Phyllis Webb: The Voice That Breaks
By Liza Potvin
The body of Phyllis Webb's poetry aptly illustrates the transition of a woman poet from god-centered reverence toward self-realization and freedom both as woman and writer. Webb challenges T.S. Eliot's distinction between poet and persona, connecting the personal with both the political and the spiritual, in part by eclipsing her dependence upon male mentors and authority figures.
As poet and woman, Phyllis Webb was dramatically influenced by the impact of feminism in the middle of her career, and her responses to ageing, death, despair, and related philosophical issues were subsequently altered, as is reflected in her comments, poems, broad casts, and essays. Facing the nihilism of existentialist philosophy taken to its logical extremes, contemplating suicide, and questioning the meaning of life led her through the death of an old way of thinking and toward her rebirth as what I would term a "gynolantric" poet, or one whose work praises femaleness. Her waning interest in social politics -- in 1949, Webb was the youngest candidate for the CCF party -- was compensated for by an interest in spiritual politics. Webb's first attraction was to Buddhism, the influence of which may be felt in the sparse style of Naked Poems in particular, but eventually she abandoned Buddhism because "I really believed in conflict and suffering for growth. . . . I was too much of a materialistthe rational, socialist world brought me back. . . . It's an attitude of transcendence and trying to rise above" (Wachtel 11). Once she dismissed Buddhism and any notion of a transcendent truth, Webb severed all attachment to organized religion:
Webb next shifted her allegiance to feminism, which seems to have replaced religion for her; she states that she was "intuitively" a feminist as early as the 1950s:
The reader of Webb's poetry sees her gradually shedding her privileged position in the patriarchal world, needing the approval of fatherly figures less and less. The move away from fatherly literary figures is paralleled by Webb's loss of interest in God the Father, described in her poetry as a kind of death.
In evaluating Webb's development in her nine volumes of verse, what we witness is the death of the self-censoring, self-destructive patriarchal poet and the regeneration of a poet whose primary concern is woman's relationship to that patriarchy, to its form, its language, its time and its space. Webb transforms the silence of suicide and despair into the life-affirming action of creative writing, the energy of the engaged woman poet rather than one who withdraws, simultaneously revising her spiritual values. She exhibits courageous and unrelenting self-scrutiny in the face of enormous critical rejection in the prime of her life, unmindful of the need to conform. Having confronted death and survived, Webb offers an alternate view of woman as mystic seer, a prophecy of the possibilities open to women who can achieve authentic autonomy. Proceeding from the arid wasteland of her despair toward the play of light on water, Webb's poetry develops an increasingly positive, woman-centered vision for spiritual transformation.
I want to trace the development of this gynocentric vision as Webb's verse moves away from the life-denying philosophy she once embraced, challenging her previously-held spiritual and aesthetic beliefs. Consistent with Webb's vision, I will conflate poet and persona in examining the poetry. Webb's poetic roots are in an androcentric system of meaning. In several interviews, she has acknowledged the influence of male mentors like F.R. Scottthe one-eyed giant who dominates so many of her early poemsand even as recent a volume as Water and Light is dedicated to him, among others. Wilson's Bowl (1980) is foreworded by an apology that all of its portraits, except one, are male: "They signify the domination of a male power culture, in my educational and emotional formation so overpowering that I have, up to now, been denied access to inspiration from the female figures of my intellectual life, my heart, my imagination." Since Webb's spiritual values were also profoundly alienated within the male power culture one might add to this "my spirit." She concludes the foreword with another apologia: that she has not written more about women, saying that "[t]he others -- the unwritten poems -- are the real `poems of failure.'" Webb did eventually uproot herself from the urban scene, move back to the sea of her childhood, and focus on female writers like Sappho, Dickinson, Atwood, Rich and on new forms. But let us backtrack momentarily and examine the values which inform Webb's early writings.
It is clear that early on Webb had internalized masculinist values in choosing the metaphor of religious renunciation to describe her vocation of poet. As a woman poet writing within a male tradition, who is forced to identify against herself with the mute object of poetry, Nature, the silent Other, she has no voice as a synthesizing, self-expressive ego. She is not her own subject. While, with the advent of postructuralism, it is no longer possible to accept the epistemological claims of a transparent realism, this does not negate the strategic importance of feminist writing as a medium of self-exploration and social criticism (Felski 79). The denial of personality and identity, the acceptance of self-imposed exile and secrecy, the donning of the mask of self-effacement, were necessary strategies for a female trying to gain acceptance in a patriarchal literary tradition. It therefore seems consistent that she should adopt the persona of a cloistered nun in her first volume of poems, Trio -- a book which also includes the poems of Eli Mandell and Gael Turnbull. Much of the early poetry is devoted to giant figures like King Lear, Van Gogh, André Gidemen who were obsessed with "the poet's curse" of existential angst and who viewed the phenomenal world as intolerable. In "Poet," Webb adopts a similar pose, describing her vocation in terms of sacrifice and debasement of the self:
This poem likens acceptance of the (masculinist) poetic vocation to submission to rape: the victim/poet is a pale object punctured until she bleeds, swallowed by the "tallest of mouths" who is set to overcome her in a contest of wills, "as I or it prevails." The competition is fierce; this is not a vocation chosen in the pursuit of pleasure. Woman is literally effaced in this poem (a striking contrast to Webb's later command that God/Poetry "Turn my head / I want to see your face" in "A Question of Questions"). The reader is also struck by the passive tone ("I am promised"), the lack of choice, the sense of powerlessness, resignation, and the conclusion that poetry is some form of punishment or exile whereby the woman poet is confined to a nunnery. One can observe Webb's affinity in the early poems with the figure of the spinster, the wise woman who is also a social outcast because she does not fit the patriarchal stereotype. The persona who emerges in these early poems resembles the trapped "madwoman in the attic" described by Sandra Gilbert (1979). The speaker of these poems writes of an ensuing sense of claustrophobia, of enclosure within various confining structures: the grave, the hourglass, the walls of the nunnery, the prison cell, the chancellery, and -- most significant for a woman -- the veil. Yet the veil simultaneously permits her one freedom: the power to observe, to remain inscrutable and protected from the unsolicited gaze. Ultimately it allows her to play a subversive role. The veil is also an interesting metaphor because of its oblique reference to the veil of Isis/Ishtar, a figure who gains prominence in Webb's more recent work.
