new zealand electronic poetry centre


Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003)

A selection of material from brief 32 Joanna Margaret Paul special issue (Winter 2005), edited and introduced by Jack Ross.

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Parting Closure: Imogen and Unwrapping the Body.

Hamish Dewe

First published in brief 32 (Winter 2005). 13-31.


"What is a series? It comes first of all from a sense of order or form that resists foreclosure."
                                                                                                                                                       Ian Wedde.


The quote above, from Ian Wedde's critical essay in Wanganui Works: Resisting Foreclosure, is as good a place as any to start. The focus is on two very different books by Joanna Paul, Imogen and Unwrapping the Body, both from the late 1970's, both from the period directly after the death of Paul's second child, Imogen Rose. Lest that create the impression that the artworks exist for solely cathartic reasons, it should be kept in mind that throughout Paul's career there has never been a rigid boundary between the domestic and artistic. In the 1995 exhibition, Trees and Vistas, in Wellington's Brooker Gallery, Paul

worked with the gallery to make a domesticated space in her part of the Brooker's angular, minimalist polished granite interior, where even the reception desk is like an exhibit, because that is the ambience she is comfortable to see her work in.[1]

If we take a large leap back nearly twenty years, from one review to another, to the period just after Imogen's birth, and before her death, we see how unchanging Paul's attitude has been:

the inanimate objects which are her preferred subjects share an invisible but real human presence transferred through ownership and association with family events (for example the Thank you for Imogen still-lifes, marking the birth of her second child). Clothes, children's toys, pieces of furniture, plates and jugs, seen individually or in small groups, on a shelf or table, lie at the heart of her visual universe.[2]

To return to the notion of series, we can trace a continuity not just within individual series, but also between series, forming a larger body of work. The series here does not necessarily imply a narrative structure, although narrative is much stronger, however buried it may be, in Imogen than in Unwrapping. Paul is unwilling to keep the individual artwork separate from the larger series, as well as to keep the domestic separate from the artistic. She also refuses to keep the literary and the visual rigorously separate. Her work’s interest is in this tendency to disturb closed borders. It is also the source of a certain amount of critical bewilderment.

Neither Imogen nor Unwrapping attracted much attention at the time of publication. Alan Loney's "Notes"[3] didn't appear in Morepork until 1981, two years after the book's publication, and four years after the installation, although an advertisement for the book appeared in the same magazine at the time of publication.[4] The sole review of Imogen, which appeared in Landfall in 1979, the year after Imogen's publication, was buried in an overview of Hawk Press publications for 1978. The section dealing with Imogen, while it picks up on two major points, fails to make sense of them. The perplexity it betrays, as well as its brevity, makes it worth quoting in full:

Joanna Paul's Imogen is an almost unbelievably intense, relentless lamentation. The author is a painter and the typographical arrangements reflect her familiarity and skill in the visual art. It does however give the book a sense of order which contrasts a trifle unhappily with the overall tone of desperation, a virtual demand that we share her grief for her dead child. For all one's compassion it is hard not to be left drained by a work which is more of an experience than a poem. It must have taken a lot of courage to release this work for publication; perhaps it was a necessary unburdening. But is there enough poetry? I think not.[5]

The art community remained generally more receptive to, and understanding of, Paul's work across the poet/painter divide. Unwrapping first appeared as an installation titled Unpacking the Body in 1977, predating Imogen’s publication by a year. A number of reviews were published following its second exhibition as part of the Women's Art Environment show at Christchurch's C.S.A. Gallery in June 1977, while Tony Bellette's article in Art New Zealand was the first to begin explicitly drawing connections between Paul's work as poet and painter.[6] What both Turner and Bellette fail to recognise are the ways in which the visual aspects of Paul's poetry are readable. Conversely, a semantic 'reading' of the artworks is productive also, as Ian Wedde has shown.[7] For Turner, any consideration of the visual is confined solely to aspects of book production, while Bellette, in his rush to get onto a discussion of the paintings from the same general period overlooks Imogen as a whole, focussing only on the aspects of shape and space for which both Imogen and the Mortality series share a concern, narrating the poems as if there were verbal descriptions of paintings which never quite got painted.

There is little need to argue for the visuality of Paul's work in Unwrapping, but the poems in Imogen are also highly visual. Many of the poems are constructed so that the visual structure of the poems informs possible readings, as is most obvious in poems such as "IMOGEN ROSE," "Omens," "blessings on Morandi," "Imogens," "lumen of our days" and "O my white." Paul's attention to the intersection of meaning and form is not only a thematic concern throughout and across her work in 'words and pictures,' but also verges on the practice of concrete poets such as Ian Hamilton Finlay or the Brazilian Noigandres group. Paul shares a concern with the "verbivocovisual" in her poems, opening them up to a greater range of technique, and allowing for the possibility of a "structure-content."[8] Paul's use of structure-content is not constant, and certainly not programmatic, seeming as it does to constitute an instinctive bleeding over of the borders between her paintings and her poems, a border which is all but effaced in Unwrapping. At other times Paul utilises "typographical devices as substantive elements of composition," such as in "Omens" or "IMOGEN ROSE."[9] Bellette's claims for Paul's propriety, that she keeps "the two activities, [painting and poetry,] meticulously separate" apply only if one takes the attitude that a visual poetics is not a poetics at all. 'Visual' poetry becomes visual art by default. This is, one suspects, the reason for Paul's more generous reception in the art establishment than in the literary establishment of the time. Bellette's 'propriety' resides in his own critical categories, in which the linguistic and the visual are "kept meticulously separate," rather than in Paul's own practice.[10]

