She Is Still Burning 8 (August 2001)

Republishing the instalments of She Is Still Burning is having a peculiar effect on my psyche: I’m moving constantly between the past and the present, between then and now.  It’s a little like rocking in a boat, just before you start getting seasick.

In the August 2001 “Dear Friends” letter below, I’m reporting on a trip to North Carolina to visit Catherine Nicholson, with whom in 1976 I co-founded the journal Sinister Wisdom.  In 2016, Sinister Wisdom celebrated its 40th year of publishing, but Catherine didn’t live to see that anniversary happen. She would’ve been so pleased about it.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #8
8 August 2001

“Women and poets believe and resist forever:
The blind inventor finds the underground river.”
– Muriel Rukeyser, “Letter to the Front,” published 1944

Dear Friends,

It seems a long time and a lot of mileage since the last installment of She Is Still Burning. The first two weeks of May I spent in Durham, North Carolina, visiting Catherine Nicholson, voraciously trying to read everything in her apartment, browsing the bookstores on 9th Street, seeing an exhibit of Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s paintings and a new play about Lou Andreas Salome, being wined and dined by old friends and new friends, listening to life stories of every woman I met, enjoying sun and warm air and the scent of flowering magnolia trees.

At one point, Wynn Cherry, who is completing a book about Southern U.S. lesbian writers, asked to interview me about the experience of publishing Sinister Wisdom with Catherine in North Carolina in the mid-70s. When she arrived with her tape recorder at the sidewalk café, I had a sudden vision of myself as a dinosaur who had somehow escaped extinction (I’m not used to being interviewed), but then I forgot the tape recorder and we were launched into one of those long passionate conversations that to me have always been the hallmark of Real Life: 1976 … 2001; then … now; what has changed … what remains the same. At the end she asked me, after my wild hand-waving attempts to convey what it was like to live for a movement, Was it worth it? It took me a few moments, but finally I said, Yes, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And that felt like the true answer.

One of the books I discovered on Catherine’s coffee table (a prime source for reading material I’m unlikely to run across in Saint John) was Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly, edited by Sarah Lucia Hoagland and Marilyn Frye (Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2000). Marilyn and Sarah are old friends from Sinister Wisdom days, but, more to the point, both are philosophers who have written feminist classics (Frye’s The Politics of Reality and Hoagland’s Lesbian Ethics). And Mary Daly’s Beyond God the Father was a primary inspiration for the creation of Sinister Wisdom in 1976, while her most recent book Quintessence was likewise a primary inspiration for the creation of She Is Still Burning twenty-four years later. So a volume titled Feminist Interpretations of Mary Daly and edited by Hoagland and Frye was guaranteed to capture my attention. It lived up to my hopes too. It’s philosophy done in a way I used to dream that philosophy might be done (ought to be done) when I was a thoroughly lost, mute and alienated undergraduate, majoring in philosophy.

The book on Daly’s pre-Quintessence work is part of an entire series published by Pennsylvania State in which feminist philosophers reinterpret the works of Hannah Arendt, de Beauvoir, Foucault, Derrida, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, the list goes on. Scanning that list, I felt half-ecstatic and half-anguished. What if this series had existed in the mid-1960s? I would have cried for joy at discovering it in the university library; it would have set my mind on fire; I would have flung myself into the collaborative making of meaning like a young Fury. It would have altered the world for me. But in the mid-1960s there was no such series (the closest thing I could find to inspiration was the later Wittgenstein and a few fragments from the pre-Socratics), and there were no feminist philosophers. Imagine how precious, how precious and how fragile, their existence now is.

Speaking of the precious and the fragile brings me to my second key discovery on Catherine’s coffee table: the glossy March 2001 issue of Girlfriends, with its excellent article by Kathleen Wilkinson, “The Closing of the Feminist Press,” wherein I learned that Feminist Bookstore News had ceased publication, for lack of revenue. Merde, I thought. Carol Seajay, the moving force behind FBN, has done as much as one human can in a single lifetime to help create and sustain the international networks of women writers, publishers, librarians and booksellers that have been central to the transformation of feminism into a global movement. That FBN has run out of support is, to understate the matter, not a good sign.

