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Women, Men and the Engendering Word

by Jill P. Baumgaertner

Jill P. Baumgaertner, associate professor of English at Wheaton College in Wheaton , Illinois. recently edited the anthology Poetry (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich). This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 21-28, 1990, pp. 1103-1110, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Octavio Paz, Mexican author of more than 40 volumes of poetry and prose and winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for literature, has written an extensive biography that reintroduces a long-neglected literary figure of the 17th century: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. One of six illegitimate children of an unusually self-reliant mother who refused marriage, Sor Juana revealed her intellectual gifts early in life, attracting the attention of the court of the vicereine. Seventeenth-century New Spain was a markedly masculine culture, affording women few opportunities to cultivate intellectual talents. Women were barred from school and university, so Sor Juana took upon herself the responsibility for her education. Her accomplishments would be in any age remarkable; in light of her particular circumstances, they are nothing short of miraculous.

Beautiful, learned and eloquent, Sor Juana was not interested in marriage, which in 17th-century Mexico would have required her to relinquish her scholarly and artistic pursuits. Instead, at the age of 20 she left the court and entered a convent where she spent the rest of her life. It was the only place her intellect could flourish. Here she had the freedom to read, amass a library, study science and perfect her musical and poetic talents.

Her astuteness in debate and her literary successes, which included winning university competitions, did not endear her to the church hierarchy, however. Jealous that a woman could so outshine them, they attempted to silence her, but for a long time she was protected by her court sponsors who continually interceded on her behalf. Finally, however, she was forced to relinquish her books, her musical and scientific instruments and her writing. Two years later, at the age of 46, she died after nursing several of the convent sisters through a plague epidemic.

What she left has been collected and translated by Alan Trueblood. The collection contains courtly poetry from her early years, elegant verse addressed to patrons and even in some cases to portraits of patrons -- proof that Sor Juana could play the witty court games as skillfully as anyone. Here also is religious verse presented side-by-side with poetry satirizing the chauvinistic poses of the time. In a poem with the headnote, "She demonstrates the inconsistency of men’s wishes in blaming women for what they themselves have caused," Sor Juana writes:

Silly, you men -- so very adept
at wrongly faulting womankind,
not seeing you’re alone to blame
for faults you plant in woman’s mind.
After you’ve won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave --
you, that coaxed her into shame.
You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness, proclaim
that feminine frivolity,
not your persistence, is to blame.

Also included in this anthology is a letter, "Reply to Sor Philothea," in which Sor Juana discourses at length on the constraints placed on a woman with an active intellect. She describes the time, early in her life in the convent, when a prelate ordered her to stop studying, since it seemed "something for the Inquisition." Until the bishop interceded on Sor Juana’s behalf, she obeyed the order and did not pick up a book, but she reported that she could not keep herself from studying. "I saw nothing without reflecting on it," she writes. "I heard nothing without wondering at it -- not even the tiniest, most material thing. For, as there is no created thing, no matter how lowly, in which one cannot recognize the me facit Deus. . . there is none that does not confound the mind once it stops to consider it."

Sor Juana describes pacing her sleeping room and observing that although floor and ceiling were perfectly parallel, her eyes made the lines of ceiling and floor appear closer at the far end of the room. "And I asked myself whether this could be the reason the ancients questioned whether the world was spherical or not. . . . This type of observation would occur to me about everything and still does, without my having any say in the matter.

Even the most menial tasks contained scientific and philosophic lessons for her. "What could I not tell you, my Lady, of the secrets of Nature which I have discovered in cooking! . . . If Aristotle had been a cook, he would have written much more.

These are companion volumes, handsomely presented. The anthology prints both Spanish and English translations of the poetry -- translations that are accurate, if occasionally prosaic. While Paz’s approach seems somewhat cumbersome, he is, after all, not only presenting a picture of a 17th-century Mexican nun; he is also in a sense rewriting the history of the Counter-Reformation church in New Spain.

Louise DeSalvo’s book is a different kind of literary biography. DeSalvo, whose previous work includes an edition of an early version of one of Virginia Woolf’s novels and a collection of letters from Vita Sackville-West to Woolf, argues that other biographers of Woolf (particularly Quentin Bell) have glossed over the formative traumas of her early life, dismissing them as unimportant and in effect blaming the victim for the abuse she suffered.