In an interview for TVNZ's Kaleidoscope arts magazine programme in 1982, while the resident Frances Hodgkins Fellow in Dunedin, Paul claimed that, while an avid reader, poetry-making began after having already been painting for some time. A look at Chronicle/Chronology bears this out. The book, issued to accompany a retrospective show at Wanganui's Sarjeant Gallery in 1989, prints poems, reproductions, and a list of featured works in a double spread, arranged in periodic groupings. The first represented paintings date from between 1965 and 1971, the earliest painted while Paul was a student at Auckland's Elam School of Art. It is symptomatic of Paul's elusiveness, her unwilingness to give us, as readers, the biographical facts, that the sole image of her in Chronicle/Chronology features only two images of her. The first painting, a self-portrait, features a typically partial view of its supposed subject, which bears more than a passing likeness to the headless figures which can be seen in Paul's studio in the Kaleidoscope programme. The second is on the final page, a photograph taken in 1988 by her son Felix, which shows only the back of her head. The first poems are contemporary with Paul's marriage, moving to Seacliff, and a drawing titled 'after Morandi,' in 1971. These early works have many concerns in common with those of Paul's later career. This first poem, accompanied by the 'after Morandi' drawing, shows Paul's early concern with landscape, colour, and lists, all of which also appear in Imogen and Unwrapping the Body:

traversed by
clouded grey
Blue in

Imogen provides us with a more accessible narrative framework to deal with. This framework is heavily submerged in Unwrapping. For this reason, even though it seems that Unwrapping, as Unpacking, was the prior text, it will be useful to deal with Imogen first, and then move on to Unwrapping.

Imogen .

Imogen is primarily an elegy on the death of Paul's daughter, Imogen Rose. Brian Turner thought that "Joanna Paul's Imogen [was] an almost unbelievably intense, relentless lamentation".[11] It might be argued that this was a failure to contain emotion, for those who regard it as antithetical to art, but that was never the aim. As Paul wrote in her introduction to Chronicle/Chronology, "The mutual scrutiny of objects contained and restrained emotion. But the interstices of a not so happy marriage, or a bereavement, might be visible between things or in the shadows of a mirror or a window." The attempt was to obscure, or sublimate, emotion, but never to do away with it entirely. The narrative is similarly obscured. We are never given the exact details of Imogen's illness, nor are we told what surgical procedure she underwent. These biographical details are sidelined to make way for a more intimate perspective. Imogen still retains traces of emotion, in many cases much more than that, just as it still includes a large amount of biography, but the lament, contra Turner, is not 'relentless'. It also attempts to make sense of the senseless.

Imogen is early figured as a part of the natural, vegetative, world. She is, in the first of many metaphors which map the operations of nature upon those of man, "a pink white peony bud," tiny, full of possibility, but unable to bloom because cut off from the parent plant:

                        the world womb where
            a blackbird lights
            on a bright green lawn
            at dusk
            & flies
            a pink white peony bud
            lies on the lawn
            quite still

Cultivated peonies often have double flowers. This is a detail which will become meaningful for the series later on.

The second poem is highly visual, the layout suggesting that we read from the bottom of the page upwards, inverting our usual reading habits. This is a movement which mirrors the idea of the poem. Each word, as it rises, becomes smaller, suggesting that it is receding, as if the words were actually lifting up into the air while we remain on the ground, until finally receding so far that we can no longer make out any actual words, and see them as just a speck, a full-stop to our perception. The full-stop here takes on all the finality proper to it, as well as the finality of death. The capitalisation of "IMOGEN ROSE," coupled with the syntax of the sentence suggests that we read 'rose' as both Imogen's middle name and also as a verb. Later, 'rose' is also a flower. That Imogen would rise into sleep, rather than the usual falling asleep, suggests sleep as death, and her rising as an ascension into heaven.

Paul often uses everyday objects to stand in for certain parts of the body, a tactic present in both Imogen and Unwrapping, and in "in the green garden," if the womb is figured as the green grass of the lawn, the purple hose can only be an umbilical cord:

            in the green garden
            a purple hose
            streaks the grass
            I hold on
            to the face
            of a rose

The rose is both Imogen Rose and a real flower, the "distinct pinks" those of both roses and an infant's flesh. Imogen's maturation is a solidification of colour, building upwards from the smallest elements, as a variant of 'the Word become flesh':

            those distinct pinks
            of almost trivial roses
            in the room
            to run
            membrane tissue
            palp pulp of flesh
            the colours of inside

"to Patricia" examines the nature of the relationship between man and nature. Each is intrinsically violent. The method of healing is to rend the offending part. To sever. Only by an act of violence can one heal:

            The banner that hangs from the tree
            is green
            not a banner but a scar
            a deep scar lacerating the tree
            dyed with a chemical dye
            Is not man a healer whose
            operations resemble nature’s at their core?

In this land, the green one, life and death carry on hand in hand. The physicality of the green world is also overwhelming in its insistence. It is an aggressive verdure whose insistence is echoed by the flowers of the next poem which "swell and swell at me / across the hospital room," as well as the baby in the incubator who is "One week old & / he will not make / eight days / yet / flesh flowers":

            & the green says life is good
            the green presses in on us
            with its sweetness and thickness

That insistence is in the face of the alternative of "another country," the white land, the land of purity, like the white rose of Christian iconography. It is a deathless and immutable land, which is exactly what is so human about the green. There is also, just perhaps, a submerged reference to the possibility of an abortion, an option which would have been open to any mother carrying a child with a congenital defect. In this case the white land would be a land without death precisely because it already exists on the other side of death:

            I could have taken her to another country
            that is quiet
            Its shores are chalk and ash & the sea is
            this is a country I know
            this is the temptation

This poem, like several others, is situated in an identifiable locale, the walk taking place in Cornwall Park, at the base of Maungakiekie, also known as One Tree Hill, next to Auckland's National Women's Hospital, the local maternity hospital. Though I only know this through personal correspondence. The literal trees here, which reappear in "Imogen," prefigure the symbolic trees throughout the series which come to represent Imogen's veins, arteries, and lungs.

