A Conversation With Poets Jill Hammer and Joy Ladin
HER KIND: Prompted by comedian Elayne Boosler’s quip, “I’m just a person trapped inside a woman’s body,” Jill and Joy takes on a conversation that opens our minds and hearts to the limitations of gender identity, with letters and poems that speak to the things in which we have a difficulty in naming—spirit, body, sexuality, love, womanness, humanness. Their exchange is one of compassion, and it serves to affirm the bodies in which we are blessed to inhabit and inspires us to develop a more precise, richer, and embracing language for ourselves. Thank you Jill and Joy for being a part of the conversation.
I don’t feel like a person trapped in a woman’s body. I try very hard not to believe in the mind-body split. I try not to think of myself as a non-gendered person, or soul, or personality, inside a woman’s body. I try to think of myself as a body with biological and spiritual dimensions. I think this way of understanding the self is an important resistance to the mind-body split that governs so much of Western civilization and takes us out of our own experience. So for me, having the body I have isn’t an accident of birth; it’s part of my identity.
For me, that means finding language to describe my body experience, particularly those parts of my body experience that mainstream society hides. I’m bothered by the ways that the body experience of people identified by society as biologically female (i.e., people with a vagina and uterus) is commodified or erased, along with body experiences that don’t jibe with normative views of body or gender. For example, my pregnancy experiences were a complete surprise to me because real experiences of being pregnant aren’t discussed in the public sphere. And there’s more complicated stuff, like how body interacts with sexuality, or what it means to be a woman born of a woman, with that connection of sameness and difference.
As part of my effort to find a language, I’ve been part of communities that explore liturgy and ritual based on the body experience of women. I’ve also tried to write from that place of inventing language for what our bodies feel. In a poem called “Ariadne,” I write:
Trust what the body tells you.
Everyone else is lying.
The girl with the lantern is here,
to take you through the dark tunnels.
You don’t want to trust her,
but she knows the way.
Follow her down
into the arms of the earth:
the other disorganized, stubborn body
that never lies.
Do not turn left or right.
Below the skin,
the pulse is singing.
Follow that sound.
Cynthia Ozick writes in an essay called “The Meaning of Life”: “Our task is to clothe nature, to impose meaning on being.” Ozick has also expressed that her body experience as a woman is irrelevant to who she is as a human being. I disagree with both statements. I think we don’t need to clothe nature but to relate to it. I don’t think we need to impose meaning on being, but to uncover it. And I don’t think we should deny our body experience; we should embrace it. To me, that doesn’t mean embracing easy dualities about gender, but it does mean taking our bodies seriously as sites of being.
I love starting with that quote, though I see it as less about the mind/body, or human/nature, split than about the way the gendering of bodies dims and distorts our humanity. I think the quote is reflecting on the way our bodies are given meaning by others, meanings that are read as revelations of who we are rather than projections of social, cultural, or family assumptions: “woman” here is an existential cookie cutter, taking the pattern of the female body and cutting humanness down to fit. From that perspective, this joke is a sort of Zen distillation of feminist awareness of the inadequacy of the term “woman,” a term identified by most people with a certain kind of body, to name the humanity of those to whom it is applied.
Obviously, that’s never been my problem. I have struggled instead to make myself visible by embodying the sense of femaleness that my male body couldn’t embody. To me, the identity of “woman” is the gateway to full humanity, and one of my ongoing challenges is the reluctance of others to call someone with a body like mine a woman.
For me, the mind/body split has been a life saver. Thank God I wasn’t born into a culture that encouraged me to dissociate body and mind, body and self, body and soul! The mind/body split is the foundation of my experience. I’m not saying that you are wrong to see that split as something to resist—as your marvelous poem shows, there is much to be discovered about the richness and wholeness of life by insisting on the body as the fundamental fact of existence. I think you are right that we don’t have adequate language for bodily experience—I think that’s true of all bodily experience, actually, and I don’t think that we can ever really make language (a system of signs that will always be bound up with culture and that must apply to many bodies) adequate to bodily experience. As poets, I’d say that’s good news—we’ll always have plenty of work to do in the gap between language and bodily experience. As people, well, like other failures of language, this one can be painful, violent, and sometimes fatal.
I love the idea that truth can be found by listening to the body, that the voice of the body is the voice of the earth, the meeting point of the human and the largeness the human grows out of. For me, though, the body is most truth when it is in dialogue with the mind/self/soul it can’t adequately express:
Letter to My Body
Philosophers shilly-shally, but it’s true: you are me; I am you.
This dust, these rays, this strange internal sense
that after all these years, I finally exist – all of this
is only mine through you.
