“Este es el viaje de la sangre mía:
apenas viaje, espuma de palabras.”
(Apenas Viaje (1))
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Through the Looking-Glass (193))
As Humpty Dumpty pontificates, the power of language is based not in the possibilities of language to signify things, but in the ability of language to create a system of representation that is not directly linked to the objects represented. Language is a system that in fact, needs no objects at all. Language controls and determines the horizon of experiences of anyone using it. There is nowhere to go, no place outside language. Therefore, language establishes the norm. Language dictates normality, and consequently, morality, by restricting the areas where definitions can be acquired or transmuted. As noted by Michel Foucault in Les Mots et Les Choses, the linguistic path toward restriction of meaning is of a dialectical nature. A pattern of signification is established by means of opposition: good versus bad, moral versus immoral, normal versus abnormal, heterosexual versus homosexual.
Given these dialectical pairs, it is logical to infer that a homosexual discourse of the erotic is established against a heterosexual one and as structurally pertaining to a dialectical system of representation. The problem is that placing the homosexual erotic discourse — specifically in this case, the lesbian erotic discourse — as oppositional, implies a hierarchical system of distribution of legitimacy where homosexuality takes a subservient role, functioning as a response to a previous (and therefore more legitimate within its own tradition) heterosexual discourse. It is often argued that this dialectical system serves the political purposes of both sides of the argument: the heterosexual side defining itself as original; and the homosexual one placing itself as the antithesis for the production of a synthesis where previous discourses (i.e. heterosexual ones) will be eliminated.
In examining the poetic works of Minnie Bruce Pratt, a different reading of the erotic discourse can be established. It is no longer merely dialectical. Pratt’s works establish her discourse beyond/outside the limits of heterosexuality, where language acts not as a divider but as a place where it is permissable to talk within the contradiction. This reading of her work is possible not as an act of will on the part of the reader but because Minnie Bruce Pratt opens the door to it: “…when I write and speak of my life as a lesbian, my poems have also been seen as outside the bounds of poetry.” (Rebellion (228)).
This makes Pratt’s political/poetic project quite different. The spaces she claims as her own are not to be juxtaposed to heterosexual boundaries, but perceived within their own integrity. If anything, Pratt acknowledges that the possibility for the existence of her writing has a material base shaped by a lesbian community that opens a space of difference where she can express herself:
The only reason that I can now choose to piece together my… way of making a living is because many women… have made places within the economic system where I can do my work and be paid for it…. I do not have to leave the land of myself, my lesbian self, my woman self, in order to do my work. (182)
“When I began living as a lesbian, I had no place in that world of legislators and poets except as a criminal. I had to create a new reality… a vision and a dream of a place without domination, without injustice authorized by law. I can say because of that dream I have become a poet… one who offers possibility, threatening to some, desired by others, but possibility.” (229)
Her poetry can thus, be read as a dialogue between Pratt and her community, particularly because the distance between the persona in the poems and Minnie Bruce Pratt is almost non-existent. She crosses the line when commenting in her essays about her own writing, there are constant references to her own sons, her lovers, her history. She also crosses the line when in the acknowledgements of her books she thanks “the many women who talked to me after poetry readings, for their conversation with me about this work” (We Say We Love Each Other (v)). Her poems can be read as autobiography where the self expands to express other selves, as a form of retribution, and as a form of continuation and recognition: “Unless I write explicitly of how I am a lesbian, I will be denied my identity, my reality.” (Rebellion (134))
It is because of this that Pratt does not establishes her erotic vocabulary from a literary vacuum, but from a mark of reference of those who have been there before her, and those who are there with her, both as fellow writers and audience: “And that is how I learned to be a lesbian poet: other lesbians taught me.” (132) Her poetic language is an individual creation but it is also immersed in the language of the community for which it was created. That is why it is not possible within Pratt’s poetical/political project to resignify heterosexual erotic language. Such a movement would automatically establish her poetry within the boundaries of dialectics. Lesbian sexuality would be, under those circumstances, read as an imitation of heterosexual sexuality. The movements, the gazes looking at the lesbian bodies would became, by means of dialectical functioning, a distorted reflection of heterosexuality. In that reflection, a double motion would take place, one that would portray heterosexuality as the norm, and lesbian sexuality as the aberration. The difference would not be a signifier of otherness, rather, a mark of failure.
