Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A WOMAN IS TALKING TO DEATH

(Spider Woman Rock at Canyon de Chelly, Dine Nation in Arizona)
Once a year, at least, I read in its entirety what may be my favorite poem of all time, and certainly one of the most important in the past century: "A Woman Is Talking To Death", by Judy Grahn. I've had the extraordinary opportunity to hear her read this aloud, more than once. Her work helped launch a revolution. I read it again tonight, and it's time to share it with you.

(Judy Grahn, circa 1972; copyright by Lynda Koolish)

What Wikipedia has to say about her is brief and almost ridiculous in how little it explains her influence: "Judy Rae Grahn (born July 28, 1940, in Chicago) is an American poet. She has written many lesbian/feminist works. 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 A Woman's Place, a bookstore, and The Women's Press Collective, an all-woman publisher. The Women's Press Collective (WPC) began in Oakland in 1969, with a barrel mimeograph machine, and ultimately was closed in 1978 due to the vandalization of the press and equipment. Diana Press was an offshoot of the WPC. WPC titles included A Woman is Talking to Death, Lesbians Speak Out, and Edward the Dyke. Grahn is the co-director of the Women's Spirituality MA program and Program Director of the MFA in Creative Inquiry at the New College of California. She also initiated and edits the online academic journal Metaformia."

Her collections of poetry and other books include:
Edward the Dyke and Other Poems (1971)
A Woman is Talking to Death (1974)
She Who (1977)
The Queen of Wands (1982)
The Work of a Common Woman: Collected Poetry (1964-1977) (1984)
The Queen of Swords (1990)
Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds (1990, on the history of lesbian and gay culture) (Stonewall Book Award, 1985)
Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World (1994)
Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition (1985).
Mundane's World (1988).

A few good articles about her include:
An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
The Modern American Poetry website on her
A biography of her at Women's Lives

About "A Woman Is Talking To Death", Grahn has said, in various interviews, "Pat Parker had modeled the form for her long poem Womenslaughter after my own Marathon: A Woman is Talking to Death. So I told her that A Woman is Talking To Death was made the way it is because I was already so familiar wit her own long autobiographic story-poem: Goat Child [included in Movement in Black]. What a Round Robin life is." "This poem is as factual as I could possibly make it." And, she is reported to have been so frightened by the power of her writing that she stopped writing poetry for a while after producing this poem.

It can be found online here and there. But just for you, my lovelies, I'm copying it in here. It was in my head the very first time I drove over the Bay Bridge, and psychological links to it occur in almost everything I write.

A Woman is Talking to Death

One
Testimony in trials that never got heard

my lovers teeth are white geese flying above me
my lovers muscles are rope ladders under my hands

we were driving home slow
my lover and I, across the long Bay Bridge,
one February midnight, when midway
over in the far left lane, I saw a strange scene:

one small young man standing by the rail,
and in the lane itself, parked straight across
as if it could stop anything, a large young
man upon a stalled motorcycle, perfectly
relaxed as if he'd stopped at a hamburger stand;
he was wearing a peacoat and levis, and
he had his head back, roaring, you
could almost hear the laugh, it
was so real.

"Look at that fool," I said, "in the
middle of the bridge like that," a very
womanly remark.

Then we heard the meaning of the noise
of metal on a concrete bridge at 50
miles an hour, and the far left lane
filled up with a big car that had a
motorcycle jammed on its front bumper, like
the whole thing would explode, the friction
sparks shot up bright orange for many feet
into the air, and the racket still sets
my teeth on edge.

When the car stopped we stopped parallel
and Wendy headed for the callbox while I
ducked across those 6 lanes like a mouse
in the bowling alley. "Are you hurt?" I said,
the middle-aged driver had the greyest black face,
"I couldn't stop, I couldn't stop, what happened?"

Then I remembered. "Somebody," I said, "was on
the motorcycle." I ran back,
one block? two blocks? the space for walking
on the bridge is maybe 18 inches, whoever
engineered this arrogance. In the dark
stiff wind it seemed I would
be pushed over the rail, would fall down
screaming onto the hard surface of
the bay, but I did not, I found the tall young man
who thought he owned the bridge, now lying on
his stomach, head cradled in his broken arm.

