United States, which has little effective history of postcolonialism although much of immigrant exploitation and imperialism, has done much to dismantle historical memory and tear down ideological structures; yet the utopian impulse of the disempowered, even the self-disempowered, still lurks behind the conspiracy theories of the self-alienated powerful:19 there is no one taking responsibility for any building that will need continual restructuring.

In contrast, this restructuring appears to be the condition of postmodernism in English-speaking Canada, to build continually structures for future and on-going undermining. This can also be seen as a condition of English-Canadian postcolonialism: it functions within the same ideology as the economically colonizing power(s), yet it has no control over that ideology except to foreground its assumptions. There is an apocryphal story about Robert Kroetsch being asked to attend a conference on the ‘western’ at which most of the participants are from the United States. He goes and gives a talk about cowboy heroes who question themselves in the quest for the impossible, about great good and immense evil and how difficult it is to recognize the two, about moral dilemma and the way men need guns or horses or women—and everyone else at the conference thinks he's being straight. …


The work of Daphne Marlatt takes the risk of difference all the time, as well as the risk of closeness. Marlatt's poetry, like Nichol's and Kroetsch's, often alienates readers because it undermines the assumptions of representation. However, the strategies the writing offers in return are there to re-build both memory and history. One of Marlatt's widely read early works, Steveston (1974), with photographs by Robert Minden, is a structure that allows the reader to build a number of different histories: most urgently of Japanese immigrants to the West Coast of Canada and their treatment during and after World War II, as well as of the life-cycle of the salmon, of environmental issues, of local fishing and fishery practices, of the geography, and more residually of the Aboriginal peoples, and of women. Each topic, and there are many others, becomes a ground for each other, and which history the reader reads depends much upon their personal memory. The histories that are made are an account/ their own story of the reader's memory. The writer tells us in the final naming poem “Steveston, B.C.,” that the writing is “the story of a town, these are the people, whose history locates inside of dream” (89). The body of the text is a dreamtime articulated, from which, or rather within which, the reader's own dreamtime can find articulations that negotiate personal and public memory.

Steveston explicitly asks the reader to “imagine” a town, and implicitly asks for a reconstruction of a particular political history; but increasingly, Marlatt's writing asks the reader to exercise personal memory explicitly for political history: whether it be of a colonial past and immigrant present, of a family, or of women. Unlike Nichol whose politics are of humanist community, taking/making the best of common grounds arrived at by associative release responding to immediate need: moments of grace in which significance is recognized, but like Atwood, Marlatt has no moments of recognized “grace.” It seems there is nothing given, only assumptions and salvage from “the wreckage of language so freighted with phallocentric values it must be subverted and re-shaped.”20 In one sense Nichol can count on retrieving some alienation by the wide recognition among readers of his humanist values. Marlatt risks doubly alienating the reader who is not only asked to question articulation and re-presentation for ideology, but is asked to build another structure.

In Marlatt's lesbian and feminist writing, the reader has to work out a basis for what is “appropriate” to necessity that is different to the pervasive humanist cast of Western society. In contrast to Nichol who does not want toleration, assimilation and effacement, but many different voices, Marlatt is working tenaciously for the possibility of one of those voices. Different voices cannot be given space, they have to make space find place, along with the current owners, which means they have, however crudely, first to name themselves, articulate self through memory and make public space by negotiating and fighting for a history. As Atwood recognizes, contemporary feminisms can trap people in their own ideologies precisely because the rhetorical structure of the dominant ideology of the nation-state which they can mimic is so quickly and effectively consoling—a dangerous gift for those already excluded from so much. But ideology is also like fact; there is usually an historical event to which it was appropriate, to the needs of which it responded: Recovering those needs and assessing their present appropriateness is a large part of making a place for the self in social and political life. This difficult relocation after radical dislocation of the common grounds for action is something at which Marlatt is particularly skilled.

Among the more difficult assumptions to dislocate let alone relocate is, as Kroetsch shows us, sexuality. Women's sexuality/ies, caught so often in fairly arid versions of heterosexual repetition that deny it articulation, has rarely been written about—at least not to the extent of writing concerned with men's understanding of what that sexuality may be. One of the effects of feminism in the West has been to encourage women of all classes and colour to try to articulate their sexuality. In Touch to My Tongue Marlatt carefully brings together a concern with the way poetry works on the edge between “the already spoken and the unspeakable” (48), between consciousness and dream, and the parallel position of women carried by a language that is structured syntactically and generically to outline a way of life that is not theirs yet which they “inhabit” or which inhabits them.

Touch to My Tongue overtly works with lexis and syntax in its writing of a woman's sexuality. Marlatt suggests that woman's body is “postlexical” in that “certain words” take us back to “originally-related meaning,” a “living body of verbal relations” that the writer must put together and in doing so put together a world. Analogous to Nichol's graphic and alphabetic association that releases words into punning free-fall until some appropriately significant sense is reached, the writer here uses etymology to release a history of words until a version appropriate to her woman's life is found. This is not based on anything so naive as a claim to “original meaning” and authority, but is a strategy for exploring how words carry us on and how far we go along with that or resist or change it. In the end we have to rebuild a world; we do not find it as a given. Since we cannot rebuild without a lexical base, then at least we may choose grounds that carry significance for women. Nevertheless, the resilience of the writing's lexical field is primarily located elsewhere, not in the etymological but in contemporary connotative fields in unusual juxtapositions such as “wild flesh opens wet” (23) with “nest, amative and nurturing,” or in phonemic coherence playing against syllabic disruption for example “still the edge of summer gone in the grounding rain” (22).

It is in the syntax that the joy of this work comes through most immediately, particularly when it combines with sound. Nearly every phrase arrests conventional grammatical reading: A sample: “we went to what houses stars at the sea's edge,” “a kiwi at four a.m. among the sheets green slice of cold going down easy on the tongue,” or “it's all there, love, we part each other coming to, geyser, sparking pool, hidden in and under separate skin we make for each other through” (30). This is not to say that the phrases resist sense, but that the reader can make a number of senses out of them.

The readings translate into aspects of (women's) sexuality precisely at the point where the reader is released into a number of possibilities. Marlatt's writing does dislocate conventional grammar and semantics, but it does not leave the reader in a world of arbitrary pluralisms. The writing is self-consciously building a narrative about sexuality. It enacts etymological chains to infuse contemporary vocabulary with different connotations by stressing obscured sounds or clusters of letters: “bleak colour of your iris gone blue, that blue of a clear sky, belo, bright, Beltane, ‘bright- / fire’” which moves into “bleikr, / shining white, radiant healing in bright colours, blanda, to mingle and blend: / the blaze of light we are, spiralling” (31), and brings “blue” and “blend” together with “bright” radiance at the same time as “spiral,” that intimate mingling of separate strands, in a lexical cluster that referentially connects with meeting a lover.

The writing places in a sequence series of clauses and phrases that have no apparent grammatical or logical relation, yet they are carefully punctuated, entitled, blocks of words, chosen to follow one another. The copy-editor's curse of ‘eye-skip’ occurs frequently as the reader's eye seeks to order the sense and finds itself re-reading the same line or jumping ahead to find the track. Often this search is marked out by the interchange of voices between “i” and “you,” the two lovers whose presence calls out a cultural expectation of narrative. Yet in a section such as “down the season's avenue” these voices are enfolded. Ostensibly telling about a plane landing and bringing two people together, the grammar undermines any logical definition for the one in the plane or the other on land: “we” approach the pivot of night and day; “you” climb what tree over the sea to gaze east”; “i” see “light lean along a curved plain”: from a plane? gazing at the horizon for a plane?; then “i” “try the trees for company”; and when the plane comes in “you will be standing there”: on the ground? at the door of the plane?; to the by now profoundly complicated logic of “i'm coming home”: which folds the “i” and the “you” into each other.


While I as a woman read Touch to My Tongue as a work of enabling example for female sexuality, it is interesting that many men who read it read it as enabling of their own sexuality. The writing does not address the narrow version of sexuality on offer from conventional gender relations, nor does it then move to melancholic contemplation or romantic designs of alternative essences/identities. What it does is deal with what it's got along the edge of the spoken/unspoken. It's working at the shoreline of the body and language, or becoming aware of the body, where memory works. This image is openly politicized in Marlatt's novel Ana Historic (1988), where she takes a substantial area of French and Québecoise feminist theory about “writing the body” as a social and political necessity for women if they are to move away from oppositional action and from the tearing splits of doublethink identity which inform much postmodern paranoia.

What Ana Historic tells is a story about the way that personal memory makes public memory, the way the building of self can shape and/or build history. Unlike any of the other writers discussed here, who find history variously as huge, external, dominating, split, overwhelming or embarrassing, Marlatt takes on history as a task, something to change the way we might change house or even our sexuality, or even because we might change these other things. And what is particularly interesting is the way that newly written versions of the past must always appear fictional, and always demand the imaginative reconstruction of memory.

The book offers a structured counterpoint between history and personal memory as Annie Richards/Torrent attempts to write an account of Ana Richards, a woman who came to Canada in the nineteenth century, and who appears in a few newspaper references and short journal. As Annie writes, her account is interrupted by memories of her mother Ina, by more recent memories of her broken marriage to “Richard” and by an on-going conversation with a friend called Zoe. The account of Ana Richards's life provides a topical ground for the issues that crowd into the present, and the resolutions of memory around Annie's mother and ex-husband relocate into the account and define a way of finding self that enables Annie to move into a relationship with Zoe.

The public memory of history is an account of the past to which a group of people have assented. In a world where the written word has increasingly become the store place for such accounts, writing becomes the key to new versions of the past. However, the written word as history is there to resist change and often for good reason: if we eradicated the history of slavery we would, among many other things, lose an example of the process of repression and resistance from which we can learn bases for action needed in our contemporary lives. We may, however, want to change the stance of the account. If a history is written that obscures or omits events in the past, such as the complete loss of domestic history, then again we have to change the stance of existing history. Written history can be changed by group writing, from collaborative community ventures, to the institutional accounts of science, to government programs such as the Canada Council which aims to write Canada into a broader cultural history. But the way in which we encourage individual writers, the whole profession of authorship, and the structure of the printing and publishing business means that writing by individuals is often the most effective way of changing historical accounts. Thus the interaction between individual personal memory and public memory becomes necessary.

Ana Historic opens with a series of interrupted accounts from personal memories of the narrator's childhood and relationship with her mother, to excerpts from reports on logging in the nineteenth century and newspaper articles from early British Columbian history, to fictional attempts to reconstruct Mrs Richards' life. History is cast as factual, useful, the story of “dominance mastery,” “the real story the city fathers tell of the only important events in the world” (28). In contrast, as Munro reminds us, story is something mothers tell children until they grow up and learn about lies, stories are the “inauthentic” (30) versions of the past, so often a woman's past. This conglomeration of fiction, history, personal and public memory is then passed through a lens (37-42) in which the narrator/writer gives Mrs Richards her own name, so that she does not have only “the name of a dead man.” The name is literally given in that the narrator Annie gives the character the name Ana, which is the same in sound but becomes different in the written version, for Ana will allow Annie to become a different person.

The transposition of Annie's name, through “Ina” the name of her mother, to “Ana,” builds a set of links into history for the contemporary woman, at the same time as it discovers the past to be empty of that history and recognizes a need to fill it with story. The following segment of writing (43ff) is largely concerned with the relationship between history and story. The reader finds a few sentences presumably from Ana Richards' journal (about which the archivists are suspicious [30]) which contain crossings-out and erasures. The narrator asks “what is she editing out and for whom?” (46). To the question “why write at all?”, she answers “because there is ‘into—’ what? frightening preposition. into the unspoken urge of a body insisting itself in the words” (46). Writing is a “disappearing act” for the self that allows “she, unspoken and real in the world” to run ahead and “embrace it. // she is writing her desire to be, in the present tense, retrieved from silence” (46-47).

Helping this nineteenth-century woman to be written is a way of retrieving her from silence. Yet the narrator overlays this story-making onto her memories of her mother Ina whom she tried, as a child encouraged to seek male approval from her father, to erase (50-51). Through Ana, the narrator “re-members” Ina, puts “things back together again, the things that have been split off, set aside” (51); and in this way also “re-members” herself, retrieves herself from silence. It is important that the narrator, trained by her husband Richard the conventional historian, writes Ana's history by gathering “facts,” and that one of these “facts” is the account of personal memory written by Ana herself. Writing the self is writing history; and writing history is writing the self. For Marlatt personal and public memory are the same, and must be given equal value to avoid the “impasse: impossible to exit. dead end. when the walls close down. the public/private wall” (23) that isolates the individual, here her mother Ina, into privacy; and which also underwrites the delusory stability of contemporary western ideology.

Given that the most immediate way of writing Ana's history would simply reduplicate the structure of dominance that has kept it silent and, in placing it on the same basis as conventional history, would leave it failing by comparison, the segment “Ana's fascination” (75ff) moves on to explore women and language, opening with “the silence of trees / the silence of women // if they could speak / an unconditional language / what would they say” (75). Annie tells of her “patient assistance” to her husband's work and the difference in her own writing which he calls “scribbling.” Rather than his history, she wants to write her own story, but “the truth is our stories are hidden from us by fear” (79), the mother's fear of what she might find if she tried to articulate “all the ways we don't fit into a man's world” (79): Particularly what body she might find if she ceased to “trade” in the economy of male sexuality and the hysteric, split, self-defeating version of her body that it offers. As Zoe says in answer to this part of the story “‘you haven't even begun to think about what it would be if it could be what you want’” (90).

The analysis of what female sexuality lacks is acute, but is still caught inside the fear of what the narrator might find if she moved on: the lurking terrifying figure of something that is not Frankenstein, yet monstrous, inherited from Freud's fantasies.21 Interrupting the story of Ana and re-membering of Ina, Annie tells the personal memories of her adolescent joy in another woman's body against the pressures of ideological gender definitions (90ff). These are mapped onto the “fork between two roads so long ago” that offered two different sexualities, and the conclusion of the segment leads her to the possibility that Ana and another woman, Birdie, could fascinate each other. This is something she “had not imagined—this // as history unwritten” (109). In response, Annie tries to return “to the solid / ground of fact” (111). She recounts probable conversations among the women Ana knew, centring on the birth of a boy child. Inexorably, within the historical context of colonialism, the metaphors of woman as “goods” or commodity, woman as “ship” to carry men's objects of desire, infuse the text. This allows the carefully written placing of her mother within an emerging postcolonial world, and of contemporary women as objects of trade in the male economy of sexuality, all to overlap each other in the central event of the birth. That the baby is male means that from the first he is different from all these women. At birth he is given into surroundings where he is “at home from the beginning” (127). Ana and Ina and Annie as immigrants and as women are not born into their home, nor into the country of their own bodies, but into someone else's. Just so, the postcolonial nation state is born into a global world.

Zoe repositions this birth as something important for Ana not because of the birth of the baby but because of the intimacy and labour of the woman: “out and in. out and in.’ (125): The unwritten history of the gift of that labour of the body. The narrator has come to the “a-historic,” the writing of the yet unwritten woman's body and the difficulty of that. Annie speaks of trying to give birth to her immediate reader who is Ina her mother, and at the same time she knows that Zoe thinks of her as “stuck in the unspoken, unenacted—half born,” stuck in “past history” (132). But past history “never is”—past, that is. The only way to deal with the history we have is to write another, and initially she tries to write it a-historically. What Annie now writes for Ana is the possibility of a sexuality focused on another woman, and as if the character has walked past her, the narrator says “you've moved beyond what i can tell of you” (139). Annie then realizes that this is as if conventional history has “won,” the ideological has succeeded in making it impossible for the writer's personal memory to imagine another way, and she asks if perhaps we can “live in history and imagination” (139): “but once history's onstage, histrionic as usual (all those wars, all those historic judgements), the a-historic hasn't a speaking part. What's imagination next to the weight of the (f)actual?” (139).

This impossibility of imagination about another sexuality is Annie's own impasse, her own private/public wall just like Ina's. It is in the concluding pages of the text, where Annie talks about Ina's electric shock therapy, that she follows the terrible destructiveness acted out on people who cannot with/under/stand the doublethink of identity. To ‘cure’ her mother of the paranoia brought on by the suffocating privacy of the isolated family, and the taken-for-granted unwritten story of that domestic labour that commodifies the person into a replaceable object, she is given electric shock therapy. The treatment “overloaded the circuits so you couldn't bear to remember. re-member,” and “it wasn't just your memory they took. they took your imagination, your will to create things differently” (149). The narrator says that if she denies the anahistoric or the possibility of imagining differently for herself, then history will win. Unlike the a-historic, the anahistoric is risky, fearful and difficult, but the alternative is Ina, or Ana's marriage to Ben Springer, or Annie's own suffocating marriage to Richard.

While the stories of Ana and Ina end here, Annie's life continues and she goes to visit Zoe, whom she trusts and fears for the unknown of lesbian sexuality she may find. In the brief two or three pages at the end of the book, she finds a group of friends and at the same time a terror, not the Frankenstein fear of her youth, but “the trembling that takes you out of yourself” (152) in this other sexuality that is “the reach of your desire, reading us into the page ahead” (153). This different sexuality is not something that comes from the words, although the writing enables Annie to realize that it may be there as Ana “walks past” her. It is not a matter of releasing language into free fall and waiting for a moment of recognition or of grace. The different path is one made possible through interaction with other people which is not wholly or even primarily linguistic. The urgency of words comes from the need to articulate this other possible sexuality, partly for the pleasure that that gives in itself but mainly because articulating that sexuality, writing it, is the primary means for resisting both its obliteration and its abuse. More positively, not only is the articulation necessary to help other people who are trying to imagine/move toward another sexuality, but also simply by writing in contradiction to ideological stability the writing enacts the possibility of any alternative—sexual, national, racial, economic.

History can only be written out of what people can imagine. But imagination has to be hammered out of interaction with other people and the way that language can re-member that interaction. If your interaction with people cannot be or is not, articulated, then you are not re-membered by history, you have literally nobody/no body literally, you can be objectified and commodified. Writing the body is for Marlatt not a writing out of ‘lack’ or ‘loss’ that leads to aggressive or repressive strategies as Lacan, stuck with concepts of stable representations and fixed ideology, would have it. Writing the body is the individual re-membering a self into history and simultaneously writing a history. The absence of gendered labour, of domestic labour, of sexual labour from “history,” allows that labour to be commodified. Re-membering becomes parallel with re-producing that labour as necessary action.

But this action of imagination, that changes self and history, needs a different kind of relationship between body, memory and writing, than “historical account” conventionally gives, because it asks the writer and the reader to walk on past where they now are, breathe into the page ahead. The feminine plural Ana-historic, is the way this particular book sets up that relationship. Parallel stories of women at different times are focused through the lens of what the writer can imagine now. Marlatt's ability to enable the reader to read on past the page is attested to in the “Salvage” section of Salvage (1991) which reworks/reclaims/re-members parts of Steveston (1973) through a feminist reading. Steveston is a work that two decades of readers have read back into the women's lives which it seems so clearly to indicate but not emphatically speak of. Reading “Salvage” is like recognizing a reading that the writer has only just written, a reading that comes before the writing although out of another writing that made it possible.

There is nothing esoteric in this. Marlatt is simply suggesting that fundamental change, no matter how necessary, is terrifying to the individual until it is realized in daily life, in language of day-to-day interaction that can be agreed upon and taken as common ground for discussion and action. No matter how much help the written, or any other medium, can give to an individual or a group, change away from ideology is fearsomely difficult because it seems to challenge the notion of any re-membered self or society. It seems to challenge it particularly because in the state ideologies of western nations, stable or even fixed identities for individual subjects and state nationalisms are an a priori, an assumption.—even though well hidden in hyperliberal bourgeois isolation.

That is, to state the obvious, where modernism and postmodernism derive their impetus: to challenge the commodification of the person. For postcolonial countries ever aware of the dead-end of opposition to powerful economic units, and often torn apart by the pressures of accepting and rejecting the dominant ideologies of the colonizer past or present, the possibility of walking on past that colonizing occurs when the representative stability of ideology becomes less important than people coming together in the labour of a group.

The Canadian writers here all explore memory and history, in an attempt to connect individuals with their societies and structure those societies into a geographically defined ‘national’ culture. These writers are committed to the importance of writing as a medium within which these connections and negotiations take place. They offer a variety of genre and language strategies not only to criticize, oppose, and challenge the stable set of representations on which ideology of the nation state depends, but to resist, change, restructure, and build new ground for the articulation of different voices that redefine the modes of personal and public/political action.


  1. Feminist theorists working from a background of race and gender, in particular, have contributed a substantial vocabulary for this difference-closeness discussion; see bell hooks, “Sisterhood,” Feminist Review 24 (1986) and Bettina Aptheker, Tapestries of Life: women's work, women's consciousness, and the meanings of daily experience (1989).

  2. This difficulty of structural distinction is also found in the overlap between studies of fantasy and allegory; see L. Hunter, Modern Fantasy and Allegory.

  3. R. Rorty takes this as a positive feature, describing the world as a group of clubs around a bazaar; see Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, p. 209, and Essays on Heidegger and Others; and J. Kellas takes it for granted that club culture is a positive metaphor for nationalism, The Politics of Nationalism and Ethnicity (1991).

  4. A Giddens, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism (1981), p. 5.

  5. For an analysis of the argumentative structure technology can permit to discourse, see L. Hunter, “Remember Frankenstein: Rhetoric and artificial intelligence.”

  6. See in particular P. Rowe and V. Schelling, Memory and Modernity.

  7. This literature derives from a focus on the rhetoric of the Nazi party during the 1930s and 40s, and fed into studies on advertising and general propaganda in the early developments of Communications Studies: the two being linked by the use of mass media technology to extend the narrative persuasions of nationalism into the authoritarian persuasions of totalitarianism.

  8. This principle is the basis for the classical argument that education in rhetoric is necessary to avoid violence. See L. Hunter, Rhetorical Stance in Modern Literature.

  9. Both B. Anderson and E. Gellner describe this move, albeit from different angles, in, respectively Imagined Communities and Nations and Nationalism.

  10. The forgetting, or amnesia, necessary to successful nationalism is discussed by nearly all the recent commentators on the topic from Gellner (1982, 1983) and Anderson (1983), to T. Eagleton (1990a), to Kellas (1991). George Orwell theorized the strategy quite precisely in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948).

  11. George Bowering's Burning Water (1980) is an excellent example of the concurrence of poststructural writing with postcolonial concerns. In many ways The Empire Writes Back, ed. B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths, and H. Tiffin (London: Routledge, 1989), could be said to focus precisely on this dilemma.

  12. Homi Bhaba, among others, has elaborated Fanon's theoretical concerns with identity and psychoanalysis and colonialism, in for example Nation and Narration.

  13. G. Gadamer, Reason in the Age of Science (1981), lays out this position, and it has been the basis for a substantial debate in the 1980s among political theorists. R. Rorty denies that it is a problem; and Frank Davey, along with others such as J. Habermas, has come to articulate its drawbacks: see Post-national Arguments (1994), part of which was given as a paper, “The Canadas of Anglophone-Canadian Fiction 1967-1990,” at the University of Leeds conference, Difference and Community, April 1992.

  14. See also Past the Last Post, ed. I. Adam and H. Tiffin (Calgary: U of Calgary P).

  15. See A. Aijaz, In Theory (1992) for a revisioning of ‘third-world’ as a category. For an interesting positioning of ‘third-world’ within feminism, see ed. C. T. Mohanty, A. Russo, and L. Torres, Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (1991).

  16. See, for example, G. Spivak, In Other Worlds (1987), and The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews (1990).

  17. N. Ricci discusses this problem in “Questioning Ethnicity,” Alphabet City: Nations and Nationalism 2 (Toronto 1992); see also Z. Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence (Polity, 1990).

  18. L. Cohen, Beautiful Losers (1966) is the classic Canadian text on this dilemma.

  19. See. F. Jameson's shift from utopia in The Political Unconscious (1981) to conspiracy in Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991); see also T. Eagleton on good and bad utopias in “Nationalism, Irony and Commitment” (1990)

  20. D. Marlatt, Salvage (1992), p. 9.

  21. This has been a preoccupation of feminist theorists for much of the 1960s-80s, but some writers now seem to be finding alternatives. See earlier chapter on “sexual alternatives.”

Marlene Goldman (essay date 1997)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16652

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 of becoming?

(Mitchell, 294)

As the analyses of the novels in the previous chapters suggest, various strategies have been adopted in an effort to challenge established representations of female identity generated within a variety of patriarchal cultural discourses. Intertidal Life [by Audrey Thomas] subverts the traditional literary representation of Woman by suspending or arresting the mechanism of the romance mode. Alternatively, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World [by Susan Swan] employs tactics of parodic appropriation, rather than suspension, to effect a rigorous deconstruction that destabilizes a set of nineteenth-century official discourses, including those of modern science, industrial capitalism, and American nationalism, which shaped notions of the Woman and the freak. Swan's novel also explores a technique that Luce Irigaray refers to as ‘mimicry’: performing the feminine with a vengeance in order to effect a displacement between the performer and the performance and emphasize that femininity is a role that because it can so flagrantly be put on, can also be discarded. Finally, Swan's novel raises the possibility that one can avoid positioning oneself as Woman, according to the dictates of official discourses, by tapping into specific unofficial discourses. This possibility is realized by the novel, but never fully attained within the novel, which portrays how the official discourses gaining ground at the end of the nineteenth century silenced the unofficial discourses. These are represented in the novel by the Celtic folk traditions, whose themes and images correspond to Mikhail Bakhtin's description of ‘grotesque realism.’

Daphne Marlatt's novel Ana Historic explores yet another strategy for revising traditional representations of female identity—a strategy which I describe as mapping a ‘female genealogy.’ To appreciate the radical nature of Marlatt's project, it is necessary to expand the term ‘mapping,’ used to analyse the recurring figure that surfaces in the texts discussed thus far. Mapping is typically associated with the plotting of spatial co-ordinates; however, for individuals who have been virtually effaced from history, mapping the temporal dimension—recovering or, barring that, tracing a history—remains a crucial step in the construction of the self as subject of language. Marlatt's texts have consistently expressed an interest in the subject of mapping. As Lola Lemire Tostevin states: ‘Mapping her way through a travel journal is a favourite form’ (35). Similarly, Laurie Ricou argues that, with perhaps two exceptions, ‘all Marlatt's writing is variations of the travel journal form.’ She is continually ‘wording herself in response to unfamiliar and once familiar places, moving though landscapes as through language’ (‘Phyllis,’ 208-9).1 While Ricou concentrates on spatial mapping, other critics have noted that Marlatt's attention has been divided between the mapping of spatial and ancestral trajectories.2 In many ways, mapping this type of trajectory corresponds to what Fredric Jameson calls an ‘aesthetic of cognitive mapping.’

In his analysis of postmodern culture, Jameson draws on Kevin Lynch's book The Image of the City to develop an aesthetic of cognitive mapping. As noted in the first chapter, he isolates Lynch's opposition between two concepts, ‘alienation’ and ‘disalienation.’ The former is characterized by people's inability ‘to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves’ (Jameson, ‘Postmodernism,’ 89). Disalienation, by contrast, involves the ‘practical reconquest of a sense of place, and the construction or reconstruction of an articulated ensemble which can be retained in memory and which the individual subject can map and remap along the moments of mobile, alternative trajectories’ (89). Jameson locates an interesting convergence between the mechanics of cognitive mapping, as described by Lynch, and the model of ideology, as conceived by Althusser. According to Althusser, ‘ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence’ (162). For Jameson, both the cognitive map and ideology ‘enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality, which is the ensemble of the city's structure as a whole’ (90). Jameson transcodes the history of mapping and cartography into the problematic of the Althusserian definition of ideology to allow for the rethinking of cartographical issues in terms of ‘social space’ (91).

While I remain sceptical of Jameson's utopian vision of a united, Marxist challenge to the status quo, in which ‘we [which we?] may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion’ (92), I believe that an aesthetic of cognitive mapping can serve as an important tool for a feminist methodology. Adopting the techniques of Levi-Strauss's bricoleur, I have appropriated the model of cognitive mapping, with its emphasis on alienation and disalienation, to suggest that another ‘we’ (women without history, ‘lost’ women) specifically need to map histories or ancestral trajectories, if you like, in order to compose a life which offers an alternative to the one plotted by the Oedipal narrative, one which refuses both the heroic (masculine) subject and the structure of romance. Whereas in Thomas's Intertidal Life, Alice remains caught between alienation and disalienation, in Ana Historic, the narrator discovers or invents a type of temporal map, ‘an articulated ensemble which can be retained in memory,’ to use Jameson's words, in order to move from a position of alienation to one of disalienation.

My description of Marlatt's genealogical project may lead one to believe that I am suggesting that her work promotes a form of essentialism, but this is not my point at all; her project need not be read this way. As Foucault and Teresa de Lauretis clarify, it is possible to construct genealogies which do not seek to instantiate a fixed Truth or uncover a definitive origin. Nevertheless, some critics persist in labelling Marlatt's writing as essentialist. For one, Dennis Cooley argues that, in her work, the ‘begetting self is presumed to be intact and prior to language’ (71). In his analysis of How Hug a Stone, Frank Davey likewise isolates a preoccupation with origins that are prior to language, and cites Marlatt's phrase ‘the old slow pulse beyond word’ (How, 75, qtd. in ‘Words,’ 44). Finally, Lola Lemire Tostevin states that ‘more and more her work relies on originary/original meaning’ (35). Marlatt has been asked if it is possible to see her work as ‘sliding towards the patriarchal essentialist trap’ (see ‘An Interview,’ 104). She has responded by asserting that her project has been misunderstood (105).

In the case of Ana Historic, there is no reason to link the articulation of a female genealogy with an essentialist perspective. Teresa de Lauretis's essay ‘The Essence of the Triangle or, Taking the Risk of Essentialism Seriously: Feminist Theory in Italy, the U.S., and Britain’ clarifies the difference between a feminist genealogical project, on the one hand, and a search for an ahistoric essence, on the other. To drive a wedge between the two, de Lauretis uses the term ‘nominal essence’ in contrast to the term ‘real essence,’ and draws on Locke's analysis to suggest that ‘nominal essence,’ rather than reflecting an unchanging kernel of identity—a ‘real essence’—refers instead to ‘a totality of qualities, properties, and attributes.’ She argues:

It is a totality of qualities, properties, and attributes that such feminists define, envisage, or enact for themselves … and possibly also wish for other women. This is more a project … than a description of existent reality; it is an admittedly feminist project of ‘re-vision’ where the specifications feminist and re-vision already signal its historical location, even as the (re) vision projects itself outward geographically and temporally (universally) to recover the past and to claim the future [my emphasis]. This may be utopian, idealist, perhaps misguided or wishful thinking … but it is not essentialist as the belief in a God-given or otherwise immutable nature of woman.

(‘Essence,’ 5)

It is in this spirit of a ‘project,’ rather than a description of ‘existent reality,’ that Ana Historic maps its genealogy for lost women or, as de Lauretis says, works to ‘recover the past and claim the future.’

Turning to the novel, we see that the text begins to weave its ancestral trajectory by casting an eye on the past to give voice to the experiences of a real-life historical figure, Mrs Richards, a woman who actually appears in the Vancouver city records as the second schoolteacher at Hastings Mill School in 1873. Whereas historical materials regarding the giantess Anna Swan were meagre, the information available concerning Mrs Richards is virtually non-existent. The latter is only mentioned as having purchased a piano and, in Alan Morely's Vancouver: From Milltown to Metropolis, she is called ‘a young and pretty widow’ (see interview with Marlatt, ‘On Ana,’ 97).

