Breaking the Code of Silence: Ideology and Women's Confessional Poetry

Judith Lynn Harris | December 1994

Judith Lynn Harris

In the past few years, critics have given the term confessionalism negative connotations. Poets that have found their way by the constellation of Plath, Sexton, Berryman, and Lowell—to name but a few representatives of the confessional school—have been belittled for writing poems deemed as private, exhibitionistic, self-indulgent, narcissistic, or melodramatic.

A surfeit of confessions in poetry and on television talk shows, exposes, and radio may have spurred these attitudes; but if we examine the works of the best confessional poets, we can clarify their shared thematic and artistic concerns, and we can rescue the term confessionalism from becoming just another word for sensationalism. Confessionalism has its own mode of motive and configuration, as does any literary movement. It is a poetry of ideas, or acute political consciousness, that demonstrates, through testimony, an individual's relationship to a community.

In a recent book review by Louise Glück, entitled "The Forbidden," in The Threepenny Review (Summer, 1993), Glück applies the tags of "narcissistic," "constricted," and "tedious" to confessional works by Sharon Olds and Linda McCarriston. Glück is a percipient critic, but many of her assumptions are troublesome. Her complaints are representative of many criticisms of confessional poetry. To examine how confessionalism seeks to break the silences that encode, censure, and censor personal and public truths, we can open the discussion by responding to Glück's provocative points.

Glück finds fault with the means through which Olds and McCarriston arrive at the thresholds of speech. She suggests that a personal and political agenda overdetermines these poems in a way that is "mechanistic," which weighs down the creative process and hinders discovery. Glück believes the poems strain "to give encouraging voice to the life force" and to demonstrate personal triumph over adversities. She questions the immediate conjunction of private "guilt" and the outside world's acknowledgement of what guilt is and how to receive it. While she would concede that these works commit themselves to social responsibility, she seems to dismiss the significance of this goal and how Olds and McCarriston's energies embrace a whole spectrum of religious and political problems that bear down on the individual and connect him or her to the collective. Olds and McCarriston achieve their powerful artistry through dissenting voice and agency rather than silence or passive resignation. Is this a realm of art or politics? Is it beauty or truth? I would argue that, not unlike Keats's "still unravished bride," the silent urn, this type of confessional is an art-vessel that confronts the reader with one's own capacity to retell the story and to identify the human truths and values it puts into motion.

Although the urn is constricted by time, it is compelled to confide the same human tragedy again and again until it exhausts itself as a principle of mere narration and self-transcends as an object of aesthetic truth and paradoxical wisdom. Beauty pertains to both the temporal and eternal; and this is also characteristic of the beauty of the earth-trodden poems of Olds and McCarriston. The transcendence of the flesh to spirit, confusion to logic, horror to realization, mortal to divine is less fluid than in Glück's own poetry. But it is there, and perhaps more accessible to more readers. Olds and McCarriston present voices of suffering, but they are also voices of survival: naming the oppression that their resistance addresses. If these works struggle to affirm the life force, they do so because it is the survivor's arduous task: to persevere and live rather than surrender and die. Conservation, concentration of will, self-reflection, consideration of the divisions of good and evil comprise directions of a compass for those who must daily explore new ways to live. This turn towards social responsibility is far more complex than Glück's critique suggests, for only through the personal experience of pain does pain become "disinterested" and indicative of the universal. Confessionalism presses toward outrage and blame, not guilt, and this shift is the first integral sign of social responsibility and moral maturity.

Confessionalism often draws an important distinction between guilt and shame. According to McCarriston, guilt is a misnomer for what many victims feel, for guilt suggests that a person is wrong, has done wrong, and has accepted the condemnation for hurting others. She would ask: what is the guilt of the beaten child, or the neglected, or ignored? The victim of unjustified cruelty is innocent. If we assume she is complicit in the perpetrator's will against her, then she has already taken on his face instead of her own, and she has given up both her soul and body. The victim should feel not guilt, but shame. Shame is the painful feeling of embarrassment and disgrace, a feeling that something unfortunate or regrettable has happened; but unlike guilt, shame does not blame and condemn its own heart, although shame, like innocence, is still in darkness. Shame repeats the question why?—and unfortunately, guilt is all too anxious to provide the answers.

For McCarriston, guilt deceives the victim into believing she was responsible for transgressions she did not commit. Faced with morality that is more comfortable with guilt, and with concessions that obscure the revolting truth, the victim of shame is particularly pressed to find an ear that will believe her. Without such an ear, the world is not of her own making, and its illusions make her own existence a hall of vacant mirrors in which self hides behind self like so many cards in a deck. Beginning with the idea of the Catholic "confessional" itself, guilt is often a means of institutional indoctrination, which mandates and sanctions the power of the righteous to maintain dominance. Guilt is always accommodated by one's traditional faith, because guilt always places the blame on the individual rather than the institution, which protects its power by shielding itself from suspicions and blame. Shame is the victim's self-awareness of being the target of undeserved cruelty; and insofar as shame feels like guilt, orthodox confession may only subvert shame to become guilt, self-accusation, and self-hatred, rather than allow shame to become outrage or dissent. Outrage and dissent pose troublesome questions, which institutions and the status quo would rather avoid. Such shame is a species of horrified awe or wonder, like Job's shame and questioning over God's arbitrary punishments, mixed with a faith in human good, perseverance, liberation, and love. That is Job's ultimate salvation—not guilt, but love and the courage to live and love with unanswered questions.

