Helen in Egypt by H.D.
(Grove Press, New York, 1961)
Loba by Diane di Prima
(Wingbow Press, Berkeley, 1978)
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literatureby Margaret Atwood
(House of Anansi, Toronto, 1972)
The Journals of Susanna Moodie by Margaret Atwood
(Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1970)
Mythic & Heroic Women
[Editor's Note: This essay written in 1984 as part of a still unpublished book of criticism entitled Speaking In Tongues.]
When I began to write in the persona of a mermaid in the 1970s, I wanted to make her a bitch-goddess, at once personal and mythological. It was not until later that I realized how much ground had already been cleared by other women writers. The books I used for research and inspiration were frequently written by women: Esther Harding's classic, Woman's Mysteries, The Descent of Woman by Elaine Morgan, Mothers and Amazons by Helen Diner, and The Mermaid and the Minotaur by Dorothy Dinnerstein. Since my reading also included books by the male predecessors of these women, such as Erich Neumann's The Great Mother, J.J. Bachofen's Myth, Religion, & Mother Right, and Robert Briffault's The Mothers, I was fully aware that, if I had only the books of male writers to work from, the results would have been much different.
An example, perhaps overstated, but even more important for that very reason, of the way traditional male folklorists viewed the woman's presence in myth, is given by Joseph Campbell:
Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters. And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation. Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of ensuous adventure. By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance she is spellbound to banaity and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding. The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god, of her created world. (Hero With A Thousand Faces)
A writer such as H.D. did not have the advantage of a feministl iterature to guide her. Early in her career, however, she learned the value of writing in a persona. Discussing "Callypso Speaks", an early poem, Susan Stanford Friedman speculates that if H.D.:
had adopted the confessional mode of Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, her readers might have understood the raw fury in the poem for what it is. The use of mythic masks encodes the rebellion into 'safe' forms so that her readers can avoid confronting the blunt message of the poem: 'man is a brute and a fool.' Readers immersed in the androcentric cultural tradition can dismiss the contemporary anger of the poem by seeing it only as a poem about Odysseus and Callypso, two mythic characters utterly removed from the present day. (Psyche Reborn)
In Helen In Egypt, she enlarges this methodology and creates perhaps the first completely feminine persona. Diane di Prima's "Loba" and Margaret Atwood's "Circe" are the two personae which best extend H.D.'s concerns.
From her earliest work, H.D. was concerned with the feminine and with creating a force to counter the heroic exploits of her male contemporaries. Near the end of her life she gave voice to her most heroic work, Helen In Egypt, an exploration of the soul-searching Helen of Troy and the men who lavish their attentions on her, each trying to persuade her that he was her only lover. H.D's choice of Helen (also the name of her mother), a persona all-too-familiar to her readers, exhibits clearly what she had learned from Freud: the relevance of myths to our daily lives, and their endless repetition in slightly varied forms throughout all history.
H.D. was deeply affected by WWII. In Helen In Egypt, written after the war, she was aiming for "visions perceived after the event of the Trojan War." (Horace Gregory, introduction to Helen In Egypt). Or, as she says in the opening narrative:
According to the PALLINODE, Helen was never in Troy. She had been transposed or translated from Greece into Egypt. Helen of Troy was a phantom, substituted for the real Helen, by jealous deities. The Greeks and Trojans alike fought for an illusion.
Physical war thus becomes myth; if the mythic cycle is a repetitive and human one, then to understand one myth implies an understanding of similar myths. Through the words of Helen and those others implicated in her tale, H.D. found an appropriate vehicle to mythically express her sense of the useless destruction the past war had caused.
H.D. is dealing not with one myth, but with many; it would seem that half the gods and mortals of Greece enter; one god becomes another, or becomes his or her Egyptian counterpart. The entire structure of the book is the need for each speaker to give their point of view, and in so doing to better understand their own emotions. H.D. even makes the core of Helen's quest her search for identity. We do not appreciate the risk the poet was taking here until we realize that all persona poetry up to this point had been the assertion of a new identity, and each persona desperately defended his own self-image, even when it was highly mistaken.
It is by naming that we create anew, the Mysteries taught, and H.D. is deeply concerned with the Mysteries of Egypt and Greece, and their relevance for our own times. Throughout the poem, names act as symbols: "I called my sister, Astarte//or Nephtys, twin-sister of Isis" -- by simply calling her this, H.D./Helen tells us, it is so. Significantly, Helen was called Helen by the Trojans and as a child in Sparta; in Greece she was called Helena. Establishing this in the first pages, the later use of the name Helena immediately locates the speaker within her Greek self.