Like Thomas's and Swan's novels, Ana Historic resembles other postmodern texts, in that it, too, portrays history from the perspective of the losers and/or non-combatants, rather than the winners and/or heroes. This is not to say the heroes' stories are not visible. On the contrary, the text does provide historical ‘facts,’ which predominantly concern work done in the public sphere, including the lumber industry, the laying of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the establishment of the town's magazine, the Tickler. Yet these ‘facts’ do not occupy the foreground, as they do in traditional histories. Instead, they are relegated to the background, and the foreground is occupied by the recovery and invention of Mrs Richards's experience.3

Far from designating some sort of unified and definitive trajectory, the novel displaces traditional history, which the narrator describes as the story of ‘dominance. mastery. the bold line of it’ (25). The novel does not inscribe a single ‘line,’ but plays with the ‘fact’ that two different sources offer conflicting accounts of Mrs Richards's life, thereby offering what Jameson describes as ‘mobile and alternative’ trajectories. According to one source, Mrs Richards gave music lessons in her rooms in Gastown; another source reports that she lived in a small cottage behind the school-house (interview, ‘On Ana,’ 97).

Very often, in its construction of a historical trajectory, the text must rely on invention rather than historical ‘fact.’ As a result, the novel raises what is, by now a familiar problem regarding the wavering boundary between fact and fiction. However, as we will see, in Marlatt's text, the subversion of historical ‘fact’ by the products of invention is tied to a feminist project, in which the freedom to revise or ‘invent’ history is inextricably connected to women's ability to ‘recover the past and to claim the future.’ In interviews, Marlatt confirms that she ‘invented’ Mrs Richards: ‘I invented a diary for her, I invented a past for her. … I made her an immigrant from Britain, and I wanted to give her a different destiny from the one that history actually records’ (‘On Ana,’ 97).

The text extends its genealogical network by adding another historical layer, juxtaposing Mrs Richards's life with the experience of the narrator, Annie. While doing archival work for her husband, Richard, a history professor, Annie stumbles across the account of Mrs Richards as well as her journal. Upon discovering these clues to Mrs Richards's existence, Annie decides to stop working for her husband and write a novel based on the historical fragments she has uncovered. Within the text, both of these historical levels are taken into account, and the resultant structure is a complex weave of historical re-creation, Mrs Richards's journal entries, Annie's life. The genealogy is further augmented when, in the course of writing about Mrs Richards (or Ana, as she is dubbed by the narrator), Annie gives voice to her mother's story. Like Mrs Richards, Annie's mother, Ina, was lost to history. She was a proper British lady schooled in colonial values. After emigrating from Malaysia to Vancouver with her husband and two children, Ina suffered from isolation and loneliness, finally succumbing to madness and death.

In interviews Marlatt suggests that Mrs Richards's story and Ina's story are related: ‘They're analogies in some way … They're not identical, so they're off-rhymes. … But parts of the two stories echo each other’ (‘On Ana,’ 101). The echoes do not stop there, however, because the story of Annie and Ina mirrors the relationship between Marlatt and her own mother. Marlatt admits that she wrote the novel as a way of coming to terms with her mother:

[W]e went through such a difficult time together during my adolescence when she had such a bad time with herself, and immigrating to Canada was the last psychic straw for her. We ricocheted away from each other, and she denied me and I denied her, and we never really got back to any kind of rapprochement before she died, so writing about her is my way of doing that, of getting to a place where I can feel some of that affection and empathy and understanding. It's really different bond from the little girl's bond, because my understanding comes from empathizing with her experience as a mother, having had my own experience as a mother. And recognizing in myself the difficulties I had as an immigrant, and seeing how those were magnified for her. I can only realize what we had in common by also expressing where I felt she betrayed me as a mother, because she was in such deep psychological trouble herself that she couldn't go on mothering.

(Interview, ‘Sounding,’ 49)

Within the text, in an attempt to come to terms with Ina, Annie stages imaginary conversations between herself and her mother. When asked if those conversations were invented, Marlatt responded that she didn't know how to answer because ‘sometimes they were in part remembered, and often enlarged’ (‘On Ana,’ 97). The presence of these autobiographical elements within the novel reinforces the reader's awareness of the unstable border between historical fact and fiction. In interviews, Marlatt problematizes the distinction between the two. As she says, ‘remembering is a fiction,’ and so it is strange that we say ‘remembering is real, and inventing is not—inventing is purely imaginary or fictional. What interests me is where those two cross’ (‘On Ana,’ 96). Very often, the imaginary conversations between Ina and Annie self-consciously foreground the supposed difference between ‘story’ as ‘lie’ and ‘history’ as ‘Truth.’ At one point, Annie imagines Ina criticizing her for inventing aspects of Mrs Richards's life, charging her with ‘simply making things up, out of a perverse desire to obscure the truth’ (55). Annie responds by asking, ‘whose truth, Ina? the truth is (your truth, my truth, if you would admit it)’ (56). Annie's reply suggests that truth is not singular. Ultimately, the heated exchanges between Ina and Annie demonstrate how the culturally constructed distinction between invention and history reinforces a hegemonic perspective, which precludes the possibility of marginalized groups representing their ‘truths’—truths which differ from the Truth of History.

Annie's awareness of the repressive impact of this singular notion of Truth fuels her desire to construct a female genealogy that confounds the distinction between invention and history-making. To this end, her novel blends historical elements seamlessly with imagined elements. On another level, Marlatt herself confuses the difference between fact and fiction by encouraging the conflation of the narrator's voice with her own. As she explains: ‘Annie, the narrator, and I, at this point are both working against history because when I say I, I'm also saying I as narrator, who is Annie’ (interview, ‘On Ana,’ 98). As a result of the novel's reliance on both invention and autobiography, it has been called ‘an autobiographical novel of the imagination’ (‘On Ana,’ 96). What remains to be seen is how this ‘autobiographical novel of the imagination’ constructs a female genealogy.

In a recent book published by the Milan Women's Bookstore Collective, the authors provide an account of a specific theory and practice of feminism which took place between 1966 and 1986, mainly in Milan. The book is entitled Non credere di avere dei diritti: la generazione della libertà femminile nell'idea e nelle vicende di un gruppo di donne (Teresa de Lauretis translates this as ‘Don't Think You Have Any Rights: The Engendering of Female Freedom in the Thought and Vicissitudes of a Women's Group’ [‘Essence,’ 14]).4 These women suggest that the work done in the context of their group can be best understood as the creation of a ‘female genealogy.’ Arguing that freedom for women is not obtained through any adherence to the liberal concept of rights, they assert that such freedom is ‘generated, and indeed engendered, by taking up a position in a symbolic community, a ‘genealogy of women,’ that is at once discovered, invented, and constructed through feminist practices of reference and address’ (de Lauretis, ‘Essence,’ 14-15). The feminist practices specified include ‘reading or rereading of women's writings; taking other women's words, thoughts, knowledges, and insights as frame of reference for one's analyses, understanding, and self-definition; and trusting them to provide a symbolic mediation between oneself and others, one's subjectivity and the world’ (15). Their theory hinges on ‘entrustment’—a concept that designates a particular relationship between two women, in which one woman gives her trust or ‘entrusts herself symbolically to another woman, who thus becomes her guide, mentor, or point of reference’ (22). As de Lauretis describes it:

[E]ach woman of each pair validates and valorizes the other within a frame of reference no longer patriarchal or male-designed, but made up of perceptions, knowledges, attitudes, values, and modes of relating historically expressed by women for women—the frame of reference … [that] the book calls a female genealogy or a female symbolic.

(‘Essence,’ 23)

Marlatt's novel, with its multi-generational female framework or, as Annie puts it, ‘the cultural labyrinth of our inheritance, mother to daughter to mother’ (24), also maps a female genealogy which, to use the words about the Milan group, is at once discovered, invented, and constructed through feminist practices of reference and address.5

In using the term ‘genealogy,’ in addition to referring to the work of the Milan group, I am also gesturing toward the analysis of genealogy which Foucault offers in his essay ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.’ According to Foucault, the genealogist reverses the practice of historians, specifically, ‘their pretension to examine things furthest from themselves’ (‘Nietzsche,’ 156). Citing Nietzsche, Foucault emphasizes his distrust of supposedly ‘objective’ historians: ‘those tired and indifferent beings who dress up in the part of wisdom and adopt an objective point of view’ (158-9).6 Following Foucault's injunction to write about what ‘is closest’ (156), the text draws on autobiographical materials relating to the author's life, her relationship with her mother, and the ‘ahistoric’ Mrs Richards, a woman who lived where Marlatt grew up.7

Foucault further stipulates that the genealogist must find the materials for a historical analysis in ‘the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history’ (‘Nietzsche,’ 139). He specifically links the task of genealogy to the exploration of what he refers to as disqualified or ‘subjugated knowledges.’ By this, he refers to the following:

[N]aive knowledges, located low down on the hierarchy, beneath the required level of cognition or scientificity. … (such as that of the psychiatric patient, of the ill person, of the nurse, of the doctor—parallel and marginal as they are to the knowledge of medicine—that of the delinquent etc.), and which involve what I would call a popular knowledge … though it is far from being a general commonsense knowledge, but is on the contrary a particular, local, regional knowledge, a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity and which owes its force only to the harshness with which it is opposed by everything surrounding it. …

(‘Two Lectures,’ 82)

The knowledges the narrator conveys certainly fall under Foucault's classification as ‘subjugated knowledges’; in tracing her life and the lives of her foremothers, Annie gives voice to the experiences of women not considered worthy enough to be inscribed in the ‘book’ of History (147).

Very often her materials concern ‘what we tend to feel is without history.’ For example, as an adult, she describes the ontological shift she experienced with the budding of her adolescent sexuality. Prior to this shift, her relationship to her body emphasized autonomy: ‘our bodies were ours as far as we knew and we knew what we liked’ (19). In adolescence, this relationship alters dramatically: ‘now she was walking her body as if it were different from her, her body with its new look. (o the luck, to be looked at. o the lack, if you weren't. o the look. looking as if it all depended on it)’ (50). Annie's analysis of this ‘ahistoric’ event highlights the way in which her self-definition was decentred by a system that privileges the male and the male gaze: ‘wanting to be the one looked at, approved by male eyes’ (50). In part, the shift in Annie's self-definition rests on a transference of approval, whereby self-worth comes to be associated with an approving male gaze, rather than with one's estimation of oneself. As in the previous novels studied here, Annie recognizes that she is positioned as an object, a spectacle for the male gaze. She remarks that she acquired a body ‘marked woman's. as if it were a brand name,’ converting all action ‘into the passive: to be seen’ (52). Annie's account of this ‘event’ corresponds to Elizabeth Grosz's description of the way in which power functions directly on bodies by means of disciplinary practices, social supervision, and self-regulation (‘Inscriptions,’ 64). According to Grosz, ‘the subject is named by being tagged or branded on its surface.’ The messages coded onto the body ‘bear the marks of a particular social law and organisation’ (65). Thus, Annie's sense of acquiring a body ‘marked woman's’ can be located within the context of the operations of a power-knowledge dynamic.

Raising the issue of power, as it does, Annie's inquiry into her attitudinal shift foregrounds another aspect of the genealogical project. As Foucault asserts, the task of the genealogist is to ‘reestablish the various systems of subjection: not the anticipatory power of meaning, but the hazardous play of dominations’ (‘Nietzsche,’ 148). The ontological shift Annie recalls offers a record of a system of subjection. Annie recalls that this shift was experienced as a form of diminishment: ‘from scavengers and traders we shrank into daughters’ (80).8 Alternatively, she describes this change as a forced movement from one economy to another, where the ‘new economy we traded in was one based on the value of our bodies’ (82). Her sense of moving from one economy to another recalls the distinction drawn in the previous chapter between the gift economy—the realm of excess—and the market economy. Within the latter, although women are supposedly at the mercy of their biology, their ‘sex function,’ paradoxically they are believed to have no desires of their own: they desire only to be desired (Ehrenreich and English, 121). Likewise, Annie's shift in self-definition is connected to the effacement of her desire. As an adult, she acknowledges this predicament, namely, the death of women's desire in the market economy: ‘the small space desire gets backed into. boxed. off’ (59). Ultimately, Marlatt's text, with its multi-generational framework, facilitates a historical analysis of the sexual conditioning and representation of women within Western culture's dominant discourses. During her examination of events ‘without history,’ the narrator traces the way in which women are alienated from their bodies, deprived of desire, and taught to feel ashamed of themselves.

Paradoxically, this sense of shame is an inheritance Annie claims to have received from her mother. In one of her many imaginary conversations with Ina, who has just died,9 Annie complains, ‘you taught me the uneasy hole in myself and how to cover it up. … pride on the outside, and on the inside—shame’ (60-1). Yet, as Marlatt suggests in interviews, only by expressing where she felt betrayed by her mother can she realize what they had in common (see interview, ‘Sounding,’ 49). In the end, Annie's recollection of her own sexual conditioning and her mother's betrayal enables her to see that, if she suffered from shame, the effacement of self-definition and desire, then her mother can be said to have died from trying to fulfil the requirements of a social code that positioned her as Woman.

It is at this point that the discourses of colonialism and patriarchy intersect. Musing over her mother's life, Annie concludes that her mother reached an impasse because she mistakenly transposed her English background with its phallocentric, imperialist ideology ‘onto a Salish mountainside. and never questioned its terms. “lady.” never questioned its values’ (23-4). As a result of her unquestioned allegiance to the discourse of imperialism, Ina's energies were drained in a desperate attempt to conform to ‘a rule, standard, or pattern,’ which did not reflect her experience—her truth (18).10 Recalling her mother's obsession with how-to-fix-yourself books, Annie plays with the word ‘fix’ to arrive at the word ‘castrated,’ and she concludes that this is what Ina was ‘trying to live up to. the neuter’ (35). Operating inside the representational system, without any critical perspective, Ina was caught ‘between despair at being nothing (“just” a mother, “just” a wife […]) and the endless effort to live a lie (the loveable girl in her Lovable Bra, the Chanel femme fatale …) how measure up?’ (57). Her sense of being ‘nothing’ reinforces Annie's opinion regarding Ina's castrated position—a position generated by the representational system which defines women as the zero:

While the sexes are represented according to a binary structure that reduces n-sexes to two, the binary structure itself reduces one term within the pair to a position definitionally dependent on the other, being defined as its negation, absence or lack. This is a phallocentric representational system in the sense in which women's corporeal specificity is defined and understood only in some relation to men's—as men's opposites, their doubles or their complements. This means that women's autonomously defined carnal and bodily existence is buried beneath both male-developed biological scientific paradigms, and a male-centred system of social inscription that marks female bodies as men's (castrated, inferior, weaker, less capable) counterparts.

(Grosz, ‘Inscriptions,’ 73)

In this description, one can hear echoes of Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English's analysis of the nineteenth century's ‘sexual romanticism,’ which also catered to the demand that women be ‘a negation of man's world’ (109). In certain respects, the portrayal of Ina, a woman who has internalized the masculine paradigms, recalls Thomas's characterization of Alice, who, although far more articulate, also internalized patriarchal culture's construction of Woman as Man's castrated Other.

In Marlatt's novel, Ina's efforts to ‘measure up’ often target her body; similarly, many of Annie's descriptions of childhood memories also reflect a preoccupation with the attitudes and treatments directed at the body. This prolonged focus on the body is, once again, tied to Foucault's notion of genealogy, which, as an analysis of descent or Herkunft, specifically inquires into how the body functions as ‘the inscribed surface of events.’ According to Foucault, genealogy remains ‘situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history's destruction of the body’ (‘Nietzsche,’ 148).

In her effort to ‘measure up,’ Ina strove to inscribe society's version of the desirable body onto her flesh. As Grosz states: ‘The body becomes a ‘text’ and is fictionalised and positioned within those myths that form a culture's social narratives and self-representations’ (‘Inscriptions,’ 66). At one point, Annie recalls how Ina would fashion her appearance each time she dressed to go out for the evening. Seated at her dressing table, fixated on ‘that hollow glance, that dark reflection’ of herself, Ina ‘lost’ herself in the mirror, transforming herself into ‘the brilliant reflection of no one [Annie] … recognized. rosebud mouth, plucked brows, dark eyes intensified: the perfect implacable Garbo face’ (57-8). Ina, like Alice Hoyle, finds herself trapped within a looking-glass world. In her book, Les Guérillères, Monique Wittig describes the psychic limbo experienced by women who, like Ina, are ‘lost’ in the mirror: ‘They advance, there is no front, there is no rear. They move on, there is no future, there is no past. … The silence is absolute. … They are prisoners of the mirror’ (30-1). They are purposeless and disoriented because they are positioned within a symbolic system that positions them as, as well as in, the mirror. Like Ina, they serve merely to reflect the image of men's desire, rather than their own.

Ina's identification with male desire is betrayed by her preoccupation with jewellery. Seated before the mirror, she adorns herself with gems. At one point, she tells Annie that ‘emeralds are your stone, darling, they bring out the colour of your eyes’ (57). This statement carries the implicit message that, by wearing the emeralds, Annie will enhance her capacity to attract the male gaze. Paradoxically, the gift from her mother (the emeralds) will augment, not her autonomy, but her value as an object for men, connoting ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ (Mulvey, 11). Annie explains that it is a custom in the family to pass along these jewels from grandmother to mother to daughter, and that this transfer constitutes the only ‘female line of inheritance.’ Annie does not deal harshly with Ina, however, because she understands that, caught as she was within the phallocentric order, ‘that was all [Ina] … had to give’ (57).

In interviews, Marlatt refers to the ambivalent relationship between Ina and Annie: ‘she wants to be nurturing, she wants her daughter to have everything she didn't have, but at the same time she's raising her daughter to accept the limitations of being a woman in a patriarchal society’ (interview, ‘Sounding,’ 48). Ina's behaviour at the mirror, and her offer of emeralds to her daughter, emphasize that her behaviour is Janus-faced, partly nurturing and partly a form of coercion aimed at inducing Annie to accept her status as object.

By promising the jewels to Annie, Ina, like her mother before her, is, in fact, passing on ‘the family jewels,’ the Name of the Father, which is the traditional symbol and guarantee both of ‘propriety’ and ‘property’ (Felman, 37). Not surprisingly, Annie prefers her mother's costume jewellery, ‘that fake stone your real breath would mist in an instant’ (57). Whereas the emeralds stand for the Name of the Father and society's attempt to secure the male line by guaranteeing a steady stream of women who accept object-status, Annie's preference for fake jewels connotes a disregard for ‘the original’ (the phallus) and its privileged position. The presence of copies or ‘fakes’ introduces the possibility of subverting the system through substitution and replacement, essentially the principle of iteration, which ‘unsettles completely the notion of unique referent, as Derrida has demonstrated’ (Murray, 124). Although she is distressed and alienated by her position within the symbolic system, Ina does not believe in ‘fakes.’ For her, there is only the original, the single story, the one true plot; in her mind, there is no way to change the script. When Ina becomes psychologically unable to live up to the role of the ‘neutered’ wife and mother—when she ‘cracks’ like Alice in Intertidal Life—she is put into the care of psychiatrists.11 As I suggested in the previous chapter, in conjunction with the scene depicting the death of the giantess's second child, science generally works in the service of the State, facilitating the control of women's bodies. Elizabeth Grosz argues that efforts to incarnate society's image of the desirable body and efforts on the part of the psychiatric profession to inscribe socially desirable thoughts are located along a continuum. Within our culture, the inscription of bodies can occur both violently and by less openly aggressive means, namely, ‘through cultural and personal values, norms and commitments,’ the adornment of the body, its rituals of exercise and diet, as well as makeup. The more violent inscription of bodies occurs in ‘prisons, juvenile homes, hospitals, [and] psychiatric institutions’ (‘Inscriptions,’ 65). Grosz argues that psychiatric institutions inscribe bodies by ‘traversing neural pathways by charges of electricity in shock therapy’ (65). Whether the tactics involve covert or overt aggression, the body remains the primary target of the law. There are reasons why this is the case. According to Grosz:

[I]f the body is the strategic target of systems of codification, supervision and constraint, it is also because the body and its energies and capacities exert an uncontrollable, unpredictable threat to a regular, systematic mode of social organisation. As well as being the site of knowledge-power, the body is thus also a site of resistance, for it exerts a recalcitrance, and always entails the possibility of a counterstrategic reinscription, for it is capable of being self-marked, self-represented in alternative ways.


Ina's electric shock ‘therapy’ was supposed to erase the unreasonable thoughts that tormented her (144). Yet, as the official material cited in the text clarifies, these treatments did far more damage than simply erase a few painful memories: ‘In the amnesia caused by all electric shocks, the level of the whole intellect is lowered’ (145). When Annie concludes that her mother ‘died of reason,’ she hears a peal of thunder, which makes her think of ‘missiles going off’ (17). The juxtaposition of Ina's death by reason and the deadly production of missiles forges a link between the two, intimating that the same logic or reason (‘explanation, justification, normal mental state—that old standard’ [17]) that led to her mother's ‘therapy’ also gave rise to North America's nuclear arsenal. The violence lying behind the supposedly rational ‘therapy’ is more fully exposed when Annie draws an analogy between her mother's treatment at the hands of medical experts and the management of timber: ‘taking out the dead wood. pruning back the unproductive. it was all a matter of husbandry, “the careful management of resources.” for everybody's good, of course’ (146-7). Her comments locate Ina's ‘therapy’ within a society that envisions women as ‘resources’ to be controlled.12 According to Annie, the doctors who treated Ina effaced her ability to represent herself in ‘alternative ways’ outside of her role of wife and mother: they took away her imagination, her ‘will to create things differently’ (149).

Through an examination of Ana's life, Ina's life, and her own life, Annie recognizes that she is implicated in this process—the production and maintenance of gendered female bodies. Within the cultural economy of ‘the same,’ which perceives only the Male and the not-Male (the neuter), women are inscribed as ‘resources’ of the male. In the face of this coercion, it seems that it would be almost impossible to express or inscribe a feminine identity which exceeds this binary opposition, an identity that is not merely a specular reflection of lack, but altogether different.

Given this predicament, women have had, to say the least, a problematic relation to history. In writing her novel, Marlatt hoped to address this issue: ‘What I was interested in doing … was to do a woman's version of history, that being a difficult area for women because they don't inhabit history in the same way that men do. Their history is usually the unwritten history, it's the history that tends to get recorded more in oral histories. Women are not seen as world-makers’ (interview, ‘On Ana,’ 98). In tackling the problem of women's invisibility, there is more at stake for Marlatt (and for Annie) than some sort of general project to balance out the attention given to male and female historical figures. Annie decides not to work for her husband, described as an ‘Atwoodian map-maker and surveyor, symbol of the male eye of power’ (Cooley, 76), because she is not, as the text puts it, interested in ‘lot numbers and survey maps’ (79). Although Richard encourages her to help him, Annie refuses to remain complicit with the system and merely modify official history: ‘i’m no longer doing my part looking for missing pieces. at least not missing facts. not when there are missing persons in all this rubble’ (134). As a result of her exposure to official history through her work with Richard, Annie understands that history serves Oedipus. Like romance narratives, history effaces women and transforms them into objects, the background for the heroic exploits of men. As I mentioned in chapter 1, in an imaginary conversation with Ina, Annie tells her mother that she has learned that ‘history is the real story the city fathers tell of the only important events in the world. a tale of their exploits hacked out against a silent backdrop of trees. … so many claims to fame. so many ordinary men turned into heroes. (where are the city mothers?)’ (28)

Paradoxically, although she is deeply suspicious of history, and she rejects ‘history's voice’ (48), Annie recognizes that she must engage in history-making because it is a vital element in the ongoing struggle to construct a female identity. As the epigraph to this chapter indicates, women must construct histories in order to determine who they are becoming. Juliet Mitchell, working within the context of psychoanalysis, insists that one must tell histories to survive: ‘What can you do but disrupt a history and re-create it as another history?’ (288). Histories must be generated in order to arrive at a story—and a life—that works. In Marlatt's novel, Annie's impulse to generate an alternative version of history is clearly tied to the process of individuation and the struggle to invent a life that can account for women's buried or repressed experience. In accordance with the postmodern tactic of contesting discourses which are simultaneously invoked, she does not attempt to do without history-making, although she rejects history as it has been fashioned: ‘i wasn't dreaming of history, the already-made, but of making fresh tracks my own way’ (98). Her project involves revising history, reading it against the grain, and working as a map-breaker. As she says, ‘when you're so framed, caught in the act, the (f) stop of act, fact—what recourse? step inside the picture and open it up’ (56). As I suggested earlier, the appropriation of an existing discourse is not necessarily a conservative ‘move’ that effectively replicates this discourse. As Derrida argues, change will not come about by dismissing a metaphysical construct: ‘the passage beyond philosophy does not consists in turning the page of philosophy … but in continuing to read philosophers in a certain way’ (‘Structure,’ 259). Imagining a history for the ahistoric Mrs Richards—‘imagining things differently’—Annie invents a future for herself and continues the project of resistance which her mother was not allowed to finish. Yet, in order to construct a genealogy for ‘lost women,’ Annie must begin by finding out who was there. Only then can she answer the questions: ‘Who do I really desire?’ and ‘Who is my real enemy?’

Not surprisingly, the novel opens by posing the haunting question: ‘Who's There?’ The phrase, spoken by the dreaming Annie, is followed by the words, ‘knock knock’ (9). With the addition of these words, the question is transformed into a riddle—a riddle that echoes the infamous riddle posed by Sigmund Freud. At the beginning of his lecture on femininity, Freud addresses this question to the audience:

Throughout history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity. … Nor will you have escaped worrying over this problem—those of you who are men; to those of you who are women this will not apply—you are yourselves the problem.


Both Annie's and Freud's riddles pose the same question; however, Freud's formulation of ‘the problem’ neatly illustrates the effect of the phallocentric construction of femininity, which relegates femininity to object-status. As Shoshana Felman argues, Freud's question ‘“what is femininity?” in reality asks: “what is femininity—for men?”’ (21). To the extent to that women are the supposed problem, they ‘cannot enunciate the question; they cannot be the speaking subjects of the knowledge or the science which the question seeks’ (21). Cast as objects, women are deprived of the opportunity to offer any subjective account of their own experience. As in the previous chapters, the silencing of women by patriarchal discourses emerges as a problem for women trying to exist as speaking and writing subjects.

In Marlatt's novel, the return of Freud's riddle—the return of the repressed—in Annie's dream alerts us to this problem: how can silenced women—women positioned as mute objects within the phallocentric order—speak? Juliet Mitchell answers this question by suggesting that women can only speak as hysterics. She describes hysteria as the woman's ‘simultaneous acceptance and refusal of the organisation of sexuality under patriarchal capitalism’ (289-90). She insists that a woman writer ‘must speak the discourse of the hysteric, who both refuses and is totally trapped within femininity’ (290).

Ana Historic acknowledges women's position as hysterics through its depiction of Ina, who literally becomes a hysteric within a symbolic order that diminishes her to the point where she is ‘nothing.’ The issue of hysteria surfaces again in conjunction with Annie's problematic relation to language. Annie inherits Ina's language—the language of British imperialism.13 Yet, if she is to map an alternative trajectory, she must not repeat her mother's mistake and simply transpose an inherited language onto a new culture. However, in trying to erase her English ‘difference’ in an effort to become Canadian, Annie learns that her ‘difference’ is embedded in her speech: ‘my English shoes and woolly vests. my very words’ (23). She reaches an impasse because she cannot do without language. As she says, even the phrase ‘my very words’ constitutes a quotation from Ina. Similarly, when she describes writing her novel as ‘just scribbling,’ she is drawing on another quotation from her mother (81). Finally, Annie is led to ask: ‘and what if our heads are full of other people's words? nothing without quotation marks’ (81). Her question reinforces Derrida's assertion regarding the futility of any project to somehow transcend, rather than critique, an inherited language: ‘We have no language … which has not already slipped into the form, the logic, and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest’ (‘Structure,’ 250). Rejecting the possibility of transcendence, Derrida argues that the ‘quality and the fecundity of a discourse are perhaps measured by the critical rigor with which this relationship to the history of metaphysics and to inherited concepts is thought’ (252). Using a familiar language, Annie operates, to a certain extent, with concepts which repress her experience of the world and assert a dominant perspective: ‘words, that shifting territory. never one's own. full of deadfalls and hidden claims to a reality others have made’ (32). Musing over words such as ‘vagina,’ whose etymological roots go back to the word ‘sheath,’ Annie discovers that words not only name and frame her experience of the world, but also contribute to her alienation from her own body: ‘the words for our bodies betrayed us in the very language we learned at school’ (62). Labelling by women's sexual organs ‘sheaths,’ means that their use-value is always already constituted in relation to a male economy, which privileges the ‘sword’ or phallus. Annie, like Ina, functions to some extent as a ‘hysteric’ because, despite her best intentions, her words reinforce the organization of sexuality within the symbolic order. Annie's concerns regarding language, which draw together the related issues of colonialism and patriarchal control, recall both Thomas's and Swan's exploration of these same forces and their negative impact on women's lives.

In the foreword to Salvage, Marlatt remarks that her entire collection represents 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’ (10). Given her belief that language can be ‘salvaged,’ she evidently does not subscribe to Juliet Mitchell's assertion that women are irrevocably bound to operate as hysterics within the symbolic order. By now, it is probably clear from the fragmented style of the quotations I have cited that, although Marlatt is working with and within the structures of a language that positions her as Woman, she is nevertheless refusing to co-operate with its Oedipal logic—the logic of subject-verb-object—which aligns women with objects. In the novel, many sentences begin without capitals (signalling both the narrator's thoughts, as distinct from the other textual elements, and her rejection of a system which is based on ‘capital’ and the reification of human beings). Very often, sentences consist of strings of nouns and noun phrases; pages are left blank or inscribed with only a few lines (43). The text also makes use of variable orthography, including handwriting (43), but more often, italics and bold-faced type, that designate the existence of alternative codes of communication contesting the privileged status accorded to standard English (see Ashcroft et al., 72).

