Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo revisioning the past

The twentieth-century feminist project included a reappraisal of classical and biblical myths in order to ‘re-vision,’ as Adrienne Rich phrased it (1975: 90), both texts and the cultures that created them. This re-visioning also had the goal of reinvigorating old forms or developing new ones to open up the possibility of alternative knowledges. Women writers have continued to embrace the long poem, poetic sequence or hybrid verse novel as a vehicle for discovering, rewriting or reclaiming history and thereby asking what can be learned by retelling it from alternative perspectives, as demonstrated in two case study narratives set in colonial Canada and Roman London: Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe. Metaphors relating to vision or re-vision speak to questions of identity that the central characters (both of whom can be characterised as writers) ask themselves in relation to a hegemonic culture that seeks to control, restrict or subdue a full expression of their natures. Comparing these two writers also reveals how, in the twenty-first century, the feminist project of reclaiming history encompasses perspectives of ‘the other,’ marginalised because of race and status as well as gender.

 

Keywords: verse novel – generic hybridity – feminist history – metaphor

 

1 Introduction: History Through Whose Eyes?

‘The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.’ (Oscar Wilde 1891)

(epigraph to Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe)

 

The twentieth-century feminist project included a reappraisal of classical and biblical myths as well as history in order to ‘re-vision,’ as Adrienne Rich phrased it (1975: 90), both texts and the cultures that created them. The re-visioning of these ‘second wave’ (Keller 1997) feminist writers aimed to reinvigorate old forms in order to speculate about alternative cultural histories. Some practitioners experimented with genre to open up new avenues of investigation, which might enable them to reveal nonconformist knowledges not possible in conventional literary modes. Whether we call these experiments unorthodox, radical, avant-garde or simply novel, bold or refreshing (all terms common in book reviews), the consequence is the expansion of ways of apprehending the world and the individual’s place in it. A form that has enjoyed increasing popularity since the early modern period (Keller 1997) is the poetic sequence, long poem or hybrid verse novel as a vehicle for discovering, rewriting or reclaiming history and thereby asking what can be learned by retelling it from non-patriarchal points of view.

The two case study narratives discussed here, those by Margaret Atwood (Canada) and Bernardine Evaristo (England), separated by thirty-one years, and representing what can be called ‘second’ and ‘third wave’ feminism [1], tackle questions of identity and gender in instructive ways. The younger writer, Evaristo, explores race as well as female and alternative sexualities as subjects in her verse novel and how they impact on self-knowledge and social acceptance. The Journals of Susanna Moodie and The Emperor’s Babe are divided geographically and temporally: colonial Canada and Roman London. The grounding of both in the past nevertheless allows these contemporary writers to emphasise motifs of ‘otherness’ revolving around migration, alienation and disorientation. In particular, they deploy metaphors relating to vision or re-vision that create a narrative spine. The trope of vision and its association with insight goes back to classical times in the Western tradition. [2] Here each protagonist questions their appearance and what lies behind it, restricted by a hegemonic culture that seeks to subdue them. Both protagonists struggle to uncover and confirm aspects of their personalities that social convention would deny. Tellingly, Atwood’s Susanna and Evaristo’s Zuleika embrace ‘writing’ in some way, whether as vocation or avocation, in their struggle towards self-knowledge but, as this article suggests, Evaristo moves beyond a feminist possible history to raise questions about race and social position not encompassed by 1970s feminism per se.

Before turning to the verse novels, a word about the genre’s antecedents. Numerous critics have noted that the origins of the verse novel lie in ancient Sumerian, Greek and Roman epics and tracked its development through medieval sagas and romances until it lost its ascendency with the eighteenth-century flourishing of the prose novel (Keller 1997; Kroll 2010; Murphy 1989; Sauerberg 2004; Weste 2014, inter alia). Nevertheless, the verse novel has continued to be written into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, in particular as ‘the American long poem’ and in Australia, Canada and the UK primarily as verse narratives or themed collections. Whatever labels applied to it by its creators or the marketplace, this form has not lost its ability to metamorphose and consequently surprise, inflected now by feminist, minority and LGBTI voices. Given the plethora of denominations, I find Lynn Keller’s (1997) taxonomy of narrative works in verse useful to contextualise the case studies in this article. Keller sees the long poem as a family with numerous branches, and does not seek to privilege one form above another by shoehorning them into rigid generic boxes, which might restrict analysis.

Narrative poems, verse novels, sonnet sequences, irregular lyric medleys or cycles, collage long poems, meditative sequences, extended dramatic monologues, prose long poems, serial poems, heroic epics – this is a partial list of the formal varieties that I believe may legitimately be identified as long poems. (Keller 1997: 3)

Keller goes on to argue why women writers enthusiastically engaged with the long poem, its length and scope allowing the exploitation of ‘sociological, anthropological, and historical material ... which renders it particularly useful for poets eager to explore women’s roles in history and in the formation of culture’ (Keller 1997: 14-15). Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) fits into the period of early experimentation in Canada. A year later Adrienne Rich published her wake-up call to American feminists, ‘“When We Dead Awaken”: Writing as Revision’ (1971). She urged women writers to undertake a rigorous reappraisal of the past, including biblical and classical myths that have grounded Western conceptions of gender as well as societal organisation. ‘Revision, the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction’ (1971: 9), is a practice that contemporary feminists might apply not only to mythic tales but also to any historical document and/or so-called official history that offers a patriarchal or hegemonic perspective only. [3]

Given this diversity [4], Keller eschews the ‘one theory fits all’ principle, arguing that although critics generally agree that ‘the long poem is … a generic hybrid’ (1997: 2), the manner in which poets manipulate a myriad of generic conventions varies drastically, as does their allied ‘models of practice’ (1997: 2). The attributes of a multiplicity of genres can be exploited, therefore, depending upon a poet’s aesthetics and subject matter. The following case studies demonstrate that there is no one template for a historical verse novel, but I propose this general definition: an extended work in verse that draws upon the resources of poetry and prose to tell stories based to some degree on historical characters or on historical contexts. I treat the works discussed here in chronological order to show how the verse novel has evolved. I begin with Atwood’s collection of lyrics, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), situated at the beginning of this period of intense feminist experimentation. Atwood selected a historical nineteenth-century migrant and writer as her protagonist. I turn next to The Emperor’s Babe, Bernardine Evaristo’s linguistically inventive narrative of the short life of fictitious Zuleika (2002), Nubian migrant, set in Roman London 211 AD.

2 The Double Vision of Susanna Moodie

where my eyes were,
every-
thing appears

The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) can be denominated a themed illustrated collection, a long poem, a poetic sequence, or a short verse novel. Any critic could justify those labels by selective analysis. Atwood simply chooses the subtitle ‘Poems by Margaret Atwood,’ which problematises the primary designation that identifies this book as the journals of a historical figure. The prose journal has a long history; depending on national practice it could be termed a diary. Women’s journals or diaries in particular have been under-valued by literary critics (Smith and Watson 1998: 4-5). As forms they privilege the individual voice recording and responding to daily life (Haslam and Neale 2009: 61-88). [5] I find that short verse novel suits this argument as it allows me to highlight the way in which Atwood structures the Journals temporally and metaphorically. The historical Susanna journeyed with husband and children into the untamed Canadian interior and back to a semblance of civilisation, which parallels her journey as a British woman migrant into herself.