You still seem surprised – that’s part of your charm –
that I wish to be extracted
from your handsome bindings.
This, you say, is only the beginning,
which is why it feels like drowning
in what we’ve both survived.
Ever the politician, I say I’ll be your widow,
smiling cheerfully as you die.
Not yet, you say, as though
– this is the other part of your charm –
you still believe in time.
Violent laughter, yours and mine.
Let’s go out into the woods
of meaning and matter, among the laurels and the mustard,
the unlit suns and unnamed branches, listening shoots and loosening leaves
we only appreciate when we’re drowning
in one another. Let’s break up before we meet
and fall in love again
in the darkening parlor of the heart,
let’s wait for God in the gathering dusk
and watch the stars come out.
Sept. 23, 2012
Your reading of Boosler’s quote makes sense to me. It’s moving and challenging to me that the mind/body split has been so important to your emotional and spiritual health. I’ve spent so much time trying to undo that split in myself. I have felt that in my early life I rejected the body—because it’s so frail, so awkward, so inconvenient, so abused, and unloved by our society, and so easy to dislike. As an antidote to that, I have tried to be open to the truth and beauty of my body as best I can express it. I’m trying to figure out how to write about the soul within the body without dividing the two—as you do so beautifully in your poem about the dance of soul and body.
I deeply agree with you about the “existential cookie cutter” that is gender essentialism. I can remember the pain of being rejected because some piece of me fell outside the (visible or invisible) dotted lines. What’s complicated for me is the ways that mythic images of gender have helped me appreciate my own experience. I’m thinking, for example, of the sheela-na-gig (a vaginal figure meant to embody the gateway to life) I saw in a cathedral in Ireland, which is an image of rebirth—a very different image of vaginal anatomy than the ones we see in our own society. Those images are important for me, and they are also problematic because they may be used to reify what gender is or “means.”
I like when I can find a more complex mythic structure—such as medieval kabbalah, which has plenty of sexist aspects, but which speaks of gender as something that is relational. The Divine, and the individual, can have one gender in relationship to one entity and another gender in relationship to a different entity. That’s powerful for me as a reflection of how we might sometimes experience gender in our bodies and souls.
On another note, I love the moment in your poem when you say, laughingly, that the body still believes in time. In most spiritual systems, time is an illusion—but it’s the deepest reality for anything with a body. And I love the idea that the body can only appreciate the beauty of the woods when it’s accompanied by the soul, and vice versa. Time and the timeless have to go together.
I am always trying to understand the dichotomy between the weightless and timeless soul and the body, which feeds on other bodies and is implicated in death, violence, and time. In one of my poems, “The Face of the Deep is Heavy” (the title is a quote from the book of Job), I write this:
I give nothing
says my soul curled up in the night
I take away nothing
my soul does not know what is true
but the sea knows
we are the life that comes from death
we stand on crushed shells
of the creatures we once were…
Here is another poem, “The Dragon and the Unicorn,” on a similar theme. It was inspired by “The Lady and the Unicorn,” a series of six unicorn tapestries housed in Paris.
The Dragon and the Unicorn
She will never understand
why he does not eat the maiden
and be done.
If that white horn were hers, she would use it differently:
to play dance tunes for volcanoes. To pierce God.
She will not lay her head in a pale lap.
She despises halters,
and even before she was born, she was not a virgin.
She has a double portion of lust
for the world and for what lies behind the world.
The unicorn vanquishes death. The dragon is not impressed.
She curls around the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil,
flicks her tail, pretends to doze.
The unicorn gazes at heaven. The dragon eyes a bird.
The maiden shows the unicorn a mirror,
round and perfect as Venus, its blond handle graceful.
The unicorn looks into the mirror and smiles.
The maiden shows the mirror to the dragon.
The dragon breathes on it.
It cracks into a million pieces,
each one reflecting her burning eyes.
Has she not improved matters?
Death will be back. She has no doubt of it
and it will be her turn then. She will choose differently.
She will let death live
in her, and consult it
at every moment.
Thanks for this conversation, and much love,
Sept. 24, 2012
I love “we stand on crushed shells // of the creatures we once were”—that strikes me as a kind of transgender motto, although I find myself uncomfortably aware that whatever I mean by “I” at any given moment will end up as the “crushed shell” of whoever I become. I’m coming to think that one of the most interesting aspects of trans experience, both phenomenologically and in terms of poetry, is that it reverses the usual ratios of being and becoming. I mostly experience myself as becoming, a process, transition from not-being to—more transition. I have a sense of being too, but it’s tenuous, fractured, relative. As a result, neither my body nor gender feel like firm foundations on which to build or rigid templates that threaten to oversimplify my messiness. Reading your poems—I’m so happy to see them, they meld myth and archetype in a fluent, precise and personal tongue—I recognize the peculiarity of my trans perspective, and my fantasy that my transition was bringing me toward some kind of stable sense of gender and identity.
