Feminist Ecocritique as Forensic Archaeology: Digging in Critical Graveyards and Phyllis Webb’s Gardens
by Diana M.A. Relke
At first glance, it would seem an easy task to trace the history of ecocriticism in Canada, for that history is relatively short. Indeed, it was only six years ago, in 1991, that Laurie Ricou wondered aloud in an editorial in Canadian Literature why ecocriticism in Canada, as compared to the United States, seemed "almost an underground phenomenon." Against the backdrop of the mass trend of environmentalism, "eco-critics thrum like some scattered little grey birds among a flock of cranes beating their way into motion." Ricou also noted that "nature has loomed large in the Canadian consciousness. Canadian critics have been loud…on landscape….But in the apparently closely related matter of environmentalism, critics on Canadian literature lag behind…." Speculating on the reasons for that lag, Ricou suggested that "perhaps Canadians are naturally wary of another U.S. academic fashion" (3). But if Canada was lagging behind the U.S., it was not by much. Indeed, writing only one year earlier than Ricou, the American literary critic Glen Love, whose article is, perhaps, a presence in the background of Ricou’s editorial, complained of his profession’s failure "to respond in any significant way to the issue of the environment, the acknowledgment of our place within the natural world and our need to live heedfully within it, at peril of our very survival" (202).
Having studied Canadian literature in Vancouver through the nineteen seventies and early ’eighties, I can say with some confidence—at least from a western perspective—that Canadian resistance to American trends is largely confined to the level of nationalist rhetoric. It is not merely geography but also literary ideology that makes the critical distance from south to north a lot shorter than it is along the east-west axis. This is not to say that Canada has not had its unique critical perversions, one of which relates to another of Ricou’s speculations on our ecocritical tardiness: "[p]erhaps Canadians’ writing of the land as adversary inhibits eco-criticism" (3). Ricou was, of course, alluding to Northrop Frye’s impression that "a tone of deep terror in regard to nature" has always been a unique characteristic of the Canadian literary imagination (Frye 1965, 830)—an idea that launched an entire critical industry in the late 1960s and provoked a lengthy critical war. As a feminist ecocritic whose work could be called a forensic study of the casualties of that war, I find Ricou’s suggestion a good excuse to start digging up various literary and critical burial sites for those bodies of writing whose death seems both untimely and suspicious.
The movement that introduced postmodern aesthetics into Canadian literature produced a dazzling and delightful body of writing. But the effort to get the importance of that writing recognized by the critical establishment proceeded within an epistemology of conflict.1 As a result, many writers sustained serious injury. Phyllis Webb, for example, named her "critical wounds" as one of the reasons for the years of silence that preceded the publication of her Wilson’s Bowl in 1980. Her early work, the subject of the second part of this chapter, got caught in the critical crossfire, and it was her great misfortune that many of her critical supporters were on the losing side of the war. But as it turned out, the transition was more complex than just a shift from modernism to postmodernism. Today, thanks to several new critical perspectives, including feminist literary critique, ecocriticism, and other anti-Enlightenment approaches, it is possible to recover that early poetry as establishing the necessary preconditions for an emerging feminist and ecopoetic consciousness in Canada.2 But before making what I hope is a contribution to that recovery, I would like to return to Ricou’s allusion to Canadian literary ecophobia because I think it is important for an understanding of how the absence of a feminist perspective in the war between structuralists and post-structuralists might have contributed to the view that ecocriticism in Canada is "almost an underground phenomenon."
I want to begin by making what by now should be an unprovocative claim—namely, that not all the critics who followed Frye’s lead saw Canadian writers as endorsing the view of nature as a terrifying "other," opposed to human consciousness. But in the interest of overturning Frye’s structuralist school of thought, postmodernists chose to project this humanist episteme on many of the writers favoured by structuralists. In the late ’sixties and ’seventies, these writers became identified with a modernism which was, in the words of Frank Davey, "essentially an elitist, formalistic, anti-democratic, and anti-terrestrial movement" (1974, 19). Over against them were the postmodernists, "the only writers who have shown faith in the ability of the universe to direct composition through open, random, or multiphasic forms, or a belief that the ‘craft’ of writing involves a listening to ‘Mother Nature’" (111). Chief spokesperson for postmodernism, Davey drew a similar battleline across the critical landscape—a line which defined Canadian structuralism as thematic paraphrase (1976). Once these literary and critical battlelines were drawn, there was little room for writers or critics whose work resisted such oversimplification; no small amount of it was authored by women.
In 1988, the feminist critic Helen Buss presented a conference paper entitled "Women and the Garrison Mentality: Pioneer Women Autobiographers and Their Relation to the Land."3 Her point of departure was Northrop Frye’s 1965 Conclusion to the Literary History in Canada, in which he made the provisional proposition that what Canadian writers have in common is the idea of the garrison that protects against "a huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting" (830). Tracing the elaboration of this proposition through two decades of literary commentary, Buss demonstrated the way in which the "garrisoning" of Canadian criticism—both structuralist and post-structuralist—excludes female writers whose work is important to an understanding of Canadian literature:
The elaboration of Frye’s garrison mentality has…become…a big stick critics may wield to beat any writer whose reaction to the Canadian landscape is anything less than traumatic. As well, a kind of second generation of "garrisoned" critical commentary has begun to emerge in which Frye’s garrison mentality is assumed and internalized. Critics now propose that various postmodern writers can rescue us from its doom and gloom. Such writers are seen as self-engendered…white knights, puncturing with their postmodern comic shafts the heavy "realism" of earlier writers. (125)
The phallic imagery here is hardly accidental, for this debate is irrelevant to an ecocritical reading of the women writers Buss studies: they are neither garrisoned against nature nor interested in transforming it.4 Buss has "no root quarrel" with the elaboration of Frye's metaphor of the garrison, nor does she "intend to dismiss past critical research as ‘paraphrase’ and suggest that critics should now move on to a more up-to-date post-structuralist world and reject the past as ‘thematic criticism.’" Instead, in the spirit of "present-day writers who wish to ungarrison our literature and our criticism" (125), she recommends "not only that we go through the archaeological site of the Canadian tradition again, but that we expand the perimeters and, indeed, even change our definition of territory" (126).
