The Elements. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Render. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
The Outer Wards. Véhicule Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Trauma nestles into the body and the subject quivers in unease. If a daughter, she looks for the hold of parental grace and finds a shadow substance. If a mother, she looks for the unloved child and finds want in the staring face. Language is little comfort for illness or loss, but it is a balm of sorts, confirming that the subject of our dis-ease has pre-existed and will outlast our inability to speak its name. We have an obligation to the subject of which we are not speaking. That subject has its existence confirmed through our avoidance of its name. In prayer or poetry, the cipher of the difficult subject is “not produced” in the speech act, but rendered “productive” of new speech (Derrida 76). The space opened up by difficulty or absence is divine: “It is written completely otherwise” (74).
Three recent collections from Canadian women poets take up Derrida’s divine charge to write it “completely otherwise” by rendering the difficulty of speaking— about trauma, grief, or illness—through the lyric and the fragment. In Sachiko Murakami’s Render, Erín Moure’s The Elements, and Sadiqa de Meijer’s The Outer Wards, the clock is set ticking on the recovery of the speaker and her subject from the paralyzing grip of not speaking.
“Would you take a look at this,” our first voice inquires (Murakami 11). “Encounter” is the title of the opening poem in Murakami’s Render; it is also the form of relation by which the book operates, for Render establishes multiple encounters between the speaker and her fragmented recollections. When the reader assents to looking, what unspools is night, absence, fault, need, addiction, death, and (inch by inch, fist by fist) recovery. Murakami asks readers to forge their own encounters with trauma and healing, varying the forms and means by which the voice grasps the threads of its self-fashioning narrative.
Throughout the collection, the title reappears to reorient and, more likely, disorient the reader along this narrative thread of recovery: “regarding the end of here” (15), “surrender” (50), “re-enter the rendered” (95). The process is not tidy, not linear, but rendered as a dreamscape, a breath, a barely recalled memory. In “Acknowledgements,” for instance, there is the survivor’s testament to the difficulty of distinguishing “between then and now” (37). In alternating single lines, couplets, and triplets that span the horizontal plane of the page, Murakami creates a visual representation of the ways in which trauma disrupts the present self. The ever-surfacing past is a cutting voice in italics: “I’m too fucked up / to drive home” (37) and “you’ll never know if you gave” (38). It wages battle against the tide of a difficult present and an unimaginable future. The poem is a battlefield, and the war between multiple times ends on an ambiguous note: “whoever lived here // still lives here” (39). Is this an articulation of the self’s survival, or a damning confirmation that trauma has successfully transgressed the boundaries of memory and dream to become a permanent fixture?
This ambiguous refrain returns in the final two poems: “Still, Here” and “#stillhere.” As is apparent in these titles, wordplay is rife in Murakami’s writing. It smacks of the pleasure the poet takes in rendering this language her own, while also gesturing toward the difficulty of articulating the harm that this same language bears on the self. The voice of these poems struggles to get at something whole and cogent, at times in full-bodied prose, and at others dissolving, in fragmented lyrics. At the end, the reader is left with a voice that is diminished but, persistently, “still here”:
of and against
of and against and
if you can describe this it means you can
breathe through it
just like you did before[.] (124)
In Render, Murakami demonstrates the fruitful result of pairing formal invention and emotional fervour. Both poet and reader are still here in the final pages, a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit and the nurturing potential of inviting another to look and listen.
In Moure’s The Elements, the difficulty of articulating pain and memory belongs not only to the grieving speaker, but also to the speaker’s recently deceased father. The poems name the process of losing names to dementia, such that the various sections enact the paradoxically productive speech acts that result from losing language. What is elemental in the noise of not speaking is the ancestral tie to a multi-generational fight for existence here and now.
As a touching tribute to the lost father, Moure’s collection begins with “Introjection,” a series of prose poems that combine a historical account of the Napoleonic Wars with a theoretical examination of the role of “the body” in language. If readers are already acquainted with Moure’s challenging oeuvre—for instance, the “citizen trilogy” of Search Procedures (1996), A Frame of the Book/The Frame of a Book (1999), and O Cidadán (2002), which, through a series of love poems and theoretical documents, investigates the institutional and bodily borders that constitute human life—they will have been prepared for this ontological focus, this insistence on the involvement of flesh and limbs in structures of thinking. Arguably, what Moure presents in The Elements is even more jarring, even more disjunctive, than these previous challenges. Against the historical backdrop of an early-nineteenth-century battle on the plains of Medina de Rioseco, a contemporary speaker problematizes gender and translation. What is the role of this theorizing amidst the frenetic descriptions of the retreating Galicians? The speaker answers, “Politics and ontology need each other to emerge; Being is chronogenetic. Pain felt by the body is thus a task for history” (5).