The poem is precisely crafted: a prose narrative begins each portion, setting the scene and hinting at the persona's thought process; this is followed by a lyric in the persona's voice, almost a meditation on the narrative. In the narrative, H.D. attempts to act as the listener or observer, responding to the plight of the speakers and being led by them. These sections also insure that the readers will not be confused by the introduction of gods and speakers not usually associated with Helen's story. But in stepping out of the personified voice with this commentary, H.D. sometimes undercuts the persona's vitality:
Helen compares Clytemnestra and Iphigenia to
"one swan and one cygnet." Their divinity is
stronger than all the material forces gathered
against them. They must forget the war and its
consequence -- but no, there is this yet,
unresolved -- without war, there would have
been no Achilles, no "Star in the night."
Have you ever seen a swan,
when you threaten its nest --
two swans, but she was alone,
who was never alone;
the wings of an angry swan
can compass the earth,
can drive the demons
back to Tartarus,
can measure heaven in their span;
one swan and one cygnet
were stronger than all the host,
assembled upon the slopes
and the hills of Aulis;
she was born of a swan,
and I and our brothers,
we are children of Zeus;
I must wait, I must wonder again
at the fate that has brought me here;
surely, she must forget,
she must forget the past,
and I must forget Achilles...
...but never the ember
born of his strange attack,
never his anger,
never the fire,
never the brazier,
never the Star in the night.
We are moved along and avoid confusion by being told in advance that Clytemnestra and Iphigenia are "one swan and one cygnet", but the second reference, to Achilles, spoils the later impact. The star image would have followed the embers, fire, and brazier nicely (one also thinks of the cygnet in terms of the constellations, surely well-known by H.D., whose father was an astronomer), but by telling us in advance that Achilles would be compared to a "Star in the night", she weakens the power of the persona's image.
It is difficult to see from this fragment how well H.D. has used repetitive and slightly varied imagery to unite the poem. The embers and the brazier have been used time and again, most strikingly in the warmth Theseus offers Helen. Or, to take another image, Helen's first meeting with Achilles is described in various sections as "few were the words we said"; Achilles' question, which Helen often repeats, is "which was the dream/which was the veil of Cytheraea?"; or Helen begs throughout: "Teach me to remember/Teach me not to remember", contrasted with Paris' constant question: "Who will forget Helen?"; finally there is the striking repetitive fragment, referring to the arrow which wounded Achilles: "I, Helena, know it was Love's arrow".
The poem divides into three sections, with each section subsequently divided into six or seven "books". All the poems are in tight, three-line stanzas, comparable to the Greek choral line and using form to root us in the persona's Greek identity. The first, Pallinode, is, H.D. tells us, "a defense, explanation or apology." This is Helen's section, and it is she who must defend, explain, or apologize for her actions. Even so, H.D. is careful not to let any one persona dominate the poem; our view of Helen must be prismatic, as seen by various speakers. After we have overheard Helen remembering Achilles' words, the fourth book is given over to Achilles' voice. In the final book Thetis, the mother of Achilles, steps forward, not to defend herself but to speak in defense of Helen and, by implication, all women.
The second section is entitled Leuke (L'isle blanche), the island where "Achilles is said to have married Helen." Finally Helen's more infamous lover, Paris, the core of Euripides' tale, is introduced. Paris speaks not in his own behalf, but to call to mind the Helen that he remembers, the Helen who loved him and not Achilles, as if his words can still prevent her marriage. It is in this section, also, that we hear from Theseus, the god who kidnapped the child Helen.
In the prose narrative to the first part of Book Five, we see the clearest insight into Helen, the point where she comes closest to H.D. herself: "Helen must be re-born, that is, her soul must return wholly to her body. Her emotional experience has been 'too great a suspense to endure'." Helen's question, near the end of the poem, "how reconcile Trojan and Greek" is to be understood, not as we might often misread it, how bring Paris and Achilles together, how prevent war (which it certainly means on one level), but on a deeper level: how unite her Trojan and Greek selves?