He had glasses on, but somewhere he had lost
most of his levis, where were they?
and his shoes. Two short cuts on his buttocks,
that was the only mark except his thin white
seminal tubes were all strung out behind; no
child left in him; and he looked asleep.

I plucked wildly at his wrist, then put it
down; there were two long haired women
holding back the traffic just behind me
with their bare hands, the machines came
down like mad bulls, I was scared, much
more than usual, I felt easily squished
like the earthworms crawling on a busy
sidewalk after the rain; I wanted to
leave. And met the driver, walking back.

"The guy is dead." I gripped his hand,
the wind was going to blow us off the bridge.

"Oh my God," he said, "haven't I had enough
trouble in my life?" He raised his head,
and for a second was enraged and yelling,
at the top of the bridge—"I was just driving
home!" His head fell down. "My God, and
now I've killed somebody."

I looked down at my own peacoat and levis,
then over at the dead man's friend, who
was bawling and blubbering, what they would
call hysteria in a woman. "It isn't possible"
he wailed, but it was possible, it was
indeed, accomplished and unfeeling, snoring
in its peacoat, and without its levis on.
He died laughing; that's a fact.

I had a woman waiting for me,
in her car and in the middle of the bridge,
I'm frightened, I said.
I'm afraid, he said, stay with me,
please don't go, stay with me, be
my witness—"No," I said, "I'll be your
witness—later," and I took his name
and number, "but I can't stay with you,
I'm too frightened of the bridge, besides
I have a woman waiting
and no license—
and no tail lights—"
So I left—
as I have left so many of my lovers.

we drove home
shaking, Wendy's face greyer
than any white person's I have ever seen.
maybe he beat his wife, maybe he once
drove taxi, and raped a lover
of mine—how to know these things?
we do each other in, that's a fact.

who will be my witness?
death wastes our time with drunkenness
and depression
death, who keeps us from our
lovers.
he had a woman waiting for him,
I found out when I called the number
days later

"Where is he" she said, "he's disappeared."
"He'll be all right" I said, "we could
have hit the guy as easy as anybody, it
wasn't anybody's fault, they'll know that,"
women so often say dumb things like that,
they teach us to be sweet and reassuring,
and say ignorant things, because we don't invent
the crime, the punishment, the bridges
that same week I looked into the mirror
and nobody was there to testify;
how clear, an unemployed queer woman
makes no witness at all,
nobody was there for
those two questions: what does
she do, and who is she married to?

I am the woman who stopped on the bridge
and this is the man who was there
our lovers teeth are white geese flying
above us, but we ourselves are
easily squished.

keep the women small and weak
and off the street, and off the
bridges, that's the way, brother
one day I will leave you there,
as I have left you there before,
working for death.

we found out later
what we left him to.
Six big policemen answered the call,
all white, and no child in them.
they put the driver up against his car
and beat the hell out of him.
What did you kill that poor kid for?
you muther****ing nigger.
that's a fact.

Death only uses violence
when there is any kind of resistance,
the rest of the time a slow
weardown will do.

They took him to 4 different hospitals
til they got a drunk test report to fit their
case, and held him five days in jail
without a phone call.
how many lovers have we left.

there are as many contradictions to the game,
as there are players.
a woman is talking to death,
though talk is cheap, and life takes a long time
to make
right. He got a cheap cheesy lawyer
who had him cop a plea, 15 to 20
instead of life.
Did I say life?

the arrogant young man who thought he
owned the bridge, and fell asleep on it
he died laughing: that's a fact.
the driver sits out his time
off the street somewhere,
does he have the most vacant of
eyes, will he die laughing?

Two
They don't have to lynch the women anymore

death sits on my doorstep
cleaning his revolver
death cripples my feet and sends me out
to wait for the bus alone,
then comes by driving a taxi.

the woman on our block with 6 young children
has the most vacant of eyes
death sits in her bedroom, loading
his revolver

they don't have to lynch the women
very often anymore, although
they used to—the lord and his men
went through the villages at night, beating &
killing every woman caught
outdoors.
the European witch trials took away
the independent people; two different villages
—after the trials were through that year—
had left in them, each—
one living woman:
one

What were those other women up to? had they
run over someone? stopped on the wrong bridge?
did they have teeth like
any kind of geese, or children
in them?

