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Lesbian culture in the United States has a history which spans more than a century. Within that time, at least four generations of American lesbians have come out, fought, loved, and passed on their wisdom to those who would take their place. Although many lesbians have published volumes of fiction, poetry, and philosophy, few have captured the elusive voice and experience of lesbians like Judy Grahn. Through her research and creative works, Grahn has set the standard. The Judy Grahn Reader compiles Grahn’s most famous poems, as well as short fiction, drama, and excerpts from her longer non-fiction works, and preserves them for generations of lesbians to come.
Grahn’s writing branded her as a threat to society in the late 1960s. When Grahn started out as a writer, many libraries still locked up their books about homosexuality “in a jail for books”, and allowed no one but doctors or psychiatrists access to them. Mainstream publishers rejected her work due to its unapologetic lesbian focus. While this rejection would have discouraged some women, Grahn flipped these male-dominated publishers the bird and, through the Gay Women’s Liberation Group, established The Women’s Press Collective (WPC), an all-woman publisher, in 1969. Grahn and other writers in the collective uncovered a reality that disturbed many people at the time; only nine years after WPC started up its mimeograph machine, vandals broke in and destroyed it, shutting down operations.
Although nearly forty years have passed since Judy Grahn wrote “The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke” in 1971, not much has changed for lesbians in the twenty-first century. Although the American Psychological Association had declared that they no longer declared homosexuality a mental illness two years after the publication of this prose poem, many lesbians in the United States are still forced to conform to standards set by various authority figures and the media. To this day, it seems taboo even for American lesbian talk show hosts and comedians on mainstream television to express their attraction for women. Not only that, but lesbians of size and lesbians who are built like men remain negative stereotypes of American lesbians unless they “fix themselves up and dress like women”. Psychoanalysts such as the one in Grahn’s poem still exist, fueled by misinterpretations of religion and images of “ideal” women constructed by the fashion industry.
Grahn holds the cards of lesbian language in her hands. Author of the seminal Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds, she has dug deep into the history of lesbians by searching for the origins of words such as “bulldyke”, “butch”, and “femme”. On that journey, she has resurrected our matriarchal pagan past. Imagery, ritual, and language from these ancient times surfaces in her poetry and drama. She summons Helen of Troy and classical Greek mythology to invoke female powers, but she also uses symbolism from the tarot deck, the spider of Native American and African lore, and ancient fertility cults to show that this magic has always existed, and will continue to be passed down no matter what price of persecution.
In spite of the scholarly underpinnings of her work, Grahn uses language that everyone can understand. The rhythm and meter she employs serves as a reminder to how much lesbian history, like the vanished pagan histories, had been passed down through storytelling. Through short verses written in simple vocabulary, Grahn paints vivid images and emotions in every poem, balancing domesticity, sensuality, the call for courage and the underlying danger of subversion. In her longer works, jewels emerge that could stand apart as independent poems. One shining example from “A Woman Is Talking to Death” illustrates this perfectly:
Bless this day oh cat our house
help me be not such a mouse
death tells the woman to stay home
and then breaks the window.
In some ways, Grahn is the lesbian Walt Whitman. In her poetry, she writes about the working class woman (“The Common Woman”, which kicks off this compilation), the lesbian holding the wrench (“Carol and”) or lesbian as creator (“Helen you always were / the factory”). She writes about the beauty of lesbians engaged in work, enchantment, and various levels of physical intimacy.
Grahn depicts women as givers, creators, nourishers, and containers of information. “Ceremony: Ready, Set, Cook!”, the first chapter of Grahn’s Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World , is included in this compendium to explain this connection between menstruation and nourishment. In the poem “To the Mother of All Bowls”, Grahn compares bowls to various female personalities, and the purposes of bowls to that of nurturing, listening, socializing, sharing, and healing. The poem ends with the reminder that no bowl is an island:
She loves all bowls
all bowls break
all bowls return to Her
the Mother of all bowls
dishes up love,
that’s why the love is
belongs to bowls.
The Judy Grahn Reader is not just any literary compilation. It is a secret compendium of knowledge that all lesbians must learn, passed down from an elder who acquired this wisdom the hard way. While young lesbians in most parts of the United States have free access to lesbian books, magazines, and websites, few will discover this book unless they take a Women’s Studies class. This is why it is the duty of wicked aunties, high school English teachers, and makers of womyn’s music to pass down Judy Grahn’s lore and lyrics to inspire a new generation of socially conscious, status quo-questioning dykes who, through their struggles, will make the world a friendlier place for all women.
THE JUDY GRAHN READER
Edited and with an introduction by Lisa Marie Hogeland
Aunt Lute Books
Paperback, $19.95, 317 pp.