Women's Literature from 1960 to the Present: Modern Lesbian Literature

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SOURCE: Carruthers, Mary J. "The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas." Hudson Review 36, no. 2 (summer 1983): 293-322.

In the following essay, Carruthers examines four volumes of poetry in the context of what she defines as the "Lesbian poetry" movement.

The process of naming and defining is not an intellectual game, but a grasping of our experience and a key to action.

Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence

This essay chiefly considers four volumes of poetry, three published in 1978 and one the previous year. They are Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, Audre Lorde's The Black Unicorn (which includes poems published earlier in a chapbook called Between Our Selves), Judy Grahn's The Work of a Common Woman (a collection of poems previously published by the Feminist Press Collective of Oakland, California), and Olga Broumas' Beginning with O. Among them, these volumes articulate a distinctive movement in contemporary American poetry, the definition of which is the subject of this essay. I call this movement "Lesbian poetry," because the "naming and defining" of this phrase is its central poetic preoccupation. These poets choose to deal with life at the level of metaethics—its social, psychic, and aesthetic underpinnings, which are articulable only in myth; their metaethics takes its structure from a complex poetic image of lesbian relationship.

These four poets have voices that are bold, even arrogant, in their common, urgent desire to seize the language and forge with it an instrument for articulating women. Not all women writing today write this kind of poetry, not all poets who are lesbians are Lesbian poets, nor are all Lesbian poets always lesbian. I would like very much in this essay to keep separate the realms of life and art, except where in truth they do meet, in the alchemical laboratory of language. If we insist on applying to these poets the psychoanalytical interests and expectations of Confessional poetry, we will certainly misunderstand them because we will not properly hear them.

The word lesbian presents in paradigm the large issues of value in language, of women's psyche and of social transformation, of alienation and apocalypse, which these poets address. Rich has defined "the lesbian in us" as "a primary intensity between women, an intensity which in the world at large [has been] trivialized, caricatured, or invested with evil." She continues:

It is the lesbian in us who drives us to feel imaginatively, render in language, grasp, the full connection between woman and woman. It is the lesbian in us who is creative, for the dutiful daughter of the fathers in us is only a hack.

(On Lies, Secrets, and Silence)

To think of the word lesbian in terms of male-excluding or man-hating is profoundly to misunderstand these poets. Their poetry does not arise directly from nor concern itself primarily with a response to men. Its energy springs rather from the perception that women together and in themselves have a power which is transformative, but that in order to recover their power women need to move psychically and through metaphor to a place beyond the well-traveled routes of patriarchy and all its institutions, especially its linguistic and rhetorical ones. That is the task of "the lesbian in us," a phrase whose meaning is a constant theme in virtually all the poems which appear in these four volumes.

In this poetry, the word lesbian encapsulates a myth of women together and separate from men. Broumas looks to Greek myth and especially to Sappho to seek it out, Lorde to the Yoruba Vodun of ancient Dahomey, Rich to the lives of extraordinary women about whom history has been silent or naive, and Grahn to that which is common and ordinary in all women. Lesbian is also the essential outsider, woman alone and integral, who is oppressed and despised by traditional society, yet thereby free to use her position to re-form and remember. She is a figure both of the satirist and the seer, a woman of integrity and power who is by nature and choice at odds with the world. Lesbian is also erotic connection, the primary energy of the senses which is both physical and intellectual, connecting women, a woman with herself, and women through time. Finally, lesbian signifies a change of relationships, radical internal transformation; it is a myth of psychic rebirth, social redemption, and apocalypse.

It is certainly true that some of the values espoused by this new myth are not new—indeed they are the values we used to call "humane." But the traditional myth-language systems which purported to incorporate them have proven unable to support them, and indeed have become actively hostile to them. Yet the solution, as these poets see it, is not the expected Modern one of revitalizing the old myths. As far as women are concerned, many myths are deservedly vitiated because they have always embodied a fundamental oppressiveness which has now fully revealed itself in violent, death-devoted modern society. Only a new myth altogether, conceived along new lines, can reclaim the world which is lost (or that which never existed but should have). That, I believe, is the artistic logic which lies behind these poets' choice of subject matter for their visionary poems.

A crucial re-vision in this new mythic system concerns the relationship of the muse to the maker of poetry. The myth of the muse is a myth which deals with the source and nature of imaginative energy. The muse traditionally is female and the poet male. He addresses her in terms of sexual rapture, desiring to be possessed in order to possess, to be ravished in order to be fruitful. The language of violent sexual encounter, of submission and dominance, describes a relationship both of possession and enslavement. She comes and goes, mysteriously; he is utterly dependent upon her, worthless without her, yet she speaks only through him. She is wholly Other and strange, to use Simone de Beauvoir's category, a higher being in classical and Renaissance myth, an ethereally beautiful young girl in the tradition of romance. But whatever guise she assumes throughout history, the basic relationship of dominance and possession is constant between her and her poet.