From age six until she was well into her 20s Virginia Woolf was molested repeatedly by her half-brother George Duckworth. Her writings reveal that she was not the only victim in her family; her sister Vanessa and her half-sister Stella Duckworth were also victims of sexual abuse at the hands of family members. Biographers have previously portrayed this family as a reasonably stable household with a few eccentricities. According to DeSalvo, this is a false picture of a family that was actually in crisis. These traumas were not closely guarded secrets. Virginia often read portions of her memoirs in public, and in letters and conversations with many people she repeatedly revealed the facts. Biographers have, nonetheless, continued to question the truth of her allegations, or at the very least minimized them.

In April 1939 Woolf recorded in "A Sketch of the Past" her earliest memories, revealing signs that she was in her childhood profoundly depressed, that she learned early not to fight back, that she felt escape was impossible. Here were the seeds of her later despair.

In later years she studied Freud, attempting to come to terms with the sexual abuse she had experienced, but she found no help there. Whereas she was desperately trying to understand her pervasive depression as the result of childhood abuse, Freud argued that reports of incest were usually fantasies. Had she taken Freud seriously, she would have had to conclude that she was mad.

DeSalvo points out the metaphors of drowning that appear so often in Woolf’s writing -- metaphors frequently used by victims of incest. That the metaphor finally became fatally real for Woolf in her own drowning-suicide is the tragically ironic denouement.

In its thoroughness and even tone this carefully researched study of Woolf and her works makes a convincing case that the theme of sexual abuse appears and reappears in Woolf’s work -- from her earliest writing at age ten throughout her life -- and that the traumas of her childhood caused lifelong depression and led to her suicide. Almost as troubling as Woolf’s own suffering is its invisibility in the work of so many critics and biographers who have denied its importance as a cause of her psychological problems in middle age. As outrageous as it may seem, they have even suggested that she enjoyed the abuse she suffered.

Jeanne Murray Walker, professor of English at the University of Delaware, offers in her most recent book of poetry, Coming Into History, some of the finest poems I have read in recent years. This is strongly feminine poetry, in the sense that it is about creation, nurture and connection. Her images are of pregnancy, labor and delivery; she writes about mothering both the infant and her daughter from a previous marriage, about taking a sick child to the doctor. Her titles are "Nursing," "I Won’t Read the Alphabet Book Once More," "Talking to the Baby after Teaching a Poetry Workshop," "Talking to the Baby about Taking the Bus," "Studying Physics with my Daughter."

This is not, however, a simple collection of parenting poems, for in the center, like Blake’s invisible worm that flies in the night, is another presence. These are poems that take as their beginning point headlines from the National Enquirer: "Beauty Queen Has Monster Child," "Woman Picked up by UFO, Flown into Black Hole," "Sweethearts Vanish in Tunnel of Love," "Human Boy Found in Indian Jungle Among Wolf Pack." My favorite is "Man’s Thumb Bleeds for Three Years," in which a man who installs auto glass finds unbearable the silence of the "millions of car windows/resting on their sides" in the shop.

I started to hate Manny, the guy
who brought them in.
I’d see him unloading used ones from the
truck
and I’d want to kill him for saving them
from
the wrecker, like keeping their music
locked
inside this thin shiny sheet. Sot got a
hammer,
cut the wire fence, and started smashing.
The night I let the music out
the sky was all bright riffs and chords
and now my head is clear, if only I
could do something about this bleeding
thumb of mine.

This thumb is the sign he must hide from everyone, the proof of his guilt. Hungry for music, he cannot afford to buy a real keyboard, so he must practice on the one he draws on cardboard, and, as he says, "it gets bloody."

This volume of poems is about coming into the story that we all must step out of someday. It is about fragility, danger and inevitable death. It is filled with the fears, the myths, the fairy tales of every day, the transcendence in the ordinary. In "Dancing in Early Evening" the baby’s father drives home:

Two feet’s mistake
in any direction,
death. He stays on
track, bound down,
so far, so good.

He approaches the house, enters and sweeps up the baby.

You lay your bald head on
his worsted shoulder,
woo him with contralto
toots and drooling.
Then the two of you step out
together, polishing
the floor, your diaper

bagging, pooching, your
fuzzy blue socks flashing, as
night descends, the two
of you untying
obsolete routines, unloosening
gravity’s old malice,
holding one another in
the lamplight, shooby,
romping, dancing, rising,
floating clear of death.
Yeah. Oh yeah.