The flowers of "for Bill & Marion" attempt a conversation without words. Their method of communication is that of silent growth, and what they communicate is purely themselves, as colour. Their speech is solipsistic, their colours and names dominate completely, as is usual here, where any adverb is usually a colour:

            a brown paper rubbish
            a white striped
            towel a
            stainless steel
            sink in
            fluorescent light
            yellow chrysanthemums
            yellow carnations
            the yellow lobes of
            that are altogether
            & keep saying it:
            their silence is inexhaustible

This includes an accurate description of actual rooms in National Women's hospital, including the overwhelming yellowness: the patients' rooms were painted yellow, pink, or blue, at least in the 80's, and all included a brown paper rubbish bag, a white and blue striped towel, stainless steel sink and fluorescent light. The yellow iris, which is paradoxically "altogether / blue," prefigures the blue-veined and cyanotic roses later in the series.

The final lines of the poem attempt to give a visual rendering, reduced to colour and typographic placement, almost as if it were an Impressionist painting:

yellow, yellow
& blue

The yellow chrysanthemums, next to the yellow carnations, together above the blue irises, are reduced to dabs of colour, rendered with words.

The baby in the incubator of the next poem is a further instance of the mute insistence of life. Growth in the human and the natural worlds is the same, and so is covered by a single term for them both: "flesh flowers." The baby, which is not Imogen, but another ill infant, is "Biton and Cleobis," "The two Greek heroes who [. . .] carried their mother to the Olympic Games (only to drop dead @ the finish) because the oxen were needed for ploughing."[12] The infant's struggle for life in the face of death, the irresistible flowering of flesh, is heroic. The baby's instinctive determination is an unconsciously virtuous deed, like Biton and Cleobis'. Some light can be shed upon Paul's interest in the story of Biton and Cleobis by looking at the story's context. The story comes from Book One of The History of Herodotus. Solon, ruler of Athens, visits Croesus at Sardis and asks which "of all the men that thou hast seen, thou deemest the most happy?" As part of his reply, Solon cites Biton and Cleobis as the second-place holders. It is through their death that Biton and Cleobis may be called happy:

Herein, too, God showed forth most evidently, how much better a thing for man death is than life. For the Argive men, who stood around the car, extolled the vast strength of the youths; and the Argive women extolled the mother who was blessed with such a pair of sons; and the mother herself, overjoyed at the deed and the praises it had won, standing straightbefore the image, besought the goddess to bestow on Cleobis and Bito, the sons who had so mightily honoured her, the highest blessing to which mortals can attain. Her prayer ended, they offered sacrifice and partook of the holy banquet, after which the two youths fell asleep in the temple. They never woke more, but so passed from the earth. The Argives, looking on them as among the best of men, caused statues to be made, which they gave to the shrine at Delphi.[13]

By locating happiness in death rather than in life Paul is able to partly come to terms with her own daughter's death while lamenting it. The white land of death is at least calm, the green world can be distressing, as we have seen in "to Patricia."

"probe prove probing" reconsiders Descartes, who appears in the poem as an addressee, being asked "Where were we, Descartes?" Descartes' system rests solely upon the individual self, Paul's starts from the outside, from the phenomenal world which Descartes distrusts, insisting upon contact between the world and the self as the basis of all epistemology:

probe prove probing probable probity
I probe
she you Imogen probe probes probe
               the forefinger
                     the extended forefinger

All interaction here is mute, sensory, like the silent talking of the flowers in "for Bill & Marion." Paul's isolation of the prefix 'en-' in "en / countering" and "en / viron," achieved by splitting the words over the line breaks, stresses the 'in-ness' of these terms, placing the individual within a material world, rather than Descartes' radical scepticism, which leads to the peculiar idealism of the   cogito, placing the world within the individual's thoughts. Paul's epistemological position is closer to 'I perceive, therefore I am.' Her formulation of the relation between the individual and the world, the "man and nature" of "to Patricia," is based upon a communality of experience which is ultimately materialist. Unlike the hospital flowers which communicate only themselves through their growth, Paul's communication is bi-directional, an outward probing which also implies the gathering of information. Yet it remains within a severely limited sphere, the single unit of the mother and child. This solipsism is not the be all and end all, but a point from which to expand: "Let us start with the finger." The function of the finger here is that of pointing, which implies a perception of and involvement in the world.

The fittingly titled "Omens" finds metaphors for Imogen's later death in a range of places. What goes up must come down, all blooms must die, as must the bloom that is Imogen Rose. The first line shows us the subtlety with which Paul utilises techniques shared with visual and concrete poetry:

                                rose &

            The wood-pigeon /        fell

The relative placements of 'rose' and 'fell' mirror their meanings, physically rising and falling in relation to the horizon of the text. The slash leads the eye upwards as if up a ramp, but can also be read as a stalk holding up a rose bloom. The rose is, as always, also Imogen Rose, who must also fall. Comets, as a popular harbinger of doom in medieval times, also prefigure Imogen's fate. The last omen is "a blue-veined rose." Here we can 'see' the blood, just as in "to Patricia" we could see the sacrificial sheep's blood. Although previously it meant nothing, "it says nothing to us," now the visibility of the blood becomes caught up in the series' symbolic network. The veins are blue because that is the colour of oxygen-depleted blood. The blue veins also tell us something about the whiteness and fragility of the skin, or petals. The poem attempts, in the manner of an omen, to foreshadow what is to come, the poetic "blue-veined rose" later echoed by the medicalised language of the "cyanotic rose" in "thursday - thursday."

