A voice from the dark called out,
‘the poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making:
shift from affirming profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed long pauses.
(From Levertov 1987b:41) 1
In Denise Levertov’s poem ‘Making Peace’ a voice from the dark calls for a new kind of language to articulate a changed, or rather a changing, world. I have chosen a line from this poem to describe feminist first person narratives of the 1970s: personal histories which attempt to restructure the sentence of women’s lives, in both senses of the term ‘sentence’—the technical one suggested by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, but also the juridical connotation of the sentence as cultural verdict passed upon women in dominant, masculinist representation.
To ‘restructure the sentence our lives are making’ was the first project of women writers of the 1970s such as Erica Jong (Fear of Flying), Marilyn French (The Women’s Room), Alix Kates Shulman (Burning Questions), Kate Millett (Flying), and Rita Mae Brown (Rubyfruit Jungle). Later, other writers such as Marge Piercy (Braided Lives), Audre Lorde in Zami and Maya Angelou in her autobiographical œuvre placed themselves in this tradition whilst at the same time critiquing it. That restructuring the sentence was a project, and not just a spontaneous overflow of feminist emotion or narcissistic indulgence, becomes clear when we read feminist first person narratives as self-conscious fictions of subjectivity in which new scripts for women’s lives are being written. I use the slightly awkward phrase ‘fictions of subjectivity’ to signal the common ground between real autobiographies