Desire in Seven Voices
edited by Lorna Crozier
Published by Douglas and McIntyre
172 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
"There is that hunger which is not for food," writes Gwendolyn MacEwen in a poem which opens Desire in Seven Voices, a powerful, sensuous volume of reflections on female desire. The "unspeakable appetites" that seethe beneath the surface of propriety practically beg for literary expression, and here Lorna Crozier has assembled a small choir of gifted women writers to give voice to the unutterable yearnings of desire.
As Crozier points out in her introduction, there are some real problems with the subject matter. "Desire is, after all, an intimate thing," she writes, "a sensation often nurtured in privacy and clandestine fantasy.... For many, its natural language is reticence." Is this close-held secretiveness part of what makes desire so delicious? Can a writer probe the mystery without dispelling the magic?
The seven writers chosen here rise to the task of putting into words all the aches, sighs and heart-stabs of desire, a force ungovernable by mere intellect. They do a remarkable job of speaking the unspeakable, while still leaving a strong impression that they have barely scratched the surface. Desire is so primal, they seem to be telling us, that it may always lie beyond the taming influence of words.
We've come to expect a lot of personal revelation from Susan Musgrave, and in her piece, "Junkie Libido" she confesses to a lifetime of intense attraction to the dangerous and forbidden. Her ability to strip herself naked in her prose is startling:
When I had my first orgasm, I thought sex had driven me insane, that I was going to drown in the rogue wave of terrible pleasure that rolled over my body and pulled me down in a libidinous undertow.
She claims that from age 14 she was so "oversexed" that her alarmed parents had her committed to a mental institution. But it is more likely that Musgrave suffered from a kind of self-immolating wildfire in her soul that demanded physical expression.
"I was an attraction addict," she admits, " and when you need a quick fix, you stop being choosy." It's impossible for Musgrave to separate sexuality from addictiveness. She recounts a whole series of attractions to dangerous men, an obviously unhealthy pattern, in writing that burgeons with irresistible sensuality and life. Is sex a creative force for her, or something so hell-for-leather that it drags her into disaster every time? She never resolves the dilemma, but it's exhilarating to go along with the wild ride.
Evelyn Lau's essay, "Father Figures," offers a surprising contrast to Musgrave's galloping appetites. Though it retains the flavor of the confessional, Lau's writing is almost dry by comparison, reflecting her noninvolvement in the earthy physical manifestations of desire.
With all her premature experience of sex in her teen years as a prostitute, Lau feels a strange detachment from men. In fact, she tells us "the driving force of my life has been to find a man who would look at me as though I were his daughter." This yawning chasm of unfulfilled childhood need has led her into many an emotional disaster.
"Usually the men I find myself drawn to are not physically attractive," she writes. "They tend to be establishment figures, middle-aged or older, grey-haired and intellectually formidable." Most of them are, in addition, married, or at least emotionally unavailable.
Though Lau has a strong awareness that she has set herself up for a lonely sort of existence, she feels powerless to change the pattern. "The thought of sharing my life as an equal with another person almost repulses me," she admits. Yet the yearnings go on. "At almost any given time I will have a crush on a man who is somehow impossible."
Crozier's own entry, "Changing into Fire," is a sort of prose-poem written from a monastic retreat in Saskatchewan. It describes a rich lifetime of desire, from the first childhood stirrings to the full-blown passions of a mature woman. Like so many of us, Crozier was never given the right name for her genitals and had to use that ambiguous term, "down there." Early on, she learned one thing -- "down there was dangerous," dark, damp and mysterious, like a cellar full of forbidden treasures. In her teens came the delicious preparations for a hot date, "the electric craving for the stranger who would change my life forever."
Then came a marriage which eventually broke apart ("I'd chosen a man I could leave when I was ready"), and an evolving connection with a fellow poet, shot through with slow-growing but inexorable desire.
Crozier's piece is a deep and dreamy meditation in which she doesn't so much talk about desire as breathe it out, exhaling it into ripe, rosy being.
Shani Mootoo's "Photo Parentheses" offers the perspective of a Trinidadian-raised woman of East Indian descent struggling to come to terms with her lesbian orientation. In her culture, there is no vocabulary for such a desire which is considered not only unspeakable but unthinkable.
I used to wonder, and was sometimes asked, if I "became" lesbian because I was sexually abused as a child. Was it because I wanted to shake a fist at my father and avenge my mother? Because I wanted the freedom and power that my father and other men flaunt? Or did I simply come into the world with an eye for the girls? Content as I am these days, those questions and their answers no longer interest me. What does is the potential inherent in recognizing the finer details, the shapes and patterns of my desire.
There is real heroism in Mootoo's insistence on becoming herself in the face of all cultural opposition, and much to be admired in her current self-possession. Her girlfriend snaps a nude photo of her in bed, and she feels completely comfortable: "My skin and all that it wrapped itself around was unequivocally mine, and finally I belonged to me."
The most breathtaking entry in this vivid collection is Carol Shields' "Eros," a polished piece of fiction which can only be described as a novel in 21 pages. Shields recounts the erotic history of Ann, a middle-aged, divorced woman who has just undergone chemotherapy for breast cancer. The insistent, lifeward force of desire pulses like a current through Ann's difficult life, leavening the inevitable pain of living with a subversive hope. Shields knows even more than the others that desire is virtually impossible to talk about. Her response is to tell a story infused with desire, illustrating the way it both feeds and consumes us, and somehow drives us forward. In speaking of desire and all its complications and mysteries, it is as if she has discovered the wellspring of life itself. | October 1999
MARGARET GUNNING has reviewed over 100 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has just finished her first novel, A Singing Tree.