The victim may wrestle with her shame through saying the unspeakable, turning to the judge, doctor, psychiatrist, or priest. However, these channels may only support the hegemony of perpetrator over victim by trying to project guilt onto the innocent. The victim stays penitential and self-blaming. Only through writing can the poet address the collective human order, by submerging a particular evil in the deeper, more inscrutable causes of universal evil and its implication. In her ideological view, the "crime" was not individual but collective—with roots in power structures that so often invert "good" to "evil." The past or former self (so often a child) can't do this, and that is why the child is so often the ironical speaker within these poems—because the child points out the corruption of the adult world in contrast to its purity. The child can be a savior if the mature poet can re-conjure him or her and begin the testimony of horror that was suppressed in the past. By revivifying the child, the confessional poet may rescue the afflicted adult. And like Wordsworth's benign child-within, the child is continuing to accumulate associations—former self, former heart, former soul. In The Prelude, Wordsworth confesses that in later years he lacked the spiritual confidence that the inner child naturally possessed. The restoration of the child as the inner morality and truth yet unspoken, may be analogous to the confessional process because the child within the poet is permitted to resurface. The child may be traumatized, and so the poem is an opportunity for the child to reveal and counter the tyranny she lived under when she was unable to "speak" or disobey.

The confessional poem can employ bifurcated vision, in which the mature poet exists in two temporal and intellectual domains which are bound by a single moral vision. As a child, "sin" may be an action "against God" or authority, while the mature adult comes to understand the child's suffering and transfers a child's self-blame to the perpetrator: "He or she did this to me." The mature poet summons the child in a variety of ways: to be witness; to demonstrate the reality of victimization; to enforce justice in response to abuse; and to liberate the adult poet from anguish. This displacement of adult perception into the child, who can feel but only partially comprehend the events that surround him or her, is a strategy for endowing the child with conscious reflection that will serve the adult's need for exploring forbidden or difficult material. Contrition is available only to the mature poet, for not acting now to forestall the evil she recognizes through the past, for not realizing the implications of abuse whether it happens within the family or outside, in the world. Here are the expansive processes of Olds's and McCarriston's poems, "giving encouraging voice to the life force." They may present a pattern, but they are hardly "mechanistic." The poems are imperatives for rising far from the depths, like Lazarus's need to warn and disclose, to use the incendiary coal of language to speak, and to illuminate the broken innocence of children, and their shame.

Glück's assumptions that Olds and McCarriston remodel poetry into a mechanism that avoids discovery seem to premeditate Glück's own obligations as both an agent of hurt and the one who gets hurt in Ararat. Glück's singular brilliance grows out of the image and into the quick volt of elliptical wisdom which often lulls the poem back into a like frieze of the Keatsean urn. The private sphere of the child/daughter speaker in Ararat, and her pain, is weighed by the adult's reflection, and finally judged and settled. In Glück's "myth" of the nuclear family, the poems draw us towards the already vanished—like the mother's heart drawn to her dead infant's "like a magnet." The contexts of the poems are within the daughter's elegiac response to the mother, to the sister, to the markers of time and memory. But they stay locked there, riveted on the self-reflexive retrievals that offer up the daughter's own face within the poet like the veins of a translucent leaf. Syntactically, and tonally, they float back to their deepest origin—which is silence itself. Glück's visionary imagination harkens back to the romantics' conviction that imagination is a prefiguration of the life hereafter, that what it reveals is a transcendent and universal destiny which is its own fulfillment. That tendency to restrain speech from becoming a tenor-agency is Glück's way, but not Olds's or McCarriston's.

In the best poems of Olds and McCarriston, private suffering connects with collective suffering, and the poems relate our contemporary concerns more profoundly than the poems of reactionary movements that subordinate content to the execution of form. Plath, Olds, and McCarriston grapple with the morality, cruelty, and virtues of the human spirit faced with the "unbearable." In doing so, they adopt a victim's vocabulary and bring the reader into events by the beauty of the poem and then, ironically, confronting us with the hideous truth. This confrontation links personal confessions of survival in art with historical chronicles of survival in extreme circumstances of deprivation or atrocity. In both cases, the survivor is the one who refuses to go away. The survivor's irreducible presence compels us all to become witnesses, to hear the story of martyrdom and shame, and sometimes forgiveness. Confessionalism contains the positive belief in expression as liberation from the powers who would disarm the truth.

The concentration camps provide many witnesses and confessions. In a television interview, Elie Wiesel narrates his experience of liberation from a concentration camp when he was a child. He recalls that children in the camps already had the wisdom of old people because they had endured to extremes of human savagery. When the liberation came, Wiesel recalls, an African-American sergeant confronted the stench, and the corpses, and emaciated forms of what once were thriving men and women. The sergeant cursed and cursed. He screamed and cursed all of humanity for tolerating the savagery there, as well as the perpetrators. Wiesel said that the children wanted to thank the sergeant, to lift the man up on their shoulders in a hero's fashion, but they were far too weak, and kept falling back to the ground. The sergeant did not give up, however, and tossed himself in their arms, trying to be light. Wiesel recalls the man's frolic in the midst of the tumbling children; he wanted to levitate himself for them, he wanted to do what a savior would do: to fly. Wiesel's testimony is beautifully symbolic: the liberating angel opens the gates of hell and attempts to revitalize the children again, both physically and spiritually, to restore their strength.

