Nations of the Soul and Female Poetic Activism
In the aftermath of the imperial era, with the birth of independent postcolonial societies, female poetic writings have assumed a new literary significance of a novel brand of nationhood, liberalization and democratization. These poetic compositions cutting across barriers and wide extensions of time and space, manifest a positive, aggressive identity, which may well be defined as a socio-psychological, ethnic, cultural and literary configuration or space designated here as ‘Nations of the Soul’. The poetic texts of women authors across the Commonwealth and Euro-centric world evince a certain specific and innovative way of defining the meanings of nation, nationhood and the narrativisation of the intersecting points of gender, identity and race. Hence, it is a fruitful, critical exercise to interpret and analyse the singular coalescence of vision, perspectives and creative delineations of this new, emerging theory of ‘Nation’ in the context of evolving Feminist and Post-Feminist historiography. Within the ambit of essays on Imaginary Homelands and of Feminist interpretations of ‘Subaltern’ texts in Postcolonial discourse, this differentiated category of a Women-specific Nationhood, unifying varied segments of aesthetic sisterhood across the globe, becomes a significant area of study. This interesting genre as well as counter-canon situates as well as problematises these ‘Nations of the Soul’ as an extended metaphor and conceptualized space of Women’s experiences, issues, struggles, perceptions, projections of truths and the creative expressions of suppressed feminist histories and trajectories.
This paper would also reflect upon the quintessential questions of homogeneity versus heterogeneity, spirit versus body, nature versus culture, multi-culturalism versus isolationism, centre versus periphery, etc. Though reactionary and resistant to a certain extent, in the prioritization of the female consciousness, these nations of the soul defy temporal and territorial borderlines in their formidable integrations of poetic artistry. Further, they display a certain wholeness of vision etched out of the depths of female creativity and identifiable in the harmonious resonance of women’s poetic voices and activism sustaining their State of Universal Sisterhood.
In the course of the study, many paradoxical positions are arrived at, while the epistemological status of this dialectic naturally reinforces the problematic determination that all female creativity and narrativity is monolithic. These debatable viewpoints could well be investigated through the critical framework of such Postcolonial critique as that of R. Radhakrishnan’s “Nationalism, Gender and the Narrative of Identity”, Aijaz Ahmad’s reinterpretations in “Jameson’s Rhetoric of Otherness and the National Allegory”, Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan’s “Representing Sati : Continuities and Discontinuities” and such other critical focus on the de-colonising of the mind along with the positivist complicity with ‘subaltern’ insurgency and ‘feminist’ radicalism. The compositions of such varied world women poets as Toru Dutt, Sarojini Naidu, Kamala Das, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rosseti, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Imtiaz Dharker, Tara Patel, Eunice De Souza, Meena Alexander, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Margaret Atwood, Sujata Bhatt, Sylvia Plath, Gillian Clarke, Elizabeth Bartlett, Adrienne Rich, Stevie Smith, Elaine Feinstein, Edith Sitwell, etc, from diverse temporal and spatial regions, could well be examined and re-evaluated as composite creators of a resurgent poetic activism lending credence and permanent validity to their ‘Nations of the Soul’.
In the postulation of this new Nation of Womanhood, one notices a definite centralization of women’s emancipatory struggles and issues, which run parallel to and often in conflict with the earlier nationalist movements, which gave birth to postcolonial independent states. While recognizing the fluidity of divergent cultural and poetic constructions, one must also keep in mind the absolute definitions used in the framing of any specific genre or canon. Says Aijaz Ahmad in his essay on the representation of women in a Postmodern situation: “The axiomatic fact about any canon formation, even when it takes shape as a counter-canon, is that when the desired literary typology is constructed, the canonizing agency selects certain kinds of authors, texts and styles, privileging them over others…”1. In this connection, one would have to accentuate and focus upon only those poetic texts, which project the Selfhood and Identity of women as explicit and unambiguous statements of their ‘Nations of the Soul’, born out of the palimpsestic, hitherto suppressed histories of women. While reading these symptomatic women’s poetic compositions, one would definitely arrive at an ideological location of a representative universalism and a central poetic alliance despite cultural and historical differences. The earlier fragmentations, alienations, identity crisis and divisive forces of victimization, easily dissolve into a newly enhanced fabric of unity and a resonant harmony. One may, in this context, re-examine Muriel Rukeyser’s lines:
“When I wrote of the women in their dances and wildness, it was a mask / ----- when I wrote of the god, / fragmented ----- in exile form myself / ----- There is no mountain, there is no god ----- / No more masks! / Now, for the first time, ----- / the fragments join in me with their own music”.2
Maitrayee Choudhary’s3 socio-scientific etching of a liberal state based on the role of women as agents, recipients and equal participators in the formation of a nation as well as her perspective of women as the emblems of a specific culture and ethos, complete only half the picture. The other half could well be garnered through the psychoanalytic properties and symbolical elements that Julia Kristeva4 attributes to poetic language. Our starting point could be obtained from affecting a balance of these two perspectives of a socio-culturally liberated state and the use of a revolutionary poetic language for re-defining the limitless limits of this new category. The earlier imbalances of gender, race and class being washed off, we derive new tools of creative vision, symbolism and expression in the strong and powerful ‘We’ of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’:
“Overnight, very / Whitely, discreetly ---- Our toes, our noses / Take hold on the loam, / Acquire the air ---- So many of us! So many of us! ---- Nudgers and shovers / Inspite of ourselves, / Our kind multiplies; / We shall by morning / Inherit the earth, / Our foot’s in the door”5.