This innovative treatment of the language highlights the fact that Marlatt holds out the possibility of operating on the margins of the dominant cultural discourse. In interviews, she refers to Shirley and Edwin Ardener's model of the relationship between dominant and muted social groups, which represents their interaction as two circles that overlap for the most part, but not entirely.14 This model of partially overlapping circles has often been used to designate women's position within patriarchal culture, and it is a paradigm that affords the muted group a small crescent, described as a ‘wild zone,’ which is outside of dominant culture and language. According to this schema, then, women could be said to occupy a double position, located as they are both within and outside of dominant culture.15 Working from the margins, it becomes possible to destabilize the ideological frame of the dominant culture's syntax and semantics: Marlatt shatters the shape of the sentence as well as the ‘facts,’ disrupting the frame which generates the type of subject positions for men and women so evident in Freud's riddle.16

As a genealogist, Annie must work against what has been characterized as a ‘paternal genealogy’ that silences women as subjects and authors of their own history. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have studied the omnipresence of this paternal genealogy, which is embedded in our culture. As they explain, ‘the patriarchal notion that the writer “fathers” his text just as God fathered the world is and has been all-pervasive in Western literary civilization’ (4). Within the terms of this genealogy, ‘the poet, like God the Father, is a paternalistic ruler of the fictive world he has created’ (5). They note the paradox at the heart of the metaphor of literary paternity, which creates a situation in which a male author both generates and imprisons his fictive creatures: ‘he silences them by depriving them of autonomy (that is, of the power of independent speech) even as he gives them life’ (14). For instance, Freud seemingly gives life to the feminine by inquiring after its nature, but he silences or, as Gilbert and Gubar put it, ‘kills’ women, by depriving them of the opportunity to speak in their own name.17

In her novella, Territory & Co., Marlatt intimates that this paternal genealogy is an ‘old story,’ beginning perhaps with the story of Adam in the garden, naming all of the animals. Yet even after Adam and Eve left the garden, ‘he kept track, he told the story, he passed it all on, father to son, desert camp to town. … it's the name of the game. … terri-stories’ (Salvage, 72). The term ‘terri-stories’ forges an important connection between the paternal genealogy and the process of naming and claiming territory. Within Ana Historic, the various historical quotations that Annie cites from the archives illustrate that, within this discourse of ‘terri-stories,’ entities are categorized according to their use-value in relation to (white) men, and any sense of the entity having a life with its own purpose is left outside the frame. The following citation referring to the Douglas fir is a typical example:

Douglas fir and red cedar are the principal trees. Of these, the former—named after David Douglas, a well-known botanist—is the staple timber of commerce. Average trees grow 150 feet high, clear of limbs, with a diameter of 5 to 6 feet. The wood has great strength and is largely used for shipbuilding, bridge work, fencing, railway ties, and furniture. As a pulp-making tree the fir is valuable. Its bark makes good fuel.


As one critic notes, the historical documents culled from the archives become denatured and break down into their components: ‘the language of nominalization, categorization, hierarchization, domination, colonization, subordination, and control’ (Banting, 125). Yet, these ‘terri-stories’ are not only applied to trees, but to women as well. Annie notes that the capitalized terms ‘Proper’ and ‘Lady’—capitalized in both senses of the word—establish a link between ‘Proper’ and property, which underlies the sexual conditioning of females into ‘wives or daughters-about-to-be-wives’ (32). Thus, the paternal genealogy, which Gilbert and Gubar perceptively locate in the domain of literature, also gives rise to historical ‘terri-stories.’ After researching the archival material, Annie realizes that ‘a sense of fraternal community runs through the records’ (55).

In the face of the almost overwhelming repression and/or reification of the female within these historical ‘terri-stories,’ the question of ‘Who's There’ would seem doomed to remain unanswered. Yet, as Gilbert and Gubar insist, ‘no human creature can be completely silenced by a text or by an image”; they argue that ‘women themselves have the power to create themselves as characters, even perhaps the power to reach toward the woman trapped on the other side of the mirror/text and help her to climb out’ (16). This is precisely what Annie does for Mrs Richards, her mother Ina, and, finally, for herself.

But women cannot reach the ‘lost women’ by appropriating the language and structures of the paternal genealogy or by merely filling in the gaps of history. Instead, they must ‘reshape’ phallocentric linguistic structures if they hope to get in touch with what is ‘ana historic.’ As a prefix, ‘ana’ means ‘upwards’ and ‘forwards’ as well as ‘backwards’ (OED). In the light of this definition, it is apparent that women like Annie, who are working ‘from the margins,’ are developing a practice of reading and recoding (in this case, history), which destabilizes and disrupts the official version.

Edward Said argues that the metaphor of paternal genealogy is built into the classical model of the novel through a series of genealogical connections: ‘author-text, beginning-middle-end, text-meaning, reader-interpretation, and so on. Underneath all these is the imagery of succession, of paternity, or hierarchy’ (162). In Musing with Mother Tongue, Marlatt registers the impact of this paternal genealogy, and locates it at the level of the sentence itself. She asks: ‘How can the standard sentence structure of English with its linear authority, subject through verb to object, convey the wisdom of endlessly repeating and not exactly repeated cycles her body knows?’ (47). Marlatt not only ‘resists the sentence because she suspects its orders (as she suspects capitalist orders, its sentences, its capitals)’ (Cooley, 68), she also resists the demand for continuity on the level of plot. In interviews, she has reflected on the nature of the plot: ‘It's imperial in a way. It's the one line of development that is considered the most important, and it makes everything else secondary’ (interview, ‘On Ana,’ 105). Furthermore, a plot, whether it is comic or tragic, demands a climax, demands a hero, and demands a specific conclusion; if it is a tragedy it ends in death; if it is a comedy, in marriage. As Marlatt states, historically, marriage and death ‘have been the only two alternatives for women protagonists of novels’ (‘On Ana,’ 105).

Within Ana Historic, novelistic conventions are consistently subverted. For one thing, the text, woven from a patchwork of official and unofficial discourses, breaks up the continuity of the plot. As noted above, it includes splices of archival material, excerpts from the Tickler, the official and unofficial writing which Annie composes about Mrs Richards, and the imaginary conversations between Annie and Ina. At one point, the reader encounters the following statement floating on the page: ‘a book of interruptions is not a novel’ (37). This comment self-reflexively foregrounds the impact of these interruptions on the traditional form of the novel. Secondly, Annie's unofficial writing subverts continuity on the level of the sentence. Retaining the shape of musings, her writings are typically presented as sentence fragments with no initial punctuation.

At first, Annie does not know what to make of the text she has created. Positioned within a patriarchal framework of reference and address, she imagines her husband's dismissive response to her work: ‘this doesn't go anywhere, you're just circling around the same idea—and all these bits and pieces thrown in—that's not how to use quotations. … but this is nothing’ (81). In the feminist context of her relationship with Zoe, however, Annie learns that what has been described as nothing—the zero—is simply what remains unreadable within the phallocentric system of representation. Whereas, as Marlatt asserts, the ‘cultural symbology for women centred on a hole, an absence, a zero, that background other against which the male subject takes form & definition’ (‘writing’ 66), within a feminist frame of reference and address, the zero of phallocentric system becomes ‘Zoe.’

Earlier, I noted that the Milan feminists suggested that the construction of a ‘female genealogy’ hinged on the concept of ‘entrustment.’ In Ana Historic, Annie's construction of a female genealogy is made possible because the text's frame of reference shifts from a patriarchal perspective to a woman-centred perspective (see Marlatt, ‘Changing,’ [[“Changing the Focus,”] 129). This shift takes place gradually as Annie forms a relationship of ‘entrustment’ with Zoe. Before she even meets Zoe at the archives, Annie admits that she is ‘looking for the company of another who was also reading’ (45). In the absence of a like-minded reader, Annie imagined Richard reading and criticizing her novel. After they make contact, however, Zoe quickly becomes Annie's ‘first’ and ‘ongoing reader’ (132). Shifting her frame of reference from her official professorial and patriarchal spouse, Annie begins to address her questions to Zoe, trusting her to influence the novel's direction. It is Zoe who encourages Annie to abandon history's voice, ‘the language of definition, of epoch and document, language explaining and justifying,’ in favour of writing the ‘words that flow out from within. … the words of an interior history doesn't include …’ (90). It is Zoe who suggests to Annie that women ‘read with a different eye’ (107). As a result of Zoe's influence, Annie addresses her novel to women: ‘she who is you / or me’ (129). According to Marlatt, ‘we don't really have a word for this relationship—guide, path-breaker rather than competitor, a witness for women's lives—and the reciprocity of this’ (‘Changing,’ 129). To borrow the words about the Milan group, she chooses to write within a frame of reference ‘no longer patriarchal or male-designed’ (de Lauretis, ‘Essence,’ 23). In this way, Marlatt portrays an exchange which, to a great extent, operates outside of male discourses.

The etymology of the word ‘zoe’ is significant. According to Lewis Hyde, the Greeks distinguished two terms for life: bios and zoe. Bios is ‘limited life, characterized life, life that dies. Zoe is the life that endures; it is the thread that runs through bios-life and is not broken when the particular perishes’ (Hyde, 32). In interviews, Marlatt insists that her goal as a writer is to articulate what Hyde terms ‘zoe-life’: to ‘sound how everything is related and to reconstruct, in the face of these horrible separations and dichotomizations, the web, the network, the continual flux, the flowing, from one aspect to another aspect’ (interview, ‘Speaking,’ 27).

This sense of flowing from aspect to aspect is also present in the interweaving of the lives of three women whose names, Annie, Ina, Ana, indicate the extent to which they overlap:

whose story is this?
(the difference of a single letter)
(the sharing of a not)


Annie self-consciously admits both to this blurring of identity (lack of a heroic subject) and to the lack of a heroic plot; like Thomas, Marlatt works to deconstruct the narrative of romance. Unlike her mother, who stayed married and tried to paint over the ‘cracks in the whole setup’ (26), Annie exposes the gaps in the plot, the way that the plot works to efface women. Refusing to ‘pull [her]self together’ (17) and present herself as a unified subject, Annie composes a novel without a hero: ‘this is not a roman/ce, it doesn't deal with heroes’ (67). As she says, ‘far from leading my own life or my life leading anywhere (goodbye, hero), i feel myself in you [Ina], irritated at the edges where we overlap’ (17). One critic commented on the ‘problem’ of the sliding point of view, the shifts between ‘I’ and ‘you’; Marlatt responded by saying, ‘Oh, that ‘you’ shifts around quite a lot, because sometimes it's ‘you,’ Mrs Richards, a lot of the time it's ‘you,’ Ina—and sometimes it's ‘you’ reflexive, anywoman's you’ (see interview, ‘On Ana,’ 100).

The insistence between the unheroic ‘overlap’ between Annie, Ina, and Ana (not to mention Marlatt and Annie) not only reflects a desire to subvert traditional narrative conventions, but also indicates that the process of individuation for women may be radically different from that for men. As Marlatt states, the novel's framework takes in the whole generational system of individuation, which is how ‘we come to personhood anyway’: ‘[I]t takes a long time. … [A]nyone who looks at any Freudian analysis of the family understands that it's much harder for women to individuate as daughters from their mothers than it is for sons. … [S]ometimes it takes a whole lifetime’ (interview, ‘On Ana,’ 101). Her statements draw on the work of Nancy Chodorow, whose studies suggest that men's and women's processes of individuation take radically different paths. Chodorow argues that the ‘basic feminine sense of self is connected to the world, the basic masculine sense of self is separate’ (169). This state of affairs arises because daughters tend to remain in a much longer pre-Oedipal symbiotic relationship with the mother than do sons. As a result of their prolonged identification with their mothers, women have less rigid ego boundaries. Girls come to experience themselves as ‘less differentiated than boys, as more continuous with and related to the external object-world’ (166-7). Whereas a boy has ‘engaged, and been required to engage, in a more emphatic individuation and a more defensive firming of experienced ego boundaries,’ girls see the world not as separations and hierarchies, but as a network (167).18

Marlatt's interest in investigating female individuation has led her to explore an area of experience which, as she notes, ‘Freud didn't manage to talk about’ (see interview, ‘Sounding,’ 48). The repressed territory in Freud's theory constitutes the pre-Oedipal stage, which Julia, Kristeva designates as the ‘semiotic’ in contradistinction to the ‘symbolic.’ Whereas the symbolic order reflects the patriarchal order, ruled by the Law of the Father, the ‘semiotic’ is linked to the pre-Oedipal primary processes (Moi, 161). Once the subject has entered the symbolic order, the semiotic can only be perceived within symbolic language as ‘contradictions, meaninglessness, disruption, silences and absences in the symbolic language’ (162). It expresses itself, not as a new language, but as ‘the heterogeneous, disruptive dimension of language, that which can never be caught up in the closure of traditional linguistic theory’ (162). Thus, in Ana Historic, the effort to break up the continuity of both the sentence and the plot, as well as the flowing connections between characters, reflects an identification with the semiotic.

Although Marlatt acknowledges that we cannot consciously gain access to the semiotic, she argues that it is, nevertheless, ‘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’ (interview, ‘Sounding,’ 49). In the light of the relationship between the unconscious and dreams, it is understandable why Annie, woken from her dream by her own frightened articulation of the riddle, ‘Who's There?’ is able to recall the woman who was once there, namely, her mother, Ina. Moreover, Annie's memory of Ina is conveyed through a series of physical sensations: ‘voice that carries through all rooms, imperative, imperious. don't be silly. soft breast under blue wool dressing gown, tea breath, warm touch’ (10).19 Memory, furnishing Annie with these discontinuous, rhythmic fragments, is clearly aligned with the pre-Oedipal pulsations of the semiotic. As Marlatt argues:

[M]emory seems to operate … like a murmur in the flesh one suddenly hears years later. There is in memory a very deep subliminal connection with the mother because what we first of all remember is this huge body, which is our first landscape and which we first of all remember bodily. … [Memory] is 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, ‘Sounding,’ 49).

In an earlier interview, Marlatt was asked whether she felt that the ‘best thing possible would be if the words would just stop, & we could get into something more full or more real or more the world than language.’ She emphatically rejected this call to some essential ground, insisting that language is ‘both a personal-making sense & an inheritance of all the other senses that have been made of ‘reality,’ ‘history,’ ‘life and death’ (interview, ‘Given,’ 59). Language is ‘thought in action. You cant really think outside of words. You get senses of things, but you cant really think outside of words’ (‘Given,’ 83). Marlatt's response suggests that she agrees that the mother/child dyad of the semiotic realm must give way to the triad, a shift which, as Toril Moi notes, necessarily involves loss:

When the child learns to say ‘I am’ and to distinguish this from ‘you are’ or ‘he is’, this is equivalent to admitting that it has taken its allotted place in the Symbolic Order and given up the claim to imaginary identity with all other possible positions. The speaking subject that says ‘I am’ is in fact saying ‘I am he (she) who has lost something’—and the loss suffered is the loss of the imaginary identity with the mother and with the world.

(Moi, 99)

In Salvage, Marlatt describes the particular impact this shift has on the female child:

for the Word is His she will write as I distinct from mother-mine-o-lode, turning away in the script that writes her out of the reciprocal and into what she will become when narrative begins its triple beat about, about her/accusative.

this is all about framing.

(47; my emphasis)

Recalling the riddle posed at the beginning of the novel—‘Who's There? … knock knock’—we can see that it too is ‘all about framing.’ By asking ‘who's there,’ the riddle simultaneously demands an answer to the questions ‘Who do I desire?’ and ‘Who is my enemy?’ and it also invites us to scrutinizes the ‘frame’ of the symbolic that we, as speakers, must negotiate: ‘the unacknowledged door all of it got said through’ (Salvage, 71). It is the configuration of this door—the way it precludes female self-definition, the female body, and female desire—which generates women's particularly debilitating experience of loss.20

Within the novel, after recalling the pre-Oedipal, rhythmic sensations of her mother's body, Annie concludes her reminiscences with the word ‘gone’ (10). Her mother's name, Ina, is literally broken open, just as the mother/child dyad is broken apart by the Law of the Father: ‘I-no-longer’ (11). However, as noted above, Ina's death is located on a continuum, which ranges from the covert effacement of the female to the more openly aggressive practice of electric shock therapy. Ina, who could ‘outtalk, outname, outargue’ her daughter any time, was erased systematically over time (20).21 Following Ina's final disappearance—her death—it is up to Annie to represent her. As Gilbert and Gubar suggest, she must reach ‘toward the woman trapped on the other side of the mirror/text and help her to climb out’ (16). Annie echoes these words when, referring to Ina, she says, ‘it's up to me to pull you through. this crumbling apart of words. … you who is you or me. she. a part struck off from me. apart. separated’ (11).22

Through Annie's efforts, a host of ‘Lost Girls’ are rendered visible on the other, historical side of the frame. It is not merely Mrs Richards and Ina who are lost, but Annie herself, as a result of her sexual conditioning, also becomes a ‘she’ (accorded third-person object-status rather than first-person status) who can only recall a time ‘when i was she who did not feel separated or split’ (11). If Annie's genealogical map is accurate in its depiction of the pain associated with the ‘framing’ of the symbolic order and its effacement of women, then one is led to ask why more women have not challenged its claim to Truth.

One reason may be that a revolt against the regime will be understood as madness. As many feminists have noted, in an effort to protect its vulnerable margins, the symbolic order casts anyone who refuses to submit to its sexual conditioning as a monster.23 Once again, Marlatt's term ‘terri-stories’ proves extremely apt because it underscores that the paternal genealogy, whether it is articulated through literary or historical materials, serves to name and claim, as well as terrify. In this way, women are discouraged from enquiring too deeply into the nature of their self-definition, their bodies, and their desires. Even Annie experiences the frightening and uncanny sensation associated with a return of the repressed, when she poses the question ‘Who's There?’ and begins her journey into the ‘dark spaces’ of the unthought.

Right from the start, the reader is alerted that something fearful, something uncanny, is at work in the text. The words of the perverted riddle, ‘Who's There? … knock knock,’ immediately introduce anxiety because they remind Annie of the time when she was a child left to babysit her younger sisters. Frightened of noises in the house, she would steal into the basement clutching a carving knife. First, she had to make her way down the staircase ‘with its star scrawled on the yellow wall and COMRADE, an illicit word never heard upstairs’ (9). Nobody seemed to see this word except her, ‘like some signal blinking every time she had to go downstairs with the knife’ (9). It is understandable that, in the ‘cold-war Vancouver of the Fifties,’ the word ‘comrade’ would have ominous overtones, conjuring up images from Major Hoople's talk ‘about those sleazy reds who were always infiltrating from some foreign underworld and threatening to get under or was it into the bed’ (9). Yet, when the word surfaces again, it is used to refer to the narrator's experience as a child, when, together with her ‘sister-archers, her camarades,’ they faced the task of defending their territory in the woods from others: ‘what if the boys … what if the men tried to bulldoze their woods? so what could we do?’ (12).

The word ‘comrade’ is defined as a ‘mate or fellow in work or play or fighting, an equal with whom one is on familiar terms’ (OED). This word may seem illicit to Annie because it offers the threat and promise of equality, which, for a woman who is supposed to be positioned as subordinate, is taboo. As the text unfolds, the reader understands that it is not communists, but women, who are infiltrating from some foreign world (writing from the margins), and threatening to get into the bed. At the end of the novel (which is not an ending in any traditional sense), this repressed possibility for equality is realized in the lesbian relationship, the ‘camaraderie,’ between Zoe and Annie.

But even more uncanny than the word ‘comrade’ is the fear Annie experiences in the basement when she faces the intruder that she knows is hiding in the wardrobes: ‘she stood in front of the darkest of the six-foot wardrobes, teak, too big to place upstairs, big enough to hide Frankenstein, stood feeling her fear, her desperate being up against it, that other breathing on the other side of the door she could almost hear’ (10). Here, the door of the wardrobe functions as a metaphor for the frame of the symbolic. This becomes clear later on when the term ‘wardrobe’ is associated in Annie's imagination with ‘whole wardrobes of names guarding the limitations’ (152). Her treatment of the word ‘wardrobe’ emphasizes that the symbolic frame ‘wards’ or ‘guards’ against something, and that words themselves cover up the expression of alternative possibilities. In C. S. Lewis's marvellous tales entitled The Chronicles of Narnia, there is a wardrobe that leads to a magical world, the kingdom of Narnia. In Ana Historic, the wardrobe also operates as a door into an alternative order. This sense of possibility is reiterated in Marlatt's latest work, Salvage, where a poem begins, ‘There is a door other than that which opens to the known world’ (26). Of course, the image of the wardrobe and the anxiety associated with it also play on the fears surrounding ‘coming out of the closet’ as a lesbian.

When she enters into her relationship with Zoe, Annie discovers that the story about the monster lurking behind the door, the story of Frankenstein, is just a ‘cover’-story. As she explains to Ina, the name Frankenstein is a man's name (Dr Frankenstein) given to the monster and now ‘we call the monster by his name’ (142). This anecdote concerning the naming of the monster operates as a parable for the position of women within the phallocentric representational system. Like Frankenstein's monster, women are defined by words such as ‘vagina,’ words that ‘cover’ their own experience. As Shoshana Felman puts it, women are the victims of a ‘blind substitution of the masculine for the feminine,’ which effaces femininity's potentially radical otherness (27). It is particularly significant that Annie's childhood anxiety surfaces in the familial home. The illicit word ‘comrade’ scrawled on the wall and the wardrobe big enough to conceal a monster are located in the basement. The location of these sinister elements leads one to suspect that the home is not safe or, more precisely, the familial triad of mommy, daddy, and me—the basis of the symbolic order—is threatened. As Marlatt acknowledges in Salvage, ‘there's always some stranger knocking at the family door’ (71). Within the novel, the anxiety produced by this threat to the family is related to a particular class of the frightening known as the ‘uncanny.’

Challenging the assertion that the uncanny is generated by what is novel and unfamiliar, Freud argues that the uncanny (unheimlich) belongs to that class of the frightening which leads back to what is ‘known of old and long familiar’ (‘Uncanny,’ 220). To prove that something can be both familiar and unfamiliar, he traces the etymology of the German word heimlich (homely). The definition of this term reads: ‘From the idea of “homelike”, “belonging to the house”, the further idea is developed of something withdrawn from the eyes of strangers, something concealed, secret’ (225). In this way, heimlich comes to encompass its antithesis, unheimlich (uncanny). Freud also cites Schelling's account of the uncanny: the name for ‘everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light’ (224). Aligning the anxiety generated by the uncanny with his psychoanalytic theory of repression, Freud argues:

[I]f psycho-analytic theory is correct in maintaining that every affect belonging to an emotional impulse, whatever its kind, is transformed, if it is repressed, into anxiety, then among instances of frightening things there must be one class in which the frightening element can be shown to be something repressed which recurs.


Freud goes on to suggest that the uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but ‘something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression’ (241). This hypothesis allows him to establish a link between the uncanny and female genitalia:

It often happens that neurotic men declare that they feel there is something uncanny about the female genital organs. This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning. … In this case too, then, the unheimlich is what was once heimish, familiar; the prefix ‘un’ is the token of repression.


Yet, if we accept Chodorow's assertion that men and women have different processes of individuation, then what is uncanny for men in Western society will not necessarily be uncanny for women. As Chodorow says, ‘girls do not define themselves in terms of the denial of preoedipal relational modes to the same extent as do boys. Therefore, regression to these modes tends not to feel as much a basic threat to their ego’ (167). Freud ought to have emphasized more strongly that the female genitals are uncanny, not for ‘all human beings,’ but primarily for men because they connote what the masculine subject must repress, if he is to take up his position in society—a position that is characterized by separation, rather than merging. Whereas men fear the removal of their power, signified by the phallus, and ‘ward’ against merging, which the sight of the female genitals arouses, women may well fear, not doubleness and merging, but the very mechanism that refused them power in the first place—the ‘wardrobe’/wordrobe of the symbolic system, which positions the feminine so that it ‘comes to stand over the point of disappearance, the loss’ (Mitchell, 307).

Given Marlatt's aim to subvert the symbolic frame that guarantees masculine privilege, it is not surprising that, in Ana Historic, there is a concerted effort to move toward what Freud has characterized as ‘uncanny.’ In his study of this subject, Freud lists several prominent ‘themes of uncanniness,’ and each one is present in Marlatt's text. The first ‘theme’ relates to the ‘doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self’ (234). As noted above, Marlatt's sliding point of view deliberately dissolves any sense of a unified subject. The text seems to celebrate ‘doubling,’ and to suggest that the acknowledgment of a multiple and relational ego is an important part of women's recovery of their experience, which as Chodorow argues, involves remaining ‘part of the dyadic primary mother-child relationship’ (166).

A second theme of uncanniness, which Freud locates, involves the ‘constant recurrence of the same thing—the repetition of the same features or character-traits or vicissitudes, of the same crimes, or even the same names through several consecutive generations’ (234). In her role as genealogist, Annie discovers repeated character-traits in herself, in Ina, and in Ana. All three women (and even Annie's daughter, Ange) share related experiences, which are based on what Annie describes as ‘the development of women's alienation from their bodies, suppressed hysteria’ (133). This issue of hysteria can also be linked to another theme listed as uncanny. In his 1906 study of the uncanny, E. Jentsch suggests that manifestations of insanity were thought to be uncanny because they excited in the spectator ‘the impression of automatic, mechanical processes at work behind the ordinary appearance of mental activity’ (qtd. in Freud, ‘Uncanny,’ 226). In Marlatt's novel, the uncanniness Jentsche associates with madness or hysteria is subtly linked to instances of uncanniness, which, in accordance with Freud's suggestion, surface in conjunction with the repetition ‘of the same crimes.’

Ina's madness, her hysteria, can be said to expose the ‘mechanical processes at work behind the ordinary appearance of mental activity.’ Here, as suggested earlier, the automatic, mechanical processes reflect the operations of power. While composing her novel, Annie traces a connection between Ana's fate at the hands of historians and Ina's fate at the hands of the psychiatric institution, and she forges a link between hysteria and history. She coins the term ‘hystery’ to characterize the relationship between these two violent mechanisms of the symbolic system, which promote the ‘excision of women’ (88). It is this mechanism, active in the scientific and historical discourses over generations, that generates the uncanny sense of the repetition ‘of the same crimes.’

At the heart of the novel, the question ‘Who's There?’ is repeated in Annie's rhetorical address to Ina: ‘who was it who cut your fingers, burned your skin, kept you insomniac and cursing all the neighbours’ dogs? either that or gone in a morning-after fog of sleeping pills. knock, knock. who's there?’ (88). In an earlier imaginary conversation, Ina demands to know whether Annie sees her as the monster hidden at the heart of the female ‘cultural labyrinth.’ After she contemplates her mother's suffering, Annie realizes that Ina is not the monster, although ‘there is something monstrous here’ (24). Eventually, Annie locates the monster, and answers the riddle in so far as she solves the question: ‘Who is my enemy?’

The ‘answer’ that Annie eventually arrives at takes the form of an excerpt describing the brutal domination of women's bodies performed in the name of science:

Mechanical devices were invented for compressing ovaries or for packing them in ice. In Germany, Hegar (1830-1914) and Friederich (1825-82) were using even more radical methods, including ovarectomy and cauterization of the clitoris. The source of hysteria was still, as in Plato's time, sought in the matrix of the female body, upon which surgical attacks were unleashed.


Thus, in Marlatt's text, the uncanny is ultimately not linked to the sight of the female genitalia, as Freud would have it, but to the brutal control of women's bodies. The monster Annie has always feared as real turns out to be the ‘violence behind the kiss, the brutal hand beneath the surgical glove, the one who punishes you for seeing (through) him’ (135). Furthermore, this brutality is uncanny (both familiar and unfamiliar) because, as the location of the wardrobe and the illicit word ‘comrade’ intimate, it occurs within the familial institution, where it is rendered invisible.

The family's role in subjugating women's bodies is revealed when Annie recalls the lyrics of the playful song, the ‘hokey pokey’:

you put your whole self in
you take your whole self out
you put your whole self in
and you shake it all about


The words to the song are juxtaposed with the recollection of Ina's electric shock therapy. In this context, the last line: ‘and you shake it all about,’ attains a sickening resonance. The hokey pokey is for the family, ‘the magic circle we stepped inside of … the family that holds together at the expense of one’ (148). As Chodorow argues: ‘What is … often hidden, in generalizations about the family as an emotional refuge, is that in the family as it is currently constituted no one supports and reconstitutes women affectively and emotionally’ (36). Through her genealogical analysis, Annie exposes the uncanny plot, the hidden mechanism at work within the family, which effaces women in order to clear a path for its male heroes.

The final theme of uncanniness that Freud isolates concerns ‘all the unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, all the strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed’ (236). Whereas these ‘possible futures’ must remain repressed within the masculine paradigm, women are in a different position vis-à-vis the repressed. As Freud's association between the uncanny and female genitalia clarifies, women are the repressed; thus, they have nothing to gain from remaining complicit with the cover-stories, which, for them, are the kiss of death.24 As we will see in the chapter on Urquhart's novel [The Whirlpool], women's slightly different position regarding the repressed also helps to explain why the female (and not the male) characters prove able to abandon traditional narrative structures. In Ana Historic, Annie decides to make what she describes as a ‘monstrous leap of imagination’ (135). Rather than reinscribe the historical version of Ana's life, which states only that she bought a piano and married Ben Springer, Annie rejects the ‘diminishing glance’ of history and refuses to close ‘the lid [of the coffin?] … firmly and finally’ (48). As she contemplates Ana's pen poised above the words ‘Today I have accepted,’ Annie chooses not to allow Ana to marry Ben Springer and erase ‘all the other selves she might be’ (146). Unlike Ina, Annie profits from the gaps in the story, refusing to believe that one cannot change ‘the writing on the wall’ (142) or that fate—a woman's lot, ‘too small for … one mad English-woman’ (79)—is irrevocable.

To appreciate the impact of Annie's decision, it is helpful to compare her choice with the decision made by the narrator of Alice Munro's short story ‘Meneseteung.’ Like Annie, Munro's narrator also shapes a story based on textual scraps from the past; just as Annie draws her material from the Tickler, Munro's narrator also fashions her character from hints provided by a similar small-town chronicle called the Vidette. Initially, Munro's narrator offers a factual summary of the life of the Victorian poet Amanda Roth. But the story soon shifts toward invention, as she goes on to create full-blown scenes depicting her heroine's life. Rather than portray Amanda encouraging her suitor and allowing her beloved countryside to be ‘removed for her—filmed over … by his talk and preoccupations,’ the narrator describes Amanda choosing in favour of maintaining her own vision (61). She ultimately scripts a conclusion which portrays her heroine opting not to marry the local bachelor, Jarvis Poulter. The morning that she promises to go to church with Jarvis, Amanda abruptly changes her mind, retreats into her house, bolts the door, and sips her laudanum-spiked tea. In an opium-induced trance, she decides that so much is ‘going on in this room … there is no need to leave it’ (69). Ironically, although the narrator rescues Amanda from marriage, she merely rejects one of the three options of the familiar script—a script that typically consigns female characters to marriage, madness, or death. Citing the Vidette, the narrator reports that Amanda succumbed to madness: as she grew older, her mind became ‘somewhat clouded and her behaviour, in consequence, somewhat rash and unusual’ (71). In the end, the narrator confesses both to her inability to change the plot and to the fictiveness of her own rather tame invention. As she says, ‘I may have got it wrong. I don't know if she ever took laudanum. Many ladies did. I don't know if she ever made grape jelly’ (73). In comparison to her tentative adjustments to the story of Amanda's life (which are limited to filling in the gaps, but not substantially altering the pre-given plot), Annie's rewriting of the story of Ana's life appears scandalous.

In Marlatt's text, both Annie and Ana choose ‘to fly in the face of common sense, social convention, ethics—the weight of history. to fly’ (146). In taking flight, Annie invents for Ana a life which contains the possibility of becoming Birdie Stewart's ‘secret friend’ (108) and ‘travelling companion’ (146). Birdie Stewart, Vancouver's first madam, is mentioned in the archives. Her arrival coincides with that of Mrs Richards.25

Imagining Ana visiting Birdie in her sitting room, Annie envisions a scene in which Birdie's emerald green, bead-fringed lampshade functions as a metaphor for desire. Referring to the fake emerald beads, Birdie tells Ana, ‘now this, you see, is the green that says yes, like certain eyes’ (109). The reference to emeralds recalls Ina's earlier impoverished gesture—her promise to pass down the ‘family jewels’ to her daughter. In contrast to this female inheritance which would continue to position women as objects, Birdie's statement insists on the possibility of a female subject taking action; the eyes she imagines are not passive objects luring male desire, but eyes that say ‘yes’ to their own, very different desire. In the scene which Annie narrates, Ana catches sight of her own reflection in Birdie's eyes:

turning because of a spark, a gleam, your eyes are green (you had forgotten that) and you know them lit with the look of something you almost meet in Birdie's brown. you had not imagined—this

as history. unwritten.


