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Coming Out Poet; Some Thoughts on Becoming a Fine Nerve Meter

Ready for a longer read? Natalie Rose Dyer - a regular contributor to Feminista Journal - has just the thing for you ...

Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me…when my eyes were opened on the sea’ (Cousteau, 1977: 6).

During my undergraduate studies at The University of Melbourne I encountered Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément’s The Newly Born Woman––it erupted into my life, howled and danced right out of the wilderness (Gilbert, 1986).[1] Their newly born woman demonstrated a subversive festive dance––a mad textual dance––a tarantella. And, how rebellious girls love to dance, they become rebellious women who love to write, to tarantella on the page. As Sandra Gilbert writes in her introduction to The Newly Born Woman, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando also seems to serve as a forerunner to this exciting eruption of transgressive desire onto the page. ‘Indeed, even the witty and rational Virginia Woolf maybe seen as a crucial feminist precursor of Cixous (and Clément): what is Orlando if not an elegantly elaborated fantasy of bi-(or pluri-) sexual liberation––creative “hysteria” unleashed from the hyster and dedicated at last to “the other history” which Cixous has called for?’ (Gilbert, 1986: xv). Woolf joins Clément and Cixous, and many other women poets, writers and artists bedsides, in dedicating themselves to ‘the other history’ that Orlando traverses by virtue of her/his/beyond desires, which are abundant––are transformative (Gilbert, 1986: xvi). As Gilbert surmises we all long for what Hilda Doolittle termed ‘the unwritten volume of the new’ (Gilbert, 1986: xviii). We long to arrive in that country of writing and artistry where we belong––where we are listened to as women.

Woolf tells us in her diaries that she wrote Orlando in a state of ‘rapture’––considered it a farcical romp. In fact, Orlando is not only based on her onetime lover Vita Sackville-West, but also ‘…Violet Trefusis, Lord Lascelles, Knole, etc’ (Woolf, [1954] 1982: 115). Orlando is many and exemplifies Woolf’s derailing of so-called feminine identity in favour of a phantasmagorical plural sexual liberation in excess of hysteria––a tractable and valid journeying beyond. For Woolf also writes in her diaries: ‘Orlando taught me how to … keep the realities at bay’ (Woolf, [1954] 1982: 134). She calls forth with lyrical humour and extravagent romance a phantasm of a woman exceeding the prescribed sexual economy of the day––going elsewhere. It calls to my mind Simone De Beauvoir’s proclamation: ‘I want everything from life, I want to be a woman and a man, to have many friends and have loneliness, to work much and write good books and to travel and enjoy myself …’[2] Correspondingly, I championed Orlando as a figurehead of my personal revolution––the drive to liberate myself by writing a poem as lyrically inventive and archaically beautiful as Orlando’s The Oak Tree finally becomes.

We learn in Woolf’s novel that throughout Orlando’s nearly four-hundred-year life The Oak Tree goes through many revisions––it is first dated 1586. Orlando commences writing the poem in his aristocratic youth. At thirty he burns his fifty-seven poetical works based on scathing criticisms of author and critic of the day Nicholas Greene. But Orlando retains The Oak Tree––for it is his ‘boyish dream’ (Woolf, [1954] 1982: 71). The poem is altered, worked on, re-written at length––it undergoes a metamorphosis akin to its author. Orlando’s writing style changes––he pairs down his overly florid prose. He discards his poem, takes it up, leaves it scattered among his many papers––a tandem body devised of love letters to the ecological world. Whilst rogue in the desert with the Romani as ex-ambassador, having recently become a woman, Orlando longs again to add to the poem, and so makes do with ink crushed from berries––writes in the margins of The Oak Tree footnotes to the wilderness. Thereafter Orlando keeps The Oak Tree at her bosom ‘hidden safe’ (Woolf, [1954] 1982: 121).

Back in England Orlando retreats to her mansion and again turns her mind to The Oak Tree––repeats ‘Addison and Dryden and Pope’ under her breath as ‘incantation’ (Woolf, [1928] 2006: 124). Perhaps her poem itself has the melody of incantation. ‘Done!’ she exclaims and rushes to London––for ‘it must, of course, be published instantly’ (Woolf, [1928] 2006: 206). There Orlando bumps into none other than Nicholas Greene promoted to the auspices of ‘most influential critic of the Victorian Age’ (Woolf, [1928] 2006: 204). He reads The Oak Tree and comments that it reminds him of Adison’s Cato––a tragedy based on the life of a libertine committed to virtuous ideals who ends up killing himself in a world made for Caesar’s. Woolf’s ironic wit is never far from the page––for she signposts here what traditionally happens to women who dare stray from the prescribed path. Greene further states ‘There was no trace in it…of the modern spirit. It was composed with regard to truth, to nature, to the dictates of the human heart, which was rare indeed, in these days of unscrupulous eccentricity’ (Woolf, [1928] 2006: 206). He proclaims Orlando’s The Oak Tree and states that it indeed must be published. What follows is ‘Fame! Seven editions. A prize’ (Woolf, [1928] 2006: 228). Orlando triumphs––for she is no tragedy, although she undergoes a mild existential crisis after parting with her poem. Orlando asks: ‘What then, was Life?’ (Woolf, [1928] 2006: 207). Presumably without a masterwork to compose––without poetry. She returns to the oak tree in 1928, now ‘bigger, sturdier, and more knotted’––throws herself down at its roots (Woolf, [1928] 2006: 237). The published poem flies out from her breast onto the ground where it remains, at the foot of the oak tree––given back to nature. Orlando goes on being Orlando, presumably writes more poetry fashioned from biophilic flow, that is, she potentially enters into many subsequent dialogues with the ecological world. For what else if The Oak Tree but a spirited love song to the woods? (Woolf, [1928] 2006: 238).

