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Athabasca University

“With A Ruse of Heart and Language”1: Movements of Thought in Gunnars’s Writing

by Monique Tschofen

Illustration - painting of face

In Home Territories, David Morely remarks that "nowadays the displaced and marginal hybrid experience of the migrant is sometimes held to be the central global experience" (13). At home among traveled and diasporic writers such as Albert Camus, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Ondaatje, Anita Rau Badami, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Henrik Ibsen, Isak Dinesen, Khalil Gibran, Marina Tsvetaeva, (see Gunnars’s interview "Moving-On Into the Unknown" in this volume), Kristjana Gunnars captures the "the feeling of nomadic movement over great distances" typical of "a vast country sparsely inhabited" (Frye 225) but typical too of the practices of an increasingly wider segment of people in an increasingly global culture. James Clifford reminds us that modern mobility is in large part "made possible by modern technology of transport, communication, and labour migration" (Clifford 247), and indeed, Gunnars continually conjures these phenomena. Her poems and prose make reference to technologies of travel — steamers and lifeboats, airplanes, trains, and cars — as well as to the liminal spaces that paradoxically connect and disconnect the places we inhabit. Airports, train stations, train tracks, bridges, roads are used to conjure the unions and partings of people — exiles and adventurers — who are in perpetual motion across continents, through relationships, and in and out of themselves. These people reach for each other over telephone lines and through journals and letters, motivated by love, as well as by loneliness.

There is much to say about how Gunnars takes up issues of deterritorialization, nomadology, and hybridity in her writing. In this essay, however, I am interested in tracing other kinds of movement in Gunnars’s writings, movements of argument within her texts and between them, which are complementary to the first, more literal kinds of movements of travel and wandering. Gunnars has consistently offered a cognitive design that closely allies form and content. The deep structure of her prose and poetry imitates and repeats the very arguments she offers on the surface. The result is a complex narrative space that carries with it highly political and personal implications.

Gunnars’s rhetorical work is analogous to the rough physical labours of the pioneers she writes about in Settlement Poems I and II (1980) as well as in Wake Pick Poems (1981) and The Axe’s Edge (1983). Venturing into personal and cultural memory, she clears a space - an "enunciatory site" - from where to create new perspectives and to disclose agency (Gunnars, "Idea of North" 16; Bhabha 178). At the same time as she articulates a space for seeing and speaking, she models for her readers "a trick of rereading" ("Idea of North" 18; Spivak 105) that is sensitive to a subtle conceptual grammar that betokens a "grid of confusions" ("Idea of North"13) generated by aporia, ambivalence, indeterminacy, catachresis, disjunction, camouflage, disruption and silence. Put more simply, Gunnars’s language and the trajectories of her narratives and arguments perform a special kind of disorientation and reorientation. She takes us away from many of the things we believe we know and that we use to locate ourselves in culture. She leaves us hovering, uncertain and tentative. Then she teaches us how to feel at home in that space of uncertainty, how to speak and listen, write and read from it without presumption.


Many critics have observed that Gunnars travels through a wide range of genres within a single text. Bringing together the lyric with the elegy, the romance with the mystery, the theoretical with the fictional, an autobiographical focus on self with an archival focus on the other, Gunnars’s texts have always been hybrid. Bela Szabados has suggested that her writing might be thought of as a "manifesto for anti-genre" (81). Even though Gunnars has claimed that her "way of writing anything has always been to combine incongruities; to put things together that are not supposed to be combined" ("Avoidance" 182), Szabados’s claim is not entirely accurate, because two genres are continually foregrounded in Gunnars’s work. Karen Rosica refers to one when she suggests that Gunnars has named "the position from which she is best read: poetry" (Rosica 3). Indeed, poetry becomes a very useful point of entry into Gunnars’s work when one realizes that her understanding of poetry is particularly modernist2. In an account of her points of departure, Gunnars refers to her fascination with

the "intertextuality" Pound develops where an insertion of other texts (from any period or culture) becomes almost the utilization of innumerable "ghost writers"; the "undererasure" evident in Eliot, where the poem nullifies itself by undercutting statement and suggestion all along the line; the "evasiveness" of Stevens, where all is circumlocution and shift and the poem takes no direct stand; and the "continual present" Gertrude Stein relies on, where [...] no line leads out of any other, but practically every line or word-segment is a new start. ("Avoidance" 181)

But in this same essay, Gunnars names the other genre that shapes her writing when she confesses a "continual spell-binding attraction" for the "consolations of philosophy" (180).