Initially her privileged position as an acolyte in the male religion of poetry satisfies her, but gradually she finds her situation untenable and schizophrenic. She can no longer maintain the public illusion of wholeness, while remaining shattered as private individual. Repeatedly in these verses Webb contrasts appearance with reality, suggesting that truth is hidden beneath layers of camouflage, that the gap between desire and truth is enormous. Her public self is of necessity male, and in the following poem she again likens poetic inspiration to rape by a sky-god:
. . .
Webb echoes Donne's beseeching of his deity/muse, whose inspiration will desert the poet "except you ravish me." But the implications of ravishment for a woman poet are more onerous in this case; one hardly imagines a gentle seduction by god or muse in Webb's poem. The final horror lies in the suggestion that the woman poet perceives her power to be derived from some source external to herself. In this volume, Webb makes it clear that even love cannot allay the pessimism of living in a fragile world where there is no stable sense of self. The precariousness of the nun's disguise and the fear that her spying will lead to discovery lend a threatening, anxious tone to these poems. All of the violence and despair is turned inward. Caught in a web of powerlessness, subterfuge, and silence, the poet is free to observe but not to participate. The result is a despairing, disjointed view of the self, low self-esteem, a feeling of being buried alive. The power merely to observe is no longer sufficient:
The final startling image recalls Donne's "bracelet of bright hair about the bone": many of these early poems are characterized by echoes of the metaphysical poets. What is remarkable about them is the paucity of bodily images, of the flesh as a positive life force, relative to Webb's later verse. Much of the early poetry focuses on skeletal images, a point observed by critic Helen Sonthoff, who remarks that for Webb "[b]one is harder than flesh, and deeper; it can be fractured and is, finally, dust: it is shaped and shaping, rigid and jointed; it is the skeleton which glistens with death and it is the structure of our living" (18). Webb makes an uneasy truce with bones, accepts their necessity, and is constantly aware of the skeleton structuring and occupying the flesh: bones suggest inherited weight in poems like "A Pardon to my Bones." But there is an underlying sense of resignation and futility about what the bones impute to the speaker's life: a sense of being ignored, misused, despised (Sonthoff 20). Living with the bones which shape and define her requires acknowledging the ambivalent co-existence of life and death, a reconciliation of opposing instincts which does not come easily to Webb at this stage in her writing, particularly since the bones (like the repeated glass images) represent the fragility of existence, an "inheritance, bright with death," an infrastructure not of her choosing. The reader has a sense that these are overworked poems; again the contrast with her later spontaneity and playfulness makes this evident. The awareness of the physical produces an instinct to retreat, to withdraw from the world.
Characteristic of the poems in Webb's first two volumes, Trio and Even Your Right Eye, is the recurring attitude of defeat, despair, and alienation which she expresses as pain, grief, and spiritual anguish. One might read these two works as her "dark night of the soul." Time is artificial, like the ailing hourglass in "The Second Hand," where "whether we love or not involves the clock and its ignorant hands." The poet would free herself from "the armorial night" in "Earth Descending" by evading the orbit of the sun and "the rest of the nocturnal floral pattern." One interpretive strategy would be to read these poems as gestures articulating the pain felt at being marginalized as a woman poetat putting a lid on the eye/Igestures which made Webb an object of scorn among several critics who gave her what she refers to as "critical wounds" (WB 9).
John Bentley Mays writes in Open Letter that Webb's poetry is nihilistic and disembodied, referring to her poetry as "testimony, as a woman and a writer, of decisive, unmitigated failure" (12). What Mays accuses Webb of is a lack of virility, of not being a man. Since she cannot accept her feminine sensuality, having intruded on male territory, she might at least behave heroically. Instead she is merely a
Lack. Unhealth. Distorted by lusts. Unheroic. Unreasonable. The doctor pronounces the old crone unfit. Mays's judgments are uncritically reiterated by Frank Davey in his influential survey of Canadian writers called A Guide to English-Canadian Literature since 1960:
Yet both Mays and Davey congratulate Webb for possessing a spiritual vision which seeks "purification of the soul by the abasement of the body" (Davey 262). Even John Hulcoop, Webb's greatest critical advocate and editor of her first Selected Poems (1954-1965), affirms the view of her verse as self-indulgent solipsism and exhibitionism, whereby Webb is "making parade of her personal problems" (Hulcoop, "Introduction" 20). George Woodcock writes that Webb seems reluctant to publish, that her work is marked by its "scantiness," and that she is driven by "philosophic pessimism," writing about "small, simple" matters, and that her work is "honed down to an extraordinary intellectual sparseness" (Woodcock 1970). While stripping down is an essential feature of her poetry, it does not necessarily indicate either pessimism or smallness. These critics imply that Webb does not have the right to take up space, or to devote her attention to "trivia." A dried-up, withered spinster, a bag of bones. To be ignored, relegated to the margins of the masterful discourse.