This personal experience reveals on a broader scale what happens when an alien culture tries to superimpose itself on a radically different environment and the resultant challenges an inchoate nation faces. Susanna Moodie, thus, can also provide a limited case study of imperialism from a postcolonial perspective. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the migrants from European countries who settled (if they did not first conquer) new worlds did not understand the land or the indigenous inhabitants and their languages. In the Journals Susanna admits that the meaning of words shifts depending not only on who says them but also on what credentials they possess in claiming understanding.

Whether the wilderness is
real or not
depends on who lives there.
(1970: 13).

As in Australia, indigenous peoples in Canada felt at home in their place, unlike those who superimposed another culture upon them, perceiving their home as dangerous and inhospitable. [6]

Historically the Moodies only lived in the bush for seven years (Atwood 1970: 63), yet that period of transplantation gave her material upon which to reflect when finally resettled in a growing town. Susanna would have been bound by the stylistic and generic conventions of her era telling those stories. Nevertheless, her personality rather than her literary productions began to work on Atwood’s mind, first in a dream, where Atwood thought she had already written an opera based on her life, but only one actor appeared ‘on the empty white stage [where] a single figure was singing’ (Atwood 1970: 62). Atwood remembered the duality or contradictions in her attitude to her adopted country, surfacing occasionally in her prose: Susanna ‘reflects many of the obsessions still with us’ (1970: 62). At once stranger and settler, migrant and mother, she encapsulates the moral dilemmas inherent in an imperial culture imposing itself on a supposedly ‘empty’ land (think of the British concept of Terra Nullius in Australia).

The draw of the wilderness and paradoxical fear and horror of it is what Atwood highlights, comparing it to her neighbour America’s settler experience with its people’s sense of manifest destiny: ‘If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia’ (Atwood 1970: 62). Atwood believes this sense of doubleness in the national consciousness and the consequent mental disorientation it promotes is evident in Susanna Moodie’s works:

Mrs Moodie is divided down the middle: she praises the Canadian landscape but accuses it of destroying her; she dislikes the people already in Canada but finds in people her only refuge from the land itself; she preaches progress and the march of civilization while brooding elegiacally ... (1970: 62).

Whether these psychic contradictions existed in the historical Susanna Moodie is ultimately not relevant. Atwood finds them an effective vehicle for bringing to light the complexities facing migrants in general and women in particular. The Journals revolve around two main interrelated tropes – doubleness and vision – foregrounding this dualistic attitude to Canada.  

Divided into three sections, which cover arrival and excursion into the bush, move to town and subsequent artistic career, the verse novel therefore follows the chronology of Susanna’s life. Journal 1: 1832-1840; Journal 2 1840-1871; and Journal III: 1871-1969. It ends with an imagined post-death existence for her in the present, when she views her adopted country through the eyes of an old woman on a bus. The Journals as a collection presents, therefore, a rough autobiographical sketch – rough because it makes no attempt to fill in the gaps. Other characters remain evanescent and only significant as they impact upon the protagonist’s mind. The poetry creates a portrait of Susanna as an introspective, artistic and alienated woman trying to make sense of a life that has been chosen for her by her marital and social status.

Atwood’s Journals can therefore be viewed in two ways, using Keller’s analysis of the long poem’s structure: ‘The long poem’s parts, closely or loosely bound, may stand in hypotactic or paratactic relation’ (Keller 1997: 304). In fact, this book exhibits both types of organisation, where poems are either dependent on each other or weighted equally in the narrative [7]. They are chronologically ordered, so they stand in a hypotactic relationship to each other. Yet Atwood makes no attempt to bridge gaps in Susanna’s life or to answer questions that readers might have about details usually found in journals. For example, which children survived to give her grandchildren? What where their names? When did her husband die? Did she have close friends? What emerges instead is a psychic portrait of the impact of the wilderness, a journey into the interior that is never resolved, and how it shapes her relationship to Canada. The wilderness continues to fascinate even when she moves to town, modifying her sense of being a settler – a label like migrant. She never feels established in the sense of someone who knows her own country.

Before proceeding with a close reading, I want to discuss briefly the inclusion of a visual dimension to the Journals. Reproductions of Atwood’s six greyscale collages accompany the text, enhancing the book’s character as a generic hybrid that offers some of the variation and aesthetic richness of a graphic novel. That relatively new genre has generated increasingly sophisticated criticism that emphasises its ‘intermediality’ (Sundberg 2017: 31) as well as the difficulty of fitting it into the pre-existing generic taxonomies (Kuipers 2011: 281). [8] Atwood’s 1970 collection with images created by the poet herself possesses incipient qualities that will find manifold expressions in the twenty-first century. Although much more could be written about the visual, it is outside this article’s scope. Nevertheless, I want to indicate some ways in which they reflect upon the interrelated figures of doubleness and vision. Paul Carter’s research on the materiality of artistic works and the impact of collaboration is apposite here. In the first instance, his assertion that ‘creative knowledge cannot be abstracted from the loom that produced it’ (Carter 2004: 1) points to the integration in an illustrated work of words and images. Although this is not a comprehensively illustrated collection or, indeed, a picture book, critical reflection on the interaction between verbal and visual narratives contributes to an understanding of how Atwood utilises the greyscale collages.

Google provides a generic definition of collage: ‘a piece of art made by sticking various different materials such as photographs and pieces of paper or fabric on to a backing’ (Google 2017). The collages have been copied and appear as one-dimensional in a tactile sense but retain depth through the contrast between blacks and whites. They also retain a substantive quality, suggesting that the poet-artist composed them of bits and pieces found around the house. Susanna and her family are depicted in a primitive, doll-like style, almost as if a child had constructed these collages with her rudimentary mastery of drawing before cutting them out to paste. [9] Atwood’s choice of material and shading underlines the contrasts inherent in the themes of wilderness and civilisation, female and male, native and migrant and, on a broader scale, the dualities of vision that expressed them.

In addition, some theories applied to analyse picture books as collaborative artefacts reflect upon ways in which the collages work in the Journals. Just as word placement and line breaks in poetry affect meaning, so too does the placement of images contrast with or replicate the narrative’s significations, as will be pointed out later in the argument. The illustrations offer an ‘affective visual experience’ (Doonan 1993: 7) for readers and viewers that parallels the text’s verbal experience. If, as Perry Nodelman says, ‘because the words and pictures … both define and amplify each other’ and, thus, ‘neither is as open-ended as either would be on its own’ (1988, viii), I suggest that the impact of these Journals would be lessened without the collages, in particular with reference to its focus on Susanna’s dual perspectives – positive and negative – about her migrant status and her adopted home. They emphasise too her overall ambivalence about her gender roles.