The central poem, quite literally, is "blessings on Morandi." The Morandi who is invoked here, and who we have already met with in this essay, is Giorgio Morandi, a painter who has been a continuing influence on Paul since her Elam days. Paul's obsessive returns to the paradoxical dichotomies of shape and space, absence and presence, links with the concerns of Morandi's paintings. Morandi (1890-1964) was an Italian painter who was allied with de Chirico's metaphysical school. One survey sums up Morandi's work as follows: "Even more than his landscapes, it is the masterful, enigmatic still lifes of this outstanding painter and draftsman, rendered in subdued colours against indeterminate backgrounds, that discern ever-new painterly and poetic aspects in the simple shapes of mundane things such as bottles, bowls, funnels, cups."[14] Even without such documentary evidence as early works after Morandi, or references to him in poems, Paul's preoccupation with minimal still-lifes and landscapes would have pointed to Morandi's influence. Morandi spent most of his career painting still-lifes which featured an extreme limiting of the palette and subject matter. The backgrounds are monotonal washes which seem to exist only to register shadows. The subjects of Morandi's paintings operate as shape, almost impressionistically, seeming to cower within a hostile and inhuman space. Morandi's nature morte seem at first glance, literally morte: motionless and lifeless. Morandi's forms in space re-enact creation myths such as Hesiod's, for example: first there is Chaos, the void, and out of Chaos comes Ge, the earth, a shape to part the space. Morandi's paintings contain the very beginnings of motion and life. They show creation in its zygotic stage, the single cell, tiny against the vast expanse of the womb, as infinite possibility. Those beginnings spring from the combination of objects, the interactions between them as line, but mostly as overlapping shapes. It is in that proliferation, not a large one in Morandi, that a visual motion begins. Morandi's hourglass in the poem is very apt. As an "hourglass of white" the shape of the poem, with negative space in the middle which isolates "space./Shape," inverts the shape of the hourglass. The white space created by the text forms an hourglass which has been broken in the middle and put back together wrongly. The "space./Shape" in the center has also been inverted, the capital and full-stop coming in the middle of the sentence, rather than at either end, suggesting that it should be 'Space shape.' The wrongly reassembled hourglass now has only one chamber instead of two. This, as we will see later, is also the case for Imogen's heart. The hourglass is the measure of one's life also: when its sands run out, so does one's life.

Morandi is to be blessed because he has provided a way of locating the beginnings of life in even the most visually barren places, focussing on the relationships between objects. This is a source of hope which is not only artistic, but philosophical as well. He places the bloom of form to make a parting in the space of his inscrutable backgrounds. Its expansion is the expansion of life and hence of growth. The Morandi poem is literally central, coming as it does in the central spread of the book. It also points to a central concern of the series: the association of movement and circulation with life.

The next poem in the series, "Imogen," has much in common with the compositional tactics of Unwrapping. Both feature lists and the isolation of body parts which become infinitely expandable catalogues. This poem is as close as Paul comes to a plain explanation of what Imogen's medical difficulties are. Imogen, like Unwrapping, maps the human body onto the phenomenal world, using a range of metonymic and metaphorical devices and etymological correspondences to do so. These tactics break down the borders between the human body and the world: the heart with branches, the nipples like grapes, the forehead like a ship/prow/oar etc. (which prefigures a journey, Imogen's final journey.) Imogen's "crater calyx cup cardia" shows how many fields Paul has tried to merge. Each word relates to what is, functionally, a receptacle, and each is etymologically related. The crater is not only a geographical feature, the crater of Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill, an extinct volcano, but also the Greek 'krater,' a cup. 'Calyx' is a biological term relating to flowers, which makes it wholly appropriate within the context of Imogen. It designates either the sepals which form a protective layer on the outside of an unopened bud, or to any other cup-like cavity or bodily structure. Both 'calyx' and 'cup' reappear in "HEAD caput CUP" in Unwrapping, along with a whole host of related terms, including "a lamb," which it is hard not to read as a sacrificial lamb, coming, as it does, opposite "SACRIFICIAL BOWL." This religious aspect is also present in "Imogen," which includes "Maungakiekie / lady of the red arteries" as a variant of the Virgin Mary, "a fane of olives," as well as "this is a prayer / this is a litany."

The six trees in the crater/heart are the superior and inferior vena cava, the pulmonary artery, the two pulmonary veins, and the aorta.

Imogen could only survive in utero because for the time being the body of her mother, through "the very small windows of the womb" supports her, functioning as a second room, which allows for circulation. Paul's treatment of the body as landscape elides the distinctions between the internal and the external, between the body and the world, and between mother and child. Paul's lists isolate body parts, but do so in order to reinsert them into an imaginatively transformed frame. This results in a creative expansion similar to Morandi's, but one which is based on the violence of rupture. The same tension between a necessary expansion and a violent intervention is what is so distressing about "the mothering / hands of doctors with scalpels needles & electric tongs." Both Paul and the doctors share a parallelism of method based on a violent rupture in order to "part the space."

If, with "probe prove probing," we thought that Imogen had finally been born, then once we get to "Imogen" we cannot be so sure, seeing the present tense of "the very small windows / of the womb still serving." Overall, the series is constructed according to a temporal flow, but not completely. Early poems foreshadow later events, and even later poems seem to backtrack to earlier times, as happens here. This is a retrospective telling, a remembrance as much as a lament, and is not a chronological account. That would bring the series too close to biography, which Imogen is continually approaching and shying away from. The chronological account, leading up to the climax of Imogen's death, is not necessary, and certainly not the aim of the series, since we already know Imogen is to die: we have been given her birth and death dates in the dedication. Paul's working on the edges of biography can also be seen in the use of proper names, Patricia, Bill, and Marion, which occur without their surnames.

