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November 02, 2006

A Frida Kahlo Glossary

‘ “All Art is at Once Surface and Symbol” ‘: A Frida Kahlo Glossary’ by Tanya Barson

Dexter Emma and Tanya Barson eds. Frida Kahlo. London: Tate Publishing, 2005. 54-79

Androgyny
• ‘a sign of Kahlo’s early desire to confront and subvert the strict gender roles assigned within Mexican society and to be involved in the active, public and professional spheres traditionally dominated by men’;
• ‘symbolic of rebellious sexuality’;
• ‘an expression of a defining experience [seduction by her teacher when she was thirteen]’;
• ‘a way perhaps of aligning herself with images of physically robust Tehuana women’;
• ‘a gesture of retaliation for Diego’s affairs’ (56).

Frida Kahlo - My Birth

Birth
• ‘related […] to her experiences of miscarriage and abortion’;
• ‘ideas of fertility and the cycle of life and death’;
• ‘an examination of origins’;
• ‘self birth or creation’ (56);
• ‘her often difficult relationship with a distant and devoutly Catholic mother’;
• ‘ambivalent view of motherhood’;
• ‘fundamental taboos governing the female body’;
• Tlazolteotl: ‘an Aztec goddess of fertility associated with concepts of filth and purification’;
• the butterfly: ‘a symbol of the eternal soul in both Christian and Aztec belief’ (57).

Blood
• ‘metaphysical suffering’;
• Christ’s Passion;
• ‘[t]he sacred or bleeding heart’;
• Catholicism: ‘blood is a symbol of life and redemption through Christ’s sacrifice and red is therefore the symbolic colour of martyrdom’;
• Aztec belief: ‘blood was man’s most precious possession, a source of vital energy and nourishment for the gods and regeneration of the cosmos’;
• Aztec sacrifice;
• uterine blood: ‘ambivalent attitudes towards womanhood, fertility and childbirth’;
• ‘ambivalence of abjection’;
• ‘magenta symbolises blood’;
• ‘red ribbons stand in for umbilical cords or family blood ties’;
• blood heritage.

Chingada
• to be chingada: ‘wounded, broken, torn open or deceived’;
• chingado/a: a recipient of abuse;
• chingon: perpetrator of abuse;
• chingada: associated with motherhood, La Llorona, ‘the violated mother’ (60).

Cosmology
• Eastern mysticism, Hinduism and Buddhism;
• the third eye.

Difuntitos
• a day in the Day of the Dead festival is dedicated to difunitos or deceased children;
• post-mortem portraiture;
• ‘portraits of “dead angels” ’ (63).

Dualism
• Kahlo and Rivera, male and female;
• life and death, divine and mortal;
• light and dark, sun and moon (Teotihuacan culture), night and day;
• interior and exterior, body and mind;
• Yin and Yang.
• conch and shell = male and female sexual organs;
• doppelgänger or mirror image;
• Aztec animal counterparts or alter-egos (64).

Hummingbird (Huitzilopochtli)
• ‘Kahlo identified herself with the hummingbird’;
• ‘a symbol to suggest her successive experiences of loss through love’;
• the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, “hummingbird on the left”, ‘guided the Aztecs on their epic journey to the site of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City)’ [?] (67).

In Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, she wears a dead hummingbird around her neck, thus reversing its traditional meaning to bad luck, injury and death. The painting was made following her remarriage to Rivera but was given to her former lover Nickolas Murray. The frontal composition of the painting bears a strong relationship to the photographs that Murray had taken of Kahlo, but also gives it a hieratic grandeur and beauty. In 1946 she made a drawing in which her eyebrows transform into a hummingbird. (67)

Masks
• Kahlo was called ‘La Gran Oscultadura (the great concealer)’ by friends;
• ‘Through her work there is a constant oscillation between masking and unmasking, self-concealment and self-exposure’;
• ‘there remain levels of disguise and camouflage in the obscure symbolism’;
• ‘Masks feature as intimations of death’ (70).

In one self-portrait painting, The Mask 1945, she wears a weeping Malinche mask, identifying herself with the anti-heroine and Mexican ‘Eve’. The emotion of the fake face perhaps conceals Kahlo’s habitually inscrutable expression, thus by adopting a mask, she paradoxically reveals more feeling than she does unmasked. (70).

