Bringing Up Mother

By John Harris | February 14, 2016


Between 1968 and 1983, Daphne Marlatt wrote two books about giving birth to and raising her son Christopher (Kit). These books, What Matters: Writing 1968 – 70 (1980) and How Hug a Stone (1983) are lyrical (first person) novels or fictionalized memoirs that are presented as poetry. They are, especially the latter, the best writing she has done.

I read them as fiction despite the fact that the first-person narrator in each is not named, which is usually taken to mean that the narrator is the writer. But in both books Marlatt presents herself not simply as a writer but as a writer inventing herself through a poetic — through a certain method of writing, which she defines as a way of thinking, of seeing things, of “making sense.”

In the introduction to What Matters Marlatt says, “I was writing poems . . . out of a poetic that taught me language, its ‘drift,’ could ground my experience in the turn of a line as tense, as double-edged, as being felt. In the oscillation of a pun, or a rhyming return, i sensed a narrative that wasn’t only mine, though i participated in its telling & was thereby told.”

Puns and rhymes are fine things and, no doubt, part of a long list of other fine things in Marlatt’s idiosyncratic poetic arsenal, like the lower-case, first-person pronoun she uses here to indicate, one assumes (as with e e cummings), modesty. But to feature these things as important to your poetic you’d have to believe that they can draw you into some sort of tantric ritual, that they can carry you into a “drift of language” that will enable you to dredge deep meanings from your private “experience.” You’d have to believe, like Yeats, that “automatic writing” leads to poetry.

It seems to me that behind the idea that you can stir language around and by doing so create big waves in consciousness is a simplistic equating of language and consciousness. Or the simple faith that poets, in the course of contriving poems, activate a special power of imagination, and that readers, in studying these poems as a sort of secular canon, as the Word, acquire “equipment for living,” and learn “critical thinking.” It’s the faith behind Matthew Arnold’s assertion that in the future poetry will replace religion as a guide to life.

In the erotically-charged rhetoric of Marlatt’s description of her poetic, the stuff about “tense” lines and “oscillating” puns, I hear a mild echo of the frenetic mantras of the Votaries of the Golden Dawn. Consequently, I take the introduction to What Matters as an invitation to engage with the comedy or tragedy of someone stumbling through life in the grip of a grand illusion. That this invitation excites me probably says more about me than it does about Marlatt.


What Matters is dedicated to Kit, features a finger painting of his on the outside front and back covers, and is punctuated with photos of him and his mother. It is a book containing poems written in the two years specified in the title and published then or later in magazines and chapbooks. An acknowledgement page mentions “earlier versions” of two sections of the book, “Columbus Poems” and “Rings,” so some of the poems were either improved or adjusted to fit the storyline of What Matters.

The book also contains entries for those two years from a journal that Marlatt says she had kept since adolescence. It may or may not be true that she did this; there’s no way of knowing. There are a couple of minor anomalies in Marlatt’s journal that suggest that at least some entries were (like the poems) modified or written much later for What Matters. At five months pregnant, 27 December ’68, Marlatt refers to her baby as “he,” when she cannot know the baby’s sex. In fact, later, on March 13/69, Marlatt enters: “as I am a house for — her / him.” And, on 13 April ’69, she notes that “Kanaka Rancherie” should have been [not “should be” or “should become”] the title of the Vancouver poems book, a book that was published as Vancouver Poems in 1972.

On the basis of the introduction, one might expect the poetry to be the illustration of Marlatt’s method, and the journal to be the explanation of it, but one of Marlatt’s revelations is that the journal is actually both. It supersedes the poetry, especially in the first half of the book, in illustrating and proving the efficacy of the method.

Marlatt’s introduction provides, along with a description of her poetic, a concise synopsis of the story: “In 1968, my husband Al & i were living in the Napa Valley in California, each of us having finished several years of graduate work at Indiana University & supposedly heading for home, Vancouver, BC. . . . In the fall of that year a job came through for him from the Psychiatry & Psychology Departments at UBC. We returned home as we always knew or imagined we would. Our child was born there but the job didn’t fit & by the fall of 1969 we were back in the States, in Wisconsin, where he was teaching in the Psychology Department at UW. i was writing about Vancouver, watching our son grow, & wondering what i was doing on a tobacco farm in the American Midwest. By the end of 1970 i had come home to Vancouver with Kit for good (as it has since been).”

This is concise in terms of time and space, but is not of course the story. What Matters is about a protracted struggle with her then-husband Al Marlatt over where they will live, he not liking his UBC job and wanting to find one in the US, and she wanting to live in Vancouver where (she is sure) she can really be a writer and achieve through writing an understanding of herself and her situation. Note in Marlatt’s synopsis the experiments in style, in exploring the “drift of language” to achieve understanding: the lower case first-person pronoun again, the slightly unconventional use of the ampersand, and the pun at the end, in the phrase “for good,” that neatly conveys the double meaning — “permanently” and “happily.”

The struggle involves Kit, in that he is born in Vancouver and is a Canadian citizen, and in that Al is said to interpret his arrival as Marlatt’s attempt to put down roots in a place Al doesn’t like. The struggle leads to separation and divorce, Al remaining in the US and Kit living with his mother in Vancouver.

The second book about Kit, How Hug a Stone, is described in its “Introduction” as being about a trip that Marlatt (39 years old) and Kit (12) make to England in 1981 to meet relatives. Again, Marlatt is a writer, with as much a fixation on poetics as she exhibited in 1968, only now that poetics is more narrowly focused on managing and manipulating language — on identifying the word formulas that most impede or best activate deep consciousness. In order to do this, the narrator wants to investigate the origins of her own way of speaking and writing and feels that the way to do this is to look into her mother’s past.

Mother represents “mother tongue” because Marlatt’s mother was British and because she incessantly picked at Marlatt, as a child, about how she spoke. This investigation will proceed by visiting the environs of mother’s childhood and meeting and speaking to Marlatt’s grandmother and other family, people who are still close (more or less) to “mother tongue.” The visiting and meeting ignite Marlatt’s memories of passing through England, as a nine-year-old girl, when her family moved from Malaysia to Vancouver.

Also the mother represents what it means to be cut off from ones mother tongue. Mother was cut off from the “proper” English of her lost British-Empire past, and the insecurity that resulted caused her to colonize her daughters by forcing them away from a contemporary, North American, Vancouver dialect. Marlatt is cut off because her poetic as she points out doesn’t always work as it should, and needs further refining. Kit is a kind of experimental “control,” someone in the earlier stages of learning and playing with language, someone un-self-conscious about it, someone not cut off from it in any way. As the old saying goes: “out of the mouths of babes.”

Connecting mother to mother tongue is a conceit, a little allegory. Marlatt is only partly successful in pulling off this allegory, but she is successful enough that it becomes part of the book’s rhetoric. The advantage of a conceit is that she can talk about something abstract (language) as if it were something concrete (mother). The image of the “henge,” the Neolithic arrangements of stones in circle and other shapes that are thought to be the sites of rituals, symbolizes language. The tantric ritual (fired by proximity to speech patterns and vocabulary familiar from childhood) results in the raising of a convincing ghost.


What Matters starts with a section called “California,” which starts with a half-dozen short poems. These are free verse meditations on flowers, bugs, and events in domestic life, that are unusual in that they are in part structured through (as she says in her introduction) puns, clichés, rhymes, connotations, homonyms and synonyms rather than standard denotation and grammar. The best of these poems are short, playful, almost childish (a couple of them are addressed to and dedicated to kids): “night crawlers or / dew worms do / not rise at dawn / when the rains come down / night, they rise to / see what? flooded out & / drown.”

