Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

X/Self has two main themes unifying the poem. One involves an examination of how the imperialistic tradition of European civilization has led to a devaluation of those defined as “other”—blacks, Native Americans, women. The second involves an attempt to find a self-defined identity as an Other—as an “X.”

An example of how the first of these themes is played out can be found in the section entitled “Phalos,” which discusses the plight of women in three Third World cities (Addis, Actium, and Kumas) that have been overrun by European powers by saying,

And since that day at addis at actium at kumasour women have forshook their herbs forshorn their naked savioursthey have straightened their nostrils where they would flare.

The reference to straightening nostrils is a reference to the type of cosmetic surgery that women of African descent can have to hide African features. More generally, though, the poem is concerned with the long-term distortion of sensibilities that has resulted from European imperialism. Local standards of beauty tend to be forcefully adapted to the European standards of beauty—standards to which women of the occupied race do not conform and which thus compel them and their descendants in modern times to resort to surgery and fashion so as not to be thought of as “ugly.”

If, however, the poem were nothing more than a...

(The entire section is 624 words.)