Thursday, March 30, 2006

Trobairitz and tensions

If it helped me, I’d remind you, singing,
that I had your glove,
the one I stole in fear and trembling:
then I feared
you would be harmed
by the lady who has your service;
so, friend, at once
I gave it back, because I know
I have no rightful claim.

-Castelloza, “Ia de chanter non degra aver talan”, Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner et al (trans.)

This post springs from some of the reading that I have been doing for my masters, which, as is often the case, resonates in other spaces that I occupy. I have been reading about women troubadours (trobairitz) from the Middle Ages. Only a handful of their writings survive, far less than those of male troubadours. These women write within and outside the tradition of fin’amor, in which the lowly poet begs for the love of a usually silent and distant lady, typically the wife of his lord. What I find interesting about this tradition is that it appears to put the lady in a position of power, during a time in history when you expect that women would have very little power at all. The courtly lady rejects the advances of luckless suitors from her pedestal, seemingly entirely in control. What the lyrics of love and pain obscure from the reader however, is the economic code they represent. Laura A. Finke describes fin’amor as “an ideology that smoothed over the contradictions brought about by homosocial competition to control women as resources… It represented aristocratic women as simultaneously on display and inaccessible” (Feminist theory, women’s writing, 1992). The apparently heartfelt poetry of fin’amor had more to do with economics than the love of women, in effect, the poems operated as coinage, a form of symbolic patronage between vassals and their lords. Thus, “the languages of poetry and of sexual desire existed in a dialogic relationship- entangled- with the languages of economics, warfare, and politics” (Ibid).

When women write within the codes, forms and symbols of this tradition, the results are subversive, exposing the power dynamics and struggles that the poetry was originally designed to hide. In the case of Castelloza, the trobairitz I quoted from above, she does not write from the position of a woman in power, and the effect is unsettling. She tries to write about subjects that the code of fin’amor was not designed for, and so her words, meanings and associations swell against the poem’s form, flooding the retaining wall of language.

This is important to me when I am trying to write the voice of a woman narrator who threatens the retaining walls of courtly discourse in a society where women’s speech is considered irrelevant at best. It is also interesting to think about when I am considering the value of having a voice in other conversations and spaces, particularly in spaces where the accepted discourse is somewhat inaccessible, or challenging. I find myself ‘trying on’ different discourses all the time, particularly in various teaching worlds, until they become comfortable. But then, I start to worry about why they have become comfortable, concerned that they slipped over my body like a soft, faded jumper without me noticing. I worry that I am becoming parrot-like, speaking in shared languages to make connections, even if I don’t truly understand the translation.

And so, the anxiety of mimicry leads me here, to think critically about the discourses that I hide behind, to develop my own critical understanding of them. Then, when I put them on again, I will feel at ease because although I’ll be wearing the same soft, faded jumper, I will be standing in my own doc martins.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


At the moment, words and writers are making patterns in my mind, though I cannot yet wholly see or understand the shape they form. I reach into the dark...

Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds...

-Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, ll. 910-916

Finding yourself in a hole, at the bottom of a hole, in almost total solitude, and discovering that only writing can save you. To be without the slightest subject for a book, the slightest idea for a book, is to find yourself, once again, before a book. A vast emptiness. A possible book. Before nothing. Before something like living, naked writing, like something terrible, terrible to overcome.

-Marguerite Duras, Writing

The storyteller of the tribe puts together phrases and images: the younger son gets lost in the forest, he sees a light in the distance, he walks and walks; the fable unwinds from sentence to sentence, and where is it leading? To the point at which something not yet said, something as yet only darkly felt by presentiment, suddenly appears and seizes us and tears us to pieces, like the fangs of a man-eating witch. Through the forest of fairy-tale the vibrancy of myth passes like a shudder of wind.

-Italo Calvino, Cybernetics and Ghosts

In order to go to the School of Dreams, something must be displaced, starting with the bed. One has to get going. This is what writing is, starting off. It has to do with activity and passivity. This does not mean one will get there. Writing is not arriving; most of the time it's not arriving. One must go on foot, with the body. One has to go away, leave the self. How far must one not arrive in order to write, how far must one wander and wear out and have pleasure? One must walk as far as the night. One's own night. Walking through the self toward the dark.

-Helene Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing

The moon had set by now, and the sky to the south was profoundly dark, though the billions of stars lay on it like diamonds on velvet. They were outshone, though, by the Aurora, outshone a hundred times. Never had Lyra seen it so brilliant and dramatic; with every twitch and shiver, new miracles of light danced across the sky. And behind the ever-changing gauze of light that other world, that sunlit sky, was clear and solid...
... And as he said that, the Aurora flickered and dimmed, like an anbaric bulb at the end of its life, and then went out altogether. In the gloom, though, Lyra sensed the presence of the Dust, for the air seemed to be full of dark intentions, like the forms of thoughts not yet born...

-Philip Pullman, Northern Lights, His Dark Materials trilogy

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Writing a tapestry

I've been thinking recently about the desire to pin down text like a struggling butterfly impaled on a collector's needle. At a meeting with a newspaper editor it struck me first- a journalist's necessary urge to 'find the story', as thought it can be separated from everything else. It hit again in a meeting with my masters supervisor- I need to articulate the central question that I am trying to answer through the story that I am currently (physically) writing. M was very good at this sort of thing- he could peel a text like an onion until he thought he had found its core, and wouldn't stop until he did. But I can't do it. Not for this story at least (not ever, I don't think... could this be a problem??)

I have tried to narrow it down, and this is what I am left with.

The story is about:

metamorphoses..... and...

the life cycle of the moth.... and this quote from Cixous,

"the painter is the one who takes the model's life" and consequently...

"The Oval Portrait" by Edgar Allan Poe, and so...


If music be the food of love... and so the

'mythomania' of love... romance... dancing... dining...

talking back to Tennyson...

...journeying... on and on... and on... what happens in the time between awakenings...

Sapsorrow, the Russian folktale...

my grandparents...

new epics...

Lizzie and Dante... Enid and Gereint...


and this painting by Rossetti...

and this sketch by Lizzie...

and these words, by Margaret

You fit into me
Like a hook into an eye
A fish hook
An open eye.

See? I narrowed it down, though my jabbing pin has missed the butterfly...

Procastination... (hey, I wrote heaps today! I earned it!)

You Are A Maple Tree

There's not anyone in this world quite like you.

You are full of imagination, ambition, and originality.

Shy but confident, you hunger for new experiences.

You have a good memory and learn easily.

You are sometimes nervous and always complex (especially in love).