Thursday, June 30, 2005

Neoplatonism and Christian Symbolism in Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poem “Manzini: Escape Artist”

I was cleaning out my filling cabinet when I came across a bunch of old essays I had written for school. I wrote this paper for my CanLit class when I was an undergrad student at the University of Windsor. Our assignment was to pick a poem from the anthology that we had never read before, and do a brief two-page explication of it. Here was my attempt. It certainly is not, let’s say, comprehensive, but I thought it was well enough written for an undergrad. I was taking a philosophy course that same year — can you tell? Got to love an essay that starts, “Throughout history man has sought…” Not to mention the conclusion, which is perfunctory at best. Hey, I was only in second year. Besides it can’t be too bad, I got an A.

Throughout history man has sought a means by which he can escape from the physical world and the mortality connected to it. In Gwendolyn MacEwen’s poem “Manzini: Escape Artist”, Manzini becomes a symbolic representation of humanity’s search for freedom from earthly bonds. MacEwen combines Neoplatonic doctrine and Christian imagery to poeticize the quest of the human soul in attaining immortality.

In Plato’s belief, the body is a source of imprisonment. In Timaeus he defines the two worlds that underlie reality; the first one is the invisible, eternal realm of thought, and the second realm is visible and corporeal. According to Plato, the task of humans is to attain control over the sensations of their bodies. If one succeeds, the soul will shed its bodily prison and be re-united with the eternal, divine spirit. If one fails, the soul will be trapped in a cycle of reincarnation. In this view, the soul is eternal and good, preexisting the body which is a source of evil and mortality.

These views are clearly expressed in MacEwen’s poem. This is evident in her description of Manzini’s ropes, which are like “tendons…worn/ on the outside-/ as though his own guts were the ropes”. Manzini is able to transcend his material prison by freeing himself from his skin, and throwing “his entrails/ white upon the floor”. In his attempt to achieve freedom from the limitations of the natural world “there are no bonds except the flesh”.

MacEwen also utilizes Christian imagery. She describes Manzini as having a “leaf across his sex”. In Genesis, once Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit they realized they were naked and sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. An obvious allusion to Adam in the Garden of Eden, Manzini’s struggle with his flesh-made ropes can then be seen symbolically as Adam’s struggle with earthly temptation.

For disobeying God, humanity is cast out of Eden and becomes subject to mortality. Death, then, is not viewed as a natural process, but rather as a punishment for sin. Manzini is only able to free himself from his fallen state of humanity by metaphorically shedding his skin of sin. He is described as finally being free when he “slid as snake from/ his own sweet agonized skin”. The snake imagery, once again alluding to Genesis, is a symbol of evil and sin. Manzini, however, is able to free himself from this stain of sin which is inherited by all of Adam’s descendents, thereby reclaiming his lost innocence.

MacEwen may have been influenced by the Christian theologian Saint Augustine, who interpreted the story of Genesis as one of human bondage. In his Confessions, he states that through original sin humanity is “shackled by the bond of death”. According to Augustine, sexual desire and the body are sources of sin and corruption. The body is made inferior to the soul, and its sensations must be mastered by the mind. This parallels Plato’s view of the body as being an earthly prison for the soul. Manzini is a culmination of both Neoplatonic and Christian thought. He figuratively represents humanity’s struggle to free itself from the “bonds [of]… the flesh”, a line which is repeated throughout the poem thereby stressing its importance.

With its repetitions, the poem is reminiscent of a chant. This creates an insistent rhythm, which gives it an incantatory affect. Chants are characteristic of magic charms, ritual and prophecies. Therefore, by using this form, MacEwen links her subject matter to the mythic past. Like a storyteller, she employs direct speech. She writes, “listen-/ there was this boy, Manzini”. The line break after “listen” forces the reader to pause, as if hearing an oral story. The reader is drawn into the tale.

By synthesizing Greek and Christian cosmologies, MacEwen constructs a modern myth suitable for today’s audience. “Manzini: Escape Artist” becomes a dramatization of the soul’s quest for freedom from its bodily prison and humanity’s search for immortality. Her chant like style is particularly suited for the spiritual themes she explores, linking the poem to the mythic past.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Still Life Framework

For the various grant applications I had to write a project description for my manuscript, Still Life of a Muse. These are my thoughts on its framework:

In my poetry collection, Still-Life of a Muse, I explore the life of Elizabeth Siddal, who was married to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Although an artist and poet in her own right, she is best known as a Victorian muse and the inspiration for her husband’s paintings. Although some supported her artistic development, including her husband and the art critic John Ruskin, they did so while upholding the doctrine that a woman’s primary duty was to her family. The issue of women’s creativity being in direct opposition to the duties of domestic life remains conflictual for many women today.

Siddal was of the working class, and her sudden association with influential artists and their upper-class patrons was dramatic and life altering. As a model, then pupil, she quickly developed her own artistic ambitions. Unfortunately, a mysterious “female malady” soon developed and she became weak and suffered recurrent bouts of depression. There was no known biological root to her illness, and recent historians have suggested everything from anorexia to bi-polar disease. Her relationship with her husband, which was always volatile, deteriorated further. His adultery and the stillborn death of their first child led her down a spiral of depression and drug addiction, the eventual culmination being an over-dose at the age of thirty-two. Whether the overdose was intentional or not is unknown. Her story is especially relevant in today’s society, given that middle-class housewives are statistically the highest group diagnosed for depression. It seems that the correlation between domesticity, isolation and depression is still very much a contemporary issue.