Monkey
• ‘substitutes for the children Kahlo was unable to have’;
• ‘Since the Middle Ages they have symbolised the devil, heresy and paganism, later coming to represent the fall of man, vice and the embodiment of lust’ (used by Brueghel in this way who Kahlo admired);
• ‘the agent of licentious temptation’;
• ‘a symbol cautioning against excessive love, referring most often to parental love’;
• ‘flattery or blind love’;
• ‘In Mesoamerican culture monkeys represented sexual intercourse but in this context it was viewed as natural rather than sinful’;
• ‘the artist and imitative arts of painting and sculpture’ (71).


‘The Universal Dialectics of Frida Kahlo’ by Emma Dexter

Dexter Emma and Tanya Barson eds. Frida Kahlo. London: Tate Publishing, 2005. 11-29. (Notes on relevant sections).

Dexter presents a quotation from Kahlo:

I’ve done my paintings well … and they have a message of pain in them, but I think they’ll interest a few people. They’re not revolutionary, so why do I keep on believing they’re combative? (11)

Frida Kahlo
Dexter then reminds us of the dictum of 60s and 70s feminism: the personal is political. For feminists in that moment, this dictum was ‘a means of exposing the structure of oppressive patriarchy hidden beneath everyday life’ (11). Dexter thinks that Kahlo used this strategy too, but she notes that feminism ‘has tended to focus of [the work’s] autobiographical and confessional aspects at the expense of the political’ (11). Dexter quotes Baddeley and Fraser who suggest that Kahlo challenges neo-colonialism and she refers to Schaefer who sees Kahlo’s private allegories as metaphors for the struggle of a wider culture.

Dexter claims that, ‘all of Kahlo’s works are political’: her still lives, paintings that offer cultural commentary and images of the broken body (11). Dexter sees dualisms in Kahlo’s paintings and she lists different approaches one could take in analysing Kahlo’s paintings:
• ‘personal and family history’;
• ‘political and national allegiances’;
• her status as a Mexican woman;
• and her use of Aztec culture and its opposites: ‘life and death, male and female, light and dark, ancient and modern’ (12).

Dexter describes Aztec philosophy as ‘steeped in dualism’ with gods that represented more than one, often contradictory qualities. Dexter associates Kahlo with Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess representing death and life. I am a little worried about Dexter’s use of the word ‘dualism’ here. A dualism is ‘the division of something conceptually into two opposed or contrasted aspects, such as good and evil or mind and matter’, but I think that Kahlo’s work is more complex than is suggested by the word ‘dualism’. What Kahlo does is to bring two, seemingly divided elements into relation with each other. (12)

However Dexter goes on to say that harmony between two opposed elements is part of Eastern religion, which Kahlo had an interest in later in life. In order to reach such harmony, there must be dialectics and Dexter quotes Kahlo’s husband Rivera, who described a ‘universal dialectics’ that existed in Kahlo’s paintings. Dexter points to early photographs of Kahlo in a man’s suit and she believes that Kahlo is, ‘precociously acting out a combination of both genders’ (12). She also refers to Kahlo’s jewellery, Tehuana costume and her shawl in the style of women freedom fighters. Dexter believes that this kind of dress is political.


‘Reflecting on Kahlo: Mirrors, Masquerade and the Politics of Identification’ by Oriana Baddeley

Dexter Emma and Tanya Barson eds. Frida Kahlo. London: Tate Publishing, 2005. 47 – 53.

Underlying our responses to Frida’s art is a recognition of the projected Frida who stares out of the canvas. Here is a woman whom we think we know; her emotional ups and downs; her tastes for the unusual and symbolic; her complex love life, all remind us of elements of our own emotional lives. Her world is both known yet unknowable, like photographs of an aged parent with whom we can feel intimate yet separate. (50)

Kahlo, Frida - Fulang Chang and I at MOMA

Baddeley discusses Fulang Chang and I (1937) which was hung in the 1990s in MOMA alongside a mirror, so: ‘The spectators of the work were not only confronted by the face of the artist but also by their own, a curatorial decision that emphasised the later theoretical work above that of its initial content’ (50). Baddeley notes that Kahlo’s resurgence is related to cultural shifts in the United States, but also to the sense of the tragic that is associated with her life. For some artists Kahlo has become a symbol of ‘North American fascination with icons of minority culture’ (50).

