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A Short Note on Dinah Hawken and Michele Leggott

Douglas Barbour

Reprinted with permission of NeWest Press from Douglas Barbour’s Lyric/Anti-lyric: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (Edmonton: NeWest, 2001).


What does it mean to write as both a feminist and a postmodernist? This is a question with as many answers as there are writers. In Canada, for example, many poets have been called, or call themselves feminists who have very little else in common. It would be difficult to find more dissimilar poetics than those practiced by Daphne Marlatt and Lorna Crozier, to name two well-known writers with substantially different audiences. At such a point, one’s personal tastes and interests come into play: I read Marlatt (and Tostevin, Webb, and others) more than I read Crozier, but I recognize that both have deservedly important reputations in Canadian poetry.

In New Zealand, certain kinds of innovation, drawing energy from the poetics of Williams and such later writers as Creeley and Olson, have been part of the poetic scene since at least the early sixties, and can be observed, in different ways, in the books of two of the more interesting poets to emerge in the late eighties and early nineties. Both of them have spent time in North America, which may have something to do with their choice of influences. Michele Leggott pursued a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia, where she studied the poetry of Louis Zukofsky, and has since published a well-received study of his 80 Flowers. Dinah Hawken lived in New York for a period in the early eighties. Their first books appeared within a year of each other in 1987 and 1988. So did their third volumes, and it is these that I wish to discuss. Although very different poets in many ways, each of them has found new and intertextually complex ways to create work that speaks to both the heart and the head.

We can all write heart poems, the ones that take breath away or make tears and laughter come. Or they release the little zing that is desire. You want to write bits down, hear it again, play it again (that’s hunger). You keep them by you, within reach (sufficiency). Sometimes they ride around with you for days at a time. Sometimes they step from the shadows when you were thinking of something else entirely. You ignore the tearing sound at your peril; they always have something to say. We work in the dark, they say, we do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion. Our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art. You can quote me. (Leggott 61)

Leggott’s argument here, in both its sharp evocations and its humour, is one that George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, bpNichol, or Phyllis Webb, to name just a few Canadian poets, would respond to with recognition. Although not altogether dismissive of lyric, Leggott seeks something beyond the lyric in her work, and her practice leads to something very close to what Robert Kroetsch called, with reference to Webb, "a being compelled out of lyric by lyric" (118).

In her first two volumes, Leggott explored lyric sound and the possibilities of extension. DIA pushes at generic boundaries with even greater excess. Explaining the context of longer poems that make up DIA (an interesting word, as a prefix it stands for "through," "across," "transversely," and "apart," according to the OED), she adds:

I want heart but I want scope too. Big projects for poetry, like raiding and rewriting its androcentric history. I am not interested in the one-page poem unless it is a constituent of something bigger, unless its brevity is a training ground so I can read to marathon length. This is where complexity comes in, and I welcome it. Complexity is about endurance, about surviving over time and distance to ask old questions in new places. What I have written mixes up these things because it is both lyrical and investigative. Some of the time it investigates lyricism, using lyric poetry to find out who writes it, and why, and why that should be so. (61-2)

The theory here is as much feminist as deconstructive, but the effects are equally an attempt to achieve ostraenie, or what Brecht referred to as "estrangement," without, at least in her case, entirely eschewing the effects that lyric can attain: there is "heart" in these poems, but it often appears off to the side, or in a slippery glance we can’t be sure actually occurred. At the same time, DIA’s poems call attention to their material being. Indeed, a few are highly concrete in their visual presence, especially the wonderful pair of inscribed lips, "Micromelismata." In an example of what Perloff has called "radical artifice," one is made up of "x"s, the other of words exactly matching the first in terms of displaying the same number of letters in the same places on the page.

"Where exactly are we?" is a "ribbon text," which first appeared on the walls of the Wellington City Art Gallery, where the strung-together words from various discourses together invited viewers and readers to make their own connections. Like "Micromelismata," it focuses on its materiality and on the (f)act of its production, encouraging us to "see" poetry in different frames from those in which we usually receive it. The book’s use of large caps, some bold, some in outline, some shadowed in parts or in whole, forces us to see the words and phrases as both advertising and art simultaneously, while still insisting that we read them in their fragmented agonistic engagement with various discourses of power. The other three pieces in DIA, "Blue Irises," "Circle" and "Keeping Warm," appear more ordinary, but all challenge conventional lyric reading.