Beyond the political and socio-scientific gamut of definitions and beyond the fallacy of the existence of a theoretical, determinate and unitary locale for a so called ‘Nation’, we have an entire corpus of such metaphorical and symbolical poetic language and reconstructions of woman-power, laden with the signification for asserting the truth of these conceptualised ‘Nations of the Soul’ as embodiments and representations of an entire Female community of poets and artists across the globe. The Indian woman-poet Rajlukshmee Debee Bhattacharya, though far away from Sylvia Plath and worlds apart in both temporal and spatial terms, creates effusively a similar allegory of female power through her poem
‘Punarnava’, the ever renewing “velvet-green medicinal creeper” climbing up the “lichened wall ---- sprouting leaves, / growing in greenness / eternal companion on the rooftop”6.
In cutting across political, cultural, geographic and time-bound barriers, these world women poets could now be assessed and acknowledged as a major aesthetic group impacting global transformations through their poetic activism and ratification of the truth, the beauty and the intensity of the woman’s world as an integral part of the larger realms of human affairs. In this sense, these ‘Nations of the Soul’ carved out from the depths of authentic women poetry, are formidable zones of progressive human thinking and democratization born out of mighty women-pens, which have dissolved and dissipated the agonies, marginalisation and brutalisation of the ‘Wretched of the Earth’7.
R. Radhakrishnan, in extending the line and scope of Partho Chatterjee’s adverse critique of ‘Indian nationalism’ as a problem of male and feudal conservatism, advocates an innovative and radical feminist historiography: “Feminist historiography is representational in the sense that it speaks for those questions and concerns that stem from women’s issues initially, but in doing so, it understands (and expands) ‘gender’ as a category that is much more comprehensive in its scope and goes beyond its initial commitment to merely one specific constituency”8.
This propagation of a non-totalising and non-teleological feminist historiography holds true in the perception of these ‘Nations of the Soul’ as relevant indices for understanding the female-specific issues as larger issues of the human world around. In this holistic framework, dealing with the representational questions and concerns of women, the politicization of ‘gender’ does not hold any water. The well-defined, articulated and designated space of Women Poetry, taking its birth and growth from the female artistic consciousness and socio-psychological experiences, transcends regional and local categories to be smoothly blended in a homogenous poetic space. When Emily Dickinson speaks of the supremacy of the domain of her soul in her Poem No. 303:
“The Soul selects her own Society ---- / Then shuts the Door ---- / Then closes the Valves of her attention”
or about the sanctity of her individual Nation of the human spirit in her Poem No. 214:
“I taste a liquor never brewed - / From Tankards scooped in Pearl / Not all the Vats upon the Rhine / Yield such an Alcohol! / Inebriate of Air am I / And Debauchee of Dew / Reeling through endless summer days / From Inns of Molten Blue”9,
one can almost hear Sarojini Naidu’s ode to her ‘Invincible flowering soul’ in its myriad colours ‘reblossoming like a grove’ though strengthened ‘in the flame of sorrow’. Naidu’s ‘Indian Dancers’ ‘now silent, now singing and swaying and swinging --- / Now wantonly winding, they flash’ 10 are as strong, as stable and vibrant as Christina Rossetti’s ‘Earth’ written in another frame of Time and Space:
“Earth grown old, yet still so green, / Deep beneath her crust of cold / Nurses fire unfelt, unseen”.11
A common alliance, of poetic souls among women writers of the world, becomes an undeniable catalyst in impacting the progression of contemporary society towards more balanced, modernized and equalized goals. The defiance of patriarchy in an identifiably purified and exclusive space, often strikes through undertones rather than overtones, transcreating and merging subtly with the connotations and composites of womanhood and nationhood. Though one might argue that Rossetti, Dickinson and Naidu write in the conventional idiom, diction and metaphor of a bygone age, when female poetry was seeped in traditional romanticism, more in complicity with than interrogation of patriarchy, the synergies, synonymities and parallels are often deeply submerged. One may easily connect Naidu’s Indian Gypsy “tameless with the bold falcon’s agile grace and the lithe tiger’s sinuous majesty” with Elizabeth Bartlett’s “cataclysmic love” leading into “landscapes and inscapes too, sometimes tracts of unknown counties, most often the one great hill” in a single spanning thought. The all encompassing, self-assured and belligerent stance of Kamala Das asserting
“It is I who laugh, it is I who make love / ---- I am sinner, I am saint. I am the beloved and the / Betrayed. I have no joys which are not yours, no / Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I,12
finally connects the woman with the world. It is more than evident here, that feministic poetic compositions have traversed through great distances to achieve a total integration with humanistic themes. However, the predominance of the female artistic premise continues to invigorate and illuminate the wider zones of human thought and activity. Consider lines from Gillian Clarke’s ‘Red Poppy’:
“So she walks out of the rectangles / Of hard, crowded America / And floods the skies ---/ You can put out the sun with poppy, / ---- she paints out language, land, sky, / So we can only look and drown in deeps / Of poppy under a thundering sun”.13
The unmistakable nuances, subtext and meta-text of Female Nationhood resonates with almost similar lines in Laksmisree Banerjee’s ‘Sky’:
“When the storm broke in, / she looked through / at the outside jettying in ---- / No walls, only a heap / of dry, incinerated hopes / ---- She started building / once more / This time, not a home but a sky”.14
Hence, ‘Nation’ is no longer a traumatized space for segregation of the oppressed victim but a proclaimed arena of female fortitude and spiritual beauty, as wide as the sky, as deep as the ocean and as diversely ornate and multi-hued as a garden.
