Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language

“What we call significance is precisely this unlimited and unbounded generating process, this unceasing operation of the drives toward, in, and through language; toward, in, and through the exchange system and its protagonists—the subject and its institutions” (17).

Briefly, Kristeva identifies two modalities of the same signifying process: “the semiotic” and “the symbolic.” These modalities “are inseparable within the signifying process that constitutes language, and the dialectic between them determines the type of discourse (narrative, metalanguage, theory, poetry, etc.) involved; in other words, so-called ‘natural’ language allows for different modes of articulation of the semiotic and the symbolic. On the other hand, there are nonverbal signifying systems that are constructed exclusively on the basis of the semiotic (music, for example” (23-4). Perhaps also breastfeeding or pregnancy?

“Because the subject is always both semiotic and symbolic, no signifying system he produces can be either ‘exclusively’ semiotic or ‘exclusively’ symbolic, and is instead necessarily marked by an indebtedness to both” (24).

Kristeva understands the term “semiotic” in “its Greek sense,” that is, “a distinctive mark, trace, index, precursory sign, proof, engraved or written sign, imprint, trace, figuration” (25).

“…the drives, which are ‘energy’ charges as well as ‘psychical’ marks, articulate what we call a chora: a nonexpressive totality formed by teh drives and their stases in a motility that is as full of movement as it is regulated” (25).

“Our discourse—all discourse—moves with and against the chora in the sense that it simultaneously depends upon and refuses it. Although the chora can be designated and regulated, it can never be definitively posited: as a result, one can situate the chora and, if necessary, lend it a topology, but one can never give it axiomatic form” (26).

Neither model nor copy, the chora precedes and underlies figuration and thus speculariation, and is analogous only to vocal or kinetic rhythm” (26).

The chora is “subject to a regulating process, which is different from that of symbolic law but nevertheless effectuates discontinuities by temporarily articulating them and then starting over, again and again” (26). This regulation is “dictated by natural or socio-historical contraints such as the biological difference between the sexes or family structure” (27). In other words, sociocultural processes, “always already symbolic,” mediate the chora “not according to a law [..] but through an ordering” (27).

The drives of the chora “connect and orient the body to the mother. […] The mother’s body is therefore what mediates the symbolic law organizing social relations and becomes the ordering principle of the semiotic chora, which is on the path of destruction, aggressivity, and death” (27-8).

“…the semiotic chora is no more than the place where the subject is both generated and negated, the place where his unity succumbs before the processes of charges and stases that produce him” (28). The chora is, in other words, both the birth and the impossibility of the subject.

“Signification exists precisely because there is no subject in signification. The gap between the imaged ego and drive motility, between the mother and the demand made on her, is precisely the break that establishes what Lacan calls the place of the Other as the place of the ‘signifier'” (48).

“The regulation of the semiotic in the symbolic through the thetic break, which is inherent in the operation of language, is also found on the various levels of a society’s signifying edifice. In all known archaic societies, this founding break of the symbolic order is represented by murder” (70). (could we see abortion as a kind of “thetic break”?)

“Poetry shows us that language lends itself to the penetration of the socio-symbolic by jouissance, and that the thetic does not necessarily imply theological sacrifice” (80).

“From its roots in ritual, poetry retains the expenditure of the thetic, its opening into semiotic vehemence and its capacity for letting jouissance come through. Faced with language and society, however, poetry no longer encounters a sacrifice that is suggestive of the thetic but rather thesis itself (logic—language—society). It can therefore no longer remain merely ‘poetry’; instead, through the positing of the thetic, poetry becomes an explicit confrontation between jouissance and the thetic, that is, a permanent struggle to show the facilitation of drives within the linguistic order itself” (81).

Genotext: semiotic processes and the advent of the symbolic (“drives, their disposition, and their division of the body, plus the ecological and social system surrounding the body, such as objects and pre-Oedipal relations with parents. The latter encompasses the emergence of object and subject, and the constitution of nuclei of meaning involving categories” (86). Genotext is “language’s underlying foundation” (87).

Phenotext: “language that serves to communicate, which linguistics describes in terms of ‘competence’ and ‘performance.’ The phenotext is constantly split up and divided, and is irreducible to the semiotic process that works through the genotext. The phenotext is a structure… it obeys rules of communication and presupposes a subject of enunciation and an addressee” (87)

The genotext, on the other hand “is a process” rather than a structure: “one might say that the genotext is a matter of topology, whereas the phenotext is one of algebra” (87).






Cixous & Clement, The Newly Born Woman

“…the marvelous monster of universal life was swallowed up inside her; that from now on life, death, everything was held within her entrails, and at the price of such painful labor, she had conceived Nature…” (also, the hysteric) (also, Helen of Troy): “These three figures of women have three men as their authors” (4). The male author writes the hysteric mystic woman; she rarely writes herself.

“The last figure, the hysteric, resumes and assumes the memories of the others…. Both [Freud and Michelet] thought that the repressed past survives in woman; woman, more than anyone else, is dedicated to reminiscence. The sorceress, who in the end is able to dream Nature and therefore conceive it, incarnates the reinscription of the traces of paganism that triumphant Christianity repressed. The hysteric, whose body is transformed into a theater for forgotten scenes, relives the past, bearing witness to a lost childhood that survives in suffering.

The feminine role, the role of sorceress, of hysteric, is ambiguous, antiestablishment, and conservative at the same time ….. The hysteric unties familiar bonds, introduces disorder into the well-regulated unfolding of everyday life, gives rise to magic in ostensible reason. These roles are conservative because every sorceress ends up being destroyed, and nothing is registered of her but mythical traces” (5).

The canon posits that “the critical periods of their (the women’s) life provoke surprises and apprehensions that give them a special position. In fact, it is exactly at puberty, during menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth, and after menopause, that the magical virtues of women reach their greatest intensity” (Marcel Mauss in A General Theory of Magic, qtd here 8). Not only are the critical periods of a woman’s life reproductive, but reproductive periods are magical, and give woman an “intensity” ostensibly absent in men.

The hysteric is the “only one who knew how to escape him [Freud]” (9).

Those who prosecuted witches said that the devil “fornicates” with witches and sorceresses (12).

Clément notes that the carnivalesque often elected a “mad-mother,” or an anti-Mary: “…are thus promoted to function as prophets, all the better prefiguring their group’s future because they are banished from it for being from the past” (25). “Bad mothers” = carnivalesque prophets (Bakhtin)

“We have exchanged so many words that we will end up unable to speak” ‘words have been able to become everybody’s thing.’ The exchange of women, on the other hand, has kept its original value, for women are both sign and value, sign and producer of sign. We know this perfectly well: it happens that women talk, that they step out of their function as sign” (28).


“No longer to exchange, that is, no longer to exchange women, to live without women, is outside history: without history” (29).

“the hysteric keeps her tears for herself and seems to be unfeeling and untouched, closed for use” (36). To refuse to weep/ feel perhaps maternal = to be closed for use

“…the hysteric does not write, does not produce, does nothing—nothing other than make things circulate without inscribing them…. The result: the clandestine sorceress was burned by the thousands; the deceitful and triumphant hysteric disappeared. But the master is there. He is the one who stays on permanently. He publishes writings” (37).

“keeping oneself in a state of permanent guilt is to constitute oneself as a subject. For the time being the guilty one is not the hysteric, but the hysteric is also not entirely a subject” (46).

The woman must circulate, not put into circulation. But the hysteric puts into circulation, as does the sorceress in her own manner; both of them violate exogamous exchange and transgress kinship” (53). (Book circulation, also. The primary reason it’s difficult to be a writer and w wife… to put into circulation is to be “closed for use”

Clément claims that “the sorceress is parthenogenetic” and that this is an important part of her sorcery. In some ways, the parthenogenesis of the sorceress/writer stands as an important counter to her refusal to “circulate” phallic children.

For Clément, the mystic/sorcerer is bisexual. “Of the mythical bisexuality that gets man immortality which is a far cry from being born of woman, let us keep the bird’s wings. Let’s keep—it’s the same thing—the witch’s broom, her taking off, her being swept away, her taking flight” (57).

“Where is she?









Form, convex, step, advance, semen, progress.

Matter, concave, ground—where steps are taken, holding- and dumping-ground.



Always the same metaphor…. If we read or speak, the same thread or double braid is leading us throughout literature, philosophy, criticism, centuries of representation and reflection” (63).

“Organization by hierarchy makes all conceptual organization subject to man. Male privilege, shown in the opposition between activity and passivity, which he uses to sustain himself. Traditionally, the question of sexual difference is treated by coupling it with the opposition: activity/passivity” (64).

“…as soon as the question of ontology raises its head, as soon as one asks oneself ‘what is it?,’ as soon as there is intended meaning. Intention: desire, authority—examine them and you are led right back . . . to the father. It is even possible not to notice that there is no place whatsoever for woman in the calculations. Ultimately the world of ‘being’ can function while precluding the mother. No need for a mother, as long as there is some motherliness…” (64).
“Philosophy is constructed on the premise of woman’s abasement. Subordination of the feminine to the masculine order, which gives the appearance of being the condition for the machinery’s functioning” (65).

“We are living in an age where the conceptual foundation of an ancient culture is in the process of being undermined by millions of a species of mole (Topoi, ground mines) never known before. When they wake up from among the dead, from among words, from among laws” (65). Sounds like Plath’s “Mushrooms”

“Bridebed, childbed, bed of death: thus woman’s trajectory is traced as she inscribes herself from bed to bed in Joyce’s Ulysses” (66). Woman is always lying down.

As she comes to writing, woman must ask herself, as Cixous does, “Who…. Am I…. For you?” (69).

“Everyone knows that a place exists which is not economically or politically indebted to all the vileness and compromise. That is not obliged to reproduce the system. That is writing. If there is a somewhere else that can escape the infernal repetition, it lies in that direction, where it writes itself, where it dreams, where it invents new worlds” (72).

“Every woman is a means. I see that clearly” (76). And the end of the means is not the baby: it is the reflection of the father in the son.

Bisexuality as fantasy: 84

In some way, Cixous argues, “woman is bisexual, man having been trained to aim for glorious phallic monosexuality” (85).

“I will say: today, writing is woman’s. That is not a provocation, it means that woman admits there is an other” (85). Admitting that there is an other leads to writing.

“If there is a self proper to woman, paradoxically it is her capacity to de-propriate herself without self-interest: endless body, without ‘end,’ without principal ‘parts’; if she is whole, it is a whole made up of parts that are wholes…. That doesn’t mean that she is undifferentiated magma; it means that she doesn’t create a monarchy of her body or her desire” (87).

The relation borne to the child must also be rethought. …It will be the task of woman and man to make the old relationship and all its consequences out-of-date; to think the launching of a new subject, into life, with de-familialization. Rather than depriving woman of a fascinating time in the life of her body just to guard against procreation’s being recuperated, let’s de-mater-paternalize. Let’s get out of the dialectic that claims the child is its parents’ death. The child is the other but the other without violence. ….. For if there is a specific thing repressed, that is where it is found: the taboo of the pregnant woman (which says a lot about the power that seems invested in her). It is because they have always suspected that the pregnant woman not only doubles her market value but, especially, valorizes herself as a woman in her own eyes, and undeniably takes on weight and sex. There are a thousand ways of living a pregnancy, of having or not having a relationship of another intensity with this still invisible other” (90).

“Even if phallic mystification has contaminated good relations in general, woman is never far from the ‘mother’ (I do not mean the role but the ‘mother’ as no-name and as source of goods_. There is always at least a little good mother milk left in her. She writes with white ink” (94).