After I read Woolf’s Orlando I felt that I could only truly become myself in the act of composing a poem as resonant with ecology and lyrical acuity as Orlando’s The Oak Tree––as Patti Smith had only fully become herself singing on stage at Max’s Kansas City to an ecstatic crowd fronted by Bob Dylan.[3]

I wanted to find my voice. But, I had to descend the ladder of writing first. And so I enrolled in Cixous’ school of writing, that is to say that I closely read many of her writings, including her Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, in which she explores the idea of writing as descent––as a commune with the dead. ‘To begin (writing, living) we must have death. I like the dead, they are the doorkeepers who while closing one side “give” way to the other’ (Cixous,1993: 7). Cixous draws on Kafka to demonstrate the significance of books that confront us like death––give way to the other. In a 1904 letter Franz Kafka wrote to a friend that:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? […] We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief (Kafka, 1977).[4]

But few books act as axes––open us up––make us bleed. It is a rare book that sends us into the woods in search of a different way of being. It is a rare book that we open to discover we have ‘…already crossed the border’ (Cixous, 1993: 82). For the writer of these type of books takes a strange journey to a foreign land for the reader over and over again––faces death––as a means of purveying a truth (Cixous,1993: 20). Afterall, writing is a hankering after truth––the truth is ‘down below’ (Cixous,1993: 6). Writing is plunging in––in search of an unerasable truth. But, as Cixous wisely advises her reader: ‘The moment I say “truth” I expect people to ask: “What is truth?” “Does truth exist?”’ (Cixous, 1993: 36). And so, to descend the ladder of writing is to attempt to go in the direction of truth­­ against absolutes––to venture beyond the limited confines of selfhood––to come to hold the position of the other within ourselves.

And so it happened that I came face-to-face with my truth. I awoke in terror in the early hours of morning––having undergone a hideously visceral dream. I’d seemingly been dragged out of the netherworld through my severed umbilicus. An unwritten text appeared to be cutting me open from within. I sat up in bed monstrous––shapeshifted. In Metamorphosis Kafka creates a literary device or apparatus in which Gregor’s becoming bug intervenes on the family drama, and acts as a monstrous rupture that produces further transformations. But, does Gregor undergo nervous illness? Or does Kafka bring about his own radical political metamorphosis through writing his creatureliness? Certainly, Kafka’s story highlights the search for individual agency through artistic practice, which may be found elsewhere––beyond the capitalist machine. This is illustrated by Kafka when Gregor leaves his room in pursuit of music, specifically his sister Grete’s violin playing. He seeks a better source of nourishment. Gregor is near death––ventures to move out of his bedroom-prison and into the living-room. He is covered in dust, fluff, hair and remnants of food. The rotted apple his father threw at him is decomposing into his broken carapace. He has been abused and is beyond bothering to clean himself. And Grete who had initially cared so deeply for Gregor is by this stage completely repelled by him. In the end it is Grete who refutes that Gregor’s spirit any longer inhabits this ‘repulsive vermin’ and opts to get rid of it. She becomes monstrously inhuman––is colonised by a societal norm that denigrates others on the basis of a reductive phallocentric hierarchy of species. Of course, Grete gives up any vocational aspirations to playing violin, presumably gets married, and sets to working for the capitalist machine. Kafka demonstrates that Gregor is more human than anyone else in his family through having undergone metamorphosis.

At this time in my life I too became creaturely, a woman-thing, to descend the ladder of writing––to retrieve something worthwhile––an original poetic voice.

I sought after the violin––the sublime unearthly music. But oh how this first abyss was harrowing, it was an axe wound bleeding. It was Kafkaesque. The first death was an end to epistemological enquiry by demonstrating myself as something else­­––going beyond. I experienced terrible insomnia, which abated after much torment. I wrote an experimental novel titled Kore’s Inferno, in which I brought Dante’s cantos under a feminist treatment––attempting to free myself from a Christian philology. I descended the ladder of writing to chant Sylvia Plath out of the suicide forest––sentimental bird-woman-twit that I was. I wrote a whole poetic soliloquy to Sylvia, following the mad manic music of my own ascent. Of course, it was rubbish. But, it was a necessary part of my training.

