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Since the appearance of L'Écho Bouge Beau (1968), a major collection of poems in Brossard's early writing, her poetry has moved away from its fascination with a rather elusive concept of the neuter, which became a recurring image in some of the early poems, that Brossard later explained as "giving priority to language over me, myself, I" and an indication of the poet's withdrawal from writing about details of individual life into interiority of words (*). Brossard's rising awareness that her feminist poetics started acquiring specificity with regard to articulating the feminine body and its materiality brought about a realization that the poetics of the neuter lacked political agency and had to be transformed. Around the mid-1970s, Brossard's writing started changing into an evolving feminist project of embodied poetics preoccupied with overcoming the inability of neutral language to address questions of sexual difference and corporeality. The title of my paper, "embodied outside" is an attempt to define the horizon of thought Brossard has created for herself since the mid-1970s. My use of the term the "embodied outside" captures Brossard's desire to step outside the gendered language of patriarchy, and forge a language of feminine corporeality exterior to masculine discourse. This paper will focus on Brossard's 1973 Mécanique Jongleuse, and will also discuss, on the side, Masculin Grammaticale. I see both works as pivotal in Brossard's shift from her early attempts at writing in the neuter to her embrace of "feminine writing" (écriture au feminine) which allowed a subtle mobilizing of the transgressive potentialities of both the corporeality of writing and the corporeality of the writing body. Building on Pierre Joris's definition of "nomad poetics" as "a poetics for today and open on tomorrow" whose "openness ... has to be instable enough to allow for change ... [through] a dynamics of 'becoming'" (**), I will demonstrate that Brossard's poetic nomadism is linked to her feminist thought and her belief in corporeality as constitutive of women's subjectivity and agency. I will further contend, through a close reading of the thematic imagery of Mécanique Jongleuse, that Brossard's progressive and radical transformation of her early poetics of the neuter should be best read in light of Elizabeth Grosz's conceptualization of a politics of "corporeal feminism" and her rehabilitation of the body's materiality and of sexual difference.


(*) Brossard, Nicole. Fluid Arguments. Toronto: Mercury, 2005. 69.

(**) Joris, Pierre. A Nomad Poetics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003. 128.



Leave the

body ven



 - Mécanique Jongleuse[1]



I would like to propose a reading of Mécanique Jongleuse, published in 1973, and of the 1974 Masculin Grammaticale, two poetry collections by Nicole Brossard that were translated into English by Larry Shouldice in 1980. Both collections articulate a significant shift in the conceptualization of Brossard's poetics and her poetic vocabulary. Acknowledged by Brossard in her essay "Only the Body to Measure Reality By,"[2] this shift occurred in the mid-seventies as a result of Brossard's radical reconceptualization of her feminist political project and her increasingly stronger belief in corporeality as constitutive of women's political difference. In what follows, I will address this shift as a resolute movement toward the outside of the phallocentric discourse, what I refer to as the embodied outside. "Shift" and "movement" are charged terms for Brossard's scholars. As Pierre Joris has pointed out, Brossard's project can best be understood as a nomad poetics firmly rooted in the present, "open on tomorrow" and "instable enough to allow for change ” [through] a dynamics of becoming" (128). I believe that Brossard's nomadism is strictly related to her "poetic politics,"[3] a transgressive textual practice that has taken different forms in her writing, but that has always been preoccupied with endowing women with feminist consciousness and mental space in both language and reality. Although I have qualified this poetic research as a "transgressive textual practice," the word transgression started disappearing from Brossard's vocabulary in the mid-1970s to be replaced by her emphasis on vision in keeping with her interest in identity as a process of continuous becoming. Around the same time, Brossard moved away from her fascination with a rather elusive rhetorical figure of the Blanchotian neuter, a useful but ultimately a masculine fiction that she abandoned to embrace a feminist embodied poetics imbued with political energy and preoccupied with questions of corporeality, sexuality, and sexual difference. In The Aerial Letter, Brossard explains the transformation of her poetics by saying that the neutral body of her early poetry had to be replaced by "the body [that] has its reasons, mine, its lesbian skin, its place in a historical context, its particular environment and its political content" (77-8). Calling for a return to sexual difference as a necessary step that feminists must make in order to deconstruct and refigure the negative imagery related to the female body, Brossard advocates for a poetics of embodiment that will create positive images of femininity, and ensure that women re-enter their reality (and enter the reality of representation) on different terms. As Brossard writes: "The female body, long frozen (besieged) in the ice of the interpretation system and in fantasies relentlessly repeated by patriarchal sex, today travels through (”) previously unknown dimensions, which bring it back to its reality" (1988, 83). Brossard's words go far beyond the simple recognition of the significance of sexual difference by focusing on issues such as the movement inherent in the materiality of the female body, new dimensions that the body actively creates, and a conception of lesbian sexuality that introduces a new skin-like surface of meaning by re-imagining the deep logic of sexual difference. In this re-imagining, there is the beginning of a radical transformation of such logic.

