|Gwendolyn MacEwen and Female Spiritual
by Liza Potvin
The new space, then, has a kind of invisibility to those who have not entered it. It is therefore inviolable. At the same time it communicates power which, pam doxically, is experienced both as power of presence and power of absence. It is not political power in the usual sense but rather a flow of healing energy which is participation in the power of being.... Instead of settling for being a warped half of a person, which is the equivaknt to a self-destructive non-person, the emerging woman is casting off role definitions and moving towards androgynous being.
Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father
Gwendolyn MacEwen writes that her poetic interest is in discovering "the real, unexplored country which lies within the country we think we have conquered." "The search for a reality which resolves all contradictions" is how she describes her poetic desire (Colombo 65). A prolific writer, her first book Selah was published in 1961, followed by nineteen other works including the posthumously published book of poems significantly entitled Afterworlds. She won the Governor General's award for The Shadow Maker in 1970, and has written numerous verse dramas, radio plays and documentaries for CRC Radio. She has also produced two children's stories, a travelogue of her 1978 travels in Greece called Mermaids and Ikons, and translations of the works of the contemporary Greek poet Yannis Ritsos.I want to claim that MacEwen is a feminist poet, and that her feminism is articulated primarily through her spiritual views, in which "the personal is political." MacEwen may not be recognized as a feminist poet in the typical application of the term; certainly she did not call herself one, and her poetry offers no overtly feminist statements or objectives; on the contrary, she writes that "all ideologies enrage me" (AM 34). Yet here is a poet who challenges and expands the parameters of feminist ideology by redefining politics in mystical terms. Her gynocentric vision is turned inward, focussed on a spiritual realm, rather than made manifest in the sociopolitical dimension of feminism. MacEwen has a curious intimacy with tremendous forces of spiritual whole ness, and her approach is at once awesome, adoring, and familiar. Her elevation of female desire to a state of holiness is in itself remarkable. Perhaps her greatest spiritual contribution lies in her praise of the deity who resides within, and in her recognition that dualistic values are unconsciously inter nalized as much as imposed from without. In The Armies of the Moon, she writes that "the Enemy is where he always was / in the bleak lunar landscape of our mirrors" (AM 35). While not simplistically attributing a lack of spiritual substance solely to partriarchal systems of meaning, she nonethe less reserves a great deal of criticism for dualism and sexism as exclusive and excluding modes of thought. By contrast, the ideal seeker of wisdom is represented as a cosmic dancer, a liberator, a magician who overturns fixed systems of meaning. Many of MacEwen's poems provide remarkable parallels with the iden tity quest of contemporary women writers outlined by feminist critics (Christ, 1980; Juhasz, 1980; Pratt, 1981; Ostriker, 1986; Homans, 1980). Her verse is, she says, an attempt to "repossess the stage! we occupied before two thousand years," to search for "the moment when all things converge to one" (AM 17). Such a holistic vision suggests a yearning for balance in a world sadly divided, and leads MacEwen toward exploring ancient cultures, exotic myths, and versions of "otherness" which might present clues to unravelling the mystery of what has been lost to us. Ultimately she discovers that transcendence is a male myth, based upon deception and the exclusion or marginalization of true spiritual seekers. Although her emphasis is mostly on Greek, Egyptian and Celtic mythology, the Kabbala, and the Tarot, she borrows from these only selectively and then builds her own interpretation of myth. Each of these reconstructions or evocations of ancient myth can be interpreted in a feminist context. The poet-seeker is an alchemist who revises myth, puts on various masks, in order to transmute ordinary reality. In the introduction to one of her earliest books of poems, A Breakfast for Barbarians, MacEwen claims that in her view "there is more room inside than outside" and her desire is to "enclose, absorb" the world, rather than to separate it from otherworldliness; her choice of verbs here is particularly significant in their suggestion of maternal protectiveness. This specific statement of intent / take to be a conscious elevation of the philosophy of imma nence over transcendence, of the power within over traditional and, misguided, she would claim concepts of power. MacEwen's spiritual jour ney, as depicted in her work, follows a pattern of feminine interiorizing, rather than the more common pattern of androcentric exteriorizing. Her mysticism has its roots in earthly and common experience, rather than in a denial of the worldly. Not trusting the exclusive reign of reason or will, she urges us to recognize the importance of the instincts, and particularly of the body, in achieving spiritual unity, stressing the significance of not denying the flesh in the process of realizing physical and metaphysical change. In this she resem bles leading feminist critics such as Luce Irigaray, Nicole Brossard, Hélène Cixous and Barbara Godard. She compares her role of woman spiritual poet to that of an "extra-galactic vacuum beast" whose task it is to contain the world in its entirety an interesting and rather domestic metaphor, as though she were posed to keep her spiritual house in