One vibrant expression of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the 1970s and 1980s was poetry. The recent passing of Adrienne Rich reminded many people of poetry’s vitality for feminism and for politics more broadly. Through poetry, feminists shared a range of emotions—anger, defiance, love, lust, affection—and explored histories, myths, personal stories, feminist theories, and political analyses. I have spent the past five years researching and uncovering lesbian-feminist poetry from these two decades. Through my research, I encountered Susan Sherman’s poetry. In 1975, Two and Two Press, a small publisher based in Brooklyn, NY, published Sherman’s third book of poetry, Women Poems Love Poems. During the late 1970s, Out & Out Books in Brooklyn, NY, distributed Sherman’s Women Poems Love Poems; Out & Out Books was a feminist collective that published the work of Joan Larkin, Jan Clausen, Irena Klepfisz, and others as well as the iconic anthology, Amazon Poetry, edited by Larkin and Elly Bulkin. Lesbian-feminist poetry from the 1970s and 1980s tells different—and important—narratives about the WLM. Sherman’s work is no exception. Susan Sherman’s new and selected poems, The Light that Puts an End to Dreams, published by Wings Press, reminds readers of the power of Sherman’s voice as a poet, essayist, and cultural icon. The Light also reminds readers of the myriad concerns of feminists during the WLM and demonstrates the persistence of those concerns as years have passed and feminism, for some, has waned.

Sherman’s selected poems in The Light exemplify the porous boundaries between genres in lesbian-feminist writing in the 1970s and the 1980s. Works like “Areas of Silence,” “The Fourth Wall,” “Letter from Havana,” and “Barcelona Journal” blend poetry and prose, narrative and lyric, journal and epistle. Sherman creates a mélange of form as a vessel for her work. For Sherman, like other feminist writers during the WLM, the exigency of the message, the urgent need to speak to others, rendered the distinctions between poetry and prose, between poetry and essay, less crucial, more fluid. In the Introduction to The Light, Margaret Randall notes that she has often said, “had Susan been a man she would have been called a philosopher.”

Sherman’s publishing history elaborates further these porous genre boundaries. Most recently, Sherman published the memoir America’s Child: A Woman’s Journey Through the Radical Sixties (2007). Her 1990 collection, The Color of the Heart: Writing from Struggle and Change 1959-1990 (1990), contains essays, poems, and short fiction. Over the past fifty years, she has published six collections of poetry—Areas of Silence (1963), With Anger/With Love (1974), Women Poems Love Poems (1975), We Stand Our Ground with Kimiko Hahn and Gale Jackson (1988), Barcelona Journal, and Casualties of War (1998). She also translated Shango de Ima, a play by Cuban playwright Pepe Carril (1971) and was the editor of IKON, an arts journal, which had two runs: the first from 1965 until 1969 and the second from 1982 until 1994. All of Sherman’s literary projects challenge genre classifications while they promote the urgent need to speak, to write, to communicate about ideas and issues.

The Light, while focused on poetry, gestures to Sherman’s other literary roles. Her suite of poems for Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz includes photographs by Joséphine Sacabo. This selection of poems, from which the title of the collection emerges, is a carefully curated chapbook highlighting dynamic interplay between words and images. The notes to the book provide not only autobiographical history for the work but also suggest Sherman’s work as an essayist, inviting readers to engage in broader stories behind the poems.

Feminism and lesbianism figure prominently in The Light. Sherman’s poem, “Lilith of the Wildwood, Of the Fair Places,” is one of the earliest poems about Lilith in the WLM. Liberation Newspaper (The Rat) first published “Lilith of the Wildwood” in 1970 in the issue produced by  women who took over the paper and produced a special issue dedicated to feminism. This poem captures the emerging consciousness of feminists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the third section of the poem, Sherman writes,

___________to be an outcast   an outlaw
___________to stand apart from the law    the words
___________of the law
______________________outlaw
____________________________outcast

___________cast out   cast out by her own will
___________refusing anything but her own place
___________a place apart from any other
___________________________________her own

___________I do not have to read her legend in the ancient books
___________I do not have to read their lies
___________She is here   inside me
___________I reach to touch her
___________my body my breath my life

___________I do not have to read her legend in the ancient books
___________I do not have to read their lies
___________She is here   inside me
___________I reach to touch her

___________my body my breath my life

At the end of the poem, Sherman declares Lilith, “Mother of us all.” Like Lilith in the poem, feminists saw themselves as outlaws and outcasts, but rather than ceding power to people and structures that cast them out (G-d, men, patriarchy), they affirmed their own power: their choices and their will to choose to create a new world for women. In “Lilith of the Wildwood,” the speaker rejects finding Lilith in ancient books; she rejects the lies of men and instead affirms the presence of Lilith in her body and her life. Sherman reclaims Lilith as a female archetype—a strategy that becomes important to feminist writers throughout the 1970s and beyond. While contemporary readers may not find this passage earth-shattering conceptually—today the magazine Lilith provides a voice for Jewish feminism and many poets since Sherman have voiced Lilith including Enid Dame, Alicia Ostriker, and Joumana Haddad—at the time these words about Lilith sizzled and cracked with power and defiance. The direct diction Sherman employs generates power within the poem; wordplay, the turning of outcast to cast out for example, balances the Hebraic diction. Even today, the artistry of the poem shimmers.