“When I write, all those that we don’t know we can be write themselve from me, without exclusion, without prediction, and everything that we will be calls us to the tireless, intoxicating, tender-costly search for love. We will never lack ourselves” (100).

Joyce on Fatherhood in Ulysses:

“Fatherhood, in teh sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten. On that mystery and not on teh madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and refounded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro- and micro-cosm, upon the void. Upon uncertitude, upon unlikelihood. Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life” (qtd here 101).

“Fatherhood is a legal fiction,’ said Joyce. Paternity, which is a fiction, is fiction passing itself off as truth. Paternity is the lack of being which is called God. Men’s cleverness was in passing themselves off as fathers and ‘repatriating’ women’s fruit as their own. A naming trick. Magic of absence. God is men’s secret” (101). “The father is always dependent on the child, who decides whether to recognize or reject him” (111).







Johnson, Mother Tongues

“The Poet’s Mother”

Johnson argues that while her essay “Apostrophe, Animation, Abortion” may be “valid for the poet, [it] does not take into account the mother’s address to the child” (66).

“A child comes into language through the mother’s address. … Might poetry be an attempt not to address the mother but to hear her voice? Is poetry perhaps a way of being addressed?” (66).

“When floods of violence are unleashed toward the mother, there seems to be no taboo against participating in it. And yet what the critics in both cases hold against the mother is her attempt to live up to an idea of responsible maternal behavior—which those same critics would claim they value” (79).

“What the idea of perfect motherhood excludes for the mother, in any case, is—her life. That is, a mother who adapts too well or too long to a child’s needs and doesn’t agree to ‘fail’ at mothering may not be perceived as a separate person, but as part of the self” (84).

“The mother’s limitations cannot be forgiven” (85).

“The perfect fusion of mother and child never existed even in the womb, but the discovery that the mother has a life is called, by Freud and Lacan, castration. The phallic mother is thus the ideal everyone wants the mother to live up to, the ideal of perfect reciprocity, perfect knowledge, total response. It is not that people know that that is what they want, but that they suddenly notice they have lost something, and that if ‘castration’ is the name for that loss, the phallic mother must have once existed” (87).

“We are holding against them [mothers] the wielding of a power that they do not really possess. In the final analysis, we are just as likely to resemble them as to resemble their genius children. We have met the enemy and, whether we like it or not, she is us” (93).

Morrison, The Movement

“On 1 October 1954, an anonymous leading article entitled ‘In the Movement’ appeared in the London weekly periodical the Spectator. The article drew attention to the emergence of a group of wirters who, it claimed, represented something new in British literature and society. The ‘modern Britain’ of the 1950s was, the article argued, a ‘changed place’ […] Literary ‘Taste’ (and here the article adopted a hectoring tone calculated to alarm those who value keeping up with changes in fashion) had begun to move in new directions” (1).

The movement involves writers like Elizabeth Jennings, Phillip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, D. J. Enright

Elizabeth Jennings argued that “it is the journalists, not the poets themselves, who have created the poetic movements of the 1950s” (qtd 4)

The movement in many ways “succeed[ed] the Georgians,” as Edna Longley put it (here 7)

The movement can be traced to the friendship between Larkin and Amis in the 1940s at Oxford University

Larkin was “beginning to formulate the idea of a self-effacing, unobtrusive, ‘modest’ poetry” (20). v. Imagism and Pound specifically

The Movement posited itself against “effete and upper-middle-class” poets as “tough, heterosexual and beer-drinking” (31).

deplored both “political reportage (1930s poetry) and metaphorical lavishness (1940s poetry)” (35).

Movement poets like Davie were interested in an ‘economy of metaphor’ rather than a lavish metaphorical system, and were interested “not in experimenting with language, but in ‘purifying; it and in revitalizing old usages…retrenchment was more valuable than innovation” (39).

Larkin “characterized the present moment as one of retrenchment: ‘a period of expansion has to be followed by a period of consolidation'” (44).

critics constructed the Movement poets as “the decent man” as opposed to “the gentleman” (55-6). The Movement offered, however, ‘only a token rebellion, and did not attempt to change the social structure which made cultural ‘elitism’ possible” (77).

The Movement “judged that it must counter-act fragmentation by constructing what Wain, in an apologia for the Movement, calls ‘regular and disciplined verse forms'” (89).

The Movement had a preference “for emblem and riddle rather than symbol… the symbol casts a shadow, where the emblem doesn’t; the symbol aims to be suggestive, the emblem to be, even in its guise as riddle, ultimately explicit. Another difference might be that the emblem is made, fabricated, where the symbol is found” (119).

“Larkin’s poetry minimizes the interpretive process by including it within the text: what is inferred by the reader is limited by what has already ben inferred by the speaker, whose own struggle to ‘discover meaning’ is what the poem dramatizes. The reader is ‘helped’ (he cannot be confused as to what the poem means), but he is also restricted (the only meaning he takes away from the poem is the one found for him by the speaker). In its treatment of the reader, Movement poetry offers a sharp contrast with Modernism. […] there is no opportunity to wander off the beaten track” (143).

This is, as Jonathan Raban calls it, “the nicest and kindest form of paternal dictatorship” (144).



Johnson, A World of Difference

“Mallarmé as Mother”

—not as “overcomer of womb envy”

—not as “woman” or effiminate

—not “female social position”/persona

but the mother/ mother function

“I would like to situate what is maternal in Mallarmé as a function or structure, defined not in terms of a female figure but in terms of a specific set of interactions and transactions that structure the relation between the earliest parent and child” (137-8).

“What, in other words, was the question on which Mallarmé-as-mother seemed to shed light? The question might be formulated as follows: what is it about Mallarmé’s writing that is capable of exerting intense fascination in some cases and intense discomfort or rejection in others? What is the nature of the appeal, and of the threat? What sorts of unconscious wishes or fears does Mallarmé’s poetry evoke in the reader?” (138).

These characteristics are:

“1. Obscurity, difficulty;

2. Lack of determinable meaning: undecidability, ambiguity, plays of the signifier;

3. Impersonality, distance, negativity;

4. Inseparability of a poem’s significance from the reading or writing process: poems seem to be about their own production or interpretation” (138).

“The separation-individuation process described by [psychoanalyst Margaret] Mahler moves from mother-child symbiosis toward greater and greater autonomy, through four subphases. The child is followed from the age of four or five months to about three years, from ‘lap-babyhood’ to ‘toddlerhood.’ Since the mother in these structures is defined not in terms of womb or breast but in terms of emotional and physical proximity, it is not structurally necessary that she be a woman, although Mahler never considers this” (138).

“Mallarmé as mother of his poems would be playing out the maternal ambivalence toward separation: on the one hand, he directs his poems toward an idealized image of autonomy; on the other hand, he cannot let them go” (140).

“It is this forever undecipherable yet somehow maternal sibylline whiteness—or indecidability as maternity—that flows and is articulated through the poetry of Mallarmé. Les blancs sketch out presence and absence, pure semantic flux and pure syntactic division, separation and reunion. But the blanks in the text do not simply make the mother present; they recreate the drama of the simultaneity of attachment and detachment that defines the maternal function” (141).

“The desire to merge is satisfied by the poem’s absorption of the reader into its structures of obscurity and undecidability. And the fear of separation is evoked by the abyss of nonreferentiality or impersonality, while the fear of merger is evoked by the loss of the ability to control or master meaning” (141).

“…a man whose work consists of questioning certain assumptions and structures of phallogocentrism—the determinability of meaning, the separability of binary opposites, the search for self-identity—would somehow appear to fill the maternal role better, more effectively, than a woman. […] But the fact that the maternal function is wielded by men—indeed, that literature is one of the ways in which men have elaborated the maternal position—means that the silence of actual women is all the more effectively enforced. With men playing all the parts, the drama appears less incomplete than it really is. Were women to take over the critique of the paternal position, they might not remain content with the maternal role” (141-2).

“For although the mother is seen as powerful, her power, viewed exclusively through the eyes of the child, is a power that must be overcome, outgrown, escaped. Whether that power is nurturing or smothering, it is seen as a threat to autonomy” (142).

“The function of the mother—or of nurturing parent of either sex—should be analyzed otherwise than through the eyes of a child—indeed, implicitly, a male child—a child-theorist whose wishful anticipation of a free, self-identical needlessness has always dreamed human maturity as the completion of a separation that in fact can only be achieved in death. The figure of the mother should be analyzed as the subject of discourse rather than as the source of life or the object of desire and anger” (143).


“Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion”

“In an essay in The Pursuit of Signs, Jonathan Culler indeed sees apostrophe as an embarrassingly explicit emblem of procedures in The Pursuit of Signs, Jonathan Culler indeed sees apostrophe as an embarrassingly explicit emblem of procedures inherent, but usually better hidden, in lyric poetry as such. Apostrophe in the sense in which I will be using it involves the direct address of an absent, dead, or inanimate being by a first-person speaker: ‘O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being.’ Apostrophe is thus both direct and indirect: based etymologically on the notion of turning aside, of digressing from straight speech, it manipulates the I/thou structure of direct address in an indirect, fictionalized way. The absent, dead, or inanimate entity addressed is thereby made present, animate, and anthropomorphic. Apostrophe is a form of ventriloquism through which the speaker throws voice, life, and human form into the addressee, turning its silence into mute responsiveness” (185). Also think about Freud’s apostrophe as he addresses women as the problem 

In the final section of Shelley’s poem, he commands the wind: “be thou me.” Johnson argues that here Shelley is attempting “to restore metaphorical exchange and equality. If apostrophe is the giving of voice, the throwing of voice, the giving of animation, then a poet using it is always in a sense saying to the addressee, ‘Be thou me.’ But this implies that a poet has animation to give. Ad that is what this poem is saying is not, or no longer, the case. Shelley’s speaker’s own sense of animation is precisely what is in doubt, so that he is in effect saying to the wind, ‘I will animate you so that you will animate, or reanimate me'” (188). Perhaps woman’s apostrophe of mother claims self-animation with the “be thou me” that she addresses to the child; perhaps, indeed, man’s apostrophe of mother; Freud’s apostrophe of woman, commands “be thou me” to both woman and child in order to see his own subjectivity mirrored in his erotic double and its subsequent child.

“In Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem ‘The Mother,’ the structures of address are shifting and complex. In the first line (“Abortions will not let you forget”), there is a ‘you’ but there is no ‘I’. Instead, the subject of the sentence is the word ‘abortions,’ which thus assumes a position of grammatical control over the poem. […] The grammatical I/thou starting point of traditional apostrophe has been replaced by a structure in which the speaker is simultaneously eclipsed, alienated, and confused with the addressee. It is already clear that something has happened to the possibility of establishing a clear-cut distinction in this poem between subject and object, agent and victim” (189).

“Gwendolyn Brooks, in other words, is here rewriting the male lyric tradition, textually placing aborted children in the spot formerly occupied by all the dead, inanimate, or absent entities previously addressed by the lyric. And the question of animation and anthropomorphism is thereby given a new and disturbing twist. For if apostrophe is said to involve language’s capacity to give life and human form to something dead or inanimate, what happens when those questions are literalized? What happens when the lyric speaker assumes responsibility for producing the death in the first place, but without being sure of the precise degree of human animation that existed in the entity killed? What is the debate over abortion about, indeed, if not the question of when, precisely, a being assumes a human form?” (189).

“By not closing the quotation in its final line, the poem, which began by confusing the reader with the aborter, ends by implicitly including the reader among those aborted—and loved. The poem can no more distinguish between ‘I’ and ‘you’ than it can come up with a proper definition of life” (190).

