Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Great Debate (Judy Grahn Edition)

Fascinating debate on Monday night, in my Modern Poetry class, over how to read a short poem from Judy Grahn's "She Who" sequence (1971-72). Grahn's a lesbian feminist poet, and this sequence is a wonderful mix of theological, political, and interpersonal poems.

Near the middle, we get this boast:
I am the wall at the lip of the water
I am the rock that refused to be battered
I am the dyke 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
Given this poem's invocations of "She Who," a sort of neo-pagan Goddess, I've always connected that line about "the bulldyke, the bulldagger" not only to sexual terminology of the period, but also to the bull-leaping and Goddess worship back in Knossos, as in this picture:

I take it, that is to say, that this poem is entirely self-celebratory--a sort of chant or rune in which the "I" who speaks gets to take on the time-defying, deliciously "wicked" nature of She Who herself.

What, though, to make of the poem that follows?
foam on the rim of the glass
another wave breaking

foam on the rim of the glass
another wave breaking
she once wanted to be a sailor

now she sits at the bar, drinking
like a sailor
My students were sharply divided. Some thought this was a sad scene: a woman who "once wanted to be a sailor" reduced to drinking away her sorrows, with the pervasive lowercase letters and that sharp linebreak at the close ("drinking / like a sailor") emphasizing the downbeat tone. Others took "drinking / like a sailor" as a livelier twist, such that this woman who once wanted to be a literal sailor has now discovered that kind of adventure and open possibility in her bar-life, and by extension in her erotic or communal life there in the bar.

For some, that is to say, this was a step down from the poem before it, and for others a continuation of--an instance of--the "wickedness" with which that poem ends.

Your thoughts, O Blogosphere?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is a step down, certainly, but much of the pathos of the second poem is already prefigured in the stance of the speaker in the first. The figure in the first poem, at least in your excerpt, is not a fecund, generative goddess, but one of Blake's devourers. Her power is to sets limits. She is the "wall," the "dyke," the "rock," the "dagger" --terminus, a boundary stone, heroically holding back tremendous forces. Should we be surprised that we later find her growing weary?

In the second poem, the speaker bears the consequences of her stance in the first poem. It is noteworthy that she is watching "foam at the rim of the glass/ another wave breaking." In the first poem, she is not a sailor, but rather, she is that very rim of the glass against which the waves are breaking. In the second poem, she merely bears the consequences of her own success. She has cut herself off from the breaking waves; she has heroically kept them at bay, but to what end? She has shut herself out, just as she has shut them in. The alcohol she drinks is a cheap compensation for what she has forsaken. She is like the speaker at the end of Cavafy's poem, "The Satrapy," who, in despair of achieving the great works for which he knows he is destined, excepts the cheap pleasures that come with a comfortable, safe and meaningless sinecure.