- Writers Retreat
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My first encounters with Judy Grahn’s work were through snippets of her poetry quoted by other lesbians, often from memory. Imagine a large, sexy dyke standing before you intoning: “The subject of lesbianism is very ordinary; it’s the question of male domination that makes everybody angry.” Or “The common woman is as common as good bread.” I loved Grahn’s work in that format, spoken, lilting off the lips of lesbians as though each syllable contains some kernel of truth that glistens just a little bit more when spoken, when shared between two women. Of course, I continue to love women standing before me quoting the words of a poet, any poet, but the words of Grahn are extra-special.
How did all of these lesbians know the lines to Grahn’s poetry? Feminist and lesbian periodicals up and down the west coast printed Grahn’s poems as she wrote and distributed them; then, after she traveled to the east coast, those periodicals picked up and reprinted her poems. Women tuned in to feminism and lesbianism found Grahn’s words everywhere. Nearly every anthology of feminist or lesbian poems includes at least one poem by Grahn: No More Masks (1973), Amazon Poetry (1976), Lesbian Poetry (1981). To read an anthology of poetry by women is to encounter a poem by Judy Grahn.
I loved encountering Grahn in anthologies, but what really sealed my love affair with her work was encountering her books in their earliest published forms. Grahn was a member of the Women’s Press Collective (which she wrote about beautifully in A Simple Revolution) and her earliest work was published on their press. Color cardstock paper, folded together then stapled. This work was made by hand. It is electrifying.
I have a few copies of A Woman Is Talking to Death with the original cardstock cover. All have green cardstock covers. The pages are worn. There is rust around the staples that fashion the pages together. Of my three copies, one is missing the first page with its gorgeous color print of an image by Karen Sjöholm. There are three figures in the image. A standing woman with long red hair cascading down to the ground. A woman lying on the ground covered by a blue blanket and an infant wrapped like a tortilla floating up in the sky. I love the image and imagining what prompted someone to excise it from the one copy in my possession. These three chapbooks are among my most prized possessions.
“A Woman is Talking to Death” is the first long poem that opens the new collection of poetry by Judy Grahn. Hanging on Our Own Bones gathers Grahn’s long poems, seven of them, into a single book. The poems are presented chronologically beginning with A Woman Is Talking to Death from 1973 and ending with the 2016 long poem Crossing.
Grahn frames this collection of poems as lamentations. She writes, “Lamentation in song and poem, especially by women mourning death in public ways, has widespread history, from Africa to Eurasia, at least, if not over the globe.” She notes that a lamentation “pours out of a poet’s heart not only from a deep sense of loss, but also of outrage and justice needed or denied.” Can you imagine a moment when we need lamentations more?
Lamentations is the name of a book in the Hebrew Bible. In the Hebrew Bible, in Lamentations, people are mourning the destruction of Jerusalem and the desertion of the city and the people by G-d. Grahn, of course, is aware of these facts, of this story, but she is not writing only to the Judeo-Christian tradition. She is interested in a long human history in which lamentations are songs and poems of suffering. In the introduction, Grahn situates lamentations in a broad context. Like lamentations, Grahn’s poems are concerned with desolation and abandonment, but she turns these feelings and experiences on themselves to reveal a broader concern with humanity. In “A Woman is Talking to Death,” Grahn explores the nature of indecency. She writes:
Have you ever committed any indecent acts with women?
Yes, many. I am guilty of allowing suicidal women to die
before my eyes or in my ears or under my hands because I
thought I could do nothing, I am guilty of leaving a
prostitute who held a knife to my friend’s throat to keep us from
leaving, because we would not sleep with her, we thought
she was old and fat and ugly; I am guilty of not loving her
who needed me; I regret all the women I have not slept with
or comforted, who pulled themselves away from me for lack
of something I had not the courage to fight for, for us, our
life, our planet, our city, our meat and potatoes, our love.
