The Poetics of Blood

This is the talk I gave at University of Toronto’s Widen Series, a meeting of graduate students who present every few weeks on a theme. I was very glad to take part despite my end of the year busyness, and I’m looking forward to next year’s panels. It’s a fantastic way to hear what other students are working on across disciplines. Some of the audience members asked for a copy of my talk, so I’m posting it here in its entirety (due to time constraints, I had to omit the section on “Blood Sport”. I’m very tempted to edit, but I will resist.

At the beginning of the talk, I also passed around a few texts, including Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, Eden Robinson’s short stories,Blood Sports, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I also invited audience members to participate in the destabilization of my authority as a presenter by providing their own definitions and associations to words and phrases having to do with blood, written on cards, which I’ll transcribe below. As well, as this was not a formal presentation, I haven’t properly cited. Egads!

1. Blood Feud

We are never told the origin of perhaps the most famous blood feud in literature, that of between the Capulets and Montagues, two Italian families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. These are the play’s prologue and opening lines:

“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

This “ancient grudge” remains unexplained, maybe because it does not need to be explained: it’s a familiar story of retaliation and family honour that is carried out outside of the law. The word vendetta, too has an Italian origin, originating from the Latin word vindicta, meaning vengeance, perhaps arising out of the power struggles in a social world where the rule of law is weak, and instead in the hands of a few influential and propertied families. In the prologue, we’re told that some distant instance of violence precedes the actions of the play, and in fact, if a play is a kind of contained universe, a microcosm of social relations, we might also say that some ancient feud precedes all of us, hardly remembered, and yet continually used as a justification for violence.

Consider this as well, that the “two households, both alike in dignity”, share much more in common than they do differences. As far as the play reveals, they subscribe to the same religion, are the same ethnicity, occupy the same class position, and seem to have, more or less, an equal number of followers and retainers. We might even suggest that they have similar mannerisms in speech and dress. What if, then, this blood feud did not arise because they are different, but because they share so many similarities as to be almost mirror-images, and that to look at each other is in a way to look at themselves; and that they know the ferocity of their enemy because they can imagine to what fury is within themselves.

Shakespeare’s description of “civil blood” might be just a poetic collapse, a more condensed way to refer to the blood of Verona’s citizenry. But it also conveys the sense of blood as qualified, and that because both families are members of a civil society, they are mutinous against the law that the Prince upholds. The Prince, in fact, is fed up with the brawls and disturbances to the peace, with families settling their disputes outside of the law. His lack of tolerance for the old ways of retribution signals a new world order. Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived through the religious persecution of Protestant reformers, many of whom belonged to Catholic families. But the process of imposing this new rule of law is a messy and frustrating one. The play repeatedly describes “bloody hands” (I.i), “warm youthful blood,” (II.v), “wanton blood” (II.v), “mad blood stirring” (III.i) and bloody frays (III.i). Blood is constantly qualified so that it no longer seems like a substance shared but a substance owned and one that has a price. “And trust me, love, in my eye so do you,” Romeo says to Juliet: “Dry sorrow drinks our blood”.

2. Blue Blood

A translation of the Spanish term, sangre azul, to be blue-blooded meant that one’s skin was so pale that you could see the skin beneath. The Spanish upper-classes used this to distinguish themselves from the peasants who worked as farmers outside, as well as the Moorish occupies from which the Spaniards were attempting to expel. Blue blood describes then, not the blood itself but the skin that covers it.

But the origins of this phrase can be disputed, and might also refer to the high instances of hemophilia amongst Europe’s royal families, a disease that meant that young princes were extra-coddled from bruises and cuts and that trees were swaddled to prevent them from being injured.

These two meanings in conjunction seem to express that blue blood is both a marker of difference and of potential disease, and that those who expel strangers are also easily injured themselves.

Imagine a web of blue, stretching under your skin, as blue as a mountain stream running into the sea. Veins that carried oxygen and are now returning the blood to the heart. And a web of family, its reach and influence now weakened and diluted.

Audience Cue-card: Blue Blood: Cu2+ core based blood system.

3. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures

Bloodletting refers to a two-thousand year practice to clear inflected or weakened blood. This practice persisted well into the 19th century, based on the Greek notion of the four humours governing the body, being black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood, each corresponding to the four classic elements of air, water, earth and fire. Blood would be removed in order to balance the humours, and the amount drawn out based on your age, your constitution, the season, the place, even the weather.

Though it was prescribed by physicians, it was your local barber who had the privilege of cutting you. The red-and-white striped pole of the barbershop represents the red of the blood being drawn, and the white of the tourniquet tied afterwards, and the stick the patient used to dilate the veins. The original pole had a basin on top to keep the leeches. You could also go to your barber to have a tooth extracted or to have a baby, and it also said that the barber’s pole represents a freshly cut umbilical cord.

Vincent Lam, a practicing physician in Toronto, is also the author of a collection of linked short stories, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, which in 2006 won the Giller Prize. The book follows a group of medical students into their residencies and middle age. It includes a glossary of medical terms in the end. “Code Blue—refers to cardiac arrest, a situation in which the patient has ceased to breathe and circulate blood spontaneously.”

4. Flesh and Blood

In the book of Genesis, the first acts of violence are those between brothers. After Cain has killed his favoured brother, Abel, in chapter 10, 10 The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” Cain’s punishment for shedding his brother’s blood, then, is to be an exile, hidden from the presence of the Lord, and thus, he fears, marked out by others as defenseless.

