"Let me Begin Again":
Women and Storytelling in
The Poetry of Paulette Jiles

by Susan J.   Schenk

Paulette Jiles finds in storytelling a distinctively female, profoundly personal response to experience.   In "Horror Stories," Jiles' narrative voice states that "All women believe they are Scheherazade.   They believe / they too will or are about to die / in burning buildings."1 In order to forestall fatal events, to displace them, women tell horror stories.   Jiles' persona admits, "I have a collection of tales myself.  There / are a couple I do not tell." The tales that are told, while perhaps less personal, more distanced, nonetheless reveal the fears that women share, including the fear of being left alone in silence.  The female voice thus concludes:

            Now maybe with the story of the
            train wreck you will leave
            me alone.  Did I say alone,
            let me restate that, let me
            begin again

The voice talking, beginning again, retelling its tale, is for Jiles a means of both displacing personal experience, locating it in the experiences of others, and revealing intensely personal thoughts and emotions.  Indeed, the female voice that speaks in much of Jiles' poetry shares this doubleness, inviting us, on the one hand, to identify the "I" with Paulette Jiles herself as it relates apparently autobiographical experiences, while at the same time maintaining a tone of narrative distance.

     This combination of personal focus and the narrative distance of storytelling is found in "The Brass Atlas," where Jiles' persona relates her physical and psychological journey of self-discovery.  In contrast to Jiles' later experiments with multiple voices in her narrative poetry, the story here is told predominantly by a single voice.   This single voice, however, exhibits the doubleness discussed above; the persona, indeed, recognizes her own distance from herself: "I write this / with a peculiar hand that seems to belong neither to me nor anyone." This tension between personal focus and distance is also evident as Jiles' traveller herself becomes a continent, a map, the site of her own journey: "I am / a tracery of ribs, a map of veins, / the red coagulation of a heart." The persona is "bent on getting to unknown terrain," on "clarifying / the limits of [her] territory"; to do so she must simultaneously explore her own experience from within and from without.

     Among the newer poems in Paulette Jiles' Celestial Navigation which explore the tension between personal experience and narrative distance are those in the section entitled "Turning Forty." The section is comprised of four prose poems, all employing the first-person narrative voice, and three using Jiles' Missouri background as a source of personal legend.  In "The Mad Kitchen and Dong, the Cave-Adolescent," the narrative voice is not only self-conscious, but it is also double, both the voice of the girl in the story and of the woman remembering:

I sit at the table (it is dinnertime) and read about cave-people and how they started making copper things.   Dinner is partially large pieces of Velveeta cheese and I say "copper" to myself because it sounds weird with cheese in my mouth.  Forever after I associate copper and cheese.

This movement from the young girl reading to the woman distanced by "forever after" signals the shifting narrative relationship between the "I" in its dual role as character and narrator.  At once a part of, and apart from the events in the mad kitchen, the voice continues: "For once I see myself in repose.  Around me people are yelling in defensive and accusative tones; in declarative sentences, imperatives, shrieks." Later, the voice asserts the fragmentation of her experience:

I see double or on several planes at once; cheese, copper, potato soup, Big Jim and Sparky who are pure sound out of the radio, hairy women lurking in shadow, electric fans, Cute Mom talking in an undertone to the cat.

Here, and elsewhere in the poem, it becomes difficult to separate the voice of the young girl from that of the adult narrator; they are inextricably interwoven parts of one complex voice.   The persona's experiences with the "mad kitchen and its random occurrences" also become increasingly interwoven with the events in the book she is reading about Dong, the cave adolescent, adding another layer of narrative complexity:

Dong has now discovered metallurgy and cries aiee! as he drops molten copper on his foot.  The police arrive.   Did your son shoot somebody in the leg? You bet.  The police!! Everyone hides.   The authorities! Dong has, then, discovered both metallurgy and cheese-product.   Lightning strikes the tribal camp and blows the fur diapers all to flinders and thus they discover fused things.

The narrative itself is, in a sense, a "fused thing" composed of the "flinders" of the young child's experience, which are ordered, albeit rather randomly, by the controlling adult consciousness.  This consciousness is also that of the storyteller who attempts to order experience, to understand and control it, like the women who tell "horror stories" to conquer their own fears by naming them.

