poem as cloth
May 26, 2013 § 2 Comments
She strung crude country wool across a loom
(The purple threads pricked out against the white);
She wove a tapestry of her sad story.
— Book VI, The Metamorphoses, Transl. Horace Gregory
The story of Philomela and Procne has been read as paradigm for the production and interpretation of texts by women within a context of patriarchal culture. A silenced group which desires to speak encodes its texts in some manner, so that the message remains in plain view, yet is read differently by different target audiences. Once Philomela’s message, woven into a tapestry, is received by Procne, the story of these sisters ends violently as they seek retribution for the crime committed against Philomela. So does the weaving competition between Arachne and Pallas Athene, in which Arachne weaves scenes of the gods’ transgressions, largely sexual violence against women; for producing this ‘text’ she is severely punished.
Saussurean models of language also lend themselves to the trope of text as cloth, with its conception of parole as combination of paradigmatic and syntagmatic selections; Barthes developed the distinction between work and text, where text becomes texture, an interwoven tissue of signs (text etymologically derived from texere, to weave).
The trope however tends towards a static conception of text, over process. The poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis in The Pink Guitar and in her own poetry (“Drafts”) developed the idea of feminist writing as process, as continual draft. In part she does this by offering multiple versions of a poem; by bleeding text into margins; ‘contaminating’ the white page with hand-written signs; and including midrash-like commentaries to her poems. But however much white space on a page is creatively approached, print tends to fix signs, like a specimen or sample fixed to a glass slide.
There is, however, the interesting concept of the “veil of print” with reference to Shakespearean studies — the way in which multiple copies of Shakespeare’s plays in folio and quarto versions, compiled by different compositors, have been thought by some to obscure or ‘veil’ the ‘original’ intentions of Shakespeare. If only this veil can be lifted away, we might see his true hand. This suggests print as a kind of tidal flux — multiple possibilities for a given word choice, line, scene — print itself as unreliable and contaminating.
This also makes me think of Emily Dickinson’s manuscript fascicles where she might record multiple selections for a single word in a line of one of her poems, as if anticipating Saussure’s paradigmatic axis. Critical work has concentrated on this concept of choosing/not-choosing (see my earlier post on Emily Dickinson’s “Fascicules”) … why choose only one version? Why not hold multiple versions simultaneously in mind? Or choose one now, a different one later? Or why choose at all?
But back to cloth as text. I am thinking here of a more basic comparison between poem and woven cloth, not so much in terms of the poststructuralist trope or of the feminist models of production and interpretation, but from the perspective of the poet/maker/weaver, where writing a poem is understood as material practice. This is more closely aligned then with DuPlessis and her work on the idea of process, although I am less convinced by the older poststructuralist version of predestination, of having already been written, presented in The Pink Guitar.
In my experience, much of the pleasure of writing a poem or making a piece of cloth (I imagine, never having woven cloth) comes in the actual making, in the moment of putting down one word and then another and then another, watching as inked lines accumulate under fingertips or as lines of weft are tamped down along the warp threads and a pattern begins to emerge. (Wayland Barber: “The threads of the warp are those lying lengthwise in the finished cloth, and the most tedious part of making a new cloth comes in stringing these onto the loom, one at a time. Once you begin to weave in the cross-threads — the weft — you can see the new cloth forming inch by inch under your fingers, and you feel a sense of accomplishment.” p.17)
The production of cloth — spinning, weaving, sewing — through history is largely, although not exclusively, women’s work. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has documented this in her Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years — Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, and in The Mummies of Ürümchi, where she describes the textiles of the 4000-yr old Beauty of Loulan and her people of the Taklamakan desert; felt, plain weave, twill. She has a wonderful description in Women’s Work of her first attempt to make her own woven copy of a piece of cloth from the Hallstatt salt mines she had seen displayed in the Natural History Museum in Vienna. The scrap of cloth, a piece of green and brown twill, about 3000 years old, had been preserved by the salt. She decided to try to reproduce it. Her own mother had learned to weave in a weaving school in Denmark, at a time when women had been expected to make much of the cloth for their households and so Wayland Barber knew something of the techniques involved. She describes in some detail setting the warp with the help of her sister:
For nearly eight hours we had been working on the warp […] In the morning we had wound off the requisite number of green and chocolate brown threads of fine worsted wool, stripe by colour-stripe, onto the great frame of warping pegs — pegs that hold the threads in order while measuring them all to the same length. By lunchtime we were ready to transfer the warp to the loom, tying one end of the long, thick bundle of yarn to the beam on one side. Then began the tedious task of threading the ends through the control loops (heddles) in the middle on their way to the far beam. It would have been simpler if we had intended to use the plainest sort of weave. But because we were setting up to weave a pattern — the fine diagonal pattern called twill that is used typically today in men’s suit material — it was taking far longer. p. 17-18
She learned about the textile she so admired by trying to recreate it, learned things from the errors she made in setting the warp, and in the actual on-going practice of weaving the cloth, the sudden conceptual leaps made as her fingers came to understand something about the process.
