I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.
—Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck”
I think you can hardly be a poet and a feminist (at least of my generation) without holding onto Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Diving into the Wreck” to keep you on the search for what is lost and what is crucial, who or what is unmentioned in the “book of myths,” what tools to use, and how deep to go.
It’s a poem I can’t fully “explain,” but I gained a visceral understanding of it the only time I heard Rich read in person (at Harbourfront in Toronto). I remember Rich so passionately saying something like, “But I am a poet, and that’s what I do—I go diving into the deep, I rescue words and bring them up to the surface, slimy and running with seaweed and water, I hold them in my hands and offer them to people.”
Revisiting those words of Rich’s now puts me in mind of what Dionne Brand says in The Blue Clerk, “There is a substrata of life going on that people are unaware of.” Or rather, the clerk says it.
Rich’s idea of depth has had for me a huge resonance—going deep within our psyches and relationships, our cultures and our histories to continue that questioning and that “rescuing” of what is hidden, buried, drowned; to me that is the core of poetry, to find the living spark in the depths.
That evening at Harbourfront, Rich’s words felt like not just a challenge about what topics or issues to search out, but also how to address them. To explore the wreck, to learn a new way to breathe. As she says in the poem, “The words are purposes. / The words are maps.”
However, in my own writing, sometimes I feel I may do this diving somewhat intuitively, or without explicit intention. I write about what takes my attention, what lights my fires of inspiration or even sometimes, indignation. Often it’s works of art—visual art, dance, theatre, photography—especially by women artists. The art is the “treasure,” and the subject of the art is often, but not always, “the damage that was done.”
"For women artists—mostly not working-class women—that war opened the opportunity of going to art school, as so many male artists were off in the trenches. Several of these women artists lost brothers or fiancés in the trenches, and these losses are echoes in their art."
Ever since, as a younger reader, I devoured Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy of novels, I have been fascinated by the history of World War I, and am often surprised by how many pieces of art take me back to it. In my new collection, Sotto Voce, published by Brick Books, the poem “A State of Undress” explores the art by the group of (mostly) women artists known as the Beaver Hall group in Montreal; this group was formally founded in 1920. Seeing a 2016 exhibit of their work at the Hamilton Art Gallery made me realize how these artists were painting in the shadow of World War I. For women artists—mostly not working-class women—that war opened the opportunity of going to art school, as so many male artists were off in the trenches. Several of these women artists lost brothers or fiancés in the trenches, and these losses are echoes in their art.
I was also struck by how critics, curators and judges—and the public—responded to some of these women’s art. In particular, Lilias Torrance Newton’s painting, Nude in the Studio, was removed in 1933 from a Canadian Group of Painters exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto, following public furor over the picture. As the co-curator of the 2016 exhibit, Brian Foss, said about Newton’s painting, “Critics complained the green sandals and lipstick and I-don't-care-you're-looking-at-me attitude suggests she wasn't nude—she was naked and that was a different thing altogether." Other critics dismissed the painting by calling it “merely a state of undress,” a phrase I borrowed for the title of the poem.
Lilias Torrance Newton, Nude in the Studio (1933)
But besides their art, I was fascinated by how the ten women of the group, which disbanded a mere two years after its inauguration in 1920, continued what we would now call an informal support network, and were critical in establishing opportunities to show their work. My poem alludes to my own experience, working with feminists across the country on our politics, our projects, and our art.
The lives of Canadian lesbian artists have been explored beautifully by Arleen Paré in her 2017 book of poetry, The Girls with Stone Faces, about sculptors and lifelong “companions,” Florence Wyle and Frances Loring. In the Beaver Hall exhibit, I thought I might have found a small whisper of sexual attraction among women. Regina Seiden, who was a close associate of the Beaver Hall group, painted
Dora (1923), a portrait of the young poet, Theodora Gidlow. From the Beaver Hall exhibit’s notes, I borrowed Gidlow’s description of Seiden to end my poem: “Like a dreamy // purring kitten, velvety and luxurious—” and commented, “pretty sure I know what that means.”