These are indecent acts, lacking courage, lacking a certain
fire behind the eyes, which is the symbol, the raised fist, the
sharing of resources, the resistance that tells death he will
starve for lack of the fat of us, our extra. Yes I have com-
mitted acts of indecency with women and most of them were
acts of omission. I regret them bitterly.
If books contributed to my enchantment with Judy Grahn, what she did with words within those books sealed my love for her. Consider how she turns the word indecent on itself. Begin with the conventional usage of indecent: the gesture of the patriarch asking for an indictment of a woman’s life, a woman’s desire. Grahn knows we readers hear indecent with the sneer of derision. She knows the patriarch asking the question, “Have you ever committed any indecent acts with women?” seeks shame through denial or admission. Yet, she responds with power. The speaker in the poem affirms the indecent acts and regret, but not in the manner anticipated. She admits to disappointing women, to letting them down, to not helping them find the full meaning of their power. Through this turn, Grahn elevates the question from an accuser and an accused to a question that implicates the whole world. Through Grahn’s pen, we are all guilty of indecent acts with women—and we are all capable, through our own voice, our own words, our own strength, of ameliorating the indecent acts committed against women.
Grahn reminds readers of the importance of friendships among women. Grahn insists on centering relationships between and among women in a world that generally struggles to acknowledge let alone understand or celebrate women’s relationships. This gesture does not exclude men, but centers women. Grahn is a poet who passed the Bechdel test before Bechdel penned any of her characters. Grahn’s poems are peopled with women and they talk about their relationships with other women, and, from those relationships with other women, they theorize the beginning of the world and the way to continue all of human kind.
The women in Grahn’s poems relate to one another and to the speaker of the poems through a constellation of relationships. Grahn insists on the autonomy of each woman and on discovering what are their relationships in the world. She has what the Greeks would call gynophilia. The suffix -philia has come to be associated with disorders as though too much affection was disordered, but there is nothing abnormal about philias. There is nothing abnormal about Grahn’s affection for women. She creates a world where women are important, and they can have a variety of meaningful relationships with one another.
In “Helen You Always Were / The Factory” (1981), Grahn tells a story in the voice of Hannah from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Midway through the poem Hannah says,
Then, I took Angelina’s hand in mine.
I thought we should go down
in style, heads high
as we had during the strike
to end this kind of fire.
I grabbed Ellie’s fingers to my right;
her clothes were smoking
like a cigarette, my little sister,
so serious, seventeen,
actually gave me a clenched smile
just as we leaped, all three
into the concrete sea.
In Grahn’s work and Grahn’s vision of the world, women’s lives and women’s stories are bound together like Hannah and Angelina and Ellie all leaping together. And the gynophilia? The affection for women? The insistence that women’s lives are bound together? It changes the world. In the poem, Hannah says, “they say safety conditions change / after we were killed.” She continues:
Because we fell so hard
and caused such pain.
Because we fell so far.
We’re falling still.
We are all falling still, binding our lives together, imagining change.
Grahn’s gynophilia is not only significant in its affection for women, it is also the affection for particular women. Grahn is a poet with her eyes keenly fixed on working women. The strong, powerful, vulnerable bodies of working women. The women for whom Grahn has the most philia, the greatest gestures of friendship, love, and affection, are women who work.
In “Helen You Always Were / The Factory” (1981), Grahn links a mythic Helen of Troy with the working women of America, using metonym to link the body of Helen with the factory.
Just as, Helen you dreamed and weaved it
eons past, just as your seamy fingers
manufactured so much human culture,
all that encloses, sparks
and clothes the nakedness of flesh and
mind and spirit,
Helen, you always were the factory.
In this poem, Helen is not an alabaster statue, frozen and acted upon. Helen is active, manufacturing culture, making clothes. Her body is a factory.