All of these critical terms, taken out of the pejorative context, qualify Webb as a feminist poet; for the very reasons she is rejected by mainstream critics, she may be celebrated as a poet of the feminine voice. I would expand the definition of feminist here to suggest that such descriptions also mark Webb as a spiritual poet redefining spirituality on her own terms. Concurring with Frank Davey's description of her in From Here to There as a writer who "surrenders everything to the flesh," Webb states that she nonetheless "vehemently" disagrees with his assessment of her as a "post-modern goddess of doom and gloom," which she says is overdone:
How she perceived the world was, in a word, male. And her perception is accurate. When men write about despair, they are considered great existential poets, courageously confronting the voice of modernist angst and alienation. When women write of despair, they are being melodramatic, bitchy, hysterical, vain, eschewing greatness because they dwell on small matters. Stay in your place. Go back to personifying beautiful Nature so that we can look at you, define you. Or at least be quiet. Don't let yourself go.
But letting herself go is precisely what Webb sets about: she lets go of the despair and the silence which constrain her.
Webb forges a new tradition of her own making, relying on inordinate trust, skill, strength and patience; what she refers to as "lucid cargo" -- the painful burdens of the past -- must be let go:
She longs for a different time frame, "the slow beat of slanting eyes / down the heart's years." (The "slanting eyes" (I's) recalls Emily Dickinson's admonition that the poet "tell it slant"; indeed Dickinson is a poet much admired by Webb.) The reader may read this new poetic tradition as consonant with the female descent motif outlined by Annis Pratt (1981) and Carol Christ (1980), in which the seeker must sound the depths of hell before re-emerging to a green world.
One of Webb's essays on the creative process describes the writing of poetry as a stripping down to reach the core, "as if the poem contains layers of earlier incarnations hidden within it" (Talking 60). This process also involves the historical excavation of feminist sources as Webb gradually turns to women writers for inspiration. The metaphor of stripping down to the essential core is at the center of two poems in particular, which are worth considering because they illustrate Webb's development as a feminist poet. The earlier one is called "Poet." At the heart of new growth in this poem is the difficult kernel, the "bitter male," who is later replaced with the seed of emergent selfhood:
The image of the seed is also central to "Double Entendre"; this time it is associated with hope in the figure of a pregnant woman. The pomegranate belongs traditionally to Persephone, who carried it with her into Hades; it represents the link with her mother Demeter. Like the child within the woman and the one without, the seed within the fruit is embedded in its flesh, in roundness, in continuity. The pomegranate must be destroyed to release the seed; life must flow into death in order to be renewed. The poem contrasts this cyclical process of metamorphosis starkly with linear concepts of time, death, and justice, whereby man is destroyed by his own "unflattering" and, in the context of the poem, ironic image of time.
Besides the traditional concept of time, Webb also contrasts the male version of spiritual ecstasy with her own in one of her best-known poems, "Marvell's Garden." Marvell is portrayed as one who escapes suffering by retreating into art, a journey likened to the ascent toward the paradise of which fallen man has been dispossessed. At first she is in awe of him:
Marvell's vision of heaven, and of eternity, is in accordance with the patriarchal myth of an otherworldly escape from the toils of earthly existence; it represents seclusion, escape, freedom, exclusivity. In his poem, the poet finds refuge in a static pastoral haven that excludes the presence of women, where "[n]o white nor red was ever seen"; the colours associated with female beauty in Marvell's time are marked by their absence. It is the pervasive, orderly masculinity of his paradise that affords him peace of mind:
. . .
The same masculinity strikes Webb as oppressive. She declines Marvell's invitation to his "arcane solitude" because it requires "leaving brothers, lovers. Christ / outside my walls / where they wept without / and I within." She refers to "his garden [as] a kind of attitude / struck out of an earth too carefully attended." This line is interesting because it contrasts Webb's desire for simplicity, for community, and her yearning to shun the artifice of overly-refined cultivated gardens, Marvell's abstractions ("he did care more for the form / of things than for the thing itself") and his isolation. Webb's poem addresses the absences declared by Marvell, and she suggests by the phrase "struck out of an earth" a type of violence against the earth itself. She can neither sanction his exclusive "ecstasy" nor its isolated sense of enclosure ("his garden closed in on Paradise"). Having been traditionally confined to the earth, women do not have the same kind of relationship with paradise as do men. As women have never possessed paradise, they cannot be dispossessed. Men and women have a different heaven and earth, and the speaker longs for some recognition of the real earth, of women, in the patriarchal myth. To describe her longing, Webb employs a metaphor which simultaneously tears asunder and heals (breaks and makes), recalling the pain of childbirth, or a geologic rending of the earth, or the shudder of orgasm: "Oh. I have wept for some new convulsion / to tear together this world and his."