Love and Death become one in the third section, entitled "Eidolon" (the ghost or image of Thetis, extended to include all the speakers in an otherworldly aspect). Helen questions the reality of all around her, questions once again if it is memory or dream. Forced to confront reality, she realizes that it is in Death, not Love, that one recovers the youth or Self she has been searching for. At the end, the voice of "one greater than Helen", sums up the quest:
there is no before and no after,
there is one finite moment
that no infinite joy can disperse
or thought of past happiness
tempt from or dissipate;
now I know the best and the worst;
the seasons revolve around
a pause in the infinite rhythm
of the heart and of heaven.
Even though the reader senses that this is Helen's own voice speaking, the Eidolon of Helen, the recovered child with a woman's knowledge, must continue searching for what can never be recovered. Paris, she insists, knows nothing of the Sea: "only Achilles could break his heart/and the world for a token,/a memory forgotten."
But no, the memory is not "forgotten" -- not for H.D. at least, if it was for the persona. It had been lying dormant for awhile, "...ten years?/it was more than that, more than that", she tells us in the opening section of "Winter Love (Esperance)", written in the Winter and Spring of 1959. This sequence was included for the first time in Hermetic Definition, published in 1972, eleven years after her death. In his introduction to that volume, Norman Holmes Pearson says:
"Winter Love" was, as she often referred to it, a "Coda" to Helen In Egypt picking up once more all that her Helens have from the beginning expressed in terms of the quest. "Winter Love" is a poem "in contemporary time," her own older age. "Winter Love" as an actual coda. It would, it seemed to me, by bringing the legend on down in time, show how she herself had always figured in her own poems. If she was true to the Greeks, she was true to the Greek in herself. H.D. agreed that "Winter Love" could be included. Then, just before the manuscript finally went in, she changed her mind. Its appearance in the same book would, she felt, destroy the poem she hadoriginally conceived. For although her poems are personal they are never purely personal. They are part of something very much larger than herself. Her "Self-seeking quest" was for the compassing "self" of which she was only a part.
Helen is still with us in "Winter Love", but she is usually referred to in the second or third person. The narrator of the prose sections of Helen In Egypt is incorporated into the poem, and there is a sense of the poet speaking both to and through Helen. But it is a lonely Helen, one who has given her lovers back to the gods who own them, a Helen who has only her memory left. For the first time Menelaus, Helen's husband, is introduced: "There was a Helen before there was a War,/Menelaus remembered her." And in the poem which follows H.D. calls up her previous personages to bid them farewell:
Helios-Helen-Eros? Is that Menelaus?
is that the golden first love, innocence?
is that the Child before the Child was born,
imagined with the cap-crown of bright hair,
inheritance of the "golden Menelaus"?
not Menelaus, but myself gazed up at me,
in the veiled glance of Helen-Hermione;
they said there was a Child in Leuke,
they said it was the Child, Euphorion,
Achilles' Child, grandam,
or fantasy of Paris and a Child
or a wild moment that begot a Child,
when long ago, the Virgo breasts swelled
under the savage kiss of ravening Odysseus;
yes, yes, grandam, but actually and in reality,
small fists unclosed, small hands fondled me,
and in the inmost dark,
small feet searched foot-hold;
Hermione lived her life and lives in history;
Euphorion, Esperance, the infinite bliss,
lives in the hope of something that will be,
the past made perfect;
this is the tangible
this is reality
She tells us that "not Menelaus, but myself gazed up at me,/in the veiled glance of Helen-Hermione" -- it is all, in reality, the veil of persona, and the Self speaking through it. Hermione
is the main character of her early novel, Her; H.D. herself was a Virgo. Also, we sense that the Child is real, even if H.D. would once have had it otherwise. It is this Child who is “Esperance), the infinite bliss" and "the past made perfect."
Whereas other poets writing in persona could simply look back and recall their earlier symbols, H.D. (under Freud's tutelage) was compelled to explore the reasons that she had turned to them in the first place. As she tells us in the final poem: "cruel, cruel is Hope,/terrible the weight of honey and of milk,//cruel, cruel the thought of Love,/while Helen's breasts swell, painful/with the ambrosial sap, Amrita//that must be given". So even at the end, it is Helen's breasts which swell, or the thought of the pain drives H.D. to transfer it onto Helen. H.D. never completely releases the symbolic persona she has been using, she only draws it closer to herself.