Most importantly, though, your combination of critique of gender cookie-cutters and embrace of gendered symbolic systems gives flesh to something I say but don’t, I think, fully experience: that whatever else it is, gender is a language of self-definition, self-awareness, self-expression. Some of the violence of conventional genders is social, physical, economic—beating up feminine boys or masculine girls on the playground, killing trans women in city streets, not hiring the gender deviant, not paying women as much as men, etc. But some of the violence is what happens to us when we try to understand and express ourselves with an inadequate language, a language that has too few verbs and nouns and only the most simplistic syntax, a language that renders much of us mute, inexpressible, unthinkable, unspeakable. So I don’t see a contradiction between your critique of the conventional meanings of “woman” and your embrace of feminine archetypes and myths: having suffered the effects of a gender language that is unworthy of and inadequate to you, you, as poet and scholar and teacher, have scoured the treasury of human song and story to create a more capacious language, one that enables God-piercing double-lusting carnivorous unicorns to name themselves, that offers women feminine symbolic language for the darkest, wildest, most violent, least conventionally feminine aspects of themselves. Your language doesn’t substitute one set of terms for another, insisting that women stop naming themselves as passive and only name themselves as violent; that would be just as inadequate and coercive as the conventional gender language you reject. Your unicorns and dragons stand in relation to maidens, your Persephones are passionately involved with boundary-blurring Hades figures. As you say, you are striving toward gender languages that are relational rather than static, and the sky of your conception of “woman” is crowded with wheeling constellations.
My sky is pretty bare by comparison. It’s foggy and quiet in the dawn of my gender, one or two birds are singing but I can’t name them. The little window of my self frames a world of familiar things to which I stand in new, still-evolving relationships. Whole histories unfold in a single day, histories that those around me would probably call the past or future, childhood or myth, or utopia or apocalypse. I call them “today,” and know that the today I call “tomorrow” will erase and rewrite them as patterns in sand are erased and rewritten by waves.
Letter to the Feminine
You are a dream of clam shell and olive,
dark places between tails and spines, sheets stained
to reveal the spiritual complications
of your carefully perforated wings,
a calculated performance I rehearse again and again,
style detached, breasts incandescent,
little theaters of impossibility, immature stages
of the women in which you clothe me –
dead women, married women, women stuck between medieval pages,
fluttering in slips, flirting with socialism.
mounted, judged, incarcerated,
rubbed by unknown hands.
I wade through your editions,
lives you’ve bound, lives you’ve stitched,
lives you’ve flushed with dedication,
to unearth the truths you’ve hidden
in my own time, my own skin,
my own self unfolding
toward you and away,
over your passionate objections, through your suffering.
Sept. 24, 2012
Thank you for reading my poem so carefully. I’m grateful. I’m just going to take a minute to enjoy “carnivorous unicorn.”
And I want to take another minute to appreciate your sense of becoming. So many of us build a castle out of our identity, holding strongly to the self-definitions we have won with great difficulty. The unfolding, shifting, unpredictable sense of becoming seems to me to be a real truth about all of us, one that many of us try to hide from others and ourselves. Thank you for exposing my sand castles!
You speak of the feminine as a “calculated performance,” but I love the image in your poem of the feminine as a book publisher, producing various bound volumes (which of course are not as neatly bound as history or society would have it) that we can read, but not experience. “My own self unfolding” then feels like your own book of the feminine coming into being, writing itself down, beginning to be read. “Clam shell and olive,” for me, dips into the world of myth: Aphrodite being born fully formed out of the sea. You’ve hidden creation stories in your poems! I love the phrase “spiritual complications”—it somehow manages to span theology, gender ambiguity, and childbirth.
I’m also very struck by what you say about gender and language. “Some of the violence is what happens to us when we try to understand and express ourselves with an inadequate language, a language that has too few verbs and nouns and only the most simplistic syntax, a language that renders much of us mute, inexpressible, unthinkable, unspeakable.” I’ve had the experience of having something I wanted to say or feel and not being able to get there because I didn’t have the language—and having to painfully, slowly, almost traumatically invent the language (which is why I love poet Alicia Ostriker’s phrase “stealing the language”). Sometimes I’ve brought together communities of women to try and find this language which is unknown, unmade—language about spirit, about body, about sexuality, about community, about love. It seems to me this is a necessary act of resistance: to attempt to discover what we would say if our language truly belonged to us, if our vocabulary was not deliberately scoured of words of self-knowing. It seems to me that you, “in the dawn of your gender,” are inventing your own language, from which I and others have learned and will learn so much.