I can see the desire
The first strategy Pratt uses to create her erotic vocabulary is to go back to a place where –as Michel Foucault indicates in The Birth of The Clinic— the distinction between the objects being named and the words used to name those objects is nonexistent. A place where there is no distinction between the act of seeing and the act of saying, and therefore a place where new layers of meaning can be added or mutated, and where the objects themselves can be transformed. This area is created by fragmentation, spacing, and superimposition of meaning over the same word.
Both in We Say We Love Each Other, and Crime Against Nature texts are spaced and fragmented. Empty spaces surface between words or the words themselves stretch beyond a single line of verse.
like a dragon-
fly skims the pond, darns the water…
(We Say We Love Each Other (46))
Tonight it is raining ice, no thunder, no light-
ning, just the cold rain icing in the leaves. (65)
A grey day, drenched, humid, the sun-
flowers bowed with rain. I walk aimless
to think about this poem. Clear water runs…
(Crime Against Nature (29))
These openings in the text fulfill a double function: they serve as a reference to Sappho, a recurrent gesture in the writing by lesbians which allows the poem to be recognized within a tradition –albeit fragmented and almost lost– and they point to the silence and the violence the text has to suffer in order to exist. The meanings of the words are multiplied by their breaking. The dragon escapes the dragonfly, the light escapes the lightning, and the sun the sunflowers. All the escapees have a characteristic in common: they are larger than the linguistic prison that contained them. They grow when they are free, when they are released. It is a powerful metamorphosis that mutatis mutandis expands from dragonfly to dragon, from a tiny insect to a mythical creature; not just a bolt of lightning, but all the light; not just a flower following the motions of the sun, but the sun itself.
The title of her second book of poetry announces that her writing is a “crime against nature.” By a heterosexual definition, the representation of lesbian desire is in itself an act of violence. The violence consists not only in the public announcement that the text, the persona of the poems, and the writer herself are lesbians, but also that simultaneously, text, persona and writer are mothers, sisters, and daughters. Defining herself as a lesbian is regarded as breaking the code of silence, but defining herself as a lesbian mother is breaking the order of the discourse. A lesbian mother alters the social texture because it juxtaposes meanings that were held as incompatible. A lesbian mother resignifies the notions ascribed to women. Everything that a woman does is, by a sleight of hands, turned into something else. The hands that rocked the cradle, that caressed the sons, that fought the ex-husband, that closed into a fist, are the hands that now make love to another woman “my fingers sunk in you/ up to the knuckles and palm…” (We Say We Love Each Other (67)). And those same hands are repeated in one of the sons:
He has my hands, wide palm, long fingers.
He has my big hands, which are my mother’s.
(Crime Against Nature (107))
What does this mean? Does it mean that the son carries, somehow, the lesbian self of the mother? There is an urge in the moralism of heterosexuality to restore the imbalance. This moralism has no problem accepting the mother as the author who dedicates the book to Ransom and Ben, but it is troubled by the nature of those poems. It has no problem –almost– accepting the lesbian as the author who writes erotic lesbian poems, but it is troubled by the offering of those poems to her sons. The disruption is not present in any of the terms of the equation. The equation itself is disruptive. A mother? yes; a lesbian? yes; but not the two together in the same person. In Crime Against Nature mothers and lesbians are one and the same woman; there is no sign to mark a distinction between them. The disruption has been established. Furthermore, this disruption is prolonged in the reading of the erotic, because now one of the favored tropes of lesbian sexuality is superimposed on the tropes of maternal affection. If the lesbian/mother has the power to give her hands to her son, it follows that she has also the power to give birth to her lover, “flat on my back, thighs open, against the board” (We Say We Love Each Other (67)). Now that differences have been erased, where is the instance distinguishing childbirth from love-making? This question does not remain at the level of the text. It moves into the realm of the iconic and the photographic representation that comes with the poems. After all, the (apparently) naked Minnie Bruce Pratt on the cover of We Say We Love Each Other is the same Minnie Bruce Pratt who smiles to us, sitting between her sons, Ben and Ransom, from the back cover of Crime Against Nature. Even more, the woman who took the pictures, Joan E. Biren, was Pratt’s lover at the time. Not only does Pratt present herself as the writer of the poems, but also as a mother and the object of desire of another woman. “In your photographs… I can see the desire.” (We Say We Love Each Other (87)). Because we look at the photographs Pratt’s lover took, we see through Joan E. Biren’s gaze, her lesbian gaze. Does that make lesbians out of us? How are we supposed to react if we are not part of her community of readers? The mechanism of inclusion is not a given, as it would be in a heterosexual text, which always presumes the heterosexuality of the reader. That is yet another disruption that the juxtaposition of words forces upon the reader. The gaze of the lover and the gaze of the reader are, by action of the photographs, simultaneous. Minnie Bruce Pratt was smiling at the camera, at the woman behind the camera, but now, she is smiling back at us.
