All entries for Monday 11 June 2007
June 11, 2007
- By the Light of My Father's Smile
- Alice Walker
- Not rated
By The Light of my Father’s Smile is held together by a construct that at first seems artificial initially: a father is looking down on his daughter after his own death.
She was not even aware at the time of my death that she missed me. Poor child. She did not cry at my funeral. She was a stoic spectator. Her heart, she thought, was closed. (3)
As an atheist, I found the idea of an afterlife from which the father was speaking a little disappointing. However it becomes far more interesting when reading on, because we discover that the tradition drawn on is that of the Mexican “Mundo” tribe, the philosophy of which features prominently in this book. On the one hand, the journey of the book is towards the reconciliation of the father and his daughers, Susannah and Magdelena. However the title does not only refer to the relationship of children and parents. It is also about the sublime experience of love-making, since the “Mundo” tribe, describe the sickle moon as a father’s smile blessing the procreative cycles, which allow sexual intercourse to be fruitful. At the beginning of the book, it is clear that sex for the daughters is a transgression and the journey towards reconciliation with the father is also a path towards healing their view of love-making.
In Walker’s vision, a reconciliation of familial and sexual difficulties can only be allowed when the whole family has recounted its narrative and is at peace. For this reason, the narration moves between relatives, who all contribute to the telling of the family story. Flashing back to Susannah’s and Magdelena’s childhood, the family voices tell how the parents are denied funding to study the “Mundo” tribe, ‘a tiny band of mixed-race Blacks and Indians’ due to institutional racism (14). However as a family linked to the black church, the family can become missionaries, in order to live in Mexico and secretly study the “Mundo”. Walker’s novel is ultimately a passing narrative that depicts the hateful atmosphere emerging in an atheist family passing as Christians. The father, named only with the formal title Señor Robinson, describes how he is ‘sucked into the black cloth’ of the priest’s costume and his only relief is secret, transgressive sexual pleasure when making love to his wife Langley (156).
Yet in hiding his own sexual pleasure, Señor Robinson also enforces his rule on his daughters, the uncertain Susannah and the more wayward, Magdelena. From Magdelena to Maggie to Mad Dog to June, Magdelena’s names map her course: from the innocence of childhood; to the adoption of “Mundo” peoples’ values (including a belief in the crazy wisdom of the mad dog); to the repression and domestication of her natural sexual instinct. Magdelena’s story is the most touching, as Walker conjures regret and the acceptance of lost ideals vividly.
Yet the centre of the story is Susannah, who must learn to forgive her sister for inadvertently driving the family apart. In the process of this education, Susannah takes on many mentors: women who have had to fight in a society that frowns on difference. For example, Irene, the Greek dwarf, escapes the confinement of her place in society, while Susannah’s lover, Lily-Pauline, manages to build her own restaurant empire in spite of her experience of rape, a loveless marriage and poverty. In the case of each woman, she is saved by the redemptive qualities of friendship and physical love, which leaves the reader like Susannah ‘peering through the mist of the orgasm itself […] seeking what is essentially beyond it’ (190).