In a poem from the same volume, "Poetics Against The Angel of Death," Webb chastises another literary giant for his arrogance, presumption and elitism. Of Wordsworth's "Prelude," she writes that it
Again it is man's elevated "attitude" which she criticizes, the androcentric assumptions about man's rightful place, about his past, about death and immortality. The poem is interesting in its evasion of metric regularity; it lapses into iambic pentameter at the mere mention of Wordsworth's name, while the subsequent short lines "run ragged" to compensate before collapsing or "dying" into a final affirmative run-on line, as if in imitation of the male sexual climax. Here Webb seems to be experimenting with a new gynolatric form. Lambasting the posturing behind what she calls "The Great Iambic Pentameter" which Wordsworth and other "great" poets have relied on, she speaks instead of her desire to dienot to reign immortal"writing Haiku / or, better, / long lines, clean and syllabic as knotted bamboo. Yes!" The affirmative, ecstatic "Yes!" recalls Molly Bloom's final triumph; like Molly, Webb gets the last word. Webb identifies the long line with phallic aggression: "It comes from assurance (or hysteria), high tide, full moon, open mouth, big-mouthed Whitman, yawp, yawp, & Ginsberghowling. Male" (Talking 68). Like Virginia Woolf, who strove to demarcate "a woman's sentence,"2 Webb seeks a female form, a female voice which will enable her to move beyond the long lines, the elevated stance, the oppressive boundaries of the nun's walls, the man's garden, the glass clocks and the lonely towers prominent in her early poems. Her imagery from this volume onward dwells less on enclosures and more on openness and open spaces.
This shift away from the exclusively intellectual, with a new emphasis on the truth of sensory experience, is first hinted at in The Sea is Also a Garden (1962):
Again the vertical symbol of the Ivory Tower is toppled, the glass with its illusion of transparent truth is cracked, and patriarchal privilege is exchanged for the reality of the five senses, the balance of mind and body. The speaker demands that the male preserve, which enshrines the intellect, open up a space, make room for otherness.
"Making room" becomes an important theme in her later volume, Naked Poems. Now Webb concentrates on the construction of a different, female voice, and on a variety of evolving forms more suited to the expression of female autonomy. She emphasizes the purity and simplicity of "long lines, clear and syllabic," evoking a horizontal rather than a vertical authority, the "knotted bamboo" like knotted veins linking each female utterance or syllabic gasp in a chain. The declared female intimacy of the syllable line is a marked departure from Wordsworth's elevated public stance. The poet here is a "[M]ad Gardener to the sea" and, like the "moon / rages across the sky to tend / oceans of an unloving dark." Webb sees that "breaking is a destructive element" but that it gives way to "making" eventually. The poem "Breaking" portrays Webb's disillusionment with androcentric thought; a loss of faith in God is the natural corollary. The male construct of God is intangible, too remote for solace:
Again Webb expresses disdain for vertical metaphors like the cross or the "raised gods" which symbolize man's ascendence. Recognizing destruction as an integral part of rebirth, she envisions instead a pattern of circular growth which necessitates death: "What are we whole or beautiful or good for / but to be absolutely broken?" There is an ongoing battle to break free of restrictive traditions or patterns, to re-make, to imagine, to create an "excellent despair" out of which insight will emerge. As Webb comments in an interview, "Being useful sometimes means being subversive" (Poetry in Canada 8).
Naked Poems (1965) marks Webb's snail-like retreat into her self -- not into despair or self-effacement as previously -- but into the "excellent despair" that heralds her re-emergence as a reborn, unbroken poet. The central preoccupations of her verse become the construction of the female poet and the location of female sexuality and subjectivity. Here the poet is engaged in the process of "trying to write a poem" rather than focussing merely on the end product, or the need for sanctioned inclusion in the academy of male poets.