This archaeological expedition has been central to the task of establishing feminist ecocriticism in Canada, and it has been an especially time-consuming project. For example, until very recently Buss's recovery of pioneer autobiographers appeared to be the only significant ecocritical contribution to women’s nature writing in prose. Indeed, as late as 1996, Andrea Lebowitz could still observe a huge gap in the fossil record. In the Introduction to her anthology Living in Harmony: Nature Writing by Women in Canada, Lebowitz wrote: "[e]xcept for early settlement journals, the work of women nature writers has been hidden from history. Yet this obscuring has more to do with the perceptions of the historians than with the merits of the female writers. Bringing these women back into focus redresses a wrong of literary history but more importantly it offers another way of seeing our connection to the land" (2). Like Buss, Lebowitz cites the myth of the garrison as obscuring a "second story" about nature—the one told by the women who find that "the natural world offers an alternative way of being human through harmony with the land." In the archaeological spirit, she uncovers a further stratum: "[w]hile the story of the garrison is largely a male narrative, it is clearly not shared by many men, particularly nature writers. As with their brothers, women nature writers do not concur with the garrison mentality nor do they necessarily have the same outlook as the male authors" (2). What Lebowitz alerts us to here are diverse strata in both the female and male traditions.
War is notorious for its destruction of archaeological evidence, and the conflict between structuralists and post-structuralists was no exception. In his campaign to capture the critical beachhead, Frank Davey attacked D.G. Jones’s Butterfly on Rock and buried it under a rubble of overgeneralization: it was "bad sociology"—prescriptive, normative, polemic, and extra-literary (1976, 8). Sifting through the critical site again, Buss tagged Jones as privileging those writers "who work at removing the garrison, at letting nature in" (121). This find is a valuable artifact in itself, for it identifies Jones as recognizing that there are Canadian writers who question the garrison as an appropriate response to nature, terrifying or otherwise. Further evidence of this critical diversity can be found a little deeper down in the Jones site—evidence that it was not just postmodernists who took an interest in nature’s side of the story:
The antagonism between nature and culture [in Canadian literature] is part of a larger drama involving the whole of western culture….Rather than accept the world as it is, western man has sought to transform it, to refashion the world in the image of his ideal. Certainly he has enlarged his understanding of nature to an astonishing degree, but more often than not he has used this understanding to consolidate his power over nature rather than to extend his communion with her. He has persisted in opposing to nature the world of ideas, the world of his ideal, and in his idealism he has tended to become exclusive rather than inclusive, arrogant rather than humble, aggressively masculine rather than passively feminine. In extremes he has declared total war on the wilderness, woman, or the world of spontaneous impulse and irrational desire. (1970, 57)
From the perspective of the feminism of the nineteen nineties, this passage is indeed a fossil. Today, it might be used as an example to illustrate why we should persist in avoiding the fiction that "man" is a generic term. It is manly of Jones to indict mankind and thereby acquit womankind of the felonious act of ecocide, but such linguistic chivalry is better off dead. We might also fault Jones for his dependence on traditional gender stereotypes. After all, the reliance on metaphors that associate women with nonhuman nature only reinforces the oppressive patriarchal gender hierarchy.5 But Butterfly on Rock was published in 1970, a date which suggests that Jones was ahead of his times, for feminist analysis of the myth of Father Culture and Mother Nature had not yet properly begun.6 As for theorizing ecofeminism itself, the work would not get officially under way until later in the decade, when feminists finally caught up with Jones: contrary to those who accepted Frye’s provisional and impressionistic characterization of nature in literature as malevolent and adversarial and hardened it into a literary theory, those first ecofeminists recognized that "Nature did not declare war on humanity; patriarchal humanity declared war on women and on living nature" (King 116).
What Jones has also done is turn the structuralist tradition against itself: by exposing as potentially violent the general laws by which binary structures work, he reveals the violence at the heart of our hierarchically structured social relations. Indeed, Jones’s articulation of the binary oppositions that govern the relationship between human and nonhuman nature and, by extension, between male and female—oppositions such as culture/nature, exclusive/ inclusive, arrogant/humble, aggressive/passive, masculine/feminine—moves him in the direction of post-structuralist analysis. In addition, Jones anticipates the ecocritic D.M.R. Bentley. In his call for an ecological poetics, Bentley cites as ecocidal "the heady combination of scientific rationalism, protestantism, and capitalism that is known today as modernity" (1990, i). Underpinning Western science, religion, and political economy is Western idealism, which Jones fingers as the ecocidal culprit: "[w]hether its ultimate vision is heavenly or earthly, western idealism tends to be narrowly rational. In its extreme form it tends to demand nothing less than the complete victory of mind over matter. Such a victory may require of a man that he either renounce the world or destroy it" (1970, 57-58). Jones would have been more accurate had he said that because its ultimate vision is either heavenly or earthly—never integrated— Western idealism supports an excessively narrow construction of reason. Nonetheless, even here he has all his binaries in a row. It was with these very linguistic oppositions—heaven/earth, mind/matter, renunciation/destruction—that ecofeminist thought began, in the work of the first feminist theologians and biblical revisionists.7 Perhaps the reason why, of all the structuralists, it was Jones who articulated the founding insights of ecofeminist analysis was that he chose the Bible as the source of his critical metaphors.8
Ecocritical readings are, of course, possible without reference to feminist analysis, but it is difficult to imagine a sophisticated ecocritical theory that does not attend to the traditional gendering of nonhuman nature as female. Here is where Jones might be seen as a possible exception to Laurie Ricou’s suggestion that Canadians are wary of trends in American scholarship. In 1967, three years prior to the appearance of Butterfly on Rock, the American critic Paul Shepard published his Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature. Jones made no direct reference to this book but it is hardly likely he would have completely ignored it, given that the book he was in the process of writing set Canadian "man" and the landscape in the context of the whole of Western culture. Shepard acknowledged that "relationships between men and women partly determine how people use their environment" (106), noting that "authority and dominance over the land carries the force of sexual aggression…" (107). He argued that the "low social and political status of women coincides with the general absence of devotion to place and of a mythology of rootedness in nature." But Shepard also took issue with the feminism of the period which he saw as focused exclusively on female access to the male realm of industry, military service, and business; as a consequence, women were being "swallowed by a system which is antithetical to their innermost natures" (105).
