SOURCE: "Lines from the Junction," in Books in Canada, Vol. 8, No. 3, March, 1979, pp. 16-17.
[Moritz is a Canadian author, translator, film critic, and editor. Below, he favorably assesses Mouré's "sharply observed images of urban and industrial life" in Empire, York Street.]
Erin Mouré's first book gives us a poet in struggle with "the god of this world seen / in a green ditch beside / a railway siding." These poems set out to acknowledge the full dehumanizing weight of the world and still win affirmation. And affirmation does occur—infrequent, frail, threatened as perhaps it must be, yet powerful, because poetic strength assures us that it is real and achieved, not merely asserted.
A nervous energy of language, fresh and gripping phrases, sharply observed images of urban and industrial life—these are the most immediately striking features of Empire, York Street. Mouré is capable of nature imagery and simple lyrics, but her poetic eye more often lights on garage roofs of corrugated iron; 40-watt bulbs in the halls of cheap apartment buildings; a shipment of tungsten; electrical wiring; railway switchyards; "a certain amount of equipment / assembled on the floor."
Although our civilization is filled with junk, Mouré sees it as an attempt to transcend the sorrows of existence. Of an airplane landing, she says: "A sopped earth rises to enclose / this technology of human flight." She respects, even as she relentlessly exposes their failures, the various "empires" man has tried to establish over his situation and himself. Such failure is at the heart of our ruin: "The bleakness you see is the swell / of your own heart in front of you…."
How, from this, can affirmation arise? Mouré senses its presence in the past, in nature, the intellect, religion, childhood. The potential has always been squandered, yet it remains:
O child in the brown coat, wearing out the gravel
w/your song, tell us, compel us
like the haze as the sun eats it hugely, that we too
should carry a rapture
beneficent, benedictory, like trees
bear their shook leaves.
For Mouré, as for all poets, the key to the locked affirmation is the creative word. "Yes," she says, "there are allegiances that forgive us, if we speak their names … / it is because the word is rescue, & possible, / that we sit in the torn wood and sing…." Rescue is possible. Although achieved only in snatches, privileged moments, it is the one chance for man. And for Canada, through which Mouré concretely sees both the human dilemma and the human hope: "This landscape is only as good / as the moment your hand reaches out to the man: now / accept his gift of syllables."
Mouré's voice is direct and incisive, but her poems also have a solid intellectual framework: science, history, and ethnology are here, and literature from Lucretius to Voltaire to Hopkins. This is a consistently interesting collection containing several truly remarkable poems. Best of all, it shows us a vigorous mind working seriously in language, seriously in the poem.
SOURCE: "Distances," in Canadian Forum, Vol. LXIII, No. 731, August-September, 1983, p. 43.
[Marshall is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, and professor whose writings include the poetry collection Playing with Fire (1984) and the novel Changelings (1991). In the following mixed review of Wanted Alive, he examines Mouré's use of language and her compassion for the human condition.]
Erin Mouré's first book of poems, Empire, York Street, was highly praised and was nominated for the Governor-General's Award in 1979. Her second, Wanted Alive , is a substantial collection at 112 pages, and is also...
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impressive in its way. If I am unable to enter her world very completely, perhaps the fault is mine.
It may be an odd, rather angular manner that tends to distance the reader. One poem, for instance, begins this way:
Say there is a woman in the locked-up cornfield. She is making a desert for herself, not me. Like the poet said: Fumbling the sky's queer wires, asking for mercy, abstract collusion, a kind of awe; she hikes across the frozen furrows in mid-November ready to observe nearly anything, self-consciously, as if the turned dirt would see her singing, would answer with arguments on Kandinsky & Klee ("It is only me")
This is interesting, and even intriguing. But it seems to me that Mouré's somewhat cryptic manner keeps her (and us) at something of a distance from her human materials. Sometimes, to be sure, this provides necessary restraint in poems that might otherwise seem sentimental. One that is surely on the edge is "Tricks," a piece mainly concerned with an old blind family dog called "Trix."
Mouré is at her best in poems like "Lenore," a toughly compassionate look at one of life's victims. Indeed, her generous humanity is her strongest and most attractive quality. But the oblique manner, the wit, and rather easy surrealist effects such as "a whiskey bottle full / of rock and roll" ("Flags") can be off-putting. Frequently I find myself wanting to respond to Mouré's poems and then wondering why I don't. (Comparisons are no doubt odious, but such other poets as Mary di Michele and Bronwen Wallace seem to me to pack more emotional punch.)
When I do respond it is often because a strong atmosphere is created. "Grande Prairie: So Far From Poland," which presents a vivid childhood memory of the speaker's Polish grandmother "standing out in the shade of huge cabbages" while "white light of summer shocked the air into bright being," is such a poem. Here there is clarity and visionary intensity. It is as if Margaret Avison were dealing with Dorothy Livesay's materials.
At her best Mouré reminds me a little of Avison, in "Bird" for instance:
The song builds its nest into the walls. Terrific noise of light wakening, released from dream. Slow scrape of shoes, the day shuffles back with its fingers & cut scalp, its wet fussing kisses; in its arms, a mess of food, an accordion, the chairs toppled Outside, the clouds' grey cover shorn around the trees, the last wet birds knock their heads against the season, their feathers smooth, chirping Love me, love me. The walls sing, taxis spin past, lights glow; a thin note holds us to the sky.
And so on for two more evocative verse-paragraphs. Here is the "feel" of the wakening experience and the morning. I have no trouble entering this poem.
So I can only commend and recommend Mouré for her work's human interest and humanity, its astringent use of language and sometimes powerful atmosphere. I wish more of these poems impressed me as much as some of them do. But Mouré is young enough that she may well surprise and dumbfound me next time out.
SOURCE: "Memory and Desire: The Poems of Erin Mouré," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 30, Winter, 1984, pp. 339-43.
[In the following essay, O'Brien discusses Wanted Alive, contending that it is Mouré's attempt at understanding and exploring the human heart.]
Throughout her poems Erin Mouré mixes memory and desire—a tenacious memory which sometimes rearranges the present, and a desire to see into the ephemeral future. She has spoken of the past as constantly metamorphosing, and of the future as nothing more than the "present falling forward." In her most recent collection of poems, Wanted Alive, she speaks of the crumbling boundaries which arbitrarily divide simultaneous time. In "Apocalypse, For Spencer," the last poem in the volume, she speaks of past, present, and future in the same breath:
There is no memory but what has fled, scaling the fences. The angels of the apocalypse are housewives after all, well-printed, dusting chairs
Here the past is slippery at best, and the future encompassed in the daily tasks of the present. This is poetry of the eternal instant—neither moral nor particularly philosophic, but attentive, observant, and descriptive, if we can talk of "describing" ideas the same way we can talk of describing things. Later in the same poem Mouré brings together idea and substance, thought and thing: "An ordinary fact of the street, like / the saint in his dressing gown, head tipping the roof-tiles / between houses, preaching to hens."
In this poem, and in many others from Wanted Alive, Mouré does not want to present, as many poets do, prefabricated thoughts. What she gives us instead are ideas which reverberate in our minds, ideas which vibrate with their own energy and which necessitate our involvement. The poems are expansive rather than conclusive. Here is the end of "Apocalypse, For Spencer":
the Resurrected climb out of thin graves in Cookham onto grass so green, kissing between their hands The astonished stigmata that the artist gave them, a shy passion touching their arms & washed bodies: Their embrace coloured gently & made Entire, a family
We are left with the stigmata on our hands, a passion which touches. And the book closes with an enigmatic reference to a family, as though everyone is somehow mysteriously implicated. Many of the poems end this way, in mid-thought, as does "Reading Nietzsche," which ends "Madness, yet"; "Old Friends," which ends "The letter she sent, asking you"; and "Subliminal Code," which ends "That the leaves burn so long in the trees, / they flicker & will not go out, refusing this:".
As the ideas within the poems are constantly in movement, the "setting" of many of the poems is also concerned with motion. Mouré has worked for VIA Rail for the past nine years and spends much of her time on the train between Vancouver and Winnipeg. In the introduction to Going for Coffee: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Working Poems, Tom Wayman talks about the difference between those who write about the world outside their work experiences and those who write from inside these experiences. He states that the poems in Going for Coffee are
written by men and women who have done and/or are doing the jobs they write about…. This writing deals with the present: what it is like to work at these jobs, and what effects the jobs have on the life of the poet and his or her co-workers both at work and off. Humour, anecdote, and precise detail make up the substance of these poems.