This "confession" or testimony of survival shares "truth" that cannot be ignored, although some would try to fend it off. Why are stories of the Holocaust so difficult for readers to read or hear? In The Survivor, Terrence Des Pres explains the hesitation of the outsider coming to the testimony of Holocaust survivors. The desire to hear the truth is countered by the need to ignore (to cast out) and undermine the survivor by somehow pointing to his "guilt." This tendency to transfer guilt to the victims themselves distorts the truth and is predicated on the outsider's need to protect himself against what he does not wish to know; against that which will disturb him. Perhaps he does not want too intimate a knowledge of human evil or innocence. Perhaps there is even a kind of "envy" of those who have suffered because their suffering makes one's own pain seem trivial.

Burdened by gravity of history and its succession of endless atrocities, it is inevitable that the female confessional poet, seeking a symbol to express the deepest tragedy of her own sense of victimization, would choose a constructed identity of the political martyr, the victim those in power must censor or silence for her views, beliefs, or genetic origins, that can only be extinguished along with personhood. Olds and McCarriston include in their books historical and political victims because they engage the "literary" reader. At the same time, these poets deconstruct the very idea of confessionals by restoring voices to these survivors, who testify that their supposed guilt was innocence, and that the judges of old are really to blame. Like the Holocaust survivor, the female confessional poet who has endured a traumatic experience, is not untouched by shame for just having been there to witness, present to terrible acts. She must break the code of silence and overturn the imbalance of power relations.

Linda McCarriston's poem "Le Coursier de Jeanne d'Arc" demonstrates how martyrdom can represent the human dilemma of how to "speak" truthfully even when violence and pain seem to distort everything. In the poem, Jeanne d'Arc is not the central victim, at least not yet. Instead her dramatic demise is displaced by the horse they burned in front of her eyes—both as a foreshadowing of the punishment she is about to receive and as an impetus for her to repent at the stake. The horse is a substitute for the children Jeanne never had: "she had no sons to burn" in a "world not of her making." Of course, mothers populate the world but have no power to provide their children with a safe world in which they might thrive.

The victims here are both the saint and her horse, whose slow agony accompanies a submerged yet articulate "voice": "the long mad godlike trumpet of his terror, / his crashing in the wood, the groan / of stakes that held, the silverblack hide, / the pricked ears catching first / like dryest bark, and the eyes." First "the pricked ears" and then the recording "eyes" burn at the decrees of "Men of God" who are more interested in the spectacle of a burning animal or woman than in demands of justice and truth. Jeanne d'Arc's voice and vision is threatened by their corruption, by "the cruelty that can make / ...of what a woman hears a silence, / that can make of what a woman sees / a lie." They pressure her to "confess" that what she sees and hears are not what she sees and hears, that she is deluded by her evil and blinded to good. And yet, what she confronts in the poem is tantamount to the Devil's Hell. Like Hester Prynne, Jeanne is threatening to the "Wise Men" because of her self-dependence—her capacity to find God without their aid or control, and without their lies.

What McCarriston emphasizes in the poem is not the victimization of woman at the stake, or the "ecstasy of her agony" ("This is yet one of their lies."), but the flesh-and-blood martyr forced to watch her masculine double similarly sacrificed to the fire of purification. The horse's "chest with perfect plates of muscle," her mate, perishes before her as if it might be the last shred of her will to resist or rebel. She wrestles with the possibility of recanting, in order to avoid "the narrow corral that would not / burn until flesh had...", but then realizes that to do so would be to surrender more than her religious beliefs, but her morality. She will not "put on their truth," their mendacity, at whatever cost because it would sacrifice her own spirit, which only God, not she, can do. Deadly fires transform hue from "yellow-green" to "blackening red" as they are fed animal or human flesh; in the same way, McCarriston suggests, the perpetrators are tainted by their own sins, forever guilty as the blaze itself becomes the color of the charred body. Thus this is not simply about the martyrdom of one woman, but the ideology of the truth: what is human and what is not, and what is bestial and what is not. The body of the horse is allowed to burn "untended" as if it were game—and here, "game" is intended to carry its cavalier meaning. This is a savage, criminal game of torture and power and affliction. It has its historical linkage to other mass persecutions and atrocity, such as the Holocaust.

In strong poets like McCarriston and Olds, confession is a personal outcry that seeks to address a community's consciousness. By conflating the inner domestic realm of the woman with the broader, historical and political realities, a woman can curse the evil of the perpetrator rather than confess to her own guilt. Olds may do so by trying to transcend her own—or the family's—pain through a knowledge of the suffering all around her. McCarriston refutes the derogation of the term "confessional" by insisting on her work's cool logic and therefore by ironically maintaining the traditional expectations of masculine discourse, while telling stories that reveal their deceptions. Both poets wish to call our attention to how injustices imprison victims in visible or invisible cells; yet it is the "cells" that unite us as one living world. Such poetry finds its analogies in religious poetry, demonstrating how the shocking truth of human suffering can reveal the need for a community to support the private pains and healing of others. Writing about victims and survivors of the Holocaust, Terrence Des Pres states:

But as a man or woman is unjustly condemned he is connected to others, first to the Jews and then to humanity who like himself are the victims and scapegoats of power. At first, he insists that he is not a political person. But gradually his suffering brings home to him the pain of all people in extremity and that when the exercise of power includes the death of innocent people, there is no such thing as an unpolitical man.