"IMOGENS" shows Imogen with her mother for the first time after the operation, being breast-fed. The relationship between mother and daughter is primarily tactile, as it also was in "probe prove probing." The emphasis is on feel, on touch as a way of 'seeing' without the distancing that seeing implies: "hand (not by the eye) seen." The colours in the poem, yellow and blue, echo the colours in the earlier poem "for Bill & Marion," suggesting a similar setting, that is, that Imogen is still in the hospital after the operation. Here the colours are not provided by the flowers, whose displays are a struggle to survive and reproduce, but by the room and the light. The colours are subdued, the atmosphere is much more calm, no longer being linked to an aggressive vegetative nature, but infuse the scene. Imogen's slippery tongue leads into a consideration of shellfishes' tongues, and the slipping of the tide:

hand (not by the eye) seen
shellfish (cockle) under the sand as the tide slips  
 over at dusk

This is a poem which works at the margins of the series' symbolism. It is not only the first in which Imogen is translated into an animal rather than a vegetable metaphor, it is also set in the marginal sites of the intertidal zone, where one goes digging for shellfish, and dusk. Dusk, the slipping of light, and the slipping away of the tide both prefigure Imogen's death, which is a retreat into the distance, such as that of "IMOGEN ROSE," a gradual slipping away. The knives here are repeated from the previous poem, forming a link between the knives used to heal (scalpels) and the knives used to kill, fillet, or open shellfish. The shellfish metaphor is motivated by more than just the slipperiness of Imogen's tongue. The shellfish, specifically a cockle, is a bivalve, bicameral, as Imogen also is after her surgery. The linkage between the cockle and the heart is even stronger since one may also talk about 'warming the cockles of one's heart.'

"lumen of our days" is the most highly structured, in a visual sense, of all the poems in Imogen. This is not accidental. It functions to 'contain and restrain emotion,' to paraphrase from Chronicle/Chronology. If "blessings on Morandi" was the central poem in a literal and conceptual sense, this is the pivotal poem in a narrative sense. This is the poem in which Imogen dies. Still, death in the poem is not an identifiable event so much as a gap. It is an interstice between the two states of being alive and being dead, an imaginary boundary, and so the poem appropriately functions on either side of this boundary. The poem operates on twin horizontal and vertical axes, functioning, not coincidentally, as a cross. The vertical axis is formed by the large centred comma and full-stop at the top and bottom of the page, with a column of negative space between them. On either side of the vertical axis, word groupings are mirrored: systole and diastole, noun and adverb (lumen, luminous), twin summers, afternoon and evening. The twin terms 'parting' and 'greeting' are positioned like bookends at either side of this section:

not dead not
rested but
from death/life
wrested in
a life in
deed ar

'Arrested,' broken over the line break, has several significances. As 'rested' it refers back to sleep and also to the homophone 'wrested.' It also, as 'arrest,' refers to the abrupt stoppage of Imogen's growth, with the additional allusion to cardiac arrest. So, we can perhaps locate the formal cause of death as cardiac arrest following surgery.

The poem's central void functions differently to the central void in "blessings on Morandi." The central void here is not a parting in a hostile space, but an empty space created by the breakdown of the systaltic and dialectic movement. It is the stasis of death. In an effort to overcome this, Paul seeks to place Imogen in a place which is outside both life and death. She is wrested from both, as if the rules which govern these no longer apply to her. She is, as is made clear in "At his right side," translated into heaven.

The comma and full-stop which form the vertical axis of the poem also function graphically. The comma, with its unfurling tail, is reminiscent of both the unfolding fern frond, a common symbol of life and hope in New Zealand's iconography, and the shape of the foetus in the womb. In the movement down the page it is here, with birth, that we begin. We have seen the graphical use of the full-stop before, functioning as a retreat into the distance in "IMOGEN ROSE." Here it takes on all the associations of the former, but has   by this point also taken on an association with the closed system of Imogen's heart, and with closure and death in general. It is final, self-contained rather than expansive like the comma, and is also functionally final being, after all, a full-stop. The comma and the full-stop, one on top of the other, form an inverted semi-colon. A semi-colon half-separates, isolating terms in relation, or in a list. The inverted semi-colon here half-contains, forming a space within which Paul's text can function.

We must return to Herodotus here, who gave us an example of how death can come to signify. Rather than being a mere ending, it retroactively creates meaning from a life, making it available for a complete and closed narrative, providing resolution. However, this is not quite what Paul is after. Imogen, as we have seen, shies away from the purely narrative and the biographical. The narrative impulse remains, but it is not wholly trusted as it is a form of closure which is deadening in its effects. That closure is opposed by Morandi's procedures which form openings of shape within an undifferentiated space.

The twin binary urges of differentiation and wholeness must be played off against one another in a systaltic movement. There must be separation within the whole, both space and shape. It sounds like a theological mystery, like the trinity's three in one and one in three, but it is also the necessary condition of life, that one must be both separated and joined at one and the same time. The alternation of systole and diastole form two opposite poles of contraction and expansion, but between them they create the pulse, a systalsis, which is nothing in itself but an effect of the two opposing movements. The movement form systole versus diastole to systalsis, which latter term is notably absent in the series, mimics the structure of dialectical reasoning, thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The dialectic, often found in varieties of materialism, can be opposed to Descartes' idealism. Similarly, summer's height to summer starting, and an afternoon to evening form the oppositions between which Imogen's life may be located, not as a negative value, neither systole nor diastole, but as a positive value, systalsis. Imogen is the 'numinous,' the mysterious and awe-inspiring, both for Paul and the book. Part of Imogen/Imogen's mysteriousness comes through in the withholding of a large part of the biography. Imogen's illness forms the basis of the book's symbolism, but the series never becomes a poetic version of a 'disease of the week' movie. Imogen is a lament for the loss of Paul's daughter at the same time as it functions as a highly artistic consideration of the more general concerns of life and death. It is philosophical in several senses.