Mouré writes many poems about the daily rituals of train travel, about travelling the same tracks over and over again but at the same time seeing new things, or the same things anew, each time. The syntax of the poems follows the muscular fluidity of train travel: there is a movement forward yet always a sideways jarring motion which tends to keep things off balance. In "Seven Rail Poems" the train is a combination of feeling and brute strength. It is treated sympathetically, but not romanticized:
Wheels sing against the rail, shearing metal, the train pulls mightily snaking down the Canyon with us caved in its belly
As the train pulls itself forward, so also the words extend across the page. Neither the train nor the line lengths lull the reader. The movement forward is always qualified or complicated by the strength and noise of machinery. The train becomes animated, but not necessarily friendly. These lines recall "The Death of the Ball Turrett Gunner" [by Randall Jarrell], where the speaker is hunched in the belly of his aircraft: although there is a sensual bonding between person and machine, the symbiosis is not sentimental. In Mouré's poems the speaker often becomes less animated as the train becomes more animated. There are no clear distinctions in these poems; both train and passenger are part machine and part person.
In "VIA: Tourism," Mouré talks about the "tourists" who frequent the trains:
Then there are the women beaten by their husbands who bear the marks as they bore their children, without disgrace, who bring their children away with them across the country in coach seats or jammed into one berth drinking pepsi, eating aspirin Locked in the motion of rails, of constant arrival
The anecdote and precise detail of which Wayman speaks is present in these lines, but there is little humour here. The ironic title, the unsettling pun on the word "berth," and the picture of a woman eating aspirins all provide images of the desperate optimism which informs much of Mouré's work. The final line of this passage is full of contradictory information: "Locked" (stasis), "in the motion" (movement), "of rails" (static, yet they move clear across the country), "of constant" (perpetual movement), "arrival" (one moment). Any freedom discussed in the poem seems always undercut, and any stability always on the verge of disintegration.
The title of the collection, Wanted Alive, alludes, of course, to the old adage from TV westerns: "Wanted Dead or Alive." Although Mouré's shortening of the adage asserts the positive, the negative is clearly in sight as well. In many of the poems life and death are inextricably bound. As she says in one of the notes to her poems: "MTX holds both death and life; what can kill you is also the same thing that has come to save you." This argument between life and death is present in such poems as "Fantastic World's End," "Tonight My Body," and "Tricks," with its disarmingly simple title:
I feel I am in the world & there is no god in it with me. These days my husband gets up & sits on the edge of our bed & says a case of whisky is one drink. He says there are glasses as big as women filled with rye & he wants to marry one. This is what I listen to, no wonder I can't sleep. Faintly I hear the heart-tick of my old dog in Calgary, 800 miles away. She sleeps on the porch, & shies away when the footsteps come, crying gently. When there are no footfalls, she rests & waits to die.
The characters in many of Mouré's poems are victims of nonchalant evil, of discomfort which is familiar enough to be almost soothing. The women in "Tricks," "The Bearded Lady Tells Her Story Late at Night While Drunk in the Bar," and "Strip/La Baleine" are all desperately attempting to hang on to what little goodness they can discover in what appears to be a male-dominated world. In "Strip/La Baleine" the woman is asked: "O Whale in our applause do you sense love?" The love that is present in these poems is never far from alienation and estrangement.
In a recent essay on Mary di Michele, Robert Billings talks about di Michele's "persistent and sympathetic exploration of feeling" ["Discovering the Sizes of the Heart: The Poems of Mary di Michele," Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 27, Winter, 1983–1984]. It is interesting to note that in a recent poem ["Coffee"] Mouré talks about "explosions of feeling." Mouré's poems are concerned with the strangeness and despair which compose love, with the harsh expression of feeling. In her first book, Empire, York Street (1979), she talks about the bruised air of the jumbled present. In Wanted Alive she continues this exploration, digging deeper, through fractured syntax, to the place where feelings first break into life, and to the place where feelings begin to dissolve. In Empire, York Street she talks about an ancient alphabet. In Wanted Alive she also continues this exploration, attempting to see further derivations of her own internal code and by doing so attempting to understand how the heart works, how sympathy works, how work works. Mouré, as the title Wanted Alive suggests, is a poet on the run, perhaps not away from anything, but rather toward a more complete understanding of what she calls in one poem "The short & bumpy sentences of the heart."
SOURCE: An interview in Waves, Vol. 14, No. 4, Spring, 1986, pp. 36-44.
[In the following interview, Mouré discusses the Canadian content of her works, the images she employs, her love for language, and the influence of contemporary literary theory on her work.]
[Billings]: Let's start way back. You're from the west, from Calgary, lived in Vancouver for several years, and now you're in Montreal. You're not a prairie poet in the mode of, say Leona Gom, Glen Sorestad, Andrew Suknaski, or Lorna Crozier. Why not?
[Mouré]: I don't know (laughs). I think that the prairie as a place is very present in my mind, but I don't live there. So those aren't images I see all the time. Therefore they affect me in a different way.
But you did live there for several years and in Empire, York Street there are elements of what is commonly known as "prairie poetry." You were close to that mode then but moved away from it very quickly. The Riel poems, the use of landscape …
When I wrote some of those early poems—I was still living in Alberta, in Edmonton. But I left Alberta when I was eighteen. The poets you mention spent a lot of their formative years there. I think the late teens and early twenties are really formative years in terms of place, and I wasn't on the prairies then.
Where did you go when you were eighteen?
What about, say, Gom, who went from the Peace River area to the coast, and continues to write about the Peace River area?
I guess it's not something that stuck with me physically in the same way as it did with her. Also in my poems—maybe it was different in the Riel poem—but in most of my poems I use landscape in a different way.
Different way from …?
I don't use the images necessarily as a picture, to situate people in a picture.
Yes, that's what I'm talking about. From your work I don't get those pictures of prairie life.
I think that's a formal difference. People walking around in a landscape—that kind of poetry doesn't interest me that much. There has to be something more than just a picture.
Still, Empire, York Street is more a "western" book or "landscape" book than subsequent ones.
I think it's partly a factor of where I was when I wrote a lot of that book, and what I knew about. There are some things that aren't western—the Randall Jarrell and Rudolph Hess poems. There's a lot of Vancouver, though. And then, in Domestic Fuel, in the fish poems, in "Including Myself," in "West," there are landscape images that are western and are important to the events in the poem, to how the poem sits in your head.
When Empire, York Street came out, you were living in the west and a new voice, and were identified with the west.
Yes, Canadians have a tendency sometimes toward regionalism as an explanation for diversity. I mean, people come from a place, okay, but let's go on from there. You have to.
Some don't go on.
Yeah. As a French artist said to me once, quoting Georges Brassens—"I pity the poor people who were born somewhere." To me this whole thing about regionalism can be blinding to other possibilities of language and words and poetry. Some writers and critics identify regionalism as important in itself. I mean, I love the west, but everybody comes from a region, a place, absorbs those influences, and carries them on. They affect your sensibility and you remember and integrate them in various ways into your life and work. I feel at home enough with the landscape and place I come from—there's nothing that psychically bothers me enough about it to write "about" it. It is just "included" without a fuss.
Tell me about"West,"the poem in Domestic Fuel.
It is very specifically saying that the west won't go away just because you move. Some images stay as a pride and way of seeing. In the east people think if you're from the west you are a certain kind of person and if you stay east long enough it'll go away and you'll be all right. "West" says the place you come from is in you anyway. There's a poem in my new manuscript that has the same kind of thing. In it, the "I" is talking to somebody from Vancouver who asks her if she misses the mountains and she says she doesn't; she is them. In other words, she has integrated them into her. She says, "They're in me now." They aren't a postcard decoration!
"West"and some other poems in that book—"Gills,"for example—stand out because they're closer to what you did earlier on. But they do inject that element of recollection that makes them more than pictures.
I wrote a few poems about fish, I think there are four in that book. They "use" rather than "are" recollection. None of these things happened literally. "Fish" is not just a content—"I remember when we went fishing and this happened"—but the fish itself is a way to talk about some psychic pain. Fish are, if you like, a metaphor or paradigm for pain that's difficult to express. Using the fish as a paradigm enables me to externalize something that is internal. Because fish move in a different element than we do…. They breathe where we would suffocate and drown. Breathing is something critical to speech, language, and poetry. To ways of speaking.
Do your allergies partly create your concern with breath?
Partly. In general, you don't recognize the assumptions you have about the world, unless something different happens to you. You can only describe "it" if there are some things that are "not it" to distinguish. If you never have any problems with breathing, it doesn't occur to you to think about it.
What else led you to the kinds of theories you discuss in the article [called"I'll Start Out By Talking,"in the Winter 1985–1986 issue of Poetry Canada Review]? The development that shows in your books, the leaps from each to the next, tells me you've thought a lot about language.
I've been thinking about words more or less since I started writing because when you're writing you're using language and speech and words. I think about what that means and how it works. How you can say things.