But what does the private anguish of some literary confessionals have to do with the Inquisition or the Holocaust? One linkage is that poets like Plath, and even Olds, have appropriated the symbol of the Jewish survivor as an analogy through which they can make publicly understood the private anguish of being oppressed, victimized, or extinguished. Another linkage is that the historical survivor's stages of psychological experience often parallel the poet's. According to Des Pres and Elie Wiesel, the survivor possesses a need to testify and make the truth known: to break the silence (although silence is an appropriate response to the darkness of civilization); to judge that silence on the part of the outsider is conspiratorial; to insist that silence must be broken through the witness who is most often a child who logically connects past with present.

As a Jew myself, whose parents lost most of their families in concentration camps in Poland, I am not bothered by the "proportional discrepancy" between linking a non-Jewish poet's literary confession of survival and the testimony of a survivor of Auschwitz, although one is assumably "art" and the other is "history." I think that both can be grave and difficult, although the latter more lacerating for what it says about the madness of civilization's so-called progress, but the former is still authentic and unignorable. Both for the survivors of political oppression and for the confessional "survivors" in poetry, the problem is how to preserve their souls in predicaments that are seemingly soul-less.

Still, readers may question the relevance (if not the morality) of a poetry that is seemingly so resistant to temperance, and unapologetic about making anguish (personal or historically dramatic) the centripetal force of the poem. But these suspicions may arise from traditional and stifling poetics: a poem should not be grim as to offend our sense of "good taste"; it should not be self-indulgent; it should please rather than threaten, shock, or disgust. Yet the poem cannot be severed from its maker: it is asking too much from the poet to permit the reader to exclude certain material on the basis of its taboo or shocking subjects. When we begin to do that, we join the "conspiracy of silence." The poems of Sharon Olds and Linda McCarriston admittedly employ a "victim's vocabulary," but they do so with self-awareness and purpose. Both poets successfully absorb the reader through the textual reenactment of horror and beauty.

Given the pressures and ironies within the female poet's experience, how do we come to define "confessionalism" as Olds, McCarriston, and Plath practice it? What are we to make of detractors who dismiss this type of poetry as "self-indulgent," "self-righteous," or "narcissistic"? Confessionalism denotes "speaker"; or as Sharon Olds defines it, "personalism" is a mode of expression within the traditional lineage of poetry, beginning with Sappho and including intellectual and social voices in poetry after World War II. Confessionalism goes hand in hand with the democratization of poetry. This poetry is exceptional for its characteristic themes of self-interrogation, expiation, and blame. As examples of the most powerfully achieved poetry in the lineage of "confessionalism," the works of Sharon Olds and Linda McCarriston demonstrate the inversion of what some ordinarily think of as the negativity of confessionalism within the dark penumbra of memory's violence. Instead of ending with passive submission, with the acceptance of inevitable atrocities, or with the internalization of death, which is also the death of speech, these poets end with a reason to speak, hope, and the power to change.

The word confess is a verb, meaning: (1) to acknowledge or disclose one's guilt, and (2) to disclose one's sins in search of absolution. A confessional is any act resembling or relating to those two activities, and it is also a place or small stall in which a priest hears confessions. The confessor is by definition two interchangeable roles. A confessor can mean either a priest who hears confession or the person who confesses. There is mutual identification between the sufferer and the priest, who lifts the burden and expels it through transference and forgiveness. Unlike the child, the mature poet has acquired the power of articulation to amend or confess the past. But sin and suffering may also be accompanied by blame. Where does the pain of violence end and where does the suffering of guilt begin? And how does the innocent, the textual child, born out of recollection as a poet's progeny (to borrow a descriptive phrase of Mary Shelley's as she conceived of Frankenstein), come to separate the two?

The poems of Sharon Olds and Linda McCarriston confront this difficult moral and psychological problem. For when the child is the confessor of a sin in which she was forced to participate, the problem is how to speak about shameful experience in the face of propriety and censorship. When the reader rejects possibilities of where art can take a reader, the reader breaks an implicit bond of human trust which, in this context, is analogous to the priest's role as listener.

Confessional poets must search for symbols to represent maturation, filtered through the many layers of self-objection and self-supervision, since language was not yet available to them when the event happened. However, the disruption of the integration process is one of the central features of the psychology behind confessionalism. That is not to say that it destroys the process; rather, it fuels it. When the individuation process is fraught with anxiety and pain, the passage towards the exterior is thwarted, and mental stress may result in a contained paroxysm of costumed surrogates for the "truer" personality. This is certainly true of Plath, who masquerades as Lady Lazarus, Nick and the Candlestick, Ariel, and perhaps, most memorably, as the tortured Jew in Dachau accusing her "Nazi" father of sadism. The "Jew" here is used impressionistically, not allegorically. In reality, the Jew, of course, is not a masochist, but a non-participating victim—there is no complicity between torturer and tortured. Plath takes poetic license to show complicity between father and daughter in questionable intimate relations of punishment and submission, of the seductive child who racks blame on the father who either assaulted her, or ignored her as if she were nothing. Although "Daddy" is undoubtedly influenced by Plath's agreement with Freud's theory of the seductive daughter, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has argued persuasively that this theory is very different from our present understanding. The early papers reveal Freud's own ambivalence about the realities of childhood trauma. Prior to 1897, Freud believed that the illness he saw in female patients was the result of early sexual abuse or aggression in the family. Freud's terms to describe the dynamics of sexual aggression on the part of perpetrators (violence, aggression, and seduction) became expunged, unfortunately—all but "seduction." The word itself was exploited in order to implicate the child as the seducer.