     In "Going to Church," Jiles employs both personal history and the doubled narrative voice as she explores the experience of growing up female in the American South.   As she sets the location for her story, the controlling voice moves from physical to personal geography, inviting the reader to accompany her on this journey through memory:

This is Sunday morning, July 16, 1958, Cole Camp, Butler County, Missouri, population 100 and just look at all these people getting ready for church.  We are only 150 miles from the Arkansas border down here, which seems to loom dangerously close.  Whatever bad happens, happens to the south of us.  There are too many layers of irrelevant dresses but it seems I and every other teenage girl down here have been hired to play extras in Gone With the Wind.

Although the movement from Butler County to "layers of irrelevant dresses" might seem abrupt, the narrative voice repeatedly makes the connection between geography and the politics of fashion: "I look at my ironed and lacy dress laid out on the bed and I really want to be neolithic and hulk around the village in primitive weaves with beads made out of rocks and zircons.  No dice, not in this town." The movement of the narrative itself fluctuates between the experiences of the teenage girl and the developing consciousness of the adult narrator who has returned in memory to the scene of these experiences.  Although the two voices are sometimes indistinguishable, it is nonetheless clear that the adult persona has actually escaped the geographical and psychological limitations of "July 16, 1958, Cole Camp, Butler County, Missouri," while the teenage girl is suspended there in time, wondering, "Is there no other way to be? Out of this green and steaming town I suspect there are other modes of existence." Though this younger voice suspects, only the older narrative voice, in the very act of telling her personal legend, proves that she has located these "other modes of existence."

     Like "The Brass Atlas," then, "Going to Church" is another type of personal journey.  Because it is more removed in time, more story than confession, it lacks the intensity and sense of struggle of the earlier poem; instead, there is a tone of irony which mounts to defiance as the tale reaches its conclusion.  From the beginning, the young girl notices the unfairness of her restrictive clothing in comparison to that of her brother Elroy and the other men who "dress in simple, decent clothes" and whose "pants are held up by brown and honest belts which require no more than the brains of a two-year-old to fasten." Throughout she wonders, "Does God really want us to wear this crap?" and "Why do I take this so seriously? All this hot Sunday I take seriously the dreadful, precarious system of female clothes and shoes." At the end of the poem, she is defiant in her rejection of the passive female role:

What will it avail a woman if she gain her own mind but lose her soul? All right, I will lose my soul.  Not once but a hundred times.  As many times as it takes.  Turn now to page 145 and sing you are washed in the blood.  No.

In this progression from ironic awareness to rejection, the voice of the teenage girl merges with the voice of the woman remembering, just as memory and story merge to create personal legend.

     In "The Migratory Life," Jiles once again uses a blend of complex narrative voices and personal history in telling the story of a family move.  The voice of the teenage girl who relates how "me and my sister begin to fight, a real death-struggle, mortal combat, over who gets how many soda pops" is again a younger version of the older voice who says "I am not really in my right mind here between one town and another, it is that no-time space which terrifies all nomads," and "We are working on a logic of tangible qualities rather than one of propositions, but neither helps when I find myself moving down onto some perfectly innocent town in Missouri in an avalanche of odds and ends." This "avalanche of odds and ends" functions in the prose poem as a repetitive, linking device for the storyteller.  Cats and dogs, a Mexican poncho, and The World Book are some of the odds and ends introduced in the first paragraph/stanza; they are repeated as the young voice narrates the experiences of the journey:

We are in a Ranch Wago because the n fell off, who knows when.  It is laying on the highway somewhere stuttering its one letter over and over as we bear on.  The dog pukes in the back.   The cat swarms over my shoulder to get at him while he's preoccupied with throwing up.  Everyone laughs.  This is astoundingly funny.  Gypsy and Stonewall fling themselves at each other among jars of pinto beans and The World Book and Mexicali ponchos.

Other linking devices include Kiddie Jungle Petting Zoos, roadside emporiums, catfish, somebody named Joe Bob, and the pinto beans mentioned above.  Some of these items are transformed into metaphors by both the teenage girl and the adult as they relate their story.  The younger voice notes:

We pass Kiddie Jungle Petting Zoos and roadside emporiums, floating dancehalls on converted barges.  With a sort of teenage sneer I mention that we are also a Kiddie Jungle Petting Zoo but Poppa Daddy stops for coffee and doesn't want to hear another word out of me.

The "roadside emporiums" provide a connection between the two voices when they are used as a metaphor by the adult voice, the voice of the storyteller:

It is as if in some other time-warp there is a roadside emporium for each one of us, whose music is always playing at the back of our minds, a sort of celestial roadhouse, a cosmic bar and grille with Bar-B-Q and windows that look out on a river, and the waitress knows your name.  In the confines of the worried mind you can go there and order whatever your heart desires; if you are on speaking terms with your heart, if you know the names of your desires.   Maybe they will be printed on the menu.

