All entries for Monday 14 July 2008

July 14, 2008

The Weeping Woman: Review of Deborah Miranda and Pascale Petit

Book front cover
The Zen of La Llorona / The Huntress
5 out of 5 stars

Deborah Miranda. The Zen of La Llorona. Cambridge: Salt. £8.99
Pascale Petit. The Huntress. Bridgend: Seren. £7.99

The Mexican folktale of La Llorona, sometimes known as the ‘weeping woman’ tells a story of infanticide as a lineage of violence is passed down from the conquering Spanish conquistador to the oppressed Mexican woman who must father his child. The power of this story filters into two new poetry collections: Deborah Miranda’s The Zen of La Llorona and Pascale Petit’s The Huntress.

The Zen of La Llorona begins in the voice of La Llorona’s child. In ‘Three Months Without Electricity’, the daughter struggles to understand her mother’s coldness:

In the warm water, I am first a fish,
then a dark seal, then a turtle, peering out of my ocean
to see the wax well up, lucid, drench
the burning air of my mother’s silence.

The metrical and alliterative emphases of the first two lines fall on words describing water creatures. Like La Llorona’s drowned infant, the child is intimate with the river and water. The image of wax welling up is ambiguous: does ‘welling up’ evoke an outpouring of tears or does it refer to frozen and repressed feelings? The ambiguity of La Llorona is clear; in murdering her own children she must lack emotion, yet she is the weeping woman. The miscommunication between mother and daughter is clear in the image of blistering silence.

Later in the collection, Miranda’s view shifts and in ‘Driving Past Suicide for Three Novembers’, the voice is that of La Llorona herself:

When I arrive home tonight
my husband will reach for me in the dark–
his need, his comfort, his right.
Who will tell my children
marriage is more
than a glistening soul
served up on a silver platter?

The conversational tone of delivery is disarming as it builds to a final image of appetite and consumption. In a style dominated by monosyllabic words and avoiding regular meter, Miranda describes the horror of the marriage matter-of-factly. This angle views La Llorona from a different perspective. Miranda admits that a legacy of suffering can emerge in the relationship with one’s children, because pain is distancing and difficult to explain.

The Zen of La Llorona maps a journey through suffering towards understanding, yet it deals with not only women’s pain, but with the distress of all outsiders. In ‘After San Quentin’, Miranda discusses her family name and the Spanish language:

In Spain it used to mean looking.
Here, Miranda means you have the right
to remain silent…
it means
our own words can and will
be used against us; it means
a court of law is not surprised
to find my father, again and again, within its gates…

Miranda’s father wants to retain the difference, the specific name, that links him to his ancestors and roots, yet to have a Spanish-language name in North America is to be defined as a criminal. The irony is that such a pronouncement is self-fulfilling and brutal social judgements create a lineage of suffering to the father and his extended family.

The idea of lineage is also present in Petit’s The Huntress, which juxtaposes colonial violence and gender conflict. Some critics have made the mistake of thinking that Petit’s The Huntress is set amongst the flora and fauna of the Amazon, but, drawing on Aztec myths of blood sacrifice, The Huntress uses a Mexican setting—few realise that Mexico contains its own rainforest.

Reviewers can be forgiven for missing this point, since Petit’s earlier collection, The Zoo Father, was set in the Amazon. Like The Zoo Father, The Huntress represents confrontation with an abusive parent, but here it is the mother. The narrative of La Llorona is at the heart of the collection, as the daughter-narrator uses Aztec mythologies as a means to communicate and understand. The initial reception of Petit’s collection has been somewhat preoccupied by the intense anger directed at the mother. In ‘At the Gate of Secrets’, the narrator tells how she will only be reconciled with her mother in ‘the grave / where we will torment one another’. Yet in other poems, such as ‘The Rattlesnake Mother’, the daughter states, ‘I think now how hard it was for her / to be a rattlesnake’. Petit’s poetry is designed to subvert readers’ expectations about female relationships and there will never be a Hollywood ending with saccharine tears and reconciliation. Sometimes Petit’s subversiveness can seem inflammatory, such as in ‘Portrait of my Mother as Coatlicue’:

Like Cortes, I found her monstrous
and would have preferred
to bury her in the cathedral crypt.

