The Lesbian Bears

The Lesbian Bears
Martha Courtot

here they have not heard of lesbian bears
if they knew they would be afraid
they would form a vigilante party
to hunt wild perverse bear in the mountains

at night while they slept in the open
they would dream of unnatural acts
in brown fur
a female bear would come
wrapping her lustful arms around the bodies
of all the women
then they too would be lost
is this where lesbians come from?

I have seen lesbian plums which cling to each other
in the tightest of monogamous love
and I have watched lesbian pumpkins
declare the whole patch their playground
profligate and dusky
their voices arouse something in us
which is laughing

ah, everything is lesbian which loves itself
I am lesbian when I really look in the mirror
the world is lesbian in the morning and the evening
only in mid-afternoon does it try to pretend otherwise

and when the lesbian wind flutters the leaves
of the bright lesbian trees
sending golden shudders of delight
through the changing lesbian light
the sound which is returned to you
is only an echo of your own lesbian nature

admit it you too would like to love yourself
and each other
now, while the vigilantes
wander the mountains
now is the perfect time

embrace the one nearest to you woman or child
apricot, salmon, artichoke, cow

embrace yourself

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27 thoughts on “The Lesbian Bears

  1. Hello,
    I ran across your site when I googled my sister who was Martha Courtot. I do that a lot because I miss her a lot and will until the day I join her and our other sister Laura. Did you know her? Have you ever read any of her poetry or other writings about what really shaped her life; poems and stories about the day our father died and she saw him drop to the ground when she was ten? I know Martha was a lesbian but you know what she was more than that; she was someone’s daughter, sister, mother, grandmother, aunt, and more, much much more. I do wish you would read some of her other writings. I was her first audience as she would take me for long walks in the park when I was little and she would read poetry to me which made me love poetry. Try reading “Day of the Dead”written for our father, one I would never get the chance to know but that is the kind of thing that made Martha who she was. She was a little girl lost from the day our dad died, as was my sister Laura. I have no memories of him since I was so young ; maybe I am fortunate because I saw my entire life the pain it caused them. I had my own pain and she wrote about that also. I have some of her writings here that she wrote just for me. I am glad so many people like her writings but learn about who she really was, not just a lesbian.
    her baby sister

  2. Roberta – how wonderful to hear from you. Yes, I know many of Martha’s other poems. I have her two small chapbooks that came out years ago, plus the book of her collected writings that came out after her death. I first read “Lesbian Bears” so long ago, in a small lesbian literary journal in which some of my early poems were also published. I co-lead a Feminist Havurah (Jewish prayer group), and we use her poem “Crossing a Creek” as part of our liturgy.

    But no, I didn’t know her in person, only her work over many years. I know she wrote about many different things, although I wouldn’t say of her that she was “more than just a lesbian” because I don’t think of lesbian identity as “just” but as so much — through her strong, beautiful voice in her work, I’d say that she was a lesbian, a mother, a daughter, a friend, a lover, a warrior, a wise-woman, and a writer who wove all of these into urgent, necessary, gorgeous words.

    Thanks for sharing more about her life.

  3. Hi,
    I am sorry to make you feel like I was under rating her Lesbian Identity because, I, of all people, know how important it was to her but I hope you understand what I mean and why I wrote; it seems that is all that is written about her. If Martha was heterosexual; would she be identified as Martha Courtot, the militant herterosexual? No, she wouldn’t and that is why I want people to know her for more than her sexuality. I feel our sexuality is a lot of our life but it is not all that we are. I am happy that you like her writing so much and I could tell you so many funny stories about her as my sister that would make you laugh.
    I just feel that she was such a great writer that so many of her writings gets lost and I remember her in her room reading Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg when I was little.
    I can still hear her laughter when I try. Did you know she was writing a story based on our family and of course, our father’s death? When she was 17 or 18 she left Cincinnati for N.Y. during the time I like to call the beat generation I suppose, and I was 8yrs. old at the time but every time she came home I was so happy. I loved her sooo much; so when she would go back to the big apple I would cry my eyes out while holding her senior picture from high school.
    I will tell you one funny story really quickly. Martha was still living at home and it was summer. Mom called from the Beauty Shoppe (mentioned in Martha’s poems sometimes)
    and told us to make sure the house was straightened up because our Uncle and Aunt and their daughter, who was Martha’s age, were stopping by. I had never met them or at least at that point not that I remembered but Martha really did not like her much I don’t think at least as a young teen age girl anyway; anyway, the entire time we were getting the house straightened Martha was talking to me about this girl I will call Shirley and she told me that Shirley had 3 eyes; one was right in the middle of her forehead.
    Well, needless to say, Martha never dreamed I would say something but when they came over and we all were in the back yard I said to Shirley as I tried to look under her bangs “You don’t have three eyes” Well, Martha hurried and put her hand over my mouth and took me in the house like really fast. I always smile and laugh out loud when I think of that time and there are many more; so I really did not want to offend anyone and I hope you understand that in my eyes she was my sister before any thing else mattered. I think I really just would like her to be known for her talent. That was her dream when she was young. Martha had a bit part on a t.v. series years ago and of course everyone we knew watched it. I have been trying to get a dvd of that episode. She is with me always as she walks through my mind and stops at my heart.
    Sincerely
    Roberta Courtot

