About Judy Grahn Essay Research Paper Mary

About Judy Grahn Essay, Research Paper Mary J. Carruthers 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

About Judy Grahn Essay, Research Paper

Mary J. Carruthers

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.

[. . . ]

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."

[. . . ]

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-evaluation,

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" . . .

from "The Re-Vision of the Muse: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga

Broumas." The Hudson Review. Summer 1983, 36:2.

Amitai F. Avi-ram

Poetry is what someone makes when she desires to hear a certain language and

cannot already hear it in the world. To this Judy Grahn testifies in an

interview: "I suddenly wanted something to read about women, but I couldn’t

find anything" (Yalom and Davis, 1983). Poetry satisfies the deesire for

new linguistic experience, experience that can only be dreamed by the poet

before she begins to work. Yet this new language is never purely new: it is made

out of repetition, both internally in its formal devices, figures, and

themes, and in echoing the language outside of and prior to it. For a poet like

feminist Judy Grahn, who is dissatisfied not only with the language already in

the world but also with the world itself, poetry can alter through language the

relations between the audience and the world by transforming the meanings of

words and symbols and thus how we experience them. On the one hand, poetry like

Grahn’s moves toward something new and opposes repetition of what is dangerous,

painful, inhuman in the world and its language; on the other hand, a poem like A

Woman is Talking to Death must do its work largely by repeating what already

exists. The poem’s title enacts this process in miniature, playing upon a figure

of speech that at once invokes a stereotype about women’s speech (i.e., talking

endlessly), and signals both a commitment to language (talking until death,

until the very end) and a larger, even mythical, meditation about ultimate

meaning in which Death is addressed directly; that it is a woman talking

to Death is unexpected and turns the hackneyed phrase inside out. New meaning

thus arises out of language that is familiar. Transformation, then, depends upon

the politics of repetition and refrain, mimicking in language the transformation

of the material world sought by the feminist movement at large.

This is the paradox for the feminist writer: how to use what exists to create

what is new. In Grahn’s work, the paradox goes deeper. Formally and

symbolically, A Woman is Talking to Death is structured around

repetitions that generally work as the very mechanism that engages the reader

and offers pleasure in the face of the uncanny. Thematically, it is the material

of violence and prejudice that we find repeated. If the poem were not words but

actions, we might say that we were witnessing its uncontrollable compulsion to

repeat, a compulsion that would reveal its drive toward death. But because the

poem is made out of words, its thematic repetitions make conscious the very

pattern of violence that the larger culture is already repeating compulsively in

action; and the formal, verbal repetitions further serve to transform the

meanings of those words and our relation to them from an unconscious complicity

with violence toward a position in which we may begin to free ourselves from its

chains. A Woman is Talking to Death thus works socially upon its

audience: Grahn’s poem, in other words, is a liberating therapy for a society

that is trapped in illness.

Adrienne Rich has pointed out how well Grahn’s work transforms language, and

the important difference between transformation?which is a real change in our

psychic, social, and physical relations?and revolution?which is the

replacement of one empowered group by another without necessarily transforming

the essential power structure. In an essay on four lesbian poets including Grahn,

Mary J. Carruthers rightly observes the connection between Grahn’s

"repetitive, incantatory techniques" and the "traditions of

Whitman, Ginsberg, cummings, with more than a little of Gertrude Stein,"

and notes how she "transmutes them to celebrate the energy common to women

in their diverse work." I suggest that this transformation is also

ideological. For listeners, the refrains and repetitions bring about a new

relation to prejudice and violence, as they work to release us from the

oppressions we use against each other and which continually divide us; and they

enact a process of empathy and growth. Grahn’s use of repetition is also in

certain ways representative of feminist writers in general: repetition and

transformation occur with fair frequency, for example, in the work of writers as

diverse as Rich, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Helene Cixous, Gertrude Stein, and

Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

from "The Politics of Refrain in Judy Grahn’s A Woman Is Talking to

Death." Women and Language 10.2 (Spring 1987).


by Michael Davidson

The ability to read Joanne Kyger’s or Helen Adam’s work in

feminist terms has been aided by a more activist posture developed among women writers

during the late 1960s. In the San Francisco Bay Area, this period saw the appearance of

important new reading spaces, publishers, and distributors of women’s literature: Alta

began Shameless Hussy Press, the first women’s press in the area; Susan Griffin

coordinated a large conference on women poets for the University of California Extension;

Joanna Griffin and Sande Fini opened a series of readings and performances at a Berkeley

bar called The Bacchanall; the San Francisco State College Women’s Caucus began to hold

readings in the Noe Valley; and perhaps most important, the Women’s Press Collective was

established by Judy Grahn in 1969. Although many of these events occurred after the period

with which this book is concerned, they were empowered, to a certain extent, by tendencies

already present in the San Francisco Renaissance.

For a lesbian poet like Judy Grahn, the historical fact of gay writing – as well as the

city’s relative openness to alternative social and sexual preferences – was no small

component in the development of her poetics. Although Grahn was not associated directly

with the San Francisco Renaissance, her literary voice derives, in many respects, from the

populist mode of the Beats. It is hard to imagine works like "The Psychoanalysis of

Edward the Dyke" or "Elephant Poem" without thinking of Lawrence

Ferlinghetti’s satiric portraits of alienated fifties life or the comic, quasi-surreal

poems of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso. The strength of Grahn’s early poetry depends on

the odd combination of humor and anger that gives a work like "Howl" its special


If the literary formation of Judy Grahn’s work rests in the populist mode of the Beats,

its social formation rests in the women’s movement and, more specifically, in San

Francisco’s long homophile tradition, going back to the prewar years. The city had long

been a haven for homosexuals and lesbians, and although the community was often threatened

by the homophobic public, it always had a social and even political force in the larger

demographics. Important gay political groups like the Matachine Society, the Daughters of

Bilitus, and (later) The Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club had substantial memberships in

San Francisco from their inception, and with the emergence of a gay liberation movement in

the post-Stonewall era, the city became, as John D’Emilio says, "for gay men and for

lesbians … what Rome is for Catholics."

