Friday, December 20, 2013

ADVENT 12/20: Julie Marie Wade on reading Jeanette Winterson’s “The Semiotics of Sex” (1995) as the Ten Commandments for a Lesbian Writing Life

It’s a sweltering August day in South Dakota, about 100 miles east of Rapid City. The calendar says it’s 2002, but we are outside of time now, moving slowly when at all.
My girlfriend and I—it is too soon to call her my partner, the love of my life (though I want already to call her these things)—broke down two days ago on Interstate 90 near the exit for Okaton. We were told at the gas station we schlepped to, which served as a grocery and general store for the locals and a rock shop for tourists, that the population of Okaton, South Dakota, was exactly 13. No more, no less. By the time the tow truck came for us, we had met every one of the residents.
Now we’re in Murdo. The Super 8 is full because of Sturgis so we’re staying at a no-name place without air conditioning for $18.00 a night. The man at the desk is creepy in the most predictable way and encourages us to use the pool, which he can see clearly through the grimy, half-drawn curtain. Instead, we watch Seinfeld reruns and walk to Domino’s for pizza. Angie’s car is with a Murdo mechanic and will be, it turns out, for the next 72 hours. Every morning we traipse back to the body shop to remind this mechanic that we are waiting, that we aren’t from around here, that this wasn’t part of our plan.
I snag one of Angie’s books from her bag. I give up and let my thighs fuse with the vinyl on the waiting room chair. I’ve never heard of Jeanette Winterson until today—this sweltering August day in Murdo, South Dakota—but ten years from now I will talk about her at my dissertation defense in Louisville, Kentucky. My partner, the love of my life, will be perched in a softly upholstered chair, listening. She will smile because, among so many others, Winterson is one of the gifts she gave me.
1.     I have become aware that the chosen sexual difference of one writer is, in itself, thought sufficient to bind her in semiotic sisterhood with any other writer, also lesbian, dead or alive.
I paused on the word chosen. I begged to differ with this notion of difference. Love had chosen me, I reasoned. Wasn’t this how we always spoke of love? I was caught off guard. I was swept away. Love happened to me, like a wondrous, violent change in the weather. I never saw it coming.
I wanted to write back to the writer, saying I didn’t choose a woman instead of a man. I didn’t choose a lesbian identity over a heterosexual one. Or did I? It was 2002. I had never been with a woman before, and yet I found myself head over heels, falling. Winterson goaded me with her word, needled me with the precision of her phrase: chosen sexual difference. Her voice was so strong I could feel her breath blowing from the margins of the page, her fingerprints like secret footnotes left for me to dust:
Maybe you happened to Love, she countered. Maybe you happened to Lesbian Identity.
Don’t follow your heart, Winterson warned me. Lead with it.
Of course, once you claim your life, once you name your love, new challenges are certain to arise.
2.     I am a writer who happens to love women. I am not a lesbian who happens to write.
In 2002, reveling in my love of poetry, reveling in my love of Angie—we were poets who met in a graduate writing program—I had not imagined yet the ways these loves would intersect and tangle. Yes, there would be love poems, and the love poems would reflect a pronoun shift. But beyond the page, I would call myself a writer, as I always had. I would call myself a lesbian, as I never had—but as I knew I would, thereafter.
Winterson’s distinction puzzled me. Could I not be a writer who loved women and a lesbian who wrote? Was this not another way of saying, Six of one, half a dozen of the other?
How naïve I was to imagine the question would never come up! How naïve I was to believe my answer could be neutral, apolitical. When I dated men, no one ever asked me to make such a distinction: “Are you a writer who happens to love men, or a heterosexual who happens to write?”
And because this question is never posed to the heterosexual writer, she does not have to assign priority to one identity over the other. She does not have to choose if she is more “straight” than “literary,” or name the degree to which her heterosexuality informs her writing.
