A Ravenous Appetite: Desire of the Mind and Body in Patricia Powell’s ‘The Pagoda’ and Jewelle Gomez’ ‘Oral Tradition’

by Megan Winkelman, ’13

In desire lies the meat of human motivation, struggle, redemption and catharsis. Artists, vanguards of the human struggle, write desire into our conscious world, excavating the needs of the body and mind from the dusty psyche.

Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda and Jewelle Gomez’ Oral Tradition fashion desire into a weapon of the unknown and unacknowledged. Both authors fortify desire’s tired trope in order to challenge a hetero-normative world. The Pagoda explores “the shadow zones between sexes and desires, to suggest the slipperiness of identity” through the journey of a young Chinese woman who must live her immigrant life in Jamaica as a man (Pye). In her poems Gomez tells stories of sex, loneliness, history, death and friendship, linked together by longer ballads “sung” by Gilda, the black vampire lesbian character borrowed from Gomez’ novels.

Both literary works inspire an honest assessment of desire’s visceral impact through different media and to different ends. My analysis will use Gomez’ inherently fractured narratives (in the poetry medium) to inform Powell’s continuous narrative. This approach exposes the reader to the authors’ divergent arguments about desire, as well as the different sets of tools prose and poetry provide.

In the following essay I will analyze both the cerebral and physical portraits of desire through Powell’s prose and Gomez’ poetry. The cerebral aspect of desire, fantasy, appeals to the intellectual examination of desire’s consequences. In contrast, desire’s physical manifestation preys on the reader’s empathy through the conflation of sex and violence. Each author separately attacks desires through the ideation of fantasy and the physicality of sex to build the newly layered meaning of desire that exists far from the safe dichotomy of love and lust. I argue that Gomez’ poetry achieves more visceral access to both a physical and an intellectual interpretation of desire. Despite this difference in efficacy, both Powell and Gomez force readers to revisit the pedestals they have individually erected, the ideals that dictate their own romantic and sexual wants. Only then can readers begin to gradually chip away at these pillars until a new understanding, informed by the struggle of queer yearning, rises from the rubble. In this spirit, I will conclude with an interpretation of how the prose and poetry of fluid sexuality, through language that is alternatively ambiguous, violent and visceral, can change readers’ outlooks, effectively “queering our centers.”

Fantasy: The Cerebral Branch of Desire

“Years later, he would always remember that afternoon and how she had turned him into a garden of flowers and fruits…His fists had become her flowering hibiscus, his elbows her marigolds, his breasts her star apples, his nipples her guineps…” (Powell, Pagoda, 230) 

Fantasy represents the cerebral branch of desire, that which is performed in the mind not the body. At every stage of The Pagoda, readers bear desire’s weight thrust on Lowe, Chinese immigrant in 19th century Jamaica, through the excessive repetition of his father’s fantasies. Powell obsessively accosts us with Lowe’s accounts of his early youth. As the memories of his father pile up, Lowe cements his realization; he has become an empty shell cracked by his father’s impossible dreams. Lowe understands his identity only as, “A girl full up of her father’s fantasy. A girl pregnant with her father’s dreams. A girl with a bloated head full of her father’s dreams” (139). The heavy-handed parallelism within this excerpt (only one of countless variations on Lowe’s memories and discussions of his father laced throughout the text), demonstrates the debilitating effect of fantasy. Memories adopt a rhythmic incantation, suggesting Lowe holds an almost-religious reverence for his father’s memory. Furthermore, Lowe’s discussion of pregnancy appropriately draws attention to Lowe’s confusion about his gender identity. Lowe’s desire to be male cannot be understood apart from the hold of his father’s fantasy.

