Daphne Marlatt Criticism

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Robert Lecker (essay date spring 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

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

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

(The entire section is 124,671 words.)