Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Hydra of Female Desire within the Literary Tradition
Tanya Andrious

Throughout history women have been confined to the male perspective, not only with how men look at women but how women look at themselves. Women writers, especially in the early budding of the female literary tradition, barely touched the taboo topic of female desire and sexuality. The exploration of female sexual desire by women writers has evolved throughout the centuries, beginning first with Aphra Behn in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; Christina Rossetti in the nineteenth century, and ending with Andrienne Rich in the late twentieth century. All three authors, in their respective century, explore a female’s desire through different perspectives, revealing the different perceptions about women’s sexuality in the literary form.
The seventeenth and eighteenth century was not an easy time for women writers. They could easily be dismissed and ostracized by their peers if a literary topic was disliked. Women writers were thus indirectly controlled by men. However, as Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert mention, “Aphra Behn was England’s first professional woman writer” (The Norton Anthology 109) that took chances with her writing and began to put a dent into what was considered acceptable. She broke the first boundaries where some of her verses were “marked by an erotic honesty that scandalized many of her readers” (Norton 109). Unfortunately, consequences resulted from Behn’s bold foray into the exploration of female desire: The same literary circles that Behn frequented “…expected women to remain decently silent about their own desires” (110). Behn, however, saw nothing wrong with celebrating women enjoying their sexuality and her poem “The Willing Mistress” is a testament to her treatment of the topic.
Behn’s perception of female sexuality was not confined to the male perspective; her character neither suffers consequence or regret for enjoying her sexual exploitations. In fact, the Mistress describes her enjoyable, impending foray with a man by stating:
Amyntas led me to a grove,
Where All the trees did shade us;
The sun itself, though it had strove,
It could not have betrayed us
The place secured from human eyes (1-5).
There is anticipation in the Mistress’ voice as she describes the need for secrecy without regret. In fact, Behn writes each subsequent line by describing the Mistress’ increased gratification:
Down there we sat upon the moss,
And did begin to play
A thousand amorous tricks, to pass
The heat of all the day (9-12).
There is a sense of fun to be read in the lines, where the reader grasps the Mistress’ amplified arousal. A woman has needs, and as much as men in Behn’s century wanted to deny such truths, Behn tastefully expresses the needs of her female character:
A many kisses did he give
And I returned the same,
Which made me willing to receive
That which I dare not name (13-16).
Behn was unleashing Pandora’s Box by outwardly proclaiming a woman’s sexual experience and revealing that women’s desire is nothing to be ashamed of. The third stanza deals with give and take, where the Mistress is in control as much as the man:
On her that was already fired,
‘Twas easy to prevail.
He did but kiss and clasp me round,
Whilst those this thoughts expressed:
And laid me gently on the ground;
Ah who can guess the rest? (19-24).
A woman can be a sexual being, willing and wanting as lines 19 and 20 indicate. Women’s sexual desire should not be held as a disparagement but rather a positive aspect on the female experience. Although the Mistress’ explorations went without consequence, Behn however, did not. By bringing the topic of female desire out into the open Behn’s “reputation was to be obscured or defaced for centuries after her death” (110). Behn saw female desire through her own eyes, yet Christina Rossetti, in her poem “Goblin Market”, ends up viewing desire through the male lens.
Christina Rossetti brings us into the nineteenth century with her poem “Goblin Market,” where she offers readers a different slant on the perception of female desire. “Goblin Market” expresses a deeper journey of the female experience, where Rossetti “meditate[s] on the dangers of desire, especially the dangers of female desire” (Gubar 894). In contrast to Behn, Rossetti’s thoughts on female desire were influenced by the ideologies of the male literary tradition as well as male definitions of women. “Goblin Market” offers an enticing taste of a female’s attraction to her own desires and the consequences that come from following that desire.
“Goblin Market” begins simply enough: two innocent sisters overhearing the alluring call of Goblin men. The contrast and dilemma of the drama becomes apparent: “Laura bowed her head to hear, / Lizzie veiled her blushes” (34-5). Laura is at once attracted to the call, her desire evident. Yet her sister Lizzie is intent on preventing Laura from following through, stating: “We must not look at Goblin men” (42). Lizzie stresses the danger that Laura is toying with when it comes to the idea of not only contemplating but submitting to her female desire.
The form of the poem portrays Lizzie as the “conscience” and Laura the “desire,” waging battle between restraint and enjoyment of desire:
“Oh,” cried Lizzie, “Laura, Laura.
You should not peep at Goblin men,”
Lizzie covered up her eyes,
Covered close lest they should look:
Laura reared her glossy head (48-52).
The dilemma is nicely portrayed between Laura wanting to let go and Lizzie’s hard restraint. Rossetti’s indecisiveness and confusion shines through, unsure of which female image is the “right” one.
Rossetti continues to imply that female desire is wrong:
“No,” said Lizzie: “No, no, no:
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us” (64-66).
Rossetti chooses an interesting phrase in line 65 in regards to charm: it “should not” have an influence on them, meaning that there is something wrong about feeling attraction. However, Laura continues to become more ensnared in the game of desire: “Curious Laura chose to linger / Wondering at each merchant man” (69-70). Laura’s well of desire has sprung up inside her and she is without self-discipline. This side of the poem connects with Behn’s “The Willing Mistress,” where both Laura and the Mistress want only to succumb to the joy that awaits them. Yet, the entryway into the exploration of female desire depicts a difference between the two centuries, where Laura’s actions result in a penalty.
