Phyllis Webb at 85
A few days ago I did what I do several times a year: visited poet Phyllis Webb on Salt Spring Island. It’s not the easiest trip: I live near a ferry terminal on the mainland, so the first step is easy, but from there it’s one ferry for an hour and a half to Vancouver Island; then a second ferry (45 minutes or so) to Salt Spring; then a bus ride to the other end of the island; and at last a walk through the village of Ganges and up a hill to the assisted living facility where Webb, 85, lives.
I call her “poet Phyllis Webb,” although she has not written poetry or published a book in twenty years now—a fact she explains by saying “words abandoned me.” She did paint and make collages for a number of years, post-writing, but now that too has stopped. She listens to CBC radio. She reads books—everything and anything people send her, and people send her a lot of books—and the TLS and LRB. She is lively, and enjoys nothing better than a good conversation about books, ideas, politics. And especially poetry. I’ve been doing this for almost ten years now, and I haven’t noticed any marked dropping off of her intellectual abilities. When I arrive, there is always a stack of books and articles she wants to discuss, and a bottle of wine to share.
Just a few weeks ago, a friend of Webb’s passed away, and she was asked to read a poem at the celebration of life. She wavered, but she did it—her first “public reading” in twenty years. And she was more than a little surprised that she managed it. She read a poem called “The Days of the Unicorns.”
I remember when the unicorns
roved in herds through the meadow
behind the cabin, and how they would
lately pause, tilting their jewelled
horns to the falling sun as we shared
the tensions of private property
and the need to be alone.
Or as we walked along the beach
a solitary delicate beast
might follow on his soft paws
until we turned and spoke the words
to console him.
It seemed they were always near
ready to show their eyes and stare
us down, standing in their creamy
skins, pink tongues out
for our benevolence.
As if they knew that always beyond
and beyond the ladies were weaving them
into their spider looms.
I knew where they slept
and how the grass was bent
by their own wilderness
and I pitied them.
It was only yesterday, or seems
like only yesterday when we could
touch and turn and they came
perfectly real into our fictions.
But they moved on with the courtly sun
grazing peacefully beyond the story
horns lowering and lifting and
I know this is scarcely credible now
as we cabin ourselves in the cold
and the motions of panic
and our cells destroy each other
performing music and extinction
and the great dreams pass on
to the common good.
Aside from wishing I had been there to hear her read, I’m excited that she read this particular poem—always one of my favorites. The unicorns, of course, didn’t buy into the Big Story, and fell under the flood of monotheism, symbolic of those mythical realms left behind by the new Judeo-Christian dispensations. It’s a story I think Webb herself revels in—being outside, being forgotten, left behind—revels in both its heroic elements and in its pathos.
I have in the past enjoyed the tension in the poem between “private property” (and its “tensions”) and “the common good”—the rejection of one, modern, world system for another, apparently now outmoded world view. And of course this links to the poem’s lament for the passing of that animal world of “wilderness” now being forced into the performance of “extinction” by the human mechanisms of “private property” and capital accumulation. Now there’s some tension.
But today I find myself drawn to another aspect of the poem I’ve not thought much about before—its fairly obvious echoes of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott.” The poem was written at the end of the 1970s, at a time when Webb’s self-proclaimed anarchism was being tempered by feminism and a new commitment to animal rights, and thus offers us an overdetermined complex of literary, economic, ecological and gendered frames.
Perhaps the connection to Tennyson is more subtle than “obvious,” but it’s there nonetheless—in the “ladies” “weaving” on their “spider looms”—the spider leading us to Tennyson’s “web” woven by the cursed Lady, and of course this other Webb, always aware of her self-reflection in images of spiders and weaving. Webb would rather the fate of the unicorns than the role of the Lady in her tower—although it’s a false dichotomy, the one where the female artist was typically offered the “choice” of silence or destruction.
I’m not sure how much gender has had to do with Webb’s silence or her isolation on Salt Spring Island for over forty years now. Certainly she was deeply affected by a series of negative appraisals by male critics in the early 1970s—critics who, in my estimation, completely missed the significance of her work. She made a “choice”—to not take a certain voyage, to not board a certain, exclusive ship. But what factors placed pressure on that “choice”?
What can’t be over-emphasized now is the important place Webb has held in Canadian poetry. She has been in many ways our most modern modernist, and one of our first and most influential postmodernists. Her Naked Poems (1965) is nothing less than a “landmark”—both for its explorations of lesbian sexuality and for the example it has set for the long serial form in this country. She has been a public intellectual (founding the still-running CBC radio series, “Ideas,” in the 1960s), and she has shown incredible resolve and dedication in living an uncompromising and unapologetically “private” life of the mind in isolation, “cabined in the cold.”
Take this commentary as an unabashed celebration by a poet’s fan. Take it, too, as a prelude to my next post—on the new web project CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), which also responds to the “choices” that affect the place and role of the poet-who-happens-to-be-female. I’ve noted before that I’m part of a generation of poets-and-critics-who-happen-to-be-male, and who happen to have been influenced and taught by a generation of feminist poets and critics in the 1970s and 80s. But has this really made the difference we sometimes think it has?