Coatlicue is a monstrous mother-goddess who in Aztec mythology wore a Medusa-like skirt of snakes. The daughter views Coatlicue with anxiety reminiscent of male fears about the female body and sexual appetite. In mentioning Cortez, Petit makes the connection here between the female body and the Orientalist view of other cultures: the ‘exotic’ and ‘sinister’ Aztec temples become the foundations for Roman Catholic cathedrals, just as the female body is appropriated to create a patriarchal lineage. What is so unnerving about this poem is Petit’s positioning of her daughter-narrator as Cortes, the coloniser, and it is problematic to consider where this comparison leads. Yet the narrator relents, stating: ‘But she was my mother, / as much a victim as a devourer.’ As in The Zen of La Llorona, the narrator of The Huntress comes to recognise that her mother’s violence and cruelty are inherited from her own experiences of pain. One of the most powerful poems, ‘Lunettes,’ creates a chain of association that begins with her father’s ‘glasses in the moonlight’ working its way through image after imager, until Petit finds an explicit motif for men’s brutality and women’s pain: ‘a forked iron plate / into which the stock of a field-gun carriage is inserted’.

Kei Miller's The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies

Writing about web page

4 out of 5 stars

I was just long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize with Kei Miller, a poet that I have a high opinion of. Here is my review of one of his early collections (published by my friends at the Heaventree Press) which appeared on RSB:

The epigraphs of Kei Miller’s debut collection, The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies, come from the Bible (‘For out of your bellies shall flow rivers of living water’ John 7.38) and from the revolutionary Bob Marley song, ‘Them belly full (but we hungry)’. Throughout the collection, the characters struggle to reconcile the contradictions of church and rum-bar, of religion and suffering, of seeming respectability and revolutionary struggle.

The first section is entitled ‘Church Women’, a sequence reminiscent of Lorna Goodison’s Guinea Women. Like Goodison, Miller creates matriarchs of grand proportions, yet Miller’s poems are not quite so benevolent. ‘Hats’ describes ‘a Sunday museum of felt’ in which ‘a boy will be wedged / between fat women’. Miller describes the boy’s view of ‘stiff circles of mesh’ as being like ‘satellite antennas’. The women’s Sunday headgear, redolent of aspirations and the desire for respectability, orbits the boy’s viewpoint. Miller explains the boy’s distance from the women:

And child-logic being ‘crowns
are chiselled from blocks of gold,
tattooed with ivy vines,
stippled with blue diamonds’,
the boy will not see the majesty
in these women;
he will not understand
their purple claim:

We not God’s children!
We are his wives.

The compound phrase, ‘child-logic’, recalls the ‘child-eye’ of David Dabydeen’s ‘Catching Crabs’ and as in Dabydeen’s poem, a mature narrator looks back on a child’s view of family events and happenings. In Miller’s poem, the young boy cannot envision the grandeur that the women imagine for themselves or their queenly, ‘purple’ desire for the regal. Yet the regret of the narrator’s tone shows a viewpoint that is both critical and loving and Miller reaches towards a reconciliation between the young, critical male and the magnificent mothers.

These poems are always based in the heart of the community and family and Miller reiterates the flawed yet admirable characters that inhabit it. In ‘Aquaphobia’, the mother’s act of teaching her children to swim by throwing them into deep water may seem unkind, but the narrator is adamant that ‘all / these years we have floated on her faith’. These women are heroic and inspiring. For example, ‘Noctiphobia’ tells how Miller’s grandmother was cursed to suffer six miscarriages, but through the ‘curse breaking magic’ of the number seven gave birth to a son. Yet some of Miller’s poems are more acerbic such as ‘This is an apology’ which functions as half-retort, half-lament for a Trinidadian woman whose experience of sex is only the permission of ‘just a few thrusts – / always, always in the darkness’.