After a half-dozen poems, “California” turns into a journal. The journal is structured by date, and delivered in the shorthand style that characterizes most journal writing. It registers not just events (comings and goings of the characters, news etc.) but thoughts, mainly thoughts. In the book’s introduction, Marlatt explains the journal as “not only an account of (trying to account for) my experience, but a workbook and a confessional.” By “workbook” she doesn’t mean that the journal includes incipient poems, though a (very) few extremely telegraphic parts of it read like poetry, but that it includes speculations on the sources of literature as a form of communication and a special use of language. In other words, the journal explains and illustrates Marlatt’s poetic.

Such speculations used to be known as “aesthetics.” Presently they’re called “theory” or (in Fine Arts Creative Writing courses) “lore.” Here, because the speculations in the journal don’t have much experimental substance or even logical consistency (in that Marlatt doesn’t much evaluate the poems in the book as expressions of her poetic), they seem more like lore, which I’ve been suggesting is more tantric than creative writing lore.

The events listed and described are the domestic interactions and comings and goings of Marlatt, Al, and various friends and neighbours. The first, most significant event, after some extensive speculation about lore, is registered on Friday, August 23 / 68: “today learned I am pregnant.”

The entries on lore start with some basics and read like part of a syllabus for an introductory course in linguistics and philology:

the bodies of words: their physical reality (sound)

their meanings: history & derivatives

association, ways of linking . . .

This syllabus also expresses the “objective” that Marlatt would have in pursuing such a course: “care with words means / words mean, with their interactions. . . .” Note that Marlatt is still, in the journal as in the poems, infusing unusual structural elements into regular ones, testing her lore; here, a virgule circumvents grammar and introduces at least two possibilities for reading (neither of which, unfortunately, make Marlatt’s speculations clear to me).

A syllabus often has references to experts or authorities, so there’s also a quote. It’s not sourced, which as we’ll see is unusual in Marlatt, who has the academic’s habit of attributing quotes to authorities. Academics do this so their quotes can be verified, but also because the quality of their thinking can to a certain extent be elevated through the reputation of their sources. Citing authorities is partly a rhetorical device, in other words, similar to the appeal to “familiars” in tantric ritual. It’s a device that works only on those who know what the names mean, of course. In Marlatt’s case, the quotes are normally from well-known modern poets, critics, and novelists, each of whom represents certain aspects of Marlatt’s poetic.

The quote that goes with Marlatt’s comments on “care with words” is a famous one from the poet Robert Creeley: “form is never more than an extension of content.” The quote is explained, but in extremely abstract terminology that leaves me puzzled: “nothing exists without form . . . a thought is an act . . . .” Both of Marlatt’s formulations seem tautological.

Creeley’s statement, famous as it is, seems to me to be unexplainable, somewhat like “Christ is Lord;” its impact is rhetorical, dependent on its sounding like a mathematical formula (e=mc2) and on a pre-existing consensus on the part of the intended audience as to the meaning and potency of the words on either side of the equivalency sign. The fact that Marlatt tries to explicate it is comic, given that she affirms its truth whether she can explain it or not.

The next entry, May 26 / 68, is key to understanding the purpose of the journal and the urgency of keeping it up: “on way down to get newspaper this morning thought I have not addressed myself to purpose yet: of my life, how reflect it in the writing —?”

It is characteristic of Marlatt’s character that she would be brooding not directly on the purpose of life but on how to reflect that purpose in writing. She is examining life not in an ordinary mirror but in a sort of infinity-mirror. The purpose of her life is, she has said, to write, so what she’s contemplating is how to reflect writing in writing.

It’s common to talk about writing of any sort, including journals and poetry, as reflecting one’s life (or one’s life’s purpose? — the use of the colon in the above quote seems to produce an unneeded qualification); the earliest poetic (Aristotle’s) postulates that art reflects life, and that through imitation we learn life’s practical lessons. Creeley’s dictum that the forms of art (of poems) arise out of the content of that art proposes a more abstruse and questionable assumption: that if you get the content of your writing down in clear and abundant detail, your writing will take shape (be a better reflection of life).

Marlatt is willing to concede that her writing lore may result in over-complicated writing: “I’m not completely here . . . not writing out of self but only out of head. tired of my complicated prose style.” She envies Ed Dorn (August 3 1968), another well-known poet, believing that his content already has shape while hers doesn’t. Dorn, it seems, has it easy; he doesn’t have to scatter-gun his life’s events and his perceptions of them on the page, hoping that they will acquire form. His events are pre-formed: “I’m not Dorn,” Marlatt agonizes, “don’t have that experience which necessitates the literal quality of his work, as against real circumstances of poverty, illness, death. . . . mine’s against a more abstract danger — mental survival, if you will — the fear that things are not what they seem.”

It sounds like she’s complaining that her life isn’t hard enough, which is like a jazz musician wishing she were born on the skids, a postcolonialist wishing she were born an indigenous person— ie. the most common wishlists in the culture. What she’s doing really is illustrating that her poetic can’t shape reality unless that reality is pre-digested — unless the “real circumstances” fit a well-known preconceived pattern of story or myth.

The sense that she faces a more abstract danger (rather than a danger she has made more abstract) seems to indicate to Marlatt that she must find, not necessarily a more abstract solution, but an abstract way to a solution: “communication itself the area to explore. Striving for a realism there [in communication] is more absorbing than in the novel where effectuality of communication is already assumed. Effect of phenomenological reading: to catch the web of experience itself, not as thought (pursuit of an idea) which tends to shortcut the sensory input, but the interplay of sensory being-in-a-place & thoughts about (connections with memory or surmise).”

No one would say that novelists like Joyce, James or Conrad “assumed effectuality of communication.” Presumably she means that there are two kinds of novels, one based on the assumption that people communicate easily, and the other on the assumption that they don’t. Her example of the latter (a few entries on) is the fiction of Gertrude Stein.

Other entries detail the content to which Marlatt needs to give form. There is her sense of alienation in California, of being trapped as in a maze. There is her struggle with Al. There are her insecurities about having a baby. May 26/68 continues: “to be present here in this place: to find my ground. something more than pacing up and down the rows of Di Rosa’s vineyard each morning. nowhere to walk in the country that is not marked off by some fence or row. the present we walk marked out for us; Al’s internship & then his job (where?), my thesis & then my M.A. — for what? a teaching job somewhere (& do I know any more?) . . . reading the Berkeley Barb & thinking of having a child, of ‘bringing it into this world’ — as if we were all equally present in it, all in the foreground. whose world? just procreating not enough, I want to make the world a securer place for him/her.”

Reading the newspaper, the Berkeley Barb, seems to have indicated to her that piling up content in her writing will not lead to form or meaning if that content doesn’t involve politics: “any sort of political ideas are lacking from my work — to do with a lack of conviction that I also exist here, among?” “Political” means “of or relating to government,” so Marlatt is going to consider theories of government generally and in connection with specific social issues. This will overcome her sense of isolation — her sense that she is a detached intellectual maybe, and/or (maybe) that she has been marginalized as a woman.