Gen.2,20./ The one who tells the tale, gets to name the monster
By the end of the nineteenth century, medical science in Europe –with particular emphasis in Germany– had already started to clinically name the homosexual as the deviant and the pervert. This definition was (still is) widely supported by the religious and social apparatus, because it gave a physical body to the notion of evil. The lesbian becomes a monster because her instincts are loose. No longer restrained by reproduction, the sexuality of the lesbian is explicitly an act of pleasure and desire, without other purpose than its own expression. The homosexual does not re/produce in herself the surrounding ideology because she does not re/produce herself biologically when making love to another woman. What makes a monster and a pervert out of a lesbian is specifically this ability to redirect her sexual desire without hiding its nature.
The action of naming is more than simply ascribing a sound to an object, and it goes beyond the Saussurean notions of signifier and signified. A name establishes a place within the universe, and reinforces the hierarchical boundaries of that universe by subordination. The judeo-christian tradition has always been very clear about this. Adam, the first man, is master of all living creatures because he gives them a name. It is this ability that makes him human. Given the fact that it is language that fixes the limits of perception establishing the boundaries within which each individual will be able to recognize her own identity, it becomes necessary for the lesbian author to take over those names given to the monster and the pervert and invert their meaning. And this is precisely what Minnie Bruce Pratt does when she resorts to both the obscene/monstrous and the medical/legal vocabularies to articulate lesbian desire and to place it into a different geography of the erotic language.
The figure of the lesbian as a monster is a recurrent one throughout Pratt’s poetry. Lesbians are “monsters,” “beasts” with “tentacles” and “delicate knifeblade tongues.” They are “Godzilla Satans” with “basilisk eyes, scorching phosphorescent skin.” The linguistic space of the word woman is already completely taken. The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists under woman: “one possessing in high degree the qualities considered distinctive of womanhood (as gentleness, affection, and domesticity or on the other hand fickleness, superficiality, and folly)” (2629). Out of necessity, the lesbian discourse of desire takes over the monster. Because of its mythological nature, the figure of the monster is blurred, and lacks definition. It is within those holes in the signifying structure of the word monster that new meanings can be added to the term. The monster becomes the lesbian, but the lesbian is not a monstrous being. In this open area, Pratt is able to signify, describe and regulate, the behaviors of the monster/woman/lesbian. These monsters are now loving ones. They take great care of each other, they are tender and loving. They no longer terrorize –they never did– but rather “explain/ the future by scrawling lines of exquisite pleasure/ on the walls of my vagina.” (We Say We Love Each Other (77)). Pleasure and knowledge are intertwined and give power to those who are, as if by nature, rejected by the social morality. It is interesting that monsters, witches, and giants are part of the cosmology of fairy tales, and that according to Bruno Betelheim in The Uses of Enchantment, these figures work, many times, as devices by which the children listening to the story can acquire some of the characteristics of the adults without losing their own. The same movement is performed by Pratt, who as a lesbian writer reclaims her woman self through the monstrous.
But lesbians are not only defined as monsters, they are also defined as obscene and vulgar: queer, dyke, butch, inhuman, crooked, slut. And this is still another area that lesbian authors have to claim in order to define themselves. The tactic is similar to that applied to the monstrous. It consists in an affirmation and validation of the insulting term in order to claim it as property to be altered and changed.
…You some kind of dyke?
Sweating, damned if I’d give them the last say,
hissing into the mouth of the nearest face, Yesss,…
…[my] mouth like a conjuring trick, a black hole
that swallows their story and turns it inside out.
(Crime Against Nature (112))
I’ve never gotten used to being their evil,…
No explanation except: the one who tells the tale
gets to name the monster. In my version, I walk
to where I want to live. (115)
The evil one, the monster, the sweating dyke who hisses back are all the same figure: a woman reclaiming her place. The story needs to be rewritten in a way that makes possible the existence of the woman/lesbian/mother; in a way that creates a location to live in.
In Pratt’s poetry, the monstrous and the indecent are contested in the same movement, not because there is a certain didacticism on the side of the author, a need to simplify in order to make the information more accessible, but because the discourse of aggression erases the limits between Godzilla and the queer.