In sum, the six greyscale collages visually contextualise the thematic focus on the difficulty of achieving self-knowledge, blurred as they are, and how this complicates grasping the dynamics of relationships. They are also menacing in the way space and shading are employed, appropriate for the journals of a woman who enters a foreign culture. The epigraph to the book, appearing before the first journal’s text and its accompanying picture, prepares readers for the dominant trope of vision. Susanna says that she cuts out a picture of herself using ‘sewing scissors’ (a conventional implement for women defined by domestic chores) to excise the eyes. Paradoxically, how can one see without eyes? The text asserts that the face being partly obliterated allows ‘more accurate’ (first page) vision, implying that turning one’s sight internally facilitates self-knowledge and by extension understanding of external reality too: now ‘every-/ thing appears’ (first page). Susanna will be moving, the words suggest, and the images amplify, beyond the gendered roles she plays as housewife, mother and conventional popular writer and artist.

In Journal I Susanna lands with her family in Quebec and then sails upriver. The first three poems focus on people and externals. She disembarks alone, she comes with first arrivals, and she has new neighbours. Readers learn details that reveal her status, her gender and consequently the type of life she might have left behind. She reacts negatively to the desolation of the landscape and the climate. Other immigrants ‘shout/ Freedom!’ (11) but she does not share their sense of emancipation. Abruptly transplanted from a known reality to the unknown, Susanna wonders who she is: ‘The moving water will not show me/ my reflection’ (11). Mirrors too are allied with the trope of vision, as they reflect, however imperfectly, self and others. That lack of knowledge spills over into the primal marital relationship, demoralising her, so she ‘refuse[s] to look in a mirror’ (13). Not only the beasts and their landscape frighten her, but her ‘shadowy husband’ (13) becomes infected by this insecurity. In order to survive, she must connect with her animal nature, see with keen/night vision: ‘I need wolf’s eyes to see/ the truth’ (13). But how to do that threads through this first journal.

As a whole, therefore, it offers a visual and linguistic mélange, so that the sudden audio and visual stimulation of the bush is exacerbated by English settlers who speak rough dialects and the patios of French settlers. [10] She does not accept or feel accepted by any of them, which contradicts the clichéd pioneer spirit purveyed by nationalists in America, Canada and Australia. Yet she herself now seems an unknown: ‘I am a word/ in a foreign language’ (11). Susanna comes upon, not a home but ‘a large darkness’ (12), at once the wilderness and her unilluminated consciousness: ‘It was our own/ ignorance we entered’ (12). Susanna believes she recognises this fact, while her husband as well as other men do not realise their self-deception: ‘If they ... open their eyes even for a moment’ (17), the wilderness would engulf them. Extending her reliance on visual metaphors, she speaks later of her husband being ‘blotted out’ (19), one of the ‘weremen’ who disappears into the forest. If she cannot see him, does he still exist? The implicit question is, did she ever know him?

From a focus on people, the poems shift to interrogate the meaning of ‘wilderness’; complicating this is the previous incursions of others who have tried to forge paths into its heart. How can you – as an individual or a representative of another culture – decode a wild country if you have not been invited into it? Again, these conundrums are negotiated through metaphors of vision:

I am watched like an invader
who knows hostility but
not where.
(21).

Note the word ‘invader,’ where she accepts the label and all that it implies. The wilderness might swallow her up together with all signs of her family’s existence before she has even gained self-knowledge [9]. But that she does not have time for, because her husband, the patriarch, suddenly announces by letter that they must abandon a place she has only just begun to feel settled in and join him in the town. In ‘Looking in a Mirror,’ she articulates this new self: her ‘heirloom face’ is now ‘stained…its barbarous colour [by the sun]’ (24). She must submit, despite being denied illumination:

eyes bewildered after
seven years, and almost
blind/buds, which can see
only the wind
(25)

The opening of Atwood’s second journal alerts readers to its tone and central concerns. Although it covers the middle period of her life (her career as a writer and amateur artist and her role as a mother), it also engages with broader subjects, such as the nature of memory and history as well as the darker side of the psyche. It begins, not with elation at a more civilised physical and psychological environment, but with a child’s death. Little has previously been said about Susanna’s children except during times of crisis. Susanna does not mention names or ages and does not note the minutiae of family life. Yet the opening records a child’s death. This strategy suggests that Atwood wants to emphasise that here too the environment poses threats and that this uneasiness will henceforth colour the protagonist’s feelings about her adopted country. Historically a son accidentally drowns in the river at or soon after arrival. Atwood’s Susanna speculates that he will ‘see’ – that is gain – knowledge before she does: ‘through his eyes’ thin glass bubbles/ he is going into an unknown land’ (30). At this point, Susanna Moodie has not accepted Canada. Now it appears she will be irrevocably connected, as her son is the first thing the land claims: ‘I planted him in this country/ like a flag’ (31). What this flag signifies for her remains unexpressed.          

The town has comforts the bush did not, yet immigrants still struggle to accommodate a world where the mother country tries to replicate the strata of British society: ‘they think they will make an order/ like the old one’ (32). Susanna claims that she has superior vision and knows that cultural imposition will not work. Nevertheless, she believes she can make a success of this second chance at settlement, but Atwood writes for her three dreams where the bush she has left haunts her, its fecundity terrifying and its dangers often hidden. In this second section too, Atwood explores what history means to an incipient nation and to the individuals trying to create it. A poem like ‘1837 War in Retrospect’ is critical in Susanna’s progress towards self-knowledge but also in its articulation of the slipperiness of historical events. Those who write it simplify rather than admit to complex truths. There was in fact a rebellion in 1837 where Susanna’s husband acted bravely; authorities rewarded him by appointing him sheriff in Belleville. This marks a historical shift in the family’s fortunes but also allows the fictional Susanna to discover what her feminist successors assert – that there are multiple sides to a story:

that history (that list
of ballooning wishes, flukes,
bent times, plunges and mistakes
clutched like parachutes)

is rolling itself up in your head
at one end and unrolling at the other.
(35)

Her memories of tumultuous events seem unreliable. Re-thought or re-drawn they resemble bold and simplified children’s drawings, where the horrors of battle can be simultaneously distanced and intensified: ‘the smoke and red fire/ made actual through a child’s fingers’ (35) that wield a crayon [11]. This comment relates to Atwood’s feminist agenda as it suggests it is easy for anyone’s role in history to be diminished or overlooked. The anachronism of ‘parachutes’ implies this, as it rolls up past and present.

In this second journal other children die as well, which leads Moodie to question the worth of her sacrifices. She has been a wife who cannot make a safe and hospitable home in the bush, and now she sees herself as a mother who loses her children. What identity can she claim with confidence?

