TEXT review


Confession and confrontation in She Woke & Rose

review by Amelia Walker

 

Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:2016 OCTOBER REVIEWS:IMAGES:royal-she-woke-_-rose_709x1024_large.png
Autumn Royal
She Woke & Rose
Cordite Books, Melbourne VIC 2016
ISBN 9780994259660
Pb 53pp AUD20.00

 

‘I wish to confront, rather than confess’ declares Royal in the preface to her debut poetry collection (xiii). It’s a brave move – and curious, given that Royal’s literary influences include Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, both of whom are commonly connected with twentieth century American confessional poetry (Perkins 1987: 588; Benfey 2002: 43; Carter 2012: np). I therefore read She Woke & Rose wondering about Royal’s connections to these and other historic literary figures, and pondering the relationship between confession and confrontation generally.

Royal evokes Plath’s ‘The Applicant’ in ‘Hey Lady’ (3), the opening poem of She Woke & Rose. Readable as a sardonic reflection on gender and other social norms, ‘Hey Lady’ makes effective use of puns and repetition – for instance, ‘miss’:

...the train – she might wreck – hey lady – have you written –
all this down – she said like – books – don’t forget to submit –

storybook – say something – smoothing – like –
on the form – there’s space for miss – that space –

don’t miss it... (3)

The dashes stylistically signal another influence: Emily Dickinson. For instance, in ‘Boiling Water’ Royal demonstrates that she, like Dickinson, is a poet with a keen ability to make familiar, domestic objects appear strange, perhaps even a little frightening:

I want to reduce my thoughts
having sliced them with a knife,
bluntly. I hold my hands
over the aluminium mouth, allowing time
for each line to sink in... (23)

Though not a ‘confessional poet’ per se, Dickinson strongly influenced the twentieth century American movement (Benfey 2002: 43), and the tributes to her in She Woke & Rose make Royal’s confront-not-confess stance still more curious. So too do the book’s frequent motifs of blood, bleeding and other ‘red’ phenomena, including roses, flowers and ‘flowering periods’ all of which can signify menstruation and / or female embodiment. These motifs, along with Royal’s tendencies to write of ‘the uneasy space of the body’ (Takolander 2016: xv) make She Woke & Rose readable as a kind of écriture feminine or writing the feminine in the tradition of Hélène Cixous (1976). Also notable is Royal’s tribute to Adrienne Rich, who, along with other feminist writers of the 1970s and later, used motifs of blood and red as part of an effort to ‘address taboo subjects and social limitations that plagued American women’ (Wilson 2014: np) in line with the feminist conviction that ‘the personal is political’ (Hanisch 2006).

Rich is perhaps the key to the confront / confess quandary of Royal’s collection, for although Rich’s work ‘suggests confession’, her primary commitment was ‘to invoke social truths in her work’ (Carter 2012: np). By declaring her wish to confront, Royal seems to be echoing this commitment. Furthermore, via her tributes to figures like Sexton and Plath, Royal makes it clear that she is not attempting to spurn the ‘confessional’ tradition but perhaps to re-invest it as something that always was itself confrontational and political. However, socio-political readings of confessional poetry are well-established – including by Rich (2009: 144) – so if this is Royal’s major contribution, it is hardly groundbreaking. [1]

A better key, then, might be Gilbert and Gubar’s historic work (1979) on ‘the anxiety of authorship’ (Gilbert & Gubar 2000: 49) – developed as a feminist response to Bloom’s (1973) ‘anxiety of influence’, which pitches the Western poetic tradition as a violent ‘family romance’ in which each heir overthrows their predecessor (Bloom 1997: 8). In Gilbert and Gubar’s model, the latecomer writer seeks instead to connect and collaborate with predecessors – to place themselves within a literary tradition and celebrate, rather than deny influences (2000: 49). Considering that the thirty-four poems in She Woke & Rose include at least fifteen explicit dedications to female writers, not to mention implicit references and allusions, it seems reasonable to suggest that connections with feminist writing traditions are what Royal’s book seeks, knowingly or otherwise.

