- Swamp Songs: The Making of an Unruly Woman
Helene Cixous's "The Laugh of the Medusa" ends with not so much a bang than with raucous glee. Her figure of a laughing, snake-haired Medusa would have good company in the pages of Swamp Songs: The Making of an Unruly Woman, a memoir by poet and native New Orleanian Sheryl St. Germain. There St. Germain—the author of four previous collections of poetry, and currently associate professor of English at Iowa State University—wields prose that reminds one of the sinuousness of ecriture feminine. "I've come to understand Louisiana waters," she writes, "as the ink that gives my words body" (34). From the land-and-waterscapes that give Louisiana its amphibious form, to the state's equally diverse cultural terrains, from a family history replete with intimacy and trauma to the frank sexualization of all things "Louisiana": St. Germain covers ground with this ink, taking advantage of and pleasure in its fullness.
Emily Toth has observed in The Women's Review of Books that the 14 essays of Swamp Songs move frequently between the autobiographical and the cultural. This shift provides the memoir both structure and rhythm as it alternates autobiographical incidents—frank examples of the family "bad luck"—with metaphorical meditations on a Louisiana that is both home and the site of her self-imposed exile. Hurricanes in "Eye of the Storm" figure in the tempestuous lives of her parents and siblings as well as the expectant quiet St. Germain associates with her mother's stories as they wait out the passage of storms; and the eye of the hurricane becomes an image for the writing of her family: ". . . each time I pick up a pen to write about my family," St. Germain notes, "I feel like that girl who descended those stairs to walk into the eye in search of her father" (9). In an inversion of this dynamic, St. Germain's family stories also enable her to address broader cultural concerns. "Disappearing Bodies" takes her brother Jules' turn to religion as a catalyst for her questions about what "forms of healing" a rapidly deteriorating Louisiana coast needs (126). Taken together, these gestures perform Swamp Songs' version of the memoir, where St. Germain and Louisiana constitute a doubly remembered self.
The significance St. Germain accords Louisiana in her memoir suggests an environmentalist spirit underlying Swamp Songs: she equates the lines defining psychic health and illness with the uncertain fate of Louisiana's lands and waters. The memoir's subtitle—"The Making of an Unruly Woman"—insists that sexuality occupies no small part in this "making" of either St. Germain or the cultures she has inhabited and known. This [End Page 220] is to observe the constancy with which St. Germain writes Louisiana through sexualized metaphors: the lush topography of the swamp, the revelry of Mardi Gras festivals, the eroticism of cooking and eating. Of this last St. Germain is especially graphic, writing of gumbo that
This, I found myself thinking one day as I brought a spoonful of thick gumbo to my mouth, the roux-thick broth and a juicy, barely cooked oyster filling the spoon, this is the body of God. I swallowed the oyster whole; it slid into me, as warm and slimy as sperm, tasting like the ocean.(130-1)
At the same time, St. Germain takes up sexuality as a defining and at times destructive force in her life. Swamp Songs addresses partners who have come and gone, and more important, her father and her brother François. Both men capture and inflect her writerly imagination—rendering it irrevocably sexual. For St. Germain, François becomes an intimate double, a personality whose desires and troubles are as seductive as the appeal that drugs holds for them both. Meanwhile her father is quite the opposite, an endless source of mystery for which writing becomes a vehicle of exploration. In one particularly evocative moment, St. Germain casts her father through a series of...