The women interviewed by Wilkinson point to a variety of reasons for the unraveling, at least in the States, of a women-in-print network, but the remark that struck me most was made by Nancy Bereano, former publisher of Firebrand Books, who said, “I think we underestimated the capitalist maw and we were swallowed up by it.” In the brief time since October 2000, when I put out the first installment of She Is Still Burning, that same capitalist maw has 90 percent swallowed up the Internet too, in great part thanks to a predatory Microsoft monopoly. (Ho, Billygate, you win again: those millions spent on wooing politicians … ) To put it briefly, we’re in merde up to our ears and on all fronts. Add to that my belated discovery that publishing on the Internet can be as complex and arduous a process as publishing on paper, and you have the reasons for a brief plunge into the bitter-bitter-blues on my part.

My spirits picked up again, though, when my partner, Bert O’Brien, solved the 5-megabyte problem. (Five megabytes for a personal website is what you’re allowed when you pay for your e-mail address; 5 megabytes is comparable to a broom closet, but paying for a larger, commercial-size website was out of the question.) In a technological tour de force, he redesigned the entire website, still within that 5-megabyte limit, so that you can now read and VERY easily download to your computer all installments of Burning. In other words, She Is Still Burning becomes on the web what I’d originally intended it to be: an expanding reader.

In closing, let me say that I habitually keep one ear to the ground, and it seems to me I’m detecting the beginnings of a faint rumble. Though I don’t have “proof” beyond that furnished by intuition, I think that the next volcanic eruption of women is coming, it’s coming soon, it’s coming in the midst of circumstances that are the most dangerous humans have yet faced, and few of us will be able to rely on our usual paper or electronic or telephonic means of communication. Wherefore, let’s polish up our survival skills, dear friends, our telepathic skills too. And let’s create up a storm, because when we create, we’re in synchronicity, one with the other.

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


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•Notes on Our Time (excerpts from Maureen Dowd, Toni
Morrison, Mary Daly)
•Reader Response
•”Three Slaves by Michelangelo Buonorotti” (poem by Camille Norton)


Dowd, Morrison, Daly: NOTES ON OUR TIME

“We want big. We want fast. We want far. We want now.
We don’t have limits. We have liberties.
We will let our power plants spew any chemicals we deem necessary to fire up our Interplaks, our Krups, our Black & Deckers and our Fujitsu Plasmavisions.
We will drill for oil whenever and wherever we please.
We will perfect the dream of nuclear power.
We will put our toxic waste wherever we want, whenever we waste it.
We will thrust as many satellites as we want into outer space, and we will surround them with a firewall of weapons for their
protection.
We will modify food in any way we want and send it to any country we see fit at prices that we and we alone determine in the cargo ships we choose at the time we set.
We will fly up any coast of any nation on earth with any plane filled with any surveillance equipment and top guns that we
possess.
We will buy, carry, conceal and shoot firearms whenever and wherever we want. We will kill any criminal we want, by lethal injection or electrocution.
We are America.”
(Maureen Dowd, excerpts from “Drill, Grill and Chill,” New York Times, May 2001)

“I am not certain, nor should you be, that somehow a burgeoning ménage à trois of political interests, corporate interests, military interests will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable humane future. It is possible that with the company of obedient, quisling media such an unholy trinity can arrange things so that that human invention called the future will encompass that inhuman invention called fascism.”
(Toni Morrison, commencement speech, Smith College, May 2001)

“Facing the ultimate horror that is all around us can free Fiery Women into Fearlessness, so that we can Spring ahead, ready, finally, for the greatest adventure of our lives. It really is a case of Now or Never.”
(Mary Daly, Quintessence… Realizing the Archaic Future: A Radical Elemental Feminist Manifesto, Beacon Press, 1998)


Reader Response, 8 May 2001

Dear Harriet:

I did want to write you before more time passes to express appreciation that you continue to publish this wonderful journal, that you continue to write and live — we need you — and that you remind us to take courage. I need that. We all do.