I thereafter descended by way of the sea––a celluloid sea. Jacques Cousteau’s subaqueous jaunts prompted my neophyte forays into subaqueous depths. Cixous advises us that: ‘There are two ways of clambering downward––by plunging into the earth or going deep into the sea––and neither is easy’ (Cixous,1993: 5). I launched into the subsumed realms of my Honors thesis, in which I explored poetics from the vantage point of film. I’d ride my bicycle to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image screening room (then housed in South Melbourne) to watch footage of Cousteau and his diving team. I revered Cousteau as a man with a singular vision. I liked that he was a wayfarer––a seafarer more specifically. I admired that he opined the many wonders of the sea, its various bounty and splendid inscrutability, which he aimed to tell of in order to conserve it. In The Silent World (1956) Cousteau advises that ‘The coral takes on nightmare of shapes’ in the darkness, which conjures a monstrous imaginal dimension. By day his team aboard the Calypso dive in the Mediterranean sea, the Red sea, and the Indian ocean to discover hitherto undisclosed worlds of brain hemispheres, fanned fungal shapes, coral that looks like skirts of a sail, anemones which dance wildly in the sea current––they witness the splendid variety of marine life, as well as vast planes of enigmatic darkness. And so, I immersed myself in Cousteau’s labyrinthine filmic peregrinations in the silent world––seemingly undergoing some kind of language break by way of film prior to coming to writing proper.[5] I saw in Cousteau a kindredness even though he was an aging balding French man. Perhaps I perceived his exploration of the sea as a spirited radical departure, for Cousteau takes a journey for us as the writer does, bravely retrieves something vital from imaginal depths––an alternative perspective. His cinematic tractability is hypnotic––a poetics of the silent world.

I soon thereafter discovered the film poetics of American avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage who became the central focus of my honors thesis. But, shortly after I commenced writing my thesis my supervisor advised me that my writing made no sense. It was overly abstract. In retrospect I see that my obsolescence as a writer at this time was an overly keen disposition toward ‘raiding the inarticulate’ (Heaney. S. 2003 [1974]). It seems that I was touched by Orlando’s predilection for dying. I was overly disposed toward ‘milking the unconscious’ as Anne Sexton described it. Ted Hughes called it ‘letting the fruit come quietly’ or casting a light on the ‘elusive or shadowy thoughts’ (Gifford and Roberts, 1981: 37). Perhaps this is a poet’s true vocation––to have enough nerve to stay close to the nerve. It’s where interesting and arresting imagery comes from, a sublimated landscape that poets turn their attention to, focus on, and take from as a discipline. The poet perpetually undergoes an archeological dig, searches for buried treasures, fragments and dissolutions of a culture and its peoples, captures that resonance in a carefully crafted assemblage of images––thereafter registers this poetic vision lyrically. The poet descends––enters the silent world––reemerges––words at the ready to convey her vision. The poet attempts to get the feeling that they apprehend in the silent world into words. For instance, the first poem that Heaney wrote, in which he thought he’d gotten his feelings into words was a poem called Digging. This was his initiation poem. He was able to accurately convey the depths of human experience––to get it true. His poem Digging gave him excitement and confidence as a poet. He had found his voice. Heaney explains ‘Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feeling of you about them …’ (Heaney, 1974 [2003], p. 1098). To be able to allow the first ‘alertness’ in its preverbal life and then let flow from the edges of thought, a feeling that rises to meet its correct articulation.

But, what is gleaning without craft? Gleaning without craft is doomed––overly abstract. In my early twenties I had no craft. Auden advises in his essay The Dyer’s Hand & other Essays (Auden, [1962] 1948) that apprentice poets must get a ‘literary transference.’ This is true not just for poetry, but for all forms of writing. When we read another writer or hear them read their poetry and it speaks to something essential in us, which resonates with our own experience––it is gold.

In imitating his Master, the apprentice acquires a Censor, for he learns that, no matter how he finds it, by inspiration, by potluck or after hours of laborious search, there is only one word or rhythm or form that is the right one. The right one is still not yet the real one, for the apprentice is ventriloquizing, but he has got away from poetry-in-general; he is learning how a poem is written (Auden, [1962] 1948: 38).

But here we run into trouble. I’m reminded of American poet Adrienne Rich’s recollection of the formative years of her education, overly exposed to a canon of celebrated men writers, which of course could not accurately convey her experience as a woman. The problem for a woman then is the canon.

And so I encountered the death of the author––the space where writing begins (Barthes, 1967:2). Roland Barthes famously proffers in The Death of the Author that when ‘…the voice loses its origin, the author enters his own death, writing’ (Barthes, 1976:2). Barthes explores the idea that ‘…the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions…’ which is produced by ‘capitalist ideology’ (Barthes, 1967:2). Barthes therefore argues for the need to topple the empire of the author, although he identifies Stéphane Mallarmé as the first to recognise the need to ‘…substitute[ing] language itself for the man who hitherto was supposed to own it…’ (Barthes, 1967:3). Paul Valéry too ‘mocked the Author’ (Barthes, 1967:3). So too, Marcel Proust engaged in ‘blurring’ or bringing about a ‘radical reversal’ by making his life the literary work (Barthes, 1967:3). It seems likely that this is why Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, following Walter Benjamin, opt to read Franz Kafka as a literary machine––not to reduce him to a psychoanalytical subject. Barthes’s suggestion is that the author is no longer the past of his own book, but rather the seam of language running through it. His identity is displaced for the performativity of language. And yet, Barthes’s death of the author is still a rhetorical performance of a man writing. And I was––am still––a woman writing.

