Claire Farley is the author of the poem “Pointillism,” which appeared in Issue 35 of The Puritan. Here, Claire talks about the poem as part of our ongoing Author Notes series.
The poem “Pointillism” developed from thinking I’d been doing about feminist public poetics. More specifically, I wrote the poem partly in response to Lyn Hejinian’s essay “The Person and Description,” in which Hejinian reflects on identity and “the self” in her own work, particularly in My Life.
Certainly I have an experience of being in position, at a time and place, and of being conscious of this. But this position is temporary, and beyond that, I have no experience of being except in position. All my observations are made from within a matrix of possibly infinite contingencies and contextualities. This sense of contingency is intrinsic to my experience of the self as a relationship rather than an essence …
Her goal is to undermine the idea of a solid identity as the governing nature of the self. I’m really interested in this idea and thought that this type of fluidity would be a valuable exercise for me. As a very new writer, I find myself fighting against the lyric “I” in my poetry. I want to go beyond the natural tendency to write about an emotive experience—that’s what guided most of my first attempts at writing poetry, as is probably the case for most writers. On the other hand, a feminist spirit also tells me not to reject the “I,” that an expression of self has value.
Hejinian’s project of expansion is something I keep in mind while writing most poems, but “Pointillism” was a more direct attempt to engage with it. This poem is something I think Hejinian might have called an “exercise in possibilities.” With the purpose of exploring the self as fluid and contextual, it catalogues versions of my self in place: Paris (where language is slippery to me as an Anglo-Quebecer); Morocco (where language is a door allowing me to observe the unfolding of the Arab Spring from a new position); and the Netherlands (where I am a hyper-feminine version of myself, out of necessity).
Hejinian also explores the difference between our English (Western) conception of the self and the Russian language’s, which is never singular or constant. I think this idea of self(ves) in position is something particularly interesting to Canadians.
Her goal is to undermine the idea of a solid identity as the governing nature of the self.
Hyphenated identity is a common theme in Canadian literature—the self as multiple and simultaneous. The inner conflict I’ve personally felt as an anglophone with French-Canadian ancestry, as a French Canadian with deep roots in a settler colony, is mirrored in our conflicted national identity.
I’m always interested in marrying an exploration of the private self with the public sphere, so I wondered how the person might stand for these societal structures. In O Cidadán, Erin Mouré has a wonderfully experimental response to this question:
What if national determinations in a unitary state (España, Canadá) created more borderlands, thus more potential for overlap, irruption, thus freedoms! O Cidadán. The one who carries a passport, for she has already been somewhere else. And brings back words from another idiom.
This is where the lines “hyphen a fissure border/ to bore beneath” come from. If the self is infinite, the border (separating us from one another, from other nations) is enjambed, a series of points rather than a dividing line. Significantly, language (“words from another idiom”) is a tool that allows both the writer and the citizen the possibility of multiple overlapping selves: borderlands.
[The following has been added after publication at the author’s request, in light of recent events.]
I wrote this piece several months ago—before President Trump, before asylum seekers crossing the Canada-US border risked serious frostbite for safety. Reading this today, I’m struck by how troubling my use of borderlands is as a structure to express my own easy slippage between place and versions of selfhood. It’s very uncomfortable to confront my own privileged position in such a public space, but I’d like to take the opportunity to do so now. I intend to let these reflections serve as a reminder that compositional strategies are not neutral. Aesthetic forms do have political significance and freedom of movement is certainly more than an “exercise in possibilities.”
Claire Farley is a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa and co-editor of Canthius, a feminist literary journal. Her poetry has been published in Arc, Ottawater, (parenthetical), and Bywords, among other places. She is the 2016 recipient of Arc’s Diana Brebner Prize.