The Gaze and Female Subjectivity in Rita Dove’s Poetry
- Author: Tso Yi-Hsuan
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 19, Issue1, p149~175, 30 Apr 2011
The correlation between freedom and being a subject is a recurrent topic in Rita Dove’s poetry. It was first broached in an earlier poem, “Canary,” from
Grace Notes(1989), and re-emerges in “The Venus of Willendorf” and “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View,” from On the Bus with Rosa Parks(1999). In “The Venus of Willendorf,” which explores visual contact among people through gaze and misrepresentation in a gaze, Dove suggests that when women and blacks become subjects in a gaze, they acquire freedom to express their desire and emotions. Her ideas find resonance in Patricia Hill Collins’s theories regarding “Black women’s sexuality” and Luce Irigaray’s concept of female subjectivity. In “The Venus of Willendorf,” through her encounter with the Venus figurine in a tuché, the female student understands how she appears in the villagers’ gaze and realizes that the patriarchal gaze objectifies and misrepresents women. The gaze among people is one facet of human contact, which Dove’s poetry claims should be equal and free of objectification.
Rita Dove , freedom , subjectivity , the gaze , Venus , Luce Irigaray , Jacques Lacan
The correlation between freedom and being a subject is a recurrent topic in Rita Dove’s poetry. It was first broached in an earlier poem, “Canary,” from
Grace Notespublished in 1989, and reemerges in “The Venus of Willendorf” and “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View” from On the Bus with Rosa Parks(1999). In “The Venus of Willendorf,” Dove demonstrates her ability to write public poetry about the problem of freedom and the issue of being a subject among black people and women. In this poem, which explores visual contact among people through gaze and misrepresentation in a gaze, Dove suggests that when women and blacks become subjects in a gaze, they acquire freedom to express their desire and emotions. Her ideas find resonance in Patricia Hill Collins’s theories regarding “Black women’s sexuality” and Luce Irigaray’s concept of female subjectivity (Collins, Thought134). “Canary” and “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View” support the reading of “The Venus of Willendorf” as a poem about the relationship between freedom and subject in a gaze.
This paper argues that “The Venus of Willendorf” describes two kinds of gaze. The first kind of gaze deals with the patriarchal gaze, which Collins criticizes trenchantly for its objectification of women (
Thought146). The innkeeper’s gaze at the Venus of Willendorf, the villagers’ gaze at the female student, and the archaeological professor’s gaze at the female student all belong to this category. This first type of gaze resembles the gaze in pornography, which ascribes qualities to the object under scrutiny (Collins, Thought146). The second kind of gaze is a self-reflection, a signature thought of a subject, who is capable of making his or her own judgments, producing self-images and expressing desires. In “The Venus of Willendorf,” the second type of gaze is not an act of a Cartesian subject cogito, represented by his or her thought; rather, the gaze occurs during a mysterious experience when the subject is in contact with the unconscious, a situation Jacques Lacan calls a tuché, an encounter with the real, with “the return” “of the signs” indicating a trauma (Lacan 53-54, 73). Presented as a traumatic experience, the realoften appears as a primal scene to the subject, according to Lacan (55, 69, 77). In the poem, the primal scene of tuchéoccurs when the female student first sees the Venus of Willendorfguided by the innkeeper’s gaze. Lacan’s theories, which emphasize a subject’s relation to the Other and to other people through language, are homogeneous with Dove’s poetics, which states that poetry enlightens people about their relationships with other human beings (“Rita Dove” 112). Through her encounter with the Venus figurine in the tuché, the female student understands how she appears in the villagers’ gaze and realizes that the patriarchal gaze objectifies and misrepresents women. The realization helps the student become a subject expressing emotions and desires freely as opposed to an object of the patriarchal gaze.