Baddeley notices the synthesis in Kahlo’s work of indigenous cultures and Western fashions, of the body and the landscape in paintings like The Two Fridas (1939) and Tree of Hope Keep Firm (1946).

There is no more one true Frida than there is one true Mexico. The denial of absolute identity is the key to an understanding of Kahlo, her love of dressing up a rejection of the idea of the fixed or unchangeable. Knowledge and recognition of history can transform the present and in a sense, become the ultimate makeover. (52)


October 26, 2006

Private and Public Wars

Writing about web page http://www.newwelshreview.com/backissue_details.asp?issueID=19&issueNumber=72

Pascale Petit, ‘Private and Public Wars’, The New Welsh Review, 72, 8-14.

In her essay, ‘Private and Public Wars’, Pascale Petit considers the difficulty in writing about subjects such as 9/11 and she notes:

If the subject is handled with imagination and flair the critics welcome it. It is permissible to publish verse containing distressing graphic images: a headless rider (Ciaran Carson); a face exploded flat into a wall (David Harsent); a bunker-ceiling hung with charred children’s hands (Robert Minhinnick); a bagful of ears emptied on the floor. (Carol Forche). (8)

New Welsh Review

Petit then thinks about the charge of self indulgence and its implication, ‘that the poet’s subject is not universal’ (8). However, Petit suggests that ‘private wars [...] are waged more than we like to admit in our first world country’ (8).

Petit considers the charge that confessional poetry ignores ‘artistry’ in favour of ‘sensational subject matter’ (10). Yet Petit identifies another purpose for poetry, ‘to communicate what it means to be human’ and she argues that, ‘most of us suffer major trauma at some point in our lives’ (10). She recalls Wilfred Owen’s famous dictum about poetry and pity.

Petit wants to discover why there is a ‘difference in status between the poetry of private and public wars’ (10). She wonders if T.S. Eliot’s call for the extinction of personality is partly a reason or whether it simply the difficulty of the task in writing about trauma that discourages poets. She also considers the view of some critics that, ‘the subject matter overpowers the craft and fails to transcend the raw pain’ (10). She also notes defensiveness about the privacy of home and the need for, ‘masks of respectability and distance’ (10). However, Petit turns to an argument first put forward by A. Alvarez that, ‘when confessional poets remove the mask they speak as society’s representative victims because their personal crises reflect a larger social and cultural breakdown’ (10).

Petit notes that, ‘in most of Africa and Latin America’, trauma is sometimes an everyday thing and Petit believes that as long as suffering exists, the poet has a responsibility to write about it (10).

Here are the poets that Petit considers to be confessional:
• Robert Lowell,
• John Berryman,
• W.D. Snodgrass,
• Plath and Sexton,
• Theodore Roethke,
• Sharon Olds,
• CK Williams,
• Charles Wright,
• and Maria Howe.
However, Petit notes that many poets dislike the category and British writers would rarely describe their poetry as confessional. There are British poets though who have confessional elements to their work and Petit suggests the following:
• individual collections by Selima Hill;
• Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters ;
• Craig Raine’s A la Recherche de Temps Perdu ;
• and Hugo Williams’ Billy’s Rain .
Different poets have reacted differently to the label. Some poets accepted it like Maraia Howe and Robert Lowell, while others resisted it such as Charles Wright who prefers the term, ‘impersonal autobiography’. Petit touches on Plath noting how that poet made ‘the personal into her own symbolic language, a new mythos’ and she regrets the fact that, ‘one of the disadvantages of confessional poetry is that its sensational content can attract too much attention so that the quality of the writing is neglected’ (11).

In contrast to critical disapproval, Petit believes that the reading public like confessional poetry because it offers, ‘full-blooded poems about feelings’ (11).

Being over-concerned with aesthetics at the cost of content could be viewed as self-indulgent – the poet writing to another poet about poems, the lifeblood squeezed out. On the other hand the aesthetic qualities of confessional poems shouldn’t be overlooked.

In order to show this, Petit briefly analyses a poem by Sharon Olds, entitled ‘The Girl’ and she points out the importance of, ‘language and rhythm coupled with […] dynamic lineation’ (11). The problem for pets like Olds is, ‘transgressing socially imposed silences’ and Petit quotes Olds who says: ‘Is there anything that shouldn’t or can’t be written about in a poem?’ (11) Petit analyses a few more Olds poems and notes that while Olds explores the violence in the personal situation of the family, her themes can extend to the world.