Winterson was a weather vane. She did not direct the wind, but she indicated the way the wind was blowing. Could I say I am a lesbian who writes, and a writer who is a lesbian? Yes, but one phrase would always precede the other. Could I say I am a lesbian, and I am a writer? Yes, but one phrase would always precede the other.
I would have to choose again. I would have to own my choice. I chose a version of Winterson’s line: I am a writer who loves women. This was true. I eliminated the “happens to.” My love was non-negotiable, and particular, I felt, to Angie. But in time, I would claim a corollary to this statement, too: I am a writer who loves women, and I am also a lesbian writer.
3.     The Queer world has colluded in the misreading of art as sexuality. Art is difference, but not necessarily sexual difference, and while to be outside of the mainstream of imposed choice is likely to make someone more conscious, it does not automatically make that someone an artist.
I had only just begun to use the word “lesbian.” It did not sit easily on my tongue: too soft to roll, too hard to bite. A dactyl—like scorpion or glycerin. I was partial to anapests.
Now here was the word “Queer,” and I had to consider also whether I would claim this word. Was I “Queer” with a capital “Q,” a lower-case “q”? Queer. Rhymes with clear, but isn’t. An antonym, in fact: ambiguous, opaque.
In the essay, Winterson did not identify herself as queer, though she did identify herself as lesbian. Were all lesbians queer by default? I didn’t know. As a lesbian, I would come to understand that my “chosen sexual difference” placed me “outside of the mainstream of imposed choice.” I had loosened the noose of tradition, convention. I had chosen something that was not imposed, and as a consequence, I had violated certain expectations. I had crossed over, presumably, into the Queer world.
Did this fact of my queerness make me more conscious? Conscious of what? I wondered. Then, I thought of us, dusty, blear-eyed, and vulnerable, sharing a chair in the gas-station-qua-rock-shop in Okaton. I wanted to put my hand in her hand. I wanted to link arms, pulling her close to me in love and companionship. If Angie had been Andrew, I would have lain my head on her shoulder without a second thought. Instead, I hesitated, hands in my own lap, back straight as a pin or a board. It wasn’t safe to touch in public. I was conscious for the first time of a privilege I had lost. And this is the way of privilege: Without losing it, I never would have noticed it was there.
Did this fact of my new, my shifting consciousness make me an artist? Was anyone ever automatically an artist? Life was work, and art was work, but they were not the same work, even when they turned metaphor for each other. This I understood. And when the wind changes course, of course—when a slight breeze gives way to a strong breeze gives way to a gale—who doesn’t have to become a different kind of sailor?
Different, not necessarily artful, Winterson would say.
But surely someone, somewhere, learned to raise a graceful sail.
4.     Let me put it another way: if I am in love with Peggy and I am a composer I can express that love in an ensemble or a symphony. If I am in love with Peggy and I am a painter, I need not paint her portrait, I am free to express my passion in splendid harmonies of colour and line. If I am a writer, I will have to be careful, I must not fall into the trap of believing that my passion, of itself, is art.
The car is fixed, and Angie is driving west toward the long, luminous horizon. Somewhere in the distance, we pass the presidents, their faces set in stone. It was work to make them, but was it art? Surely passion must have guided Gutzon Borglum to raise his chisel to the Black Hills. As a sculptor, he was free to express his passion in the carving of rock, the construction of monument. His work, his art, gave way to human likeness.
I have only words to shape the raw material of my life. This strikes me now like a hammer’s blow. We have been studying for our comprehensive exams. Poems crowd the front seat and litter the back. Basil Bunting exhorts from the dash—Pens are too light./ Take a chisel to write.
I carve out this first poem for Angie. (It is life. Is it art? After all, a monumental moment does not, automatically, a monument make.)