Along with this unifying repetition of images and metaphors, the cadence of this complex voice and the sense of the past as a source of personal mythology constitute important aspects of Jiles' use of storytelling technique, not only in "The Migratory Life," but also in the other Missouri poems in this final section of Celestial Navigation.

     More recently, Paulette Jiles returns to her Missouri heritage in a poem cycle entitled "Desperados: Missouri 1861-1882 (or The James Gang and their Relations)."2 As the title indicates, these poems are both historical and personal in nature; not only do they focus on the legendary figures of "The James Gang," but they also imaginatively explore the lives of "their Relations" — Zerelda, mother of Frank and Jesse, and Zee and Annie, their wives.  In a sense, Jiles' retelling of the traditional tales surrounding the notorious James Gang is a feminist revision of history in its conscious creation of highly personal stories, not only about the men, but also about the women who are usually omitted from this Missouri mythology.

     This feminist, revisionist approach to legend is seen most clearly in "Zerelda" and "Bandit's Wives." In both poems, the controlling narrative voice, the voice of the storyteller, is acutely conscious of the way in which women are either transformed by or omitted from history and legend.  In the final section of "Zerelda" the narrative voice asks:

does she appear like a monster-woman from folk-tales or legends?
she is
she didn't get this way by herself
she had help

The restrictive social and legal forces that stifled Zerelda during her life, in the process of transforming her into legend have made her a monster — one of the few available roles for women in folklore.

     The same restrictive forces cause Zee, as a bandit's wife, to be omitted from the legends that surround her husband's life.  The narrative voice in this poem notes:

     What Zee is doing all these years is a mystery or maybe not so much
mysterious as ignored
no different from any other housewife in the nineteenth centry, in

Because Zee does not want to be either a whore or a monster, she is of no interest to the male historians who create legends:

     Zee never wanted to end up like Belle Starr or Cattle Kate or Poker Alice, those violent whores are attractive to male historians who can afford illusions but they are usually diseased or dead after a while, the whores I mean, and besides its no fun having people spit on your skirt.

Because Zee cannot "afford illusions," because she would have to live them, and illusions are difficult to sustain on a day-to-day basis, the narrative voice tells us that "her life and that of Frank's wife Annie is the kind of life you have to imagine or invent." Jiles' storyteller in this series of poems does precisely this; she imagines and relates the untold stories that form the personal, and female counterpart to the existing, predominantly male, historical legends about the James gang.

     In "Zerelda," then, we are told of the restrictions that stifle and enrage her, of her life as mother to Frank and Jesse, and of the hardships and pain she suffers.   The voice that relates Zerelda's experiences is the voice of the oral storyteller, who occasionally interrupts her breathless tale with questions, and invites the reader to become involved in her story.  The voice begins her story thus:

She, like all the best people,
came from Kentucky; she is on
her third husband and has never been
happy since the first one died in
California, preaching the Word
of God or maybe he was
panning gold himself, who knows?

The storytelling voice, conscious of the restrictions placed on women in the nineteenth century, goes on to say of Zerelda:

She can neither vote nor sit on a jury
nor go around without the ironclad corsets
nor speak aloud of anything she knows to be true;
she is alive and yet without a legal existence

Zerelda, however, despite her restrictions, is spirited; we are told that "the law does not allow her husband to beat her / with a cane any thicker than his thumb.  / She will get another husband / who is smaller; whose thumbs / are not so big."

     Jiles' storyteller not only provides us with a third-person, omniscient view of Zerelda and her frustrations, but the controlling voice also blends narrative with dialogue to allow Zerelda's own speech to reveal her character:

In her mouth human speech becomes a skinning knife
they're going to take our niggers away
they think they're better than we are
       and so on
she flies into an uncontrollable rage at the mill
she thinks she's been cheated, she goes after
George William Liddle with a potato spade

At this point, the storyteller turns to the audience and asks us to move one step closer, to step inside the boundary of the story: "(can you imagine Zerelda dancing, can you/imagine Zerelda seventeen years old and dancing in Kentucky?)" Throughout the series of poems, the narrative voice introduces these bracketed questions, which function as a sort of choric refrain uniting the audience with people in the stories.