To a large extent, the permission for the San Francisco gay community to come out of

the closet and become an active force in the city was granted during the period that this

book covers and by many of the same literary events. The fact that many San

Francisco poets were openly homosexual created the illusion – if not the fact – of

tolerance in the city. Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl" censorship trial,

publications by Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, James Broughton, and Robin Blaser, and even

Jack Kerouac’s novels brought national attention to a city where variant sexual modes were

possible. But as I have pointed out with reference to the Spicer circle, such permission

was given within a largely male, homosexual community that remained closed or even hostile

to women. Denise Levertov’s "Hypocrite Women" was written in response not only

to Jack Spicer’s misogyny, but to the closed, homosexual circle he supported. It remained

for the women’s movement and its lesbian feminist component to open a new possibility for

a gay women’s poetry. Judy Grahn as much as anyone helped to create this possibility.

In order to create a gay women’s poetry it was necessary to create a woman not totally

defined within male, heterosexual stereotypes. Judy Grahn’s early work involved the

creation of what she called "the common woman," a figure whose power is

repressed and whose beauty is masked behind social conventions. At the same time,

Grahn must resuscitate the common woman from the uncommon woman, that objectified

embodiment of male desire. As she says in her poem to Marilyn Monroe, "I have come to

claim / Marilyn Monroe’s body / for the sake of my own." Grahn must discover this

woman from within a world that has not provided her with a name; hence many of the poems

appear to be litanies for "she who" has no identity at all:

the woman whose head is on fire

the woman with a noisy voice

the woman with too many fingers

the woman who never smiled once in her life

the woman with a boney body

the woman with moles all over her

(WCW, 107)

These incantatory passages suggest a communal forum in which repetition serves to unite

and join, even as it differentiates.

Coinciding with the invention of a new woman is Grahn’s archaeological interest in the

origins of gay culture. This task is given explicit form in her book Another Mother

Tongue, which explores archaic sources of homosexuality and lesbianism in what amounts

to a popular ethnology of homoerotic culture. It is "culture" that Grahn is most

concerned with: that of women, and that of lesbians specifically. As one of the founders

of the gay women’s liberation movement on the West, Coast, she has been acutely interested

in what is specific to gay life: its informing myths, stereotypes, and communal signs. Her

archaeological task involves exploring the words by which gays are marginalized -

"butch," "fay," "queer," "dyke," – and finding

their tribal or cultic origins, thus resuscitating from a despised language a new

language of opposition and authority. If her historical scholarship is sometimes suspect,

relying as it does on a good deal of artful speculation, it recognizes the difficulty of

such ethnology: that any history of gay culture must rely on an idiom constantly under

transformation, an idiom that mirrors at the same time as it satirizes the heterosexual


Grahn performs her archaeological work with a good deal of humor, using it to debunk

certain stereotypes of gayness, both those of the straight world and those in the gay

community itself. In her story "The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke," she

satirizes the straight psychoanalytical interpretation of lesbianism, but at the same time

explores the ambivalence of the gay woman toward her own sexuality. Edward’s compulsions

and paranoids, as reported to her psychoanalyst Dr. Knox, are transformed into

pathological symptoms of penis envy and castration compulsion. Dr. Knox sees all of

Edward’s problems in clinical terms, and his therapy is directed at transforming Edward

(who is six feet four inches tall) into a normal "little girl": "We will

cure you of this deadly affliction and before you know it you’ll be all fluffy and

wonderful with dear babies and a bridge club of your very own." After defining

Edward’s "problems," Dr. Knox subjects her to shock therapy:

Dr. Knox flipped a switch at his elbow and immediately a picture of a beautiful woman

appeared on a screen over Edward’s head. The doctor pressed another switch and electric

shocks jolted through her spine. Edward screamed. He pressed another switch, stopping the

flow of electricity. Another switch and a photo of a gigantic erect male organ flashed

into view, coated in powdered sugar. Dr. Knox handed Edward a lollipop. (WCW, 30)

However humorous Grahn’s story is, it deals with an interpretation of homosexuality not

uncommon during Grahn’s lifetime, an interpretation with serious consequences for the

"health" of the gay community. Grahn challenges Dr. Knox’s reading of Edward’s

problem by refusing to accept the language by which gays are categorized, whether in

psychoanalytical or political terms. The issue of reforming the language, as Adrienne Rich

points out in her introduction to The Work of a Common Woman, is central to Grahn’s


When we become acutely, disturbingly aware of the language we are using and that is

using us, we begin to grasp a material resource that women have never before collectively

attempted to repossess. . . . We might, hypothetically, possess ourselves of every

recognized technological resource on the North American continent, but as long as our

language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling arc still

running in the old cycles, our process may be "revolutionary" but not

transformative. (WCW, 7)

The transformation that Rich seeks begins with the creation of alternative models

against which specific women might measure and evaluate themselves. In her early work,

Grahn created a series of portraits of women, both lesbian and straight, which embody the

diversity of the "common woman." The result is a long series, The Common

Woman Poems, which has become a major document in the feminist movement. The series

mixes realistic depictions of oppressed women with a revolutionary call to action:

the common woman is as common as the best of bread

and will rise

and will become strong–I swear to you

I swear it to you on my common



(WCW, 73)

The origin of this series, as Grahn says, "was completely practical: I wanted, in

1969, to read something which described regular, everyday women. without making us look

either superhuman or pathetic" (WCW, 6). The women portrayed are tough and resilient,

hardened by years of work in low-paying, demeaning jobs and in equally demeaning sex

roles. Ella, for example, is

… a copperheaded waitress,

tired and sharp-worded, she hides

her bad brown tooth behind a wicked

smile, and flicks her ass

out of habit, to fend off the pass

that passes for affection.