good order. Repeatedly MacEwen emphasizes the need to explore the dark side of experience, the moon, the interior patterns all the aspects of woman's "otherness" in order to overcome entrenched notions of separateness. In her poems, "wholeness" is revealed not as impossibility, the synthesis of paradox, nor the unification of diversity but as cultural hegemony. Her poems point to the illusory promises in a patriarchal power system, whereby transcendence and synthesis can only be achieved on androcentric terms. Several critics have found MacEwen's work escapist and apolitical. This has much to do with the fact that she emerged during a period of nationalistic fervour and modernist sensibility, at a time when individualism and mysti cism were decidedly unfashionable among the cadre of leading academic critics in Canada. Recognizing MacEwen's treatment of macroscopic events in personal, microscopic terms, one critic even refers to her "betrayal of poise" in reducing the Vietnam war to personal suffering, or in asserting that "the sheer hallucination of our wars / have somehow grown from small hurts" (Elson 475). Without comprehending MacEwen's underlying strategy of equating the outside with the inside, or failing to see she adheres to the notion that the "personal is political," one might concede that she trivializes human suffering or is simply too self-absorbed to notice it, particularly in her poems on war. But MacEwen denies this:
I don't think writers should be propogandists or have strictly "political" causes. I think it limits them and art deals also with paradox, with mystery. (Meyer and O'Riordan 101)
Instead MacEwen seems to be following the definition of politics outlined by Sheila Collins:
because it was the first and still is the longest lasting form of human alienation can be seen as a primordial paradigm from which all other unjust relationships derive. (363)
MacEwen maintains a surprising lack of solipsism or cynicism (compared to a contemporary poet in the Romantic tradition such as Leonard Cohen, for instance), and an uncanny ability to ground mysticism in ordinary experience. "People call me a mystic, but I live very painfully and real-ly. I don't think myth and reality are separate, and I have to see everything. That's what I mean by mysticism" (Sandier 28). One critic complains of her "disoriented rambling," or her tendency to vacillate, such that "the result is a kind of no- man's land where neither the material nor the spiritual resides comfortably" (Alberti 83). Unwittingly Alberti describes the precise aim of her poetry: to depict "no-man's land," to celebrate the space between dualistic categories, and to elevate ambiguity as a spiritual truth. I read MacEwen's poems as continuing a quest pattern typical of women writers which differentiates it from androcentric writing: female questors who instead of venturing out into the world, journey within the self, discovering in themselves and in nature the restoration of a green world. While a male companion may assist the questor, he is neither the object of nor the reward for her search; this difference isreflected in the structure and the value system inscribed in her writing (Pratt 1981).
MacEwen's iconoclasm has earned her criticism for being not merely escapist and unpatriotic, but also esoteric, impure and impenetrable to use the revealing adjectives employed by George Bowering:
"Feminine" and "personal" are apparently descriptive terms in Bowering's lexicon, yet their final outcome is pejorative. He dismisses MacEwen's work as jejune and lacking in outward substance. Similarly, Ralph Gustafson com plains that she has a tendency
Comparing MacEwen's Armies of the Moon to Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, one disappointed reviewer also noted that all MacEwen's crises seemed too personal next to Mailer's "universal" concerns, and that her poems are "extremely breakable," less impressive because she shares none of Mailer's dread regarding global disaster (Rockett 46). Yet another critic refers to MacEwen's spiritual doubts and careful scrutiny of the consistency of her philosophy in The Fire-Eaters as "a metaphysical menopause" (Oliver 125). The sexism and condescension are hard to miss in these judgements. For such critics, MacEwen's work is considered outside the parameters which delimit what is acceptable in Canadian poetry. But to be an outsider, to write on the margins of mainstream Canadian literature, may ultimately prove a distinct advantage in terms of developing a feminist perspective on spiritual issues. Bowering and Gustafson are correct in recognizing the personal, interiorized, feminine, and subjective view in MacEwen's work, and in identifying the Romantic elements which inspired her. My difference with these critics is that I do not view these qualities disparagingly; they merely attest to MacEwen's gender and spiritual difference.MacEwen's work reflects the Romantic emphasis upon nature. Like the Romantics, MacEwen distrusts the "gold, deceptive city," because it epito mizes artifice and stasis, and ignores the chaos and transience of natural processes:
I should have predicted the death of this city;
I could have predicted it if only
there had been no such pretty flowers,
no such squares filled with horses
and their golden riders. (SM 35)
The true seeker is marginalized, existing outside the city, outside artificial categories and boundaries, absorbed by seasonal cycles, by the ebb and flow of light and dark:
and how we got here I cannot tell; I have a basket and a little flute
which I play to coax the flowers out;
we call each other by quiet secret names
and our clothes are poor but our hair is tame
we are neither bad nor good
and below us is a dark green wood.
