August 20, 2009
My dissertation from Claremont Graduate University was accepted for publication this summer by VDM a German publisher. Here is an excerpt from the chapter on Judy Grahn.
Poets Subverting Gender Roles in Culture
The Glass Wall that separates, Judy Grahn
From The Work of a Common Woman
”in the place where
her breasts come together
two thumbs’ width of
channel ride my
eyes to anchor
hands to angle
in the place where
her legs come togeth
I said ‘you smell like the
ocean’ and lay down my tongue
beside the dark tooth edge
‘swim’ she told me and I
did, I did” (42)
To write outside the lines, to write outside the margins, to live outside the margins, to dream outside the margins. To never really worry about the margins. To not worry about whether there are any margins. To embrace marginality. To scream to everyone so they notice who you are and where you are. To ask the sun to look your direction so you can’t hide, don’t hide, never wanted to hide anyway. To call out your own name and the names others have called you either out loud or when you weren’t listening, but you heard anyway, and you know anyhow. To call yourself a she-bitch and a dyke and to claim your titles in song, that is the poetry of Judy Grahn. It is not quiet, it does not whisper. At most churches you wouldn’t hear it, in most choirs you wouldn’t sing it, at some schools, you wouldn’t teach it.
Just as Dr. Martin Luther King said that riot is the language of the unheard, Grahn’s poetry is the language and perspective of the unheard. Grahn’s poetry creates its own language, a new way of speaking about women in the world. Adrienne Rich speaks of the underside of the ship where one travels with fins and a mask to discover the truth. Grahn’s poetry lives under the ship. Grahn’s poetry speaks to those who are not only dissatisfied with patriarchal language, but also are dissatisfied with the world that creates it. Adrienne Rich’s early poetry worked within the Academy, but Grahn’s poetry comes from her working class works, and even her poetry based on heroic myths touches the common woman.
Grahn was born in Chicago in 1940, but she grew up in a poor border town in New Mexico. By her description, the town was made of people who were brutally poor and lived joyless lives. In search of an employment and a way out of town, Grahn joined the Air Force, but was discharged for being a lesbian. As a young woman in the 1960′s, she found herself stranded in Washington D.C. with little money, she became a bartender and spent her spare time trying to research who exactly she was. Librarians told her that books on lesbians were locked up and could not be given to anyone except doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers for the criminally insane. Finding herself un-publishable, she founded a press, with her then lover Wendy Cadden and moved to the West Coast. In San Francisco, she wrote, published and created a voice for working class lesbians. Her work, unlike Adrienne Rich’s, does not emerge from the Academy, but from the streets. In doing so, Grahn creates new myths for women to live by. For while she does not sentimentalize lesbian love, she grounds lesbian relationships in a world of their own.
Grahn reinvented such words as “butch”, “queer”, “fay” and “dyke” so that they become reclaimed spaces for power. Just as “nigger” when used by an African American takes on new meaning from simple friendship to a form of endearment, and in so doing becomes a word that has been reclaimed by a culture and is no longer available for other cultures, so “dyke” is a word reclaimed by lesbians including Judy Grahn to become a word that could be claimed and used within a particular group, but not outside it. In The Work of a Common Woman, she writes,
I am the wall at the lip of the water
I am the rock that refused to be battered
I am the dye in the matter, the other
I am the wall with the womanly swagger
I am the dragon, the dangerous dagger
I am the bulldyke, the bulldagger
and I have been many a wicked grandmother
and I shall be many a wicked daughter. (98)
Far from disallowing the kinds of negative name-calling that have been inflicted on lesbians, Grahn claims these titles for herself, and by doing so, she strips them of their ordinary meanness and deep loathing, and reclaims them as titles that give her the seat of power. She is to be feared. She may be witch-like outside the country. But as such, she should be viewed as dangerous with her wicked ancestors and wicked progeny.