This is an example of Marlatt attempting to modify her character by modifying her poetic. Normally political ideas are the purview of journalistic writing that does what Marlatt has hitherto been determined to avoid: “pursuit of an idea.” In poetics, this would be called “thematic” writing.

The “California” section ends with five poems about California, the last one indicating the move to Vancouver: “highway points / north.” These poems continue in the domestic, meditative mode of the earlier California” poems, observations of friends on a walk on a hill or among the grape vines, narratives of going swimming or walking with friends, speculations on friends who may be splitting up as Marlatt feels she and Al may be, an account of a visit to Mokelumne Hill, California’s Barkerville (where she gets her idea about phenomenological reading and Gertrude Stein). They have nothing to do with the book’s plot, little to do with showing Marlatt’s character / poetic, but they do register some of the setting. The puns etc. are gone or rare, the poems’ structures more conventionally meditative.

The next section of What Matters, “Vancouver,” starts with journal. On September 20/68 Marlatt and Al move into a rented Dunbar-Street house in which she does not feel at home: “staid, middle-class . . . shops trying to look like a village.” Al becomes UBC faculty, she “faculty wife” but also part-time English teacher.” They feel “in the grip of the establishment,” part of “the old WASP shell of Vancouver that hippy Vancouver is trying to grow out of.” But Marlatt senses, (November 16/68), somewhat perversely, that even her discomfort is a sign that she is secure: “Vancouver because I can write more easily here? Because I can be angrier here . . . Dubliners. / interred.” And she is indeed angrier in Vancouver, with Al, as he gets angrier about being in Vancouver, and with herself for agreeing with his feelings about Vancouver. My interpretation would be that she would feel safer in Vancouver (proximity of old friends and a parent etc.) if it came to leaving him and raising a kid by herself.

On November 20/68, in connection with her meditation class, she speculates on “’subject / object dichotomy’ — ego sets up walls to think of itself as alone subject, a lonely subject . . . . value of Ponge, his insistence on the presence of things . . . which has always fascinated me — ‘negative capability . . . (but if every imagining of the other is only a projection of the self?).” What she seems to be concerned about, perhaps in too abstract a sense, is that when Keats (the inventor of “negative capability”) presents a bird in his writing, the bird loses its “birdness” and becomes Keats.

On December 27/68, she notices her pregnancy (5 months) is making her physically awkward. Also her pregnancy seems to be the only thing about her that interests Al. But at the same time it cuts her off from “Al & the men, the camaraderie etc. this is shattering. that I am just like other women . . . felt irritable, weepy, victimized.” At the same time, she is growing closer to her baby, “I feel protective toward it (this sense grows),” and she is feeling happier with herself, “as if just being is enough.”

The poems in the “Vancouver” section show Marlatt feeling insecure about her negative capability. She alludes to this in the next batch of journal entries. On January 31/69 she notes: “difficult to locate the writing in public places, dept. store or any aspect of city. It’s the density of sensations — the writing becomes caricature (just the most obvious characteristics pickt up)” She also feels that the writing goes nowhere: “feel need in ‘telling a story’ to work towards some ‘climax,’ which means imposing a “plot-line” no matter how minimal?” On the other hand, she worries that such an imposition would be a denial of her poetic, would truncate the “story,” just as (she believes) logic does thought: “the writing takes so long because it is attempting to get the whole field of consciousness (not linear logic) . . . the process of thinking is not logical, but the deepest reasons for action are tied to complexes of feeling, not postulates of thought.” She cannot impose plot for the same reasons she can’t impose political ideas or theme: it perverts negative capability or phenomenological language.

On April 2 / 69 she registers a crisis when Al comes up with a plan, a job in Wisconsin: “says we’ll look for a farmhouse, live in the country again. he brightens, he can make it seem real to me. but it feels like a recurring dream, this search for somewhere to put down roots — just when i begin to feel mine tangled here in the roots of the city.” There’s another crisis, April 30 / 69. Kit is three weeks overdue: “my god, it all sounds neurotic — hanging onto the baby out of fear? that it won’t be perfect? that I’m into something I can’t deal with, that once the baby’s out it’s so vulnerable to illness, accident — stay in there where it’s warm. sometimes unreal sense there’s no baby at all. things in the room gathering dust.”

The cover of “Rings,” the fourth part of What Matters, is a picture of Marlatt holding a newborn Kit. The poems are narratives of events leading up to Kit’s birth. They are much more engaging than the earlier poems in the book because they are more like the journal, as if the poems were becoming a journal, the journal becoming poems. But still, outside the matrix of regular journal entries, they are harder than the journal to understand, to tie into the story.

“Rings i” documents in infinite detail an argument with a bitchy person, presumably Al, over slurping coffee, over why anyone would actually like snow as she does, over how she makes coffee, over his anger at being snowed in and not being able to get out to the bars in Blaine, across the border. She assumes that this is irritation at her being pregnant, “opposing your restlessness with increased roots.” Kit is becoming a way of anchoring in Vancouver, something Al doesn’t want. In the course of the argument, Kit kicks. He continues kicking through the “Rings” series.

“Rings ii” is full of dialogue, Al and someone named Bob drinking scotch, she, Al and Bob smoking dope, the three of them talking about the neighbours hauling empties in instead of out and how strange that is, and about how strange it also is to have the Christmas tree still up in March as Al and Marlatt do. Marlatt thinks about Kit, in utero, listening, “Hard to imagine what he (she) carries of each of us,” this “much” including the dope, and speculates on having boy vs girl, and how she thinks of the baby as a boy. Her reason for this, she thinks, is that she doesn’t want the baby to be where she is, “to follow her, my own mother,” and that “it’s a man’s world.”

In “Rings iii” Marlatt is taking a bath by candlelight, thinking of the bath as uterus (“I float relieved of his weight — he floats within”) and of the cycle of water, the “river-sea” that represents life and history, so that Kit will be “delivered” from one river-sea to another. The conceit is a conventional one and, in this case, far-fetched. “Rings iv” documents in detail what happened after her water breaks and she is taken to hospital. It ends with “he’s BORN, tight fisted in my arms, eyes screwed shut, / shutting us out. Yet he can hear & maybe feel someone / cradling him against her, hush, hush. i hold him. it’s / all right. you’re born. “Rings v” is about the first days at home, extensive speculations on what’s going on in Kit’s head, when he will smile at her (is it gas?), how he controls her agenda, whether he’s still breathing. The poem is an engaging account of the common worries of a new mother.

Rings v ends with a promise and a disturbance (Al). The promise is, “I will bend over, / shade you plantlike as the sun turns . . . . The disturbance is, “a certain motor. Gears down, stops. News from outside coming home.” Threatening “home,” as it turns out. “Rings vi” documents the return to the US, through the Deas Tunnel, past the Peace Arch, past the bars in Blaine, Al cursing out Vancouver and UBC, Marlatt silent.

The journal entries in “Rings,” starting May 5 /69, allude to events and feelings already dealt with in the poems. Because the poems have taken up so much content, the entries are not very regular, large stretches of time passing between them. There is, likely due to the focus on Kit, no lore, no talk of writing or language. But there are more details about Marlatt’s feelings — of panic now that she has to manage at home, outside “the rigid system of the hospital which supported me, ways of caring for him passed on to me from the nursery . . . . “ Also, “I feel reborn with him.” On May 30, “delight in his vitality, his rolling around, his infantile pugnaciousness, his protests.” On July 18/69 she talks with Al about her fear that Kit will die. He figures that’s “connected somehow with fear of our relationship dying . . . he warns me against becoming as overprotective as he sees his own mother . . . . this is his analysis but it chokes up the openness of my loving.”