In the myth of the Lesbian poets, the muse remains female. This completely changes the relationship of the poet to her poetry. Because the muse is female, she is not Other but Familiar, maternal and sororal, a well-known face in the poet's immediate community. Their relationship is not one of possession but of communal bonding. This myth seeks to recreate and remember wholeness, not through the domination of an Other which complements a gap or lack in the Self (as in Plato's egg myth, or the Oriental myth of Yin and Yang), but through a meeting of familiars which recalls a completeness that is present but forgotten or suppressed by history. Motifs and metaphors drawn from archaeology are frequent in Lesbian poetry, and the reason for this is obvious. They bespeak the recovery of a self that is deeply buried, unwritten, but recoverable as the poet, aided by a series of images embodying her muse, re-members herself in selves "who are come to make our shattered faces / whole," as Audre Lorde writes. By familiarizing the muse, Lesbian myth provides a way of seeing the poet in the woman, not as alien or monstrous, but as an aspect of her womanhood. It does not make the poetic calling any less difficult or special, but it focuses the difficulty where it really is—in the nature of her craft and individual talent, not her sex.

I will begin my particular discussion with Adrienne Rich because it is impossible not to. Adrienne Rich was an active influence in some way on all the other three writers. She has long been a friend and associate of Audre Lorde, she wrote the introduction to Judy Grahn's volume, and she is particularly acknowledged by Olga Broumas as an important poetic mother. Rich (b. 1929) has developed as a poet over a long period of time entirely within the established critical eye. As she has of late identified in her work the concerns I have called Lesbian, she has been disestablished by certain previous champions and virtually sanctified by some feminists, concurrent facts which, for all their unfairness to the poetry she actually writes, speak most eloquently for the success of her break with tradition. The Dream of a Common Language is probably the best introduction to the major themes and attitudes of Lesbian poetry. The poems are collected in three divisions, entitled (in order) "Power," "Twenty-One Love Poems," and "Not Somewhere Else But Here," and they constitute a complete statement pivoting on the sequence, "Twenty-One Love Poems."

The first section, "Power," is about the sources and frustrations of women's power. As she has often done before, Rich uses the life of a dead woman (Marie Curie, Elvira Shatayev) as a moral exemplum of woman under patriarchy, fragmented and cut off from the sources of her own power yet grasping towards it. Thus, Marie Curie "died a famous woman denying / her wounds / denying / her wounds came from the same source as her power." Her voice in these poems is meditative and homiletic, rising to a moral pitch which, while sometimes troubling to reviewers, is nothing new to American poetry. Rich would surely prefer that we think of Bradstreet and Dickinson, but I often also hear Robert Lowell in these poems.

Yet her relation to tradition, including the tradition of women, is an uneasy one. Perhaps this can best be seen in one poem in this first section, "Hunger," written for her friend, Audre Lorde. Though too long to quote in full, the following two sections [parts 1 and 3] state its essentials […].

This poem, it seems to me, deliberately recalls one of the most famous of Modern poems, Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli." The Chinese scene, the contrast of intimacy and domesticity with terrors and desolation, the contrast of East and West, and of art and political life, recall strongly both the occasion of Yeats's poem and its opposition between the Western "tragic" scene and the ancient gaiety of Eastern and artistic wholeness, captured in the Chinamen carved in stone. But Rich rejects Yeats's hope in transcendence to an ultimate order, even (perhaps especially) in art. She is one of those whom Yeats dismissed as "hysterical women," identifying in her poem the reverse side of Oriental asceticism and aestheticism: starvation, indifference, suppression of the weak, a world of "hunger" and constant, violent death.

Her moral indignation rises specifically against these things as the result of oppressive patriarchy […].

Her poem certainly "misreads" the terms of Yeats's poem within a post-Vietnam, American context, but in the sense developed by Harold Bloom in A Map of Misreading. Rich recalls Yeats in order to force us to notice the differences, particularly with regard to the nature of art. The men in "Lapis Lazuli" see an ultimate order which underlies even tragedy, see that hunger and violence are insignificant before that order; it is the hysterical women who do not appreciate this and who insist, vainly, on trying to do something about it. Rich simply denies Yeats's suppositions. There is no order per se in art, suffering is not dignified, and the death of the helpless is neither indifferent nor benevolent. The comfort in Yeats's vision is illusory, and for men only. Rich's poem ends not with withdrawal into a world of fixed, aesthetic forms, but with an apocalyptic final statement of the necessity to bear a new world. The title of the last poem in this volume, "Transcendental Etude," recalls paradoxically the theme set forth in "Hunger," that transcendence comes in the embrace of daily life, and that art is nurtured within social life, to which it has obligations; it is not an alternative to society. The task of poetry, the dream of a common language, is epic—not romantic or "aesthetic."

Obviously, readers for whom Yeats remains the ultimate articulation of what poetry should be will be appalled by what seems to be Rich's disrespect for "art." Yeats himself, of course, was perfectly capable of moral indignation, but he was not apocalyptic; he accepted finally as inevitable both the male god and the male state, and the male art that legitimized, even while transcending, both. In starting from Yeats, Rich is claiming a privilege accorded to all young poets, that of the "anxiety of influence," to use another term from Harold Bloom. But this is no struggle of son against father for accommodation, to adjust power within an essentially unchanged structure. Just as the relationship of poet to muse is different for a woman, so is her relationship to tradition. In this instance, the woman poet accepts the role of the "hysteric," the outcast. She cannot simply make her fathers move over; she must make them, as Broumas calls them, "irrelevant." From this realization I think comes the apocalyptic conclusion of "Hunger" and the poet's daring to adopt a voice which is always uncomfortable, and these days unfashionable in the weary, self-deprecatory little rooms of some "postmodernism."