"thursday-thursday" is able to map the day of Imogen's birth over that of her death by using single terms which may be used for both, as well as making the dates symmetrical. The dedication gives Imogen's exact birth and death dates, which do not quite match the symmetry of the poem. February 28 1976 to December 9 1976 makes slightly over nine months, but is not one Thursday to another. December 9 was a Thursday, but February 28 was a Saturday. Such small changes to the factual details reveal how the biographical is only one concern of the series, and by no means its sole concern. Rather than the series being "a necessary unburdening," in Turner's words, it is an attempt to construct "an imaginary [which] might stem form [sic.] a unitary vision of the world."[15] This "unitary vision" can be seen as approaching a religious outlook.

            On both the day of birth and that of death we have two different types of deliverance:

delivered of a baby &

         delivered of
                              a baby

"CHORDS" is a group of four short poems, balancing its parts as in a musical chord. Each idea is arpeggiated while bleeding into the others through the shared boundaries of the poem. Great saints and painters are related to surgeons, whose probings within the body are balanced against the mother's different concern with the body, fussing over her dead child's hair. The final section of the poem, in its colouring, red and white, again overlays the bodily upon the vegetative. Red and white, the colours of blood and skin, are also those of the flower's core and petals:

lift the white peony
its petals fall away;left
holding the red core, its heart
the flower is all gone.

The emphasis here is on the question of what it is that constitutes us, what is essential. As in "lumen of our days" the essential is to be found not in things but in relationships, the interstices between things. The fragile flower, as Imogen, has lost its petals but retains the surgically corrected red core of its heart. The flower is neither its core nor its petals, but the relation between its parts: lose one part and the relationship is severed, "the flower is all gone."

In the concluding poem, Imogen's whiteness as innocence, and also as 'bloodlessness,' is made her single enthralling facet. The repetition of 'white' is like "one's own name repeated until nothing of oneself is there; single words turned over like stones in the hand, made mysterious by their isolation yet relating to eye and ear with a new intimacy" as Bellette writes.[16] The 'arrest' has made Imogen static, and as such she belongs neither to the ranks of the living nor the dead, but approaches the condition of those to whom such terms do not apply, such as God and Christ in the previous poem: those who live outside time.

If Imogen is, on one level, fundamentally narrative in its conception, it also subverts that temporal/biographical flow through the obsessional return to the fact of Imogen's death, which finds traces of Imogen in everything. Imogen's death can be traced as an event to a particular poem only obliquely. Functionally, Imogen's death is present in every part of the series. It is an event which really exists only outside the narrative/temporal flow since it retroactively lends significance to every poem. For Paul at the time of writing, as for the reader at the time of reading, since the dedication places the fact of Imogen's death plainly before us at the very beginning of the book, the death, in the narrative future, has already occurred. The obsessional return is at work in the poems in which the symbolism of the natural is so overdetermined as to be almost unbearable. Imogen's death is the text's linchpin. Imogen's death retroactively forces a symbolisation upon past events, seeing her death as the inevitable culmination of these. The omens which foretell the already known coming events, make Imogen a classical tragedy in the strict dramatic sense. This tragedy is not a solely narrative structure, but also theological. The reappearance of the sheep at fairly regular intervals in connection with Imogen puts one in mind of the Agnus Dei, the lamb of God, who, as Christ, was a predestined sacrificial lamb. Imogen's faulty heart is metaphorically overlaid upon Christ's flaming heart, as seen in Catholic imagery.

Unwrapping the Body and partially wrapping up.

Unwrapping was published by the artist under the name of Bothwell Press not long after Imogen appeared. It continues, or rather shares, a broad range of concerns in common with Imogen. Unwrapping is operating within the same set of events, but has abandoned the biographical narrative, and the revised narrative it builds in its place is partly etymological, creating a growing body of linkages between the human body and the domesticated world. One's natural inclination is to say 'the natural world,' but nowhere in the book is there an unmediated nature which has not been touched by an interaction between the human and the natural. Alan Loney sees a "direct link and departure form her 1st book, Imogen. Unwrapping the Body takes the body/heart concerns of Imogen further into specific anatomical detail, and out of specified contexts of feeling."[17] This is not to say that those "contexts of feeling" have wholly disappeared. It is not that they no longer function within the text, but that we must identify them outside the text first, in Imogen, and then trace the ways that they continue to operate within Unwrapping. Such an approach is able to clarify several aspects of the text, including the appearance of the twin foetuses which form the central spread as a moment of genesis and of systalsis as growth. Imogen is still there, it is just that her presence is submerged.

The book is functionally broken into several parts, as well as being produced in an unusual format. First, one must slip off the book's 'skin,' a corrugated card sleeve. One then undoes the flap which holds the book closed. The book cannot be just opened, it must be unwrapped first. There are a series of operations which the reader must go through in order to get at the 'body' of the book. The choice of the word 'operations' here is not unmotivated. There is something surgical which infuses the book. Tight framing cuts the pictures from their contexts.