we dream of the big world we cannot enter
and we sit till we silently turn into winter;
the fruit is all gone and our shoes are thin;
by night we lie down to let the darkness in
it is only by night that I cannot bear
the cold, or the tired clothes we wear.
we dream of the big world we cannot enter
and we have no money and we turn into winter;
when the next spring comes we will melt until
we run like rivers down the high green hill.
It is precisely this marginalized point of view which lends itself to the spiritual insight that the "big world" is exclusive and falsely sanctimonious, alienating the rhythms of nature.
MacEwen holds a distinctly feminine view of an ideal deity. In her final volume, Afterworlds, MacEwen specifically challenges the authority of a manmade god. In her rewriting of the Biblical genesis, she upholds the philosophy of cyclical renewal, diminishing God to an errant child who remains subject to Nature:
This rebellion against a traditional God is clear from the beginning of MacEwen's work. In Julian the Magician it is monotheism and dualism which are the focus of her irony and contempt. Julian unwittingly discovers that polytheism and bisexuality are the keys to spiritual transformation, recognizing that divine light proceeds from dark matter. The son of a dark gypsy and a fair farmer's daughter, he embodies both dark and light qualities. In reinterpreting Christian myth, MacEwen suggest that Christ's divinity was achieved through chicanery. Julian sees his role as mystic and magician in distinctly unChristian terms: "The mystic believes all physical disturbances or inadequacies are merely reflections of spiritual impurities. The body is merely a context for the mind. The blood is a mansion for the mind, as Jacob Boehme wrote"(92).
In "The Sign," iconoclastic passion, the flesh and blood reality of spiritual experience, holds greater significance than the detached rituals of organized religion:
In her next novel, King of Egypt, King of Dreams, MacEwen develops her critical view of monotheism. She claims that her object in this work was to warn of
Monotheism, symbolized by the sun, is depicted as a totalitarian abstrac tion, a masculine, orderly and cerebral religion, an historical push toward conformity and the suppression of natural, polytheistic trends. Because monotheistic concepts of God fail to embrace the dark side, since Father- Son relationships are incomplete, MacEwen presents them as devastating half-truths, as historical distortions. Meritaton, the daughter of Nefertiti and the last queen, is associated with Isis, the goddess of fertility. It is she who has the last word:
The unfolding of the darkness, the female sex, the dirt, and the earth upon which our feet are planted all must be acknowledged as part of spiritual wholeness, not merely the light, the cerebral, the sky.
It is the flesh which is elevated over any adherence to doctrine, darkness over light. Our culture, MacEwen suggests, is permeated by myths, which idealize light and devalue dark, perpetuating racism and the conquest of the darker / lower / female realm. For her, spiritual empowerment lies in reconciling falsely dichotomized "opposites".
MacEwen also disdains hierarchical models of spiritual power, which are based on concepts of superiority, as she makes clear in a poem entitled "God":
Dawn, which combines both day and night, light and dark, represents the perfect expression of divinity. Dawn, absorbing the power of darkness, "came before the sun" in both the temporal and sexual senses of "came." The gardener's lack of perception is evident in his assumption that God is all lightness, that he is "above" darkness, and that the earth and its inhabi tants are inferior to a heavenly deity. The gardener's phallic hierarchy is not just spiritually but also factually untrue: the earth orbits the sun and the sun can never be "above" those on earth. He awaits the return of God and hence misses the beauty of the sunrise, as well as his own innate divinity. We must observe the darkness, the shadows, the "otherness" which is overshadowed or obscured in conventional religions, reverse mod els of hierarchy:
MacEwen problematizes the inequities between the human and the animal kingdoms, inverting the traditional assumption that animals are created to serve man's cultural needs. Her verse is infused with a totemistic respect for what she terms "magic animals" creatures who incorporate incongruity in their construction as half human, half beast, and are there fore potentially divine since they transcend the limitations of both. Mac Ewen is particularly fascinated by extinct or mythic creatures, like dragons, unicorns, dinosaurs, and the phoenix. Certain features of the seeker's relationship to her consort link the human and the animal worlds, suggesting a pantheistic outlook. Animals acting as counsellors are tropes of the romance traditions, of course, but MacEwen questions their status. Like the child, the magical animal is somehow more real than actual animals, has a natural appetite and capacity for joy, and masks hidden depths. Animals are both angelic and demonic, brutal in their instinctual ability to survive, superior in their ability to avoid man's complex and unnatural appetite for artifice.