A lot of poets don't do that. They just sit down and write and the whole process is not something they really think about. They just do it. Some will never be able to intelligently discuss how they write. It is unusual for a young poet to write a 4000 word article on how she writes.
I wrote that piece as a talk, to begin with (for the Upper Canada Writers Workshop) and I was talking not necessarily about how "I" write, but about my concern for words and language and the voices of women, and how we as writers can approach language in ways that free us from the stereotypes and concepts inherent in the language itself. It talks about memory and desire, which are both mediated by language, and which are our access to the past and future. And about narrative, which is often used unthinkingly in a conditioned way by beginning writers. I think that writing, reading, and talking interact, and without this interaction one can't push one's poetry out of the conventions that are left unspoken in the mind. You don't know they're there until you find something that's "other" than them. That kind of cartesian dualism—the separation of mind and body—I don't believe in, but it's been through dialogue, and in being unable to describe their world, to situate themselves as subject, that feminists have noticed structures in language that make them "other."
As I say in the article, there's no need for a concept such as forgetfulness unless you have memory. If memory doesn't exist, then forgetfulness doesn't either. And if we don't talk about where we fit in, where we're going in poetry, and push at the edges of narrative and language, then we don't realize what categories we're stuck in. A lot of people find talking to be threatening. A lot of people find reading to be threatening. They only want to read the way they've been taught to read. They don't want to read anything that's outside of their experience because they're afraid it'll invalidate their experience. The closure in language acts on them to maintain itself. But for me—these kinds of things interest me and always have. How language works, or can work and what we can say. I believe that learning itself is a dialogical process; there has to be an interchange between people or no learning takes place. Or else something else happens: people learn how to conform and there's no learning. Learning involves dialogue and choice. So that talking about writing is one way I can learn new things. I can come across something about language I would never have come across without sitting down and talking to someone about this "it" that is language we're working with.
As I became older I began to realize that the kind of dialogue that I thought went on among all poets, doesn't. The implicit approval among poets that we should be talking isn't there in English Canada to a large degree. We are strangers to each other. People get together and talk about who is going to win the Governor General's Award, and I can't believe sometimes I'm sitting in [a] group of poets—people who love language, and I know they do—and that's the topic…. I let PCR publish the article because I think poets should do more of that kind of thing—opening up dialogue. Freedom is something you have to use; if you don't use it, you give it up to somebody else. And that's why people say only academics do criticism. Or only academics write about poetics. By our silence we give away our power. If we choose not to speak, they are going to say what poetics is, and they're not going to ask us.
That's partly why interviews and articles like this are needed. Let's get back to Montreal. Why Montreal, then? It seems you're comfortable there.
In Vancouver I felt for a while that I'd reached a stage in my writing; then my employer sent me to Montreal to work on a project for two months, and it was a matter of doing that or being laid off. So what do you take? I went to Montreal and had postcards of the Vancouver skyline in my office and cursed the fact I wasn't on the west coast for a month or so. But then I started to get interested in the place and meet some people. And suddenly it became a very interesting place to be. But all that is something that happens there. There, often, when poets get together after a reading, they talk about issues that are raised by certain people's writing and, you know, where you can go with this, what writing can do. That dialogical process goes on.
Are you saying Toronto talks awards and Montreal poetry?
In both the French community and in the bilingual community of Women and Words, I never hear anybody speculating about who is going to win what award or who got what when. Except maybe after the fact, to congratulate the person.
So, you're in Toronto now, and I can ask you. Ken Adachi in the Star thinks Domestic Fuel should win the GG this year. What do you think when you see a critic—any critic—say that?
I think it is very flattering that they have a nice opinion of my book, but it's not a big issue. The awards have nothing to do with the act of writing.
You work with computers at your job. What do you think of them? More favourably than of awards, I'm sure.
I've a Macintosh at home, too. It's great. It's like people lived in caves before they lived in houses—once you have one, you can't go back to the cave. The wonderful thing is that it helps me work full time at a job and not go insane, and write, and not go insane. It takes a quarter of the time to do typing.
Does it affect your method of composition?
It does because you don't have to retype everything every time. I rarely make changes on the screen, though. I enter the draft, make a hard copy, and then I scribble on it the same way I would if I had typed it. I've always started poems on the typewriter anyhow—well, I have a couple of images in my head, let's see if they will talk to me. Then I'll print a copy and revise. Sometimes I'll go to another room or a restaurant to revise, or just sit next to my computer (I did that with my typewriter as well). Then I'll enter the changes and print another hard copy. So it just saves me from going through the mechanical work. It's true that sometimes when you do that mechanical work, you learn new things about the way something's working, and when that's the case I just type all of it into the computer again. It's like any other tool, when you're working, the tool vanishes and becomes part of your body. I'm working with language, and the tool—it's not in the front of my mind. I'm busy talking to my audience, whoever they are, and listening to the sound of what I am making. I'm the same way at work. When I'm writing on the PC, the machine disappears. My colleagues look at me and can't believe how intensely I'm looking at the screen. But I don't see the screen. I see the employee that I'm talking to, and trying to light a fire under for whatever reason.
"There are hours & hours of small / collapses / like this one, coming out of the house / with a jacket & toque on, late fall, the cigarette cutting / the mouth's edge, open, / open up, bedevil memory" ("Like This One", Domestic Fuel). I really like that. In all your talk of composition or words or language, there's an exuberance. And it is all through the work as well. It is one of the progressions I was talking about earlier. I can see it more and more. But as often as not that exuberance is used to describe "hour after hour of small collapses," painful things. "The Whisky Vigil" sequence, a lot of the poems in the last two books. How do you see the world?
I'm basically an optimist. I'm very naïve.
You don't appear to be in the work.
Yeah, well in my personal life, in my day-to-day living I always expect people to have the best of intentions. I'm sometimes fooled, and when I'm fooled then I think it was just that once. Despite all evidence to the contrary, sometimes, I still think people are okay. You can still say, "Good morning, how are you?" to the person you can't get along with or does not share your view of things. I guess it's years of working with the public. Joe Public there I couldn't give a personal shit about, but I wanted to do everything I could to make them comfortable on the train. So sometimes I end up being really diplomatic when what's happening is that I'm being backed into a corner and I don't see it. That's "naïve".
And the exuberance being used with painful things? Sometimes it comes to a point that I'm seeing only language and vitality.
Mmmmm. You're reading someone who's on the side of life. I think there are painful things about ourselves personally, about the way we relate to other people, about the way we give up our own power and freedom so that people like Reagan end up with it—using it for us without asking us—things like that. Even if you're being exuberant about the world, the pain and difficulty come across anyway. I think what you call the "exuberance" is the optimism I was talking about—by optimism I mean I'm on the side of life.
"So much is not happiness, not / a possible world, not visible" ("Five Highways," Domestic Fuel).
Yeah, that's the sort of thing I'm saying. In that poem the person talking about their hands is making their psychic relation to the world visible—and that the narrator (me in this case, though the event is invented) in the poem, stupidly, is looking and can't see it.
A bit earlier we were saying that composition happens in certain ways. What about deconstructionism? Have you read the theorists, say, Olson, Kroetsch, Davey, nichol, etc?
I haven't read language theorists apart from Barthes and the feminists, who come after the "deconstructionist" folk. And I've read older stuff like Wittgenstein, Whort…. Kroetsch, Davey, and nichol are practitioners, not theorists, of deconstructionism, I think.
Where did your—how shall I say this—your "non-linear" approach develop?
It is partly my mind. It is partly realizing that we live inside constructs we don't really know we live inside, until we find out "something else," some other "it". I read Barthes' Writing Degree Zero and The Pleasure of the Text in I think 1980, and then Barthes on Barthes. I haven't done a lot of reading on language—'Father, forgive me for I have sinned'—but reading Barthes was a revelation and a pleasure to me. It was a different kind of reading than reading a newspaper or the House of Commons debates or a book by Alice Munro. I realize I like this kind of reading better! Reading Vallejo and Webb, Wah, Dewdney, Spicer, Appollinaire, Marlatt, nichol, Audrey Thomas (Blown Figures), France Theoret's Bloody Mary, anything by Nicole Brossard (I've just read her in translation), as well as Rilke, Seferis, Ritsos, Mary Daly, Paulo Freire, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich made me see that there were people who write the way I think, at least sometimes. When I first read Spare Parts by Gail Scott, the sentence that came into my mind was, "This book writes the way I think."
And what about film? The Tanner film you mention in the article we talked about earlier.