Freud's suppression of the facts of child victimization and the perpetrator's guilt is an egregious error. The response of perpetrators (fathers, schoolteachers, music teachers, uncles) was silence, concealment, and denial. Hence we have here again the paradigm of a child's need to give testimony and the adversarial demand for silence. Silence maintains a power relationship in which the adult is able to displace his guilt onto the "guilty" child who either did not conform to rules or was able to "seduce" the adult into doing something "taboo" or abusive. Unfortunately, the seduction theory gave victims and perpetrators alike a rationale to see the child as a naive but seductive figure who is desiring, guilt-ridden, and frustrated simultaneously. This idea tended to blend the edges between infantile wish and reality, making the child an unconscious agent of seduction or aggression within the family. The fact that the confessional writers seek out key moments of heightened anxiety and/or pain suggests that Freudianism gave confessional poetry its reputation as the "talking cure" or therapy.

The background of confessionalism is one of a convergence of anxieties shared by an entire population shaken by World War II and by the individual's dissociation from some of the values—religious, social and moral—he or she once relied upon for personal stability. Civilization itself was suffering a nervous "breakdown," and intellectuals examined the problem of evil in its grossest form, a systematic destruction of European Jewry and the worldwide destruction to which all the warring nations contributed. In the Nuremberg trials, the war criminals were interrogated to force them to disclose that each one was aware of the aberrant crimes he had committed against humanity. Without awareness, there can be no logical accountability. Awareness was proved through action, and deliberate evil was shown through deed—cover-up and secrecy. The Nazis went to great lengths to disguise, bury, and conceal what they had done, demonstrating their understanding of what they had done and how the world would judge it. Had they not known the difference between right and wrong, there would be no reason to hide it. Hence, some acts are unforgivable and human goodness and evil are not relative, but fixed states of human action and culpability. Although we may consider the concept of genocide as insane, the Nazis had to be, ironically, considered sane in order to prove their guilt. Those who knew what was happening to Jews, but did not raise their voice to halt it, whose civility would not permit the possibility of human brutality, much less the fact—they were in some ways as guilty as the Nazis themselves.

Like the revelations of history, confession serves as an antidote to the extreme harm that civilized silence can do. The female poet working through the complexity of her own victimization may arrive at a symbology of action and submission, silence and speech, in order to overturn the scales of power and powerlessness. Thus, Plath, for example, takes on herself the roles of the Jew and Biblical or mythological figures who have suffered and survived in order to express her own sense of degradation and justifiable outrage at her "torturers." Identification with the Jew in "Daddy" expresses the deepest sense of being despised and powerless to fight the forces of brutality. Plath's appropriation of the suffering and martyrdom of the Jew is both a sign of victimization and rebuttal. Yet "Daddy" is sometimes faulted for being an artful but self-exhibitionistic work of indulgent rage and bitterness directed at a neglectful and verbally abusive father. His abandonment of her to death and silence may have influenced her idiosyncratic "art of dying" in which art itself became the intangible but seductive realm into which dying seemed pleasurable. She "did it again and again" trying to perfect her art and her own death simultaneously. In her work, pain and anguish serves to bind reader and poet together, as the one confessing and and the one hearing the confession are bound by mutual recognition.

In "Daddy," the child's shame is supplanted by the power of her utterance when she can speak against those forces that censor her: the father, female propriety, the world of oppositions such as hate and love, torturer and tortured. We are moved by the nakedness of the confession as a testimony of the underprotected child who is violated until the perpetrator is himself silenced by death or absence. "Daddy" is about learning to speak; this is evident by the child's primitive babbling and by the many references to silence or the failure to articulate:

I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich, I could hardly speak...

the black telephone's off the root,
the voices just can't worm through.

At the end of "Daddy" the reader knows that the shame of the confessor is bound up with her utterance which is a belated response to her silent victimization. Her identification with the Jew persecuted by the Nazi is an allusion (and also an evasion) of the conflictual terms of the poem. The Jew's "guilt" is untenable because the Jew is absolute victim, despised not for his or her self, but for what is less tangible, his or her genus. For the Nazis willed the destruction of the Jews not only from one country to another, but from the existence of the world itself. If they would have succeeded, the descendants of those who survived the Holocaust would not be. In "Daddy," the role of the Nazi torturer is not simply predicated on hurting the child but in willing her out of existence. Hence, there is a half-hidden wish to extirpate her father and herself in order to regain some primal level of communication with him in a realm beyond death. Her father's unwillingness to see her as a person, rather than being a specimen in a collective genus (i.e. female), accompanies her worst fear that, so classified, she is an abomination to him. Her femaleness brings on more self-destruction through masochistic relationships with men. But the masochist is only the flip side of the sadist, and, in some ways, needs him in order to perpetuate her agony and wrath.