In “The Venus of Willendorf,” Dove tells a story to explain the relationship between freedom and a person’s being the subject in a gaze; in “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View,” she states directly that one gains freedom after one becomes a subject in a gaze. In Dove’s poem “Canary,” a female vocalist retains her dignity by deliberately faking an image which would gain the patriarchal and dominating cultures’ approval and enjoys conditioned freedom within the confines of the patriarchal perspective. Compared with “Canary,” these two poems from Dove’s
On the Bus with Rosa Parksboldly assert that women and blacks have the right to freedom and the right to be subjects. Instead of seeking protection by succumbing to and perpetuating the patriarchal mythification of women and blacks, as in her earlier poem “Canary,” characters in Dove’s two later poems demystify the patriarchal images of women and blacks by letting them become thinking subjects capable of philosophical reflection like their male and dominating counterparts.
Certain historical facts about the
Venus of Willendorfwould be helpful to a full understanding of Dove’s poem. Discovered in Willendorf, Austria in 1908, an 11-centimeter tall figurine carved in limestone portraying a nude, plump woman, the Venus of Willendorfis one of the earliest self-images of the human species and dates from “around 24,000 and 22,000 BCE (26-24,000 B. P.)” of the Paleolithic era (“Women in Prehistory” 1.1; “The ‘Venus’ Figurine”). It is now on display in the Museum of Natural History ( Naturhistorisches Museum) in Vienna (“The ‘Venus’ Figurine”; Janson 78). The name “Venus” was first used by the Marquis de Vibraye as a derogatory jest, who dubbed a small “statuette” found in the Dordogne in the 1860s “Vénus impudique” (“immodest Venus”) in contrast to “Venus pudica” (“modest Venus”) or the classical Venus, who covers her breasts and private parts with her hands (“Women in Prehistory” 2.1). The name “Venus” was later applied to this figurine discovered in Willendorf because of certain exaggerated features such as “the vulva’s labia minora,” her buxom breasts, hips, and thighs (“Women in Prehistory” 2.1). As Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe suggests, the name “Venus” associates the goddess Venus, the embodiment of feminine beauty and sexuality, with libidinal and savage primitiveness. Without written records to serve as evidence, scholars can only speculate that the Venus of Willendorfmay be a childbearing “fertility idol,” the ancient “Earth Mother or Mother Goddess,” or an educational tool to communicate practical knowledge of sex to women (“Women in Prehistory” 3.3, 5.1; McDermott). The Venus of Willendorf is significant because it is one of the oldest representations of humans and one of the most ancient works of art.
In “The Venus of Willendorf,” a black female student goes to Willendorf, Austria to study with a professor. A quotation about the effects of gaze from Paul Celan’s poem “Double-Shape” precedes the main body of the poem. When the poem begins, the female student has been in Willendorf for a week. The student recalls her first day in the tavern, when the innkeeper shows her the reproduction of
the Venus of Willendorf, the original of which is displayed elsewhere. The figurine appears to both the innkeeper and the student as a conglomerate of exaggerated female body parts. In addition to the figurine, which is considered a miraculous discovery in the village, the student finds another miracle in this village—the punctual express train that takes children to school every morning. Next, she thinks about the villagers who stare at her and liken her to the figurine. Her own female physical features, like those of the figurine’s, are the focus of their gaze. Moreover, she recalls a visit to the professor’s summer lodge, in which the professor verbally harassed her, telling her about his white pubic hair, as well as visually assaulted her with his gaze. The student feels thrilled instead of shocked by the professor’s attention because she has noticed that the professor does not stare at his wife. After these recollections, the student sees the morning twilight before her. The student deems that the professor would not dare touch her body; still, she feels uncomfortable under his gaze. Finally, she realizes that people’s gaze and attention shape the representation of a person as a social being. At daybreak, lightning and thunder rise and subside, and people travel in the sunlight. The student resolves that she must take action for herself because she is a person, not a ghost like the primitive woman, whose image is recorded in the stone figurine.
The female student’s studies of the
Venus of Willendorfin the poem bring her through different stages of insight. During the first stage, the student deems that the figurine is but a cluster of ancient rock. During the second stage, she discovers that its female biological features appeal to the innkeeper. During the third stage, when she confronts the gaze of the villagers as she takes her walk in town, the student gradually understands the patriarchal gaze through her own experience of it.