Did I spend all those years
building up this edifice
my composite
     self, this crumbling hovel?
(41)

The accompanying eerie collage displays the family – husband, wife, two children (another dead) – with blacked out eyes, as if they are dead already. They cannot see and yet Susanna attempts to record what they mean: ‘My arms, my eyes, my grieving/ words, my disintegrated children’ (41).

The emotional stresses in this second section foreground the concept of the writer’s double voice that expresses emotions and yet stands distanced in order to record them. It merges with the text’s use of vision as metaphor: ‘Two voices/ took turns using my eyes’ (42). Atwood juxtaposes the conventional trappings of a nineteenth-century genteel woman with the primal nature that lies beneath. Susanna did paint and write (‘composed uplifting verse’) and does charitable ‘good works.’ But the inner voice that suffers ‘had other knowledge’ (42). That voice speaks of the dissatisfaction with gender roles – the unpleasant physical aspects of men and their behaviour – and laments the pain that comes with knowing she will lose loved ones. On a broader scale, the voice speaks of the land as unkind, if not aggressive and damaging. This second section thus affirms what Atwood herself summarises in the Afterword about the schizophrenic Canadian personality – the older woman, scarred and yet educated by life, is at once patriot and critic, realist and fatalist.

One saw through my
bleared and gradually
bleaching eyes, red leaves,
the rituals of seasons and rivers.
(42)

The rhythms of nature and the ways in which one ages are both inevitable, positive and negative. Atwood glosses the end of this section by saying that ‘at the end she [Susanna] accepts also the inescapable doubleness of her own vision’ (63).

The third journal takes a significant leap in time, when Susanna, with failing hearing and mobility, appears comfortably middle-class. Written somewhat later than the other journals, Atwood reveals in her Afterword that she finally accessed a picture of Susanna and that vision of her ‘as a mad-looking and very elderly lady’ (63) influenced Journal III. Atwood’s collage shows one eye, black and sunken, the other small and fuzzy, making the face asymmetrical. Both eyes appear scratched out. As Paula Carson says, reviewing a contemporary book that features images that have been commissioned to respond to poems: ‘The word “illustrate” translates as “illuminate” and as history has proven, it's always been a challenge or even a need to translate or illuminate words from the head into pictures’ (2005: 50). In a reverse process, Atwood translates the historical and material Moodie picture into a poetic reflection that complicates the verse novel’s portrait of Susanna, who throughout her life sees double and struggles with balancing those perspectives. Images of eyes, moons, pictures, daguerreotypes and lightning dominate this section, underlining sight in manifold forms. Family is barely mentioned (only alienated grandchildren). Susanna is defined now by her later career. Earlier she ‘wrote/ verses about love and sleighbells’, just as she painted pretty pictures for tourists so she could feed and clothe her family. No longer emotionally and intellectually naïve, Susanna asserts: ‘There is no use for art’ (47). Is the implication for readers that there is no use for untruthful art, an art that lacks insight?

‘Daguerreotype Taken in Old Age’ (48) seems to refer to the portrait Atwood discovered. Here Susanna admits change but cannot articulate what it means. Photographs are semi-permanent images of a person’s face, but they too will stain, discolour and perish. The ‘vapid face’ (48) puzzles her, while she says she is ‘a walking skeleton of sorts’ (48). Although not dead yet, ‘my eye-sockets 2 craters’ (48). Her face is ‘rotund’ and ‘pitted’ like the moon, orbiting through her property. The moon reflects the sun but Susanna does not claim illumination. Instead, ‘I am being/ eaten away by light’ (48). [12] ‘Solipsism While Dying’ (52-53) deconstructs the individual on her deathbed into the essential body and its senses, highlighting the eyes. What does the body know that the mind cannot tell? At death, Susanna can still rehearse her life by telling herself stories: ‘repeating histories, worn customs’ (52), admitting that she ‘created’ herself. Yet the poem undermines this solipsistic vision of her reality – ‘let there be/ the sun-/ set’ (52) is followed by a ‘But.’ Can her family and their world exist once she is gone? What will disappear are her perceptions, as tenuous as any socially constructed world view.

Atwood extends this conceit of individual and national history dependent on who ‘sees’ and who says to ask implicitly: who records? After death, Susanna speaks from the hereafter in two alternative visions: ‘Thoughts from Underground’ (54-55) and ‘Alternative Thoughts from Underground’ (57). Both critique what Susanna Moodie, wife, mother, migrant and writer, thought of Canada and her place in it. Her love/hate relationship reprises the motif of doubling in the Canadian consciousness. Those emotions engender gratitude and guilt with the result that ‘my mind saw double’ (54), apprehending two affective contexts. In particular, ‘Alternative Thoughts from Underground’ (57) juxtaposes the civilised British hegemony that follows Susann Moodie’s death with the remnants of the indigenous population and the invaders that lie together below ground. In the afterlife, the reluctant migrant identifies with the world of wild forests and the Indians that respected them, rather than with the proud and technologically savvy social order that replaces them. It was and still is in a sense their ‘place.’ [13] The poem ‘Resurrection’ (58-59) picks up the implications of this bipartite view by returning to the trope of vision. The Canadian snow blinds on a literal level but the world as it was – and is now – confuses.

I see now I see
now I cannot see
. . .
earth is a blizzard in my eyes.
(58).

Merging Christian conceptions of heaven, amorphous light imagery, weather metaphors (sunlight/snowlight) and pantheistic beliefs in the spirituality of the land, Susanna returns to the forest as source – the trees – that blinded the naïve settler to bush dangers and yet provided shelter. When ‘god is the whirlwind’ (59), not its metaphorical voice, ‘at the last/ judgement we will all be trees’ (59). The body disintegrates into the earth, is absorbed and returned as new growth. The final poem is a kind of coda, ‘A Bus Along St Clair: December’ (60-61), where Susanna’s enlightened vision has been passed along to an old woman in urban Canada. She negotiates through the ‘unexplored/ wilderness of wires’ (60) of the city, visible to herself and invisible as the old often are to others.

Susanna Moodie is now part of Canadian history but who ‘sees’ – that is understands – what she meant? These poems do not answer that question, but offer her another voice, suggesting that there is not one template for a pioneer woman. As Susanna’s successor, the old woman says, ‘it shows how little they know/ about vanishing’ (60), those who create these technological marvels as if any social order will endure without change. The eyes are the last thing on which the poet focuses: ‘out of her eyes come secret/ hatpins, destroying/ the walls, the ceiling’ (61). The Canadian sense of alienation still inheres in her country. If readers open their eyes, ‘there is no city;/ this is the centre of a forest/ your place is empty’ (61).

Before closing this section, I want to emphasise the trope of vision as it relates to Susanna Moodie’s historical identity as a writer, as it reflects upon Evaristo’s protagonist, Zuleika, whom I turn to next. Writers record, research, analyse and metamorphose information that comes to them from multiple sources – life experience, archives, imagination, inter alia. Thirty-two years after The Journals, Atwood still held to the belief that a writer’s individual vision comes from ‘above and below’. Feminist writers re-engage with the personal and historical past to reclaim a version of the truth. 