The sapphic haiku fulfills Webb's formal need to let go of the illusions of containment, control, unity, and enhances her earlier-stated desire for a new form to express new thoughts. The linked haiku create intense, sharp lyric moments -- what Webb calls "suites" -- which are organized in a linked pattern forming a narrative which is deliberately repetitive, and imagistically evocative through accretion. Webb defines this as her attempt to come to terms with
Silence is transformed into something powerful, rather than annihilating, celebrated as a period of waiting and discovery. The poems may be read as a reaction to the grandiose display of androcentric presumption about knowledge, enshrined in the works of poets like Rilke and Eliot, whom they address. They are therefore deliberately small, personal, and focused, a way of asserting identity: "doubled up I feel / small like these poems / the area of attack / is diminished." "Doubled up" suggests the sharing of identity between women rather than the Romantic myth of the individual ego. It also states women's doubled subjectivity. The vision of love, of spiritual truth, is expanded in the poems to include not just one but other women as well. The language here is spare, minimalist, naked. Each poem depends for its meaning on a shifting movement, a sinuous exploration of unknown, mysterious realms. Language, like love, is slippery, deluding, constantly shifting in meaning, as in the title of one of the suites: "Suite of Lies." With the aid of her lover, the speaker can protest against women being reduced to absence and instead create a space for them:
Poetry becomes something fluid, actual, pictures and hieroglyphic symbols which will gradually unravel their many layers of meaning. The "silly gods" of "Breaking" are now supplanted by the goddess:
This ecstasy is the cry of female orgasm, not the contained or climactic ecstasy sought by Marvel or Wordsworth. Even the line length suggests a coiling movement, compactness, flexibility, the word "Motion" arriving only after the eye travels to the next "syllabic" line, the letters only after a "breathing space" as one literally gasps for air. The breathness captures a crisp, fresh quality in these lyricsnot the inflated long line of masculine verse, but short syllables interrupted by "those gasps, those inarticulate dashes" of Emily Dickinson which Webb says she admires for being "subversive, Female" (Talking 69)3. The speaker listens for new sounds to reveal the difference, listening and anticipating and describing the process itself:
Awareness of the female self eclipses the presence of male authority and male text:
The subject/object tension necessary to the climax of the androcentric love lyric is dissolved, rendered irrelevant in the context of two women loving each other. Where, in the earlier poems, Webb's despondency about the potential of love dominates ("What can love mean in such a world?"), now lovemaking is equated with the making of poetry, with creating the female sex. The poems are written not just about the body, but by the body, écriture feminine. A unified body of verse is likened to the unified bodies of women:
The body and the mind are linked but seek expression through the body: "It is a good mind / that can embody / perfection / exactitude." Each self-contained verse is itself embodied in the larger suite, like a series of Russian dolls. Read en suite, each verse overlaps and interconnects with the others, giving multiple layers of meaning. The same is true of the room which provides the setting for the suite: room denotes not only the four walls which contain the lovers, but also a room of one's own, a separate space:
In these poems, there is no ascetic denial; although Webb emulated the Oriental penchant for simplicity which also fascinated T.S. Eliot, she mocks his elevation of the still point in The Four Quartets ("Who would call me to still centres / needs a lesson in desire"). While the haiku is generally associated with Buddhist koans, with detachment and dissolution of the self, in Webb's hands it becomes sensual, connective, a way towards discovering the flesh rather than escaping its demands. Fluid movement and desire are typographically juxtaposed with stillness by parentheses and by alignment along an alternate margin (the voice of the marginalized):
Eros and agape are equated, even presented visually on the same line to demonstrate their equality. Yet their order is reversed: the detached stillness of agape usually belongs to the meditative tradition depicted in the first column, while eros is assigned to the physical world of the lovers. The redefined sacredness of bodily love is aptly illustrated by the "confusion" of the two forms of love, which Webb show as inseparable. Darkness/matter is restored and sanctified; Job moansnot in despair that the divine has deserted him, but in ecstasy.
However satisfying Naked Poems is as a breakthrough volume which breaks silence, Webb's stated desire to modify line lengths along women's demands remains problematic, if we define linear too literally. Only the typographical tricks of concrete poetry, the careful spacing on the page of the sparse haiku, can create the illusion that this poetry is genuinely non-linear.4
The next volume, Wilson's Bowl, is inspired by what Webb identifies as the "strange network of connections," or wavelengths, contained in the correspondence between Lilo Berliner, a librarian at the University of Victoria, and Wilson Duff, an anthropology professor at the University of British Columbia. Although the two never met, they established a mystical bond through their correspondence that obviously fascinated Webb. The two correspondents viewed themselves as twins, like the twin masks of the Haida contained in Duff's collection. In his postscript to the volume which describes that collection, Duff distinguishes the masks along gender divisions, claiming the difference lay in the eyes (Images in Stone, B.C. 26). Webb states that the two correspondents "were not identical" twins, since Wilson's outlook was "very Freudian and western" and he said he listened for "the two hands of God"; Lilo's intellect was more intuitive ("she was Jungian and oriental"), what Webb describes as "casual, absurdist, at times abandoned" and possessed of an "inner logic" which closely resembles that of Webb herself: "Lilo listened for the sound of one hand clapping and heard it in spirals and circles." (Talking 148) Wilson is not even the ostensible subject of the poems, in spite of the title of the book; he is displaced by the connective female narrative voices which offer one woman's response to another woman's drowning. The sense of doubleness is thus not merely between Duff and Berliner, but also between Berliner and Webb. "Lilo saw art and life as a series of epiphanies" (148). The self-reflective epigraph in Naked Poems:
is a symbolic precursor of the relationship between the two women; both lines stare at and reverse their images as in a reflective body of water. The "hidden" reference to Ishtar links women through the creative act of death. Both Duff and Berliner committed suicidehe by shooting himself in his office; she, by walking into the sea. Lilo's death represents Webb's accomplishment in an illogical pattern whose details are obscure; to "kill" the suicide is to allow cathartically for the dissolution of the self-destructive self and the emergence of the new twin artist, of Lilo's creative potential.