Petit notes that she is labeled a confessional poet. She states that, ‘what I appear to have written are poems about abusive parents, and an attempt to transform the harrowing material by interfusing it with Amazonian and Aztec imagery’ (13). However, Petit suggests another purpose to the poems suggesting that at the heart of her poetry is, my belief in the essential goodness of people, and a need to imaginatively recast close family relationships which challenge that belief’ (13). For example, Petit places her abusive father in the context of Amazonian tribes, ‘the cannibalistic Yanomami and the headshrinking Jivaro/Shuar’, which ‘raised ethical questions much debated by anthropologists’ (13).

Again, none of their practices were gratuitous, but possibly neurotic responses to cultural and survival demands. By placing my father in this primitive setting, I could better understand his behaviour.

Petit now relates an anecdote about how at a conference in Lithuania, a delegate stated that a poem in which Petit gradually reduces her father’s power and renders him weak and helpless, might be helpful to Lithuanians who suffered at the hands of the KGB. Although Petit writes about a specific personal experience, it extends to people in other walks of life and with different experiences.


October 19, 2006

After the Gender Seminar on Rape

The seminar yesterday was extremely interesting and I think that it worked well as there were women from Law, Sociology, Literature etc. Rape and sexual violence are such important issues, so it was good to be discussing such things.

The number of convictions in rape cases is pathetic. See these news stories at the BBC and The Guardian :
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/5278722.stm
http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1795257,00.html

The BBC news story tells us that only 6% of reported rapes in Britain result in convictions. Joanna Bourke’s story in The Guardian notes the following:

In Britain today there is considerable scepticism expressed towards women who accuse men of rape. In fact, false accusations are less common in rape than in other criminal cases. But any woman with a slightly adventurous history, or hailing from a powerless group, is normally right to think that making a complaint is not worthwhile.

This is obviously terrible, but even worse is the fact that feminists in the UK and US are complicit with the idea that rape is the victim’s own fault. The point of the Mardorossian essay that we read is that feminists trying to theorize rape concentrate too much on the victim and not on the perpetrator. E.g. the feminist idea that there is a “gender script” that occurs when one encounters a rapist and that if one were to subvert that gender script in a combative way, one might not be raped. This obviously extremely dubious as Mardorossian points out.

At the end of her essay Mardorossian points to language as a way in which feminists can work against sexual violence – reevaluating words like ‘victim’ and reinvesting them with meaning. I think that this is already being done by women writers like Pascale Petit whose poems can be found at the links below:

http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/pascalepetitpoems.html#p1
http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/pascalepetitpoems.html#p4


After the Gender Seminar on Rape

The seminar yesterday was extremely interesting and I think that it worked well as there were women from Law, Sociology, Literature etc. Rape and sexual violence are such important issues, so it was good to be discussing such things.

The number of convictions of rapists in Britain is pathetic. See these news stories at the BBC and Guardian:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/5278722.stm
http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1795257,00.html

The BBC news story tells us that only 6% of reported rapes in Britain result in convictions. Joanna Bourke’s story in The Guardian notes the following:

In Britain today there is considerable scepticism expressed towards women who accuse men of rape. In fact, false accusations are less common in rape than in other criminal cases. But any woman with a slightly adventurous history, or hailing from a powerless group, is normally right to think that making a complaint is not worthwhile.

This is obviously terrible, but even worse is the fact that feminists in the UK and US are complicit with ideas about rape being the woman’s own fault. The point of the Mardorossian essay that we read is that feminists trying to theorize rape concentrate too much on the victim and not on the perpetrator. E.g. the feminist idea that there is a “gender script” that occurs when one encounters a rapist and that if one were to subvert that gender script in a combative way, one might not be raped. This obviously extremely dubious as Mardorossian points out.