It was perhaps Cousteau who directed me to the idea that Barthes’s death of the author is inherently phallocentric, for it always already assumes a man undergoing the loss of his origin. Ultimately Cousteau’s team dynamite a coral reef and commit an act of vandalism on The Silent World. We might bear in mind that the film was made in the 1950s. Still, whilst Cousteau was a pioneer exploring this subsumed hemisphere, he perhaps unwittingly colonises the sea––searching for his lost origin. In The Silent World we witness his diving team playing about on yellow dick-shaped underwater scooters, disrupting schools of fish, hitching a ride upon a turtle who clearly is infringed on. Suffice to say that in my twenties it became increasingly obvious to me that I needed to look elsewhere for pointers regarding my aptitude for undergoing authorial descent. I needed to turn to subversive women mentors to learn my craft.

And so, I discovered the writings of Luce Irigaray who informs us that it requires a special aptitude to hear women’s voice, which assert from liminal spaces of society. She works off the premise that the central economy of desire of patriarchal societies globally has been a phallic ideal (Irigaray, 1985 [1977]:110). Rather brilliantly Irigaray advises that women can ‘diffuse’ themselves relative to phallocentric networks of power, or patriarchal societal frameworks, on account of their fluidity, which potentially subverts the dominant symbolic––authored mostly by men. Irigaray eludes to a woman’s aptitude for giving birth to biophilic flow pertaining to their procreative embodiment.

Woman never speaks the same way. What she emits is flowing, fluctuating. Blurring. And she is not listened to, unless proper meaning (meaning of the proper) is lost. Whence the resistances to that voice that overflows the “subject.” Which the “subject” then congeals, freezes, in its categories until it paralyzes the voice in its flow (Irigaray, 1985 [1977], 112).

The inference here is that women have historically spoken in the ‘mimetic’ underside of masculine desire, which is potentially a subversive mode of fluid discourse that has the capacity to trouble patriarchy (Irigaray, 1985 [1977]: 106). When a woman speaks it is from the seam of humanity––she is already always fluent with the epistemological rift on account of the fact that she has been marginalised for not having a penis, or indeed for possessing a reproductive system.

In fact, a woman is lying underneath man’s seam of language, through which he seeks to convey his fraught humanity. And women cannot always be heard on the underside. There is a very real danger that they will be enveloped into the silent world­­––never be heard from again. For women cannot be heard like sperm-fluid, which remains connected to the penis-phallus––a dominant subjectivity. It shoots its load whenever it speaks, especially when spurting out of a faciality machine, for instance I’m thinking of Trump.[6] In Rosi Braidotti’s article ‘Punk Women and Riot Grrls’ she writes: ‘A face distributes power across a territory it creates and controls; it engenders individual and collective identities as brands, which can be said to be recognizable to the degree to which they approximate that face, that image of power’ (Braidotti, 2015). I’m suggesting that it takes a certain aptitude to hear a woman’s fluid voice. Her voice is insurgent. Her voice is identifiable as diffuse poetic thought, a wild fluidity that sings of marginalised humanity pertaining to her reproductive capacities, her fecundity, which needs to be registered culturally. In fact, many women do not have to undergo non-pathological ego-loss as author––to come to writing. Rather, a woman poet potentially needs to bolster her ego––to gain a voice culturally as woman-thing. What is required then is to listen.

Of course, many creaturely women have already written­­––like Cixous for instance. She provides a doorway to the other history. In her work Cixous writes of women’s tractability as sexed being who demonstrates through poetic writing her difference with animal acuity. Women ought to embrace aligning their bodies with the procreative bodies of non-human animals since we share an undeniable commonality. Human animalistic procreative functions are pivotal in the shaping of a human life, which link us with all mammals, and by extension the entire animal kingdom. The Grey Wolf has a placenta, by which she feeds her offspring during pregnancy and nurses her newborn pups with milk from glands. In Women Who Run with the Wolves Clarisa Pincola Estes writes compellingly of the wild woman throughout time.

La Loba, the wolf woman; or La Huesera, the bone woman. She is called in Hungarian “Erddben”, She of the Woods, and Rozsomdk, The Wolverine. In Navajo, she is Na’ashje’ii Asdzaa, The Spider Woman, who weaves the fate of humans and animals and plants and rocks. In Guatemala, among many other names, she is Humana del Niebla, The Mist Being, the woman who has lived forever. In Japanese, she is Amaterasu Omikami, The Numina, who brings all light, all consciousness. In Tibet she is called Dakini, the dancing force which produces clearseeing within women. And it goes on. She goes on (Estes, 1992: 14).

Estes disconnects the wild woman from the overly metaphysical and reconnects her to the biopsychical and to the earth, which she further links with logos. But, Estes invokes a notion of logos anomalous to a law of the father, and so sutures another order of storytelling aligned with womanhood beyond patriarchy, rather linked with liminality and the ecological world. Estes warns against ‘separation from the wildish nature [which] causes a woman’s personality to become meager, thin, ghostly, spectral’ (Estes, 1992: 16). Women can explore an anomalous strain of desire, which is untamable, rogue, or unassimilable under patriarchy. When rebellious women follow this fault line at the edge of discursive networks of power they stray nearest the fairy tale wood––closer to the phantasmagorical. But, they must return––culturally register what they have encountered in the unbounded.