Brossard's scholars Louise Forsyth, Karen Gould, and Alice Parker usually point to the poems published after the year 1974 as marked by the thematic and ideological changes I have just outlined focusing in particular on the 1975 collection Le Partie Pour le Tout, but I will argue that the feminist turn in Brossard's poetry can be observed already in Mécanique Jongleuse and Masculin Grammaticale. In both collections, Brossard abandons the neuter and embraces écriture au feminin as a means of foregrounding the issues of the corporeality of writing and the corporeality of the writing body. The way in which these early poems problematize the question of corporeality can be elucidated by reading them through the lenses of Elizabeth Grosz's theoretical thought. In her major theoretical interventions the 1994 Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism and the 2001 Architecture from the Outside, Grosz rehabilitates corporeality postulating a non-dualistic model of subjectivity presupposed on an anti-hierarchical harmonious intertwining of both psychical and corporeal faculties, and contingent upon a return to the question of sexual difference that precludes "neutralization and neutering of [the body's] specificity which has occurred to women as a consequence of [their] submersion under male definition" (1994, ix). Grosz formulates her feminist politics not only against the patriarchal ontology according to which the female body and sexuality are represented as lack, but also against ontologies of female corporeality characterized by extreme and disturbing volatility according to which the female body "has been constructed not only as a lack or absence but with more complexity, as a leaking uncontrollable, seeping liquid; as formless flow; as viscosity, entrapping, secreting; as lacking not so much or simply the phallus but self-containment—not a cracked or porous vessel, like a leaking ship, but a formlessness that engulfs all form, a disorder that threatens all order" (1994, 203).

Grosz's work, as I shall show, brings Brossard's early poetry to a condition of fuller intelligibility. Performing a movement toward a perspective that reclaims the female body and its materiality simultaneously emphasizing the intertwined realities of mind and body crossing over each other, Brossard's mid-seventies poetry also seeks to expose the ways of speaking about the female body in negative terms ranging from lack to equally detrimental uncontainability. The body has been taken away from women and appropriated as a captivating fatal presence that, as Brossard writes in The Aerial Letter, is "invisible” in the symbolic field", yet it is still "obliquely" felt as a "menacing presence" (141). The image of a "she-wolf" that recurs in several of the poems pointing to the woman's "weakening animality [that] still rules ambiguous" becomes an oblique reminder of female corporeality construed according to masculine parameters as a dangerous and seductive figure of ambiguity (28, 15). In the first sequence of poems in Mécanique Jongleuse, the female body is described as an animalistic presence flowing in the circuit of patriarchy. Another poem of this sequence shows the body as a negative image threatened to be engulfed by the ontology of lack:


towards her moves at its speed and eksPLODES

resounding replaced elliptical stain 'her body I'll long

remember' represents her incestuous image scarcely dis-

tinguished from the wave when it breaks and simmers (12)