The power of fantasy is further emphasized when Lowe decides he must abandon everything he has created in order to liberate himself. After Lowe’s store burns down “he could see that it was indeed a blessing, this massive destruction. That indeed he could try out another kind of life altogether. Not one that his father or Cecil had routed out for him, but one he could weed out for himself” (39). All must be destroyed to be free of his father and Cecil (the man who raped Lowe on Lowe’s journey from China). Unless Lowe starts anew the constant antimatter of his existence, what could or should have been always looms before and behind him. Powell’s character Lowe fears Miss Sylvie, the woman he marries, “For who is to say she wouldn’t fold up her fantasies into him and turn him further into something he wasn’t, as his father had done and then Cecil?” (114). Lowe is “terrified by the possibility of more dreams, more fantasies” and this paralyzes their relationship, precipitating Miss Sylvie’s depression and eventual withdrawal (138). From his failed relationship with his father, Lowe “didn’t know how to tell her he didn’t want to live out anybody else’s fantasy” (145).  The fantasy planted years ago in China infects every aspect of Lowe’s adult life. Fantasy breaks free from the cage in which it was born and metastasizes.

In The Pagoda the mutable fantasies of desire catalyze awful and incredible transformations. Lowe wants Sylvie but when Sylvie wants Lowe he suddenly fears her. “Kiss me,’ she said, and her voice startled him and broke the mood, and the warmth disappeared from his groin” (178). As soon as Miss Sylvie demands him, Lowe can no longer desire her. His desire is antithetical to the directive; its power relies on wanting what cannot be delivered, a pipedream of that which inconclusively erases the edges of the character’s insecurity. Lowe’s intimate understanding of desire’s fickle hand infiltrates all aspects of Lowe’s life, his identity forever dependent on the ever-changing fantasies of Cecil, his father and Miss Sylvie.  When Miss Sylvie approaches Lowe grasping him by the waist, “At first he liked it and he began to smile. Then he grew frightened. Then he was angry as hell and he tore himself away roughly” (166). Lowe feels the initial tug of desire’s promise to momentarily transform, but resists.

Fantasy, dictator of the cerebral self, is more powerful than any attempt at transcendence by the physical self. Fantasy becomes thoroughly absorbed by the body. Lowe desperately questions, “And how you to love some other person when the body you inhabit not even yours? When the body you inhabit had more to do with somebody else’s fantasy. The fantasy of somebody you love. But who it turn out don’t even see the real you, really” (221). Even the concrete body, its movement, gender and physicality, is utterly controlled by an idea.

We can better understand Lowe’s struggle through Gomez’ poetry. With the poetic form, Gomez attacks the fraught relationship between desire and identity. In her poetry the dream of identity, developed through the desire of her narrators, overwhelms reality’s constraints. The state of desire becomes more essential than any object of desire, so much so that Gomez warns against desire even as she initiates her readers into its compelling beauty. Desire “is even more [than love]./ Savage. Self-interest. Elemental. Opening” (47). Gomez’ diction of desire evokes the prehistoric, recruiting a judgment bestowed on the uncivilized as well as the idealized return to man’s “natural state.” Yet unrestrained desire can grow so bloated as to choke off what or who is actually desired. Gomez writes, “There’s a dream I have of who I am” (67) to indicate that the dream, the true subject of the poem, is more significant than the unsung reality. The lover should not confuse wanting to want with the object of the wanting. Lowe invests himself in the dream of the pagoda, only to realize without Sylvie he remains unfulfilled. He confuses wanting to want with the object of wanting. Gomez’ narrator wants “to hold you…Or [she] want[s] the dream of that” (57). She explicitly prioritizes her act of desire above the object of desire, intoxicated by the dream rather than its realization. Gomez’ clarity contrasts with Lowe’s dreamy fantasies of Miss Sylvie and the Pagoda, the cultural center he plans to build. Putting the two texts in dialogue exposes Lowe’s fatal flaw: unlike Gomez’ narrator, he does not understand the distinction between the process and object of desire.

Several poems grapple with why this process of desire is more potent than the satisfaction of its achievement. Gilda believes that she is  “not sacred” but declares “the folds of my flesh are eternal/ but ordinary except when under a gaze—hers” (34). Through the looking, the act of desiring, a transformation ensues. Only as a consequence of desire does the narrator become immortal (“eternal”). She recognizes that without desire her body is mere flesh. Through Gomez’ description of desire’s wildly transformative effects, we can more clearly understand what Lowe’s narrative lacks. In Lowe’s life, the cascading effects of his father’s original fantasy are also transformative, but have lost Gomez’ sense of possibility. While Gilda deftly handles the desire’s illusions, Lowe shies away, unable to fathom that desire might breed anything save disaster and heartbreak.

