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
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
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),
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada
IN THIS INSTALLMENT
•Notes on Our Time (excerpts from Maureen Dowd, Toni
Morrison, Mary Daly)
•”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
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
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
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,
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.
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