Plath's duality resembles the duplicity of humanity in general, which is to itself both the victim and the victimizer. Plath further dramatizes this rift in the stunning and allusionary poem, "Mary's Song," from Ariel. The poem suggests that nothing is more universal than the home and family, and that private experience is the essential foundation for more public and universal structures that confine or minimize women. In "Mary's Song," there is blame hurled at the world for the poet's suffering, and there is an equally powerful self-indictment that the heart itself may be cruel and self-destroying as a holocaust. The indeterminacy of where blame ends, where self-pity begins, and where expiation or forgiveness is asked for, is the crux of "Mary's Song." Self-pity is not to be confused with self-indulgence here, but is part and parcel with the divided self who both confesses and suffers and then forgives and embraces; it too can be seen as a personal process that has its correlative in the outer world.


While exploring the extremity of human virtue and depravity, joy and sorrow, both Sharon Olds and Linda McCarriston illustrate the divisions of human good and evil. The comprehensibility of hurt and blame may or may not divert itself back to the mature and analytical poet, or back again to the incarnation of the poet within the child. But the harboring of the child within the protection of the mature consciousness may not be, as some have charged, outright displays of narcissism, but moments of needed self-awareness.

Olds and McCarriston do not squelch rage and terror by answering to a dubious "aesthetics" or by keeping a polite distance from their subjects. Rather, they use language as an ally, an acquired means for fighting back against those who stripped them of defenses early on. Implicitly, the poet understands that indirection and neutrality are stances which only serve to weaken the metaphysical armor of the poem. Olds and McCarriston find routes through confrontation as well as confession. As women, they refuse to mitigate the literal fact of the body, and what happens to the psyche when the body is abused; therefore the language of confession is torrid, descriptive, and often brutal. The child does not lie; not in art, for art lives and breathes in the conditional, not in the verifiable. Successful confessionalism relies on the communion of language between poet and reader. Silence only sustains suffering, but the artist breaks the silence by giving suffering up to speech and writing.

Women's confessional writing offers, in place of the traditional Catholic acknowledgement of sins, the possibility of empowerment through language as a spiritual and therapeutic process of exoneration, not from guilt but shame. Olds does not abdicate her responsibility as the speaker or persona who is contaminated by the sins of others who are in control, but tries to reveal aspects of power and vulnerability that we all possess but don't like to acknowledge. Does Olds want us to see that we are no different than the victim, the perpetrator, the torturer, or the damned? Can we not both tell what happened (as witness) and still love (as child)? Does she want us to eye the nakedness of humanity when all its masks of acceptability are lifted? She raises all these questions in the title poem of the book Satan Says:

I am locked in a little cedar box
with a picture of shepherds pasted into
the central panel between carvings.
The box stands on curved legs.
It has a gold, heart-shaped lock
and no key. I am trying to write my
way out of the closed box
redolent of cedar. Satan
comes to me in the locked box
and says, I'll get you out. Say
My father is a shit. I say
my father is a shit and Satan
laughs and says, It's an opening.
Say your mother is a pimp.
My mother is a pimp. Something
opens and breaks when I say that.

The poem follows the child's attempt to get out of the "confession box" by testing God through Satan. She allows Satan to rescue her from the stultifying silence of supposed guilt and sin by repeating his blasphemous profanities, by sacrilege. The box then becomes a jewelry box on a child's bureau, making a smooth transition from the authority of the church to that of the home; both places have "locked her up," first in sin, then in childhood, and finally in gender. Once situated at home, Satan continues to taunt her with her own wish to punish her father and mother as one supposes they have punished or tortured the child. But in doing so, the child begins to feel, for the first time, guilty. In damning her mother and father, she realizes what that might really mean to her. In her collusion with the devil, she has sentenced her parents to death. For a moment, she reneges: "Oh no, I loved them too..." and realizes that in taking sides with the devil, she has damned herself because she answered violence with violence, disregard with disregard, in spite of her love. Justice and love fall at odds with one another. If her parents are bad, and she says so, has she elevated herself into the realm of the good?—into the ballerina's realm? Or if she is bad, cursing them as Satan says to do, does her incrimination restore them as principles of goodness who are justified in punishing her? But here, her own sentence has merged with that of her parents. In surrendering them to the devil to be tortured, she sees the evil within herself—"the red eye" of the ballerina; but in her her own "fire" or wrath, she has "suddenly discovered knowledge of love."

Metaphorically, the poem suggests that language will unlock her from confines of her silence. The subversion of the priest's ear or God's ear to Satan's voice, from acceptance to dissent, may be said to mirror the child's change from powerless, silent victim to angry, wrathful poet, who can use speech to confess and presumably escape guilt and suffering. However, the twist in this poem is the poet's admission that she is implicated by sacrificing "loved ones" to evil, and that her own perpetual damnation is bound up with theirs.

In another early poem, "That Year," Olds, like Plath before her, compares herself with the Jewish captives in Auschwitz, the fate of whom she recalls having learned about in Social Studies "that year." The poem begins with this initial idea, "that was the year I started to bleed / crossing over that border in the night..." Her associations finally lead her to identify with the "six million Jews." That year, she experienced brutality in her own private sphere: a girl discovered murdered, her father's abuse of the family, and other, more obtuse events such as getting her period, "the mask of blood" that she was unprepared for, and which she interpreted as a sign of the pain already inflicted upon her. She recognized the cause of that pain "like my father's face, the face of the guard / turning away—or worse yet / turning towards me." The mature poet remembers her own sense of guilt as a child, as victim of her father's abuse, an abuse which perversely fosters within the child identical shame for being that which is reprehensible to the parent and therefore deserving of punishment. But what if the punishment is undeserved? Undeserved punishment is the underlying linkage between private confession and symbolic representation of the Jew in Auschwitz. And that is also the definition of parental force or abuse. And the association of menstruation adds to the idea that she may be rejected or hated for her difference as a female, leading to more masochistic assaults on herself (that bring "blood").