She keeps her mind the way men

keep a knife …

(WCW, 63)

The language in these poems is as common as the women described, straightforward and

direct, with an occasional rhetorical flourish ("to fend off the pass / that passes

for affection"). But the more the women are described, the less "common"

they appear, each one possessing some volatile side of herself hidden beneath the surface:

she has taken a woman lover

whatever can we say

She walks around all day

quietly, but underneath it

she’s electric;

angry energy inside a passive form.

The common woman is as common

as a thunderstorm.

(WCW, 67)

The titles of these portraits indicate precisely where the portrait takes place:

"Helen, at 9 AM, at noon, at 5:15" or "Carol, in the park, chewing on

straws," as though they are photos in an album. The portraits are not idealized, and

the lives the women lead are hardly heroic. Madness, abortion, failed marriages, sexual

frustration, shrill invective become the unhappy legacy of the "common woman."

To Grahn these features signal a potential power that must be discovered in everyday


I’m not a girl

I’m a hatchet

I’m not a hole

I’m a whole mountain

I’m not a fool

I’m a survivor

I’m not a pearl

I’m the Atlantic Ocean

I’m not a good lay

I’m a straight razor

look at me as if you had never seen a woman before

I have red, red hands and much bitterness

(WCW, 25)

In speaking of Joanne Kyger, I described her synthesis of autobiography and myth as an

attempt to gain a perspective on her life as a woman – that by identifying with Penelope,

she could speak for herself in the historical present. In the case of Judy Grahn, the

feminist implications of this synthesis are made explicit. "Look at me as if you had

never seen a woman before," she demands, and in much of her work she uses herself as

the focus for a larger social imperative. The common-woman portraits may be derived from

Grahn’s personal life, but they attain a kind of nobility precisely because of their bare,

hard-edged presentation. They gain mythical stature because they are so resolutely

ordinary. At the same time, Grahn’s use of historical figures like Marilyn Monroe (or

Susan Griffin’s use of Harriet Tubman or Adrienne Rich’s use of Emily Dickinson) represent

retrievals of exceptional women to serve as simulacra for every woman. The necessity of

retrieving women, common and uncommon, from their sequestration within a patriarchal world

has been the task of a feminist poetics from the outset. Judy Grahn is no different in

this respect than other feminists in the country, but her ability to speak as a lesbian

was certainly encouraged by the large gay community in San Francisco and the Spirit of

social action that had been there from its earliest days. Grahn became the inheritor of

this tradition but also one of its most articulate disseminators.


Writing about women in and of the San Francisco Renaissance is difficult not because

there were so few of them but because the standard definition of the movement has no way

of including them. The boys’ club of San Francisco bohemia, however progressive in

defining new social roles for individuals, was often blind to its own exclusionary

posture. Where women are mentioned in the chronicles of the period, their contributions

are usually relegated to their "service" function. Carolyn Cassady may be valued

for her retrospective memoirs of life with Neal and Jack, but not for her own literary

attainments. The entries on Cassady and Eileen Kaufman in Arthur and Kit Knight’s

chronicle of the Beat generation, The Beat Vision, simply memorialize their former

husbands. Although Joanne Kyger’s major work, The Tapestry and the Web, is long out

of print, her journals of travel in India with her then-husband Gary Snyder are readily

available. Women are conspicuously absent from major critical accounts of the period,

although Kenneth Rexroth does acknowledge the pioneering work of Ruth Witt Diamant and

Madeline Gleason in establishing the San Francisco State Poetry Center. And although

Josephine Miles was included in the San Francisco issue of Evergreen, she is

almost invariably thought of as an academic fellow traveler rather than an active

participant in the movement. Such omissions, subordinations, and marginalizations may

reflect the roles that women played during this period, but they also suggest the

endurance of a privileged narrative – what I earlier called "enabling myths" of

origins – in which women are seldom the subjects.

By recognizing the contributions of women writers during the period from 1955 to 1965,

we may revise that narrative somewhat, but this is only half the job. It is also necessary

to discover the women who were already being invented between the lines, as it were, of

male verse. These women are as much projections of that romantic ideology that I mentioned

in my opening chapter as they are of the historical period with which we are

concerned. They emerge from romantic conceptions of feminized nature and from a theory of

creative imagination based on dualisms of form and content, action and inspiration, artist

and muse. The fact that Denise Levertov and Diane DiPrima recognized those hidden women

and responded to them in their own terms was crucial for the development of their

individual poetics. At the same time, their "appropriations" of male discourse

represent ways in which romantic narratives of natural rhythms, cyclic life, and

participation are revised in terms of gender.

One of the dominant themes of feminist scholarship has been the ways that women writers

have rewritten patriarchal discourse, subverting its authority while at the same time

providing women with alternative discursive forms. Helen Adam’s variations on stock

romantic figures and Joanne Kyger’s rewriting of male myth are obvious extensions of this

revisionist imperative. Their work was performed within – and, I contend, against -

male-centered circles in the San Francisco milieu. Judy Grahn developed her poetics in the

frame of a more self-consciously feminist poetry – one that she helped to create – and,

although not usually associated with the literary events described in the rest of this

book, she represents a logical outgrowth of them. Like the Beats, she emphasizes plain

speech and "common" subjects, but whereas Ginsberg and Kerouac often discover

transcendental principles in urban landscapes, Grahn seeks the historical awareness of

women’s – and specifically lesbians’ – condition in patriarchal America.

By concluding this chapter with figures not usually mentioned in the standard histories

of the San Francisco Renaissance, I am suggesting that in order to see the contributions

of women to modern literary history, we must often look outside the canonical narratives.