Gunnars has claimed that she works consciously to ensure that her poetry not turn into philosophy. The analogy she offers to explain her movement away from philosophical contemplation is (appropriately, given her own life story and the themes she treats in her writing) that of exile. She writes: "in the end I think you have to treat it [philosophy] the way you treat your people or culture or background: by saying 'you raised me and moulded me, but I have to leave your house'" (180). If she has left the house of philosophy, then, it is with "suitcases crammed with culture" ( Prowler 52).

Carrying this baggage loaded with a lifetime of reading and contemplating, Gunnars often journeys the generic terrain proper to the confluence of poetry and philosophy: the lyric essay. The lyric essay, according to Deborah Tall and John D'Agata, is a genre that "depends on gaps":

It is suggestive rather than exhaustive. It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic. [...] Given its genre mingling, the lyric essay often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. [...] The lyric essay [...] is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving. ("New Terrain")

Mapping the contours of this genre, Tall and D'Agata observe that "[l]oyal to that original sense of essay as a test or a quest, an attempt at making sense, the lyric essay sets off on an uncharted course," one that is potentially disorienting; this is "a pursuit with no foreknown conclusion, an arrival that might still leave the writer questioning."

The implications of locating Gunnars’s work within this hybrid genre, and of thus arguing that both a poetic and a philosophic logic can be traced in her work, are significant. If some of her theoretical arguments might be located between the lines, formulated not through statements but rather through patterns of associations and juxtapositions, and likewise, if her metaphors and images, stanzas and caesurae might form important parts of argumentative propositions, then an optic attuned to the insides and the outsides, the visible and the invisible, is warranted.


Before I discuss Gunnars’s rhetorical strategies and the kind of reading strategy that lets us see their synthetic tensions, I want to say a few words about the ethical core of her writing, for she is a profoundly ethical writer.3 In interview, and in the introductions to her writings, Gunnars consistently conjures notions such as "respect," "community," "grace," "hope," "freedom," and the "joy in the opportunity to validate the self." She sets these notions against what she describes as "militancy of meaning" and "authoritarianism." Like Roland Barthes, Gunnars tries to show how it is possible to speak without being militant. She explains: "[t]he quelling of authority is compelling because authority in its various forms - didacticism, lecturing, propaganda, etc. - is ugly. The authoritarian voice is an appropriating voice: a colonizing movement" (Gheorghe 57). Informing these statements is a set of assumptions about the stakes of every communicative act. If speaking produces knowledge, and if knowledge is power, every enunciation works to position both its speaker and its receiver in relation to power, or in a power relation. In Gunnars’s hands, the lyric essay’s manner of posing of questions without leading in linear trajectories towards foreknown answers permits her to position speaker and listener, writer and reader, in ways that avoid authoritarianism. Her writing voice thus manifests an ethics that without question is inflected with the insights of feminism, postmodernism, and post-colonialism, but which refuses to be limited by these polemics and theories. Instead, Gunnars refers often to something infinitely more simple and infinitely more complex — love4.

If Gunnars locates an ethics within creative praxis, in ways of speaking and writing, she also locates it in hermeneutics, in ways of interpreting. In The Prowler, Gunnars suggests that a certain degree of self-reflexivity is essential for a narrative to be true, in both senses of being honest and authentic: "A story that does not desire pretense must incorporate its own metastories" (55). Gunnars identifies two ways for readers to inquire after these metastories. The first way finds its origins in a tradition deeply embedded in our cultural mythologies: "If inquiries are made concerning the stories behind the story, the text yields to the pressure and gives up a form of an answer. The object of the search is, we are told, a kind of holy grail" (146). Quests, we know, lead to adventure, and forge heroes. But her language is telling. Yielding to pressure and giving up answers are the kinds of responses we might expect to aggression and torture (or perhaps from pure philosophy, unmediated by the gentleness of lyric). And so Gunnars suggests another way to inquire after the metastory that does not use "the language of violation" (Kulyk Keefer, in this volume):

There never is a holy grail. Instead it is a quality. An undefined substance without physical properties that is generated in certain instances. It appears at odd unexpected moments. Even while the weaving has stopped and the weaver is looking out the window at the snow coming down. (Prowler 146)

Two models (that take up and then depart from Roland Barthes’s notions of the readerly and the writerly5) are held up for comparison here. The one, questing and probing, that Gunnars assiduously avoids is masculine6, aggressive, and the answers it yields under pressure might be untruths anyway. The other, the model she opts for in her own writing, is feminine, patient, and in parallel to writing itself: the reader is also a weaver, making her own text(ile)s. Even though pausing and looking elsewhere, this reader is granted unanticipated rewards. This is because, for Gunnars, the things with the greatest value are typically beside the point, which is not to say that they are pointless, but rather, if I may be permitted to draw from metaphors of travel, that they are found off the beaten path (the path "beaten" down by the authority of tradition).