The pleasure she describes in its making is much like that of writing a poem: it can take time, patience, care, requires knowledge of earlier techniques and processes; is often a question of trial and error; we learn from earlier innovations and incorporate these into our own work. There are also some structural similarities, in the lines of a poem which we might think of as the poet’s weft woven across the warp threads of culture and language. A new pattern emerges. The end result — a poem, a piece of cloth — is a human artefact that now exists in the world, and is made for others.
This is beautifully expressed in Emily McGiffin’s “Swadeshi,” in Between Dusk and Night (2012), which begins: “And because words, if they were possible at all/were illegitimate, tawdry,/I spoke to you in yarns.” The speaker in the poem describes the process of choosing to make a blanket for someone she — I’ll call the speaker a she — loves. Yet as we read, we sense that this person does not reciprocate this love, perhaps is not even there. It’s as if the beloved is a ghost: this is a thread that runs through the collection and results in some of the most intimate and moving poems, of love which is offered, not taken, but offered nonetheless — this is the nature of a truly unselfish love, a complete giving of the self, without thought of return. Throughout, we hear the speaker’s doubts (“But you might actually have found me ridiculous”, “You were warm enough. I was redundant.”)
The speaker carefully documents each stage of the making of the blanket, from shearing the fleece, to cleaning it — picking out twigs and burs, soaking it in water, spinning the wool into yarn that can then be woven, dyeing it. Then comes the intricate task of setting the warp on the loom, the mechanics of this and its effect on the body, the descriptions of which remind me of Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal, for its technical precision which ballasts the poem’s metaphorical flight:
Bird’s-eye twill, six hundred ends. So intricate was the work
that its details crowded out all else. The old beech loom
stood patient as an aging draft horse
as I moved around and over it, climbing onto its heft frame
to straighten all the harnesses and check the lines.
Six hundred threads to keep untangled, to align, one by one in orderly sequence,
from the back beam through six hundred heddles, six hundred
separate slots in the reed. By the time I had finished and knotted them all down
and wrapped the warp onto the front beam at the ready
I was like an old woman: my back
would not straighten, a web of tense lines
had deepened at the corners of my eyes.
But I slid under the loom like a mechanic
to tie up the treadles in the last hour before midnight.
The passage is replete with technical vocabulary (bird’s-eye twill, harnesses, heft frame, beam, heddles, reed); the loom is described as a machine the speaker works on, and the speaker/poet as mechanic. This is in itself pleasing, to hear this particular register incorporated into a poem. Yet this setting of the warp is also offered metaphorically, as model for poetic practice, and as emblematic of the speaker’s relationship with the person for whom she is making the blanket. The speaker realizes, when she is done, when the warp lines are all set, all parallel, that they embody the problem of her relation with the beloved: “the nature of our conversation/all the threads ran one way”.
It is only when the work of beginning to weave the blanket, just as Barber describes above, of bringing in the weft, which crosses over the warp, that there is real communication — even consummation, in the mechanical song of making, in the clanking of cranks, gears, break and beater: “But when I began to toss the shuttle, as the cloth grew/under my hands, colloquy blossomed into cacophony…” The speaker finds joy in the process.
And when she is done, having worked all night:
I worked clear through the frog-song night and when dawn came
I cut it free. Unfurled it from the loom. It billowed out
the way a sail climbs a mast in a few quick halyard pulls,
snapping open in the morning light — that quick instant
the story of our kind. Ingenious capture. The way into a whole
civilization and its ugly deceits. But there is also a way
of being careful. Here, spread in soft folds across the floor:
only the labour of my own attentive hands.
This idea of capture, of our human ingenuity in the making of artefacts often used for negative ends carries traces of the violence embedded in the tapestries of Philomela and Arachne. Philomela is taken, her tongue cut out so she cannot speak. It carries traces of the ways in which we capture or take the natural world, and others, carelessly, without thought. But I like the insistence here on an alternate understanding of making — a way “of being careful,” of hands that are “attentive.” This cloth the speaker has made, which can keep a body warm, intended for the one she loves, will last many years beyond the time it took her to make it, the attention and care she placed in it will perhaps outlast her; it was made not for herself but for another; and in the end, it was freely given:
This entwinement of yarn:
all the words that lived in me, the finest
I could craft. I gave them to you.