These counternarratives challenge more than our reading of literary history; they

introduce a new subject as reader. That subject, "she who" reads, must ask of

the period we are studying, Whose Renaissance? Renaissance of what? If those

questions are asked retrospectively, by a generation that reads through the spectacles of

gender, it is thanks to figures like Denise Levertov, Diane DiPrima, Helen Adam, Joanne

Kyger, and Judy Grahn. Impatient with the roles their male colleagues consigned to them,

they seized upon the social and aesthetic advantages of 1950s bohemian culture and began

to write "her" story in the margins of "his."

From The San Fransisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century.

Copyright ? 1989 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the


Linda Garber

Grahn was a member of the Gay Women’s Liberation Group, the first lesbian feminist

collective on the west coast, founded around 1969. The collective established the first

women’s bookstore, A Woman’s Place, and the first all-woman press, The Women’s Press

Collective (Case 49), which "devoted itself exclusively to work by lesbians

disfranchised by race or class" (Harris, 1993, xxxi). Grahn’s poems, circulated in

periodicals, performances, chapbooks, and by word of mouth, were foundational documents of

lesbian feminism. Her work enjoyed a wide underground readership before 1975 (Larkin 92),

although it did not reach commercial audiences until the late 1970s. Collected as The

Work of a Common Woman in 1978, the poems were published by a series of successively

larger and more mainstream publishers in the late 1970s: first Diana Press (a small

lesbian-feminist press into which The Women’s Press Collective was incorporated in the

early 1970s), then Crossing Press (in paperback) and the New York publishing house St.

Martin’s Press (in hardcover). According to Carl Morse and Joan Larkin, "Crahn’s

work, both as legendary poet and independent publisher, fueled the explosion of lesbian

poetry that began in the 70s" (Morse and Larkin, 1988c, 140).

Carruthers cites Rich’s introduction to Grahn’s collection The Work of a Common

Woman as evidence of Rich’s influence on Grahn’s poetry, and Grahn herself has

acknowledged Rich, among others, as important to the development of her work. What

Carruthers fails to note, however, is that Rich was moved to write the introduction to The

Work of a Common Woman because of the impact of Grahn’s work on her own poetry years

earlier. In Rich’s introduction, "Power and Danger: Tile Work of a Common Woman by

Judy Grahn," Rich describes weeping when she first read Grahn’s "A Woman Is

Talking to Death" in 1974: "I knew in an exhausted kind of way that what had

happened to me was irreversible. All I could do with it at that point was lie down and

sleep, let . . . the knowledge that was accumulating in my life, the poem I had just read,

go on circulating in my bloodstream" (Rich, 1977, 9). The most clear evidence that

Grahn influenced Rich’s later work is Rich’s adoption of the term

"common" from Grahn’s The Common Woman (1969) in The Dream of a

Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (1978) "where it was greatly broadened by new

phrases" (Grahn, 1985, 73).

Margot Gayle Backus interprets Grahn’s long elegiac poem, "A Woman Is Talking to

Death," as a calling "into being [of] a unified human communitas, a ‘we’

capable of containing and healing the divisions between subject positions that the

capitalist appropriation of human labor, emotions, time, and lives has represented as

natural and desirable. Grahn invokes a living, intersubjective community" (Backus

835). Grahn herself writes that poets build community by "making cross connections

and healing the torn places in the social fabric of myth we have all inherited, but that

the outcast especially inherits" (Grahn, 1985, 84). (As a committed activist in the

1970s, Grahn clearly also believed that poets build community by founding and contributing

to various grass roots institutions and political actions.) Grahn conceives of herself as

a poet in a community of lesbians and of other lesbian poets developing "a new voice

. . . a new women’s literature" (Aal, Part I, 76).

Before this community emerged, Grahn and her character Edward the Dyke appeared to

number among "the Nat Turners of the world," in Duberman’s phrase:

Resistance to oppression takes on the confident form of political organizing only after

a certain critical mass of collective awareness of oppression, and a determination to end

it, has been reached. There are always isolated individuals who prefigure that awareness,

who openly rebel before the oppressed community of which they are a part can offer them

significant support and sustenance. These individuals—the Nat Turners of the

world—are in some sense transhistorical: They have somehow never been fully

socialized into the dominant ideology, into its prescriptions and limitations; they exist

apart, a form of genius (Duberman 75).

Humorless Lesbians and Other Misrepresentations

By the early 1970s, a growing community of lesbian feminists, which included Judy

Grahn, was in dead earnest about fomenting revolution. Far from the stereotypical

"humorless" feminist or lesbian, however, Grahn is among the funniest of

contemporary American poets. Her broad use of humor—described in turns as

"raucous," "macabre" (Martinez 49), anarchic (Backus 816), "witty

and lighthearted" (Rich, 1977, 14)—itself redefines what is appropriate to

serious poetry. Inez Martinez writes that "the dominant tone and voice of [Grahn'sl

poems consists of deflating male supremacy through humor, and of taking her place among

the imperfect" (49). But despite the prevalence of wit in Grahn's poetry, critical

writing about her work tends to focus on her long, weighty poem "A Woman is Talking

to Death." (Martinez sees "grim and desperately puzzled" humor in the

poem's parodic elements [49]. In addition, the narrator not only talks to but in the end

defiantly laughs at death—"Hey you death / ho and ho poor

death"—but humor in the common sense is hardly the dominant tone of the elegiac

poem.) Critics Amitai F. Avi-Ram and Margot Gayle Backus have published articles focusing

solely on the poem; other critics invariably devote considerable space to it in more

general discussions of Grahn’s work.

[. . . .]