The fourth section of What Matters, “Wisconsin,” is all journal, but again the journal entries are scattered. Seven entries cover the entire academic year, September to March. This seems to be because Marlatt is busy writing poems, not just looking after and contemplating Kit; she mentions the first Vancouver poem turning up (September 4/69). But none of these poems are included in the book, only alluded to. Likely, she realizes that the poems, though their production may be reducing the need for a journal, are not relevant to the immediate story, to the place she is in, to Kit at that point, to the struggle with Al. Marlatt has made her decision and is already, mostly, because she is most of the time “in” her writing, in Vancouver.

The journal entries talk about her determination to return to Vancouver, which represents to her a better situation for writing, even though she is, as it happens, writing rather a lot. A conventional reading would be that it is homesickness that is driving the poetry, but Marlatt doesn’t register that. For her, poetry is an intellectual exercise, not “emotion recollected in tranquility.” The fact that she is writing well outside of Vancouver doesn’t register either.

She wants back to Vancouver because (at this stage) it represents that social engagement, those political ideas, she has been thinking should be present in her writing but evidently (“Gladys” confirms this later) are not: “Al sees me as childish . . . felt I never had the right to speak out as a social member because I didn’t belong — cut off in part because I rejected the values of those around me — but then discovered a community of writers whose values helped me recognize mine — enlarged again to the possibility of a renewed society I want to be a part of . . ./ in the Vancouver poems, the city’s dream of the city, underlying what is.

The “values” alluded to here would be the values that would drive her as a “social member,” rather than the aesthetic values that her community of Vancouver writers might share with her. Maybe they’re connected to the “political ideas” she wants to write about. But she doesn’t exactly say that she shares the social values of that community, but that their values helped her recognize hers. As she phrases it, it is possible that their values might have been recognized to be exactly the opposite of hers, thus confirming what hers are. This is another case where Marlatt’s wording is not clear, possibly because she isn’t listening to herself at this point, which could be because she doesn’t want the wording to be specific, doesn’t want to tie herself to the values of her group. Later, when she does get back to Vancouver to workshop the Vancouver poems, she rejects the values of “Gladys” as unimportant to her poems.

The September 4/69 entry itemizes some of her values. She approves of the Unanimous Declaration of Independence of the Berkeley Earth Read-Out. “ERO program of four changes: “more research into non-polluting energy sources . . . making use of what’s at hand,” etc. She disapproves of the apathy of the people in Madison (“each ends up helpless on a treadmill of own making”) as opposed to “the refusal to participate in systems (the orneriness) of skid row drunks” — figures that are filling her Vancouver poems.

The concern about apathy in Madison seems silly; she’d seen roughly the same thing earlier when she and Al moved back to Vancouver. Her comparison of the open attitude of the rubbies in Vancouver to the closed one of the citizens of Madison is ridiculous. Here, Marlatt seems to be using language to avoid experience. Her concern about the fire bombings in Wisconsin (entry January 28/70), possibly pulled off by people who would support ERO, is legitimate. One building contained an “office of graduate students’ organization for water purification, office for Indian students (1 boy lost all his stuff) . . . . no regard for life of the munitions Plant employees in Baraboo, also bombed.” But she concludes that the employees are “morally wrong to be employed there . . . ” implying that, while their lives should not have been endangered, threatening them might have been okay. They should be subject to some punishment for working there.

This is naïve , in the sense that no job is free of compromise with the “system,” not hers as a teacher nor Al’s, teaching psychology and practicing psychiatry. She might as well be considering the morality of paying rent to a tobacco farmer — obviously her landlord is dedicated to the devil’s work.

Also, it seems she is not as isolated in her values as she thinks. The causes she mentions are those common to her generation, causes that were increasingly stirring up protests at UBC in the 1960s, so really, Marlatt never did reject, as she says she has, the values of the people around her. What she seems to be is a member of a minority, a large one — a minority that might be described in Canada as “leftist” and in the US as “New Left” or even “radical Marxist”. And she is a relatively insouciant member of that minority, thoughtlessly skewing her opinions to fit its vague ideology.

On February 22/ she is thinking about Kit’s name: “what is ‘world’ — space to move in / EXTENT—limits of vision / what one can encompass . . . . Columbus setting out in his vision —honorable & maximum use of ‘man’ — but ends up colonialist plundering.” This consideration, its meaning positively scattered and made breathless by the use of short lines, dashes and accentuating quote marks and uppercase letters instead of the usual coordinators, subordinators etc, leads to the Columbus Poems, fronted by Kit’s picture, a poem sequence that explores the story of his namesake — a man setting out to explore the world, his attempt brave and well-meaning, as Marlatt has it, but opening up possibilities for evil as well as good. This upsets Marlatt; she seems to prefer to believe that good motivations should have good results.

But at this point in the book, concerns about politics, about the bad results of seemingly honorable human endeavor, are overridden by the poetry written for and about Kit. In one poem, “sky lullaby,” she sings “3 men in a tub” to pacify Kit. The three are Pizarro, Cortez, Columbus,” macho characters all. Then she sings about “the 3 mythopoeiac (sic) travelers of sky” or the sun, moon and stars, those that (more like Magellan than Columbus) complete their voyages successfully, with no deviations and no collateral damage. There is, actually, lots of collateral damage, sunspots, tides, meteorites being what they are, but the myth of perfection in the heavens is a familiar one, and that myth is attached to Kit by a loving and therefore hopeful mother, so it fits the story despite its unreality. This is myth and story, form imposed on content. At last Marlatt is writing counter to her poetic. One beautiful poem celebrates Kit’s laugh: “you ‘break up’ / sweeping whole into / ’the world.’ Another celebrates the way he moves forward, “on bendy legs.”

The May 26/70 Journal entry, the entry in the “Columbus Poems” section, returns to the consideration of story, in this case stories expressed in songs and poems. Al and Marlatt discuss this in connection with the “story-songs” they are listening to on the Johnny Cash Show. “American myths,” Al says, and she thinks, “maybe genuine singing occurs when a large experience (of a people) is forced through a small exit, their individual’s throat, ‘tongue’, way of speaking.” This is a beautiful image, of birth, and structuralist theorists, who see, as opposed to Robert Creeley, form as generating content, would say “amen” to it. According to structuralists, like Northrop Frye, you do not allow content to structure form; you find ways of applying form, patterns of myth, to your content.

In fact Creeley, questioned about his famous dictum, added to it “or vice-versa.” This brought him more in line with more traditionalist poets, like Wallace Stevens, who said “Literature is the better part of life. To this it seems inevitably necessary to add, provided life is the better part of literature.”

On June 24/70, Marlatt engages in more speculations on form. She’s wondering how to organize the Vancouver poems “when there is no story — how to sequence the poems so the personal moves into the public? & where will it end?” She postulates a switch, “where the I / narrator gives way to the ‘you’ is not only Al (tho thru him I first got to know the city — / . . . so I saw the world in Al or he showed it to me — coming out, as I did, of practical convent of my childhood, isolation up Penang Hill, & then as immigrant, plus something of a puritan, certainly virginal & protestant work ethic all thru school — it was the world he brought me into, the hub of the city, interaction, the night lights (we were always going to ’look at‘), the hive — / Can I address the ’you‘ now of city?”