But when Joseph, favoured son, is hated by his own brothers, they plot to kill him and go as far as casting him into a well. But seeing a caravan of Ishmaelites, “Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.” Casting out your own flesh and blood, seems to imply that to exile your brother is a kind of death, indeed, maybe what this parable implies that we can only cast out those who are dearest to us. That the boundaries of home and the unfamiliar are drawn not in terms of distance and landscape, but defined by those we know and love.

In the Book of Exodus, an entire nation repressed by the Pharoah cannot escape until God sends a plague of blood. Moses is instructed to meet the Pharoah on the riverbank, to dip his staff into the waters of the Nile which will be turned into blood. “The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink; the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.” And when Aaron stretches his staff over the waters of Egypt, all the streams and canals, ponds and reservoirs will also turn to blood”.

God also instructs them to dip a bunch of hyssop into the blood of a slaughtered lamb, so that he knows not to kill their first-born. He tells them, “The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt”. The shedding of blood, then, when unsanctioned by God, results in exclusion and exile, but blood-shed and sacrifice can also be a sign that precedes a mass migration. This is not the shedding of human blood, but the drying up of living streams and sustaining waters, as well as ritual killing for food that is somehow linked to the necessity of throwing off oppression. Blood must be given, it seems, in order for us to reach our true and promised home.

5. True Blood

I’ve only seen one episode of True Blood, but myths of blood-sucking demons seem to pervade many cultural traditions and folklore. Perhaps like the fear of zombies (which I have a greater fear of than of vampires), the fear of vampires comes from the fear of the body being invaded, of having what is essential to us drained and taken away. It is not simply the fear of death itself, but that boundary broken and penetrated. It’s also been hypothesized, that the rise of the seductive image of vampires, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, coincided with the common instances of tuberculosis and syphilis.

The difference between popular portrayals of zombies and vampires is also revealing. Zombies attack the brain, and they seem to quickly multiply into hordes, suggesting that whatever is ill about a society that is vulnerable to zombie attack is a dysfunction of reason or the mind; for instance, our drone-like consumerism. Zombies often figure for the mindlessness of so-called corporate culture. In contrast, vampires are often depicted alone, or in small groups or families that are plagued with infighting, such as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer series or the Twilight Saga. Vampires attack the heart, and if it’s any comfort to us here today, seem to prefer teenagers. Perhaps this is because it’s when we are in high school that we first become susceptible to matters of the heart.

6. Blood Sport

Blood Sports always involve not human’s shedding blood but that of animals; such as cockfighting, fox hunting, dog fighting and rat and bear-baiting. These animals are often incensed to chase an object of prey, or to made to fight until their death, for the sake of bets and stakes that are placed upon them. Terriers and Bulldogs are selectively bred for their quickness and gameness.

Politics is often called a blood sport. It may be timely to read Michael Ignatieff’s Blood and Belonging, in which he argues for a model of civic nationalism, a nation that is “composed of all those – regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity – who subscribe to the nation’s political ceed. This nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment of a shared set of political practices and values”.

Some critics of Ignatieff’s liberalism might claim that this kind of nationalism is not as cultural neutral as it may seem, but in Ignatieff’s own words, was an ideal first achieved in Great Britain, as a nation state composed of four nations- the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh and the English “united,” he writes, “but a civic rather than an ethnic definition of belonging… Such an ideal was made easier to realize in practice because the societies of the Enlightenment were ethnically homogenous or behaved as if they were” (4) Ignatieff’s view bears some troubling implications—how might we, as a civil beings, behave as if we were homogenous, and to what degree or extent can this be realized? who is required to give up or privatize their ethnic identity in order to define a nationhood in terms of a common citizenship and not by a common ethnicity? In Romeo and Juliet, we have seen that perceived differences disturbed the civil law and peace, and perhaps Ignatieff is writing against this kind of “narcissism of minor differences”. Perhaps the trouble arises when identity is once again rooted in essentialized differences.

Audience Cue-card: Bloodsport: sport with the sole goal of violence, submission and control

Audience Cue-card: Bloodsport: What was once a game has become anything but.

7. Bloodless

To be bloodless may be to have a part of the body that is drained of colour, while a bloodless revolution is one that takes place without the shedding of blood. And yet, a bloodless person is one that is not peaceful or calm, but one that lacks vitality, feeble, cold and unemotional. How is this telling that to be bloody or bloody-minded or blood-thirsty is seen to be overly cruel, violent and rowdy, while to be bloodless is to be lacking in passion. No middle ground seems achievable between these extreme emotional states, signaling perhaps that we lack the language or a word to describe it.

In Blood, Bread and Poetry, the American poet Adrienne Rich writes that as a student, she loved poets such as William Blake, and that poets “were inspired by some transcendent authority and spoke from some extraordinary height. I thought that the capacity to hook syllables together in a way that heated the blood was the sign of a universal vision” (170). Gradually, the separation between her own social positioning and the purpose of poetry became less distinct for her, and in order to write poetry, she needed to draw from the images of her own life, the daily events and even her own privileged background. She writes:


“at the middle of the fifties I had no very clear idea of my positioning in the world or even that such an idea was an important resource for a writer to have. I knew that marriage and motherhood, experiences which were supposed to be truly womanly, often left me feeling unfit, disempowered, adrift. But I had never had to think about bread itself as a primary issue; and what I knew of blood was that mine was white and that white was better off” (175).

Here, then; not only is it possible to be bloody or bloodless, but also to have blood that is coloured by our social identity, as though it were our experiences that flow through us vitally and that sustain us, carrying the air and breath spoken between the words into our heart and charging us with inflected and inherited meanings through the webs that circulate our bodies and our memories.

1 Comment

  1. Second minute hour and day,
    we encounter with wonder.
    Life gifts itself.
    It is thrice bless’d.
    You and the twins.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s