     As in many of her other narrative poems, Jiles experiments with shifting points of view as she attempts to re-create the legends of the James gang in "Desperadoes." In "Zerelda," directly following our view of Zerelda as she "goes after / George William Liddle with a potato spade," we are told: "A woman is at the end of the line of wagons watching as Zerelda goes after George William Liddle with the potato spade." This repetitive phrasing, along with the repeated use of the word "zinnias" in this prose section of the poem, provides an example of Jiles' attempt to create a distinctly oral tone for her stories:

In the wagon alongside the field corn she's got a jar of zinnias she's taking to her mother.  Zinnias have orangey colours going to wine, scarlet, burgundy, yellow, saffron, gold, ochre, cadmium yellow and olive green.  The zinnias look around at everybody with an alert and interrogative stare.

In addition to the oral quality of this story of the woman with the zinnias, the tale is also important as a parallel story of social restriction, for we learn that this woman is a slave: "She is driving a wagon with four sacks of field corn to the mill for the man who owns her. . .  .  She's got to get them ground for kitchen meal and back home or god knows." The narrative voice once again asks us to identify with this woman distanced in time: "Can you imagine this woman dancing? Can you imagine somebody owning you?"

     Despite the general tone of seriousness, these tales are not without their moments of humour.  In "Zerelda" we are told of the reaction of Frank and Jesse to their mother's increasing outlandishness: "As the years go by Zerelda gets more dramatic / Oh Mother say the huge famous bandits." In "Bandit's Wives" we are presented with the picture of Zee as nineteenth- century housewife:

she has to balance everything carefully, how to make Jesse the center of her life but yet not become too dependent, after all her husband's work takes him away from home all the time, she has to make some decisions by herself
     but then on the other hand she can't get too independent.   Jesse likes to be the head of the household, you know how it is, the money she spends is not her own, it's not Jesse's either but let that go for now

The humour here is also touched with the irony that Zee's tenuous position between dependence and independence is still a common, and problematic position for women in the twentieth century.

     The oral tone of this passage in "Bandit's Wives," with its run-on sentences and its casual, "you know how it is," is sustained in the stories within the poem that constitute the personal folklore of Zee and Annie.  These tales are linked by variations on the phrase "such as the time" and function as personal, domestic counterpoints to the historical legends about Jesse and Frank:

          such as the time
     the chimney-fire nearly burnt the house down and Zerelda said you have to pour salt down the chimney!! and sent Annie up on the roof with a washpan full of salt and Annie's petticoat lace caught on the nail and it all tore off in a strip and nobody noticed it till later, Frank saw this strip of lace hanging from the roof gutter like a celebration, yes, everybody laughed about it for years, and the time

Jiles, then, or perhaps more accurately her narrative persona, is working with storytelling and legend on two levels in this poem; she is imaginatively constructing both the personal equivalents to the historical legends surrounding the James Gang, and the family stories that are a sub-layer of these personal histories.

     In "Folk Tale," the narrative persona herself becomes involved in the tale; indeed, she is involved on two levels, for she is both storyteller and listener.  Her voice is that of the young child listening as she says, "(They didn't have any restaurants in those days my mother explains)." As she relates the story of "Frank and Jesse and Bob and Cole" and their conflict with a woman over a chicken, she is once again the standard storyteller who begins her tale with "One day" and ends it with a moral: "The farmer's wife was trying to teach them that you have to eat what you kill." Throughout the poem, the narrative voice sustains the oral tone of a folk tale through the use of a vernacular dialect, the repetition of conjunctions, and narrative mixed with dialogue:

     And all the boys razzed Jesse and laught at him and shoved him off his horse and he had to sit down and gut and pluck that chicken.  And she went and fried it for them and charged them a high enough price for it I can tell you.  And the boys never let him live it down, when they would be riding hard away from the law and they saw some chickens somebody would yell
     O Jesse, I want my dinner, go shoot me that chicken.  0 Jesse we're hungry, blow the head off that rooster, will you?

Humourous as this folk tale is, however, we are not allowed to maintain the usual imaginative distance associated with legendary material; the narrator destroys the fictional quality of the tale by concluding, "Think of yourself as a chicken."

     In "The Last Poem in the Series," Jiles outlines a kind of ethics of storytelling, focusing on the sensitivity required of those who reconstruct people out of the past.  The voice of the storyteller asserts that "the scholar who studies the life of Jesse and Frank needs solitude.  This person approaches a cabin through fields and some woods, slowly, seriously, as if they were going to take vows." Using the bank robber as a metaphor for the storyteller, the narrative persona goes on to say, "Before you can step in the door, surrender and disarm.  It is a kind of bank and can only be robbed by the anti-bandit." The storyteller must surrender any preconceptions about Frank and Jesse James, must enter the bank of history with empty hands, must give the stories back to the people in them, allowing them to speak their own lives.  Jiles, in "Desperados," gives these men and women their own voices, relates and allows them to relate their untold personal stories; in doing so she gives them back a dignity and humanity that history, with its reductive approach, had taken away.