Shepard’s implicit belief in the appropriateness of identifying women with nature and men with culture belongs to the philosophical dualism that underpins Western culture. The "system" is "antithetical to [women’s] natures" but presumably not to men’s because according to that rigidly dualistic view Father Culture is rational, while Mother Nature is not. Nothing overturns that dualism quite so effectively as Father Culture’s thoroughly irrational act of ecocide. Where Jones got stuck, like Shepard and most of Western philosophy before him, is in the assumption that reason is opposed to what Jones calls "irrational desire." Jones did not take that extra step that would have led him to the obvious conclusion that what Western idealism is really opposed to is the rational, where rationality means the absence of the irrational desire to believe that the world of women and of nonhuman nature exists exclusively to furnish "man’s" residence in it. Nevertheless, his analysis did point the way to a critique of dualism that is fundamental to an understanding of how many women writers were using language to explore "woman’s place" in the terrestrial world, just as that very world was being claimed as the exclusive turf of the Canadian postmodern writer. The feminist ecocritical task is the recovery of that turf on behalf of women writers—modernists, postmodernists, and those who could not have cared less about these abstract categories.
The critical practise of eliding the identification of a problem with the endorsement of the habits of mind that created the problem in the first place is a form of killing the messenger. Had this not been the homicidal practise in the war against structuralism, Jones’s protofeminist critique of the garrison mentality might not have slid into that underground of ecocritical sensibility. I agree with Buss, who rejects the opinion that all so-called "thematic criticism" is always "narrowly focused and reductive." To my mind, some of Jones’s insights correspond to what Buss calls "part of a broader structuralist approach to literature that can offer new ways to view a large body of literature and be most useful for establishing ‘difference’" (133). "Difference" refers not merely to women’s difference of perspective, but to all diversity—critical diversity included. Perhaps Canadian ecocriticism should remain an "underground phenomenon," providing that "underground" denotes a "resistance" movement, as when Bentley calls for an approach to Canadian writing that "offers resistance to any and all forces that participate or cooperate in disprizing environments, people, and poems of their diversity by threatening to obliterate their unique, local, regional, and national characteristics" (1990, ii).
Where the early post-structuralists failed women writers, and Canadian criticism more generally, was in the binarism of their own thought. By setting Canadian postmodernism in opposition to virtually all that went before it, instead of understanding it as one of many evolutionary extensions of modernism, they were as guilty as their structuralist adversaries of misleading and misdirecting the act of reading. No writer can be more aware of this than Phyllis Webb. Between 1954 and 1965, Webb had the bad taste and poor judgement to write poems that were still beyond the analytical competence of the querulous critics of the ’seventies and early ’eighties. For this sin, she was accused of intellectualism, narcissism, solipsism, and cynicism; her work was also acknowledged for its "authenticity of statement," its "extremely fine craftsmanship," its "mastery of form," and other virtues similarly vague.9
One especially notorious treatment was a 1973 article by John Bentley Mays. Recently returned from a failed sabbatical and searching for someone to blame, Mays held Webb personally responsible for what he saw as the unqualified failure of late modernist poetry. He described her work as "vain, sectarian, as without acme or direction, as distorted by her lusts, and as inconclusive as any in the recent career of literary modernism" (1973, 11). The following passage is especially noteworthy:
…what Miss Webb has called "shaping the world in the intimate terms of the self," shaping the otherness of language into an image of the self’s motions, is doomed, and it dooms the writer into an interminable futility. The word written becomes merely another disjunct, silent object in a kosmos of silent objects; it hardens instantly, like excrement, even as the body excretes the next word, and the next. The excrement piles up in loathsome, fearful objectivity amidst the impenetrable, unredeemable otherness of the world and becomes as terrifying as the world itself. But the artist cannot stop making words; "All writing is pigshit," screams Artaud, yet cannot cease to write, as though the sheer weight of words might someday tip the world off balance, and into sanctity. (29-30)
There is more projection than analysis going on in this passage, for nowhere in the twenty-two turgid pages that precedes it, nor in those that follow, did Mays get around to explaining that Webb was not endorsing, but rather, questioning the beliefs and values over which he himself was sulking. Frank Davey published the article anyway, in Open Letter,10 and used it as the basis of his section on Webb in From There to Here, which appeared the following year and represents her as "see[ing] the phenomenal world as a place of casual but relentless torture"; as "retreat[ing]…from the world of matter, morality, and process"; and as "emphasizing the fact that the crippling insufficiencies of the terrestrial penetrate even within the poet and her language." "Most important," Davey claimed, Webb "scrupulously avoids the contradiction of fashioning poems of elaborate technical artifice while claiming to believe in the vanity of such worldly creations" (1974, 261-262). He saw her poetry as located "at the juncture between the modernist and postmodernist sensibilities," concluding that her "desperation clears the way for the creative junk-gatherers [of postmodernism] who will ask much less of the world than she, but find much more" (264).
