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Reviews | Reviews | Stephen Morrissey
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The Taste of Giving: New & Selected Poems, “The Feminine Consciousness in Poetry: Four Long Poems by Carolyn Zonailo”, essay by Stephen Morrissey

     Carolyn Zonailo's poetry is fundamentally different from the work of most other Canadian poets, either male or female. In Zonailo's The Taste of Giving: New & Selected Poems the erotic, the mythopoeic, and landscape serve as vehicles for the expression of the archetypal feminine. Zonailo's poetry is predominantly an expression of universal consciousness as revealed in a human being aspiring to be whole and complete. I will examine four long poems from this book that form a record of Zonailo's journey to "individuation", to use the Jungian term for an individual’s growth of self-awareness and openness to the universal Self.

     In a 1982 interview published in CVII, Zonailo refers to writing "female romantic" poetry. Zonailo's poetry is more than an expression of female concerns or even of feminism; her work is more correctly an expression of the feminine. Indeed, Zonailo's use of mythology and landscape are in the service of the archetypal in her work. How do we define the eternal feminine? Robert A. Johnson, a Jungian analyst, discusses the story of Tristan and Iseult and the birth of romantic love in his book We, Understanding The Psychology of Romantic Love:

Jung found that the psyche is androgynous: It is made up of both masculine and feminine components.… The psyche spontaneously divides itself into complementary opposites and represents them as a masculine-feminine constellation. It characterizes some qualities as being "masculine" and certain others as being "feminine."...It is the feminine qualities that bring meaning into life: relatedness to other human beings, the ability to soften power with love, awareness of our inner feelings and values, respect for our earthly environment, a delight in earth's beauty, and the introspective quest for inner wisdom.
                                                           (My italics) (17-20)

     Johnson's words can be used to describe Zonailo's poetry. In Inside Passage (1977) she writes, "My poem is not me, neither is it separate from me. I and my poem are related to each other. I do not want to humanize the world, nor do I want to dissect it. I want to discover my relationship to it. This might be called a family vision. In that, it is a survival of all, or nothing." This is what the reader discovers in Zonailo’s poems: the expression of that which aims for relatedness, and is constantly moving towards unity and away from fragmentation. This is a recurring theme in Zonailo's work, found in all of her books, since she first began to publish her work in the mid-1970s.

     One of the influences on Zonailo's work is the poetry of John Keats. Keats, in his "Axioms of Poetry" writes, "...That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all. "Zonailo writes, again in Inside Passage, "I and my poem and the tree are related to each other. The tree expresses leaves, the amphibian expresses fins, the bird its feathers, a stone its mass…. Poetry does not reflect life, it is a part of living; it is as natural a function as breathing or blossoming." Indeed, Keats’s "Ode to Psyche" is fundamental to understanding Zonailo's work. While Zonailo refers to other myths, one myth that is central to her work is that of Eros and Psyche, which is also the subject of Keats's poem. Myth, for Zonailo, is a way to investigate psychological insights. Myth is alive with truth in the psychological and spiritual realms. Myth is traditionally a vehicle for poets, as it is not only condensed and concise language, but is also a collection of symbols that communicate simultaneously—at a number of levels of sophistication—eternal and universal wisdoms.

     The best interpretation of the myth of Eros and Psyche is Erich Neumann's Amor and Psyche: The Psychic Development of the Feminine. Neumann's important study of the feminine in psychology is essential reading for anyone concerned with understanding archetypal psychology. Neumann illuminates what Zonailo is doing in her work, regarding the erotic and mythopoeic. One brief quote from Neumann might suffice in asserting the importance of this myth; Neumann writes: is no accident that analytical psychology defines the totality of consciousness and the unconsciousness as the "psyche". This psyche as the whole of the personality must be characterized in man as well as in woman as feminine, because it experiences that which transcends the psychic as numinous, as "outside" and "totally different." For this reason, the mandala figure, which appears in man and woman as the totality of the psyche, is feminine in its symbolism as circle and round, or uroboric as that which contains the opposites.

     Zonailo's poetry is a celebration of unity over fragmentation and relatedness over alienation. Before I get to a more specific examination of the four long poems from Zonailo's The Taste of Giving, New & Selected Poems, I will refer to her essay, "The Idea of Poetry as the Visible Rainbow", published in Poetry Canada Review in 1987. Zonailo writes, "When poetry is seen as soul-making, there are no questions as to whether or not poetry is political, experimental or profitable.... Poetry is an essential human activity—not humanistic, but human—part of the condition of being human, and of having a soul... the collective body of poetry contains the collective knowledge of our souls." For Zonailo the very act of writing poetry is to discover one's soul; and the role of the poet is to identify dualities by recognizing them. Poetry provides insight: from viewing the world through Psyche, the soul, we discover our relationship with the world. "Psychological 'insight' ", according to Zonailo, "is not looking inward but a viewing of the world through the psyche—i.e., looking at the world with the eyes of your soul.... In that way we can speak of Vision, where it is possible to see both cause and effect at the same time, and to see them belonging inescapably together." The conclusion of Zonailo's essay is of particular importance; she writes:

A poetics presided over by Psyche is a poetics in which the soul is born from the physical, material world. We don't have to transcend or destroy our mortality to become divine. The dualities of phenomenon & numen, physical & metaphysical, reality & dream, necessity & desire stand side by side, as do Eros and Psyche. The need for a monotheist, monopolizing "oneness" can be replaced with an acceptance of the diversity, duality and polymorphous actuality of phenomenal existence.