In order to avoid militance and authoritarianism, in order to lead to pleasure and jouissance, narrative can become highly mobile, errant even, deviating from the goal-oriented trajectories of tradition. "I imagine a story that has no direction," explains Gunnars in The Prowler (24): "It is a relief to be under no obligation. [...] Not to think about a climax or a denouement or an introduction" (28). In lieu of the rectilinear obligations of the quest, Gunnars tenders more organic and more life-affirming metaphors to describe her narrative path, which, like a seed, "stays nowhere, yet it grows in itself. It blossoms from inside, imperceptibly. If it is a vegetable, it nourishes" (24). Gunnars thus offers a way of envisioning story as a cycle and circuit rather than as a (vicious) circle: "For a story it is enough to find the beginning. Because the end is contained in the beginning. The fulfillment is contained in the desire. The answer is also contained in the question" (24). At the same time as it completes this circuit, narrative occurs "in the margins," with "little bearing on the official story," and it takes its shape from absences and gaps (47). The narrator of The Substance of Forgetting, for instance, praises rhetorical figures of omission: "I like best the ellipsis in the sentence. The gap in the construction. The alarming hesitation" (53). Throughout the text, she constructs a series of equivalents to these figures of omission - the break in a continuum, the crack in a line, the breathing space, the silence in conversation, forgetting, holes in the ground, clear cuts in the forest, holidays amidst busy routines, wounds in flesh - and reveals in each instance that these are immensely productive places: "inside the cracks are amazing stories. [...] Only your desire lets you see the discontinuity" (101). For Gunnars, narrative itself, like the reader who would inquire after it, finds movement and growth within stillness, and meaning in margins and omissions.

Her love of paradox (and of the paradox of love) which animates her ethics can perhaps be best seen in an example. The fourth poem of Exiles Among You, much like her longer prose writings like The Prowler and Zero Hour, avoids "pretense" by incorporating its metastory, but because of its brevity, makes it easier to show Gunnars’s particular concerns with the giving and the receiving of story, that is, with the ethics of narration and hermeneutics. I cite the lyric essay in its entirety to draw attention to the movement of the argument:

It is so hard to see the sun
stunned behind trees
in this thick forest: a canopy
of branches nets the sky

through the ceiling of leaves I see
how the sun gleams
too starkly for the human eye

I am told not to look directly
such grandeur can only be seen aslant
the way you see a poem: love (Exiles 47)

Written by a woman who has restlessly moved across continents and between nations and regions, (see the biography of Kristjana Gunnars in this volume), this is a poem about positions. Gunnars depicts a stance from which one can see, but also from which one can read, and love.

The first two stanzas of the poem position the speaker, cast also as seer, in media res, on earth looking up. The poem opens describing the difficulty of this position: "it is so hard to see [...]." This is a commonplace in Gunnars’s corpus. Many of her texts dwell on the difficulties of sight, and frequently, the obstructions to vision are a part of the natural world. Throughout The Substance of Forgetting, for instance, fog and clouds veil the tops of the mountains and make it impossible to see the lake below. The particular geometry of the stance in this scene in the poem, however, is also a commonplace in a much longer tradition of lyric poetry. Standing on the ground looking up is the very posture of longing. We might recognize the pose from stories like Romeo and Juliet and Rapunzel. Anne Carson traces the Greek origins of the geometrical figure formed by this posture in her essay Eros the Bittersweet. Referring to Sappho’s lyric fragment 105a ("As a sweet apple turns red on a high branch / high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot - well, no they didn’t forget - were not able to reach" ( Eros 26)) and a basket of other writers from antiquity, for whom desire is defined as reaching, Carson offers a way to understand why Gunnars places her longing speaker in an arbor. Carson also offers a way to understand the "still movement" of the poem’s rhetoric (Gunnars, "Selections from Scent of Cedar " 27)8. For the ancient writers, desire was conceived of as a "compound experience" "defined in action": "beautiful (in its object), foiled (in its attempt), endless (in time)" (29). "In this dance," writes Carson about the paradox of eros, "the people do not move. Desire moves. Eros is a verb" ( Eros 17).

What is Gunnars’s speaker, both isolated and protected in a dulce domum by these structures of branches and leaves - these mediating net(work)s - trying to see? It is the sun itself, "stunned behind trees," "gleam[ing] too starkly for the human eye." Notice the movement within the stillness. The object of the gaze withdraws, then threatens, avoids, and then confronts. "Avoidance and Confrontation" is the title she has given the essay she subtitles "Excerpts from Notes on a Longpoem Poetics" to describe the form of counterpoint harmony she often relies on for poetic pattern (182). But avoidance and confrontation also describe the movements of desire itself9. An impulse, an animating and electrifying principle, desire is primary for Gunnars’s prose and poetry, evidenced by a rhetorical construction she relies on with great frequency: "I only want to desire [...]," "I only want to long for [...]" (Substance 13). As the object of the verb wanting, desiring and longing form a circuit that returns the action to the very place which sets it in motion.