The patriarchal gaze this poem explores denotes the problem of black women’s silence about their own sexuality and desire. Collins maintains that black women remain silent about their sexuality for two reasons: “Within U.S. Black intellectual communities generally and Black studies scholarship in particular, Black women’s sexuality is either ignored or included primarily in relation to African-American men’s issues,” and there is the issue of “racial solidarity that counsel Black women always to put their own needs second” (
Thought134). In Dove’s poem, the student resolves to become a subject and rejects remaining an object in people’s gaze in the final stage when she decides to take action to counter the patriarchal gaze.
In contrast, the other living woman in the poem, the professor’s wife, has not reached such a realization; she will follow the patriarchal culture, represented by the professor:
“Where thou goest, there I went also”( On the Bus50). The paraphrase from the Bible is sarcastic in the poem because in the Bible a woman follows a woman—Ruth, the daughter-in-law, follows Naomi, the mother-inlaw—yet in the poem a woman follows a man (Ruth 1.16).1 By this alteration, Dove uses the poem to question the act of following without one’s own will.
By contrast, the woman’s gaze is at variance with the patriarchal gaze, a difference Irigaray insists exists; Irigaray warns that “women merely ‘equal’ to men would be ‘like them,’ therefore not women. . . . So it is essential for women among themselves to invent new modes of organization, new forms of struggle, new challenges” (
This166). Irigaray explains her caveat not to perpetuate phallogocentric politics when establishing the female subject or describing the female desire with the metaphor of a mirror:
To Irigaray, equality is not enough, and to the forum of the women’s liberation movement she adds difference, which is currently also a vital concept on the third wave American feminists’ agenda; therefore, Irigaray argues: “it is in order to bring their difference to light that women are demanding their rights” (
This166). In addition to Irigaray, poststructuralists, as Verena Andermatt Conley suggests, including “Deleuze and Guattari,” “Derrida, Cixous, Lyotard and others . . . search for ways out . . . from the confines of a disciplinary society. For them the subject . . . continually reinvents itself” (19). Among them, Conley maintains, Deleuze and Guattari “focus on multiplicities, on becoming and an intensity of desire” (21).
Moreover, Irigaray recapitulates the argument third wave American feminism also espouses—the importance of personal feminism—by proclaiming the public in the private, validating one’s personal experience as of central importance to women in general: “The first issue facing liberation movements is that of making each woman ‘conscious’ of the fact that what she has felt in her personal experience is a condition shared by all women, thus
allowing that experience to be politicized” ( This164). Irigaray’s interpretation of the familiar slogan, “the personal is the political,” widely circulating since the second wave feminism and still resonating in this wave of women’s movement, gives support to Dove’s employment of a firstperson narrator’s experience to expound on the problem of subjectivity. If, as Marsh maintains, poetry in On the Bus with Rosa Parkssuggests “that political agency relies on an intersection of the public and the private,” then “The Venus of Willendorf” conveys this idea from another direction—that the personal can also be public—by placing a black female student’s body under public cynosure (52).
Pat Righelato comments on the autobiographical elements in Dove’s poetry by comparing her to John Ashbery and Robert Lowell: “Like both, she seeks new ways in which to express the autobiographical” (668). Like Righelato, Diana V. Cruz suggests that in Dove’s poetry, “racial specificity is a necessary element in the writer’s craft rather than a rupture in a seamless, universal language” (789). Unlike Righelato and Cruz, Arnold Rampersad praises the “tight control,” “discipline,” “objectivity,” and “inclusive sensibility” transcending “black cultural nationalism” in Dove’s poetry (53). Similar to Rampersad, Nicky March in
Democracy in Contemporary U. S. Women’s Poetryproposes two points, including her observation that Dove perceives race as constructed, and that the “feminized presence” of the Goddess of Freedom and “democratic model” the goddess represents in the poem “Lady Freedom Among Us” transcend the usually “masculinized realm of political action” (49, 51).