     All of this is particularly fascinating when studying the archetypal feminine. Zonailo's whole thrust is towards discovering unity and relatedness, not promoting divisions and barriers to relationship. These positive qualities are intrinsic to the feminine. This consciousness is not exclusive to women; traditionally, and universally, it has often been an expression of a mystical awareness embodied in Taoism, Buddhism, and the Christian mystics (including Meister Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Brother Lawrence).

     Lorelei Cederstrom writes in Fine-tuning the Feminine Psyche: Jungian Patterns in the Novels of Doris Lessing, that "feminists have largely abandoned the project of Jungian or archetypal criticism...While feminism in a political sense may no longer be a viable form for the discussion of Lessing's work, the feminine remains the heart of her contribution, for the archetypal roots of every woman's psyche have never been so fully expressed as in the novels of Doris Lessing." (203) This is an important point to make regarding Zonailo's poetry—she is not overtly political but, as with Doris Lessing, "the feminine remains the heart of her contribution." Zonailo’s poetics are essentially life affirming and celebratory. The literary tradition of lyric and meditative poetry in which Zonailo's work can be placed extends from Sappho to Emily Dickinson and H.D., but it also includes Keats, Stevens, and other poets, regardless of gender, in the long tradition of lyric poetry from different eras and cultures.

     Zonailo's poetry can be divided into thematic categories, one of which is female sexuality and sensuality. This is a poetry of erotic connection, in which eros is combined with the romantic and ultimate union between individuals. As such it is a celebration of sexuality from a female perspective. Zonailo's ongoing poetic discussion of sexuality is non-exploitative—it is not concerned with the mechanics of experience, but centered on sexual union as a human expression of love and intimacy.

     The feminine consciousness in poetry is not the same thing as a feminist consciousness—although the two necessarily overlap. Feminism, as a political and social movement, originates with Mary Wollstonecraft, J.S. Mill, and the Woman's Movement at the end of the Nineteenth Century. But the feminine consciousness is archetypal in origin and therefore is at once ancient, contemporary, and will extend into the future. Zonailo is concerned with a similar area of human consciousness as Doris Lessing: this is the archetypal feminine. Zonailo writes a poetry of transformation. It is not confessional poetry in which the poet is endeavoring to discover herself in a personal way, but rather to develop what Jung called the Self, that part of the individual that experiences consciousness as universal and which relates to the collective unconscious. This is poetry in which the Self unfolds to reveal the multiplicity of its levels of being. It is a poetry that expresses the ways in which the feminine consciousness is fundamentally different from a perception of life that is fragmentary and materialistic. This is not a poetry of separation or one that encourages a battle between the sexes; it emphasizes that we're all human beings, whether male or female. It is a poetics that, although able to incorporate gender, transcends both masculine and feminine roles.

     From Zonailo's The Taste of Giving, I am singling out four of the long poems as spiritual pilgrimages. These poems illuminate Zonailo's spiritual quest, her ongoing poetic exploration of the eternal feminine consciousness. Where does one begin the psychic journey? What accounts for the urgency of this journey? Surely it must be a sense of loss, a feeling that life has become in some essential way meaningless and without value or purpose. As the poems in this collection are arranged chronologically, Zonailo's psychic journey begins with the first of her long poems I have selected to discuss in this essay, "The Dreamkeeper." Here we find the Garden myth, the fall from innocence into experience. The "wolf/outside my window" that stares at the narrator with "yellow eyes" is the poet's own shadow self, that part of the human psyche that we either reject, hide from, or project onto someone else, but which, inevitably, returns to haunt us. In this poem the reader sees the beginnings of the poet’s transformation. “The Dreamkeeper” is a nocturnal poem, a poem of the unconscious mind: "I live/ on the coast, throw/ bait into the ocean/ to fish for salmon, / hook the fleshy mouth with my own guilt." Now we know the locale of Zonailo's work: it is alternately on the edge of or in the unconscious mind, or moving into the ocean-like depths of the collective unconscious.

     At the beginning of "The Dreamkeeper" Zonailo mentions kare-sansui, a style of symbolic landscape garden popular in ancient Japan. Here she is writing about arid gardens, her own work as a poet, and the garden myth. She quotes from a description of the Zen stone garden: "The intention is to portray the inner meaning rather than the external appearance." The dream in this poem is a nightmare vision of existence after the loss of human love and spiritual experience. Life has become a wasteland, a desert: "I stood once in/ a blood-red desert/ let the cactus spike/enter my flesh." Love, creativity, spirituality—all the components that are important to the growth of the inner life—are now denied; the only purpose that remains is to escape the desert... "A young woman carries a/ piece of wood in her hand,/ kills the snake with her stick."

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