Closing the Gap Between Word and World

Diana M.A. Relke, Greenwor(l)ds: Ecocritical Readings of Canadian Women’s Poetry. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1999. 363pp.

As with many cultural icons, Northrop Frye is preserved in our collective memories in fragments, the most durable of which are not always the most piercing of his insights. Among those fragments we must surely rank Frye’s famous comments in his Conclusion to the Literary History of Canada on the "tone of deep terror" that characterizes Canadian poetic responses to nature. "It is not," he goes on to explain,

a terror of the dangers or discomforts or even the mysteries of nature, but a terror of the soul at something that these things manifest. The human mind has nothing but human and moral values to cling to if it is to preserve its integrity or even its sanity, yet the vast unconsciousness of nature in front of it seems an unanswerable denial of those values.                                                                                                  (830)

That this observation should have become one of Frye’s most enduring legacies is unfortunate, not just because it is reductive in a way that is uncharacteristic of his work as a whole, but also because of the way it has influenced critical debate about Canadian writing and the environment. Frye’s words have assumed the status of a ghostly monument in the critical landscape which is repeatedly demolished only to be resurrected again. It is to Diana Relke’s credit that, in Greenwor(l)ds, rather than taking once more to the familiar battlefield carved out around the positions of garrison vs. wilderness, she argues convincingly for the need to reconfigure our understanding of the ground on which they stand. The horticultural metaphors scattered throughout her ecocritical study of Canadian women’s poetry offer a useful model for how we might begin such a reconfiguration. "The garden," Relke points out, "is an intermediate, or transitional, space where mutually alienated culture and nature meet and interconnect" (220). Gardening reminds us of our emplotment in a natural world which sustains, defines, and finally exceeds us, even as we try to shape it to our own ends. Significantly, the idea of the garden evoked in Relke’s study is not the garden of Eden which, in Frye’s mythopoeic landscape, represents the longed-for merging of man and nature. The problem with that gardening fantasy, as Relke clearly shows, lies in the role it allocates to women as the human embodiment of the natural world, through whose possession man can claim his "natural" inheritance. While critically analyzing that fantasy, this study also offers us a different vision of the garden, and of women’s place in it. By looking at women poets writing about nature, Relke reminds us that the garden is a material place that women inhabit, not only as nature, but also as gardeners, labouring to articulate the connections between human and natural worlds which have been both essentialized and ignored in earlier efforts to cultivate Canada’s cultural soil. The metaphor of the garden provides a useful starting place from which to engage one of the central tasks of this book, which is to advance the process inaugurated, as Relke argues, in the work of Isabella Valancy Crawford, of discovering "an alternative epistemology of knowledge—an experimental way of seeing and knowing the natural world" infused by the insights of feminism and ecology (178). Relke makes a compelling case for bringing these insights to bear on a Canadian critical tradition which has been too long dominated by the theories of modernism and postmodernism. This general argument is strengthened rather than simply balanced against Greenwor(l)ds achievement as a work of practical criticism. Rather than simply invoking the metaphors of gardening and horticulture as evocative demonstrations of Barry Commoner’s first law of ecology, "everything is connected to everything else" (qtd. in Relke 320), Relke asks "where do these metaphors come from? How do women use them, and how do they use women?" (7).

By way of answering these and related questions, this study ranges deeply and widely across the tradition of Canadian women’s poetry, encompassing writers as historically and artistically diverse as Isabella Valancy Crawford and Daphne Marlatt, Marjorie Pickthall and Marilyn Dumont. One of the many strengths of the study is its inclusion of those writers who have not traditionally been read as "nature" poets. Besides offering new insights into writers such as Dorothy Livesay and Margaret Atwood, whose ecofeminist concerns have received some, though insufficient, attention, this study also sheds revitalizing light on the work of P.K. Page and Phyllis Webb which risked burial in the modernist/postmodernist battlefield that simultaneously claimed and repudiated them. Many of these essays are revised versions of articles published elsewhere. They are presented "in the order in which they were originally conceived", grouped, Relke explains, around three "moments in feminist ecocritical consciousness that correspond to my engagement with particular places in particular poetic texts"— poetic consciousness, ecological consciousness and ecocritical consciousness" (34). While this structure risks seeming to beg the reader’s indulgence for the earlier material as the product of a less sophisticated critical approach, such indulgence turns out not to be necessary, as the approach is consistently rigorous and based on a solid critical framework. Moreover, Relke argues convincingly against the kind of progressivist critical narrative that sees each mode of critical reading being superseded by those that follow, and points out that "like feminist criticism, ecocriticism is not written exclusively for the edification of other experts in the field" (318). At the same time as they make the case for moving beyond the realm of "expert" knowledge, these essays, which date from 1983, offer solid testimony to a history of academic ecocriticism in Canada that persisted for many years as an "underground phenomenon" lurking beneath the radar of mainstream critics (Ricou qtd. in Relke 205). In contributing to the task of unearthing that tradition, Greenwor(l)ds also engages with the debates that inform contemporary ecocriticism, represented in such recent collections as the 1996 anthology The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (Glotfelty and Fromm).