At the end of her essay Mardorossian point to language as away in which feminists can work against sexual violence – reevaluating words like ‘victim’ and reinvesting them with meaning. I think that this is already being done by women writers like Pascale Petit whose poems can be found at the links below:

http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/pascalepetitpoems.html#p1
http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/pascalepetitpoems.html#p4


May 15, 2006

Parallels Between Frida Kahlo and Pascale Petit: the Problem of Confession

Writing about web page http://www.fridakahlo.it/

Frida Kahlo

Next Monday (22nd May) I am going to be part of a panel at the Arts Faculty seminar talking about women and life-writing. I will be talking specifically on the Welsh-French poet, Pascale Petit, and her poems on the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, in The Wounded Deer: Fourteen Poems After Frida Kahlo . I am going to talk about the problem of confession and how Petit turns to writing ‘biographical’ poems about another woman.

I think that Deryn Rees-Jones’ comment in Consorting with Angels may have some relevance here:

The woman who confesses is frequently read as testifying only to her anguish and her own “weakness”; she is simply revealing the awfulness of femininity which was known to be there all along, and which, in the most simplistic terms has led to her oppression in the first place. And it is here that we see the exact nature of the problem: for if the woman poet does remain silent, if the awfulness of her confessional truth is such that it will only oppress her further, she is left where she started and cannot speak at all. Alternatively, she can speak a version of self which also confirms a certain kind of femininity – that of beauty passivity, orderliness and self-control – but which nevertheless fails to “tell it like it is”. (Deryn Rees-Jones, 25)

Petit suffers this problem and interestingly so does Kahlo. Some have and do say that to craete a mythical version of oneself in one’s writing will inevitably lead to an audience seeing that version as one and the same as the ‘authentic’ self and that artists that follow this route should be prepared to face the consequences.

At the recent Frida Kahlo exhibition (Tate Modern 9th June – 9th October 2005), the curator’s commetary began with the question ‘Who was Frida Kahlo?’, a question that revealed more about the cult of personality that has grown up around Kahlo than her art. (1) This biographical slant remained an integral part of the commentary:

  • ‘Certainly the biographical details of her remarkable life inflect many aspects of her work’. (1)
  • Commenting on The Bus : ‘The modern young woman at the end of the bench could be taken for Frida herself.’ (5)
  • Commenting on Khalo’s watercolours: ‘An unassuming sketch in thsi room records the accident that was to change Kahlo’s life so dramatically.’ (7)
  • Commenting on Kahlo’s ex-voto paintings: ‘rather than being tokens of gratitude, Kahlo’s ‘ex-votos’ are unflinching images of traumatic events drawn from her own experience, in which life and death coalesce.’ (7)
  • Commenting on Henry Ford Hospital : ‘The link to sterility probably relates to Kahlo’s sense of her own infertility.’ (10)
  • Commenting on Two Nudes in a Forest : ’’The painting also touches on Kahlo’s bisexuality – the pair are watched by a spider monkey, a symbol of lust – and could equally be interpreted as Kahlo herself and a woman she loved.’ (20)
  • Commenting on Kahlo’s death: ‘Doctors reported a pulmonary embolism, relating to a bout of pnuemonia, though it has also been suggested that she committed suicide.’ (29-30)
  • Commenting on Surrealism: ‘This dream-like imagery may owe something to Surrealism, of which, despite her statements to the contrary, Kahlo was very likely aware.’ (15)

I list the curator’s comments here to show how much room is made for speculation and how often confessional, self-driven art gives the viewer (or reader) such a sense of knowing the artist that statements like the lats one on Surrealism appear. The interpreter knows more about the intentions behind the art than the artist.


May 08, 2006

Notes on the Warao and their Music

Warao Violin

From_ Olsen, Dale A. Music of the Warao of Venezuela : Song People of the Rain Forest . Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

One poem that I am interested in analysing of Pacale Petit's in 'Self–Portrait as a Warao Violin'. Perhaps these notes will shed light on this poem.

Ideas About the Warao Violin

Dakotu – a dance song, sometimes played on the violin. (35)
Sekeseke – a kind of violin that uses a viola de gamba bow (convex curve), played somewhat like a lute.