It is hard to understand what the term “women’s poetry” is supposed to mean. Is it suggesting that there is a kind of poetry more likely to be written by women, or read by women? In that case, is there such a thing as black poetry, homosexual poetry, handicapped poetry? I hope not, because for reasons I hope I can make clear, I should prefer to see poetry as universal and unifying, rather than particular and divisive. Poetry is an exercise of the verbal faculty, and the only distinction which seems valid to me are those based on words. Hence there is clearly such a thing as German poetry, i.e. poetry written in the German language. Is there, however, such a thing as Swiss poetry
-i.e. poetry in German, French, Italian or Romansch by Swiss persons and sharing some mystical component of Swissness which transcends language? I don’t know, but I seriously doubt it. The Swiss poets I know of who wrote in German have never struck me as being markedly different from Germans writing in German, and they certainly have more in common with the latter than the Swiss writing in French. This seems wholly expected, given that language, to an extent, structures thought. (30)
People’s habits differ, but it is in their nature, whatever their sex, race, orientation or culture, to laugh, to think, to feel pity, to get angry, to puzzle about their world. Of course each individual’s experience differs (and two men’s may differ as much as a man’s and a woman’s, or more), but such differences provide individual routes by which to explore the central core of our common humanity, not an excuse for hanging around on the periphery of it. Every poem which has ever impinged on my consciousness fro longer than a moment; which has struck me as being illuminating, or moving, or worth memorising, has addressed itself to what is universal in us, rather than what divides us. (31)
Poetry Wales. Vol 23 (1987): 30-37
Ken Smith begins his essay with some prescient remarks on ‘Anglo Welsh’ writing:
If the Anglo-Welsh literary community expects to obtain respectability in literary studies it must move beyond the myopic limitations inherent in provincialism and develop a critical theory which tries to cope with all the facets of literature from aesthetics to linguistics. Often the complaint against Anglo-Welsh critics is their inability to deal with questions of literature which go beyond the predicament of English speakers in Wales. In the extreme this leads to a limited definition of Anglo-Welsh as writings about Wales. In Welsh Literature, where language defines the literature, there is the freedom to write about the many complexes of the human condition; drafted in the traditional praise poem or in existentialist drama there is no question of it being categorized as Welsh. Anglo-Welsh literary theory though well-developed in describing dominant themes and influences in poetry, especially through the work of Ryamond Garlick and Roland Mathias, has as yet proved unable to personify itself in varied genres and thus constantly faces questions of identity. What is needed is a flowering of thought which fearlessly grapples with all literary theory from a Welsh perspective, whether formalist, Marxist, feminist, or other. Only then can Anglo-Welsh writers be assured of a satisfactory dialogue in the literary community of Wales. (60).
Some work is certainly being done in this vein by academics in Wales including Prof. Stephen Knight, Kirsti Bohata and Katie Gramich among others, but Smith’s comments are still relevant.
It is also interesting that Smith identifies feminist literary criticism as very relevant to Welsh writing in English and he suggests that feminist theory has been sidelined in Wales, ‘because Anglo-Welsh critics have been reluctant to break new ground or deal with problems which are universal rather than regional’ (60). Smith suggests that feminist critical theory divides into three areas: ‘images of women in literature, criticism by women writers; and the prescribing of what is “good” literature from a feminist perspective’ (60). Smith suggests that by studying images of women in Wales, a critic might be able ‘to understand the characteristics, real or projected, of women in Wales’ and ‘to understand the role of women in Welsh society’ (61). He also suggests that this might promote ‘a clearer knowledge of Welshness’ (61). (I am unsure about this suggestion. Can we generalise so easily?) Smith suggests that images of strong women in novels by Raymond Williams and Iris Davies could be studied. He also considers the possibility of comparing male and female interpretations of women in order to ascertain whether men present any ‘sexist stereotyping’ (61). For example, Smith considers the representation of the mythical woman, Blodeuwedd, in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, in Saunders Lewis’ play and Brenda Chamberlain’s poem, ‘Blodeuwedd’. He asks the following questions:
‘1. How do these images portray women in Welsh society?
2. Are women crystallised into the dualities of evil aggressive Eve and virginal passive Mary as is common in English literature?
3. Or does the image allow a more diverse, complex, whole view of women which is more consistent with the ancient matriarchs?
