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literature

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Grahn, Judy (b. 1940)  
 
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Her portrait of "Carol" in the same collection concludes "Carol is another / queer / chickadee / like me, but Carol does / everything / better / if you let her." In these lines, readers can hear how conscientiously Grahn incorporates rhythm and meter into poetic meaning, implicitly reminding readers how much lesbian and gay history, like Native-American or other "vanished" histories, has been orally passed from generation to generation and queer to queer via storytelling.

At the same time, Grahn reverses conventional expectations to disempower negative attitudes toward lesbians that have become encoded into our language. In "A Mock Interrogation," a segment of "A Woman Talking to Death," a woman responds affirmatively to the question, "Have you ever committed any indecent acts with women?" by listing the times she failed to help a woman who needed her.

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This project of empowering language is made explicit in Another Mother Tongue, a text that defies generic category, combining autobiography and poetry with extensive research into the origin and evolution of words and symbols of lesbian and gay culture.

Although lesbian identity is always central in Grahn's work, her poetry also speaks of the importance of all women defining themselves according to what they have "in common" with other women, and not by what makes them different from men.

In what is probably her best known group of poems, The Common Woman (1969), Grahn creates portraits of seven women, only one of whom is explicitly defined as having "taken a woman lover." Significantly, however, this poem appears fourth, making it the literal "center" of the collection.

These poems, says Grahn, were written because she wanted "to read something which described regular, everyday women without making us look either superhuman or pathetic." The details of each woman's life are linked with powers in nature--a rattlesnake, a thunderstorm, the new moon, a crow, and so forth.

This connection between women's power and the power of the earth is one that Grahn repeatedly and frequently makes. The opening poem in She Who simply repeats, in various formations and with different emphases, the title phrase, until it becomes an endless and endlessly varying chant that seems to be at once the call of an owl and the sound of the wind itself.

In "A Geology Lesson," the land, wind, and sea are forever transformed because "a woman of strong purpose" passed through. By the end of She Who, "She Who" has become a mythic goddess of natural power, a step toward what poet and critic Alicia Ostriker calls "taking back the myths" from patriarchal culture.

Indeed, at the conclusion of Blood, Bread, and Roses, Grahn even reclaims the fundamentally human quality of shame, which is not only "consciousness of ability to do evil," but "is also acknowledgment of something unfinished, raw, and is therefore the doorway to creativity and finding solutions."

In her poetry, Grahn continued this project of creating a "neomythology" in The Queen of Wands (1982) and The Queen of Swords (1987), the first two volumes of what Grahn envisions as a four-part series corresponding to the four suits of the Tarot.

Both texts elaborate the story of Helen: In Wands, she travels around the world and through history, from ancient Greece to a factory and to Hollywood; in Swords, subtitled "A Play with Poetic Myth" and written explicitly for performance, Helen descends into "the underworld," which has been reconceptualized as a lesbian bar.

The phrase "Common Woman" has another dimension for Grahn, a self-defined working-class writer who believes that unique characteristics inhere in working-class writing: ". . . we often pile up many events within a small amount of space. . . . This means both that our lives are chock full of action and also that we are bursting with stories which haven't been printed, made into novels, dictionaries, philosophies."

In "The Common Woman" poems, Grahn breaks stereotypes about working-class women, aiming for honest descriptions of the work women do, including waitressing, fixing a car, working in an office, and bartending. But perhaps Grahn's most powerful statement on working-class writing appears in her introduction to the collection True to Life Adventure Stories (Vol. 1; 1978).

In the essay "Murdering the King's English," Grahn explains her decision, as an editor, not to standardize the language of the women whose stories she collected, but to "express workingclass writing as workingclass people do it," a form of expression that has been labeled "illiterate." Changing their language would be "saying that the occupation of writer belongs only to the upper class and those who can pass by using its standards."

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