Inthe introduction to this collection of essays by women writers on the subject of desire, the editor, Lorna Crozier, outlines the questions the writers were all asked to consider: "When do you trust your desire? When do you censor it? When is it a source of power, and when a source of distress?" Seven writers, seven voices, a range of experience in the female¨can the reader find herself anywhere in this book?
The collection opens with Susan Musgrave's essay, "Junkie Libido". From the ironically inverted opening sentence¨"At the age of fourteen I found my virginity."¨the reading is a spirited romp. In an age when sex was about "down there", "nymphomaniac" was "what girls who enjoyed sex were called." Even boys, "well-bred" boys that is, respected the borders of "Labia minora". In contrast to their reticence, Musgrave's frank lust is hilarious: "But after sucking my nipples until I was ready to fuck the stick shift out of their old man's BMW they drove me home and made me beg to be allowed to blow them in the driveway." Besides these naughty narrative bits, Musgrave turns to the dictionary and to science, "the neurochemical jungle" of the brain, to understand her "libido". Her honesty and wit make the writing a pleasure to read.
I expected "Father Figures" might come closest to echoing my own fantasies, if not experience. Evelyn Lau charts the traditional ground of the differences between men's and women's sexuality when she writes "I don't think I am capable of feeling desire without a complex of emotions and justifications". My own sexual fantasies take me 'safely' into the arms of Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise, powerful and prudent, strong and sage, the leader with a voice, deeply resonating in Shakespearean tones, and so I can understand Lau's claim that "Desire, for me, is often strangely divorced from sex." I expected to be moved by the author of "Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid" and I was, at least in the opening pages, which describe her relationship with the father who "adored" her as a child. My empathy with her passionate fear of losing him glossed over such clichTs as: "I was the centre of his universe." At least on my first reading of the piece.
If anything, this essay illustrates how censoring and distress operate in women's desire. But what doesn't work for me here is the generic appellations: all the men are "this man", types like "a prominent business man". People are socially tagged rather than shown. A friend is described as "a stylish woman in her forties with a good career". If this is meant to ensure anonymity for those she knows, I wonder about the need to camouflage the identity of Kinsella, whose lawsuit has pushed their relationship into the public arena of courts and newspapers. Or is it the fear of more lawsuits that is silencing Lau?
Written from her "narrow nun's bed" during a retreat at an artist's colony in Saskatchewan, Lorna Crozier writes incandescent prose. "Changing into Fire" is well-titled in the language and intensity of her 'seeing' the beloved, the companion who is waiting for her in their home on the coast. His past life¨married to a childhood sweetheart, "pulling lumber on the green chain eight hours a day" in the Coldstream mill¨is recalled synchronously with her adolescence, the big date and its disappointments: "Unfortunately the night wasn't Evening in Paris but Evening in Swift Current." I am made to see his hands, his injuries, the screw that worked its way out of his broken ankle, and her "toes" beautiful "in turquoise shoes". There is sensuousness in the language, its "lubricious syllables of flowers said out loud in February: camellia, magnolia, foxglove." This is the essence of desire, its primary sense in the dictionary, as an "unsatisfied longing or craving": the image of flowers, fleeting in the frigid snow gardens of the prairie in February. "Desire," Crozier proclaims, "should be a longer word, multisyllabic". And she makes it so, its longing uncharacteristically long-lived, speaking as it does of a relationship of twenty years.
I miss the lyric directness of Musgrave and Crozier in Bonnie Burnard's "Silence and Exception", which skirts around the question of desire on a personal level. It's not for "discussing". The high point of this essay for me is when she claims that this separation of sex and talking is as necessary a physiological separation as breathing and swallowing. She offers the epiglottis as evidence, "that little miracle of design...flopping around in our throats ensuring that our bodies do just one thing at a time, guarding against the discomfort of air in our guts, the danger of chunks of undigested food in our lungs."
Burnard, I think, is the only writer in this group who is not also a poet and perhaps this accounts for her dismissal of "mere words" and her acceptance of the failures of language as "not a bad thing". She focuses on public images and figures: Hollywood and Woody Allen, who has "so fouled longing". Here she writes the kind of social commentary most liberal thinkers, and even quite a few conservatives, might agree with, even as we're waiting in line to buy tickets to the movies.
In contrast, Carol Shields writes a fictionalised essay, "Eros", centred on talk. It opens at a dinner party where the conversation has "drifted toward the subject of sexuality." One guest argues that sex now requires "explication". This discussion leads to acts of groping under the table. In the flashback which ends the narrative, Ann, a lonely divorced woman, and her then husband are on vacation in Europe to try to patch up their failing marriage when their passion is rekindled by the sound of a woman's unbridled orgasmic cry coming up through the air shafts of the hotel. Shields depicts desire as an ecstatic and swelling chorus.
Shani Mootoo's "Photo Parentheses" is a memoir exploring gender and identity. She uses the trope of the photograph to frame the emergence of her lesbian sexuality.
And, as deeply a meditation as it is a memoir, Dionne Brand's "Arriving at Desire" links the personal and the political in the shaping of desire. As a girl, Brand was "seduced" by two books: The Black Napoleon, a history of the Haitian revolution of 1791, and the literary work, Lady Chatterly's Lover. "Writing is an act of desire, as is reading". Yes, an intimate act, "as if I'd been let into another's skin", where the intellect transforms viscerally: "A book asks us to embody." Brand's 'touch' on the book is organic, vital. Observe how she recalls her attempts to hide the banned D.H. Lawrence novel: "We covered it in brown paper, I think, as my grandmother had covered the avocados, to ripen."
Desire for Brand is not only about romance, its affairs or marriages, but also about political struggle and becoming in the "ruin of history", about despair that is "public and private all at once". About carrying words inside us which have been forbidden to us and so must be hidden to survive, to be owned. Brand's vision moves me profoundly. I imagine reading a 'Black Joan of Arc', one whose battles are with the language and culture of empire, one whose voice ignites these pages in my hand. ˛
Mary di Michele is a Montreal-based poet.