Diane di Prima
With Loba, an ongoing sequence in the persona of the she-wolf, Diane di Prima is the first writer to continue H.D.'s exploration of feminine mythology. The Loba is the wolf-woman, woman as wolf, and ultimately Goddess. This is not, as was H.D.'s Helen In Egypt, the persona of the questing Goddess, but the quest to become the wolf-goddess. Di Prima enters the poem at the precise moment of interaction, and vividly records it. Like Pound, she makes no attempt to describe her references in watered-down fashion so that the reader will follow her. Thus, many poems become fragmented, mysterious moments, which catch the reader up in their not-quite-rational intensity.
Di Prima mixes the heightened goddess quest with mundane, contemporary images:
O lost moon sisters
crescent in hair, sea underfoot do you wander
in blue veil, in green leaf, in tattered shawl do you wander
with goldleaf skin, with flaming hair do you wander
on Avenue A, on Bleecker Street do you wander
on Rampart Street, on Fillmore Street do you wander
with flower wreath, with jeweled breath do you wander
In "Callypso Speaks" H. D. used persona to hide the "raw fury" of the poem, and surely this has been the main aspect of even the most violent personae. In Loba, di Prima not only gives us a decidedly feminine persona, but she was perhaps the first poet to use the persona to expose the anger rather than to cloak it. The Loba is Wolf, but her sense of herself is as Woman. Particularly in the poem's early pages we find her running after or hunting her mate, and near the end of the book:
THE LOBA, IN MAY
And yet, she knows, no one has loved her enough,
no one has glimpsed her windswept
chasm, the trees
bent or broken in storm
of raw ghost on dusty
horizon, or seen
grace of her hands, fondling amythest chips
no one has guessed the affirmation
she now wears the marks of love, bruises
like jewels on her aging
breasts, the secret fire
in virgin grottos whose waters
no one has drunk.
Blue liquid light
pours out of her brown eyes
her great head
bends, to hide dreams that have not changed
under a hundred lovers. She waits
he-who-can-see-thru disguises, she oils
her supple, 16-yr-old limbs
her thick hair...
It is the Loba's toughness which attracts the poet, her seeming invulnerability. This is the Loba who can say calmly to her mate: "Do you growl?/Know I cannot undertake/to meet you, tho it be only/a step."
Loba is not a persona which has been defeated by her quest. She is not a distorted madwoman with a melodramatic voice. Loba accepts her anger as part of who she is and this is what makes her a figure to respect. That anger is rational and justified by the experiences of the poems, not some mysterious power tormenting her. Loba is not ironic: di Prima intends for us to see the intense seriousness, even urgency, of her quest. She is speaking for all those women who make poems out of their anger, and what is more important, for those women who still hold their pain silently within them. Thus, in Part VI, "The Seven Joys of the Virgin", she turns "The Annunciation" into a scene of rape. "Nativity", like "Loba In Childbed," is a powerful poem of contemporary woman in her humiliating scene of hospital birth:
They fettered me
w/leather straps, on delivery table. I cd not
cry out. Forced gas mask over mouth,
slave. I cd not
turn head. Did they fetter me
w/ breath of a fish? These poison airs? I cd not
turn head, move hand, or leg
thus forced. They tore child from me. Whose?
Di Prima has spoken of the sense of the trapped woman, particularly noticeable on a workshop tour in Wyoming, which provided the impetus for the dream that triggered these poems:
I had a very long dream one night. I won't go into all the parts of it, it had to do with having to find shelter somewhere, being in an outcast or vagabond situation with two of my children, and living in the cellar of this building in which some very rich people lived upstairs. They were getting ready to have one of their entertainments: they were going to watch through a kind of skylight-thing in the floor, while we were hunted down by a wolf. I found this out by going upstairs and spying on them, listening to the conversation. I decided I wasn't going to wait to be hunted. I picked up my baby, and had another kid following behind me, and I was with a friend whose baby was really noisy, and I was worried about the noise because I was afraid it was going to give us away, and we started to walk through this incredible stone labyrinth. As we were getting it together to go, down the ladder that I'd used to spy came two men with a wolf between them, trussed as if she had been killed in a hunt -- you know, legs tied to a long piece of wood. When they got the wolf downstairs they untied it, and it's the wolf that's supposed to hunt us. We were already walking out. We weren't running -- we were walking out. And this wolf digs that this is what's happening, and falls in behind us and starts walking with us. Keeping pace. And at some point, I turned around and looked this creature in the eye, and I recognized, in my dream, I recognized or remembered this huge white wolf, beautiful white head, recognized this as a goddess that I'd known in Europe a long time ago. Never having read about any European wolf-goddesses, I just recognized this as a deity. (Anne Waldman and Marilyn Webb, Talking Poetics From Naropa Institute).
