All entries for Tuesday 08 February 2005
February 08, 2005
Writing about web page http://www.feldmangallery.com/pages/exhsolo/exhwil94.html
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises towards her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Sylvia Plath (1981, 173).
The body is a preoccupation for women artists and writers alike. Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Mirror’, broods on the way in which women struggle with the juxtaposition of their bodily self and the ideal. The mirror cannot understand why truth should disturb its owner, but in fact the woman prefers the soft focus of the candles or the moon. When she is away from the stark light of day, she can pretend that she meets the standards of the feminine ideal. The mirror proves that youth, one of the most desirable commodities a woman can own in such an image-conscious society, has been eroded, and what appears instead is something alien, inert and sub-human. Hannah Wilke plays with these themes, the culmination of her life’s work being a series of self-portraits as she was suffering with cancer, of which she eventually died in 1993. In these photographs, she takes up traditionally feminine poses, but her baldness, her ravaged features subvert the image much like the ‘terrible fish’ of decay and deterioration in Plath’s poem.
This is so subversive because the woman’s face and body have so often been appropriated by artists, philosophers and writers as a token or substitute for some patriarchal notion. Often this token-woman is idealised – she is not the ugly, the deformed or the ageing woman, since as Greer states in ‘The Ideal’, ‘what man feels for the very different from himself is fascination and interest, which fades when the novelty fades and incompatibility makes itself felt’ (in Lovell ed., 1990, 12). For example, Barthes’ essay ‘Garbo’s Face’ has been inetrpreted as flattering to femininity, but in fact, it is more problematic. Barthes’ analysis utilises Garbo’s body severing all connection to her ‘authentic’ femininity:
Garbo’s face represents the fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the stereotype leans toward the fascination of mortal faces, when the clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman. As a language, Garbo’s singularity was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event (1983, 57).
Roland Barthes poses Garbo’s face as a trigger for an existential sense of being; he considers her face as a symbol that is slightly detached from the bodily woman. His praise of Garbo’s face and what he calls its “lyricism of Woman” is an example of what Alice Jardine would call ‘gynesis’. Jardine indicates that as patriarchal dichotomies have started to vacillate, ‘an intensive exploration of those terms not attributable to Man’ has been initiated: ‘the spaces of the en-soi, Other, without history – the feminine’ (1985, 72). This exploration indicated to male philosophers that ‘those spaces have a certain force that might be useful to Man’ (ibid, 73). When Barthes uses Garbo’s face as a symbol for an existential idea, he appropriates the space of the female body for his own philosophical purposes. Barthes reaches for a face beyond mortality and carnality for a face that is a kind of ideal. Therefore it is hardly surprising that Barthes turns to the face of a woman to supply his need, since it is obvious that women have always been objectified as the statuesque and the ideal in patriarchal systems of representation. This appropriation of the female body has happened nowhere more so than in the sphere of art; John Berger’s infamous statement reverberates through the history of art:
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. (1972, 47)
Hannah Wilke re-appropriates photography, painting and sculpture to challenge the woman as subject of the male gaze and the woman as nude. Wilke uses nakedness, but she is never a faceless nude in mode of photographers like Edward Weston. Weston wrote: ‘If a photographer want to make a nude, […] he has only three possible options: the face must be averted, minimized by distance, or excluded’(in Hudson, 1982, 13). The ideal woman is a body rather than a personality. Wilke’s art is challenging and demanding using confrontation, parody and simulation. It is a direct gesture to a history of art that has condoned the objectification of women’s bodies.