“It is deliberateness, for instance, that underlies that epic of separation and self-reliant autonomy, Thoreau’s Walden. ‘I went to the woods,’ writes Thoreau, ‘because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.’ Clearly, for Thoreau, pregnancy was not an essential fact of life. Yet for him as well as for every human being that has yet existed, someone else’s pregnancy was the very first fact of life. How might the plot of human subjectivity be reconceived (so to speak) if pregnancy rather than autonomy is what raises the question of deliberateness?” (190).

[In In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan argues that there is a difference between the male and female point of view] “because it is not always possible to make symmetrical oppositions. As long as there is symmetry, one is not dealing with difference but rather with versions of the same. [Carol] Gilligan’s difference arises out of the impossibility of maintaining a rigorously logical binary model for ethical choices. Female logic, as she defines, it is a way of rethinking the logic of choice in a situation in which none of the choices are good. ‘Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate’: believe that the agent is not entirely autonomous, believe that I can be subject and object of violence at the same time, believe that I have not chosen the conditions under which I must choose. […] The choice is not between violence and nonviolence, but between simple violence to a fetus and complex, less determinate violence to an involuntary mother and/or an unwanted child” (191).

This poem “attempts the impossible task of humanizing both the mother and the aborted children while presenting the inadequacy of language to resolve the dilemma without violence” (191).

“If the fact that the speaker addresses the children at all makes them human, then she must pronounce herself guilty of murder—but only if she discontinues her apostrophe. As long as she addresses the children, she can keep them alive, can keep from finishing with the act of killing them. […] The children are a rhetorical extension of the mother, but she, as the poem’s title indicates, has no existence apart from her relation to them” (192).

Discussing Lucille Clifton’s “The Lost Baby Poem”: “By choosing the word ‘dropped’… Clifton renders it unclear whether the child has been lost through abortion or through miscarriage. […] For a black woman, the loss of a baby can always be perceived as a complicity with genocide. The black mother sees her own choice as one of being either a stranger or a rock. The humanization of the lost baby addressed by the poem is thus carried out at the cost of dehumanizing, even rendering inanimate, the calling mother” (195).

“Yet each of these poems exists, finally, because a child does not” (195).

While death in the male tradition of lyric poetry “is as much a source as it is a threat to writing,” is even as Johnson argues, “the mother of poetry,” for female poets, motherhood “is precisely the death of poetry” (196). Johnson notes that “The Western myth of the conjunction of word and flesh implied by the word ‘incarnate’ is undone by images of language floating and vanishing into the bowl of the toilet of real fleshly needs. The word is not made flesh; rather, flesh unmakes the mother-poet’s words” (196). Incarnate–> word (logos) made flesh (in phallic mother and phallic child?)

In each of these poems, “a kind of competition is implicitly instated between the bearing of children and the writing of poems. Something unsettling has happened to the analogy often drawn by male poets between artistic creation and procreation” (196).

Johnson notes that the first stanza in Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella” describes the poet as “great with child to speak,” but that the “poem is ultimately produced at the expense of no literalized child. Sidney’s labor pains are smoothed away with a midwifely apostrophe (‘Fool,’ said my Muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write!’), and by a sort of poetic Caesarian section, out springs the poem we have, in fact, already finished reading” (197). Jonson, in “On my First Son,” “calls his dead child ‘his best piece of poetry'” (197).

“…it is not surprising that the substitution of art for children should not be inherently transgressive for the male poet. Men have in a sense always had no choice but to substitute something for the literal process of birth. […] It is as though male writing were by nature procreative, while female writing is somehow by nature infanticial” (198).

“When a woman speaks out about the death of children in any sense other than that of pure loss, a powerful taboo is being violated. The indistinguishability of miscarriage and abortion in the Clifton poem indeed points to the notion that any death of a child is perceived as a crime committed by the mother, something a mother ought by definition to be able to prevent” (198).

Johnson argues that “lyric poetry itself—summed up in the figure of apostrophe—comes to look like the fantastically intricate history of endless elaborations and displacements of the single cry, ‘Mama!'” (199).

“The difficulty in all three would seem to reside in the attempt to achieve a full elaboration of any discursive position other than that of child” (199). Difficult because we refuse to ask mothers


Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Opening sentence: “Woman? Very simple, say those who like simple answers: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female: this word is enough to define her…. the term ‘female’ is pejorative not because it roots woman in nature but because it confines her in sex, and if this sex, even in an innocent animal, seems despicable and an enemy to man, it is obviously because of the disquieting hostility woman triggers in him. Nevertheless, he wants to find a justification in biology for this feeling. The word ‘female’ evokes a saraband of images…” (21). (not even the womb is enough to define her: the WORD womb is enough to define her)

“The question is how, in her, nature has been taken on in the course of history; the question is what humanity has made of the human female” (48). And, as Muriel Rukeyser reminds us, we all know that “humanity” means “men.”

“Like all religions—Christianity or Marxism— it [psychoanalysis] displays an unsettling flexibility against a background of rigid concepts. Sometimes words are taken in their narrowest meanings, the term ‘phallus’ for example, designating very precisely the fleshy growth that is the male sex organ; at other times, infinitely broadened, they take on symbolic value: the phallus would express all of the virile character and situation as a whole” (49).

“the hero has to rise up against the Magna Mater. As a specialist in heroism, he has undertaken the task of dislodging her” (214).

“…it is clear from the explicit criticisms that Motherlant addresses to woman-mother that what he hates in her is his own birth. He thinks he is God; he wants to be God; because he is male, because he is a ‘superior man,’ because he is Montherlant. A god is not engendered; his body, if he has one, is a will molded in hard and disciplined muscles, not in flesh mutely inhabited by life and death; this flesh that he repudiates is perishable, contingent, and vulnerable and is his mother’s fault. The only part of Achilles’ body that was vulnerable was the part his mother had held” (215).

“…the woman lover is just as harmful as the mother; she prevents man from resurrecting the god in himself” (215).

“It is through motherhood that woman fully achieves her physiological destiny; that is her ‘natural’ vocation, since her whole organism is directed toward the perpetuation of the species. But we have already shown that human society is never left to nature. And in particular, for about a century, the reproductive function has no longer been controlled by biological chance alone but by design” (524).

“Men tend to take abortion lightly; they consider it one of those numerous accidents to which the malignity of nature has destined women: they do not grasp the values involved in it. The woman repudiates feminine values, her values, at the moment the male ethic is contested in the most radical way. Her whole moral future is shaken by it. Indeed, from childhood woman is repeatedly told she is made to bear children, and the praises of motherhood are sung; the disadvantages of her condition‚periods, illness, and such—the boredom of household tasks, all this is justified by this marvelous privilege she holds, that of bringing children into the world. And in an instant, the man, to keep his freedom and not to handicap his future, in the interest of his job, asks the woman to renounce her female triumph. The child is no longer a priceless treasure: giving birth is no longer a sacred function: this proliferation becomes contingent and inopportune, and it is again one of femininity’s defects…. Even consenting to and wanting an abortion, woman feels her femininity sacrificed: she will from now on definitively see in her sex a malediction, a kind of infirmity, a danger” (532). De Beauvoir oddly follows this by adding that the trauma abortion sometimes causes “some women [to] become homosexual” (532).

“Men universally forbid abortion; but they accept it individually as a convenient solution; they can contradict themselves with dizzying cynicism; but woman feels the contradictions in her wounded flesh; she is generally too shy to deliberately revolt against masculine bad faith […] it is she who translates these phrases into pain and blood” (532).

“With her first abortion, the woman begins to ‘understand'” (532).

“We have seen that in childhood and adolescence woman goes through several phases in connection with motherhood. When she is a little girl, it is a miracle and a game: she sees in the doll and she feels i the future child an object to possess and dominate. As an adolescent girl, on the contrary, she sees in it a threat to the integrity of her precious person” (533).

De Beauvoir oddly and erroneously claims that sometimes “conception is prevented by a psychic defense mechanism” (534) and later that “almost all spontaneous miscarriages have a psychic origin” (542).

Some women, de Beauvoir claims, are “breeders” rather than “mothers” who “eagerly seek the possibility of alienating their liberty to the benefit of their flesh: their existence appears to them to be tranquility justified by the passive fertility of their body” (539).

Hegel says that “the birth of children is the death of parents” (540).

“Some women say they felt creative power during childbirth; they truly accomplished a voluntary and productive piece of work; many others feel passive, a suffering and tortured instrument” (549). (Rich, Of Woman Born)

Of one birth story, “In her pregnancy reveries he was an image, he was infinite, and the mother mentally played out her future motherhood; now he is a tiny, finite individual, he is really there, contingent, fragile, demanding. The joy that he is finally here, quite real, is mingled with the regret that this is all he is” (550).

“These examples all prove that there is no such thing as maternal ‘instinct’: the word does not in any case apply to the human species. The mother’s attitude is defined by her total situation and by the way she accepts it. It is, as we have seen, extremely variable” (554).

“The great risk our mores present for the infant is that the mother to whom he is tied and bound is almost always an unfulfilled woman: sexually she is frigid or unsatisfied; socially she feels inferior to man; she has no hold on the world or the future; she will try to compensate for her frustrations through the child….. her behavior is symbolic: but these symbols become bitter reality for the child” (556).

“The pleasure man savors in women—feeling absolutely superior—is something a woman experiences only toward her children…” (563).

“….the child is the enemy of waxed floors. Maternal love is often lost in the reprimands and outbursts that underlie the concerns for a well-kept home…. she always loses on some level” (569).

“Precisely because the idea of femininity is artificially defined by customs and fashion, it is imposed on every woman from the outside; it may evolve so that its fashion standards come closer to that of men… That does not change the core of the problem: the individual is not free to shape the idea of femininity at will. […] There is no negative attitude that does not imply a positive counterpart. The adolescent girl often thinks she can simply scorn convention; but by doing so, she is making a statement; she is creating a new situation involving consequences she will have to assume. […] A flamboyantly dressed woman is lying when she ingenuously claims she is simply dressing to suit herself, and that is all: she knows perfectly well that suiting herself is an absurdity” (724).



Gallop, The Daughter’s Seduction

It’s important to remember that “Freud’s contribution to man’s understanding of himself is a description of the human being in culture, not of the natural animal, man” (3).

“Metonymy is a phallic conceit, the part standing for the whole, standing for the hole. The substitution of the phallus (one sexual part) for the whole of sexuality is an example of metonymy, not what it should be (metonymy properly should have a varied definition with many sorts of relations), but what it stubbornly insists upon being (continually misconstrued as the part for the whole” (20). Definition itself is also metonymical; if desire is metonymical, so is the feminine function

“Unlike ‘desire,’ unlike Freudian masculine libido, feminine sexuality is not subject to metonymy, mediation and sublimation. Desire may always be masculine, but not sexuality. IF the sexuality of desire (mediated, sublimated) is phallocratic, if desire is eccentric, feminine sexuality (immediate, olfactory) is, according to Montrelay, concentric” (28).

“le sexe” is a common French euphemism for woman (so Irigaray’s sex that is not one is also a woman that is not one) (31)

Shoshanna Felman notes in her article “La Méprise” that Lacan’s writing is “poetic, allusive, contradictory. The ladies’ man is an expert at flirtation. Unlike the man’s man, philosopher or hunter, who spends his time with serious, frank confrontations, the ladies’ man is always embroiled in coquetry: his words necessarily and erotically ambiguous” (35). (Lacan is a “ladies man” who plays with ecriture feminine in order to mimic women)

“Hysterical speech, formless and useless like the discharges of a womb. Like Lacan who babbles on for years before anyone understands him?” (39)

Gallop notes that Irigaray’s essay “Mécanique” argues that “one must know how to listen otherwise than in good form(s) in order to hear what [woman] says” (40).