Finding the story — here the possibility that her narrative arc is a version of an old story, from the convent to the downtown, Al the Virgil who guides her, she the virgin from the convent, the puritan. It doesn’t seem like it would work, in that it would involve a major recasting of Al (who wants to drag Marlatt away from Vancouver), but now at least she’s outside her poetic, sensing that care (fussing) with words, that a presenting in words of a phenomenological net of sensations (which is, incidentally, what the Vancouver Poems is) is in no way going to arrive at meaning.

On July 4 she indicates that she’s returned to Vancouver (for about a month judging by the dates of journal entries) for two reasons: “it isn’t just that they [her parents it seems] had the car accident & [I] wanted to come home to be with them — it’s that I also wanted to come home to this landscape, that Kit should come to know his birthplace.” Kit of course is far too young to know Vancouver; this is another silly rationalization. The visit home is really to steel her resolve, to make sure the city is still there in the way she thought it was.

She finds it smaller than Madison (in terms of population it’s much bigger), more personal, the people in the post office in Horseshoe Bay on a first-name basis with her father etc. Also Canada, she muses, is quieter, “perhaps because nature overshadows the people,” and because it’s politically “repressed,” in that there are “no demonstrations against the war [this was not true], no race riots, no mass movements.” She’s aware of her contradictions now, the fact that her negative capability when it pertains to Vancouver is just an extension of her own desires: “it’s not ‘our’ war, & yet we contribute to it . . . . Al likes being where the action is, & yet we only watch there too.” Presumably there are no demonstrations in Madison. But all of her ideas about Vancouver are contradictory. Finally it’s simple factors like “the softness of the air” that explain the attraction.

Her support group of writers question her ideas — they seem to be workshopping the Vancouver poems during this time. “Jane” (July 20/70) calls to give her information on the history of the bridge over Second Narrows, presumably the subject of one of the poems. On August 10/70 “Gladys asks why there is nothing about strikes when this is a strike-bound city? says history of Vancouver is one of constant ripoff, from CPR on. what big business uses up.” Her answer to Gladys is, “not writing a history of the city. want to let the city speak thru the poems, its things, its person. Not trying for breadth . . . but depth.” In short, the effort to include political ideas is still not productive, at least so far. Other writer friends (“Warren,” “Bob,” “Clayton”) affirm her need to be in the city if she is to write about it. This could be a criticism of the Vancouver poems, that they were written in Madison, so they don’t quite work. Or these members of her writing group simply know that Marlatt badly wants to come back home, so they are making her feel good by reinforcing her idea that this would help her poetry.

She drives back to the US (October 8/70), Kit asleep on the back seat of her red Volvo. On December 12/70 she decides to leave Al and the US: “I am so tired of fighting to preserve some sense of who I am. / A little each day — write, to get back to myself. / all the anxieties about depriving Kit of his father, about the future, don’t outweigh my need to survive. cold everywhere. the frozen lake, the locked car, keys dangling inside, the cutting wind — all metaphors for our state. / have to get back to Vancouver. step into the stream of my life there. find my own ground.”

It’s comic that Marlatt’s tantric poetic requires her to tell us what her metaphors indicate.

She identifies what readers would recognize as the key problem of her action — guilt about Kit. She has acted in her own interest, not his. But the last poems in the book show that the struggle is paying off. These poems focus on Vancouver and, mainly (because Al is no longer a distraction), Kit:

this morning sun I saw rise

silently over the empty house

my love two lives now

cheerios in hand, smiles






not mythic, just

begotten one

A poem, hinging on a simple pun: son/sun. Two men in the boat now, the sun and Kit, with Mother, who is still fussing about the meaning of life but has, really, found it in him and poetry about him. Also featuring a symbol, a box of Cheerios in the arms of her son, the box not representing a corporate advertising scam involving the manipulation of a British “parting exclamation of encouragement” (Oxford Dic.) into a product name, with the aim of enticing children to eat shit and parents to buy it for them, but representing her son/sun. Featuring an adjective from religion, “beatific,” and finally, an allusion to the Bible, John 3.16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. . . .” That interpretation by God’s disciple of what God’s agenda is is not queried by Marlatt any more than the Cheerios are, because she’s talking about her son, obviously a messiah to her, obviously someone who can transform the world.


How Hug a Stone shows how Marlatt is getting on, and whether Kit is still capable of drawing her out of her writerly self, her poetic faith, her troubled but erotically charged relationship with language, so she can live and so, really, write.

Something has happened over the decade (the year or so between the writing of the two books) since mother and son were last seen together. The phenomenological, content-fired approach is gone. Marlatt is “inventing,” or selecting symbols for what she is thinking, giving form to her content. For example, watching an Agatha Christie movie on the plane to England, she sees an “enraged mother at the heart of it: lost.” She is aware that this is foreshadowing. The mother in the movie was enraged and delusional, Marlatt’s mother was the same, and Marlatt herself is enraged (at her mother, as we’ll see) and lost at the heart of her own story.

She’s lost it seems in language, trapped there, the trap symbolized by the image of the stone henge. The phenomenological approach to writing and thus to understanding would simply be like putting stones in a pile, hoping a shape would emerge. The narrative approach is like putting them in a preconceived shape, a circle, a maze, a line. This approach is connected to Marlatt’s mother, to whom the book is dedicated. Writing narrative is a way of understanding the past and predicting the future, but can also, Marlatt still believes, be a trap. And mother illustrates this.

But she has Kit to protect her. On the plane to England, as she comes out of the movie, she notes that he is gone: “notice blue joggers on the seat beside me, feet gone. elsewhere are we? (even here.) as he slides back in: ‘i LOVE to go into that lab’ratory.’ ‘what?’ ‘the one that has a big hunk of shit that won’t go down.’”

Convincing dialogue, despite the omission of upper case at the start of sentences, the lower-case first-person pronoun. Why does she bother? The grammar and punctuation are familiar, the use of upper case and elision to indicate how Kit emphasizes his words is familiar from other novels. The dialogue indicates that mother and son seem to have a great relationship; Marlatt seems to be the perfect mother. She refers to Kit ironically, in the first-person plural, the royal “we.” She’s impressed that even in the confined space of a plane, he can be gone. He talks to her freely, in his own language, no objections on her part to his use of four letter words.

The text continues: “Thus revised, flying along a sunset with our shit . . . thanks to 23,000 gallons of fossil fuel sustained aloft for a few hours improbably in a DC 10. we feed ourselves stories to dull our sense of the absurd. fed a line so as not to imagine the end.” A story as a “line” or linear narrative. The plane as shit. The shit, she has to believe, won’t go down. She’s kind of ashamed of the obvious motivation behind her symbolism (also of immersion in an Agatha Christie movie?): “fed a line so as not to imagine the end — linear version of our lives unraveling in a look, back. Mystery appeals to our belief that things do make sense, this plot we’re in, wrapped up like knife fork & spoon.” And yet she argues for finding symbolic meaning in narrative: “left open, flapping, wide to the wind, without narrative how can we see where we’re going? or that — for long moments now, we happen.”

Marlatt has learned that myth, wish-fulfillment, symbolism, plot lines, logic have value, are not the voiding of reality, of the phenomenological impact of experience, but part of it. And hey! Mother and Son do arrive safely at Gatwick, wish fulfilled.