“…You some kind of dyke?” (112) where “some kind” points precisely at that space of the undefined, which is also a space of recognition. Establishing the unknowability of the other –in this case, a lesbian– opens up the possibility that such an other could be someone alike. And that is what makes this appropriation so disruptive to the social order. It turns things inside out, because it enables the perverts to become human beings without having to define their selves as the opposite dialectical end of the equation where heterosexuality establishes both intention and meaning. It turns things inside out, because now the monster gives herself a name she likes, and the one who told the tale, has lost his voice. The monster does not need him any more. If she now chooses to stay where she is, it is out of her own will, it is because she does not reject the other because of his difference. Monsters, as redefined, are loving creatures. The one who told the tale, has become himself, truly heinous. The hatred that the monsters/lesbians would not take, is of a heterosexual nature.
Obviously, what applies to the lesbian applies to her body, which becomes fragmented, a “disreputable cunt,” a “filthy vulva.” But what has been aimed towards lesbians as a means of aggression becomes, through Pratt’s poetry, a place of recognition: “Her cunt…/ …The shape and color/ mine exactly. We could be sisters by the resemblance.” (We Say We Love Each Other (31)) and a place of strength:
as I advance in the scandalous ancient way of women:
our assault on enemies, walking forward, skirts lifted,
to show the silent mouth, the terrible power, our secret.
(Crime Against Nature (120))
This strength is born out of openness, out of presenting in public what was kept in secret. The motion that lifts the skirts uncovers a vertical mouth which utters a discourse that goes beyond the gesture of the words, because it silently exposes itself.
Or criminally unnatural
Any classification implies a moral judgement, and when this judgment is negative, it forces a transformation of the discourse into the legal arena. A deviant behavior is not only linguistically censored, it is legally penalized. “To be a poet who is a lesbian is to be a potential felon in half the states of this country and the District of Columbia, where I live.” (Rebellion (228)).
As with the vocabulary of monsters, medical and legal terminology are a constant presence in Pratt’s poetry, particularly in Crime Against Nature where the title itself establishes this recurrence. Clitoris, shoulderblades, vulvas, vaginas, tendons “tense as wire,” woman’s genitals, orgasms, androgen, lesbians, coexist with bestial, custody, depraved, deviant, pervert, per anum, per os. This collision of terms is also an exercise of appropriation. Because there is no established language to express erotic tension and sexual desire, Pratt resorts to the vocabulary imposed upon her, resignifying it. Both medical and legal terms are given new layers of meaning through the context in which they are immersed. The bestial snake-like tongue is not poisonous, but pleasant: “and tongue like a snake (bestial is in the statute)/ winding through salty walls…” (Crime Against Nature (116)). The genitals are fruits awaiting “in the bed where we devoured each other…” (We Say We Love Each Other (78)), they bring “…a rush of pleasure…” (Crime Against Nature (114)). Because of her status as a lesbian writer, Minnie Bruce Pratt faces two levels of silence. Socially, as a woman, she is not expected to talk about sexuality, much less, about sexual pleasure. As a lesbian, she is not supposed even to exist. As a writer, when Pratt talks about her sexuality and her pleasure, she is shattering the silence and pushing the limits of the medical/legal definitions: “The law when I read it/ didn’t mention teeth. I’m sure it will some day if/ one of us gets caught with the other, nipping.” (117)
The last section of the book, from which Crime Against Nature gets its title, forces this push beyond the text itself because it portrays her actions not only as an occurrence of the past and the present, but also as an announcement of the future, and as an announcement of “crimes” such as “nipping” still not contemplated under the current regulations. It acts as a gesture of defiance and also as a foundational gesture. Pratt claims for herself –and therefore for her lesbian community– a sexual act (past, present, and future) that has not been announced first by the heterosexual erotic discourse. It is the basis for an independent vocabulary, that coexists with the heterosexual, without being subservient to it.
A place not marked yet in any map
Pratt’s erotic discourse and vocabulary is still evolving and it is already mature. It is already established and it is yet to come. It is already established because it allows other women to recognize themselves within its patterns of representation. It is yet to come because it defines its presence as a pulsion towards the future. Its announcement has not been made. As expressed in the last poem of the collection, the mouths are open, but they are still silent. They are ready to tell all they know, but they have not started to talk. They have disclosed the existence of a secret, but they have not revealed its nature.
