Sunday, July 15, 2007

dorothy livesay: the most incredible woman in canadian literature

Selected Poems from 15 Canadian Poets x3
by E. J. Pratt, edited by Gary Geddes

The Unquiet Bed

The woman I am
is not what you see
I'm not just bones
and crockery

the woman I am
knew love and hate
hating the chains
that parents make

longing that love
might set men free
yet hold them fast
in loyalty

the woman I am
is not what you see
move over love
make room for me

Asking the Canadian establishment to move over and make room was the life's work of Dorothy Livesay. He focus on the marginalized people in Canada from the 1920s to the 1990s makes her a unique figure because her career has spanned massive changes in the make-up of Canadian society, and the feminist lens through which she viewed the world enabled her poetry to be intensely socially conscious. Whether trying to illustrate the injustice of the internment of Japanese-Canadians (especially those who were naturalized Canadians or Canadian citizens) or fighting for a place for women's literature, Livesay's poetry is a beacon of social justice in the Canadian literary landscape.

In what I think is her best poem, "The Three Emilys," Livesay points out the challenges of being a mother, a writer, and a feminist. She starts off the poem with the smug standpoint that the titular Emilys -- Dickinson, Bronte and Carr -- "walk alone, uncomforted" because they were not able to have children. Livesay remarks that she has had the opportunity to do it "all" -- she has a family, and a career as a writer. But by the end of the poem, it is Livesay herself who is "uncomforted," because she feels that she has failed to give her all to her art as the Emilys were able to do. She determines, "the whole that I possess / is still much less" than what the Emilys achieved because she has not really balanced a career and a family so much as she has sacrificed both to achieve diminished success. For Livesay, the inability to live androgynously as the Emilys did has caused her conflict. She is a woman living in a world where women are supposedly capable of achieving everything, and yet she feels that she has failed at both tasks she set out to accomplish. Where at first she felt sorry for the Emilys, she is left feeling sorry for herself.

Livesay's interest in gender differenced culminates in her most anthologized poem, "Bartok and the Geranium," where man is the genius composer Bartok and woman is the mere geranium on his windowsill. But where Bartok is passion and flight, the geranium is compassion, nurturing, and love. Each takes on their roles, and it is only through the combination of both that perfection is reached. But in the end, the geranium gets the last laugh:
She's daylight
He is dark
She's heaven-held breath
He storms and crackles
Spits with hell's own spark.

Yet in this room, this moment now
These together breath and be:
She, essence of serenity,
He in a mad intensity
Soars beyond sight
Then hurls, lost Lucifer,
from heaven's height.

And when he's done, he's out:
She leans a lip upon the glass
And preens herself in light.

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