"Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world." — Angela Carter

Month: September, 2012

Emplumada by Lorna Dee Cervantes


When summer ended

the leaves of snapdragons withered

taking their shrill-colored mouths with them.

They were still, so quiet. They were

violet where umber now is. She hated

and she hated to see

them go. Flowers


born when the weather was good – this

she thinks of, watching the branch of peaches

daring their ways above the fence, and further,

two hummingbirds, hovering, stuck to each other,

arcing their bodies in grim determination

to find what is good, what is

given them to find. These are warriors


distancing themselves from history.

They find peace

in the way they contain the wind

and are gone.

– Lorna Dee Cervantes, Emplumada (1982)


Five Songs Inspired by Literature

1. Astronaut by Amanda Palmer

In Palmer’s haunting last verse to the first track on her début solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer? she references, quite fittingly, Robert Frost’s Acquainted With the Night: “I have been one acquainted with the night./ I have walked out in rain — and back in rain./ I have outwalked the furthest city light.”

2. Holland, 1945 by Neutral Milk Hotel

                                                                                                                                                                                            The entirety of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, has been quite noticeably influenced by Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. Holland, 1945 stands out above the rest of the tracks (for the purposes of this list) not only because Mangum’s allusions to the Holocaust are startlingly clear, but because he succeeds in reviving the poignancy of a book that has perhaps been read so much that we have become desensitized to its message.

3. Sonnet 20 by Rufus Wainwright

                                                                                                                                                                                        Rufus Wainwright has put a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets to music, three of which appear on his album All Days Are Nights. The lyrics aren’t exactly inspired by literature, they are literature but despite these songs not quite meeting the proper criteria, they certainly deserve a place on the list.

4. The Swan by Bishi

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              The Swan appears on Bishi’s 2007 album Nights at the Circus, the title of which (and the album’s first track) is taken from Angela Carter’s novel of the same name. Though I can find no confirmation, I’m taking the album’s title as a free pass to imagine Fevvers, Carter’s protagonist, as the subject of the song. If you like this track you may want to check out its successor on the album, Grandmother’s Floor, for some Alice in Wonderland references.

5. Scentless Apprentice by Nirvana

                                                                                                                                              Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer served as inspiration for Nirvana’s Scentless Apprentice from their 1993 album In Utero. The plot follows a man without his own scent and with an incredibly acute sense of smell, as he tries to capture and preserve the scent of young women.

Joel Robison’s Reading Photograpy

Great Sporting Moments: The Treble by Simon Armitage

The rich! I love them. Trust them to suppose
the gift of tennis is deep in their bones.

Those chaps from the coast with all their own gear
from electric eyes to the umpire’s chair,

like him whose arse I whipped with five choice strokes
perfected on West Yorkshire’s threadbare courts:

a big first serve that strained his alloy frame,
a straight return that went back like a train,

a lob that left him gawping like a fish,
a backhand pass that kicked and drew a wisp

of chalk, a smash like a rubber bullet
and a bruise to go with it. Three straight sets.

Smarting in the locker rooms he offered
double or quits; he was a born golfer

and round the links he’d wipe the floor with me.
I played the ignoramus to a tee:

the pleb in the gag who asked the viscount
what those eggcup-like things were all about –

‘They’re to rest my balls on when I’m driving.’
‘Blimey, guv, Rolls-Royce think of everything’ –

but at the fifth when I hadn’t faltered
he lost his rag and threw down the gauntlet;

we’d settle this like men: with the gloves on.
I said, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. OK, come on then.

Simon Armitage, Kid (1992)

Gender and Sexuality in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel, has quite the reputation; it’s both a modernist and a lesbian classic, it’s notoriously difficult, and it comes with a commendation from Mr T.S. Eliot himself. While I can confirm that the novel does take some persistence, and that it is indeed modern, and that the foreword speaks for itself, I can’t quite wrap my head around why it is that Nightwood has become some kind of lesbian cult novel.

Granted, it has lesbians in it. But does that make it a lesbian novel? I’m not going to pretend that I have any grasp of the qualities that might make some kind of lesbian literary style or aesthetic, nor am I going to dwell on the age old preconception that if something has lesbians in it, it will be consumed by lesbians (why do we think The L Word was such a success?). What I am going to do is assert that viewing Nightwood merely as a “lesbian novel” (whatever that means) has its shortcomings, and that it may create a sort of tunnel-vision that disregards some of Barnes’ most compelling statements.

Barnes’ goal throughout Nightwood is not to assert a solid and unwavering lesbian symbolic; rather, Barnes explores the trials of those who fail to enter the symbolic (as a result of deviant gender or sexuality), and who feel that any attempt to do so is futile. As the title of the novel’s first chapter suggests, the characters of Nightwood must “Bow Down” to the ‘unknowable’ and acquiesce to an existence between the lines, where language does not, and cannot, articulate. In spite of this inadequacy, Barnes acknowledges the defining and excluding powers of language. The restrictive yet broad nature of the symbolic functions to homogenize the majority, excluding the few who fail to function within its parameters, or “approximate the norm.”  In fact, Barnes’ cynicism towards the reliability of language and her acknowledgement of the social regulation of identity give the novel surprisingly post-modern and post-structuralist themes.