However, Wilke was working against a tide of male objectification and disgust. In ‘The Body Politic’, Lisa Tickner addresses a Western tradition of bodily art that is separated into two polarities: the realist and the fantasist. This is the ‘mystery of woman […] an enigma to be approached with fascination or fear’ (in Parker and Pollock eds, 1987, 264). Salvador Dali’s picture, La Sirene, was produced in 1969 around the time that Hannah Wilke and her contemporaries were beginning to challenge the art establishment and it is an example that conveys the mixed messages of an artist who both idealises and fears the female body. La Sirene is a disquieting painting, because there is a mismatch of styles. The main focus is the large siren sketched in pencil – like all nudes her face is not the focus, so she is dehumanised to some extent. The stark representation of the siren’s body with folds, creases and hanging flesh expresses a male fear of the body that does not conform to the phallic ideal. The siren is gross, decadent and voluptuous creating a sense of overindulgence; the image of excess relates to the myth of the siren’s overpowering voice in Homer’s Odyssey. The realism of her body clashes with the vivid colours of the arching rock formation below her languishing body. The boat and the water are painted in the style of ancient Greek illustrations to poetry or narrative and this is oxymoronic with the modern style of drawing in the depiction of the woman’s body. In Homer’s Odyssey, men were of the real world while sirens were fantastical creatures, but here the opposite is true. The siren is realistically drawn while the boat belongs to the sphere of myth and storytelling. The colourless siren is separated from the small boat below by a rainbow of colours on the rock formation. Dali uses the female body to explore his own feelings about the power of the female body and a male fear of an earthly femininity in opposition with the male ideal.
The feminine ideal is the problem that faces all women artists. In her poem ‘Standing Female Nude’, Carol Ann Duffy writes: ‘It does not look like me’(1985, 46). Women want to be in control of the representations of their bodies. This is the message of radical artists like the Guerilla Girls who produce manifestos and political posters highlighting the prejudice of the art establishment. Get Naked (1989) emphasised the practical difficulties for women artists with its caption, ‘Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.’ The Guerilla Girls assert that it is not necessarily a good thing to be idealised.
Barthes praised Garbo’s face for representing a philosophical ideal and criticised the face of Audrey Hepburn for being an event. However, to represent the body as an event is in fact the aim of many contemporary female artists. The female body must be the phenomenological, the distorted and the abject and women artists go to extremes to display these ideas. This is a poststructuralist project that redefines the limits of the body; as Gina Pane suggests, ‘the body’s essential location is in ‘we’ ’ (in Grosenick ed., 2001, 428).
Pane uses “body experiments” to ‘show that the ‘body’ is lent by society, and formed by it: the objective of my experiments is to demystify the image of the ‘body’ as the citadel of our individuality’ (ibid, 428). One example, Escalade Non Aesthesiee (1971), featured Pane climbing up and down a kind of metal ladder bristling with lacerating points in accordance with her project of splitting open the body; the piece was also a metaphor for the escalation of war (‘American escalation in Vietnam’) and was self referential in that it represented the climb of the woman artist with the pain of rejection physically embodied (ibid, 430). Marina Abramović is similarly extreme; Petra Löffler describes her installation, Rhythm O (1974) with some distaste.
She functioned solely as an object among others, offering the audience not only such objects as a mirror, a newspaper or bread but to a pistol and bullets as well. Some viewers rapidly succumbed to their dark urges and abused the power they had over the helpless “object” (in Grosenick ed., 2001, 23).
The personae of Pane and Abramović are not satisfactory. Pane is self destructive and masochistic and this approach is not necessary to undermine the ‘wholeness’ of the body. Her sensationalist persona undermines the meaning of her work and creates a sense of self-indulgence. Abramović is similarly masochistic, but her persona is more passive. These projects do not contribute to the agendas of feminist art.
Hannah Wilke was more progressive in comparison with some of her contemporaries. Although her art is often confrontational, it is not self-destructive or passive, but playful and ironic. Rather than being hell bent on destroying her own body, Wilke’s art enabled her to physically gesture and act out her ideas; she wrote: ‘I didn’t separate my art from my body: it was just another part of it’ (in ed. Grosenick, 2001, 556).
In the So Help Me Hannah Series, Wilke’s diptych, Portrait of her the Artist with her Mother Selma Butter (1978 –81), juxtaposes a nude Hannah Wilke from the waist up, her health and beauty contrasting to her mother’s frail, scarred body. Her mother had just had a mastectomy and so this portrait is not only a display of the mother-daughter bond, but also a portrayal of emotional and physical loss. Wilke subverts traditional representations of the breast; the Madonna’s milk was sacred, even healing, and as the poet, Melissa Ashley, notes, ‘an entire school of Virgo Lactans iconography [has] developed’ (in Swift and Norton eds, 2002, 33). Wilke creates an image of a mother-daughter relationship but subverts it with difference; the breasts become sterile and without the capacity for milk challenging the traditional notion of motherhood. The breast is not the only signifier for maternity. The physical loss of the mother’s breasts is an image of difference and since biologists have suggested that the sole purpose for the development of breasts was to attract and retain males, it seems superficially that the woman who lacks the ‘proper’ breast will lack love and companionship too. As Greer states in her essay ‘Breasts’, ‘a play-thing that ceases to be amusing is bound for the trash can’ (1999, 55). However, Wilke is not willing to allow such assumptions; the mother is not pictured alone but beside her daughter in a kind of mother-child dyad. .