It is Cixous who alerts us to Kafka’s insistence in his writings: “to the depths, to the depths” (Cixous cites Kafka, 1993: 38). It is what a writer must do––journey to subsumed realms––‘to inscribe the abyss we are’ (Cixous, 1993: 42). As Cixous advises in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing to convey ‘[a] “tangling” in us all––The dark, wild, good-part in us; the beast part in human beings’ (Cixous, 1993: 43). The inscribing of ourselves as species. Except that the human species has been framed reductively historically in terms of ‘Man-humanity, the one who makes decisions in the family …’ (Cixous, 1993: 43). But, there is another story that breaks the surface of a reductive western subjectivity for instance––like a blow to the head––a woman-thing singing/ writing/ creating. But, her voice must be registered––heard.

This is why the writers that Cixous likes best are ‘the dying-clairvoyant kind’––writers who have written by the light of the axe and dared to “shatter the frozen sea” (Cixous, 1993: 63). Writers like Anna Akhmatova, Clarice Lispector and Marina Tsvetaeva. But, also like Ingeborg Bachmann and Ossip Mandelstam––for these men writers have diversified from an overt phallocentric modus operandi. As I already mentioned, Cixous favours books that you open up to find that you’ve ‘…already crossed the border’ (Cixous, 1993: 82). For instance, she argues that books which begin in the body are more real. She draws on the writings of Clarice Lispector to illustrate this. In Lispector’s O Lustro she starts her novel with: “She would be fluid all her life, but what had accused her contours and had attracted the contours to a center, what had illuminated her against the world and had given it an intimate power, that had been the secret” (Cixous cites Lispector, 1993: 82). Cixous surmises that: ‘The entire book is carried by its fluidity’ (Cixous, 1993: 82). Surely with Lispector we are approaching a secret other world of women’s writing and artistic capacity aligned with their mammalian embodiment––drawing it into the real––or another posited real––a phantasm.

For Cixous argues that Lispector is ‘energised by the unconscious’ (Cixous, 1993: 88). Of course, we draw on the unconscious as poets, but are not confined within a reductive framework of psychoanalysis. For Cixous the unconscious is a motor that she draws on, and which she deems a ‘clandestine relation’––a pathfinder (Cixous, 1993:102). In my view Cixous’s dreams provide a link to the phantasmagorical––another posited real composed of multiple stray imaginings. She advises: ‘I don’t go to just any strange Dreams. I go to those that resemble the ancient gardens where I spent a forgotten life, to those that spread out beneath the earth, before names, in the zones where music is spoken, where the languages before languages resound’ (Cixous, 1993:104). She encounters Kafka’s dreamscape there: ‘It so happens that Kafka … wrote in a phantasmic rather than poetic way. His apprenticeship was as a guest of the dead, which is what enabled him to write an authorless dream. Nobody knows’ (Cixous, 1993:106). But here Cixous syphons off the poetic from the phantasmagorical. However, they cannot be separated––one is the other. This ‘risky country,’close to the unconscious, can only be reached ‘through the back door of thought’ (Cixous, 1993:114). A poet continually crosses the border ‘through the back door of thought’ (Cixous, 1993:114).  And, of course, the woman poet must return from these sojourns, she must orate the other history, inscribe the unwritten volume of the new at the level of culture, which may at first seem a foreign tongue. Overly abstract? Perhaps––with an excess of the phantasm hewn into it. But don’t expect a woman poet to learn her craft groveling at the ankles of a canon that does not know her name.

In Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing Cixous informs us: ‘I am interested in a chain of associations and signifiers composed of birds, women, and writing,’ which may at first seem out of the ordinary––peculiar even (Cixous, 1993: 111-112). She is referring the religious taboos that outlaw the consumption of birds, which are deemed unclean in the Bible. (Need we revisit the religious scene of menstruating women as unclean?)[7] It is considered an abomination to eat birds listed in Leviticus for instance. Cixous turns to Lispector, specifically her novel The Passion According to G.H. to illustrate an instance in which woman encounters her creatureliness through a poetic mode of fictional writing.

In The Passion According to G. H., G. H., a woman reduced to her initials, encounters in complete solitude, face to face-even eye to eye a cockroach, an abominable cockroach. In Brazilian the word for cockroach is barata, and it is feminine. So a woman meets a barata, and it becomes the focus for a type of fantastic, total, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual revolution, which, in short, is a crime. The revolution leads G. H. to completely revise her clichéd way-our clichéd way-of thinking: our relations to the world in general and to living things in particular. She must deal with the phobia, with the horror we have of so-called abominable beings. I will now quote from a chapter in the middle of the book, after G. H. has had an initially ordinary reaction to the barata: that is, she has almost “killed” it by crushing it. A kind of white paste spurts out of the barata, which is nonetheless immortal. G. H. comes into contact with this paste; she starts thinking about what the white paste is and how to relate to it (Cixous, 1993: 111).