Next chapter: on the train, Gatwick to Reading, Kit gets a cinder in his eye: “staring head out into the wind, ecstatic, until the cinder bit in eye:

didn’t I tell you?

that was it. my vision smeared with soot like some kind of powdered ink, my mother’s handkerchief a scalding rubdown, tearful eyes to the horizon line of the cut, those fences other kids were climbing free as they went in their unwritten world.”

Note how quickly Marlatt moves from event to speculation and memory. She’s in a hurry, probably because she’s still terribly uncomfortable in the phenomenal world, especially when her child is threatened. It’s also the case that she is threatened, that constant always surprising insight into the fact that Kit is her best guide through experience.

“My mother’s handkerchief” is both her handkerchief probing Kit’s eye, and her mother’s probing her face, a scene from the past involving an accident while playing on fences with other kids: “tearful eyes to the horizon line of the cut, those fences other kids were climbing free as they went in their unwritten world.”

“Unwritten” seems to indicate the pressure of the conventional — the linear — scenario, the henge, that mother enforces on daughter: “didn’t I tell you?” Also the scenarios that Marlatt is tempted to force Kit into in the cause of keeping him safe. The next chapter presents the fence-climbing scene in detail. Marlatt is remembering it now where it happened, in what’s now her stepbrother’s garden. She’s remembering while watching an immediate event — her stepbrother engaging Kit in collecting moths and pinning them on cotton for identification. Now she is the mother, and upset: “i protest this play as death — despite his barrage of scientific names, his calling to my son, you game? as if he held the script everyone wants to be in, except the moths.”

The stepbrother uses “game” to mean “ready,” “willing,” “plucky.” Marlatt chooses to hear the literal meaning of “game” as a noun, a script or pattern of action meant to enact fun, and she can’t see how killing moths can be fun. Her care with language is not an objective care that gets her to clear meaning, but a way of making a trivial complaint sound serious. Kit shows her how silly she is: “my son turns from me into the light of names & pins & white flutter, captive of the play. even as I remember pushing past my mother’s quick restraint.”

The stepbrother, if he notes Marlatt’s disapproval, ignores it as firmly as Kit does, and acts generously to entertain Marlatt. For example, Marlatt remembers the smell of “the linden my grandmother used to mail over . . . the tree or the flower? Not the flower, he says, but a sticky secretion insects leave, & he shows me the heart-shaped leaf.” Science is fun, and useful, not just a rationale for killing things. Grandmother had to pick (kill) the leaves to put them in the mail, and Marlatt has no complaint about that.

Marlatt’s mother was not only intrusive (as Marlatt remembers her) in trying to keep her child safe, but intrusive in trying to correct her child’s English. At her stepbrother’s, Marlatt recognizes words her mother used but that are long gone from Marlatt’s own vocabulary: “sweetshop,” “pillarbox.” She recalls, “my mother driven wild: why can’t they teach you how to speak? when I brought the colloquial home, flaunting real fine with me ‘n her.”

Again, Marlatt doesn’t bug Kit about this or object to the way he says things. It’s not so much that she learned from her own experience with her Mother to leave that be, but that she likes the way Kit talks — with metaphorical verve, like Shakespeare. Kids, especially teenagers, usually do talk this way, and are probably the people most responsible, through metaphor, cliché, new phrasing, for shifts in language. And she knows it’s by speaking this way, with his ear attuned to his generation, that he will grow his own language.

What she also knows, but has trouble accepting, is that attempts to interrogate language, an uptight attitude to language, can be counterproductive and stifle thought and communication. She knows this from her experience with her mother, but she can’t accept it as a writer with a poetic that demands constant fussing with the denotations and connotations of words, constant messing with the conventions of grammar, usage and rhetoric, all in the name of (at this point in her life) her political values.

Marlatt doesn’t trouble Kit about clothing style either, another fixation of her mother. Where her mother inherited her own mother’s (Marlatt’s grandmother) dream, Marlatt refused to carry on the tradition: “As I refused, on a new continent suffocated in changing rooms thick with resentment: you don’t understand, everybody wears jeans here & I want a job. Refusing the dream in its continuity . . . .

Mother, however, as Marlatt finds out from Grandmother, did try to refuse the colonialist life, did try to break out of continuity, linear-ness, the story. Ironically, she tried to do this by acquiring a profession in dress designing and dressmaking. This explains the rigidity about fashion, the battles in the changing rooms. Fashion was not, for her mother, just the enforcement of her own taste on her daughters. For her, fashion was knowledge that could lead to freedom. But for her daughter, growing up and wanting to look exactly like everyone else at school, mother’s sense of fashion had been unacceptable. Marlatt now feels bad about her resistance.

After another train ride, Marlatt and Kit (both now with colds) visit mother’s old friend Jean, who speaks just like mother, and who says that she liked mother because “she seemed to enjoy setting people against her.” Mother is again seen as the rebel, the one with issues to air (Marlatt sees “seven years in a boarding school” as the main issue), and again Marlatt wonders at the reversal of roles, she who rebelled against her mother now “the perfect little mother,” which is also how Jean remembers her as a child playing with dolls, and how Jean sees her with Kit.

Marlatt broods: “o the weariness of Weirfield school morality, passed-on, passed on.”

But questioning the origins of her perfection as a mother seems odd here, especially since she is at this point agonizing over Kit’s mysterious affliction and applying herself to cure it. Perhaps she’s acting Al’s role, wondering about obsessive motherliness when Kit really does need her total attention. The accusation of obsessing mothering unfortunately transfers to Jean too, now seen as a symbol of that wearying morality: “i argue with Jean, irritated by her sense of duty, even as i am grateful for the way she looks after us. Kit woke with a fever, stomach ache this morning & she immediately got us an appointment with her doctor . . . .”

Marlatt is more conscious now of her own duplicity, her shoot-from-the-hip blaming of people (including, in the past, her mother), her purse-lipped rationalizations, her inability to see beyond her own concerns to the love being shown by others. But under the pressure of Kit’s illness, or reverting to her tendency to thoughtlessly blame others and to see herself in any difficult situation as the victim, she can’t hold back from criticizing Jean.

Kit’s problem gets worse, not a cold but a stomach illness: “I feel like Alien’s trying to be born out of me.” Irene gets him to a doctor who prescribes medication, but then it turns out that Kit is allergic to the medications: “there is no limit. something in me is in shock, like a bird beating wildly against a branch — lost, panicked. why are we going through this? . . . i said, try to think strong thoughts & sleep, your body can heal itself while you sleep. i say the mother-things to him but what do i say to the child in me? who mothers me?

Marlatt can’t resist being the victim. Of course Jean is mothering her. So is Kit, all the time, which is, actually, why she’s so panicked by his illness and any accidents he has.

Finally, Kit recovering, Jean directs Marlatt not to Stonehenge, that greatest of all henges, but Avebury, a henge that her mother knew: “narrative is a strategy for survival. so it goes — transformative sinuous sentence emerging even in circular, cyclic Avebury. . . . writing in monumental stones, open . . . to sky (-change). she lives stands for nothing but this longstanding matter in the grass, settled hunks of mother crust . . . the enfolded present waits for us to have done with hiding-&-seeking terrors, territories, our obsession with the end of things. / how hug a stone (mother), except nose in to lithic fold, the old slow pulse beyond word become, under flesh, mutter of stone, state, stei-ing power.”