Three
This woman is a lesbian be careful

In the military hospital where I worked
as a nurse's aide, the walls of the halls
were lined with howling women
waiting to deliver
or to have some parts removed.
One of the big private rooms contained
the general's wife, who needed
a wart taken off her nose.
we were instructed to give her special attention
not because of her wart or her nose
but because of her husband, the general.

as many women as men die, and that's a fact.

At work there was one friendly patient, already
claimed, a young woman burnt apart with X-ray,
she had long white tubes instead of openings;
rectum, bladder, vagina—I combed her hair, it
was my job, but she took care of me as if
nobody's touch could spoil her.

ho ho death, ho death
have you seen the twinkle in the dead woman's eye?

when you are a nurse's aide
someone suddenly notices you
and yells about the patient's bed,
and tears the sheets apart so you
can do it over, and over
while the patient waits
doubled over in her pain
for you to make the bed again
and no one ever looks at you,
only at what you do not do
Here, general, hold this soldier's bed pan
for a moment, hold it for a year—
then we'll promote you to making his bed.
we believe you wouldn't make such messes
if you had to clean up after them.

that's a fantasy.
this woman is a lesbian, be careful.

When I was arrested and being thrown out
of the military, the order went out: dont anybody
speak to this woman, and for those three
long months, almost nobody did; the dayroom, when
I entered it, fell silent till I had gone; they
were afraid, they knew the wind would blow
them over the rail, the cops would come,
the water would run into their lungs.
Everything I touched
was spoiled. They were my lovers, those
women, but nobody had taught us to swim.
I drowned, I took 3 or 4 others down
when I signed the confession of what we
had done together.

No one will ever speak to me again.

I read this somewhere; I wasn't there:
in WW II the US army had invented some floating
amphibian tanks, and took them over to
the coast of Europe to unload them,
the landing ships all drawn up in a fleet,
and everybody watching. Each tank had a
crew of 6 and there were 25 tanks.
The first went down the landing planks
and sank, the second, the third, the
fourth, the fifth, the sixth went down
and sank. They weren't supposed
to sink, the engineers had
made a mistake. The crew looked around
wildly for the order to quit,
but none came, and in the sight of
thousands of men, each 6 crewmen
saluted his officers, battened down
his hatch in turn and drove into the
sea, and drowned, until all 25 tanks
were gone. did they have vacant
eyes, die laughing, or what? what
did they talk about, those men,
as the water came in?

was the general their lover?

Four
A Mock Interrogation

Have you ever held hands with a woman?

Yes, many times—women about to deliver, women about to
have breasts removed, wombs removed, miscarriages, women
having epileptic fits, having asthma, cancer, women having
breast bone marrow sucked out of them by nervous or
indifferent interns, women with heart condition, who were
vomiting, overdosed, depressed, drunk, lonely to the point
of extinction: women who had been run over, beaten up,
deserted, starved. women who had been bitten by rats; and
women who were happy, who were celebrating, who were
dancing with me in large circles or alone, women who were
climbing mountains or up and down walls, or trucks or roofs
and needed a boost up, or I did; women who simply wanted
to hold my hand because they liked me, some women who
wanted to hold my hand because they liked me better than
anyone.

These were many women?

Yes. many.

What about kissing? Have you kissed any women?

I have kissed many women.

When was the first woman you kissed with serious feeling?

The first woman I ever kissed was Josie, who I had loved at
such a distance for months. Josie was not only beautiful,
she was tough and handsome too. Josie had black hair and
white teeth and strong brown muscles. Then she dropped
out of school unexplained. When she came back she came
back for one day only, to finish the term, and there was a
child in her. She was all shame, pain, and defiance. Her eyes
were dark as the water under a bridge and no one would
talk to her, they laughed and threw things at her. In the
afternoon I walked across the front of the class and look-
ed deep into Josie's eyes and I picked up her chin with my
hand, because I loved her, because nothing like her trouble
would ever happen to me, because I hated it that she was
pregnant and unhappy, and an outcast. We were thirteen.

You didn't kiss her?

How does it feel to be thirteen and having a baby?

You didn't actually kiss her?

Not in fact.

You have kissed other women?