Interestingly enough, the poem built directly from this dream is placed midway through the book. The book begins in the third person, the first section presenting external, physical portraits of the Loba, speculating on who or what she could symbolize, gradually becoming internalized in the sections which follow. A few scattered poems in the first person, the Loba's voice, require no transition other than their titles, since the portraits are so attuned to the Loba's quick, staccato
sensibility that the rhythms and voice are the same. The overall impression built up by these shifts is that the Loba sees herself as others see her, or that others see her as she sees herself, perhaps the first step toward the poet's merging with the persona.
By Part IV the portraits are more precise, including "Some Lies About The Loba" -- in knowing herself she knows also what she is not, and it is in this section that we find the key dream poem, "The Loba Reveals Herself". Here di Prima finally accepts the Loba as "kind watchdog I cd/leave the children with./Mother & Sister./Myself." The section concludes with "Loba As Eve", prefaced with a quote from the "Gospel of Eve":
"I am Thou & Thou art I
and where Thou art I am
and in all things am I dispersed
and from wherever Thou willst
Thou gatherest Me
but in gathering Me
Thou Gatherest Thyself
The poems which follow begin with quotes from this preface, exploring and extending its meanings. The use of first and third person no longer matters. As might be expected, this is one of the most successful sections of the book.
The placement of the dream poem is crucial to an understanding of the process at work. The first half of the book finds di Prima exploring who the Loba is and what the dream means, while in the second half she explores what to do with the knowledge and power now that she accepts the Loba and the dream as rightfully her own. We can extend this concept to speak of the persona form itself, and the freedom such a persona assumes in the second half of the book can be found in the work of other writers as well. Until di Prima embodies the Loba and permits herself to be embodied, she remains limited and pinned down by definitions. Once the persona is understood and accepted, naturalized, nything is possible.
Once the Loba is established, both as an entity in herself and as the poet's persona, the trickster Loba can assume other shapes and forms, mostly of powerful goddesses: Helen, Persephone, Iseult, Heloise, Mary, even a fascinating "Interlude" in which Lilith once again assumes her goddess nature.
By now we accept that this poem is exploration, not narrative. There is no story to be told, only this Self to come to know. This is not the saga of the whole quest, but isolated, peak moments. The quest is the poet's, not the persona's. In avoiding commentary and entering directly into the process of the poem, di Prima draws the reader toward identification with the Loba, not with the Loba's tale. If we insist on finding a story here, it is between the poems, in the poet's struggle to assume the persona which itself remains indifferent to such considerations.
The poems' transformations are not the result of writing in persona or the literary devices used to create the persona. They are possible because di Prima has spent years preparing and remains an initiate of esoteric teachings, and so was fully receptive to the voice of the Loba in the dream.
Several essays could be written about the various philosophies at work here; lesser poets than di Prima would have written essays instead of poems. Few poets have made so many personal statements vital to our times. The book is at once political and spiritual, qualities di Prima explored in her previous work: the political statement, art more often than rhetoric, was used well in Revolutionary Letters, while the meditative, quiet acceptance was most evident in Kerhonkson Journal. These poems move simply and naturally out of what has become her lifestyle, and perhaps this quality explains their graphic precision.
Unfortunately this quality is not sustained. The book is marred when the poet becomes overly conscious of her persona and steps outside it to comment on it, as in "The Critic Reviews Loba" or "Some of the People This Poem Is For". Such outside commentaries, placed within the poem itself, make us question the entire concept of her persona: is this really a creature di Prima is inhabiting (who is haunting her), or is it simply a device? As Armand Schwerner has pointed out, one would like to believe her preferatory statement that: "The work is, like they say, in 'progress'. The author reserves the right to juggle, re-arrange, cut, osterize, re-cycle parts of the poem in future editions. As the Loba wishes, as the Goddess dictates." But the momentary asides from the persona make us suspicious that it is more often di Prima and not the Goddess who dictates. It is also indicative
that these asides lose the rhythmic base which infuses the rest of the book.