Another section of the So Help Me Hannah series included a video installation that featured Wilke nude except for high heels and a gun, moving excruciatingly slowly across ten TV monitors as she read aloud statements taken from famous philosophers, artists and political figures. Wilke utilises parody effectively as she re-enacts the substitution of women for currency in sites of male power; she is the mouthpiece for philosophy, art and politics, all of which have repressed women in the past. Women are only sanctioned entry to such spheres when they will act as passive matter to represent male power.
The gun is a symbol of male power appropriated by femininity and this symbol reoccurs in Wilke’s early work. In Snatch Shot with Ray Guns(1978), Wilke is featured naked in high heels grasping a gun. The title directs us to the main issues of the piece; ‘snatch shots’ reads like the title of an gun-toting action movie, but since ‘snatch’ is slang for the female genitalia, there are also connotations of pornographic photography. The photographs themselves create paradoxical feelings in the contrast between the vulnerability of the thin, naked female body and the gun. Wilke parodies the photographic style of pornography but the ‘ray gun’ shifts the meaning slightly. To Petra Löffler, ‘the ray gun, in this context, represented a weapon that made her invincible’ and there is certainly a sense that Wilke holds the gun, the phallus, the power (in ed. Grosenick, 2001, 559).
However, Wilke’s intentions were often misunderstood and installations like this one caused controversy. Whitney Chadwick has noted that although men are seldom criticised for their use of body-image, ‘foregrounding bodily experience often left women artists open to charges of narcissism’ (1990, 369). Hannah Wilke is not exempt from this paradoxical mode of thought. Barry and Flitterman severely criticised Wilke; in ‘Textual Strategies: the Politics of Art Making’:
Wilke seems to be teasing us as to her motives. She is both the stripper and the stripped bare. It seems her work ends up by reinforcing what it intends to subvert. It does not take into account the social contradiction (in Parker and Pollock eds, 1987, 315)
Feminism has a problem with nudity as some feminists hold the view that there is no possibility of using the image of a naked woman other than in an absolutely sexist and politically repressive patriarchal way. This argument has parallels with that of feminists for censorship of pornography, a standpoint that would repress the pornographic sexual fantasies of women. In response to this, I would highlight the views of feminists against censorship like Sontag and Carter; for these feminists, censorship cuts short the female subject’s exploration of her own sexuality. Sontag asserts, ‘the pornographic imagination is not just to be understood as a form of psychic absolutism’ and suggests that from all the evocations of a pornographic imagination, we may be able to regard some ‘with sympathy or intellectual curiosity or aesthetic sophistication’(1963, 232). In a similar way, Wilke’s work may be regarded as an exploration of nakedness and nudity that generates some interesting ideas about femininity and as Deborah Wacks states, ‘her version of feminism is completely valid because it invests her with control over her own representations’(1999, 3). Petra Löffler extends this analysis of Wilke’s position with emphasis on the parody that is often misunderstood or ignored by feminist critics, since ‘though she initially seemed to confirm clichés like the temptingness of the beautiful female body, it was only the better to unmask its marketing as a commodity’ (in ed. Grosenick, 2001, 554). Wilke’s project is to undermine the visual ideal of mass media culture.
This unmasking is the main thrust of Wilke’s most famous early work, S.O.S.: Starification Object Series (1974 – 1979); the title (“SOS”) indicates some kind of emergency, which is related to feminine identity, and the punning ‘starification’ indicates a kind of glamorisation, the price of which is bodily mutilation. At the installation, Wilke handed out pieces of chewing gum to the audience, which were later collected for her to make tiny vaginal shaped sculptures. These were consequently stuck randomly over her body as she posed as feminine stereotypes like the sexy housewife, the exotic lover and the fashion model.