For Amerindians it is 'the song–text that is believed to carry the weight of evoking the spirits’. (17)

‘Stringed instruments or chordophones have been documented for the Warao since the nineteenth century. […] [Descriptions presented by Hillhouse, Bernau, Roth of stringed instruments.] […]Regardless of the particular provenance of this ancient Warao chordophone, the concept of a string instrument has been so embedded in Warao culture that today they consider their European derived violin, called sekeseke, to be one of their traditional instruments. This phenomenon also prevails among the Mexican Huichol, who claim that their violin is as ancient as their culture […]. As explained by the huichol and as I interpret its presence among the Warao, a musical bow was the forerunner of the violin in both cultures. With the arrival of the Spanish the violin replaced the musical bow as a sound maker, while the musical bow’s ancient function as a shaman’s instrument remained among the Huichol and disappeared among the Warao.’ (104)

Olsen quotes Wilbert in discussing the uses of the musical bow, who writes that ‘the Warao hunter uses his bow and arrow as a lure to attract his prey. […] With the animal in shooting range, the hunter quickly converts the musical bow into a deadly weapon and lets fly.’ (qtd in Olsen, 105)

The Origins of the Warao Violin

Olsen goes on to tell a folk tale that explains how the first violin came to the Warao tribe. (106 –110 )The story tells that a creature – half–man, half–monkey – named Nakurao brought the violin from a foreign country. Nakurao learned how to make the sekseke in a dream; he found a cedar growing nearby, carved the sekseke’s shape and made notches for the strings to fit. When he woke, he knew that he had to make his dream sekeseke and he decided to make a boat, so that he would astonish the people of the country where he was living.

So Nakurao began to carry out the actions of his dreams. He found the cedar and though the ‘real’ wood was not as good as that in his dreams, he began to carve a violin shape using his machete. He put holes where holes should be and he attached a bridge. Eventually he strung it with four strings and its name came from that four – seke–seke. Then he made a bow and when he drew it across the strings, it made a pleasant sound.

Meanwhile, the jaguar had decided that Nakurao was lazy and useless. He had not heard of Nakurao’s endeavours and decided that he was going to eat the monkey. At dawn, the jaguar sent a message: ‘My friend, monkey, I am going to eat you today.’

Nakurao asked, ‘Who would attack me today?’ The answer came: ‘The jaguar.’

Nakurao replied: ‘Well, at least I have made my sekeseke. If he comes to eat me, no matter. I can still make beautiful music for me. He can eat me later.’

The jaguar decided at last that the time had come. ‘Now I will go and eat that monkey’, he said. So the jaguar arrived, but the monkey had his music prepared. ‘This is the last day of your life, friend monkey’, the jaguar said. ‘It’s true’, replied Nakurao, ‘but just give me a little time. Before you eat me I am going to play you some music. Then you can eat me.’ So Nakurao began to play and all agreed that it was the best music that they had ever heard. Many animals began to dance: all kinds of birds, the jaguar, the deer and the howler monkey. They danced until they could not take another step.

‘Oh stop’, cried the jaguar. ‘We’re tired, but such beautiful music. My friend monkey, I thought that you were lazy and useless. I did not realise that you were a musician.’

‘It’s true my friend’, replied Nakurao. ‘I have been a musician since childhood. I made the sekeseke, the bow, the music, the song. So you must not eat me.’

‘Certainly not’, replied the jaguar ‘as you are a musician.’

Olsen analyses the story and states that ‘Music (in this case instrumental music) has the power to pacify the animals and alter Brutish behaviour.’ (418)

Further Reading

Bernau, Rev. JH. Missionary Labours in British Guiana . London: J Farquhar Shaw, 1847.

Hillhouse, William. ‘Memoir of the Warrow Land of British Guiana.’ Journal of the Royal Geographic Society of London . 1934. 4.321–333.

Roth, Walter E. ‘An Enquiry into the Animism and Follore of the Guiana Indians.’ Thirteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute . Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1915. 103 386.

Wilbert, Johannes. ‘The House of the Swallow Tailed Kite’. Animal Myths and Metaphors . Ed. Gary Urton. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985. 145–182.


Notes on Yanomami (Yanoama) Amerindians

A few notes here on the Yanomami Amerindians as I am in the process of thinking about a poem by Pascale Petit entitled 'Self–Portrait as a Yanomami Daughter'.

Notes on the Yanomami

From Nugent, Stephen. ‘The Yamomami: anthropological discourse and ethics’. The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas . Ed. Pat Caplan London: Routledge, 2003. 77-95. [This is a kind of review of Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon .]