Sherman’s first poem written to a woman lover is in The Light, and some poems reference tropes commonly associated with feminism and lesbianism, but feminism isn’t the only influence on Sherman’s poetry. A variety of activist formations over the last fifty years inform her work. The multiplicity of Sherman’s political engagements is one of the refreshing and energizing aspects of this collection. Politically and poetically, Cuba, Nicaragua, Spain, and Mexico inspired Sherman’s work. Sherman is as concerned with the consequences of war and imperialism as she is with the consequences of sexism and patriarchy.

Some of Sherman’s most powerful content and her finest formal expressions emanate from the dynamic combination of transnational politics and feminism. Sherman dedicates “First and Last Poems” to Violeta Parra. Parra, a Chilean musician, was a driving force behind La Nueva Canción, a folk music movement in Chile that inspired thousands in South America. Sherman begins the poem, “there is nothing romantic/about death[,]” challenging idealistic ideas about revolution. Sherman reflects on “all those books     all those feelings/ words  thoughts  experiences” she had in order “to say such simple words    to feel/such simple things.” The connection between Sherman’s poem and Parra’s songs is palpable. The power of Parra’s work and the La Nueva Canción is simplicity: simple words, simple melodies. Sherman similarly finds power in simplicity in this poem. Sherman concludes the poem:

___________we grow smaller as we grow
___________as things empty themselves of us
___________and we   of them

___________it is so deep    this thing between us
___________no name can contain it
___________even time trembles
___________at its touch

Sherman upends the usual association of growth with largeness, growth with fullness; instead she observes the opposite. “We grow smaller” and “things empty themselves.” Wisdom and depth are not large or grand; they are found in small, empty spaces. Sherman discovers this truth both in the political work of Parra and in her own political experiences, and she affirms its existence—the connection between the speaker and Parra and more broadly between humans. These connections make even time tremble.

In poet’s collected or selected work, I often look for a statement that directly or unwittingly suggests the poet’s ars poetica. Sherman’s ars poetica is in the poem “Ten Years After.” In part five, Sherman writes,

___________If a poem were a hand, if it were alive, warm. If it could
___________reach out. If it could enter places I cannot. If it could do things
___________that make me afraid.

___________There is this thing that changes, that allows change to exist.
___________The poem is part of it, is its ___________voice, this thing that is.

___________Any struggle is first that deep feeling that grows from
___________the center of a person, a people. The poem is not separate from
___________me, from the person I am. It is not the poem, but I, who feels.
___________It is not the poem, but I, who loves.

___________To hope, to have hope, to be hopeful, to hope against hope,
___________to believe in change, to believe in the possibility of change,
___________to know when to stay. And when to leave.

For Sherman, politics and art are inextricably intertwined, thus this passage is both ars poetica and feminist manifesta. The first stanza suggests poets aspirations for poetry—to be “alive, warm” and to “reach out,” “enter places I cannot,” and “do things/that make me afraid.” The second quoted stanza continues the referent of a poem and introduces the non-specific verb “thing,” suggesting both poems and politics. Poems are “part of it[;]” poems are “its voice[,]” but there are other things involved, including struggle. In the second line of the third stanza, the speaker morphs from the singular, person, to the collective, people. This deft move suggests that poems help individuals locate themselves in a collective, human experience. The final stanza unites hope and change, or at least the belief in change, as the root both of a poem and also of political engagement. The selection concludes with this line about knowing “when to stay. And when to leave.” Exile and displacement are two themes that resonate throughout The Light. This selection animates the close connection between poetry and politics for Sherman and for many other poets. Though feminism is an important struggle for Sherman, it is not an exclusive one. This passage of Sherman’s work intimates her understanding of a long and rich tradition of political activism, and it operates as a guide to enter her creative work.

I often bemoan the erasure of lesbian poets and feminist poets. Time is not kind to women in the worlds of poetry and literature. In less than a generation, critics erase much of the finest work of lesbian and feminist poets. These disappearances and erasures happen through the vagaries of publishing as well as critical silence. Sherman recognizes these erasures; perhaps she feels them personally. In the poem “Holding Together,” Sherman writes

______________                                        Faces
___________my voices has touched
___________But don’t expect to find me
___________My name scatters itself on
___________the seasons

__________________         I am hidden
___________even from myself
___________In that place of solitude where
___________poems reside
____________________           and seams

The evocative ending to this poem, the determinacy of solitude as the place where poems reside and the dangling seams, suggest the fragileness of what holds together. Work, struggle, politics, growth and change seem to be the seams that need our attention as they await new stitches, new cloth, new binding.

The Light contains selections from Sherman’s earlier poetry books, but it is not organized conventionally as a collection of selected poems. Every collection of Sherman’s poetry is not represented, and the sections are not organized with selections from previous volumes. Reading The Light, I missed the adherence to this convention, yearning at times to see her work unfold in a linear, historical way. Perhaps this is coming in a future volume of collected or complete work.

The publication of The Light resists erasure. Sherman’s book invites us to hold together to a multifocal, international, feminist political practice as well as to a place of solitude. The Light as a book object is beautiful. Thick, glossy pages. French flaps on the cover. Pleasing and fanciful typography. While function overwhelmed genre for feminists in their urgent need to communicate, beauty and the creation of beautiful book objects always were highly prized. In the continued circulation of work by iconic lesbian-feminists like Susan Sherman, it is gratifying to see artistic attention devoted to her work. Perhaps the beauty of this book object will help Sherman’s work find a wider audience and prevent her from being hidden, from being scattered on the seasons.

 

 

The Light that Puts an End to Dreams: New and Selected Poems
By Susan Sherman
Wings Press
Paperback, 9780916727949, 154 pp.
June 2012



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  • Ron Fritsch

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