In an examination of the model parody, it is clear that Wilke’s pose is ultra-feminine with the line of her back filling the frame and her head in profile looking back over her shoulder; it is a passive pose, but perhaps we should think of this pose less as something that feigns femininity and more as something that simulates femininity. In Simulations, Baudrillard says that the simulation is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. He writes: ‘To simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t’ (1983, 5). Wilke’s feminine pose is the truth that reveals the fact that there is no true femininity.
The most startling element of the image is that the body is not a phallic one. The smooth surface is interrupted by lesions – the chewing gum vaginal sculptures that leak a grotesque sexuality. Wilke makes the ‘otherness’ of female sexuality visible; rather than being beneath the surface, invisible and imperceptible, it is marked or branded on the body of a simulated feminine pose. The absence becomes a presence.
This project of asserting female sexuality was extended in a series of works by Wilke that featured vaginal sculptures. Wilke’s reasoning was that ‘people are frightened by female organs because they don’t know what they look like’ (in Chadwick, 1990, 367). It was this kind of work that first promoted Wilke during the 1960s, when she was producing sculptures that challenged notions of gender like Phallus (Untitled) (1960), the proud phallic member transmuted into a snail head, or Rosebud (1972), a piece that represents the female genitals as a thing of beauty.
Vaginal sculptures are used again in Franklin’s Tomb Philadelphia (1975). This features a cardboard print of a crowd looking through railings and in the place of the tomb are vaginal shapes moulded from erasers. Benjamin Franklin was an 18th century businessman, philosopher and inventor who signed the declaration of independence and is regarded to some extent as an embodiment of the American dream, since he rose from poverty to being a businessman and American patriarch. He is well known for phrases like: ‘Remember that time is money’. The replacement of Franklin by vaginal sculptures suggests that the woman, the feminine, the female has become a site of archetypal authority and as Alice Jardine writes in Gynesis, for men ‘the truth can never come from a woman’s mouth but only from her genitals’ (1985, 35). In the wake of postmodernism, identity has fragmented so teleologies are shattered, but Alice Jardine suggests that ‘the inflationary feminocentrism of gynesis… has been confronting the breakdown of the paternal metaphor with nothing less than … that which is unnameable – God – or perhaps… Woman’(ibid, 40). Wilke’s substitution links to Jardine’s notion that woman has always been the passive matter which man could give form through an ever-increasing spiral of universals like God, money or the Phallus – an infinity of substitution.
The enclosure of the railings is also significant; the onlookers gaze through the bars at the spectacle of female sexuality, but the fact that the bars are present suggests something potentially dangerous about female sexuality. It has the power to subsume identity with its ‘otherness’. Wilke confronts an authentic if grotesque femininity.
Wilke is preoccupied with the representation of the vagina in art and culture and part of her project is to change the connotations associated with the female genitalia. In the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, people nervously avoid Gustave Courbert’s The Origin of the World (1866), the realist painting of the female genitalia, because the vagina is perceived with fear and often with disgust. As Wilke stated: ‘You can say a Gothic church is a phallic symbol, but if I say the nave of a church is really a big vagina, people are offended’(in Wacks, 1999, 3).
Geo-Logic 4 to One (1980–82) is set up like a ludo board and the vaginal sculptures set out like tesserae are the pieces with which you play. The sculpture is bright and colourful evoking connotations of toys, play and games. The title fuses a notion of world, mass vision in ‘geo-logic’, (‘geo’ meaning ‘of the earth’) with the game connotations of ‘4 to One’ which could be the odds on a bet or a move in a game. Perhaps Wilke is trying to create an image of female sexuality that is connected with innocence and play, but there is a sense of limit in the regulated space of the board. Pierre Bourdieu said that ‘because native membership in a field implies a feel for the game in the sense of a capacity for practical anticipation of the ‘upcoming’ future continued in the present, everything that takes place in it seems sensible, full of sense and objectivity’ (1982, 66). Although, the piece seems innocent, Wilke highlights that bodies can become regimented through rules that seem to be common sense.