The first thing that we encounter in the book proper is a wall and, once we get beyond it by turning the page, we are plunged into a series of formally identical spreads which are interrupted by the central spread of the twin foetuses. This is followed by a listing which emphasises the functionality of various body parts, which then gives way to a series of images which culminate in the picture of a sculpted salmon accompanied by the text "salmon leap through the stone wall of a house." The movement from the isolated impenetrable wall to its rupture is not accidental.

The surgical associations are particularly strong in the first half of the book. This series of spreads features a frame on the left page, within which hangs a found object relating to the words on the right page. Those words are broken into columns for the most part, with medical terms on the left, mostly Latin or derived from Latin, and English on the right, usually names of things in the domestic world, plus the occasional Greek term in the central column. At first sight, with only the book to go on, the wooden frames seem to serve only a functional purpose, to hold whatever object might be placed within it. The black and white reproduction eliminates colour, which is something we need to retrieve from elsewhere. Luckily, a review of the installation survives. Here is the passage from Michael Thomas' review dealing with Unpacking:

Particularly memorable was Joanna Paul's "Unpacking of the Body." In this piece, three walls were covered with lists of words, having broadly anatomical associations, written in felt pen on paper. Underneath each, a sole object, which related to the words, was hung in a pink frame. Although spread out, the whole exhibit had a message which culminated in the box of intestine-like fibres in which a small model of a human embryo could be found.

The significance of the pink frames is that they are the colour of flesh. The dark cavity against which the objects are isolated takes on the associations of a surgical wound. The precision with which the objects are presented carries associations with a surgical incision. This is a premeditated rupture and interrogation which sits alongside the more intuitive and liberatory rupture of "salmon leap through the stone wall of a house." Both modes of rupture break down the separation between the interior and the exterior, but the connotations of each are completely different. It will be recalled that Imogen, the infant, is still present in the background of Unwrapping, and it is tempting to situate this work in the period immediately before Imogen's death. The reason for this is the sense of optimism present in the rupture of the stone wall. In Imogen we found that the medical problem was a blockage within the heart, as "2 locked rooms with no passage." Surgical intervention created a passage, a "shape to part the space." The salmon perform the same function in Unwrapping. The salmon are metonymically associated with water which, as will be seen, is metaphorically associated with blood in Unwrapping. The reappearance of a fish in this context also refers back to Imogen as a "little fish." Since this parallels the surgical intervention, with no mention of either the arrest or death in general, it may be safe to trace the genesis of Unwrapping to late 1976, before Imogen's death in December, but after the operation.

The process of rupture infuses Unwrapping, but it is not pursued for its own benefit. It is surgical in that it has a healing intent. Rupture allows for a reinsertion into a widened frame of reference. Let us take the very first spread as an example. The twig by itself, isolated and medicalised within the pink frame, signifies nothing but itself. It is 'only' a twig. It takes a linguistic effort to reinsert it into a network of symbolisation, and the reinsertion is into both bodily and natural systems. The two realms interpenetrate, and this is pointed to by Paul's series of equivalences between medical Latinate terms and quotidian English terms. These metaphors are all vegetative, and as such can be traced back to the vegetative metaphors used in Imogen when talking about Imogen's development while still in utero. Many of this spread's terms can be related to the notion of generation or conception, from properly animal reproductive terms such as gonad, spermatagonum, and embryo, to their counterparts in the vegetative world: kernel, seed twice, sprout twice, acorn and pine cone. The appearance of the embryo and the hilum, "the point of an organ’s attachment i.e. bean to pod," points to Imogen's continuing presence in Unwrapping, here as embryo, however submerged her presence may be.

The following spreads function in the same ways, featuring a proliferation of the bodily and its reinsertion or integration into different functional realms: functions of containment in 'HEAD caput CUP' and similarly in 'BELLY belg BAG,' the ropelike, again with connotations of containment, in 'NEURON NERVE thread,' battle equipment in 'AORTA a macedonian knife,' the ringlike in 'WALDEYERS RING,' the architectural in 'EYE auge vindauge WINDOW,' and a range of instruments, ranging from musical instruments to farming equipment and simple machines in 'ORGAN organum INSTRUMENT.' The procession of functions across these formally linked spreads are intended to parallel the gradual maturation of the foetus which is literally and conceptually at the book's heart. Loney has also noted the gradual building of a body, though finding 'deception' where this essay finds intention: "'The words of the work', tho discontinuous and separate, do perform a major deception. That is, the page by page 'build-up' of cell, head, belly, nerve, heart, aliment, eye, and function, into the frail and not at all guaranteed 'whole' that is the Body."[18]

This spread continues to blur the boundaries between the bodily and the external world, using bold capitals to point out how strangely many common phrases do exactly this. With the altered focus the visual arrangement gives we suddenly get actual lashes (whips) in our eyes, pitted arms, blades in our shoulders, small backs, money (tips) on our fingers, rooms in our heart, and bridges on our noses as if they were rivers. The bodily is made strange, depersonalised, at the same time as the body and the world, interior and exterior, are made to seem coterminous. The limits of the body determine our perception of the world, and the limits of the world determine our perception of the body. The last piece of text in this section is "the CHAMBERS of the heart," which, being followed by a series of photographs featuring heavily channelled water imagery, leads quite naturally to a reading of water as a metaphor for blood.

The entire book features images of containment, from the opening wall to the boxed in objects and foetuses, but now the imagery becomes claustrophobic. The photographs are tightly framed, the water in each is controlled and channelled, with the structures of the canal, outfall, and fountain serving to keep the boundaries of the fluid as clear as possible. Fences also feature prominently, so that the only two whole bodies in the book, a child and a cockatoo, are also contained. The cockatoo is seen only through   a wire mesh fence, while the child is running around in circles within a heavily circumscribed space, and is dwarfed by the outfall of the image above.