In Gomez’ “Gilda Sings: Dreaming Awake,” Gilda hopes to manipulate her unwieldy sexuality so she will not be “split open”. Gilda dreams of control localized in the creation of a desexualized body, a venture Lowe unsuccessfully attempts for thirty years. Gilda understands this protection comes at a cost, “breathing with care,” with “no easy motion”, but endures these restraints only in theory. She believes these sacrifices will ultimately remove the obstacles that ripe womanhood throws in her path, constructing a fantastical “warrior princess” persona. Gilda dreams of binding her breasts, while Lowe executes that dream (as a woman who dresses as a man for decades), only to realize in his old age what this artificial repression deprived him of: motherhood, sexual pleasure and a secure identity. By actualizing Gomez’ fantasy Lowe realizes the price of masculinity’s protection is too high. The contrast between Gilda and Lowe further demonstrates the fluidity of gender. Gilda is not transgender, but she values the male form and male cultural capital. Lowe enjoys his male freedoms, but is ultimately disempowered by his rigid gender decision. Gilda informs us that perhaps the best way to understand Lowe is not as trans-gendered, but as a complicated individual who was born a woman and was then forced to adhere to external gender expectations. This new reading forces a more nuanced analysis of Lowe’s actions. Desire, even as it exists in the cerebral realm, as fantasy, has irreconcilable physical consequences.

Conflating Sex and Violence in Desire’s Physical Manifestation

“For wasn’t this the way men got what they wanted? First by seduction and, if that didn’t work, then by force” (Powell, Pagoda 79).

In these texts, sex is the physical consequence of fantasy, and violence is often the painful consequence of sex. Sex and violence can be confused amidst the risky chaos of their high emotional and physical stakes. Lowe considers a gathering of Chinese men, observing “they groped at each other’s groins and at their own, they exchanged soft laughs and knowing glances, they rained insults on one another in seven different dialects and in the next breath recited potent love verse” (46). The men argue and insult each other, playfully fulfilling their masculine gender norms, but the next moment recite love poems and reach for each other’s sexual organs, indicating fluidity in their friendship, a confusion of their companionship. Likewise, when Cecil battles Lowe on the ship, “Lowe stormed again, his hands an iron clasp on the column of throat…they lay there for minutes, maybe hours, just the two, like lovers entwined” (48). Violence and sexuality are thoroughly conflated, as is further demonstrated in the strange and intimate relationship Lowe continues with Cecil on the island. Lowe doesn’t understand how to reconcile Cecil’s death. Lowe can’t tell his daughter that Cecil was “a trickster, a rapist, a thief, a smuggler of illegal Chinese, a kidnapper, a madman, a demagogue” (66). Despite this condemnation, just pages later Lowe reminisces on an almost saintly Cecil, devoted to nursing Lowe back to health on the ship. Lowe owes Cecil everything, though Cecil is responsible for Lowe’s physical and emotional degradation.

Lowe cannot be fully understood without an analysis of his “wife” Miss Sylvie. Powell believes “carrying your past in your sexual actions is loaded and troubled. Miss Sylvie wants some kind of fulfilling thing with Lowe” but Sylvie’s violent history impedes her (Powell Visit). Miss Sylvie fascinates and terrifies, bounding out of control in both love and grief, eating up the world with her emptiness, instead of dismissing it in her pain. Lowe describes Sylvie’s embrace, even before her depression as, “full up with the same kind of yearning, as if some grave thing had been taken away, so that…anything she touched she had to hold close, almost to the point of strangulation” (35). Miss Sylvie’s neediness and horrific, sensual decay marked her from her first encounter with Lowe when he observed “her cruel lips deep in flirtation…the smell of her sweat more tart, the stench of the decayed and abscessed molars more fervent, her smile more haunting; her pupils were more distended and dark” (104-105). The reader is introduced to a woman whose blooming sexuality is too strong, too powerful, like the scent of over-ripe fruit or a decomposing rose. This preludes the painful dynamic, rife with mismatched appetites and un-reconciled yearnings, that defines Lowe and Sylvie’s relationship. When Lowe fears his return he most fears “Miss Sylvie who was brimming with need” (47). Lowe is forced to want nothing so Sylvie can desire everything. When Miss Sylvie experiences the loss of unconditional love through the loss of her children, she transforms that frantic hurt into a carnivorous sexual appetite. Miss Sylvie’s confusion of intimacy and sex, and the desperation that clouds this judgment, commands fear.

