Audre Lorde, in her book Sister Outsider, wrote an essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” that has been significant to my work. She was a black lesbian feminist whose work transcended all the categories. When she looks back on her life, she writes that what she regrets the most are her silences. “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” She suggests that we can learn to work through our fears just as we learn to work through our tiredness, and that speaking and taking action will form a bridge to others and transform fear into connection.
My book of poems, The Mother Tongue explores coming of age, women's sexuality, and how one's relationship with one's mother influences both. These topics often are surrounded by silence. The book's midsection was the "Torrent," a collection of erotic poems. The poems had emerged at the age of 50, between an intersection of falling in love and exploring a visual art exhibit of lesbian pornography that had become a collection of postcards, Drawing the Line from the Canadian artists collective Kiss &Tell: Susan Stewart, Persimmon Blackbridge, and Lizard Jones. The exhibition of photographs, toured Canada, the United States, and Australia in 1988. Kiss and Tell asked viewers to write comments on the walls alongside the images (men wrote theirs in a book in the center of the gallery), and these comments were then published with a selection of the photographs in a pull-out postcard book. At the same time, Cecelia Lieder, a visual artist/ printmaker and gallery owner invited me and other writers to create work for an exhibit she had scheduled called “Erotic Justice.” Erotic Justice is a phrase used by Hildegaard of Bingen, a medieval Christian mystic and nun, and recently, Matthew Fox.
How is justice erotic? I wondered. Or how is the erotic connected to justice? Well…perhaps both are a journey, a process of give and take. Eventually, the poem emerged, “Blindfold.” I wrote several other poems that were published in a small chapbook titled Erotic Justice published by Calyx Press in 2007 and eventually in The Mother Tongue.
Poetry that is written in response to visual art is called ekphrastic. Many poets have used visual art as a source. I began writing this particular erotica as an exercise in writing ekphrastic poems but the poems themselves shifted in both image and intent away from the postcard photographs and toward that concept of erotic justice. It was erotic, but also about love and art, and it was set in the context of a life, within a family, and a community. This is very different than most erotica which is often separate from anything except the love relationship, and it is far different than pornography which seems to separate itself from relationship in its focus on bodily sensation or gratification. The image of the blindfold, connected both to justice and erotica, teaches us things. In justice, it allows us to be objective and to apply the same rules to all. It heightens all other perceptions. In erotica, it acknowledges the blindness that we have as we enter love relationships. Secrecy is like a blindfold. It might heighten experience, but it limits us.
I wrote an article "Crossing Borders" for NEW WORLD FINN about a conversation I had with the Finnish writer Tiina Pystynen. She writes memoir and fiction. Her latest book is a graphic memoir that explores erotic art and also pornography from a feminist perspective. The book examines the sexual in many ways and is silly, awkward, curious and profound.
I trace the development of women’s sexuality to the mother. The topic was surrounded by secrecy as far as my mother was concerned, but I was able to make observations and catch snippets of conversation about love in her life. At the age of twenty, before I married for the first time, I asked her for her secret of a happy marriage. She and my father had been married for nearly 30 years at that point. “The honeymoon is not over,” she said enigmatically. Nothing more. I understood that she was happy in her relationship and that she found it exciting. It influenced my attitudes as much as anything in the culture (at that time, it was the era of women’s liberation and the birth control pill). So I proceeded into adulthood, experiencing sexual relationships and eventually finding myself in relationship to another woman. Closeted, within a secrecy with walls of fear. Eventually love took the walls down.
It was these musings that led to the book of poems. And yes, my mother’s mother tongue was Finnish. But mine, I think was love.