Dans la Ville Blanche, yeah. Some cinema helps. Looking at the way Fassbinder, von Trotta, Pool, or Wim Wenders—before he ruined himself with Paris, Texas—just watching the way narrative is used in their films, or reading people like Peter Handke—The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, that was a film, too, by Wim Wenders—films like that where things aren't put together into the story of some people in a landscape, forcing narrative into a box. Like, order means something, too, so why should you always use linear order? Time isn't linear, anyhow. That idea is just one of our constructs.
The "lunge" in the first poem in Domestic Fuel conjures an image of a direct, point A to point B lunge; but that's not really what happens. It's a clumsy lunge.
Yeah, it's a lunge that knocks everything over. It's a perfect lunge.
The word "clumsy" appears several times in Domestic Fuel; you even come right out and say, at one point, that you want to be clumsy. Don McKay, in Birding, Or Desire, uses the word "awkward" a lot.
If you don't deconstruct images or deconstruct ways of speech, then you can't really be alert to your tools, your resources, language, the images that come to you. And then you risk just reproducing the status quo, staying locked inside a cultural, conceptual, and contextual frame that is structured in and by the language. To some people the status quo might be just fine. But for me it is not just fine, thank you. I'd like to say, "no." I'd like to say, "No, the world is not fine. It's incredibly obtuse." And it excludes me. I guess that's my world view. I'm sort of Swiftian rather than Popian. You know how Swift thought the world was screwed up but some individuals were fine. And Pope thought individuals were incredibly trivial, but the human race was all right. When you asked me before about my world view, I thought of Gulliver's Travels. Gulliver in Lilliput harnessed down by this race of little people. For some people, that's how they live. They've given up their power over themselves.
Do you mean the stereotype of the townhouse in the suburbs, or generally?
Everybody, in and out of the suburbs. Like, why are the corporations still polluting? Why are there so many unemployed people? There's more unemployed people than there are people in the army. If they all wanted to rise up together, what would the army do? Shoot them? Bomb them? It seems people don't want to make a choice; and individuals don't want to make choices so a lot of collective choices aren't made. Why are we living in a world where these weird things are happening? Why are people putting up with it? I think it's critical that poets explore what is both the trap and the way out: words/language.
Tell me about your politics.
I started out with a sense of social justice, that things weren't fair, and the capitalist system only works if the mechanisms of production are renewed—factories rebuilt, machines changed. That only happens in capitalism if some people can make a lot of money. When some people make a lot of money, some other people are working for nothing. I just couldn't see how this was fair. For a long, time, too, I was living within the construct of patriarchy without realizing I was doing it, without realizing there's something else. Which is partly how patriarchy, as a mind-set, perpetuates itself, by having women say: "If I feel strange, it is just me." It's with talk that one realizes a larger group of people, women, have the same sensation. This whole concept of the individual that the western world promotes all the time—entrepreneurship, and all those things that have to do with individuals—reinforces that construct, and tries to invalidate the dialogue that will change things.
When you begin to understand your relation as a woman with the world and language, you see more clearly as well the parallels with racism and homophobia. The fear of what is "other." The insistence on the "purely personal"—"I'm not biased"—with no effort to dismantle and alter the systems that perpetuate stasis, perpetuate racism, sexism, homophobia. One of those systems is buried in our language.
I can see elements of all this in your work. Sometimes in a whole poem, sometimes just a sudden image.
It's part of the process. The politics that we have have to be part of our everyday actions and they do enter into your vision as you write a poem. Everybody's poems. Even the poems of those who aren't thinking of these things. The message that comes out of most poems is, "I accept the status quo. I accept the status quo. I accept the status quo. I accept the status quo."
In Domestic Fuel, page after page says, "I don't. I don't."
Good. I want to say, too, that as I started to talk to women, and read various women's writing, I started to see that a pattern that excludes me is structured in the language. I started to find leaks in my own mind-set that led me out of it. Once those leaks occur, you can never go back. You can't go back and say there isn't patriarchy…. It's like riding a bicycle. You can't go back to falling over. Your body will not let you do it.
You're obviously learning more and more. What's the new manuscript going to show us about it all?
I'm working now with breaking up the surface of sense a little bit more. Some of the things I'm interested in—when you read a phrase, the phrase makes sense, you can visualize it, but you can't figure out what it is doing there. There are different ways of reading. You can't read a poem the way you read a newspaper. I'm just interested in forcing people to stop trying to read the newspaper when they are reading the poem. So I'm breaking up the surface of sense, and end up with a different kind of surface. I'm looking at letting sound and rhythm and repetition of words carry things a bit, instead of sense. Part of it is striking out at people who ask what a poem means. I want people to read a poem once in a while and realize it is in the room. Meaning is a construct, anyhow. The professors won't be able to use any of their tricks on the poem. Yet, all the phrases make sense as visual images. I'm not going into concrete poetry or sound poetry at all; I'm not going into nonsense verse. But breaking up the surface of sense means to try to break up the "story" a bit, and use that new surface as a reflex for emotional depth and power. I'm finding it is possible to let different things come through, when you don't have that strict surface that blocks a lot. You don't know when you're using it that it is not permitting things. This "direction" had its start in looking at the way Cesar Vallejo works—I read his work in 1983—and then in looking at various women writers whose work changes the surface. I'm encouraged by everything I'm reading to go in this direction, and encouraged by the people I'm able to talk with now.
SOURCE: "Hothead," in Books in Canada, Vol. 17, No. 3, April, 1988, pp. 27-8.
[In the following generally favorable review of Furious, Carey states that Mouré's didacticism and feminist outrage occasionally detract from her evocation of the "inarticulateness of experience."]
I have to confess that the moment I heard this book was slated for release, I began haunting the poetry section of my local bookstore, convinced that a dose of new work by Erin Mouré would chase away the winter doldrums. Chase is putting it mildly, and mild is something this book is not. Furious is Mouré's fourth full-length collection, and true to form (and content), her new work sparks with passion, inventiveness, and more conceptual leaps than quantum physics. Politically and aesthetically it's more focused than previous work; it also explicitly presents a theoretical framework ("The Acts") that is at times illuminating, at times troubling in its dogmatism. And there's a fierce anger—true to the title of the collection—running like a brushfire through these pages, anger at a patriarchal system that the poet regards as not only marginalizing women but also silencing them.
"It's the way people use language makes me furious," Mouré declares in "The Acts." Part literary manifesto, part series of footnotes to specific poems, this final section of the book raises issues that will be familiar to anyone following feminist literary theory. Put simply, Mouré sees language, with its rules of grammar and concentration on linear narrative, as reflecting male values and consequently excluding women's experience. She argues that women must break from conventional forms of discourse in order to truly speak. Her strategy in Furious itself involves the dis/composure of language and of meaning—"I want to write these things … that can't be torn apart by anybody, anywhere, or in the university … I don't want the inside of the poem to make sense of anything." As a result, her poetry is demanding—sometimes astonishing in the relations it sets up and sometimes, frankly, just obscure.
Furious opens with a deceptively calm poem ("In whose garden I am sleeping / In whose garden I am sleeping perfectly") but moves quickly towards the poet's awakening to a garden/world that is far from idyllic. "Snow Door" touches on a theme that Mouré will return to again and again throughout this collection—women's inability to genuinely express themselves within the confines of conventional (read male-dominated) language. It's a physical loss, since Mouré associates memory/experience with the body ("If the liver were soft enough to hold up / in my mouth without hurting, / I could call my memory out of it.") In "Snow Door," this loss is compared with the numbness of flies trapped between windowpanes during the winter:
… can't remember flight exactly, not exact enough, they topple on their backs & spin & buzz. Having forgotten everything except that they used to fly, why can't they do it now. Too stupid to know why they can't do it now. Us too, who don't know we've been frozen, or if we have, & if we know, don't ask questions.
These poems have gone beyond asking questions—they're accusing. Accusing a system in which the bodies of laboratory animals and of women have been assigned the same value by cold-blooded science; technology is harnessed for destructive purposes; sexual harassment and violence are implicitly condoned; and language is an instrument of distortion. In both the first and third sections of Furious, the tone is angry and combative ("Women in the earth are not so powerless"). Mouré also links the psychic damage inflicted by patriarchal culture upon women's consciousness ("the mouth, hurt / trying to dream") with other forms of oppression—that of apartheid, for instance. And liberation is as much a matter of breaking language's control ("The government is trying to restore calm, the voice says;… The word calm means suppressed anger. / The word calm means implode") as it is of defying an oppressive regime.