For Lacan, “The sexual relation falls short an the human being reproduces itself, produces an object distinguished from the flow. ‘The speaking body only reproduces itself thanks to a miscarriage of what it means to say, since what it means to say… is its actual pleasure” (41). In other words, in Lacan’s formulation, speech is a miscarried pregnancy, and the speaking subject’s failed linguistic generativity is in fact an act of failed reproduction.

“What is this feminist practice of unauthorization? In Encore, Lacan defines an ‘authorized thought’ as a’a thought bequeathed with an author’s name’ (p.51). Bequeathed, legally left: for example, from father to son. The authorized partakes of the legal and the name. The authorized, legitimate thought bears the author’s name; the unauthorized, the illegitimate lacks the Name-of-the-Father” (47).

“Infidelity is a use value, the use of the woman one does not possess, one is not authorized to exchange” (49).

“Lacan in the Saint Teresa quotation classes his own Ecrits with the mystics, that is, on the side of female jouissance, the side of the pas-tout” (52).

Lacan argues that we must “make use, but really use them up, really wear out these old words, wear them threadbare, use them until they’re thoroughly hackneyed’ ….. What a way of ruining exchange value by use!” (55).

“To have a theory of woman is already to reduce the plurality of woman to the coherent and thus phallocentric representations of theory… How can she avoid it without simply giving up speaking, leaving authority to men and phallocentrism?” (63).

(Of Irigaray’s Ce Sexe Qui N’en est pas un)

“To speak ‘the same language’ is to speak the langue maternelle, the mother tongue, taught the daughter by her mother. Irigaray does not want to ‘reproduce the same history,’ and ‘reproduce’ is the mother’s domain. No wonder then that the parenthetical throw-back is addressed to the mother. The obligation to reproduce—the daughter’s obligation to reproduce the mother, the mother’s story—is a more difficult obstacle than even the Father’s Law, an obstacle that necessarily intrudes even into the lovely, liberated space of women among themselves” (113).

“That is the ghost which parenthetically spoils Irigaray’s idyll. To say ‘Mother, I prefer a woman to you’ is naively to believe one could ever totally separate the woman from the mother, could define femininity with no reference to maternity” (116).

“The threat represented by the mother to this feminine idyll might be understood through the notion that Mother, though female, is none the less phallic. So, as an afterthought, not only men, but Mother must be expelled from the innocent, non-phallic paradise. The inability to separate the daughter, the woman, from the mother then becomes the structural impossibility of evading the Phallus” (118).








Lacan, “On Jouissance”

“What is jouissance? Here it amounts to no more than a negative instance. Jouissance is what serves no purpose” (3).

“Don’t talk to me about women’s secondary sexual characteristics because, barring some sort of radical change, it is those of the mother that take precedence in her. Nothing distinguishes woman as a sexed being other than her sexual organ (“sexe”)” (7). There is no women, but there are mothers. The mother is real; women are not.

“The sexed being of these not-whole women does not involve the body but what results from a logical exigency in speech. Indeed, logic, the coherence inscribed in the fact that language exists and that it is outside the bodies that are moved by it—in short, the Other who is incarnated so to speak, as sexed being—requires this one by one” (10).

“From the moment there ar enames, one can make a list of women and count them. If there are mille e tre of them, it’s clear that one can take them one by one—that is what is essential. That is entirely different from the One of universal fusion. If woman were not not-whole—if, in her body, she were not not-whole as a sexed being—none of that would hold true” (10).


Jane Gallop notes that Lacan’s decision that Woman doesn’t exist hits right at the start of the feminist movement (1958)

Cixous, The Day I Wasn’t There

Cixous, Hélène. The Day I Wasn’t There. Northwestern University Press, 2006.

phrases she uses to describe the baby:

“feather-headed fossil of an unfledged child” (6)

“monstrous child” (7)

“my son the dead” (25)

the badly written child—that I wrote badly” (54)

“Surprised, I wept, And I don’t know why. Maternity rendered, maternity lost. It was for lack of thought and the fault of words… My son the one who is dead, my former son my son who is no longer my son. And the one I call my son is my son the living. The other is outside, he was there for so long that I never think of him to his face” (27).

“What a surprise this child, this child which doesn’t seem to be hers, who differs, who doesn’t look like, this fish gasping as if it needed to go back in the water, one expects a surprise but instead of the expected surprise it’s an entirely different one, O mysterious power of the new arrival who upsets the millions of expectations of milleniums of images, O eternally astonishing natural phenomenon forever never seen before. And this one here, he’s the champion. He evades her absolutely, she doesn’t remember him at all. She doesn’t conceive of him” (28-9).

Her own father passes through her in order to become the botched newborn (34)

“The child a duty a copy, a debt. The child for the husband. All these children who are bits of the husband, given back to the husband, these owed children, the chips you counted on to save your skin. Only the little mongolian is free of charge. On one side all those newborns heavily laden, all those offspring who entered into the family calculations, those children made to save their mothers from opprobium, wrinkled trophies the woman counts on to obtain indulgence or her life. On the other the free of charge, the mongolian” (70). (The “botched child” escapes the child function)

“All those women accused of child, of no-child, of child not like this not like that, all those guilty by definition… In the Clinic my son grew heavy with meaning” (75).



Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman

Loraux, Nicole. Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman. Harvard University Press, 1997.

“Women in tragedy died violently. More precisely, it was in this violence that woman mastered her death, a death that was not simply the end of an exemplary life as a spouse. It was a death that belonged to her totally…” (4). (Plath, Smith)

“…hanging was associated with marriage—or, rather, with an excessive valuation of the status of bride—while a suicide that shed blood was associated with maternity, through which a wife, in her ‘heroic’ pains of childbirth, found complete fulfillment. I still abide by that reading” (15). (Plath’s suicide then was the opposite of maternity; an anti-maternity)

“…the woman in tragedy is more entitled to play the man in her death than the man is to assume any aspect of woman’s conduct, even in his manner of death. For women there is liberty in tragedy—liberty in death” (17).

“Silence is the adornment of women. Sophocles said so, and Aristotle repeated it… But women in tragedy have become involved in men’s world of action and have suffered for it” (21).

“[Women] are free enough to kill themselves, but they are not free enough to escape from the space to which they belong, and the remote sanctum where they meet their death is equally the symbol of their life—a life that finds its meaning outside the self and is fulfilled only in the institutions of marriage and maternity, which tie women to the world and lives of men. It is by men that women meet their death, and it is for men, usually, that they kill themselves. By a man, for a man… So the death of women confirms or reestablishes their connection with marriage and maternity” (23).

“It is true that ‘good’ wives are not material for tragedy” (28).

Virgins, however, “do not kill themselves: they are killed” (31).

“…there are no words available to denote the glory of a woman that do not belong to the language of male renown. And glory always makes the blood of women flow” (48).

“…the gynecologial thinking of the Greeks, where woman is caught between two mouths, between two necks, where vagaries of the womb suddenly choke the voice in a woman’s throat, and where many a young girl old enough to be a nymphe hangs herself to escape the threat of the terrifying suffocation inside her body” (61).

Woman’s death in suicide gives man a “controlled pleasure afforded by an enjoyment of the deviant when it is acted out, reflected upon, and tamed” (65). I wonder if by turning Plath into a myth we do the same (her death was about a man, etc.)



Loraux, Mothers in Mourning

Loraux, Nicole. Mothers in Mourning. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998.

She begins by discussing the Mother’s role in Shakespeare’s Richard III: “a mother’s sorrow is general in the sense that it is generic, a general sorrow that contains all mourning within itself” (3).

Loraux notes patriarchal political and family systems often breed a “hatred [all] the more fierce in that it feeds on sameness” (4). Lacan’s paternal system of analogy is violent, and results in female mourning, which “leads to cursing” (5).

The mourning of mothers is a “challenge to political life” insofar as the mourning leads to a curse of the patriarchal systems that allowed the son to die (7).

In Plato’s Republic, “we find surrender to grief and lamentation among the feminine forms of behavior that are not to be imitated” (11).

In Plato’s world as in that of the Greeks, “a woman can accomplish her télos (her goal) only in giving birth, and although there is no female citizenship, motherhood nonetheless counts as a civic activity. By giving birth, citizens’ wives assure their husbands perpetuation of their descent and name—without their intervention, there would be no patronymic—and thus they guarantee the continuation of the city” (12).

“Laws exist to delimit the bounds of mourning… By confining private funerals within extremely strict limits, the city regulates morning and the role played by women in the context of mourning. This also suggests that the city regulates mourning, and thus it regulates women” (19). (see Butler’s Antigone’s Claim)

“I would also like to suggest that mourning, perceived as essentially feminine, must be thrust aside by ascribing to women, and especially to mothers, as limited a role as possible, since in these laws—just as, in many respects, in the political thought of Aristotle—the main concern is to watch over the stability of the city without respite” (21).

“Ideally, feminine sorrow should be hermetically sealed inside the house” (25), not exposed like Antigone’s or cult-ified like Plath’s.

It’s important that the state both regulate and incorporate maternal pathos into itself in order to control it (40).

“More cruel yet than the fate of divine mothers in tragedy is that of mortal women: whether triumphant or heartbroken queens, they are always wounded in their motherhood” (49). And, as Loraux reminds us, “mothers kill” (49).

“These mothers are often murderers who, like Medea, kill their own children better to destroy their husbands. But then they always kill sons, hence depriving their spouse of the arrogant tranquility of a father whose sons will perpetuate his name and lineage. It is not that these heartbroken mothers kill the children to whom they gave birth, but because the father annexed them to his own power, they thereby destroy the father in the husband” (51). They destroy, in other words, the father-function. 

“A mother never kills a daughter…but a mother whose husband has killed a daughter will in turn kill the guilty father. […] the daughter could be designated as odis, a word that refers to the act of childbirth, in its length and in its pain, just before the separation between mother and child is accomplished; the son could be said to be the lokheuma, the finished product of childbirth, already separate from the mother, already ready to be ‘civilized’ by paternal recognition” (52). (When Plath killed herself, did she kill herself as a son? As Loraux notes later, “mothers with sons are dangerous not only to their children but also to themselves” (58))

“A murderous mother always kills her son(s), because the important thing is to get at the husband who as a father is guilty of […] having compromised and destroyed the intimate relationship with the child” (52).

“In the Athenian agora, a place both centered in the present and highly symbolic of the political as democracy understands it, was a temple of the Mother, a temple of the Mother of the gods, to be more precise. This mother seems to have been virtually generic…” (67).

Loraux reminds us of Freud’s claims “concerning the ‘stamp of maternal characteristics’ in the life of the psyche, especially as regards love, compared with the skull’s conformation of the newborn—which ‘after a protracted labor always bears the form of a cast of the maternal pelvis'” (72).


Mitchell and Rose, Feminine Sexuality

Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienneEd. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, Trans. Jacqueline Rose. New York: Norton, 1982.

Mitchell, Juliet, “Introduction”

“The dominant ideology of today, as it was of the time and place when psychoanalysis was established, is humanism. Humanism believes that man is at the centre of his own history and of himself; he is a subject more or less in control of his own actions, exercising choice. Humanistic psychoanalytic practice is in danger of seeing the patient as someone who has lost control and a sense of a real or true self (identity) and it aims to help regain those” (4).

“As Freud put it: ‘In conformity with its peculiar nature, psychoanalysis does not try to describe what a woman is—that would be a task it could scarcely perform—but sets about enquiring how she comes into being” (Freud, XXII, qtd in Mitchell, 5).