This “sinuous sentence” is not at all “transformative.” It’s merely unclear writing. Marlatt continues to impose and enforce her self-lore even when it is totally irrelevant. How much better it would be without the shorthand, the choked articulation, the grammatical gimmicks, the stupid puns?

From Avebury they go back to Grandmother, “the white stone lady reclined on her stone couch at the foot of the garden at the end of Empire. Kit seems over his allergy & the dark weight is gone.” Marlatt answers her own question, asked as she hovered over Kit. She realizes she’s been struggling with her mother’s fear, “which I suspected of being so strong it could actually shape what happened to me. coming to meet it, I see what I’ve been struggling with here.” Her mother’s fear of language being taken from her is also Marlatt’s fear. Mother feared it as a displaced person, and Marlatt claims that reason for herself (born in Australia, childhood in Malaysia, the rest of her life in Vancouver). But Marlatt’s experience of displacement is laughably minor compared to her mother’s. She grew up to speak Vancouver English. Really, Marlatt fears it as a writer who doubts language, who believes it has an agenda to subvert her, who is (I suspect) conscious of the fact that she inevitably screws up when she takes her eyes off the world and starts writing.

Knowledge of the independent streak in her mother makes Marlatt feel guilty, partly because mother’s revolt didn’t happen, which was partly because of Marlatt herself. What happened was that mother evaded the colonialist life by accident, by getting married and getting pregnant during the war when “we didn’t know what was going to happen.” What happened was the end of the British Empire, the return of the family to England, and almost immediately the move to North Vancouver where mother, unsettled, forced away from her “home,” not having a profession, stuck in the house, attempted to colonize her growing daughters, who were too young to understand where she was “coming from” and responded by attempting to colonize her.

Grandmother was upset by what happened to mother, telling Marlatt: “I never washed a cup and saucer til I was twenty . . . . We weren’t burdened at all with the worries that young people have today.” Grandmother was, Marlatt points out, “star of a shattered system of domestics.” Mother was, momentarily, too, in Malasia, but being unsettled and under pressure from her daughters, had to revert to what she had tried to escape, to what was at least familiar: domestic life, mother tongue.

And if we can’t see where we’ve been, how can we figure out where we’re going? Mother lost any sense of security in her past, partly because of her daughters.

Mother and daughter are the same. Neither can leave the past “altogether” without losing themselves. Perhaps no one anywhere can. In Language in Her Eye, 1990, Marlatt again went back to what happened between her and her mother. By that time, Marlatt had come to see (perhaps because she was by then a lesbian activist) her own part in “counter-colonizing” her mother: “The struggle over reality is a deadly one that cuts to the root of being. Words were always taken seriously in my house because they were the weapons of that struggle. But a woman’s sense of herself in the language she speaks can only be denied so long before it transforms into a darker (side of the moon), a more insistent ir-reality, not unreal because its effects are felt so devastatingly in [her] and those around her. Her words, her very style of speaking derided by her own children, her colonial manners and English boarding-school mores dismissed as inappropriate by Canadianized daughters who denied any vestige of them in their own behavior and speech, she withdrew into chronic depression and hypochondria. ’Unbalanced.’ ’Loony.’”

For a time, Kit saves his mother from her mother’s fate, just as he helps her find her ground in What Matters. He may be doing this even now, both as a begotten son and as an artist — he seems to have established himself in Vancouver’s Hollywood North, as assistant director of movies like Smokin’ Aces 2.

In How Hug a Stone, Marlatt gets a whiff of this future as she watches him armed with a tape recorder, chasing horses in a field of cows, inventing and recording a plot: “here we are in the jungle to stalk and capture some wild animals. let’s see what’s about. watch out for poisonous snakes too. ah ha! i have spotted some Wild Cows & Wild Horses. quick, rope & brand ‘em . . . . now join Adventurous Marlatt in his new Adventures with his companion Brownie . . . .” Not a bad voice-over, and it includes some phrases that Kit may have recently picked up in England: “what’s about” (as in “about the house” rather than “what’s it about?”) and “ah ha!” Maybe he’s been up in the Grandmother’s attic dipping into some family issues of Boy’s Own Magazine. But Marlatt doesn’t worry about him being subverted by “mother tongue.” She enjoys his voice-over. Maybe she watches Smokin’ Aces Two with similar pleasure (without worrying about any sexist subtexts?).

Kit also has a dream, very dramatic, that he dictates to Marlatt. She writes it down, including her own responses, as they sit across the table from one another on another train. The dream and her responses to it are delightfully revealing.

In the dream, Kit is some kind of organizer: “I was a guy that would get clubs together.” He avoids the housing project because he’s afraid of the kids there, but brings some homeless kids home to sleep in the back yard. This seems to get out of control, more and more kids turning up, some in uniforms. “Are you making this up as you go along?” Marlatt asks. “I’m telling you like it was,” says Kit. The kids in the yard are playing ball, watching a portable TV on the lawn etc. There are even some tourists, sun tanning (“dream overlay,” Marlatt notes on her transcript, from the present, things they have done and seen in England). The kids generally worship Kit, calling him “idol,” “king” etc, but they have a complaint, which seems to be that there are too many people turning up, because Kit told them it was a “free world.” Meanwhile, in the house, Kit’s parents are having “their normal arguments at suppertime” and “they were slipping tapes to one another, tapes of their arguments,” but “the dumb thing was though they didn’t listen very good & when they recorded their message they weren’t really thinking about it, they were just letting loose their anger.” Marlatt asks, “they?” and Kit responds “well you, only it was only part of you.” Meanwhile Kit’s aunt and favorite cousin turn up, and they are very talkative, which pisses Kit off. As they talk, the crowd outside gets noisier, now calling Kit a “false king” and a “chicken.” Kit addresses the crowd: “i’ve had it up to here with you jerk-offs, i said, especially you teenagers. my parents are about to split up, and we’ve got company i’m not ready for, & i’ve got you — jeez. they all stopped talking. you know, you’re all fucked up, i said catching my cool. i only let those kids stay here ’cause they’re homeless. You’re not homeless so clear off. some of them started to get up & leave & then some more . . .”

Marlatt gets it, probably because of the fact that Kit is communicating in plain, English larded with contemporary slang and cliche. “Sitting face to face across a moving table,” she comments, “recognizing our difference.” Adults who tape (write down) their arguments, which are “normal” (usual) at “suppertime” (when others, like Kit, are forced to listen). Then they exchange these tapes. And because they’re busy taping they’re not listening. Marlatt feels both guilty and entertained. And the language! “Catching my cool” etc. And the message that, though language is dangerous (using the cliché “it’s a free world”), the real problem is the fact that people paying attention to language, especially people who are always writing things down, don’t listen for meaning.

At the end Kit, having no fears, especially of language, no interest in tracing back any narrative (the galleries and museums) feeds the pigeons, as Marlatt knows she did too as a child, about 10 years old, “en route to Canada, feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.” Marlatt celebrates his joy in it, “not the National Gallery, not the Tate. he wants to be where live things are soaring past Nelson on his column, over birdshit on the Imperial Lions . . . over the Nile . . . Trafalgar . . . petrol bombs, vehicles overturned & set alight. / Hey mom . . . take a picture mom, he’s the greediest. Lost in the behaviour of pigeons . . . i want to go home, he says, where it’s nice & boring. / & i can do nothing but stand in my sandals & jeans unveiled . . . . i am learning how the small ones live, ruffled neck feathers ripple snakelike movement of the neck last vestige of dinosaurs: then lift, this quick wing flap . . . free we want to be where the live things are.”