Throughout Wilke’s working life, the focus of her work was on the unravelling of assumptions about the embodied woman and this was no different at the end of her life when she was diagnosed with cancer. Susan Sontag’s work, Illness as Metaphor, is very relevant here particularly when she writes that ‘illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship’ (1983, 8). Illness adds another layer of ‘otherness’ to the outsider status of womanhood. Wilke’s work after her diagnosis is a representation of the decaying woman, parodying her younger self and confronting her public with an illness which is felt in modern society to be ‘obscene – in the original meaning of the word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the sentences’(Sontag, 1983, 9). B.C. (‘Before Consciousness’ of cancer 1987 – 90) presents a diaristic series of self-portraits, a number of powerful, bold watercolours. Through the series, Wilke’s face changes as her awareness of cancer becomes stronger. This move to a more abstract portrait of herself implies a questioning of identity and the self. What is self and what is not self? How can something exist within your own body if you have no knowledge of its presence? This can be related to what Kristeva calls the symptom:
The symptom: a language that gives up, a structure within the body, a non assimilable alien, a monster, a tumour, a cancer that the listening devices of the unconscious do not hear. In the symptom, the abject permeates me, I become abject (1997, 238).
The woman has always been associated with abjection due to the potential for her body to contain another, an ‘other’, but Wilke confronts us with a figure of femininity whose contained ‘other’ will propel her even further into abjection. The body is travelling towards not-being without even realising it – the cancer is invisible, imperceptible, unknown.
In the Intravenus Series (1992), Wilke makes what is imperceptible and hidden visible, much in the same way that she earlier made female sexuality visible. This is a series of portraits, mainly of herself as she descended into cancer. The ideal woman of the male gaze is created through a long process of tidying, smoothing and perfecting an image, but these photographs are stark visions of a body decaying with all its creases, puckers and blotches. Wilke displays to us the alarmingly earthy aspects of the body in all its untidy detail. She shows us a voyage towards death and not-being and for feminists like Kristeva, the corpse is the ultimate form of abjection.
The corpsse that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cess pool, and death. Such wastes drop in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit- cadere, (to fall) cadaver. If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled (1997, 231).
Wilke proves that the boundary of the body can be an event horizon, the boundary where one form meets its potentiality for transforming itself into another form or forms. She explores the self and not-self in Birdcage (1992) where a cage is filled with old syringes and pill jars. The theme of bars occurs once more, and there is a sense that the cage could in fact be Wilke’s own body. Her illness turns her body into a cage and the drugs are her life-force, her reason for being alive. Brush Strokes (1992) is a photograph of lost hair from due to chemotherapy; an actual bodily substance is presented as an artist’s material questioning notions of identity. The hair has been shed from the body and is therefore abject. However, we know that the hair of a person contains their unique DNA; it is separate from the body yet still contains the same unique code. The image is poignant because it displays a lost part of the self. As Sontag states, ‘cancer is a disease of the Other’ (1983, 69).
Wilke inserts her work and her illness into medical and political battles. Susan Sontag’s work on illness has noted the stigma associated with disease; for example cancer has been diagnosed over the centuries as an illness of repressed passion. Metaphors are constructed according to the trends of the times; illness is seen as a plague, a curse, a social or psychosomatic problem. Wilke confronts her audience with illness. We look at the photographs as into a mirror and empathise with the subject. Her diptychs are powerful because the subject looks back at us challengingly and Wilke takes up poses in a similar way to the earlier Starification.
#1 shows Wilke pictured with surgical tape and tubes, yet there is some bathos caused by the large hat on her head like a cook’s hat or a great shower cap. Her body seems large and maternal with one breast bare as though about to feed, but in fact, she is being fed through the intravenous tubes. Opposite, Wilke is shown in a pose from classical antiquity like the female figures which held up the pillars of temples. However, again the image becomes slightly farcical when you notice the modern vase with flowers that perches precariously on her head. The sinister aspect of the picture is created by the patches where her ovaries should be; there is a sense that something is missing from this feminine pose evoking connotations of sterility, disease and illness. Wilke treats her work with a macabre humour and as in earlier artwork, uses simulations of certain femininities to prove that there is no true femininity, although here she utilises the stigma of illness rather than mutilation of the phallic body.
