She Is Still Burning 7 (April 2001)

Note, 16 May 2017 BE: The April 2001 instalment of “She Is Still Burning” below focuses on France and the work of Michèle Causse. I was just getting ready to post it when France held their presidential election, the results of which led me to imagine Jeanne d’Arc saying to her disembodied self: “Well, old girl, only a fool walks into a fire, and I  had been wondering why we thought it was such a brilliant idea to liberate France. But now it’s May 2017, and the French just threw a massive monkey-wrench into the onrushing wheels of fascism. Not bad. Not bad at all. Vive la République! Vive la France!

A few days later, South Korea did France one better, electing in a landslide a new president who was born the child of refugee parents from the North, grew up in poverty, and became a human-rights lawyer. Vive la South Korea! For showing how to do democracy under conditions of extreme duress.

And now back to the past …


SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #7
29 April 2001

“Put on your old jacket. We’ll fill our pockets with sugar drops, set off wherever the heart desires, without any plan at all, through quarters overgrown with camomile … ”
– Irina Ratushinskaya

Dear Friends,

After a winter onslaught that lasted until mid-April (there’s still snow in the New Brunswick woods), purple and yellow crocuses are now blooming; the robins are singing “cheer up, chérie.” Every time life renews itself, it catches me by surprise. What! You mean there’s hope at the bottom of that box?

Some day I’m going to learn not to let world events, as well as the weather, drag me into the slough of despond. But that day hasn’t come yet. And so I just have to say with regard to His Junior Bushness … my god, how reckless is this goofball front for the fundamentalists. First he gives the thumbs-up, green-light, go-right-ahead sign to Ariel Sharon (and speaking of Sharon, how did a child with a name that sounds like roses and true-love grow up to become the architect of a new “Final Solution”?). Then — after scraping through the international incident resulting from a Chinese fighter pilot’s urge to play chicken with a US spy plane — Bush intimates that he will not hesitate to re-arm Taiwan. Oh brilliant. A rerun of the Cold War together with a sure-fire recipe for hot war in the Mideast.

In mid-April, however, along with warmer weather, came the people’s summit in Quebec City and the 30,000-strong peaceful protest march (against the kind of “free trade” that has so far been governed by rules chiefly benefitting corporate investors), along with some cheering news from the south of France that you will likely not have found in your local newspaper. Read all about it in this installment of She Is Still Burning!

You may notice that, though this installment ranges over two continents and mixes together two languages, it’s still uni-voiced: I wrote almost everything in it. To remedy this lack of variety in authorship, why not send me something to publish in the next installment? The form can be anything you wish: letters, reflections on personal experience, poetry, stories, essays, reviews or a hybrid-sort-of-thing you invent. I publish excerpts from the letters I receive only if the writer explicitly gives me permission, so please let me know if I’m free to share the comments you send me.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Glimpses of Lesbian Politics and Culture, Stage II, in France” (text and translations by Harriet Ellenberger)
•”To the Beautiful Contradictions of Ariane” (a bilingual poem written for the birthday of a bilingual friend) by Harriet Ellenberger
•”Thunderer, Perfect Mind” (a poem with a title stolen from the Gnostic Gospels) by Harriet Ellenberger


GLIMPSES OF LESBIAN POLITICS AND CULTURE, STAGE II, IN FRANCE

text and translations by Harriet Ellenberger

“In French everything sounds like a poem,
in English it sounds like the bus doors opening above a sewer
and yet
one must go where these things meet.”
— Suzanne Cox

In 1993, shortly after her political fable Voyages de la Grande Naine en Androssie was published, Michèle Causse wrote to two friends, saying she was so stressed by the rise of fundamentalist movements that, if her health had allowed it, she would have begun a crusade and given to every woman she found a new “dictionary/bible.” That brief remark in a personal letter evidently signalled the beginning of a furious creative process because she did go ahead, despite medical crises, to write a new “dictionary/bible.” Originally titled “Bréviare de Gorgones” [“Book of the Gorgons”], it was published last spring in France under the title Contre le sexage [“Against Sexdom”] (Paris: Éditions Balland, 2000).