In the second section, Mouré gives voice to that "hurt mouth" of women's experience in a series of poems that are as charged with tenderness as the rest of the book is with rage. "Visible Affection" begins with a remarkable love poem, "rolling motion," that does, indeed, roll sensually; it also fits perfectly with Mouré's declaration in "The Acts" that she wants "to move the force in language from the noun/verb centre … to the preposition":
Your face in my neck & arms dwelling upward face in my soft leg open lifted upward airborne soft face into under into rolling over every upward motion rolling open over …
The poems in "Visible Affection" seem to suggest that on a personal level, women's consciousness can only be manifested outside the realm of heterosexual relations: "Finally there are no men between us. / Finally none of us are passing or failing according to / Miss Chatelaine. / … Finally I can see us meeting, and our true tenderness, emerge." I'm convinced of the beauty of poems such as "Speaking of Which" and "Betty," which deal with similar issues, but I must admit that I'm not wholly convinced by what they actually say. As I'm sometimes left unswayed by the proddings of theory, which can offer insightful new ways of examining the world, but can also narrow vision. What I've always found exciting about Mouré's work is her ability to be a poet of both ideas and of feelings, with equal intensity. Many of the poems in Furious, with their unexpected leaps and phrasings (what the poet herself calls "stuttering"), impress for exactly this reason. But there are others, such as "Ocean Poem," that seem little more than abstract exercises, without the force and emotional urgency that ignite her other work.
I still think that Furious goes far in pushing against the limitations of language to express the inarticulateness of experience. Though I sometimes wanted to argue with this hotheaded book, I always found myself stimulated by its strong social consciousness, its disruptiveness, its living fire of words.
SOURCE: "Music in Words," in Canadian Literature, Nos. 122-23, Autumn-Winter, 1989, pp. 143-48.
[In the excerpt below, Labrie dismisses many of the poems in Furious as overburdened by Mouré's theoretical considerations, but suggests that a few "certainly repay attention."]
Appended to Erin Mouré's Furious are a series of critical observations designed to explain the poetry that precedes them. Displaying an interest, evident among some recent poets, in applying experimental alterations in the structure of language to the writing of poetry and showing some similarity to Gertrude Stein in her use of repetition and incremental variation, Mouré demonstrates an interest in poetic theory that, as in the case of Stein, can lead at times to the triumph of theory over practice. Some of the theorizing, while inconsequential to the reader, is given prominence by the poet in being associated with the title of her collection of poems: "It's the way people use language makes me furious." Me too.
Shaped by such theoretical considerations, many of the lines are fragmented, without being suggestively elliptical, while others are merely prose set into stanzaic form, as in the following extract:
Eventually I came to miss the mountains, the man said hands knotted in front of his jacket in the Faculty bar of an English university in Montréal where the heat stifles
What can one say in the face of such flaccid lines, except perhaps, who cares?
Nevertheless, several poems in Furious certainly repay attention, one of these being "Cure," a meditation on the body and on our relationship to other animals, whose formal cohesiveness is as welcome as its unusual theme:
I am thinking of the cross-grain slices they cut out of cows, in their centre being, their fleshy fullness. Sometimes I am only the piece of liver in me, its cell walls permeable & unbutchered Its huge slice grows in me, instead of children I am growing this organ When I raise it in my arms to show you it flops, a wet flag, awkward … Those cows moving in the field, freely and captive, their memory timed down to the kill floor, so many seconds for the head blow, so many to lance away the skin. If the liver were soft enough to hold up in my mouth without hurting, I could call my memory out of it I could taste what is in me that won't ever be clean.
SOURCE: "Dead Reckoning," in Books in Canada, January-February, 1990, pp. 42-3.
[In the following positive review, Brandt discusses the language, syntax, and poetic structure of Mouré's WSW (West South West).]
Erin Mouré's virtuosity dazzles. WSW (West South West), her newest collection of poems, is filled with the kind of energy, the quick movement from hand or eye to sudden landscape, dream, or memory that we have come to expect in her writing. There is also the continuation of her preoccupation with language, the precise and eloquent questioning of structure and syntax and surface, elaborated as a series of questions at the end of Furious (which won her the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1988). Here, theory and practice merge in a vibrant poetic dialogue between speaker and poem. There are few poets in English-speaking Canada who are capable of such relentless self-questioning within the text without losing its inner tension, its power to entrance: "The stomach of the deer that my brother cut open, now / part of the narrative of the Holy." Each word in the line resonates in so many directions at once, claiming its place in the field of the poem, a field, moreover, which is open to constant changes, to weather: "The rain beating the crop down, / The end."
I'm learning so much from these poems about form and structure, the poem's "inner narrative," as Mouré calls it, tuned exactly to the rhythms of thought and speech, and to its own destruction as it meets the world:
How the most sacred, in her infant handwriting became the most scared. Which became scarred, due to the lapse of time. The truest things, if spoken here, would sound like nonsense.
There is an externality, an openness and off-handedness to Mouré's writing that sets her apart from such writers as Gail Scott and Daphne Marlatt, whose intense interiority sustains erotic intimacy with the reader but also entails, necessarily, a close-up vision of things. Mouré's style allows for leaps in logic and sensibility, and altogether a nimbleness of thought that ranges broadly over a variety of landscapes and speaks easily with other texts. The problem for her becomes, rather, how to establish real connection with other persons and with the reader, given the randomness of the poem and the width of the poetic field and the world. This problem is expressed as intense longing, the speaker's (impossible) desire in the text: "My readers, I will be able to kiss you. The dryness of my lips. I warn you." Occasionally, it assumes the form of a howl running through everything, the cat, the dessert on the table, the applesauce, even the table, threatening to upset the terms of the poetic narrative, ending finally in a shout: "I've had it / Shut up, everything."
In the final section, titled "Red Ends," there is a moving toward greater personal vulnerability, and engagement with an other. At the same time, however, it is a critique of "Romance," including the lesbian version of it, the "lesbo-ex-machina: if the ending fails, send them to bed." There is a humility in these last poems, a giving in to the pain of the poem, to the romantic impulse (even though it is doomed), the snow, the "unaccountable excess" in everything. "The visible whole composed of these infinite fragments & every one of them aches infinitesimal." The poem as replica, finally, of the lover's absence, "loony tune music," a dog's howl. Mouré's narrative ends meditatively, on a broken relationship, a "torn hand of crocuses," the image fed deeply by "the root of that bitterness," but also, stubborn resilience, the refusal to despair: "All winter I will be this crocus. I will be stubborn as this crocus." An opening into winter, into the loss that's at the heart of language, with sudden, unflinching and unexpected tenderness.
SOURCE: "Miniatures and Mandrakes," in Canadian Literature, No. 131, Winter, 1991, pp. 224-26.
[Whiteman is a Canadian bibliographer and poet whose writings include Leonard Cohen: An Annotated Bibliography (1980) and En avoir fini avec le corps seul (1987). In the following unfavorable review, Whiteman contends that WSW (West South West) fails to include the lyrical qualities and the "public concerns of Mouré's earlier writings."]
Erin Mouré's WSW (West South West) is a difficult book, full of a kind of writing that is patently informed by theory and yet so close to the body as sometimes barely to articulate any subject. Subject, story and description are evidently all under suspicion as ostensible instances of betrayal:
[…] The description itself, even if questioned, portrays the arrogance of the author. In all claims to the story, there is muteness. The writer as witness, speaking the stories, is a lie, a liberal bourgeois lie. Because the speech is the writer's speech, and each word of the writer robs the witnessed of their own voice, muting them.
Certainly I disagree profoundly with such a take on what might possibly be said, though my or anyone's disagreement is scarcely an issue here. But this rejection of point of view has far-reaching effects on Mouré's language; with it comes a reduction to sensual impression, as she says quite openly:
[…] The truest things, if spoken here, would sound like nonsense. So the woman running to the car is preemptively sufficient, ducking the sky's water
Clicking the car door open
And yet, curiously, that resistance to the judgements and understandings of the ego, the mind, result in a language that can be puzzling, even impenetrable at times. Body writing predicates its own obscurities, "A world where 'this,' & 'this' / come together" by accident and without explication, providing a poetry of unmediated registration, or almost. Mouré's risk, then, is that the voicing of what is private (and WSW is a far more private book than Furious was) will give the reader no ingress at all. In-jokes ("Neurasthenic glamour is everywhere, wobbling on / 'dude' knees") and baited personal reference ("The woman opens the car door, brown car / Valiant they say. / Now everyone in the know knows whose car / I'm talking of") scarcely add to a text that, for all its being informed by desire, is highly resistant to any readerly enticement. Perhaps in Mouré's next collection she will be able to combine the writing from inside of this book with the lyrical and public concerns of her earlier writing.
SOURCE: "Speaking in Tongues: The Poetry of Erin Mouré," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 43, Spring, 1991, pp. 133-43.
[Glickman is a Canadian poet, educator, and critic whose works include Henry Moore's Sheep, and Other Poems (1990). In the following essay, she provides an overview of Moure's work.]