While acknowledging Jacob Boehme's axiom that "the opposition of all essences is basis" (STP 6), MacEwen's writings depart from this metaphysi cal tradition. Boehme's concept of a dual-natured god and the integration of paradox is problematized in MacEwen's novels. Creation is arrived at through destruction, and renewal, through change "Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent," in the words of Yeats' Crazy Jane (Yeats 143). To wholly subsume both light and dark qualities, as the mystic does, is not merely to embrace destruction but also to obliterate the distinction between light and dark. Although her early work is informed by the teachings of Boehme, the Gnostics, Hermes Trismegistus, Karl Jung and other spiritual writers MacEwen often quotes directly from these sources her work reinterprets and subverts their conventions. She turns the metaphysical tradition on its head, pointing out its illusory promises and false premises. In her early volume, The Rising Fire, MacEwen relies largely upon conventional mystical expression to convey her ideas, although she reworks it to suit her needs. "The Absolute Dance", in spite of its contemporary diction, echoes Yeats' gyre concept. But even here we see MacEwen struggling to redefine spirituality in a feminist vein, subverting this tradition in "The Ferris Wheel":
In this poem she specifically undermines a tradition which gives precedence to a rational apprehension of the divine, and in her later works we see a development of the metaphor of the body as the means to approach the divine, beginning with "Morning Laughter" in this volume, where she substitutes her own birth as the "point of absolute inquiry":
What is interesting here is not merely the power of the body imagery, but also the elevation of the personal, the specific, over the transcendent notion of masking the individual in favour of a universal experience. The echoes of Dylan Thomas are clear, but there is no vision of transcendence. The poet chooses to give birth to herself instead. The metaphor of giving birth is clearly connected to the birth of divine nature and divine selfhood in "The Self Assumes" from A Breakfast for Barbarians:
Combining the arcane language of the mystics with colloquial speech patterns provides one way of displaying the concreteness of spiritual reality in daily life. It is largely by this unconventional use of language, through style itself, that MacEwen contributes to the shattering of the myth of transcendence, substituting for it her perception of the inequities in andro centric metaphysical thought. In stating that she wanted to create a myth, MacEwen claimed she meant that "[i]t is not so much a matter of invention as of perception in a way it's more a matter of saying what I see" (Bartley 1983:234).
Frank Davey insists that MacEwen's "poetry tells us that the mythic structure of reality is binary. . . . [and that] [b]ecause of the binary struc ture of the cosmos, knowledge is discoverable primarily through inverse means" (13). But I would argue that she takes the union of opposites for granted, never viewing spirit and matter as divisible. This is a point which her chief critic, Jan Bartley, misses, contending that MacEwen, in effect, reinforces and perpetuates a philosophic system based on the duality of existence:
I would add to these assessments that I see MacEwen's writings as a challenge to dualism itself, undermining its dialectic and struggle toward synthesis. I think she is more concerned with the conscious and unconscious realms of a woman's psyche (although Bartley is obviously using the term man in its "generic" sense). In McEwen's own words, the poet occupies a separate space which bridges the worlds divided by dualism:
Several important features of MacEwen's verse are outlined in this state ment: the inseparability of a woman's life from her art, the immediacy of that art, and a reverence for ancient mysteries. Her poetry demonstrates that she elevates the dark side of binary divisions: passivity, matter, paganism, the primitive, the foreign, the unconscious. Because woman has been traditionally associated with these "negative" halves of the binary equation, what MacEwen implicitly advocates in her revival of matter and darkness is an elevation of the status of women, of "otherness." Matter is given new weight; this explains MacEwen's attraction to the alchemical precepts outlined in one of her sources, The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus:
To work magic in alchemy is to create new metaphors, to quicken the senses. Without negating the light, darkness is reclaimed, as are the fertile earth where the seed lies unfolding, the unseen, fiery power rising from within, the dark of sacred human flesh, the night, the ocean depths. Instead of abstract enlightenment, she speaks of deepening power, of "something down there" (SM 50), a metaphor which recalls Carol Christ's paradigm for women on spiritual quests (1980). Dark and light, divine and mortal, spirit and matter, female and male these are fused together in alchemy, and all divisions are healed through the perception of the magician-poet.