The voice is plurivocal in Wilson's Bowl, as the two women's voices merge into one, like the voices of animal spirits which form a refrain throughout the poems. It attests to a kind of female communion between Webb and her study, akin to the experience of the two lovers in Naked Poems who struggle against silence. Women are forced into silence, yet Webb and Berliner manage to connect in some mysterious fashion as the correspondence crosses Webb's path. Webb writes that Lilo left the letters at Webb's doorstep before walking into the sea. The ultimate silencer, death, discloses several unquiet voices. The ensuing poetry is palimpsestic. Webb pursues silence in the land of the dead by conversing with the two suicides, which by asserting the unity of the living and the dead, allows her, like the goddess Inanna, to speak to the living. The poems focussing on Duff and Berliner compose only one section of the volume, called "Artifacts," but the symbol of Wilson's bowl dominates the entire book. The bowl signifies silence, listening, waiting; it signifies Lilo, and the creative act of writing itself. The moon appearing on the surface of the earth, reflected in the bowl, evokes the body: the eye, the belly of the earth. It is distinct from the Christian chalice:
Webb's difficulty lies in stating a metaphysical paradox: she must somehow name or put into presence that which is silent, empty, absent, drained: woman. Again her task is to recreate the absence celebrated by Marvell.
Wilson's Bowl opens with Webb's "Poem of Failure." She had intended to write a book of poems about Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist -- another of the powerless prisoners Webb identifies with -- but never accomplished this ("intentions and visions fall / and fall like bad ladders"). Kropotkin was for Webb a "sweet Prince," a visionary whose intimacy with nature, political anarchy, and questioning of authority led to his exile and imprisonment in Russia and France. Although sensing her affinity with Kropotkin, she is hesitant to adopt him as a mentor; he is "unattached to the mode of doubt" (as are many of the other male philosophers in the "Portraits" section) and therefore not a model for a woman poet "absorbed in the fitting together / of pieces" (18), in the dismantling of falsely-reassuring philosophies of wholeness. Once she has unmasked the "master," she has no need of male mentors, who merely ignore or doubt women or project onto them their own lack of vision. This volume marks Webb's abandonment of male muses.
Webb's more recent work balances observations of daily life with a "serene capacity" for wisdom. She now abandons her earlier ambition for the eventual recognition of the female voice in mainstream literature. In a reversal of her previous desire to be included, to achieve male acceptance, the 1984 collection entitled Water and Light: Ghazals and Anti-Ghazals features "Fishtar," a figure whose name includes Ishtar, the goddess first glimpsed in Naked Poems and whose presence dominates these poems. In revising the ghazal, Webb creates a marginal text of female poetics which challenges the conventions and the authority of male writing.
In terms of its form, the ghazal is ideally suited to Webb's revisionist pursuit. An ancient Persian lyric in which the male sings the praises of the object of his love (woman), its highest goals are refinement and pleasure through the acquisition of his desire. Yet it is desire itself which Webb seeks to redefine from a feminist perspective. The traditional Persian lyric is highly structured, written in couplets which all end on the same rhyme; its aims are the distancing of the self from the ideal of universal love and the achievement of detachment and symmetry of presentation. The conventions of the ghazal are as rigid as those of a petrarchan sonnet: it also addresses an idealized Beloved who personifies all the cherished "universal" qualities of woman as lover. Both follow an orderly couplet structure, self-contained in subject and grammar, forming a continuous linked sequence. Webb's poems invite comparison with Margaret Avison's "Butterfly Bones; or, Sonnet against Sonnets" in their determination to challenge such conventional poetic structures. "But as I learnt more about Ghazals, I saw I was actually defying some of the traditional rules, constraints, and pleasure laid down so long ago," she writes in the preface.
The traditional ghazal was composed of couplets linked with an eye and an ear for song and music. Webb's anti-ghazals focus on "the particular, the local, the dialectical, and private," as she declares in her manifesto in the preface. Rather than directing her attention to woman as love object, Webb concentrates on the woman as writing subject, on the construction of the female self which is intrinsically bound to the development of a new kind of language. The language is deliberately disjointed, evocative, impressionistic, experiential, and sensuous, in a marked departure from the generalized romantic conventions of earlier ghazals. Focussing on simplicity, Webb seems fascinated with nature, ancient ritual, and the sublime and mysterious rhythms which create the female self; hence she writes anti-ghazals. She is deliberately discordant and asymmetrical, blending elevated with colloquial language in a fruitful dialectic. She employs varying line lengths, and does not always observe a set rhyme scheme, preferring instead to write fragments which are the
Webb also challenges the subject matter, the mystical seriousness, of the early lyric form by inserting various "trivial," irreverent or mocking humorous incidents in her anti-ghazals:
These too become serious matter for poetry. The first poem in the volume is a blend of personal revery and public outcry, referential rather than reverential:
The specificity of a detail from the interior memory (a dance in Banff), or from observing a pink hydrange -- a blooming in the garden -- grows by association from muted pastel pink to the horribly vibrant red of the victim's blood, contrasting the decadent, idle pursuit of dance/yard games/poetry with the reality of political and religious oppression in the Middle East. Outward serenity (flowers, a memory of playing badminton or dancing) is shattered by inner realization (the family who is "the circumstance I cannot dance with"); the tranquility of the past is disrupted by the violence of the present. The poetic mind is capable of uniting all these disparate experiences, can include the "mundane" reality of Iranian politics in a meditation on a garden flower. The ghazal form is expanded in Webb's verse to incorporate the very reality which it traditionally seeks to distance itself from, to elevate the ordinary to the realm of the distinct. The object is no longer a passive woman, who is instead mocked by Webb as "the Beloved in her bored flesh," as she writes in another anti-ghazal. The traditional ghazal as form is reduced to "this stringy instrument scraping away, / Whining about love's ultimate perfection" (20), while the conventional conceptualization of transcendental love itself is undermined by a playful tone. The centrality of male creativity and male sexual response is displaced, its authority neutralized through ridicule, contradiction, and disparity. What the anti-ghazals reflect instead is a spirit of female self-affirmation, the result of Webb's long struggle towards personal, poetic, and spiritual autonomy.
