These dense, formal poems demand a lot of attention. They need to be read slowly and thoughtfully. Presented in three parts, Unraveling at the Name takes the reader on a deeply personal and uncompromisingly sexual journey through the experiences of young womanhood, marriage, awakening same-sex desire, divorce and single-motherhood. The experiences described by the speaker are common enough, but by elevating them through highly formal poetic structures Jenny Factor captures deep emotional truths about how life feels. Marilyn Hacker, blurbing the book, praisingly calls her use of the fifteen-sonnet heroic crown an “extravagant gesture”. and I think that’s the precisely the point.
Unraveling at the Name is Factor’s only collection and I really hope she publishes another one day.
This week we’ve seen a lot of feminist discussion about issues of speech, silence and oppression, so I decided that now would be a good time to post some thoughts on the poetry of Judy Grahn.
Grahn is a lesbian feminist poet and activist whose work is very much concerned with speaking back to power. Her project is one of radical redefinition rooted in a centering of the lives of ordinary women. The Work of a Common Woman brings together poems published between 1964 and 1977, a period when feminists were fighting to break free of patriarchal modes of representation and wrestle back control of the narratives through which women’s experiences had been mediated by culture. This was a time when one of the top feminist priorities was to get women’s voices out there, which obviously meant finding ways to bypass the gatekeepers of publishing and the media. Grahn was an important figure in this effort, co-founding the Gay Woman’s Liberation Movement and The Women’s Press Collective, as well as making her own work available in an accessible pamphlet form that could be easily circulated by women’s groups.
I’m not a girl
I’m a hatchet
I’m not a hole
I’m a whole mountain
I’m not a fool
I’m a survivor
I’m not a pearl
I’m the Atlantic Ocean
I’m not a good lay
I’m a straight razor
look at me as if you had never seen a woman before
I have red, red hands and much bitterness
Ah, Love, you smell of petroleum
with grease on your fingernails,
paint in your hair
there is a pained look in your eye
from no appreciation
you speak to me of the lilacs
and appleblossoms we ought to have
the banquets we should be serving,
afterwards rubbing each other for hours
with tenderness and genuine
someday. Meantime here is your cracked plate
with spaghetti. Wash your hands &
touch me, praise
my cooking. I shall praise your calluses.
we shall dance in the kitchen
of our imagination.