All writers must go … from here to there; all must descend to where the stories are kept; all must take care not to be captured and held immobile by the past. And all must commit acts of larceny, or else of reclamation, depending on how you look at it. (Atwood 2002: 178)

How one looks determines how one interprets. Throughout the Journals, Susanna Moodie experiences epiphanies that emphasise that she ‘sees’ herself in stages: as alien in a strange land; as settled in town; and then isolated again in old age as someone both respected and ignored, devaluing the matriarchal and artistic identity she has constructed. Ultimately, she performs the role of seer, peering into the urban future of her adopted nation through her contemporary surrogate’s eyes.

 

3 The Perspectives of Zuleika: Migrant, Child Bride, Poet, Lover

Bernardine Evaristo (MBE) is a poet, novelist, editor and critic; she also holds an appointment at Brunel University and advocates for minority writers. The child of English/Irish and Nigerian parents, she has attempted in her work to date to give voice to alternative perspectives, beginning with her first published verse novel, Lara (1997; recently revised, expanded and re-issued in 2009), an autobiographical coming-of-age story. Evaristo has embraced formal and linguistic experimentation, as in her most recent novel, Mr Loverman (2013), which contains both poetry and prose. She uses a technique that she calls ‘literary ventriloquism’ (Evaristo 2017), letting her ‘perform’ the voice of an elderly, black, closet gay migrant Caribbean Londoner.

The Emperor’s Babe (2002) resulted from a residency at the Museum of London earlier in Evaristo’s career, where she attempted to research African migrants in the city’s Roman past, with little success. That period led her to attempt an exploratory rewriting. She wanted to counter this belief: ‘the myth of British history is that it is white’ (Evaristo 2017). Evaristo reports that the resulting work affected the museum’s curators who ultimately agreed that blacks must have lived in Roman London. The Emperor’s Babe announces its genre and historical location on its cover: ‘A verse novel of Londinium, 211 A. D.’ The word ‘babe,’ colloquial and sassy, immediately confronts, positioning the central character as an appendage of an all-powerful ruler. Yet Evaristo appropriates and problematises it. The verse novel’s epigraph prepares readers for a historical and linguistic experiment: ‘The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it’ (Wilde 1891). And rewrite history Evaristo does, speculating about what might have been lost, offering a pulsing postcolonial narrative with a twist, and celebrating the sensual texture of a Roman London peopled by British natives, migrants, Roman politicians, military leaders and traders from all corners of the Empire. Zuleika’s family are the ‘other’ – Nubian migrants with ‘a fat dream’ (Evaristo 2002: 3) – come to improve their fortunes in Londinium as shopkeepers. Zuleika’s story is an imaginative recreation of what might have happened to a poor, black, female, exquisite-looking wild child in a vibrant metropolis pushing towards greatness in the colonies.

The verse novel comprises ten sections framed by a Prologue (‘Amos Amas Amat’) and Epilogue (‘Vivat Zuleika’), a coherent narrative compared to Atwood’s Journals. It also benefits from a relatively compressed time frame; it sketches in her early life as a migrant street urchin – ‘Londinium Tour Guide (Unofficial)’ – through her marriage at eleven, to her untimely death by poison orchestrated by her husband (a Roman patrician) when she is nineteen. While Atwood’s collection conjectures about the internal conflicts Susanna Moodie might have experienced because of gender and class (although still part of the dominant culture), Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe exploits language and form in order to encompass the perspective of the ‘other’ as a black migrant woman. Evaristo’s postcolonial re-vision deploys linguistic pyrotechnics, including neologisms that blend colloquial English (serving as the demotic language of the empire) with a whimsical faux Latin (the official imperial language) in order to contextualise the challenges both Zuleika and her creator, a mixed-race Londoner, face in seeking to find meaning as artist and individual. Evaristo does not, therefore, hold back from including anachronisms when they suit her agenda since, as noted above, the history of black migrants in Roman London has been virtually erased. She embraces the task of fashioning a speculative history with the resources available to her as an experimental contemporary writer.

The Emperor’s Babe [14] is not only a hybrid because of form, but because it merges a range of fictional subgenres and tropes: a feminist historical re-visioning; an ancient postcolonial story (empire versus the colonies) introducing the notion of Roman London as a black migrant hub; a coming-of-age story; a story about age and wealth triumphing over youth and poverty; a love story (Zuleika and the emperor); a story about the psychology of power (the gladiatorial combats) and the ubiquity of human cruelty; and a satire on literature (the satiric poetry reading cum orgy). In particular, Evaristo manipulates the coming-of-age genre so that it is inflected by race and status as the world is filtered through Zuleika’s eyes. Transformed at her marriage into a faux Roman matron whose fate is to be shown off in a limited sphere because of her beauty, she is concomitantly hidden away because she is black. Paradoxically, she must be educated as befits her status, maturing intellectually, emotionally and sexually, which awakens her creativity. She is, however, denied the opportunity of exercising the attributes maturation brings, abandoned for long periods as she is by a husband who visits his white mistress in Rome and who travels as a politician. In addition, what happens to Zuleika reflects the ongoing debate about child marriage. Zuleika is aware of her second-class status, not simply as a black but also as a girl. Only the favoured son, her doltish brother, can have a chosen destiny. Zuleika knows what that means, from her father’s point of view, in all its specific and absurd detail:

‘This boy, this good Romanissimus boy,
of Nubian ancestors . . .
Great Grandson of my Father’s Father;

Father of my Future Grandchild; Grandfather
Of my future Great Grandson; Uncle

To your Children (ahem,!); Great Uncle
to their Children . . .’
(81)

The freedom that being overlooked gives her suffices when, as a child, she tears through the streets with best-friend Alba, but then, like young women in a patriarchal society, she becomes a commodity – ‘a knock-out object d’art’ (Evaristo 2002: 75) –  to be bartered to increase the family’s fortunes. Married at eleven to an overweight, elderly Roman patrician, Felix, before she has reached puberty, she is introduced to sex at the same time as she is ‘ruined’ as a woman. She will never bear children:

I have known only this, a shiver,
a million dreams expelled . . .

…your dead sons
trickling down my legs.
(68)

The transformation from girl to woman never, therefore, takes place normally. She metamorphoses so quickly from urchin to bride that she does not recognise herself in the mirror, that traditional image reflecting one’s sense of self. Zuleika objectifies herself as she describes the clothes and jewellery that camouflage ‘a girl’, befitting her bridegroom’s station, including the ‘metal collar’ ‘Here, Fido!’ (28) that symbolises Juvenal’s marital yoke. Not simply unnatural in her finery, she has become ‘other’ in a psychologically damaging way: ‘Someone watches me in the mirror’ (28). Zuleika in her natural state does not recognise this socially constructed persona. Only her parents and brother reap the rewards of her marital sacrifice, although Zuleika is the one who possesses realistic vision, seeing her family as farcical parvenus; at dinner, they imitate Roman customs: ‘[He] looked so awkward/ eating lying down, never did back at Chez His’ (79).