The ruse of language here is that the articulation of this poem enacts and imitates the very argument it makes. Only in the final line of Gunnars’s poem "4" do the other two things besides the sun that are difficult to see come into focus. As objects of the qualified verb "see[ing] aslant," they are constructed in parallel and therefore as analogous: "a poem" and "love." Following a colon, this second term, "love," appears nearly as an afterthought - a flash of light penetrating a ceiling of leaves. Look at the final lines more closely still. It is hard to see whether, grammatically, "love" is in apposition to the word "poem," or in apposition to a way of seeing. Does the state of "love" define or in some way equal the way you see a poem? Or does seeing the grandeur of a poem in some way resemble seeing love itself? Gunnars holds these possibilities in suspension. Here, then, is a poem that argues in three segments for a particular way of looking at a series of three things which resemble each other. This is a progressive series - each term is more difficult to look upon than then last. By only bringing into focus the two other things besides the sun that are difficult to see in the final line, by keeping them out of sight until the concluding flash of insight, the poem makes visible the very difficulties inherent in seeing that it talks about. Thus much of this poem’s action occurs invisibly, on the inside.

The ruse of heart consists in the fact that the invisible action of this poem reveals itself. Like the sun in the poem, it does not respond to probing or questing. Indeed, the poem suggests that looking directly, one risks blindness (one can not see, or does not notice). Yet the poem also suggests that even if one wanted to, looking directly would be impossible because of the lattice or net that mediates. Her analogy generates an effective paradox: looking at the sun through the leaves of an arbor is like looking at something grand through the words of a poem or through the intertextual networks of literary tradition. These mediating networks, like the leaves in the arbor, prevent us from having direct access to the light, to meaning, to love, but they also shelter and protect us. They are our home. To "see aslant" requires of us that we enter into the space of reading and writing in the very posture of longing, which contains in it both the delight of reaching and the pain of falling short. With this example, I want to suggest, then, that when Gunnars’s rhetoric disorients, it does so by slowly and gently bringing us to this very paradoxical space, this space of paradox, which, in her imagination, is a space of formal beauty and most importantly, of love.


How exactly, then, does Gunnars disorient and dislocate? In her longer novelistic prose pieces, "plot" is often difficult to discern. The numbered segments of The Prowler prowl through many tales: a girl starves herself; a girl is sick; armies occupy a country; borders are crossed; wars erupt; people are hungry; a puzzle is made; something has been stolen; gifts have been given; words are found. Gunnars admits in one of the final segments:

"that duties have been shirked. That the text has been prowling in the reader’s domain. Telling itself and then interpreting itself. Incorporating that which does not belong to a story. Posing itself as a question: it may not be a story. Perhaps it is an essay. Or a poem.
The text is relieved that there are no borders in these matters. (164)"

In The Substance of Forgetting, not only do the chapters leap back and forwards in time and move between locations, but the action of the story is continually called into question. As the narrator grieves the loss of a romantic relationship, she wonders whether she has remembered it accurately, and indeed whether or not it even existed. Night Train to Nykøbing ’s meditations on desire, captivity, and murderous impulses, modeled in part on Herman Hesse’s disorienting novel Steppenwolf, take the reader into the heart of obscurity, where she must struggle to see what is going on. In her early collections of poetry, where Gunnars steps into the archive and resurrects the voices of the past, it is often difficult to discern who is speaking. The later collections of poems disorient through their luminous yet strangely "matte language" ( Carnival 19). And the protagonists of many of her short stories should not be left out of this list, for Gunnars often focalizes her short narratives through characters who have access to only the most minimal linguistic resources. These, however, are only some of the ways Gunnars brings her readers into perpetually shifting territories. As I said earlier, she works with a subtle conceptual grammar that betokens a "grid of confusions."