“Lacan underlines and reformulates Freud’s position. The castration complex is the instance of the humanisation of the child in its sexual difference” (19).

“‘What,’ asks Freud, ‘does the woman [the little girl] want?’ All answers to the question, including ‘the mother’ are false: she simply wants” (24). Lack –> Voracity

In Freud’s work, “to be human is to be subjected to a law which decentres and divides: sexuality is created in a division, the subject is split; but an ideological world conceals this from the conscious subject who is supposed to feel whole and certain of a sexual identity. Psychoanalysis should aim at a destruction of this concealment and at a reconstruction of the subject’s construction in all its splits” (26).

“Introduction” by Jacqueline Rose

“Normal sexuality is […] strictly an ordering, one which the hysteric refuses (falls ill)” (28).

“For Lacan […] the very image which places the child divides its identity into two. Furthermore, that moment only has meaning in relation to the presence and the look of the mother who guarantees its reality for the child” (30). (Mother is, if not IN the mirror frame, looming nearby ostensibly)

“Lacan termed the order of language the symbolic, that of the ego and its identifications the imaginary (the stress, therefore, is quite deliberately on symbol and image, the idea of something which ‘stands in’). The real was then his term for the moment of impossibility onto which both are grafted, the point of that moment’s endless return” (31).

For Lacan, “desire” is the “remainder of the subject” (32). Could we see the neonate this way?

“For Lacan, the increasing stress on the mother-child relationship in analytic theory, and the rejection of the concept of castration had to be seen as related developments, because the latter only makes sense with reference to the wider symbolic order in which that relationship is played out” (36).

“The duality of the relation between mother and child must be broken, just as the analytic relation must be thrown onto the axis of desire. In Lacan’s account, the phallus stands for that moment of rupture. It refers mother and child to the dimension of the symbolic which is figured by the father’s place… Castration means first of all this—that the child’s desire for the mother does not refer to her but beyond her, to an object, the phallus, whose status is first imaginary…and then symbolic” (39).

“Lacan’s position should be read against two alternative emphases—on the actual behavior of the mother and on a literally present or absent father” (40).

For Lacan, sexuality belongs in the realm of the masquerade. “For Lacan, masquerade is the very definition of ‘femininity’ precisely because it is constructed with reference to a male sign” (43).

“…the phallic function rests on an exception (the ‘not’) which is assigned to her. Woman is excluded by the nature of words, meaning that the definition poses her as an exclusion. Note that this is not the same thing as saying that woman is excluded from the nature of words, a misreading which leads to the recasting of the whole problem in terms of woman’s place outside language, the idea that women might have of themselves an entirely different speech” (49).

For Lacan, “femininity is assigned to a point of origin prior to the mark of symbolic difference and the law. The privileged relationship of women to that origen gives them access to an archaic form of expressivity outside the circuit of linguistic change. This point of origin is the maternal body, an undifferentiated space, and yet one in which the girl child recognises her self” (54).

There is, as both Lacan and Mitchell note, “no feminine outside language” (55). Outside language there are no bodies as such, and there is no femininity as such.


Lacan, Jacques. “The Meaning of the Phallus”

“Only on the basis of the clinical facts can there be any fruitful discussion. These facts go to show that the relation of the subject to the phallus is set up regardless of the anatomical difference between the sexes, which is what makes its interpretation particularly intractable in the case of the woman and in relationship to her” (76). And yet, mothers have no place in the clinic; this is an artificial environment.)

“…the phallus is a signifier, a signifier whose function in the intrasubjective economy of analysis might lift the veil from that which it served in the mysteries. For it is to this signified that it is given to designate as a whole the effect of there being a signified, inasmuch as it conditions any such effect by its presence as signifier” (80).

The phallus is the privileged signifier of that mark where the share of the logos is wedded to the advent of desire. One might say that this signifier is chosen as what stands out as most easily seized upon in the real of sexual copulation, and also as the most symbolic in the literal (typographical) sense of the term, since it is the equivalent in that relation of the (logical) copula. One might also say that by virtue of its turgidity, it is the image of the vital flow as it is transmitted in generation” (82). “Flow” and “turgidity” have a privileged meaning in the Lacanian process of generation.

“…the phallus can only play its role as veiled, that is, as in itself the sign of the latency with which everything signifiable is struck as soon as it is raised to the function of signifier” (82). The signifier, in other words, cannot impregnate; it is latent.

“If the desire of the mother is the phallus, then the child wishes to be the phallus so as to satisfy this desire” (83). Again, this is from the perspective of the Male Psychoanalyst rather than the child.

“The function of the signifier here touches on its most profound relation: by way of which the Ancients embodied in it both the Nous (sense) and the Logos (reason)” (85). The phallus is embodied in Logos.


“Guiding Remarks for a Congress on Feminine Sexuality”

“…the vaginal orgasm has kept the darkness of its nature inviolate” (89). The subject of the sentence is “orgasm”; women couldn’t talk about it if they wanted.


“Feminine Sexuality in Psychoanalytic Discourse”

“…phallicism is an ‘unconscious phenomenon,’ if this somewhat risky expression be permitted, which has nothing natural about it for the boy any more so than for the girl…” (135).


“God and the Jouissance of The (crossed out) Woman”

“…short of castration, that is, short of something which says no to the phallic function, man has no chance of enjoying the body of the woman, in other words, of making love” (143). “Making love” = “enjoying the body of the woman” = someone has to be castrated: Sexton’s “we’ve all eaten the body of sacrificed women,” sometimes, in this case, our own

The woman can only be written with The crossed through. There is no such thing as The woman, where the definite article stands for the universal. There is no such thing as The woman since of her essence—having already risked the term, why think twice about it?—of her essence, she is not all” (144). “Not all” –> “no such thing” there is no feminine essence

“There is a jouissance proper to her, to this ‘her’ which does not exist and which signifies nothing. There is a jouissance proper to her and of which she herself may no nothing, except that she experiences it—that much she does know. She knows it of course when it happens. It does not happen to all of them” (145).

“What gives some likelihood to what I am arguing, that is, that the woman knows nothing of this jouissance, is that ever since we’ve been begging them […] begging them on our knees to try to tel us about it, well, not a word! We have never managed to get anything out of them. So as best we can, we designate this jouissance, vaginal, and talk about the rear pole of the opening of the uterus and other suchlike idiocies. If it was simply that she experiences it and knows nothing of it, then we would be able to cast considerable doubt on this notorious frigidity” (146).

“The mystical is by no means that which is not political. It is something serious, which a few people teach us about, and most often women or highly gifted people […] Despite, I won’t say their phallus, despite what encumbers them on that score, they get the idea, they sense that there must be a jouissance that goes beyond. That is what we call a mystic” (147). A mystic, in other words, is he or she who recognizes and has a desire, a jouissance, that goes beyond.

Many have, according to Lacan, “attempt[ed] to reduce the mystical to questions of fucking. If you look carefully, that is not what it is all about” (147).


“A Love Letter”

“This The cannot be said. Nothing can be said of the woman” (152).

“After that, to help you recover, all that remains is for me to speak to you about love” (152).

“In effect, as long as soul souls for soul, there is no sex in the affair. Sex does not count. The soul is conjured out of what is hommosexual, as is perfectly legible from history” (155).

Mysticism leads those who practice it to “the ultimate point” of “hysteria […] or of acting the name, as I call it, thereby becoming, they too, hommosexual or outsidesex. For it is difficult for them not to sense from then on the impasse of their soully liking themselves in the Other, since after all in being Other there is no need to know what one is” (156).

“A brief aside—when one is made into two, there is no going back on it. It can never revert to making one again, not even a new one” (156).


Havelock Ellis

From The Psychology of Sex


it starts with men: “A special and detailed study of the normal characters of the sexual impulse in men seems unnecessary…. Moreover, since the constitution of society has largely been in the hands of men, the nature of the sexual impulse in men has largely been expressed in the written and unwritten codes of social law. The sexual instinct in women is much more elusive” (189).

Ellis concludes that “since a large body of facts may be brought forward to support either [the view that the sexual impulse is greater in men, or the view that it is greater in women], roughly speaking, the distribution of the sexual impulse between the two sexes is fairly balanced” (256).


“In analyzing the sexual impulse I have so far deliberately kept out of view the maternal instinct. This is necessary, for the maternal instinct is specific and distinct; it is directed to an aim which, however intimately associated it may be with that of the sexual impulse proper, can by no means be confounded with it. Yet the emotion of love, as it has finally developed in the world, is not purely of sexual origin; it is partly sexual, but it is also partly parental.[169]

In so far as it is parental it is certainly mainly maternal”

“One woman stilled a desire for human flesh by biting the nates of children or the arms of men. Metals are also swallowed, such as iron, silver, etc. One pregnant woman wished to throw eggs in her husband’s face, and another to have her husband throw eggs in her face.”

“This fact, otherwise somewhat difficult of explanation, is natural if we look upon the longings of pregnancy as a revival of those of childhood”

“Old English opinion, as reflected, for instance, in Ben Jonson’s plays (as Dr. Harriet C. B. Alexander has pointed out), regards the pregnant woman as not responsible for her longings, ”

“The phenomena of the longings of pregnancy are linked to the much more obscure and dubious phenomena of the influence of maternal impressions on the child within the womb. It is true, indeed, that there is no real connection whatever between these two groups of manifestations, but they have been so widely and for so long closely associated in the popular mind that it is convenient to pass directly from one to the other. The same name is sometimes given to the two manifestations; thus in France a pregnant longing is an envie, while a mother’s mark on the child is also called an envie, because it is supposed to be due to the mother’s unsatisfied longing.”


“Correspondingly, then, and within the consciousness of the mother, there develops a new little minor consciousness which, although but lightly integrated with the mass of her consciousness, nevertheless has its part in her consciousness taken as a whole, much as the psychic correspondents of the action of the nerve which govern the secretions of the glands of the body have their part in her consciousness taken as a whole.”

“On the whole we see that pregnancy induces a psychic state which is at once, in healthy persons, one of full development and vigor, and at the same time one which, especially in individuals who are slightly abnormal, is apt to involve a state of strained or overstrained nervous tension and to evoke various manifestations which are in many respects still imperfectly understood. Even the specifically sexual emotions tend to be heightened, more especially during the earlier period of pregnancy”

“Pregnancy may produce mental depression;[200] but on the other hand it frequently leads to a change of the most favorable character in the mental and general well-being. Some women indeed are only well during pregnancy.”

“Even a woman’s intelligence is sometimes heightened by pregnancy, and Tarnier, as quoted by Vinay, knew many women whose intelligence, habitually somewhat obtuse, has only risen to the normal level during pregnancy.[202] The pregnant woman has reached the climax of womanhood; she has attained to that state toward which the periodically recurring menstrual wave has been drifting her at regular intervals throughout her sexual life[203]; she has achieved that function for which her body has been constructed, and her mental and emotional disposition adapted, through countless ages.”

The early days of human life,” it has been truly said, “are entirely one with the mother. On her manner of life—eating, drinking, sleeping, and thinking—what greatness may not hang?”[207] Schopenhauer observed, with misapplied horror, that there is nothing a woman is less modest about than the state of pregnancy, while Weininger exclaims: “Never yet has a pregnant woman given expression in any form—poem, memoirs, or gynæcological monograph—to her sensations or feelings.”[208] Yet when we contemplate the mystery of pregnancy and all that it involves, how trivial all such considerations become! We are here lifted into a region where our highest intelligence can only lead us to adoration, for we are gazing at a process in which the operations of Nature become one with the divine task of Creation.”


