Sapphic Symbology

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Michael Field

I started off this morning searching for the poet who celebrates a birthday today.  Allen Ginsberg was my pick last year, but I noticed that he shares his birthday with the now discredited Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Bradley was accused by her children of enabling child abuse by her husband Walter H. Breen.

Marion Zimmer Bradley did have a reputation as a womens’ rights campaigner and her one poetic work is “Maenads”.  So I followed the thread of the wild virgin followers of Dionysus as symbols of feminism or lesbianism.  Clad in fox fur, leaping through the mountains, intoxicated by wine, by life, by divine ecstasy, worthy symbols of feminine power absent the domination of men.

Ursula Le Guin also wrote a poem about Maenads and you will find it in a posting for her birthday on this blog.

Suffragettes were described in popular press as “Mad Maenads”.  The suffragette movement was very instrumental in the alignment of feminism with vegetarianism and indeed it was the suffragettes who identified the hunger strike as a key weapon against the forces of societal oppression.  The lesson was not lost on the Fenian movement and Sinn Féin adopted it in the struggle for Irish Independence.  Gandhi also borrowed the weapon for his armory of non-violent protest.

But I was more interested in following the thread that leads to Michael Field.  An unlikely lesbian you might think of a male author.  Not so.  Micheal Field is in fact the pen name of the scandalous incestuous lesbian couple:   Katherine Harris Bradley and her niece Edith Emma Cooper.  In the poem below the prevalence of fox fur is no accident.

To my knowledge Marion Zimmer Bradley has no relation with Katherine Harris Bradley.

Second Thoughts ; by Michael Field

I thought of leaving her for a day
in town, it was such an iron winter
at Durdans, the garden frosty clay,
the woods as dry as any splinter,
the sky congested. I would break
from the deep, lethargic, country air
to the shining lamps, to the clash of the play,
and to-morrow, wake
beside her, a thousand things to say.
I planned-Oh more-I had almost started;
I lifted her face in my hands to kiss,
a face in a border of fox’s fur,
for the bitter black wind had stricken her,
and she wore it – her soft hair straying out
where it buttoned against the gray, leather snout:
In an instant we should have parted;
but at sight of the delicate world within
that fox-fur collar, from brow to chin,
at sight of those wonderful eyes from the mine,
coal pupils, an iris of glittering spa,
And the wild, ironic, defiant shine
as of a creature behind a bar
one has captured, and, when three lives are past,
may hope to reach the heart of at last
all that, and the love at her lips, combined
to show me what folly it were to miss
a face with such thousand things to say,
and beside these, such thousand more to spare,
for the shining lamps, for the clash of the play-
oh madness; not for a single day
could I leave her! I stayed behind.

Ursula le Guin : Galactic Queen

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Ursula le Guin was a great writer.  Not just a great sci-fi writer.  As she said herself, the focus of literature on realism as the epitome of literary excellence throws out many excellent babies with the bathwater.  Le Guin ascended to the heights of recognition in Sci-Fi circles at a time when the genre was entirely dominated by men.  She was a true pioneer of feminism both by achieving greatness for herself, and by representing heros in her work who were outside the white male paradigm.

We shall not see her like again.  RIP.

Maenads: by Ursula le Guin

Somewhere I read
that when they finally staggered off the mountain
into some strange town, past drunk,
hoarse, half naked, blear-eyed,
blood dried under broken nails
and across young thighs,
but still jeering and joking, still trying
to dance, lurching and yelling, but falling
dead asleep by the market stalls,
sprawled helpless, flat out, then
middle-aged women,
respectable housewives,
would come and stand nightlong in the agora
silent
together
as ewes and cows in the night fields,
guarding, watching them
as their mothers
watched over them.
And no man
dared
that fierce decorum.