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 3 (Dec 2000)

By December 2000, I’d become ambitious for my little e-mail publication and was promising readers that if they printed the instalments and kept them in a notebook, eventually they’d have a book-length anthology. And it did come true that by the time her editor pooped out, “She Is Still Burning” resembled a book. Following is the third chapter, with many more to come …

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #3
3 December 2000

Dear Friends,

Am pausing in the midst of a whomper of a translation contract to send greetings to you, along with a piece by Jane Picard, “Gestures of War and Lament.”

Jane says that this piece is “like experiencing a car crash in slow motion,” a description which fits my experience of reading it the first time. Like the front-seat passenger in a car headed straight over the embankment, the reader feels zero control over her fate. “Who, what, where, when, why” are questions that belong to some other universe, the only remaining question being “is this thing going to kill me?”

I am happy to report that “Gestures of War and Lament” did not kill me on first reading. And on second and third readings, it did leave me with the memory of many stunningly beautiful lines. I still would be at a loss to describe what it is about (the last 7000 years of history?), and I still don’t understand how it does what it does … but that’s ok. The major point is to feel it.

When asked for a bio, Jane replied, just use this quote from Gertrude Stein instead: “And that is all there is to good writing, putting down on the paper words which dance and weep and make love and fight and kiss and perform miracles.”

If I don’t get out the fourth installment of She Is Still Burning before winter solstice (owing to aforementioned whomper translation), please accept my solstice wishes a little ahead of time. May you happily ignore the commercial/political/religious onslaught; may your hearth fires burn brightly; may your friends be sweet with you; may the fire of the stars blaze in your heart.

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

Continue reading She Is Still Burning 3 (Dec 2000)

Never Underestimate a Fox

Nine-Tailed Fox
Nine-Tailed Fox

for the man who gave himself
the street-name “Tonto”
 

At a loss for everything
but words,
I’m writing in the sunlight
of a sidewalk cafe
when someone falls
over an empty chair and
lands on the table
in front of me.

I’m as drunk on language
as he is on booze.

A foxtail hangs from a leather cord
at his throat, like a necktie
over his T-shirt,
and when I ask him about it,
he tells me his story.

He killed the fox,
and then his mother said to him,
You took the life
of a free and beautiful animal
so you could feel like a bigger man.
Now the spirit of the fox
will make you pay.

He believed his mother.

I believe her too.
And beneath her words,
I hear the soft, alluring
voice of earth:

I dreamt each one of you,
you are just as I wish —
Go now,
walk your path,
breathe
and live.

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, January 2012

  Continue reading Never Underestimate a Fox

Eclipse of Hope

A moon blots out a sun.
Darkening silence comes between us.

In place of my house,
stands a tower of stone.
At its crown —
the lightning catcher,
she who writes on the blank rune.

Below, my departing selves
wait with their boats.

Driftwood burns.

I mark in sand
the sign of migration.

My eyes sting.

At my wingbones
four winds rise.

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 1985-2011

Acutely Personal, Eerily Collective

In early autumn of 1985, I had been living for four months in A Studio of One’s Own, a beautifully airy structure built by women for women artists on Ann Stokes’ land, a low wooded mountaintop in New Hampshire. (For photos of the land, see Welcome Hill Studios.) It was the first time I’d lived alone and the first time I’d lived in the woods.

I was there to write a serious book of prose and to chart a new direction for my life. Instead, I’d been getting up at the crack of dawn to write in my journal, walking the trails all over the old mountain, and skidding wildly from ecstatic vision to paralyzing despair. My journal entry for 1 October 1985 reads: “11 a.m. I am EXHAUSTED. 11:30 a.m. Well, shit, I just wrote a poem.”

It was, astonishingly, a real poem, one of the first I’d written since childhood. But in the second stanza there was a tongue-tangle, marking a conceptual muddle, that I couldn’t for the life of me untangle. Eventually, I put the poem away and half-forgot I’d written it. Twenty-six years later, in the midst of an e-mail to a friend about something else altogether, the lines as they were meant to be surfaced in my mind.

In the mid-1980s, it was clear to any witness of my life that I personally was in trouble, my past gone and my future unknown. But I couldn’t altogether articulate what that felt like. By the summer of 2011, though, human beings were clearly and collectively in the same kind of trouble: past gone, future unknown. And suddenly, with so much company, I could say how that feels.

Note: “Eclipse of Hope” first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Trivia: Voices of Feminism; it was published with more extensive working notes on 11 February 2013, in Return to Mago.

Photograph courtesy of AP Photo / Tourism Queensland

The Teacher

The Teacher

When we howl, children,
we give it all we’ve got.
Think power, think passion,
send your voice over the mountain,
“I am here, where are you?”

Everyone ready?
Deep breath—
fill out those lungs to the ribcage—
ears back,
nose to the sky,
now yearn! yearn! yearn!
and re-lee-ee-ee-ease.

You just scared the pants off those two-leggeds
down in the valley.

Harriet Ann Ellenberger
25 March 2015