I’m sending you most of a poem called “What is in the Goddess’s Tefillin?” (Tefillin are Jewish prayer objects containing sacred text, traditionally worn only by men but now worn by some women.) Like your “Letter to the Feminine,” it’s a search for “the dream of clam shell and olive.”
a tendril from a grapevine
one grape clinging like a jewel
a stone from a funeral
hide from a tambourine
the bag of a weary midwife
wicks of Sabbath candles
ink of burst berries
floodwater from a submerged city
seed from a barley harvest
emptiness of famine
sugarcane quartz crystal sun
who is like your people
one nation in all the earth
an orphic hymn:
creator of the world
diversity of the sea
you are the great fullness
and you alone give birth—
and who is like you
o my people
who bind your stories to your arms
tie my story to the parabolic curves of my body
my physics like an alphabet
do not think
I have remembered
you must recover me
from the tar pits of the years
bind me as a sign upon your hand
let me be an ornament
between your eyes
is in the glands and synapses of your body
So glad to be remembering with you.
Sept. 25, 2012
I’m so grateful for this conversation, for all you are teaching me both about your engagement with gender, the body and poetry—and about mine. I’ve never seen my own experience in this light before, and I’ve never reflected, even in the privacy of my own mind, with the feeling of safety, acceptance and affirmation, of compassionate welcoming witness, you have given me.
One of my deepest wounds—I think it’s common among trans people—is my lifelong awareness that most people won’t accept what I know about myself, won’t grant me the right of self-awareness and self-definition. I still carry on a silent argument with voices that insist that my drive to become myself is delusion or solipsism, that my expression of my gender is caricature and self-parody, that there is no perspective or set of values from which I am not essentially monstrous. I grew up telling myself that I really was who and what I thought I was, even though no one could see it and no one would believe it. Like many trans people, I kept combing and questioning my feelings, testing them, trying to prove to myself and to that invisible audience that they, and I, were true. The conventional model of transition—the one that gets publicized—seems to erase this argument by saying that I have always been “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” so that once my body is brought into alignment with the woman I’ve always been, all the conventional forces that reinforce non-trans people’s sense of gender identity should reinforce mine. But I have never been “a woman trapped in a man’s body”—I’ve been me, a person with a male body and female gender identity and little in the way of language or safety to explore what that has meant at different moments in my life. This conversation has given me both, freeing me to say aloud, to myself and others, that whatever else I am or seem to be, I continue to become. Thank you for accepting and embracing this truth. This me.
I celebrate the work you are doing to help women develop richer, more precise and embracing language for female selves. Having lived on both sides of the gender binary, I have found that neither masculinity nor femininity are adequate languages for selves. Gender is mostly elaborated as an external language, a means for identifying (and misidentifying) one another, and locating masses of people in large interlocking systems of relationship. Thus, the work that you and other feminists are doing to enrich the language of femininity is also blazing a trail for those who identify as male.
You recognize something in “Letter to the Feminine” that’s crucial to the language I’m working to develop—the idea that I can name myself and my relation to the world paratactically, through accretion, lists of overlapping and sometimes contradictory assertions that wave toward the truth that keeps growing through and beyond me. In your “What is in the Goddess’ Tefillin?” poem you do this too, bringing an extraordinary range of image and experience together into a torrent that washes away boundaries between modes of spiritual experience:
wicks of Sabbath candles
ink of burst berries
floodwater from a submerged city
This list reminds me how wide and wild the soul—my soul—is, how rich the birthright of humanity. Thank you.
Letter to God
You say because I’m always about to die,
I am truly alive. My shadow stretches
over fallen branches, my skin smiles
under fingers of light, grass smiles along the path
You say is mine.
When You look at me, you see a child.
When I look at You, I see
a woman under a tree, a dog, a sign,
libraries of books I neither read nor write.
Life for You is easy as death, You do both all the time.
Try it You say. Be dead. Now be alive.
Now be everything you desire. Now let desire lie.
Sept. 25, 2012
I’m so grateful, too, for your loving witness, your poetry, your friendship, and your courageous presence with these questions and becomings. You help me understand the evanescent images I am trying to look at without holding them too tightly. And you help me by being so vulnerable to your ephemeral self.
As per your penultimate request—Now, be everything you desire!
Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution, and author of the recently published Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, as well as six books of poetry, including newly-published The Definition of Joy, Forward Fives Award winner Coming to Life, and Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration. Her essays and poems have been widely published.
This article originally appeared on herkind.org, December 6, 2012.