It is hard not to see that there is a tentative quality to Gunnars’s writing voice. At the level of grammar and syntax, she frequently relies on conditional verb tenses. The opening sentences of the first two chapters of The Substance of Forgetting, for instance, are particularly equivocal; there is no "if" clause to locate the terms of the condition. The first chapter begins "I would say I am tired" (11), and the second chapter echoes this construction: "I would like to begin like that" (15). Why wouldn't she say that she is tired? Why wouldn't she begin in a certain way? Under what other circumstances could these become declarative statements? She does not tell us. Gunnars often uses verbs of thinking and speaking to frame declarations, and this too has the effect of amplifying uncertainty. When she writes in The Substance of Forgetting that "I think I have been mesmerized by the fog"(12), each predicate works to undermine and reinforce the claim to truth of the other. Is she expressing doubt about her state of mind? If her statement about her state of mind were true, if she were mesmerized, would she be able to "think" about it, enough to make a declarative statement about it? In another characteristic example from the same text, Gunnars interjects a verb of naming to build in an intriguing redundancy when she refers to the potholes "of the road I call my street" (Substance 11). Do others call the road by another name? Is she remarking on an inaccuracy regarding the substitution of street for road? She does not say.

Tentativeness appears on other, more explicit levels of her writing as well. "I find myself caught on the edges of irresolution," she claims in the Substance of Forgetting (77). "What I am thinking is disparate and indeterminate," she offers in "Selections from Scent of Cedar " (41). "On days like this, all seemed to her discontinuity. No single train of thought remained steady," she observes in The Guest House and Other Stories (78). More explicit still, she writes in The Night Workers of Ragnarök "I often think there is no ground / even for poetry" (87). Her unresolved and disparate works begin with and move towards a position of doubt. Statements about thinking and knowing give way to statements about telling and imagining, which themselves give way to statements about not telling and of forgetting. Occasionally, this self-reflexive movement away from solid ground culminates in statements that appear to undermine her project of writing altogether. "I have often said / that what I have said cannot be said," she offers in Carnival of Longing (68). "The more you say about a thing the more you destroy it," she writes in The Substance of Forgetting, adding, provocatively, "The best thing I know is silence" (20). Far from being nihilistic, however, this type of statement (here through the rhetorical figure adynaton - the expression of the impossibility of expression) works to move the reader into the space of paradox, where it is possible at once to both see and not see.

Throughout her corpus, Gunnars relies on a subtle but powerful rhetoric to undermine the authority of language and the language of authority. As Janice Kulyk Keefer explains in her essay in this volume, Gunnars’s writing "works by statement and counterstatement: small acts of random sabotage of order, consistency, logic." Frequently, Gunnars refuses to make factual statements altogether. In Carnival of Longing, the speaker of one poem claims: "I do not want to make statements / declarations that will freeze us / [...] / because I do not know where limits are / or how far feelings go" (78). When Gunnars does venture to make a statement, she frequently undermines it by setting it against several counter-statements: "[I]t is possible that this is a crime story. It is also possible that what we have here is social realism. On the other hand it is much more likely that this is a love story," she writes in The Prowler (71-72). Alternately, she will undermine a statement by immediately contradicting it. Consider some examples from "Selections from Scent of Cedar ": "I will not say I did not see. I do see" (30); "This is a poem I have wanted to write for months. It is not a poem. Not anything" (39). Sometimes Gunnars retracts the very argument she posits. She concludes an elaborate argument about male writing in The Prowler by adding "I do not know if this is true" (25). The relationship between (un)certainty and (not) knowing is cast slightly differently in "Monkshood," in poem "XXV", where she writes: "what i know isn't true" ( Wake-Pick 68).

Gunnars’s rejection of epistemological certainty leads her to explicitly challenge the claim some practices of knowledge make on the truth. In Carnival of Longing, she says "if poems are written in knowledge / there are no poems in me / what I know is only tentative" (69). In The Substance of Forgetting, she observes that "All is memory and memory deceives. There is nothing to know. Nothing I might know would change anything" (Substance 32). Later in this text, in place of this argument that truth is inaccessible because we are incapable of true objectivity, she offers another argument: truth is inaccessible because official culture tells us to look for it in the wrong places. She explains: "The only truth I find is what is not expected. Not accepted. Not officially correct" (Substance 46). And so, when in The Rose Garden, Gunnars cites Anaïs Nin’s claim that "The facts lie," she lets us understand that there are different orders of lying. On the one hand are the lies produced by the hegemonic order of a given society; on the other are the lies produced by a dynamic, creative imagination (118).

If it is hard not to see that the tentative quality of Gunnars’s writing voice, it is also hard not to see that she is lavish in her reliance on negative constructions. What Anne Carson says about the high ratio of negativity in the writings of Simonides of Ceos might just as well have been written about Gunnars’s work:

His poetic action insistently, spaciously and self-consciously posits in order to deny. To read him is a repeated experience of loss, absence, or deprivation for the reader who watches one statement or substantive after another snatched away by a negative adverb, pronoun or subordinate clause. (101)

Let us look more closely at Gunnars’s negativity, which saturates her statements about her self and even her writing. As an example of the way she applies negatives to the declarations about her self, consider this, from The Substance of Forgetting : "I can no longer see myself. I am reflected in nothing. No face looks back at me in recognition" (59). As an example of the way she applies negatives to describe her writing, consider these: from Carnival of Longing, "the words I write attempt / no meaning and use / no image" (11), and, "I do not want to write / what there is to write" (17); from Wake-pick Poems, "i can't name it / with my dead tongue, locked jaw" (45).