Mécanique Jongleuse is permeated by the imagery of the female body portrayed as an eroticized object. Brossard writes: "her lip was lovely for speaking (draws away from her/ subject)" (18). The woman "reveal[s] [herself] without motive muscle," her body a formless thing deprived of its active materiality, and becomes an object of seduction: "touches magically/the consenting skin/all the spells that cross it/and circulate slow curves/in the forbidden areas/give your consent/so that the beast becomes enamoured/of strangeness and lifts its claws/to your neck" (28, 27). The female body "gentle with daring" is further shown as stripped of its significance through masculine projections of its anodyne quality that turn her body into a "drug" that "take[s] away her meaning" (36). These sections foreground the consequences of conceiving the female body in terms of lack of self-containment: "beast looms in the place/cuts off meaning devours/and restores the contours of the unit/”/if come close insist as if to seduce/and to melt together afterwards/useless among other words/then the shoulder falls asleep and seeks/no other victim to overturn through/pleasure and privation" (31). Brossard, like Grosz, exposes the patriarchal constructions of feminine corporeality presupposed on either lack or extreme volatility. While these early sequences of poems conceive of the body as a figure of uncertainty and ambivalence through their strategic reiteration of the masculine constructs of anodyne or disturbingly volatile feminine corporeality, they are also deeply informed by a sense of a radical possibility inherent in recognizing the significance of sexual difference and reclaiming the body's materiality on terms markedly different from those dictated by patriarchy (terms that are not unlike Irigaray's strategy of mimicry). The poems from the two early collections discussed here are characterized by an underlying ambivalence about the volatile female corporeality that allows for a strategic exposure of negativity inherent in the seductive imagery of the uncontainable overflowing body and, as Grosz points out, a simultaneous recognition of "the ability of bodies to always extend the frameworks which attempt to contain them, to seep beyond their domains of control [,which] signals the permeability of the question of sexual difference, its uncontainability within any particular sphere or domain, its refusal to respect the boundaries separating private and public, inside and outside, knowledge and pleasure, power and desire" (1994, xi).

As Alice Parker has observed, Brossard's poetic and political project has been written against "the unthinkable place of woman in language which has been preempted by a colonized female body" (76). Since the mid-70s Brossard's poetry has been moving toward the unthinkable space of women's language as the "embodied outside" of the phallocentric discourse along the trajectories of a paratactic language mobilized by a nomad desire that Grosz has defined as "the force of positive production, the energy that creates things" (2001, 75). Grosz deploys the Deleuzian concept of the outside as "the unthought, the exterior, the surface, the simulacrum, the fold, lines of flight, what resists assimilation, what remains foreign even within a presumed identity" (2001, 64-5). Her conceptualization of the resolute movement toward the outside captures Brossard's intention of sidestepping the reductive logic of patriarchal thought so as to forge an embodied poetics that would reconfigure negative images associated with female corporeality and provide an alternative model. This intention (as well as this poetic project) is central to both Mécanique Jongleuse and Masculin Grammaticale where a particular emphasis is put on the inside of patriarchal constructs of thought represented as a systemic process of suppression of female corporeality. Brossard refers to this system as "the unit," "a mechanism full of traps," and "THE STRUCTURE INFLICTED" (31, 41, 24). Her poems articulate the desire to supplant this structure with the movements and flows of the feminine energy. As Brossard writes, "her dream discover the rosewatery text river or meanders flowed away poured out on the congested page" and "together the energy proliferate/like an attack you show yourself/rise  surface  spectacle like" (21, 54). A central image in both collections is that of the desiring woman "fanatic for expression" who inhabits "the mad space" of patriarchy and "wants to know more/ about it and deeper certainly because she keeps on won-/dering to herself about the real dimensions of madness," and is determined to counter and refigure the fragmented otherized vision of herself by causing "the overflow of the code" of patriarchal thought (23, 52, 58). She is metaphorically


spreading out from a pronoun the game the track

to be followed treebark gash as the coming progresses

far ahead the signs and sequences multiply reaching out

passing along the body enter it plunge imperative more

deeply into this belly lodge there cell and tracks of

course (16)


