MALE AND FEMALE

Since I am going to write about myself, I suppose relationships with men are the place to begin. They require me not only to say what ‘I’ understand and feel, but to admit the whole drama of emotional life, where experience – though it may not be unique or even exceptional – is intensely personal.

My own experiences took place within the context of the rapid collapse of conventional sexual morality, and a related change in the conception of male and female identities. Relationships could no longer rely on rules but had to work toward new balances, between men and women and between responsibility and freedom – as is still the case.

I am, it seems, a strong woman. I don’t feel very strong – I’ve let myself be badly treated too often and I complain too much. But I’ve always regained my independence. And I’ve survived, up to now.

From when I was a child I couldn’t accept others telling me what to do. I simply could not understand that someone else thought they had a right to decide for me. It wasn’t that I thought I ‘knew better’, it was a conviction, I could call it a moral conviction, that I should not be subordinated to someone else’s will. This of course did not go down well with parents and nannies, nor, later on, with a husband. In work relationships I learnt to do what was expedient, most of the time.

But in the middle of this stubborn autonomy there is a great big hole. I have a weakness for a certain kind of weak man. I had, I should say, because nowadays I recognize men who could have inspired in me that kind of helpless attachment but I remain aloof (I have no chance to do otherwise, at over seventy). I can watch the stirrings in me of the reactions I would have had and find them interesting and a bit pathetic. In fact, even in the worst stages of my infatuations a part of me stayed objective, observing, but it couldn’t prevent me going through the whole process of attraction, submission, letting myself be exploited in larger or smaller ways, getting fed up (quite suddenly) and breaking away, usually to the astonishment of the man involved.

These men were attractive, even beautiful, in the slender, light-footed way that is sometimes considered not truly masculine (ephebe rather than hero), and intuitive rather than intellectual. They were also inefficient, unwilling to settle to real work, generally a bit lost in reality, and happy to accept the support of a woman without giving back anything substantial. I’m speaking as though there was an army of them; there was not, but enough to see a definite pattern.

My husband belonged in some ways to the same type, but our relationship lasted longer than any other for me, ten years, and he was the father of my children (‘was’ because he’s dead now, thirty-five years after we separated); and I see our story as different. We were unlike each other in most ways, but we both had exceptional vitality, and on that level we understood each other. He was a sculptor, in Italy on a scholarship from Venezuela, and when we met his money was about to run out for some political reason (a common enough case); so right from the beginning I had to ‘lend’ him money. To make a long story short, for one reason and another it was me who throughout most of our time together supported both of us, and after the children came supported the family. The year and a half we spent in Venezuela, where our son was born, was an exception – he taught at an art school in Mérida – but we were not getting on well there and returned to Italy where we had more in common to sustain our relationship. Eventually his frustration at his career as an artist not taking off, and the restrictions of being married to just one woman, made him so bad-tempered – even to attempting violence – that I couldn’t go on living with him. We separated, but a few years later I emigrated to Venezuela with the children to give them more space to grow up in.

José was about as ‘unsuitable’ a husband as I could have found, from the point of view of my family and the society I had grown up in, provincial New Zealand. He was dark-skinned – a dark bronze color, from the mixture of three races, European, indio and black, common in Venezuela – divorced, from a very poor, uneducated family, and foreign. I didn’t speak his language when I decided the relationship was to be permanent, and I had no idea what sort of man an artist from Maracaibo would turn out to be. Or that I was committing myself to a life in the Third World, though that came about later and through other decisions on my part as well. If asked, I would probably have acknowledged that my choice of man was in part a rebellion against my upbringing and background. The other side of the choice, what I hoped for, turned out to be mostly illusion (for which D.H.Lawrence was partly responsible), but I would like to think I had some intuition, too, of the uncluttered spaces and fruitful challenges it opened up to me.

Growing up I suffered from the disapproval of obsessively moralistic parents. One of my reactions was to decide to be clever (successfully in my setting; it was strange to see my name on a board as ‘dux’ of New Plymouth Girls’ High School on visiting fifty years later). But the sexual revolution had begun and carried me along with it; and as a university student and then a pre-hippy I felt I was part of a drive toward the dissolution of the society of rules and restrictions that (as it seemed) didn’t allow us to be happy and creative. We were blind in many ways; we had no idea of the shapelessness that lack of limits can inflict on human beings, or of the price in disoriented ignorance of undoing tradition. But we were also right. Conformist society, rigid morals, fear of difference, unimaginative education, self-righteous mediocrity, were enemies of growth and happiness.

In the west as a whole, the moment when the positive potential of this loosening up was glimpsed, and some people enjoyed an upsurge of personal freedom, was soon taken back by a society of greed and ambition, serving only to diminish its ethical sense. But some of us were lucky enough to be able to build lives in the spaces we’d discovered.

In any case, my choices may have come at the beginning out of rebellion and even a desire to shock, but as time went on they were more and more informed by a sense of balance, the need to see both sides of any question, and the lasting conviction that the determination to avoid insecurity, and the hypocrisy of self-righteous optimism, are the cause and not the cure for much of the suffering and destruction that surrounds us. The dimension of darkness and death is as much part of us and of the world as is light and life, and demands to be attended to. What is unacceptable is relegated to the dark side, and if we are not aware it continues to move us from there in often destructive ways.