G.H. comes into contact with something impure. ‘In Brazilian “impure” is immundo’ (Cixous, 1993:112). Cixous goes onto correct the American translation of the text, in which G.H. refers to the Bible and the impurity of birds. Cixous retranslates the questionable passage more accurately to reveal that Lispector intentionally emphasises that the Bible is aligned with the masculine. Lispector infers that the ‘He-Bible’ tells us what is supposedly ‘unclean and abominable,’ birds, alongside women and writing, who are banished to the outside (Cixous, 1993:113). ‘Outside we shall find all those precious people who have not worried about respecting the law that separates what is and is not abominable according to Those Bible’ (Cixous, 1993:113). And so, Cixous affirms that Lispector is among other ‘netherworld’ writers like Genet, the ones that undergo a descent on behalf of the reader to retrieve a truth, albeit which is never absolute, but rather relative to circumstances––like the historical circumstances for women under Judo-Christian morality for instance. For women, alongside birds, return to the root, are aligned with the forbidden. Although Lispector’s G.H. experiences the terror of being impure she thereafter discovers the joy of being ‘out of the world’ (Cixous, 1993:117).

That is my theme for today: to be “imund,” to be unclean with joy. Immonde, that is, out of the mundus (the world). The monde, the world, that is so-called clean. The world that is on the good side of the law that is “proper,” the world of order. The moment you cross the line the law has drawn by wording, verb(aliz)ing, you are supposed to be out of the world. You no longer belong to the world’ (Cixous, 1993:117).

I came to identify myself with Cixous’s woman-bird-thing. I wrote of the dream door opening––something impure springing from the totemic self. I mused over a life entrusted to ravens and owls to barter over, to prize out the head, bring out the body, its scrawly legs, its fierce claws, until another species of bird burst out, less scavenger than raven, more fuelled by daylight than owl. It seems owl partially won, somehow a bird-woman-thing emerged no longer human bound, rather guided by her own principals of stealth, no surrender, equipoise in flight and modesty of voice, not shouting, rather gathering steads of emptied out sun, tying them back together in an apprenticeship of letters. I wrote: ‘Fuck this world––I am unclean––I am out of this world.’

I remember a girl from primary school named Tiffany. She was out of this world––she had dark rings under her eyes. She was abused by her so-called custodian (I later found out). I was devastated to find out that she’d jumped off Melbourne’s Westgate bridge as an adult. Tiffany was out-of-the-law––a reader of books. Every lunchtime she read. She never played with the rest of us. Books were her pathfinder––her way into the woods. She acted like we were a different species. She wanted to be a different species of human than her co-called custodian. Why wouldn’t she want to be––wouldn’t you? Tiffany was one of those rare beautiful species of poet who departs for distant lands, set sail for the abyss, undergoes metamorphosis. She was a girl-bird-thing. Cixous writes:

It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and it closes like a door. This does not mean that it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think. Somewhere in my stomach, my womb, and if you have not got a womb-then it is somewhere “else” (Cixous, 1993:118).

We must not lose the best part of ourselves as women––that is species––relegated to the other side nearest the abyss and writing. ‘There is a whole list of institutions, media, and machines that make for the banishment of birds, women and writing’ (Cixous, 1993:119). And so, I hereby re-inscribe: Fuck this world––I am out of this world. I am a woman-bird-thing writing. I am creaturely and I sing myself––I become something else. I live and die and rebirth myself continually as woman-bird-thing through writing.

In a strange way at this formative time of my life I identified keenly with Helen Keller as if breaking into meaning from an outer limit of pure chaos––I was not deaf or blind which makes the comparison redundant to a large extent. And yet, I seemed to approach meaning from a sphere of exile––from the subaqueous depths of the silent world. It’s just that when I read Keller’s story it opened a portal in me. I thought, here’s a woman who feels the world and recites it from the nerve ends. Here’s a woman who articulates the other history. There is so much we can learn from Keller––a woman who has inhabited the silent world and returned perpetually in writing to expose a valuable other perspective on the human condition. She has something original to write about because she draws from another logic based in the sensual world, which denounces scopophilia, and has not been discursively colonised. In her book The World I Live In Keller writes:

In any case, it is pleasant to have something to talk about that no one else has monopolized; it is like making a new path in the trackless woods, blazing the trail where no foot has pressed before. I am glad to take you by the hand and lead you along an untrodden way into a world where the hand is supreme. But at the very outset we encounter a difficulty. You are so accustomed to light, I fear you will stumble when I try to guide you through the land of darkness and silence. The blind are not supposed to be the best of guides. Still, though I cannot warrant not to lose you, I promise that you shall not be led into fire or water, or fall into a deep pit. If you will follow me patiently, you will find that “there’s a sound so fine, nothing lives ‘twixt it and silence,” and that there is more meant in things than meets the eye (Keller, 1908: 3).

To make a new pathway in the woods––to blaze a trail hitherto untrampled. We must take our cues from Keller, an expert on the silent dark world, and the emancipatory potential of harnessing the imagination in terms of joyful proclamation. Women can become experts on articulating a seam of language that runs through phenomena in depicting ‘more than meets the eye’ and indeed many already have (Keller, 1908). Keller writes of the ‘miracle of the imagination’–– that wondrous restless moment when a body is brought to life for her through smell and touch. Blind and deaf, Keller more fully apprehends with wondrous acuity the sensual world. Keller writes: ‘To the blind child the dark is kindly’ (Keller, 1908). It is a place to wander eyes closed, to feel as a ‘fine Nerve Meter’ for phenomena (Artaud, 1925: 86). I identified with Keller insofar as my predilection for fathoming imaginal realms, for dying, undergoing poetic rebirth, was not based in scopophilia.