Taped to the wall above my writing desk is the announcement for the April 2000 book launching in Paris. It shows a colour photo of Afghani women after the Taliban takeover, sitting in a group. They’re shrouded in orange or white or grey fabric, with no opening for the eyes. Through a small piece of loosely woven material inset into the more tightly woven fabric draped over them, they look at each other or stare into space. Below the photo are Michèle’s words, “Et même Kaboul, la malheureuse, s’efforce parfois de rêver que les interdits s’assoupliront”… [“And even Kabul, the wretched, dares sometimes to dream that the prohibitions will be eased”].

The Shroud of Language

“It is hardly surprising that those who hold power should
attempt to control the words and language people use.”
— John Ralston Saul

“dictionary: summary of the production, development and
classification of ideological monstrosities”
— Michèle Causse (from the glossary of Contre le sexage)

You might (and I would) call Contre le sexage the closing argument for the prosecution in the case of Life vs. the Global Sex-Class System. The book is a tour de force, and the philosophical culmination of Michèle’s lifework as novelist, essayist, translator, editor and teacher/activist. Its argument hinges on the political nature of language, making clear the distinction between the “androlect” (a word created by Michèle to name languages in which the sex-class hierarchy is both embedded and concealed) and “alpha language” (a name invented by her last-minute collaborator Éliane Pons, to signify languages freed from their sex-class straitjacket).

Anyone who has tried to think, speak or write clearly about overcoming oppression knows that when you start using words like “man,” “woman,” “heterosexual,” “homosexual” — words everyone supposedly understands — you sooner or later tumble into a conceptual pit and the fog rolls in. Why? It’s that ol’ devil androlect again — you’ve been trying to use a primary instrument of sexdom to demolish sexdom, an effort which has certain inherent limitations. But, given that the androlect is also our common tongue, what are we to do?

What Michèle has done is to create “radical-lesbian” theory [“lesbienne radicale” is a political term used primarily in Quebec and in France; probably the nearest relative to Michèle’s book available in English is Monique Wittig’s The Straight Mind], and she does this entirely without reliance on the words “woman,” “lesbian” or, for that matter, “human.” Instead, she invents a plethora of words to name states of embodied consciousness in varying degrees of submission to or revolt against the sex-class hierarchy. Below are a few examples from the glossary, to give you a sense of the direction she’s headed in:

a) Diviseur [the dominant who arrogates to himself the power to classify those similar to him, arranging them in a hierarchy according to the sole criterion he judges pertinent — their sexual organs]

b) dividue [she who who has been divided — that is, appropriated, named and spoken for]

c) dividuelle [dividue in the process of evolving towards individuality]

d) Individue [one who, having recognized the confiscation of the symbolic order by the Diviseur, does not allow the division to be exercised on her, and annuls the effects of it by making appear in and through language her own naming and her own representation]

e) Gorgones [Individues originating the Sapiens conception of the human world. Having denounced the unilateral point of view that organizes the rapport between beings, Gorgones have withdrawn their bodies from the exchanges dictated by the Diviseurs, and found in their face-to-face relationships the necessary and sufficient condition for the elaboration of an unprecedented symbolic order.]

f) Sapiens [reorganization of the human species, taking into account the totality of speaking beings, whatever the reality of their bodies, without arbitrarily privileging a discriminatory criterion].