My leaning toward the irregular was also, perhaps, part of my susceptibility to men who were not rigidly masculine, who had trouble managing the demands of society (whether they were artists or drifters), who inhabited a sphere without much of the furniture of conventional living and thinking so that for a while at least it gave us room to play. Then it would turn out that in reality they wanted what the demanding world offered but didn’t want to work for it. And I was expected to help provide it. This kind of man is sometimes called the puer aeternus, and I’m certainly not the only woman who’s been their willing fool, philosophizing apart. The ‘male muse’ is another name for the type.

As time went on, there was an increasing age gap between me and my lovers, so that it seemed more natural (though still disappointing) that they would exploit me. As a suggestion of incest hovered, I remembered the ancient matriarchal pair of mother and son-lover and found I could celebrate the revival in me of this powerful female archetype. Especially because the most intense of these relationships happened in India, and in that country the goddess (many gods and goddesses) are present everywhere in images, stories and personifications.

The young man involved was beautiful, totally self-centered, dishonest and silly. I saw all that, I knew I was making a fool of myself (infatuated middle-aged woman), but I couldn’t stop waiting for him to come to me and doing anything he asked me to. The people round me were more tolerant than I deserved. I got some poems out of it, I spent many boring hours with him and his friends, and in the end he stole all the money I had with me on a – luckily short – later trip to India. When I no longer wanted to see him anyway. That’s many years ago now.

 

Frisbee

The red disc is skimming
from hand to hand through the dusk
at the edge of the plantation.

The full moon is rising
out of the trees.

Hey you, with limbs as lucid
as the evening, throw me
the silver one!


Mistaken Identity

I shout at you from my blackened wall
but you go on
dancing behind the smoke
as perfect as ever.


Flying with You in Mind

I yield to take-off
watching the ground recede
and the vast floor as it opens out
expands inside me.

Burnt hillsides, ribbons of water,
steep cliffs and black gorges
are the shapes of matter;

you are light throbbing
over troughs of earth and shaking
with sudden rays
space itself.

The landscape seeks its limit
far over at the approaching
horizon, at the white
line of salt where the sea
releases us separately
with eyes to see each other.


Bull and Moon

Today in a kind sun
near the solstice I lay
in the warm grass watching the clouds
and the Mother appeared beside me.
Earth of my earth, she said
and branch of my memory,
for wanting to share my pain
your pain will be lightened,
your eyes will be deeper…

The bull was her first son,
the one with dark limbs and the moon on his head,
beloved son and lover of her bed,
seed of flame in her mind
after the sacrifice,
forever she gives birth to him
and seeks him.

Now I know who you are,
young bull and why I’m bound to you.
For you I went searching
through streets flooded with moonlight
while dogs barked and the echo swelled
between the walls of a lost city.
It was you I found
in the chaos of fulfillment.

 

However I interpret this weakness of mine in relation to my contrariness (the archetypal element is too strong for me to see it only in those terms), it’s clear to me that my wish for a different, more permanent relationship remained unfulfilled largely because of my independence. Many women I know, in Venezuela and elsewhere, are alone because they are more intelligent, more efficient, more creative, stronger than the men around them, who require a soft, apparently submissive woman to boost their self-esteem, and most of them would have been good companions to a more generous partner. As a foreigner in a Latin country, with many projects of my own, I may have been an extreme case of ‘unmarriageability’. However, I’m not at all sure I was more acceptable anywhere else either.

I did have other relationships, with men with whom I had more intelligent affinities, but they were not free and our ‘affairs’ were mostly quite short, though a few of them became lasting friends.

For a long time now I’ve been on my own.

People have sometimes asked if I hadn’t thought of becoming a lesbian, since there are no satisfactory men around; the answer is that of course I’ve thought of it, it would be hard not to with so many doing just that. I’ve felt attracted to women, superficially; but I’ve never fallen in love with one. Why should I make the enormous effort of demolishing and rearranging my whole inner world? So much of what I’ve been and have done and so much of my view of life is based on the contrast and tension of male and female. Not to mention that I’ve enjoyed, sometimes wildly, my relations with men, being penetrated and all.

 

 For D.

My hair in your mirror
was redder than the flowers.
A remote will fed
the fire in the walls
and in my head.


In Dust

We disturb the silence
but this silence is composed
of sounds left behind by bodies
as transient as we are

and as steeped in the substance
of muteness.  I’m earth,
I sink into my mineral
ribs, your breathing

shakes the layers of silence
releasing voices – human?
bird chatter? rocks eroding?
You burst my vein and core -

the waves erase me,
washing away loose shale,
seedpods, thorns, fingernails
of the forgotten dead.


Páramo

It’s too late to mend
my face. You fall
through cracks into
a stream of sleep
scattering colors.

If you touch me, webs
of feelers sway
like the eucalyptus.
I can’t tell you from sun.

Inside me, you
are profile of the cordillera;
I’m the valley
where you sow my pleasure.

One thought on “MALE AND FEMALE

  1. Hello Rowena, Welcome to Cyber space. I have only been able to glance through parts of your site – Christmas pressures, Grandchildren NEEDING stories, a change of house and the lack of a willing and vacant computer all, contributed – but already I can see what a lovely, thoughtful and sensitive website it is. Well done,m’dear. I look forward to exploring further when time and place permits. I expect to be back in NZ in January.
    Until then,
    Merry Christmas and a resoundingly happy New Year.
    Phil

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