Liz Lochhead: listening in to silence for the rhythm capable / of carrying the thought that’s not thought yet? (updated)

Posted: January 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

Liz Lochhead

(update I, below)

The wonderful Scottish poet and playwright Liz Lochhead has been appointed Scotland’s new makar , the title given to the position of national poet laureate to Scotland.  Lochhead was born in 1947, in Motherwell, Lanarkshire and went on to study at the Glasgow School of Art and taught art at schools in Glasgow and Bristol. Along with her writing she has taught and was Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University (1986-7) and Writer in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988. Publishing her first collection of poems “Memo for Spring” in 1972 she has gone on to write both essays, poems and stage plays.   Her long list of plays include Blood and Ice (1982; Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1989); Dracula (1989); Cuba (1997), and Perfect Days (1998).

Calum Colvin, The Kelvingrove Eight Janice Galloway, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Bernard MacLaverty, Liz Lochhead, Alan Spence, Jeff Torrington, Agnes Owens, 2000

Her adept scripting and adaptation of Euripides’ Medea (2000), working with the Theatre Babel, captured her the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. Interestingly enough, along with this broad set of endeavors, her work has additionally included work in both film and television. This work which resulted in the intriguing The Story of Frankenstein for Yorkshire Television, has circled back to the poetic output as (for example) her “Dreaming Frankenstein (1984)

Some of her latest work: a new collection of poetry, The Colour of Black and White: Poems 1984-2003 (2003) and a comedy (which you can see she is aptly qualified for from the reading below) titled, Good Things (2006).

Liz Lochhead reads her poem “Men Talk”

Lochheads poetry has always attempted a critique of the silencing of the voice of women and her poetic and playwright work has been a sustained endeavor to excavate the buried voice of the oppressed. Often, in her poetic production, she carries out this feminist excavation by positioning her own subjective, personnel voice, which is speaking to the reader as “teller” of the storyline. to the muffled and overdetermining narrative of the masculine tone which wishes to obliterate the “teller” of the tale she recounts. (Liz Lochhead’s Lady Writer Talkin’ Blues (Rap), 1985)

He said Mah Work was a load a’ drivel
I called it detail, he called it trivial
Tappin’ out them poems in mah tacky room
About mah terrible cramps and mah
Moon Trawled Womb –
Women’s trouble?
Self Pity.

And from ‘Kidspoem/Bairnsang’ in Lochhead’s 2003 collection, The Colour of Black and White

Oh saying it was one thing
but when it came to writing it
in black and white
the way it had to be said
was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead.

Lochhead addresses the oppressive male voice here with a laugh and giggle (hear her reading of “men talk” above to get this “tone”) and relegates to mere cliché the male stance which this stereotype has taken to edge of the absurd.

Alasdair Gray, Snakes and ladders (film sequence with Liz Lochhead), 1972

The arc of history, and the tales and legends made there, are one of the determinate strands which form the standard normative male values which are then assigned to sexual identity and result in this distorted displacement of the women’s voice and mark.  Lochhead has, along with other notable writers such as Atwood and Carter, attacked this containment of the roles of the female, through the stifling and misdirected narrative trajectory of the male tale, by a forcefully humorous reworking of the folktale and the traditional myth. The Grimm Sisters (1981) and Medea (2000) brings to the fore the common male texts implanted on women and plays out the casting of women as: ‘stock characters’ or stereotypes of women: the ‘spinster’, the ‘bawd’, the ‘harridan’, who are enabled to speak for themselves in these poems, from the female point of view. In poems such as ‘Repunzstiltskin’ Lochhead plays with the myths of Rapunzel: the trapped and helpless female, and Rumplestiltskin; the aggressive, self-serving male, to mock the injustices of conventional male power in romantic relationships:

& just when our maiden had got
good & used to her isolation,
stopped daily expecting to be rescued,
had come almost to love her tower,
along comes This Prince
with absolutely
all the wrong answers.

In another direction that Lochhead has used to analyze the purposeful social omissions of the female voice is with an appeal to the dark and unseen of the Gothic. The Goth, the dark layers of the social which is repulsive to the clean, light, rational (and male) voice of the linear story, is an alternative realm which has gathered to itself the overlooked, denied, and, finally, rejected of the male realm of the contained body and word. The forsaken and forgotten in the realm of the ordinary which is banished to the dark empires of absurdities assigned to the other by the male reign.  Lochead’s vision looks to this darker region of the forgotten and obscured in adoptions such as Stoker’s Dracula, but her inclinations are most notable and consistent in her concern with the world of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in both her poetic as well as stage work. This intriguing fascination of Lochhead comes from the niche which Mary Shelly, and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, had to feminism and the emancipation of women, but also to their attempts to illuminate the blindnessness of light the structure of the male narrative was continually venturing to impose on the female (as both script and scribe).  This can be seen in the ‘Mirror’s Song’ from Dreaming Frankenstein (1984) where Lochhead wonders at the internalization of the male-valuations that women are pressured to take upon themselves and calls for a feminine destruction of this system which encases them: Smash me looking glass / coffin, the one/that keeps your best black self on ice

Trapped in convention there is no escape without the decisive and total destruction of the prison. Yet this prison is devious and much more insidious than one can imagine.  The prison, the encapsulating the total machinations of the gender trap, is built of more than wall or deadly black ice, but is hewn horribly and directly from the forms of language itself.. This is a terrible trap of words, but it is all the more terrible as it is the prisoner who may come to built and replicate its confinements which hold them.

She said she
woke up with him in
her head, in her bed.
Her mother-tongue clung to her mouth’s roof
in terror, dumbing her, and he came with a name
that was none of her making.

How to shatter the trap?  Lochhead’s answer is to rewrite the language with laughter, assault, the ignored darkness and the gothic uncanny. To see the world as it is, to laugh at those who only will laugh with scorn, and to speak a language which calls us all to the both dark and light parts of the human.

Vincent Butler, Liz Lochhead , Edinburgh Park, South Gyle, Edinburgh statue

Update I:

Considering the obliteration of the female voice I began to wonder at the intersections between Liz Lochhead and Carolee Schneemann in her wonderful and insightful Interior Scroll (1975).

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975

For Lochhead the forms of language are obliterated in the self-important babble, dismissals,  limitations, and misguidings of male vocalizations.  For Schneemann the body itself can place subtle, forceful, and exacting pressure on the voice which wants to impose absence on the narratives of the female.  Both, however, feel the normative voice, narrow tales, and the restricted styles they are willing to condone, must be addressed and overturned in the female.

Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975. image and text

In one way Lochhead is more inclined to the thinking of Hélène Cixous (the female text needs to be written-  the tale and language determines the “body” and must be set free to create muliplities and possibilities) and Schneemann is more circulating around the notions of Luce Irigaray (new variants of language will reinvest the intimate and closeness of touch and reassess the distancing of sight through the means of a strategic essentialism).

Carolee Schneemann talks about Womens Voice and the Action of the Body

Description of Event: Schneemann performed Interior Scroll, a Fluxus-influenced piece featuring her use of text and body. In her performance, Schneemann entered wrapped in a sheet, under which she wore an apron. She disrobed and then got on a table where she outlined her body with dark paint. Several times, she would take “Frozen Modeling poses”, similar to those in figure drawing classes. Concurrently, she read from her book Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter. Following this, she dropped the book and slowly extracted from her vagina a scroll from which she read.

  1. maaretta says:

    Interesting post. Lockhead has certainly been a productive writer!
    “Men talk” was a very funny poem. She was also right on in her critique of how Men’s way of talking is valued more than women’s.
    Her re-telling of Frankenstein sounds interesting. Should check it out.

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