Yes, many, some of the finest women I know, I have kissed.
women who were lonely, women I didn't know and didn't
want to, but kissed because that was a way to say yes we are
still alive and loveable, though separate, women who recog-
nized a loneliness in me, women who were hurt, I confess to
kissing the top of a 55 year old woman's head in the snow in
boston, who was hurt more deeply than I have ever been
hurt, and I wanted her as a very few people have wanted
me—I wanted her and me to own and control and run the
city we lived in, to staff the hospital I knew would mistreat
her, to drive the transportation system that had betrayed
her, to patrol the streets controlling the men who would
murder or disfigure or disrupt us, not accidentally with machines, but
on purpose, because we are not allowed out
on the street alone—

Have you ever committed any indecent acts with women?

Yes, many. I am guilty of allowing suicidal women to die
before my eyes or in my ears or under my hands because I
thought I could do nothing, I am guilty of leaving a prosti-
tute who held a knife to my friend's throat to keep us from
leaving, because we would not sleep with her, we thought
she was old and fat and ugly; I am guilty of not loving her
who needed me; I regret all the women I have not slept with
or comforted, who pulled themselves away from me for lack
of something I had not the courage to fight for, for us, our
life, our planet, our city, our meat and potatoes, our love.
These are indecent acts, lacking courage, lacking a certain
fire behind the eyes, which is the symbol, the raised fist, the
sharing of resources, the resistance that tells death he will
starve for lack of the fat of us, our extra. Yes I have com-
mitted acts of indecency with women and most of them were
acts of omission. I regret them bitterly.

Five
Bless this day oh cat our house

"I was allowed to go
3 places, growing up," she said—
"3 places, no more.
there was a straight line from my house
to school, a straight line from my house
to church, a straight line from my house
to the corner store."
her parents thought something might happen to her.
but nothing ever did.

my lovers teeth are white geese flying above me
my lovers muscles are rope ladders under my hands
we are the river of life and the fat of the land
death, do you tell me I cannot touch this woman?
if we use each other up
on each other
that's a little bit less for you
a little bit less for you, ho
death, ho ho death

Bless this day oh cat our house
help me be not such a mouse
death tells the woman to stay home
and then breaks in the window.

I read this somewhere, I wasn't there:
In feudal Europe, if a woman committed adultery
her husband would sometimes tie her
down, catch a mouse and trap it
under a cup on her bare belly, until
it gnawed itself out, now are you
afraid of mice?

Six
Dressed as I am, a young man once called
me names in Spanish

a woman who talks to death
is a dirty traitor

inside a hamburger joint and
dressed as I am, a young man once called me
names in Spanish
then he called me queer and slugged me.
first I thought the ceiling had fallen down
but there was the counterman making a ham
sandwich, and there was I spread out on his
counter.

For God's sake I said when
I could talk, this guy is beating me up
can't you call the police or something,
can't you stop him? he looked up from
working on his sandwich, which was my
sandwich, I had ordered it. He liked
the way I looked. "There's a pay phone
right across the street" he said.

I couldn't listen to the Spanish language
for weeks afterward, without feeling the
most murderous of urges, the simple
association of one thing to another,
so damned simple.

The next day I went to the police station
to become an outraged citizen
Six big policemen stood in the hall,
all white and dressed as they do
they were well pleased with my story, pleased
at what had gotten beat out of me, so
I left them laughing, went home fast
and locked my door.
For several nights I fantasized the scene
again, this time grabbing a chair
and smashing it over the bastard's head,
killing him. I called him a spic, and
killed him. My face healed, his didn't.
no child in me.

now when I remember I think:
maybe he was Josie's baby.
all the chickens come home to roost,
all of them.

Seven
Death and disfiguration

One Christmas eve my lovers and I
we left the bar, driving home slow
there was a woman lying in the snow
by the side of the road. she was wearing
a bathrobe and no shoes, where were
her shoes? she had turned the snow
pink, under her feet. she was an Asian
woman, didn't speak much English, but
she said a taxi driver beat her up
and raped her, throwing her out of his
car.
what on earth was she doing there
on a street she helped to pay for
but doesn't own?
doesn't she know to stay home?

I am a pervert, therefore I've learned
to keep my hands to myself in public
but I was so drunk that night,
I actually did something loving
I took her in my arms, this woman,
until she could breathe right, and
my friends who are perverts too
they touched her too
we all touched her
"You're going to be all right"
we lied. She started to cry
"I'm 55 years old" she said
and that said everything.