Yes, Bush is nuts, but we all knew that, they all are, and in a way, what comforts me is to remind myself that we and the earth will prevail through all this horror, REGARDLESS. We see signs all around the world that we are rising up, yet again, in small ways, but as the water wears away the rock, so we too will wear away the patriarchy. I still believe the patriarchy is dying, and these antics are the kicking and screaming of a passing of a consciousness woefully undeveloped. So, yes, courage, kindness, and kaleidescopes. We carry on.

Love and light,
Jeannette Muzima


Three Slaves by Michelangelo Buonorotti
c. 1530, after the Gallery of Slaves, the Accademia, Florence

The Young Slave

A slave is not born but made.
The same has been said about women.

The abject position of the knee as it prepares to bend,
the lowered gaze and tilted head, the torso’s sinuous swivel–

all bear the marks of the master’s chisel.

If you run a hand across the cuts you can feel
the master’s intention to make stone speak as if it were a body.

Perhaps the master’s body emerging into suffering.
Or the body of a boy he was caught desiring–

a rent boy from the Trasteveri, a Sicilian.
Did the boy prefer women?

Did he turn his face away in boredom,
signaling the end of the transaction we call love?

This boy’s unfinished.

His genitals rise, his tipped nipples
lift away from the master’s hand.

You’re there to look at him and so you look
at the prison of his beauty

at the way he is neither subject nor object
but both incompletely

as if he were practicing

in front of a mirror, imitating that look
we call femininity.

O take me.

Master. Slave. Slave. Master.
All along the traces of his young body.

Feeling for the gate between
control and pleasure.

He keeps doing it
one way. Then the other.

 

The Awakening Slave

It’s not easy to wake when sleep is sweeter than reason.

Consider the light surrounding Giorgione’s reclining Venus,
its muted russets and tempered golds, its soft green

mosses, its umber road
unfolding sensuously inside a world of shadow.

As Venus sleeps, her hand caresses
the cleft beneath her pubic bone.

Who could wake her?

In The Awakening by Kate Chopin,
Edna Pontellier startles awake from a life of pleasure

and drowns herself within the year.
A kind of erasure it seems to me though my students say no

she is free and besides we are all slaves, Professor.

But wisdom lies in the awakening of the entire soul
from the slumber of its private wants and opinions.

To see the world whole, apart from one’s self.
To love the world anyway, for its own sake.

But how many ever do this?
And what about the danger

of awakening partially or half-way
like Michelangelo’s half-hewn man

hurtling inside his marble brace
half in, half out like a moth trapped in a chrysalis.

He’s running in place.
What’s worse, he’s running in place for all eternity

and he knows it because he’s awake
after the long dream of passage

in which he is always facing forward into shadow
or back into the sweetness

of night falling in a dark blue meridian
that is elsewhere and in between

the waking body
and the dream.

 

Atlas

The slave we call Atlas is attached to an unshaped immensity.

Atlas lived in Atlantis once.
Now he lives in the Gallery of Slaves at the Academy in Florence.

There is a block of stone where his head should be.

Unlike David, who has a head wrapped in acanthine curls,
a slingshot, buttocks, and inescapable genitals,

Atlas has only the burden of the material
against which he struggles —
raw marble, a torso, one shoulder, one heroic arm.

His arm pushes mightily against a dead weight
and disappears inside it, as if weight itself had a secret chamber

where one could think things through, away from the crowd.
His head’s in there too, thinking

of mind over matter or matter inside mind or the other way round.
Big Mind is like a sky vault or like a mountain,

hard to support with the head alone.
And yet one needs a head to figure out

how mind attaches to the stuff we’re made of.

Atlas attaches through tendon and nerve.
Atlas has a spinous process.

Atlas is the first vertebra of the cervical spine.
Atlas is a winged bone with a hole in it.

Atlas is delicate.
Atlas curves and breathes

up through the hole to the great sky dome
where the Pleiades light up the dark and private life

of the mind where we are, all of us, alone.

