All entries for Monday 01 May 2006

May 01, 2006

Dogs of Love and War: Which Women?

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Artemis and Actaeon
In 'Quiver', Deryn Rees–Jones subverts Ovid’s story of Artemis and Actaeon in which Acateon is punished for looking at the goddess bathing. The scene of the chase and the hunting of Actaeon after he has been turned into a stag is one of suspense and tension in Metamorphoses. Ovid builds up tension by describing the dogs, their personalities and histories in intricate detail: ‘Pterelas, the swift runner, was there, and keen scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog’. (79)

Rees–Jones subverts the description of the hounds by transforming them from a lineage of proud beasts to a lineage of feminist women. Here is the lineage of gynocracy figured as hounds or furies demanding justice for the endangered goddess:

From 'Quiver'

[…] the stag ripped apart by the hounds….
Those hounds! Imagined now as what?
An ever–changing line of mothers, daughters, long–lived women?
Antigone and Clytemnestra, Penelope and Joan.
The names might go on, being all things and nothing,
finding within themselves routes to becoming:
lovers of women, lovers of men. Names
trip off the tongue: Millicent, Sylvia,
Christabel, Emily, Angel Virginia, No–nonsense Simone,
Glorious Gloria, Unblushing Germaine;
Fierce Luce, Brave Julia, la belle Hélène.
They burn like a catechism, are worthy of praise.
Here’s hound Catherine, now, with her crown of thorns,
Little Saint Bride with her cow print jacket,
Agnes the Borzoi, the Windhound Poor Clare.
Here’s Sappho, Felicia, Aphra, Christina,
so many Elizabeths they can’t all be named. (33.109, 114 – 130)

Which women?

The question is who are the women? Here is what I have worked out. If you can add anything, please do.

From Ancient Greek mythology and literature.

Women Poets
Sylvia (Plath),
Felicia (Hemans),
Christina (Rossetti).

Women Novelists
Aphra (Benn),
Virginia (Woolf, who wrote of ‘the Angel in the House’)
Simone (de Beauvoir).

Historical Women
Joan (of Arc),
Millicent (Fawcett who founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage in 1897)
Sylvia, Christabel and Emeline (Pankhurst)

Anne Catherine Emmerick (a stigmatist at the turn of the eighteenth century who was offered a crown of thorns in a dream),
Saint Birgitta (known as Saint Bride),
Jeanne de Jussie (who wrote The Short Chronicle: A Poor Clare's Account of the Reformation of Geneva in the fifteenth century).

Germaine (Greer),
Luce (Irigaray),
Julia (Kristeva)
Hélène (Cixous).

But I'm still not sure about Agnes…? A Borzoi is a kind of Russian hound, I think. Is there a Russian Agnes?

I think that the list teeters on the Elizabeths who cannot be named. The Elizabeths mentioned could be any number of acclaimed women (any ideas?), but I think that one exists at the heart of the list, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I will be writing something on thsi shortly – the influence of the Victorian poetess etc.

Thinking About Kristeva: Strangers to Ourselves

At the beginning of Strangers to Ourselves, Kristeva gives a definition of the foreigner: ‘the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder.’ (1a) The ‘foreigner’ then is something hidden in ourselves, something with the potential to destroy ‘home’ and something that is beyond ‘understanding’ or relations with each other. One could argue that in relation to the Welsh poets studied in my thesis, the strategy of denying a Welsh selfhood has similar qualities. It interrogates the subject’s identity; it challenges the notion of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’; and it reaches towards the unspeakable, silence and the unsaid.

Kristeva continues: ‘The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to bonds and communities.’ (1a). The sense of ‘strangeness’ or ‘foreignness’ manifests itself in relation to one’s own feelings of difference and it is obliterated when it becomes clear that we are all strangers. I recognise the latter idea as part of my thesis statement. In an earlier draft, I wrote: ‘Although the poets linger on difference, they also assert a shared humanity that extends beyond situation, time and place.’ Yet the term 'humanity' now seems to eb a dsitarction, rather it seems that by lingering on difference, these poets reveal that we are all strangers – an act that denies the feelings of inadequacy concerning difference. Instead there is a kind of solidarity as we recognise one another as ‘strangers’ inhabited by unfathomable difference.