Six big policemen answered the call
no child in them.
they seemed afraid to touch her,
then grabbed her like a corpse and heaved her
on their metal stretcher into the van,
crashing and clumsy.
She was more frightened than before.
they were cold and bored.
'don't leave me' she said.
'she'll be all right' they said.
we left, as we have left all of our lovers
as all lovers leave all lovers
much too soon to get the real loving done.

Eight
a mock interrogation

Why did you get into the cab with him, dressed as you are?

I wanted to go somewhere.

Did you know what the cab driver might do
if you got into the cab with him?

I just wanted to go somewhere.

How many times did you
get into the cab with him?

I don't remember.

If you don't remember, how do you know it happened to you?


Nine
Hey you death

ho and ho poor death
our lovers teeth are white geese flying above us
our lovers hands are rope ladders under our hands
even though no women yet go down to the sea in ships
except in their dreams.

only the arrogant invent a quick and meaningful end
for themselves, of their own choosing.
everyone else knows how very slow it happens
how the woman's existence bleeds out her years,
how the child shoots up at ten and is arrested and old
how the man carries a murderous shell within him
and passes it on.

we are the fat of our land, and
we all have our list of casualties
to my lovers I bequeath
the rest of my life

I want nothing left of me for you, ho death
except some fertilizer
for the next batch of us
who do not hold hands with you
who do not embrace you
who do not try to work for you
or sacrifice themselves or trust
or believe you, ho ignorant
death, how do you know
we happened to you?

wherever our meat hangs on our own bones
for our own use
your pot is so empty
death, ho death
you shall be poor



—Judy Grahn, 1974

9 comments:

kat said...

good grief. I have to admit to never having read any Judy Grahn before. this was the first time.

I'm absolutely floored.

Maggie, what's your interpretation of the repeating line about there not being a child in someone?
Meaning the innocence, compassion, wonder are all gone?

holy shit. I'm just gonna go back to sitting still, staring at the wall being overwhelmed....

Maggie Jochild said...

Yeah, I think that's one meaning. But another is (remember, she's a Lesbian-feminist) that this person has never given birth, and never will, and the limits we believe that imposes on our gender conditioning. The idea of womb as connecting one to the life force, and therefore giving you greater reason to not participate in destruction. I mean, she doesn't limit it to men, she refers to herself in that way as well. It's a metaphor, not literally about who has a womb and who doesn't. Like Myra, who's the ultimate mother yet has no interest at all in using her womb.

This is a poem about how "we do each other in, and that's a fact" -- an argument against that headset.

The section about the tanks sinking -- yes, it really happened. I saw a PBS special last year about World War II that covered it. Unbelievable.

little gator said...

I've never had anything but grief from *my* womb. I sometimes wonder if my screwed up hormones were the reason I was never interested in being a mother to human children, though I've been told many times I'm quite maternal to my critters.

Did you know there's a blood test that can determine menopause? The Follical Stimulating Hormone, or FSH gets very high at meno as it tries, and fails, to release an egg.

It's normal low in premeno women even at the point on the cycle when it does its stuff. But at meno it climbs.

Maggie Jochild said...

Great tip, little gator. And yeah, the will to nurture takes a glorious variety of forms.

kat said...

ah, yes, of course. That makes a lot of sense.

The jury's still out on my womb.....

dreaminginthedeepsouth said...

A brilliant and prophetic poem. Better than Ginsberg but like him. Thanks for the introduction. What an emotional whallop!
Your blog is wonderful.
The "being no child in me" -- what a wild metaphor for age, for being unmarried, the last of the lineage, being wholly accountable as a witness, a truthteller. There is a resonance to that even for those who have had, do have children. There's a part of us, indeed that has "no child in us" - knowing that death will take us, that everything will be erased. But there's a joy in that too, and so even in the darkness in the poem , the light of the human shines, shines.

Maggie Jochild said...

Gorgeous comment, dreaminginthedeepsouth. I like the idea of "no child in us" parents. Reminds me of Florence King's "self-rejuvenating virgin" -- although the Far Right has made that semi-joke a reality.

Whereabouts in the Deep South are you dreaming?

Otter said...

I read this poem every year too, on Yom Kippur, as a reminder and renewal of commitment to do what I can to stop working for Death.
Otter in Philadelphia

Otter said...

I read this poem every year also, on Yom Kippur (day of atonement in Jewish tradition) as a reminder and renewal of commitment to do what I can to not work for Death.