“Clear speech be damned, it’s part of the logos of The Same that shuts us out, us women”
– Erin Mouré
Continuing my work in the feminist avant-garde, and in my last section on feminist poetics, I would like to turn to the work of Canadian poet Erin Mouré, whose poetry, much like that of Susan Howe, is primarily concerned with confronting the structures that govern our use of language. Extending the postanarchist desire to engage with and confront these structures rather than ignoring or attempting to dismantle them entirely, Mouré’s work uses translation, nonlinearity, and, in the case of Pillage Laud , indeterminacy, in order to direct attention to the ways in which our ability to communicate is limited by the inherent structures of linguistic and textual production. As she discusses in her brief poetics piece with Caroline Bergvall, “O Yes,” Mouré’s poetry has long been concerned with confronting these historically oppressive structures, arguing that effective political poetry must “unpack the ghosts of the past” (171). Though she is often dismissed by readers as too cerebral or academic in her work, Mouré’s career has been driven both by the affective force of her poetry and by her philosophical and theoretical interest in politics. In her published correspondence with fellow Canadian poet Bronwen Wallace, Two Women Talking: Correspondence 1985-87, the two address this issue head-on in a heated exchange that comes to a boiling point over the role of critical theory in the production of poetry. Mouré laments the “hierarchization of theory and the creative act” (29), requiring that the new feminist poetic must be interested in both creativity and theory equally. It is this merging of political philosophy and poetics that interests me most, and what, for me, positions Mouré as perhaps the most effective feminist poet included in this project.
In Two Women Talking, Mouré insists that feminist poetics must not limit itself to its earlier concerns of maternal figures, embodiment, mythology, and reclamation, as these tactics seemed to only reinforce the typical relegation of the feminine in literature. Instead, the feminist poet for Mouré, as my discussions of postanarchism also prioritize, must draw attention to the fractures in the existing structures. S/he must “writ[e] out of the dislocation of speaking from negative space, non-space” (20, emph. Mouré’s). Mouré is still concerned, in this correspondence, with some of the typical features of Canadian feminist poetics, as when she emphasizes the importance of “the oral and litany nature of women’s expression” (27). But, as this only includes correspondence up until 1987, I can forgive this. What I find most salient here, however, is Mouré’s interest in deconstruction as a useful feminist theory, a usefulness that I argue extends into her writing of Pillage Laud over a decade later. Mouré’s understanding of deconstruction is at once a gross oversimplification and an excellent way of focusing the frequently obtuse literary theory for effective feminist gains. She writes to Wallace, already unconvinced about its viability, saying: “The term deconstructionist theory just means to me that we have to question the structure/systems/origins of our own media as we are engaged in using them” (39). What follows, in this plateau and in the five that will follow, is a close look at the ways in which Pillage Laud works to turn the gaze back onto these structures/systems/origins, writing in excess of them and at times transgressing them. I will look at the ways in which the text combats the archival governing of a text’s relationship to both its author and its readers. In doing so, I will pay particular attention to the text’s queer and anticolonial positioning, ultimately arguing that Pillage Laud can and should be regarded as a work of anarchist intervention, an activism at the level of meaning and reading in common.
In much of Mouré’s work, these structures are manifest in the theoretical figure of the archive as discussed by Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever. For Derrida, the archive, from arkhē, is concerned with both “the commencement and the commandment” (1). It is “the principle according to the law, there where men and gods command, there where authority, social order are exercised, in this place from which order is given” (1). Inscription, the process of archivasation, is what causes a rift between what he terms “memory” which can be reified or spontaneous. Inscription is “what permits one to justify the distinction between memory and archive” (27), and thus the radical potentials of memory permit deviation from archive, the control of which is central to political power. After all, as Derrida states plainly, “[t]here is no political power without control of the archive, if not memory” (5). The archive is thus the underpinning of social order, of power exerted over subjectivities. Reading Mouré against the archive is not an entirely unique practice. Isabel A. Moore, in her article “Lyric Fever: Erin Mouré and the Queer Anatomy of the Lyric Body,” translates Derrida’s “archive fever,” the fear of the disruption of archival knowledge, into a “lyric fever,” which, for her, justifies the critical discomfort with Mouré’s queering of text and authorship. Moore argues that Mouré refuses the binaries of poetry versus philosophy, or Language poetry versus lyric poetry (37), which set the stage for the overwhelmingly negative reviews of her work. These critical responses, she argues, demonstrate a fear that the lyric subject has already given way to the poststructuralist and Language destabilizations of it (39). Thus, a “lyric fever” serves as a kind of spectral subject surrounding Mouré’s work (51), confronting the reader with manifestations and dissolutions of the lyric subject throughout.