If these characters represent the inhabitants of Jamaica, the physical landscape itself is invoked in the surreal vision of ‘In Dream Country’, in which the speaker of the poem becomes an instrument to gauge the strange happenings of an imaginary country. Like the act of creation in Genesis, the poem’s structure describes the formation of a place day by day. On Monday, Miller envisions lions escaping from the zoo, stampeding cows and horses and ‘old West Indian / writers knelt / behind feeble latches’. While the animals are full of life, movement and violence, the writers seem to be strangely passive and vulnerable. Tuesday’s matriarchal cow rejects both its offspring and the virile stallion father, yet V.S. Naipaul appears riding a ‘black lion’ proclaiming the fires that burn for Marley, Selassie and Rastafari. Wednesday is omitted as if something is lacking at the centre of Miller’s act of creation, yet Thursday brings further delights as the animals burn tyres, lament on TV-J and baptise themselves. Friday itself is invoked as ‘an abandoned child’, whose missing parents light ‘a candle for Derek Walcott’, while predatory animals and duppies ‘dance a careless bacchanal’ singing the lack of this chaotic country. The presentation of bizarre, difficult images works as an antidote to poetry’s sometimes careless evocation of place and nation and for this reason it is the pinnacle of Miller’s achievement.

The final section, ‘Rum Bar Stories’ reaches towards more modern inhabitants of Jamaica and it is structured with recipes for cocktails and alcoholic drinks. Each poem offers another story and while the characters here seem to be less bound up with the myth of community, they still have a certain authenticity. ‘Reggae Sunsplash’ is striking as it describes the lament of a barmaid. Watching a jazz singer, she thinks how he creates ‘clean purple notes / out of cancers’ and she sees in him the key to escape:

[He] really knew a place
where ain’t nobody crying
and ain’t nobody worried
and ain’t no men
coming in crusted
with a day’s leftover cement,
calling her whichever name
they chose that day […]

Like the earlier stories of church women, the barmaid has aspirations for an unreachable goal. The initial refrains are musical as they express the place of refuge so desired by the young woman, yet the monosyllabic phrase, ‘no men’, creates a change and the prosaic style that follows reveals how her aspirations conflict with mundane reality: the cement, the men’s demands, her own humiliation.

Lack and emptiness are themes that dominate The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies, yet it is Miller’s self sacrifice, his devotion to the stories of others and his commitment to observing the happenings of the landscape that enable this collection. Referring back to his epigraph from John 7.38, Miller’s role is rather like that of the Holy Ghost creating a wealth of ‘living waters’ out of his own absence. Miller becomes the critical and loving deity of his own imagination, his own culture.

Armstrong and Tennenhouse on the Violence of Representation: The Example of Jane Eyre

Joan Fontaine as Jane Eyre

In the introduction to the volume, Violence and Representation (titled ‘Representing violence, or “how the west was won”’), Armstrong and Tennenhouse begin by considering the changes in attitudes to literary criticism at the time (published 1989). They note that ‘[f]or criticism that once questioned the whole literary enterprise to have found a comfortable home within the humanities means that the literary criticism essentially hostile to it has performed some subtle but profound act of appropriation’ (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 1989: 1). This change seems to have occurred as scholars extended ‘literary critical methods into new areas which have never been read before […] lining ideology to figuration, politics to aesthetics, and tropes of ambiguity and irony to instances of ambivalence and forms of political resistance’ (Ibid.). What Armstrong and Tennenhouse are concerned about is maintaining political self-consciousness in considering literary representations and engaging in criticism.

The volume that emerges out of this aspiration focuses on ‘western, European’ traditions, especially the Anglo-American. The authors agree that violence can be located ‘at very different places within cultural production,’ but that the feminists included in the volume divide into two ‘camps’: those who ‘are interested in the symbolic practices through which one group achieves and the others resist a certain form of domination at a given place or moment in time’; and those who believe that ‘writing is not so much about violence as a form of violence in its own right’ (Armstrong and Tennenhouse 1989: 2).