I argue that this double valency that critics see in Dove’s poetry does exist, not because either side of critical opinion has the wrong judgment, but because Dove constantly challenges prejudice, preconceptions, and other boundaries of thoughts: Dove describes her own writing: “I never want to feel entirely comfortable while writing a poem; I want to feel that I’m on new ground, that I’m bending what were once the rules” (Rowell, “Part 2” 717). Dove maintains that owing to the grounds cleared by the Black Arts Movement, she is free to explore diverse pathways: “by the time I started to write seriously, when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, the Black Arts Movement had gained momentum. . . . The predominant powers had become less dismissive of African Americans, and the wider world was ready for nuance. . . . I found a different path, one determined by my very own aesthetic sensibilities” (Rowell, “Part 2” 716). Moreover, critics including Righelato and Malin Pereira notice Dove’s cosmopolitan inclination, commenting on Dove as “a much-traveled cosmopolitan figure” and about her “cosmopolitan freedom” respectively (Righelato 668; Pereira, “Rita” 562). For example, Pereira comments that “[i]nternational locales are an essential element of Dove’s poetry,” and that rather than being confined by identity politics, Dove dauntlessly refers to foreign writers in her poetry (“Rita” 564). Pereira suggests that Dove’s “
cosmopolitan” and “ cultural mulatto” impulses contain the idea of “cultural amalgamation,” and Pereira uses the latter term “ cultural mulatto” for works exhibiting anxieties about their reception ( Rita4).
Likewise, Dove explains that her creative impulse leads her to become a poet unlike black poets of the older generation. While referring to her poem “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, in a Dream,” she comments on the poet whom she sees as “one of the most visible representatives of” the Black Arts Movement: “it’s just that I have another agenda. I enjoy lying down in the grass of my own pasture” (Rowell, “Part 2” 717). However, undeniably, one of her mainstays in both material and perspective is blackness such as the mulatto violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, who Dove chooses as the protagonist of her new book
Sonata Mulattica, in which she confronts the different views people have about the musician: “what amazed his [European] audiences was that he was already a great musician at such a young age—not that he was ‘black’ and played ‘white’ music” as it would have been to an American audience with fixed ideas about classical music (Rowell, “Part 1” 696, 704).
“The Venus of Willendorf” begins with an epigraph from Paul Celan’s poem “Double-Shape” (“
Zwiegestalt”). The poem by Celan in Joachim Neugroschel’s translation is longer than and different from Dove’s quotation. Dove quotes the entire first stanza and alters one word:
Celan’s “Double-Shape” discusses two shapes emerging from a subject’s interaction with the other (“you”) (51). The first shape emerges when the narrator incurs the gaze of the other. The second shape appears when the other reaches the soul of the narrator indirectly through a layer of snow. The snow has accumulated through time and blankets the soul when the other makes the second contact, though at one time it was blown off by the other. While the narrator’s visual contact with an anonymous “you” in the first stanza takes place privately in a room, in the third stanza of Celan’s poem the narrator is in an intimate, mobile, and physical contact with “you” outdoors.
Dove’s epigraph revises Celan’s first stanza and offers two discrete interpretations of the “shape” or representation of a gaze at the outset of her poem. Dove quotes the first stanza only; thus her epigraph is concerned only with the first shape produced by the gaze. In her quotation, Dove substitutes Celan’s “a wick” (“
einen Docht”) with “ a knife” and by the replacement expresses her critique of women’s being treated as objects in a gaze ( On the Bus48; Celan 50-51). In contrast to Celan’s the other (“you”), which appears beneficent to the narrator’s soul because it clears away the snow, in Dove’s epigraph, the other appears vicious for it wounds the narrator with a knife-like gaze. Thus, the first shape can be interpreted as a distorted image of the narrator, which is the projection of the desire of the other. Dove’s critique of the patriarchal gaze according to this interpretation resonates with Collins’s feminist theories, which maintain that male gaze in pornography misrepresents women by objectification—reducing women to a cluster of sexual features without feelings or thoughts—and thus deprives them of subjectivity ( Thought148, 152-53). Moreover, Collins indicates that “deep feelings” are one major source of the power of a subject ( Thought163). To Dove, these feelings are also indispensable resources in artistic creation: “I try to remain passionate about whatever I am writing. . . . That’s the only way to be honest, to get to the ur-experience” (qtd. in Steffen 169). The first shape can also be explained as a self-reflection of the subject in an imagined gaze at oneself. Both interpretations interlace throughout Dove’s poem, until in the end Dove combines both interpretations by letting her protagonist gain a self-reflection through the student’s critique of the gaze.