The Objectivist Nexus

Altieri, Charles. “The Objectivist Tradition.” In The Objectivist Nexus, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermaine. University of Alabama Press. 1999.


Zukofsky’s definition of Objectivism in “Sincerity and Objectification” (1931): “An objective; (Optics)—The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus. (Military use)—That which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry)—Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars” (25).

“On the most general level, there are probably two basic modes of lyric relatedness—symbolist and objectivist styles…the primary relations here are denotative (in an imaginary world) rather than connotative or metaphoric” (26).

Objectivist poetry moves against “the trumpet of a prophetic ego whose metaphors are its only authority” (28).

These poets recognize that “the sublime…is a faith that may have died” (29). Objectivism faces the dead sublime without irony.

in Prepositions, Zukofsky tells us of Pound and Eliot that “because of this quest for transcending specific objective conditions, poets lose any sense of firm ground on which the mind can rest and poetry achieve resolution. There is left only the triumph of will singing its own incoherence the louder for every self-conscious reminder of the fictive status of its half-believed mythic substitutes for religion” (30).


Hatlen, Burton. “A Poetics of Marginality and Resistance: The Objectivist Poets in Context.” In The Objectivist Nexus, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermaine. University of Alabama Press

The term objectivism “pointed back toward imagism as the wellspring of a new American poetics, while implicitly claiming that this new group of poets had gone beyond the image to re/discover the object itself” (37).

For Zukofsky, “the object offers itself to us as perfect” (39). This reinforces both the agency of the object and the objective reality of the material world.

Zukofsky was influenced by Pound: “A” is in many ways an “updated” Cantos (43)

Zukofsky uses many loose feminine end rhymes (50)


Crozier, Andrew. “Zukofsky’s List.” In The Objectivist Nexus, ed. Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quartermaine. University of Alabama Press. 1999.

Zukofsky recognizes many Modernist poets who “provide his point of departure,” but “not H..D.,” whose later work he say s”Suffers from an Anglicized dilution of metric and speech value” (281).

Nelson, Woman and the New York School

Nelson, Maggie. Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions. University of Iowa Press: 2007.

“Tales in and Out of School” (xiii-xxvii)

“For while O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ mocks the seriousness of other twentieth-century -isms, as many have noted, it isn’t entirely a spoof. His quip about reaching ‘true abstraction’ via a flood of personal details breezily dismantles the age-old opposition of the concrete and the abstract—another prototypical (if, again, unintentional) feminist gesture…” (xviii).


“Getting Particular: Gender at Play in the Work of John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler” (49-98)

“Radical as the Beats may have been, Ginsberg’s early rants about men who ‘lost their love-boys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb’ also link up with more mainstream and academic counterparts, from Jung’s mythos of the Terrible Mother, to Freud’s anxiety about the ‘universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love,’ to Robert Lowell’s gothic depiction of heterosexual pathos in suburbia, to Robert Graves’s elaboration of the White Goddess, the psychotic flip side of the ‘one eyed shrew’ who imposes domestication on the male” (53).

In “Gender and Poetry,” Barbara Johnson notes that “the right to play femininity” constitutes the condition of possibility for male privilege itself (127 in The Feminist Difference)

While most male poetry abstracts concrete women into Muses, O’Hara’s poetry “repeatedly returns us to the historical presence and activities [of the Muse]. At the same moment that Robert Graves was busy making Laura Riding into the White Goddess, and Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were collaborating on her role as such, O’Hara was pinpointing the activities of women he admired in space and time… In fact, O’Hara reconfigures the writer/muse dyad so completely that the word ‘muse’ no longer seems right” (58).

While O’Hara and Ashbery often write about the family scene, “of course neither […] had a traditional scène de famille complete with man, wife, screaming child…when I talk about these poets as embracing the domestic, I don’t necessarily mean the normative conception of such… The embrace I’m taking about has more to do with the ‘urban gay fetish of interiors’ that characterized 1950s gay taste in New York…” (72). (not real babies. )



Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace

Ettinger, Bracha. The Matrixial Borderspace. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Forward by Judith Butler: “Bracha’s Eurydice”

“The ‘I’ who would narrate its early childhood has to take account of how that ‘I’ comes into being, and so it must account for the emergence of the ‘I’ who speaks, who tries to tell its story. But the ‘I’ was not always a storyteller” (vii).

Ettinger is “asking us to reformulate the very relation between the subject and its other, and to ask what precedes this encounter in which the phallus seeks to confirm its status, where the feminine acts only as a faulty mirror in the circuitry of that narcissism” (x).

Foreward by Griselda Pollock:

“Ettinger proposes matrixial sexual difference as a thinking apparatus for conductible affectivity, which gives voice to the affected body-psyche co-emerging with the other and the world. Matrixial difference arises from the sexual specificity of the feminine that every subject, irrespective of later sexuality or gender identification, encounters in the process of becoming, and from artworking” (3).

“Matrixial theory does not essentialize pregnancy as the very core of a woman’s femininity. That would in fact render the womb a phallic object: something that can be possessed or lost. It does, however, elevate its retheorized concept of matrixial feminine sexual difference to the level of a general dimension, element, or sphere in human subjectivity. According to the Matrix, the making of human life cannot be grasped without its distinctive severality, its jointness-in-seperateness. It is this structure of transsubjectivizing severality—not any organ or anatomy—that matrixial psychoanalytical theory elaborates” (4).

“Trauma, far from becoming an event, becomes the transcendent condition of creation” (8).

Ettinger and Lévinas had a conversation:

Levinas: “Woman is the category of the future, the ecastasy of the future. It is that human possibility which consists in saying that the life of another human being is more important than my own, that the death of the other is more important than my own death, that the Other comes before me, that the Other counts before I do… In the feminine there is the possibility of conceiving of a world without me, a world which has a meaning without me. But we would not be able to develop this idea in so few words. Many intellectual precautions are needed. There is too great a risk of misunderstanding…” (9-10).

“Ettinger states that ‘the Matrix is a prenatal symbolic space.’ This is blasphemy to both the psychoanalytic traditions for which prebirth speculations are mostly outlawed and to feminist thought, so perpetually self-policing about any claim of meaning for a sexually differentiated body” (12).

“Metramorphosis is a term that stands to the Matrix as a metaphor and metonymy stand to the Phallus in the process of meaning generation. Whereas metaphor and metonymy are figures of substitution, metramorphosis is a figure without center, focus, or division” (19).

“Working counter to Julia Kristeva’s image of pregnancy as an event without a subject, Ettinger refutes this exiling of feminine subjectivity and sexuality fro the site or space of the funamental event of severalizing, humanizing becoming. Our becoming, as men or women subjects-to-be, happens in the intimate framing of that which touches most intensely and exclusively on female sex difference” (27).

Ettinger, Matrixial Borderspace

“…proposing a matrixial subjectivity-as-encounter as a beyond-the-phallus feminine field related (in both men and women) to plural, partial, and shared unconscious, trauma, phantasy, and desire having imaginary and symbolic impact… This different, other passage I have termed metramorphosis. It draws a nonpsychotic yet beyond-the-phallus connection between the feminine and creation” (63). (It’s important to Ettinger that this creation is “nonpsychotic” — this does however reify the term “psychotic”)

Metramorphosis is a “creative principle” of “differentiation in co-emergence” (64). The mother and infant co-create meaning together. This breaks the passive-active binary

“In the matrixial stratum of subjectivization subjectivity is an encounter” (83).

The matrixial objet a is a “poietic” object (87).

The Matrix also challenges the binary Being / Nothingness: either/or is reducible to nothing; severality is not (113)

“The phallic gaze alleges that something was there and is now lost. The matrixial gaze indicates that something happened and the event has passed, and also that someones were there and these someones have already changed” (119). And that we were changed by them.

Woman and the prenatal are “Deportees from the symbolic” (119)

Double Bind: You can’t theorize pregnancy, birth, and child rearing until you’ve done it, but you can’t theorize well afterward because you are burdened with childcare

The phallic gaze “annihilates” while the matrixial gaze “scatters” and “diffracts” (154)

“The Mother is either an attractive object of father-son rivalry or a nursing object: either a copulating animal or a nourishing animal. In either of these roles a woman can also reappear as a Muse, the source of inspiration. But between copulating and nursing it seems that there is a void” (174).



Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford University Press. 1979.

Prologue is entitled It Was A Great Marvel That They Were In The Father Without Knowing Him

“After he knew that he had fallen, outwards and downwards, away from the Fullness, he tried to remember what the Fullness had been.

He did remember, but found he was silent, and could not tell the others.

He wanted to tell them that she leapt farthest forward and fell into a passion apart from his embrace.

She was in great agony, and would have been swallowed up by the sweetness, had she not reached a limit, and stopped.

But the passion went on without her, and passed beyond the limit.

Sometimes he thought he was about to speak, but the silence continued.

He wanted to say: ‘strengthless and female fruit.'” (3).

First sentence of the introduction: “This short book offers a theory of poetry by way of a description of poetic influence, or the story of intra-poetic relationships” (5). Bloom’s theory of poetry formulates a paternalistic vision of “influence” based unsurprisingly in a the Lacanian analogue of Father and Son rather than the maternal diffusion of nutrients.

“…strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves” (5). This creates “anxieties of indebtedness” (5).

“poetic influence, or, as I shall more frequently term it, poetic misprision, is necessarily the study of the life-cycle of the poet-as-poet” (7).

Six revisionary ratios: (14-15)

  1. Clinamen, or poetic misreading or misprision (a “swerve”)
  2. Tessera, or completion and antithesis (from the ancient mystery cults… a poet completes his precursor, as though the precursor “had failed to go far enough”)
  3. Kenosis is where the poet seems to empty himself in order to in fact empty his precursor, and so the “later poem of deflation is not as absolute as it seems”
  4. Daemonization, or a movement toward a personalized “Counter-Sublime” in reaction to the precursor’s Sublime
  5. Askesis , or self-purgation (especially to attain a state of solitude)
  6. Apophrades, or the return of the dead. The later poet “holds his own poem so open again to the precursor’s work that at first we might believe the wheel has come full circle… [but] the uncanny effect is that the new poem’s achievement makes it seem to us, not as though the precursor were writing it, but as though the later poet himself had written the precursor’s characteristic work.”

Can I view this as a framework for some feminine writing, especially feminine re-writing of myths?

“As first used, to be influenced meant to receive an ethereal fluid flowing in upon one from the stars, a fluid that affected one’s character and destiny, and that altered all sublunary things. A power—divine and moral—later simply a secret power—exercised itself, in defiance of all that had seemed voluntary in one” (27).

“The ancestor of revisionism is heresy, but heresy tended to change received doctrine by an alteration of balances, rather than by what could be called creative correction” (29)…

“…what is the Primal Scene, for a poet as poet? It is his Poetic Father’s coitus with the Muse. There he was begotten? No—there they failed to beget him. He must be self-begotten, he must engender himself upon the Muse his mother. But the Muse is as pernicious as Sphinx or Covering Cherub, and may identify herself with either, though more usually with the Sphinx. The strong poet fails to beget himself—he must wait for his Son, who will define him even as he has defined his own Poetic Father. To beget here means to usurp…” (37).

“Poetic anxiety implores the Muse for aid in divination, which means to foretell and put off as long as possible the poet’s own death, as poet and (perhaps secondarily) as man. The poet of any guilt culture whatsover cannot initiate himself into a fresh chaos; he is compelled to accept a lack of priority in creation, which means he must accept a failure in divination, as the first of many little deaths that prophesy a final and total extinction. His word is not his own word only, and his Muse has whored with many before him” (61). The anxiety of influence is, for Bloom, the anxiety of siring a bastard son at the hands of an unfaithful generating woman. It is also the anxiety that, at heart, it is not he who generates; it is she who has control over life, death, divination, and creation.