Regina Seiden, Dora (1923)
But, as I say in “Keep it Dark,” another ekphrastic poem in Sotto Voce, “We’re always / looking backwards in galleries and books / to find women like ourselves.” In the Fan the Flames photography exhibit curated by Sophie Hackett at the Art Gallery of Ontario (2014), I ran across an old black-and-white photo of four women at a dinner table, I thought perhaps at a resort in the 1950s. I copied the words handwritten under the photo by the anonymous photographer, “The Queer Quartet” and “Keep it Dark”—to me these words were a touchstone of how these friendships sustained these women through an era when it was a necessity to remain closeted. The words felt like another artifact brought up to the surface from the dive, reclaimed.
Hurricane Hazel, in 1954, was an intense weather event that permanently scarred Toronto; before reaching Toronto, it had killed almost 500 people in Haiti, and went on to kill almost a hundred in the US, and another 81 in the Toronto region. My poem, “Inside Hazel,” recalls my childhood memory of the hurricane’s aftermath, but also celebrates the way the storm stalled a train and how, in that lull, two colleagues at Massachusetts’ Concord Academy discovered a mutual attraction. These were Helen Sontoff and Jane Rule, who later moved to Vancouver (and even later Galiano Island). Rule became “Canada’s only visible lesbian,” a moniker that put her job at UBC in jeopardy. Though I don’t agree with every single opinion that Jane Rule voiced, I feel a debt to her outspokenness, her courage, and her contributions to Canadian letters and to her community. Writing “Inside Hazel” was a pleasure for me—hauling up to the surface that moment of the couple’s delight inside a catastrophe, the treasure within the damage.
"Much of women’s history is left behind, unremembered and under-studied, but when I see the online reproduction of Seiden’s Dora, or Newton’s Nude in the Studio, I am also struck by the whiteness of the artists, and of their subjects."
This autumn, I’ve been taking a course given by Hoa Nguyen on documentary or investigative poetry, using C. D. Wright’s One With Others about the U.S. civil rights struggle as our text. As a result, I have been considering in more depth who the speaker is in poems about historical events; who is being spoken about; what assumptions the poet is making—in short, the ethics / the voices/ the entanglements, of writing poetically about historical events. Much of women’s history is left behind, unremembered and under-studied, but when I see the online reproduction of Seiden’s Dora, or Newton’s
Nude in the Studio, I am also struck by the whiteness of the artists, and of their subjects. These artists represent a narrow slice of women’s history (some—but not all—relatively privileged, white, able-bodied), and still their lives are less than visible.
But in Sotto Voce, women’s lives, both straight and queer, present the balancing points between love and loss, danger and safety, observation and action, the lives of those who came before and those alive today, the natural world, and the one we’ve built.
Finally, to touch on matters of poetic form and the tension between more allusive, abstract poetry and poetry that is more traditionally direct and clear, there is a quote I like from Gustav Mahler: “The point is not to worship the ashes, but to preserve the fire.” I am drawn to the fire of writers and poets who espouse feminism and critique it as well, who are challenging racism and tyranny, who declare their queerness and their solidarity with marginalized groups, who acknowledge the work of previous generations and aim to go beyond it—in short, artists who are also trying to change the world as well as their own practice.
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Maureen Hynes lives in Toronto. Her first book of poetry, Rough Skin (Wolsak and Wynn, 1995), won the League of Canadian Poets' Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry by a Canadian. Her second collection, Harm's Way (Brick Books, 2001), was followed by Marrow, Willow (Pedlar Press, 2011) and then The Poison Colour (Pedlar Press, 2015), which was a finalist for both the League of Canadian Poets' Pat Lowther Award and Raymond Souster Award. She is poetry editor for Our Times magazine.
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