Yet the speaker then realizes that she is not to be counted among the Jews ("a word for us"), but that she was a survivor ("there was another word... I was: / a survivor."). The survivor rises above the shame, and rebels by sustaining her own humanity—her own ideological defense. Although she was not the cause of the cruelty inflicted upon her by others, she cannot extricate herself from its happening; it happened to her and not because of her. The father begets in his daughter the image of his self-repulsion. That is how he wins over her. But even the child realizes, through the confession, that she may not be a victim, but a survivor, because she has survived the father's threat to her own autonomy and she has not relinquished the process of her own individuation. Even so, she knows that survivors never do forget or escape their personal guilt for surviving when others did not.

And in surviving, there is testimony to give the past meaning, even if meaning is the conflation of many emotions. In Olds's poem "Tricks," redemption occurs through confession, speech, or writing. The inscrutability of the mother is dramatized in how she uses her body, and not her speech, to make things happen, or conversely, to make nothing happen: "She pulls scarves out of her ears... / My mother the naked / magician stands on the white stage / and pulls her tricks." The mother is deceptive and powerless in her disappearance and reappearance, in her magician's guise. She is depriving her daughter of what she seemingly gives: "She closes her hand / and when she opens it, / nothing." The only continuity between daughter and mother is is the act of biological procreation, yet the mother abrasively takes back the life she gives, through silence, an emotional starvation. The daughter can counter with her visibility and voice, redirecting it to her own status as magician for the reader, a performer: "All this / I have pulled out of my mouth right / before your eyes." The mouth is a substitute for the mother's sexual parts from which the infant was "pulled out" like another prop in an intangible magic show. There is nothing reassuring about the mother's presence or that she values one prop (her jewels) any more than her daughter. But the daughter can seek reprisal against the mother by magically, if not improbably, giving birth to herself through speech itself. The guilt of the mother is sealed by the daughter's accusation made through "the mouth" (the witness) and beseeching the reader's "eyes" as judge.

Similarly, McCarriston pushes past the limits of the silence that was once imposed upon her; and she does judge, blame, and try to forgive. These poets write about monstrous things that happen in the private contexts of the family, but the terror of the underprotected child is not easily recalled or refined into such a lucid art of reconstruction, recollection, and tonal irony. The violent acts of the parent become poignant as they are resurrected in the self-witnessing representations of the victim herself, who cannot call herself a victim until she recognizes what the victor took from her. The survivor stays initially frozen in the past, and only later fights the impositions of her own shame, her silence, not wanting to bring the inside out. The deepest truth is the confessor's confrontation: "Here I am; you can't wish me away." McCarriston shows admirable discipline in maintaining a fixed eye on brutality and does not seek any higher authority to reason with it. In her work, the child-within is a spectral figure, a beacon, whose light is so direct and concentrated that it may cause the reader to blink, or look away.

What is exceptional about McCarriston is how confession becomes a trope which is deliberately inverted in order to show its signifying "difference" from itself. This poetry dramatizes innocence that is corrupted by the parent, along with the interpenetration of opposing feelings of love and hatred, anger and penance, blaming and punishment. Hence, confession is the refusal to be guilty under the pressures of the other who hopes to contain the victim within that guilt. The flawed representation of the betraying parent within must itself be banished, expunged, amputated from the daughter's psyche in order for her to use language as a belated weapon against the mother's neglect and denial or a father's sadism. Power generates from the extremity of a child's release into the fluid authority of language that will, due to its own limits, never tell the whole story, but can partially expel the isolation of a child taught not only to take what is handed to her, but also to privatize her pain.

Shame, horror, self-disfigurement are compelling effects of the psychically bruised child who has accepted the bad and evil and ugly as her own flesh. Although she was innocent, the fall into corruption is not so much a complicity with the arbiter of the transgression, or their mutual punishment, but a solitary drop into groundlessness.

In McCarriston's poem, "Billy," the poet recovers a scene of horror as the abusive father is seen beating her brother:

and even our father
who stood beating you with his fists
where he'd stuck you into
a barrel, as a mountaineer might plant
a banner into a peak to keep your
skinny thirteen-year-old body erect
till he was finished—the whole
rest emanates and fades.
It was winter. You had driven
your homemade go-cart into a door
that he was saving for something.
I see his upper body
plunging up and down like one
of those wind-driven lawn ornaments.
The barrel reaches your bottom...
Your body sounds different than
a mattress. The noises he makes
are the noises of a man trying
to lift a Buick off the body of
a loved child, whose face he can
see, upturned just above the wheel
that rests on her chest, her eyes right
on his eyes, as yours were on mine.