To get back to that purity. My friend, hand, voice a stutter at the edge of. What is. Real trees with real birds in the branches, wet tamarack, the birds' feathers glossed up & beaks singing. The throats birds have, throats of thrushes, oh soft spotted brown chest repeating bird-ness Oh name of the bird Thrush Do I have you beside me, me who is so small, the seeds I have gnawed ache inside of me forever, do I have you beside me, bird. Take the cup of wine away from me, so I won't fill it again. Take away the telephone number of the friend I am hurting Grief everywhere, now; the hand prevents me, I fall into a dream of, the soft throat smaller than my hand, flit, spotted, out of which, the warble ["Thrushes"]
I'd like to start off my discussion of Erin Mouré's poetry with a look at "Thrushes." Although a short piece, it is densely packed, and in its simultaneous subversiveness and traditionalism provides a good example of the lyric intelligence of its writer.
The title gives us the information we need to understand the fragmentary opening—in itself a powerful statement of intention, but abstract if deprived of the contextual reference to thrushes as, in some way, representative of "that purity." The fragmentation of the line turns out to be mimetic, since the poem's voice is "a stutter at the edge of. What is." But, at the same time, the fragmentation is unduly deferential, the hesitations marked by full stops are overly scrupulous, since the voice does, can, complete its statement. What kind of edge? "The edge of. What is." What is? "Real trees with real birds in the branches." And, with this image, the voice engages with the world, stops stuttering, and becomes passionate, like the thrushes themselves, "repeating bird-ness." But this idea, the idea of an essence beyond the particular details of individual thrushes, puts an end to the speaker's competence; language becoming redundant, she can only sigh "Oh name of the bird" and, after a pause, "Thrush."
So the fourth movement of the poem turns away from the birds and towards the speaker, revealing the motivation behind the poem's opening desideratum. What was implied by negation (not pure/not bird) is now stated out-right: the speaker is in pain, giving pain to others, drinking. At the same time, she experiences herself as "small," vulnerable, and hurt by the world: "the seeds I have gnawed ache inside of me forever." This metaphor signals the speaker's recognition that something in her is birdlike; in its own way, her broken speech speaks her name as clearly as the thrush's warble articulates its own identity. Her desire to reclaim purity and, with it, attain unbroken song, leads her to ask for help from the bird, which is a symbol of that purity. First she asks for reassurance that the bird will stay beside her (a rhetorical question to which no answer is expected, marked, therefore, by a period and not a question mark). Then she demands more active intervention (equally improbable if taken literally as an appeal to a bird): "Take the cup of wine away" and "Take away the telephone"; that is, take away both the means by which I am hurting myself, and that by which I am hurting others.
The poem breaks here, and then, in its final segment, overflows the box in which the verse paragraphs have been confined. Mouré abandons the pretence of prose in her last three lines: the first sweeps across the whole width of printed page, and the last two are progressively shorter, making for a conventional scheme of closure. The poem gestures towards openness by withholding final punctuation in this, as in the earlier paragraphs. Here, however, the openness is not inconclusive but ongoing; the poem ends suspended in song, the "warble" the voice has been struggling for all along. Not song, in fact, but "singing." That is, the poem ends by attaining, if only in a dream, that which it had declared impossible.
Mouré's return to conventional lyric form in the poem's last moments is a concession to the familiarity of the poem's conceit: a solitary speaker measures the failure of human voice and action against "the achieve of, the mastery" of a bird. To quote Gerard Manley Hopkins in this context seems almost inevitable; for him, too, birdsong "ring[s] right out our sordid turbid time, / Being pure!" One of his early Welsh sonnets explicates the meaning of the bird symbol point by point:
"The Caged Skylark" As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage Man's mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells— That bird beyond the remembering his free fells; This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life's age. Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage, Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells, Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage. Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest— Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest, But his own nest, wild nest, no prison. Man's spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best, But uncumberèd: meadow-down is not distressed For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen [The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1967]
Hopkins sets up his simile in the first quatrain, but by the second the distinction between "that bird" and "this" is already breaking down. What they have in common—a confinement against which both sometimes rage, in spite of which both sometimes sing, because of which both sometimes grieve—is explored fully, before the metaphor of the cage is abandoned at the sonnet's turn. In the sestet, Hopkins turns his attention from the caged skylark to an exultantly free bird, and from man "day-labouring-out life's age" to man redeemed, "his bónes rísen." Though couched in terms of the Christian Resurrection, Hopkins's vision is not all that different from that of Mouré. Both poets combine imagery of flight and song to celebrate the ideal union of body and soul. For both, "Man's spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best"; that is, transcendence takes place in, not out of, the body. And in both, the pure expression of delighted being is conceived as a language incomprehensible to humans: "babble" (Hopkins) and "warble" (Mouré). This new language has much in common with the Pentecostal phenomenon of "speaking in tongues," described in the Bible as being inspired by the Holy Ghost (Acts 2.3-4), the divine spirit usually depicted in Christian iconography as a bird.
Trying to write an essay on the poetry of Erin Mouré brought me back to Hopkins for reasons that may, by now, be obvious. Like Hopkins, Mouré has a profoundly religious response to the world. This is acknowledged overtly in imagery and language drawn from the church; in "Thrushes," for example, we hear the echo of Jesus's words at Gethsemane, "let this cup pass from me" (Matt. 26.39), and many poems have such titles as "Epiphany" and "Jubilare" (both from Empire, York Street), "Beatitude" and "Sanctus" (both from Wanted Alive), "Angelus Domini," and "Speaking in Tongues" (both from Domestic Fuel). Her world is one in which "Jesus rises up among the soccer players" ("A Sporting Life," Domestic,) and the Virgin Mary steps "off the front porch / into the plum tree" ("Adoration," Domestic).
Of course Mouré's project is not in the least evangelical; she has recourse to Christian typology because it insists on the spiritual dimension of experience, and thus valorizes her own quest for transfiguration. This language and imagery puts her into a tradition of poets—Hopkins included—who find intolerable the gap between the spirit's aspirations and its opportunities. What she shares with Hopkins in particular is a kind of reverent sensuality that can pray—"Bless us & these thy gifts, my arms ache, / heavy with the weight / of being flesh, & desiring" ("Amore," Domestic)—even as she concedes that "So much is not happiness, not / a possible world, not visible" ("Five Highways," Domestic). Where she differs from Hopkins is precisely in how she defines possible worlds; for Mouré, Christianity, with its promises of happiness in some apocalyptic hereafter, is not a solution to anything. Rather, it is an emotionally meaningful way of speaking about the desire for solutions. Like English, it is her native sign system. It is one of the languages that makes possible "The expression of longing / in & among / the collapse of social systems" ("Cherish," Domestic).
"Cherish" is about feminism as another of these sustaining languages. It presents a dark, stuffy room where, after coffee and food, a group of women overcome fear, and fear of loneliness, to "tell their whole stories." Paradoxically, in acknowledging loneliness and expressing it, they discover that "The longing for it / purely / makes us full." The word "purely" in this context relates to the purity sought in "Thrushes": it means more than just innocence—it evokes an integrity of the whole person in action. "Cherish" celebrates a moment of achieving it in a sacramental way, among a loving community of women.
For Mouré, feminism, like Christianity, is a way of understanding the relationship of self and others, and of redeeming the self through a communal celebration of individual values. For her there is no divorce of the spiritual and the political. And therefore, as her aesthetic becomes more sophisticated, she tends to appropriate the imagery and language of her Catholic girlhood to speak of her adult commitment to feminism. She is not alone in seeking a connection between her affiliations; the predominance of women in many mystical sects has been a subject of great interest to recent feminist critics. For example, Elaine Showalter notes that: "In ecstatic religions … women, more frequently than men, speak in tongues, a phenomenon attributed by anthropologists to their relative inarticulateness in formal religious discourse."
The French psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray develops a similar observation into a detailed analysis of subjecthood and power in European culture, and concludes that mysticism has been, historically, one of the few prestigious occupations open to women. She describes mystical experience as
the only place in the history of the West in which woman speaks and acts so publicly. What is more, it is for/by woman that man dares to enter the place, to descend into it, condescend to it, even if he gets burned in the attempt. It is in order to speak woman, write to women, act as preacher and confessor to women, that man usually has gone to such excesses. [Speculum of the Other Woman, 1985]
Her argument is that, because women have been defined as "not-men," because woman is the other excluded from, and repressed by Western ideology, mysticism can be a source of power as well as a refuge; it makes the marginal position of women an asset rather than a liability. Free from the claims of subjecthood, the mystic repudiates temporal power. In the radical privacy of herself, she asserts the oneness of self and others. It is here, alone, that she is allowed to experience jouissance, that ecstasy which dissolves the Cartesian split between mind and body, and provides healing as well as bliss.