At first kiss I discovered you were small,
the curled creature of your mouth flickering,
fluttering—a waning candle flame, a falling curtain.

I touched with trepidation, the way I once touched
the pink sea anemone at a seaside aquarium. It recoiled
first, silky fingers fisted with sudden fear. But slowly,
as I nudged them, assuring each antenna that I meant no harm
but only to touch—to feel—the strange flower unfolded
its arms and seemed to reach out for me.

That’s how it was that night in your bedroom, on the
sofa in your studio, waking up to find my head propped
against your shoulder, and you had been running my hair
through your teeth like pearls.

Take the bed, you said, your hands clenched tight,
your belly threaded through and knotted still with the same
desire that binds my tongue to one stiff silence.
I cannot move. My breath unravels: strained, vaporous,
thick. Motionless, we contemplate the kiss in the darkness
and before it happens, before we are even sure it will happen,
the kiss begins to live.

You uncoil your fingers, curious to trace the contours of my face.
Now there is no doubt.
My mouth begins to tremble as my hands once did—the plaintive
pinkness—the something-small-and-vulnerable—
my mouth begins to water at the miracle of contact, your body
locked so long under glass, smudged up with sticky fingers
and circumstance—no way to reach you.

Hands first—
I suck the knuckles dry and still am thirsty—mouth beckoning,
lips like vines, tendrils, lovely tentacles—

Clasp me, tighter, entrust me with your air.                                                                     
I have passed through the soft center of you, and there is no
turning back.

5.     Art must resist autobiography if it hopes to cross boundaries of class, culture….and…sexuality. Literature is not a lecture delivered to a special interest group, it is a force that unites its audience.
I underlined the first four words, forgetting the book was not mine. Confessional poetry? I asked the margin. Confessional poetry? I asked Winterson.
What about Sharon Olds and Adrienne Rich? What about Lucille Clifton and Sandra Cisneros? The writers I loved most were writing themselves. Their art did not resist autobiography:
Olds: I’m trying to say what happened to us/in the lost past.
Rich: I am an instrument in the shape/of a woman
Clifton: i am accused of tending to the past
Cisneros: I am the woman of myth and bullshit./(True. I authored some of it.)
Their art did not resist autobiography. Or did it?
Perhaps autobiography did not mean what I once assumed. Self-life-writing. Three words strung together like pearls? No, they were more like marks on a ledger, notches on a tree. You were once this tall, and then this tall, and then taller still. Perhaps autobiography was the collection of artifacts. Memoir was the translation of memory into art, experience into art, life into art.
            Rich (again): I am an instrument in the shape/of a woman trying to translate pulsations/into images
Put another way: Memoir was the translation of pulsation into image.
Imagery, like an exponent, raised the individual story to a higher power. Lifted it up. Glory! Hallelujah! Imagery was a force that united the audience.
6.     Art succeeds where polemic fails.
My mother is unhappy with me already. This change in my life will not change that pre-existing condition. My soap box is too small to stand on. The batteries for my microphone have long ago expired. I would like to go to Speaker’s Corner and announce myself newly lesbian, newly queer. I would like to join a parade of chanting voices, “We’re here, We’re queer, Get used to it!” But that would be polemic, wouldn’t it? Not art?
I have failed at heterosexuality, according to my mother. There are doctors who could fix me—mechanics for the mind. There are body shops designed to reorient the hormones, recover the lost good heart. She thinks I am resisting my destiny as wife and mother, my true Christian autobiography. She winces when she looks at me now. Her eyes warn, Making art out of life will not make your mother proud.

My Mother, On Learning I Love A Woman

At first, silence, and then a thud of breath as if
her throat has slid through the chute of her lungs
and landed, heavy—like a stone—like a sword
lodged suddenly inside it.

This explains why you don’t wear make-up, she sighs.

A snap—a pulsing panic pulled back and lightly
camouflaged as fear: What will I tell my friends?!
How can I tell my friends?! I can never tell my friends!!
Finally, fatigued and determined: No one must know.

I give her permission to lie—privilege she takes
as right.
I promise her nothing has changed except the second
chromosome of the body resting next to me.

She asks, not wanting the answer: I suppose you have
to sleep in the same bed?

<<No, in sleeping bags, Mom, cocooned in separate couches
still wrapped in our swaddling clothes.>>

I could have said it, but I didn’t.
No tolerance for the Absurd.
My mother’s voice, all tissue paper and cellophane,
turns tearful, liquid in its pain: where did we go wrong?

She craves an answer I cannot give—
the answer to absolve her for my sin.
Perhaps would settle now for “This is just a phase,”
another lunar cycle. Surely what waxes
must also wane.

I want to tell her not to forgive me, plead through
the twisted wires that she will not waste her prayers.
We raised you with God’s laws, she says.
No, no, no her heart thumping through the phone.

You raised me to love, I say.
You told me to be happy.

<<But she didn’t mean this way, didn’t mean this way,
Dear God, she didn’t mean this way.>>

 I watch out the window, sigh.
Already prayers are streaming up the sky.