Exodus from the Androlect:
Conversation, Friendship and Love in the Alpha Tongue

While Part I of Contre le sexage — abstract, dense, constructed almost like a legal brief — may prove slow going even for readers whose first language is French, it lays a solid foundation for the more lyrical and example-filled Part II, which centers on conversation, friendship and love in the alpha tongue: that is, the creation of egalitarian culture by conscious female rebels against the sex-class system. Rebels who, in fact, have constituted a transnational group-in-the-process-of-becoming since the 1970s, emerging in a few countries with the beginning of feminism’s “second wave,” flourishing briefly, dying back, re-emerging in new forms, and continually spreading across every sort of boundary. The reality of their intertwined lives and culture-making brings us to our second and very brief (but hopefully instructive) glimpse of lesbian politics and culture in France.

The 6th Lesbian Spring in the South of France

In the same year (2000) that Contre le sexage was published by Éditions Balland in Paris, Espace lesbien [“Lesbian Space”] was published in Toulouse by Bagdam Espace lesbien (an association whose name was originally inspired by the film “Baghdad Café”). Mid-April 2001 marked this group’s sixth year of organizing a 3-1/2 day spring celebration of lesbian politics and culture. The 2001 programme included, not only films, book-signings, concerts, dinners and parties, even a guided tour of the city, but also a European symposium on lesbian studies titled “La grande Dissidence et le grand Effroi” [“The Great Dissidence and the Great Dread”]. Among the speakers listed were activists, writers and scholars from France, Belgium, Quebec, Algeria, Italy, Germany and Spain: Marian Lens, Chantal Bigot, Michèle Causse, Danièle Charest, Éliane Pons, Dominique Bourque, Anne Legal, Groupe du 6 novembre, Giovanna Olivieri, Valeria Santini, Daniela Danna, Fefa Vila Nuñez, Traude Bürhrmann, and others.

What is the significance of Toulouse? It seems to me, judging solely from descriptions in the pre-conference publicity, that the breadth, depth, seriousness and sophistication of the presentations constitute clear and startling evidence that a freedom-and-justice movement which many have been strenuously attempting to consign to the dustbin of history did not die at the hands of the backlash, but rather came of age. And that is what I call good news. Since the fate of one liberation movement is inevitably linked to the fate of the others, April in Toulouse 2001 marks a hopeful sign of spring for us all.


POÈME SPONTANÉ AUX BELLES CONTRADICTIONS
D’ARIANE,
 POUR FÊTER L’ANNIVERSAIRE DE SA NAISSANCE

Elle est tendre pooh-bear
with impressive teeth,
home-body and visionnaire …
Who can comprehend her in a single phrase?
She doubles the image.

You can only follow her eccentric progress
across the night sky —
late-rising, inevitable star,
paradoxically dreaming roots in the soft brown earth,
I wash my hands of this, she says,
but the imprint of destiny remains.

A friend advises her to be glad
she is not like the one-dimensional others.

— Harriet Ellenberger


THUNDERER, PERFECT MIND

Purple clouds mass along the horizon,
Sheet lightning crackles.
Black winds cut,
keen as obsidian knife.

Out of the dark west she rides.
From the yellowing east she comes.
Her white flags fly to the north.
In the south her red fires are lit.

She speaks.
The rock peaks split.

She speaks
and the past is laid open.

She speaks.
A light rain falls.

She speaks
and the future rises,
vapor on her breath.

She speaks.
Death is real.

She speaks again
and death is not an end.

— Harriet Ellenberger

 

She Is Still Burning 4 (Jan 2001)

And the history continues … you may find a few parallels with the present …

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #4
6 January 2001

Dear Friends,

Responses to She Is Still Burning continue to flow in; they not only keep me writing, they are a form of life sustenance. For which, many thanks. You bring me joy. Not an exaggeration.

So far this winter the weather has been near-apocalyptic (and the newly non-elected US president believes that global warming, with its drastic alteration of weather patterns, is a hoax perpetrated by environmentalists intent on destroying the Texas oil industry, uh huh). The storms just before Christmas were the worst on record—nothing like them according to the native tribes’ oral histories either. The winds broke telephone poles in half. And in the bay two gargantuan oil tankers were ripped from their anchors, crashing into each other. The tanker most damaged had two hulls; the outer hull broke, but the inner hull didn’t, which is why there isn’t oil all over the Bay of Fundy.