Powell’s novel also emphasizes the union of sex and violence to give voice and solidarity to those for whom this conflation constitutes a daily battle. As Miss Sylvie confronts Lowe on their first night in bed together, he desperately tries to maneuver his way out from under her, plotting “for if he could slip slightly to the right he would be free of her cream thigh sheathed in black garter that was the stumbling block in his path…” (112). The dangerous excitement of this scene, if played out in a pornographic context, could be interpreted as entirely seductive. Because readers witness sex from the lens of Lowe’s victimhood, we know better. Lowe fears Miss Sylvie’s physical needs, exclaiming “How she desired me and what a ravenous appetite! And me, a little frail thing like a broken bird beneath her. And she with her hangman arms, wide and empty without her sons, wide and empty with all her losses, her memories” (240). Lowe understands Miss Sylvie channels her loss and fears into her pursuit of him, and tries his best to avoid capture by her “hangman arms,” tragic, empty and foreboding.

Lowe’s fear of being swept up in Miss Sylvie’s needs prevents him from initially responding to Joyce’s warm, loving advances. He remembers, “Once, for a brief and furtive moment, he thought perhaps [Joyce] desired him, but he found the idea so worrisome, so marked with frustration and distress, that he wiped it completely from the shelves of his mind” (36). To Lowe, who experienced the violent face of physical desire during Cecil’s rapes, sex is distressing. Lowe recalls the rape in vivid fragments:

the galloping rhythm of tongue, taste of brine on lips, a raised arm with torn wrist, a vague twilight and dreamy eyes gripped by the drug of sleep. A molten sky. An auspicious moon. A sweltering marketplace. A circling shark with a murderous tail. A leaning body full of erratic gestures, the undulation of limbs, the crunching of figures, the movement of light. Lowe could not retain the sequence from the chaos. (113)

Again, Powell refuses her readers distance from the scene. She pulls her audience through a whirlwind slideshow, first introducing a breathless series of still frames, the rape linked by impending commas, and then subjecting the reader to staccato fragments that conjure claustrophobic, terrifying images seemingly unrelated to the sexual violence. Powell builds tension with her tricolon crescens (adding more syllables in each subsequent fragment to create a crescendo ending). She starts at the molten sky (four syllables) and ends with the circling shark (eleven). Powell stalks the scene, circling her prey until she finally pounces, addressing the rape to the audience’s horror and satisfaction.

In The Pagoda, Lowe wrestles with painful, angry desire, while “trying to keep at bay…the temptations that flung themselves forward, he craved, as he’d never craved before…the prodigious noises and smells of Miss Sylvie” (88). To Lowe, sex can never be the inviting, expansive myth of romance novels. Sexuality is sharp, destructive and degrading. When Lowe observes Miss Sylvie and Whitley, who seem to have a luxurious all-consuming sex life, he notices “they both looked drugged with love, and neither one paid him the smallest regard…What was displayed here was sharper and wetter and hotter” (93). Even the manifestation of pure pleasure is linked with pain. The drugging implies the couple must artificially subdue themselves in order to endure the harsh edges of their union. Here, the pain is internal, an intimate, self-induced affair.

Gomez’ sweeping, violent imagery forces readers into the heat of the language, stimulating the audience’s arousal, simultaneously fearful and illicit. Powell only reaches this same visceral level when she reverts to Gomez’ poetic strategy, as in her fragmented description of Lowe’s rape. To Gomez, desire thrusts us “without our knowledge or consent” into a “foundry, toiling hot, productive for only itself./ Metal clanging, plunging,/ solid then liquid. Alchemy./ Unchained melody” (48). This metaphor encapsulates a paradox: the foundry is a place in which seemingly chaotic (clanging) and dangerous (toiling hot) processes yield something ordered (melody), solid, finished, and valuable (alchemy). Desire has no place on love’s “clouded peaks of mountains”; the relationship Gomez describes “may be death/ but it is also desire” (47). Desire cannot be understood apart from death, reflecting the desperate affirmation of mortality intrinsic in sex as well as violence. Desire, “the only now I own” grounds men and women to the present with a power no other action achieves (48). Due to “unstable gaseous explosive” desire, Gomez’ narrator “would take your blood/ in [hers] whether it meant life or not” (48). Through her imagery Gomez’ readers are escorted through the physical sensations of desire and internalize its struggle.