To explain this theorising of the violence of representation, Armstrong and Tennenhouse give the example of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, which they use to shed light on ‘a definition of violence,’ linking to de Lauretis’ idea that ‘the discourse of theory, whatever its ideological bent, constitutes a from of violence in its own right in so far as it maintains a form of domination – “that of the male or male-sexed subject”’ (A&T 1989: 3). Armstrong and Tennenhouse wish to critique ‘the power of this discourse’ using Jane Eyre, because it is a novel that ‘exemplifies the other (feminine) half of liberal discourse’ (A&T 1989:4). The critics explain that as a kind of liberal feminist text, Jane Eyre conforms to certain conventions and yet it resists them too:

Much like fiction that participates in dominant discourse – as virtually all canonized or “literary” fiction does – literary feminism generally accedes to the terms of a rationalist, social science discourse that locates political power in men, in their labor [sic], in the institutions they run, or else in certain forms of resistance to men or their institutions. Our reading of Jane Eyre suggests that while these constitute the acknowledged domain of political power, the site of its agency, the theatre [sic] of its events, and thus the source of historical change, such power is not necessarily that which actually shapes people’s lives in the novel; another source of power proves equally if not more compelling. (A&T 1989: 4)

Armstrong and Tennenhouse suggest that although Jane Eyre’s world is dominated by men, these men lose their power through events such as Jane’s uncle dying and Rochester’s diminishment: ‘In relation to these masculine modalities of power, Jane is the triumphant underdog’ (A&T 1989: 4). Armstrong and Tennenhouse know that Jane is lacking in social power with its accoutrements of family, money, professional position and beauty. However she ‘can read, speak, and write’ and this allows her to slowly develop a community of likeminded readers. Armstrong and Tennenhouse are adamant that ‘the violence of an earlier political order maintained by overt forms of social control gives way to a more subtle kind of power that speaks with a mother’s voice and works through the printed word upon mind and emotions rather than body and soul’ (A&T 1989: 4).

Writing depth: difference as otherness
Armstrong and Tennenhouse start thinking about violence in Jane Eyre by noting the violence represented as ‘“out there” in the world on the other side of Jane’s words’ (A&T 1989: 5). This is encountered through ‘bad relatives, bad teachers, bad suitors, and more generally, a bad class of pwople who have control over her life,’ a class of people whose ‘capacities of self are inferior to hers’ (A&T 1989: 5). In confronting characters such as these, Jane Eyre must use the power of speech and language, e.g. in her early encounters with Mrs. Reed. Armstrong and Tennenhouse believe that Bronte’s project was to create a heroine to outdo her sisters ‘by accomplishing everything that they [her sister’s heroine’s] did without money, status, family, good looks, good fortune, or even a pleasant disposition’ (A&T 1989: 6). In the creation of such a heroine, ‘violence is an essential element’ (A&T 1989: 6).

Why is violence essential? Well, Armstrong and Tennenhouse argue that ‘[e]ach time Jane is confined to a room, kept at the bottom of a social hierarchy, silenced, or humiliated, we have more evidence that there is something already there to be confined, silenced, or humiliated, something larger than its container, grander than any social role, more eloquent for all its honesty than those who presume to speak for it, and noble beyond their ken’ (A&T 1989: 6). This idea of the emergence of self through its very suppression is linked to Foucault’s theorising in The History of Sexuality I. Here Foucault writes about the contingency of self and the discovery of nineteenth century authors that ‘a regressive hypothesis’ of the suppressed self could become a more productive one. Armstrong and Tennenhouse use this idea to read Jane Eyre describing Jane’s fight against suppression and restriction as ‘a discursive strategy for producing depths in the individual – what we have come to think of as the real Jane herself – that have been stifled in order for society to exist’ (A&T 1989: 6-7). Armstrong and Tennenhouse conclude that in Jane’s discourse, ‘there is always more there than discourse expresses, a self on the other side of words, bursting forth in words, only to find itself falsified and diminished because standardized and contained within the categories contained within the aggregate of “society”’ (A&T 1989: 7).