Anticipating the proliferation of "the signs and sequences [that will] multiply reaching out/passing along the body" the poems are sustained by a desire to "inscribe" and "engrave" the corporeality of writing and the female writing body into "an independent frame," that of the embodied outside (18). The inside and outside are intertwined in Brossard's poetry across a surface evoking the three-dimensional model of the Möbius strip taken up by Lyotard in his 1974 Libidinal Economy to open and mobilize "the libidinal surface" of the body's "great ephemeral skin," and later explored by Grosz in her writing (xiv). As Grosz suggests, "the boundary between the inside and the outside must not be regarded as a limit to be transgressed, so much as a boundary to be traversed" (2001, 65). According to Grosz, the outside is where a lived gendered body constantly confronts and is intertwined with the inside; therefore, "it is not as if the outside or the exterior must remain eternally counterposed to an interiority ” : rather, the outside is the transmutability of the inside" (2001, 66). Brossard's early poems are characterized by a similar Möbian fluctuating "transmutability" of the patriarchal constructs of feminine corporeality and sexuality defined by the "volatility" that Grosz discusses in Volatile Bodies, and that accounts for the problematic undecidable status of the female body that Brossard's poems repeatedly and strategically underscore to finally radically transmute its undecidability into images of lesbian sexuality. The female body in Mécanique Jongleuse emerges as a precarious entity; an object of male desire to be symbolically abandoned toward the end of the first sequence of poems where the speaker urges us to "leave the/body ven/ture" (24). Simultaneously, however, corporeality becomes for Brossard a figure of a radical possibility. A transition from the strategic deployment of the theme of seduction to the emphasis on the active materiality of the body as a vehicle for movement and change that marks a turning point in Brossard's early poetics can be seen in the two excerpts that follow:


and slowness nestles down

the hair

awakening ravenous unleashed

our strategy

the seduction swerved (30)



here in the show (puppet strings and vowels) of blood-

vessels (distant vague views) bring her back all surfaces

reveals her (22)


Already in these two early collections, the refusal to let the female body be completely subsumed into the patriarchal mode of representation is accompanied by a subtle mobilizing of signs and images of lesbian corporeality and sexuality that further activate flows and movements of nomad desire resisting their confinement to the marginal status by baffling the binary scheme of sexual difference and producing new dimensions in the Möbian movements discernible on the surface of the poems:


rather a series of perturbations

than strange acceptance of the circuit

fades and recurs the echo

emerges again (my tongue in her

ear        relay and machinations)


a means of suspension above

the veinous blue (if I drain her

it is because she inverts my circuits

more throbbing than anything else) (43)


For Brossard, the desiring lesbian body becomes a radical possibility for mobilizing change and movement across previously unthought of embodied poetic surfaces: "tender/pronounce lips on the vein/ridiculously/to embrace you----------mobile" (42). Lesbian corporeality emerges as a dynamic figure of active materiality that does not so much strive for transgression, but rather refuses to respect the boundaries and domains of control by insistently traversing them back and forth along a "wave of comings and goings" activated by a nomad desire. This desire is similarly conceptualized by Grosz as a cluster of "energies, excitations, impulses, actions, movements, practices, moments, pulses of feeling. The sites most intensely invested always occur at a conjunction, an interruption, a point of machinic connection; they are always surface effects between one thing and another" ("Refiguring" 78). For Brossard, the skin is a readable screen that is simultaneously a site of cultural inscriptions and the "engaging surface," constantly transmuted by desire and scintillating signs of lesbian sexuality, upon which the intertwined realities of female corporeality and feminine textuality become visible and intelligible. Engaging in relays of nomad desire capable of refiguring patriarchal codes, permuting the poetic surface of the text, and producing new surfaces of sense, one of the recurring images in Brossard's writing, the surface of lesbian skin becomes her major metaphor for a smooth space of thought transcribed onto "the white environment," a new scene for the embodied writing to come (57)[4].


[1] p. 24

[2] In Fluid Arguments, p. 67-73.

[3] See Brossard's essay "Poetic Politics." Fluid Arguments. p. 26-36.

[4] I'm borrowing here Brian Massumi's phrase used in his definition of nomad thought coming from the foreword to Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, p. xiii.

Works Cited:

Brossard, Nicole. Le Centre Blanc: Počmes 1965-1975. Ottawa: Éditions de L'Hexagone,


______ . Daydream Mechanics. Trans. Larry Shouldice. Toronto: Coach House

            Press, 1980.

______ . The Aerial Letter. Toronto: The Women's Press, 1988.

______ . Surfaces of Sense. Trans. Fiona Strachan.Toronto: Coach House Press, 1989.

______ . Fluid Arguments. Toronto: Mercury Press, 2005.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

            Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism.  Bloomington and

            Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.

______ . "Refiguring Lesbian Desire." The Lesbian Postmodern. Ed. Laura

            Doan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 67-84.

______ . Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space. Cambridge:

            The MIT Press, 2001.

Joris, Pierre. A Nomad Poetics. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. Libidinal Economy. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant.

Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Parker, Alice. Liminal Visions of Nicole Brossard. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.