– Camille Norton

She Is Still Burning 6 (March 2001)

I decided to re-publish all the instalments of “She Is Still Burning” in their original form, not only because they give a vivid history of the times, but also because the contributions were too good to reside only on the Digital Library’s Wayback Machine. The “Harriet’s Home Page” I’m so gleefully announcing on International Women’s Day in 2001 was a teeny webspace that came with my e-mail address. When I switched internet providers, it disappeared and so did “She Is Still Burning.”

The publishing technology I was experimenting with in 2001 seems archaic now, but the writing is still alive. Which makes me wish I’d spent less time struggling with computers and more time propped up in bed with my pen and notebook.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #6
8 March 2001, International Women’s Day

“The road to a friend’s house is never long.”
– Danish proverb

Dear Friends,

In the past five weeks, I seem to have leapt on my war pony and headed off in all directions at once. The result being that there’s now half-written or half-assembled material enough for two installments of Burning, ideas enough for six more … and I’m facing my usual problem of organizing the altogether-too-many-ideas.

In the meantime, the Bush Tank continued to roll on, with “test and provoke” military exercises in the Middle East and onslaughts on no-longer-protected wilderness in the US. Is there any life form these people intend to leave standing?

But I do have one victory announcement: She Is Still Burning has finally made it to the web. … My hope is that “Harriet’s Home Page” will attract more readers and writers to the She Is Still Burning dialogue.

The first writer so attracted turned out to be my brother. The website had no sooner gone up on February 28th than I received the following:

“Would you be willing to put some info onto your web site for us? Here’s the deal. We have five extra dwarf hamsters, free to good homes or snake farms. The blessed event happened this morning just before Sarah went to school. This time she pulled the males from the nursery, so the little critters have a chance of living. We can ship worldwide if we can find a source for dry ice. Instructions for resuscitation will be included in each shipment, but no warranty is made, expressed or implied, international or otherwise.

“Please have your people contact our people as soon as convenient. Remember, supplies are limited, but we expect another delivery from our suppliers in 30 days or less.” [Signed “BAB,” short for “Bad-Ass Brother,” alias Jim Ellenberger]

Well, what could I say? I wrote back, “Sure, glad to help out.” And then didn’t hear anything more on the subject until a recent communique from Sarah Ellenberger indicated that the hamsters are now “growing hair” and “are cute.” I think this means the free-rodent offer no longer holds.

And now welcome to the sixth installment (that’s half a dozen! I can’t believe it) of She Is Still Burning.

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


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Seven Signs for Home: Oakland, California” by Camille Norton
•”New York City: Ritual with Trembling” by Jane Picard
•”I am not a river” by Jeannette Muzima


SEVEN SIGNS FOR HOME: OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA

by Camille Norton

TURRETS, BEHIND THEM. Shadow of the cement factory. Shadow of ConAgra and the low-lying cement boxes of the toxic waste facility. High up on its ashy pole an electricity box crackles as it feeds the quarter with light. At night, I walk by that light to the cement island at the foot of the bridge to Alameda. I walk with the dog. There’s a store there that sells cheap goods and comestibles 24-hours a day. Behind the counter, the sign reads, “Cashier never has more than $50.00 in change at any one time.” I know about the drop box behind the counter from my past life as a cashier. Now I like to watch my image projected by the video cameras that film the customers and the clerks. I look foreign to myself, potentially dangerous or comical, depending on the angle of light. Last night, as I was walking home, a thin, hunched man in a black cloth coat pulled up beside me on his little bicycle. I felt afraid but was too polite to show it. He nodded hello briskly, then pedaled along down Glascock Street, going home I realized, to the tent city in the pallet yards, with his can of Miller High Life tucked under his arm. I pulled the gate shut, rolling it to its lock, as I do each time I enter or exit the compound. Living among the poor one must have a gate. This one slides on wheels.