Ana's lesbian relationship with Birdie is uncanny—for women—in so far as it is both familiar and unfamiliar; as the reference to emeralds implies, it recalls the relationship with the mother which has been repressed. As Susan Griffen states: ‘What is really feared is an open door into a consciousness which leads us back to the old, ancient, infant and mother knowledge of the body, in whose depths lies another form of culture not opposed to nature but instead expressing the full power of nature and of our nature’ (‘Way,’ 645). The positive outcome of this desire, a lesbian relationship, challenges Freud's characterization of the final theme of uncanniness as ‘all the unfulfilled but possible futures … which adverse external circumstances have crushed’ because the lesbian possibility has not been ‘crushed.’

As noted above, Annie's question ‘Who's there?’ led her to consider her mother in the context of the question ‘Who is my enemy?’ When she poses the riddle for the last time, she answers the question: ‘Who do I desire?’ Throwing off the cover stories of Ina and Ana (who, because they overlap with Annie's identity, actually reflect parts of herself), Annie faces Zoe and the possibility of entering into a lesbian relationship which offers the prospect of reclaiming that part of herself that was struck off:

i want to knock: can you hear? i want to answer her who's there? not Ana or Ina, those transparent covers. Ana Richards Richard's Anna. fooling myself on the other side of history as if it were a line dividing the real from the unreal. Annie/Ana—arose by any other name, whole wardrobes of names guarding the limitations—we rise above them. Annie isn't Richard's or even Springer's.


Ignoring the ‘terri-stories,’ dismissing the ‘wardrobes of names,’ the divisive frames of the symbolic, Annie renames herself ‘Annie Torrent’ in honour of the torrential desire women have always experienced but were never permitted to express (35). Her act of renaming disrupts the paternal genealogy with its implicit stipulation that women cannot speak and cannot write. Annie Torrent does speak, and, naming her desire, she tells Zoe, ‘i want you. and me. together’ (152). Thus, the monster, that other breathing behind the wardrobe, the thing that should have remained ‘secret and hidden,’ finally comes to light and it is terribly familiar, for what could be more familiar than oneself? As Annie says, ‘it isn't even Frankenstein but a nameless part i know’ (152). Elsewhere, Marlatt underscores the uncanniness of this type of relationship, noting that it is characterized by a feeling of ‘familiarity and surprise’ (‘Changing,’ 131). Annie's final act of self-naming confirms Elizabeth Grosz's assertion that the reason why the body is so rigorously controlled is because it possesses this capacity to be ‘self-marked, self-represented’ in alternative ways.

Some readers may be suspicious of the novel's tidy ending—an ending that could be said to promote a solipsistic view of human interaction because it seems to in-dulge in the narcissistic fantasy that other people are merely repressed facets of oneself. If taken seriously, this view could be used to defend the idea that one need not treat other people as individuals, whose differences must be addressed, because they are all, on some level, merely familiar reflections of one's own psyche. This perspective surfaces in Robertson Davies' novel Fifth Business, and it is worth comparing the attitudes regarding identity expressed in both Marlatt's and Davies' novels.

In Fifth Business, the hero, Dunstable Ramsay, embarks on a journey through life, only to discover that virtually everyone he meets constitutes an archetypal facet of his own personality. A believer in Jung's theory of archetypes, Ramsay discovers in his friends and enemies the eternal essence of his own ‘shadow’ and ‘anima.’ On a fundamental level, it does not matter who these people believe themselves to be because Ramsay remains convinced that the goal of his spiritual quest lies in discovering who they are within his personal psychodrama. When, as an adult, he becomes increasingly obsessed with a woman named Mrs Dempster, his spiritual mentor—a Jungian wise old man, if ever there was one—tells him to turn his mind ‘to the real problem; who is she?’ He goes on to clarify his notion of identity: ‘Oh, I don't mean her police identification or what her name was before she was married. I mean, who is she in your personal world? What figure is she in your personal mythology?’ (177). I would suggest that this view of identity represents a familiar retreat from the complexity of modern society: it functions as a defence—one used by a number of well-known modernist writers—against the fragmentation of the discourses which previously secured notions of Truth and meaning. Although the Truth can no longer be found ‘out there’ in the world, the method of classifying people according to archetypes ensures that wholeness and order can be located in a transcendent realm of unchanging aesthetic ideals: the mind becomes a warehouse of archetypes that houses, among other things, the Eternal Feminine. In Fifth Business, it becomes evident that, in the face of ever-shifting narratives (some of which threaten to represent the hero's insignificance), Truth cannot be definitively located, and Ramsay seeks solace in an aesthetic ideal that purports to guarantee spiritual truth. The text underscores the aesthetic nature of this ideal when Ramsay realizes that he confused Mrs Dempster with an image of the Holy Mother. Only after he discovers that it is the face of the Madonna who haunts his dreams in a cathedral in Salzburg does he abandon his obsession with Mrs Dempster. After he seizes on the aesthetic ideal, he no longer needs to control and possess the flesh-and-blood woman, and his yearning for the woman gives way to a longing for the artistic image. In the light of the fact that, as a disciple of Jung, Ramsay believes the image reflects his own anima, it makes sense that he would assert his ownership over Mrs Dempster and, later, over the image of the Madonna. In the case of Mrs Dempster, he insists that she would be his saint—and his alone (160). Similarly, when he gazes at the Madonna in the cathedral, he boasts, ‘She was mine forever’ (251).

Whereas Davies' novel portrays a world populated by unchanging archetypes—a view which springs from a fundamentally essentialist perspective—Marlatt portrays quite a different world. She does not so much look to some essential core as invent a new set of possibilities for human interaction. Along these same lines, I would suggest that, although her text foregrounds the interconnectedness among women, it does not base this connection on a fixed idea of the Eternal Feminine essence. Instead, as we have seen, her text explores a wide range of culturally and historically mediated discourses that engender women in a particular fashion and, in doing so, creates a subculture whose members are linked by ‘a delicate network of influences operating in time’ (Showalter, Literature, 12). As I suggested earlier in this chapter, rather than posit a ‘real essence,’ Marlatt gestures toward a ‘nominal essence,’ which, as de Lauretis asserts, does not reflect an unchanging kernel of identity—a ‘real essence’ (‘Essence,’ 5). In the light of the comparison with Davies' text, it becomes even more apparent that, whereas Davies relies on a fixed psychoanalytic model, Marlatt engages in a project of invention. To borrow de Lauretis's words: ‘This may be utopian, idealist, perhaps misguided or wishful thinking … but it is not essentialist as the belief in a God-given or otherwise immutable nature of woman’ (‘Essence,’ 5).

This study began as an attempt to discover to what extent contemporary Canadian women writers were heeding Virginia Woolf's claim that, because of the shadow of the male ‘I,’ it is difficult for women to represent themselves in the literary terrain. More than any other writer examined thus far, Marlatt seems to be have taken Virginia Woolf's assertions to heart. Operating within the framework of a feminist practice of reference and address (under lesbian eyes), Ana Historic suggests that we can ‘salvage’ the linguistic terrain by mapping an alternative, ancestral trajectory, a genealogy for ‘lost women,’ which departs from the ‘solid ground of fact’ (111). Paradoxically, the territory which Annie charts for Ina—‘the bush26 … what you were afraid of, what i escaped to: anonymous territory’ (18)—is not so much a place as a process which opens up the frame to make room for the possibility of representing female desire.


  1. Ricou suggests that leaf/leafs and Frames of a Story are not travel journals. Yet, as Marlatt argues in interviews, Frames was ‘about being lost’ (see ‘Given,’ 41). When she was writing the work, she had the sense of ‘charting a territory that was unknown … & having to map it out in order to discover where I was’ (63).

  2. For example, critics such as Barbara Godard and Frank Davey note that many of Marlatt's text focus on a search for a lost or absent mother (Godard, ‘Body I,’ 491-4; Davey, ‘Words,’ 40-6).

  3. In an interview with Brenda Carr, Marlatt suggested that this figure/ground reversal, ‘trying to shift that ground which is usually background for the figure so it becomes foreground. The shift in values that's involved is also what feminism is about’ (103).

  4. Marlatt refers to de Lauretis's essay and the work of the Milan group in an interview with Brenda Carr (105).

  5. Marlatt's emphasis on the thread of female ancestral connections recalls Thomas's description of the bond among Alice and her daughters, which is described as a ‘sorority.’

  6. Foucault refers to Nietzsche's Genealogy (158; ch. 3, sc. 26), where he states, ‘I do not like these weary and played-out people who wrap themselves in wisdom and look “objective.”’

  7. In an interview with George Bowering, Marlatt describes her home in Vancouver, and it is remarkably similar to Annie's home in Ana Historic (see ‘Given,’ 32-3).

  8. In the previous chapters, the Lacanian symbolic order's impact on women was also associated with shrinking or becoming invisible. In Intertidal Life, Alice fears that she is becoming invisible (49); in Swan's novel, the giantess is fooled into thinking that she is shrinking (307-19).

  9. In an interview with George Bowering, Marlatt emphasizes that Ina ‘just died, so she is present, but not in the flesh’ (‘On Ana,’ 100).

  10. In an interview with Janice Williamson, Marlatt stated: ‘The patriarchal oppression of women and colonialism are two different faces of the same coin’ (see ‘Sounding,’ 54).

  11. In recording Ina's experience of her treatment, Annie is once again fulfilling her role as Foucauldian genealogist, recording the subjugated knowledge of the psychiatric patient.

  12. In the previous chapter, I suggested that the giantess's corset, which leaves her gasping for breath, represents just such a material instance of control. In this case, the medical technology labelled ‘electric shock therapy’ constitutes the material embodiment of an ideology bent on disciplining individuals who threaten the symbolic order.

  13. Marlatt explains that she wrote Ana Historic because she had to come to terms with the oldest layer of her language: ‘the language I inherited from my mother which was generated within certain national class and period mores’ (interview, ‘Sounding,’ 56).

  14. Marlatt refers to this model in an interview with Brenda Carr (105). It is cited in Elaine Showalter's famous essay, ‘Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,’ 199-200. For an in-depth treatment of the model, see Edwin Ardener's essay ‘The “Problem” Revisited,’ 19-27.

  15. In the introduction to in the feminine, Marlatt writes that women are living ‘within such constant doubleness, we live both within and outside of the culture that contains us …, we speak both within and outside of the language that speaks of us …, we are both citizens and aliens of a country that fails to guarantee our rights’ (12)

  16. Marlatt has often forged an association between the frame of a photograph and the way in which ‘facts’ are framed. In Ana Historic, Annie defines the word ‘fact’: ‘(f)act. the f stop of act. a still photo in the ongoing cinerama’ (31). Marlatt's essay ‘Distance and Identity: A Postscript to Steveston’ contrasts this type of framing with the open-ended quality of her writing. She notes that Susan Sontag calls photographs ‘maps of the real’ because a photograph is ‘never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects)—a material vestige of its subject’ (Sontag qtd. in ‘Distance,’ 43). As far as Marlatt is concerned, a poem is not ‘located in time as a photograph is. … [I]t exists in continuing time, because, in the time it takes to read it, we re-enact the forward-streaming of its sentence or sentences’ (43). In an interview with George Bowering, Marlatt emphasized that ‘[t]he single frame is the trap, because experience is constantly moving forward’ (‘Given,’ 50).

  17. For a critique of this model of literary paternity, see Showalter's essay ‘Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,’ 187-9, as well as Nina Auerbach's review of Madwoman, in Victorian Studies.

  18. The image of the net is central in Marlatt's work; she has even entitled a collection of her writings New Work: Selected Writing (1980). In interviews she has discussed her sense of the web as a figure for ‘relationship, & how tremendously interwoven all of our lives are with all of these other lives around us. … What we move in also in terms of history. We move in an accretion of time, which we dont recognize’ (‘Given,’ 81). For a feminist analysis of the importance of web-like relationships in women's lives, see Carol Gilligan's chapter ‘Images of Relationship’ (24-64).

  19. In a conversation with George Bowering, Marlatt stated that ‘I've always been fascinated by whatever that other was—what is beyond the self, outside the self; & and the fact that we're really restricted in all our perceptions to what's here’ (‘Given,’ 45). In her opinion, there is no need to try to understand ‘the other’ through reason. As she says, ‘rationalism is only one of the ways we receive the world, & it's one that I particularly distrust’ (58). Instead, ‘[Y]ou have to experience it. … [Y]ou have to somehow let it in. … [T]urn off all the lights. … [Y]ou can be just as clear in the dark. What you do is feel your way, you dont see your way’ (45).

  20. Annie understands at one point that the frame is a trap, and that her mother ‘needed someone to knock holes in the walls instead of showing … [her], calmly, how the doors worked’ (136).

  21. The stories she wrote ‘lost their humour in description, faded away in proper sentences’ (20). She rendered herself ‘invisible in the mirror’ (58). Finally, she disappeared in madness, which, according to Marlatt, ‘is like death’ (interview, ‘On Ana,’ 105).

  22. This act of representation is not the evocation of some essential presence because, as Marlatt stresses, language ‘does not stand in place of anything else, it does not replace the bodies around us’ (Touch, 45).

  23. Barbara Creed suggests that monstrous figures represent what Julia Kristeva calls the ‘abject’: that which does not respect ‘“borders, positions, rules” … that which “disturbs identity, system, order”’ (Kristeva qtd. in Creed, ‘Horror,’ 45). In Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic, the authors describe how women's ‘intransigent female autonomy’ is consistently represented in the traditional novel as the ‘monster-woman, threatening to replace her angelic sister’ (28).

  24. Marlatt has stated that Annie ‘has to unwrap a lot of cover stories, and the principal one is her own cover story, the story of her own sexual conditioning, and this comes up very strongly in her dialogues with her mother’ (interview, ‘On Ana,’ 98).

  25. The name ‘Birdie,’ as well as the emphasis on flying, echoes Hélène Cixous's assertion that ‘[f]lying is a woman's gesture—flying in language and making it fly.’ Cixous points out that the word for flying in French voler has a double meaning because it could also mean ‘to steal.’ As she says, ‘[i]t's no accident: women take after birds and robbers just as robbers take after women and birds. They … take pleasure in jumbling the order of space, in disorienting it, in changing around the furniture, dislocating things and values, breaking them all up, emptying structures, and turning propriety upside down’ (258).

  26. In the book Double Negative, which Marlatt co-wrote with Betsy Warland, there are frequent references to the word ‘bush’—references that clarify that this term refers, not only to vegetation, but to the vagina. My sense is that Marlatt is evoking this same double-entendre in Ana Historic, which would leave open the possibility that Ina was a closeted lesbian.

Beverley Curran (essay date winter 1998)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6726

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)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797

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 narrator each day, and engages in mourning, in its exploration of “the loss of all that envelops us, pre-dates us. Post-dates us, too.” Here, as in Ana Historic, the loss of the mother forms the abyss which swallows up all subsequent losses. This primary absence and the struggle to recapture what has been taken drive the fiction-making process.

Fuelled by a desire “to write her, reach her, bring her bodily out of the nothing,” the text weaves together three distinct narrative strands. Set on one of B.C.'s Gulf Islands, the first strand takes place during the Gulf War, and traces the narrator's relationship with her lover, Lori. The narrative concentrates on Lori's sudden departure and the subsequent unravelling of their relationship. When the Gulf War breaks out, Lori leaves the island to care for her ailing, widowed mother in the States. Although her departure appears temporary, it soon becomes clear that Lori is leaving for good. When she confesses that she has had “enough of islanding” and, later, that “there is someone else,” the narrator recognizes that it is time to “untangle the different strands of … [their] story.”

The text weaves a second thread into the narrator's story of loss, based on the narrator's imagined reconstruction of her mother Esme's experience in World War II Australia, during the Japanese invasion of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Married in 1937 in Panang, Esme eagerly anticipates her new life with Charles, a man twelve years her senior, who (unlike her stodgy parents) understands her and whom she truly loves. On the day she learns that she is pregnant, Esme must reconcile herself to Charles's departure. For the duration of the war, she lives with her parents, and together, they attempt to adjust gracefully to the upheaval in their privileged colonial lives.

For the narrator, it is imperative to come to grips with her mother's early life because, as she explains to Lori, “We carry marriage stories in our blood, our mothers' stories shadowing the ones we're trying to invent.” Even though they have broken the “marriage script” and the familial ties they “were meant to perpetuate,” the narrator recognizes that she and Lori must delve into the past because “so many strands of the old scripts that compose us” also wove the narrative that led them to desire each other.

Counterpointing both of these narratives are fragments of a third ghostly narrative—an account that traces the experience of a nameless prisoner of war. Written in the second person, these arresting fragments consistently implicate the reader in one woman's nightmarish attempt to flee Singapore with her two children. When their boat is bombed by Japanese planes, everyone rushes onto lifeboats, but they immediately capsize and her children drown. Although the woman manages to survive by letting the current drift her toward a beach, in the end, she is taken prisoner.

The over-arching evocation of war and loss, as well as the dread of being “taken,” link all three narrative strands. At the same time, the entire novel constitutes an attempt to write against absence. Just as the narrator composes letters to counter distance and the entropic forces taking her away from her lover, Lori, Esme writes letters to Charles—writing “against his absence, against fate to bring him close.” Even the stream-of-consciousness letters, composed but presumably never actually written by the POW, attest to this same desire to use language to “hang on,” even though “you can hear the Death Bird singing from the jungle.”

As in Ana Historic, tremendous emphasis is placed on composing a narrative of fragments—“brightly coloured bits” and “magic lantern scenes”—in which fiction and memory are so interlaced that “it is difficult to tell the difference.” This fragmentary structure renders palpable the fear and insecurity experienced by the various protagonists, whose lives are unhinged by war. In such an unconventional work, readers should not expect to be consoled with stories of happily ever after. All the same, the conclusion is disappointing and heavy handed. There is no reason for the reader to be told what has been so gracefully conveyed all along, namely, that the “stories we invent and refuse to invent ourselves by, [are] all unfinished.”

Lynda Hall (review date winter 1998)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1165

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 interspersed with photographs, conference programs, journal entries, and letter excerpts. Marlatt explains these writings are “Attempts to read my life and the lives of women close to me in light of theoretical readings about our psychosocial conditioning as women, as lesbians, writing.” In a postmodern gesture, the book starts and ends with a duplicate page of twenty small fragmented film shots of Marlatt in front of the house she shares in Victoria with her “muse-figure, reader and life-partner” Bridget MacKenzie; the labyrinth pattern visually suggests continuous movement and joy, the “remembered moments, many of them strung together, kinematic (the kinetics of identity), cinematic if you will,” and portrays the inextricability of the public and private, of life and art, and valorizes the “home” and the personal as “ground” of her writing. Also, by including photographs of her son Kit and Bridget, as well as autographing the front cover below her picture, Marlatt “signs” with her life.

Celebrating connections, Marlatt produces not only a personal history, but also a treasured history of the women writing in Canada during this period. Other women's voices chorus through the text in plentiful and evocative quotations. Thus, she performatively enacts and documents the community she values so much. The historical photographs of such Canadian writers as Nicole Brossard, Betsy Warland, Mary Meigs, Phyllis Webb, Joy Kogawa, Dorothy Livesay, Jeanette Armstrong, Audrey Thomas, Sky Lee, and Gail Scott profoundly represent the richness of the community that surrounds her. Her text traces the origins of Tessera in 1981, with Barbara Godard, Gail Scott, and Kathy Mezei, and discusses major conferences, including: “Dialogue Conference” (1981, York U), “Women and Words” (1983, Vancouver), “Telling It” (1986, Women's Studies Conference, SFU). The (a)mazing spiral of women's names spreads outwards to include the historical “muse” figures of Sappho, Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and H. D., who began a lesbian tradition of writing, and the more contemporary lesbian writing/theoretical influences of Monique Wittig, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Teresa de Lauretis, Bonnie Zimmerman, and Judy Grahn.

One measure of the wealth of Marlatt's contributions to Canadian writing is the vast network of interrelated issues her essays address. Marlatt engages language, writing, memory, autobiography, subjectivity, gender, desire, lesbian sexuality, alternative family structures, mother-daughter relations, colonialism, racism, poverty, and she emphasizes the importance of the experiential body as site and source of subjectivity and of social inscriptions.

Autobiographical writing of lesbian subjectivity is a theoretical thread that weaves through the text. Marlatt begins the volume with a journal entry from 1982, when she was writer-in-residence at the University of Manitoba. At the time she says she was “coming out as a lesbian in my life as well as in my writing”; she includes reflections on Audre Lorde's connections of the erotic and joy, and on Nicole Brossard's “focus on le corps, les mots, l'imaginaire—and their connections” (1). The monograph concludes with “For the private reader: interplay in the public realm,” an essay which offers “another investigation of the reader-writer relationship, more specifically in the context of lesbian autobiography. She writes, “Perhaps this is a (revising) lesbian resistance to the already formulated? Experiencing what can't be, at least in the terms i was taught to perceive the world through: just as lesbian desire moves against the family edict (and towards the unspoken, unspeakable charm a certain woman exerts).”

The volume records her writerly trajectory. She recalls a “pre-dyke” poem from the sixties which was the “first (or second) prose poem” she had written, one which she reminisces was “bristling with the sense of being other—years before i read Brossard or Wittig's narrative mosaic.”

The concept of language as a major force structuring our lives grounds her essays. In her celebrated and much-quoted “Musing with Mothertongue” (1982), Marlatt addresses the connections between language and meaning, language and the body, and most significantly for women, the need to hear “the discrepancy between what our patriarchally loaded language bears (can bear) of our experience and the difference from it our language bears out—how it misrepresents, even miscarries, and so leaves unsaid what we actually experience.” While foregrounding the gendered violences inherent in language, at the same time Marlatt celebrates the possibility language offers for self-representation and self-re-creation. Self-writing is a crucial act of self-authorization and agency for marginalized individuals. Her essay “Entering In: The Immigrant Imagination” (which appeared in the hundredth anniversary issue of Canadian Literature in 1984) connects writing, imagination, and subjectivity: “It seems to me that the situation of being an immigrant is a perfect seed-bed for the writing sensibility. If you don't belong, you can imagine you belong, you can retell its history in a way that admits you,” she states.

Marlatt frequently discusses her novels Ana Historic and Taken in terms of semi-autobiography and using writing as a survival tool and method for coming to terms with the past. In “Self Representation and Fictionalysis” (1989), she states that “Autobiography has come to be called life-writing which i take to mean writing for your life. … it is in the energetic imagining of all that we are that we can enact ourselves.”

The relationship of reading and writing is a major dynamic Marlatt explores. As well as creating “reality” and self-understanding for the individual in the process of writing—a “coming-into-being”—the writing offers opportunities for reader identification and association. The words “connections,” “commonality,” “community,” and “collaboration” echo throughout the text. According to Marlatt, “To write is to oscillate in the space between self and other” in a “back-and-forth movement across boundaries.” “Perform[ing] on the Stage of Her Text,” Marlatt demonstrates the continuous need to re-member the past in order to live fully in the present and anticipate the future, to voice differences as well as desires, and to negotiate public space with courage. She challenges readers to participate in her interrogation of the “deeply encoded social scripts for what constitutes femininity.”

Readings from the Labyrinth is an eloquent and unquestionably valuable contribution to Canadian literature, and should also be of immense interest to researchers and teachers of women's history, women's writing, autobiographical and literary theory, gender studies, and lesbian studies. Presenting a lively and generously written autobiographic overview of her writings and her poetic aesthetic in relation to others who shared such precious moments, Marlatt's volume should also provide a satisfying and appreciated gift for the general reader. The dialogue she seeks to create and celebrate, and the sensuous beauty of her words, leave a lingering impression and a desire for more.

Jonathan Kertzer (essay date 1998)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8990

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, that there may be no way to subsume the discontinuous and incomparable individual manifestations of ‘life’ in a continuous and intelligible pattern—in a word, that history does not make sense.

Lionel Gossman, Between History and Literature

Romantic historiography sets itself the contradictory task of recapturing the past while maintaining its remote uniqueness. The historian has to ‘retain distinctions [between past and present] while at the same time affirming unity and continuity’ (Gossman 261), but to succeed at the first would mean to fail at the second, and vice versa. On the one hand, a historical text should provide direct access to the lived past; it should be ‘the inmost form of the real, binding, and inescapable’ (244). On the other hand, historians must respect a ‘residual gap’ (274) between past and present by refining ‘a process of divination or symbolic interpretation’ (244), a process that is indirect and mysterious. Gossman claims that for nineteenth-century writers, this paradox raised the fear that history was inconsistent to the point that it did not make sense. Life is messy; history is neat; but the writing of history raises a disruptive anxiety, which often was figured as ‘the chthonic, the unbounded, the unstructured, the lawless’ (274), or as ‘the untamable female (“Circe,” “marâtre”) beneath the gentle, suckling mother’ (275). Patriotic and literary histories are haunted by a fear that the nation is not a gentle nurse or fatherly genius, but a monstrosity. The very urgency with which nation building was pursued testifies to a suspicion that, however hard one tries to domesticate it, one's home remains alien territory. Something disrupts the heroic task of nation building, not just in the sense that there are unforeseen obstacles, but that there is something in the very idea of the nation that resists historians' efforts to master it. In Jules Michelet's writing, Gossman finds a ‘combination of terror, desire, reverence and an exacerbated need for mastery’ (274) in view of the ‘dreaded, undecipherable underside’ (275) of what is supposed to be a rational discipline. The nation is supposed to make sense of history, but if history does not make sense, then what of its main building block?

At the end of chapter 2, I described the nation's dreaded underside as a demon, summoned by Geoffrey Hartman to explain how the genius loci can be a lawless energy that disperses identity, as well as a protective spirit. Nation builders recruited poets in their campaign to legitimize a homeland by giving it a past, a destiny, and a voice, only to discover in dismay that poetry also shows why the nation does not make sense. Literature has always been a vital but unreliable ally of ideology because it weakens the social cohesion that it is supposed to promote. It challenges the nationalism in which it is implicated, because its self-interrogating forms put that ideology on critical display. If a national literature encourages ideological equanimity, it also rouses ideological commotion. If it knits people together, it also shows how the knitting was accomplished and at what cost. This view, which is romantic, Marxist, modernist, feminist, and postmodernist in turn, even charms an ascetic deconstructionist such as Paul de Man. He contends that art is privileged by a ‘literariness’ that exposes the ‘discrepancy between truth and method’ (Resistance 4), or between what I have called poetic justice and literary justness: ‘What we call ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism. It follows that, more than any other mode of inquiry, including economics, the linguistics of literariness is a powerful and indispensable tool in the unmasking of ideological aberrations, as well as a determining factor in accounting for their occurrence … It upsets rooted ideologies by revealing the mechanics of their workings’ (11).

Following this view, one might rejoice that ‘the disassembling eye’ (Sedgwick, Between Men 15) of art1 will always triumph over propaganda, because it sees the truth even in a world of lies. I am not so optimistic,2 but I do believe that a national literature has a double function in keeping with its historical and literary aspects. One of its effects is to build a consensus about what a nation was, is, and aspires to be. It forges a sense of community by articulating the cultural sociability that sustains, or lamentably has failed to sustain, a nation. A contrary effect, however, is to reveal the shifting, partisan nature of the national consensus, especially when it is subject to all the strains of a pluralist society. To the resisting reader, even the most patriotic writing contests the justice of the public forum by showing that the nation is not only the reward for honest labour (Goldsmith), or cooperative ingenuity (Pratt), or scrupulous, philosophical meditation (Lee). It is also an elaborate artifice, a social imaginary convoking people, place, and time. It is a national dream shared by some and imposed on others, a dream that can become obsessive and therefore monstrous. As a model of personal and communal life, the nation can terrify as well as nurture.

In chapter 1 I noted how Lynette Hunter cleverly expresses this dilemma through the paradox of cultivated amnesia. A national canon issues ‘the nervous instruction of remembering to forget, that each private individual must carry out to be a subject true to the nation’ (16): we must dutifully forget that our nation is an unstable ideological project rather than a sturdy fact of nature. But ironically, the literary weave of those instructions, as enunciated in poetry, fiction, and drama, also teaches us to ‘remember the forgotten’ (17): careful reading discloses a nervous subtext, a figure in the carpet that reveals how the national fabric was woven, and at whose expense. I will study the novels Obasan [by Joy Kowaga] and Ana Historic as exercises in the unweaving of repressed memories, but first I wish to show how the Canadian ghost has turned into a monster.


Issuing nervous instructions (worrying) is all too common in English-Canadian literary history, from E. H. Dewart's anxiety about founding a national canon to Northrop Frye's elegant metaphysical disorientation, ‘Where is here?’ Frye became especially influential after he detected the ‘stark terror’ of Canadian poets bewildered by the ‘sphinx-like riddle of the indefinite’ as posed by their monstrous land (Bush Garden 138). The sphinx is Goldsmith's wilderness, Pratt's lizard, and Lee's Void. Its enticing-but-deadly riddle asks how nature can be unnatural, how one's home can be alien, and why, as a consequence, the boundaries of the self seem so amorphous. The monster is utter exteriority: the outer world receding beyond human mastery. And it is utter interiority: the psyche's undecipherable underside. These paradoxes appear in numerous poetic evocations of sinking and drowning, welcoming disaster, wielding the double hook, and embracing the darkness.3 Even Dennis Lee's children's verse ‘The Coat’ offers an example: ‘I patched my coat with darkness: / That coat has kept me warm’ (Nicholas Knock 47).

Granted, these themes and images appear in all literature, ancient and modern, and Frye associates their rhythm of ascent and descent with the generic structure of romance. But in Canada, their uncanny combination of terror and promise4 is associated specifically with the nation. Confronting the terror and releasing its promise become both national themes and aesthetic rewards. They provide a dour justice to Canadians seeking to identify themselves. According to this national ordeal, readers will know themselves only by losing themselves in the riddle of their country, as it is cryptically expressed in their literature. I suggested in chapter 1 that literary justness is partly a function of genre: different kinds of literature envision different systems of adequacy and redress, which offer different satisfactions to the reader. If we follow the Frygian line of argument, which treats Canada as a monstrosity to be entered in fear and trembling, like Jonah being swallowed by the whale (Bush Garden 217), then we would expect to find works that fail to fulfil their generic expectations—works like ‘The Rising Village’ and ‘Towards the Last Spike.’ In this view, however, the fact that they fail to deliver exactly what they promise—selfhood, nationhood—testifies to their authenticity as Canadian riddles. The justice rendered by Canadian literature, so to speak, finds the reader guilty of being Canadian. We heard this verdict delivered in ‘Civil Elegies.’

The nation-as-monster serves as a structural motif in literary histories, where it expresses the complex fate of a country never quite at home in its own place. It appears as the bush engulfing the garrison with a saving ferocity in Jones's Butterfly on Rock (1970), as the ‘ice women’ in Atwood's Survival (1972), and as the anxious shifting of perspectives and identities in McGregor's The Wacousta Syndrome (1985). For all their differences, these studies quite conventionally continue the nationalist tradition of charting the growth of ‘the Canadian imagination’ in its quest for authenticity. They treat the national imagination as an evolving spiritual/psychological/social form, and never doubt that it is a valid subject of analysis. Disrupting its growth are dangerous forces, at first identified with brutal nature, then with a paralysing puritanical society, and then with neocolonial and patriarchal subservience. To develop authentically, Canada must come to terms with its secret self, although just what those terms are varies from writer to writer. Canadians—that is, puritanical, colonial, English-Canadian settlers—must immerse themselves in what Gossman calls the chthonic, lawless energy that torments yet sustains their national being. Literary history thus serves as a squire assisting Canadian literature on its quest to confront the national monster.