“The riddle of the Sphinx, for poets, is not just the riddle of the Primal Scene and the mystery of human origins, but the darker riddle of imaginative priority. It is not enough for the poet to answer the riddle; he must persuade himself (and his idealized reader) that the riddle could not have been formulated without him” (72).

“Intrapoetic relations” are a “family romance,” and “poetry is property,” or the “priority of having named something first” (78).



Anne Sexton

“Her Kind” (15)

“Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward” (24) the girl is unknown but the child lies on her bed. She might be projecting what would happen if she didn’t have an abortion.

“The Truth the Dead Know” (49) (“I am tired of being brave.”)

“The Operation” (56) (a tumor grows like a child; “woman’s dying/ must come in seasons”; “Fact: the body is dumb, the body is meat”)

“The Abortion” (61) Who repeats the phrase “Somebody who should have been born is gone.“? (Not) the speaker? Spring –> abortions. Spring that “humps on endlessly” leads to abortions. She is complicit in the non-survival of the fragile.

“Housewife” (77). (“a woman is her mother./ That’s the main thing.”)

“The Black Art” (88) is writing as well as witchcraft. Women’s writing is like this: “With used furniture he makes a tree.” With the Father’s language she makes a poem.

“Sylvia’s Death” (126)

“Menstruation at Forty” (137) (“I was thinking of a son./ The womb is not a clock…”)

“Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman” (145) The daughter’s sexuality from the mother’s point of view

same for “A Little Uncomplicated Hymn (for Joy)” (148) (“I look for uncomplicated hymns/ but love has none.”)

same for “Pain for a Daughter” (163) “I saw her life stretch out . . . / I saw her torn in childbirth,/ and I saw her, at that moment,/ in her own death and I knew that she/ knew.”

“In Celebration of my Uterus” (181)


For example: “Red Riding Hood” (267)

“Mother and Daughter” (305) “I am motherwarm and used,/ just as your childhood is used”

“Dreaming the Breasts” (314) Daughter writes the mother psychoanalytically

In “Death of the Fathers,” 6. Begat (329) “Father me not/ for you are not my father”

In The Jesus Papers, “Jesus Suckles” (337)

“The Author of the Jesus Papers Speaks” (344) “When the cow gives blood/ and the Christ is born/ we must all eat sacrifices./ We must all eat beautiful women.”

“The Death Baby” (354)

“Hurry Up Please Its Time” (384) is a very un-Eliotan response to “The Waste Land” in which Eliot is the Father



Denise Levertov

Preface by Robert Creeley, originally an address to American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1998 in honor of her life and work: “If one wanted to say what it was seemed most insistent in either her work or her person, it would be—always for me—the fact of body, the immediacy of that presence in all she wrote or was” (xv)

Afterward by Paul Lacey: “Male writers have mentors from whom they learn and with whom they become colleagues; women writers with the same kind of relationship with an older writer are apt to be labeled the ‘disciple of…’ Levertov is frequently glibly pigeonholed as a ‘disciple of Williams’… but they learned from each other” (206).

“The Marriage” (4)

“The Marriage (II)” (5) “I want to speak to you./ To whom else should I speak?/ It is who you make/ a world to speak of”

“The Ache of Marriage” (30)

“Song for Ishtar” (30)

“About Wedlock” (39) “Don’t lock me in wedlock, I want/ marriage, an/ encounter”

“Hypocrite Women” (42) She takes on Williams’s “no ideas but in things,” but here, the idea is capital-W Woman and the thing is a vagina

“Relearning the Alphabet” (67)

“The Woman” (108) She is in homespun and in crazy feathers; “can you endure/ life with two brides, bridegroom?” also Woman and the woman are two but one

“The Dragonfly-Mother” (125) (mothers hover)

“The Métier of Blossoming” (200) “fully occupied with growing”


e. e. cummings

“O sweet spontaneous” (18) (philosophy and religion try to categorize the earth but it answers only with spring) in the next poem Spring is male (19)

“you shall above all things be glad and young” (67) has girlboys and boygirls

Elizabeth Bishop

“Chemin de Fer” (10) (“Love should be put into action!/ Screamed the old hermit./ Across the pond an echo/ Tried and tried to confirm it”)

“Gentleman of Shalott” (11) Rewrites Lady of Shallot

“A Cold Spring” (55) (“The mother stoped lowing/ and took a long time eating the after-birth,/ a wretched flag”)

“Insomnia” (68) (Moon in a mirror inverted world “where the shadows are really the body” related to love)

“Squatter’s Children” (93)

“Sestina” (121) Grandmother and female child: lack of mother structures the poem

“Hymn to the Virgin” (219)

“Exchanging Hats” (230)

“Where Are the Dolls Who Loved Me So” (295)

Stevie Smith

“Papa Love Baby” (5)

“The Songster” (20) (Irigaray’s female utterance so oblique to the language of the father that it approximates a song and is illegible)

“Infant” (25) (“It was a cynical babe”)

“God and the Devil” (26) is a parody Creation tale. Not mom and dad, but God and Devil. God/Mother creates in order to prove a point about something unremembered (mother’s archetypal struggle to prove power by producing a phallic child).

“Numbers” (31) Logocentric focus on numbers obscures much of what is real/beautiful/there; constitutes a limiting frame (as does the poem’s title, which asks us to look for numbers.) Which are the least interesting and beautiful part of the poem.

“The Parklands” (38) rewrites Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven”

“All Things Pass” (53) (“All things pass./ Love and mankind is grass.”)

“This Englishwoman” (70) (“This Englishwoman is so refined/ She has no bosom and no behind.)

Book is full of depressing and misused wives and mothers: Most importantly “Mother, among the Dustbins” (125), also “Major Macroo” (75), Maria Holt of “Bereavement” (78),

“Tender Only to One” (99). Tender only to Death means you’re outside the economy of love

“Darling Daughters” (101) (“Darling daughters, listen to your mother”) Mothers are not innocuous; she’s going to marry them off or leave them be.

“Nourish Me On an Egg” (148): demands of childcare suck

“Bye Baby Bother” (158) is a war hymn about the dead

“I’ll Have Your Heart” (163) Could be romantic, but the picture indicates mother/child. Who is the vampire: the mother or the child?

Sometimes mother-love can keep you alive: “Mother, I love you so./ Said the child, I love you more than I know./ She laid her head on her mother’s arm,/ And the love between them kept them warm.” (“Human Affection,” 181).

“Girls!” (187) (“Girls! Although I am a woman/ I always try to appear human”)

“The Sad Mother” (196). Initiation into the Law of the Father deprives the child of his freedom; the mother senses this loss)

“She Said…” (203). (“She said as she tumbled the baby in:/ There, little baby, go sink or swim,/ I brought you into the world, what more should I do?/ Do you expect me always to be responsible for you?”)

“Mother” (217) (“I have a happy nature,/ But Mother is always sad,/ I enjoy every moment of my life,—/ Mother has been had.” (217). The dash shows relatedness. You enjoy life at her expense.

“A Mother’s Hearse” (268) (“…I say it were better a mother’s hearse”)

“Wretched Woman” (304)

“Lightly Bound” (305) (“You beastly child, I wish you had miscarried”)

“Dido’s Farewell to Aeneas” (379) (Death is the only man who must come to woman when she calls.)

“But Murderous” (388) (“A mother slew her unborn babe/ In a day of recent date/ Because she did not wish him to be born in a world/ Of murder and war and hate”)

“A Dream of Nourishment” (395) Makes fun of psychoanalysis — is this psychoanalysis from the child’s perspective?

“To Carry the Child” (505)

“Marriage I Think” (663) (“Marriage I Think/ For women/ Is the best of opiates”)

” ‘Mother Love’ ” (723) “Mother love is a mighty benefaction/ The prop of the world and its population/ If mother love died the world would rue it/ No money would bring the women to it.”)




Robert Lowell

“Beyond the Alps” (53) (“When the Vatican made Mary’s Assumption dogma,/ The crowds at San Pietro screamed Papa)

“Grandparents” (112) (“Grandmother” appears only tangentially)

“Man and Wife” (131)

“T. S. Eliot” (221) (“Don’t you loathe to be compared with your relatives?”)

“Ezra Pound” (221) (“Eliot dead, you saying/ “Who’s left alive to understand my jokes?””)

“Mermaid Emerging” (261) (“The institutions of society/ seldom look at a particular”) woman is a particular. (“I am a woman or I am a dolphin,/ the only animal man really loves,/ I spout the smarting waters of joy in your face—/ rough-weather fish, who cuts your nets and chains”) Society seldom notices that the only woman man really loves is the absurd myth he has built around woman

“Father,” “Mother and Father I,” “Mother and Father 2,” “Returning,” “Mother, 1972” (281-3)

in “Mother and Father 2”: “few children can love,/ or even bear their bearers, the never-forgotten/ my father, my mother… these names, this function, given/ by them once, given existence now by me”)

Frank O’Hara

“An Image of Leda” (35)

“Women” (47)

“Dido” (74)

“Female Torso” (78)

“An Abortion” (80)

“To My Mother” (160)

“Hermaphrodite” (218)

“Ode on Lust” (282)

“The Day Lady Died” (325)

“Ave Maria” (371)

“Should We Legalize Abortion?” (482)

Edna St. Vincent Millay

“The True Encounter” (354) (“I met the wolf alone / and was devoured in peace”)

From Sonnets: 

“i” (561) (“I drink—and live—what has destroyed some men”)

Fatal Interview (Shakespearean sonnets)

“lxxii” (632) (“Liefer would I you loved me for my worth,/ Though you should love me but a little while,/ Than for a philtre any doll can brew,—/ Though thus I bound you as I long to do”)

“lxxxix” (649) (not that “beauty, since ’tis paid for, can be bought” but that “beauty billed and kissed/ Is not your turtle; tread her like a dove—/ She loves you not; she never heard of love”)

“xxxi” (681) (“…she wanders mad, being all unfit/ For mortal love, that might not die of it”) (She who wont or cant die of love is unfit for love, in the myth of Woman.)

Theodore Roethke

“Prognosis” (5) (Devouring mother)

“To My Sister: (5) (preserve thy hate thy heart)

“The Young Girl” in Love Poems (200)

“Happy Three” (206) (always a third term in love. Child, mother, marianne moore. “Lady Poets” appear here)

Willett, Maternal Ethics and Other Slave Moralities

Willet. Cynthia. Maternal Ethics and Other Slave Moralities. New York: Routledge, 1995.

“Lyotard defines postmodernism as incredulity toward metanarratives. The narrative function, he observes, ‘is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal” (2).

“…postmodernism proves unable to produce any principle of change other than that of the iteration of the same” (2). In this way, Irigarayan feminine writing is explicitly anti-post-modern inso far as it refuses the repetition of the “same”

Willet points out that Hegel “portrays the slave from the point of view of the master,” and argues that only a “dialectic of spirit” that “Focuses on transforming the psychological and cultural sources of oppression, or what post-Lacanians understand as the images, metaphors, and fantasies that compose the ‘social imaginary,’ can overcome the alienation that tears apart oppressor and oppressed” (4-5).