Walker has created a circle of poems. She is not concerned with the linear progression of thought; instead she shows how cycle more accurately defines womanhood. She is concerned with those things passed from woman to woman, those connections with life and death which often come perilously close. Walker dedicates the book to her grandmother who never met Walker’s son, but whose role in creating him was just as great as Walker’s own.

The poems by Malcolm Glass, author of two previous books of poetry, have a tactile quality unusual in contemporary poetry. Whether describing a man constructing and then climbing into a coffin to try out the feel of it or someone swimming into a whale’s mouth, Glass is concerned with making experience immediate and tangible. He also explores the connections between generations of men -- the Harris Tweed that keeps reappearing over the years, the rituals of fishing, the importance of the penknife willed to him by a friend.

I sliced cheese, cut rope,
spread meat on bread
with the knife you used

to clean fish and fidget
with antique clock-works,
the knife willed to me,

mine these three months
you have fallen in the grave.
When I realized it had slipped

from my pocket, gone in the sea
of mountain top grass, I searched
the campsite. I would not
have it seem to mean so little.
Yet I knew all along
how right my losses always are.

Glass reimagines the biblical stories of Jonah, Daniel, Abraham and Isaac, providing new endings occasionally, but always presenting the convincing voice, turning an old story to the light in a new way. In the title poem "In the Shadow of the Gourd," a character very much like Jonah is swallowed by a whale.

I scraped along
coral and rocks, as black currents
dragged me into a cave, narrow
and slimy with eels. When I could
no longer hold my breath, my heart
jumped staccato as my lungs filled
with . . . air! unbearably hot!
My hands and face were burning
as though my skin would shed
all trace of human features.

The whalers finally rescue him:

Someone had seen
movement deep in the stripped carcass.
We hoisted the sagging stomach
on deck and slit it open to find
a man, twisting fitfully in sleep.
We slid him onto the deck
and bathed him in sea water
to revive him.

This mythic re-enactment of Jonah’s adventure and rebirth finds its fulfillment in the man’s ravings for the next few weeks as he seems to relive all history, including Christ’s life and death. Finally, he says, he returns to life, feeling very good "and never quite so human."

Glass’s most pervasive theme is humanity’s eternal attempt to communicate. In "Books" he shows the books themselves -- the making, the binding, the paper and our handling of them, our attempts to read and understand what is written on the page and what is written between the lines, our desire to decipher the hieroglyphs that books are, our hopes to find the meaning in the silences. In "Witnessing" he presents three characters who have witnessed death and then spend their lives trying to understand what they have seen. One is Deborah Lopez, who on a spring walk discovers the skull of "Jennifer Stinson, abductee," leading to Deborah’s own "clueless wandering in search/of language to carry her beyond mere/narrative, beyond logic, beyond fear." The only way for these three witnesses to communicate, the poet says, would be to find each other, but it will never happen.

It never occurs to this small and scattered
band to gather for Witness Anonymous
meetings, to huddle Tuesday nights
in a Fellowship Room or a Lutheran
basement to spill the words again,
to straighten the account once and
always, to know their listeners feel
the same shiver and twist of the spine,
to know they are sure of nothing else.

Hugh Cook works with this theme throughout The Homecoming Man. A major concern of Cook’s is the lack of communication between an aging father and his adult son -- due in part to the father’s inability to come to terms with his past. Pushed into the cowardly betrayal of his friends to the Nazis, he has spent most of his life muffling his guilt. In this novel Cook, author of Cracked Wheat and Other Stories, is once again writing of Canadian Dutch Calvinists. Paul Bloehm returns home after his divorce to work on a translation of 17th-century Dutch verse. He and his father, Gerrit, who is haunted by the secret he has kept for many years, share the same house but live separately.

The novel is about men imprisoned, men who live together yet apart, who must learn the lessons women seem to know already because they are lessons about living in community, about nurturing and about accepting pain and humiliation as part of life. In the preface L. de Jong briefly explores the difference between the male and female experience of Nazi imprisonment. He regrets that for several reasons the bond between men in the camps was not as strong as that between women. The novel attempts to provide a corrective, to show a father and a son learning to share their mourning, learning to reveal their secret selves to each other and finally coming to manhood.

This is a masterful novel by a writer who does not yet seem to have a large American audience, perhaps because of the Dutch Calvinist world he writes about and out of. One hopes readers will see that lying in the particular world Cook describes is the universal. This is a novel about life and faith, about the intersection of Christ’s sacrifice with our own human longings. It is, in short, about all that is important.


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