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About "I Have Come to Claim Marilyn Monroe's Body"


Linda Garber

In the shorter poems, Grahn often explores love and romance in relation to perceptions of women's beauty. As in all else, Grahn has the capacity to be humorous, if "macabre" (Martinez 49), when approaching "the problem for a lesbian feminist of writing about women's beauty without fetishizing it" (Montefiore 83).

"I have come to claim," usually referred to as "The Marilyn Monroe Poem," is a ghoulishly humorous poem from Edward the Dyke. The narrator, literally, has "come to claim / Marilyn Monroe's body / for the sake of my own. / dig it up, hand it over, cram it in this paper sack" (WCW 31-2). The narrator attracts the attention of reporters, who "are furious" but also want to know "what / am I doing for lunch?" Like Marilyn Monroe, the narrator is another woman the male reporters want to have "a crack at." The narrator draws them in, using their own prurient interest against them:

Now I shall take them my paper sack
and we shall act out a poem together:
"How would you like to see Marilyn Monroe,
in action, smiling, and without her clothes?"
We shall wait long enough to see them make familiar faces
and then I shall beat them with your skull.
hubba. hubba. hubba. hubba. hubba.

Through her narrator's action, Grahn fantasizes poetic justice for the media that helped to destroy Marilyn Monroe and for all the women they objectify and influence, including "eight young women in New York City / who murdered themselves for being pretty / by the same method as you, the very / next day, after you!" The internal rhymes "sack," "act" and "action," reinforced by the "k" and hard "c" sounds of "clothes," "make," and "skull" anticipate the crack of beating the men senseless, reported in the familiar, lascivious nonsense phrase "hubba hubba." Rich explains, "Marilyn Monroe's body, in death, becomes a weapon[,] her bone a bludgeon to beat the voyeurs, the fetishists, the poets and journalists vampirizing off the 'dumb-blonde' of the centerfolds" (Rich, 1977, 14).

The narrator is angry not only with the reporters, not only with men, but also with the women who play up to them. After the first two stanzas, the poem is addressed directly to Marilyn; the narrator repeatedly adjures her to "be serious." Had Marilyn been able—or allowed—to be serious, the poem implies, she might have been taken seriously, as the narrator wishes to be:

Long ago you wanted to write poems;
Be serious, Marilyn
I am going to take you in this paper sack
around the world, and
write on it: —the poems of Marilyn Monroe—
Dedicated to all princes,
the male poets who were so sorry to see you go,
before they had a crack at you.

The narrator's ambivalence shows in lines 1-3 of this stanza. Read alone, line two is a repeat of the demand that Marilyn "be serious," but the first eight lines of the stanza make one complete sentence. As parts of the same sentence, lines one and two become related statements, with the semicolon connecting two similar ideas: "Long ago you wanted to write poems," that is, to "Be serious, Marilyn." Lines two and three follow up by indicating that the narrator, who is a poet, is "going to take" Marilyn seriously, unlike "the male poets" who were only interested in Marilyn sexually.

After the last hubba hubbas, Grahn ends the poem by reflecting its beginning. In the opening three lines the narrator had declared, "I have come to claim / Marilyn Monroe's body / for the sake of my own." In the end, fantastically having vanquished the forces of objectification, the narrator implores "Marilyn, be serious / Today I have come to claim your body for my own." By the last line, the narrator is not only laying claim to the idea of Marilyn Monroe's body, she is identifying with the pain and the power of it. The action is no longer taken "for the sake of" the narrator; at the end, Marilyn Monroe's body is taken for—that is, understood as—the narrator's own, not in the sense of ownership, but of identification. Grahn explained in an interview in 1983 that the identification is related to class as well as gender: "When I think of [Marilyn Monroe], I get a terrible chill because I know that she came from a poor background and worked her way all the way up to being a suicide, and I don’t want that to happen to any of us ever again" ("Judy Grahn," 1983, 100). If Marilyn Monroe's objectified female beauty helped to subjugate women, the power of her dead body, stripped to the bare bones, can empower. A woman willing to take Marilyn (and herself) seriously can use her tragedy to understand how women are pitted against one another in a misogynist culture. Grahn accomplishes her analysis in "The Marilyn Monroe Poem" with an uproarious "Thelma and Louise" style revenge fantasy, minus the tragic finale.