To be aware of consequence one must be warned, and Lizzie continues to educate Laura on the etiquette of behaving:
“Dear, you should not stay so late,
Twilight is not good for maidens;
Should not loiter in the glen
In the haunts of goblin men (145-8).
Rossetti gives the impression that Laura is in need of being saved from making a big mistake. To further enhance the loving reproach, Lizzie offers Laura an indirect experience to learn from: “Do you not remember Jeanie, / How she met them in the moonlight” (147-8). A brief reference is established before Lizzie fully embarks on the ramifications of Jeanie’s explorations and dives into the story:
But ever in the noonlight
She pined and pined away:
Sought them by night and day,
Found them no more, but dwindled and grew gray;
Then fell with the first snow,
While to this day no grass will grow
Where she lies low: (153-59).
Rossetti implies in lines 154-55 that to follow one’s desire can be addictive. Jeanie, for example, not only succumbed to her desire but could not cope with the thought of not ever satisfying her desire again. More importantly, Jeanie felt such an intense need for a refill that when her need could not be satisfied she ends up dying. Laura’s experience then begins to mirror that of Jeanie. As Laura’s cravings become more intense, she states:
“I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth water still:
Tomorrow night I will
Buy more” (165-8).
Rossetti also implies in line 166 that not only does a woman have wants, but that they are not a one time deal; a woman’s desires are always existent.
Yet, the insistent need for fulfillment leaves Laura in a somewhat detached emotional state as she goes from innocent virgin to a desirous young woman and then to a slightly mad, near death young woman addicted to her female desire: “Laura in an absent dream, / One content, one sick in part” (211-12). Laura is saved from death by her sister’s selfless act, who ends up getting “goblin juice” and feeding “the fiery antidote” (559) to Laura. Rossetti offers a complex look at the female experience, one that is riddled with mixed images of female sexuality and the guilt that was so often connected with it. However, as the later twentieth century blew in, the male stronghold was beginning to lessen its grip as women writers were now making their own traditions born out of the female experience. This tradition continues with Adrienne Rich, who explores female sexuality from a broader perspective.
The advent of the later part of the twentieth century brought with it a large exploration of themes, where women writers began “exploring and dramatizing their national, economic, linguistic, regional, ethnic, religious, and political divergences along with their differing sexual preferences” (Gilbert 1616). Women writers no longer had to worry what men thought. Adrienne Rich was concerned with her own identity and experience, exploring a female’s desire through the lens of lesbianism. Just as Behn and Rossetti wrote of a woman’s enjoyment of her desire so too does Rich. Rich explores lesbian desire in a more descriptive manner that would have drawn more than gasps a few centuries ago.
Adrienne Rich, in her poem “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered,” delights the reader with a more upfront portrayal of female sexual desire. Gracious in her description, Rich expresses a woman’s positive portrayal of her enjoyment without guilt, reservation or consequence:
What ever happens with us, your body
Will haunt mine – tender, delicate
Your lovemaking (1-3).
The narrator is looking back at a past experience with fondness and the stronger the memory gets the more descriptive the poem becomes. Free from male reproach Rich is able to fully express her direct observations on the extent of a woman’s desire. The perception of a woman’s sexuality is no longer to be feared, as Rich’s poem indicates:
Your traveled, generous thighs
between which my whole face has come and come –
the innocence and wisdom of the place my tongue
has found there – (5-8).
Rich is explicitly exploring female desire by not only describing a “lady love” (1954) but addressing a “lady love.” Female desire has thus become more about women’s pleasure and enjoyment. The discovery about documenting women’s experiences now takes precedence and Rich is not shy in sharing this perspective with her reader. Lines 9-13 further illustrate this point:
the live, insatiate dance of your nipples in my mouth –
your touch on me, firm, protective, searching
me out, your strong tongue and slender fingers
reaching where I had been waiting years for you
in my rose-wet cave – whatever happens, this is.
Rich explores in-depth the wants of a woman; that desire is nothing to be scared or ashamed of, regardless of gender. The narrator’s experience becomes a fond memory which Rich outwardly describes. Her poem is thus bold and courageous with its content, extending the female tradition into further depths.
Women’s experiences were often categorized through male definitions of what women should and should not be, and this penetrated the literary voice of female writers. Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” is a testament to this. Change, however, can often be a balm that heals such confusion. The only way for women to know themselves is to also know each other and this can only be achieved if women make their voice known. Aphra Behn was the first to take such a step. Each century revealed a different voice that expressed feelings about the issue of female desire and what women themselves thought of it. To know the importance of what has been achieved can only be appreciated through the path that was taken. Behn took the first steps and allowed Rossetti to continue the tradition and bring us to get where we are at present; where Adrienne Rich has spiced up the freedom that women can now express without reservation.