It interests me that so often in the poetry of the seventies, it is especially the Lesbian women who speak with the moral passion of seer and prophet. This is a significant new role as far as their audience is concerned. Part of the problem these women have in being heard is that they have taken to themselves an unaccustomed voice, that of epic. Aesthetic order in "Hunger" is seen as illusory, masking a crisis of humankind as cataclysmic and final as any Trojan war.

One sees this epic theme developing fully in the middle section of The Dream of a Common Language, but articulated in a form conventionally associated with intimate romance materials. "Twenty-One Love Poems" is modeled upon the traditional sonnet sequence, though Rich substitutes for technical sonnets poems varying between thirteen and twenty lines. They outline the story of a love affair, moving from union to estrangement, with the focus firmly upon the meditative "I" of the poet. This sequence is, as it traditionally has been, the love poetry of a conscious mind, for love is a disciplined and intelligent social art. It goes without saying that the lovers are women, and in her treatment of this subject lies the revolutionary nature of Rich's sequence. The world of the love affair is not "closeted," not closed off in romance; it is an epic world which shadows forth the destruction of an old order and the founding of a new. Her bold destruction of generic expectations is part of her apocalyptic theme; only in a completely new world, it suggests, can sonnets be used seriously for epic material.

From the beginning, the affair plays itself forward within a dying civilization […].

It is the obligation of the poet, even in love, to "speak / to our life—this still unexcavated hole / called civilization, this act of translation, this half-world." The love affair is not an escape from the civitas (as it traditionally, at least since Dido, has been) but a means of redeeming it through the establishment of a new order […].

This is a vision of social and moral renewal, not of orgasmic transcendence, and it indicates the precise relationship for Rich between the bonding of women and social transformation. The Lesbian love bespeaks a new moral, social order, and if it seems to have more in it of hand-holding than of liebestod, that is precisely why Rich can make it the basis of an epic rather than the ending of a tragedy. It is significant that the sexual consummation poem is called "Floating," and can be read at any point in the sequence. As she writes […].

The love affair ends as the lover goes off "in fugue," but its legacy is a self recognized as whole and creative, together with a vision of a new social order. The act of breaking from her lover, paradoxically, by leaving her alone brings her to realize her own power and value […].

She also realizes that the world in which she now lives is hostile not only to women but to bonding, civitas, of any sort […].

Yet the apparent loneliness is really a rebirth […].

That life is sustained by the dream of community, a mythic place beyond history, "not Stonehenge / simply nor any place but the mind," where the poet, alone in a "shared" solitude of dawn, "the great light," chooses to draw her magic circle, in effect beginning civilization again. It is apparent that the relationship of the magic circle to the daily life of Manhattan exists only psychically, and by a struggle "heroic in its ordinariness."

"Twenty-One Love Poems" needs the final section of the volume, "Not Somewhere Else, But Here," to fulfill its epic theme by bringing the psychic theme into a social context, as the title of the section suggests. The last poem of this final section, "Transcendental Etude," seemingly ironic in its title since the poem ends with a non-transcendent scene of daily domesticity, articulates the civitas which in "Twenty-One Love Poems" remains only inner and potential, a dream. "Transcendental Etude" recounts a homecoming which is also a social re-vision, a Lesbian Odyssey (which, together with the earlier sequences, recalls an Aeneid too, in the pattern of fleeing a destroyed civitas hostile to its household deities, resisting the temptation of mere romance, and the climactic establishment of a new civitas in a new place) […].

At the end of this poem, Rich collapses the union of the two women lovers, muse and poet, into a single image of a woman alone in shared solitude, Penelope as Everywoman weaving the tapestry of the new poetry, the new civility […].

She is a figure one has encountered before in Rich's poetry, an amalgam of those wounded heroes like Marie Curie, Elvira Shatayev, the "I" of "From an Old House in America," but in this poem she is not fractured or caged. Her world is whole and complex, uniting mind and body, society and nature, while preserving the integrity of all their forms.

The Lesbian civitas is a society predicated upon familiarity and likenesses, rather than oppositions. It is a world of daughters and mothers, of women in infinite variety discovering a language which celebrates their recovered energy and power. What is most troublesome in this image to the general public, of course, is its use of the lesbian bond to signify that wholeness, health, and integrity which are minimized or negated by the death-devoted sickness of male-inspired civilization. Yet the logic of this image is right, even necessary, to the task which these poets have set themselves. Poetic tradition has not given women a language in which they can readily imagine their lives with integrity and completeness. From muse to mother to mistress, women in poetry supply what is missing to men. They are the Other term in the universal dichotomy of oppositions between which the male universe swings, like Yeats's gyres. In rejecting the logic of opposition and the concomitant logics of dominance and submission, merging and transcendence, which so often accompany it, the Lesbian poets have created a world of likenesses by using and developing a myth at least potentially untainted by any previous tradition, because it has remained a taboo subject. In that very taboo lies their creative freedom.