"Blue Irises" is a serial bricolage of the love lyric, with subtitled sections, "dia," "honeybee," "ladies mile," "seven from nine," and "boat of heaven," stretched beyond whatever the tradition has outlined for both writer and reader. Yet, as poetry and desire, or as a poetry of desire, it enacts its very first line: "i want to mouth you all over" (10). The typesetting is important, for every line is a separate stanza in terms of vertical spacing. Sometimes the syntax connects, sometimes it refuses connection. Each separate page is numbered, although the discourse often seems to run over the page breaks. The writing here ignores obvious formal rules, demanding that we read on in explorative mode. Leggott offers one clue to its variety when she states, "It has a big cast, so many voices having their say, but ultimately the cast-list is just seven: I, you, he, she, we, you(all), and they. Moving the seven around history makes the voices speak again in new contexts, and often they are extremely beautiful, or moving, or both" (62). Who speaks here is the question, and the answer is a beast of many backs emerging from a forest of many texts: "For him // the language is a woman’s body and she // will stand out in the rain a hundred years // running it back at him Hast ‘ou seen the rose // in the steeldust (or swansdown ever?)" (14). One of the grand articulated beauties of "Blue Irises" is the way it uses all seven pronouns to create a site of desire from which gender is dis-articulated. Desire, the heart of the lyric, speaks strongly here, but it resists any placing, especially the usual one of androcentric tradition. The body in the poem cannot be identified, except as a body. This is both jarring and strangely pleasurable, as it invites each reader into a collaborative and open representation.

To give some sense of how fully this pleasure lies in the play of language’s own body, here is one complete section:

We could all go some more we could go down
for it ourselves and come back on the Cream Run
one quay at a time, mangos bagels wisdom
from the markets where you lean on one elbow
after making love and begin to make
the universe dooby doux to a tune that suits
your ripening sense of history
Going out for the makings, staying in to eat
mouth to mouth, why was it lost most
when we needed that contagion in the telling?
There is still a special place on her head
where they touch her for more of the story
while back in bed a sleep of hands and hearts
is airing nectar in all the generous mouths (18)

The playful mood of the whole comes through here; it is love play, and the love is for language itself, as a body, of history, knowledge, speech, touch; the polymorphous perversity of linguistic desire energizes the whole sequence.[1]

"Circle" is a long poem in which Leggott pays homage to earlier New Zealand women poets, practicing "a mind of ventriloquism, picking out white-hot lines from" their poems "and recombining them with an ear for the heart, complexity, and engagement with which they were written" (62).

the heart in its cage stands up
desiring fine instruments
shall we play?
laughter startles the sublime lyric
c’est le pays du désir
and I
I        ts best
wake in tears                                  (42)


She works her pronouns with vigour here, bringing "she" and "you" together in the desire to make these voices heard. The poem moves through many quotations "in extremis" to a vision of hope and desire: "when I close my eyes / you are there when I open them you are marvelling / at the woman in the firelight who has stopped singing // to smile at your approach" (53).

In the very short lines and three line stanzas of "Keeping Warm," Leggott writes of love to "you there at / the long end / of my arm" (56), who can and will and does transform the poem into being. The poem delightedly seeks an other from which desire comes and to whom (or which) it is given. It ends with "your bridge to / where I stand // laughing at / it already / written in // big glittering / letters: let’s / go out there // and do the poem" (59). Which is what this book has been asking readers to do all the way through. These are poems that break out of lyric egocentricity by their desiring demand that we participate in their making. There are many ways to do this, and DIA finds a number of thoroughly engaging ones.


