Hélène, Lisa, Debbie, Frédérique . . .
The plural exists at the beginning, says Cixous, with the ‘me who begins through you’. In a 1997 interview she cites Shakespeare: ‘Ourselves we do not owe’ (Twelfth Night, I.V.) , and, in a reminder that we do not own or know ourselves, speaks about the mystery of the expression of the self, that which insists, in language, upon the ‘self’ (or in English more possessively, upon ‘myself’); the person we imagine in order to approach or appropriate ourselves. But ‘I’ don’t exist without ‘you’, she says. ‘I do not have without you and I am not without you, I is not without you; I am born of you’. In our encounter with the other, we are altered and disaltered:
If one were able to radiograph the encounter with you, he, she, if one were able to make the spectre of your encounter appear, one would see incredible instantaneous mutations . . . Except that generally, before or during the encounter, one arms oneself, one puts down roots violently so as not to be too shaken by the other.
(Cixous, ‘In the beginnings, there were many . . .’ 1997)
If it’s possible that the other is a poem, and a poem-other that issues from me (that is, ‘my-self’, who is also born of you and any number of signifiers in the minds of others), what happens between me and a poem? What does my ‘own’ poem do to me? Tom Raworth, in an interview on PennSound, admits to having no plan in his writing, and mentions the thrill of not knowing where the poem will go. I stand (teetering!) on the brink of my own poem. Is this when everything becomes possible? I think about this in the context of my status as a woman.
Lisa Robertson asks, ‘How could a subject construct temporary agencies, when the social-sexual axis would always have already cast her outside of authority, power, agency?’ (Robertson, PhillyTalks). Robertson is suspicious of the Lyric which will ‘Say self because it can’ (14, The Weather), but along with Cixous she is careful to mention the pragmatic need for the idea of the self:
Cixous: ‘I understand on the one hand that a person has a duty to examine themself, to weigh and measure themself, I ought to reply as scrupulously as possible with my ready-prepared verbal gestures. And that’s what I am trying to do.’
Robertson: ‘I don’t know whether what “I” experience is “myself”, but to some extent, in order to be useful, I have to suspend disbelief’. (PhillyTalks).
In Debbie: an Epic, Robertson writes a self-reflexive, redoubled Lyric — with a clue in the title, etc. — and in The Weather she repeats, ‘Give me hackneyed words because / they are good.’ (14). They are good and bad, like chips and mayonnaise, and I want to melt into them, half-gratuitously, in the course of writing a poem which erupts from lived experience and is capable of spontaneity, which listens to and gathers happy ‘accident’, which is an invention that brings with it the experience of not being what I believe to be, and that makes room for a language which speaks more vividly than me.
The poem as creation of an other, and a temporary agency:
‘The text I write is an object of desire to me. [ . . . ] It is precisely as if I had made more than another body with my own body.’
(Cixous, ‘When I do not write it is as if I had died’, 1978)
which alters the self (who is nevertheless full of humour, here):
Vocables caused a change in my organs
therefore vocables I sought’
(Robertson, Debbie, line 482)
The poem I am writing is transformative; it reveals to me that I am not who I think I am; I’m in addition someone else. ‘When a girl steps forward, she does not leave herself behind,’says Robertson. Instead, ‘she becomes several, and with a fidelity both passionate and discriminate.’
I remember a tender example of this plurality in Frédérique, a character in Jacques Rivette’s 1971 film OUT1, played by Juliet Berto. Frédérique, boyish and lovely (though also, a ‘flirtatious, working-class hustler’ as described by Jonathan Rosenbaum), weaves into and between the many other characters in the film and they are all in some way touched and intrigued by her: her presence and manner evoke long loving gazes in some and wry, condescending smiles in others. In a gesture which reminds me of Kathy Acker’s depiction, in her essay ‘Seeing Gender’, of the girl-pirate (who is unspeakable, and so runs into the language of others, the language of books, to make the impossible possible), she disguises herself as a boy in an attempt to bribe some money. In another scene, she is inexplicably beaten up by a thuggish acquaintance, but pickpockets him in the process. She’s naive, sneaky, brave, passionate, she gives of herself to varying degrees depending on the situation.
French feminism’s assertion that women’s experience is constituted in language — rather than reflected by it — ties into this idea of multiple selves as well as other traits of feminine writing: those texts which are uneconomical, polylogical, fragmented, that explore the body as discourse, operate via a ‘feminine dyslogic’ and re-inscribe a ‘feminine’ subjectivity. ‘All poets are girls’, says Alice Notley, and I wonder which of those things it’s necessary to become first in order to enable the other, or if it’s both at the same time. Cixous has often mentioned ‘the poets’ (meaning: the girls?) in her writing – Derrida, Stendhal, Balzac included.
What’s a girl to do? In her relationship to an economy and an (at times transcendent) idea of the social that she has no control over, a system which assimilates her feelings, appropriates her body and demotes her in almost every walk of life (even, yes!, in poetry – and for more to get angry about, see Kristin Prevallet’s Writing Is Never by Itself Alone: Six Mini-Essays on Relational Investigative Poetics), it becomes necessary, for a girl, to take what she has been given and make it into what she needs. From Robertson’s ‘Essay on Heaven’: ‘when winter closes in on a girl she needs the richest possible decoration. She needs rest. She needs enormous eschatological bouquets.’ It’s possible for a girl to write this herself of course, since‘what is fact is not necessarily human,’ (Robertson), and that’s where I encounter my selves, in a place, in a poem, in you.
If one really wants to surrender to the encounter, then one finds oneself altered. There are surprises. We will be denatured renatured by the other. In the wake of Shakespeare, I would add: I would really like to know myself but I do not know myself, I do not own my-self, I’m even the person who knows me the least well. (Cixous, 1997).