We realize that, even in the second half of this book, this is still persona in the process of becoming, however tightly the mask may have fit for awhile. Persona can still be used as a simple poetic device, but as such they are not personae which embody the total quest in the way di Prima, like Pound and Olson, intends. Perhaps, in the middle of the twentieth century, with more and more poets writing in persona, this exploratory process, related to the process of the poem itself, is a form it must assume. The heroic is not so easily acquired and the quest is no longer an end in itself in the way that it was a hundred years ago. The poet/quester must begin again and again. Near the end of the volume, di Prima describes it in "Now born in uniqueness, join the Common Quest". The poem begins by asking what this Grail they are hunting for is, and ends with the Loba questioning who she is. And the book's final poem ends with the image of the Loba as "White Fox that Leaps over Tombstones", a reminder to the reader that this poem is not yet completed, but will continue in whatever manner "the Goddess dictates". The Goddess, of course, is also the persona, and in Loba the persona is the ongoing discovery of the poem.
Margaret Atwood's early search for a persona (brought to fruition in The Journals of Susannah Moodie) stemmed from her Canadian heritage and her need, as a writer, to shape a Canadian identity. In Survival, her history of Canadian literature, her discussion of animal stories shows her early fascination with the persona form:
They are almost invariably failure stories, ending with the death of the animal; but this death, far from being the accomplishment of a quest, to be greeted with rejoicing, is seen as tragic or pathetic, because the stories are told from the point of view of the animal. That's the key: English animal stories are about "social relations", American ones are about people killing animals; Canadian ones are about animals being killed, as felt emotionally from inside the fur and feathers.
Atwood similarly identifies with the victim (a theme which also runs throughout Survival, whether human or animal, and the poem often emerges from the point of view of that other). Whereas, in the work of most poets discussed here, we can first define a precise self and then trace that self as contained in persona, in Atwood we meet the persona first, and then only gradually discover traces of a personal voice. Sherrill Grace approaches this problem from the opposite direction when she says that:
The idea of the collective as opposed to individual hero is consistent with Atwood's view of the self, and her heros -- the chief protagonists in her fiction, Susanna Moodie, the voice in many of the poems -- should be approached in this light; while they are particularized, especially in the fiction, they are not highly individualized, three-dimensional characters, so much as representatives or symbols of social concerns, archetypes and myth. (Sherrill Grace, Violent Duality)
When Atwood does write about herself, it is as she resembles those around her, and not as she feels different or isolated. Where she is isolated or estranged from herself, as occurs frequently in her work, it should be seen as a collective, cultural isolation.
This idea of the "collective hero" is, as Atwood tells us in Survival, an element particular to the Canadian sensibility. In writing a work such as The Journals of Susanna Moodie, the need to create a symbol for the Canadian tradition most likely remained foremost in her mind; if Moodie became "highly individualized" at times, such was not Atwood's primary concern. It is therefore only natural that Atwood's first, and to date her most sustained work in persona, was based on the writings of this early Canadian settler. The themes of exploration and settling had been used in several short poems in two earlier books, The Circle Game and The Animals In That Country. Because they are usually written in persona, these poems become participatory, inviting the modern-day reader to share the experience.
Introducing the chapter on "Explorers and Settlers" in Survival, she says:
Part of where you are is where you've been. If you aren't too sure of where you are, or if you're sure but don't like it, there's a tendency, both in psychotherapy and in literature, to retrace your history to see how you got there.
The more one reads Atwood's work, the clearer it becomes that place is synonymous with identity. Once we understand this, it is easier to see The Journals of Susanna Moodie as the differing voices of the woman, which change as she moves from place to place. Atwood is concerned not with her movements, but with the effect that the shift in landscape has on her tone. At the same time, she is fascinated with Moodie's inner self. Roughing It In The Bush, Moodie's first journal was "written for the express purpose of telling others not to come, and that seems to have set a precedent.” In the "Afterward" Atwood says: "what struck me most about this (Mrs. Moodie's) personality was the way in which it reflects many of the obsessions still with us." And from Survival:
Needless to say, the patterns literature makes out of such experiences are not the same as the experiences themselves. For instance, we are looking not at explorers' journals but at the explorer figures that later writers have created. Still, what you think of the pattern -- apart from your aesthetic appreciation of it -- will depend partly on your evaluation of the original experience.
The Journals of Susanna Moodie presents such an evaluation.
Atwood found little use for the words that Moodie had actually written; she searched through the words to discover what the persona did not have nerve to say directly. The reincarnated figure must become all she almost was but ultimately was not in her past incarnation.