Their world is also one of remnants, survivors who speak (or seek to recover) what Olga Broumas calls "the archaeology of an excised past" (arkhé + logos = "ancient speech"). Since tradition has fragmented women's lives, it has left only remnants, surviving with great difficulty and cut off from truthful speech. Hence the recurrent imagery of women as last survivors of an earlier time. Hence also the apocalyptic theme which is so strong in many of these poems. This follows logically from the perception that history has essentially excised women, except as they are related to men's lives and institutions. The belief in the need for imminent radical change in the order of things has traditionally belonged to groups who feel themselves to be permanently estranged from ordinary society. Eschatology is always radical rather than revolutionary in orientation. The distinction lies in whether one believes, as revolutionaries do, that change will occur through existing historical processes. Historical change for the revolutionary is essentially evolutionary, even when it appears abrupt. Eschatology, however, requires utter change, the end of all things as we know them, a new heaven and a new earth. It is a natural historical perspective for mystics and seers, for all those who by inclination and necessity do not vest their interest wholly in society but remain always in some way apart. The fact of her permanent estrangement is an essential ingredient of the Lesbian myth in its relationship to tradition, history, and the poetic process.

Olga Broumas (b. 1949) works more specifically than does Rich with traditional Greek myths. Yet her relationship to that tradition is radical. She deliberately strips these myths of their maleness, producing instead an entirely female world. In so doing, she takes the stance of an "archaeologist," discovering the fragments and remnants of a lost matriarchally-inspired language which was polluted and destroyed by later Greek patriarchy. Beginning with O announces at once that it is revising traditional myth. In "Twelve Aspects of God," the sequence which begins the volume, Broumas makes a startling revision in the very first poem of the myth of Leda. This myth of rape, a paradigm for the brutal male dominance of women, is changed to a myth of familiar, lesbian play. Broumas accomplishes this by making the swan female. By so doing she renders "the fathers" (surely including Yeats), who have spoiled love in their myth by associating it with power, authority, and domination, useless and impotent, having no place in the completely feminized version:

The fathers are Dresden figurines
vestigial, anecdotal
small sculptures shaped
by the hands of nuns. Yours
crimson tipped, take no part in that
crude abnegation. Scarlet
liturgies shake our room, amaryllis blooms
in your upper thighs, water lily
on mine, fervent delta
the bed afloat, sheer
linen billowing
on the wind: Nile, Amazon, Mississippi.

History must be stripped away, as in the myth of "Io," another raped matriarch:

One would know nothing …
One would regret nothing …
One would keep nothing.

In place of the fathers is "the archaeology of an excised past," a mythic place populated by ancient gods who are embodiments of feminized power (for Broumas, recalling Greek usage, has chosen to make god a female noun). The muses, for example, do not visit or inspire her, they are her and her friends:

It's been said, we are of one mind.
It's been said, she is happy whom
we, of the muses, love.
Spiral Mountain: the cabin
full of our tools: guitar, tapedeck, video
every night
stars we can cast the dice by. We are
of one mind, tuning
our instruments to ourselves, by our triple light.

The description of an adequate myth is also the formation of a new language. Broumas, like Rich, uses the odyssey theme, especially in "Artemis," the concluding poem of "Twelve Aspects of God":

Let's not have tea. White wine
eases the mind along
the slopes
of the faithful body, helps
any memory once engraved
on the twin
chromosome ribbons, emerge, tentative
from the archaeology of an excised past.
I am a woman
who understands
the necessity of an impulse whose goal or origin
still lie beyond me.

That goal is a language which is truthful, sensuous, and complete:

I work
in silver the tongue-like forms
that curve round a throat
an arm-pit, the upper
thigh, whose significance stirs in me
like a curviform alphabet
that defies
decoding, appears
to consist of vowels, beginning with O, the O-
mega, horseshoe, the cave of sound.
What tiny fragments
survive, mangled into our language.

Poor as they are, however, they are both the remnant and the foundation of a redemptive, apocalyptic myth:

I am a woman committed to
a politics
of transliteration, the methodology
of a mind
stunned at the suddenly
possible shifts of meaning—for which
like amnesiacs
in a ward on fire, we must
find words
or burn.

For Broumas, as for the other Lesbian poets, lesbian love provides an image of psychic and social wholeness. Her Artemis is the sensuous, sexual muse and poet of the new world. Most often of all these poets, Broumas achieves a complexly articulate eroticism without vagueness or reticence. This is her most distinctive voice. Though she acknowledges her immediate poetic maternity in Plath, Woolf, Sexton, and Rich, it is clear that her ultimate and in a sense her most direct nurturing source is Sappho. Though the erotic theme is strong in Beginning with O, her most striking sequence of love-poems is a group of five, published only in a loose-leaf chapbook dated December, 1976 and called Caritas. She appropriated this theological word for love, she says, because she could find no other that had not been damaged by association with male sexual dominance. The poems of Caritas are an experiment in forging a language and myth of female sexuality:

A woman-made language would
have as many synonyms for pink/light-filled/holy as
the Eskimo does
for snow.

