- The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889-1930 by Sarah Parker
In many ways, The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889-1930 turns to critical work on performativity within fin-de-siècle decadence, modernism, and “male”/“female” literary traditions to address the difficulty with which women poets of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries claimed poetic identity in a masculinized Western literary tradition. Sarah Parker posits that certain women poets turned to what she broadly terms homoerotically inclined or “queer” muse/poet relationships to transform the static poet/muse relationship into one based on fluidity and mobility. Her book focuses primarily on how women poets Katharine Bradley, Edith Cooper, Olive Custance, Amy Lowell, H. D., and Bryher reimagined the muse in three ways. First, they employed a contemporary living muse who was able to assert her or his own subject position. Second, they emphasized the flexibility of this position by shifting the gender of this muse from female to male. Third, they opened up the poet/muse dyad to include a third entity, thereby questioning fixed notions of gender and identity. Parker’s study, thus, stems from a new feminist understanding of the muse founded upon Adrienne Rich’s essay on her own poetic development, [End Page 281] “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” (1971), and Ruth Vanita’s Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination (1996), which reconsiders the muse as both genders.
What distinguishes Parker’s book from other scholarly work is the way she analyzes the influences of fin-de-siècle poetics and its enabling constructions of gender, sexuality, and poetic identity on the next generation of poets. She also reimagines the concept of the muse along more disruptive lines, one that crosses the boundaries of gender, sexuality, and time. While the muse has always been a figure of inspiration, Parker’s new reading turns the muse into a figure of collaboration. Because the muse is a focal figure of the lyric tradition, her project also rethinks the lyric tradition as a dynamic poetic dialogue where the muse becomes an active participant in lyric production.
Parker insists upon the need to look beyond historical or mythological muse figures because a relationship with a living muse is an ever-evolving dialogue that is constantly in process. Indeed, Parker outlines how these shifting relationships help women poets claim identity by highlighting the changing (gendered) power roles of a fluid poet/muse-muse/poet relationship; she repeatedly turns to the image of a flexible triangulation when describing this mobility, arguing that expanding the dyad to include a third term “disrupts the narcissistic identification associated with two ‘likes’ looking at each other, engendering the possibility of difference and desire” (p. 168). In the fifth chapter on H. D. and Bryher, for example, Parker describes how the two first collaborated on translating ancient Greek images and then later used photographic and cinematic images to share and swap roles as subject/object. For the poets, the image is the third term that helps them negotiate their erotically collaborative dynamic.
There are two points that Parker might reconsider. First, the figure of Sappho is not frozen in the past. She is as complex, multiple, and ever-shifting as the contemporary muses that Parker describes because Sappho transgresses time and gender as a figure of the imagination. Second, since these writers collaborated not only with living muses in the present but also with mythical or historical muse archetypes from the past, the triangulation that Parker describes can be expanded to include not only a third party but also a fourth or sometimes even a fifth figure (resembling what Elaine Marks has termed “lesbian intertextuality”1). In Long Ago (1889), for example, Bradley and Cooper utilize the Sapphic muse as both inspiration and a third term, one which speaks alongside their voices. However, Bradley and Cooper’s contemporary muses were also each other—as Michael Field, they shared and swapped the roles of poet and muse...