The epigraph foreshadows the subject matter of female subjectivity and the gaze by criticizing the lack of free will in the speaker’s unwitting (“blind”) provocation of the gaze (
On the Bus48). The main body of the poem is narrated by a black female student, who discusses the gaze in retrospect of the events that have happened during the week she stays in Willendorf. Her thoughts about these events are set in contrast to the description of her view from the shade of the tavern garden in the first and last two stanzas. Beginning in the second stanza, the student describes her encounter with the Venus of Willendorf. At first, the student dismisses the figurine in the tavern in the town of Willendorf as a mere “replica,” because it is not the genuine sculpture, which is displayed in Vienna, according to extra-textual information ( On the Bus 48; “The ‘Venus’ Figurine”). Next, it appears to her that the figurine is still under the earth (“entombed in a glass display”) and has little artistic value (being “a handful of primitive stone”) ( On the Bus48; “Women in Prehistory” 3.4). The description “a handful” originates from scholars’ observation that the figurine seems to always lie on her back, and that her best position is to be held in one’s palm ( On the Bus48). However, the female student gradually understands the significance of the Venus of Willendorf, and the importance of the figurine reveals itself as it transforms from being a clump of stone to a catalyst that provokes the student’s reflection on the patriarchal objectification of women. During her encounter with the figurine, the student follows the innkeeper’s gaze, and finds that the innkeeper has reduced the figurine to her body parts, which he regards as the “evidence” that indicates her gender ( On the Bus49). This encounter with the figurine is a tuchéor encounter with the real because it reveals to the student her own traumatic existence as a black person and as a woman. During the tuché, the figurine indicates to her “the need to introduce another reference” in order to counteract “the privileges of the consciousness” of patriarchal views, as Lacan’s thought is translated into a feminist context in the poem (Lacan 82). Introducing the Lacanian concept of “ tuché” would supplement the historical and unconscious dimensions of the lack of female subjectivity with the return of the other. To Jane Hedley, the speaker realizes “what it feels like not only to be desired as a woman, but to accept and even crave her own desirability” (203). However, this connection between beauty and desire does not pinpoint the nucleus of the problematic to be female subjectivity associated with women’s desire.
Like the gaze of the innkeeper, which is one of surprise at seeing a young woman of another race, the gaze of the villagers is uncivil in objectifying the woman: “It was impossible, of course, / to walk the one asphalted street / without enduring a gauntlet of stares. /
Have you seen her?They asked, / comparing her to their Venus / until she could feel her own breasts / settle” ( On the Bus49). These descriptions echo earlier the portrayal of the figurine under the innkeeper’s gaze: the Venus possesses “sprawling buttocks and barbarous thighs, / breasts heaped up in her arms / to keep from spilling” ( On the Bus49). Just as the figurine is a cold piece of “evidence” and not a work of art to which one can form attachment through aesthetic appreciation, the student is looked at as a living specimen of the black race (“a live black girl”) ( On the Bus48-49). At the moment she detects the gaze of the villagers, the student becomes a subject able to reflect on the patriarchal gaze. With this realization, the student looks at her own body by the standard of a subject; she describes her own body as a natural “ripening” work of nature, in contrast to earlier descriptions of the body of the Venus as savage and sexually unrestrained (her “barbarous thighs,” “sprawling” hips, and “spilling” breasts) ( On the Bus49).