In these three studies, which I treat as more or less the fruition of traditional English-Canadian literary history, literature serves a therapeutic purpose. It diagnoses an infection in the Canadian psyche and recommends a cure through an advance from dejection to courage (Jones), a sequence of victim positions (Atwood), or a growing talent for compromise (McGregor). These psychological, moral, and social progressions may appear within individual works or in the developing corpus of Canadian writing. Its progressive sociability is also aesthetic in character because Canadian literature is supposed to grow increasingly artful by developing ‘a new and distinctively Canadian style of writing’ (McGregor 75). We are in familiar territory here, where social authenticity, literary merit, and national purpose all vouch for each other. But the Canadian monster, which must be slain in a mythological ordeal, is still ‘our’ monster. As our national subconscious, it is a persistent and even essential aspect of the country. Therefore to vanquish it would be oddly self-defeating, since we would thereby destroy our distinctiveness. Instead, the monster must be respected and preserved. The physical and imaginative frontier, which it represents, must be kept ‘perpetual’ (Morton 72), so that writers can continually pit themselves against it in order to confirm their divided identity. They must obsessively re-enact the primal encounter between humanity and inchoate nature: ‘As a result of this mechanism, even generations removed from the real wilderness the form, if no longer always the content, of Canadian consciousness is still derived explicitly from the peculiar relation between the northerner and his environment. The resulting structure, in both graphic and logical variants, permeates Canadian art and literature’ (McGregor 77). This quotation illustrates McGregor's debt to the environmentalist ‘frontier thesis’ developed by Frederick Jackson Turner in the United States and applied with some strain to Canadian history.5 For many years it dominated English-Canadian literary history and, after a period of disdain in the 1970s and 1980s, it has begun to reappear, suitably revised, in ecological studies such as D. M. R. Bentley's The Gay/Grey Moose (1992).

However, many Canadian writers were never shaped by a northern mystique. They have not had to ‘cut the umbilical cord to the wilderness,’ as Hugh Kenner advised (207), because their national ties lie elsewhere. Himani Bannerji, who was born in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), in effect replies to Kenner in her poem, ‘A Letter for Home.’ She, too, seeks a Canadian home, but she faces a different monster:

I still have a stake on this land
It is true that I have walked a long way
carrying an earthen jar
With the ashes of my ancestors, earth from my land,
some grains and oil, and my cast off umbilicus.
I have buried this urn here
under my hearth, and built a fire
that I feed daily, and watch the shapes
gather and give me the news
from the other world.

(A Separate Sky 24)

The transplanted umbilicus is a startling reworking of familiar immigrant imagery. It illustrates how themes associated with traditional Canadian literature are radically recast in ethnic writing. The calamities of emigration, exile, and dislocation persist, but they arise from national and racial differences, not from venturing into the wilderness, whether physical or metaphysical. A fearful ‘otherness’ persists, too, but it has different sources. For example in South Asian—Canadian poetry: ‘This outsider is painfully aware of the contradictions that the cement of a homogeneous ideology carefully conceals from a full-fledged member of the dominant group. Consequently, South Asian poets write less about man's response to nature, the woes of age and death, the joys and pains of sexual love, and other such staples of poets through the ages, and more about racism, poverty, discrimination, colonial exploitation, imperialism, and ideological domination’ (Mukherjee 53).

I suspect that Canadian ideology is less homogeneous than Arun Mukherjee suggests here, but there is no denying that it can be violently exclusive. Ethnic literature presents Atwood's key theme of survival, but predators and prey are redefined by injustice and racism, so that ‘the theme itself now shift[s] from mere survival to something like “survival under oppression”’ (Sugunasiri 35). To writers such as Bannerji and Suwanda Sugunasiri, the oppressive terror associated with Canada is found in the city and in civil institutions rather than in the bush. The battles between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are refigured as family and communal disputes, which arise when immigrants are urged to assimilate yet scorned when they try to do so. Monstrosity appears in the hypocritical way that hatred pervades a bland social setting. Immigrant stories often depict a hellish scene in the midst of mundane reality, a scene revealing the cruelty that underlies official claims of tolerance and liberty. Examples include the infernal boiler-room episode in John Marilyn's Under the Ribs of Death, the grotesque cultural mismatches in Mordecai Richler, the sepulchral Toronto of Austin Clarke's stories, and Bannerji's own portrait of an ‘alien street’ viewed as if through ‘the reverse end of a telescope’ in ‘The Other Family’ (141-2). Such horrifying scenes expose two conflicting demands: a ‘multicultural ossificatory imperative,’ which segregates people in fixed stereotypes, and an ‘assimilative imperative,’ which obliterates real cultural differences (Bannerji, ‘The Other Family’ 148). Like a mythological monster, the nation both petrifies and consumes. But it is no longer ‘our’ monster in the awful but redemptive way that it was for Jones, Atwood, and McGregor. Now there is no way to wear its dark coat.

Exclusion and assimilation are also strategies of containment in literary history. Ethnic writers complain that their work has been either ignored or travestied by mainstream critics, partly because it does not share the frontier mystique, but ultimately because it does not serve what Joseph Pivato calls a ‘federalist interpretation of Canadian literary history’ (21):

Both the view of history and the reading of literature have neglected the institutions, ideas, values and folklore that immigrants brought from Europe and other countries.

The search for a single unifying myth in Canadian writing has its counter parts [sic] in the federalist quest for national unity, and in the clear anglocentrism of Canadian History and the anglo-conformism of Canadian Studies … The price for the lack of angloconformism is the possibility of being marginalized, or being ignored and forgotten.


Viewed in this way, the obsessive pursuit of national identity is no longer an existential ordeal, but a way of excluding writers who are haunted by different ancestral ghosts, and whose stories depict the nation, not as a precious, public space carved out of the wilderness, but as a battleground of conflicting loyalties. Even when ethnic writers are welcomed into the Canadian canon, they are assigned eccentric roles that render them humorous or harmless. Ethnic humour is often a devious expression of powerlessness, and even multiculturalism, which has been welcomed as democratic by some ethnic and Native writers (Parameswaran 89-90, Agnes Grant 125), is rejected as coercive by others because, however generous its intentions, it eventually rewrites the colonizing discourse that it claims to reject. It welcomes diversity, but only within the old hierarchy. For Donna Bennett, ‘multiculturalism does encourage some understanding between cultures, but it also keeps cultures separate and allows them to be identified as Other. By institutionalizing multiculturalism, Canada has encouraged identity through alterity. In doing so, it has effectively institutionalized marginality, an action that is always associated with postcolonialism’ (‘English Canada's’ 193-4). Here, the ethnic is deprived of independent social agency by being relegated, ever so politely, to the sidelines. For Smaro Kamboureli, ‘The possibility of ethnicity becoming a compulsory or inescapable label in a state with an official multicultural policy submits familial genealogies, or biologism, as a prerogative for subjectivity, thereby failing to furnish the subject in question with agency, or limiting that agency within an environment that might be exclusively constructed by displacement. Posited that way, ethnicity runs the risk of becoming a master narrative of marginalization that subordinates the subject's present condition to its past roots, which are privileged because of their “authenticity”’ (‘Canadian Ethnic Anthologies’ 27-8). Here, ethnicity is pushed out of history into folklore or myth, where its roots are ‘authentic’ but petrified. A multicultural environment ‘constructed by displacement’ is only a more subtle form of control. It enforces a sociability that makes ethnic writers seem ungrateful if they do not accept the rules that define them as subordinate.

National ghost and monster are transformed further in feminist studies, where the tables are turned on the romantic historicist fear of ‘the untamable female.’ Now the monstrous nation is redefined as patriarchy. The familiar themes of frontiers, borders, victims, and predators still express shifting configurations of power and knowledge, but the terms are all redeployed. Now male-dominated society is ‘the engulfing monster,’ whereas nature offers refuge, freedom, or renewal to female victims (Annis Pratt 161-2). In this analysis the nation does not disappear, but becomes all the more important as a site of rebellion. Instead of meekly accepting the minor place assigned to them in the civil forum, women contest the nation by reconfiguring it. That is, they vie for control of both the social/literary territory and the discursive means of defining that territory. Susan Jackel reports that ‘[f]eminist consciousness in Canada grew up side by side with national consciousness, emerging as the social-reformist or maternal feminism that historians see as the norm in this country’ (99). Early feminism was well domesticated. As it grew less ladylike, its alliance with nationalism was complicated rather than abandoned. Feminist interests never eclipsed national ones, but became increasingly entangled with them as the critical strategies of exclusion and incorporation, which previously had disqualified feminist views, were turned to ironic advantage. Previously, Jackel advises, ‘women in Canada have all too often seen their efforts towards equality and independence swallowed up by “the national interest”’ (108). But now feminism displays its own national character, so that women should not ‘accept uncritically theories—even feminist theories—evolved elsewhere, without reference to Canadian experience or Canadian texts’ (109). Through a strategic reversal, nationality can be recruited in the feminist cause. Lorraine Weir reaches a similar conclusion.

If women's texts are to the texts of patriarchy as Canada is and was to America and Britain, then it will not surprise us that much of the best writing in Canada exemplifies the strategies, and often the thematics as well, of women's texts—a metonymic polarity which is even more obvious in the relationship of Québécois writing to Anglo-Canadian. Prolonged experience of material and psychic colonization utters itself through textual violence, whether the introjected violence of deflective irony and decentring or the readerly violence of private parallax, partial revelation, the hidden subtext: strategies which demand the shared response of the designated community.

(Weir, ‘Toward a Feminist Hermeneutics’ 68)

Where W. D. Lighthall praised a healthy ‘virility’ in Canadian writing (xxi), Weir finds a feminized counter-violence that subverts the master-narratives of traditional literary history. Yet her own argument, as illustrated here, employs the same tactics as earlier Canadian studies—the tactic of positioning Canada between Britain and the United States; of tracing the perverse effects of colonialism and violence; of aligning literary merit (‘the best writing’) with political purpose; of conflating psychological and cultural dilemmas; of distinguishing personal text from social subtext; of fostering a cultural community. All the familiar terms have shifted in accordance with a hermeneutic that criss-crosses feminist and national discourses.6

Finally, the metamorphosis of nation-as-mother into nation-as-monster appears in its most distressing form in Native writing. It offers the greatest rebuke to Canadian literary history, whose methods and models have been positively hostile to indigenous nations. It is astonishing that reverence for ‘the native,’ which inspired the nation building dreams of romantic historicism, was accompanied in the Americas by such contempt for actual Natives. As we have seen, Wilfred Eggleston saw no inconsistency in cultivating a ‘strictly native literature’ (2) whose spirit and philosophy would be ‘European, certainly not Indian, or anything else’ (30). This cultural eviction repeats Goldsmith's triumphant banishing of Natives from ‘The Rising Village,’ even though historically they continued to live only a few miles away. From the perspective of the 1990s, this irony is multiplied many times. The familiar lexicon of terms like ‘New World,’ ‘garrison,’ ‘frontier,’ ‘settlement,’ and ‘ordeal’ is charged with irony as soon as European colonials are recognized as colonizers. Then the purgatorial ordeal by which they embrace their nation's secret self becomes an elaborate exercise in self-deception. For example, the theme of survival is cruelly reversed in Maria Campbell's Halfbreed, where all the traditional sources of terror (nature, the outside, Native families and customs) become precarious refuges for Campbell; whereas all the sources of comfort (city, school, church, government) become oppressive. ‘My Cheechum used to tell me that when the government gives you something, they take all that you have in return—your pride, your dignity, all the things that make you a living soul. When they are sure they have everything, they give you a blanket to cover your shame. She said that the churches, with their talk about God, the Devil, heaven and hell, and schools that taught children to be ashamed, were all a part of that government’ (159). From a Métis point of view ‘Canadian literature’ is itself a blanket covering a dreadful secret. It is an open secret, however, continually disclosed by poets such as Goldsmith and Pratt, who make an imaginative pilgrimage back to the moment of national origin, only to reveal its underlying shame. Even the blurb on the Goodread Biographies edition of Halfbreed repeats the displacement of Natives by announcing sympathetically: ‘This extraordinary account, written by a young Métis woman, opens the door to a little-known world that coexists alongside Canadian society.’ Unfortunately, the wording implies that Métis society is not Canadian. …

To ethnic, feminist, and Native writers, the bourgeois nation is a monster, an ideological aberration to be corrected, rather than a natural habitation. But corrected on behalf of what alternative? What new vision of community and citizenship is to replace it, and what sort of literature will speak for its improved sociability? In order to pursue these questions I will examine two novels that dis-member and re-member the nation, in keeping with Lynette Hunter's maxim that literature teaches us to recall what ideology teaches us to forget. Hunter cites Marx and Freud on cultural amnesia, but she might also have appealed to Ernest Renan, who claimed that nations are unified only by carefully suppressing their formative discord: ‘Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation … Unity is always effected by means of brutality … Yet the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things. No French citizen knows whether he is a Burgundian, an Alan, a Taifale, or a Visigoth, yet every French citizen has to have forgotten the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, or the massacres that took place in the Midi in the thirteenth century’ (11). Error, in the sense of deviation, is not only a theme but a structural principle in Obasan and Ana Historic, which illustrate Lionel Gossman's paradox that historians must build a coherent nation out of brutal historical incoherence. These unconventional novels remain traditional in at least one respect: they continue to treat Canada as a riddle to be entered imaginatively rather than solved rationally. For both, history is not merely erroneous and so subject to correction. History is error, in the sense of errare, to wander.7 Perversely, both works rely on wandering forms to set things right—where rightness again involves a merging of personal self-possession, social justice, and aesthetic satisfaction. Their aberrant styles ensure that error will be unavoidable, because deviation is the norm in which right and wrong are interwoven. …


I know that timid breathing. Where
do I begin and end?

Wallace Stevens, ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’

Obasan and Ana Historic are about timid beginnings and tumultuous endings. More specifically, they are about finding a way to end—to complete a story, a historical period, a painful stage in one's life—in order to start afresh. The two narrators, Naomi and Annie, refuse to ‘repeat history,’ because it is a tale of frustration and loss, and look instead to what Annie calls: ‘promise: the budding of some secret future in me, little knowing all the eggs were already there, lined up and waiting. promise: letting go, a rhythmically repeated event starting each month from full’ (Ana Historic 62). As Wallace Stevens illustrates, to start afresh means to be refreshed when one discovers the world and one's place in it freshly.

Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one's torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water

(‘The Poems of Our Climate’ 193-4)

Renewal of this sort is always a re-newal in which the old world is not abandoned but renovated. Stevens's aim is not utopian but practical; he seeks the vibrancy of felt experience, not transcendence. The ‘I’ will always remain evilly compounded, as Naomi discovers so painfully, but she can still find ways of affirming her own vitality. Where Stevens appeals to the yearly cycle, Annie's imagery evokes a fertile circularity associated with women—with menstrual and birth cycles, with the succession of mothers and daughters, and with women's writing. These forms requite the vicious circularity associated with men and with history as a self-defeating logic of exploitation. Naomi and Annie embrace the future by obsessively rehearsing the patterns of the past in order to gain release from them. To achieve the sense of an ending requires that they make sense of the beginning whose inciting energy got things going in the first place.

that's her name:
                              back, backward, reversed
                              again, anew

(Ana Historic 43)

But if Annie renews herself by breaking ‘free of history’ with its ‘useless baggage’ (14), where exactly does that leave her? What is the relation between history and promise, especially when the history at issue concerns a nation that is itself in search of renewal?

For Annie, who works as a research assistant to her historian husband, history is ‘husbandry’ (142). It is manipulative, intrusive, abusive, and ultimately fatal. It is ruled by a deadly fatality entailed by the first attack of Europeans on a paradisal continent (‘a green so green it outgreened itself’ [15]), an attack that functions in Ana Historic like original sin, tainting all subsequent actions.8 To the male commentators cited from historical records, these actions are heroic exploits that conquer a new world: ‘history the story, Carter's and all the others', of dominance. mastery. the bold line of it’ (25). But to Annie, nation building—represented as felling the forests, extending the railway, settling British Columbia—is doomed by its beginning, because a nation constructed so violently can only become a monster that turns on its creator. This is one of the lessons that she learns from Frankenstein.9Obasan and Ana Historic are threatened by growing catastrophes, whose dehumanizing effects are incalculable and whose sources stretch far into the past, beyond history into legend. For Naomi, the bombing of Nagasaki is the dreadful culmination of a long history of Western, scientific expertise. For Annie, historical mastery is associated with the epic venture of European colonialism to the ‘end of the world’ (30) in pursuit of glory and wealth. Ironically, the end of things is forecast by a hopeful beginning in which the world is to be ‘made new’ (30), but only through a logical and technological discipline that inevitably grows tyrannical.

Why inevitably? The question of necessity recurs in Ana Historic as the converse of its fascination with kinds of freedom. Marlatt draws on feminist and post-colonial theories according to which Western historical thinking conforms to a dominant paradigm based on the supremacy of the Cartesian cogito, which is master of all it surveys, and on the Hegelian appropriation of objects by a voracious subjectivity (see Chatterjee 14-17). According to this paradigm, ‘thinking’ is never an impartial or objective activity, even when it pretends to be a neutral investigation of facts. Rather, it is the tyranny of mind over matter, and over other minds, which are treated as matter to be known and so subjugated. The invasion of Canada, like the invasion of India and the East (alluded to in Ana Historic 136), is impelled by a imperialist logic infusing all aspects of Western culture, many of which appear in the novel: exploration, commerce, science, sociology, medicine, history. All such ‘disciplines’ are means of subduing reality by knowing it, and what is subdued is life in all its rich contradictoriness. All aim to bring ‘the intuitive, emotional Other under the scientistic tutelage of the rational, all-knowing Western Subject’ (Trinh 20). Marlatt accepts this paradigm with the qualification that it is also phallocentric and can be countered by a feminist critique, because feminist thought is launched from within the ‘intuitive, emotional, Other.’ Annie already knows herself to be intuitive and emotional, but she has to learn that these are strengths, not shortcomings. She has to learn to accept the ‘upheaval within’ her (Ana Historic 122) as ground for a fresh life.

To return to my question: why inevitably? The fate against which Annie rebels is so involuted that it threatens to entangle her even when she is about to extricate herself from it. In one respect, her fate is personal and involves her relation to mother and husband. In another respect, it is cultural and involves her role as a woman in a patriarchal society. In a third, it is historical and involves her position in Canada and the West. According to conventional historiography, which Ana Historic presents as a monologic, masculine, and monopolistic (Manina Jones 140, 149, 159), the ‘bold line’ of progress follows an ‘incontrovertible logic of cause and effect’ (Ana Historic 147). Historical advance may be spurred by the resourcefulness of individual men, but ultimately it is enforced by an potent brew of economics, technology, and testosterone. ‘Progress,’ so determined, is inevitable. In place of these motives, Annie anahistorically discerns a moral necessity in the course of events, according to which heroic advance is refigured as growing corruption. For example, one of her documents advises: ‘Think what this mastery over huge, heavy logs means to a man who has been used to coax them in tiny movements by patience and a puny jack-screw’ (25). Annie answers this rhetorical question against its grain. What does such mastery mean? It means that the epic story of mastery should (the imperative is moral) be re-read as a tale of domination, enslavement, and sexual bravado, which will eventually exact their due punishment. Both interpretations of history distinguish necessary patterns in it, but they assess the necessity, and the value of human actions within that necessity, quite differently.

At first glance, Annie apparently rejects retrospective, male history in favour of prospective, female promise. While she does suggest this handy opposition of terms. Marlatt, who must be distinguished from her character, quickly shows the complications that beset so oversimplified a schema. When Annie sees history as trespass (assaulting the New World) she assesses it in moral terms. When she sees history as a destructive fatality, she assesses it in dramatic terms. These are precisely the techniques that national historians used to envision a nation and chart its destiny. For all her waywardness, then, Annie continues to rely on established discursive strategies, which, however, she cleverly turns against the nation builders in order to expose the cruelty of their regulations. She wants to subvert their laws (the law of the father), but in so doing she implicates herself all the more deeply in the problematic by which historians continually invoke and infringe legality. True, she is a rebel, but she rebels on behalf of a more generous sense of justice (13). She continues to read history as the story of (in)justice.

My point is that Annie's rebellion does not permit her to escape from history into some antithetical mode of discourse. She must find her promises within history. Although she makes a ‘monstrous leap of imagination’ (135) that exposes the patriarchal nation as a monstrosity, she cannot leap out of history. Although she enjoys ‘imagining herself free of history’ (14), she discovers that freedom and justice are always historical. They cannot be found in escapist flights of fancy; or in a private ‘luxury of being’ (153); or in nature, which she represents as ‘the Old Wood’ where lost girls play (12). Her response to the prospect of ‘standing outside of history’ (Marlatt's words in Bowering 102) is to write herself back into it. The word ‘anahistoric’ does not mean non-historic in the sense of transgressing historical discourse altogether. According to the Greek lexicon, the preposition/adverb ‘ana’ has a variety of meanings depending on how it is used. It can mean: on, upon, back, towards, up (of place), throughout (of time). All these positionalities reflect Annie's critical relation to conventional historiography, which she reframes in accordance with her own imperatives.10

My question, ‘Why inevitably?’ thus points to competing historical imperatives, but also to competing notions of freedom. Annie cannot rebel against history as such, only against her own small place in it. In her own life, the end of things is an impasse where her private life is so constrained that it loses all public significance: ‘impasse: impossible to exit. dead end. when the walls close down. the public/private wall. defined the world you lived inside’ (23). She is afraid of being trapped as her mother was: ‘no wonder you were afraid. sick with the fear of fate, you walked in a world of disasters … you wanted it to end, the world i mean, at least the world as it was then constituted. because for you there was no way out’ (142-3). Annie's solution is not to end the world, but to renew it and herself: ‘i wasn't dreaming of history, the already-made, but of making fresh tracks my own way’ (98). My question now becomes: Where do these fresh tracks lead her? When she realizes that she and all women are trapped paradoxically ‘in the midst of freedom and yet not free’ (54), she raises the hope of liberating herself by seizing a superior mode of freedom. Given the post-structuralist terms of the novel, an alternative freedom will require other forms of discourse, authority, and subject positioning. Many of the studies of Ana Historic (by Manina Jones, Dragland, Tostevin, Cooley, Banting) investigate these antithetical forms as composed by Marlatt and lived by Annie. They include fragmentation, citation, interruption, juxtaposition, echoes, and word-play—all the techniques of the modernist avant-garde used to elicit an écriture féminine, a rich semiotic idiom in which Annie can express herself freely. Her ana-forms may be radically unstable or provisional in contrast to stern patriarchal laws, but through their very instability they must permit her to redirect her fate: ‘to fly in the face of common sense, social convention, ethics—the weight of history, to fly’ (146).

Her alternative freedom must involve something better than a determined assertion of self-importance, since both the self and the discourses of self-assertion are problematized in Ana Historic. If she proclaims herself free only in aggressive, patriarchal terms, then she will merely be reformulating her servitude. In the most familiar sense, freedom means release from constraint—from unjust social conventions, decorum, and male domination. To ‘fly’ means to escape. But it also means perfecting one's ability to fly: freedom arises from the enhanced ability and control made possible by release from constraint. To be free in any practical sense, one must have the knowledge, ability, and power to do something with one's freedom. This active aspect of freedom is expressed through word-play: ‘what is fact? (f) act. the f stop of act’ (31, also 56, 134). The dead weight of fact, which is really historical fiction, impedes independent female action by freezing it as if in a photograph. These two aspects of freedom, which I will call release (from constraint) and increase (of knowledge and ability), are logically connected in that the first is the negative precondition of the second. One must not be constrained if one is to exercise one's enhanced knowledge, ability, and power. One important qualification of freedom, so defined, is that it requires a favourable setting to provide the enabling and limiting conditions in which free choice can occur. Freedom always operates within a social setting that restricts or extends possibilities for action. One is free to do only what one's environment makes available. Divine freedom may be utterly unconstrained, but human freedom is always enmeshed in necessity. For example, Annie wants to ‘fly,’ in the double sense of release and increase, but, even metaphorically, flying means working within the necessary conditions of air, speed, gravity, and so on. Similarly, she can embrace a promising future only by accepting conditions already in place: ‘promise … little knowing all the eggs were already there, lined up and waiting’ (62). She cannot choose to be a woman, only to be a free woman.

A further complication of the freedom to which Annie aspires is that release and increase are interconnected but not necessarily complementary. Freedom must be active, but actions are always equivocal, because they arise from unfathomable motives and produce unforeseen results. As I just noted, for Annie freedom involves not just the absence of constraint, but the will, ability, and knowledge to act effectively. But the unrestrained exercise of these powers is precisely what drives the historiography of colonial expansion, and she condemns that expansion as subjugating, not liberating. She discovers that one nation's freedom grows at the expense of another's. One nation's freedom may even increase with a willful ferocity that contaminates its own social setting by making it alienating and self-destructive. In that case, one freely constructs a world in which freedom diminishes. I have already argued that in opposition to conventional history, Annie advocates the moral responsibility and modesty of a female historiography that will not be manipulative: ‘perhaps that explains why our writing, which we also live inside of, is different from men's, and not a tool, not a “pure instrument for getting a grip on the world”’ (133). But she later proposes another kind of freedom, which is gripping in another way.

Ana Historic celebrates the joyful discovery of a freedom expressed, not as flying but as falling—as in free fall, falling in love, and falling apart (150). Instead of gaining control, one releases it in a rapturous jouissance. Instead of enlarging one's powers, one abandons oneself to superb forces, which the novel presents as fruitful, although there are sinister versions of this story. The self frees itself of all egotism until it barely persists as a separate entity, as Marlatt expresses through a lyrical conflation of pronouns: ‘she who is you / or me / “i” / address this to’ (129). Ecstatic freedom is also evoked by a series of dangerously seductive rhetorical figures: the wild woods, dancing, breaching limits, broken syntax, accidents, inwardness, animism, torrents (the name Annie finally chooses for herself). Critically it is associated with the free play of the signifier, semiotic excess, écriture féminine, Bakhtinian carnival, the deterritorialized ethnic subject—in short, the dizzy playground of post-structuralist theory. Freedom of this sort is so exorbitant that it can obscure all else, at which point it may become obsessive, narcotic, or mystical. We then encounter the same dilemma that arises in Obasan when Naomi's inward flight threatens to engulf her entirely and to divorce her from the practical freedom she seeks. Similarly Annie finds refuge in a blissful female space that threatens to become a world apart. Frank Davey criticizes Ana Historic for escaping into utopian fantasy rather than accepting political responsibility: ‘What may appear superficially to be a political novel, a novel that challenges from a feminist perspective how society is structured, what discourses and roles it allows to women, is in the end not a political novel at all. For the pre-Oedipal space it both dreams of and realizes as the “home” of woman is yet another utopian plenitude, eternal, natural, before (or at least aside from) the symbolic realm of language and thus apart from the social and political clashes and negotiations that the symbolic enables’ (Post-National 208). In this view, Annie begins by subverting conventional history but ends by ignoring it. She starts her story in bewildered inwardness and finishes it in ecstatic inwardness but, in either case, remained trapped ‘inside.’ Her final union with Zoe excludes her from critical discourse by conjuring up an ecstatic state of timeless, undifferentiated, female intermingling.11 When a fictional character escapes from history into mystery—as in Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers or Aritha van Herk's No Fixed Address—what really shifts is the novel's narrative mode. Davey argues that Ana Historic begins as one kind of novel and turns into another.

I resist this interpretation, as I did when considering Obasan, and for similar reasons. However, it is important to recognize how far-reaching is this critique of both the personal and national subject. In an essay on Kristeva, Allon White worries that while she dethrones the repressive, transcendental ego of Western metaphysics, she replaces it ‘with something far worse, a “new” subject, drifting, dispersed, and as politically impotent as it is ever possible to be. An agent without agency, direction, or cohesion’ (87). The same powerlessness threatens post-colonial and indigenous nations, according to R. Radhakrishnan, when they resort to a rhetoric of gender that ultimately nullifies their effort to break with (masculine) Western nationalism. The ‘true nationalist subject’ liberates itself by assuming the form of a woman, but ‘Woman takes on the name of a vast inner silence not to be broken into by the rough and external clamor of material history … The locus of the true self, the inner/traditional/spiritual sense of place, is exiled from the processes of history while the locus of historical knowledge fails to speak for the true identity of the nationalist subject. The result is a fundamental rupture, a form of basic cognitive dissidence, a radical collapse of representation’ (Radhakrishnan 85).

I contend that Obasan and Ana Historic do not suffer from ‘cognitive dissidence,’ although both push their narratives to the limit, where representation threatens to collapse. Nevertheless their evocations of the inexpressible do not divorce them from ‘historical knowledge.’ Both novels problematize such knowledge, but they do not pretend that their characters can escape from the problem into some ‘vast inner silence.’ On the contrary, they remain alert to the need for social cohesion, and wary of the (bourgeois/positivist/masculine) individualism that regards people as truly themselves only when they are utterly unique. For Naomi and Annie, subjectivity remains inseparable not just from their families and immediate groups, but from their nation, whose history they ‘recount’ in the double sense of retell and reassess. This is more obviously true of Obasan, where the subject is always an ethnic subject defined by a community that she both embraces and resists. But in Ana Historic, too, Annie is in search of a therapeutic community that will secure her position within society at large. Active political engagement is suggested in the closing scene, where the women are preparing a pile of flyers for mailing. Davey considers this a feeble gesture, but it still gestures towards a ‘world of connection’ (Ana Historic 151; the phrase recalls Kogawa's ‘structures of connectedness’), which will not be negated by a moment of private passion.

Annie devotes herself to ‘untelling the real’ (141), not because she prefers fantasy to reality, but because the ‘real’ as represented in official history proves to be fictional. ‘Untelling’ it means devising a new grip on reality and a new history—‘a woman's version of history,’ as Marlatt said in conversation (Bowering 98). Early in the novel, Annie presents Mrs Richards ‘imagining herself free of history’ (14), and in the same vein Annie projects herself into a secluded female sanctuary: ‘a woman's place, safe, suspended out of the swift race of the world’ (24). But she immediately confesses her folly by condemning ‘the monstrous lie of it: the lure of absence, self-effacing’ (24). She discovers, on the contrary, that no freedom is ‘cut loose from history’ (81) because history provides all the settings within which freedom operates, including the freedom to abandon oneself to a loved one. There is no practical freedom in absence or self-effacement, although these may be temporary strategies in a larger campaign of liberation.

More specifically, self-effacement is a strategy in writing, since the very act of writing ensures an author's ambiguous presence within a text and absence from it. Authors hide behind the words through which they express themselves. In Ana Historic the narrator conceals/reveals her identity by fragmenting herself into Ana, Ina, and Annie. She finds herself by getting lost in the woods/words. Her tale begins by picturing a solitary woman ‘sitting at her kitchen table writing‘(45) in order to share her solitude with an attentive reader: ‘she was looking for the company of another who was also reading—out through the words, through the wall that separated her’ (45). As Marlatt explains elsewhere, ‘writing and reading go together like speaking and hearing.’ They are avenues that meet in the same labyrinth (‘Writing Our Way’ 44), and when they meet, a basis for mutual understanding (as well as misunderstanding) is established. In a sense Ana Historic is about Annie's search for a reader: by writing, she invites a receptive audience and a larger, sympathetic community. ‘Who's There?’ (9) she asks in her opening question, which will eventually be answered by the name ‘Zoe’ (life)—‘in life we go on’ (150). Her ‘personal history’ (55) is painfully intimate, yet it is never solely personal precisely because it is history, which always has public significance. By telling her private story, she finds that she has articulated the ‘shared life’ (151) of all women confined by patriarchy.