As much religious as erotic, these poems fuse profane and divine love, consciously exploiting the tradition of religious writing which we associate with St. Theresa of Avila and other female mystics (though its roots go back through Dante and St. Bernard of Clairvaux to The Song of Songs). For example, in Caritas #3 she describes her lover, who is, with the aid of a flashlight and speculum, contemplating the interior of her vagina and the cervical mouth:

This flesh, my darling, always
invisible like the wet
side of stones, the hidden
hemisphere of the moon, startles you
with its brilliance, the little
dome a spitting
miniature of the Hagia Sophia
with its circlet of openings
to the Mediterranean Sun.

As the lover watches the "seething / of holiness … a tear / forms in the single eye, carmine / and catholic." It is a moment of adoration and of recognition, familiarity:

You too, my darling, are
folded, clean
round a light-filled temple.

These are not just visual but tactile poems, touch and taste being two senses which do not permit distance or detachment. They are filled with tongue and fingertips:

Imagine now
how your fingertips throb. You follow
the spinal valley, dipping
its hollow core like a ladle of light
in your ministering fingers.

The lovers' embrace is

like a finger inside
the tight-gummed,
spittle-bright, atavistic
suckle of
a newborn's fragile-lipped

Love-making is a playful activity, each partner remaining throughout fully aware of self and other. There is no mystical swoon in these poems, and no "union" in the traditional sense. The speaker is always conscious and sentient. The emphasis is upon two together, not two made one—like a dance, a choric song. Thus, in Caritas #2 the speaker describes her lover's knees "dancing. Ecstatic as nuns / in their delirious habit," the orgasm "a choir / of sundial alarums." In the first poem,

I lie
between your sapling thighs, my tongue
flat on your double-lips, giving
voice, giving

The sequence concludes:

Laugh, lover, laugh
with me. In that side-
splitting reservoir, in the promised calm
of its heaving waters, you'll
bend, you'll see this woman's
and familiar face.

Innocence, play, sentience, and familiarity are the marks of Broumas' erotic language. Her love poetry desires not raptus, the loss of self, but depicts union through recognition, through images of choir, dance, laughter, touch, of diverse yet familiar voices making sweet harmony. The tongue, organ of speech and consciousness, which in romantic tradition is opposite and inadequate to the desired unconscious raptus of sexual union, is in this new context an instrument both of sex and consciousness. In that fortunate Lesbian correspondence, Broumas lays the foundation of her myth, as these lines from the poem "Rumplestiltskin" in Beginning with O demonstrate:

sleepwalking in caves. Pink shells. Sturdy
diggers. Archaeologists of the right
the speechless zones
of the brain.

Judy Grahn (b. 1940) is a love poet too, although her poetry is not particularly erotic. The Work of a Common Woman is sensual, but celebrates sweat and hard work rather than sexual play. Grahn is a "working-class poet," but she is neither a socialist-realist nor a slumming idealist. "Commonness" to her is not a new kind of exclusivity, for her "common woman" is Everywoman, that which is ordinary and common and binds women together. She is a love poet in the traditions of Whitman, Ginsberg, cummings, with more than a little bit of Gertrude Stein. Grahn borrows many of their repetitive, incantatory techniques, but transmutes them to celebrate the energy common to women in their diverse work. An example, from "She Who":

Carol and
her crescent wrench
work bench
wooden fence
wide stance …
Carol and her
new lands
small hands
big plans …
Carol is another
like me, but Carol does
if you let her.

Her sensualness occurs in the dance-like, ritualistic patterns of much of her poetry. She seems able to find songs or enchantments in virtually every aspect of the language of women. "She Who," a group of diverse pieces which Grahn has recorded as well as published, contains a birth chant made from the midwife's instructions during natural childbirth, a funeral rite, an exorcism of all the hateful names that men have called women, a liturgy of heroic women evoked to give energy and to heal. These rituals, designed as Grahn writes, to make "our poetry what it should be and once was: specific, scientific, valuable, of real use," are interspersed with fables and exempla, the whole sequence resembling a Book of Common Prayer for women. Holding it all together is the powerfully evocative, syntactically polypositional "She Who." These poems are social activities, designed to replicate in readers, especially through reading aloud, the ideal of Lesbian civility.

Her most interesting and ambitious poem is the meditation, "A Woman Is Talking to Death." Grahn has always insisted in her poems on what is factual, plain and simple. There are no obvious metaphors or myths. She has said of her early sequence, "The Common Woman": "I wanted to accentuate the strengths of their persons without being false about the facts of their lives." Of "A Woman is Talking to Death" she wrote, "This poem is as factual as I could possibly make it." The precise description of a fatal accident involving a motorcycle and an automobile on the Bay Bridge becomes an extended meditation on the futility of trying to work within a society fascinated by destruction. The poem clarifies sharply what women know of the difference between love and death; as Grahn says of it, it began "a redefinition for myself of the subject of love."