These feminist connections worried me, at first. Despite the historic and ongoing gains feminist poetry has offered, pursuing the same approach uncritically and unchanged in present times would be problematic, given more recent discussions around contemporary feminism’s capacity for becoming implicated in the reinforcement of hegemonic heteronormative norms of gender privilege, entitlement, marginality and injustice (Serano 2007: 359). Or as Eades has remarked of écriture feminine, the 1970s approach, for all its historic worth, ‘no longer fits’ – fails to fully accommodate the fluid diversities of contemporary bodies, genders, identities and lives (Eades 2015: 10). Thankfully, She Woke & Rose goes well beyond mere re-enactment of feminist poetic traditions. For instance, the book’s final and title poem insists:

...if she is to become putty, she will do it herself

because this is her first life as a woman
& poetry will help her to receive
her chosen body & the flowering periods
no matter where the blood discharges... (50)

Here, Royal signals that femininity need not be defined by menstruation and / or the assigned sex of one’s physical body. The poem accommodates possibilities of transgender, intersex and asexual ways of being. Furthermore, it must be noted that Royal’s influences extend well beyond feminism. She cites contemporary and historic poets including William Carlos Williams, Frederick Seidel, Jo Langdon, Amy Key, Felicity Plunkett, John Fowles and Anne Carson, all of whose works bear richly diverse relationships to gender, sexuality and politics.

Royal also cites from intellectual spheres beyond poetry, for instance circus performer Skye Gelllman, scientist Carl Sagan, conceptual artist Hong-Kai Wang, and composer Chris Mann. She Woke & Rose thereby bridges multiple centuries, cultures and disciplines of thought. Royal’s poems connect and converse with all these influences, drawing them into conversations, (re)creating a poetics of possibilities.

These possibilities are realised in particularly exciting ways through Royal’s play with fragmentation, gaps and erasures – for instance, in ‘in the elevator, heading for the 23rd floor’ (26-29), a four-part sequence about creative practices of cutting-up, remixing, collaboration and improvisation, which also ponders relationships between the arts and social change. Another example is ‘Like a Bridge’ (20-21) – also a sequence – which forges fascinating links between culturally, historically and geographically disparate writers and traditions. A further example, ‘In Motion’ (31) visually configures breath and its heady rhythms, suggesting transformation and boundlessness – or, ‘no edges’ (Carson cited in Royale 2016: 31).

If at first Royal’s desire to ‘confront, rather than confess’ (2016: xiii) seems to eschew poetry traditions, by my reading, She Woke & Rose reinvests in confession and confrontation while pushing beyond what has been framed – for transformation(s), socio-cultural, linguistic, poetic and o/Otherwise. This is a refreshing first collection which could afford to name and own the ways in which it most vitally succeeds.

 

Notes

 

Works cited

Benfey, C 2002 ‘Emily Dickinson and the American South’ in W Martin (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 30-50 return to text

Bloom, H 1997 [1973] The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, second edition, University Press, New York, Oxford return to text

Carter, L 2012 ‘Elegy for Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012’, Fanzine (26 April): http://thefanzine.com/elegy-for-adrienne-rich-1929-2012/ (accessed 5 May 2016) return to text

Cixous, H ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, K & P Cohen (trans), Signs 1, 4: 875-893 return to text

Eades, Q 2015 all the beginnings: a queer autobiography of the body, Tantanoola, North Melbourne return to text

Gilbert, S & S Gubar 2000 [1979] The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination,Yale University Press, New Haven return to text

Hanisch, C 2006 [1969] ‘The Personal is Political’, The Personal is Political: The Women’s Liberation Movement classic with a new explanatory introduction: http://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html (accessed 5 May 2016) return to text

Perkins, D 1987 A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA return to text

Rich, A 2009 A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society 1997-2008, WW Norton, New York return to text

Serano, J 2007 Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Seal Press, Emeryville CA return to text

Takolander, M 2016 ‘Introduction’ to Autumn Royal, She Woke & Rose, Cordite Books, Melbourne: xv-xvi return to text

Wilson, M 2014 ‘Confessionalism Birthed from Feminism’, Coldfront (15 September): http://coldfrontmag.com/confessionalism-birthed-from-feminism-jd/ (accessed 5 May 2016) return to text

 

 

Amelia Walker was awarded her PhD in early 2016 from the University of South Australia, where she now works as a creative writing tutor. Amelia has published three poetry collections and three ‘All You Need to Teach’ poetry resource books. She has presented papers at several AAWP conferences and was awarded the 2015 postgraduate prize.

 

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TEXT
Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
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