Moreover, from similar descriptions about the figurine’s body and about her own, one learns that after her realization the female student deepens her sympathy for the figurine and strengthens her identification with it during her second endurance of the gaze. The student’s physical features related to feminine fertility—hips, thighs, and breasts—are subject to the villagers’ rude and rather primitive criteria in assessing a human being. By this comparison, Dove further thrusts the problem of the gaze in power relations into a larger historical context and suggests to the reader the gravity of the problem we are confronting all the time in history. Irigaray contends that rather than inheriting the male image, to construct the relationships between the sexes is of paramount importance: “one task for our time is to establish a horizontal civic society and not an exclusively genealogical and vertical one. . . . Unity then would no longer come from nature and resemblance but difference and the bridge, bridges, between things that are irreducible to the One” (
Why58-59). Irigaray then advocates for “a culture which is both subjective and intersubjective,” is inclusive of the female subject, and is founded on the relationship between subjects ( Luce18).
In addition, Dove presents another example of the gaze in her story to illustrate the prevalence of the patriarchal gaze. Later, the student suffers from the gaze of the professor, who not only harasses her verbally but also gazes at her brazenly; “his gaze, glutting itself / until her contours blazed,” seeks no concealment (
On the Bus50). Instead of making a quick reaction to protect her own body from this impolite advance, the student is puzzled by the resemblance of her situation to the earlier one of the Venus of Willendorf. The student attempts to interpret the tuchéthat happened in the tavern. After comparing the patriarchal gaze she and the figurine both endure, she reaches the conclusion that the sculptor’s hand that “had loved” the sculpture contributes to the sexual attraction of the figurine (On the Bus 50). In this context, the sculptor’s love means desire and attention and cannot be mistaken for genuine love. Likewise, the professor’s gaze is likened to a type of gluttony (“his gaze, glutting itself”) and hence is desire ( On the Bus50). The professor’s gaze is described as “tender,” because the gaze expresses his desire and attention, and as “fierce,” because he treats the student as an object of his desire ( On the Bus50). The professor’s gaze, which seems to devour the observed, is also described elsewhere when the student remembers how “no one [the professor] devoured her [the professor’s wife] with his [the professor’s] glance” ( On the Bus50).
The stone figurine of the
Venus of Willendorfin the poem is a symbol of the reified image of women; it is an idolized, objectified image of a woman, condensing men’s libidinal fantasies; in contrast, a live woman cannot be so easily and entirely reified. It is, moreover, one of the earliest cases of a woman objectified by a sculptor, who may be male or female, but the pathetic fallacy in the art work is obvious: the figurine has no face and no feet, but the reproduction and nursing parts are exaggerated, according to art history records not mentioned in the poem (“Women of Prehistory” 3.2, 3.3). Just as the epigraph at the outset reminds the reader that a gaze is like “ a knife” that wounds the observed, Dove’s poem suggests that freedom is the right to choose not to become the object of desire in someone’s gaze ( On the Bus48).2
1“But Ruth said, ‘Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.’ ” (Ruth 1.16-17) 2Just as Collins maintains, Toni Morrison’s Beloved exhibits the other side of the same argument of Dove’s: freedom is to love or desire what you choose (Thought 186).
Dove not only redefines “love” but also questions standards of female beauty. In the context of the poem, “beautiful” means desirable and not comely because the description of the figurine—“sprawling,” “barbarous,” and “spilling”—implies sexual ability and licentiousness but contains not a dint of connotation referring to its beauty (
On the Bus49). Moreover, from art historical accounts of the figurine, one learns that it does not have a face, and that its body is too plump to be called beautiful (“Women in Prehistory” 3.1-4). In this poem Dove revises the idea of beauty and establishes “an alternative Black feminist aesthetic” outside of the binary frame (Collins, Thought183). Dove uses the figurine as a third element between the black student and the professor’s white European wife. The figurine, representing the two women’s joint ancestor, disrupts the racial division and prompts the reader to devise another aesthetic of women with the student in the poem. When the student is obliged to think and judge independently of any racial or social preconceptions of beauty, she emerges as a subject and no longer remains an object in her professor’s gaze. In other words, through her reflection on the gaze and on aesthetics, the student emerges as a subject capable of forming her own self-image as well as the image of her gender. While examining the issue of desire and beauty, Dove achieves a broader nonracial, non-binary, and historical perspective, a tendency to cross “boundaries” and bridge “gaps” Steffen also observes (6-7).