In Wilson's Bowl, Webb wrote of her desire, based on the one expressed by Adrienne Rich, for a common language to unite women and to point to the inadequacy of patriarchal language; she focused also on the end of transcendence and the dream of beginning anewdrowning in a watery matrix to re-emerge whole. Webb has now shifted her literary allegiance to female mentors. Douglas Barbour demonstrates that Webb's purpose in writing anti-ghazals is closely related to that of Adrienne Rich in the latter's 1969 volume, Leaflets, and in her 1971 volume, The Will to Change (105). Rich introduced Webb to the ghazal; Rich contributed several of the adapted ghazal poems in Ghazals of Ghalib: Versions from the Urdu, from which Webb takes her epigraphs, one couplet per section, for the five sections of Water and Light. Combined, the five couplets compose the first ghazal of Webb's volume (Hulcoop 152). Rich speaks of women's "tremendous powers of intuitive identification similar to Keats' negative capability" (Webb's affinity with Berliner, for instance), claiming that this is a positive way of describing women's "weak ego boundaries," as they are so disparagingly defined from a patriarchal perspective.5 This is Webb's rediscovered source of power of a different kind altogether from that she sought by imitating her male predecessors.
Webb celebrates common domestic experience, the way that women's tasks (including the task of writing) focus on the interruption of "wholeness":
. . .
Writing is not a retreat from reality, focussing on an idée fixe; it is process, the "pull / this way and that, ultimately into the pull / of the pen across the page. / Sniffing for poems / the forward memory / of hand beyond the grasp" (18). The easy blend of the line lengths facilitates Webb's task in taking the line "across the page" or not, as she chooses, without resorting to male "yawp." Writing is not the creation of a passive object or an artifact to be preserved for posterity, but rather it is a continuum centered on the present moment, the "flow, flux, even the effluent stormy / in high wind" (16). Writing is interrupted by the welcome intrusion of women neighbors who teach the poet something about daily life; it is the ability to "relate disconnectedly." The real insight Webb offers us here is that genuine writing is done, not by blocking out the world, but by allowing it to exist. And this is a revelation with profound spiritual implications.
Webb's writing demonstrates the development of a feminist poet who rises from the ashes of her past, a past shaped by patriarchal perceptions of the divine and of art. Her repeated emphasis on "breaking" leads us to recognize the necessity of shattering outworn myths. Webb's poetry has always pursued the metaphysical, but in her later work she redefines that pursuit, locating it firmly in a feminine mystical tradition, as she writes in the preface:
The all-seeing eye of ancient Persia belonged to Maat, the goddess of truth and final judgement; it was the later attributed to Hermes.6 Although the Third Eye usually invokes the Buddhist concept of godhead, for Webb it is distinctly female, a round, open centre of power like that of Wilson's bowl. In her essay entitled "Up the Ladder: Notes on the Creative Process," Webb writes of her "reticence" in revealing "the darker territory inhabited by the Creator Spirit" who inspires her poems (Talking 59). It is this spirit she invokes more openly in the later verse: a distinctly moral, female spirit like the grey-eyed nymph (the epithet recalls Athena) who spins our fate, so that the
Barbour explores the mystical power of the poems in this volume, concluding that "it is at best deviously present in the way Webb's `anti-ghazals' subversively engage the theme" of divine worship and "continues the investigative play with the symbols of Persian culture . . . undercutting the absolute masculinity the Divine assumes in both Hebrew and Muslim belief" (111-12).
In her 1990 volume Hanging Fire, Webb's poetry is less lyrical than that of Water and Light, and in some respects seems to return to the dense, arcane language which characterized her earlier work. Its mystery is heightened by the enclosure of each of the poems' titles in quotation marks, to indicate the "given" quality of the words, which Webb claims arrived "unbidden" in her mind (Fagan 23). The feminist awareness highlighted in Water and Light now finds its fruition in Webb's homage to female writers like Gwendolyn MacEwen, Bronwen Wallace, and Sharon Thesennot in an attempt to elevate the status of these poets to the level of Rilke, Marvell, Marx, Heidegger or the other gurus previously worshipped by Webbbut to celebrate their ordinariness. Webb cites her indebtedness to younger women poets:
This liberation has allowed Webb to let go of the despair which dominated her early career.
Or maybe we can learn as much from Webb, following her journey from darkness into
light, from despair into hope, like the silent woman in Webb's final poem "The Making
of a Japanese Print" who "emerges at last / on the finest paper" (HF 78).