In this reading, Jane is far from powerless. Armstrong and Tennenhouse even suggest that Jane manages to ‘ reconstruct[s] the universe around the polarities of Self and Other,’ fighting back in the violence of language (A&T 1989: 7). For example, in describing Blanche Ingram (Rochester’s supposed betrothed), Jane ‘deftly inverts Blanche’s position of social superiority to Jane by employing an alternative system of value based on natural capacities of self’ (A&T 1989, 7). Jane’s abilities in speaking are enough to silence those Others who would restrict, suppress or diminish her.

To earn the status of narrator, she [Jane] must overcome Blanche, Mrs Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, virtually everyone and anyone who stands in her way. This is the violence of the productive hypothesis: the violence of representation. To be sure, every mode of identity contending with Jane’s identity as a self-produced self poses a threat to that self. But in order for her to emerge as the knowledgeable spokesperson of other identities, these differences must be there and reveal themselves as a lack, just as Blanche ceases to be another person and become a non-person. The same process that creates Jane’s “self” positions “others” in a negative relationship to that self. The violence of representation is the suppression of difference. (A&T 1989: 8).

Jane eschews social power ‘as if her status as an exemplary subject, like her authority as narrator, depends entirely on her claim to a kind of truth which can only be made from a position of powerlessness’ (A&T 1989: 8).

Writing culture; how the representation of violence became the violence of representation

In response to their analysis of Jane Eyre, Armstrong and Tennenhouse note that they have made ‘a crude distinction between two modalities of violence: that which is “out there” in the world, as opposed to that which is exercised through words upon things in the world’ (A&T 1989: 9). In Bronte’s novel, this latter violence of representation ‘appears […] in its most benign, defensive, and nearly invisible form – a power one can use without even calling it such’ (A&T 1989: 9). One problem with the idea of the volume itself, according to Armstrong and Tennenhouse is the sense in which they as writers are ‘implicated in the very form of power [they] set about to critique’ (A&T 1989: 10). The editors admit: ‘Like Jane, we tend to think of ourselves as outside the field of power, or at least we write about “it” as if it were “out there.” That is to say, we situate ourselves in a “female” position relative to the discourses of law, finance, technology, and political policy. From such a position, one may presume to speak both as one of those excluded from the dominant discourse and for those so excluded. But doing so, we would argue, is no more legitimate than Jane Eyre’s claim to victim status’ (A&T 1989: 10). What the real project should be is the ‘tracing [of] the history of our own authority along with that of the modern subject’ (A&T 1989: 10).

Armstrong and Tennenhouse now summarise what essays and included and how they work within the scheme of the collection. It is well worth looking up these interesting essays, including de Lauretis’ essay on the violence of representation. However, what is very interesting is the way in which Armstrong and Tennenhouse sum up the focus and importance of the essays:

If these essays can be said to demonstrate a single point it is this: that a class of people cannot produce themselves as a ruling class without setting themselves off against certain Others. Their hegemony entails possession of the key cultural terms determining what are the right and wrong ways to be a human being. With this in mind, we have tried to provide some sense of the detailed process by which certain people, a relatively small group, at different times produced the Other in specific ways. In so articulating our project as a collective project, we want to insist that what we have offered is a story about the production of a culture-specific subject and only a very partial one at that; it suggests very few of what we believe were the myriad ways in which differences were suppressed in the process and positioned in a negative relationship to the ruling-class self. In this respect, our narrative will inevitably reproduce the very behaviour [sic] it set out to historicize. It will exclude points of view that are not of the dominant race, gender, class, and ethic group. (A&T 1989: 24)

Armstrong, Nancy and Leonard Tennenhouse. 1989. ‘Representing violence, or “how the west was won”.’ The Violence of Representation: Literature and the history of violence. Ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse. London: Routledge. 1-26.


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