Mays and Davey had a devastating effect on both Webb and the study of her work. With the exception of three poems, no new work appeared for several years, and no major scholarly articles on Webb were published. What little critical interest remained, shifted away from Webb’s poetry altogether and onto criticism itself. Most notable was feminist Jean Mallinson’s 1978 response, which blasted Mays’ article as an "outpouring of hysterical outrage" and "the most extravagant, malevolent, and self-indulgent piece of ideological criticism in recent Canadian letters…" (93). The actual specifics of Mays’ and Davey’s assessments of Webb’s poetry went virtually unchallenged, and Mallinson had put her finger on precisely why. The critical battle was not about poetry; like all wars, it was about ideology. Nothing less than a new book from Webb would get the scholarly juices flowing again, but Wilson’s Bowl was a long time coming.11 Twelve years after the attack, George Woodcock undertook a critical analysis of it but could not resist prefacing his article with this retort: "I accept the accuracy of Davey’s insight in placing Webb at the point where modernism…expands into a field whose variegation of talents and approaches made it more complex and sophisticated by far than the literary garbage collection which he seemed to envisage as postmodernism" (528).
Buried under all the excrement, junk, garbage, and other effluvia of critical warfare were some genuinely useful insights, such as Davey’s and Woodcock’s acknowledgment of Webb as a transitional poet. Like virtually all poets who began writing before the advent of postmodernism, Webb intermittently echoes T.S. Eliot in her work—sometimes to offer a corrective. More important, as Davey suggested, she cleared the way for something new, although he passed right over it in his haste to dispatch her to the realm of the dead and best forgotten. Today, critics are now able to explore the possibility that long before Davey began railing against the "elitist, formalistic, anti-democratic, and anti-terrestrial" philosophy of literary modernism, Webb had already seriously undermined it. Far from "scrupulously avoid[ing] the contradiction of fashioning poems of elaborate technical artifice while claiming to believe in the vanity of such worldly creation," she made poems that enacted contradiction in order to expose the bankruptcy at the heart of the late modernist aesthetic and the philosophical traditions that underpin it. Most important of all, she opened up the possibility of a new aesthetic before most Canadian postmodernists had even put pen to paper.
Formally trained in the discipline of philosophy, Webb knew its limitations far better than any of her critics. For example, much has been made of "Marvell’s Garden," the poem most frequently chosen by anthologists to represent Webb’s early work—and rightly so, for not only is it one of her most revealing statements of poetics; it is also an enquiry into woman’s place in a dualistic universe and, by extension, woman’s place in the universe of poetry. Indeed, it is probably the most important key to understanding the act of writing in Webb’s early work. because I will be returning to this garden again and again throughout my analysis, it seems appropriate to look at the poem in some detail here:
Marvell’s garden, that place of
The act of writing requires solitude; thus Webb’s poet is attracted to Marvell’s solitary garden, where he shuffled his thoughts into poems. She may go there, "unwillingly," to write, but it's not where she’d "choose to live." For as Marvell’s own poem tells us, his garden was not a garden at all, but a transcendent, mind-over-body realm, which the poet, in keeping with Western philosophical tradition and poetic convention, could confidently represent as an exclusive male preserve. Scornful of women and the sexual distraction they represented, his garden of poetic creativity was doubly paradisal: not only was it an image of Eden, it was Eden without Eve.12 It is hardly surprising therefore that Webb’s poem expresses such ambivalence toward it.
Marvell’s poem may have expressed a preference for platonic form over content but this would seem to contradict Marvell's biography. That contradiction is foregrounded through a comparison of "The Garden" with Marvell’s other famous poem, "Bermudas." Whereas "The Garden" is about rejection of the real world of flux, change, and "love’s solicitude," "Bermudas" alludes to Marvell’s active engagement with the real world of Puritan dissent, civil war, and his subsequent political exile to the Bermudas. These two poems add up to a superb illustration of philosophical dualism, with "The Garden" advocating withdrawal into heavenly paradise, and "Bermudas" embracing paradise on earth, a primary example of which for Marvell and his English contemporaries was the Bermudas. This philosophical split is the focus of Webb's poem:
That was his garden, a kind of
The exclamatory "On Paradise!" expresses more incredulity than reverence. The abstract realm, which was doubly paradisal for Marvell, is only half a paradise for Webb: it may be an excellent place for singing/writing, but it is too isolating, "too carefully attended," and "too many fences fence" it in. The "bright oranges" allude to Marvell’s appreciation of nature’s abundance in the Bermudas—the oranges, figs, melons, and pomegranates that his poem values above all the jewels of Persia. What Webb’s poet weeps for is an integration of these two paradises. For there is value in both the transcendent realm, which Marvell reached on the "luminous plumèd Wings" of poetry, and the terrestrial realm of embodied experience which, in the act of transcendence, Marvell "laid aside."
Just as "Marvell’s garden was not Plato’s / garden," neither is it Webb’s:
And I have gone walking slowly
All poets must "of necessity" enter the garden of intellection, for it's a necessary room of one’s own.13 Yet if this female poet is to duplicate for herself the conditions governing Marvell’s poetic creativity, she too must scorn "love’s solicitude" by re-imagining the garden as excluding men, be they brothers, lovers, or Christ himself. But it doesn’t work: as the tears suggest, this is little more than a static and sterile world in which Webb’s poet cannot flourish; nor can those she excludes from it flourish without her. Again, small wonder that she has "wept for some new convulsion / to tear together this world and his." The real "necessity" here is not merely the integration of mind and body, celestial and terrestrial, but more importantly, the integration of the mutually exclusive realms of male and female.
"Marvell’s Garden" was published in Even Your Right Eye, Webb’s first solo book,14 which is full of personae in search of a place from which to write. The book appeared in 1956, a noteworthy date because the 1950s were the decade identified as the most regressive of the twentieth century with respect to the fortunes of Western women. But the night is always darkest before the dawn, and for women writers in many parts of the English-speaking world, it had been a long night—one that had begun with the onset of literary modernism. For in addition to its "elitist, formalistic, anti-democratic, and anti-terrestrial" dimensions, modernism was also anti-female. As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have observed, the modernism of Eliot and Joyce, founding fathers of the movement, was "constructed not just against the grain of Victorian male precursors, not just in the shadow of a shattered God, but as an integral part of a complex response to female precursors and contemporaries.