Irigaray's description of the mystic's quest is worth quoting at length to demonstrate the way in which it elucidates what is going on in Mouré's poem "Thrushes." More generally, it helps to explain why the issue of language—of the failure of common speech and the need to discover a new way of speaking—has become so central to this poet's work. Irigaray describes the mystic as one who has experienced the divine touch, and has been transformed by it. The mystic devotes her life to regaining this union; nonetheless,
she cannot specify exactly what she wants. Words begin to fail her. She senses something remains to be said that resists all speech, that can at best be stammered out. All the words are weak, worn out, unfit to translate anything sensibly. For it is no longer a matter of longing for some determinable attribute, some mode of essence, some face of presence. What is expected is neither a this nor a that, not a here any more than a there. No being, no places are designated. So the best plan is to abstain from all discourse, to keep quiet, or else utter only a sound so inarticulate that it barely forms a song. While all the while keeping an attentive ear open for any hint or tremor coming back. [Speculum of the Other Woman, 1985]
In "Thrushes," too, the speaker can only stammer ("stutter"). Desire can find no satisfaction since there is no "presence"—the longed-for friend is only a voice at the end of the phone. So speech is relinquished, and the goal becomes expression without discursive content, the song that is a speaking in tongues rather than speech in the common tongue.
Of course, there is a self-defeating solipsism to this point of view; will one hurt the friend less by withdrawal from communication than one did by angry words? Is the "dream" of pure song less escapist, ultimately, than the cup of wine was? More importantly, if there is "Grief everywhere, now," can "that purity," conceived of as utterly private, really exist? After all, the mystic so idealized by Irigaray is only allowed to perfect her discipline because it is no threat to society; her potentially subversive energy has been contained in a milieu where it cannot affect the sources of her oppression. In feminist terms, the mystic, abject before the Logos, is still circumscribed by male discourse. The mystic is still a subject within, and subject to, patriarchal institutions and ideology, even if she momentarily ignores them.
Mouré sometimes seems to suggests that this jouissance, this babbling in bird tongues, is sufficient to redeem the individual. Certainly she celebrates moments of transcendence, such as that in "Certain Words, A Garden," where, "empty of ancestors" and free from "the talk / of pistols," the individual connects with her own being as something separate from history (Wanted). To quote further from the poem:
your life alone has reached you, captive, stubborn: in its arms at last your terror rises with red wings & a lonely heartbeat, & your voice opens up a whole garden
"It is my own bones, creeping" concludes in similar fashion, but more defiantly:
In my country, the politicians talk of referenda. They do not believe, & while they are not believing the bones will break loose, triumphant, singing like birds (Empire)
In one extraordinary poem, "Vision Of A Woman Hit By A Bird" the metaphor becomes actualized when the speaker is struck in the throat by a bird. The mark where it hit is invisible, but she wears it "as if the bird had nested in [her]," and thereafter feels alienated from her companions, "their maleness & femininity," since "their dress is a strangeness without purity" (Domestic).
More often, however, Mouré presents the individual as a victim of history, and not as an ecstatic outsider. In her first book, Empire, York Street, she explores the ways people are marginalized and deprived of speech by the world in which they live. It is the divorce of language and political reality that disturbs her most of all. In "coda for innocent persons," for example, she declares that
power is not in your hands, is a word. it sings above your head, each day differently, as if you wanted to name it, the Cherished
And in "Epiphany," she prays, grimly, "Blessed are the meek, they shall inherit / syllables, a handful." This is a book preoccupied with the question of allegiances; figures such as Rudolph Hess and Louis Reil are evoked as the author tries to negotiate a position of sanity, still clinging to the hope that "the world is rescue, & possible." This statement of conviction from the poem "Jubilare" is consistent with the empirical view of language expressed throughout the book; language, quite simply, is power. For this reason, the author refuses to capitalize the pronoun I; she refuses to assent to hierarchy even tacitly.
In her next book, Wanted Alive, Mouré abandons this token democratization of printing conventions, but she still favours unconventional syntax and punctuation. The new language struggles visibly, in her work, to escape from the confines of the old, even as it exists only through, and by means of, the old. The operating metaphor in this text is "subliminal code" (the title of both the book's concluding section and of the first poem in that section). This is a complex and highly individual conceit, bringing together points of analogy between the body's biochemistry, the way language works, and the operation of the railway in Canada. (For many years, Mouré has earned her living at Via Rail.) The traffic of words is implicitly compared to neurochemical reactions at the cellular level, exchanging bits of information sometimes lethally, sometimes with a saving grace. The train travels the expanse of the country in much the same way, letting cargo and passengers on and off at various stations, often benignly, but occasionally with fatal results. Mouré also alludes to nuclear radiation, described in American magazines as "The common field of human endeavour," but potentially, as we know, the means by which the planet may be destroyed ("Radiare," Wanted). All these codes are two-faced, and therefore dangerous. Here is the voice of MTX, an anticancer drug that fools the body back into life by mimicking DNA:
i am coming to break your code, are you ready to embrace me? from the traffic of blood, the alien cells with blunt faces teeming, their confused generation stopped; from the traffic of words, feel my acid kiss, rescue me! ("MTX," Wanted)
So, while Empire, York Street places the individual outside language, Wanted Alive tries to explore the way the common language works insidiously inside the individual, often subverting her attempts to think clearly and act freely.
These first two books are bridged by a chapbook called The Whiskey Vigil, which recounts the breakup of a marriage of alcoholics. Like the relationship depicted in Mouré's first book, this marriage is analyzed in terms of desire and power; it is implicitly a microcosm of the interactions of men and women throughout history. The world's savagery forces its bewildered citizens to withdraw into personal relationships, which, ultimately, reproduce political injustice. Disappointed in love, they then retreat further into isolation, drunkenness, or even madness.
Wanted Alive incorporates some of the poems from The Whiskey Vigil, but goes further in recognizing people's complicity in their victimization by society: here we have such figures as "the woman hurt all her life / by money" ("Lenore"), the woman committed to "detox" ("Shoot-Out"), and the grotesque stripper known as "The Whale" ("Strip/La Baleine"). But it is not until her third book, Domestic Fuel, that Mouré can articulate how it is that these wounded individuals participate in a shared injustice, a shared marginality, and, therefore, a shared problem of language.
Domestic Fuel tries to deconstruct language and rebuild it to allow the individual to speak her particular truth and still be understood. In an interview in Rubicon conducted just prior to the publication of Domestic Fuel, Mouré provides some insight into what she is doing in that book. She reminds us that words "are just signs for something," and deplores the fact that "people get so used to conventions that they think they're facts, and they're not facts." For this reason, she says:
I think male writers are at a disadvantage right now because they can take for granted a language that is already invented for them; it already belongs to them. The written history and literature of human beings has referred to "he" and "him"! Women writing feel the unease and strangeness in our language more readily because they are out of it…. [W]omen are beginning to write a new language, their own language, using the common word-signs of the old; women have to discover new correlatives of desire, or ways of expressing them. [Peter O'Brien, "An Interview with Erin Mouré," Rubicon, No. 3 (Summer 1984)]
These ideas are consistent with Mouré's poetic strategy from the start, but not until Domestic Fuel was she able to bring her reverence for mystical transcendence, her rage at the abuse of political power, and her frustration with the corruption of language, together in a coherent, feminist analysis of society.
The tension involved in trying to speak one's own tongue through, and in spite of the inherited language, to discover one's own faith through, and in spite of inherited values, is represented in Mouré's work by strategic incoherence. Transgressions of syntax and punctuation, repetition, fragmentation, obsessive amplification and parataxis, the rejection of formal closure—all these devices may be found in "Thrushes," and are typical of her work in general. I don't mean to imply that this kind of formal experimentation is exclusively feminist: although she attributes the discovery of a new language—"Using the words of the old [language] but in a new way" ("An Interview")—to women, Mouré would agree, I'm sure, that this has always been the purpose of poetry. But the particular urgency feminist poets such as Mouré bring to this enterprise derives from an awareness of how much of woman's experience has been unspoken, is not encoded or, alternatively, has been encoded only negatively, as the absence or contrary of whatever is believed to be masculine and valuable. To break this "subliminal code" becomes double important: as a poet, one owes it to the language, and as a woman, one owes it to history. Ultimately, as a womanpoet, one needs to break the code for oneself, and if this means that one must stutter before learning to sing, so be it. To conclude where I began, with Hopkins, in yet another bird poem:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying What I do is me: for that I came. [The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1967]
SOURCE: "Poetic Emergenc(i)es," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 44, Fall, 1991, pp. 133-41.
[York is a Canadian educator and author of The Other Side of Dailiness: Photography in the Works of Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Laurence (1988). In the following favorable review, York discusses WSW (West South West), focusing on Mouré's use of language and innovative poetic structures.]