This space of uncertainty is where Minnie Bruce Pratt’s erotic discourse is rooted. The area of the undefined is the location of Pratt’s political/poetic project, and the erotic vocabulary is an essential element. It appears as an individual expression, but it is presented out of a dialogical communal experience. It is a practice that consists of the creation of geographies: “our thighs clearing/ a wider and wider space on the cold slippery floor.” (We Say We Love Each Other (98), but these geographies acknowledge their own temporal nature. The erotic expression functions as an horizon of possibility: “A dream, a place I’ve never come to, though I’ve travelled/ miles.” (95) It is in the nature of horizons not to be reached. The distance between the traveller and the end of the visible landscape remains unchanged. The paradox is that the horizon is inscribed within the body. What is at stake is the design of a glance able to see the object of desire without the historical elements of oppression that constrain both desire and its object. But it must also sustain the consciousness that reminds the eye of the historical struggles that made possible a free glance.
I asked myself several times what is the purpose of this paper. More accurately, what is my purpose on the paper. Why lesbian desire, why Minnie Bruce Pratt as subjects? I can justify my options on the methodological and theoretical level by mentioning the necessity of exploring lesbian/feminist writing and theory in order to have a better understanding of my main area of interest, namely: lesbian, gay and bisexual texts/discourses in the Americas. But what does it mean to me, as a gay/bisexual man, to write about erotic lesbian discourse? I believe there are two main reasons for me to do so. The first one, is that I have a strongest suspicion that my mother was, once, in love with another woman. The paper becomes a means to understand my mother and her silences. The second one, is that confronted with the possibility of publicly acknowledging my homo/bisexuality, my mother threatened suicide, pushing me back to geographies of silence. The paper becomes a means to recover something of the voice I have lost, even though it is now in a language that twists my tongue, in a language that my mother does not understand. The paper entitles me to speak, even to speak loudly, but also entitles me to be coward, and not to face myself with my mother’s suicide on my name. It would seem that after all, I see some guilt in my desires. I had to travel six thousand miles in order to lovingly embrace a man and still feel safe. Maybe that is a third reason for the paper: a sort of exorcism to discover the inhabitants of all my desert islands.
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1 “This is the journey of my blood/ barely a journey, a spume of words.”
2 One of the most obvious examples of this is George Orwell’s 1984.
3 This system of representation goes beyond the dialectical discourse of Hegel and Marx, and its roots can be traced at the core of “the Western civilization” and it is grounded in an essencializing reading of its (acquired/appropriated) sacred text: The Bible, and its oppositional system of good and evil, Heaven and Hell.
4 Obviously, this is not the only political possibility to challenge the social structure, but it is one that does not challenge the existence of such as structure, nor it claims for its disappearance.
5 For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on We Say We Love Each Other, and Crime Against Nature.
6 For a perspective on anti-dialecticism I am following Nietzsche’s theories particularly as they are expressed in Beyond Good and Evil. Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, sections 1, 3, 4, 9, 21, 24, 36, 44, 153, 161, 169, 198, and 219.
7 As Nietzsche puts it: “How could anything originate out of its opposite?… Such genesis is impossible; whoever dreams of it is a fool, nay, worse than a fool. (Beyond Good and Evil (6)).
8 And the writer, and the reader.
9 This becomes evident particularly when looking at different editions of the works of Sappho. In most instances, the translator/editor is force to interpret the language, to fill the blanks with hypothesis, and to guess what has been lost.
10 Not casually, the word “hand/s” is the most common noun in the two volumes of poetry, appearing sixty-seven times in We Say We Love Each Other, and fifty-one times in Crime Against Nature, not to mention synonyms and related words such as fingers, palms, fingertips, etc.
11 Both Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers and Richard Plant’s The Pink Triangle, provide a good source of information and bibliography on the subject.
12 Through the ages different groups have been given the role of evil: women, jews, pagans, blacks, homosexuals, etc. depending on the cultural context, and the levels of discrimination socially permitted, but only women have been a constant presence in each and every one of these groups.
13 Needless to say, homosexuals (both men and women) do have sons and daughters, far more often than presumed, as it is the case of Minnie Bruce Pratt.
14 For the concept of language as the location where to establish and determine human behavior I am following Michel Foucault’s theories, as expressed in Les Mots et les Choses.
15 Interestingly enough, the concept of gender and womanhood are not linked by the definition. A woman is therefore one who possesses the qualities of a woman, not one who merely has female genitalia.
16 This urge for the constitution of a lesbian geography is evident in the novels of many contemporary authors, such as Monique Wittig, Jewelle Gomez, Rebecca Brown, Patricia Ealkins, etc.
17 A recent example of this being “Amendment 2” by which voters tried to amend Colorado’s constitution to prohibit lesbian and gay rights laws.