She Tries Her Tongue:|
Her Silence Softly Breaks
by M. Nourbese Philip,
Post Your Opinion
|Insisting On The Questions
by Erin Moure
WITHOUT MEMORY CAN there be history?" Without speech? And without history can there he personal presence? If "words collect physical and emotional responses" then in what kind of pain or grief is the body without speech? Marlene Nourbese Philip reminds us that the enslaved African peoples in North America were made 11 "manageable" by the suppression of their own languages (shades of residential schools in this century and their damage to native and Inuit communities!). Without words, one`s own words, can there be history? How to speak, when You Must Speak in a foreign tongue, a tongue that has continually disparaged you?
Stich questions reverberate in the work
of Nourbese Philip -- especially but not
just for Black and Native peoples colo
nized by Western European language and
culture: they also echo for others on the
margins of dominant culture, and, yes, for
everyone disenfranchised by the language
of politics, advertising, management, and
the law. Within which we all risk being
people without history, though some of us
are giving up our history voluntarily ...
and Our giving up is so loud it silences
In the essay preceding her poems, Nourbese Philip argues that "fundamental to any -art form is the image...," and speaks about the importance of having images of oneself reflected, in order to exist in Culture. She speaks passionately of the dismissal of African image/imaging/imagining in colonial society, and of the effect this absence of historical selfreference has had on Afro-Caribbean identity. Her work in poetry breaks down the effects of the language in which
African experience is not represented except as foreign, non-being, decontextualized. She admits "I have come up against ... the anguish that is English in Colonial societies..."
In my view, the deconstructing, slipping, resonating, and simultaneity that result have much in common with the Work of Quebec women writers profoundly affected by colonial and, yes, racist attitudes of the dominant society. In their work too is the insistence on the changing of language itself to reflect their experience, and the questioning of the image, the role of the image, its binding of vision that must be overcome.
Nourbese Philip`s book begins with the search by the spiritual/temporal/historical mother for the daughter, who, finding her torn, raped, realizes what has been perpetrated upon the child, upon the child`s being and language. The mother invoking the daughter, instead of the other way around! From this disturbing poem the book moves to the "Cyclamen Girl," circa 1960, the Soul of Christian endeavour in the white surface of the communicant, the girl searching for her name and place in all this. Against the Christian images the next poem juxtaposes the African, from the colonial point of view; in "African Majesty (The Barbara and Murray Frum Collection)" the African is only allowed to exist as "collection," as "collected" by white people! One`s own past! The idea of collecting a history whose present we deny except as influence on Braque, Picasso, Brancusi.
Then, the haunting and chant-like "Meditations on the Declension of Beauty," followed by "Discourse on the Logic of Language," whose four parts are set on facing pages as if the only way to articulate the influences is to defy the linearity of logic and of the page. Here Nourbese Philip`s well-known lines about the anguish of English, the mother-father-tongue, are sandwiched between affirmation (birth story) and death (edicts from slavery that talk of the cutting out of tongues for the crime of speaking one`s own language). And on the right-facing page is the textbook recounting of the parts of the brain associated with speech and memory. Oh, "English is a foreign anguish"!
Each poem marvellously takes words, Sources, roots, finds the poetry in the already-written, quoting it, erasing and rewriting it, recontextualizzing it. The poems do not flinch; they inflict and admit incredible pain in order to cure and grow. Nourbese Philip`s questions are difficult, and of an intensity of insistence rarely achieved in poetry. That her manuscript, a 1988 recipient of the Casa de las Americas prize, took two more years, and many rejections, before appearing, is telling. No wonder those who are without public representation of their history are so insistent on the questions. As for the rest of us: read this book and know