- Diana M. A. Relke (Author)
Greenwor(l)ds: Ecocritical Readings of Canadian Women's Poetry. University of Calgary Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alison Calder
Ecocriticism isn’t just for hippies anymore. Coeval with TV ads promoting a decentred postmodern culture is an explosion of creative and critical writings that insist on the importance of place and the urgency of understanding our connections to it. The production of these texts is fueled by the belief that, as Diana Relke writes, "matter matters!’ In Greenwor(l)ds, Relke translates this belief into an analysis of the function of nature in Canadian women’s poetry. Such an understanding is important, she believes, because women relate to nature in a fundamentally different way from men. Men, she writes, are socially conditioned to believe that both nature and women are theirs to dominate. Women, who are identified in some ways with nature, must therefore have a different understanding of it. This different understanding is what Relke seeks to illuminate.
Greenwor(l)ds opens by connecting cultural myths about women to those about nature, showing how each myth changes in response to complex social and historical pressures. The connections between the categories "woman" and "nature" emphasize the contingent and complicated nature of these constructions and provide a powerful argument for considering the two in tandem. Her essays range widely, considering in turn Margaret Atwood, Marjorie Pickthall, Constance Lindsay Skinner, Dorothy Livesay, Isabella Valancy Crawford, Daphne Marlatt, Phyllis Webb, P.K. Page, and Marilyn Dumont. The essays are united by an increasing focus on how these women poets subvert a masculinist view of nature, using it as a site to launch critiques of gender relations, and as a space to develop a more holistic, organic view of nature and the human relation to it. Relke concludes by arguing for what she calls "halfbreed poetics," a non-hierarchical, non-patriarchal way of understanding culture and nature that embraces their complexity and recognizes interconnections between them.
The strength of Greenwor(l)ds is Relke’s argument that the Canadian literary tradition has been retrospectively constructed to endorse the nature/culture opposition and so to exclude women poets. She asserts convincingly that it is possible to support Northrop Frye’s theory that Canadian poetry is marked by a "deep terror" of nature only if the writings of the women poets she discusses are ignored. The "critical industry" that sprang up around Frye has led to the erection of a one-sided theory of Canadian literature. In bringing nature back into the picture, Relke asserts, a more balanced, more accurate, and more ecopolitically useful vision of Canadian literature emerges.
Unfortunately, Greenwor(l)ds doesn’t provide a good example of the criticism Relke calls for. Her analysis of the individual writers lacks the complexity she demands. This lack is most clearly demonstrated in Relke’s discussion of Constance Lindsay Skinner and her subsequent argument (focusing on Terry Goldie’s idea of the Indigene) that postcolonial literary theory in Canada focuses exclusively on race and ignores gender. This gender blindness results in a theorization in which, she argues, "the social construction of women [is] reduced to a linguistic phallocentrism." In consequence, "white women writers were no longer seen to be writing as women, but as whites." But if Relke’s charge is valid, it can equally be leveled against her own writing: by privileging gender exclusively as the site of oppression, Relke discusses Skinner (and other white poets) only as a woman. Skinner was white and a woman; any meaningful analysis of her work must strive to address both. More problematically, Relke addresses Marilyn Dumont with precisely the narrowness she sees in Goldie’s approach: Dumont is treated as a "native," rather than as a "native woman." "The body" that Dumont writes becomes, for Relke, the Native body. The unintended message is clear: white women are women, while Native women are natives.
Relke’s concluding celebration of "half-breed poetics" is provocative, but it must be more fully articulated before it can become valuable. What, for example, is the relation of "halfbreed poetics" to race? How does the fact that some Métis identify themselves as a strong and distinct nation in their own right complicate facile understandings of "Native" writing? Canadian literary tradition is full of examples of white-written Métis characters who function as Native guides or who serve to "indi-genize" white characters or ideas. Relke’s analysis veers perilously towards a perpetuation of such white narcissism. Greenwor(l)ds issues a valuable call for a sophisticated Canadian feminist ecocriti-cism, but ultimately fails to provide it.
- "good lip / service" by Paul Watkins
Books reviewed: Embouchure by Kevin McNeilly
- Beastly Trade by Nicholas Bradley
Books reviewed: Romantic Ecologies and Colonial Cultures in the British-Atlantic World, 1770-1850 by Kevin Hutchings and The Bedside Book of Beasts: A Wildlife Miscellany by Graeme Gibson
- A Congress of Words by Chris Jennings
Books reviewed: Houseboat on the Styx by A. F. Moritz, Conflicting Desire by A. F. Moritz, Rest on the Flight into Egypt by A. F. Moritz, and The End of the Age by A. F. Moritz
- Versifications du sublime by Katia Grubisic
Books reviewed: La Lenteur au bout de l'aile by France Cayouette, Savanes, suivi de Poèmes de septembre by Joël Des Rosiers, L'Oeil de la lumière by Pierre Raphaël Pelletier, and Entre les murs de la Baltique by Dominique Zalitis
- Recent Canadian Shakespeares by Wes Folkerth
Books reviewed: Shakespeare and Canada: Essays on Production, Translation, and Adaptation by Ric Knowles, Free Will by Harold Rhenisch, and Shakespeare's Dog by Leon Rooke
MLA: Calder, Alison. Reading Green. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #170-171 (Autumn/Winter 2001), Nature / Culture. (pg. 233 - 234)
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