Poetry by Canadian Women/Poesle de femmes canadiennes

by Judith Fitzgerald
119 pages,
ISBN: 0$57531512

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In the name of the Mother
by Barbara Casey

This collection of 13 women poets should probably be read behind closed doors - not because there's anything shameful about it, but rather because the majority of work represented cannot be fully appreciated unless read aloud. Though poetry was originally an oral, and thus very much a social, art form, in our culture it seems to have developed into a primarily private and individualistic pursuit. But Sp/Elles is very much a celebration of sound and more specifically, of a language that Judith Fitzgerald describes as springing from "an ideology and aesthetic centered in women's consciousness."
The notion that we inhabit (and are inhabited by) language isn't a new one: language is, after all, one of the fundamental institutional structures of society. But these writers hold that this architecture is innately patriarchal, and confining for women. Quite simply, they want to build a new dwelling, more hospitable to the experiences of the female sea. In a preface to her contribution, Daphne Marlatt writes that women can only speak for themselves is the world by engaging in "a struggle to subvert the rational/lawful language of the Father... & reinstate or retreats the imaginary/sensory language of the Mother."
Judging from other statements of poetic intent included in Sp/Elles, the contributors seem to agree with MarIatt. But theory is one thing, practice another. There is a wide range of style and voice, though there are a number of commonalities too. Perhaps most pervasive is a sense of writing from the perspective of a collective, rather than individual, consciousness - poetry that is not self (ego) centered so much as sex (gender) centred. For instance, in Marlatt's poem "seeing your world from the outside," the use of the plural pronoun "we" reinforces a spirit of collectivity.
Given the perceived vital connection between language and being, it's not surprising that a number of poets are concerned with etymology. Marlatt, Betsy Warland, and Maxine Gadd all create incantatory pieces based on the origin of various words, breaking them apart and combining them in a flow of consciousness that at its best achieves a complex musicality, "bits of sound shining, rain of rung glass." The poet's relationship with language is very playful, exploratory - presumably, "mastering" or "dominating" discourse would be seen as a patriarchal notion.
The language itself is distinctive. There is an emphasis on the interplay between the body and verbal expression; recurring images in a number of poet's work include lips (both sensual and communicating) and skin (both container and point of contact). The bond between word and flesh is almost a primordial one: as Gay Allison writes in "Women, this is us,"
We are the voice before words
tire language of intuition
tire original food
Quebecoise poets Nicole Brossard and Louise Cotnoir also want to express consciousness through sentience, rejecting the "rational" basis of conventional discourse. Cotuoir writes of "l'effacemeat qui menace; la patina de l'usage, de l'usure" and of "l'envie d'une peau neuve/toucher le derme secret. "Another Quebecolse poet, Louise Dupre, deals with the parallels between creativity and procreation. It's good to see these writers included in the anthology, because they have contributed greatly to feminist literary criticism.
There are also poets whose work is less overtly radical in form. P.K. Page and Dorothy Livesay, with their sageness and grace, give a sense of perspective to the collection. The claustrophobia and frustration in Page's classic "The Stenographers," for example, find their release in the exuberance of Marlatt or Dupre. Livesay reflects upon growth, becoming "comfortable with love" and by extension, with herself.
Ayanna Black and Ann Wallace both come from a culture in which poetry formed part of a tradition of story-telling; therefore narrative elements play an important role in their work. Black incorporates the rhythm of Jamaican patois in several selections, reminding us that race and class (and not just gender) determine social relations.
In her introduction, Fitzgerald makes it clear that Sp/Elles is not intended to be a representative survey of Canadian women poets, saying that her selections are "necessarily idiosyncratic." At the same time, she insists that they are "the best." Personally I don't agree - but I know that my assessment is as subjective as Fitzgerald's. I don't take issue with her selection as such (it's a formidable/formidable one), but the characterization of it. Why implicitly set up a literary canon that is every bit as hierarchical and exclusive as "the language of the Father"?
That the collection represents one approach to the use of language to represent women's experience without excluding other forms is perhaps its most refreshing trait. The spirit of Sp/Elles is one of plurality and inclusion. Its tone overall is positive, celebratory, and even adventurous -- so I welcome it, though there are other poets I might like to see included, and a few selections that don't really speak my language.

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