Later, in the same long poem, Grahn speaks in the voice of Annie Lee, another working woman, a modern Helen. Annie Lee says:
This tube of lipstick
is my wand,
this pencil and this emery board,
this mascara applicator
brushing black sex magic
from a bottle
these long fingernails aflame
with hot red polish, and
these pins, these sharp
spike heels, these chopsticks,
this letter opener
this long handled spoon,
this broom, this vacuum
cleaner tube, this spray can
and this mop,
all of these cleaning tools
for sweeping, for undoing knots,
these spools and needles, all
these plugs and slugs and soldering
irons, these switchboard and
earphones and computer boards,
these knitting tools for
putting things together,
these are my wands.
Grahn deftly moves from the tools of personal care—the lipstick, the emery board, the mascara applicator—to the tools of the work place: broom, needles, switchboard. Grahn takes everyday objects from working women’s lives and turns them into magical wands to invoke the mythic feminine for all women. In usual Grahn fashion, the mythic originates in the everyday.
At one time, women in the Women’s Liberation Movement imagined that they would remake the entire world. The. Entire. World. Feminists, fueled by powerful ideas about oppression and liberation, imagined making everything from scratch and in their new creation, the world would be without oppression. Today, the thought of that project exhausts me: the enormity of it, its sheer ambition. I am a weak, unimaginative feminist. Until I read Grahn.
One aspect of remaking the world was creating entirely new modes of spirituality and new systems of mythology to elaborate them. The vision for a new religion, if you will, was that, at a minimum, it did not contribute to the oppression of women, but achieving a baseline was only the beginning. Ideally, these new modes of spirituality and these new mythological worlds would have women at their center. Spirituality would begin with women and women’s lives and mythology would explain the meanings of women’s lives.
The fourth long poem in Hanging on Our Own Bones, is “Amazon Rising from the Dust” (1986) which is part of Grahn’s book length poem, The Queen of Swords. In this book, Helen appears again this time as a wife who goes on a “transformative journey.” The poem features an Amazon Chorus and Pen, the Amazon queen in a lesbian bar. Here Pen describes herself.
Penthesilea, Amazon Queen, who went once
to war to save Queen Helen (that was you).
“Able to make men mourn” my name signifies,
supreme Amazon speeding to the neediness of Troy,
leader of twelve good warrior maidens,
and with fierce reputation. We were the last
hope that queenly Troy could keep intact
the power of women and the greatest beauty in the world.
Grahn conjures these ancient archetypal women and puts them in dialogue with contemporary women, often dykes, in her work in a motion that invites a new type of scripture, a new mythos that resists heteropatriarchy through reimagined gynocentric, gynophilic soma.
While women are at the center of Grahn’s work, she is profoundly a poet of the human, of humanity. She creates worlds that seem at times to be populated with only women; consider her “She Who” poems, which are included in her collected poems love belongs to those who do the feeling, or the “Common Woman” poems also in that collection. Women are important in Grahn’s writing, but her work imagines not a world of only women. Women and men are both in the worlds Grahn creates.
The third long poem in Hanging on Our Own Bones, “Descent to the Roses of a Family,” begins,
Last Thanksgiving when our old father,
wrapped in the lap robe I gave him one Christmas,
gathered his family around his knees
to tell us what heritage we had from him—
Later in the poem she crafts one of her incantations of humanity centered on a single person in this case the father. She writes:
Our father of the tender moustache
Our father of the immigrants’ bitterness
Our father of the woodcarving hands
Our father of weeping when the kitten died
Grahn’s reworking of the Christian liturgy is evident as are her connection to a larger human story. All of her poetry searches to find and articulate human stories in the most authentic ways possible.
By saying authentic, I suggest that Grahn explores both the uplifting and inspiring elements of human stories as well as the painful, difficult realities of humanity. “Descent to the Roses of a Family” grapples with the questions of what makes us human and necessarily grapples with questions about whiteness and racism in families. The tercet that completes the first stanza about Thanksgiving reads:
he said, “The reason the white people are superior
is that the white people are the only human beings”—
and I fell.