I want now to examine several recurring metaphors in MacEwen's work which mimic the process of alchemy: resistance to order, the female devourer who consumes reality in order to transmute it, the male dancer! consort who entices the female seeker toward a cosmic quest, and the circle as the unifier of opposites. Common domestic and mundane metaphors like cooking and sewing are also given extraordinary weight in interpreting the divine, so that both spirituality and art remain for MacEwen very much "grounded" in the ordinary, real world of a woman's experiences, while she is in her body, rather than seeking to escape its presence. The emphasis upon the flesh as the means to achieving divinity is consistent throughout her work. Perception for MacEwen involves absorbing experience in its entirety. Perhaps the most frequent and certainly the most intriguing metaphor which she employs to describe spiritual possession is that of consumption, citing Boehme in Julian the Magician to reinforce the notion of devouring the divine: "The magician eats his parts. We eat our parts to form wholes. And the wholes are part of a Whole and the Whole has all parts and no parts" (JM 124). Consumption is the central trope mA Breakfast for Barbarians; on one hand, it is used to mock a materialistic and indiscrimi nate consumer society which attempts to "buy" spiritual values, and on the other hand, it is a metaphor for the kind of spiritual wholeness which can contain all diversity. Devouring as MacEwen describes it seems par ticularly feminine because of its uterine qualities a metaphor for her desire to absorb, contain, nurture, and enclose all life, rather than separate herself apart. The intake is not just a maternal embrace, but a desire to entwine herself with the world, to grapple with its limbs in a divine coupling another frequent metaphor for the devouring of the self. To engulf is to refuse to isolate or divide. Such a philosophy is stated in the introduction to the volume, where MacEwen responds to man's alienation: "The intake.. . . I believe there is more room inside than outside. And all the diversities which get absorbed can later work their way out into fantastic things. . . . It is the intake, the refusal to starve. And we must not forget the grace. . . . No rather enclose, absorb, have done."
Bartley argues that MacEwen is implying that "to starve" is to deny the existence of a binary structure in the universe, to prevent the digestion of evil which then erupts in alienation (1983:243). Women have tradi tionally cooked and provided nurturance in most societies, passed on life in a very physical way. The emphasis in this volume is on converting the "raw" into the "cooked,'' on swallowing the whole world in order to unite the self with that world; the poet is by turns a winemaker, a cook, an escape artist, or a lover for whom sexual union is a holy communion, a feast of the senses, total satiation of all appetites. Conversely, the sacrament of holy communion is parodied as gluttony, and MacEwen humourously combines the arcane and the domestic in expressions which appear ridiculous even oxymoronic at first glance: "tossed dictionaries," "spiced bibles, apoc alyptic tea," and "boiled chimera." Food which is about to be consumed triggers a primal racial memory which suggest the primitive sacramental quality of the meal. By eating, we devour and reunify that which has been divided, we ingest and transform all experience and move beyond mere mindless consumerism, and "we will consume our mysteries":
The conclusion is ironic, grimly joking about the fate of those who will not serve their more profound appetites. But the meal has also been provided "by God." Like Blake who insisted that art must have form and shape "The Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer... received the excess of his delights" in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Blake 155), MacEwen makes us notice the substantiality, the visceral aspect of food for the soul, rather than emphasizing abstract doctrine; she denies that one need suppress the appetite or control natural urges.