Powell and Gomez challenge and manipulate the language of desire. Poet Christian Morgenstern once wrote, “To me, the term ‘middle-class’ connotes a safe, comfortable, middle-of-the road policy. Above all, our language is ‘middle-class’ in the middle of our road. To drive it to one side or the other or even off the road, is the noblest task of the future” (Morgenstern). Language is often used to mask what is not understood in the guise of objectivity, as in the dry, conclusive pages of history textbooks. This tact makes readers more comfortable with our unwieldy, unjust past, the readers made safe from that mess and rawness once named and chronicled. When reading this “middle class language”, readers are lulled into a state of ease that resonates longer than any critical insight. Both Gomez and Powell refuse the middle road, instead employing violent, unsettling language to emphasize that the struggle of sex and power is too important to make the reading easy on the reader. In Gomez’ “A Woman Called Comfort” the sharpness of the matriarch’s hard labor and her old sewing machine contrasts with the soothing stability she represents to the women who gather around her. This poem epitomizes the goal and style of the entire collection, comparing the soothing rhythms and gorgeous language of love and sex with sharp, terrible images. The reading experience becomes akin to hearing your grandmother describe her rape in the same voice she tells your bedtimes stories. The effect is powerful and disturbing, impossible to shake.

In both texts, sex is violent and angry. Gomez ties seduction to rage, describing “a welcome, a release, a seduction…A place where rage lives, baffled and bound” (72). Alternatively, in “On Lake Ontario” Gomez draws a parallel between an enduring log, burned by fire, and an enduring lesbian relationship. In this poem, pain is inflicted by the external, presumably people like the unfamiliar women who whisper as they pass the couple on the beach. Gomez writes, “Instead we [the couple] sit on a tree, fallen,/ stripped of bark. Object/ of unsuccessful bonfire/ shiny with survival” (25). Sex leaves scars, scars created both by external forces, as in Gomez’ poetry, and by internal forces, as previously demonstrated in Lowe’s observation of Miss Sylvia and Whitley. Through a swift, sharp metaphor Gomes is able to attack the core pain that Powell weaves throughout her three hundred pages of Lowe’s journey.

Threatening, violent language is employed in further poems, as Gomez effectively interweaves the darkness and beauty of sexuality until sex must exist between the problematic extremes of rape and ecstasy. In “Beneath the Williamsburg Bridge” Gomez watches boys in “cleated shoes” full “of cockish noises” poking “with curious, weighing eyes” (19). She continues, “A ball hurtles through the air uncaught/ as they swallow all they might know about us” (20). The violent images associated with the outside world, the outside threat, are combated by the mechanical description of the united women, “all our parts fit, meshing gears” as if the lesbian couple has constructed the modern, industrial “armor” necessary for their protection. To these two women, sexuality cannot be understood apart from threat. Lowe’s observation of Miss Sylvie and Whitley shows a similar fear and hurt, but Lowe’s pain is all emotional, internal, whereas Gomez accesses the physical violation felt as outsiders appraise the narrator’s sexuality. While Powell luxuriates in Lowe’s lengthy and emotional internal monologues, Gomez drives to the core physicality of sex. The poetic form allows Gomez to perform a literary hit and run, slamming her readers with the unsettling, visceral emotions and then pulling out from the discussion, cutting the poem off, leaving her readers to grapple with the consequences sex and fantasy alone.

Deconstructing Desire: What is the Reader’s Responsibility?