"Once again I begin a long praise of the accidental." The line is Erin Mouré's, from her new collection WSW (West South West) but it could just as easily stand as an epigraph to the works of many contemporary Canadian women poets. Poets such as Mouré and Mary di Michele, as well as Susan Glickman, Jan Conn, Lorna Crozier, Daphne Marlatt, Libby Scheier, and Leona Gom, are finding in the chancy, the accidental, and the provisional, bases for a new feminist poetics. The New Critical theory of poetry as a solid, well-wrought urn is, in their eyes, a friend to poetic mankind, but not to women struggling to speak out of a language and tradition colonized by the male voice for centuries. How, they ask, does one write poetry without inscribing the poetic voice as authority, as forger of poetic unities and single truths? In two recent collections—Mouré's WSW (West South West) and Mary di Michele's Luminous Emergencies—two women poets work creatively with this textual/sexual crux, but they take, ultimately, two different directions, two possible stances toward poetic language and tradition.
Of the two, Mouré is—and has been from the beginning—more textually radical. Her critique of traditional poetic concepts such as the lyric self is based on a reaction to "liberal bourgeois" aesthetics and its assumptions. As a result, she is continually casting about for ways of smashing conventional responses to poetry. In a manner reminiscent of Audrey Thomas, Mouré repeatedly disrupts a reader's tendency to see a poem as a divinely inspired, finished (consumer) product. She follows her poem "Tucker Drugs," for instance, with a poem called "Naming a Poem Called Tucker Drugs," wherein a list of alternative titles for the preceding poem undermines the notion of a poem's title as the bearer of a single, unitary meaning:
"A poem with Tucker Drugs in it."
"A poem using the words Tucker Drugs"
"A poem containing the provable geography of Tucker Drugs"
"A poem proving the writer has been to Calgary"
"A poem that will satisfy readers who have been to Tucker Drugs."
The effect is similar to that of Audrey Thomas's story "Initram," from Ladies and Escorts (1977), in which the narrator, after exclaiming that "[w]riters are terrible liars," offers several conflicting interpretations of the preceding story in the collection. The long poem gives Mouré even wider scope for her metapoetic experimentations; in "The Rainshore: Field, Rain, Heat," Mouré comments self-consciously on her use of numbered titles such as "Heat," "Heat 2," "Heat 3," "Highway," "Highway 5," "Highway 6," etc.:
The titles change heat being immaterial, & a highway built in, publicly administered. As if, writing implies government.
The linear and serial are here revealed as impositions, not inherently ordained or "governed." What better form to use for this poetic subversion that the long serial poem, with its apparent linearity and aura of progression?
Another way Mouré shows poetry turning back on itself is through the replaying of scenes, events, and images. A woman running to her car, the gutting of a killed deer, and a woman giving first aid to an injured native boy by the side of the railroad tracks, are a few of the scenes that return in this obsessive manner in WSW. Images, for Mouré, are not unproblematically resolved or simply dealt with by the poet; rather, they are part of the stubborn texture of experience and memory that continually refuses poetic resolution.
If that assumption sounds deconstructive, it should come as no surprise to readers of Mouré's previous collections. She is a theoretically aware poet, invoking the works of French feminist thinker Luce Irigaray in her previous collection Furious (1988), for example. But whereas in Furious theoretical poetic texts are used to play off against anecdotal poems dealing with women's lives, in WSW the approach is more uniformly theoretical. Readers of Furious who come to this collection looking for further investigations of feminist aesthetics and politics will be disappointed—unless they recognize that, implicitly, Mouré is continuing that project.
Mouré, like Audrey Thomas, does this by locating the sorts of deconstructive sites of resistance I have described in the female body, memory, and dreams. All of these stand in stark opposition to the world of the office, the place of regulation and government, in poems such as "The Jewel," a 1990s reworking of P.K. Page's "The Stenographers":
There are days we feel we are repeating, from some other time, we get out of bed with the fish taste wet gills capsized boat of sleep in our mouths & eyes rubbing as if the day has punctured our careful wall, wall of dream, wall of physical memory
This is Mouré's project: to write texts where the walls of dream, physicality, and memory triumph over the restrictive four-wall office mentality of Western logocentrism. As a result, speech, for her, is an erotic act of the body rather than a rational discourse: "My readers," she announces at the end of "The Jewel,"
I will be able to kiss you. The dryness of my lips. I warn you. What we are given to understand. What we are given. Begs the question. One question. So I can kiss you. The words kiss & question unconnected until now
Poetry is not the act of an author "giving" messages to a passive reader; it is a passionate embrace, wherein the reader joins his/her lips to the poet's, connecting and giving life to the text.
As Mouré's experiments with rupturing the text would suggest, though, words act not only as agents of creative connection, but also as absences, gaps in meaning. This appears to be a paradoxical situation but it is not, since Mouré's conception of art as connection is not one of resolution or transcendence of differences. That is, the reader connects with words, but does not resolve the text in a thoroughgoing, final way; connection is only one step in an ongoing interplay between the reader and the gaps in the text. In "Order, or Red Ends," a series of shorter poems in WSW, Mouré pillories the notion that textual meaning can be sewn up or determined in a rational manner:
Chemical tests can indeed be applied to the chemical surface of the poem. Neurasthenic glamour is everywhere, wobbling on "dude" knees. But nothing about the author.Is she a good lay?Can she kiss? Who knows.
Mouré obviously prefers the kiss of passionate textual embrace to the analogies between scientific and poetic information that "dude" poets (a sneaking reference to Christopher Dewdney) might propose.
All of these theoretical allegiances—to the resistant body, to art as self-conscious process, to meaning as constructed rather than given—lead Mouré to write a poetry of chance, of contingency rather than carefully sculpted design. Her world is, as she writes in "Shutter Door," "A world where 'this,' & 'this' / come together."
SOURCE: "Maps of Our Knowing," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXI, No. 9, December, 1992, pp. 44-5.
[In the generally favorable review below, Diehl-Jones examines the strengths and weaknesses of Sheepish Beauty, Civilian Love.]
Erin Mouré opens her new book, Sheepish Beauty, Civilian Love, with a poem that in certain ways sets up her whole project:
What is "transubstantial" in the word, the hallucination ofthis & that, the words not containers of meaning but multipliers, three tongues in one mouth, distinction without denotation or connotation, this, that, referential. ..... The beauty ofthis & that, as if even memories are transubstantial, & they are, alive in maps of neurons in the cortex beside the maps for presence, for place in the universe, for hearing, for sexual feeling, hereafter known as love the unmentionable ("Corrections to the Saints: Transubstantial")
Once words are not containers but multipliers, the whole poetic universe blows open: you aren't telling but discovering. Then even the unmentionable can be spoken.
Mouré's intelligence, it seems to me, is to assume always the proximity of those maps of neurons. Language bumps up against memory, vision, dream, thought. Which gives many of the poems in the book a kind of dreamlike sheen:
When they lie side by side, the wanton horse (love) A book slammed shut, the echo Stood up sudden then resumed their duties "cutting hair" The third form of possession or madness, of which poetry When they lie side by side, recanting ("photon scanner [blue spruce]")
I like the stubborn illogic of this writing, the evocative power of these Ashbery-like shifts. Still, Mouré doesn't confine herself to this styling; many passages are closer to prose, and range from narrative to self-reflexive commentary to theoretical inquiry. "Hope Stories," for instance, threads its way through dream narratives, dream theory, and poetic fragments. Throughout the book, modes—imagistic, political, elegiac, interpretive, playful, erotic—coincide, proximate maps of our knowing.
In a way, Sheepish Beauty, Civilian Love teaches you how to read. The you approaching the text is invited (sometimes ordered) to participate in the gradual accretion of significance; images, like words, are not containers but multipliers in this writer's hands. Birds, blue, hay, city, shoulders: all recur conspicuously, wind themselves into a net to catch you up.
Mouré will occasionally provide a kind of playful critique of what has preceded, answering her detractors before they can speak. In some cases, these pieces are brilliantly funny—"The poem lacks simple narration. Simple narration is absent and / it doesn't work to make a mystical image out of celery, even as a / joke." ("Corrections: Executive Suite")—but it's a posture that, for me, wearies quickly. On the other hand, a previous reviewer (quoted mid-poem) has relieved me of having to comment on the flurry of intrusive exclamation marks.
In an epigraph to one of the poems, Mouré invokes Gertrude Stein: "Considering how dangerous everything is, nothing is really frightening." Sheepish Beauty, Civilian Love is an unflinching and delicate exploration of the absolute dangerousness of any world one might inhabit, the knots and losses and confusions and revelations that accompany our attempts to speak and love ourselves to life.