     More recently, Paulette Jiles' use of storytelling technique can be seen in her experimentation with performance poetry.  Her most sustained effort in this medium, entitled "Oracles,"3 brings together many of the aspects of storytelling that she has been utilizing from the beginning in her written work.  Jiles' interest in the unique relationship of women to storytelling, her concern with personal legend, and her attempt to create an oral quality in her work through the use of repetition, rhythm, and sentence variety, are united in this extended performance poem.

     The relationship of women to storytelling is evident in the very premise of Jiles' "oracles," who are women in caves, women who speak prophetically.  Like the women in "Horror Stories" who "believe they are Scheherazade," who believe in the diverting, life-saving power of stories for women, the oracles, who deem themselves "a sister act," introduce stories that are of particular interest to women.

     The four stories connected by their prophetic, and often zany commentary, all have women as their central characters/voices.  "One Sister" and "Susan Dangerfield" are both third-person narratives which share the first-person, autobiographical tone of the Missouri stories in the "Turning Forty" section of Celestial Navigation.  "I used to live in the city" and "Following the muse" are first-person narratives which tell the same story of a woman living alone in the city from two slightly different perspectives.  As the poem progresses, fragments from these stories become blended in the narrative babble/babel of the oracles, and the poem as a whole becomes one extended, self-reflexive story about women and storytelling.

     Also linked to the earlier poem, "Horror Stories," is the sense of circularity and continuation associated with the narrator's plea of "let me begin again." In "Oracles," this cyclical pattern is achieved through the use of a frame narrative surrounding both the prophecies of the oracles and the four stories they introduce.  The voice in this split section entitled "leading to . . ." begins her story, "There is road leading to the horizon; / and at the edge of the horizon is a house" and re-echoes this line at the poem's closing:

There was a long escalator leading to
the airport bus, which took the
highway leading out of the city,

which led to a road, and this
road was leading to

This rejection of closure suggests the ongoing nature of the oral tradition, the continued possibility of beginning one's story again.  The repetition associated with continually beginning again is, of course, also a major component of oral storytelling technique.  In performance poetry, without the visual aid of a text, this technical component becomes critical.  Jiles' use of repetition, rhythm and sentence variety in her earlier narrative poems was central to her achievement of an oral tone in written work; in "Oracles" these same techniques function as replacements for the visual experience of connection available with the written word.

     This oral connection is evident throughout the "leading to. . ." section with its repetition of such physical images as "path," "horizon," "house," "stream," and "cave." These images also mark the beginning of a progression from the visual to the aural:

The path is leading to a cave entrance,
and the cave entrance is leading
downward into the heart of the
mountain, into the earth, and the
bones buried in the earth, and the songs
buried in the bones;
       songs of love
       songs of desire
       songs of mistaken identities

Both the repetition and rhythm of this passage function to lead the listener on a visual and aural journey from cave to earth to bone, and finally to the songs/stories of "love," "desire," and "mistaken identities" sung/told in the poem by the oracles.  Jiles uses these same linking devices within the stories themselves; in "One Sister" we begin with the phrase that is repeated throughout the poem:

One sister will always be fat and the other one thin.
One sister will look good in yellow and the other one won't;
and the one who doesn't look good in yellow won't be able to
carry a tune, either

The phrase "one sister will" is occasionally varied to "there will always be one sister," but the constant echoing of the basic phrase, "one sister," provides both a structural, linking image and a basic rhythm within the story.