“Sexuality is not only not essence, not timeless, it is also not fixed in place; sexuality is on the move.”
-Benigno Sanchez-Eppler and Cindy Patton, Queer Diasporas

Readers look to books and art to play out the full arc of decisions they cannot pursue in their own lives. In the safe, distant context of literature, some small resolution regarding sex and power can be reached. Oral Tradition and The Pagoda provide very different understandings (partially due to their forms) of what shape this resolution might take. The Pagoda’s plot indulges every spark of sexual tension, saturates our pleasure centers with completion and colors each scene in full psychological explanations of every act, all in due time. Powell lures her readers into a world where sexuality and gender are as fluid and real as her engrossing prose, such that the reader never jumps up to demand, well, does Lowe like men or women, Omar or Joyce? The rhythm and clarity of Powell’s pages forces readers to swallow their need for boundary and category, leads them to continue with her into the night. Lowe realizes “he couldn’t have loved earlier, not when his life was on such an edge, everyone else having claims to his body. Didn’t you have to throw your whole self into it, and what did he have to throw?” (179). This epiphany almost dares Powell’s readers to throw themselves into the book, and feel Lowe’s consuming pain and wonder. In contrast, Gomez forces her reader to grasp for the resolution and safety they seek, creating an incredibly effective mimesis of the struggle with sexuality and society’s acceptance.

In Oral Tradition each layer is pealed back individually as the discreet pockets of different poems open like whispered secrets. Gomez, in what she chooses to omit, gains power over her reader. As if performing the Dance of the Seven Veils, she sensually reveals herself layer after layer, but disappears before the last scarf falls. By confusing the narrator and time period of each poem, Gomez forces her readers to perilously grasp for the understanding they seek, paralleling the difficult journey of an “out” lesbian in society. Gomez understands “it’s very difficult to write about sex, because it’s kind of ridiculous. Either you’re writing some high romantic thing or you’re writing the gritty. I’m trying to get to the gritty. Sex is enthralling, it’s not necessarily soft-focus, pink and flowing” (Gomez Visit). Tim O’Brien commented during a recent colloquium with Tobias Wolff that he writes to make people feel. When asked why he does not leave his desk to act, legislate, start PTSD foundations, or lobby for veteran art therapy, he responded that feeling is the most effective antecedent of action, and people must be made to feel before they will act and decide (O’Brien). Herein lies the power of fiction. Gomez builds a trying journey for her readers in which they must grasp for an understanding of sexuality. This feeling then cultivates the seeds for potential movement toward equality.

These texts cannot be read without examining their historical context, in Powell’s case that of late nineteenth century Jamaica, and for Gomez’, American slavery and the struggles of homosexuals in the 1990s. Gomez enjoys, “bringing history back to life” with her work (Gomez Visit). The conversation of sexuality, boundaries and fantasy relates equally to the way society fetishisizes certain histories, and allows itself to be seduced by a more comfortable version of reality. The construction of these compact histories fails many. Philosopher Naomi Scheman writes:

The coherent remembered narrative, shared with others who hold us in mind, is an artifact of privilege in terms of both what it contains and what it omits…What we have are culturally specific narratives, which facilitate the smooth telling of some lives and straitjacket, distort or fracture others (Scheman 126).

Both Powell and Gomez attempt to piece together narrative fragments of stories that have not yet become “culturally available.” Lowe recalls “his father had betrayed him under the guise of tradition” (99). Who do we as readers and citizens betray under the guise of tradition and how is this betrayal executed? Sometimes the betrayal lies in what we refuse to discuss and therefore debase, such as the many distinct layers of sexual identity. Perhaps we also refuse history. Gomez writes, “In her dewy face I see cotton bloodied” (34). This short verse commands that nothing of the present can be understood alone; beauty is always muddled by the injustice of the past. Sexuality is on the move, through time as well as space. New narratives must be made culturally relevant in order not to be left behind.