Mothers must explore a “narrative of freedom,” but should make sure that this narrative of freedom does not attempt to “sever a hardened and controlled body from the vulnerability of the flesh” as Hegel’s does (6). This sort of “freedom” is “complicit,” Willet argues, with the “subordination or exclusion of women […] as well as those ‘sensuous’ men who have not sufficiently distinguished themselves from women” (7). This “narrative of freedom” should also caution against a “dialectic of truth that aims toward an abstract mode of reason, or, more broadly, what Derrida locates as the logocentrism of Western culture,” which “does not transform but participates in the politics of oppression” (7).

“Ethics develops not from the discipline of desire but from cultivating the social eroticism that can find its roots in the relationship between nurturers and child” (8).

“The sensuality of the originary social bond calls for a reinterpretation of what, after Hegel, we understand as the dialectic of recognition, and so too for a new model of ethical subjectivity” (16).

On Kristeva

“According to her hypothesis, the pre-Oedipal experience of the infant takes the pattern of explosive rhythms of libidinal discharge. Eventually, the child emerges from maternal space and only then develops a sense of Self and Other.

It is significant that Kristeva probes the dimensions of maternal space not by way of experiences between mothers and children but through regressive adult fantasies and avant-garde art” (18). Willet argues that this “betray[s] the antisocial politics of her project,” and causes her to reproduce some of psychoanalysis’s most problematic theses.

“Kristeva argues, correctly I believe, that the nondiscursive rhythms of the mother-infant relationship do not resemble anything like the organizing structures (e.g. grammar and syntax) that arise after the development of language and the recognition of the face of the Other” (18).

Kristeva “bases her speculation” on the “clinical infant,” that is, “the infant as it is reconstructed from regressive pathologies in the adult psyche and the antisocial transgressions of avant-garde poetry” (19).

Kristeva’s chora is “neither model nor copy […] the chora precedes and underlies figuration and thus specularization, and is analogous only to vocal or kinetic rhythm” (19).

Kristeva’s pre-Oedipal theory “mandates that the ‘maternal space’ be represented not as a subject, i.e. as the mother, but through the fragments of a partial object, breast, or even phallus” (20).

In Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva redescribes the ‘nourishing and maternal’ receptacle that she finds in Plato as a ‘double helix’ of drives simultaneously ‘assimilating and destructive’ and then again as an ‘ordeirng principle’ that ‘is on the path of destruction, aggressivity and death.’ […] the more natural configuration of maternal space as an organic site of nourishment, tactile attachment, and fluid boudnaries gives way to the inorganic discharges that signify death” (23).

If it is the case that the self emerges not much earlier than two months, what kind of language or theory could be adequate to a phenomenology of the lived experience of the infant?” (28).

“The infant…instinctively withdraws from dangerous excesses, including intense light, explosive sound, or any source of overstimulation. As a barely conscious, boundless happening of uncertain desire, the infant gropes for nourishment and attachment, not death and antisocial nihilism. Its rhythm is the rhythm of life” (30). In other words, the ‘infant death drive’ looks ridiculous in the face of real human infants.

But if the dominant theories of desire postulate that the child is a beast to be domesticated by social convention or subdued by reason, I wonder whose perspectives on childcare these theories represent. I wonder if these do not represent the very perspectives of those who in fact have been detached from the childrearing scene” (32).

Willet argues that the “fetal kick” is not, as pychoanalysis posits it, “an act of resistance,” but instead as a “step in a dance between mother and child” in which “mother and infant choreograph the boundaries of the real” (32).

This formulation is, according to Willet, unacceptable to the male psyche because it “exist[s] independently of sexuality and therefore in [its] own right” (36). In other words, asserting that the mother-child bond is a separate phenomenon than the male-female sexual coupling takes man out of the dyad altogether—an insupportable blow to the male ego. He must have his share in defining the boundaries of the real.

Both Nietzche and Heidegger have images of “male pregnancy” in which, “as men, they would give birth to themselves and not to one another. Women, on the other hand, give birth to the Other, and, I am arguing, beyond patriarchal motherhood, in giving birth to the Other they may rejuvenate themselves” (41). Willet notes that while patriarchal representations of male pregnancy have “the imperative that men give birth to themselves,” women “sacrifice themselves in order to give birth to others” (59).

This is a politics of “proximity” rather than “property” (42).

In male accounts “children develop; mothers do not” (43).

“This social interaction with the parent not only transforms the infant; it also transforms the subjectivity of the one who takes care of the child. For men, this transformation can occur only if manhood is redefined to include not only fathering but also parenting the child” (56). In Willet’s view, it’s parenting rather than parturition that “transforms”: v. H.D. who parturition-ed without parenting


“By focusing on the trope of the mirror as a precursor to the face of the Other, Lacan eclipses the very early face-to-face interaction between infants and parents. In effect, Lacan thereby ‘feminizes’ the parent, whose social ego is reduced to a one-way reflection for the ‘masculinized’ infant ego… The mother, like the mythic Echo, passively reflects the pretensions of a narcissistic ego. What this mythic portrayal of childhood misses, of course, is the social force of the mother in the construction of the infant self” (65).

Because Lacan interprets childhood through mythology rather than hands-on experience, he fails to understand how the mother might in fact produce some of the effects of alienation that do often enough haunt the self” (65).

“By reducing the role of the caregiver in the infant’s ego formation to the alienation effect of the mirror, that ever-allusive Lacan recasts the feminized caregiver from mother to whore. That is, Lacan insinuates that behind the sentimental image of the mother who sacrifices in service to her child lies that other side of patriarchal femininity, the man-destroying whore. The more does not mirror the ideal self; she sullies the virile ego that would fashion itself as free, in control, and independent of women” (65). Note: for Lacan, what separates humans from animals is the mirror stage; for Levi-Strauss, it is the incest taboo. Is this where the incest taboo comes from? Mother as mirror is man-destroyer

Willet argues that in reality the mother serves not as a mirror for the child but as a Levinasian ‘face’: “the mother serves not as a mirror but as a face for the child to find itself in” (67). In the philosophy of Levinas, the face, as Willet earlier reminds us, makes a subject, and reminds us that the face-haver is “deserving” (67). If woman has a face, she is deserving and recognizable—she is human.) The metaphor of the mirror “implies that the parent primarily functions to duplicate the expressions of the infant” (68).

“The self begins not as a demand for autonomy but as a request for acknowledgement. From around two months, the infant is no longer satisfied with being fed, held, and otherwise cared for; like many other animals, the human infant begins to make active demands for attention. The full creative powers of expression, beginning with the social smile, are then engaged in order to gain that attention. An essential dimension of the self lives and dies in that response” (71).

While Lacan and Levinas argue that the self is created in autonomous solitude, Willet reminds us that “The infant that is abandoned to the elements does not survive” (78).

“Levinas’s rejection of poetry is intertwined with the mythology of creation ex nihilo. According to myth, men give birth to themselves, they are fully self-responsible, and they certainly are dependent upon nothing that they do not understand (mothers, a feminized language, poetry)” (81).

“If Levinas must understand the concern for the Other as a violation, perhaps it is because he holds on too rigidly to the masculinized ego of patriarchal myth. This ego cannot acknowledge ever having been a little lost in the poetry that revitalizes adult speech, tunes one self to another, and recalls the primal bond to the mother or caregiving father. That poetry, or what Levinas dismisses as mere infant babbling, is also sometimes called mamaese” (86).



John Ashbery

His poetry is open-ended and multi-various because life itself is, he told Bryan Appleyard in the London Times: “I don’t find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness come to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.” His poems move, often without continuity, from one image to the next, prompting some critics to praise his expressionist technique and others to accuse him of producing art that is unintelligible, even meaningless.

W.S. Di Piero described the reaction of critics to Ashbery’s style as “amusing. On the one hand are those who berate him for lacking the Audenesque ‘censor’ (that little editing machine in a poet’s head which deletes all superfluous materials) or who accuse him of simply being willfully and unreasonably perverse. On the other hand are those reviewers who, queerly enough, praise the difficulty of Ashbery’s verse as if difficulty were a positive literary value in itself, while ignoring what the poet is saying.”  Helen Vendler offered her summary of the debate in the New Yorker: “It is Ashbery’s style that has obsessed reviewers, as they alternately wrestle with its elusive impermeability and praise its power of linguistic synthesis. There have been able descriptions of its fluid syntax, its insinuating momentum, its generality of reference, its incorporation of vocabulary from all the arts and sciences. But it is popularly believed, with some reason, that the style itself is impenetrable. . . . An alternative view says that every Ashbery poem is about poetry.”

Involving the reader of the poem “on equal terms”


How is this different from “écriture féminine,” which purports to do the same? This is still more structured. At least by institutions if not by specific poetic meters. 


“A Boy” (10)

“The Young Son” (15)

“Thoughts of a Young Girl” (31)


“My Erotic Double” (265) (it’s a man)


Robert Frost

“Home Burial” (51)

“The Road Not Taken” (105)


“A Servant to Servants” (62)

“The Housekeeper” (81)

“The Subverted flower” (339)

“Putting in the Seed” (123)

Swennes, Robert H. “Man and Wife: The Dialogue of Contraries in Robert Frost’s Poetry.” American Literature 43:3. 1970. 363-72.

“Each of Frost’s dialogue poems between men and women studies a different moment in domestic life, yet they all concentrate on a common theme” (364).

The poet’s own voice does not intrude in the scene he has established, lending the plot an air of naturalist objectivity as well as of finality.

The man-woman relationships in Frost’s poems express “fear, bewilderment, loneliness, and anger. Each poem shows a fine knowledge of male-female psychology and of the postures which each sex adopts in order to protect itself” (366). Sex is a battle.

“In a larger sense “West-Running Brook” stands as a testament to the positive elements in Robert Frost’s poetry, those elements which work to give meaningful form and direction to the flow of existence. The husband and wife take care to recognize the mutual boundaries of their relationship and never to overstep them. They keep the common boundary in good order, an idea which Frost best expressed in “Mending Wall.” The woman makes a diplomatic error in suggesting that the brook speaks to her alone. Her husband takes offense at once and accuses her of carrying the brook off “to lady- land” (p. 328). Since she wishes no resentment or barrier to grow between them, she talks him into speaking his mind about the brook. He is over his anger quickly, and he compliments her on what she has said. She does the same to him, and thev conclude in agreeing, “Today will be the day of what we both said” (p. 329). It’s very important that women do not claim anything, not even nature, for their own.

Frost’s happy coupling is one that necessitates that “both husband and wife take pains to express their feelings in terms which the other can understand” (371), and this is based in “the need for human struggle against environment, in order to establish a meaningful role in life” (371). The struggle against nature is, in this formulation, a communicative nexus at which man and woman can meet. This precludes, of course, the possibility of both feminine-specific speech and of a speech that welcomes rather than resists nature’s influence. Mother-speech is, in other words, directly barred; mother-speech is not a speech that leads to happy coupling.

This happy coupling is a “dialogue of contraries” in which “each party teaches the other something about himself” (372). It’s important to note here the finality of positing man and woman as “contraries,” and equally important to realize that, among these contraries, we really have two “himself[s].” Couched in this pronomial fluke hides, I think, something crucial: the teaching scenario in Frost’s poetry is ultimately one-sided (that is, male-sided). Where Frost’s protagonists (and, later, his critics) see productive, didactic “dialogue” between Man and Woman, what really exists is a didactic “dialogue” between Man and the Woman-function—that is, phallic Woman, who is no woman at all. Teaching is necessarily a one-way street that runs from the phallic to the feminine with no return. Within a paradigm that considers women as embodiments of phallic Womanhood, this construction certainly makes sense, for, as She is constructed, the phallic Woman has, by definition, nothing to teach: she absorbs, she desires, she receives, she reproduces. The speech of the phallic woman is in fact his own didacticism reflected: she speaks his words or she does not speak.