Quite a few things seem to be hanging from a very narrow thread, and it is not, at least in the northern hemisphere, a time of high energy. Hence, I would like to urge all of us, especially where it is deadly cold, to remember the “winter sleepers” who showed up on a card Ann Stokes sent me in December: the raccoon, the black bear, the jumping mouse and the chipmunk. All these little and not-so-little darlings are curled up in safe places, hibernating. Ahh … role models. Stay safe; stay warm; take naps; dream of renewal.

But there is one Bear I would like now to bring out of obscurity, for a round of applause. My partner, Albert E.B. O’Brien, helps me keep body and soul together, but he also helps keep She Is Still Burning alive, by steady encouragement of its editor and steady maintenance of its technological base. For which, many thanks.

Bon courage,
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Lucile and the Power of Persistence” (a tribute to my aunt Lucile)
•”What Remains” (a collage-poem by Jane Picard)
•”To Cultivate Laziness” (winter advice I have trouble following)
•”Thick and Black” by Ann Stokes (a poem full of energy to revive flagging winter spirits)
•”Winter Dreaming” (a poem written in its original version about ten years ago)


LUCILE AND THE POWER OF PERSISTENCE

by Harriet Ellenberger

My brother called the morning after Christmas to say that Aunt Lucile had just died. I’d gone back to Iowa to see her the year before because my mother had said that she wouldn’t last long. Lucile was weak then, in a wheelchair when she wasn’t in bed, but still with her wits about her. We had a subdued but affectionate last visit, and I thought I was doing fine, not at all wild with grief, until I arrived back at my parents’ apartment minus my backpack, which contained travel cash, return plane ticket and my entire paper trail (passport, credit card, medical insurance card, Canadian citizenship card, driver’s license). A call to the nursing home confirmed that I’d left the backpack beside Lucile’s bed; a quick-thinking nurse had found it and locked it up with the medicines.

Lucile is one of my mother’s older sisters, and she worked as the principal of two elementary schools in Des Moines when I was growing up. She fought for the children in her schools; to me, that was her defining characteristic. She had a low opinion of most of the men who took over the system’s top administrative jobs from women, once those jobs had begun to pay well and acquire social prestige. And she had an even lower opinion of parents who neglected their children or tyrannized over them. But administrators and parents had power over her as well as over the children, so she fought them in a wily manner.

Her wiliness was at the crux of our differences. When I was a small girl, I relied on Lucile for a mutual exchange of truth-telling. She was independent, she was smart, and she didn’t mince words. At least with me. I could give her honest reports on my furious alienation at school, and she listened. She even agreed with my teacher evaluations, which were disrespectful in the extreme. I was so entranced with the effect her listening had on me (it made me feel sane) that I wanted more: more telling truth, more listening to truth, truth everywhere, truth at all times! Revolutionary truth! Truth to turn the world upside down! But Lucile would always add the proviso: Now, Harriet, you and I can know these things, but we can’t say these things.

What she meant was that the world is a cruel and unjust place, and she didn’t want to see me destroyed by it. I knew there was caring behind her caution, but the caution itself was a barricade set between me and a life I could not imagine in detail, but desperately longed for. I wanted more than anything in the world to say what I saw and felt and knew. I wanted to speak freely the way people crossing a desert want water.