The treatment of gender in Nightwood, much like its treatment of language, is way ahead of its time. Characters such as Frau Mann, Robin Vote and Matthew O’Connor can quite easily be described as genderqueer, and Barnes’ narrator avoids defining their sexual and gender identities with any labels. That is, with the exception of Robin who is referred to as a member of the “third sex”. Interestingly, this is also a term that is occasionally found in relation to queer theory. Robin’s androgyny, however, is a step away from third wave feminist and queer theories relating to gender. She’s “a woman who is beast turning human,” “an infected carrier of the past”, and her skin is “the texture of plant life”. These descriptions imply that Robin’s gender, or androgyny, is intrinsically linked to her primal nature; Barnes strongly suggests that Robin pre-dates the concept of gender, or, more specifically, the gender binary. This association places Nightwood quite distinctly within the realms of female modernism; “utopian ceremonial androgyny”, as Sandra Gilbert terms it, being typical of writers of female modernism. Furthermore, Judith Butler, a prominent third wave and queer theorist, emphasises that “there is no subject who precedes or enacts” gender, a statement which Barnes’ description of Robin clearly contradicts.

Robin is not Nightwood’s only androgynous character; Frau Mann is an aerialist whose gender signifiers have been replaced by the bodily and superficial markers of her profession. This displacement of gender signifiers would go far to effectively “unsex” Frau Mann, when considering Butler’s assertion that gender replaces sex as a form of social currency; in relation to Frau Mann, profession, instead of gender, replaces sex as an identifiable social currency. However, Mann’s physical description is significantly masculine:

Her trade– the trapeze – seemed to have preserved her. […] Something of the bar was in her wrists, the tan bark in her walk, as if the air, by its very lightness, by its very non-resistance, were an almost insurmountable problem, making her body, though slight and compact, seem much heavier than that of women who stay upon the ground. […] She seemed to have a skin that was the pattern of her costume: a bodice of lozenges, red and yellow […] – one somehow felt they ran through her as the design runs through hard holiday candies, and the bulge in the groin where she took the bar, one foot caught in the flex of the calf, was as solid, specialized and polished as oak. The stuff of the tights was no longer a covering, it was herself; the span of the tightly stitched crotch was so much her own flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll. The needle that had made one property of the child made the other the property of no man.

Through her attempts to surpass gender and create a “sexless” description, Barnes highlights one of the main problems with androgyny as a method to transcend the gender binary: androgyny necessarily refers to the very dichotomy it attempts to undermine.

Barnes’ eccentric Dr Matthew O’Connor embodies both sides of the gender dichotomy in a different way: he appears, at first, to be a transvestite. The Doctor finds himself surprised by Nora while he is cross-dressing in his room, which is “a cross between a chambre à coucher and a boxer’s training camp”, and quite clearly expecting some one else. At first, this encounter seems to echo the assertion that drag is an offensive mockery of women, used to bring a man’s masculinity to the forefront; Barnes describes O’Connor, through Nora, as the wolf in the bed, implying he is both unattractive and intimidating. This explanation of drag figures it as an act of (or, at least, an act that results in) lauding  power over women; the man in drag highlights that he possesses what women lack – the phallus, which represents social power.

However, the condition of O’Connor’s room implies quite the opposite. “The feminine finery had suffered venery,” “every object battled its own compression”: it seems that the room serves as a metaphor for O’Connor’s conflicted identity. The psychological “feminine” side of O’Connor’s identity is fighting a battle that is confined within the external limits of his masculine body, as well as being confined to an inexpressible space that language does not accommodate. It is quite possible that O’Connor’s character is in fact transgender. He may talk of his wish to be a woman in stereotypical, and at times dismissive, terms but his admission that he “turned up this time as [he] shouldn’t have been” is compelling. Moreover, these dismissive and sometimes witty comments may even serve to further Barnes’ points on the inadequacy of language. The Doctor employs these comments (“toss up a child”, “some good man”, etc.) in the same we he employs the parodic and comedic qualities of drag: to shield himself from the reprobation his femininity may entice. Language is inadequate to convey his misery, and so he doesn’t try to convey it. Language is O’Connor’s tormentor, it isolates him and renders him invisible.

Of course, as Nightwood rails against language itself, the conclusion of the novel is more of a collapse. Robin surrenders not only her identity but also her humanity in order to become free of the constraint of language, and finally collapses playing and barking with Nora’s dog. Still, Nightwood is a beautifully written and complex novel that contemplates the complex relationship between language and gender in a way that is surprisingly close to post-structuralist, third wave feminist and queer ideas. Still relevant today, Nightwood highlights the enormity of the journey towards empowerment for LGBT individuals, and some of the structures that have contributed to their exclusion.