Sherrill Grace has said that "To create, Atwood chooses violent dualities, and her art re-works, probes, and dramatizes the ability to see double." In Survival, Atwood described this duality as part of the Canadian psyche. In the "Afterword" to Susanna Moodie she makes it specific to the persona:
If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia. Mrs. Moodie is divided down the middle: she praises the Canadian landscape but accuses it of destroying her; she dislikes the people already in Canada but finds in people her only refuge from the land itself; she preaches progress and the march of civilization while brooding elegaically upon the destruction of the wilderness; she delivers optimistic sermons while showing herself to be fascinated with deaths, murders, the criminals in Kingston Penitentiary and the incurably insane in the Toronto lunatic asylum. She claims to be an ardent Canadian patriot while all the time she is standing back from the country and criticizing it as though she were a detached observer, a stranger. Perhaps that is the way we still live.
Here, then, is the essence of this persona and its use for Atwood: she is wrestling with this conflict in her own life. She feels that perhaps in re-examining Mrs. Moodie's life and the way she dealt with its problems, she will come to an understanding of how she herself can deal with them. It remains to be examined how the poems have approached and fulfilled this need. Though the book is hampered by elements of the chronology which have been left out, Atwood at least partially solves the problem by using images which are simple and integral to both the poem and the persona.
The book is divided into three equal sections, nine poems each: Journal I, 1832-1840, deals with Moodie's life in the bush; Journal II, 1840-1871, places her in the comparatively refined city of Belleville; in Journal III, 1871-1969, "the poems take her through an estranged old age, into death and beyond." Atwood says in Survival that:
Although Moodie passed en route through several already established cities, her destination was a bush farm, and it is her encounters with the land, not her encounters with urban society, that form the subject of her book.
Atwood is true to her perception of the persona: the poems in the first section are the crucial experience, and the poems in the two later sections, while taking in the urban life they find around them, are still haunted by the experience of the bush the first section describes. The success of the entire book is, therefore, reliant on the poems in this first section.
Fortunately, these poems are highly successful. Not only do the images succeed within a given poem, but the use of repetitive and slightly varied imagery within the sequence makes the nine poems seem much fuller than their actual length, and establishes their imagery firmly in the reader's mind. It also establishes the images in the persona's mind, and here Atwood brilliantly puts into practice her theory of place fusing with identity. I quote the second poem:
After we had crossed the long illness
that was the ocean, we sailed up-river
On the first island
the immigrants threw off their clothes
and danced like sandflies
We left behind one by one
the cities rotting with cholera,
one by one our civilized
and entered a large darkness.
It was our own
ignorance we entered.
I have not come out yet
My brain gropes nervous
tentacles in the night, sends out
fears hairy as bears,
demands lamps; or waiting
for my shadowy husband, hears
malice in the trees' whispers.
I need wolf's eyes to see
I refuse to look in a mirror.
Whether the wilderness is
real or not
depends on who lives there.
The cities, the only civilization Moodie passed through, are "rotting with cholera" and dismissed in four lines; they will not be thought of again in this section, where bush imagery cancels out all other thoughts. By picking up this imagery in later poems, the undercurrent of fear returns as well. "I need wolf's eyes to see/the truth" is echoed in "The Weremen" where she waits for her husband to return from the field: "I can't think/what he will see/when he opens the door."
In the final poem in this section, "Departure From The Bush", the image is even more fully developed. The animals have "arrived to inhabit me" before she was ready, and:
I was frightened
by their eyes (green or
amber) glowing out from inside me
I was not completed; at night
I could not see without lanterns.
The next line, set by itself, "I refuse to look in a mirror", symbolizes her way of dealing with the bush by avoiding it and pretending it does not exist. Later, the poem "Looking In A Mirror" represents her decision to return to civilization after seven years away.
The poems in the second section do not establish a separate, horror filled universe comparable to that in the first section. In three poems the persona dreams she is back in the bush and, while her images are precise, they lose some of their power by being one step removed from reality. Yet all this seems to be in accord with Atwood's sense of the persona: taken out of the wilderness which had become so vivid to her, Mrs. Moodie cannot hang onto it and at the same time finds nothing substantial with which to replace it. In "Charivari" an American woman tells of settlers killing a black man who married a white woman, then "adding she/thought it was a disgraceful piece/of business, finished her tea."
Moodie's old definition of what human civilization is has lost its meaning. She, too, would have once been happy to act in this manner, but it no longer suffices, she has seen too much. Ironically, it is on her return to civilization, and not in the bush, that Moodie's children die. A son dies by drowning in the poem which opens this section; we are not told how the others die, or even how many others there were. Even death is no longer a real experience. True, the children "catch at my heels with their fingers," but the image remains on the surface; we do not feel the intense action of the gripping fingers, nor the mother's emotional reaction.