‘[T]he distressed prospects of indigenous peoples around the world are rarely newsworthy and the likelihood that the current coverage will enhance the life chances of the Yanomami are not great.’ (79)

‘Of all the Amazonian societies still extant, the Yanomami are exceptional: they are numerous by Amazonian standards (around 20,000) despite the fact that they occupy a remote locale which is non–riverine (i.e. away from the main course of the Amazon River).’ (79)

‘The bald charge […] is that […] Neel intentionally inoculated Yanomami with a measles vaccine (Edmonsten B) which would strip out from the Yanomami population non–Alpha males.’ (80) [Nugent explains that Neel and Chagnon, the anthropologists criticised in Tierney's book, had a neo–Darwinian theory about the survival of the fittest and the Yanomami men.]

Reason for the book’s popularity: ‘the Amazonian backdrop is that of Conan Doyle’s Lost World, resolutely pre–modern and cliché–ridden, the nineteenth century naturalists’ playground in which limiting case primitive society is contained by green hell doctrinal nastiness.’ (81)

‘A particular Amazonia is presented: ‘frontier Amazonia of stone–age Amerindians, virulent disease, poor transport, isolation, adventurers and heroic explorers, hallucinogens and visions, larger than life characters, depraved anthropologists, tropical licentiousness. All in all, a standard Hollywood account.’ (81)

Further Reading
Chagnon, Napoleon. — The Fierce People . (1968)
Studying the Yanomami People [HC 9000.C4]
Marcus Colchester, ed. The health and survival of the Venezuelan Yanoama . (1985) [JD 145.V3]
Smole, Joseph William. The Yanoama Indians: A Cultural Geography . (1976) [HC 9074.S6]
Tierney, Patrick. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon . (2000)


May 07, 2006

Pascale Petit and Exile?

The Heart of A Deer by Pascale PetitThis week I am giving a paper at the postgraduate symposium. The topic will be exile and I am thinking specifically about the poet, Pascale Petit. Like many modern writers, Petit has a dual nationality – Welsh and French – and she is one of many Welsh women poets who have turned away from traditional tropes and approaches in Welsh literature. Petit is probably the most radical in that she does not follow the maxim, 'Write about what you know'.

Rather Petit turns to other models:

I don’t compare myself to [Yeats, Eliot, Larkin or Hughes], though I think one of the reasons I don’t is because they’re men. And they’re the standard of excellence – I mean, male poets are the standard.—Pascale Petit in interview.

Here Petit is responding to a question which asks how she relates to male literary greats: Yeats, Eliot, Larkin, Hughes. Petit rejects these models specifically because they are male. Is this due to anxiety of influence (or authorship as Gilbert and Gubar pose it) or is it more than this? Is Petit suggesting that male and female poetry is essentially different? Petit goes on to qualify her statement. She describes such male poets as 'the standard of excellence'. Such poets belong to canonising literary critics, not to her, or so it seems in this statement.

Petit continues estranging herself even further from a male English (and in the case of Yeats – Irish) tradition:

Apart from the gender thing, there’s also the fact that I’m not British, and haven’t looked to British poetry for models. I’ve looked more to America, Europe, Australia. So, to try and answer you: I don’t have British roots, nor any firm roots. —Pascale Petit in interview.

In addition to her thoughts on gender, Petit also adds further comments that deal with her cultural outlook. As a Welsh/French subject, she doesn't feel herself to be British. I find it interesting that she describes herself in this way as if her identity is not linked in any way to any idea of Britishness. Rather Petit looks to Europe, Australia and particularly America (possibly referring to the continent of Latin America rather than the US). Petit, then, feels estranged from her roots and has an outward looking view regarding models and poetics.

Interestingly, although Petit has estranged herself culturally, she has been described as confessional:

I write what I am compelled to write, and hope that explorations of my childhood ‘private hell’ are of relevance to readers. There are entire countries undergoing private hells much worse than mine, but in a first world country this is sometimes forgotten.—Pascale Petit in interview

Petit is forthright in talking about the disturbing experiences of her childhood, yet she expresses anxiety about the reader's response. In juxtaposition with her previous comment, she makes her difficult experience into a macrocosmic event that includes an entire country. Specifically the kind of country that she is talking about manifests itself in her work in her use of Latin American landscapes, cultures and heroes. The way that she talks about her poetics here suggests that perhaps the strategy of including the exigencies of developing countries has a double purpose. It simultaneously eludes the problems of writing confesssionally and privileges the models and cultures of the devloping world.


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