In this poem, the Lesbian "I" is ostracized, unwanted even when she tries to be conventionally helpful and socially constructive as a witness, a supporter of the police:

that same week I looked into the mirror
and nobody was there to testify;
how clear, an unemployed queer woman
makes no witness at all,
nobody at all was there for
those two questions: what does
she do, and who is she married to?

Those on the inside, both predators and victims, state and citizen, are in collusion with death:

there are as many contradictions to the game,
as there are players.
a woman is talking to death,
though talk is cheap, and life takes a long time
to make
right. He got a cheesy lawyer
who had him cop a plea, 15 to 20
instead of life
Did I say life?
the arrogant young man who thought he
owned the bridge, and fell asleep on it
he died laughing: that's a fact.
the driver sits out his time
off the street somewhere,
does he have the most vacant of
eyes, will he die laughing?

Her exclusion, she comes to realize, is her freedom, her life in the community of women who remove themselves from death and his society:

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.
Bless this day oh cat our house
help me not be such a mouse
death tells the woman to stay home
and then breaks in the window.

Society has outlawed the lesbian, "that's a fact." But so is the liberty and integrity which that fact bestows. The dead motorcyclist, the jailed driver, the indifferent police and courts, all linked in a brotherhood of death, lead the poet to remember her own collusion with "death" when, arrested by the military authorities for being a lesbian, she was ordered to be publicly ostracized and to betray her lovers:

When I was arrested and being thrown out
of the military, the order went out: don't anybody
speak to this woman, and for those three
long months, almost nobody did; the dayroom, when
I entered it, fell silent til I had gone; they
were afraid, they knew the wind would blow
them over the rail, the cops would come,
the water would run into their lungs.
Everything I touched
was spoiled. They were my lovers, those
women, but nobody had taught us to swim.
I drowned, I took 3 or 4 others down
when I signed the confession of what we
had done together.

No one will ever speak to me again.

But realizing that even if she wants to be accepted, a lesbian cannot be for she is "unspeakable," her decision is to withdraw from death, being silenced becoming the occasion for a new articulateness:

ho and ho poor death
our lovers teeth are white geese flying above us
our lovers muscles are rope ladders under our hands
even though no women yet go down to the sea in ships
except in their dreams.

Thus the poetry of love is the poetry of work, of commonness, of fact set forth in song. Grahn's latest group of poems is an unfinished sequence, "Confrontations with the Devil in the Form of Love." The devil-love is romance, the myths of required self-sacrifice, possession and submission, "the Love dog scratching / at the door of my lonesomeness, / beating her tail against the leg / of my heart," a country-and-western-style parody of woman. But need is not love:

Don't misunderstand my hands
for a church with a steeple
open the fingers & out come the people;
nor take my feet to be acres of solid brown earth,
or anything else of infinite worth
to you, my brawny turtledove;
do not get me mixed up with Love.
not until we have ground we call our own
to stand on
& weapons of our own in hand
& some kind of friends around us
will anyone ever call our name Love.

That place does not yet exist. What we have now is romance, "which is so much / easier and so much less / than any of us deserve."

Grahn idealizes but does not sentimentalize the Lesbian bond, because she makes us aware of the facts of aloneness, the penalties of her choice, and the tenuousness of her dream. She is also tough in rejecting the false securities and illusory paradises that romantic idealism produces. Grahn does not look to others to teach her love; her love comes with integrity. Love is a disciplined school of self-knowledge, self-valuation, learned through the world of work and fact. It is that discipline which underlies the apocalyptic dream defined in "A Woman is Talking to Death":

only the arrogant invent a quick and meaningful end
for themselves, of their own choosing.
everyone else knows how very slow it happens
how the woman's existence bleeds out her years,
how the child shoots up at ten and is arrested and old
how the man carries a murderous shell within him
and passes it on.
we are the fat of the land, and
we all have our list of casualties
to my lovers I bequeath
the rest of my life
I want nothing left of me for you, ho death
except some fertilizer
for the next batch of us
who do not hold hands with you
who do not embrace you
who try not to work for you
or sacrifice themselves or trust
or believe you, ho ignorant
death, how do you know
we happened to you?
wherever our meat hangs on our own bones
for our own use
your pot is so empty
death, ho death
you shall be poor

Like Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde (b. 1934) has also produced a large body of poetry over an appreciable length of time. In her recent poems, including some in Coal, she has come to see in the bonding of women an image both of home and of a new world. The Black Unicorn (an image which richly summarizes the self-image of the poet) specifically develops the image of woman-bonding as a necessary start to the end of all forms of oppression. She writes in "Between Our Selves" of the selling into slavery of her pregnant great-grandmother:

Under the sun on the shores of Elmina
a black man sold the woman who carried
my grandmother in her belly
he was paid with bright yellow coin
that shone in the evening sun
and in the faces of her sons and daughters.
When I see that brother behind my eyes
his irises are bloodless and without color
his tongue clicks like yellow coins
tossed up on this shore
where we share the same corner
of an alien and corrupted heaven
and whenever I try to eat
the words
of easy blackness as salvation
I taste the color
of my grandmother's first betrayal.
I do not believe
our wants
have made all our lies

