Eric Schmaltz on Divya Victor: Things To Do With Your Mouth

Things to Do With Your Mouth (Les Figues, 2014) is full-throated and bursting. Published in April 2014 as part of TrenchArt: The Logistics Series by Les Figues Press, this is the newest book from Troll-Thread’s sharp-witted former co-conspirator, Divya Victor. With intent to interrogate the long history of fear of women’s voices, Victor employs appropriation and the cut-up technique as her modus to produce a perceptive poetic critique of the systemic discourse of control over women’s vocal and corporeal powers.

The book opens with a Foreword from Vincent Dachy, who describes the text as “cynicism of the best kind, resourceful and urgent” (viii) and highlights Victor’s ability not only to focalize these issues, but to lead a resistance against them: “[i]t is possible to detach flesh from bones, sinews from cartilages, membranes from organs, with a pen or a pencil; there are different kinds of surgery” (ix) remarks Dachy. These ambitions are articulated over the course of four sections: 1) “Put Flesh On A String,” 2) “Gag,” 3) “Create A Situation,” and 4) “Answer” where, armed with her own “subject / Sterile scissors / gauze” (102), Victor cuts through suppressive discourse in religious texts, Freudian case studies, nursery rhymes as well as instructional and institutional documentation to reveal their egregious silencing tactics. Together these sections create a textual network of variegated nodes that, as CA Conrad writes in his “experiential (SOMA)tic” Afterword, “reexamines what’s lived by you, your mouth” (127). For example, as a child perhaps you were silenced by this method:

have your child
suck something

pudding or yogurt
are good choices

through a regular
or twisty straw (1-6)

Or, perhaps as a parent you use this method to silence expressions of existential angst and attempts to find a voice. Victor’s book reveals the uncanny qualities of these quieting methods and traces their implementation in both institutional and quotidian life. 

Victor’s resistance to physical and metaphorical attempts to silence women’s voices, to control women’s bodies and sociopolitical capacities are established from the outset:

1          I am sound of mind,

2         I was born on ______ (date of birth) in

vvvvvvv_________ (country of birth)

5          I was married on _____ (dd/mm/yyyy) (9)

This excerpt highlights the institutional assumptions about women’s social status –– that they are married, not if they are married –– and furthermore, that these statements are somehow related to mental health. The fallacy: a healthy woman is a married woman. Furthermore, the phrase “sound of mind” (9) registers within the discourse of well being, but also indicates the suppression of sound –– sound of mind, not of body, not of world. The blank space prompts the reader to identify and engage with these issues, but also signifies a resistance to this kind of systematization, an unwillingness to submit to its demands.

The book assesses the woman’s voice within this power dynamic using the metaphor of the gag, in various senses of the word, except that Victor is hardly joking. Her poetry is exuberant, surprising and pleasurable, but Victor’s play is political similar to the play employed by Vanessa Place and Rachel Zolf among others. On the one hand, it is apparent that the text responds to the multiple ways institutional discourse gags women as suggested by Victor’s treatment of the previously mentioned source texts. Reframed within this context, advice to help a parent quiet a screaming child, for example, reveals the early indoctrination of silencing expressions of pain and anxiety: “if this fails, try saying ‘NO’ very loudly / and walk out of the room, returning only / when the child stops screaming” (41). The potential to gag someone is also located in innocuous objects:

10. A belt can be easily used as a mouth gag by
wrapping it around your partner’s head and into their

11. Buckling it behind their head makes an everyday
accessory into a gag toy. (63)

Indeed, the capacity to silence is nearly ubiquitous.

At times, Victor adopts the less common meaning of the word gag––that is, a device used in medical practice to hold open an orifice. Like a surgeon who uses a gag to hold open a patient’s mouth, making vulnerable the tongue, teeth, saliva, larynx, and flesh, Victor opens wide the mechanisms of patriarchal discourse that has overpowered women’s linguistic expression and silenced them, as subjects, for too long. Victor attacks patriarchal inscription using appropriation, redaction, word replacement, and blank response forms to de-contaminate oppressive institutional and quotidian discourse and to re-signify that language : “Cutting the vocal chords can be a joyous moment in a person’s life. Being able to symbolically break the link from the internal world to everyday life” (102). As the book regurgitates oppressive discourse, the women’s body emerges as an uncontrollable force in “Dora and Flora: An Analysis of a Turn of the Case:”

She vomits voluntarily to expel fluids
from the stomach through her mouth and nose,
regurgitates undigested solids through her
mouth and nose, and sometimes vomits involuntarily
to expel solids through her mouth and nose. (50)

The text invokes the images of exorcism, which is also explicitly referenced by the epigraph taken from The Exorcist, which opens “Dora and Flora:” “What an excellent day for an exorcism” (45), exclaims the demon, confronting Father Damien Karras and challenging his authority as a patriarch in the church. In a sense, Things To Do With Your Mouth takes on both of these roles: Victor, writing in defiance, is the demon––the figure that has been suppressed and silenced––and the exorcist––the figure who casts the evil from the world. By cutting up, chewing, and regurgitating (thereby re-signifying) patriarchal discourse, the text seeks to undermine fallacious authority over women’s powers. Further, this process re-defines these linguistic objects and spaces for women’s bodies and voices so that her expressions will not simply be “of mind” (9), but of body, of world, of text.


the wizardEric Schmaltz is a writer, reviewer, curator, and editor. His work has appeared in various places online and in print including Open LetterRampikePoetry is Deaddead g(end)erfilling station, and ditch. His first chapbook MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems was published by above/ground press in winter 2014. Eric lives in Toronto where he co-curates the AvantGarden reading series.