7.     Men do not feel comfortable looking at the world through eyes that are not male. […] It would be a pity if lesbians and gay men retreated into the same kind of cultural separatism. We learn early how to live in two worlds; our own and that of the dominant model, why not learn how to live in multiple worlds? The strange prismatic worlds that art offers?
This is a paradox: the longing for separateness in the midst of isolation. Art speaks the language of paradox better than any person. I want to speak paradox. I want to speak image.
But for the moment, I will read only the words of others who are like me. I hunker down in my cozy snow globe of cultural separatism. For the moment, even bad art by a lesbian is better than good art by a straight woman. For the moment, mediocre art by a gay man is more necessary than exceptional art by a straight man.
Angie and I rent our first apartment together in Bellingham, Washington. Our living room window overlooks the bay, our bathroom window the city lights. I have never loved anyone more, of this I am certain. But there are those who would not wish us happily, who would only wish us never, after. They begin to reveal themselves slowly, terribly. A certain before is lost to us now, and it will not be recovered from this storm. I write highly polemical messages and float them in a bottle out to sea.
In our Master’s program, we take a translation exam. I half-imagined I would turn over the page and find this imperative: Translate your life into art. Translate this lecture, this polemic into art. It would have been easier, and harder, both. (Paradox, again.)
I want to live in the “strange, prismatic world” of art. I want to write in the “strange, prismatic world” of art. I want to believe Pearl Buck when she tells me, There is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom.
But as much as I want to be wise, first, I must mourn. As much as I want to be an artist, first, I must be a separatist. Like Augustine, with a twist: Make me gracious-patient-artful, God—but not yet.
Lesbian is a dactyl. Happiness is a dactyl, too, depending on your pronunciation.
We are pleased to inform you that you have passed the translation exam and are now advanced to thesis candidacy.
8.     Complexity leads to perplexity. I do not know my place. There is a clash between what I feel and what I had expected to feel. My logical self fails me, and no matter how I try to pace it out, there is still something left over that will not be accounted for.
By the time we move to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, we have been asked the straightest questions, which are also the queerest questions. (Paradox, again.)
Which one of you is the man? (clarifies) I know you’re not literally men, but who wears the pants?
            We look down. We are both wearing jeans. We look up.       
 How are you guys doing? (blushes) I hope you don’t find the term offensive. Do you? Oh, God!
            We stare ahead, unblinking. We don’t understand the question.
Aren’t you worried about the afterlife? (wringing her hands like a dishrag)
            We shake our heads. Angie says, “No.” I say, “I tend to worry more about this life.”
So, in bed, do you just mostly…snuggle? (pacing, afraid to meet our eyes)
We shake our heads. Angie says, “No.” I say, “Being a lesbian isn’t the same as having a pajama party.”
Were you ever heterosexual? (sliding on her gloves) I’m just curious.
            Angie peruses out-of-date magazines in the waiting room. My stocking feet are pressed into the stirrups. “That depends what you mean by heterosexual,” I say.
With the sex, I mean—how do you—how do you know when it’s over?
            Angie doesn’t dignify this question with an answer. I say, “I think this question says more about your sex life than my answer could say about mine.”
But what I find far worse than any question, however silly or stereotypical, is the silence that has been known to descend when we enter a room. Sometimes we are swimming in that pool after all, back at the no-name place in Murdo, South Dakota, and everyone is watching through the grimy, half-drawn curtain—its white eyelets of suspicion, discomfort, fear.
I try to find the words for us, but nomenclature is complex, and “complexity leads to perplexity.”
In Pittsburgh, when I called Angie my girlfriend, people thought I meant a female chum to watch Oprah with, to power-walk with, to mani-peti with and double with on dates with men.
In Pittsburgh, when I called Angie my partner, people thought I meant we ran a business together. They asked us what we did. They didn’t mean in bed this time. They wanted to know our line of work.
In Pittsburgh, when I called Angie my lover, it was too intimate to say in public.
In Pittsburgh, when I called Angie my beloved, it was too intimate for other people to hear in public.
There is no equivalent for spouse, you see, for husband and wife and their gendered symmetry. There is no equivalent for the reverence those words command. Or if there is, I haven’t found it yet.
In Pittsburgh, when I called Angie my life-partner—to address complexity, to intercept perplexity—the words were often changed, thirty-party: This is Julie’s friend, Angie. This is Julie’s roommate, Angie. Our story revised to read easier from someone else’s script.
I want the questions back, you see. I would rather address the arrogance or the cluelessness or the just-plain-curious. Even the most demeaning inquiry would be better than this silence to me.
The hardest question yet: Why do you think people like you exist?
I could see I was only a category to him: the fruit instead of the strawberry. Maybe even fruit was too specific. I was as general as food, as broad as sustenance. Heterosexuals were entitled to their complexity. I was not. My worth suspect, my contribution to humanity queerly unclear.
Existence is the given, you see. A better question would be—How shall we live with each other since all of us, regardless of who we are “like” and who we are “unlike,” seem to be, indisputably, here?
9.     How can I know what I feel? When a writer asks herself that question she will have to find the words to answer it, even if the answer is another question. The writer will have to make her words into a true equivalent of her heart. If she cannot, if she can only hazard at the heart, arbitrarily, temporarily, she may be a psychologist but she will not be a poet.
In college, I majored in psychology. I wanted to understand the human mind. I was foolish enough to believe this was possible and idealistic enough to believe it desirable.
When the time came to quantify my interpretations, to correlate numbers with emotions on the first statistics exam, my spectacular failure as a social scientist forecasted my life among poems.
That is to say, I have always wanted to make my words into a true equivalent of my heart. Put another way, I have always wanted to raise a graceful sail.
I am a writer, and a lesbian, and a lesbian writer, in any order you prefer. I speak paradox. I speak image. I know now that imagery transcends identity and that, paradoxically, imagery is what makes writing identity possible.