—the truth is, you want to tell your own story.
—and yours, ours, the truth is our stories are hidden from us by fear.
your fear i inherited, mother dear.
—the truth is, that's woman's lot.


Having reaffirmed the need for community, neither Ana Historic nor Obasan is concerned to rebuild the nation, as Pratt had done so boldly and Lee so stoically. No flags are waving at the end, and it would be anti-climactic if they were. Nonetheless, both novels show how personal suffering and redemption always seek their meaning in a social context whose scope is ultimately national because the nation is such a compelling political and representational setting. Annie does not choose to be English Canadian, and Naomi does not choose to be Japanese Canadian. They only choose to be free women within the country that their families chose by immigrating. The nation is not an essential social unit, or a mystical bond, or a spiritual soil. It is a contested, public space within which they must find whatever freedom and justice they can attain; it is an identifying space whose meaning they choose to contest through their subversive narrations. The nation can become monstrous, but both women learn to live with a monster by recognizing its features in themselves. Annie discovers that Frankenstein was written by a woman who concealed/revealed herself in its terrifying but liberating wildness: ‘and now we call the monster by his name, a man's name for man's fear of the wild, the uncontrolled, that's where she lives’ (142). Both women find a place to live through an interplay of intimate, public, and discursive spaces. We might therefore apply to Ana Historic and Obasan a remark that Lorraine Weir makes about Marlatt's poetry: ‘Parallel to the obligation to voice things in their terms is the obligation to voice the life of a community … The condition of imagining a community, of wording its context, is the condition of finding its own words, its history, and respecting that manifold reading of a people in their own terms which is “dream,” the reading of Reading’ (‘Daphne Marlatt's “Ecology”’ 62). The terms of community as it is lived, dreamed, and written are the subject of my final chapter.


  1. ‘It is also important that the sutures of contradiction in these ideological narratives become most visible under the disassembling eye of an alternative narrative, ideological as that narrative may itself be. In addition, the diachronic opening-out of contradictions within the status quo, even when the project of that diachronic recasting is to conceal those very contradictions, can have just the opposite effect of making them newly visible, offering a new leverage for critique’ (Sedgwick, Between Men 15).

  2. Neither is de Man, for whom literature tells the ‘truth’ only about its own ‘literariness,’ that is, about its linguistic production and subversion of meaning, not about ‘natural reality.’ Therefore literature can show us why nationalism is an ‘ideological aberration,’ but not what the nation ‘really’ is. The same qualification appears in Julia Kristeva's praise of poetic language, which criticizes social order but cannot articulate a truer or more just order, since ‘order’ is precisely what it subverts: ‘Then, in this socio-symbolic order thus saturated if not already closed, poetry—let us say more precisely, poetic language—recalls what always was its function: to introduce, across the symbolic, [i.e., rational, ideological] that which works on it, crosses it and threatens it. What the theory of the unconscious looks for, poetic language practices, within and against the social order’ (Quoted by Allon White 83).

  3. Examples could be cited from, among many others, Dorothy Livesay, Ethel Wilson, Margaret Avison, Jay Macpherson, P. K. Page, and Phyllis Webb.

  4. Fear and temptation are Terry Goldie's terms for the same paradox in Fear and Temptation: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Literature (Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1989).

  5. J. M. S. Careless describes the frontier thesis as follows: ‘The frontier, where man came most immediately into contact with the North American physical environment, was the great seed-bed for the growth of a truly North American society. From the start as the United States and Canada had spread across the continent, environmental influences that first began on the frontier had worked to shape a native American character different from that of the Old World, left far behind … [T]hanks to the continuous process of adaptation to the environment, an American content had steadily grown in Canada within external forms of government, society, or culture inherited from Britain or France’ (‘Frontierism’ 5-6). I have written about the environmental thesis as it affects Canadian literary history in ‘Historical Literary Criticism in English Canada: Within, Beyond and Back Into the Past,’ 100 Years of Critical Solitudes: Canadian and Québécois Criticism from the 1880s to the 1980s, ed. Caroline Bayard (Toronto: ECW, 1992), 98-121.

  6. For a recent study of how feminism and nationalism intersect, see Lois A. West, ed., Feminist Nationalism (New York: Routledge, 1997). For a survey of theories of historical justice, see Bruce Mazlish, The Riddle of History: The Great Speculators from Vico to Freud (New York: Minerva, 1966). For a detailed account of the aporias in historiography, see Robert Young, White Mythologies.

  7. The endlessly wandering form of error is the subject of Patricia Parker's study, Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979).

  8. ‘Everywhere Marlatt seeks the essential self, unadulterated by the wrong structures of knowing. Her dream is Edenic. She dreams of return, imagines she will be restored’ (Cooley 78).

  9. For further discussion of Marlatt's use of Frankenstein to deconstruct ‘the gothic circle of patriarchy,’ see Stan Dragland's essay ‘Out of the Blank: Daphne Marlatt's Ana Historic’ in The Bees of the Invisible.

  10. Marlatt makes this point in her interview with George Bowering: ‘And as a prefix, it's very contradictory. It means upwards and forwards as well as backwards. It has a whole cluster of meanings associated with it’ (102). And Stan Dragland observes: ‘This is not “ahistoric,” not a blank’ (The Bees 178).

  11. Similarly Lola Lemire Tostevin finds the ending of Ana Historic ‘unexpectedly conventional in its utopian vision’ (38). For a reply to Tostevin, see Pamela Banting, Body Inc.: A Theory of Translation Poetics (Winnipeg: Turnstone P, 1995).

Marie Vautier (essay date March 1999)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4668

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 history. Scholars such as Hayden White, Louis O. Mink, Linda Gordon, and Dominick Lacapra have laid bare the assumptions that underlie traditional forms of history, exposing the occulted construction of historical narratives and proposing alternative means and methods of historiography. Francophone scholars have conducted similar investigations, as is evident in the work of Michel de Certeau, Paul Ricoeur, Paul Veyne, Marc Angenot, and Régine Robin, among others. Methods range from expanding the scope of “historical documents” to oral legends and personal anecdotes, through an examination of the past as it was lived by particular marginalized or minority groups, to studying a short period of the past with what might be called a “holistic” approach, such as Marc Angenot's detailed study of one year from the past in 1889: Un Etat du discours social. In literature departments, similar conflicts arise between the traditional way of studying and teaching literature and the investigations of new ways of writing culture and history, with literary historians and structuralists facing a challenge from literary theorists who deal in terms like postmodernism, postcolonialism, new historicism, cultural studies, feminism, and “queer theory.” One of the potentially conflict-producing arenas is the investigation of how fiction meets history.

This article examines three Canadian novels which provide different yet somewhat complementary approaches to the current theoretical discussions in English- and French-speaking Canada regarding the strong presence of historiography, briefly defined as “the writing of history,” in fiction. Jacques Poulin's Volkswagen Blues (1984, published in French despite its English title) recounts a trip across the American continent undertaken by a francophone Québécois writer and his part-Amerindian companion. From the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec to San Francisco, they follow the famous Oregon Trail and reflect on the interaction of history and historiography. The second novel studied is Ana Historic (1988) by West Coast feminist writer Daphne Marlatt. Marlatt's intriguing novel notes the absence of women in the records of the building of the city of Vancouver and investigates ways and means of writing women into history in a fictional work. The third text, Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony (1995), documents historical events such as the Depression and the Second World War against a backdrop of growing up in Vancouver's Chinatown.

A fascination with history is of course rooted in the evolution of the novel form itself. Before the technological inventions of the twentieth century, as Georg Lukacs points out in his seminal work, The Historical Novel (1936-37), novels were both sources of pleasure and pedagogical vehicles which transmitted knowledge of the past and knowledge of a culture. In nineteenth-century Europe, emerging “nation-states” underlined the necessity of knowing one's history as a prerequisite to constituting a “nation,” and the novel was seen as one way of transmitting that body of cultural and historical knowledge. The twentieth-century invention of other communication technologies, in particular radio and television, freed the novel from its pedagogical role. In the mid-twentieth century, the experimental “nouveau roman,” which went hand in hand with structuralist studies of literature, offered a genre of writing in which the entire focus was on the form of the text—and the traditional novel's links to history and culture were decisively ruptured.

Canadian literature, however, from its origins to the present day, in both English and French, frequently subscribes to the ideological thrust of historical fiction. It is perhaps significant that the three novels usually studied at the beginning of any chronological survey course of Canadian literature are all historical novels: Philippe Aubert de Gaspé's Les Anciens Canadiens (1863), Frances Brooke's The History of Emily Montague (1769), and William Kirby's The Golden Dog (1877).1 In the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the Canadian historical novel continued to project a pedagogical and ideological function: it taught certain aspects of Canadian history to its readership. Thus, Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising (1941) draws on the Halifax explosion of 1917, and Léo-Paul Desrosiers' lesser-known but representative historical novel, Les Engagés du Grand-Portage (1943), tells the story of the Northwest Company. In the last third of the twentieth century, in what is alternately called the “postmodern” or the “postcolonial” age, many contemporary experimental novels from English- and French-speaking Canada continue to address issues of history, historiography and nationalism. Indeed, this practice appears to puzzle international critics of postcolonialism, such as the authors of the very well-known postcolonial study, The Empire Writes Back: they are surprised that the fertile field of cultural complexity and the characteristically Canadian “perception of a mosaic has not generated corresponding theories of literary hybridity to replace the nationalist approach” (36).

The historical novel was, and continues to be, an important genre in Canada, as Martin Kuester remarks in his recent study of parody in contemporary English-Canadian historical novels:

Historical writing in Canada, even what we would nowadays normally refer to as non-fiction, was—as the Canadian historian Carl Berger has shown—generally regarded as an especially instructive brand of literature. Helen Tiffin has identified the use of history as an important aspect of all the postcolonial literatures, and she underlines its “unique role as literary genesis”. … As [Linda] Hutcheon and [Dennis] Duffy have pointed out, there has been “a rebirth of the historical novel in Canada” in recent years.


Kuester goes on to note that “comprehensive and generally accepted theories of historical fiction are scarce” (26), although he does mention American David Cowart's 1989 work, History and the Contemporary Novel, which posits an attitude that seems to go hand in hand with many American and European appreciations of this “postmodern age.” After noting the “increasing prominence of historical themes in current fiction,” Cowart writes: “Produced by writers sensitive to the lateness of the historical hour and capable of exploiting technical innovations in the novel, this new historical fiction seems to differ from that of calmer times. A sense of urgency—sometimes even an air of desperation—pervades the historical novel since mid-century, for its author probes the past to account for a present that grows increasingly chaotic” (1). Cowart's reflections on the historical novel represent a typical Euro-American appreciation of the postmodern age as a period of social decline—a period of breakdown, chaos, apocalypse. This Euro-American attitude is described by Cornel West: “In the eyes of many, we live among the ruins of North Atlantic civilization. … As we approach the end of the twentieth century, the rich intellectual resources of the West are in disarray and a frightening future awaits us” (259). West's “doom-laden version of the postmodernist breakthrough” (McHale, 22) corresponds to much work done on postmodernist fiction in Europe and the United States.

In postcolonial entities such as English-speaking Canada and Quebec, doom-laden appreciations of the postmodern age are frequently inapplicable.2 While contemporary Canadian and Québécois novels do engage with history, even while foregrounding the lack of objectivity of any historical “telling,” their investigations of history and historiography are not carried out in an atmosphere of “decline,” “chaos,” or fin de siècle defeatism. Instead, they are marked by a celebratory approach to diversity.3 Canada, a country that has known numerous layers of immigration and governments, has long conceived itself to be a country with multiple historical “truths.” Although some literary critics react unfavorably to fiction's blurring of the boundaries between fiction and history, the contemporary postcolonial historiographic novel from French- or English-speaking Canada is at home with—indeed, enjoys—the insecurities and questionings of this “postmodern/postcolonial age.” Why might that be?

A partial answer to this question lies in the fact that in Canada, the novel's links to history and culture have not been as decisively ruptured, due in large part to the particularities of Canadian pedagogical systems. As Ken Coates points out, many Canadians are wary of the strong presence of American culture and history in Canada, which is due in large part to the omnipresence of American television and the daily press. What is perhaps less well known is that education is a provincial concern in Canada, and that there is no one “History of Canada” course taught in all Canadian high schools.4 This decentralized approach to the teaching of history—that is to say, the lack of a pan-Canadian history course for older adolescents—is perhaps characteristic of the diversity that is Canada. Ken Osborne notes that in “at least half the provinces it is possible to graduate from high school without having studied Canadian history” (2). In those instances where history is taught, Osborne writes that it “has largely been absorbed into social studies, so that it exists in school curricula less as a systematic study of the past, and more as a source of … illustrative topics designed to illuminate the present” (1). Due in part to what Coates calls the “influence of American cultural imperialism,” many Canadians' knowledge of their interesting, overlapping and multifaceted history can be very poor indeed. So the novel, even the contemporary experimental novel, teaches Canadians aspects of their history even while it foregrounds the precariousness of the historiographic enterprise. Literary theorist Linda Hutcheon has coined the term “historiographic metafiction” to describe these novels, which make up a considerable part of the contemporary Canadian canon.5

Daphne Marlatt is also interested in a new way of living; her well-known novel, Ana Historic, explores the absence of women in history and in decision-making in the world. This historiographic metafiction also juxtaposes the past with the present in an amazing feat of fragmented writing which constantly subverts the authority of history. The narrator of the novel is a middle-aged woman, Annie, who works as a research assistant for her husband, once her history professor. Shaken by the recent death of her mother, with whom she has always had a difficult relationship, she begins to experiment with writing, gradually inventing a fictional name and a fictional life for a “woman with no history”—a schoolteacher who is briefly mentioned in the historical records of the archives of the city of Vancouver. In a blend of autobiography and fiction, poetry and prose, lyric and documentary writing,6 this text explores what it was and is to be brought up female. While sympathetic toward men (like the narrator's father) who are imprisoned in socially conditioned roles such as that of the 1950s “breadwinner,” Marlatt's novel speaks mainly of the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of women coming to a confident “Self-hood” when they are absent from both the records of the past and the decision-making processes of the present.7Ana Historic investigates how women are excluded from history, in part because their autobiographical writings, if they are considered at all by scholars of the past, are treated as “documents” but not as “history,” because they are not “factual.” This entire novel, with the early days of Vancouver as its backdrop, is an “extended meditation on power and the meaning of gender and difference” (Hutcheon, “telling accounts,” 19).

The fictional Mrs. Richards invented by the narrator lives during the beginnings of the city of Vancouver, when “history was being made” by the “conquering of the forest” and the “laying of the CPR [Canadian Pacific Railway].” Using a highly effective collage technique, Marlatt juxtaposes excerpts from various historical documents, including early newspapers and history texts, such as M. Allerdale Grainger's Woodsmen of the West with 1950s “how-to-make-your-man-happy” books for women. Playing with the fact/fiction debate and deliberately and skillfully transgressing the boundary between the two, Marlatt quotes from histories of the past and interrupts them parenthetically to ask that fundamental question: where are the city mothers?

i learned that history is the real story the city fathers tell of the only important events in the world. a tale of their exploits hacked out against a silent backdrop of trees, of wooden masses. so many claims to fame. so many ordinary men turned into heroes. (where are the city mothers?) the city fathers busy building a town out of so many shacks labelled the Western Terminus of the Transcontinental, Gateway to the East—all these capital letters to convince themselves of its, of their, significance.


Marlatt's deliberate subversion of English syntax and sentence structure, along with her study of etymology and linguistics, all illustrate her struggle to come to Woman-hood through writing. In the above passage, the narrator's use of the lower-case “i” to illustrate the lack of Self is but one of the obvious techniques which foreground the absence of women in history and in “the world.” So, too, are her appraisals of the cumulative negative effects of a historiography that eliminates the presence of women. Thus, quoting her husband's attempt to persuade her to continue working as his research assistant, she decries her former participation in the historiographical enterprise:

history is built on a groundwork of fact, Richard states. Richard is a good historian, known for the diligent research behind his books. one missing piece can change the shape of the whole picture—you see how important your part in it is? but i'm no longer doing my part looking for missing pieces. … history married her [Mrs. Richards] to Bill Springer and wrote her off. … entered as Mrs., she enters his house as his wife. she has no first name, she has no place, no place on the street, not if she's a ‘good woman.’ her writing stops.


Annie's attempts at writing the past in the present are strongly linked to her struggle to exist in her own right. Like her mother and Mrs. Richards before her, she correctly anticipates that her struggle to create, to write, to get out of the dominant patriarchal frame that determines both the history of Vancouver and the history of her life will be very poorly received by the world of logic and reason, here represented by her history professor husband:

but what are you doing? i can imagine Richard saying, looking up from the pages with that expression with which he must confront his students over their papers: this doesn't go anywhere, you're just circling around the same idea—and all these bits and pieces thrown in—that's not how to use quotations.

irritated because i can't explain myself. just scribbling, i'll say. echoing your words, Ina—another quotation, except i quote myself (and what if our heads are full of other people's words? …

but this is nothing, i imagine him saying. meaning unreadable. because this nothing is a place he doesn't recognize, cut loose from history and its relentless progress toward some end. this is undefined territory, unaccountable. and so on edge.


The strong metafictional component of this work underlines one of Marlatt's main concerns: how to write in a way that “allows her to push the narrative, past loss, past irony, past the gaps and wounds in our collective histories, toward a vision of a new wholeness” (Brand, 38). This vision is inspired by Marlatt's desire to restore to women the language of the feminine body and the ability to communicate with each other through its use. It is difficult, however, to write “differently”—and her many metafictional techniques show us the struggle she experiences as she strives to name that which has not been named (except in derogatory terms): the experience of women. This wish to be at home in her body, in history, and in the present is strongly conveyed to the reader in the last line of the passage which describes Mrs. Richards' reaction of “longing” when she witnesses the birth of the first white male child born at Hastings Sawmill:

to be there from the first. indigene, ingenuus (born in), native, natural, free(born)—at home from the beginning.

she longed for it.


Theorist Diana Fuss argues that while “historians like Hayden White have busily been trying to get out of history, feminist literary critics have been just as energetically trying to get into it” (95). Marlatt's text is a testimonial to women's struggle to make room in history for their stories—because to make room for their history is to make room for themselves. Canadian writer Di Brand notes that this novel does not end with “closure, fulfillment, nor with silence and loss, but with the powerful act of renaming, remembering, reimagining the (hi)story, with an invitation, also, to read ourselves ‘into the page ahead,’ into a newly visioned past/future” (40; citing the final words of Ana Historic). This novel, while making the reader acutely aware of the absence of women in the history of the city, of the region, of the country, nonetheless teaches that very history even as it decries its incompleteness. Like Volkswagen Blues, Ana Historic argues for inclusion, for harmony, for a history that would describe the lives and work of women along with recording the lives of longshoremen, lumberjacks, and builders. Lacking such a history, the narrator creates one. In the process, she, too, lays bare the ideological construction of what is generally deemed to be history and makes us aware of the incompleteness of all history. …

Multifaceted, overlapping, and even contradictory versions of the past form an integral part of Canadians' knowledge of history. Canadians have always lived with historical ambiguity and hesitancy, with troublesome and uncertain heroes, and with an acceptance of necessarily fragmented versions of history that allows for successful manoeuvring in what is for others the “chaos” of the postmodern age.8 With a cheerful postmodern scepticism about the “truth” of history and a celebratory acceptance of postcolonial fragmentation, the literatures of English-speaking Canada and Quebec celebrate these ambiguities in stories, plays, films, poems, documentaries—and in fictions such as Volkswagen Blues, Ana Historic, and The Jade Peony.


  1. All three novels discuss the history of New France and present highly idealized, Romantic versions of life during that time. Interestingly, all three portray characters who strive for harmony in the anglophone and francophone communities.

  2. I argue this point in much greater detail in my article in Etudes littéraires' special number on postmodernism: “Les Métarécits, le postmodernisme, et le mythe postcolonial au Québec: un point de vue de la marge.”

  3. Although an overview of the field of criticism in North America does point to this difference in approach, there are some exceptions to the rule. For instance, Montreal-based Arthur Kroker has written extensively about postmodernism and North American society, and his work reflects the “decay and chaos” theory. See for instance The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics, co-authored with David Cook and published by New World Perspectives in Montreal in 1986.

  4. Each province determines what history will be learnt by its students. Thus in Quebec, in Secondary 4 (roughly equivalent to British Columbia's grade 11), students learn the “history of Quebec,” and it is in Secondary 5, the final year of high school, that they may choose to take a course on Canadian history. At the other extreme of the country, in British Columbia, there is no obligatory course on the history of British Columbia, but senior high-school students may take a course in Canadian history.

  5. In A Poetics of Postmodernism, Hutcheon defines historiographic metafictions as “those well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages. … Historiographic metafiction incorporates … three … domains [fiction, history and theory]: its theoretical self-awareness of history and fiction as human constructs (historiographic metafiction) is made the grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past. … [H]istoriographic metafiction … always works within conventions in order to subvert them. It is not just metafictional, nor is it just another version of the historical novel or the non-fictional novel” (5).

  6. These terms are borrowed from Linda Hutcheon's review of the novel in Brick, “telling accounts.”

  7. For instance, in its discussion of Annie's mother, the novel investigates the hopelessness of being a housewife in the 1950s, detailing the revolting medical treatment imposed upon those suffering from depression. The plight of North American housewives was of course taken up by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963). In its discussion of Annie's upbringing, Marlatt's novel lays bare the social conditioning of young girls, nothing how females quickly lose the initial freedom of movement of the body to a rigid world where the power of the male gaze is everything.

  8. An example of this acceptance of historical ambiguity may be found in cultural portrayals of two major figures with the potential to become “historical legends” (in the American sense of the term): Louis-Joseph Papineau, famous orator and leader of the 1837-38 Rebellions in Upper Canada (in what is now Quebec) and Louis Riel, Member of Parliament and Leader of the North West Uprisings (in what is now Manitoba and Saskatchewan) of the late nineteenth century. Both these historical figures may be—and have been—perceived as heroes and as traitors, as leaders and as failures. Ambivalence in history forms an integral part of Canadian historical “realit(ies),” as I argue in my book, New World Myth (1998).

Works Cited

Adachi, Ken. The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

Angenot, Marc. Le cru et le faisande: sexe, discours social et littérature à la belle époque. Bruxelles: Editions Labor, 1986.

———. 1889: Un Etat du discours social. Longueuil: Le Préambule, 1989.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.

Aubert de Gaspé, Philippe. Les Anciens Canadiens. 1863. Montréal: Cadieux & Derome, 1886.

Beaulieu, Nicole. “L'Ecrivain dans l'ombre.” Actualité 10.4 (avril 1985): 73, 75, 77-78.

Bemrose, John. “Breaking the Silence of Chinatown: An Author Conjures Up a World of Secrets.” Maclean's 109.14 (April 1, 1996): 64.

Berger, Carl. The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing since 1900. 2nd ed. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1986.

Bilan, R. P. “Fiction I.” “Letters in Canada 1981.” Univ. of Toronto Quarterly 51.4 (Summer 1982): 315-18.

Brand, Di. “The Absence at the Centre: Review of Ana Historic, by Daphne Marlatt.” The Canadian Forum 68.887 (March 1989): 38, 40.

Broadfoot, Barry. Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame: The Story of the Japanese-Canadians in World War II. Toronto: Doubleday, 1977.

Brooke, Frances. The History of Emily Montague. 1769. Ottawa: Graphic Publishers, 1931.

Brulotte, Gaétan. “L'Ethnocritique et la littérature québécoise.” LittéRéalité 3.1 (Spring 1991): 23-32.

Cambron, Micheline. Une Société, un récit: discours culturel au Québec (1967-1976). Montréal: Hexagone, 1989.

Casgrain, H[enri] R[aymond]. Oeuvres complètes. 3 vols. Québec: C. Darveau, 1873-75.

Certeau, Michel de. L'écriture de l'histoire. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

Choy, Wayson. The Jade Peony. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1995.

Coates, Ken. “Border Crossings: Pattern and Process in the History of the Pacific Northwest.” Presentation to the Symposium “On Brotherly Terms: Canadian-American Relations West of the Rockies.” Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest and the Canadian Studies Center, Univ. of Washington, Seattle, Sept. 12-14, 1996.

Cowart, David. History and the Contemporary Novel. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1989.

Desrosiers, Léo-Paul. Les Engagés du Grand-Portage. 1943. Montréal: Fides, 1946.

Duffy, Dennis. Sounding the Iceberg: An Essay on Canadian Historical Novels. Toronto: ECW Press, 1986.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. 1963. New York: Norton, 1983.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

———. “New Directions from Old.” Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. New York: Harcourt, 1963. 52-66.

Fuss, Diana. “Getting Into History.” Arizona Quarterly 45.4 (Winter 1989): 95-108.

Godbout, Jacques. Les Têtes à Papineau. Paris: Seuil, 1981.

———. Le Sort de l'Amérique. Film. National Film Board. 1996.

Gordon, Linda. “What's New in Women's History.” Feminist Studies, Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986. 20-30.

Grainger, M. Allerdale. Woodsmen of the West. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964.

Grand' Maison, Jacques. “L'Eglise et les idéologies au Québec.” Relations (novembre 1969): 293-96.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Canadian Historiographic Metafiction.” Essays on Canadian Writing 30 (Winter 1984-85): 228-38.

———. The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction. Toronto, New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

———. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 1988.

———. “telling accounts.” Brick 34 (Fall 1988): 17-19.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1955. New York: New American Library, 1957.

Kirby, William. The Golden Dog: A Romance of Old Quebec. 1877. Toronto: Musson Book Co, 1935 (?).

Kogawa, Joy. Obasan. 1981. Markham: Penguin, 1985.

Kroker, Arthur, and David Cook. The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1986.

Kuester, Martin. Framing Truths: Parodic Structures in Contemporary English-Canadian Historical Novels. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992.

Lacapra, Dominick. History, Politics and the Novel. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.

L'Hérault, Pierre. “Volkswagen Blues: traverser les identités.” Voix et Images 15.1 (automne 1989): 28-42.

Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel. 1936-37. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1981.

MacLennan, Hugh. Barometer Rising. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1941.

Marlatt, Daphne. Ana Historic. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1988.

Mason, Julie. “The World Between.” The Canadian Forum 74.849 (May 1996): 38.

McHale, Brian. “Some Postmodernist Stories.” Postmodern Fiction in Europe and the Americas. Postmodern Studies. Ed. Theo D'Haen and Hans Bertens. Amsterdam: Rodopi and Antwerpen: Restant, 1988. 1, 13-25.

Mink, Louis O. “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension.” New Literary History 1 (1970): 541-58.

———. “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument.” The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding. Ed. Robert H. Canary and Henry Kozicki. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1978. 129-49.

Monière, Denis. Le Développement des idéologies au Québec: des origines à nos jours. Montréal: Editions Québec/Amérique, 1977.

———. Ideologies in Quebec: The Historical Development. Trans. Richard Howard. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1981.

Osborne, Ken. “The Decline of School History since the 1970s.” Canadian Historical Association Bulletin 22.2 (Summer/été 1996): 1-4.

Ouellette-Michalska, Madeleine. La Maison Trestler ou le 8e jour d'Amérique. Montréal: Québec/Amérique, 1984.

Poulin, Jacques. Volkswagen Blues. Montréal: Québec/Amérique, 1984.

———. Volkswagen Blues. Trans. Sheila Fischman. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988.

Reid, Gayla. “The Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award.” With David Helwig and Charles Lillard. Books in Canada 25.4 (May 1996): 2-4.

Ricoeur, Paul. Temps et récit. 3 vols. Paris: Seuil, 1983-85.

Robin, Régine. Le roman mémoriel: de l'histoire à l'écriture du hors-lieu. Montréal: Le Préambule, 1989.

Roy, Camille. Histoire de la littérature canadienne. Québec: l'Action sociale, 1930.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. 1978. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Sing, Pamela V. Villages imaginaires: Edouard Montpetit, Jacques Ferron et Jacques Poulin. Montréal: Fides—CETUQ, 1995.

Sioui, Georges E. Pour une Autohistoire amérindienne: essai sur les fondements d'une morale sociale. Québec: Presses de l'université Laval, 1989.

———. For an Amerindian Autohistory: An Essay on the Foundations of a Social Ethic. Trans. Sheila Fischman. Foreword Bruce G. Trigger. Montreal and Buffalo: McGill-Queen's UP, 1992.

Sunahara, Ann Gomer. The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese-Canadians During the Second World War. Toronto: James Lorimer, 1981.

Tiffin, Helen. “Post-Colonialism, Post-Modernism and the Rehabilitation of Post-Colonial History.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 23 (1988): 169-81.

———. “Commonwealth Literature: Comparison and Judgement.” The History and Historiography of Commonwealth Literature. Ed. Dieter Riemenschneider. Tübingen: Narr, 1993. 19-35.

Vautier, Marie. “Les Métarécits, le postmodernisme, et le mythe postcolonial au Québec: un point de vue de la marge.” Etudes littéraires 27.1 (été 1994): 43-61.

———. “Postmodern Myth, Post-European History and the Figure of the Amerindian: François Barcelo, George Bowering and Jacques Poulin.” Canadian Literature 141 (Summer 1994): 15-33.

———. New World Myth: Postmodernism and Postcolonialism in Canadian Fiction. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 1998.

Veyne, Paul. Comment on écrit l'histoire: essai d'épistemologie. Paris: Seuil, 1971.

West, Cornel. “Afterword: The Politics of American Neo-Pragmatism.” Post-Analytic Philosophy. Ed. John Rajchman and Cornel West. New York: Columbia UP, 1985. 259-72.

Wheeler, Anne, director. The War Between Us. CBC-TV. Produced by Atlantis Films and Troika Films. Dec. 10, 1995.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.

———. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

———. “Getting Out of History.” Diacritics 12.3 (Fall 1982): 2-13.

Wiebe, Rudy, and Eli Mandel. “Where the Voice Comes From.” A Voice in the Land: Essays by and about Rudy Wiebe. Ed. W. J. Keith. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981. 150-55.

Wilde, Alan. Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

Joanne Saul (review date winter 1999-2000)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 716

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 criticism.’ Marlatt's self-conscious negotiation of both creative and critical contexts encourages, if not demands, such a reading. Throughout Readings from the Labyrinth, Marlatt interrogates generic boundaries in the course of examining the nature of her own feminist poetics and how it relates to broader cultural concerns.

This text is a fascinating one for its attempt to chart both a personal and a collective feminist consciousness in Canada. It traces the development of Marlatt's thinking ‘as it participated in ongoing collective discussion in a feminist community that has been actively writing, reading and publishing across the country for the last two decades.’ To avoid ‘ossifying’ her thoughts and in an attempt to provide what she calls the ‘ideational “background”’ of each piece, Marlatt couches her essays within diary entries, letters to friends, lovers, and other writers, retrospective descriptive passages, conference proceedings, and photographs. By thus foregrounding the method involved in her critical thinking, she contextualizes her essays while breathing new life into them.