Again, this is precisely the image that Atwood wishes to put across of the way in which Mrs. Moodie's feelings had petrified. There is an inherent problem here which the poet always faces when working in persona: the poems are extremely truthful to the character, and to that extent wholly successful. As poems in their own right, they fall short. But then, we must remember that Atwood has a reasonably low-key voice; she cannot compensate for the persona's complacentness with the energy of the poem itself. Perhaps the final test is that, while the third section is somewhat disappointing, the character and the narrative still retain our interest.
The poems in this final section recapture that physical sensibility which was missing from the previous section. Perhaps this is because these later poems also contain an awareness of the world surrounding the persona, avoided for the most part in the second section. Here is the poem which opens Journal III:
Once by a bitter candle
of oil and braided
rags, I wrote
verses about love and sleighbells
which I exchanged for potatoes;
in the summers I painted butterflies
on a species of white fungus
which were bought by the tourists, glass-
cased for English parlours
and my children (miraculous)
Now every day
I sit on a stuffed sofa
in my own fringed parlour, have
uncracked plates (from which I eat
and a china teaset.
There is no use for art.
In this same parlour she visits with the grandchildren who do not really know her. She tours the lunatic asylum where, on the various floors, she seems in her own senility permits her to recover the various parts of herself. After death, she can look back over her life with a clarity and understanding that was impossible before. Atwood is on tenuous ground here: these final four poems could easily appear silly and extraneous; only Moodie's absorption in the physical landscape renders them credible. They also remain true to Moodie's persona: Belleville, at the end of one poem, is fast becoming a metropolis: "(though it is still no place for an english gentleman)". Or, as the book ends, the final stanzas of "A Bus Along St. Clair: December" read:
I am the old woman
sitting across from you on the bus,
her shoulders drawn up like a shawl;
out of her eyes come secret
the walls, the ceiling
Turn, look down:
there is no city;
this is the centre of a forest
your place is empty
This is also the first time an unnamed "you" appears, a twentieth-century reality sitting and reading this book. Atwood has taken us full circle back to the collective self found in the prefatory poem, which describes Moodie's photograph with the face cut out. Now, truly, "where my eyes were/every-/thing appears" while at the same time it is the writer/reader whose "place is empty".
On the cover of the first edition of The Journals of Susanna Moodie there is a collage by Atwood, showing a stick figure landscape in the center of which is a photograph of Moodie in old age, set in an oval frame, then laid on its side. On the cover of Atwood's Selected Poems is a photograph of Atwood in a similar oval frame, set upright. The associations between the two are too close to have been accidental, and the photograph is fitting in both instances. The concern with mirrors and photographs, with a tangible identity as opposed to what the person really is, is a constant theme in all Atwood's work, and her emphasis on writing in persona is an extension of that theme.
Just as, in most poetry by women, there seems to be a greater ability to deal with the extremely personal aspects, so these women have transferred that same ability onto their personae. The raw fury of today's feminist woman, still concealed in H.D.'s Helen, is displayed to advantage by di Prima and Atwood.
The search for identity predominates in all these personae. These are not the already-formed heroes such as King Arthur that male writers have dealt with, but heroines in search of themselves, in desperate need of defining and defending their own heroics, and pleading that the world see them in a new light. H.D's description of the first book of Helen In Egypt as a "defense, explanation, or apology" can be applied to di Prima and Atwood as well. These writers explore the myths
without settling on any one final telling. Particularly in the work of H.D. and di Prima, it is necessary to emphasize once again that these are not casually begun personae, but quests the poets themselves have carefully prepared for, H.D. through her studies with Freud, di Prima through her esoteric readings and study of Buddhist teachings.
In the late 1970s and mid 1980s, when Speaking in Tongues: A Study of Persona in American, Canadian and British Poetry was written, Rochelle Ratner's own poetry was immersed in the world of personification, most importantly the unicorn figure in Quarry (New Rivers Press, 1978) and the mermaid figure in Combing the Waves (Hanging Loose Press, 1979). Her most recent poetry books are Balancing Acts (Marsh Hawk Press, 2006), Beggars at the Wall (Ikon, 2006), Leads (Otoliths, 2007), and the e-book Toast Soldiers (Vida Loca Books, 2007). More information can be found on her website: www.rochelleratner.com.