One of the key debates that animates the field concerns the place of theory in ecocriticism: specifically, ecocritics’ struggle to find a balance between a necessary skepticism towards foundational categories like "nature" which, one does not have to subscribe fully to postructuralist theory to acknowledge, is always mediated by human structures of understanding, and an insistence on making literary theory accountable to a deeply intuited sense of a physical reality encompassing human and non-human lives that transcends culture. Greenwor(l)ds shares with much ecocriticism the aim of challenging what it regards as a literary critical establishment too-long enthralled by the seductions of contemporary theory. The now decades-old flirtation, which Relke characterizes here with some justification as a largely male, homosocial affair, has been conducted at the expense not only of critics’ academic obligation to understand the historical and bibliographical contexts of individual works and writers (and Relke suggests that women’s writing has suffered disproportionately in this regard), but also of its ethical responsibility to the community, both human and non-human, outside the academy. At times, mostly in the earlier chapters, Greenwor(l)ds succumbs to a tendency common in ecocritical work to deploy a hazy caricature of poststructuralism and postmodernism (grouped under the heading of "theory," whose dubious connotations are confirmed by its association with such damning qualities as "detachment" and "abstraction") as a foil for its representation of its own more grounded critical practice. One might argue that poststructuralism has only itself to blame for its easy susceptibility to caricature: the unfortunate critical consequence of Frye’s nature comments pales in comparison to the legacy of Derrida’s remark that "il n’y a pas de hors-texte" ("there is nothing outside the text"), which, taken out of context, invites such rejoinders as Relke’s imminently reasonable sounding observation that "actual nonhuman nature is not a text, although, as my tour of the literary history of nature has illustrated, many texts have disfigured our perception of it" (23). Leaving aside the simplistic reading of Derrida here, statements such as these raise the enormously problematic issue of what a "correct" figuration of nature might look like—an issue which Dominic Head and Dana Phillips, among others, have sensitively addressed in an ecocritical context. Indeed, Relke herself is well aware of this and other issues raised by poststructuralist theory, as her later essays make clear. In her Afterword, she acknowledges:

I have been critical of contemporary theories of discourse. I have also utilized their insights when it has suited my purposes. This is as it should be. Theory and ecocriticism have many common goals, the most important being that at their best they both expose the logocentrism and phallocentrism that underpin Western thought. Both seek to overturn the view of man as the centre and measure of things. But wherever theory succumbs to the condition it purports to critique, that’s where it parts company with ecocriticism.                                                                 (320)

While I am tempted to ask by way of rejoinder "isn’t ecocriticism a kind of theory too?" I am at the same time largely persuaded, by Relke’s deft blending of that version of "theory" with the anti-theory theories of ecology and feminism, of the validity of her argument that "disclosing the gap between us and the world is no longer the problem for theory. Closing it is" (283).