In this "alien and corrupted heaven," Lorde speaks of loneliness and homelessness, fragmentation and lies, contrasted often to a vision of a new world which is also home. The odyssey theme is Lesbian—women together can figure forth home, the lover is the bridge, as in "Bridge through My Window," from Coal:

In curve scooped out and necklaced with light
burst pearls stream down my out-stretched arms to earth.
Oh bridge my sister bless me before I sleep
the wild air is lengthening
and I am tried beyond strength or bearing
over water.
Love, we are both shorelines
a left country
where time suffices
and the right land
where pearls roll into earth and spring up day.
Joined, our bodies have passage into one
without merging
as this slim necklace is anchored into night.
And while the we conspires
to make secret its two eyes
we search the other shore
for some crossing home.

The poem incorporates the prevalent image of remnant survivors in an alien country seeking to get home through their bond, which is both home, "the right land," and passage home.

In creating her version of the Lesbian myth, Lorde draws upon Dahomeian religious myths, which are matriarchal in character, and ritual, in which women figure prominently. This mythic system provides a society of women, and it operates in Lorde's poetry much as the Greek myths do in Broumas', as a remembrance, an archaeology. For example, in "125th Street and Abomey," she invokes the mother-goddess:

Head bent, walking through snow
I see you Seboulisa
printed inside the back of my head
like marks of the newly wrapped akai
that kept my sleep fruitful in Dahomey
and I poured on the red earth in your honor
those ancient parts of me
most precious and least needed
my well-guarded past
the energy-eating secrets
I surrender to you as libation …
give me the woman strength
of tongue in this cold season.…
Seboulisa mother goddess with one breast
eaten away by worms of sorrow and loss
see me now
your severed daughter
laughing our name into echo
all the world shall remember.

Her myth is also apocalyptic, as, for example, in these lines from "The Women of Dan Dance with Swords in Their Hands to Mark the Time When They were Warriors":

I come like a woman
who I am
spreading out through nights
laughter and promise
and dark heat
warming whatever I touch
that is living
what is already dead.

More so than her white fellows, Lorde takes violence as a central, dominant theme for her poetry. Seboulisa, the Dahomeian goddess, cut off one breast so that she might fight more easily, but violence is not always seen as so productive. Lorde's poetry is haunted by the images of the "children who become junk": the heroin-drugged girl of "My Daughter the Junkie on a Train," Donald DeFreeze, ten-year-old Clifford Glover who was shot by a white cop, the teenager in the poem "Power" who succumbs to "rhetoric" and rapes and murders an 85-year-old white woman "who is somebody's mother," the women who are "stones in my heart" because "you do not value your own / self / nor me."

But violence is the prerequisite for rebirth, the apocalypse necessary to create a new earth. Lorde often uses the Lazarus figure (seen as a woman) set free by an act of violence that bears her to a new and truer being. In "Martha," a poem from Coal, she meditates upon a former lover nearly killed in a car accident and her long recovery:

No one you were can come so close
to death without dying
into another Martha.
I await you
as we all await her
fearing her honesty
we may neither love nor dismiss
Martha with the dross burned away,
condemnation from the essential.
You cannot get closer to death than this Martha
the nearest you've come to living yourself.

It is instructive to compare this poem with Plath's "Lady Lazarus," a poem which ends with a terrible, avenging, disembodied self-image ("Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air"). Martha is more herself, more essentially embodied through violence and death than she was before: "Martha with the dross burned away." The experience of violence passes through death to peace discovered in an integrated self. It is a necessary part of healing, not merely cataclysmic but truly apocalyptic:

The difference between poetry and rhetoric
is being
ready to kill
instead of your children.

For Lorde, as for all these Lesbian poets, the most important virtue—imaged by the female bond—is integrity: alienation and secrecy are reborn as the power of wholeness. The final poem of The Black Unicorn, "Solstice," expresses this process eloquently:

My skin is tightening
soon I shall shed it
like a monitor lizard
like remembered comfort
at the new moon's rising
I will eat the last signs of my weakness
remove the scars of old childhood wars
and dare to enter the forest whistling
like a snake that has fed the chameleon
for changes
I shall be forever.
May I never remember reasons
for my spirit's safety
may I never forget
the warning of my woman's flesh
weeping at the new moon
may I never lose
that terror
that keeps me brave
May I owe nothing
that I cannot repay.

Yet integrity is not isolation. Because it is constructed through sharing and bonding, through seeing the selves in others, recognizing and recovering them, it leads to a truly civilized and social vision of being. Lorde, like the other three poets under discussion, never withdraws. Her African archaeology is firmly attached in Harlem, where it transforms and redeems. Because her muses are so intensely familiar and intimate (even when cloaked in the myth of a distant Dahomeian goddess), she can present her poetic faces whole, the myth and the life, the self and civility:

Between the canyons of their mighty silences
mother bright and father brown
I seek my own shapes now
for they never spoke of me
except as theirs
and the pieces I stumble and fall over
I still record as proof
that I am beautiful
blessed with the images
of who they were
and who I thought them once to be
of what I move
toward and through
and what I need
to leave behind me
most of all
I am blessed within my selves
who are come to make our shattered faces whole.

