The first epigraph of Hélène (Furniture Press Books, 2012), Deborah Poe’s novella in verse, is an excerpt from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. It states:
moving still farther away from penality in the strict sense, the carceral widen and the form of the prison slowly diminishes and finally disappears altogether: the institutions for abandoned or indigent children, the orphanages, the establishments for apprentices; still farther away the factory-convents…where girl workers entered about the age of thirteen, lived confined for years and were allowed out only under surveillance, received instead of wages pledged payment…which they could use only on leaving.Conceiving of the textile industry as an invisible prison whose structure has receded from view, Foucault understood the female factory worker to be surveilled and incarcerated by a system whose shackles and bars were not wrought from iron but from a patriarchal ideology and an economics of inequality. The factory-girl’s only escape was betrothal. Marriage, of course, was not an escape at all; it was merely another form of prison.
The Foucault epigraph provides a multi-layered framework for Poe’s novella. At the level of narrative, Hélène tells the story of the title character’s life as a laborer in a silk factory; but conceptually, everywhere a language of confinement litters the text. On the opening page, Poe writes: “Forget the elastic or bounding movement. // To eliminate succession of movements is to linger in lament”; and shortly after:
Girls mummied with stares that could frighten a specter.One girl that stuck. A gaze nerve struck.…Some wanted to run. The way they controlled themselves as they crept through space.
The restrictions of factory life force Hélène and her co-workers to forget their “bounding movement” and remain in a “mummified” state that leaves them “stuck” within a stifling social and economic system. As year after year of confinement passes, their boundaries become self-imposed through habit; yes, some “wanted to run,” but they now “controlled themselves” and could do no more than “cre[ep] through space.”
Of course, the space Hélène creeps through is not only highly regimented (both externally and internally), but limited to activities that serve either an economic function for her employers or the most basic survival requirements for herself:
Here is where you pray.Here is the workshop.Here is where you sleep.Here is where you spin.Here is where you weave.Here is where you learn.
Sleep, pray, spin, and weave: this is what the factory girl learns; thus, this is what the factory girl knows: a life committed to the production of silk garments with occasional moments for rest and religion. The most frightening aspect of Hélène’s invisible incarceration, though, is not the scope and range of these restrictions, but the fact that the psychological torment incurred upon her and her co-workers succeeds in transforming their thought:
The benefactor offered something other than work on farms.The benefactor set out to board, lodge, and clothe girls as well as give them wages.The benefactor built the silk factory.The benefactor taught the art of silk.No, the benefactor taught the manufacturing of silk.The benefactor became the hero of the country.The benefactor found docile bodies.
Her captor transforms from a de facto prison warden into a “benefactor” and a “hero of the country.” Moreover, echoing Foucault, her once individuate or liberated self transforms into a “docile body” that can be manipulated at will for the sake of “manufacturing silk” for someone else’s profit. Yes, the most dangerous prison is not a fortified structure with locked cells and high walls, but the mind broken into subservience.
Poe’s Hélène provides flashes of hope for the title character as the novella nears its conclusion, though, as she begins to take control of her own body by employing it for her own artistic ends:
I crush my chest and pull out a string of songsbone inscriptions, note on a score—in the rights hands something becomesmusic—these are the notes which code a becomingphenomena maneuverings otherwise left unscribed.
While, yes, Hélène must enact a certain violence upon her own body in order to escape her various captors, she does so in order to “pull out a string of songs” from inside herself and create a “music” of her own. True, her “becoming” commences with her crushed chest, but the self-inflicted damage enables her to enact a series of “maneuverings” that would have other been unavailable to her. Soon thereafter, Hélène concludes with the protagonist traveling “miles and miles” with “a book of songs” into an unknown future away from her invisible prison. The hope of liberation, it would appear, exists in distancing herself further and further from the prison structure and found in the possibility of song.