Indeed, it is possible to hypothesize that a reaction-formation against the rise of literary women became not just a theme in modernist writing but a motive for modernism….[For modernism] functions simultaneously to counter and to recover the noble fatherhood of precursors from Homer to Dante and Shakespeare….[B]y and large [modernism] remained (and may have been unconsciously designed as) a men's club. It is not surprising, therefore, that on his first reading of The Waste Land Joyce noted that T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece "ends [the] idea of poetry for ladies." (Gilbert and Gubar 1987, 156)
If the garrison has any applicability to the writing of women, it is on the level of modernist convention. There was not much room for women to move around in modern poetry, so they either had to "write like a man" or get out.15 To choose the latter option obviously meant silence—and there was certainly no shortage of that in Webb’s early career. To choose the former meant entanglement in a web of contradiction and paradox beyond what modernist convention was designed to accommodate. As "Marvell’s Garden" suggests, Webb was fascinated by that extra dimension of contradiction and paradox.16 The narcissistic selfhood of the lyric positioned the poetic I/eye at the centre of experience—as it did the "I" of Andrew Marvell—but that subject position is unavailable to Webb’s poet.17 The poet orbits "the fixed sundial" at the centre of the garden, but as she closes in on it she finds what Pauline Butling calls "a dissolving centre of contradictions and reversals: ‘closer, closer I come to contradiction / to the shade green within the green shade’" (1988, 70). The poem’s claim that "too many fences fence us out" could well be made on behalf of all women poets who never quite gained access to the centre of the modern lyric.18
The masculinity of modernism accounts for the "dominance of male figures" in Webb’s early work which, in the context of some of the Wilson’s Bowl poems, she would call "more of an embarrassment to myself than anything else": "[s]ome have suggested that these figures could be masks, personae, my animus, my male muse in many guises….I think that those interpretations are significant—I might even agree with them.19 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" (WB 9). This is certainly borne out in "Marvell’s Garden," where the metaphysical garden signifies "a male power culture"—the culture of poetry. The figure of Marvell himself, a kind of Father Culture, becomes poetry’s gatekeeper, who has "denied access" to women. In this way, "The Garden" can be seen as a logical precursor of The Waste Land—and, of course, Eliot alludes to Marvell’s poem in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." As a consequence of this denial of the feminine, Webb's personae are often in search of a garden of their own.
The garden is an intermediate, or transitional, space where mutually alienated culture and nature meet and interconnect. As Paul Shepard writes:
City buildings are for people. In spite of roaches and rats, urban houses and pavements have no little transition to nature, no intermediate ground shared with the external world, except for gardens. Like the cathedral, the garden or park represents the point at which the interpretation of experience in nature is transitional between mythical and rational, between an internal, personal sense of identity and the universe. The garden is composed of real non-human organisms with their own independent existences, but which are perceived metaphorically and reassuringly. Unlike the buildings which turn the individual in on himself, the garden is the landing from which outer space is confronted. (113-114)
It is true that Marvell, in caring "more for the form / of things than for the thing itself," was more interested in "outer space" than he was in "the landing," but this is in keeping with Father Culture’s metaphysical preoccupations; Shepard would likely include Marvell in the male category of "the esthetes who attempt to etheralize [sic] their sexuality" (107). But the fact remains that real gardens on real earth are places where nature and gardeners are on intimate terms. The gardener may transform nature in anthropocentric ways but, as Shepard intimates, in the process nature can also transform the gardener in ecocentric ways. That process is hermeneutical, rather than metaphysical, and is analogous to a poetic process in which the opposition between "mythical and rational," "personal" and "universal," dissolves. Hence, Webb’s poets negotiate with many gardeners, gatekeepers, and muses—all aspects of Father Culture—for a place to put down roots and grow.
Marvell’s garden of poetic creativity may have "closed in on Paradise," but Father Culture also presides over another of paradise’s binary opposites, which is also a garden of sorts:
The poet in his tree of hell
In 1982, Sharon Thesen provided a superb anthropological and Jungian analysis of this poem that links it with Webb's later work. In that context, "Webb’s conception of the ‘poet in his tree’ suggests the shamanic vocation of the poet as messenger of the other, as spiritual adept, and as ‘seer’ of visions" (17). This interpretation helps Thesen to illuminate the petroglyph poems of Wilson’s Bowl. But "In Situ" has more obvious links to poems of the same period. The poem is part of a two-part sequence that explores the dark underside of modernist convention, which was in part a reaction against the sentimentalization of nature perceived to characterize late Victorian romanticism. "In Situ" is nothing if not a desentimentalization of the garden: in this hellish inversion of Marvell’s heaven, male poet, simple monk, and Matthew Arnold, alluded to in the second line, add up to an unholy masculine trinity. The Arnoldian allusion is especially significant, for if anyone set himself up as Father Culture, it was Arnold. Indeed, Arnold was the first Western thinker to isolate "culture" as a definable entity, which he then implicitly defined as white, upper-class, male—and literary. "In Situ" atop his cultural elitism, Arnold wished to see life steadily and see it whole. While many of his numerous essays are devoted to positive things, such as "sweetness and light," what he also reported on from his lofty perch was philistinism, barbarism, and anarchy. This is not much different than the "murder, ignorance and lust" which Webb’s treed poet imparts with "immaculate" fidelity.
In distant orbit around Arnoldian Father Culture circles Mother Earth, also known as "Mother Nature." Compared to the "simple monk"—naked yet clothed in "otherness"—what does she look like up close?