The outside world, almost an objective correlative to her interior world, is also often tinted with negativity. Consider some of her descriptions of her surroundings: "this is a quiet place / there are no donkeys / wagons, madonnas here" (One Eyed 13); "we have no hourglass / we see no stars" (Night Workers 54); "the sea is neither glassy nor in ripples / [...] the clouds are neither high nor low / and the sun not there, not not there" (Silence 24). Being is defined in relation to things that are not, as though presence and absence were on the flip sides of a single coin. A larger question can be seen above the network of these negative statements that has to do with the cognitive mapping necessitated by migration. For the mobile subject who enters new territories, place is initially defined by what it is not - home - and what it does not have - the signs that ground and help locate the subject. The articulation of absence and lack takes on the same function as the description of presence; both locate the speaking subject, but the former locates this subject within his experience of dislocation.

Consider now how the movement in the following description raises yet another large question that pertains to the relationship between presence and absence. In The Substance of Forgetting, Gunnars writes "There are no signs. NO THRU ROAD. If there are signs, they tell us nothing. [...] A sign that says LAST CHANCE FRUIT STAND. But there is no fruit stand. [...] No fresh fruit arrives in winter" (60). At the surface, this description of a landscape is defined by absence. Actual signs point, but their referent has been taken away, (or, in the case of the thru road, was never there in the first place.) Gunnars seems to be describing the breakdown of a spatial mapping. The other question gleaming here behind these shadows, however, has to do with language itself and its referential powers, for we recognize after Ferdinand de Saussure that linguistic signs do not and cannot lead directly to referents. Gunnars’s negative rhetoric becomes interesting on this point, when the very things she does with and to words conjure the message she is conveying about words. Each declaratory statement is qualified by a negative, and then immediately retracted by other, more negative statements. Just as the referential power of the street signs in the Okanagan valley she is describing is undermined, so too is the referential power of the language she uses to describe this undermining undermined. The one instance of her signs' indexical powers is when the referent is precisely the impossibility of the sign’s indexical power, or to put this another way, her signs effectively point to their own inability to point.

I have said that absence and presence appear as though they are two sides of a single coin in Gunnars’s work, and need now to discuss the presence of absence by tracing some of the ways she uses the rich and complex noun "nothing." It is appropriate to begin with something that Gunnars has written about absence and negativity in someone else’s writing. In her essay on Gudny Jonsdottir’s autobiography, "Shepherding the Self," Gunnars considers elements of self-negation that verge on self-destruction. Referring on the one hand to Derrida, and on the other to her own theory of alterity as a form of love, she argues that emptiness and negativity are the point of the book: "That it is a book about nothing is what creates its value" (52). With this notion in mind, that "nothing" can have value, it is possible to turn to other examples in her writing where the word "nothing" signifies not absence but presence. In Zero Hour, for instance, she explains that "We do not know what happens at Zero. If anything happens. Perhaps it is nothing" (32). Referring to the decorating of her house in this same text, she ambiguously declares "I want to put nothing in here" (27). So when, in The Substance of Forgetting, she writes that "Nothing should fit. Nothing should be reasonable" (15, 44), she is at once making a case against the militancy of order and reason, and making a case for the inclusion of this category of negativity in metaphysics and, of course, ethics. When she writes, in Carnival of Longing, "nothing I can say / will make words of nothing" (27), or, in The Substance of Forgetting, "Then I see there is nothing to explain. [...] nothing needs to be explained" (23), we find ourselves swept away from the realm of pure lyric, and deposited in the middle of philosophical riddles which have at stake the subject, objects, and indeed, thought and language itself.

Anne Carson begins her discussion of the negative in the work of Simonides with a question: What is a negative?