  4. Oh, Roberta, thank you so much for sharing that story about your big sister and the three eyes! I’ve always loved the sense of humor in Martha’s work — clearly you know where it came from. It’s such a delight to know more about her.

    For a while after she died, there was a web site up with her work on it, and the promise of more to come. That’s where I found “Lesbian Bears,” which I’d been looking for for years. But the website seems to be gone now. Were you part of the group of friends that put that together?

    And I really know what you mean about how lesbian writers get treated as if being lesbian means our writing is only for lesbians. I struggle with that myself a lot; how do I write about my life, what and who I love and how I understand the world, and have it taken as equally vital to everyone, not only my own community. That’s exactly the measure of how much lesbians are still oppressed even if Ellen has a TV show. I just had a talk at lunch today with other poets about June Jordan, who was brilliant, but to her death was angry about how the Poetic Establishment never really accepted or honored her work.

    What was the TV series?

    Elliott

  5. Dear Elliott,

    Hi, This is Martha’s daughter, Thea–little did you know that posting “The Lesbian Bears” on your blog would introduce you to Martha’s whole family…

    I google my mother’s name periodically, and it means a great deal to me to see that her work is still read and valued.

    I really enjoyed reading your exchange with my Aunt Roberta, especially the story about the girl with three eyes, which was new to me. My mother was a larger-than-life personality from her earliest days, and an artist to the bone.

    I see that Roberta never answered your question about the TV show Martha appeared in. It was East Side/West Side episode 4 “Something for the Girls” from 1963.

    Friends and family (mostly my sister Cynthia) put out a small printing of a posthumous collection of Martha’s work called “The Bird Escapes.” I have a couple of extra copies, and if you would like one, drop me a line. I donated a few others to the LGBT center in Anchorage, Alaska where I live.

  6. Thea — I love that I’m “meeting” Martha’s family! The web is an astounding place sometimes. I first read “Lesbian Bears” in a women’s bookstore in Minneapolis 20+ years ago. Then I couldn’t find it anywhere, even in Martha’s two small chapbooks that I tracked down and bought. Finally I found in online on a website of her work that appeared after she died — I assume you were part of creating that? I found out about “The Bird Escapes” there, and bought a copy. But thanks so much for your generous offer to send one!

    And how wonderful that you learned the “3 eyes” story.

    Here’s a question — at some point, in some women’s bookstore, I bought a used copy of an out-of-print poetry collection by Judy Grahn. The signature inside the front cover says “Courtot.” If I made a PDF of the page, could you identify it as your mom’s signature or not? It would be so amazing if her book ended up with me somehow.

  7. Elliott,

    I would be happy to take a look at that signature. Email me at claudetty14@gmail.com.

    The web can definitely be an amazing place–and I have really enjoyed your blog.

    My mother was able to visit me in Alaska just once before she died, and at one scenic stop a bear crossed our path…but we will never know if it was, in fact, a lesbian bear.

    Thea

  8. Oh Thea — I think that last story is just so perfect. Now I’ll never read Lesbian Bears without thinking about that bear. I’ll email a copy of the signature soon.