The containment at work in Unwrapping, especially here as the excessive and claustrophobic containment of blood, forms a link to the unnatural containment of blood in Imogen and Imogen. That unnatural containment in both books is to be overcome through a rupture, and for both that rupture is medical. We have already seen how surgical intervention achieved that rupture in Imogen, while in Unwrapping rupture is still medical in that it takes place within the body, although it is the result of a linguistic rather than a properly medical intervention. Previously in Unwrapping the emphasis has been on solid bodily structures, but in the latter part of the book one finds bodily fluids. Bodily structures perform a necessary role of containment, but when this proves to be a constraint, as in the claustrophobic water imagery which parallels the claustrophobically closed system within Imogen's chest, then a rupture becomes inevitable.

The 'haematopoetic' is a moment of just such a rupture. It is a generative breaking which allows for further growth, and as such it is accompanied by two images which break with containment. The salmon is leaping purposefully forward, out of the constraining pool. Paradoxically, the more tightly framed the salmon is, the less constrained it seems as it comes to dominate the image. The lower photograph is of a flowering bush, recalling Imogen's "flesh flowers." The flower is a bloom which makes "a shape to part the space." This spread is followed by the final, ecstatic, moment of rupture in the book, "salmon leap through the stone wall of a house," which rests in a large open space, and does away with the formal constraints of lists and horizontal typographic placement.

Loney's "Notes" propose Unwrapping as a text purely 'about' the possibilities of language, divorced from any 'real world' events. Note 17 makes this clear:

The specified context of Imogen is that of grief in the death of a baby daughter. The context is specified explicitly in the poems of that book. Is there a comparable specified context for Unwrapping the Body? I believe not. Whether specified or not, however, we've been warned by such as Robert Creeley and A. N. Whitehead that there are always contexts. And if not specified, then disclosed. And the context that Unwrapping the Body discloses is not one which could be related to a single event (as in Imogen), but is one which relates to the possibility of any event at all, tho no such events are mentioned or implied by the words of the work.

Loney's belief leads him to overlook many contiguities between Imogen and Unwrapping, and especially the submerged presence of Imogen in the text. The fact that "Nowhere in Unwrapping the Body is there noted, a penis" leads Loney to the conclusion that

Ms Paul's text then gives back to women their original body, and to men their first Eve. The creature formed from Adam's rib is a simulacrum only, which can be accepted as a suitable self by women only by the exercise of power over them by men. Unwrapping the Body revitalises an authentic body/language for women, for which a man's rib could never be an adequate symbol.[19]

If, however, we take into account the submerged presence of Imogen in the text, then the lack of a penis, while still remaining interpretable in Loney's sense, functions as an indicator that the text is dealing not with bodies in general, but a particular body: Imogen's.



Works Cited.

Please note that reviews from newspapers were obtained through the Auckland City Gallery library's clipping service, and that page references were not available.

Bellette, Tony. "Joanna Paul: Words and Pictures." Art New Zealand 26 (1983):45-46

Campos, Augusto de, Decio Pignatari, Haroldo de Campos. "Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry." The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature. Ed. Richard Kostelanetz. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982.

Collins, Roger. "A quiet celebration of domesticity." NZ Listener 12 June 1976: 35.

Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996.

Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. Trans. George Rawlinson. Ed. Manuel Komroff. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1947.

Loney, Alan. "Notes on Joanna Paul's Unwrapping the Body." Morepork 3 (1981): n. pag.

Morandi, Giorgio. Still Life. 1953. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Paul, Joanna. Chronicle/Chronology. Wanganui: Sarjeant Gallery, 1989.

---, Imogen: poems by Joanna Margaret Paul . Days Bay: Hawk Press, 1978.

---, Introduction. Wanganui Works: Resisting Foreclosure. By Ian Wedde. Wanganui: Sarjeant Gallery, 1989. N. pag.

---, Letter to the author. 5 June 2000.

---, "Notes on a Poetic Language." Sport 9 (1992): 112-117.

---, Unwrapping the Body. Dunedin: Bothwell Press, n.d.

Swain, Pauline. "Only the essential." Dominion [Wellington] 21 Oct. 1995.

Thomas, Michael. "'Art' concept challenged." Press [Christchurch] 11 June 1979.

Turner, Brian. "Reviews." Landfall 33 (1979): 91-95.

Unwrapping the Body. Advertisement. Morepork 1 (1979): 21.

Walther, Ingo F. Art of the 20th Century. Koln:

Taschen, 1998.


1. Pauline Swain, "Only the essential."

2. Roger Collins, "A quiet celebration of domesticity."

3. Alan Loney, "Notes on   Joanna Paul's Unwrapping the Body."

4. Morepork 1, 1979. p.21.

5. Brian Turner, "Reviews."

6. Tony Bellette, "Joanna Paul: Words and Pictures."

7. Ian Wedde, Introduction.

8. Augusto de Campos et al., "Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry."

9. ibid., referring to Mallarme's Un Coup de Des as a forerunner to Concrete practice.

10. Tony Bellette, "Joanna Paul: Words and Pictures."

11. Brian Turner, "Review."

12. Joanna Paul, Letter to the author.

13. Herodotus, The History of Herodotus.

14. Ingo F. Walther, Art of the 20th Century.

15. Joanna Paul, introduction to Chronicle/Chronology.

16. Tony Bellette, "Joanna Paul: Words and Pictures."

17. Alan Loney, "Notes on Joanna Paul's Unwrapping the Body."

18. Alan Loney, "Notes on Joanna Paul's Unwrapping the Body."

19. Alan Loney, "Note on Joanna Paul's Unwrapping the Body."



© Hamish Dewe

Last updated 25 August, 2005