Sprouts the bitter grain in my
This is not the view from atop culture’s vision tree, but rather, the view from the other side of the culture/nature divide—the view, it might be said, from outside the garrison. Perhaps this is what it feels like to be identified as Father Culture’s Other, repository of all his ambivalent feelings about his inability to transcend the human condition, which entraps him in nature, just as the poet "In Situ" is "captive in a leaf's embrace." My interpretation here draws on Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, another work by a female philosopher of the ’fifties, in which she notes that "still in our day woman inspires man with horror: it is the horror of his own carnal contingence, which he projects upon her" (138).
As for the garden, this poet-as-landscape/poet-as-poem, is the garden. She is the transitional space between culture and nature. This corresponds to Sherry Ortner’s view of woman’s place in a variety of patriarchal societies: "[b]elonging to culture, yet appearing to have stronger and more direct connections with nature [woman] is…seen as situated between the two realms" (80). She may perform the function of mediating between the realms (84), but in the case of this poem, she is also the site of the conflict between them: she is a terrible warning against using language to conquer nature rather than to extend communion with nature. Perhaps this is why all those ambivalent feelings—bitterness, wrath, hatred, desperation, fury, and fear—are not simply projections but are also internal to the poet/landscape that articulates them: she is as threatening as she is threatened, as malignant as she is maligned. These are the kinds of paradoxes that fascinated Webb and rendered suicidal the poets she entangled in them.
Like "In Situ," "Sprouts the Bitter Grain" can be seen as a reversal of Andrew Marvell’s garden because Webb’s poem tells the garden’s side of the story. The paradox at the heart of Marvell’s poem was that its images of growth were inconsistent with the notion of timelessness. But this was no problem for Marvell: through poetic transcendence into the realm of abstraction he could annihilate terrestrial flux and change. Indeed, Marvell’s poem actually equates "transcending" with "Annihilating" nature. As Webb’s poem intimates, it’s only through this act of transcendence that Marvell’s garden "closed in on Paradise." But transcendence is at best a poetic fiction, at worst a dangerous illusion, for it alienates us from nature. Moreover, the assumption at the heart of the illusion is that it is the male poet who is transcendent; women, like nonhuman nature, are merely the agents of his transcendence. Thus Webb’s female garden closes in on hell: despite her images of organicism and growth, she is a garden trapped in the timelessness of a "single season"; she is the "hot glade" of "Marvell’s Garden" trapped for eternity under a scorching summer sun.
But gardens, despite the serpents who often lurk there, are not always the site of such conflict. Gardens are sometimes recreational spaces, places of play—in this case, the play of meaning—and this poet/landscape would prefer that construction:
The suggestion of children at play in gardens leads to a possible play on words: "temperate" evokes "temporal," and "climes" rhymes with "times." Is this tormented landscape, constructed according to the unsentimental conventions of modernism, calling upon the father-gods of an earlier poetic tradition to reconstruct her in their processural, if no less gendered, terms? If so, as the destruction of her "criminal branches" seems to suggest, no matter whose version of feminine stereotyping we impose upon nature, there are always ecocidal consequences. What this garden and this poet want is an abandonment of the illusions of timelessness and transcendence, and an acknowledgment of the cycles of the seasons and the human embeddedness in nature.
Throughout Even Your Right Eye, what Webb calls her "adherence to the modernist approach as developed by the old boys" (Butling 1991-92, 35) was in conflict with the conventions modernism carried forward from earlier traditions. The I-ness of the modern lyric both attracted and eluded her. Perhaps that I-ness is "the bitter grain" that both "chokes and enchants my eyes." For indeed, while her vision in these early poems is startling in its clarity, the "I" in almost every case finds the fictions of transcendence, timelessness, and idealism hard to swallow. Integrating her vision with the demands of modernist convention—"Grafting the living and the dead / onto the flesh of eternity"—requires that "the I become the We" ("Sacrament of Spring"). This fiction of eternity is the "troublesome lie" at the heart of the poetic tradition; poetic conventions are "a little gang of sweet pretence" that splinters the I, as in the line that reads "I, how can I, I", and alienates these multiplying subjectivities from "that virtuous land / where one can die without a second birth" ("Lament").
Webb’s poets in these earliest poems may be "moved by pure design" but by withdrawing into "abstractions," they are "draw[ing] the curtains" against the terrestrial world of growth and change: "[t]hus I elaborate a rite [write?]," "call in the leafless winter that I shun" ("Curtains"). In what is perhaps another allusion to Arnold, father of poetry as a substitute religion, empty poetic form becomes the implied analogue of the empty "shape of prayer," "curved and going nowhere, to fall / in pure abstraction saying everything / and saying nothing at all" ("The Shape of Prayer"). Compared to all these leafless, lifeless, deathless shapes and abstractions, the "bird of death is radiant and complex" ("Pain").
Webb’s poets live inside these early poems; thus by lashing out at the conventions and systematically killing them off, as it were, they are committing a kind of suicide—which may account for the many repetitions of the suicide theme throughout Webb’s work. It was a theme that some critics dismissed as self-pitying and others embraced as ennobling; both groups tended to interpret it as signifying ultimate finality (and, illogically, as autobiography). But there were always more poets where the dead ones came from, and it is through their pain, despair, loss, and suicide that Webb renews herself again and again, as her poetry cycles through the seasons of its early development.