The patriarch intones a statement filled with racism; he makes an assertion that is all too common in white families, and Grahn, the daughter, the speaker, a fallen angel, acknowledges the pain of the patriarch’s statement. The human story that Grahn writes is painful. It is messy. The nature of the human condition is not all positive, empowering, mythical, uplifting. It is filled with intimate portrayals of realities in the broad world in which we live. At the end of the first part of this (nine-part) poem, she concludes:
This is the legacy of the white race
that I will remember long after my death:
that it beats its children
that it blunts itself with alcohol
that its women suffer from a blight: passivity
that it carries a gun.
Amid the headiness of a new mythos that centers women emerges the reality of the anthropos: violence, sickness, blight. Grahn embraces it all. This is a poet willing to look at the messiness of our lives, willing to resist easy conclusions or ideas. Grahn insists on writing about whiteness and its twin, racism. She offers no easy answers and this long poem, “Descent to the Roses of a Family,” may be one of her greatest achievements as a poet, though it is a poem that is rarely quoted, rarely cited.
This descent into her family and its examination of the life of her family explores how race and gender are co-constituted. Both polarities, male and female, whiteness and blackness, are created together with harmful effects for all.
In moving passages of the poem, Grahn grapples with “the n word” confiding,
You tell stories, my brother, how
“The en-grrs are likely to break in on you whenever they
feel like it,” you say. Yet I know factually
this is one of those white, white lies.
This neologism, “en-grrs,” becomes a tool for Grahn to peel back the ideas and ideologies in her white family and in doing so explore and understand how white people talk about Black people in their own families. It is a painful and real conversation.
Near the end, Grahn declares:
O brother, I don’t want you to be the one
to do my violence
O my brother I can do my own
if there is violence to be done I can be the one to do it
and to choose not to do it.
This section is followed by a moving exploration of how white people construct blackness as
the black hold of unprediction
in the carnivorous rose, a glorious garden
of the unknown and unknowable
en-grr is the unexplained and inexplicable
the unpredictable, the suddenness
of surrender to anything is possible, the seven
come eleven or the snake eyes in the roll
Throughout this poem roses operate metaphorically as an image to consider how women are constructed and transformed in their families. White roses, with nods to the constructions of white as a race, wither and become gauzy. Red roses stand up, sometimes, before they die. Grahn brings the poem to rest with these lines:
O my brother
our family’s descent
to find its roses
the despair of our denial, our roselessness
the secret of dirt and what grows of it
the peg of need we’re hanging on. . .
This ending, like the mind of the poet turning around these difficult experiences and observations, is restive, yet it captures part of the magic of Grahn’s poetry which explores “the secret of dirt and what grows in it” as well as the deep human needs crying within us all.
If racism is one of the legacies of whiteness that Grahn calls on white readers to grapple with, imperialism and war are another systemic legacy that she indicts in her poetry. One strategy Grahn uses to challenge war and imperialism is lifting up the blood of women. Menstruation may continue to be a taboo in contemporary society, but Grahn has tried mightily to undo that taboo.
In a 2003 long poem, “Women Are Tired of the Ways Men Bleed,” Grahn writes:
All blood is menstrual blood.
all praises to:
The blood of creation.
The blood of peace.
The blood of new beginning.
The blood of zero population growth.
The blood of “I don’t have to go to work today.”
The blood of meditative space.
The blood of the first covenant.
The blood of the first paint.
The blood of the first lipstick.
The blood of the first hair color.
The blood of the first cave art.
The blood of the first calendar.
The blood of the first Sabbath.
The blood of the first procession.
Blood for Grahn represents a primal force that can drive destruction or life. This poem, written a decade after her earlier book on menstruation, revisits these vital themes in ways that challenge simple reductions of her thinking to essentialism or biological determinism. She vibrantly engages history, myth, and the dynamics of everyday to tease out new meanings and new possibilities for individual and communal life. These poems concludes with these moving lines:
constructing rituals that account for violent emotions
discharging them appropriately, artfully,
dominating ourselves but not each other,
leaving children and trees in peace
instead of pieces
filling our hearts with luscious feelings,
and no vengeance to exact
on anyone, not even the Mother, not even God.