The “foreigner” is also connected with simulation and dissimulation: ‘Without a home [the foreigner] disseminates on the contrary the actor’s paradox: multiplying masks and “false selves” he is never completely true nor completely false’. (Kristeva, 8a) This is an interesting aspect of Kristeva’s theorising which again relates to my research. The Welsh women poets studied are extremely playful with poetic personae. To what extent is Pascale Petit’s voice present when she writes as and about Frida Kahlo? Is biography also autobiography? Is Deryn Rees–Jones one and the same as Fay Thomas, her poet–heroine in Quiver? How do Gwyneth Lewis’ writings about language and depression marry with the protagonist of Keeping Mum who loses language and descends into madness?

Kristeva suggests that there are two types of foreigners: Ironists and Believers. While the Ironists are ‘followers of neutrality, the advocates of emptiness’, Believers are ‘those who transcend […] bent with a passion […] for another land, always a promised one, that of an occupation, a love, a child, a glory’. (10a) The Believer is keen but the Ironist is a cynic who expects nothing. So how do the poets discussed relate to these categories? Aspects of the Believer may be useful: the passion for another land, subsuming the self into an other culture; and yet I am not sure that the Believer’s transcending is the right frame for Gwyneth Lewis murdering the Welsh language and descending in English into madness, for Pascale Petit’s use of South American tropes as a means to explore the detrimental effects of power, or for Deryn Rees–Jones’ polymorphous metropolis haunted by ghosts of lost identities. On the other hand, the Ironist is not subsumed, but always retains a certain distance. At ‘a crossroad of two othernesses’, the ironist ‘welcomes the foreigner without tying him down, opening the host to his visitor without committing him’. (11a) I have come to realise that in opening their poetics to difference, to otherness, these poets do not lose them(selves). As Robert Crawford states in Identifying Poets: ‘It is the outward–looking, expansive gaze which makes possible the interaction with a ‘significant other’, a foreign culture in which gifts for the future of one’s own culture may be located, and in which an illuminating reflection of one’s own identity (or desired identity) may be glimpsed’. (12) This needs more thought, but I think that an answer is emerging slowly.

Interestingly, Kristeva has much to write about in relation to language and the ‘foreigner’. She explains the difficulties of being between two languages and she suggests that consequently, the foreigner’s realm is ‘silence’. (15a) On a practical level, silence can be difficult. Kristeva’s view of the ‘foreigner’ describes the process of the new language subsuming the foreigner’s old one and she suggests that it ‘empties the mind and fills the brain with despondency’. (16a) This will be particularly relevant in discussing Gwyneth Lewis and the loss of the Welsh language, but this view of silence is slightly different to my general interpretation in my thesis. This silence has been forced on the ‘foreigner’, where as the silence that I am dealing with has been chosen.

However, Kristeva’s view is not so negative when she describes silence as ‘the private property of your proud and mortified discretion’ and as ‘imperious fullness: cold diamond, secret treasury, carefully projected, out of reach’ (16a). Silence, here, can be powerful; it represents control and possession of thought as well as a certain kind of richness. This kind of silence has the beauty and rarity of the diamond. It has secret wealth. The way in which it is viewed or interpreted can be controlled. It is beyond language teasing the reader with its absence being ‘out of reach’.

Kristeva writes how ‘Living with the other, with the foreigner, confronts us with the possibility or not of being an other […] being in his place, and this means to imagine and make oneself for oneself’. (13a) Rees–Jones and the others admit that embracing the foreigner or the stranger can be simultaneously painful and generative as does Kristeva: ‘Being alienated from myself, as painful as that may be, provides me with that exquisite distance within which perverse pleasure begins, as well as the possibility of my imagining and thinking’. (13–14a) It is clear that through the process of alienating the self and discovering the stranger in oneself, these Welsh women poets are writing politically about difference even if this does not display itself clearly in relation to nationhood or gender. Thus they seem manifest a kind of Kristevan feminism in which ‘every difference is significant’. (Kristeva, 337b) As Kristeva states, ‘The foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners’. (172a).


Robert Crawford. Identifying Poets: Self and Territory in Twentieth–Century Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.

Julia Kristeva. a. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: University of Columbia Press, 1991.
b. ‘Julia Kristeva in Conversation with Rosalind Coward’. The Portable Kristeva. Ed. Kelly Oliver. New York: University of Columbia Press, 1997.


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