It is the maternal, aquatic qualities of the devouring metaphor which extends its significance to include life and death in the body of mother earth. When MacEwen evokes nature as the source of spiritual wholeness, it is distinctly feminine. A symbolic return to the sea/womb is conjured by her consumption of the "naked and embryonic" oysters "which flung me forth, a nuisance in their midst / with my mind and complex hungers / crashing on the high white beaches of the world" (AM 11). In "The Real Name of the Sea," the sea is the source and end of all life:
In "Dark Stars," the poet writes that "Like seas we contain life / and somehow ever are contained." The life and death cycle from watery tomb to liquid grave is celebrated most poignantly in a later poem called "The Heel," where memory itself is born in the sea and imbued with the sacred. To return to water is to return to the mother's body. The poem which most movingly links the female body with water is "Seeds and Stars":
In "The Astronauts," the orbiting astronaut encloses all opposition and promotes synthesis; "his body has become a zodiac of bones / its own myth, a personal cosmology" (BB 18). The intake metaphor recurs in The Armies of the Moon, where the blind earthmen are juxtaposed with the "unseen silver armies" (AM 1), the finite journey into outer space with the infinite journey of inner space; the poet is always "I interior." Part of the inner journey incorporates celebrating the body, not as a model of efficiency, but as a key to sensual perception, with a lushness which is frequently reflected in MacEwen's choice of adjectives. In all of the poems in A Breakfast for Barbarians, the experience of being in the body, of participating in feeling, is stressed repeatedly; many "cannot breathe or speak because their bodies occupy / the same dark and troubled area." In "Manzini: Escape Artist," MacEwen writes that "there are no bonds except the flesh" in italics, but undermines this ironic statement by her description of the magician who defies the flesh in his escape act. That which is insubstantial and remote has no place in MacEwen's spiritual scheme, and her poetry is infused with erotic detail.
MacEwen calls the spiritual force which combines light and dark the "shadow-maker"; it generates the poet's being and is activated specifically through sexual contact. It is through this tactile union of flesh with vision that the poet achieves inspiration. MacEwen views herself as an acolyte in relation to a male consort, and throughout her work she seeks a hieros gamos between opposites, what she recognizes as a conjunctio oppositorum. Jan Bartley organizes her study of MacEwen's work in terms of this concept, and MacEwen herself conceded that "[Bartley] says it beautifully" (Meyer 104). Her attraction to a male muse, to her inner "otherness," sets her apart from poetic traditions which elevate and externalize female muses. MacEwen explores her dream world to contact the male muse who dominates her subconscious. Much attention has been given by Atwood, Gose, Bartley, and Davey to MacEwen's muse. Margaret Atwood claims that for MacEwen the male muse is the "inspirer of language and the formative power in Nature. . . . Ignore him or misinterpret him and her 'muse' poems may be mistaken for 'religious' ones or reduced to veiled sexuality" (Atwood 24). But if the definition of "religious" were expanded to include the immanent in the terms I have been discussing, and to include sexuality rather than to view it as extraneous to both poetics and religion, perhaps it might not be erroneous to consider these poems as religious. Yet the muse plays an ancilliary role, following the consort figure in pagan religions. Atwood reads the muse as a fatherly figure in MacEwen's early verse, a magician whose remoteness prevents dialogue, the union with whom is limited by the flesh. But MacEwen uses the muse to externalize her struggle towards her evolving divinity, merely as an aspect of the poet herself, as her holy "otherness," in the manner that another very different poet, Emily Dickinson, masculinized those aspects of her self which a gendered lexicon constrained her from acknowledging explicitly. He is principally "the handsome two-horned one who waits / at the river of the world's end" AM 61, the "Indestructible One" in "The Hour of the Singer":
The earth below is conceived of as a paradise, and the muse/lover is her equal, neither "above" her nor externalized as a separate entity. It is true that some of the poems are flawed by a remote rendering of divine inspira tion at this early stage, as Atwood claims, but this has more to do with the fact that MacEwen's craftswomanship was relatively underdeveloped, remedied by the palpable presence of the muse in her later work. The muse remains elusive, fluid, transient in form, subject to the poet's beckoning, yet part of herself, taking on many of the qualities of nurturance and inspira tion traditionally associated with femaleness.