PATCHES OF STANDING WATER. Deep in the recess of the yard I found a bucket of pond scum growing green fur and oily lights like swirls of paisley. A chemical wash the dog drinks when I’m not looking. I overturned it with my boot, defying the inevitability of sick dog in the night, myself on the stairs in striped pajamas and overcoat at 3 A.M. The yard burgeons with potted trees. Misshapen lemons one must never eat. Sickly oranges bulging in tumorous sacs. Basins of basil so polluted with cement grit and truck exhaust that they are coated grey and limp, even after rain.

THE CANAL. PEOPLE WHO SLEEP BY THE CANAL. The warehouses are secured behind bolted metal plates. A German Shepherd sleeps with his head on his paws in a dirt lot bounded by barbed wire. The canal churns between inlet and inlet. A barge belonging to the Fire Department, City of San Francisco, sloshes in its berth. Tiny irradiated fish bob against the muddy bottom between rays of starlight and iron ore filings that poke up from the canal floor. The bay moves us, displaces us and still we hunch down in place. At night, the old neighborhood, the one that has disappeared, breathes. Wooden houses sink deeper into their pilings. The bus people, who move their bus every night to a new corner in order to evade arrest by the police, sink deeper into their sleeping bags. They are the most discreet denizens of the quarter, as quiet as the dead and as invisible. The two who are lovers draw closer, imagining life on the road. In the compound behind the locked gate, the painter in studio #24 draws the blinds. We can no longer admire the orchids arranged in rows by the windows. Crimson. White. Crimson. Magnetic blue hybrid. A wall of books giving way to a wall of abstraction. All things are private now, contained. The man on the top floor of 2889 takes another pain tablet, running his tongue against the wound in his mouth. Alone and in pain and getting older. But one must never show any of that to other people. We smile when we pass each other on the stairs. A sympathetic greeting now and again. So many of us sleep alone in large spaces we fill with books and paintings and computers. Out of doors, the illegals sleep in crowds. Four to a bed in the pallet yard. In the morning, the cotton batting is rolled up, packed behind a wall under plastic sheeting. Then the men go out into the street, walled up inside the mother tongue, walking one by one to the day-laborer pick-up corner on International Boulevard.

PEOPLE IN CROWDS. Day labor consists of — if you can dig this — cleaning toilets at the old stadium; tearing down dry wall in a building scheduled for demolition; painting a dentist’s new office; weeding a garden in North Berkeley; slopping out the port-o-potties at a construction sight in San Leandro; stuffing tube after tube of sausage casing with chicken and herbs; rolling layers of brown cotton into futons special ordered by Buddhists; raking mulch; raking gravel; sweeping the ashes out of the crematorium; driving cars in and out of the car wash, towel-drying the cars, hand-waxing the cars. All labor performed for $3.00 an hour. Under the table. No questions asked. No stories told.

PEOPLE DANCING ALONE. But it’s only cold El Norte talking through their bones. The ones who didn’t get work wear thin-as-a-sheet bomber jackets and high-top Converse sneakers with no arches. Elvis Presley pompadour hairdos slicked back with water. The thing is, you keep moving. Keep moving so the cops don’t stop you. Keep clean, alert; learn how to carry yourself so you don’t look hungry. Nothing free here, amigo. Little girls push by with their babies in supermarket carriages piled high with paper diapers and formula in cans. Thirteen. Fourteen. They flick their eyes at you, as if to say, “I got a man.” But you can tell just by looking that the man is gone back where he came from because nothing is free here.

RAILROAD TRACKS. The tracks in the quarter are out of use except once on Fridays when the Iconco train eases out of its stall and chugs slowly along Glascock Street to Jack London Square. A comical sight, a train without a caboose and only one driver, a man who has to crane his neck out of a side window in order to yell at the dogs and cats who linger on the tracks. Every once in a while, after the train passes through, old Oakland begins to speak, Oakland just after the second war, when the quarter belonged to African-American men and women who grew cabbages and chard in the bright sun near the canal. In those days, you could ride the train downtown for five cents, eight cents roundtrip. No fences then except low picket fences to keep dogs out of gardens; no warehouses; and no freeway, just the road to the bridge crossing over to the island, where no black folks were welcome. If you were black, you belonged on this side of the canal and built your wooden house high in case of floods. You built a root cellar under the house because you never knew about the lean times, when they would come or what they would bring. Today, when you dig a little under the spoiled dirt, you find canning jar lids and smashed glass glittering under the topsoil; a bit of red cloth; a child’s top lost long ago, corroding now under the chipped blue enamel but spinning free as the weight of time slides clear. Then someone kicks it aside, someone new to the place. The top drifts away like trash. Then it knocks and blows the length of a city block before it disappears once and for all into the island trash that blows all the way into the bay.