Again and again, appreciative critics and reviewers refer to the power of Grahn’s

poetry to "transform." Rich writes that the word "transformation" best

describes the goal of feminism and feminist poetry like hers and Grahn’s; unlike

"’revolution’ [which] has become not only a dead relic of Leftism, but a key to the

dead-endedness of male politics," transformation is "a process which will leave

neither surfaces nor depths unchanged, which enters society at the most essential level of

the subjugation of women and nature by men. We begin to conceive a planet on which both

women and nature might coexist as the She Who we encounter in Judy Grahn’s poems"

(Ricil, 1977, 7-8), Lunde considers Grahn’s "feminist vision of personal and social

transformation" to be one of her basic themes, which are "inseparable" from

"her transformation of language" (238). Carruthers writes that the

"energy" of lesbian-feminist poetry "springs . . . from the perception that

women together and in themselves have a power which is transformative." She sees a

special role for lesbian-feminist poets in this transformation, because "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" (Carruthers, 1983, 294).

[. . . .]

Grahn attempts to walk the dividing line in the essentialist/ constructionist debate.

Grahn commented in 1987 that her book Another Mother Tongue, which traces the

folklore and speculates about the origins of North American lesbian and gay cultures,

"has become the basis for a new philosophical stance in gay men’s culture, which they

call essentialism, to argue against the sociological/socialist view that ‘gayness’ was

only invented in this century and is the product of our particular industrial

culture" (Constantine and Scott 7). Grahn calls the opposition to essentialism

"the sociological/socialist view" rather than "social

constructionism." This is perhaps a slip of the tongue, or a mistake in transcription

of the interview. While Grahn—or those gay men to whom she refers—may be making

a point about homosexuality" as a form of alienation under industrial capitalism, she

does not elaborate; "socialist" as an oppositional term to

"essentialist" is unusual enough to suggest that Grahn’s use of the term is

accidental, if provocative. In any case, it is a nomenclature clearly outside the academic

"essentialism/social constructionism" debate. Further, Grahn says that

"essentialism" is what "they call" the position for which they use

her work. Were she to take part in the debate, Grahn would argue her position from the

perspective of history and her belief in the folklore she writes about in Another

Mother Tongue: "Actually, I don’t think the two views are mutually exclusive.

Certain elements of gay culture are very 2Oth century, but we’re so much older than that

it’s absurd to imagine that all of this is brand new" (Constantine and Scott 7).

Elsewhere, Grahn engages directly with terms that are central to recent literary

criticism: margin, center, and difference. The relevance to both postmodern theory and

Grahn’s poetry merits quoting at length:

If the world were shaped like a plate, "exile," "marginal" and

"difference" would be words accurately descriptive of life at the edge of a

single universe. . . . Our social groups, countries and plant and creature groupings are

globe shaped, and interactive; the walls can intermingle without losing their integrity.

Reality continually folds in and out of itself, with as many "worlds" as we have

the ability and judgment to perceive, each with its own center.

In a many-centered multiverse, exiles from one place are first class citizens of

another, margins of one "globe" are centers of another, "marginality"

itself becomes a ribbon of road, of continual and vital interaction shaping and reshaping

whatever lies within borders, and "difference" is so essentially common (and

self-centered) that it is duplication that is the oddity. It is a matter of perspective,

of metaphor: to seek not what is "universal," rather to seek what has

commonality, what overlaps with others without losing its own center (Grahn, 1989, 145).

Grahn’s insistence in The Highest Apple that by "common" she does not

mean "universal" is clearly an answer to accusations of essentialism that had

been leveled against lesbian feminism by the mid-eighties.

Universal, "one-world" implies everyone having to fit into one standard (and

of course that one, that "uni," is going to turn out to be a white, male,

heterosexual, young, educated, middle class, etc. model). . . . Common means

many-centered, many overlapping islands of groups each of which maintains its own center

and each of which is central to society for what it gives to society (Grahn, 1985, 74).

Grahn compares her sense of commonality , particularly the "international

connection present in the ‘She Who’ series" to Audre Lorde’s work, in which

international, cross-cultural elements are "vividly apparent."

"Commonality," as Grahn applies the term to women, "means we get to belong

to a number of overlapping groups, not just one." She points to the term

"’common differences’: defining and retaining racial and ethnic identities without

losing either our affinity as women and or as Lesbians." While acknowledging and

honoring the diversity of lesbian poets and of women in general, Grahn maintains the

importance of "a common structure" to lesbian feminism and the women’s movement

(Grahn, 1985, 76-8).

In 1981 Grahn wrote that she "sought nothing universal to mankind in writing"

The Common Woman poems. "In fact, in order to make certain they were really

there in the flesh, I avoided all thoughts of ‘universality,’ ‘the masses,’ ‘the

common people’ or ‘mankind."’ On the other hand, she confesses to writing

"deliberate pro-woman propaganda":

so as to bypass the built-in patriarchal hatred of, condescension toward, deliberate

ignorance toward: 1. the details of women’s lives; 2. especially of

"workingclass," everyday women: 3. more especially women of color; 4. most

especially of lesbians; 5. always of women who fought back, had abortions, did not love

their bosses, and desired to change their lives (Grahn, 1981, 547).

Numbers three and four are problematic: although Grahn addresses racism directly

in" A Woman Is Talking to Death," none of The Common Woman poems is

clearly about a woman of color; only one is about a lesbian. Although none of the poems

makes claims to universality, readers would tend to assume that the characters are white,

in the absence of information pertaining to race or ethnicity—because the poems exist

in the context of a white-dominated society, and because Grahn herself is white. Grahn’s

lesbianism could lead a reader to guess that individual "common women" are

lesbians, but the specific indication of one character’s lesbianism implies that the

others are heterosexual, where their heterosexuality is not otherwise clearly indicated.

Any of the common women could be a lesbian and could be a woman of color,

but with the exclusion of specific information about race and sexuality (cf. Spelman),

they do not "especially" appear to be so.