Lucile had arrived at her stance of cautious resistance through personal encounters with cruelty and injustice. The story she told which most outraged me goes as follows: It’s the Depression. She’s one of the lucky few with a job, teaching children in Bloomfield, Iowa, for $900 a year, a salary which remains the same for ten years. On this salary, she supports herself, her mother and her grandmother. She also continues her quest for a college degree (it will take her more than twenty years to graduate). In the summers, she and a girlfriend go to Cedar Falls teachers’ college to take courses. But she does not have money enough to pay for the tuition and the meals, so she eats very little. One day she faints in class. The Dean of Women calls her in and grills her. Finally, Lucile admits she has no money for food. Does the Dean of Women ask her to supper, take up a collection, admire her for her persistence and courage and arrange a scholarship? No. The Dean of Women, mindful that the other students’ delicate sensibilities not be upset by the presence of the hungry among them, expells my aunt.

That Depression-era functionary and the societal values she represented (now once again in the ascendance) wounded Lucile’s pride and slowed her progress, but they didn’t stop her. After years of teaching on nothing but a high-school certificate, with a salary to match, she earned her bachelor’s degree. And then she travelled to Columbia teachers’ college in New York City every summer for ten years to earn her master’s degree. In her fifties and handling a job that was in fact two jobs, she was still going to school. But she found friends during her New York City summers, discovered the city, entered a new world. And she continued to be a life-giving, life-altering presence in the schools where she worked, according to the testimony of a legion of former students on Des Moines’ south side.

One Saturday morning when I was about thirteen, I helped Lucile prepare a brunch at her house (by then, she had a home of her own) for her friends, a group of single women, all in their fifties, all holding jobs as elementary-school principals. They called themselves “The Old Bags,” but they were the most sophisticated and irreverent women I’d ever run into. They were a revelation. And they treated me as if I were one of them. We drank champagne with orange juice. In the morning! Together!

Dear readers, will you do me a personal favour? Sometime soon, with friends, please lift your glass (it can be Perrier, peu n’importe) and propose a toast to Dorothy Lucile Truitt, as strong-minded a woman as ever walked the face of earth.


WHAT REMAINS

He was afraid to die.
Il avait peur de mourir
He yearned to eat
He yearned to speak
He yearned to drink
Crever to burst, to split, to die
as in I would die to be a singer.
Je crève de manger, je crève de boire
Je crève de dire.

Il crevait de danser. Il crevait de dire.
He was dying to eat.
He was dying to speak.
He was dying to dance.
He was dying to drink. —

“like light behind film strip, a ticking mutability in everything
left behind on the nightstand, and it was so little and it was
nothing in the way of effects
for he had nothing to leave us —

… when the scent of his shirts began to degrade
I could do nothing to stop it
though I must have thought I could follow it as if it were

a thread, a shining new umbilicus
leading to the other side of matter
where the problem of matter is repaired.”

“The snow lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

— a collage by Jane Picard (stanzas 1-2, Jane Picard; stanzas 3-5, from a poem by Camille Norton for her late father; stanza 6, from James Joyce’s “The Dead” in The Dubliners)


TO CULTIVATE LAZINESS

by Harriet Ellenberger

Eat when you’re hungry, lie down when you’re tired, sleep all you want to.

Designate one day of the week as your “day of rest.” “Rest” may include lollygagging around the apartment in your pajamas, not answering the phone, not brushing your teeth.

When you’re not sure what to do, do nothing.

Try not to read anything for five whole days.

Remember water. It follows the path of least resistance, thereby eroding mountains.


THICK AND BLACK

Into the alley she swooped her skirts
a flowing through the sun the
set the roses were yellow and
green touched white she was tight
lipped and her tears flew into the sky
to shape the rim of a cloud all blue and
grey the beak of the heron hit her
knee she was all aglow
she wore a red sweater there was
no forgetting her voice
the night was thick she was black she
yelled fell through and swept
into bed.

— Ann Stokes


WINTER DREAMING

I am still forming,
I am not yet myself,
but I dream a lover to come —
someone who will know me
from the left side,
someone who will remember my eyes
from a place where people spoke differently,
someone who will call me
white moon and lotus,
the one who dances in my heart.

People now say what I do is dreaming,
and useless.
But I say winter dreaming keeps me on earth.

