Tuesday, May 02, 2006

lives of the saints
[…] saintliness is an eruption of the absolute into ordinary history […]
― Anne Carson, Decreation
This line struck me immediately after I read it, and I wrote it down in my notebook various times, in various places, in the three weeks that followed, sending me in a series of directions. First off, what about the late great Toronto poet bpNichol and his long poem The Martyrology? Said by some to be the great Canadian long poem of the second half of the twentieth century, the ongoing piece also is but a small part of what Nichol's lifelong work was all about; somehow much of the attention, critically and otherwise, gets focused on the six volume longpoem, even in the years & years after his accidental death in 1988, at the young age of forty-four.

Taken from the essay "Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil Tell God" from her collection Decreation (New York NY: Knopf, 2005), this deceptively simple line is part of a longer quote from Carson that reads:
Society is all too eager to pass judgments on the authenticity of women's ways
of being but these judgments can get crazy. As a case in point, the book for
which Marguerite Porete was burned in 1310 was secretly preserved and copied
after her death by clerics who transmitted the text as an anonymous devotional
work of Christian mysticism, until 1946 when an Italian scholar reconnected the
Mirror with the name of its author. At the same time, it is hard to commend
moral extremism of the kind that took Simone Weil to death at the age of
thirty-four; saintliness is an eruption of the absolute into ordinary history
and we resent that. We need history to remain ordinary. We need to be able to
call saints neurotic, anorectic, pathological, sexually repressed or fake. These
judgments sanctify our own survival. By the same token, Sappho's ancient
biographers tried to discredit her seriousness by assuring us she lived a life
of unrestrained and incoherent sexual indulgence, for she invented lesbianism
and then died by jumping off a cliff for love of a young man. (p 180)

Spending more time on the quote in full (and the essay as well, which I would highly recommend), other considerations that come to mind come from poet-bloggers including the expat Canadian (in New York) Sina Queyras and American Jessica Smith, who have both made references to the comparative lack of literary activity by women, whether as poetry, critical or small press publishing. Ottawa poet, Bywords co-editor/publisher and reviewer Amanda Earl, on the other hand, has recently started a project of interviewing Ottawa-area women poets to rectify such a matter. What is it about the volume of work by women against the volume of work by men? Taken as such, it seems unbalanced; as an editor and publisher, I've noticed for years that the percentages are off. But at the same time, the writing I get in the mail by women is usually far more polished, and more often, worth waiting for, unlike the uneven confidence of writing by men. Is there a difference?

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