In addition to new definitions of love and a new aesthetics for women, Dove’s poem explores the power operations in the gaze. The figurine and the student become victims of the patriarchal gaze and are easily taken advantage of by those in power because they belong to weak groups in society. For instance, both the figurine and the female student are outsiders and possess little power in their relations to the villagers. The female student is a newcomer in the town, “one more exotic / in the stream of foreign students” from another country and of another race, who has few resources to resist the villagers’ gaze (
On the Bus48). She is also a student under the supervision of the professor, known by his title in the poem (48). This poem very likely employs some of Dove’s own experiences, for example, her visit in Germany at the University of Tübingen as a Fulbright scholar from 1974 to 1975: during her stay, Dove “was looked upon as a curiosity, since many residents had never seen an African American before,” as Pereira describes (Steffen 14 ; Pereira, “Rita” 560). Also an outsider in the town, the figurine is from a remote time and must suffer from being assessed by the artistic criteria of a different period in history.
As outsiders, their expressions of desire are suppressed and instead become objects of others’ desires. Collins’s theories provide insight into the power operations in patriarchal gaze; they valorize the power of emotions and desire, which have been rejected as dangerous and threatening by civilization, represented by human reason and expressed in analytical reasoning. While philosophers in the patriarchal tradition admonish people to act according to reason, Collins advises oppressed women and social groups to act according to their natural feelings, if they really intend to initiate any changes to institutions. The figurine embodies the desire of the shaping hand of the sculptor, and, in its name “Venus,” gives rise to the question about the relationship between desire and beauty: “What made one sculpture so luscious / when there were real women, layered / in flesh no one worshipped?”
(On the Bus50). In human relations women ought to have the right to express their own desire as subjects and the freedom to refuse to be objects of desire; thus, it is meaningful that the poem ends in the student’s decision to stop suffering people’s gazes, contrasting sharply her resolve to act rather than to “ wait forever” with the figurine’s silence at the onset of the poem ( On the Bus50).
Moreover, the stanzas that consist of the student’s memories convey an inner time and a person’s reflection of life and larger issues, which are contrasted with three other stanzas depicting external time and the mundane flow of everyday life. In “The Venus of Willendorf,” distinctly divided from the student’s retrospective contemplation, there is a depiction of everyday life in the village, serving as a background, emphasizing time that continues, though meanwhile the student has serious questions to ponder about herself. For example, the modern express train arriving punctually every morning is “another miracle” in the village in addition to the primitive stone sculpture, which is considered a miracle in Willendorf (
On the Bus49). They both represent the external and inner time in our everyday lives. Dove mentions the opposition of these two times in her own life as a poet, when she expresses that when she writes poetry, she feels that she is “pulled into a well”: The well is
Moreover, the scenery comments on the moods of the narrator, the female student. For example, in the beginning of the poem the late autumn scene of decaying plants in the foreground and of the archaeological site in the remote background contrasts with the energetic hustle of everyday life in the twilight denouement.
The daylight, which seems merciless to the student, forebodes change in the poem’s end, as the past is not allowed to linger in this last stanza, when daylight promptly sets in (
On the Bus50). In addition to daylight, the lightning flashes, and the “agreeable thunder” mumbles agreement to the female student’s decision to initiate changes at the present moment rather than to wait for things to happen to her ( On the Bus50). Inner time and private life versus external time and public life contrast and comment on each other, and present a complex picture about human relations and life.