The collection contains five sections.

1. Portraits is a series of poems based on paintings, in which I explore the ways women were framed by Victorian culture. More specifically, these poems examine the ways Rossetti cast his wife into an imagined ideal of womanhood, and for the purposes of his art, into the role of muse.

2. Still Life of a Muse looks at the events of Siddal’s life, putting them into the context of creativity and how they relate to the female body. Her pregnancy and stillborn daughter become metaphors for repressed creativity. The exhumation of her body, a true historical event, is seen as the awakening of this creative force.

3. Fairy Tale Variations gives a contemporary twist on fairy tales, retelling them with Siddal as the main character. Works such as Snow White, The Shoes that were Danced to Pieces, and The Wizard of Oz become revisionist myths of the creative process. The strange mythology centered on Siddal makes her story especially well suited to this adaptation.

4. Speculative Fictions is a series of imagined dialogues between Siddal and various people, including those from her own time period, such as Queen Victoria and Mrs. Beeton, and those from our time, including Anne Sexton, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. These hypothetical dialogues and imagined meetings bring lightheartedness, wit and a contemporary twist to the collection.

5. Life-In-Death explores the links between nineteenth-century spiritualism, séances and creativity. In these poems, I as poet, become the mediator between the past and present as well as exploring my own use of the muse archetype.

While writing this collection I keep in mind the words of Robert Graves who wrote, “woman is muse or she is nothing.” My collection intends to show that women are creators, both through my exploration of Siddal’s life and through my own act of poetic creation. I am aware that women can never fully disentangle their creativity from this long-standing myth, and that I am also complicit in its perpetuation through my choice of subject matter. I am, in effect, resurrecting the muse by using Siddal as my inspiration. I continue to work out this complex relationship, asking myself if the gap in history and being a woman makes a difference in the way it is played out. As a contemporary writer re-inventing a historical person through the creative act, I hope that my collection will give readers insight into the multi-faceted subject of how history and poetics intersect.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Dreaming Poetry

Sometimes I dream images that I use in my poetry. At other times, I dream that I am writing a poem. It is like looking over one’s own shoulder and reading the words as they are written. Unfortunately I never have a pen and piece of paper beside my bed when I first awake, and later in the day it is almost completely forgotten. The poem below was written after I fell asleep while trying to write. I was feeling quite discouraged and got a headache. I do not remember falling asleep. Sometimes stress makes me doze off unintentionally.

Trance Writing

I wake from a nap, pen and paper close at hand.
An image of a broken fence still banging
against the hinges of my mind. Worn
white paint peeling like sun burnt skin.
A hand, firm in intent, grasps
tightly, tries to steady it
as if in opening.

In the porch entrance of an aged house,
a glowing orange light flickers.
An old, gnarly white cat guards
the doorway. She will not
let me pass, stretching open her
paws, claws extended.

This is where I find you. On the threshold.
Gates knocking on hinges, doorways revealed
but unpassable. Are you the steadying hand, holding me
still against a storm, or the frightened animal
barring the way?

In my drowsy state, words stream fast.
I crave more, images raw
and uncensored. Listen to the hypnotic
tick tock, tick tock. Interpretation left
for another day.

Friday, June 10, 2005


I had the strangest dream last night. Dan and I were at a wedding, except I didn’t know who was getting married or where exactly we were. I have the vague recollection of wandering through some grand corridors, like one would find in a castle, and looking out a window to see a panorama of lush green hills.

The part of the dream that is still most clear is as follows:

I was in the shower and Dan came in saying that when I was done he would help me study for my test. He had sliced his foot open to look like the anatomical illustrations in my biology textbook. “For ease in displaying the veins,” he explained. I got out of the shower and wrapped a towel around me, not alarmed at all. Then he took a large serrated knife and with his own hand sliced his head down the center from the crown to the chin, yet he was still talking and walking around. There was no blood, just a clean separation like using a comb to part one’s hair. He said, “I’d do anything for you Dawn.” And then Lorelei and Luke from Gilmore Girls burst into the room. They were trying to hide from their spouses. They admitted to having an affair, and begged us to let them hide out in our bedroom until it was safe to leave.

That is about all I remember. The strange calmness, and lack of pain or blood with Dan’s cleavered head and foot. Me, naked and dripping water, freshly showered… and the adulterous television pair in my bedroom in a remote castle on the wedding day of an unknown couple.

When I was telling Dan about this dream I immediately realized the thematic recurrence of duality, bifurcation, and vulnerability. Do I believe Dan to be two-faced? Are his emotional and logical sides too divided? Do I feel exposed, at risk with our relationship? A dream about adultery on the cusp of an initiation into wedlock cannot be good, especially when the groom’s identity is unknown and the man pledging devotion is a bloodless, butchered, two-faced instructor of anatomy.