Triadic Revelations of Exilic Identity: Claire Harris's Fables from the Women's Quarters, Dipped in Shadow, and She

Article excerpt

"Your World"

   Your world is as big as you make it.
   I know, for I used to abide
   In the narrowest nest in a corner,
   My wings pressing close to my side.

   But I sighted the distant horizon
   Where the skyline encircled the sea
   And I throbbed with a burning desire
   To travel this immensity.

   I battered the cordons around me
   And cradled my wings on the breeze,
   Then soared to the uttermost reaches
   With rapture, with power, with ease!

--Georgia Douglas Johnson

Since 1966 when Claire Harris migrated to Canada ("the distant horizon") from the Caribbean ("where the skyline encircled the sea"), her work as a literary artist has soared to national and international levels of literary recognition. Working primarily in poetry, Harris's writing since her first volume--Translation into Fiction (1984)--has consistently defied simple categorization. Translation into Fiction was awarded the prestigious Writer's Guild of Alberta Poetry Award in 1984. In a 1985 review in the literary journal Bim, Roydon Salick refers to the volume as "an ambitious, frustrating, yet rewarding volume of poetry and prose" (64), an early signal of the critical challenge Harris's poetry would offer students, scholars, and critics. Some years later (1998), critic Susan Gingell described Harris's work in a similar manner:

   ... Fables from the Women's Quarters, won the Commonwealth Writers
   Prize and her last book, Drawing Down a Daughter, was nominated
   for the Governor General's Award, indicating the kind of acclaim
   Harris has been garnering from her peers and academics, and yet
   her work remains little known by most students of our literature.
   She deserves better. We'd be richer. Reasons for the relegation of
   her verse to the shadows could justifiably be found in the racism
   and sexism in Canadian society that her poetry has imaginatively and
   excruciatingly represented, but her relative obscurity is also a
   function of the intellectual challenge her work offers to
   readers. (143)

After her first volume of poetry, Harris began to produce award-winning volumes of poetry and prose-poetry in a continuous manner. The publication of her next six volumes of poetry solidified her reputation as one of the leading poets of West Indian origin living and working in Canada: Fables from the Women's Quarters, winner of the 1984 Commonwealth Award for Poetry for the Americas region; Travelling to Find a Remedy (1986); The Conception of Winter (1989), winner of the Alberta Special Award for Poetry; Drawing Down a Daughter (1992), a 1993 finalist for the Governor General's Poetry Award and the F. G. Bressani Prize; Dipped in Shadow (1996); and She (2000).

To read these volumes of poetry in chronological order is to take a compelling journey with Claire Harris--one that outlines and traces her evolution as a word artisan capable of writing poetry that transcends and defies content-specific, gender-binding, and genre-casting descriptors. While these aspects of categorization are useful, they can operate simultaneously as limiting agents in terms of a writer's access to diverse audiences as well as audiences' perceptions of verisimilitude in a writer's work. Writers, especially poets, are often categorized too concisely--confined, in fact--by their use of form, language, and content. Writers also endure a number of labels revolving around race, culture, and gender, which, while biographically grounded in fact, are also too often purposefully aesthetically limiting in terms of audience expectations of the aforementioned form, language, and content.

Claire Harris, however, from her first volume of poetry, has critically challenged students, scholars, and critics and effectively eluded an encompassing and evaluative categorizing. What is it about Harris, the woman and the writer, that may assist readers in understanding the elusive and critical challenge that her poetry engenders? …