Bev Braune Reviews Kate Lilley

1 April 2013

Lilley is concerned not only with psychoanalytical approaches that affect how women speak about how they feel; but also with how the women concerned with emotion and language – poets – use such formulations, even to see themselves. She is talking not only about how that mother-daughter inversion approach makes its way into describing so-called female psychology in the Freud case studies and into laws on personal relationships and marriage. She draws attention to how that approach makes its way into the academic classroom, and into critical and literary arguments about poets who are women.

It’s only a matter of time until the first campus novel
lumbers into class and starts its	
a) exordium  b) recital  c) Roman holiday
                    (‘Collegiate’, 8)

Take, for instance, Daniel Szabo’s article ‘Feminine Irony in the Religious Poetry of Gwyneth Lewis’.1 Szabo uses a Kierkegaardian approach to acts of irony as ‘retreats’, as devotional self-rescues from one’s vanity. Szabo also draws on Frédéric Regard’s approach to the ‘feminine’, though he only partly agrees with it.2 Through these, he presents his understanding of ‘feminine’ as a ‘style’, ‘an act of delinquency that disobeys the commonplaces of a coherent and totalitarian system’. He cites Marc Porée’s response to Gwyneth Lewis’s bi-lingual poetry: ‘Marc Porée suggests that “her almost sole interrogation is a quest for an emancipation from the infantilising thought of a mother tongue inextricably linked to the mother land”.’ Szabo closes his article with the conclusion that the ‘spinster soul’ from Lewis’ poem ‘Ménage à Trois’ should be avoided.3

Lilley addresses that ridiculous and dangerous use of Freud in literary and psychoanalytical allusions. In the sequence, ‘Cleft’, Lilley turns the importance of being a daughter away from inversion to emotional ties of memory, grounded-ness in the past, the sensual present and a desire to be. In ‘When Ladies Meet’ she tells her readers that a daughter can say ‘Goodbye’ to ‘Mama’, return clothing they once shared, and take off to South America; and, with the likes of ‘Mildred’ ‘at the perfume counter of a grand magasin’, set up business as ‘mother and daughter’ and ‘never look at a man.’ (34)

In reading the book in the context of the contribution of Freudian psychoanalysis to the misshapening of women and their relationships with everyone, Lilley’s readers are being asked, perhaps, to reconsider the case of Mary in a fresh light. The link between ‘Mary’ – the seventeenth-century alleged bigamist – and ‘Marie’ – the twentieth-century author of scientific articles on women’s sexuality – is bound to be a connection Lilley would also want her readers to make.

We meet Marie among the other resurrected voices in the final section of Lilley’s Ladylike, the ‘Round Vienna’ sequence. That sequence includes figures from Freud’s case studies on hysteria and female homosexuality, including one of his most famous patients, the author and researcher Princess Marie Bonaparte (writing under the pseudonym ‘A E Narjani’). Publishing articles and books on female sexuality, and promoting Freud’s career and her own neuroses arising from what she defined as her ‘frigidity’, Marie underwent clitoral surgery to bring her clitoris to some perceived ideal distance from her vagina. She did this to achieve volupté (orgasm) apparently without success. The act is ironically celebrated in Lilley’s ‘Marie’, which lists the distances that Marie’s research had uncovered: ‘téleclitoridiennes/ mesoclitoridiennes/ paraclitoridiennes’ (referring to the closest distance, half-way between the three distances, and the furthest distance of a little over an inch) in her aim to fulfil the ideal position for a woman’s satisfaction in the ‘correct’ missionary position propagated by Sigmund Freud. Beneath all the entanglements of the pursuit of sexual satisfaction are complex questions of the definition of women as people and the definition of sex, charting personal myth, falsehood and psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo.

A girl may harden herself
in the conviction that she does possess a penis
I had the usual feeling of anxiety that one has	
in the somewhat haphazard order in which it recurs
I saw myself particularly distinctly
‘Why did I say nothing about the scene by the lake
for some days after it happened?
Why did I then suddenly tell my parents about it?’	
A normal girl, I am inclined to think,
will deal with a situation of this kind by herself
I will begin by mentioning the subject-matter
he intended to come forward as a suitor one day
what was the source of the words ‘if you like’?
there was a question mark after this word, thus ‘like?’.
                    ‘Fraud’s Dora’

Sometimes Lilley appears a little too subtle. For example, it is as if I am only hearing half the story when Lilley gives me, as her epigraph, only the first half of the opening line of self-defined love-theorist Lauren Berlant in her book The Female Complaint: ‘Everyone knows what the female complaint is’. The whole sentence reads: ‘Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking.’4 Berlant’s book describes the picture of women in America, their ‘disappointment in the tenuous relation of romantic fantasy to lived intimacy’. It also sets out to define how ‘the intimate public’ sphere is interpreted by so-called good and bad women. Think of Curtis Berhardt’s 1953 film of Somerset Maugham’s ‘Rain’ entitled ‘Miss Sadie Thompson’ (with Rita Hayworth playing ‘Sadie’) for a perfect example of what Berlant is talking about. And while at times there seems to be an underlying constraint among Lilley’s carefully chosen words in the sensual and humorous poems, no one could disagree with the success of the subtlety of the following from the wonderfully titled ‘Anistropy’ (65):

Grievances followed in chronological order

belle indifference
chronic affection
excess efficiency

Lilley’s poetry has an unusual and titillating mix of trivia and seriousness. Her poems often work like puzzles, raising questions of counterfeit, likeness, normalcy and risk, the last evident even in some few that threaten to be academic exercises. As she writes, ‘[n]ot every day can be Interlaken’ (‘Heidiland’, 53). Lilley makes everything ‘readable’, rendering versions and additions, some of which depend on a knowledge of her notes. It is not a bad idea to follow the historical paper trail that Lilley has handed us as readers. Those documents are no substitute, though, for those details readers will enjoy teasing out of the poems.

Lilley’s poetry makes you sit up and pay attention in a unique way. It may be impossible now to think of the word ‘ladylike’ without thinking also of Kate Lilley’s Ladylike.

  1. Daniel Szabo, ‘Feminine Irony in the Religious Poetry of Gwyneth Lewis’, E-rea (Online), 6.1, 2008, Online since 15 October 2008. 20 February 2013.
  2. Regard, Frédéric. La Force du Féminin. Paris: La Fabrique, 2002.
  3. Marc Porée,’ La force de la poésie au féminin’, Études anglaises 3/2007. Vol. 60. 304-316.‘C’est le cas de Gwyneth Lewis (1959 – ), dont l’œuvre est tout entière issue de la Dévolution, et dont l’interrogation quasi unique consiste à se demander comment se libérer de l’idée, infantilisante, d’une langue maternelle, ombiliquée à une mère patrie — d’où son choix de publier dans les deux langues (galloise et anglaise).’
  4. Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Duke U P, 2008. 1.
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Bev Braune

About Bev Braune

Dr Bev Braune is interested in practice-led research in poetry and theories of literature. She completed a Doctorate in Creative Arts (UOW, 1999) in the areas of Epic Poetry and Old Norse Poetry, its history, criticism and translations into English, with the first part of her poem Skulváði Úlfr. Her related areas of interest are reader theory and aesthetics. She brought out a book poems on the search for beauty entitled Camouflage. Excerpts of her thesis appeared in Cordite and other journals, such as Sulfur 44: Anglophone Poetry & Poetics Outside the US and UK and Salt 15: An ABC of Theory & Praxis.

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