A negative is a verbal event. There are, philosophers assure us, no negatives in nature, where every situation is positively what it is. The negative is a peculiarly linguistic resource whose power resides with the user of words. But verbalization is itself not sufficient to generate the negative. Negation depends upon an act of the imagining mind. (Economy 102)

This imagining mind, according to Carson, needs to bring two pieces of data, one which is present and actual, and one which is absent and fictitious, together and say "this is not that." "The interesting thing about a negative, then," continues Carson, "is that it posits a fuller picture of reality than does a positive statement" (102). Carson explains this notion, that a negative can depict a fuller picture of reality, with recourse to philosophy:

Painting a picture of things that moves inclusively over the negative and the positive, defining the things that are by excluding the things that are not, evoking the absent in order to measure it against the present. [...] It is a mode of knowledge, perhaps best described in terms borrowed [...] [from] twentieth-century philosopher Bergson who characterized philosophic speculation as "making use of the void to think the full." (104)

It is possible to apply this analysis of a simple rhetorical strategy and the movements of thought that motivate its practice to the work of Gunnars. The negativity in Gunnars’s writings can be understood to indicate a mode of knowledge characterized by several key points: by its attention to the powers of language and of the imagining mind that uses words to create and collapse worlds; by its attempt to posit a fuller picture of reality, one that acknowledges the flip side of the coin, supplementing the experience of the present with a memory of the absent, and supplementing the representation of things visible with that of things that are invisible but no less real; and, finally, by its urge to disorient in order to reorient.

Carson’s understanding of negativity in the work of a fifth century B.C. poet does not, however, address what the consequences of this mode of knowledge might be for a contemporary writer whose ethical interests, as I have said, coincide in part with the positions articulated by feminism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. It is appropriate to return to Gunnars’s own scholarly work on these subjects, specifically an essay titled "The Idea of North and the Disclosure of Agency." Gunnars looks to diasporic Northerners, peoples who are already on the margins of the modern world order, peoples whose migration poses additional difficulties as they try to represent and reinvent themselves. Being located on the peripheries of political and social authority, she observes, affects access to speech, whether this means they are spoken for, passively ignored, or actively silenced. Alluding explicitly to the work of Homi Bhabha and implicitly to a wider range of postcolonial theorists including Franz Fanon and Albert Memmi, Gunnars concentrates on the "social pathologies" wrought by such silencing. In addition to "loss of meaning, conditions of anomie" ("Idea of North" 11; Bhabha 171), Gunnars offers a litany of problems associated with the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation of the North.

So how does someone who has been silenced speak? With difficulty. Caught in contradictions that threaten to overwhelm the writing project, the diasporic "speaking agent" finds that his language is disrupted. As Gunnars explains, he "is working in a grid of confusions that may leave non-diasporics cold; a grid that is made of tensions such as, in the words of Homi Bhabha, 'aporia, ambivalence, indeterminacy, the question of discursive closure, the threat to agency, the status of intentionality, the challenge to 'totalizing' concepts,' and so on" (Gunnars, "Idea of North 13; Bhabha 173). The key here is that culture is understood as an "enunciatory site" rather than as an object of knowledge; it bears the inscription of the place from which one speaks, just as it bears the traces of the places one has traveled and the places one has left behind10. On one hand, a linguistic practice that appears to side-step positivistic rationalism and linear reasoning bears the signs (and scars) of a condition of estrangement. On the other hand, Gunnars reveals that the same disruptions can become part of an intentional strategy to overcome that estrangement. She explains:

"[h]ybridity, camouflage, writing between the lines, the exteriorization of discourse, dream-space, disjunction, disruption, all become modalities the diasporic writer resorts to in order to disclose agency" ("Idea of North" 17). To put this more simply, Gunnars’s point is that a speaker can speak up and out against, and even overcome the rhetorical and linguistic conditions that bring about social pathologies by deploying the very linguistic strategies that appear as symptoms of the conditions.

How do these observations about diasporic rhetoric and the disclosure of agency help us navigate her own writings? They can bring another dimension to the map of her thinking and praxis that I have been tracing. Gunnars’s extensive use, for instance, of the rhetorical figure aporia - a logical double bind of incompatible or contradictory epistemological doubt - can be framed in two different ways. This rhetorical strategy is without question consistent with her general interest in the questions of philosophy. According to Mario J. Valdés, to bring a question "face to face with an aporia" is the goal of much of philosophy, beginning with the Socratic method: "only then does the questioner realize that he does not know. The realization of not knowing is the beginning of concerted searching" (507). Philosophy is, however, a discourse that suffers from a "rage for order" (Gunnars "Idea of North" 13; Spivak 116) and it thus risks becoming an authoritarian voice that automizes, silences, and speaks for the marginalized. Gunnars offers a way out of this potential impasse that begins with the observation that aporia and similar rhetorical strategies are already patterned into the ways the marginalized think and speak, precisely because they have an intimate experience of double binds. Aporia can thus work against philosophic discourse in order to grant new forms of agency. Like the other broad rhetorical strategies such as ambivalence and indeterminacy, aporia can become a "double-voiced" discourse in the work of the diasporic writer.