4. Is there a difference between the images of Mr. Lewis and Ms. Chamberlain?
5. Does this difference reflect sexist stereotypes?
6. Does it reflect a less realistic view of women?’ (62)
Leaving it to the reader to investigate, Smith considers the ‘development of women’s scholarship and criticism’ (62). He notes that Sally Roberts Jones is compiling a database of Welsh women writers from the seventeenth century to the present day. Smith also directs us to Markale’s Women of the Celts and some other essays in Poetry Wales by F.Heck and B. Hardy. Smith wonders whether the bias against women’s criticism is linked to the promotion of masculine-centred concepts like ‘the tragic hero’. Smith is also concerned about ‘prescriptive criticism’:
To say that the Anglo-Welsh should be prescriptive rather than descriptive is to sentence the writing to provincialism and deny it the fullness and diversity of the living community. Anglo-Welsh writers must be free to roam where their imaginations lead without having to defend their Welshness at every new endeavour. (64)
Smith adds: ‘The question in Gillian Clarke’s or Ruth Bidgood’s writings is not whether they are Welsh or English literature but how Welshness is reflected in them through syntax, rhythm, mood, etc.’ (64). Just as feminists are criticised for not falling in line with radical criticism, so in Wales there is ‘the problem […] of people’s Welshness being judged by their Welsh tongue, an extreme position which holds that one isn’t Welsh unless one speaks Welsh’ (64). The only antidote to these problems according to Smith is made ‘by Anglo-Welsh and feminist critics working toward a definition of what are “good” images of women’ (65).
Smith begins by noting the link between national mythologies and national identities and he suggests that ‘these archetypes, these symbols of the nation, tend to abstract the culture beyond the access of individual experience, and to certain extent beyond tangible understanding’ (48). In contrast Smith sets up the ‘portrait poem’ as a mode that deals with individual human experience. The portrait poem is similar to a parise poem in its ‘remembering, portraying, exemplifying’, but the praise poem only deals with ‘legendary figures or with the dead’ (48). While praise poems are ‘extraordinary, beyond reality pr life, and are aimed at social memory’, portrait poems are ‘critical or satirical, they deal with the ordinary, and are aimed at social reproduction’ (48).
Smith refers to R.S. Thomas’ demand for the ‘winnowing of the people’ and to Caradog Evans’ ironic stories and poems. Smith describes the purpose of such poetics as ‘meant to reveal the impurities and feelings of inferiority which are stifling in the true expression of national character (48). While the praise poem looks back to an ‘irretrievable past’, the portrait poem offers images of ‘portending cultural demise’ (48). Yet in each mode of writing, the representation of the culture and community is all important:
The poet, as a representative of the people, adopted from the bardic tradition, uses imagination to recreate the reality of the people’s existence in a way which they can understand. Even though at times this may take the form of poetic or mythopoetic thought, Thomas would maintain that these are representations of the true national character […] (48)
Sometimes reproduction of nation in portrait poems is done for political purposes in the hope of changing the status quo. Smith suggests that this is the case in Sally Roberts-Jones’ collection Turning Away. Roberts-Jones uses the English sonnet form to present portraits of politicians. Smith notes that while the verse form signals ‘the confinement of office’, it also ‘offers a form which can carry a moral message or cynical twist in the final couplet’ (48). The subject of Roberts-Jones’ poems is often forgotten or silenced parts or subjects in Wales and Smith offers analysis of ‘Dic Sion Dafydd Returns to the Valley’, a poem about lost community and the lack of opportunity for new generations.
Roberts-Jones’ collection, Relative Values, sticks to notions of lineage and heritage. Smith notes that in this collection, the grandmother plays a significant role as the gatekeeper of the family memory. In poems such as ‘Not a Tolpuddle Martyr’, ‘The Painting’ and ‘Dressmaker in the Nineties’ (earlier poem), the grandmother ‘reproduces in her grandchildren the memories of the family, much as the poet passes on those of the society’ (50).
Smith compares the grandmother-grandchild relationship to the mother-child relationship and he suggests that the grandmother’s distance from the child allows her a special bond with the child. The mother-child relationship is quite problematic for Welsh writers and Smith sees it as being influenced by Nancy Chodorow’s book, The Reproduction of Mothering. Smith quotes Chodorow who suggests that mothering is passed on from mother to daughter. The representation of mothering in Welsh poetry unfolds in two ways according to Smith, ‘as the poet tries to portray her own mother, or a daughter’s view of a mother, and as she tries to represent the mother’s view, or herself as a mother’ (50). Smith describes this as the ‘winnowing’ of mothers.
