Quilting—a Spiral of Experience

Lee Briscoe Thompson, Dorothy Livesay. Boston: Twayne, 1987, xvi, l77pp.


In Lee Briscoe Thompson we have a falcon who, turning in the widening gyre of her work on Dorothy Livesay, does hear her falconer—and indeed hears little else.  The wealth of biographical detail that Thompson has culled, through sound scholarship, from Livesay’s papers, correspondence, diaries, published and unpublished writings, and from interviews almost overwhelm the reader.  As a work of biographical literary history and cultural criticism, Dorothy Livesay is a useful book.  As literary criticism, however, it overlooks, or treats with indifference, a number of important issues.  Criticism of Livesay’s poetry has for decades applauded her “compassionate humanity” while expressing bewilderment, in its lack of consensus, regarding the quality and nature of her writing.  The panoramic point of view of Thompson’s new book does not present this criticism with a central concept, emotion, or image that will hold; it does, however, locate precisely where Dorothy Livesay, the woman, stands in the topography of our culture and in the thematic breadth and social complexity of our literature.  No small achievement, this, but the book’s main interest perhaps lies in the psychological and gender-specific sensitivity of Thompson’s analysis of Livesay as a woman writer.

     Thompson’s stated purpose in this contribution to Twayne’s World Author’s Series is to fill a need for a book-length study of Livesay’s life and works, a book “tracing the literary career and analyzing the work of a Canadian woman who is one of the most important, most remarkable, most innovative writers Canada has ever produced” (viii).  Thompson is not concerned with proving the premise that Livesay is “a ranking figure in modern world literature” (vii).  This is a given, and in her explications of Livesay’s writings quality is similarly assumed.   Thompson defers the question of evaluation to her concluding pages, in which she asks, “Why, then, has this particular prophet been, relatively, so studiously ignored by the critical élite?” (145).  Thompson suggests two reasons: Livesay’s originality (as a poet-prophet ahead of her time) and the fact that she is a woman.   That Canadian literary criticism suffers from a largely unconscious sexism is another premise of this book that is stated and not proven.  I made much the same point about gender orientations in Canadian criticism in an article on Livesay’s poetry that appeared in The Journal of Literary Theory (1983)—not cited, by the way, in Thompson’s Bibliography.  So it was with pleasure that I accepted Thompson’s book for review.  Having read the book with great care, however, I feel that it will appeal to some readers and not others.  Thompson is not concerned with arguing her case along traditional lines so much as she is concerned, I believe, with demonstrating, in a study on Livesay, the value and difference of a woman’s literary criticism.

     What I would like to do now is to describe the style, scope, structure, and critical nature of the book before going on to say anything further about its self-consciously female point of view.  Thompson’s prose is fair-minded, even-handed, engaging, understated, and unequivocal.  The technical terminology of contemporary literary criticism has been studiously avoided, and the tone of the writing is almost chatty.  This relaxed prose style helps the reader to adjust to the way in which the book constantly shifts back and forth between a variety of critical approaches.  Three main perspectives inform Thompson’s discussion: those of biography, explication, and the sexual dialectic of feminist literary criticism.  Apart from these, Thompson also employs the methodologies of textual criticism, publishing history, thematic criticism, the study of a writer’s reception through contemporaneous reviews, as well as personal reminiscences and impressions.  The problem with this range of application is simply that some readers will become impatient, wishing that Thompson would alight and, woodpecker-wise, delve a little more deeply into issues that arise—issues that differ according to the approach in use at a particular moment.  In short, Thompson’s Dorothy Livesay is an example of the sort of critical pluralism that Wayne Booth tried to identify, with admitted trepidation, in his 1979 book, Critical Understanding.

     The structure of Thompson’s book resembles a gyre in which her critical intelligence circles through various approaches in each chapter.  In a letter quoted by Thompson, Livesay defines her concept of the documentary poem as non-linear montage, a spiral of experience that draws “out of the vortex a whirl of faces” (66).  Much the same can be said of this book.  In her second chapter, Thompson describes the title poem of Livesay’s early Signpost (1932) as “a sort of key to the poetry”—“The signpost is a ‘veering,’ changeable one.  She wants to trust it” (21).  This chapter itself ‘veers’ from biography, explication, thematic criticism, literary and publishing history, to appreciations of the poet’s emotional sincerity.  Similarly, in Chapter Three, a discussion of Livesay’s social poetry as “a tapestry of optimistic and pessimistic views,” Thompson herself creates “a complex and original interweaving” of critical perspectives (49).  It is not until the penultimate chapter, an analysis of Livesay’s “kaleidoscopic approach” to female autobiography in her Right Hand Left Hand of 1977, that the reader realizes that Thompson’s veering, weaving, kaleidoscopic shifts of focus are quite deliberate.  Thompson has devised a pluralist critical apparatus (or quilting?) that is an almost too appropriate representation of the complexity and diversity of Livesay’s life and works.

