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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 65.1 (2004) 131-148

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In Time, and Out:
Women's Poetry and Literary History

Angela Leighton

Looking back, I look
too straight: I can't locate
my old self, young self, you know who—

my one-and-only, be-all-end-all,
my intended and my ex, the one I was
most smitten with. No matter in how many

shots and tones and letters she
was caught, recorded, dated,
lovingly held still or held

important, now
behind the frozen frame she stays
essentially unrememberable—not to be

surrounded, comprehended—even in time
(especially in time). 1

Heather McHugh's poem "Round Time" raises a question about poetry as well as memory. Remembering "in time" ought to be possible, indeed the only way to remember at all. However, it is also the problem: "I look / too straight." The time of history, memory, life itself, is a "straight" time which cannot reclaim the beloved object: "my intended and my ex," the I's lost "she." Between "I" and "she," those time-related pronouns, something intervenes. All the historian's tactics are used: in "shots and tones and letters she / was caught, recorded, dated." However, in spite of this evidence of records and dates, "she" only becomes, [End Page 131] "in time / (especially in time)," all the more "unrememberable." That "in time" is both the means to remember and the cause of its difficulty. The historian looks "straight"; the poet must look "round." "Round Time," then, is the poem's desired subject and direction, topic and method, adjectival and adverbial phrase. Its warp suggests a poetic space-time which is not recordable by the clock or the calendar. If, as Henri Bergson writes, "time is at first identical with the continuity of our inner life," without which "before and after" each separates into an unconnected "snapshot," 2 it is also possible that such continuous consciousness might fail. In McHugh's poem the two possibilities coexist. For all its imagined rounding against historical time, the poem still yearns for a specific "she." She, at least, might be sur-rounded.

The problem of time is, as this poem wittily suggests, a problem of history, memory, and identity, as well as of poetry itself, which happens, in however roundabout a way, also "in time." It is tempting to hear in it an allegory of the story of literary history itself, particularly feminist literary history, which in the last twenty or thirty years has indeed "caught, recorded, dated" so many "she's" previously lost to view. The work of Ellen Moers, Elaine Showalter, Germaine Greer, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, to name only a select few, set the scene for a recuperation of women's voices that has continued apace and, perhaps more than any other critical movement, has radically shifted the contours of literary studies as a whole. If the methods of selection have also subsequently been criticized for betraying national, racial, or high cultural prejudices, this too is only a sign of the success of the enterprise. Literary histories of women's writing have certainly redrawn the map of what is read, even if their ideological or theoretical assumptions have been challenged. David Perkins, for instance, points to the dangers of "subjective and ideological reappropriations" of the past which fail to "make its otherness felt." Margaret J. M. Ezell, similarly arguing against the imposition of a false model of political progress on aesthetic works, challenges "the assumption that there is a 'tradition' of women's writings to be recovered" and that "this tradition reveals an evolutionary [End Page 132] model of feminism." 3 Recently, Linda Hutcheon has pointed to the contradiction, even the bad faith, of a feminist criticism that has mixed theoretical "challenges to the coherent subject" with a political agenda based on "identity politics." The cachet of deconstructing the subject has too often gone hand in hand with the grand narrative of a specifically women'swriting which is never questioned. "Like the historical narratives of nations," Hutcheon declares, "those of the newer forms of...


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pp. 131-148
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