Smith turns to Ruth Bidgood’s sequence, ‘Seven Found Poems’, and to the particular poem, ‘Grievance’, which takes the form of a letter written in 1712 from Alice Owen to her mother. The poem reveals how the narrator has always been expected to be second best in the family: ‘the prerequisite of a good mother’ as Smith notes sarcastically. Bidgood’s poem, ‘Letter’, also portrays a woman who must give up her own wants and desires for the good of the family. Through Tony Curtis’ analysis, Smith finds similarities in Anne Stevenson’s Correspondences, a collection of letter-poems which in some places examine the subjugation of women by husband and family.
Drawing on Tillie Olsen’s Silences, Smith suggests that Welsh women writers are preoccupied with having to put others first and the repression that this practice causes. He quotes from Jean Earle’s poem, ‘Time’, a silent woman serves a group of men, yet she comes to understand time through her silent observation of the world. Similarly, Earle’s poem, ‘Summer’, suggests, according to Smith, ‘that women have an instinct for the natural order which they are privileged to through self-sacrifice’ (52). Chiming with Chodorow’s theorising, Earle seems to believe that women’s views are hugely influenced by their role as carers and mothers. The reproduction of mothering is obvious in Earle’s poem, ‘Daughters’ Houses I and II’ in which she imagines her daughters as mothers. Smith concludes that the role of mother is seen as ‘a natural, inevitable, [sic] situation fro women, without questioning the imposition of mothering, that is nurturing, maintenance, education, and entertainment of children, upon childbearers’ (51).
While women writing in Wales do not seem to have embraced radical changes in the structure of the family, they are very much concerned with the relationship between mothers and children. Smith quotes Nan Bauer Maglin who suggests that there are five aspects in portraits of mothers:
1. The collective speaking voice of the daughter-poet who speaks beyond her individual concerns.
2. Admiration for the mother’s strength.
3. The telling of the matrilineage or women’s familial history.
4. Maintaining a balance between sympathising with the mother and addressing conflicts.
5. The expression of anger and grief at the silence between mother and daughter.
Smith suggests that while the first three elements can be seen in Roberts-Jones, Bidgood and Earle, to address the other aspects, he needs to turn to other poets.
One of these is Gillian Clarke who offer portrait poems that are ‘significantly different […] because they show motherhood from a personal, self-revealing stance which initiates the reader into the conflicts of a woman tied to her children and the hostilities between a mother and daughter’ (52). In Clarke’s poems, the view is far less nostalgic and children sometimes appear in poems to interrupt the thoughts of the narrator as in ‘St Thomas’s Day’. Other poems such as ‘Community’ consider how ‘[a] dependence is established in which the mother satisfies the needs of the family’, while ‘Sundial’ describes the mother caged by concern for her sick child (52). In poems like these, the mother must sacrifice her own needs for those of others, but in other poems, such as ‘Letter from a Far Country’, this is challenged.
Clarke’s poems about mothers and daughters are particularly highly charged and Smith associates them with factors 4 and 5 in Maglin’s account of mother-portraits. In poems like ‘Sunshine’, ‘Catrin’ and ‘Ice Queen’, the daughter rebels against the silence inherited by the mother from her own mother and the mother responds by feeling both hurt and glad for her daughter. The chain in the reproduction of mothering is broken.
I can remember you, our first
Fierce confrontation, the tight
Red rope of love which we both fought
(From Clarke’s poem ‘Catrin’).
Gillian Clarke begins her essay with reference to the mythical character of the giant, Bendigeidfran: ‘It seems to have begun with Bendigeidfran, his rhythmic syllables, the imprint of his huge foot on the shore, and the rocking stone of the headland that had been the apple in the giant’s pocket’ (287). The land and poetic language seem to have a close relationship in Clarke’s vision as even stones ‘bear messages that seem to be coded or in languages I could not understand’ (287).