     The book also spirals through the biographical material, not without repetitiousness, that Thompson presents in her first chapter.  The second, third, and fourth chapters discuss Livesay’s writings in chronological order; the fifth, Livesay’s sexual poetry.  Chapter Six treats Livesay’s fiction, journalism, and criticism, again more or less chronologically.  The next-to-last chapter discusses Right Hand Left Hand, Livesay’s autobiographical montage-documentation of Canada in the 1930s.  Aside from the Introduction and Conclusion, each chapter focuses on different thematic aspects of Livesay’s writings and goes on to suggest that these aspects can be traced throughout the oeuvre. Thompson suggests, without explicit argument or sign-posting, that these points of focus—innocence, experience, sincerity, spontaneity, music, dance, spiritual sex, vulnerability, surrender, entrapment, aging, prophecy, and others—are a few of several reasons for which Livesay’s oeuvre ought to be regarded as a whole.

     Thompson’s persistence in bringing the biography and terms such as “sincerity” into account in her readings of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, reveals another unstated premise of her book: that the individual works and the oeuvre of a writer like Livesay should be approached (approved?) in terms of a ‘living’ text.  In Chapter Six, this assumption finally comes out in a discussion of the non-judgmental openmindedness of Livesay’s literary criticism.  Thompson opens this discussion with a personal appreciation of Livesay’s personality, stating that “Those characteristics have clearly marked her in her capacity as literary critic” (121).  The discussion ends with Thompson’s statement that Livesay’s presence in Canadian academic circles has embodied and introduced “to a new generation a living literary tradition” (126).  To say the least, in her many explications of poems, Thompson seems to assume that the poems have an organic unity.  This formalist approach to the poetry is, however, knocked off its well-wrought centre when Thompson substitutes a running biographical commentary in place of the New Critical ‘argument.’  And, Livesay being who she is, this biographical commentary bleeds—and stains the explications with the rich, fecund blood of Livesay’s “social conscience.”   Somehow—no, not somehow but in a way that is perhaps quite womanly—Thompson manages to move, in traditional explications, from assumptions of textual integrity to assumptions of an integrity in which Livesay’s writings, the history of Canada throughout most of the Twentieth Century, and the situation of women in our culture—are of a piece.

     I will illustrate Thompson’s attitude toward the place of explication in her study by discussing Chapter Five, the most interesting chapter of the book from a literary critical point of view.  Here, Thompson treats Livesay’s contribution to Twentieth-century lyrical poetry and implicitly draws together the muted, understated premises of her book.  Explicitly, however, Thompson contents herself with a non-evaluative description of themes and verbal textures.  The chapter examines how Livesay has dealt with sex as a poet from her earliest poems to her most recent.  Throughout the book, Thompson departs from her biographical analysis to present explications of selected poems.  We are talking here of word-counts in percentages, analyses of meter and rhythm, the fusion of form and content, and so on.  The chapter skims over some of Livesay’s most interesting poems, and comes to grips only with Livesay’s “The Operation,” from Plainsongs (1969), because it is a “remarkable intersection of two autobiographical lines involving flesh: Livesay’s five-year love affair [with a younger man] and the lung cancer that struck her shortly thereafter, in 1968.”  Certainly, from a biographical point of view, “The Operation” calls for extensive commentary, but what is the point of a detailed explication in this context?  Throughout the book, descriptive explication seems at times to be at pains to avoid evaluation and interpretation beyond what lines and phrases can be used to illuminate the biographical content.  ‘Purely literary’ analyses of poems seem almost to have been included merely to satisfy some notion of what a TWAS author ought to be doing.  Thompson’s explications of specific poems, radio plays, and fictional writings are distracting and not thoroughly integrated into her overall design.

     Regarding the nature of the literary criticism in this book, it would seem that, for Thompson, questions of the quality of Livesay’s writings are subsumed by the sincerity of the woman author.  Similarly, though she does describe poetic technique in great detail, Thompson does not elaborate upon matters of technique and craftsmanship.  Yet the spontaneity of Livesay’s methods of writing receives much attention.  At one point, Thompson suggests that she is a “public as opposed to a literary scholar” (118), and she does seem to be more interested in reaching an audience of ordinary women rather than one made up of literary critics in general and Livesay’s critics in particular.  Thompson often cites stupid, contemporaneous reviews of Livesay’s more famous works in order to demonstrate how wrong-headed those are who have found fault.  But very seldom does she outwardly engage issues that Livesay’s critics have raised over the years.  As a result, the overwhelming mass of biographical detail coupled to descriptive explication seems to stand apart from the sense of participating in a critical debate that one often feels when reading books about writers.  This overall aloofness of tone is of course part of Thompson’s strategy.   She is engaged in a dialectic with Livesay’s critics, which a careful reading of her chapters will show, but she has chosen to play the game by her own rules.   Thompson’s literary criticism is non-confrontational and must be seen as part of a process of understanding rather than a product of the institution of literary studies.  As she says of Livesay’s attitude toward all living beings in her Ice-Age (1975), “There is no pecking order; the key is kinship” (74).