Works Cited
Gilbert, M. Sandra and Gubar, Susan, ed. The Norton Anthology: Literature By Women.
2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Behn, Aphra. “The Willing Mistress.” Gilbert 111.
Rich, Adrienne. “The Floating Poem, Unnumbered.” Gilbert 1963.
Rossetti, Christina. “Goblin Market.” Gilbert 903-915.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Alphabettica Thealogica"

Athena opens wide grey eyes to the beat of owl's wings
Blodeuedd, her body composed of exotic blooms, perfumes the air
Chang-O turns her regal back to the world, offering the drape of her deep-black peignoir to the night's darkness
Demeter garlands the chamber with sheaves of golden, shining wheat
Europa, in the form of a magnificent white cow, leaps over Chang-O bearing Zeus, her royal cup-bearer, on her pearlescent back as blood-red wine spills from her silver cup
Freya unleashes her cats, ruffling their blue-black fur with one elegant hand. She glances over her shoulder and into one of the many mirrors to see
Guinevere weaving a crown of white daisies,
Hecate combing her flowing silver hair as she toys with the locks of Heaven's gate,
Isis unfurling her protective wings over the bed, the many colors of her feathers reflecting in candlelight bounced off white silk sheets,
Juno, on her throne, fanned by the tails of a thousand peacocks, sipping ouzo,
Kuan Yin, tuning her telepathic compassionate radar to my frequency, sensing pain, and then discovering the razor sting is all part of sweet joy,
Lakshmi, her many hands throwing golden coins from her many Dolce & Gabbana handbags, whispering blessings of prosperity,
Medusa's serpents shed their skin as elegant peels of white chocolate; their mistress stirs them into my drink,
Nymphs drop the maroon leaves and pink blossoms of springtime plum trees from the rafters,
Oshun crosses oceans of time, and cultures, to pick up Lakshmi's chant and form a duet,
Pele's volcanoes spout benevolent, incensed pink smoke and rainbows of sparks,
Queen of heaven Inanna lifts Pele's sparks to the sky and transforms them into stars to decorate her temple,
and Rhiannon opens a pine chest to reveal an exquisite selection of riding crops.
Selene, my Goddess, all the minor deities Gather at your feet to worship, and my heart quivers to realize you've chosen me from all among the host who vie for your attention.

(inspired by VictoriaSelene Skye Deme and by Kris Waldherr's The Book of Goddesses)

"Moist Howlette: For Allen Ginsberg"

Sacred! Sacred! Sacred! My poet, my prophet, my Jewish saint and guru declares that all is sacred!
The world is divine! The soul is divine! The skin is sacred! The vulva is sacred! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole sacred!
Everybody’s sacred! Everywhere’s sacred! Every thing is sacred! Every day is an eternity! Every man and woman is an angel!
The sacred whore’s as holy as the seraphim! The sex worker is holy as you my soul are holy! The clitoral orgasm’s as sacred as the vaginal orgasm!
The keyboard is sacred the poem is sacred the voice is sacred the hearers and readers are sacred the ecstasy is sacred!
Holy Erin holy Allen holy Purrrrrrrrr holy Kathryn E holy Walt Whitman holy Joan Jett holy fuckers holy every human angel!
Sacred the vibrators! Sacred, the cock and the cock ring and the clit and the clit ring!
Sacred the groaning saxophone! Sacred the orgasm apocalypse! Sacred the womb scrotum balls peace & junk & drums!
Sacred the solitudes of men’s rooms and elevators! Sacred the strip clubs filled with the millions! Sacred the mysterious rivers of cum and pussy juice and blood and sweat and tears under the sheets!
Sacred the lesbian and the gay man! Sacred the bisexual! Sacred the straight feminist and sexual shepherds of rebellion!
Sacred forgiveness! Mercy! Charity! Faith! Love! Affection! Touch! Sacred! Ours! Bodies! Pain and pleasure! Magnanimity!
Sacred the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of Allen Ginsberg’s dear departed soul!

"Ode a Pete Wentz"

"Sugar, We're Going Down"
may be the only Fall Out Boy song I like
or know,
but I like things named after Simpsons characters,
and I like Pete Wentz.
When I first saw him in glossy magazines,
with Lindsay Lohan, or Ashlee Simpson,
or some other dishwater redhead,
I thought he was a lesbian,
Not a him,
But a hym,
a potential hersband for said starlet du jour.
His long-haired androgyny
and skinny legs are why
if I ever got him alone
I would like to bend him over,
pull those too-tight emo pants down
over his pasty, girlie ass
and take him from behind.
A strap-on should do nicely,
With a nice jelly dildo--
Silicone, not latex
(I have an allergy)
And, preferably, the kind that's a vibrator, too.
This has to be fun for us both.
I'm just a notch in your bedpost,
But you're just a few lines
In a dirty poem.

Erin O'Riordan

Sunday, January 9, 2011


lashaun guel