note from Camille Norton: “I write poems about landscapes under erasure, about microcosms, lost objects, and the sound of white noise as it is lyrically distilled and remade as something we might use. I teach literature at The University of the Pacific, where my students do not know who Louis Armstrong is, let alone Simone de Beauvoir — so I work as a cultural transmitter. I do not watch television, but listen to the radio on long commutes between Stockton and Oakland, California, where I live in an old factory next to a canal.”


NEW YORK CITY: RITUAL WITH TREMBLING

There is eloquence in repetition
saying it once then again
a jolt to the spine, then
in its wake a trembling
a trembling again

I dreamed I was following
a trail through New York City, a trail
of cornmeal and ashes
a trail that wound
through a marketplace
where women in black hats
kept moving in and out of doorways
changing their minds. One said
she was pretty, she said she was bitter
kept turning away, her hands full of snakes.
The other one said: Watch out for me
I’m in the field of your desire
and I go for the heart. She handed me
a necklace of rosehips and thorns.

There are no mystics these days
only performers in catastrophic states,
drama obscuring the real issues.

We go where our love takes us
trembling like two small beasts
returned to the wild, the question
is: will we bond?
Why mark it by saying in Love?
Why not just say, they took to the trees.

Morning falls apart into day.
Bodies collapsed in doorways
rise and reassemble. Bones
grind into place. Geared up
against last night’s resistance
they go where they are told to go.

I see boomboxes carried on shoulders
ringed with fading light. Sounds
as bright as Johannesburg diamonds.
Real citizens band radio. Angels
with soot-covered wings, home girls
dance like young geese, their
arms thrown out slapping the air.
Flight divas practicing their V for-ma-tion.

I see people lining up to buy
art and brown-skinned babies from Peru.
Women lean weary into small faces
with upturned mouths. they croon
dreamy, they croon tremolo, they sing:
nothing human can thrive here anymore.

I see a relay of small lights
inside crack buildings, capsizing bodies
staggering through doorways,
men sitting in a room counting numbers
taking names, compulsive orderliness
obsessive, repetitive fixation
upon minute detail.

Darkness immanent I sing
for the abandoned I sing
for the outcast.

Freefall at 5000 feet. The heart bursts
into five fragments, a bloodline
from New York City to San Francisco, a pulse
from coast to coast, arterial repetition.
a constant rocking locomotion
a side to side commotion
there and not there, sex and desire
darkening the landscape like a shadow play.

We are side by side, two faces
on a train. You close your
eyes and I dream of you, your mouth
on my lips. Blood and cinders.
I think about all those people, all
that energy jamming the face
of the earth. I imagine an elephant’s metabolism, this
train moving slowly out of the station.

Now raise your hand love, and let the dead walk.
So that the soul I love that lies
sleeping, couched in all its
clumsy maneuvers may rise. Heart’s
desire headed homeward. Lover
every journey begins with a refrain
a heart crossing a body of water.

I feel the pull of the beast
in front of me pacing in its cage.
If I free the beast, will it
put out the pain
with the light of its tongue?

We are waiting for the signal, for the
GO that sets us running.
We engage like each car
with the next, singular but connected
with a purpose, a mission, a motive.
Like two halves of a moment in time.

— Jane Picard


 

I am not a river
you can launch your gorgeous body on
to swim from one bend
to the next

I am an ocean
between two continents
one death the other life
if you have no particular
destination
you may float on me
anytime

and always

                           — Jeannette Muzima