     Now to return to the gender-specificity and sensitivity that I feel is the most valuable aspect of this remarkable book.  As I said earlier, the (non-sign-posted) widening gyre of the book’s structure is marked by repetitiousness, and questions of evaluation and interpretation are deferred to the book’s brief “Conclusion: Measure of a Writer.” Is it possible that men might object to repetition and ‘silent’ argument sooner than women?  Maybe so.  Or perhaps not.   In 1983, Margaret Atwood, turning the knife as is her wont, castigated the male-oriented atmosphere of reviewing in Canada in a deceptively chatty excoriation aimed at both men and women, “Sexual Bias in Reviewing.” This particular piece was published in In the Feminine: Women and Words/Les Femmes et les Mots Conference, eds.  A.  Dybikowski, V. Freeman, D. Marlatt, et al. (Vancouver: Univ. of Alberta Press, 1985).  In that horrifyingly plain tone of witches in concert—a tone that also permeates Thompson’s book—Atwood states that people “assume that women write entirely out of their own experience and that everything you read in a book by a woman is strictly autobiographical.”  Male-oriented readers are not equipped to appreciate a woman writer’s “craft, technique, invention, imagination and so forth.  They’re only supposed to be capable of writing a kind of fictionalized diary.”

     Thompson declines to argue issues and theories with other critics, but Atwood strikes too close to be ignored.  Referring to Atwood’s dislike of biographical criticism in Chapter Seven, “A Woman’s I,” Thompson argues that on the contrary women’s literature “(to flog the irresistible punning metaphor of eye and I) has traditionally covered with demurely lowered lids and fringing lashes the personal woman’s ‘I’ ” (134).  Thompson believes that the autobiographical element in women’s literature is essentially an expression of “the blossoming of women’s consciousness in and since the 1960s” (135).  Hence, Thompson’s renderings of Livesay’s writings as ‘strictly autobiographical’ are both a feminist political statement and an act of faith in the spirituality of women.  Pace Atwood.   Much of this chapter is devoted to defining the difference between the man’s and the woman’s ‘I.’  Thompson says that female autobiography is not concerned with an ‘interpreted past’ nor with objectivity as such.  It is concerned with “the renunciation of a simple centre and any progressive, continuous design. . . . it is a matter of process.” And like the female autobiography that she describes in these pages, Thompson’s Dorothy Livesay itself elevates “Immersion and texture” above “breadth and analysis” (141).   Finally, this book of immersion and texture is written with a sensitivity that is almost empathic yet in no way sentimental.  Thompson’s discussion of what might be a lesbian element in some of Livesay’s most recent poetry (108-13) is probably the best example of this.

     To conclude: nowhere in Dorothy Livesay does Thompson define the methodology of her approach, yet it is essentially that of feminist psychobiography.  Every chapter begins with an unveiling of the influence Dorothy’s father had and still has upon the nature of her literary commitment.  This choice of method and the quality of the book’s prose places Thompson’s name among other literary psychobiographers such as Erik Erikson, Leon Edel, and Justin Kaplan.  Moreover, the feminist bias—for no matter how right or wrong, a gender-specific point of view remains a bias—coupled with this psychological focus, places Thompson’s work with such French critics as Hélène Cixous, or Luce Irigaray.  Yet what are we to make of Atwood’s remark that the biographical approach is essentially a way of saying that women cannot write as well as men?  Anyone interested in Canadian literature knows by now that Atwood is a thinker who knows how to read the writing on the wall.  What we must make of it is this: Lee Briscoe Thompson has taken it upon herself to demonstrate that even the biographical approach can be deconstructed and reassembled to such a degree that it can become a truer, more appropriate, way of discussing a woman writer like the mercurial and always startling ‘Dee’ Livesay.

     At this point you might be asking ‘Truer and more appropriate than what?’  Obviously, the easy answer is ‘Truer and more appropriate than what a man might have to say.’  Equally obviously, this sort of response is nonsense.  No, perhaps unfortunately, we are not dealing here with a lively sexual tête à tête. What Thompson is doing in this book is subtler and more far-ranging than that.  Thompson hopes that her depiction of the woman writer, Livesay, will convince readers of Canadian literature at home and abroad that Livesay is a prophet of our time.  Themes of innocence and experience and chapter titles taken from Blake help to prepare the reader for this pronouncement, but Thompson will not be convincing for those readers who are not willing to immerse themselves in the texture of Livesay’s life and works.  If you are of a mind to think that the writings of Twentieth-century women will actually make a difference in our downward spiral into nuclear oblivion, then you might find the book heartening.  If, on the other hand, you are not prepared to be moved by the person behind the voice in women’s writing, or if you are not sympathetic toward biographical criticism and the feminist bias, the book will not satisfy.  Thompson does not argue the pros and cons.   The choice is presented between the lines, and the reader must choose sides.  But in the context of Thompson’s portrait of Livesay as a modern poet-prophet, to reject the portrait is to choose a logical avenue to Armageddon.

R.  Alex Kizuk