Dinah Hawken, also "[p]ondering the death of the lyric poem" (50), takes a different tack from that of Leggott. In Water, Leaves, Stones, she pursues a minimalist clarity found in such objects, paring her language down while tightening its metaphysical bite as taut as possible. These often small poems (although there is a striking sequence at the centre of the book that stretches out) use simple language but they also engage with complex questions about language. The result is a poetry that resists paraphrase as it insists on a meditative response. Early in the book, "Small Poem" asks, "how can I bear / . . . even the word / hope with its wide-eyed unbroken o / held on either side / by soft consonants / each slightly and distinctly / different from the other" (13). The question is startling enough, and lovely in its linguistic bareness, but rather than an answer, we find another question, which lifts this poem into the mystic, at least for me:

Does everything
depend on the fierce e
staying here with all its might
but in silence
daring a poem to breathe? (13)

What Hawken does, over and over again, in these short anti-lyrics, is create the silent gaps in which her poems dare to breathe. There is a seeming simplicity enveloping them which a discerning reader must move beyond, for even the smallest hold our attention the way the things of the title do They are objects of contemplation, as is, for example, "Earth":

How does the earth do it

how are we

not falling down? (23)

There is a gentle, if somewhat cliffhanging, humour at work here; and there is that respect for words and letters as material things, which Leggott also invokes, albeit, with a different formal approach.

Part Two of Water, Leaves, Stones is a sequence of what Phyllis Webb would call "anti-ghazals," and this is no accident, for Hawken specifically pays homage to Webb’s Water and Light in both the poem and her notes.[2] "Water, Women and Birds Gather" is a twenty-nine poem sequence, playing off Webb’s originals, aspects of desire in language, love, and the physicality of New Zealand’s landscape. The line on "the death of the lyric poem" comes from section 22, but the whole sequence has been pondering what to do with lyric desire in an age when the lyric has been made moribund in the hands of so many of its practitioners. Section 4 reminds us that "Lesbos is a long wide way from here," and adds that we might only "play the lyre badly" trying to "fill the distances ourselves" (32). But both we and she do, that is the point: "She always does emerge. Let me tell you this, she’ll say, / someone in some future time will think of us" (32), and that "us" is so inclusive it takes in every poet who has ever listened to Sappho’s song, and all her readers, in whatever language, too.

Hawken pays graceful tribute to the later woman poet from whom she’s borrowed her form by relating her words (and birds) to uniquely New Zealand ones:

I have a new presence inside me.
You. It is a pale day.

The tuis are really here,
I have seen them, three of them.

Thrush, tui — which is more mellifluous?
A word I learned from Phyllis Webb.

‘Drunken and amatory, illogical, stoned, mellifluous
journey of the ten lines.’ If I could sing

like you, like her, tui, like spring water and
far off a rock falling. (33)

Not only homage, this also focuses attention on the ghazal form, and what Webb called the anti-ghazal, as translated into English in the second half of the twentieth century. Webb worked her anti-ghazals out from under the weight of centuries of patriarchal tradition; Hawken continues Webb’s efforts, not least by siting desire in a polymorphous pronominal play that undermines gender fixity. "Water, Women and Birds Gather" pays its homage most clearly by living up to its progenitor.

There are poems of travel, love and contemplation in this book. They all share a "naked" quality that reminds me of another great Webb title, Naked Poems. It’s interesting to see this kind of cross-cultural reading and writing in action between Canadian and New Zealand poetry, especially when it happens at the formal level. Water, Leaves, Stones denies the conventional enjoyment of lyric by pushing lyric so intensely it reinvents itself as something newly thought and felt. Along with Leggott’s DIA, it explores some of the possibilities of lyric/anti-lyric. These poets deserve an audience far beyond the islands of their present location.

[1] It is interesting to note that something like influence moves back and forth across the ocean now, for
if Dinah Hawken borrows Phyllis Webb’s anti-ghazals for her book, Sharon Thesen has clearly borrowed the form of “Blue Irises” for her sequence, “Gala Roses,’ in Aurora (1995), where she specifically includes DIA in her “Bibliography, discography” ([4]). 

[2] In her “Author’s Note,” she says: “The sequence ‘Water, Women and Birds Gather’ has been strongly influenced by Phyllis Webb’s wonderful book Water and Light, Ghazals and Anti Ghazals (Coach House Press, Toronto, 1984). I read Water and Light over and over again during the period I was writing ‘Water, Women and Birds Gather’ . . .” (79).

©Douglas Barbour

Last updated 18 July, 2001