What this means for me is that Mouré doesn’t look to destroy the archive, but rather to draw attention to the ways in which archival knowledge and its production of subjectivities governs our lives. In line with this, Andy Weaver, in his dissertation chapter on Mouré, suggests that she produces a sub-archive. Weaver works from Michel Foucault’s elaborations of the archive, positing that Pillage Laud exposes the archive as nonuniversal, and thus unnatural (296). Following this, Weaver argues that Mouré’s work in Pillage Laud produces a “sub-archive” in which new understandings of the archive of language are presented. “The point of the sub-archive,” he writes, “is to draw attention to the authorial relationship to the archive of language and to modify, not destroy, that relationship” (298). And, to be sure, Pillage Laud is a text that, more overtly than the other feminist poets in this project, draws attention to the typically complicit nature of traditional authorship in the archive of language. The text, as its introductory blurb details, “selects from pages of computer-generated sentences to produce lesbian sex poems, by pulling through certain found vocabularies” (n.p.). The jacket blurb of BookThug’s 2011 reprinting of the text details the particularities of its production; it uses “MacProse, freeware designed by American poet Charles O. Hartman as a generator of random sentences based on syntax and lexicon internal to the program” (n.p.).
By positioning the production of the text as a collaboration between poet and computer, Mouré’s text must be read as grappling with memory, as Derrida describes it, and as she herself describes it in her landmark essay, “Poetry, Memory and the Polis,” collected in the equally important anthology Language in Her Eye. For Mouré, memory in poetry is not dependent on semantics or on textual meaning; instead, she argues that it finds is manifestation in “[t]he sound of words” (201). And yet, because its very inscription draws attention to the archive, to the way that memory is archived, Mouré acknowledges that the poem is not and cannot function outside of the archive. Instead, she suggests that “[p]oetry, I think, is the structuration … of memory that can undo the Law of the City, because it both precedes and transgresses the Law” (202). It is integral here that she says “transgresses” and not “avoids”; the fact that memory is external to, or precedes, the Law as archive does not mean that can function without it. Poetry should seek not necessarily, or not only, to “break [the Law] down” but to “peel it back and reveal its brokenness, the non-congruity behind it” (204). In essence, Pillage Laud is a text of memory, which seeks to destabilize the archive and to draw attention to the ways in which the ephemerality and flux of memory is structured by the archives of language.
One of the ways that Pillage Laud does this is through retaining the traditional structures of language (grammar, syntax, spelling) while disrupting others (meaning, sense, logic). While this decision has led some readers to dismiss this text as merely reifying language rather than interrogating it,[i] I would like to argue here and throughout that Mouré works through these structures to expose them, to peel them back revealing the archive behind the curtain. As such, not unlike Howe and Mullen that I have discussed already, Mouré presents the reader with images of literal archives (libraries, dictionaries, museums, and so on) that are forced in the indeterminacy of this text to confront their own boundaries. Like Howe’s speaker sleeping in the library, Mouré’s computer-generated speaker forces the warmth of the body and the pleasure of tactility into the cold stacks: “After she rolled, libraries were your virtues” (50); “Certain libraries swelled the companion’s brevity” (38); “The library should observe the empire of respect, the / vertebrate of custom” (61); “so texture a library was” (36). In other moments, the library is positioned as a site of displeasure (“Certain theorems are the libraries of bitterness” ). But, as a writer and an avid reader, Mouré cannot characterize the library as an exclusively bleak space, so there are brief moments in which the library is characterized as a site of illumination, where the radical potentials of knowledge, and of reading, are seemingly rescued from the oppressive nature of the archive. On page seventeen the speaker admires “so / tremendous a library spent light”; on page sixty-nine, the speaker notes “a brilliant library.”
But, if the library finds a saving grace in Pillage Laud, the dictionary, it would seem, does not. Instead, the dictionary is represented as a site of violence and oppression, in which, for example, the speaker—with apparent exasperation—questions, “What may the dictionary insist?” (19). The dictionary is represented, in one case, through the violent imagery of bondage and electricity: “the model of rope—voltage—is her dictionary” (25). In another, the dictionary occupies the position of authority: “A dictionary especially rules” (26). And, in a turn that will become more important in my later plateau on language as colonization in Pillage Laud, the dictionary is also presented as a set of rules that seeks to include and envelope more and more. The speaker bemoans: “Why does every dictionary extend?” (57). The dictionary, I must note, requires not grammar and syntax, but rather sense, logic, and meaning, the structures of language that Mouré finds most destructive, most in need of disruption. The image of the museum meets a similar fate, where its confrontation with the body (and, in particular, the eroticized female body) initiates its destruction. Mouré’s speaker observes, for example: “While you drank me, museums vanished” (33). Even the light of the library proves ineffectual in the museum, whose primary concern is reification and inscription. The text asks, “Would the ray leave the museum of flesh?” (70), and receives no answer. Even the figure of the archive itself seems to fail here. The text, mocking the dismantled dictionary, provides its readers with a new definition of the term: “An archive: space, its vagabond between those roots and those / imitations” (68). This archive is empty (or emptied) and destabilized. Its former position of stability and uniformity (“those roots”) and its desire for mimesis, for representational linguistic sense (“those / imitations”) has been replaced by a nomadic condition (“its vagabond”). It occupies a liminal “between” rather than a binary of logic. And Mouré as one node in the complex authorship of Pillage Laud guides her readers through the non-space of vanished museums. We are not without archive; we are with the new archive. And Mouré as both reader and writer of this text, repositions this entire discussion. She boasts: “I am your historian” (92).