The mythic and human are present in Grahn’s work and so is the divine. Grahn assembles a new theology and a new cosmology from the things of everyday life. Traditionally, pity and sadness, bleakness and sorrow fill lamentations, but, for Grahn, lamentations also emerge from the quotidian, from the daily. Through song and poetry that seeks to make meaning of the sadness, the divine emerges. Grahn samples multiple traditions to explore the nature of god, of the divine. Judeo-Christian traditions, ancient matriarchal goddess, primeval nature-based religions, and mythology all inform Grahn’s religious explorations, and the daily realities of people’s lives always inform insights about god in her poetry.
Her 2005 long poem, “Mental,” explores the schizophrenia of the speaker’s mother as well as the broader questions of mental illness in the contemporary world. God, expressed through nature, provides important ballast for this poem. Grahn evokes the experiences of people with mental illnesses within the poem. At one point, she reports how a mentally ill person experiences the world, writing:
the sidewalks are the skin of the city, any city
has a grey skin like that and look! how it crawls
with bugs, people who are bugs! they are bugs! (118)
Grahn’s empathy with mentally ill people counterpoints her experiences as a child having a mother who struggled with mental illness. First, she explains what is missing:
there is nothing substantial about a butterfly
it doesn’t feed you or give you a bed
it doesn’t remember what street we live on or how old you are
There is nothing about a butterfly we would want
to take to the insurance adjustor, nothing incremental.
The butterfly stands in for the ill parent; the denials of the child rest in these lyric gestures, which turn from exploring the losses, the absences, that mental illness creates to the benefits.
But think what a butterfly gives us
of delight, think what surprise in that flutter of life
and how amazing the colors, who would ever have imagined
such combinations as a butterfly takes for granted
in its short display of light play
and that sacramental face, those sensitive antennae
connecting to our inner eyes.
There are dances, notions and inspirations
we can’t know except for butterflies.
In the midst of this very material appeal for help for the mentally ill, Grahn turns to the theos, to the spiritual, to nature to understand the world.
Grahn’s body of work is impressive. She has produced astonishing poetry, fiction, and narrative non-fiction consistently over five decades. Her work has traveled extensive through the imaginations of readers and activists for five decades. From such an expansive oeuvre that emerges from such a voluble mind, it is difficult to capture a single focus, an eye, that synthesizes her work. Yet, Hanging on Our Own Bones is a collection that gestures in many of these directions.
These lines from “A Woman Is Talking to Death” encapsulate some of the power of Grahn’s poetry. Her use of metaphor in the first few lines (the geese and the ladder) and her meaningful engagements with the metaphysical demonstrate her facility as a poet.
my lovers teeth are white geese flying above me
my lovers muscles are rope ladders under my hands
we are the river of life and the fat of the land
death, do you tell me I cannot touch this woman?
if we use each other up
on each other
that’s a little bit less for you
a little bit less for you, ho
death, ho ho death.
Hanging on Our Own Bones ends with a new poem, “Crossing.” The ninth section of this poem speaks in the voice of the Oracle. Grahn reports positive changes in the world:
There are new hybrid species every day,
crowds of rich young people trading places
with the poor, gleefully experimenting
with community and festivals that celebrate
survival here on earth;
The litany continues. She notes “Work is no longer adulated, the term is ‘serve’” and then notes “identity has nearly disappeared.” These lines bring this collection to rest:
Spectrum of creativity matters more
than anything ‘rich’ or ‘poor.’ I myself no longer
know which names to call myself. Next
time we’ll tell you what we think this means.
For fifty years, Judy Grahn has been helping people understand what the world means. Her vision and her skills continue to grow as demonstrated in this new collection. In the end, Hanging on Our Own Bones is an oculus into the world of Grahn’s oracular work.
Hanging on Our Own Bones
Hardcover, 9780989036139, 184 pp.