Thus we discover literature can change the dominant treatment of sexuality. Scheman argues, “resistance can take the form of challenge to the stable cartographies of center and margin. Such resistance aims to cloud the transparency of privileged subjectivity, making it visible, and visibly “queer,” by revealing the apparatus that goes into normalizing it” (Scheman 127). Literature guards against apathy by inspiring feeling, which, if potent enough, induces action. Gomez and Powell refuse compact histories. They build a portrait of sexuality through their queer narrators, revealing a more realistic representation of sex that resists the normative apparatus. In that the queer community has been forced to define and build sexuality norms, heterosexual communities can learn from them that these norms are not impassable.  I do not argue that queer and heterosexual narratives must become identical. Gomez writes that feminism appealed to her because it provided opportunity to reexamine identity, but “did not mean that we all had to succumb to a symbiotic ecumenicalism that wiped out every vestige of our cultural or ethnic background. That was too much like the myth of the melting pot” (Gomez, Forty-Three Septembers 104). Instead, queer narratives have the potential to release heterosexuals from the binary expectations of sex. By the same token, insulating the queer literature perspective, exiling these writers to the fringes of independent or feminist presses, will not increase understanding or communal support of gay, lesbian and transgender people.

I am my theory’s case study. My first readings were riddled with the reserved sympathy and illicit relief of the protected. Then I heard Gomez speak. She reminded me I did not read a book of queer poetry. I read a book of human poetry. “Beneath the Williamsburg Bridge” documents more than just the threat against one lesbian couple. Upon my imminent reread Gomez’ words provoked my body’s machinery to produce the same acrid taste of cortisol that burned my tongue on nights I’ve taken the bus home alone, or found myself walking down a street, adjusting my walk and gaze to disguise any vulnerability or sexuality. I don’t need to pretend that sex isn’t ridiculous, or that desire doesn’t sometimes shake me up and spit me out. I am heterosexual. I am white. Stanford has invested in me immense privilege and cultural capital. But I am also confused. As Omar, a house servant, tells Lowe, the only way to understand the truth in identity is through “the edges,” those places of overlap, of ambiguity and flexibility and the non-normative. The close reading of desire in The Pagoda and Oral Tradition supports the integration of queer and heterosexual narrative traditions. I believe literature can become a powerful tool for “queering the center.”

Megan Winkelman is a Stanford junior majoring in Human Biology with a concentration in Neurobiology, and is pursuing an honors thesis in Feminist Studies. She wrote this paper in Professor Valerie Miner’s course “Imagining Women: Writers in Print and in Person,” and thus had the honor of meeting both Jewelle Gomez and Patricia Powell. 

Works Cited
Chin, Timothy. “Negotiating Gender and Sexuality Across the Disjunctures of the Caribbean Diaspora.” Callaloo 30.2 (2007): 533-45. Print.
Gomez, Jewelle. Forty-Three Septembers. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1993. Print.
Gomez, Jewelle. Oral Tradition: Selected Poems Old & New. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1995. Print.
Gomez, Jewelle. Visit to “Imagining Women: Writers in Print and in Person.” 24 February 2011.
Morgenstern, Christian. Stages: A Development in Aphorisms and Diary Notes. Project Gutenberg, 2005. Print.
O’Brien, Tim. (2011, January) Writing and War: Tim O’Brien in conversation with Tobias Wolff. Colloquium presented at Cubberly Auditorium, Stanford, CA.
Patton, Cindy, and Benigno Sanchez-Eppler. Queer Diasporas. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Print.
Powell, Patricia. The Pagoda: a Novel. New York: Knopf, 1998. Print.
Powell, Patricia. Visit to “Imagining Women: Writers in Print and in Person.” 10 February 2011.
Pye, Michael. “Caribbean Limbo: A Novel Set in Turn-of-the-century Jamaica Explores the Life of a Chinese Immigrant.” New York Times 1 Nov. 1998, Book Review sec. Web. 22 Feb. 2011.
Rabelais, François. The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955. Print.
“Review: Oral Tradition: Selected Poems Old and New.” The San Francisco Bay Guardian 5 Dec. 1995. Print.
Scheman, Naomi. “Queering the Center by Centering the Queer: Reflections on Transsexuals and Secular Jews.” Feminists Rethink the Self. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997. 124-62. Print.

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One thought on “A Ravenous Appetite: Desire of the Mind and Body in Patricia Powell’s ‘The Pagoda’ and Jewelle Gomez’ ‘Oral Tradition’

  1. Thanks for your interesting reading of my work! And for introducing me to the Patricial Powell novel! Your anaylsis is beautifully reasoned and written.

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