Nor is MacEwen the only Canadian poet to depart from the dominant tradition of seeing the muse as female: Jay MacPherson's angels and Dorothy Livesay's male figures are but two examples of the way in which women poets deviate from a tradition which places women on a pedestal. That her muse is male directly challenges Robert Graves' assumption that the poet universally worships a female muse. Usually the muse appears in MacEwen's works as a consort to the goddess, in the guise of a prince or a king, a complementary figure whose difference inspires a sense of comple tion in the woman. He is valued and feared because he leads her into an unknown darkness, her uncharted interior, forcing her to confront change and mystery and to struggle towards her own evolving divinity. He is Eve's helpmeet, the object of the poet's creative urges, the unraveller of her dreams. Female desire is the informing metaphor for spiritual desire, as the speaker actively takes a lover; she is neither the passive object of his desire nor does she objectify him rather, the lovers are inseparable. He is the object of her desire, however, and he will "come" when she needs to have him:
The woman takes what she needs from him:
Most of MacEwen's poems address this unknown and unknowable "you" who is male muse, her self, and the reader simultaneously. He represents the force that will "test and revise" her, but it is she who determines that "What is here, what is with me now / Is mine" (SM 13). She seeks both life and death through him: "my thighs, all silver with his seed / are sleek for swimming, / I see the aqueducts of death ahead" (AM 45). He is the "demon of my dark self, / denizen who crawls in my deep want, / white crow, black dove" (SM 6).
The muse for MacEwen is an icon of creativity: he may appear as a figment of her poetic imagination, a creature part human and part divine, like the native totems or the magic animals which figure in her work. He is her king, lover, singer musician; he can assume any guise, remains fluid in form, is the darkness of her dreams, her animus, her guide, or the vulgar barbarian whose appetite knows no bounds. When they are united in hieros gamos, the sacred couple are "the man and woman naked and green with rain" of "Eden, Eden" (DC 2), symbolizing the beginnings of pastoral perfection, the possibility of transcending dualism in a union which would move them beyond time to an ideal state of unity glimpsed momentarily by the poet in her dream: "All things are plotting to make us whole 1 All things conspire to make us one" (SM 16). She awaits the arrival of the "Almighty and Most Perfect One, Lord of the Universe": "Dear Gwen (It will call me by my unfamiliar name), Stop Waiting; All 1 have promised 1 have accom plished; the world is whole again" (FE 28). The interiority of the muse is stressed as the couple works together in harmony to disorder the present world, and to create a better world of their own design:
In "The Hunt", he is the cosmic "I / eye", a "composite god" with "fluorescent eyes" (AM 5).
But the muse is also an icon of destruction. His inevitable sacrifice is described as submission to the moon goddess in "The Armies of the Moon":
He is constantly changing, expendable and easily replaced, each reincarna tion representing another aspect of himself, constantly dying and being reborn anew:
In "The Sacrifice", MacEwen describes "these / sacrifices, these / necessary deaths" which demonstrate "how my people were. . . offering up the holy oil of all their loves" in a ritual whose purity is contrasted with the senseless loss of lives which "we let fall / one by one / deliberately" in a misguided attempt to reach God "by killing / our golden / selves" (SM 78).
One of the most striking aspects of MacEwen's writing, from a feminist perspective, is the manner in which she sets esoteric myth in domestic settings. There is a marked progression in her verse from the ethereal to the concrete, a shift from the enigmatic complexity of early mystical precepts to the complexity inherent in the simple tasks of a woman's daily life, as she translates the divine into the actual. Abstraction is opposed to reality and should be shunned by the poet, "For you I would subtract my images / for the nude truth beneath them?" (SM 14). In A Breakfast for Barbarians, she asserted that poetry needs to be felt, experienced, lived, rather than merely read, but she seemed unable to convey this in a natural, relaxed fashion until later in her career. All the conventions surrounding time, objectivity, reality anything too familiar are suspended in favour of a trancelike state which discloses the mystery paradoxically imbedded in familiar experience. The split between literal and fantastic is challenged, as the poet demands of her muse, "Is this my dream / or your reality?" (SM 52).
This grounding of mystical experience in common domestic detail and natural speech rhythms is most evident in MacEwen's 1972 volume, Armies of the Moon. The tone here combines elevated and coloquial, even vulgar, language with ease. "Memoirs of a Mad Cook", for instance begins, "There's no point in kidding myself any longer / I just can't get the knack of it (AM 14). The speaker evaluates the ordinary repetitive daily tasks of preparing meals in nearly metaphysical terms: "something is eating away at me/ with splendid teeth". Everyday activities are imbued with extraordinary signifi cance and luminescent detail. The success of the poems in Armies of the Moon lies in its earthly laughter and in its evocation of the complex simplicity of daily life. Housecleaning is also viewed as a cosmic task in "The Vacuum Cleaner Dream," where the speaker sees herself as "an avenging angel / and the best cleaning women / in the world (AM 18). A woman's work domestic and spiritual is never done. The cosmic task of cleaning up, of creating a new spiritual perspective is as pragmatic and endless as daily household chores. "Mediations of a Seamstress (I)" extends the domestic environment to imagine that a garment bag represents the entire universe which the seamstress must somehow prevent from unravelling or coming apart at the seams. Her charge is a lofty one: "Something vital is at stake." The world itself is constructed by womanly arts; woman is not constructed by man in this cosmic scheme. Nor is the search for the absolute an alienating experience, but a humble, personal household task:
The poet/seamstress lives on the edge when darkness overcomes her:
By employing such feminist metaphors as sewing, MacEwen seems to be evolving towards a consciousness of a new spiritual response to the dilemmas posed by a dualistic, monotheistic philosophy.