In #4, Wilke poses in a blue shawl, a colour associated particularly with Mary, our lady, the virgin daughter who is the guardian of male power. The associations of courtly and childish love are subverted by the ageing face and its baldness; these negative qualities are connected to imagery of beauty, power and spirituality. Mary was supposed to be excluded from time and death, a figure unique and alone among women, yet Wilke presents an embodiment of the decay. According to Kristeva, the image created of Mary by men was in fact a repressed desire for the union of the pre-oedipal bond: ‘Man overcomes the unthinkable of death by postulating maternal love in its place – in the place and stead of death and thought’ (1997, 325). Wilke subverts this positioning of maternity, since in this image, motherhood is associated with deacy, disease and death.
#2 displays Wilke’s screams developing the notion that pain breaks down language into the pre-language of cries and groans. Those cries initiate a shattering of language. The colours of the clothes are significant; yellow is of flowers, the sand and sun, but it is also of urine, puss and decay. White is of the sky, snow and skin, but it is also of blankness. The image itself is a kind of language that communicates Wilke’s pain and through its separability from the body becomes an image that can be lifted away taking the attributes of pain with it. Elaine Scarry has said that the word work has the potential for pain or pleasure; she states: ‘The more it realises itself and transforms itself into an object, the closer it is to imagination, to art, to culture; the more it is unable to bring forth an object, or bringing it forth, is then cut off from its object, the more it approaches the condition of pain’(1985, 169). Perhaps in making these images, Wilke is trying to distance herself from her pain through its communication, through its remaking, through her control over her own representation. Wilke also subverts assumptions about cancer in this powerful expression of emotion. Sontag notices society’s prejudice that visualises cancer as ‘a disease of insufficient passion, afflicting those who are sexually repressed, inhibited, unspontaneous, incapable of expressing anger’ (Sontag, 1983, 22).
#3 is a triptych that shows a further stage in Wilke’s illness. In the first image she stands like a statue her face slightly averted, her hips protruding and her hands placed carefully to emphasise her hips. The connotations of baldness are extended from just that of disease or being child-like. Baldness is decay in the losing of hair; it is death in its comparison with the bald bone of the skull. Baldness is also trauma; the image of the shaven, bald head can never be disconnected from the heads of the death camps during the Second World War. The yellow colour and blotchiness of the skin intensifies its poignancy as an image of the decaying body. Wilke is becoming abject. The fact that she is nude except for a pair of slippers parodies her earlier work when she wore only a pair of high heels.
The final part pictures Wilke in the bath-tub lying flat on her back. Her legs are open and her vagina is exposed. Her thinning hair floats in the water like a kind of modern, ageing Shakespeare’s Ophelia or Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot. Ophelia is traditionally thought of as a young, pretty innocent who died of grief; here Wilke parodies this ideal but the tragic resonance remains that dominates Shakespeare’s play – an exploration of death. In Hamlet, IV.5, Ophelia says ‘Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be’ echoing Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech (1997, 1731). This thought reverberates throughout Wilke’s images referring to a lack of knowledge about how it feels to die, to become abject. It also highlights Wilke’s parody as she positions herself in poses made by her younger self; this specific image is a parody of earlier one in Snatch Shot with Ray Guns and on another level, it is a parody of a younger self without the knowledge of what she would become.
In #7, Wilke’s hair falls over her face like rain or tears or bars; she is trapped inside her illness, yet she can look through the bars defiantly and the transfer of her pain from her true body to a created body may be a kind of displacement. Wilke’s work should not be seen in a negative light – her self-portraits bravely reveal the ‘terrible fish’ of abjection, but by remaking herself, by controlling her own image, Wilke remains powerful. Wilke’s work is provocative but it is also very human. Barthes praised the situating of a woman’s body as a concept and Wilke’s final images of herself are both conceptual and human. In these images, Wilke’s face becomes a polysemic letter in the female alphabet. It is a parody of her younger self; it is a simulation of feminine poses; it is confrontation that presents a very different female figure. It is an act of transformation into ‘the eye of a little god’ that reflects back the feared, the loathed, the ‘other’, the abject: ‘A woman bends over me searching my reaches for what she really is’ (Plath, 1981, 173).