I mean I had a sense of being separate from an early age because of a perceived difference, that of the so-called ‘sensitive,’ so much a flow of energy indiscriminate from phenomena. That is to say––I was always already a ‘Fine Nerve Meter’ (Artaud, 1925: 86). When I first read Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre (1847) it undid me, as if the melody of my life had been written and I was a braille artist retracing a fountainhead of narrative truth. It was not that I was not loved as a child, it was more that life taught me to be an orphan. I had a mother to defer to, to give me comfort, to assuage my suffering, to bring me release. Certainly my mother’s love shaped me from early on. But, somehow I could not find myself completely at home in the bosom of the family––I was suspicious. Or rather, was it that I intuitively knew another logic? I had an inkling of it early on. It was an intervention anti-logic, a way of straying, of dividing among many things to make another path. It was that time as a child at St Kilda beach wandering away from my parents in order to capture a whiff of pier and pavilion, an inner-city beach charged with a frisson, Lunar Park at night, fairground consciousness, a radiant reality with which I felt kinship. I wandered within myself to/from the silent world ongoingly. Like Jane Eyre I had no mentors in my life to teach me how to harness this aptitude, which was framed societally as liability, vulnerability, disorder, or in terms of being ‘difficult’––uncategorical. And so, I instead I found books.

I found Cixous. I read French poet Antonin Artaud. I identify as ‘Nothing but a fine Nerve Meter,’ which many women, as well as trans men and non-gender identifying people know very well, since they cyclically experience themselves as a sensorial flow (Artaud, 1925: 86). This is what I know: ‘A kind of incomprehensible stopping place in the mind, right in the middle of everything’ (Artaud, 1925: 86). A deferred to good abyss––a darkness. Not a ‘total abyss’ as with Artaud (Artaud, 1925:80). I do not let it swallow me. I do not idealise my pain, or make it into a beautiful abortive reality to which I defer. Rather, the abyss is where I go to draw on the imaginal, return, forge new exchanges in the biosphere––give voice to them. I am not ‘lost in the shadows of man,’ not anymore, since I learnt how to sing my mammalian self––become something else (Artaud, [1925] 1988: 80). I mean I keep making a pilgrimage to the phosphorescent poetic thought that transforms me and I return to sing it. Artaud writes:

Here, then, is what I think about thought.


And there is a phosphorescent point at which all reality is recovered, but changed, transformed – and by what?? – a point of magical ultilization of things. And I believe in mental meteorites, in private cosmogonies’ (Artaud, 1925:82).

And so, when thought transforms into a magical fluxes of experience, then it is purposive, or expanded into a total recognition––it is inspiration. It is a flow of ‘rebellious matter’ (Deleuze, 1990 [1969]: 1-2). To be a ‘Fine Nerve Meter’––this is the poets vocation––to engender phantasms as a plausible positing of a valuable other reality, which links us to an entire ecological cornucopia (Artaud, 1925: 86).

To forge one’s character on the boundary of human. To deal in the poetic––it has been my currency. It is largely invisible work. A life time of gleaning the abyss, which has to be put into text from some other preverbal beyond language cusp. It must be crafted from the place a poet finds their voice. I have lived on these borders, these outer limits of human as sorceress, as hysteric, as menstruant, dealing in contagion.[8] As Albert Camus writes: ‘But, what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all’ (Albert Camus, 1947). We ought to rethink contagion in terms of an influence or a quality that is transmitted or communicated––an intrinsic part of being a human mammal. The woman poet deals in contagion. It is not necessarily apocalyptic, but often affirmative.[9] The woman poet deals in this life stuffs––in the transmittable flow of vitality and virility, or jouissance. But, being an original is hard. It takes great courage. It requires battles­­ to the death––it requires many deaths. Perhaps that’s why it so moved me when I first read Cixous in my early twenties––here was a woman writer who dealt in poetic rebirth. Here was a woman who spoke my language­, or perhaps more aptly who sang and seemed to expansively redefine writing.

And so, I learned to ply my craft by reading the works of many women thinkers and poets, such as Cixous, Irigaray, Lispector, Tsvetaeva, Plath, Keller, Brönte, to name but a few. I discovered the work of American poet Sharon Olds later on––devoured all she’d written. I decoded her recipe of telling a story whilst keeping it as close to the felt truth as possible, then adding to it through deploying arresting or unique imagery. I soon diversified, decoded British poet Ted Hughes’s recipe. He uses what he terms a ‘utility general-purpose style’ language, or a ‘colloquial prose readiness’ in language, to do with a concept of deep language (Gifford and Roberts, 1981: 27). Hughes attempts to capture the reality of things and states in a muscular language that draws on a primal brain, in order to get at a root of being, which he deemed a simple world speak. It sounds a lot like becoming ‘a fine Nerve Meter.’ He applies a ritual intensity, repeats images, goes over them from different perspectives, or reiterates, in order to create a chant like or musical quality. His poetry is also dense with alliteration and assonance, which enhances the chant like musicality. Hughes always tries to apprehend the direct feeling attached to the subject under scrutiny, similar to Olds’s ‘felt truth’ concept. Although it has to be said that in his work the subject is of course a man, albeit a man undergoing non-pathological ego-loss––becoming crow for instance. Suffice to say I want my poetry to demonstrate a ruptured subject orchestrating an elsewhere of human experience that is affirmatively creaturely.