     This repetition and variation, then, is central to establishing both cadence and unity.   In "One Sister," the resulting phrasing is sometimes intensely repetitive:

It is a matter of liquids
it is a matter of being held up
it is a matter of not falling
it is a matter of keeping on with the swimming motions

At other times, as in the last section of this story/poem, a more relaxed, sustained rhythm is achieved through a series of variations on the phrase "One sister died in the bombardments / and the other sister refugeed with her children to the countryside," which is transformed first into "Three sisters died in the bombardments / and the last sister made it to the countryside with / two mattresses, three blankets, four children and a frying pan," and then into "A hundred sisters died under the bombardments and a few made it / to the countryside and married tall dark men and they all / went underground." The story/poem ends with an almost infinite expansion of this phrase:

A thousand, thousand, thousand, thousand sisters died
in the fire and the falling buildings
along with their fathers and their brothers
and their sisters and their mothers
and their children and their cousins
and their neighbors

and the unborn

and the unborn

and the unborn

     The conscious variation of sentence types is another oral technique used to create texture in the poem.  In "One Sister," for example, Jiles combines interrogative, imperative and declarative sentences in one brief section:

Who took my yellow dress?
Who borrowed my blue shoes?
Susan Marie you took my 100% real silk scarf and you didn't even ASK
me if you could borrow it!
Amanda Jean got in my diary and read it, and anybody who
reads somebody else's diary deserves anything they get

In "Susan Dangerfield," this conscious variation of sentence types is also employed:

Somebody looks up out of the print and says
Am I beautiful? Almost beautiful? Not beautiful enough?
Hey, use this as a passport photo and you could smuggle
bodies or diamonds
good doesn't matter but beautiful counts,
        good doesn't matter but beautiful counts

In this example, Jiles' use of repetition, rhythm and sentence variety works together to create the total aural and visual experience for the listener.

     Jiles also achieves a sense of the visual through her use of photography as a metaphor throughout the poem.  Indeed, the photograph becomes a metaphor for the poem itself as we are first introduced to the oracles:

      We are smooth and slightly wet.
Our caves are just outside the margin of your photograph.
Enhance; upper left corner.
      Enhance; lower right-hand corner
There we are.
And there she is

Through this metaphor, we are visually led from the margin of the photograph, the outer narrative frame, to the edge, where we "see" the oracles, and from there to the centre, where we meet the "she" of "One Sister."

     The photography metaphor, in addition to introducing this visual aspect into an oral poem, also foreshadows the central theme of the "Susan Dangerfield" section.  In this story, we are told that, "Susan Dangerfield, newsphotographer, is getting out of a taxi-cab with her camera-bag. . .  A photographer is in love with images, and she's no exception." The narrative voice, in the repetitive, rhythmic phrasing heard earlier in "One Sister," explores the connection between women and seeing, a connection which is also implicit in the concept of the oracles as women who "see" and prophesy:

Susan has crossed that line, which is very fine, which says a woman must not see, but always be seen.  She's crossed that line, and then two or three other lines, which say a woman must not be seen to be seeing but must always seem to be

This voice also repeats, within and at the end of this story, in a kind of choric refrain, Susan's invitation to the listener to enter this visual world:

Come with me into the image, she says,
come with me into the image, my love,
come with me into the middle of the image
and we'll make our way into the margin
the margin is the only private thing about a photograph

The listener who follows Susan through the image, like the listener who follows the series of voices through the poem, is returned first to the edge of the picture, where the oracles can be "seen," and finally to the margin, the outer frame narrative, and the road "leading to."

     This ceaseless circularity, this need to continually "begin again," is more than mere technique in Jiles' poetry; it is associated, as in "Horror Stories," with the fears and desires of women, as well as with the techniques of oral storytelling.   The female response to experience, for Jiles, is to transform that experience into story, and in doing so to reject silence and passivity.  Thus she takes Scheherazade as her literary predecessor, and as the metaphoric mentor of all women who tell stories (sometimes about themselves) in order to survive.  Her poems in the "Turning Forty" section of Celestial Navigation most clearly reveal Jiles in her Scheherazade-like role; her experience of growing up in Missouri is turned into stories, and thus put into the past, distanced as history, in order that she can go on living in the present.  In the James poems, Jiles does the reverse — she brings history into the present in order to make it personal; her feminist revision of the legends associated with the James gang reclaims a place for, and restores the voice of, the women who were silenced by their omission from these stories.  Finally, in Oracles, storytelling technique and story, the telling and the tale, are fused; here Jiles reclaims the oral, storytelling form and provides a poetic space for women telling stories of survival: a forum for the female voice, beginning again, repeatedly refusing, like Scheherazade, to lapse into silence.


  1. Celestial Navigation (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1984).   Subsequent references are to this volume unless otherwise indicated. [back]

  2. Initially published in The Malahat Review 72 (1985): 5-25; final unpublished manuscript versions used with the author's permission. [back]

  3. "Performance poetry" is Jiles' own term for "Oracles." The piece was performed on CBC-FM, 27 October 1985; excerpts from the script are used with the author's permission. [back]