In her poetics, Clarke draws on Seamus Heaney and a poetic imagination that is rooted in childhood and she suggests that ‘this rich source of poetry is especially available for women’ (286). The reasoning behind this is that girls start to read earlier and consequently advance in language sooner. Clarke’s fear seems to revolve around the Welsh tongue which ‘took on the nature of a forbidden tongue, a language of secrets from which I at first felt merely excluded, and later learned to value as something stored’ (289). In poems like ‘Dw^r’, Clarke began to use Welsh language words and so to enrich her poetry further.
Our Sister’s Land: The Changing Identities of Women in Wales. Ed. Jane Aaron, Teresa Rees, Sandra Betts and Moira Vincentelli. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994. (287-293).
In this essay, Menna Elfyn explains how her work is different from the convention in Welsh poetry: ‘I have written very little about Wales or the language, rebelling in doing so against the armchair protest verses written during the seventies and eighties’ (281). Elfyn has an interesting life experience which has effected her view of poetry:
A law-breaking dreamer, I eventually went to prison myself as a language activist, but came out a feminist. Imprisonment brought home to me the existence of another silenced war, waged this time against women. But here there was no slogan painting. No visible clear-cut answer to this campaign. No breaking of the symbols of oppression. I remember pontificating in prison about language and injustice to women who were themselves bereft of language, that is, of a language expressive of the female condition. (282)
Later Elfyn found that ‘[s]earching for wholeness in a world that marginalises and divides one into Welsh, woman, poet, requires a great deal of questioning and contemplation’ (284). Elfyn sees Welsh-speakers and women as ‘second class citizens’ (284). Interestingly though, Elfyn is a poet who is interested in world events taking place beyond Wales and she states that while writing poems about ‘linguistic disposession’, she found food for the poems ‘while seeing the Kurds being driven out of their land’ (284).
Our Sister’s Land: The Changing Identities of Women in Wales. Ed. Jane Aaron, Teresa Rees, Sandra Betts and Moira Vincentelli. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994. (280– 286).
To begin, Mary Lloyd Jones considers Margaret Atwood’s work on colonialisation and the problem of survival. In Lloyd Jones’ view, the difficulties facing Canadian writers and artists might be similar to those facing their Welsh counterparts. Lloyd Jones explains that ‘centuries of colonization and exploitation have left the Welsh with a damaged psyche’ and she suggests: ‘All the difficulties faced by disadvantaged groups are compounded for those members of those groups who happen to be female’ (275-276). Lloyd Jones suggests that an artist needs to feel empowered not undermined and she turns again to the example of Atwood. The path of Canadian women authors recommends ‘the experience of their place and time in their art’ while recognising the need ‘to reject the idea that significant work can only be that of dead foreigners (male, white and middle class of course)’ (276).
To adopt a Welsh identity though still has its problems. Lloyd Jones notes how the notion of ‘the archaic peasant still clings to the Welsh artist’ (276). Other negative aspects associated with Welsh culture are listed by Lloyd Jones such as ‘bigotry and ignorance’, the religious tradition’s ‘legacy of passivity’ and ‘a tendency to allow newcomers to take over the decision-making process’ (276). Lloyd Jones states that she ‘cannot imagine this happening in Scotland’ (276).
In thsi account, teh narrative of Wales is ‘a tragic story’, in which: ‘The people of a country provided with enormous natural resources and mineral wealth have not benefitedfrom these but have been the victims of continuing exploitation and many to this day suffer from inadequate housing and poor health’ (277). Lloyd Jones also suggests that the English use the Welsh as a scapegoat, for example the Welsh Labour MP Neil Kinnock. Lloyd Jones concludes that a woman writer can ‘stay in the culture and be crippled as an artist – or escape into nothing’ (277).
Yet all is not quite so gloomy. Wales after all offers a family and as Lloyd Jones explains: ‘Membership of a large family can have a claustrophobic and inhibiting effect, but the confirmation of identity that it gives is priceless’ (277). A relationship with Wales might offer roots, a link to the natural world and the land and the sweet pain of hiraeth, that longing for home that can never be fulfilled.
Our Sister’s Land: The Changing Identities of Women in Wales. Ed. Jane Aaron, Teresa Rees, Sandra Betts and Moira Vincentelli. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1994. (273 – 279).