So What Matters and How Hug a Stone? turn out to be comedies, not tragedies. The story in both books ends happily, meaning that Marlatt has learned something, the ultimate proof of which is that there is some good writing. There’s not much good writing in What Matters, but the fact that what good writing there is has nothing to do with the poetic suggests to me that Marlatt can find her way out of her own language henge into a meaningful narrative when motivated by the power of mother love — when she ignores her poetic in the grip of emotion. How Hug a Stone is a small gem that makes the same point more efficiently.

The story continues in Anna Historic (1988), which is, conventionally, an experimental novel. The narrator is Annie, not Marlatt herself, and Marlatt has Annie learn to make those decisions about phenomenological language, political ideas, plot, symbol and myth based on the conviction that political ideas trump language, plot and myth in giving shape to narrative. Marlatt’s is now a theme-based poetic that requires characters to talk ideas at one another and plots to prove whatever Marlatt wants proven.

What she wants proven is that language, along with all other human constructs, is a tool of the patriarchy. I’ve never been able to figure why some people think this. Some obvious symbols of patriarchal influence on language are: the use of the generic “he,” the use of “man” to mean “humans” and the connected problem of “mankind” and “woman,” and the use of suffix “ess.” But these were identified long ago (thanks largely to feminists) as problems, and they were solved. For some time now grammar books and style manuals have provided easy solutions to these notational problems: the use of the impersonal pronoun “one” or the second-person pronoun “you,” giving up on the rule that indefinite pronouns like “everyone” are singular, the use of gender-neutral designations like “flight attendant” instead of “stewardess. ” Some gay activists now want to go past where the feminists took us to remove from language all binary sexual connotations: to promote the idea that there are at least a half dozen sexual designations so it would be most efficient to give up on all of them. They advocate the use of gender-neutral pronouns “zie,” “zir,” and “zirs.” This is sensible enough, if cumbersome.

Some feminists have argued that the problem goes deeper. They argue that the linearity of language, the grammatical, logical and rhetorical rules that describe temporal, special and cause-effect relationships are patriarchal because linearity is a feature of the male brain. They argue that connotations are generally controlled by men, because connotations reflect the power structure. They argue that all the picky and useless rules about spelling, about starting sentences with an upper-case letter etc are not designed for efficiency (like, say, the rule about driving on the right side of the road was) but to condition people to accept regimentation and hierarchy—or as they call it, “hegemony”.

This whole argument about the male as opposed to the female brain goes against what educators have concluded over the past fifty years about the relative abilities of the sexes in science, math, law, economics, medicine etc — which is that men and women perform equally well. Some feminists argue that conditioning and education can turn girls into men, but this argument isn’t popular with most feminists. Anyway, it’s up to brain scientists, cognitive psychologists and linguists to solve this problem.

If Marlatt does think language is patriarchal, the first sentence of her description of her poetic methodology would need to be revised: “I was writing poems . . . out of a poetic that taught me language, its ‘drift,’ was deeply patriarchal, and i could ground my woman’s experience in the turn of a line as tense, as double-edged, as being felt, so long as i wrote carefully around or attempted to disrupt and query, through various techniques most of which were originally devised by e e cummings and then popularized around Vancouver by bill bissett, any “linear” features of language like standard grammar, logic, format, dictionary meanings and rhetoric.”

Mother reappears in Ana Historic as a ghost, Ina, who questions Annie’s narrative but does so as a victim who fought the patriarchy (mainly in the form of her totally domesticated husband Harald) but succumbed to it, ultimately in the form of shock therapy. Another ghost is the historical Mrs. Richards, whose first name (“Ana”), and whose “diary,” Annie invents. She also invents, out of pure air as she admits, and against the advice of her historian husband Richard, for whom she works as “research assistant,” a story whereby Ana rejects the fate that historical documents actually indicate, marriage to a Mr. Ben Springer, for a lesbian relationship.

Anne follows her “historical” heroine along the same route. What starts a coffee-shop friendship with the lesbian Zoe moves into consultation about the progress and ending of Annie’s novel. Zoe generally tells Annie that it’s her novel, the characters are nobody if they’re not her, so she can do with them what she wants.

Annie thinks, “that’s too easy.” She realizes that she would be doing what she’s accused Ina of doing with her own history, “erasing parts of it to keep your theme clear.” But the cause is just, so ultimately she does what Zoe wants.

Based on this — what most feminists would regard as deeply patriarchal — focus on theme, Marlatt’s father is erased. He becomes Harald, a loving and dutiful dope, who likes his job, his wife and his daughters, who feeds and cares for them as best he can. He’s “the father we should all be grateful for. we were.” Grateful is a paltry substitute for love but maybe Annie is talking legalistically, like Cordelia to Lear, though Annie’s father makes no weird Lear-like demands of her. The trouble with Harald, in Annie’s mind, is that he didn’t see himself as a “patriarch,” any more than he saw himself as “proletariat” or “bourgeoise” — words useful to people with pitchforks dragging other people out for burning. He refuses to smash down the walls, as his wife wants. He will not challenge the patriarchal order of things.

Al Marlatt has been shrunk (but not much) into Richard, who is consumed with history and his reputation as a professor of history, who assumes that his wife is eager to dedicate herself to the same cause (though he does finally “allow” her to work on her novel). Zoe taunts Annie with a joke: “Annie Richards,” she calls her, the last name that of the historian husband and the historical figure. Annie’s allowing the male henge to determine the story of Ana, instead of making her own henge.

Kit is totally missing in action in the novel. This is the saddest thing about Ana Historic. Annie has a son who plays loud music when she is working. A boy is born to one of Ana’s friends, and shocks the women present with the size of his “equipment.” Other than an indication to the women that men are pretty hard-wired from the start, boys in the novel are merely a symbol of the pains of giving birth and of rearing kids.

You don’t find out how the boy’s life works out, but his birth in Ana Historic sparks a conversation between Annie and Zoe: “the real history of women, Zoe says, is unwritten because it runs through our bodies: we give birth to each other.” “But we give birth to men too,” says Annie. “No we don’t, Zoe says, “we give birth to boy babies and men make men of them as fast as they can.”

The fact that Marlatt put something this stupid into the mouth of Annie’s friend, something that clearly has authorial approval, shows that, once Kit moved out of Marlatt’s life she followed her poetic, now fighting instead of using the “drift of language,” into a comprehensive erasure of reality. Ana Historic is thematic fiction in the vein of (in Canada) Hugh Maclennan and Morley Callaghan, fiction wherein characters speak ideas at one another and where the plot is meant to make a point. The only difference is that Marlatt lays out the poetics that determined her coming to write in this way, whereas Callaghan and Maclennan assumed that everyone understood and approved of their approach.

One wonders what Kit thinks about the fact that he was grabbed up by men and quickly made into a dedicated member of the Patriarchy. What does he think about the fact that his mother likely now disapproves of his character and his art? And what would the men who did this to him think? Roy Kiyooka, for example, Marlatt’s significant other for many years, who wrote the Pear Tree Poems about living with Marlatt and Kit?

But Kit obviously grew up learning when to ignore his mother. Probably he does so still, and indulgently, she being such a strident, opinionated, credulous, supercilious, socially incompetent, solipsistic writer who also happened to love him like crazy and to have expressed that love fairly well, in the past, in words.


12,429 words  February 15, 2016



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