"What Is a Lesbian?" and what constitutes lesbian literature have been

burning questions for lesbian studies and politics since the early days of lesbian

feminism. Grahn wrote, performed, and published some of the first poetry within the

context of the movement to attempt to provide answers. In so doing, she presented a

complex picture of lesbians, rather than the monodimensional (and pathological) portrait

of "The Lesbian" that had been invented by psychiatry and sexology and which

reigned supreme until the 1970s, and in contrast to the "politically correct"

stereotype of the lesbian feminist purveyed by some vocal postmodern queer theorists.

Grahn’s poetry addresses issues of gender, sexuality, class, and race, but her main

contribution to the diversity of lesbian feminism is her insistent working-class

perspective. Although in the 1980s Grahn wrote and spoke many times of the racial and

ethnic diversity of early lesbian feminism, it fell to her colleague and friend, the

African-American poet Pat Parker, to illustrate through poetry how lesbian feminism in the

early 1970s dealt with issues of race in the context of an analysis based primarily on

gender and sexuality.

from Garber, Linda. "Lesbian Identity Politics: Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, and the

Rise of Queer Theory." Diss. Stanford U, 1995. Copyright ? 1996 by Linda Garber.

Delia Fisher

Judy Grahn’s life and work contrast markedly with H.D.’s. Born of another generation in

1940, Grahn’s writing has from the beginning eschewed tradition and disrupted notions

of structure, expressing themes which celebrate lesbian culture, its endurance and danger,

and issues of marginality and oppression and oppression of women. The images in her work,

rather than expressing intense but abstract emotion, are those of what she calls

"common women," flesh-and-blood persons whose lives reflect specific struggles

and personalities. Her poetry includes prose dialogue, narrative, lyric, and drama, often

in combination. In contrast to H.D.’s strict but supportive upbringing, Judy Grahn grew up

in an atmosphere of potential disapproval. Her working-class background would have

permitted no space for a young lesbian in the early 1960’s, and she recalls her

utter isolation at sixteen, when I looked up Lesbian in the dictionary,

having no one to ask about such things, terrified, elated, painfully self-aware, grateful

it was there at all. Feeling the full weight of the social silence surrounding it, me, my

unfolding life.

Her writing and her marginality led to a discharge from the Air Force because of her

lesbianism; moreover, she experienced denials of jobs and housing, and was even

"beaten in public for looking like a dike." As a woman writer and a lesbian, she

had become doubly Other, a recognition which, instead of silencing her, radicalized and

motivated her. By the late 1960’s, she had helped found a gay women’ s liberation movement

and was publishing her work through independent women’s presses. Unlike H.D., Grahn needed

no male mentor to inscribe her, as Pound literally enscribed and created "H.D.,

lmagiste" at the beginning of her career. As a lesbian, Grahn was far removed from

H.D’s "romantic thralldom" and dependence on male approval. Rather, she had come

of age and to an age in which a woman could proclaim,

I’m not a girl

I’m a hatchet

I’m not a hole

I’m a whole mountain. (Work 25)

Despite these differences, H.D. and Judy Grahn share striking commonalities. Each has

rejected poetic forms of the past to express a woman-centered vision.

[. . . .]

The horrors of World War I galvanized H.D.’s pacifism, as the Civil Rights, Anti-war,

and Women’s Movements galvanized Judy Grahn’s commitment to justice. H.D. published her Trilogy,

which condemned patriarchal structures which further war and violence, and revised the

Christian myth to exalt a feminine spiritual presence. Grahn challenged the homophobic,

misogynist, and racist culture of her day with her long poem, A Woman is Talking to

Death in which she considered "the subject of heroes in a modem life which for

many people is more like a war than not" (Work 112).

[. . . .]

Grahn’ s challenges to culture, evident in her early work, find full expression in her

two-part epic. The Queen of Wands exposes historical and contemporary

oppression of women while at the same time weaving a woman-centered myth of the Spider

Webster. In the Spider’s web, history and pre-history converge to rewrite Helen’s story,

re-forming her into the Queen of Wands, the Flama, "Keeper of the Flame" of

women’s ancient knowledge, the "weaving tree" who weaves a story of female

power, past and future. As Helen is a goddess in The Queen of Wands, she

becomes a hero in The Queen of Swords, which retells the Sumerian myth of the

goddess Inanna, who willingly descends and embraces Death, the dark goddess Ereshkigal, in

order to ascend to her autonomy and heroism. By returning to a myth of quest which

predates the myths and quests of warrior heroes, Grahn shows that a narrative of a female

subject and her journey toward selfhood has simply been waiting for rediscovery.

[. . . .]

As women poets such as H.D., Judy Grahn and others embark into the unexplored landscape

of a feminized quest, they open the door to the closed systems of the past by disrupting

conventional forms; this is a "poetic revolution" indeed. These poets and their

female heroes create narratives which move according to patterns which may refuse to

"go somewhere" because that somewhere has already been mapped out and claimed by

the male quester.

[. . . .]

The career of Judy Grahn has from the beginning paralleled and celebrated the struggles

of women to redefine themselves as heroes. She describes her early writing as developing

within an atmosphere of potential disapproval, fearing "that someone might see the

scribbled notes in my pockets." This fear, which often accompanies women’s attempts

to claim authority and voice, was magnified by the specific danger inherent in Grahn’s

subject matter, which was "women in general and lesbians in particular" (24).

from Fisher, Delia. "Never-Ending Story: Re-Forming Hero in the Helen Epics of

H.D. and Judy Grahn." Diss. U of Oregon, 1997. Copyright ? 1997 by Delia Fisher.