In summary, Lesbian poetry celebrates integrity as the metaethic of civilization. Virtually all its images—those of apocalypse, exile, fragmentation, re-cognition, familiarity, and bonding—are ingredients of a vision of personal wholeness and truth. Muse, mother, lover are familiars who come together in an integrated psyche, the Lesbian magic circle. More radical than this psychic myth, however, is their social one, the ethic of Lesbian civility, especially as it links themes such as exile and odyssey with apocalypse and redemption (the influence of Mary Daly may be crucial in defining this link, though her Gyn/Ecology is virtually contemporaneous with the volumes discussed in this essay). The Lesbian psyche is not simply reborn or rediscovered, it is redeemed and redemptive. Lazarus (often in disguise) is an important figure for Judy Grahn in "A Woman is Talking to Death" as well as for Audre Lorde in "Martha," and Broumas' Greek deities are not merely reconstructed but transfigured. Marie Curie, the wounded heroine, is redeemed by the woman of "Transcendental Etude." Lesbian redemption is not transcendent, however; it never loses its historical embedding in the world of "fact" so important to Judy Grahn, the world of Harlem and island of Manhattan. The epic dimension of their poetry distinguishes these four poets absolutely from their immediate "confessional" precursors, especially Plath and Sexton. Their lives and times are embodied in their work together with an apocalyptic "time-tension," the unspoken Lesbian past and the ineffable Lesbian future bearing continuously upon the present. In achieving their epic theme, the familiarization of the muse by the Lesbian poet is essential, for it is that crucial metaphoric relationship which makes the woman at home in the poet, able to create new worlds through the power of an integrated self.


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BELL HOOKS (1952?-)

Born Gloria Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, bell hooks chose her great-grandmother's name as a pseudonym to honor her fore-mothers—she often refers to a household full of strong black women as one of her greatest influences—and uses lowercase letters to draw readers's attention away from her name and identity and focus it on her works. hooks received her B.A. from Stanford University in 1973 and her Ph.D. in English from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1983. hooks had difficulty reconciling her small-town Southern roots with her academic life. This disparity later became a subject in her essays. In the mid-1980s, hooks became an assistant professor of Afro-American Studies and English at Yale University. Later she became a professor of English and Women's Studies at Oberlin College and then moved to City College in New York as a professor of English. In 1991 hooks earned the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award for Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990). The common theme of hooks's first two essay collections, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (1981) and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (1984), is that of black women finding a place within mainstream feminism. She explores this issue by tracing the oppression that African American women have suffered since the time of slavery, arguing that domination is at the root of racism, classism, and sexism, and that black women are at the bottom of the hierarchical struggle in the United States. In Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1988) hooks informs social theory and analysis with her own experience as an African American woman, demonstrating the utility of using feminist viewpoints to assess the position of African American women in American society. The focus of all of hooks's work, including Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995), is to heal the divisions in American society by creating a dialogue that respects all people and leads the way to rebuilding a new society.

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"My bitterness was reflected in the news, full of stories about people my own age raging down the streets in protest. But somehow I knew my rage wasn't their rage and they'd have run me out of their movement for being a lesbian anyway. I read somewhere too that women's groups were starting but they'd trash me just the same.…I wished I could get up in the morning and look at the day the way I used to when I was a child.… Damn, I wished the world would let me be myself."

Brown, Rita Mae. In Rubyfruit Jungle, 1973.
Reprint, p. 246. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Rita Mae Brown was born in Pennsylvania and attended the University of Florida, New York University, and the New York School of Visual Arts. She became active in the feminist and lesbian rights movements in the late 1960s but left several feminist and gay rights groups, including the National Organization for Women (NOW) and Gay Liberation, when she found them intolerant of or indifferent to lesbian concerns. In 1971 she helped organize the Furies, a lesbian feminist separatist group based in Washington, D.C., and later became one of the founding editors of Quest, a feminist research journal. Brown chronicled her own and other lesbians' searches for a satisfactory outlet for their activism in her essay collection A Plain Brown Rapper (1976). Brown's first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), a modern, female-centered picaresque, has been compared to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its treatment of protagonist Molly Bolt, an intelligent, outspoken young woman who struggles and eventually triumphs in a society that is often hostile to her identity as a woman and a lesbian. Rubyfruit Jungle established Brown as a leading voice in the feminist movement and has sold over a million copies. In subsequent novels Brown has written extensively about racial and sexual issues: Southern Discomfort (1982) concerns a romance between a wealthy white Southern socialite and a black teenager, and Sudden Death (1983) depicts professional dishonesty and sexual betrayal in the world of women's tennis. Brown remains active in promoting women's political and social concerns.

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Women's Literature from 1960 to the Present: Modern Lesbian Literature

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Women's Literature from 1960 to the Present: Modern Lesbian Literature