Writing Back through the Body: Flesh and Spirit in the Work of Mary Swander

Article excerpt

This essay explores the desire, or more accurately, the need to write back through the body that pulses beneath the lines of Mary Swander's poetry and prose.

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How surprised we are to find we live here, Here within our bodies.--Eric
Pankey, "Santo Spirito"

Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to
writing from which they have been driven away as violently as from their
bodies.--Helene Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa"

The desire or, more accurately, the need to write back through the body pulses beneath the lines of Mary Swander's poetry and prose. From her first book of poems, Succession: Poems, to her most recent memoir, The Desert Pilgrim: En Route to Mysticism and Miracles, Swander has made every effort to write and rewrite her way back through the flesh, the body she claims and which claims her, shaping not only the patterns of her life but her emotional and spiritual centre as well. Her Catholic heritage, her life as a citizen of the rural Midwest, her struggles with environmental illness and other physical maladies, and her particular feminist vision coalesce in her work in ways that not only challenge the dominant views of illness and the body that harbours it but also the traditional Western conception of the soul and the paths we may choose to better understand the relationship between body and soul, flesh and spirit.

Many feminist writers have worked to expose and critique the patriarchal prison-house of language and its accompanying ideologies and theologies. Much of this critique focuses upon the harmful and degrading vision of women's bodies bound up in the crass dichotomies of virgin and whore, mother and prostitute. This razor edge turn from beatific beauty to demonized object of lust leaves no space for the range of emotions and physical attributes that a woman may possess. Such objectification encourages in women the idea of abandonment: the leaving of one's body behind to be ravaged or used by its cultural counterparts but never to be known or explored in its integrative whole. To acquiesce to such pressures, although fully human and understandable, tells a tragic story of loss and the perpetuation of a sickness that not only poisons the individual but also the ecosystems in which we live, the environments that we help to create and sustain with our behaviours and beliefs. At the root of such abusive models is a profound ignorance about what comprises the act of human being. In "The Laugh of the Medusa," Helene Cixous explains that "by writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display" (337-38). To look at the self, embedded in the body, as somehow separate, set upon a pedestal for the world to ogle and use as it sees fit, is to undo the intricate webbing of flesh and spirit, to rend one from the other in an act so destructive that what remains is hardly recognizable. The outcome, of course, is to make another less than whole, to take away her very being, because implicit in the word being is the idea of activity not stagnation. When we objectify another, we first tear from his or her person any true sense of the active self and all of the prospects and conundrums such activity implies. With mobility comes the possibility for change, for difference, for potential beyond the present. When we objectify, we paint our limited idea of that person upon the page of utility, capturing her as a one or two dimensional object, holding her in a stagnant world, fixed in the present where the many dimensions of her person are denied, cut off from their sources to slowly vanish in a sadistic act of attrition. In such acts of denial, the threat of death lurks; we rob the other of any possibility beyond the lie we have created. For this reason, Cixous cries out to the woman artist, imploring her to "write your self. [...] Your body must be heard" (338). …