Billie Maciunas

In terms of feminist history in the United States, Grahn was anomalous as a

working-class lesbian who identified with the African American movement of the 1960s. Her

acknowledgment of diversity among women and her reaching for a metaphor by which to garner

this diversity as a collectivity undermined the male/female oppositional metaphor on which

heterosexuality (and separatism) is founded. In her attempt to see a commonality between

the lesbian and the heterosexual woman she proposed a mutuality among women, as well as a

space that theoretically enabled a return of the )lesbian) monster’s gaze (cf. Williams,

"When the Woman Looks" passim).

[. . . .]

Using the palindrome as a template we may expect to find Grahn’s work bordering on the

queer, unassimilable and indefinable world of the "feminine."

[. . . .]

My reading of Grahn is centered in her concept of "the common woman," a

figure that, like the vampire, encompasses the queer feminine as aporia and the

"phallic" woman’s self- reflected gaze at the monstrous "other," her

double. The term lesbian as metaphor for this "crossing" of Woman as sign

and the woman as creator, is based in lesbian theory, which recently has focused on a

destabilized or provisional identity for political purposes, removed from a destructive or

simply "tired" binary paradigm.

Like Irigaray’s two lips touching as "metaphor for metonymy," lesbian is

a metaphor for the touching, crossing, and assimilation of doubles, even across national

boundaries, and within an ongoing women’s discourse. The "new mestiza" is thus

an important metaphor, for the knowing lesbian "exile," whose home is in

linguistic "space" rather than geographical space

[. . . .]

Of those of Grahn’s books of poetry less germane for this study than The Common Woman

are She Who and Confrontations with the Devil in the Form of Love.

All of these works are reprinted in The Work of a Common Woman. The Queen of

Swords and The Queen of Wands are brilliant epics and the poetry is rich and

moving. For my limited purposes, however, each of these works is dealt with only in terms

of the archetypal figures that Grahn portrays. In particular, these figures are

"crossing" figures. Helen, the mythic icon of feminine beauty, crosses into the

underworld of Ereshkigal, the terrible queen of swords, in, order to effect the wisdom of


[. . . .]

Grahn’s irony also plays on the misperception of el lector inimigo. She uses

humor as a lacquered surface, that is, "openly" as sarcasm, jokes,

irony, and puns. Her lexicon includes words from working class, gay, and Black cultures,

recognizable to an audience of "metaphorically feminine" readers. Of her

technique she says,

Of course sometimes high humor is involved in maintaining . . . secrecy. Gay people of

all social strata develop intricate codes and language inflections that operate within

ordinary-sounding language patterns to convey information that members of the Gay culture

can understand. The idea is that hidden things may be least noticed when contained in what

is most obvious. (Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds 24)

Grahn’s characteristic deadpan humor reflects the gap between her knowledge, based on

the reality of being a talented, daring lesbian in the 1950s and 1960s, and popular images

of femininity and familial perfection. As a "baby butch" Grahn was early

sensitized to the consequences of surpassing heterosexual gender codes. She did not enjoy

the benefits of middle-class cushioning or a cosmopolitan environment. She was reared, she

says, in

a sparsely populated, rural portion of the world, in an economically poor and

spiritually depressed late 1950s New Mexico desert town near the hellish border of West

Texas. (Another Mother Tongue 4)

Her college years as one of a group of lesbians included looking out for herself and

her friends in a "wasteland of human relationships and social rigidity."

Typically, Grahn relates this mutual protection system to women as an underclass:

We stood watch for each other as lovers do in jail. We admired each other’s (forbidden

to women) courage. We knew about cunnilingus, though only the boldest among us practiced

it. We knew about the Mound of Venus. We knew about tribadism and about butch and femme.

We admired each other’s (forbidden to women) sexual appetites. We knew that Gay was our

generic name, that people who were not Gay were "straight" and that many of them

called us "queer" with unfathomable hatred and fear. . . . (5)

The ideological violence Grahn underwent extended, of course, far beyond the confines

of small town and college life. The following passage from Another Mother Tongue (1984),

her history of gay culture, describes her despair after her "less-than-honorable

discharge" from the Air Force for lesbianism:

Discharged into a poor area of Washington, D.C., with $80 and utter demoralization, I

worked as a bar maid serving hard liquor to dying winos. I did not believe there was any

farther to go on the bottom of society than where I was. But as I found the company of

other Gay ex-service people who also had the state fall on their heads, living in an area

mixed with people at the bottom of Washington’s perpetual ghetto of Blacks and whites and

a scattering of Asians, I found that despair has no bottom; it can multiply itself

indefinitely, inside the mind and outside. (169)

Grahn’ s link with the "perpetual ghetto" of underground urban life is a

salient feature of her work. Her 1987 The Queen of Swords draws on her experience

as a barmaid. In the epic poem, Grahn transforms the experience into a myth of rebirth,

basing the revision on a 5,000 year-old Sumerian story. In the Sumerian myth, Inanna,

queen of heaven and earth, descends to the underworld to strengthen her powers. Grahn’s

version renames Inanna as Helen, the archetypal figure of beauty, and sets the scene of

her symbolic death and rebirth in a lesbian bar. In this modern underworld Helen confronts

Ereshkigal, the bar owner and "queen" of the underworld scene.

As her description of life as a barmaid in the "poor area of Washington,

D.C." indicates, the urban underclass included the Black population. The poet was

involved politically with the early movement of Blacks for their civil rights, and her

continued commitment has been evident throughout her career. According to Grahn in The

Highest Apple, Audre Lorde has been an influence in her work since 1971. In 1976

Olivia Records produced Where Would I Be Without You: The Poetry of Pat Parker

and Judy Grahn (Another Mother Tongue 191). Published a year later, Grahn’s

collection, Confrontations With the Devil in the Form of Love, was inspired

by Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The

Rainbow is Enuf.

Grahn knew the violence that prejudice does to the psyche and was familiar also with

actual physical violence based on hatred of her Butch appearance.