I am somewhat less persuaded by Relke’s extension of her critique of poststructuralism to postcolonialism, a theoretical paradigm grounded, she suggests, in reductive models of discourse analysis overly focussed on ideologies of race. Through her analysis of the work of Constance Lindsay Skinner, Relke challenges the "primitivist" label which many postcolonial critics are quick to apply to any attempt by white writers to represent aboriginal culture. White writers, Relke’s analysis suggests—particularly women—have drawn on native culture not just as a reservoir of signifiers of fear and desire, but rather as a model for community based on social and environmental justice. Postcolonialism, as Relke points out, has dealt inadequately (if at all) with the place of the natural world in the discursive webs in which race and gender are produced as definitive categories. However her dismissal of it is somewhat over-hasty: the reading of postcolonialism as grounded "in the work of the fathers of post-structuralism" (130) overlooks the longstanding objections many postcolonial theorists have mounted against what they see as poststructuralism’s political quietism (see, for example, Adams and Tiffin)—objections, it should be noted, that mirror the objections of many feminists to poststructuralism. Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile Relke’s concern that postcolonialism, like the other "isms" she rails against, is insensitive to the details of history and biography that inform the work of individual writers "no two" of whom "internalize cultural ideology in the same way" (131), with the complaint that postcolonialism replaces gender with race as the category most determinative of relations of power (98). The recognition on the part of feminist and postcolonialist scholars that both theories are susceptible to reductionism has contributed to the significant integration of these approaches which began to occur even before the publication of Terry Goldie’s 1989 study, Fear and Temptation, from which Relke draws much of the evidence for her argument. Relke’s dismissal of postcolonial theory is most interesting (or ironic), perhaps, in light of what might be deemed the postcolonial strength of her own study, which sets it apart from much ecocritical work—namely its acknowledgment of the role of cultural context in literary production. As a critical approach which grew largely out of the US, ecocriticism has perhaps not surprisingly focussed on the significance of bioregional issues while treating as largely irrelevant the geopolitical boundaries of which writers and critics from outside the US are necessarily more conscious. In focusing on the ways in which Canadian women poets represent the natural world, Relke implicitly acknowledges the ways in which culture and nation moderate, without totally mediating, our relationship to the natural world.

The final chapter, "Recovering the Body, Reclaiming the Land: Marilyn Dumont’s Halfbreed Poetic," does a particularly fine job of fleshing out the territory of Canadian mythology famously traversed by such inveterate mapmakers as Frye, F.R. Scott, and Harold Innis, and recovering the natural and cultural places that have been rendered almost uninhabitable through overinscription. One answer to the question of how we might "unmuzzle ourselves and liberate the body and nonhuman nature" from what Relke calls, with significantly unapologetic borrowing from Scott "the long sentence of [our] exploitation" (294) is by resurrecting the eclipsed power of orality as an antidote to the deadening abstraction of graphocentricism. That her tribute to orality should take this written form is an irony which Relke readily acknowledges, expressing her hope, however, that she should succeed in the task outline by Ian Angus of "[motivating] the reader to intervene in the text in an oralist manner. Then, by micrological extension, perhaps to intervene in society as a whole in a similar manner," integrating the time-biased medium of print with a new awareness of space (Angus, qtd in Relke 299). Precisely how that micrological extension will occur is a question this book does not answer, though it establishes a strong scaffolding from which to think about how we might begin. The first word in Marlatt’s Steveston, "imagine" is, as Relke suggests, "quite literally the key to the poem"—and, perhaps, to this book. Like most worthwhile scholarship, Greenwor(l)ds does not simply illuminate a new corner of a well-known field, but rather highlights the tangle of roots by which diverse fields—Canadian cultural history, women’s writing, poetry, feminism and ecology— are connected. Its principal value, however, lies in its insistent reminder of the material ground on whose preservation the cultivation of those discursive fields depends.


Works Cited


Adam, Ian and Helen Tiffin, ed. Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism. Calgary: U of Calgary P, 1990.

Frye, Northrop. "Conclusion." Literary History of Canada. Ed Carl F. Klinck. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1965. 821-849.

Glotfelty, Cheryl, and Harold Fromm, ed. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens GA: U of Georgia P, 1996.

Goldie, Terry. Fear and Temptation: the Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Literatures. Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1989.

Head, Dominic. "The (Im)possibility of Ecocriticism." Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism and Literature. Ed. Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammells. London: Zed, 1998. 27-39.

Phillips, Dana. "Ecocriticism, Literary Theory, and the Truth of Ecology." New Literary History 30 (1999): 577-602.

Relke, Diana M.A.. Greenwor(l)ds: Ecocritical Readings of Canadian Women’s Poetry. Calgary: U of Calgary P, 1999.

Susie O’Brien