I'm afraid of dying.
This is not the sentence I had intended to start with.
I'm afraid of dying.
It's more of a conclusion.
Why else would I be afraid to touch you?
So begins the voiceover in Shani Mootoo's new video-poem, Her Sweetness Lingers. The film is a meditation on lost love, a love lost before it has been allowed to begin.
The video itself begins with two women in a robust garden, with a waterfall hissing in the background. Individual shots of the two women are intercut and overlain with images of flora and of the waterfall. The voiceover-—performed and written by Mootoo—speaks of desire: of love and loss, sex and death. The over-saturated words are almost too-lush, they spill languorously over the compositions and images. The result is incredibly moving (and sexy) yet ironic: the video both satirises and valorises the love poem. There is an awareness in this piece that the discourses of love have often gained an added poignancy in being modified by the notion of loss. Whether clearly articulated or a tacit presence, notions of loss have been, throughout the history of the love poem, inextricably linked to love. In that sense this video-poem also functions as a kind of elegy. Metaphors of death in relation to love are referenced in ways and on many levels: as orgasm, for example, and also as an end to longing. Within the act of touching, of sex—longing is both fed and extinguished— another kind of death. (For the many gay and lesbian audiences to whom this video will undoubtedly play, other forms of elegy will be invoked. Remembering a time before AIDS—another silent presence in this tape—the piece also mourns a more 'innocent' ways of conceptualising desire.)
Garden's (and the 'N' word: nature) have figured prominently in Mootoo's work. In The Wild Women of the Woods, an earlier video, she satirised 'The Great Canadian Theme': the quest for a (national) identity in the wilderness. Mootoo (playing?) a South Asian butch-dyke enters the Canadian wilderness to seek out her long-desired South Asian 'femme-ness.' Along the way she meets a feisty Goddess who shatters her preconceived notions of femininity and the myths of the pliant, submissive Oriental woman—all to a Calypso beat (Mootoo is originally from Trinidad): the resolution of another identity conundrum in the Canadian wilderness.
The garden has also figured prominently in Mootoo's writing and artwork (she is also a published writer of short stories, and a visual artist). As Monica Gagnon has noted, both in her writing and in her artwork, 'Mootoo's gardens are distinctively female spaces... they [can] be seen in the genre of feminist Utopias.' Garden imagery also summons the history of 'culturally constructed, idealised and impossible state of nature in representation, and by implication, then of gender and femininity.' In Her Sweetness Lingers, Mootoo goes even further. Nature is summoned to serve the historical unnatural. At the centre of this piece are two women (one of whom is literally) bouncing, shivering with longing for one another. The history of representations beseeching heterosexual love are invited, then dismissed.
But at the centre of the videotape is a moment of passion—as fragile and ephemeral as a bloom. Her Sweetness Lingers seems to have been made to preserve this moment. Certain of its passing, Mootoo wants to commit to memory what might otherwise be lost forever:
Listen, just listen for one minute:
If we can nip death in its unborn phase
We will claim a victory of a kind...