  9. Hello–I hope I’ll be able to reach Roberta and Thea this way. I’m Gayle Schwain Reichert, Martha’s friend since high school in Cincinnati. I’ve met both of you but don’t expect Berta to remember me. After Martha passed away, I excerpted my large collection of correspondence from Martha, dating from 1960 to her death (though regretably in recent years I failed to keep hard copies of her e-mails). Anyway, I sent ten pages or so of excerpts, probably to Cynthia, some months after Martha’s death. I’ve never heard that she received them. I was delighted to come across Roberta’s comments here as well as Thea’s web page during one of my periodic googles, still wanting to connect with Martha also in some way.

  10. Hello again from Roberta
    And this time of course hello to my niece Thea and any others that may even read this and oh Gayle, I do remember
    you so much. Martha really cared about you so much and you were a good friend. Thea honey, I am sorry I never told the three eyed story but it just popped into my head. Sometime I will tell you the real name of the relative. I never got to email back because I am always doing the family history as you know and I had not been to this site in a while.
    See what happens when you put up a poem by Martha, you really do get to know the entire family from all parts of the world. I never mentioned the episode from East Side West Side and I am sorry for that but I have been trying to get my hands on a dvd of that episode and the last time I checked I could not find that episode anywhere so if anyone does please let me know. You know when I was a little girl, before Martha even had Thea she came home from New York for a visit and showed me a photo she had bought at a thrift store in New York; it was a photo of Marguerite Courtot, the silent film actress. It was beautiful and for the last few years I have been collecting stills, and other antique photos of Marguerite Courtot; in fact, I found out her father, did come from the same area in France that our Courtot family did so you never know??? I laughed when I read parts of Martha’s story that was written and of course she took the name Marguerite; I just laughed but anyway she is the one that really got me interested in the actress and now the photo of Marguerite sits next to photo of Martha on my mantle I now have our sister, Laura’s things after she passed I have ended up with the family photos that she had and many of the letters Martha wrote to her and many other writings of Martha’s I guess a lot of us google Martha and that is good because as long as she is remembered by one person she shall never die. She will never die, and thanks to Cyn I have the photo that I spoke of in my first letter, the one I would hold and cry when she left. I guess I really am still just the baby sister even at almost 60 because with them both gone I feel so alone without them. The last time I saw Martha, Thea and Cyn was there also right before Thea went to Alaska; we did have fun and I do watch that tape just to hear her laughter and remember the woolly worm festival. I started crying when I first started reading Thea’s notes today, but now I am smiling because there are so many of us still here, loving her.I am very proud to call myself her sister. I started a webpage on footnote and have a photo of Martha and Laura as kids on there before their lives took the awful turn that it did. Last summer I went back to the house our father died at and the owner let me go inside. I was surrounded by ghosts and thought of the poems Martha wrote about the trains because of course that small house was right next to the tracks. The trains are gone now; no longer running, Martha, Laura, our parents, Bob, and Silverbelle are gone too, but Martha’s writings will live on as will her descendants and all of ours. Gayle, I am glad you found me on here. I live in Cheviot and I would like to contact you.
    Thea I love You
    Sincerely
    Roberta
    I hope it is o.k. you keep hearing from me.

  11. Kittredge – glad you found it here. It took me years to hunt down the poem – finally found a copy I’d written out by hand sometime in the late 1980’s. Martha was a amazing writer.

  12. One day I will write personal poems that Martha had written to me and for me as well as a couple she wrote for our oldest sister Laura and I may put them here if it is o.k. since it seems we all who knew of Martha, loved Martha or her writings, seem to find this site.
    Sincerely,
    Roberta Courtot

  13. Roberta – oh, that would be great! When you’re ready, send them to me and I’ll make them official posts. It would be an honor to host a Martha Courtot area on my blog!

  14. I will go through some of them when I can emotionally get the chance and let you know.
    Roberta Courtot

  15. I love Martha’s poem, When the Bear Comes to My Garden. Maybe because I read it so often when my mother was dying. I recently read it out loud on our disability radio station. You can hear it here:
    http://www.pushinglimits.i941.net/?p=324

    Here’s the words.

    When the Bear Comes to My Garden

    When the bear comes to my garden
    I will be ready
    I will soak my body in olive oil and honey
    I will wear nothing but sunflowers in my hair
    I will sit surrounded by talking stones
    I will let them speak for me
    when the bear comes to my garden

    When the bear comes
    he will have a strong appetite
    he will show white teeth sharpened on my history
    he will make large footprints across the cucumber plants
    he will trample down the well-turned earth
    he will wash his strong bear scent over the whole garden
    he will scare the birds away

    When the bear comes to my garden
    I will put down my poems
    I will plant the trowel of my work deep
    I will wait for his furred embrace
    I will cry no more

    When the bear comes to my garden
    we will dance then
    our voices rising like leaves borne aloft
    our bodies swaying under an invisible net
    he will press himself against me
    he will be my last passion

    we will fall earthward
    down into the deep cave
    forsaking metaphor finally
    we will look at each other for the first time
    home, he will whisper home, I will answer
    we will hum like bees at summer’s height
    in the morning when you find us wrapped around each other
    we will already have disappeared into the stars

    Martha Courtot © 1995

  16. Wow, thanks for sharing!

    I’m working on getting Martha’s chapbooks scanned into the Lesbian Poetry Archives. It will take a bit of time, but then her work will be easily available on line for the first time.

    Elliott

  17. I lived with Martha at A Woman’s Place in Athol, NY, in 1974-75. We corresponded for several years after we both left AWP, and I recently came across the letters she wrote me, many of which included early renditions of her poems. At the bottom of one she wrote “Is this poem comprehensible to you? Anyway, even if not, how does it make you feel? I *am* curious to know.”

    The letters came from all over – it would be interesting to track them on Google Maps! – and sometimes my letters would be waiting for her when she reached her next destination or hers would miss me as I moved about, although I only moved around Amherst & Northampton, MA. Martha’s spirit was more geographically restless than mine, although we both were looking for “home” – whatever that meant to us.

    I have just transcribed the letters and will next start on the poems Martha sent, and I’d like to share them with Thea, Heather, and Cynthia. I had Cynthia’s email at one point, Thea’s too I think. But can’t find either on my new computer. Hope I can reach them through this site.

    Judith Schenck

  18. Judith! This was my dream post to find this morning! Please email me at battzedek@gmail.com. I have contact info for Martha’s family. And I’m working on getting Martha’s work on the Lesbian Poetry Archive. Julie, who runs it, is creating professional-quality scans of Martha’s chapbooks (with Thea’s permission) and wants me to write an intro to Martha’s work, its time, context, community. I’ve been planning on tracking down women who knew her (as soon as I finish my MFA in poetry in a couple weeks), and I really want to talk with you. I want to hear your stories about Martha, and wow, some of those early drafts and letters would be perfect for the introductory essay.

    I never met Martha, but I loved her work, and when I couldn’t find it on the web, started posting some myself. Since then, I’ve “met” Martha’s family, friends, and fans, which has been an amazing experience.

    I have to run to work right now, but please do email me and let’s set up a time to talk.

    Thank you so much!

    Elliott

  19. I was partnered with Martha for 12 years and was a part of her family at her death. It’s so wonderful to find this site and to hear from Roberta and Thea, as well as the others who also felt moved to contribute to this discussion. Martha was an incedible woman who had a strong independent voice. Her words continue to live and have an impact on our world. I will always love and miss her.

  20. Catherine! I am so glad to hear from you. I’ve been working, slowly, on an introductory essay on Martha’s work so Sinister Wisdom can reprint her early chapbooks. Could we set up a time for a phone interview? It would mean so much to me personally, since I love Martha’s work but never met her, and it would really help the project.

    Please email me at: battzedek@gmail.com

    Thanks so much,
    Elliott

  21. I have had one of Martha’s poems, “Brooklyn in an Ancient Age” on my bulletin board for years. I can’t remember where I found it…perhaps it was published in Mothering magazine? But, even now as a grandmother, it speaks to me and never fails to evoke bittersweet emotions of a mother whose children have grown and are now “across a continent”. Beautiful, and so spot on…..

  22. Hi Holly – would you please take a photo of the poem and send it, or type it up and I’ll post it here? I am, very slowly, working on a project to get Martha’s work re-printed.

    Thanks for reaching out – her sister and daughters keep up with these comments, so get to find out how many people Martha’s words touched.

  23. Re: getting Martha’s work reprinted – I would happily donate to that endeavor. Please let me know if that would be possible.

    Thank you so much for your continued support of Martha’s poetry.

    Oriethyia

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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