I suggested earlier that it is helpful to consider Gunnars’s work in relation to the lyric essay, a genre that according to Tall and D’Agata "elucidates through the dance of its own delving" ("New Terrain"). To further develop the metaphor, Gunnars’s interests in philosophy and in ethics provide the skeletal structure, while her interests in poetry and story provide the musculature that animate this dance (designed to move the reader). Some concluding words on movement are now in order. When Gunnars takes us away from many of the things we believe we know and that we use to locate ourselves in culture, when she leads us into paradoxes and philosophic riddles, when she supplants knowing with doubt, when she supplements the positive with the negative, she produces disruptions that are very similar to those that occur to the cognitive map of the traveler and the exile. The movements of argument within her texts and between them are thus complementary and indeed analogous to more literal kinds of movements of travel and wandering. To these two kinds of movement – geographic and rhetorical or argumentative – we must add a third. Remember Anne Carson, who tells us that "desire moves" (Eros 17)? Gunnars maps out these relations too. Relentlessly, she seeks to liberate language from authoritarianism and militancy, just as she probes its limits, raising questions about meaning and meaninglessness. She does this with an understanding of the human, personal stakes involved because if language can be an instrument of control and power, it can also be an instrument of intimacy. Drawing attention to the this second possibility, she writes, "if it is love to give your speech to another / then it is love i feel" (Carnival 69). And so, once we are aware that her ruse of language is also a ruse of heart, we are able to enter into the space of poetry in the posture of longing, prepared to "see aslant." Once we, moved by her words, join in the dance, even if it disorients us and leaves us hovering, uncertain and tentative about where we stand, we are better able to position ourselves within that space of uncertainty so that we can speak and listen, write and read, and most importantly, love.


1The phrase is Anne Carson’s (Eros 17).

2I am calling these writers modernist even though Gunnars refers to these as points of "post-modern" poetics ("Avoidance" 181).

3In interview with Jane Casey, Gunnars distinguishes between the ethical and political concerns of writing: "No, I don’t think [writing is a] political [concern]," Gunnars claims. "While your view of the world, whatever it is, is going to have political implications, it isn’t the writer’s job to speak in political terms" (Casey 38).

4Gunnars explains in this interview that "we should be obsessed with life and how to preserve it. If this isn’t fundamental to writing, I don’t know what is" (Casey 38).

5Barthes’s concepts of the readerly and writerly are indebted to Marxist metaphors that measure the degree of control of the reader. The readerly text allows the reader to be a passive consumer, while in the writerly text, the reader becomes a producer of meanings. (See especially S/Z 3-5). Gunnars implicitly critiques the aggressivity in Barthes’s privileging of the writerly. Her weaver is also a producer of meanings, but one who steps away from the teleology of productivity.

6Drawing from a tradition of feminist theory of narrative, articulated by writers like Laura Mulvey and Teresa deLauretis, Gunnars elaborates on the connection between gender and narrative logic in The Prowler: "I have read treatises on male writing. The male line. The masculine story. That men have to be going somewhere. Men are always shooting something somewhere. And that women do not. That women can grow all things in one place. That the female story is an unfolding of layers." (The Prowler 25).

7The volume is unpaginated, and numbers refer to the poems themselves.

8In "Selections from Scent of Cedar," one of her hybrid pieces, part lyric, part prose essay, Gunnars tells "the story of a Japanese Butoh dancer" (27). The "story" hinges on a paradox that she describes as "still movement." She writes: "If there is such a thing as still movement, it is Butoh. The dancers move so slowly that positions change almost imperceptibly" (27). "Performed in the debris of civilization: among the ruins of demolition sites; in the skeletons of bombed-out buildings," Butoh juxtaposes two sets of skeletons - cultural and corporeal (27). The one architectural structure is visible, but devastated; the other frail human structure is invisible but strong. Extended in time and space, Butoh demands of its viewers patience, and even more importantly, it demands a particular kind of seeing that very much resembles what Gunnars in poem 4 of Exiles calls "seeing aslant"; insides are as important as outsides, things unseen are as important as things that are seen.

9In Substance of Forgetting, Gunnars refers to "the dance of approach and rejection" (49). Writing about desire, Anne Carson invokes this same give and take: "All human desire is poised on an axis of paradox, absence and presence its poles, love and hate its motive energies" (Carson, Eros 11).

10In interview, Gunnars has said: "I think we are very grounded in nature and the location in which we live our lives determines what we think. I believe that you can change your state of mind by changing your location" (Eagle 24).

Works Cited

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____. "Selections from ‘Scent of Cedar.’" Prairie Fire 15.1 (1994): 27-41.

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Valdés, Mario J. "Aporia." Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms. Ed. Irena R. Makaryk. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1993.

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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