Evaristo’s work, however, marks a progression from simply re-imagining the past from a feminist perspective, and not simply because of her linguistic virtuosity and her mining of a relatively unexploited area of black migrant history, although those achievements are significant. In addition to issues about gender, race and migration, she tackles issues about the nature of sexuality, love and friendship and the importance of art. The overall trope of re-visioning history is negotiated on a literal and metaphorical level as Zuleika’s introduction to life experiences that open her eyes to possibility: art (poetry) and sex. In The Emperor’s Babe Zuleika moves from seeing herself only in relation to friends and family, to being defined by her husband (and his friends’) gaze, then finally to being reflected in the emperor Severus’s eyes. Zuleika’s urge to define her own identity is the source of much humour in this tragi-comic novel. An inexperienced woman who accepts people for what they are, she is doomed to disappointment because of race, gender and status. Yet Zuleika remains a hopeful character because Evaristo allows her to understand those contradictions. Even on her deathbed she has not given up yearning for a fuller life.

Let us deal first with her introduction to poetry. As part of her upgrading, so to speak, she is assigned a tutor. She is an apt and enthusiastic pupil who must witness the waste being lavished on her brother, the ‘demi-god [who] can barely string a sentence/ together for all his educatio’ (82). Her conventional professor, Theodorus, however, quashes any insights she might have about the past greats or future prospects for literature. She baulks at having to learn Ancient Greek, but reads her models in translation. First demerit point in her professor’s eyes. The second is that she is far too inexperienced, he lectures, and shouldn’t attempt to write before she has mastered the bulk of ancient poetry. The third demerit point comes with her gender. Her professor professes that difficult poetry is high art, moreover:

all the notable poets were men, except

for some butch dyke who lived with a bunch
 of lipstick lesbias on an island in Greece

but she was really a minor poet . . .
(84)

The subject matter does not appeal: war, conquest, the founding of empires and dynasties – tales of heroes and gods from the male point of view. Zuleika speaks as if she were a contemporary creative writing student enjoined to read the classics:

‘But you see, Dad, what I really want to read
and hear is stuff about us, about now,

about Nubians in Londinium, about men
who dress up as women, about extramarital

peccadilloes, about girls getting married
to older men …’
(85)

What Zuleika wants to read and write about reflects her experience of ‘the others’ in society: Zuleika’s surrogate mother, the drag queen, Venus (who runs a brothel), Alba, her best friend, who marries but has affairs without guilt, Zuleika herself who is sold off to a husband. She knows she has a long way to go to perfect her craft, but she is willing to put in the effort because art has become ‘a raison d’être’ (101). For her, art is bound up with identity. As she is dying, she laments to Alba:

‘I wanted to be important, Albs.’
‘I wanted to be a great poet or mosaicist
Or something. I’d have made a good empress.
(249)

The satiric poetry reading (Verbosa Orgia 194) could pass for a wild literary night out now. Zuleika has dressed to strike ‘the literary sophisticate look’ (194). Unfamiliar with the protocols, she notes that some readers tell jokes with poems and some only tell jokes. The performance is all. Audience members are impressed by a phony Pict, who love his ‘exotic charm’ and say ‘how brilliantly he did Anger’ (196). One of the guest readers, ‘winner of the Governor’s Award for poetry’ (197), is the stereotypical old male ego sucking up reading time, driving the audience to drink and sex. The evening predictably degenerates into an orgy, with no one paying attention when Zuleika takes the stage for her star turn. She reads something that could pass for a submission in a first-year creative writing class: ‘Identity Crisis: Who is she?’ (201). At once psychically exposed and objectified, Zuleika is a failure and leaves, because the only recourse would be to strip literally and join the orgy. 

Where art fails to satisfy, sex at least does for the space of the short affair with the emperor Severus. It is not only mediated through visual metaphors but also produces some of Zuleika’s (and Evaristo’s) most effective tragi-comic poetry. As noted, Zuleika’s sense of physical pleasure has not come from her husband. She has, however, learned something from the older Venus and young Alba, the triumvirate who comprise ‘the Babe Three’, ‘the three amicas!’ (214). When Zuleika meets Severus, her body learns about sexual pleasure. Art and sex interpenetrate at their first meeting, as Evaristo deploys the love at first sight cliché but manipulates it to comic effect. Zuleika senses the emperor’s eyes devouring her from across a crowded theatre:

and I knew without looking

that his desert eyes were roaming over
my voluptuous corpus, my breasts

had become a sensitive second pair of eyes.
(114)

Amplifying the metaphor of vision and how sex (if not love) can open our eyes to human relations, Evaristo has Zuleika observe in her post-coital bloom: “‘We exist only in the reflection of others.” I was suddenly feeling very enlightened’ (139). Evaristo continually exploits clichés in this verse novel and yet manages to wring further meaning from them. This is after all the first real experience Zuleika has had of sex without pain. The ‘love at first look’ cliché becomes fresh for Zuleika who has not understood before the power of her beauty and the reverse – how someone’s appearance can overcome another human being. Art has been her solace and substitute. Some poems in the love affair section are prefaced by her own poems (see 132, for example). Poetry was supposed to bring pictures alive in her mind and heart:

Poems were meant to fulfil me instead,
but I failed to create pictures

With my words – or did I?’
(143)

The clichéd bored wife seeking stimulation in an affair is reimagined from the perspective of the other – the black migrant girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

Even in the midst of her obsession with the emperor, Zuleika is aware of the instability and fickleness of the male gaze. During Severus’ post-coital sharing he speaks to her and ‘somewhere over [her] left shoulder/ …an audience’ (Evaristo 2002: 145). Nothing is what it seems:

All the men
in my life did this
as if their words
were too important for my ears alone.
(145)

At the same time that he supposedly opens up, she can tell he has rehearsed his tale of imperial woes before, if only to himself: ‘I see him in my looking glass’ (147). Severus objectifies himself as the misunderstood and harried ruler. Either Zuleika doesn’t exist for him, or she is another kind of vessel now – the lover become confidante, into whose ears the emperor pours his troubles, a ‘potted history…like life flashing before my eyes’ (147). Yet truth infiltrates their love talk, for although Severus asks her what she wants, she knows he does not want a truth unrelated to him. Zuleika manages to have it both ways. ‘To be with you’ is her first response, but then she adds: ‘“To leave a whisper of myself in the world, my ghost, a magna opera of words”’ (159).

Some of the most powerful poems chronicle the frenzied and brutal lovemaking between Zuleika and the emperor, or describe the excessive violence of the gladiatorial ring. As young as she is, she realises during her first attendance at a contest where death always wins how any human can descend to inhuman cruelty. The spectacle of naked, pregnant women offered to beasts at once stimulates her – she is alive and they are ripped apart – but also makes her empathise, seeing herself in others. [15] The descriptions of the natural world surrounding the couple as well as their subsequent mud-drenched coitus in a wild storm have more graphic definition and emotion behind them than the phony poetry read back in Londinium.