In the end, Mouré transgresses the archive by writing in excess of it. And excess is a term that must be usefully integrated into any critical discussion of Mouré’s work as a whole. The concept of Mouré’s excess, something much more complex and nuanced than Cixous who, too, overflows, has been best analyzed by critic Susan Rudy, in “‘what can atmosphere with / vocabularies delight’: Excessively Reading Erin Mouré.” Here, Rudy argues that excess is a trademark of Mouré’s work, in terms of both form and content. She characterizes this “excess” as follows: Mouré “writes in excess of signification; refuses conventional word order and usage; redeploys grammar, punctuation, syntax, and spelling; … and ignores the conventions of pronominal and prepositional references” (205). Because of this excessive signification, which refuses to be fully inscribed by the archive, to be placed among the library stacks or under the museum glass, exposes the ways in which the archive limits our potential uses of language. Rudy sees in Mouré that the “relations between words is endlessly shifting” (210), and that this ultimately “generat[es] an excess of meaning” (211). I will dwell on these excesses throughout these next five plateaus; in them I hope to demonstrate the ways in which poetry can function as a temporary autonomous zone without ever suggesting the utopian dissolution of the structures in which it operates.
[i] In Weaver’s dissertation, for example, he argues that Mouré retains the aesthetics of Language poetry without the politics. In Mouré eschewing of the New Sentence in favor of more traditional syntax, Weaver sees her work as political ineffectual, presenting the images of radical politics uncritically and thus unpolitically (293).
3 thoughts on ““What may the dictionary insist?”: Archiving _Pillage Laud_”
Overall, I love this plateau! It really sets the ground nicely for the rest of your entries.
I have a few specific thoughts/requests for expansion/clarification:
You state that “Moore argues that Mouré refuses the binaries of poetry versus philosophy, or Language poetry versus lyric poetry (37), which set the stage for the overwhelmingly negative reviews of her work.” Can you provide examples or an overview of these “overwhelmingly negative” reviews? Also, to be fair, hasn’t Mouré’s work also been strongly lauded at the same time it has been criticized?
I find this point fascinating: “In essence, Pillage Laud is a text of memory, which seeks to destabilize the archive and to draw attention to the ways in which the ephemerality and flux of memory is structured by the archives of language.” Could you expand it a bit? In what way do you mean “memory”? Can you work through how a text that generates its raw material through a computer program can have a memory? Are there any theories on artificial memory that would help explain this point?
You state that “But, as a writer and an avid reader, Mouré cannot characterize the library as an exclusively bleak space, so there are brief moments in which the library is characterized as a site of illumination, where the radical potentials of knowledge, and of reading, are seemingly rescued from the oppressive nature of the archive.” Could you expand this point a bit? Why is the library a site of potentially radical knowledge? (Perhaps this is an obvious point–but I think it’s still one worth stating, especially in order to further separate it from the “museum” you discuss later on.)
As for footnote 1–do I actually say that in my Mouré chapter? If so, yikes (I hope I at least argue against that point in another entry)! You’re right to challenge that point–and you should probably go further.
1) Okay, yeah. People definitely always like Moure even as there are haters. I’ll link to a few of the negative reviews of the text. One thing to say is that when PL was published it was met with much more negativity than her other more traditionally-authored work.
2) YES! What I’m finding in DH is that there are strong precedents for discussions of electronic literature or machine writing as being born out of artificial memory. Of course, there are also people here who love curation and the archive, but there are also people who see the machine as the radical potential of ephemerality.
3) Yes. I need to work to distinguish the museum from the library.
4) Oh you totally say that. lol. And, as you’ve encountered in my later posts, I do go further. Your point on traditional syntax is a good one (in your diss) but I think that you don’t give Moure’s politics as much credit as I do…
… 4) In my defense, I was young and naive. And also often very drunk. Still, it’s hard for me to read those comments of mine!