[. . . .]

Grahn’s concern for women is not a theoretical "feminine" and she does not

use the term feminine often in her work. As a metaphor, her "overlapping

islands" is more theoretical than her pragmatic approach to art and her

positive-image approach to feminine absence. Like Cesar’s "ship in space, "

Grahn’s "overlapping islands" represent the paradoxical combination of feminine

masquerade and "phallic" integrity that is the lacquered surface. The idea is

demonstrable by visualizing the overlapping islands as Lingis’ "continuity of

convexities and concavities" and of Irigaray’s constantly touching lips.

[. . . .]

[T]he occupants of Grahn’s overlapping island(s) are not subjected to the reflection of

themselves as the exterior and mad. "other."

[. . . .]

Speaking of her youthful butch orientation Grahn says what many lesbians and lesbian

theorists have continually reiterated:

[O]ur point was not to be men; our point was to be butch and get away with it. We

always kept something back: a high-pitched voice, a slant of the head, or a limpness of

hand gestures, something that was clearly labeled female. I believe our statement was

"Here is another way of being a woman," not "Here is a woman trying to be

taken for a man." (Another Mother Tongue 31)

Further, in her introduction to Confrontations with the Devil in the Form of Love

Grahn pointedly connects the graphics of The Work of a Common Woman with her

writing as an exchanged look between women. She says,

The graphics throughout this book are by two women [Karen Sjoholm and Wendy Cadden]

whose primary concern has also been in reshaping the images we have of women, what our

strengths are, when seen through our own eyes. (134) (emphasis added)

Grahn’ s view of women through "our own eyes" presumes and creates likeness,

doubleness, and assimilation. Given these, the non-linear features of her writing are

significant. Grahn’s work must be considered aslant (at least) of heterosexual dichotomies

and preconceived sotry lines. Her symbolic mastery, that is, her razor-sharp wit and pen,

allow her to cross . . . into unbordered, queer regions unknown to the single-minded.

[. . . .]

Grahn’ s courageous "factual" language mimicking the violence endemic to the

underclass is an ongoing tradition in the United States among contemporary lesbian


From her "phallic" stance as a lesbian, separatist, and feminist, Grahn

enters the queer feminine realm by theorizing a commonality with all women. From this

position Grahn enables the reader’s "entranced response to the monster" (Case

10) by creating a "lesbian relationship between self and other" (Zimmerman,

"Lesbians Like This and That" 4).

from Maciunas, Billie. "Crossing Boundaries–Lesbian as Metaphor/Lesbian Poetry in

Brazil and the United States." Diss. U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1995.

Copyright ? 1995 by Billie Maciunas.

John Philip Chapin

Part of what I’ve done in this chapter is to argue that Judy Grahn’s writing uses

language in new ways to alter our possibilities for conceiving of the world. Her tools are

part of a system of language that at present embodies detrimental social, cultural, and

political relations; while recognizing language’s complicity in oppression, she suggests

that it can be used differently to provoke a rethinking and a reunderstanding of these

social relations. For Grahn, as for other contemporary feminist and lesbian feminist

poets, changing the language changes reality. In this appendix, I’d like to address some

of the lesbian-feminist and poststructuralist theoretical work that underlies Grahn’s

political project.

Grahn in/as Context

Judy Grahn’s work with language to transform our understanding accords with a broader

context of feminist and lesbian feminist movements that seek to challenge social and

cultural reality, to redefine power relations to accommodate and value women. Some lesbian

feminist writers try to reach beyond the "fundamental oppressiveness" inherent

in our patriarchally structured world: Mary Carruthers argues that writers such as

Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, and Olga Broumas create poetry that

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 (Carruthers 294).

By examining themselves in relation to men, many women trap themselves within a

binaristic linguistic structure, ultimately perpetuating the potential for oppression.

When man/woman or heterosexual/homosexual or rich/poor remain the only ways to describe

people, the dominant culture retains powerful means for regulating reality and insuring

power relations that are fundamentally the same. Within this system, marginalized people

can only hope for what Elizabeth Meese calls a "reversal where relations of power are

exchanged;" this exchange is only valuable for "the lesbian whose personal stake/investment

rests in the domination of men, and not particularly in the liberation of ‘women’ and

‘men"’ (Meese 6). Meese implicitly aligns herself with Grahn and other lesbian

feminist writers in her attempt to write beyond the dominant mode of discourse, to change

the universal and not merely the personal. She locates her work in relation to that of,

among others, Monique Wittig and Jacques Derrida; Derrida describes transformational

language as being beyond grammar, as "a choreographic text with polysexual

signatures," pluralized labels and meanings that expand linguistic categories beyond

difference (understood both sexually and as "otherness" in general) to encompass

a continuum of meaning (Meese 11/Derrida "Choreographies" 76). Derrida

would argue, I think, that much of the language in literature and poetry throughout

history has been "transformative"—he describes literature elsewhere as

"an institution that tends to overflow the institution" ("This

Strange" 36), implying that literature is by definition pluralizing. But here he

seems to be concerned with the relationship between language and sexuality; as I’ve argued

above, Grahn’s vision is overtly polysexual (see the discussion of Ernesta’s future at the

end of the novel), and she implies that it is her language that makes this vision

possible. Grahn is engaged, like Meese and Derrida, in pluralizing language, in disrupting

its stability in order to open it up to unlimited possibilities for understanding.

Derrida, again quoted by Meese, envisions the possibilities of nondiscriminating language

in terms of sexuality:

. . . what if we were to approach here . . . the area of a relationship to the other

where the code of sexual marks would no longer be discriminating? The relationship would

not be a-sexual, far from it, but would be sexual otherwise: beyond the binary difference

that governs the decorum of all codes, beyond the opposition feminine/masculine, beyond

bi-sexuality a