Another poem “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View,” also from Dove’s book
On the Bus with Rosa Parks, expresses the same opinion that freedom is gained when one becomes a subject in a gaze. The ending of “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View” confirms the point Dove makes in “The Venus of Willendorf”: a person possessing real freedom gazes at others as a subject and is not treated as an object of the gaze. Irigaray contests the single male subject in Western metaphysics and the production of knowledge through a male perspective, which she compares to the light on a “ concave mirror” ( Speculum146). In her “criticism of Western philosophy,” Irigaray alerts the reader to “the forgetting of the existence of . . . a subjectivity in the feminine” ( Lucevii). Watching a parade from a high locale, Dove’s narrator realizes what real freedom is:
When people look at one another without discrimination or objectification, there will be true freedom and justice in human relations.
Ideas of freedom in “The Venus of Willendorf” and “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View” are bold feminist assertions and political views compared to those from an earlier poem “Canary,” included in her Grace Notes. In “Canary,” Dove suggests that when real freedom is unattainable, by playing up to patriarchal society’s image of women, women can maintain their dignity: “Fact is, the invention of women under siege / has been to sharpen love in the service of myth. / If you can’t be free, be a mystery” (
Grace64). As in “The Venus of Willendorf,” the word “love” in “Canary” means desire, attention and acceptance. Dove claims:
For Dove, Billie Holiday was a model for women and blacks of her time; she was wise enough to retain her dignity at a time when women and blacks were not able to demand real freedom: “Because she was black there was no bathroom for her in the clubs when she toured, and because no hotels accepted blacks she had to stay in private homes. Yet through it all she maintained an amazing dignity as if to say, ‘I know that I am worth something.’ ” (“Rita Dove” 114). In “The Venus of Willendorf,” using a black woman as her protagonist, Dove successfully merges the oppression of both women and blacks into one issue to explore the “intersecting oppressions” in society (Collins,
Dove’s “The Venus of Willendorf” maintains that freedom is related to one’s becoming the subject and examines how a woman and black person can respond to confronting misrepresentation in the patriarchal gaze “[i]n a social context that routinely depicts men and women of African descent as the embodiment of deviant sexuality,” as Collins suggests (
Politics35). Her protagonist, the female student, refuses to support the male bias and instead chooses to judge things by her own standards and ideas. After several incidents of encountering the patriarchal gaze, she realizes that a change must be made if she is no longer to be the object of the gaze. The two interpretations of Celan’s “shape” in the epigraph combine into one in the end, when the protagonist resolves to defy people’s misrepresentation of her and becomes, through self-reflection, a subject who demands freedom and equality.
The insight of Dove, who writes about women’s subjectivity founded to a great extent on freedom of self-definition and about their “predicament of hip and thigh” or corporeal images, suggests that the oppressed can resist the powers of dominant and male culture’s myth-making and misrepresentation (
On the Bus49). Dove maintains that men and the dominating group are hurting the other sex and groups of less power when they treat the oppressed groups as objects lacking feelings. While women are portrayed as goddesses or monsters, such as Medusa, or characterized as sluts in the literary tradition constructed and constituted mainly by men, more and more women writers such as Dove write poetry countering women’s objectification and declare that women demand to be subjects, to have freedom, and to derive power from their own deep feelings. The gaze among people is one facet of human contact, which Dove’s poetry claims should be equal and free of objectification. Just as Irigaray who postulates the human world as founded on the “dialogue” between oneself and “the other,” for Dove, the major purposes of poetry are to define humanity and to discuss how people relate to one another: “[P]oetry gives us an opportunity to think about ourselves as human beings on this planet and what we mean to each other” (Irigaray, Way116; “Rita Dove” 112). Dove’s poems “The Venus of Willendorf” and “Freedom: Bird’s-Eye View” indicate that real freedom belongs to someone who becomes a subject through self-definition and through making a decision. Extremely powerful and moving, Dove’s poems articulate women’s entitlement to freedom and to self-defined subjectivity for themselves and within society.