The seventeen essays in Readings from the Labyrinth confirm that Marlatt is one of Canada's foremost feminist literary critics. One of the founding editors of Tessera, Marlatt helped to shift feminist criticism away from the thematic-inspired ‘images of women’ criticism that dominated early feminist thinking in Canada. Her essays acknowledge the relationship between language and power and argue convincingly that, for women, challenging and subverting patriarchal language are revolutionary acts. In most of these essays Marlatt explores the labyrinth of language, the winding, spiralling space of interconnections, multiple meanings, and duplicity that a woman writer must actively negotiate.

Because many of these essays have been previously published elsewhere, however, what is most absorbing about Readings from the Labyrinth remains the ‘background’ material for each piece. In these fragments, Marlatt allows us to see wonder and excitement (in response to the Dialogue Conference at York University), disappointment and hurt (in reaction to reviews of Ana Historic), frustration (at being labelled ‘Anglo realist’ and essentialist), and even perhaps a certain amount of naïveté, as in her attempts, not quite successful, to grapple with the contradictions implicit in her own privileged position and the modalities of difference within a feminist community.

This process of positioning gives one the sense that Marlatt is still grappling with ideas, still caught up in working out where and how and why she belongs both as a critic and a creative writer. She doubles back, she retracts, she muses—a lot. In a journal entry from 1984 she asks, ‘as a writer, where am i? somewhere in the gap between the social realism of most Anglo women's writing & the “fiction-theory” of Québécoise feminists.’ Here, as elsewhere in the book, she locates herself (and her writing) somewhere in the in-between: between Anglo and Québécoise feminisms, between a masculine-oriented Tish poetics and a lesbian body-centred writing, between narrative and analysis, between truth and fiction, between a feminist ‘me’ and ‘we,’ between history and utopia. This intense focus on the in-between helps to explain the preoccupation in all her writing with autobiography, a genre (or anti-genre) that, according to Marlatt, occurs in the confluence of fiction and analysis; ‘a self-analysis that plays fictively with the primary images of one's life, a fiction that uncovers analytically that territory where fact and fiction coincide.’

It is precisely this focus on what Marlatt calls the ‘curious dance’ between private and public selves that makes this collection so educative, so evocative. Her constant questioning and positioning, her emphasis on process and flux, her refusal to pick sides in order to hold tensions suspended, and her stretching and reshaping of the boundaries between criticism, literature, and autobiography continue to define Marlatt as a ‘writer as critic’ well worth reading.

Deborah M. Mix (essay date summer 2000)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11933

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 mind if it smokes.
Do you.

Gertrude Stein, Lifting Belly


Canadian poets Daphne Marlatt and Betsy Warland have long been at the forefront of Canadian feminist writing. During her very influential career, Marlatt has published over fifteen books of poetry, beginning in 1968 with Frames of a Story, as well as a novel, Ana Historic, and significant essays in feminist theory (now available in the collection Readings from the Labyrinth), and she has co-authored two books with Nicole Brossard. Warland began publishing in 1981, when her poetry collection A Gathering Instinct appeared, and has since published other poetry works as well as a collection of “theorograms” reflecting on autobiographical, aesthetic, and feminist concerns. Both women have participated in editing collections of feminist, Canadian, and/or lesbian writing. In 1983, Marlatt and Warland helped to organize the “Women and Words/Les femmes et les mots” conference in Vancouver, an event which brought together over eight-hundred women authors, teachers, and publishers for workshops and readings on the state of Anglo-Canadian and Quebecois women's writing (Warland, “Inventing” ix).1 Since that watershed conference, Warland and Marlatt have played significant editorial roles in feminist journals such as (f.)lip and Tessera, which have been important sources for the publication of Anglo-Canadian and Quebecois feminist work.2 In 1988 they published Double Negative, an experimental long poem that is the focus of this essay. Written as a collaborative response to the authors' train voyage through the Australian Nullarbor desert, Double Negative is a narrative of that physical and intellectual journey. Through its integration, examination, and revision of generic forms, including most significantly the love lyric and travelogue, as well as dialogue and the prose poem, Double Negative also becomes an extended meditation on questions of form, language, and the authors' social identity—as lesbians, women, white women, tourists—in that context. This work marks a nexus of interrelated concerns—feminism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, and experimentalism—all of which inform Marlatt and Warland's writing. As the authors work collaboratively to deconstruct the love lyric's traditions, they work concomitantly to reconstruct alternative strategies for articulating desire, identity, and political praxis. By using the intensely private, erotic moments of the love lyric as a way to engage public issues such as colonialism and gender politics, thus deconstructing the potential divisions between public and private (an aim common to all kinds of feminist writing), Marlatt and Warland investigate the ways in which the erotic can function as a collaborative strategy to revise not just the literary but also the material.

Since the publication of Double Negative, relatively little scholarship has appeared that discusses it at all and almost nothing that treats it at length. In fact, while both Marlatt's and Warland's individually authored works have received significant attention, almost no one has considered their collaborative work as poets and critics. “Collaboration in the Feminine,” by Brenda Carr, an important figure in Canadian feminist writing, is the only essay focusing solely on Double Negative to appear in an MLA search; Barbara Page's “Women Writers and the Restive Text” also devotes some space to it. As experimentalists, feminists, lesbians, and Canadians, Marlatt and Warland are marginalized in ways that further contribute to their absence from the critical mainstream. Several critics have theorized that the small amount of attention devoted to experimental writing by women may be due to a suspicion of feminist writing that does not foreground the “expressive voice” (see, for instance, Bergvall, Kinnahan, and Wills). Marlatt and Warland's collaborative process may also be a factor in this lack of study. There is only a modest body of work available that focuses on collaborative writing at all, and Holly Laird explains in her preface to the two-part forum “On Collaboration” that appeared in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature in 1994-95 that “while feminists have given much thought to the practice and theory of collective work, before 1991 there was little theorization of, and few attempts to reflect on, the practice and consequences of feminist coauthorship” (235-36). Even the substantial conversation appearing in Tulsa Studies, Laird notes, marks only “preliminary investigations into the processes of collaboration by feminist scholars and women writers” (“From the Editor” 231).3 Warland suggests that “reviewers' analytical processes have been disturbed by the fact that our individual authorships are not clearly marked in the text” (“Moving” 131-32). Along with refusing the myth of the divinely inspired, independently creative author, collaborative writing subverts other cultural constructs of self and other, inside and outside; indeed, collaborative writing, by occupying this in-between space, is inherently political, calling attention to processes of marginalization and canonization. Marlatt and Warland are particularly attentive to the traditional implications of the word “collaboration” itself:

i find it difficult to use the word collaboration with its military censure, its damning in the patriot's eyes (the Father appears here with his defining gaze, his language of the law). collaboration implies that who we are collaborating with holds all the power. the lines are drawn. but perhaps it's the very subversion implicit in collaboration that i might see in our favour were we to move between the lines. when i see us as working together reciprocally, then what i see us working at is this subversion of the definitive. running on together … reciprocal in this, that the holes we make in such a definite body leak meaning we splash each other with, not so much working as playing in all this super-fluity, wetting ourselves with delight even, whetting our tongues, a mutual stimulation we aid and abet (entice) in each other.

(Marlatt and Warland, “Reading” [“Reading and Writing Between the Lines”] 133-34)

This passage demonstrates the way in which Marlatt and Warland work within, through, and around language/definitions in their writing. First, by investigating, questioning, and remaking the connotative and denotative meanings of words, by playing and punning and excavating, Marlatt and Warland work to transform the world that is constructed through that language. Second, and also important, this passage demonstrates the erotic linkages Marlatt and Warland maintain between sexuality and textuality. Third, the poets (though only one is “speaking”—since a first-person singular pronoun is used) outline their “poethics” of collaboration, in which a personal choice to write together spills over into the sociopolitical arena of the world around them.4 Thus the collaboration at work here is taking place not only between the authors themselves but also between the authors and the world around them.

This framework is not that which, according to Wayne Koestenbaum, structures male collaboration; that is, it is not “a complicated and anxiously homosocial act” in which the collaborative act “separate[s] homoeroticism from the sanctioned male bonding that upholds patriarchy” (3). Neither does it result in the kind of collaborative structure that Lisa Ede and Andrea A. Lunsford identify as “hierarchical,” which is “linearly structured, driven by highly specific goals, and carried out by people who play clearly assigned roles” (“Rhetoric” 235). Instead, the act of collaboration, as Marlatt and Warland enact it, is intertwined with the erotic, a way to pleasure others while pleasuring the self, a deliberate rejection of hierarchy—“mutual stimulation we aid and abet (entice) in each other.” It is what Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose call “an ideal connection,” one that “envisions a reciprocal, nonhierarchical yearning for mutual fulfillment” (550).5 It is the give and take of intercourse—both linguistic and sexual—that is at the center of Marlatt and Warland's collaborative efforts.

It seems peculiar, and troubling, that feminist scholars have paid Marlatt and Warland's collaborative poetry and prose so little notice. Certainly collaboration has been behind enormously successful feminist political and publishing efforts such as the Boston Women's Health Collective's work or the Combahee River Collective Statement. And as Jane Gallop points out in Around 1981, co-edited anthologies were of enormous importance to the dissemination of feminist scholarship in the academy. It is the desire for community and a belief in collectivity that underpins much feminist (and other revolutionary) thought and action. “Action, political action, calls for a sense of ‘we,’” Marlatt writes (“Changing the Focus” 131), echoing generations of organizers of many causes. At the same time, however, Marlatt and Warland constantly remind their readers (including those with whom they might like to build a “sense of ‘we’”) of their outsider positions. Their senses of displacement, and their literal displacement from arenas of literary study, are the foci of their writing. They probe this displacement and disruption throughout their work—both individually authored and collaboratively authored—and offer little in the way of reconciliation. But it is through this refusal of resolution that their work is most effective; by not allowing themselves or their readers to feel “settled” in any one position, they reinforce the need for constant and evolving political thought and action. Thus my purpose here is to bring Marlatt and Warland's work to attention, not only as aesthetically innovative poetry but also as politically important writing.


In some ways, Marlatt and Warland's writing in Double Negative resembles traditional romantic lyric poetry, and it is this tradition that informs their project. The text speaks of “the memory of your hot-soft flesh / unfurled last night” (33), an erotic passage reminiscent in content and style of many other poems by more conventional poets, male and female. Yet Marlatt and Warland also confound the traditional parameters of love lyrics through passages that sound distinctly nonlyrical and nonromantic in form, syntax, and content: “yet we are back on it with the sentence (s)training toward completion finale as if this as if here were the endpoint culmination as a wave does not waveraves to begin again the falt er the fallo(w)ver is the followthrough” (53). This second passage makes evident the other primary context in which Marlatt and Warland's work must be understood: ludic poststructuralism, a theoretical and aesthetic field that, for the most part, disdains the lyric tradition. Because the lyric appears to rely upon a unified self as a condition of its composition, it seems antithetical to the deconstructive approaches to identity most commonly associated with postmodernist and experimental writing (see Kinnahan, esp. 630-31).6 Yet it is a playful poststructuralist sense of identity and language that informs Marlatt and Warland's deconstruction and reconstruction of the lyric form. By engaging both traditional romantic lyricism and poststructuralism and thus taking apart the presumed dichotomy between each genre's approach to identity, Marlatt and Warland constantly examine themselves as poets from the inside and the outside, as both poets and critics, readers and writers, lovers and beloveds.

Highly aware of the poetic and theoretical issues underpinning lyric ideologies and experimental writing, Marlatt and Warland attempt not only to participate in these debates about the purposes of love poetry and the formation of identity but also to offer ways of thinking and acting on those debates in the material world, projects at the heart of much Canadian feminist writing.7 They are women writing in a genre traditionally practiced by men; they are lesbians working in a form traditionally associated with heterosexuality; they are two voices in a text that is generally the province of a single speaker; they are working both within and without the strictures of the love lyric, and by so doing they hope to remake those definitions. Essentially, they are repositioning both the lyric poet and the lyric poem, both inside and outside existing frames for the genre. Double Negative is aimed at changing not only the ways in which readers think about “woman,” “women,” and “others,” but also the ways readers choose to react to these formulations. Aware of the histories (of women, of the love lyric, of voiceless others) that have gone before, Marlatt and Warland work to create a text that not only resurrects these forgotten lives but also prevents such silences in the future. Their desire to express their love for one another is inextricable from their desire to place themselves within a larger historical, political context. “[W]e move through not along not across not over like so many millions of women who passed through then ‘passed away’ their f.(actual life stories succinct in chiseled head / stones (at best),” they write in Double Negative, “we choose this through this” (42).

By calling attention to the work that the love lyric, and the language used to write that poetry, performs—both positive and negative—Marlatt and Warland work to re-verse that work, aesthetically and politically, to make it work differently within and against those traditions and assumptions.8 Often, as in the passage at the end of the preceding paragraph, their poetry disrupts conventional reading practices. Their formal experimentation, which calls to mind the experimentalism of Language poetry—the removal of punctuation, the combination of abbreviations and fragments with complete words, the playing off of idioms—creates a text that demands a reading attentive to both the fullness and the inadequacies, the pleasures and the prison of language. By removing dividing punctuation (“we move through not along not across not over like so many millions of women”), they create a tumbling stream of words, loosed from the boundaries that kept them at the margins of cultural discourses, a stream that indicates how much there is to say (and how little can be said). Readers must keep in mind multiple meanings (for instance, for “f.(actual”: actual, factual, female actual/actual females) at the same time that Marlatt and Warland remind us of what language cannot and did not record. Their writing aims “to lift some words (off the page) pick them up and run with them (here)” (Double Negative 45). “To lift” is to steal, to raise up, and to move. Thus taking the traditional love lyric and “lifting” it is to take its power, to alter its position, to change its structures. Marlatt and Warland re-place themselves inside the structure of the poem, “seeing out of what we haven't or as glimpses” (45); they call attention to the ways in which the love lyric has functioned as a kind of linguistic and ideological prison house, trapping women inside, allowing them to see and be seen only as glimpses through windows, while men roam widely outside (“the man's job at least takes him out of that square kiln of a dwelling” [45]). By re-versing the lyric, Marlatt and Warland call attention to that woman inside the poem, to her desires, her words. They remake the lyric such that it no longer serves the conservative, even reactionary politics and aesthetics of its old masters; instead they show the way in which its contours of identity, voice, and figurations might serve different, even revolutionary, ends.

Certainly Marlatt and Warland are not the first poets to recognize the ways in which political import might be woven into a genre like the love lyric, and Double Negative must be contextualized in terms of other re-visions of the love lyric, particularly those by lesbian poets. Adrienne Rich's “Twenty-one Love Poems,” composed from 1974 to 1976, offers a similar melding of politics and aesthetics. Rich refuses to support the notion of the love lyric as transcendent, insisting, “We need to grasp our lives inseparable / from those rancid dreams, that blurt of metal, those disgraces” that surround the lovers in the city (236). In fact, Marlatt and Warland appear to acknowledge their own aesthetic debt to Rich in the early pages of Double Negative, writing, “we chose to be in / these brick suburbs / … / among / fat-lettered graffiti” (8). As Kevin McGuirk notes, “[t]he range of reference in ‘Twenty-one Love Poems,’ both literal and literary, counters the inward drift of the love lyric, as well as our tendency to read the protagonists as timeless fictions” (79). Certainly, since “[n]o one has imagined [the lesbian lovers]” (236) when Rich composed the poem (and the American cultural imaginary still remains anxious about this kind of erotic love relationship), there is a powerful political element in the writing of their love into language (“I dreamed you were a poem, / I say, a poem I wanted to show someone” [237]) and in Rich's re-vision of the love-lyric sequence.9 In Rich's poem, the erotic is ultimately “floating,” nomadic within the political matrix of the other twenty-one poems, evidence of uncontained queer desire, a positioning which seems to be echoed in Marlatt and Warland's use of a train journey as a device in Double Negative. Audre Lorde also calls for effecting a tight combination of the sexual and the political, describing the potential power of such a combination of desire and politics: “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world,” she argues, because the “world” is not only racist and patriarchal but also “anti-erotic” (59). The erotic, for Lorde, is an empowering knowledge of the self which leads to an empathetic identification with others, thus making the erotic a means to collective or collaborative action. Sharon P. Holland explains that Lorde works to separate “erotic” from “the narrow focus upon a pleasure located solely in bodies” (217) and to re-place it in “a space highly volatile and creative where women are empowered to view themselves as able to change the myths that circumscribe and constrict their living” (217). As with Rich's positioning of lesbian eroticism, Marlatt and Warland incorporate elements of Lorde's sense of the erotic as well, seeking to use the erotic in similar ways, remaking their train journey (usually eroticized as a representation of male sexuality and desire) into a feminine trope, moving together both inside and outside of their sleeper car in an effort to connect with others. By incorporating elements of these earlier presentations of the erotic, as well as their own (re)visions of it, into Double Negative, Marlatt and Warland begin to develop an erotics of collaboration.

The erotic and collaborative nature of the work informs its structure, as Carr has pointed out (112). Divided into three sections, each part of Double Negative stresses a particular manifestation of the dialogic principle, a particular kind of intercourse.10 The first section, “Double Negative,” was composed during Marlatt and Warland's three-day train trip through Australia, and each of the twelve unsigned poems in the section is titled by the time, place, and sometimes date of its composition. As with the traditional love lyric, which these poems resemble to a certain extent, the authors write of their erotic desire for one another and of the beauty of the countryside through which they pass. “Crossing Loop,” the middle section of the collection, is a dialogue between the two poets which took place after they returned to Canada (Warland, “Moving Parts” 131); it is presented as a transcription of a conversation, with some parts of each author's commentary set off in brackets, perhaps to signify them as later additions to the dialogue. The focus of this discussion is the previous section of poems, “the constraints [the authors] experienced by staying on the literal and narrative track” in the first section. A railway crossing loop is a place to wait for other traffic to pass, a point for reflection. In this section, Marlatt and Warland describe the impetus for writing Double Negative, and they link the work of the poetry to theoretical issues outside the work. The final section, “Real 2,” is a series of twelve unsigned prose poems, each of which begins with a phrase from the first section of the text, and six of which end with an open-ended question to the reader. Here, in this final section, the authors collaborate with their own work, allowing the first section to inform the last.11

Perhaps the most obvious way in which Marlatt and Warland engage definitions of lyric poetry is through their refiguring of the poet's voice from monologue to dialogue. By writing with two voices, the poets immediately refuse the traditional subject-object dichotomy in favor of a more balanced relationship between two lovers who are, at the same time, two beloveds. As a result, the voyeuristic eroticism of the conventional love lyric is replaced by a counterbalanced erotic quality in which readers themselves become a part of, rather than merely a spectator of, the intimate exchange. Double Negative is composed primarily in a “back and forth” format, with Marlatt and Warland writing individually but in response to one another; one poet writes a section, then the other responds. Marlatt has described their composition style “as being one of handing the notebook back and forth, a collaborative alternation in which the two women each wrote half the poems in the various sections” (Carr 112). Other works, such as “Reading and Writing Between the Lines” and “Subject to Change,” reflect a more conversational and sometimes even simultaneous voicing, with text appearing in a double-column format. But even in the case of the independently drafted sections (which are not marked as such) of Double Negative, their collaborative style means that both authors create each section, because each inspires the other's writing, and all revision work is effected by both of them: “not simply a working together there are challenges backings up required words we graft from each other's texts that can't be later edited out” (“Reading” 139). As the poets explain in “Reading and Writing Between the Lines,” an essay discussing their collaborative writing, they move “between the lines” of difference (133), deconstructing not only subject-object binaries but also author-reader binaries, for each is both producer and consumer of the text: “you my co-writer and co-reader, the one up close i address as you and you others i cannot foresee but imagine ‘you’ reading in for. and then there's the you in me, the you's you address in me, writing too. not the same so much as reciprocal, moving back and forth between our sameness and differences” (“Reading” 133). Because of the choice of second-person pronouns here, other readers are drawn into the text as well, as though they, too, are a part of this conversation rather than voyeurs into the private emotions of the poet, consuming the beloved. Instead of insisting on the singularity of authorship/authority, Marlatt and Warland argue that “all writing is collaboration,” that the author and reader always work together in making a text, that any writer is always working as a part of a social whole, though she or he sometimes “tricks the reader into believing in a voice in the wilderness singularly inspired” (“Reading” 141). Instead of insisting on the singularity of interpretation, Marlatt and Warland foreground the multiplicity of possible understandings—“we read each other's entries so differently” (“Reading” 144)—such that despite attempts to fix meaning, to lead the reader to some definitive interpretation, possibilities always spill over: “the commotion in words the connotations you bring are different” (“Reading” 142). While this kind of emphasis on the readerly elements and semantic multiplicity of experimentalist texts is fairly commonplace, Marlatt and Warland's open collaboration with one another (as readers and authors) as well as with other readers foregrounds this quality in important ways.

While the element of exhibitionism endemic to the lyric is still present—the reader is still asked to look in on the relationship between the lovers—it takes on a different force here. First, Marlatt and Warland are willing to exhibit themselves/one another differently. Rather than praising the curve of a leg or the smoothness of a cheek, and thus replicating the troubling specularizations of the traditional lyric, Marlatt and Warland offer varying portraits of their relationship, which includes not only sexuality but also intellectuality, not only desire but also creativity:

i don't only want to present the reader with “perfect poems” but also the back & forth. the struggle for mine and the relaxing into, moving with each other into, something more than mine. … I didn't only intend “mine” as a possessive but also in the sense of mining. mining the mind throughout our whole bodies.

(“Subject” 158)

Even in journal-like entries such as this, Marlatt and Warland make no move to clarify whose voice is whose, which poet wishes to let all the rough edges show and which poet says such writing is “not poetry” (“Subject” 158). The public (because published) exposition of this push and pull is essential to their revision of the lyric, reinforcing the commingling of voice, the removal of lover-beloved and author-reader binaries. While there are definite markers of difference between the two poets' voices as well as between the poets and their readers, the intimate eroticism here also confounds such boundaries through constant interchange. Furthermore, their refusal to assign names to thoughts allows them a measure of privacy—the reader is unsure who is who—as well as a kind of personal intimacy with the same reader: names are superfluous to the relationship they're working to create. This dynamic of “we” is essential to the kind of work Marlatt and Warland are trying to do in Double Negative:

[A] sense of “we” as audience becomes crucial in determining the voice, its sense of intimacy with the reader. This kind of voice creates a space for recog-nitions to jump the gap between reader and writer. It leads to a certain kind of humour, a certain kind of pathos and anger and beauty we recognize as “ours.”

(Marlatt, “Changing the Focus” 131)

Double Negative is “ours” for Marlatt and Warland in a way that traditional love poetry rarely is. As Margaret Homans has demonstrated, the romantic lyric is dependent on “a desire [for the feminine object of desire] that is never quite achieved because attainment would remove the motive for future poems” (570). Therefore, the metaphors of the poetry are “specular (eyes and stars, cheeks and roses); they depend on visual resemblance or perspectivism” (572); these metaphors ultimately bolster the primacy of male sexuality, that sex (organ) which can be seen. Marlatt and Warland are most clearly refusing that dynamic through their own sexuality (there is no male present) and through their collaborative work. But that absence of the male and that collaborative presence allow for a different positioning of lover and beloved in the poetry: both may be present; each poet occupies both roles. This differently occupied poetry is subversive in that it does not reproduce the “see and say” metonymy of the romantic and colonizing lyric. Instead, Marlatt and Warland open up the field so that desire is replaced with pleasure, the single track of individual quest is replaced with polymorphous exchange (verbal, textual, and physical). And it is an erotic exchange that gestures not toward a utopia (where, for instance, collaborative lovers and poets wouldn't argue over what or how to write) but toward an accessible collaborative relationship, where push and pull, strength and vulnerability are present and even pleasurable.

The double-voicedness of this lyric poetry also creates a kind of double vision. Literally, Double Negative is the product of two poets, two lovers, two perspectives on the subjects. It is tempting, both for Marlatt and Warland and for readers of their work, to believe they have a special kind of vision because of their position in the social fabric. As women and lesbians, they are outside of the traditional matrices of power; they are, as the title of the work says, “double negatives”—not-good, not-voiced, not-there. Perhaps, as various critics have suggested, those who are outside the centers of power can see those centers more clearly than those who occupy the privileged positions.12 The “not-there” (outsider) becomes a kind of vantage point from which to consider that which is “there” (insider). However, to position a particular group in that way is only partially empowering. For even as that group may derive power from its supposed insight, the group must remain outsiders in order to retain those powers; the dynamic of “inside/outside” must remain in force.

Marlatt and Warland attempt to negotiate this position by highlighting the ways in which they are both insiders and outsiders, powerful and powerless. On the one hand, as voyagers on the train through the outback, they are part of the privileged center—they are consuming another (nonprivileged) culture through their position as tourists, and they are using that culture as material for their own work. Throughout the text, they position the aboriginal culture of the Australian outback as erotically beautiful (“these sandstone cliffs eucalyptus blue sky / outline of rose / lower lip kiss of night” [10]) and as a kind of besieged body, overcome and ravished by the powers of colonialism (“the cairns the / abandoned cars / visual evidence of someone's / passing through” [22]). On the other hand, they are outsiders in an unfamiliar culture, a culture that they deem better than their own, one to which they wish they had access. This double dynamic of privilege and exclusion is demonstrated here:

the muscles between the eyes & tongue straining to translate stutter bewildering syntax synapse of alternate routes while He insists on “chicks” “roos” “abos” (“only nicknames, mate”) sells His picture collage postcards of Australia's exotic animals: emu, kangaroo & Aboriginal in the desert in the margin the “wild zone” losing the proper train of thought off the track the kanyala stare back and we see ourselves not reflected but re/called out of this Kangaroo Court re/called out of the Fathers' optical illusions changing the reel inside out


Within these lines the poets move from feeling lost (they cannot speak Australian English, with its borrowed aboriginal words, comfortably), to feeling mocked (being told to use “Australian-sounding” nicknames, being offered postcards of exotic outback “wildlife” featuring aboriginal peoples), to feeling disempowered (“re/called” by patriarchal culture), to feeling free (remaking the imagery offered to them, discovering new spaces at the margins, on the edges). Though simplistic acceptance of inside-outside dynamics is ultimately nonconstructive for those seeking to subvert or to change the culture in which those dynamics operate, Marlatt and Warland offer a complex way of conceiving of this positioning, one that requires a fluidity of boundaries but still acknowledges their material existence—“the intractably here” (44).

This negotiation of insider-outsider positions also means that their vision looks both in and out. While the poets do spend a great deal of time looking into themselves, mining their desires and sensualities, they also direct their vision outward into the world(s) around them, incorporating cultural context into their collaborative eroticism. Thus a train voyage through the Australian outback is more than a simple tour through the country, more than a metaphor for their own nomadic desires; as appealing as such an inwardly directed voyage of Judic play may be, Marlatt and Warland are well aware that such a trip is an impossibility, that they/their train will be “leaving our mark / shit and toilet paper / shredded at high speed” (26). The choices they make as they move through the world—as women privileged enough to make such a journey—are always having an impact on that world in specific, material ways.

Looking out the windows of the train as they flash through the outback, Marlatt and Warland are also looking at themselves, at their positions as viewers, critically—their faces are reflected back in the window glass. They are aware of what it means for them to be looking out on the world around them, as privileged passengers on a train through Australia, as members of the culture that colonized the country outside the windows of the train. Even as they work to see Australia, to understand the history of that nation, they know that it is “your i in the camera” (25) at all times, that their ability to “see” is always already constructed by value systems. But they don't allow such a knowledge to lead them to escape into a self-referential world, to give up on attempting to alter their ways of seeing. Instead, they constantly probe these systems, looking both for indications of the systems' operations and for fissures in their seemingly monolithic constructions of the world. “[C]an we see what we do not value[?]” they wonder (24). And if they are able to see things that lie outside of Western ideology, “where to focus / life in 3-D” becomes an issue (33).

History, or at least a particular idea of it, comes under attack here, especially during the first section of the text, the part framed as a train journey through the Australian outback. Australia was at one time a British penal colony, a history that resulted in the near extermination of the continent's aboriginal peoples; likewise, Canada shares a colonial connection to Great Britain that includes the exploitation and extermination of native peoples.13 Marlatt and Warland begin their critique of this colonization by noting the traces of the aboriginal language in (now official) English: “kangaroo, lorrikeet, cockatoo / stolen words graffitied on our / northern minds” (9). Likewise, they note the overpowering influence of the English language on the continent, with the powerful forces (and gazes) of colonization literally pushing out of the left-justified frame of the poem, thrusting forward in search of new territories to see, mark, and claim:

Peterborough, Jamestown, Gladstone, Port Pirie
anglo overlays in the name of
stiff upper lip a thin line noosing the coast of
(ab) original country


It is through passages such as these that Marlatt and Warland work to highlight a connection between the romantic lyric and the travelogue. Both generic forms seek to map their subjects, to circumscribe and circumnavigate the other, placing the other in the speaker's erotic framework. Marlatt and Warland wonder whether the language of Australia's earlier inhabitants is somehow more “pure,” less compromised than English, with its history of violence and colonization, its enforced “stiff upper lip,” its cannibalization of other languages, its renaming of other places and peoples. They suggest that this native tongue is akin to the “presymbolic” valorized by French feminist theorists such as Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva: “Yunta, Paratoo, Ucolta, Yongala … ‘the oldest living language’ shaping our tongues lips / to speak it out (though we do not know the meanings)” (16). And they note the single-mindedness and banality with which this aboriginal culture was banished, marginalized by the colonizers. Ultimately, it is the names of the colonizers that stand out, alone, both on the map and on the page, the primary terminology by which we know and identify places in Australia:

we move in a straight trajectory after Ooldea
the “longest stretch of straight railway in the world”
a line of thought 478 kms long
studded with former Prime Ministers
who knew how to put their names on the map
Watson, Fisher, Cook, Hughes, Deakin, Reid


Their insistence on recording these histories is a key element of their project as poets, for it is through this recognition of the world around them, of its historical layers, that Marlatt and Warland place themselves, and their love, within that world. By doing so, they not only work to change the relationships between colonizer and colonized, between Anglo tourists and Australian aboriginals, but they also open up the potential for illuminating and therefore taking a step toward altering other elements of the social and cultural matrix in which they exist. They seek to disrupt the “hom(m)osexual” economy responsible for relegating women and others (who also bear marks of difference) to commodity status. Rather than “giv[ing] up their bodies to [white, Western] men as the supporting material of specularization, of speculation. … yield[ing] to him their natural and social value as a locus of imprints, marks, and mirage of his activity” (Irigaray 177), Marlatt and Warland suggest a strategy of resistance through which such relationships can be altered, first in poetic discourse, then in sociopolitical discourse.