Implicit in a passage from C.G. Jung’s Alchemical Studies, quoted by Thesen in her analysis of Webb’s vision tree, is the philosophical link between the poems in Even Your Right Eye and those of Webb’s next book, The Sea is Also a Garden: "[t]he philosophical tree usually grows alone and ‘on the sea’ in the Western Land, which presumably means on an island. The secret moon-plant of the adepts is ‘like a tree planted in the sea’" (Thesen 18). This in turn relates to how Webb spent the years in which she wrote all of her early poetry: "I grew up on an island—Vancouver Island. I was born in Victoria and grew up there, and my one ambition when I was a teenager was to get off that island—you know, onto the big mainland! The big city! And then half way through my life my ambition was to get back onto an island…" (qtd. in Butling 82). Webb’s personae would not be entirely free from the discomfort of ill-fitting conventions until Webb herself made the permanent move to Salt Spring Island in 1969. In the meantime, her growing consciousness of the sea as the ultimate garden of creativity, including poetic creativity, would have to carry her through. Some of the poems in The Sea is Also a Garden were written during her 1960-62 Vancouver stopover between ten years in Montreal/London/Paris and seven years in New York/San Francisco/Toronto. What is important about the book for my argument is that it was published a year before the U.B.C. summer poetry course, a Canadian literary event that has passed into legend. There, in 1963, Webb and several other West Coast poets would come into fruitful contact with Americans Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and Allen Ginsberg. This meeting would shift the axis of poetic influence from east-west to south-north, catapult Canadian poetry beyond traditional modernist convention, and thus accelerate Webb’s development in the direction it had been slowly moving in The Sea is Also a Garden.
The book opens with these lines from William Carlos Williams which serve as the epigraph:
But the sea
"Mad Gardener to the Sea…" opens the book and plays off these lines. Unlike Williams’ sea/garden, Webb’s gets regularly tended— by the moon/gardener, who is as mad and rageful as any of Webb’s muses. These emotional qualities implicitly associate the moon with the feminine in accordance with antique gender mythology. But this poem "dreameth" back even farther than the earliest human cultures, back "beyond all Paradise," "back to water" as the first garden, the place where all subsequent gardens—including Marvell’s—had their beginning. The sea is, then, the Garden of Gardens, and long before there were human females to identify with it, the moon gardened there, turning the tides as the garden turned through night and turned through day, and seeing the sea through the seasons. The sea makes it possible to see.
What the poet sees is that not all gardens in the Western literary tradition close in on heaven, hell, or any other transcendent realm. There are, for example, the three she chooses to claim for herself in "Three Haiku on a Literary Theme." All three of these gardens, which Webb borrows from "The Song of Solomon" (4.12), Shakespeare’s Othello (1.iii.323), and Thomas Brown’s "My Garden," close in on love:
In startling contrast to "The garden where Marvell scorned love’s solicitude," these gardens owe their very existence to love. Love is, after all, the name we give to the most powerful interconnecting force between self and other: in Webb’s many catalogues of emotions, Love always shines like a beacon illuminating the process of interconnection. Marvell’s notwithstanding, many gardens in literature have been metaphors for poets’ most intimate relationships: their gardens have been their sisters, their spouses, their bodies, and other "lovesome" things. Compared to Webb’s sea/garden, they may appear overly feminized, anthropomorphized, and sentimentalized, but they all have an immediacy which, for Webb, is absent in the late modernist tradition. Little wonder, then, that her poet lays claim to these gardens. She claims a corner of each by planting a new particularity within it—a "delphinium," an "Insect," a "lover." Most important of all, in terms of Webb’s evolving poetic, in recasting these familiar literary gardens in Haiku form, what she has created is a transitional space in which the literary traditions of East and West meet and interconnect.
What the poet also sees now is made clear in a pair of poems called "Breaking" and "Making." To paraphrase:20 she sees the necessity for "Breaking" out of the religious, literary, and philosophical prisons of Western culture because there is a "Destructive element" in all our systems of thought, which systems are themselves undergoing destruction. Notions of resurrection and eternal life have "clattered to the ground" with the "crucifix," and it would be best "not to raise our silly gods again." Our oppressive (and patriarchal) literary traditions now "bear a crown of darkness," and our ancient philosophies are like antique marble sculptures "crumbling in the terrible Grecian light." All of these crumbling systems are, of course, the context for the poetic conventions out of which Webb’s poetry is also "Breaking."
For Webb, a new kind of poetry is now in the "Making"—one that gives poetic voice to a time-honoured mother-culture:
This new poetry may not be as grand as the old tradition, but it will do: it is homemade, out of "self-madness," like a crazy-quilt of random patches—a craziness that is not so much a breakdown as a breakthrough.21 It may not require a grand poet, toiling in the isolation of his genius, but it will do: "two bodies are better than one for this quilting." It may not be grandly inspired by the saints of Western Christianity, but it will do: "Exemplary under the tree, / Buddha glows out now." Despite the alleged modesty of this poetic quilting project, "A grace is made, a loveliness is caught." Most important of all, there are no elite upper realms here because, quilted in "the mild unblessedness of day," this poetry honours "the untranscended soul." This is a poetry free of old conventions and pretensions: thus, "for our dubious value it will do. / It always does."