In investigating the varied linguistic, mythic, historical, cultural and symbolic dimensions and precincts of these ‘Nations of the Soul’, one discovers a happy interlink between every temporal and spatial category of women poets from grandmothers, through mothers to daughters. One notices a sharp movement from the earlier agonized cries, through later war cries to a final emancipatory enlargement of vision and space with an imaginative dissolution of earlier imbalances. As Adrienne Rich expostulates in ‘Frame’:
“Her body is different now, / It is holding together with more than a hint of fury / and more than a hint of fear” 15,
the Commonwealth and Fellowship of poet-sisters, has finally arrived at a point of meaningful convergence. Feminism, with its backlash and a new era of post-feminist humanism, refocuses and redefines imaginative, conceptual and cultural parameters for the understanding of these female ‘Nations of the Soul’ in a broader, deeper and a more holistic category. These are no longer ghettoized, gendered spaces but significant spheres of human issues and experiences grounded in a globalised reality of worlds within and beyond worlds. Though, today’s ‘Draupadi’ is
“Once more / stripped to the raw nerves and / bared in books and case studies” feeling the weight of “an anachronistic civilization”,
she is now an epitome and a spokesperson of the entire human race with
“the global features on her face” and “her heart arrested at a still point in history”.16
The earlier struggles, subversions, desperate battle-lines and oppressive silences have given way to a new, radical tranquility of an unconquerable Nationhood.
Notes and References
1. Aijaz Ahmad, “Salman Rushdie’s Shame: Postmodern Migrancy and the Representation of Women”,
In Theory, OUP, 1992, p.123.
2. Ed. Florence Howe, “The Poem as Mask” by Muriel Rukeyser, No More
Masks, Harper Perennial, 1973, p. xxvii.
3. Maitrayee Choudhary, “Gender in the Making of the Indian Nation – State”,
Nation and National Identity in South Asia, Orient Longman, 2000, p. 113-114.
4. John Lechte, “Introduction”, Julia Kristeva, Routledge, 1990, p. 5-6.
5. Ed. Fleur Adcock, “Mushrooms” by Sylvia Plath, The Faber Book of 20th Century Women’s
Poetry, Faber & Faber, 1987, p. 233.
6. Ed. H.K. Kaul, “Punarnava” by Rajlukshmee Debee Bhattacharya, Poetry India : Emerging Voices, Hind Pocket Books, 1992, p. 21-22.
7. Ed. Gregory Castle, “The Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon, Postcolonial
Discourses, Blackwell Publishers, 2001, p. 4-5.
8. Ed. Gregory Castle, “Nationalism, Gender and the Narrative of Identity” by R. Radhakrishnan,
Postcolonial Discourses, Blackwell Publishers, p. 193.
9. Ed. Helen McNeil, Poem Nos. 214 & 303, Emily Dickinson : Selected
Poems, Phoenix Poetry, 2003, p. 5 & 17.
10. Ed. K.C. Lahiri, “Indian Dancers” & “Indian Gypsy” by Sarojini Naidu,
Indo-English Poetry in Bengal, Writers Workshop, 1974, p. 130-135.
11. Ed. Jan Marsh, “Advent”, Christina Rossetti : Selected Poems, Phoenix Poetry, 1996, p. 3.
12. Ed. Arlene Zide, “Introduction” by Kamala Das, In Their Own Voice, Penguin, 1993, p. 46.
13. Ed. Linda France, “Red Poppy” by Gillian Clarke, Sixty Women Poets, Bloodaxe Books, 1993, p. 85.
14. Laksmisree Banerjee, “Sky”, I am the Woman : I am the World, UBSPD, 2004.
15. Ed. Florence Howe, “Frame” by Adrienne Rich, No More Masks, Harper Perennial, 1973, p. 204.
16. Ed. Arlene Zide, “Draupadi” by Lakshmi Kannan, In Their Own Voice, Penguin,
1993, p. 97.