I inhaled the dew-soaked earth, damp bark,

wet fronds, a single
blade, wearing an opalescent earring,
at its tip.
(218)

The visceral depiction of the lovers as mating beasts, punctuated by Zuleika’s fantasies that he will take her away from her distasteful husband, seem to presage some change in fortune. But the emperor’s sudden death at York ensures her downfall. Zuleika has played while her neglectful husband has been away. Scandalised, even though it was the emperor who bedded his wife, Felix does not confront her but orders her slow poisoning with arsenic, escaping so he does not have to watch her die. As Zuleika languishes, poetry and insight come together, sharpening her vision: ‘It was the last days of summer, the sun/ had become a faltering heartbeat’ (244). Her insight extends to her understanding that Felix will regret his precipitate act of ordering her death and yet never admit it. Resigned, Zuleika tells Alba:

‘He’s the person he was brought up to be,

like all of us, even Venus,
except he did it with less imagination than most.

The only original thing he did was to wed
below his class, even then he hid me away.’
(247)

Her vision clears as she recites her ‘swan song’ to Alba. This italicised poem distils her fatalistic belief that she must pay for insight:

‘There are drops of clarity.
Poison does that to you.
Imminent death allows the birth
Of new perspectives.
(247)

Zuleika announces that this is her best poem; in the context of the verse novel, it is. Yet she retains her humour with that perspective, refusing to give in to self-indulgent complaint: ‘This isn’t a Greek Tragoedia, though/ it could be mistaken for one’ (245), she says to Alba.

The Epilogue reinforces the trope of vision as key to understanding and empathy. ‘Vivat Zuleika’ is the poet’s blank verse manifesto, explaining why she has created this young black woman in order to connect with the past, critical for gaining insight into the present. Evaristo leaves the vitality of contemporary London and enters the museum. She focuses on a statue or sarcophagus of a woman on ‘a golden couch ... in a panel of summer’, ‘obsidian/ with light and sweat’ (253) in the atrium. This epilogue could also function as a prologue; it suggests the ‘incipit’ moment, what started Evaristo on her imaginative journey. She ‘wears’ the persona of Zuleika – that is, she inhabits her creation – and through the act of poetic re-vision enters her story:

I slip
into your skin, our chest stills, drains
to charcoal. You have expired, Zuleika,
and I will know you, from the inside.
(253)

As the above discussion reveals, Zuleika as individual and emblem functions as a nexus. Evaristo creates a vibrant character who grapples with family relationships, sexuality, gender and race, inflected by her place in a colonial outpost. The mélange of formal and informal English (street slang, neologisms, revitalised clichés) and Latin plays with readers in order to evoke an ancient, mercurial city that is alive because of its contradictions – at once beautiful and repulsive – a city that influences what Zuleika as wild child and matron becomes.

 

4 Conclusion

Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo’s verse novels exhibit telling similarities and differences, which define them as participants in the twentieth and twenty-first century feminist literary projects of re-visioning or reclaiming women’s history. [16] The editors of a feminist retrospective summarise this drive as ‘the process of re-membering themselves in order to understand how aspects of the past may enter into the future’ (Ahmed et al 2000: 6: original emphasis, as qtd in Lavender 2016: 20). The two verse novels discussed here both look to the future, whether through the eyes of the protagonist (Susanna’s post-life insights) or through the eyes of the poet (Evaristo’s identification with Zuleika). The master narrative of the colonial taming of the wilderness is where Atwood begins in the 1970 Journals of Susanna Moodie, where she reappraises Canadian history from a feminist point of view. [17] In contrast, Evaristo examines the master narrative of colonisation not from the point of view of the conqueror or the colonised but of the minority migrant groups who follow to access the economic benefits of colonisation. She narrows this perspective to focus on ‘the other’ as a poor, black female.

Compared to Atwood’s resonant and restrained style in the Journals, which more traditionally exploits visual metaphors, and in addition amplifies its focus with the aid of greyscale collages, Evaristo barely leave readers time to pause in her headlong coming-of-age narrative. Nevertheless, Evaristo manipulates perspectives with her mélange of colloquial English and faux Latin and her overt play with anachronisms. Readers always remain cognisant that the story is being told from a twenty-first century perspective, just as Atwood occasionally employs anachronisms to remind readers that Susanna’s story takes place in the past. In both cases the shadow of the contemporary encourages readers to speculate about the degree of societal change that has occurred. In sum, each poet employs metaphors relating to vision in order to track their protagonists’ developing insights into their self and the culture that conditions them. Both Susanna and Zuleika have a sense of their places in the social order, yet are finally not sure what meaning they have achieved. Vision is a conventional trope but in these two verse novels it encompasses more than a singular focalisation on self. Each character is also a writer and, thus, tries to see through other eyes; that process eventually leads to renewed insights about their own identities as well as the positives and negatives of human experience.

Australian Dorothy Porter’s comments about the contradictions inherent in the verse novel genre apply here and suggest why it pushes towards expressing new insights about human relationships. She called it ‘quite a conservative art’ (2008), but then compared narrative poetry to ‘white water rafting’ (2008), highlighting the risk and excitement it can generate. The hybrid verse novel helps to express the instability of Susanna and Zuleika’s inner lives, as they push against their cultures, ‘shift[ing] the female subject from margin to center’ (Keller 1997: 304) and, at the same time, rendering ‘the history of a particular…community’ (Keller 1997: 304) through their distinct visions. [18]

 

Notes

[1] Critics debate the parameters of third and fourth wave feminism (Lavender 2016; Ahmet et al 2000, among others). For my purposes, it is sufficient to note that Atwood clearly belongs to second wave feminism but by the time Evaristo had published The Emperor’s Babe historical, aesthetic and cultural priorities had shifted and expanded. Rich’s manifesto includes literary reappraisal in general and linguistic analysis in particular; the use of language underpins how writers manipulate form and how they frame grammatical and hence gendered relationships. Linguistic experimentation has increased into the twenty-first century (Keller 1997).

[2] A favourite exemplar in literary glossaries defining dramatic and cosmic irony is Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, where ‘blindness’ in multiple forms structures the play. The seer Tiresias perceives more than the Theban king who subsequently blinds himself because he has not seen the truth and then cannot bear to view it in the form of his incestuously begotten children.

[3] I have discussed these ideas in a different context in the conference paper, ‘From now to once upon a time: reading the Book of Myths’ (Kroll 2010).

[4] Keller amplifies by juxtaposing length with depth and agenda: ‘In some contexts, the complexity of a poem’s intent and conception, as well as its length relative to other works in a poet’s oeuvre, might better determine whether it should be considered as a long poem than the number of pages it occupies…’ (1997: 21).

[5] I will refer henceforth to this book simply as Journals. When quoting poems, I will only give page numbers, not the date 1970. I have chosen to call Atwood’s protagonist Susanna rather than Mrs Moodie here as I feel it better reflects what captured Atwood initially in her writing – her personality as a woman dislocated from her conventional background as British wife and mother. Haslam and Neale (2009) discuss the characteristics of the journal as opposed to the diary and note national preferences.