Writing about web page http://www.acumen-poetry.co.uk/
Welsh poetry has a history spanning 14 centuries, from Taliesin in the 6th century to the poets who compete to be bardd at the Royal National Eisteddfodau of Wales every year. This new anthology of 20th century Welsh poets in translation collects the most acclaimed Welsh-language poets in an anthology with enough space to prove their quality and diversity. The collection progresses from the nature lyrics of I.D. Hooson to the parables of Nesta Wyn Jones, from Second World War poet, Hedd Wyn, to the strict metre of Allan Llwyd. Welsh publishing houses like Seren, Honno and Gomer have laboured to promote these Welsh-language poets, but it is a unique event for this anthology to be published by Bloodaxe, an English press. At last, Welsh literature may cultivate a readership outside its national boundaries and perhaps even internationally. John Rowlands' informative, if dry, introduction announces, "my audience is not necessarily an English one, but an English reading one".
This is a very admirable project, but one dissenting voice questions its validity – that of poet and musician, Twm Morys. Morys refused to contribute to the anthology, since he proclaims, "I'm speaking with Welsh-speaking people – if others want to join in, well they can bloody well learn the language." Rowlands tries to deflate this anxiety by highlighting the global audience who now have access to these poets, but Twm Morys' protest reverberates silently in the absence of the Welsh originals, which were not included alongside the English translations. Morys' view is extreme and exclusive, but his comment illustrates a fundamental Welsh anxiety that exists between the binaries of inclusive versus exclusive, tradition versus modernity, Welsh versus English. Most Welsh poets exist in a no man’s land between opposing forces.
This collection has a great deal of support from Welsh writers and further afield. The anthology is a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation and translators include the most prominent members of the Welsh literary scene, including Gillian Clarke, Tony Conran, Robert Minhinnick and Peter Finch. Most of the translations are faithful and innovative, but there are a few instances where the translator’s motives eclipse the depth of the poet's content. For example, 'Hon' by T.H. Parry-Williams is translated by Emyr Humphreys as 'This One', ignoring the feminine construction of the Welsh word. The feminine emphasis of Parry Williams’ title is crucial, because it invokes the trope of the femme fatale – his country is a woman with inescapable charms.
The female body is traditionally a great source of anxiety for Welsh male poets. “Dy wallt aur I dwyllo dyn”, writes an anonymous poet of the 15th century. Perhaps this tension explains the absence of women in Welsh-language poetry. Three quarters of the writers in this anthology are male. This is not a fault of the editors, but an unavoidable resonance of Welsh history. The women writers who do appear are outstanding; writers like Gwyneth Lewis, Mererid Hopwood and Elin Llwyd Morgan, who address the problem of writing in a language and literary form dominated by men. Elin Llwyd Morgan’s poem, ‘The Contemporary Jezebel’, interrogates traditional tropes of womanhood. Llwyd Morgan’s response is defiant describing “a switchblade in her beauty” and “the murderer in her eyes”. The excess of imagery mounts to a crescendo in which the woman becomes omnipotent, yet Llwyd Morgan presents the male suppliant with the very thing he cannot face – the woman’s humanity:
[…] for there’s no comfort
in his blackest hour,
that the contemporary Jezebel
owns a conscience.
Llwyd Morgan liberates the stereotypical muse of Welsh male poets by injecting the ‘Jezebel’ with a dose of humanity. The woman is not a detached force plotting the entrapment of men, but a vulnerable human subject equal in her sensations to men.
Modern Welsh-language poets are pioneering and subversive in sculpting the future of poetry with the demand that it should leap beyond its own conventions and culture. This anthology allows the traditional epiphanic, imagistic verse to stand alongside modern poetry that extends itself beyond the limits of its nationality. There is no better example of a modern, global Welsh-language poet than the editor, Menna Elfyn, whose poems are included. Elfyn's project is to reinvent the Welsh language as an active political agent capable of investigating the contemporary world. For example, ‘Broadway Morning’ observes a welcoming bore da from the mouth of an Iraqi.
Wales boasts one of the oldest poetic traditions in the world, but its Welsh-language poetry has been ignored beyond the limits of its language. This anthology is a great achievement. Its diverse collection gives a taste of the riches that remain in Wales and the Welsh language. For too long Wales has shut its doors on the rest of the world. This anthology is successful in its aim to make Welsh-language poetry more accessible to wider audience. As Gwyneth Lewis states, "Only rich cultures are hungry for news of the outside world – paradoxically, voracity is a sign of plenitude."