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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

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