The battle is materially and affectively felt by the speaker, the daughter of a father who is losing his capacity for language and memory. Both father and daughter are the descendants of one of the Galicians. The catastrophe of warfare is not separate from the catastrophe of Being itself; the speaker and her father, in a twenty-first-century battle with cognitive disease, are not separate from their distant ancestor in a battle between nations. As the separation between centuries and generations dissolves, the next section of the book, “The Voice,” investigates the material effect of ancestral memory on language:
my own father in the stutter of time
time’s gloss multiple in clocks
when time means nothing, it is revelation
or dementia[.] (17)
Moure’s collection narrates the puzzling occurrence of the father, suffering with dementia, keeping time: each clock records a different (and incorrect) time of day. This symptom of the father’s disease is a symbol of society’s dis-ease with an individual’s passage through the cycles of life and death. As with the earlier poems, in which the speaker problematizes language’s relationship to the body, here the speaker problematizes the subject’s relationship to time.
These concerns (language, time) are married by the disease/dis-ease in the subsequent section, “Dementia,” as the speaker adopts the language of her father in order to establish a hold on the passing days: “We will be there for you, we are remember” (23). This is a caring act of translation: not dismissing the uncanny language use symptomatic of the cognitive disease, but opening up the possibility for the family not only to enact remembrance, but also to inhabit remembrance through the father’s speech act. In estranging the grammar of care and kinship, Moure, a poet and translator, reminds us that every language is a foreign language: “I am already speaking to you in / translation, in a foreign tongue, slowly, / so I can be translated to you, all” (25). Readers of this dizzying collection of history, theory, and lyric poetry transgress the boundaries between autobiography and fiction, transposing the lessons of ontology to the foreign body of the speaker and the archival traces of the poet-translator’s ancestors.
Alongside this query into how to speak is the question of “how to avoid speaking” (Moure 27). This is a return to Derrida, whose investigation into negative theology, Moure writes, is “unreadable, un-avoidable, un-a-voidable” (27). To “not-speak” is to ask about the underlying nature of speech itself, “to unvoid it, remove its void” (27). The father’s disease/dis-ease is not communicated in silence but in a multiplicity of languages as the speaker seeks to trace this cognitive retreat back to the battle retreat: “Portuguese, Castilian, Guaraní, across a colonial border in western Brazil” (27). Retreat, in this formation, is productive of a new opportunity, of multiple languages colliding within the generations of a migrating family tree.
The book concludes with “F;-/ old.” In its very title—that is, the interruption of the word by the punctuation—the ending is reached with difficulty. Our speaker has not, after all, come to a definite conclusion in regard to the problematics of time, body, and language. These are, instead, productive areas of tension which the speaker—and the poet throughout her oeuvre of poetry and translation—will continue to revisit: “I am thinking of thinking and unthinking under the / currently thought / circumstances of thinking” (94). The book is a document of the “struggles of thinking” as shared between father, daughter, and distant ancestor (99). One of the final poems, “A Walk on Jasper Avenue after the Death of My Father,” follows the speaker along a street on which she encounters a stranger with “the mouth of my father” (103). This touching misrecognition of a stranger is at once a searing reminder of the recent loss and an affirming reminder that the memory of the father is alive. The language of the father still circulates in the multiple times of past, present, and future, the clock he set ticking now named by the mouth of another. Moure’s speaker finishes the sentence spoken by those before her—not only the father but also the Galician ancestor, for whom the lasting legacy is “revolt” (106).
In de Meijer’s The Outer Wards, the speaker answers to the catastrophe of coinciding illness, motherhood, and personhood. The sickbed here, as in The Elements, is a disruption of passing days. Time moves in multiple paths, such that memory makes the demands of the past as fervent as those of the present, yet the subject in bed is rendered as nothing, no-thing, undone by the separation from the time that circulates among the healthy.