Rip Tide[ii]

For Angie
When we took the rip cord in our delicate hands and yanked the rough yarn
of the rope until the skin under our skin began to peel and crack and our palms
to blister and burn with certain, unassailable pain, it was then I understood
that no one could ever claim to understand me or the predictable patterns
that once comprised my life./ I knew I was only to them an aberration, that
the red tides of my mind had moved me forever beyond the realm of the life-
guard, the lighthouse, the beached schooner with its hollowed heart./ I knew
also that the song of the sea, which is the song of our bodies rising, and the
song of the brown pelicans swooping to kelp beds containing their nourishment,
and even the song of the clam with its eyes shut so tight against the world was
something they had stopped singing, a lullaby they would never learn./ We
saw everything as if in the blind rush of falling came a moment of invincible
clarity—the wife I would not be, the life I would not have—and your heart
opened to me wider than the throat of the ocean, red and wild as the parachute
that saved us, both our lives.

10.  The artist is not divided and she is not for sale. Her clarity of purpose protects her […]
Today is my mother’s birthday.
Once, long ago, I sent her a sheaf of poems. “Anemone,” “Rip Tide,” and even “My Mother, On Learning I Love a Woman” were among them. She was not interested in the imagery. To raise the sail of such a life was, to her, the greatest disgrace.
Once, long ago, I brought to her doorstep my partner, the love of my life. I explained that we could be not be divided from each other—cast asunder, as the old books say. She offered me money to recover my lost good heart. I explained that I was not for sale.
My mother was lonely by accident and isolated on purpose. She did not see the paradox there. She wanted me to choose tradition over innovation, convention over honest knowing. She said, “I see how you lesbians are—the way you make yourselves ugly for each other.” The words scorched her lips and burned my ears. “No one makes beautiful words out of vulgar acts.” She wanted me to choose polemic over art.
Instead, I said, “I have to go now.” The wind rattled the old weathervane that proudly announced our names: THE WADES.
Lead with your heart, Winterson whispered. The heart has immaculate vision. And so we drove unwavering into the dark, the life, the art.
I will not say I never looked back. I will not say I never look back.
It is the questions I am looking for, you see. Even the most demeaning inquiry would be better than this silence to me.
I am still trying to make my words into a true equivalent of my heart. Love is hard to translate into art. Elegy is harder. The wind comes periodically in great gusts. I am here with my clear purpose, my queer purpose. Glory! Hallelujah! I am still trying to raise a graceful sail.

For my mother

Here, on the Atlantic, sunrise
the reversed syntax of my Seattle youth:

I marvel, still young, at what
it means to have been younger;

to see at last the parent
in parenthesis;

to read—for the first time—
whole chapters of my life

as an aside.


Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University in 2003, a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at the University of Louisville in 2012. She is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010), winner of the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Memoir, Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), selected for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Series, Small Fires; Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), selected for the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, and Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Books, 2013), winner of the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize.  Forthcoming is When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2014). Wade is the newest member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University.  She lives with her partner, Angie Griffin, in Dania Beach.

[i] “Anemone” was first published in Red Wheelbarrow in 2008.
[ii] “Rip Tide” was first published in Spoon River Poetry Review in 2006 as a finalist for the Editors’ Choice Award in Poetry.
[iii] “Grammar” was first published in The New Guard in 2012.

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