[6] Atwood is one of the Canadian writers and intellectuals who chose to stay in Canada, despite the added drawbacks of being female as well (Atwood 1988). This decision coincided with Canadian literature’s founding as a scholarly field; an upsurge of young writers contributed to this national literary ferment. This 1970s' zeitgeist (which was superseded later in the century by those who chose to establish transnational identities) contextualises Atwood’s decision, summarised in her ‘Afterword’ (1970: 62-64), to investigate a historical figure such as Susanna, whose two books she characterises as conventional. Anecdotes about life in the Canadian wilderness replicated settler chronicles there and in Australia. Of course, some Canadian authors and critics are so well-known now, having established transnational careers, that they are not thought of as ‘Canadian’ in particular (literary critic Hugh Kenner, short-story writer Alice Munro, novelist, poet and Siri-Lankan migrant Michael Ondaatje and lyricist Leonard Cohen are four, among numerous others).

[7] Hypotaxis is a grammatical concept that can also relate to literary construction, indicating in the first instance the relationship between the elements in a sentence: ‘Hypotaxis is subordination of one clause to another, or when clauses are coordinated or subordinated to one another within sentences’ (web definition). Its opposite, parataxis can be defined thus: ‘In parataxis, the sentences, clauses and phrases are not coordinated or subordinated’ (web definition).

[8] ‘In artists’ books and graphic novels, the word–image dichotomy collapses. These media are not only merged, they need to be understood as inextricably interwoven if we want to do justice to their intermedial character. The ensuing complexity is linked to the problem of a coherent experience and therefore also to the difficulties of choosing, memorising, and summarising’ (Sunderg 2017: 41). Kuipers (2011) proposes that graphic novels or more broadly ‘graphic literature’ is ‘the next paradigm genre’ (281).

[9] There is a history of artists integrating collage into their oeuvre as well as illustrating poetry collections or individual poems. Without returning to medieval illuminated manuscripts or later the poet-printer-prophet-artist-visionary, William Blake, it is worth mentioning early twentieth-century Spanish poet Juan Gris, who began as a Modernista painter and graduated to Cubism. He created companion art to accompany various poets through his career, grasping the nuances of complex modernist poems and attempting to build these layers into his illustrations (da Costa 1989: 692).

[10] By the time the Moodies emigrate, England has been ruling Canada since the Treaty of Paris in 1763, but New France remained integrated with it and there was no attempt to ban the speaking of French (http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/english/). Without making it explicit, Atwood suggests that the Moodies must have had domestic help in England because Susanna knows little about cooking and cleaning.

[11] Another dominant trope is fire, which of course can be both positive and negative. Although I will not follow its course through the novel, I want to mention it as one of the primal figures that connect with one of the key senses – sight. Fire can destroy and cleanse, and Atwood allows Moodie to experience the threat and devastation of forest fires as well as their rejuvenating effect. Moodie’s exterior matches her internal change from Englishwoman to bush woman; even though dramatic, she still has not fully grasped the effect of these primal experiences.

[12] ‘Wish: Metamorphoses to Heraldic Emblem’ (49) reinforces the waning of the protagonist’s mind and her fear of dying, again couched in imagery that incorporates the idea of vision. Mythical beasts such as the dragon and phoenix signify power, terrible beauty and eternal life, something Susanna yearns for now – with a human eye replaced by jewels: ‘eyes glowing’ (1970: 49).

[13] That word echoes Aboriginal Sally Morgan’s autobiography My Place and more complexly Kate Grenville’s use of the phrase ‘my place’ to underline the dispossessed Aborigine’s insistence that he still belongs on Will Thornton’s land at the end of the stage adaptation of The Secret River (2017).

[14] Since I only deal here with Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe, in this section I will hereafter only use page numbers for quotations from the text.

[15] She cries, remembering, ‘the girl/ who so long ago had been stillborn/ inside the woman’ (179). As one of the hysterical mob screaming for blood, she relives ‘my first night/ in the Kingdom of the Dad, Dead, Father’ (179). The Pandora’s box of her memories forces her to cry for the dead women and unborn children as well as for herself. The performance of The Eradicator, testosterone incarnate, leads to a poem by Zuleika that is also Evaristo’s: ‘ALL THE EVIL OF THE WORLD LET LOOSE’ (184, original caps). Complicit in murderous acts she acknowledges her destructive passions, which are generated by the same life force that fuels the lovemaking that soon follows between the emperor and Zuleika.

[16] It is worth noting that feminist scholarship from the beginning was frequently practised by creative writers in all genres, producing benchmark hybrid works such as Rachel Blau Du Plessis’ The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice, which includes creative and critical material. It was begun in the 1970s but not published as a whole until 2006. How feminists in the late twentieth century engaged with previous critical and creative works affected how they re-examined and rewrote women’s history, as noted in the introduction.

 [17] By 1974, Atwood had branched out to experiment in ‘The Circe/Mud Poems,’ where she mixes poetry and prose, sometimes manipulating a dialogic format, in order to explore gender relations (see Kroll 2001). She juxtaposes ancient and modern worlds – that of the Odyssey where Odysseus has his one-year stand with Circe on her island – and a contemporary couple living in Canada. Here she interrogates the master narrative of the hero and the supplicant, the woman as seer facilitating male objectives and the role of sex and sexuality in personal and social relationships.

[18] In addition, Keller adapts Luce Irigaray’s ‘theorization of female sexuality’ (Keller 1997: 303) to the generic multiplicity of the long poem, which can be inflected not only by literary but also by ethnic or multicultural traditions. She ‘propose[s] that this is a genre which is not one, being “far more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more subtle than is commonly imagined… ’(Irigaray 19985, 28 as qtd in Keller 1997: 303).

 

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Ahmed, S et al 2000 ‘Introduction: thinking through feminism’, in S Ahmed et al (eds) Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism, London: Routledge

Atwood, M 1970 The Journals of Susanna Moodie: Poems by Margaret Atwood, Toronto: Oxford University Press

Atwood, M 1988 ‘Great Unexpectations: An Autobiographical Forward’ in K VanSpanckeren and J G Castro (eds), Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, xiii-xiv. Also at http://www.archive.org/stream/margaretatwoodvi00vansrich/margaretatwoodvi00vansrich_djvu.txt (accessed 20 December 2017)

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Atwood, M 1974 ‘Songs of the Transformed’ and the ‘Circe/Mud Poems,’ in You Are Happy, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 29-44 and 45-70

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da Costa, R 1989 ‘Jan Gris and Poetry: From Illustration to Creation, The Art Bulletin (December) LXXI: 4, 674-692 

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Kroll, J 2001 ‘I am a Desert Island: Postmodern Landscapes in Margaret Atwood’s “Circe/Mud Poems”’, AUMLA 96 (November), 114-134

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