To reclaim the body, to reclaim the memory
This Is About Incest, poems, essays, photographs by Margaret Randall. $7.95, $1.50 shpng Firebrands Books, 141 The Commons, Ithaca, NY,14850. 1987
I wanted to murder my body so that I might, somehow, be able to continue on in the world with only a brain. It was my body’s fault that this was happening to me. Without it, Daddy wouldn't be able to touch me.
Daddy’s Girl by Charlotte Vale Allen, p.322.
Margaret Randall’s poem / essay / photographic exploration This Is About Incest is an unfolding in time of the reclamation of the poet’s body and, just as importantly, of how suppression of body knowledge affects the body politic. She says in her introductory note that ‘the reader/viewer will have the chronological journey as close as possible to that which I experienced and wish to share.” Time, the time of loss and healing, is interwoven as another true subject of this poem. Process is what engages the reader/ viewer, which makes the poem on the page come as close as possible to the oral art of storytelling and, also, to therapy.
To appreciate the political significance of how writing approximates the oral it is necessary to recognize that engagement, the full reach of the poet's personal power into living, is a collective act of struggle with the collective story that we must share as we struggle, using language to liberate language. She quotes Audre Lourde:
...In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation.
This “transformation of silence into language and action,” and the language of action, is instanced by the collective voice of the audience changing her poetry. The distinction of authority is challenged and poetry is thereby released from the dominance of the ideological voice, the voice that even a poet as culturally aware as is Margaret Randall can be controlled by. The poet learns to let the audience speak through her, and the audience is transformed along with the poet out of oppressive silence.
How does the poet allow such trusting, especially when the poem, which is by its nature a language event, confronts the limits of poetry, which are the limits of memory? There is a profound faith in language, communal language, evidenced here. As Randall says, “When what is shared is incest, there is another dimension”:
for the listener or reader it is uncomfortable, perhaps demanding, especially if the revived experience taps into something of her own, until now safely stored, adroitly camouflaged.
I know of not another book of poetry that dares to make such a claim, that it will provoke the receiver into action, that it will make the body ache for release out of silence. Two pages into the introduction to these poems we know we are witnessing the unfolding of a significant literary event, a poet in full command of her powers.
I know of only one other literary creation of recent years to match the scope —personal, political, mythicalof these poems, that is Christa Wolf's novel Cassandra. But Wolf’s novel lacks this constant, incredible pressure of language, this continually intrusive demand of language, language at all levels, the demand to tell the story out of oppressive silence. Wolf gave us an insight into how the beginnings of Western poetry rest on subterfuge, lies, perversion, suppression of the feminine; Randall forces our awareness into how we —and I say this as a male poet, reviewer— how we have had our own beginnings, the development of the personal voice that speaks, that names, that witnesses the present through the accurate recall of the past, how our beginnings have been stopped up, plugged, forced shut, penetrated, broken, raped. How hard it is to be aware of the damage done, how nearly impossible when the agent is the father, patriarch, grandfather.
Your father My grandfather The Saint
The parts of his body
are taking back their names.
Once you say yes,
maybe he also forced my brother.
Maybe he forced me.
These poems work through, and we with them, in time, the process of memory reclaiming its own ability, assuredness, certainty, overcoming fear. These are heroic poems. And, as it should be, we participate in these heroics to the degree that we attend to this language.
In this poem I hold your eyes
Please mother don't say the words
You think you want.
Speak from your own fear.
(“Killing the Saint”)
Speaking from fear, learning to trust in your own vulnerability.
Can I trust this trembling,
accept these hands whitened
not by death but by a new light
shining from my core?
Learning to listen
to the body closing
to the image asking
to be taken seriously, loved.
(“Learning to Remember”)
These poems are obviously about body, memory, patriarchy, also politics, individual and collective memory. Poems of incredible courage, courage all of us need, and Randall shows us how it is possible. She is taking photographs. Remember also this is Margaret Randall who is recognized as a significant photographer, who almost single-handedly has presented us North Americans with the vision of Cuban and Nicaraguan women and their struggles. Taking a photo of a picture of her grandfather, learning how a camera can be a weapon, weapon for liberation.
Still trying to hold without touching,
plugging my memory
into your whitened wall of time
moving the evidence,
clicking the shutter,
I focus and shoot, focus and shoot,
stalking your picture and its hideous sprout.
These are the things we will never do together,
you who have hidden so long
I who wrench you from my flesh
breathing or not.
No words. Pure sounds.
Pain flooding my left eye.
(“Watching It Grow Between Your Legs”)
Alice Miller in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, Society’s Betrayal of the Child details the pervasive conspiracy against children, always this blaming of the victim, the institutionalizing of the structures of victimization. Randall extends the outrage and the insight of her personal violation into the political:
His hands where they never should have been in me.
I can project them to
that man in the White House
who calls himself a contra, Joe McCarthys ghost,
Jerry Falwell, Rambo, The District Director
Miller also, like Randall, points the way back. It is a good book to read for support for the reading of these poems. Miller on reclaiming memory, healing the body:
The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, our perception confused, and our body tricked with medication. But someday the body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromise or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth. (p.318)
Randall gives us a way to stop evading the truth. She is reclaiming her child, we need to thank her for this deed of power and of wonder. From the last poem, “The Language of What Really Happened”:
I traveled but my memory stayed behind.
I should have known
She was newborn, couldn't find her way alone.
And hers is the memory of language
The features of an old familiar face,
The language of criticism, the language
of what really happened
in the body, on the land.
I shouldn’t have left you alone, honey. I wouldn’t have
left you alone
if I’d known.
It was once a truism that women could not be poets. Women were the muse, behind every good man, etc. If the Muses are the daughters of memory, of recall (and activity) we can finally expose the lie of that imposed “truth” of women only as muse. Within the past 30 years women have —through political struggle—been reclaiming their memory, reclaiming their collective history but also, also and necessarily, their own personal body memory. The suppression of information about the great women pioneers of our collective knowledge, a suppression that began with recorded history with the rise of patriarchal society, this suppression of necessity is accompanied by the “stopping up” of each woman's access to her own memory, accompanied by the rape —physical, imaginary rape of advertising, spiritual rape of God the Father— of her body. The cumulative power of Margaret Randall’s book lies in her recognition that a single defense against this attack, an attack leveled on all fronts, is inadequate. It is her collective artistry, the essays, the photographs, the personal revelations, the poetry, that makes this book unique in how it has assimilated the vision and voices of women poets and signals a new form of poetry, poetry we desperately need if we —men and women— will be wholly ourselves.