Virginia Woolf, in a review of Dorothy Richardson's Revolving Lights (19 May 1923), reprinted in Contemporary Writers (London: Hogarth, 1965): 124. See also A Room of One's Own (1928: Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963): 77.[back]
Margaret Homans suggests Dickinson's deviousness in excluding herself by the use of poetic convention, that she "finds in language's doubleness, paradoxically, a way around the hierarchizing dualism which frustrated many other nineteenth-century poets" (1980: 166). Dickinson wrote that she was a nobody at the same time that Whitman proclaimed to be Everyman.[back]
In her essay, "On the Line," Webb writes of the influence of Adrienne Rich's "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision" (the very title of which links both poets to the crone) on her own writing. Webb discusses the "physics of the poem" and her desire to embody "curvature" in her verse, a need to imitate the lines of the female body, the natural rhythms of flowers unfolding and dying, "falling into line, each one of its own line, of its own accord, curved" (Talking 67). In this meditative stay, she swells on the horizontal growth of the tulip as a model for natural line length; this she defines in reaction to the vertical, aggressive, and unnatural male line, which "splices" the natural rhythm. The line henceforth becomes for Webb an indicator of play and spontaneity and sensual exploration: "I play by ear. And the eye. The yellow tulip stretched on its stem, petals falling, a new moon, a phase. . . . [t]he seriousness of the moving line, for me" (Talking 70). Energy, sinuous motion, natural rhythms, taking herself seriously rather than comparing herself with male poets -- this is what Webb means by the womanly line as a form which is capable of breaking the stifling silence imposed on women by the "big-mouthed, howling yawp" of male writing.[back]
She makes this observaiton in commenting on Emily Dickinson in "Three Conversations," Adrienne Rich's Poetry: 114-15.[back]
Ayin was the `eye' in the Hebrew sacred alphabet, possibly derived from Aya, the Babylonian Creatress. Islamic Arabs diabolized her and corrupted her name into Ayin, spirit of the evil eye. Moslem Syrians call her Ayin Bisha, the eye-witch (Walker 1983: 294).[back]
Christ, Carol. Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980.
Davey, Frank. "Phyllis Webb" in his From There to Here A Guide to English-Canadian Literature since 1960. Vol. II of Our Nature, Our Voices. Erin, Ont.: Porcepic Press, 1974: 261-65.
Felski, Rita. Beyond Feminist Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.
Fitzgerald, Judith. "No Longer a CanLit Goddess of Gloom: Phyllis Webb Clears the Air." The Globe and Mail, 11 May 1983: N16.
Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 1984.
Glickman, Susan. "`Proceeding Before The Amorous Invisible': Phyllis Webb and the Ghazal." Canadian Literature 115 (Winter 1987): 48-61.
Homans, Margaret. Women Writers and Poetic Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1980.
Hulcoop, John. "Webb's Water and Light." Canadian Literature 109 (Summer 1986): 51-59.
------. "Phyllis Webb and the Priestess of Motion." Canadian Literature 32 (Spring 1967): 29-39.
Mallinson, Jean. "Ideology and Poetry: An Examination of Some Recent Trends in Canadian Criticism." Studies in Canadian Literature, 3 (Winter 1978): 53-57.
Mays, John Bentley. "Phyllis Webb." Open Letter, second series, N6 (Fall 1973): 8-33.
Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981.
Rich, Adrienne. "Three Conversations." Adrienne Rich's Poetry: texts of the poems: the poet on her work: reviews and criticism. eds. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975: 105-22.
------. "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson." Parnassus 5:1 (Fall-Winter 1976): 49-74.
Rothenberg, Jerome. Technicians of the Sacred: a range of poetry from Africa, America, Asia and Oceanica. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968.
Sonthhoff, Helen. "Structure of Loss: The Poetry of Phyllis Webb." Canadian Literature 9 (Summer 1961): 15-22.
Wachtel, Eleanor. "Intimations of Mortality: Once Threatened by the `the Terrible Abyss of Despair,' Phyllis Webb has Moved Beyond Mysticism and Anarchy to a Curiously Domestic Situation." Books in Canada, Nov. 1983: 8-9, 11-15.
Walker, Barbara. The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.
Webb, Phyllis. Even Your Right Eye. Indian File, N8 Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1956.
------. Hanging Fire. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1990.
------. "The Muse Figure," In the Feminine: Women and Words. eds. Ann Dybikowski, Victoria Freeman, Daphne Marlatt, Barbara Pulling, and Betsy Warland, Conference Proceedings, 1983. Edmonton: Longspoon Press, 1985: 114-16.
------. Naked Poems. Vancouver: Periwinkle, 1965.
------. The Sea Is Also a Garden. Toronto: Ryerson, 1962.
------. Selected Poems 1954-1965. Ed. and introd. John Hulcoop. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1972.
------. Selected Poems: The Vision Tree. Ed. and introd. Sharon Thesen. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1982.
------. Sunday Water: Thirteen Anti-Ghazals. Lantzville, B.C.: Island, 1982.
------. Talking. Montreal: Quadrant, 1982.
------. Water and Light: ghazals and anti-ghazals. Toronto: Coach House, 1984.
------. Wilson's Bowl. Toronto: Coach House, 1980.
------, Gael Turnbull, and E.W. Mandel. Trio: First Poems by Gael Turnbull, Phyllis Webb, E.W. Mandel. Preface Louis Dudeck. Toronto: Contact, 1954.
Woodcock, George. "Webb, Phyllis." In Contemporary Poets of the English Language. Ed. Rosalie Murphy. London: St. James, 1970: 1151. A Note on W.H. Auden's "Detective Story" and A.M. Klein's "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape"