aaaannnnndddd this is why all mankind sighed with relief when I came out

a poem written sometime during my undergraduate career…

Jennifer Lynn Brown, 18 and pregnant

If I were married I’d be a good wife
surrender my job and stay with the kids
such a sweet wife, so worthy of trust
until tired at last I’d slice open your back.

And when I stabbed you I’d use a steak knife,
having laid out my plans I’d be laid up myself
I would call the police and the medics and all
and greet them myself in your blood at our door.

The lawyers would come with a great many bids
to fight for film rights and their own careers.
In my sixth child’s sixth month the jury’s verdict would be
innocent by insane. Oh I’d act quite quite mad.

I’d then be locked up in a madhouse to rust
with every test tried and every test failed.
I’d bear there the child to be taken away,
to live with your mother who wanted me dead.

I’d be kept there for years, my mind lost on the rack
until no longer a threat they’d release me at last
and get me a job scrubbing stairs, washing johns.
I would, in the end, live alone.


Further Comments on “Without Consent, It is Abuse”

I love having such smart and passionate friends, commentators, and critics!

A few responses, with thanks for pushing my thinking:

My working definition of pornography—this isn’t so outlandish as comments on the original post suggest. It may not be in the dictionary, but it comes from years of work in anti-pornography groups. My thinking has evolved so much over the years, and I short-cut it here because I was writing about something else. Essentially, I (among others) have been thinking about the way that defining porn only around sex makes everyone crazy, since our wider culture has a definite thought disorder about sex. When the definition is all about sex, the arguments tend to focus on 1st amendment/freedom of speech. About which three points:

1. As a sister activist from Madison used to point out, the 1st amendment was written by slave-holders, so clearly was deficient in its understanding of the ability of speech to oppress and silence.

2. as Andrea Dworkin used to say, “Take the gags out of those women’s mouths and then we’ll talk freedom of speech.”

3. The porn industry is hardly free, but is a multi-billion dollar industry, so you can bet they do massive market research and hone their message and content just as intentionally as any other multi-national corporation. I don’t think that porn producers are using “freedom of speech” anymore than I think mega-banks or drug dealers (legal or otherwise) are using freedom of speech; I think they are making and marketing a highly profitable product.

But within this understanding I felt an inherent tension about those times when expressing sex and sexuality is a right, a pleasure, a joy, a challenge to the powers that be, a true expression of freedom. So slowly I evolved a way of thinking about porn that focused on the exploitation, the profit, and the shaping of an intentional point-of-view about sex and gender and race. Therefore the definition I used in my original post, and phrases such as “pornography of profit” and “pornography of righteousness.”

About Outing—Thanks, Loretta, for your discussion of this. I agree that the little rush of joy we might get when some gay-bashing politician is revealed to be gay (or to be having sex with men, regardless of self-identity) is probably not our most moral moment. For me, though, the act of revealing these people isn’t about buying into cultural shame around being gay, but is about exposing hypocrisy, and therefore undermining the arguments said homophobe had been making. So I stand by my support of some kinds of outing, but also respect the analysis that it isn’t a good idea, ever. Understanding the moral lines in political battles is never precise, and we all change over time, so who knows where I might land on this issue in five or ten years.

About famous/public people and privacy—again, this is a place where my opinion has changed and I’m feeling my way toward an analysis/explanation. We all “know” that being famous, or being a “public figure” means you give up some right to privacy. But why is that? Why don’t we question that more? Yes, I think we should see the tax returns, court records, etc of elected officials, because we vote for them to run our government. That seems like a valid need. But does that mean that someone who chooses to work as an actor has no right to get coffee in the morning without photographers haunting them, taking photos that are then sold for profit?

At some level, the argument that “being a public figure means you give up privacy” feels a lot like the ridiculous argument that a woman working in prostitution can’t be raped—if you “give it” away, or sell it, then, the reasoning goes, it can’t be taken by force. I am NOT claiming that the use of Dr. Ride’s image is the equivalent of rape in any—of course it isn’t, and I don’t use rape as a metaphor for anything else—but the structural logic of the two lines of reasoning seem dangerously close to me. Is there an inherent reason why people who follow their passion to be musicians or athletes or astronauts must give up rights the rest of us consider to both basic and constitutionally protected?

For me, there’s a moral litmus test here. Even though the Sally Ride Foundation website has many images of her and states that they may be used, how would we feel if those images appeared on some repulsive Facebook ad claiming that “Space Travel is a fake and a lie perpetrated by the liberal elite and the gay agenda”? Or an ad saying “See how masculine she looks? Going into the sciences and competing with men makes women become rabid feminists who divorce their husbands and become lesbians”? We would be appalled, and I’m thinking that Dr. Ride’s foundation would be none too pleased.

If that’s true, is there ultimately any kind of ethical difference between a right-wing organization slapping an image of this woman onto their political campaign within days after her death and a left-wing organization that did exactly that?

One blog commentator suggested that perhaps the organization in question had entered into conversation with Dr. Ride’s partner. If so, there is NO evidence of this on their site, no mention of Dr. O’Shaughnessy anywhere to be found. While I’d be happy for proof otherwise, I most strongly suspect that when the news about her identity as a lesbian came out upon her death, this group, already at work on issues of gay marriage and civil rights, and decided to use her image, and a fact about her life, in their ad campaign.

So here is round two of the discussion. I welcome more thoughtful feedback and conversation. Thinking hard about how images are created and used is urgent in a world driven more and more by highly-manipulated photos and graphics, and the questions we ask about that as feminists or other activists for social change are WAY behind the reality shoved in our faces every single day.

Me and Martha

I began the Martha Courtot section of This Frenzy accidentally—there was a poem of hers that I loved, “Lesbian Bears,” and hadn’t been able to find for years and years. When her family and friends issued her collected poems after her death I finally had the poem again so posted it. There was nothing about Martha on the web, so other people looking for her began to find me, including Martha’s sister and her daughters.

Then other women who had Martha poems that were precious to them began to contact me, with stories such as “We used a poem by Martha at our commitment ceremony 25 years ago and I can’t find it now—could you find it and post it?” And so a Martha Courtot online community began to form here.

More on that in a bit—but first this amazingness:

I’ve been buying copies of Judy Grahn’s The Work of the Common Woman for years now. Until last year her poems had been out of print and unavailable, so I regularly scoured used book sites and ordered copies, most of which I’ve given away. The last copy I bought this way sat on my shelf for a year or so before I opened it one day. There. at the top of the title page, was written “Courtot.” Could it really be a copy Martha had owned? It seemed unlikely, so I dreamed about it but set it aside. Then I “met” Martha’s daughter Thea via the blog, so I scanned in the page and sent it to her.

Then I waited. Only a few days, really (much less time than the 7 months or so that passed between my idea and my walking the book to the second floor of my own house to scan it in!). But now I was Actively Waiting. As in Judy Grahn’s advice “Love comes to those who wait actively / with their windows open.”

Yesterday I heard back from Thea. “Yes,” she said, “that seems to be my mom’s signature, and she signed EVERY book.”

Wow. Just wow. I have Martha Courtot’s Judy Grahn.

Now, back to the collecting Martha’s work. Julie Enszer, over at Lesbian Poetry Archive has asked me to work on a page about Martha and her work. Martha’s daughter is sending copies of her poetry chapbooks which Julie will scan to make beautiful online editions. I’ll work on an introduction talking about what Martha’s work meant when she was writing and why her words still matter to women, to lesbians, and also to the broader world of American poetry.

I’m not sure yet what exactly I’ll write for that, but I definitely want other “Martha and Me” stories – how have these poems affected you, how have they lived along with you?

I’ll see where that goes, and post more as I get into the work.

Signature on title page

April 21 – When you took me down

When you took me down

you placed 1 pomegranate seed
on my tongue
sweet sweet blood          I begged
then for the 5 still in hand

When you offered me
6 more I offered you my
breasts         you crushed seeds in your teeth
licked until my nipples
dripped red

Thus I came to owe you 1 year

The next 12 seeds I hid in the lips
of my clear-cut vulva          lay awaiting
discovery          of this promised 2nd year

60 seeds you slid into my
vagina then fucked me as no one ever had
sweet sweet blood running
made me        virgin          yours

5 years owed a down payment towards

the 1200 seeds I smashed to dye
my wedding dress sweet sweet blood red
swinging through our Descension Capoeira
half the guests jealous          half, appalled

with a nod to poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, whose “At Medusa’s Hair Salon” I read before falling asleep last night, sending my mind into the realm of Greek myth such that the outline of this poem came to me and got scrawled on paper before I fell asleep. Don’t miss her excellent At the Drive-In Volcano.

we are never the first of our kind

On today’s Writer’s Almanac I found this wonderful love letter from Vita to Virginia, January 21st, 1926. It’s so easy to believe, as we invent and re-invent love and being lesbian, that we are New In The World. Granted, love may FEEL ever-new, but this speaks to me and for me in an immediate, right now, I yearn for how they yearned for each other way. Go Vita! Win your girl’s heart! We’re all rooting for you!

Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Wolf, Jan 21st, 1926:

“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it.

Dear dainty delicious darling

Gertrude Stein—how we’ve been told you are obtuse, impossible, all but meaningless, when in fact you are loving, inventive, playful, sexual, flirtatious, silly. Why has it been easier for the world to imagine Gertrude as a stern remote genius than as a woman of brilliant mind and wit passionately in love with another woman?

Wonder why indeed.

There is a wonderful (though out of print) collection of Stein’s love notes to Alice, edited by Kay Turner: Baby Precious Always Shines, You can find used copies easily enough. The notes are handwritten, so some words aren’t entirely clear and are marked with brackets and best guesses. Here’s one from the collection:

Dear dainty delicious darling, dear
sweet selected [enemifier?] of my soul
dear beloved baby dear everything
to me when this you see you will
have slept long and will be warm
and completely [loudly?] loved by
me dear wifey, [your?] baby

Amazon in the land of oranges—Joan Larkin

Some Unsaid Things
Joan Larkin, Amazon Poetry, 1975

I was not going to say
how you lay with me

nor where your hands went
& left their light impressions

nor whose face was white
as a splash of moonlight

nor who spilled the wine
nor whose blood stained the sheet

nor which one of us wept
to set the dark bed rocking

nor what you took me for
nor what I took you for

nor how your fingertips
in me were roots

light roots torn leaves put down—
nor what you tore from me

nor what confusion came
of our twin names

nor will I say whose body
opened, sucked, whispered

like the ocean, unbalancing
what had seemed a safe position

Amazon in the land of oranges—Eleanor Lerman

Finally I See Your Skin
Eleanor Lerman in Amazon Poetry, 1975

Finally I see your skin so scarred
by my use that I can close my eyes and tell you
where the constant embrace of my fingers is turned to gold
on your stomach, and the press of my legs
has turned your thighs to polished glass
No one else thinks of touching you now
Your body mentions me in all its movements
and has come to fit only my hands

I once told you that I had celestial information
cut on the inside of my mouth and it was years
before you wore it smooth enough to keep from
bleeding your tongue
Mindful of this
you come to kiss me one morning and find
I am old and brittle and pure
my mouth cracks open and planets start to pour out
universes form and begin to show
signs of life

Amazon in the land of oranges—Marcie Hershman

Making Love to Alice
Marcie Hershman
from Amazon Poetry, 1975

I imagine Gertrude making love to Alice
her generous and wise mouth upon her
breast her arms around hers the two
bodies fitting together, strangely
they are different and wonderfully they are
together. Gertrude being warm and full and
with Alice and Alice being warm and full with
Gertrude who is with her and the way
she is with her. Laughing, I imagine
they must know each other, the two, the one.

It is as with you and I. It is
with us as them. She then she and you then i
imagine. And in the act of imagining
make love to love to love to love

Amazon in the land of oranges—Martha Courtot

i am a woman in ice
Martha Courtot

i am a woman in ice

piece by piece
i am divested
of the cold cage

sharp as glass
the splinters fall at my feet
do not cut yourself

when i listen
to the trains wail
i can feel
through underground caverns
of stalactal promises

the earth
full and steady
under me

i never thought
i’d love the sun again
but now my fingers move
in a panic
of wanting to be burnt.