In the tradition of Lives of the Saints and, even more pointedly, Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Lives of Wives, visual artist Susan Bee and book artist Johanna Drucker have created a wonderful new “picture” book, Fabulas Feminae or fables of women. In fact these are rather “fractured fables” since Drucker has entered various biographical materials on each of their selected women into the Hapex Legomenon processing program, which, we’re told, “automatically condenses large quantities of text into an abstract.”
At first, I was a bit put off by Drucker’s “shape-shifting” text, as its telegraphic style appeared to garble information about these important women’s lives:
Born tenth in a well-to-do family speak of nobility no particulars
but 1106 to the monastery then founded and wrote.
on Hildegard of Bingen
Childhood hardscrabble father died life undone begging to play
doctor coming mother weeping. on Lucille Ball
or, as in the first sentence on Virginia Woolf
English and essayist writer foremost.
But after reading through them all, I became quite delighted by some of the unexpected metaphorical combinations generated by the process. For example on Colette, two sentences announce her as: “Clever intimate explicit because eyeing passersby and stray. Last years in the garden.”
The entry on Lizzie Borden begins somewhat predictably, “Allegedly an ax forty whacks mother done forty one,” but later ends most unexpectedly, “Circumstantial contradictory and implausible no handle no blood. Defense a handful the alibi suspect a maniac or devil not his client and physically impossible. Take me home. A relief Lizzie returned.”
It is fascinating to imagine about Sarah Bernhardt that “Tragedy dedicates elaborate headdress sorceress offstage posing later starring.” Or that Cleopatra might have been “Hatched to sneak into the palace,” and that in her life “Luxury less an indulgence, refused to speak, than a political tool as well as Egyptian languages.” Did Cleopatra refuse to speak, we might ask, or did the Egyptian language, based as it was on images, itself refuse to speak?
Natalia Goncharova “Shocked and seized a scandal, nudes, and cohabitation.” Susan Sontag was “Fluent in the America of cities,” and for Billie Holiday “Abuse and mother prostitution [was] difficult on the passenger railroads absences and leaving her.” Transportation, of course, was also a problem for Rosa Parks, who was “Supposed to give up as the bus continued.” Nearly every one of the fabulas is filled with such dissociative gems, which truly does help the fables to become fabulous.
Susan Bee’s truly fanciful painting-collages are especially charming. Billie Holiday is shown in multiple guises: a baby butterfly, a frog king, and a singing beauty with a rose springing from her mouth. Patches of deep purple, red, blue, and green are arrayed around what could be a burning bush of orange, yellow, gold, and pink.
A stolid picture of a seated Susan B. Anthony is topped by swirling shapes that suggest potent interconnections, including a young woman joyfully fleeing an older one screaming in fright. Sonia Delaunay is represented by a glorious collage of colorful forms (circles and a maze of rectangles) and textures evoking patterned fabric. Annie Oakley (“little sure shot”) is portrayed in her usual cowgirl blouse and hat, accompanied by a multi-colored striped pastel skirt. Her gun firing a rainbow of whooshing colors is typical of Bee’s painting. The image of Lady Murasaki is an intricately beautiful as a Japanese screen.
Of course, everyone will be disappointed that some of their favorite feminine saints are not included. I missed seeing Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes, as well as Laura Riding, who herself wrote a ground-breaking miniature of just such a book. Clearly, the authors attempted to include a wide range or artists, activists, and leaders, leaving out numerous figures they undoubtedly also admire.
With its somewhat whacky, but yet readable text, and its energetic bounty of images, Fabulas Feminae seems to be the perfect book for mothers to read to their young daughters — and, hopefully, caring fathers to share with their sons. Indeed, these fables might truly bring the whole family together. As the Lady Murasaki text asks, “how would we ever pass the time without stories?” And these are such lovely, real-life ones.