Based on my forays, in the present I’m interested in voicings as a distinctive ‘blurring,’ which bring about the creation of poetical works made from the very nerve matter of the writer––overflow the category of subjection. I’m interested in diffusion from phallocentric networks of power––not being absorbed back into a dominant patriarchy. I’m drawn to rogue strains of becoming––phantasmagorical rifts in language that flow out of the seam of humanity. I want to ‘raid the inarticulate’ for the purpose of conceiving another reality based in an authentic representation of our mammalian status, which affirmatively and regeneratively connects us to the biosphere (Heaney. S. 2003 [1974]). But, I want to be heard not like sperm-fluid spurting out of a face-machine. I want my voice registered at the level of culture as the striking of the axe. And so, I uphold anti-performative poetic demonstrations of the self in exchange with others––though not aligned with any particular identity politics. I aim to demonstrate in poetic writing an alternative sustainable reality that draws from the imaginal to convey my biopsychical self in fluid exchange with animal, plant and mineral worlds. To this end I continue to attempt to compose a poem as resonant with ecology and lyrical acuity as Orlando’s. I go on trying and dying. You could call it a vocational calling. But, I always rebirth myself––return to sing myself renewed––creaturely.

Natalie Rose Dyer 


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Auden. W.H. [1962] 1948. The Dyers Hand. Faber & Faber: London.

Artaud. A. 1988. Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, introduction and edited by S. Sontag. Berkley, California: University of California Press.

Barthes. R. 1967. The Death of the Author. UbuWeb Papers. http://tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf

Braidotti. R. 2015. Punk Women an Riot Grrls. Performance Philosophy. https://www.performancephilosophy.org/journal/article/view/32/63

Brönte. C. [1847] 1848. Jane Eyre. London & Glasgow: Collins’ Clear-Type Press.

Camus. A. [1947] 2015. The Plague. London: Penguin.

Cixous, Hélêne and Clément, Catherine. [1975] 1986. The Newly Born Woman; Theory and History of Literature, Volume 24, trans. Betsy Wing. Introduction by Sandra M. Gilbert. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cixous, Hélène, 1993, ‘The School of the Dead’ in Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, University of Columbia Press.

Deleuze. G. [1969] 1990. Logic of Sense. Translated by Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. Edited by Constantine V. Boundas. London: The Athlone Press.

Deleuze. G. and Guattari. F. [1975] 1986. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Translated by Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dyer. N. 2020. The Menstrual Imaginary in Literature: Notes on a Wild Fluidity. New York: Palgrave.

Gifford and Roberts, 1981. Ted Hughes: A Critical Study. London: Faber & Faber.

Gilbert. S.M. Introduction. In Cixous, Hélêne and Clément, Catherine. [1975] 1986. The Newly Born Woman; Theory and History of Literature, Volume 24, trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Irigaray. L. [1977] 1986. This Sex Which is Not One. Translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University.

Heaney, Seamus. [1974] 2003. ‘Feeling into Words.’ In The Norton Anthology of Modern Contemporary Poetry, Volume 2, ed. Jahan Ramazani, 1097-1109. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Kafka. F. 1977. Letters to friends, family, and editors. Translated by Clara and Richard Winston. New York: Schocken Books.

Keller. H. 1908. The World I Live In. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Woolf. V. [1928] 2006. Orlando. Annotated and with an introduction by Maria DiBattista. New York: Harcourt, Inc.


Cousteau. J. 1977. The Silent World.

[1] In my book The Menstrual Imaginary in Literature: Notes on a Wild Fluidity I discuss the concept of a good abyss as an imaginal zone that women may draw on as a means of articulating their animalistic procreative embodiment in a subversive red ink.

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/5548.Simone_de_Beauvoir

[3] Patti Smith tells this story in her autobiography Just Kids.

[4] https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/06/06/kafka-on-books-and-reading/

[5] Coming to Writing is an essay written by Hélêne Cixous, in which she explores her own approach to her poetic writing practice, and which is critical of phallocentric discourse.

[6] Deleuze and Guattari write about faciality as ‘the visualization of power as framed by a recognizable face …’ which is always phallic (Braidotti, 2015). The commodified face is a landscape of power, which represents a social imaginary that is disseminated. In her article Punk Women and Riot Girls, Rosi Braidotti calls for alternative images of the subject, such as the masked heads of Pussy Riot, in order to ‘displace the dominant … visualization of power’ (Braidooti, 2015). https://rosibraidotti.com/publications/punk-women-and-riot-grrls-2/

[7] In my book The Menstrual Imaginary in Literature: Notes on a Wild Fluidity I take an affirmative look at menstruation with respect to feminist activism and creativity. https://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9783030598129

[8] In my book The Menstrual Imaginary in Literature: Notes on a Wild Fluidity I argue that French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s ‘…work establishes the fact that menstruation has historically been considered an aspect of women’s ‘nature’ that challenges religious systems and the dominant masculine hierarchy on account of its association with magic, mana, contagion and taboo’ (Dyer, 2020). Menstruations historical links with magic, mana, contagion and taboo further connects it to the sorceress and liminal space. This has been negatively pahologised in Western culture.

[9] In Rebirth of the New Earth Adrian Parr explores the apocalyptic political imagination vs the emancipatory political imagination.