Rich sees the theme of "The Marilyn Monroe Poem" recurring in Grahn's work: "Over and over Grahn calls up the living woman against the manufactured one, the man-made creation of centuries of male art and literature" (Rich, 1977, 14). In several poems, Grahn specifically reclaims the stereotyped "dumb blonde," who has become the butt of her own strand of derogatory "jokes." In addition to a poem about the famous blonde Marilyn Monroe, Grahn places "dumb blonde" in the list of "various names" in "The enemies of She Who call her various names": "dove—cow—pig—chick—cat—kitten—bird / dog—dish / a dumb blonde" (WCW 84). "Blonde" shows up in the erotic poem "fortunately the skins" (Edward the Dyke, WCW 53) and the parable "The most blonde woman in the world," in which a beautiful woman "threw off her skin / her hair, threw off her hair, declaring / 'Whosoever chooses to love me / chooses to love a bald woman / with bleeding pores"' (She Who, WCW 93). After her transformation, "her lovers" are "small hard-bodied spiders," traditionally female weavers of destiny, fate, and time. "Hard-bodied" both connotes an insect difficult to crush and foreshadows the "grand, muscley names" for love in the language of the later poem "My name is judith;" the spider-lovers protect, provide for, and empower the most blonde woman. "They spun her blood into long strands," replacing the strands of blonde hair, interacting with her, keeping her from bleeding to death. "'Now’, she said, ‘Now I am expertly loved, / and now I am beautiful."'

from Garber, Linda. "Lesbian Identity Politics: Judy Grahn, Pat Parker, and the Rise of Queer Theory." Diss. Stanford U, 1995. Copyright 1996 by Linda Garber.


Billie Maciunas

Her "I have come to claim Marilyn Monroe's body," also a satire, would emphasize angry. The Queen of Wands (1982) is dedicated "To Marilyn Monroe / who tried, I believe / to help us see / that beauty has a mind / of its own" (iv). The Queen of Wands is Grahn's revision of the story of Inanna, as mentioned, who is also the Greek beauty Helen in the Iliad (The Queen of Swords 1).

The lesbian poet's claim to the body of America's sex symbol is a powerful criticism of the destructive fetishization of the woman's body. The poem demonstrates Grahn's use of slang, dialect, and blunt sexual terms as part of her arsenal. The language here is a sobering joke on the puerile double entendres of soft pornography and consumerist versions of the feminine muse. The poet pays sardonic homage to the style in "luscious / long brown bones," "wide and crusty / pelvis," and "lovely knucklebone." The specter of decay has already intruded unceremoniously into what might have been a "serious" elegy ("Be serious, Marilyn"). The short imperatives "dig it up, hand it over, / cram it in this paper sack" compound her contamination of the beautiful muse and of the elegiac tone reserved for her memory, as in Elton John's "Good-bye, Norma Jean." The terms "cram it, " "a crack at you," "stuff you," and "a little meat left" are colloquial working-class terms that mock violently the unreflecting sentiment of "the male poets who were so sorry to see you go." The refrain, "hubba. hubba. hubba.", punctuated by full stops, is the carnival hawker's obscenity transformed into the poet's macabre funeral cry.

Grahn's refreshing audacity registers in her pun on lesbian sex: "they're asking . . . what / am I doing for lunch? They think I / mean to eat you." The reporters' "lurid teeth" and appetites cause them to mistake the meaning of a lesbian in Monroe's place. Claiming the body of the sex symbol as her own, the poet uses the reporters' expectations ("We shall wait long enough to see them make familiar faces") and the woman's transformed body for her own and other women's protection ("and then I shall beat them with your skull").

For women readers of "I Have Come to Claim," Grahn's reference to the "eight young women in New York City" recalls the murders of eight student nurses in Chicago in 1966 by Richard Speck. The mass murder was notable because the women were strangled and stabbed one at a time, with only one managing to escape by hiding. The women's apparent helplessness and even witlessness in the face of horror was thus underscored in the media's description of the killings. The lacquered surface serves Grahn's irony well in her use of "brainless cinderellas" to describe the dead women. The term will not be contested by el lector inimigo, but of course it has other connotations to the metaphorically feminine reader. As "cinderellas," the women succumbed first to an ideology that rendered them docile servants in return for acceptance and/or safety. Their lives over, these women remain trapped in their identity as victims, as "cinderellas" claimed by the media's "lurid" appetite. Literally "brainless," as Marilyn, being dead, has literally "lost her mind," they can never recoup their status as designers of their own destinies.

Grahn's fierceness in "I Have Come to Claim" belies her vulnerability as a "common woman" to an ideological system gird by violence toward women. In seeking commonality with the common woman, Grahn at once exposes herself as uncommon and seeks safety from exposure. Her "overlapping islands" reflects her wish for both connection and protection. In lesbian-feminist fiction of the 1970s and 1980s, such safety was imagined as attainment of stability in a pastoral setting. Zimmerman points out in The Safe Sea of Women that, while lesbian writers of the period often relied on the pastoral setting as motif, escape to paradise is a solution based in Christian heroic lore:

The lesbian hero, a stranger in the strange land of heterosexuality, sets out on a difficult adventure that eventually brings her home to her lesbian self and the lesbian community. The community to which the lesbian hero journeys is typically situated on an island or in a pastoral setting. Thus, the island, the journey, the garden, and the fall are fundamental symbols in the stories lesbians tell about our lives. (31)

from Maciunas, Billie. "Crossing Boundaries--Lesbian as Metaphor/Lesbian Poetry in Brazil and the United States." Diss. U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1995. Copyright 1995 by Billie Maciunas.


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