Marlatt and Warland see themselves, as women and lesbians, as equally “noosed” by patriarchal and compulsorily heterosexual culture, as equally constrained by “straight trajectories” and “line[s] of thought”; they identify themselves with the animals and aboriginal peoples of Australia:

touching you
I touch kangaroo
lick my way through
your red fur


The ramifications of this kind of identification—white, educated, Anglo-Canadian lesbians magically transformed into primal creatures linked closely to the earth on which they travel—are difficult to sort through. On the one hand, such a coalitional politics seems essential to creating any kind of change, and it is dangerous and often counterproductive to draw boundaries between marginalized groups, as many feminists of color have worked to demonstrate. Thus, as Marlatt claims, “You begin to feel a solidarity with other marginalized peoples. To be a lesbian is to become aware of your difference, no matter how you come to it or whether you've felt you've always been one” (“Changing the Focus” 132). On the other hand, the ways in which Marlatt and Warland express their solidarity with aboriginal peoples seems overly romanticized and perhaps even condescending (they elide the distinction between animal and human; the poetry itself takes on an almost singsong quality here due to the short, rhyming lines). Does an emu's gaze (26-27) signify some kind of aboriginal clarity of vision? Can (should?) a white, Canadian woman be equated so easily with an Australian aboriginal? Warland articulates this problematic tension between individual and collective in her theorogram “Up-ending Universality”:

as a lesbian I do not speak Universese. few people do. we (collective not universal) come from different cultures, classes, ages, lifestyles, bodies, races, belief and educational systems. conflict in the world has been largely due to the desire “to stamp” out difference or at least have authority over it (“everything's under control”). … what we write inevitably excludes most people. yet if we write well we invite eavesdropping by the other and with INTEREST: “interesse, ‘to be in between’” s/he hears the difference of an/other's life.


This questioning speaks not only to coalitional politics, which Marlatt and Warland are certainly invested in, but also to the ways in which the love lyric is constructed. As a supposedly “universal” subject, the lyric poet is expected to be able to collapse differences, to link different peoples/readers together through language. Thus “touching you” might easily become “touch[ing] kangaroo” (or any other being) through simplistic association. Such an operation of universality is deeply complex, for even as it promises connections among disparate groups, it works to stamp out or evacuate differences, conflating everything under a single sign through (often violent) homogenization (see Warland, “Up-ending Universality”). Colonization functions in a similar way, consolidating difference under the signs of the colonizer, both literally (in terms of language, for example) and figuratively (in terms of sociopolitical standing). The continent/country of Australia marks just as contested a site as their own (women's) bodies. As Marlatt and Warland remind the reader (and one another), “i say them to you” (9). But in “eavesdropping” on this conversation, “they” are invited to scrutinize that relationship, and perhaps to alter it through the construction of coalitional groups, saying, in effect, “us to them.

As a colonized continent, Australia is an apt environment for Marlatt and Warland's investigations. First, Australia and particularly the desert through which they travel, the Nullarbor (translatable as “without trees” [see Double Negative 28]), has been read as blank, empty, and (at best) primitive, prime territory for others (that is, colonizers) to inscribe their own names, their own agendas. Similarly, in the lyric tradition, women have been portrayed as blank, willing subjects waiting for the lovers to grant them lives, if not voices. By rereading both this desert and the images of women, Marlatt and Warland hope to open up a range of alternative possibilities for seeing the world around them. “[T]here's nothing there, they said / it's beautiful, they said” (22), the poets write, summing up the simplification of both desert and woman and the way in which such supposed emptiness has appealed to colonizers: the spectator envisions an erotic process of “filling up” the perceived blankness with his own presence. At the same time, “it's beautiful” also means a reevaluation of what has been seen as blankness—nothingness is reread as full of beautiful possibility. The poets take their voyage through this desert(ed) space on a train, traditionally read as a symbol for male sexuality and for masculine privilege (track cutting through wilderness, train inexorably moving down that track). Instead of allowing this perception to govern their interpretation of the train voyage, Marlatt and Warland rewrite the symbolism, explaining in the reflective “Crossing Loop” section: “the train is constantly starting and stopping, departing and arriving, coming and waiting at crossing loops and in that sense it's cyclical”; “We talked about coming but made it female coming and the cyclical nature of female orgasm is really different from the on-track crescendo of male orgasm” (37). The desert, women's sexuality, the experiences of aboriginal peoples—all of these have been ignored, marginalized, denied, “gone / into the realm of the disappeared” (14).

Marlatt and Warland have foregrounded the issue of the volume's title: double negatives. Literally, of course, the term means to deny something twice—“she didn't say nothing” (29)—which ultimately affirms that something: if “she didn't say nothing,” then she did say something. Mathematically, a double negative would also make a positive: -(-2)=+2. Yet socially, culturally, this operation by which two negatives lead to a positive has gone unrecognized. If a woman is invisible, a lesbian is doubly so; the same doubling of negatives occurs with respect to colonized peoples (who live, in the case of Australian aboriginals, not incidentally, in areas termed “down under” and “outback”). “[T]he words and what / they tow along” (31) work to ensure the continued invisibility of these groups. Social codes enforce this aporia in a similar way:

walking into the diner
“are you ladies alone”
                                                                                                              “we're together”


Here, the placement of the lines on the page echoes the kind of “emptiness” that is assumed to exist in women's lives without men or children to give them identities. Their assertion “we're together” is both pushed aside by the standard point of view reflected by the traditional left-justification of the poetic lines and pushed forward by their refusal to agree to the maître d's characterization of them as “alone.” Part of what the poets work to expose is how colonization operates to “take over” these “empty” spaces of women's bodies and non-European lands. Thus in addition to their critique of the love lyric's conventions, Marlatt and Warland also consider the genre of explorer writing, most of which “unquestioningly celebrates that uncontested right institutionalized by church and state, the right of the explorer to claim the land he journeys through” (Carr 115). They demonstrate the similar process by which women's bodies and others' lands are colonized, all in the name of “see-vill(ain)-I-say-tion” (19); that is, by seeing and saying, the (male) explorer is able to claim a supposedly empty space—a woman's body or a people's nation—as his own.14 Once having claimed that space, the explorer marks it as different, as dangerous: Woomera becomes a “‘prohibited area … weapons testing range’ / bordering the largest aboriginal ‘occupied lands’” (19); a woman's/lesbian's body is similarly labeled “i sign your V / PROHIBITED AREA / CONS: ‘French, cunt’” (21). In two deft linguistic moves, territory belonging to one is devalued, made terrible, profane. A part of the outback becomes a weapons range, and those aboriginals living near that range are called occupiers; a woman's genital area, her sexuality (“your V”), is set apart, given an ugly name. Wombs and bombs are literally conflated here (not least through the curious choice of “Woomera” as the “weapons testing range”).


Having highlighted the interrelated operations of genre, language, and politics, Marlatt and Warland are interested in defining the operations necessary to change them.

PRO: “before, in front of, according to”
(Adam before … the Gospel according to …)
                                                                                                    CONS: “conjunx,
women as CONS: “contrā, against, opposite”


Rather than allowing their status to be defined by others (women as liabilities, as weaknesses, as helpmeets, as commodities), Marlatt and Warland look for ways to reverse those definitions (women as resisters, as subverters, as powers), just as they worked to remake the definition of “collaboration.” How might they level the field, if not invert its terms? How can they—through their poetry, which necessarily relies on heavily freighted language and aesthetics—enact the doubling of the negative, a reversal of trajectories and terms, such that it results in a positive? How can they move from a (false) “universal” voice to what Warland calls “a transversal voice” (“Up-ending Universality” 60)?

As the preceding passage indicates, language is at the center of the way in which Marlatt and Warland work to create change. As poets, their medium is language. The changes they make to the love lyric are, first, linguistic; it is through the language of the love lyric that theory moves into practice. But the details and experiences they choose to record are both personal (snippets of conversation, intimate moments, interior questionings) and political (investigations of language, historical details, exterior scenes), thus placing their poem into the space between the personal and the political, a space Carolyn Forché, calls “the social” (31). The social, Forché, argues, “is a place of resistance and struggle, where books are published, poems read, and protest disseminated” (31). By writing the social, Marlatt and Warland avoid both the potential banality of the political poem (in which readers dismiss the subject matter as “someone else's”) and the suspicion of the personal poem (in which readers question the “truth” of detail, the “genuineness” of the speaker).

In its conceptualization of aesthetics as intimately connected to politics, Double Negative is grounded in écriture feminine. The valorization of multiplicity and fluidity runs through Double Negative, in both its form and content. Marlatt and Warland explain that, like the train on which they ride through the Australian outback during the first section of the work, “it does not stand / our desire / moves continuous around” (8). As in the French feminist tradition, this kinetic desire flows not only through their actual sexual experiences but also through their experiences of writing, which are also highly sexualized. In fact, at times it seems that one is inseparable from the other, as in the sensuous move from sexuality to textuality here: “legs stretched out my eyes there too / your hand moving across the page” (11). The braiding of sexuality and textuality here and elsewhere in Marlatt and Warland's writing is an extension of the power of the “erotic” as theorized by Rich, Lorde, and others (such as Elizabeth Meese). Because a sexual exchange between two women falls outside the domain of patriarchal hegemony, a textual exchange may slip through those boundaries as well. Thus the pages of Double Negative are positioned as “extra-hegemonic.” The poem doesn't so much replicate the love lyric (through imitation or negation) as “re-verse” it, setting it on a new trajectory which moves outside its historical limitations. At the same time, the poets recognize that, at least as the stuff of poetry, their expression of desire is limited by language:

you pulled me under last night
sucking me out through my womb          inside out
re-versed writing across bed into sky
touching holding everything
words my only boundary
the desert on either side of my mind


They believe that their lesbian love/desire offers them a measure of insight and freedom that is unavailable to men or (perhaps) heterosexual women; they are set apart from society as “inverts,” just as “inside out” is set apart in this passage. Sexual acts (“you pulled me under last night / sucking me out”) are linked directly to the social (“bed into sky”) through a kind of free association. This freedom allows them to see “outside” the strictures of Western, phallogocentric thought, to see the forgotten and the uninvented and to bring those languages and texts into being:

your Mound of V pulling me
o contraction Star of V-us
first letter of another alphabet
                                                                                lit language we star(e) at
we will open the bed and chant our stars down
into the sway of unuttered texts
                                                                                (make a wish)
as the matter of language reinvents itself all over again


It is an appealing notion, that two women could, by virtue of their sexuality, their jouissance, have the clarity of vision and voice to bring these alternative texts and languages into being. As Marlatt and Warland seem to build toward a kind of sexual-textual orgasm, they are certainly caught up in the pleasure of such an idea: “point of view / night turns the lens around” (11). “Woman's desire would not be expected to speak the same language as man's,” Luce Irigaray writes, caught up herself in the same textual-sexual excitement (25). Women's bodies, according to French feminists such as Irigaray, allow for the dispersion of monologic identities, allow for a plurality of being, allow the reinvention of global economies and languages. As Judith Roof explains, “[t]his accord between body and writing premised on a mimesis of a woman's experience of her body is the source of a means to overcome the systemic oppression of a binary system of sexualized oppositions” (131). Thus unuttered texts, unknown languages, unimagined ways of being can be realized through women's textual eroticism.

Or so French feminism would have it. And, at least in some of their past works, so Marlatt and Warland would like to have had it, too.15 But in a bit of textus interruptus, Marlatt and Warland return from the imagined powers of a lesbian écriture feminine to the material, a move decidedly atypical of the love lyric, in which the poet attempts to distance her- or himself from the material world in favor of the ideal. From the fantasy of language reinventing itself (no agency required) and revolution coming strictly through their bodies and words, Marlatt and Warland return to the material world with a thud: “now stopped in our tracks / null” (28); they realize the impossibility of their scenario. Still valorizing multiplicity (“addiction to movement i'm restless irritable / still want to get out / pressed like flora under glass” [28]), they remind themselves and their readers of the material work that must be done to change the lives of women and others. They understand that, despite the powerful lure of Cixous's and Irigaray's models of an embodied writing, of the presymbolic expression of Kristeva's chora, of the blending and multiplicitous identities they write about, there are specific experiences and problems to be addressed, ones that cannot be solved in an unconstituted identity, through an incomprehensible language. “[S]he wants to migrate she wants to mutate she wants to have no natural predators be nothing looking at nothing thrive in her own absence be out of focus out of range of the Gaze hide out from The Law under assumed names,” they write in “Real 2,” the intensity of their desire expressed through the unpunctuated rush of words, “but there's no way out even the desert cannot escape imagin-a-nation of the imaginations of the 113 billion who have lived and recorded their mindscapes” (51). The power of cultural forces to construct our perceptions of the world (“imagin-a-nation”) is great; whether one wants to escape or not, it is impossible to do so. In fact, it is precisely these conditions that allow for a construction of the “presymbolic” at all; in order to perceive origins (such as a lost presymbolic to which we can return), explains Roof, “one must be inaccessibly beyond them, just as to perceive an ab original plurality and loss of a singular self one must experience an irreversible individuation” replicating “the binary singular/plural, them/us, masculine/feminine structure in which such originary tales operate” (127). “[I] had wanted to be less descriptive / … / no syntax only syllables / no train of thought” (28), Marlatt and Warland write, in a description of the supposedly “white writing” of écriture feminine. “[Y]et the urge is to gather as a wave to the sea” (29), to constitute a comprehensible text, to avoid the reiteration of dichotomies that produce both dominant consciousness and these attempts to envision origins outside that consciousness, to define a (strategic) identity (as women, lesbians) in order to gather the force necessary to reach the shore, to make the political and social changes that are the central element of their aesthetics.

Of course, the wave that gathers force is ultimately dashed against the sand, returned to the amorphousness of water. But that, it seems, is precisely how Marlatt and Warland would like to conceive of identity: not fixed and permanent, as stone, but with some shape, however temporary, created through the collective amassing of parts. Molecules, drops, even buckets of water may not mean much as discrete elements; but grouped together through a kind of erotic, collaborative exchange, those smaller parts create a powerful whole, which just as easily disperses after its impact is felt. In this way, “the ‘doer’ is variably constructed in and through the deed,” an operation that Judith Butler sees as the key to an effective oppositional politics (142). As such, the “doer” is free to establish and reestablish alliances with other “doers.” “[S]entences as waves” (29)—individual words grouped provisionally to make meaning(s)—is the medium Marlatt and Warland choose to effect political resistance and change, still fluid and pleasurable, but also powerful. The eroticism here shifts from an emphasis on sexualized exchange to an emphasis on political exchange, still maintaining the intimacy of relationship necessary to both interchanges: “its movement carrying us into / THIS: / ‘what is about to be said’ / here” (33). This sense of identity balances—precariously perhaps—between the abyss of endless play (the sense that language constructs everything, including the “real” or the “material”) and the static terrain of the essentialized “I.” Instead, Marlatt explains, “it's a lower case i, it isn't monolithic, or massive and solid—it has very permeable boundaries, is on a footing of exchange, sometimes even con-fusion, with lower-case you. And still this i has a sense of her own ground—ethics, politics, history—her own specificity which won't be denied” (“Changing” 132).

Through these strategies—double-voicedness, double vision, excavations of language, refashioning identity—Marlatt and Warland remake the lyric. It remains, even here, a tribute to sensual, spiritual love between two people, but much else is changed. Through these aesthetic changes, the poets make an important step toward creating material change. “[R]eading us in what is out of place out/standing out of that which (normally) is” (56) means that they are inviting us to see differently, to look for the missing voices, to consider the lover who remains silent in the traditional lyric, and to think about the roots of that silence. And by “reading [them] in” to the love lyric—as women, as lesbians, as experimentalists, as collaborative writers—the reader of Double Negative is gradually taught to reread the entire world: “we bilingual reading rock reading sand word reading us in” (56); “not there but there writing the not here inverts turning perspective upside down” (54). Hence the personal elements of Double Negative bolster a broad-based political agenda; the eroticism of sexual collaboration spills over into political collaboration, infusing the latter with the kind of intimacy that Marlatt and Warland see as necessary to effecting change. Even as the subject matter shifts from the sensual to the physical, the rhythm of the text, its language and structure, retain the erotic qualities usually confined to love lyrics. The specular nature of the lyric, usually used to confine the subject, is inverted. By depicting those things that culture “do[es] not value” (24), Marlatt and Warland seek to teach readers to see them differently, as peoples and ideas with which we ourselves are interconnected. Women speaking to women—literally and erotically—isn't usually valued; rather, such conversations and interactions are sidelined and silenced. Their fires are snuffed out. But Marlatt and Warland, and they hope their readers in turn, “like a fire,” just as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas did. And they “don't mind if it smokes,” either. In fact, they want it to blaze, providing both heat and illumination. Language always positions the self in relationship to others, but what Marlatt and Warland foreground is the fact that this relationship has the potential to be one of love. Harriet Scott Chessman's description of Stein's erotic dialogue provides a useful framework to understand such a potentiality: “Although difference exists … this difference comes to seem less like an end in itself than the necessary starting point for merging and identification, just as … identification becomes the starting point for difference. Neither ‘difference’ nor ‘identification’ may be defined without the other term” (65). In this kind of cyclical movement, the interchange is pleasurable and intimate, personal and political.

Marlatt and Warland literally enact Irigaray's two lips speaking together: “In these places of women-among-themselves, something of a speaking (as) woman is heard” (Irigaray 135). Furthermore, they enact the kind of collective identification, between themselves and themselves and their readers, that, according to Irigaray, will lead to feminist political revolution: “The first issue facing liberation movements is that of making each woman ‘conscious’ of the fact that what she has felt in her personal experience is a condition shared by all women, thus allowing that experience to be politicized” (164). While such an understanding of “shared” experience can easily result in the kind of exclusionary politics practiced in the early years of feminism (in which middle-class white women's experiences were treated as representative of all women's experiences), Marlatt and Warland, as I have discussed, resist such homogenization throughout Double Negative by constantly interrogating their own position within the political and cultural systems they critique.

The meaning of this new perspective is not yet entirely clear. Throughout Double Negative Marlatt and Warland work “to lift some words (off the page) pick them up and run with them (here) to cite to quote is to move into fiction as if it isn't here she stares back unseen sighted/sited” (45). In “lifting words,” they have stolen them (from the traditional lyric), they have raised them up (through the inversions of perspective), they have placed them into new contexts, and they have set them in motion, into dialogue. They have delineated a literal site (the page) onto which the lesbian, the woman, the Other can inscribe a self but within which she is not herself sited or sighted. By working to explode the traditional forms and formulas of the love lyric, Marlatt and Warland have created a text that is not “sleep walking / through history” (31), as the supposedly transcendentally focused love lyric might try to. Rather than “go[ing] docilely to their preconceived vanishing points,” as they might have done within traditional generic boundaries (Retallack 374), Marlatt and Warland have gone off the tracks. They have a text that engages with the social and the historical, in hopes of changing the conditions they see there through a redefinition of aesthetic purpose. Their poetry is double-voiced, it is experimental, it is grounded in the material, it is about self and others, and, above all, it is political.

we are waiting to enter, re-enter
the rhythm again
of instant
                              (by instant
                                                                                                                                  about to be, this
imperceptible shift
                              we will slip away (like)
ground rolling out from under
                              the gradual
                              thunder of coming
                              in our ears



  1. Proceedings from this conference are available in Dybikowski et al.

  2. (f.)lip was billed as “a newsletter of feminist writing” and was co-edited by Warland, Sandy Duncan, Erica Hendry, and Angela Hryniuk. It appeared from 1986 to 1989. Tessera, governed by an editorial collective that included Marlatt, is a bilingual journal that circulates among Canadian literary journals as a guest publication (Harasym 107n10). See “SP/ELLE,” Marlatt's edited transcription of a discussion among the members of the editorial collective, for more information on this journal's history and ideology. See also Barbara Godard's collection of essays from Tessera.

  3. Laird includes an excellent history and bibliography of the body of scholarship on collaborative writing in her preface. Two collections of collaborative writing, Resurgent, edited by Lou Robinson and Camille Norton, and Singular Texts/Plural Authors, edited by Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford, offer excellent selections of collaborative work.

  4. Joan Retallack, from whom I take the term, defines “feminist poethics” as “an aesthetic practice that reveals, in the course of its enactment, the powers of feminine poetics in female hands” (363). Retallack argues that experimental writing styles, those which move beyond mimeticism, are especially important (and politically charged) because they refuse the subject-object binarism of traditional representationalism and thus have the potential to restructure social relations.

  5. Kaplan and Rose, building on Adrienne Rich's idea of a “lesbian continuum,” argue that this kind of collaborative dynamic is “lesbian,” though not “in a limited, genital sense” (552). I am not convinced that distinctions in sexuality are necessarily significant to collaborative writers. Although Kaplan and Rose cite Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris's collaborative efforts as exemplary of a hierarchical model endemic to heterosexual coupling (physical and artistic) (559), it is not an accurate assessment (they assume, for instance, that Erdrich's novels, but not Dorris's, are the products of a single authorship). See Leonardi and Pope, esp. 267-68, for further discussion of the significance of sexuality to collaborative writing.

  6. This split is hardly absolute. Marjorie Perloff and Peter Nicholls both discuss the ways in which contemporary experimental poets (most notably those labeled Language poets) are deconstructing the lyric in their poetry. Linda Kinnahan explores the deconstruction and reconstruction of the lyric in the work of three contemporary British experimentalists. See also Kinereth Meyer, who maintains that the dichotomy between a “Romantic” or “transcendent” I and a “postmodern” or “fictive” I is a false one.

  7. Margaret Homans, Diana E. Henderson (esp. 8), Rachel Blau DuPlessis (esp. “Other-how” and “Corpses of Poesy”), and Joan Retallack offer excellent discussions of feminist responses to the love lyric. See also the collection Feminist Measures, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller. Further discussions of feminism and experimentalism can be found in Armantrout; Bergvall; Kinnahan; Scalapino and Silliman; Waldrop (esp. 65-67); Warland, “Far as the I Can See”; and Wills. Warland's Proper Deafinitions and Marlatt's Touch to My Tongue contain numerous examples of their engagement with radical feminism, language, and innovative writing. Sarah Harasym offers a useful overview of the Canadian feminist literary community.

  8. Through the display of the poet's desire(d) to a reader whose own desires are assumed (and constructed) to be commensurate with his own, the traditional love lyricist participates in what Luce Irigaray characterizes as a cycle of “hom(m)osexual” exchange, circulating women among men as a means to “establish[] the operations of [patriarchal] society” (184). Through the relegation of women to the roles of mother, virgin, or prostitute (the very roles most prevalent in the traditional lyric), the poet ensures a very particular socioeconomic order (see esp. 185-87, 191).

  9. See McGuirk for a much more detailed discussion of Rich's combination of the political (rhetorical) and the aesthetic (lyrical) in “Twenty-one Love Poems.”

  10. I use “dialogic” here not in an explicitly Bakhtinian sense (though Marlatt and Warland do interpolate multiple voices and discourses into their poetry, thus recalling the Bakhtinian definition), but rather as the adjectival form of “dialogue.” For a further discussion of the term, see Ede and Lunsford, “Rhetoric.”

  11. The first, now out of print edition of Double Negative (published by Gynergy Books in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada) includes “negative collages” by Cheryl Sourkes at the beginning of each of these sections. These collages include photographs, lines from Double Negative, and various symbols and figures. Double Negative is now available, without the photo collages, as part of Two Women in a Birth, a collection which includes other collaborative pieces by Marlatt and Warland as well as essays by each author.

  12. See, for instance, Chela Sandoval, who argues that “U.S. third world feminism might represent a form of consciousness whose very structure lies outside the conditions of possibility which regulate the oppositional expressions of dominant feminism” (1). This “differential consciousness,” according to Sandoval, is a product of “the experience of social marginality” (17).

  13. Neither Marlatt nor Warland was born in Canada. Marlatt was born in Melbourne, Australia, and lived in Penang until her family emigrated to Vancouver when she was nine. Warland was born in Iowa; she became a Canadian citizen in 1981. See Williamson for biographical and critical information on Marlatt and Warland (as well as other important Canadian women writers).

  14. A prime example of the use of the figure of the explorer within the love lyric is John Donne's “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” in which Donne uses the trope of the explorer first to empower the mistress (asking her to “License [his] roving hands”), then to disempower her as he claims her body as his territory (“O my America! my new-found land”).

  15. Sarah Harasym sees in Marlatt's work an “essential supposition that women have an unmediated, ‘instinctive,’ understanding of their bodies” (115), which results in what Harasym reads as Marlatt's inability to make space for “third world” women (their histories, experiences, needs) within her work. However, further reading demonstrates that neither Marlatt nor Warland is as uncritically committed to French feminist ideals, to the exclusion of materialist issues, as Harasym claims. In her 1984 work Steveston, for instance, Marlatt offers a moving portrait of a Japanese-Canadian fishing village in Canada and of the people who live in it. She witnesses and chronicles (along with the photographer Robert Minden) the difficulties of their daily lives in fishing boats and canneries, making the bloody, smelly work of the village seem almost beautiful and certainly significant (“What can I give in return?” she asks, and answers, “That I persist, also, in seeing them” [52]). Betsy Warland's Serpent (W)rite relentlessly deconstructs language and clichés (often quite humorously, as in the juxtaposition of the slang term “eating pussy” with the clichéd question “cat got your tongue?” in turn 8), considering the stories, etymologies, definitions, histories, and “voices of author-I-ty” which structure the social and political. She ends not with a return to the presymbolic but with the assertion that “these are the words that undo themselves turn around on themselves find they're never in the same place they began” (turn 8).

In revising this piece for publication, I received invaluable help from many sources, including Nancy Peterson, Siobhan Somerville, Elizabeth Savage, and Contemporary Literature's editors and anonymous readers.

Works Cited

Armantrout, Rae. “Why Don't Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?” In the American Tree. Ed. Ron Silliman. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986. 544-46.

Bergvall, Caroline. “No Margins to This Page: Female Experimental Poets and the Legacy of Modernism.” Fragmente 5 (1993): 30-38.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Carr, Brenda. “Collaboration in the Feminine: Daphne Marlatt/Betsy Warland's ‘Re-versed Writing’ in Double Negative.Tessera 9 (1990): 111-22.

Chessman, Harriet Scott. The Public Is Invited to Dance: Representation in the Body, and Dialogue in Gertrude Stein. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1989.

Donne, John. “Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed.” 1669.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “‘Corpses of Poesy’: Some Modern Poets and Some Gender Ideologies of Lyric.” Keller and Miller 69-95.

———. “Otherhow.” The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. New York: Routledge, 1990. 140-56.

Dybikowski, Ann, Victoria Freeman, Daphne Marlatt, Barbara Pulling, and Betsy Warland, eds. In the Feminine: Women and Words/Les Femmes et Les Mots Conference Proceedings. Edmonton: Longspoon P, 1985.

Ede, Lisa, and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Rhetoric in a New Key: Women and Collaboration.” Rhetoric Review 8 (1990): 234-41.

———. Singular Texts/Plural Authors: Perspectives on Collaborative Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.

Forché, Carolyn. Introduction. Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. Ed. Carolyn Forché. New York: Norton, 1993. 29-47.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Gallop, Jane. Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Godard, Barbara, ed. Collaboration in the Feminine: Writings on Women and Culture from Tessera. Toronto: Second Story, 1994.

Harasym, Sarah. “‘EACH MOVE MADE HERE (me) MOVES THERE (you).’” boundary 2 18.1 (1991): 104-26.

Henderson, Diana E. Passion Made Public: Elizabethan Lyric, Gender, and Performance. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.

Holland, Sharon P. “To Touch the Mother's C(o)untry: Siting Audre Lorde's Erotics.” Lesbian Erotics. Ed. Karla Jay. New York: New York UP, 1995. 212-26.

Homans, Margaret. “‘Syllables of Velvet’: Dickinson, Rossetti, and the Rhetorics of Sexuality.” Feminist Studies 11 (1985): 569-93.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kaplan, Carey, and Ellen Cronan Rose. “Strange Bedfellows: Feminist Collaboration.” Signs 18 (1993): 547-61.

Keller, Lynn, and Cristanne Miller, eds. Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.

Kinnahan, Linda. “Experimental Poetics and the Lyric in British Women's Poetry: Geraldine Monk, Wendy Mulford, and Denise Riley.” Contemporary Literature 37 (1996): 620-70.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Laird, Holly. “From the Editor.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 13 (1994): 231-33.

———. Preface. “Forum: On Collaborations, Part I.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 13 (1994): 235-40.

Leonardi, Susan J., and Rebecca A. Pope. “Screaming Divas: Collaboration as Feminist Practice.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 13 (1994): 259-70.

Lorde, Audre. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansberg, NY: Crossing, 1984.

Marlatt, Daphne. “Changing the Focus.” Warland, InVersions 127-34.

———. Touch to My Tongue. Edmonton: Longspoon, 1984. Rpt. in Marlatt and Warland, Two Women in a Birth 7-30.

———, ed. “SP/ELLE: Spelling out the Reasons.” Room of One's Own 8.4 (1984): 4-18.

Marlatt, Daphne, and Robert Minden. Steveston. Edmonton: Longspoon, 1984.

Marlatt, Daphne, and Betsy Warland. Double Negative. Charlottetown, PEI, Can.: Gynergy, 1988. Rpt. in Two Women in a Birth 69-130.

———. “Reading and Writing Between the Lines.” Two Women in a Birth 131-45.

———. “Subject to Change.” Two Women in a Birth 147-69.

———. Two Women in a Birth. Toronto: Guernica Editions, 1994.

McGuirk, Kevin. “Philoctetes Radicalized: ‘Twenty-one Love Poems’ and the Lyric Career of Adrienne Rich.” Contemporary Literature 34 (1993): 61-87.

Meese, Elizabeth. (Sem)Erotics: Theorizing Lesbian: Writing. New York: New York UP, 1992.

Meyer, Kinereth. “Speaking and Writing the Lyric ‘I.’” Genre 22 (1989): 129-49.

Nicholls, Peter. “Difference Spreading: From Gertrude Stein to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry.” Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory. Ed. Antony Easthope and John O. Thompson. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 116-27.

Page, Barbara. “Women Writers and the Restive Text: Feminism, Experimental Writing and Hypertext.” Postmodern Culture 6.2 (1996): 1-19.

Perloff, Marjorie. Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1990.

Retallack, Joan. “:RE:THINKING:LITERARY:FEMINISM (Three Essays onto Shaky Grounds).” Keller and Miller 344-78.

Rich, Adrienne. “Twenty-One Love Poems.” The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New, 1950-1984. New York: Norton, 1984. 236-46.

Robinson, Lou, and Camille Norton, eds. Resurgent: New Writing by Women. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992.

Roof, Judith. A Lure of Knowledge: Lesbian Sexuality and Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 1991.

Sandoval, Chela. “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness in the Postmodern World.” Genders 10 (1991): 1-24.

Scalapino, Leslie, and Ron Silliman. “What/Person: From an Exchange.” Poetics Journal 9 (1991): 51-68.

Stein, Gertrude. Lifting Belly. Ed. Rebecca Mark. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad, 1989.

Waldrop, Rosmarie. “Alarms & Excursions.” The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy. Ed. Charles Bernstein. New York: Roof, 1990. 45-72.

Warland, Betsy. “Far as the I Can See.” Proper Deafinitions 75-80.

———. “Inventing InVersions.InVersions ix-xiv.

———, ed. InVersions: Writing by Dykes, Queers and Lesbians. Vancouver: Press Gang, 1991.

———. “Moving Parts.” Proper Deafinitions 123-38. Rpt. in InVersions 175-86.

———. Proper Deafinitions: Collected Theorograms. Vancouver: Press Gang, 1990.

———. Serpent (W)rite: (A Reader's Gloss). Toronto: Coach House, 1987.

———. “Up-ending Universality.” Proper Deafinitions 59-60.

———. “The White Page.” Proper Deafinitions 61-66.

Williamson, Janice. “Biocritical Essays.” Sounding Differences: Conversations with Seventeen Canadian Women Writers. Ed. Janice Williamson. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993. 341-70.

Wills, Clair. “Contemporary Women's Poetry: Experimentalism and the Expressive Voice.” Critical Quarterly 36 (1994): 34-52.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

Principal Works


Further Reading