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About Judy Grahn's "She Who" Poems


Alicia Ostriker

Judy Grahn's visionary "She Who" represents the position espoused by writers such as Mary Daly that the quest for an integrated female self is inseparable from linguistic revolution. Grahn's title evokes a goddess figure yet might also be the secret tribal name of everywoman, and is less a name than a grammatical configuration pointing toward a potentially unlimited array of possible states and acts, which the sequence begins to exemplify. The chant of its opening poem moves from a question that is possibly curious, possibly insulting, to an affirmation which imitates the noise of a crowd or of the wind:

She, she who? she WHO? she, WHO SHE? . . .
She SHE who, She, she SHE
she SHE, she SHE who
SHEEE WHOOOOOO

Some of the poems in the "She Who" sequence are deadpan comedic fantasies, as when Grahn appropriates the third eye of Hindu mysticism. Note that because of the lack of punctuation the first two lines here can be read either as the commencement of a sentence or as a declarative statement followed by a question:

She Who increases
what can be done

I shall grow another breast
in the middle of my chest . . .
slippery as a school of fish
sounder than stone. Call it
She – Who – educates – my -- chest.

There are also animal fables, parables of female power and powerlessness, a poem of insults ("a cunt a bitch a slut a slit a hole a whore a hole"), a birth poem, a funeral song, a plainsong invoking the bonding of older and younger women ("are you not shamed to treat me meanly / when you discover you become me"), and a boasting rune which has become canonical in lesbian poetry:

I am the wall at the lip of the water
I am the rock that refused to be battered
I am the dyke in the matter, the other
I am the wall with the womanly swagger
And I have been many a wicked grandmother
and I shall be many a wicked daughter.

With Grahn's "She Who" we arrive at the two final consequences of the imperative of intimacy in women's poetry: the self that is not merely a resolved pair of polarities but an uncircumscribed set of coexistent possibilities, and the poem that resists the closure of artifact to become a communal transaction. For as polarity yields to androgyny in women's poetic desires, so--the logical next step--androgyny yields to plurality. At the close of "Diving into the Wreck," Adrienne Rich learns not only "I am she: I am he" but "We are, I am, you are . . . the one who find our way / back to this scene." The speaker-protagonist of Levertov's "Knowing the Unknown" is "we . . . anyone, all of us." When Piercy’s "The Queen of Pentacles" sees that other women enable her to touch "pruned selves, smothered wishes, small wet cries . . . and think how all together we make up one good strong woman," her "we" signifies both multiple interior selves and herself joined to other women.

As the female self recognizes its multiplicity, it sometimes moves into extended chantlike forms which structurally exemplify the possibility of an unlimited plurality while tonally and rhythmically suggesting a sacred and communal primitivism. Some of our most striking contemporary poems, composed for oral performance, are incantatory.

From Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. Copyright 1986 by Alicia Suskin Ostriker.


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