The father has raped her mother, or even her. That fact is revealed through the metaphor of a man "trying to lift a Buick off the body of a loved child." The sister has associated the beating with the act of rape, and they are one. The "eyes" are autonomous, as the "eyes" of God's judgement watching the father's beating, then his raping, watching the victims look at him with deathly horror and then to witness with the same look, that is not guilt but the knowledge of who is to blame. The victims are speechless, but the poet recounts the experience with extraordinary objectivity. This is by no means "a narcissistic indulgence" or "manipulation" of a reader's readiness to be shocked. This poem terrifies because it goes beyond the horror of the act and seizes us with the truth of our own capacity to look on and do nothing while people commit heinous crimes. The particular complication within the poem is the mirroring of brother and sister who corroborate for one another the event. Because they are figuratively "one flesh" they serve as priests for one another's unspoken confessions. And also, because they are the extensions of the father, the principles of "sameness," they are assailed by feelings of their own incipient evil or worthlessness derived from the father, the maker of their lives. Do the eyes connote helplessness, guilt, or shame? What is the poet "confessing" if not the complexity of all three? And yet there is also anger and blame in which the reader participates, conceding that this is humanity in its most complex, incestuous light: love and hatred, abuser and abused, suffering and transcendence. If there is no room for forgiveness in the poem, there is room for understanding. A violent tableau, the memory of the terror of the child who is already locked in the "confessional/coffin," springs forth through the savagery of what has occupied and finds its justice in articulation.

In "To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons," the poet blames without reservation, and without ambiguity, the Judge who allowed her abusive father proximity to the wife and children. The judge's reliance on "justice" and "law" is in ironic juxtaposition to the reality of what is actually happening in the family. The judge's failure was in his incapacity to identify with the people he stood above as a "symbol" of authoritative justice. "Let your name be / Eva Mary. Let your... birth be dawn. / Let your life be long / and common, and your flesh endure." The bitter and satiric irony of the last line emphasizes that the flesh, like the outer shell of beaten daughter and mother, is only temporary; what does endure is the evocation of the experience and poet's right not only to talk back, to refute and correct the error of judgement, but to blame the perpetrator of that error—the judge.

The child speaks for the injustice done against her mother and turns the poem from the private confessional into an allegory about the subjugation of all dependent women who are vulnerable to the physical, spiritual, or judicial authority of men who regard women as inferior, as body, rather than "light." The mother's flesh will not endure; ultimately, it is the book her father has already effaced, an account of his sins, upon which the writer has now left her own voice, her own text of liberation. Here womanhood, Eva Mary, combines with the social class she represents in the courtroom. Both woman and poor signify powerlessness before the judge's bench, a powerlessness that is childlike because it must go without appeal, and cannot find reality in the judge's official but artificial rhetoric. Indeed, there is someone to blame here. My point is that the fact of blaming does not minimize the power of the confession as a moment of vital communion and identification of writer and reader.

The poet here stands as witness and defense for her mother against violence and "unforgivable ignorance" of the men who did not see her for what she she was. The title "Eva Mary" is in itself a suggestion that poetry (Mother, Eve) in this mode seeks to resurrect the past, to mother again, and to bear the child as a deliverer of language that seeks not to mollify, but opens up the possibilities of saying what is most difficult to confess. In another poem, "Hotel Nights With My Mother," McCarriston demonstrates without self-pity or excuse the difficulty of accommodating a class-conscious world that critically appraises her as inferior due her outer trappings:

I scanned the rows of faces
their cumulative skill in the
brilliant adolescent dances
of self-presentation, of hiding...
I was watching them all

for the dark-circled eyes,
yesterday's crumpled costume, the marks
—the sorrowful coloring of marks—
the cuticles flaming and torn.
I made of myself each day a chink
a few might pass through unscathed.

The poignant aspect of the class conflict is not in the society that condemns her but within the self-consciousness of the child who feels herself to be nothing. The authorities, however, are sympathetically depicted; the girl's undeserving "contamination" is synonymous with our specious condemnation of them. McCarriston is not after such facile opposition. Rather, it is the resentment the child feels in trying to measure up and failing to see herself reflected in them that gives the poem its truth. She cannot see herself in them, and therefore she is extinguished, unable to join their circle; and they cannot see themselves in her so that they seem to walk through her, as if she were invisible. Invisibility in the class context has its own definition since Ellison, a theme that is by now familiar yet not correctable in the social sphere. The subject of the poem is not the poor child, but what she signifies about misinterpretation and apprehension in people faced with "difference."

Works of the confessional mode, or the "personal," offsprings of introspection and dissidence, often provoke the question among readers, "Why should we care?" Why should we care about the private suffering of others? To that position I would respond with: why should we not? We read them not because they are brave, or scandalous, or masochistically enthralling. We read them not because we are, or they are, voyeurs or missionaries. We read them because they impart truth about cruelty, about the need to unify aspects of the self, and because they show the inscriptions of collective pain as a language that can be uttered, received, and transcended. We read them because they plummet through the surface, break the code of silence, and yield wisdom. These poets touch irresistible pain, pain that unites us or tears us apart. They recognize the gravity of human history that is a succession of atrocities as well as a progress of accomplishments. And we should come to recognize ourselves in them, our own vulnerabilities, in the human truth they speak, or—even as the African-American sergeant did—curse, liberate, and fly.


Judith Lynn Harris teaches in the creative writing program of George Washington University. Her poetry has appeared in the Antioch Review, Boulevard, and the Women's Review of Books.

No Comments