In "Marvell’s Garden," the poet "caught the vest he'd laid aside / all blest with fire"—caught it but did not put it on; in its maleness it did not quite fit. In "Flux," the poet is that "vest," that perishable body:
Who would call me to still centres
Here, Webb critiques the "still centres" that so attracted T.S. Eliot and his fellow modernists. Still as death and devoid of desire, those centres are the transcendent realms that go back to the dualism of Plato and Parmenides. Webb embraces instead the temporal realm of change and flux as represented by Heraclitus, who envisioned the world as periodically destroyed by fire, only to be renewed in every detail. Heraclitus would become the patron saint of postmodernism, yet Davey ignored his presence in Webb’s work. The Heraclitean vision is certainly in keeping with the successive generations of Webb personae who self-immolated on the funeral biers of modernist convention, only to rise from the ashes because
Nothing finally is final—
Interesting here is Webb’s ability to see correspondences between systems of thought, such as Heraclitean and Christian philosophies, which were regarded by most other poets of the ’sixties as trapped in binary opposition. In Webb, the Heraclitean-Christian correspondence can be read as a corrective to Eliot’s vision in "Little Gidding," where fire is more hellish than Heraclitean, and the conflagration of matter (mater?) separated man from it, purifying his soul of all earthy desire so that he can achieve integration with a transcendent God. By contrast, the fire in "Flux" is for the purpose of nature’s renewal and is a promise of the return of earthy desire. This is nature’s "own Easter," not man’s. Annihilation and renewal are not opposites, nor are they even two separate processes. Paradoxically, they are the same thing, torn apart only by the relentlessly polarizing forces of language. Whereas in "Marvell’s Garden" the poet weeps "for some new convulsion / to tear together" what language tears asunder, in "Flux" she achieves the longed-for integration by intimating that opposites have more in common than otherwise. The only "transcendence" here is the transcendence of binary opposition. Webb’s embracing of this paradox recalls several of her female contemporaries, whose poetic visions are characterized primarily by integration.22 As Sharon Thesen put it: "[w]hile Webb’s concerns are passionate, her poems are never linguistic or ideological battlegrounds: whatever they might be saying, we are aware of an energy composed inside the diction and consciousness of the poem" (13).23
Some of the Webb-poets who killed themselves to escape a bad relationship with modernist convention were replaced by others who became mistresses par excellence of the form. In The Sea is Also a Garden, several of them reveal their skill in such poems as "Galaxy," "Images in Crystal" and, here, in "The Glass Castle":
The glass castle is my image for
• • •
This is an image of "Webb’s mind, [which] seems always to be moving toward composure" (Thesen 13). Indeed, what keeps the poet of "The Glass Castle" sane in a place that drove her predecessors mad is "balance." This balance keeps the poem from becoming an ideological battleground upon which two theories of poetry compete for dominance. Like her dead sisters of Even Your Right Eye, she recognizes that the head-poetry of elaborate technical artifice is "outmoded," yet unlike them she values it for its "public beauty" in much the same way that we cannot help valuing public art, even while we watch it "crumbling in the terrible Grecian light." This recognition means that she can always "crack the pane," escape the outmoded conventions, and put her five senses to work on different kinds of poetry.
As if to honour all her suicidal poets, Webb writes "To Friends Who Have Also Considered Suicide," reminding them that suicide is "still a good idea":
In the end it brings more honesty
Suicide did prove a good idea because it brought "more honesty and care" to Webb’s poetry, as successive generations of Webb’s personae demonstrate. These suicides allowed Webb to clear the sand "of a hundred civilizations" from between her teeth, unbarnacle her "singing tongue," and rise like a lark in the sky above her "bright" sea-garden. Now, if only the Fathers Culture of Western civilization would also self-immolate, the possibility of a more honest and careful culture might rise out of the ashes; after all, it would not be the first time.
Webb closes The Sea is Also a Garden with a poem that "recalls H.D.’s Sea Garden" (Thesen 13) and has come to be regarded as emblematic of a struggle that characterizes the work of many women poets operating within male-dominated traditions. Indeed William Wordsworth’s patriarchal shadow looms large over "Poetics Against the Angel of Death":
I am sorry to speak of death again
The poem begins with a characteristically feminine apology for speaking out, but ends with an emphatic assertion of the poet’s right to speak. Between this opening and closing is an attempt to come to terms with the patriarch of Romantic poetry, the "Angel of Death" to so many women poets and imaged here in a poetic dialogue which, like Marvell’s garden, excludes women. The Wordsworthian tradition, with its "elevated tone" and its ponderous measure—its egocentric I AM-bic pentameter24—threatens to hound the female poet into a deathly silence. The poet’s retreat from the patriarchal British tradition and her escape into what is for her a more congenial, Eastern tradition echo all the suicidal retreats and great escapes I’ve been tracing through Webb’s early work.25
Phyllis Webb is enjoying a long life, and she has risen out of the ashes of a critical war in which she was unjustly burned at the stake of literary ideology. Naked Poems, the book that followed The Sea is Also a Garden, and which was condemned by Davey as written in "a language so private, cryptic, fragmentary, and ‘naked’ that it almost abandons communication" (1974, 262), survived his attack to become a cherished contribution to Canadian poetry. Naked Poems contains what is perhaps the briefest and most succinct statement of ecopoetics in all of Webb’s early work:
What do you really want?
Here, the desire is toward a perfect integration of real gardens, where real apple trees grow, with the internal garden, the garden of intellection and poetic invention. Only through this process of integration and internalization can we begin to move beyond our dualistic habits of thought and reintegrate humanity and nonhuman nature. For if we can only learn to "think ‘apple,’" we will be able to speak and act on the wisdom that "apple" has long signified in Western culture. It was, after all, the impossibility of the apple in Marvell’s Eveless Eden that made his garden so uninhabitable, his thought so unthinkable, his greening so ungreen. The simplicity and directness—indeed, the nakedness—of Webb’s statement is surely among what Bentley calls "the ways in which poems…act to bridge the gaps within and among things human and non-human that were opened by modernity" (1990, ii).
Critical warfare is hardest on those poets whose work has the dubious honour of serving as battlefield. Were it not for her philosophy of rising from the ashes of destruction, Phyllis Webb might never have survived her "critical wounds" to take up making poems again. Had she remained a mere casualty of war, her early work, like the writing of untold numbers of her female predecessors, might well have been lost to literary history. Forensic archaeology is an inexact science, and we cannot count on finding all the bodies buried beneath the excrement, junk, and garbage of critical conflict. With respect to the ecological visions of women poets, we need to remember that poetic language, in its special richness, is often the most effective language for bringing the Other keenly into human consciousness; often that Other is nonhuman nature. Unlike the language of criticism which even at its best is ideological (Brown 155), poetic language invites the reader to reach for those spontaneous interconnections that happen in the writing process, those nature "connections that invest the writer’s world with newly understood purpose and meaning" (Lebowitz 5). We need to give each individual ecopoem the kind of care and respect we ought to be giving the ecosphere itself; otherwise we run the risk of committing an act of critical ecocide, from whose particular ashes there may never rise another poem.
The author wishes to thank D.M.R. Bentley for his careful editing of an early draft of this chapter, and for his valuable suggestions for improvements.