In the portrait of time as it slips between the hands of a mother, a writer, a woman, the reader is reminded of Sylvia Plath’s mid-twentieth-century injunction that “a woman has to sacrifice all claims of femininity and family to be a writer” (qtd. in Olsen 9). De Meijer renders this claim through a new prism of disruption. The speaker does not abandon mothering to write, but her body is given over to illness and she is stripped of the possibility of being either mother or writer, while being always and simultaneously both. Plath is an uneasy figure with which to begin an investigation into motherhood, but the book’s opening epigraph is from Plath’s “Letter in November”:
I am flushed and warm.
I think I may be enormous,
I am so stupidly happy,
Squelching and squelching through the beautiful red. (Plath 45; qtd. in de Meijer 9)
De Meijer’s reclamation of Plath for contemporary mothers is a cogent reminder of mothers as individual beings, paradoxically separate from and infinitely tethered to the children they have borne or raised. It is possible to conceive of The Outer Wards as a singularly lyric version of the lyric-conceptual project of Sina Queyras’ My Ariel (2017), which writes through the interweaving layers of trauma inherited from Plath and the contemporary speaker’s own mother and mothering. In de Meijer’s collection, the clear lyric “I,” with her roving gaze, is a mother who has fallen ill; consequently, her responsibilities to the child are, for the moment, waylaid by her responsibilities to the worn-out, exhausted maternal body.
In the beginning, however, before the onset of illness, the mother’s attention is still on the child. For instance, in “Bind,” de Meijer writes,
When you’re with me, my attention
is your nourishment, its remnant
molecules diffusing in the murk.
When you’re not, I wear the imprint
of your absence like a bruise. (15)
The relationality of these lines is complicated: it is not simply that the mother pays attention to the child, not simply that the mother nourishes the child, but that the attention of the mother is the nourishment passed from mother to child. On the one hand, this leaves no room for attention to be paid to anything but the child. On the other, it suggests that the mother’s wide-roving gaze and interest in the world are nourishing features of the child’s life with her mother.
It is when the mother is in the grips of illness, “trapped in bed” (52) as she is in the poem “Rehearsal,” that her attitude rises to the ominous heights of Plath’s Ariel. Now we are directly greeting Death as a familiar bedfellow. In “O, Death,” de Meijer’s speaker addresses the black spectre with a chiding and playful tone: “You make such awkward entrances sometimes. // Or you leave the party and don’t even tell anyone. / I’ve done it before” (54). Death feels close in these pages, and the speaker goes so far as to imagine Death triumphant. In “Hereafter,” the mother’s attention— nourishment for the child—lives on even in the afterlife, like the insistence of the daughter in Moure’s The Elements (“we are remember”) and the everyday triumph in Murakami’s Render (“still here”). The mother, imagining herself freed from the physical tethers of the corporeal body, reconfigures herself as a permanent fixture in the evolution of the child:
Then these atoms, held in the aspic of me,
that now like pakoras and Nina Simone,
will loosen in the dark flux,
and ascend again in rhizomes,
blankly, good as new.
But still will love
this child, somehow
the grasses would love this child. (72)
Here is the speaker in all her specificity (“pakoras and Nina Simone”), as well as her symbolic significance: scattered to the wind, yet loving the child “somehow.”
“Love, the world / Suddenly turns, turns colour,” declares the speaker in the opening lines of “Letter in November” (Plath 45). Many of the most famous poems in Ariel include the cutting self-jabs of which the depressive speaker is capable, and further attacks on the self by the patriarchal figures of father and husband, so this meditation on the approach of winter is, at first, disarmingly blithe and joyous. But it is not any child that warrants this joy; instead it is the “barbarous holly” and “the wall of old corpses” which the speaker celebrates, widening the circle of the mother’s attention from “babies’ hair” to forces natural, elemental, and ancestral (45). Murakami, Moure, and de Meijer look head-on at the unavoidable approach of winter—that symbol now rendered as the grip of addiction, illness, or death—only to find much to celebrate, to be joyous about, to remember into soft and curious attention. Their subjects (self, daughter, and mother) live on in the divinely productive strategies of the poetry.
Derrida, Jacques. “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials.” Translated by Ken Frieden. Derrida and Negative Theology, edited by Harold G. Coward and Toby Foshay, State U of New York P, 1992, pp. 73-142.
Olsen, Tillie. “Women Who Are Writers in Our Century: One out of Twelve.” College English, vol. 34, no. 1, 1972, pp. 6-17.
Plath, Sylvia. “Letter in November.” Ariel. Faber, 1999.
Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.