We ourselves are a dream of the earth.
She filled us with her mind.
And I am dreaming a life to come
as she once dreamt mine.

— Harriet Ellenberger

 

The Arctic Dome

pair-of-wild-turkeys-photo-by-mr-bear-dec-2016
pair of wild turkeys, photo by Bear & Co.

 

If you were within the polar vortex,
high above earth,
the breath in your lungs would freeze.

Winds swirl counterclockwise,
moving the cold southward
to a country
where no one wants to be a loser.

Arctic wind chills the blood.

But in a land of so much noise,
so many killings,
so much heated speculation,
too many carnival barkers,
no one notices the bloodstream
and how it flows.

The body politic is distracted,
and cannot surrender
to a new Ice Age.

 

Harriet Ann Ellenberger
16 December 2016

 

note: “The Arctic Dome” was first published in “Return to Mago E-magazine” on 30 December 2016.

 

Whales Who Come to Tadoussac, Quebec

I remember you,
erotic poets of the sea,
surrounding the whale-watch boats,
singing.

Wind-burned,
in fog and in pain,
I sent up my silent calls to you:
O come,
O live,
O let me caress your mind.

Humans, who poisoned the waters
and set earth on fire,
you approach with song.

Teach me to do the same.

 

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger
30 July 1989, revised 4 February 2016

note: The earlier version of this poem was published in L’Évidente lesbienne, no. 17, février 1990, and in Ms. Magazine, July/August 1993.

 

War Babies

War babies are babies
who make war
without knowing what war is.

War babies make war
on nature,
on drugs,
on anyone who crosses them,
on each other.

War babies have guns
that are big and mean.
War babies have money
that won’t buy them more time.

War babies hit a telephone pole
at 100 miles an hour,
and expect to walk away.

War babies stay babies
because they don’t learn.

Oh look, they’re doing it again.

 

–Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 11 February 2016

 

Winter Dreaming

Dec 2005 backyard
photo by Mr. Bear, December 2005

WINTER DREAMING

I am still forming,
I am not yet myself,
but I dream a lover to come—
someone who will know me
from the left side,
someone who will remember my eyes
from a place where people spoke differently,
someone who will call me
white moon and lotus,
the one who dances in my heart.

People now say what I do is dreaming,
and useless.
But I say winter dreaming keeps me on earth.

We ourselves are a dream of the earth.
She filled us with her mind.
And I am dreaming a life to come
as she once dreamt mine.

—Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 1990

In a Time of Storms

el-reno-oklahoma-may-31-2013_camille-seaman-for-mago-poem
El Reno, Oklahoma, 13 May 2013, photograph by Camille Seaman

 

IN A TIME OF STORMS

Purple clouds mass along the horizon.
Sheet lightning crackles.
Black winds cut,
keen as an obsidian knife.

Out of the dark west she rides.
From the yellowing east she comes.
Her white flags fly to the north.
In the south her red fires are lit.

She speaks.
The rock peaks split.

She speaks
and the past is laid open.

She speaks.
A light rain falls.

She speaks
and the future rises,
vapor on her breath.

She speaks.
Death is real.

She speaks again
and death is not an end.

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger


Note: I wrote this poem in 1989, and it was eventually published under the title “Thunder, Perfect Mind,” a phrase I’d stolen from a translation of the Gnostic Gospels. I loved those three words put together, but felt bad about being a thief—also, the poem had nothing to do with gospels, gnostic or otherwise.

When the poem was to appear in Trivia: Voices of Feminism, I came up with a new title, “Return of Earth.” Only problem was, the earth didn’t go away so how could she return? I ignored the illogic of that because I was desperate.

Years later, climate change so extreme that everyone noticed it gave me the good title, and “In a Time of Storms” appeared in Return to Mago on 24 July 2013.

The moral of this tale of titles may be that if you live long enough, you’re no longer a voice of Cassandra, you’re simply reporting the evening news.