The "sewing" poems in this volume imbue women's work with divine attributes. In "Meditations of a Seamstress (2)," she describes a fantasy in which she becomes like the virgin goddess Artemis, as she dreams of cloaking herself in a garment which will return her to a time of pagan worship:
The yearning for medieval paganism expresses itself in the evocation of rich textures and special garments which link her with goddesses.
Several poems are specifically devoted to strong female figures of divine power. "Lilith" evokes the power of an ancient goddess, represented by both dark and light sides of the moon the fearful and the benevolent and it is this figure of death the poet claims is "assailing" her and over taking her poetry since "it is her time": "Have no doubt that one day she will be reborn" (AM 15). The poet must "repossess the stage / we occupied before two thousand years"; she must search for "the moment when all things converge to one." "I have mislaid many places / in this house without history" (AM 7). One critic claims that in "Lilith," MacEwen "is so feminine she is Bitchwoman, very shrill.. . and normal femininity merely ghosts the fibre of her poetic mentality" (Sherman 120). Such powerful (and therefore threatening to male critics) female figures populate much of MacEwen's writing. In the poem "Tiamut," MacEwen describes the creatress as female, as formless and undivided chaos. She equates sexual union, mystical experiences, and the creation of art, because all three lead to integration:
In the short story "Noman," MacEwen celebrates the comic strip character of Wonder Woman, and a carnival woman named Medusa a "giant Eve with beasts" who laughs at the idea that chaos should have either meaning or structure. Medusa conjures up a Fat Woman named Omphale, the mother of the gods, who gives birth to the circus clown Noman. Kali, named after the goddess who inspired Siva's cosmic dance, is his consort.
Many of the poems also feature women who are larger than life. In "The Astronauts," MacEwen refers to the Russian cosmonaut Valentina as
She does not name power as the goddess but describes it merely as ineffable, unnameable, internal: "The time has come / and I have not named myself; / there are so many names to choose from" (SM 22). There are also rather striking references to ancient Druidic practices, as in the poem "A Seminar at York, August 1973":
All of these sporadic references to ancient, pre-Christian cults suggest that MacEwen sought spiritual inspiration in specifically nonandrocentric, nature-based religious systems.
Afterworids, MacEwen's final volume of verse before her untimely death, reiterates many of the same concerns voiced earlier, but there is a more poignant tone of loneliness and urgency to these poems. Perhaps the most moving of the male muse poems is also a tribute to alchemy and the power of nature:
But it is the absence of the shadow-maker which the reader feels most keenly in these poems: "I am faithless to you, distant one. / I lie with your binding shadow, your / White mind", she declares, as if making clear her ultimate commitment to her art, the empty white space signifying woman. MacEwen states that she can "accept this disturbed symmetry / This chaos which allows you to be" (After 26). She revels in anarchy, perpetual movement, while celebrating the clown, the misfit, and the daredevil who leaped to his death in a barrel over the falls figures who overturn our normal perceptions. In this final work, the body is the final authority, the vessel by which life and art are measured, and MacEwen concludes that
Beginning with A Breakfast for Barbarians, in which MacEwen says "Let's say No" to prescriptive philosophies, each volume heightens her sense of discovery as she dives beneath the surface of her consciousness, learning that life must be lived passionately and spontaneously. Life for her becomes an affirmation, similar to that voiced by Molly Bloom, and this is echoed in her work. "Art is affirmation; to life the pen is to say Yes!" and what it affirms is the magic of the present moment:
Writing from the inside looking out, about being on the outside of culture looking in, allowed MacEwen a unique perspective from which to articulate one woman's positive, holistic vision of female spiritual strength.
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