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Slut

By Dale M. Kushner

Poetics

rizzoRemember Rizzo from the movie Grease? The indomitable Stockard Channing played a smoldering hottie who rivals the perky Olivia Newton-John. We recognize the split: Betty Rizzo struts her T & A. Wholesome Sandy flaunts perfect teeth.

Back in the day Rizzo was called a slut, a word that even sounds dirty. Leap forward thirty-five years and we’d be her cheering squad. Sure, Rizzo boasted a fine rack and leaned toward the uncouth, but like today’s female protagonists, she had moxie and smarts. Think: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. Think: Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games. Think: Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. These characters have more in common with the brazen dames immortalized by Crawford, Stanwyck, and Davis than they do with the kittenish Newton-John. Fifty years ago, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan inspired women to stash their aprons next to their brooms and see what else the world offered. How would the prophetic Betty have reacted to what Elizabeth Hand calls the new Femininjas?

A subset of current literary and movie heroes are icons of the feisty and the pugnacious, the alluring and provocative, but no one would call them sluts. They earn our respect for their courage and resourcefulness. They mirror back to us what we women want to see in ourselves—the cunning and skills to survive in a topsy-turvy world. katniss1But my job as a writer and an observer of collective patterns is to discern and name the discarded, unmentioned, undervalued aspects in ourselves and our culture. This means for the feminine, the unexpressed Yin qualities of receptivity, incubation, and contemplation, which seem strangely absent from these kick-ass characters. They perform deeds of derring-do (survive on acorns or scale glacial crevasses), yet seem alienated from a basic creatureliness, a disaffection that makes them coolly invincible but oddly alone and adrift. Are they “good girls” or “bad girls” or bad good girls, “good” because they vanquish the villain?

If the times dictate what we demand from our leading ladies, what’s with the assertive female sexuality and themes of revenge? Why action-oriented females with a yen to destroy? Is female-perpetrated violence a species of porn? (Women packing heat are sexy not slutty.) Every story implies an audience. How are these stories talking to us about being a woman now? The discussion is in the air.

lady-gaga-gun-braTruth is, so is violence. Violence is ether we breathe. There are more pistol-packing mamas than ever before. Gun sales to women are up. Women are joining shooting clubs with names like A Girl and A Gun. Equal power, self-defense, retaliation for eons of injustice? In the eighties, it was shoulder pads and power suits, but Margaret Thatcher, despite her Iron Lady credentials, was a tea-sipping lady. Then there’s Madonna and her conical metallic breasts. Well, sure, she was a warrior goddess, but how could any of us relate? She was an entertainer. We had real lives. Now Lady Gaga has upgraded the image, performing in a gun-bra, pistols and nipples aimed right at us.

Where might we look for the varied and complicated truth about women’s lives? I say go to poetry and study women’s voices that speak across the millennia. Poetry is nothing less than a written record of our struggle to survive.

Here’s Lalla, a 14th century mystic, said to have danced naked through the Kashmiri Valley seeking the Divine (translated by Coleman Barks):

I didn’t trust it for a moment,
but I drank it anyway,
the wine of my own poetry.

It gave me the daring to take hold
of the darkness and tear it down
and cut it into little pieces.

 

And here’s Denise Levertov in “Song for Ishtar,” 1962:

The moon is a sow
and grunts in my throat
Her great shining shines through me
so the mud of my hollow gleams
and breaks in silver bubbles

She is a sow
and I am a pig and a poet
When she opens her white
lips to devour me I bite back
and laughter rocks the moon

In the black of desire
we rock and grunt, grunt and
shine.

 

Read the poems aloud. Levertov is Lalla’s sister. Each poet celebrates a vitalizing feminine energy. The madness and danger, the hilarity and eroticism bring a shiver of recognition. When she opens her white lips to devour me I bite back. The speaker is anything but passive. She’s connected to solar/lunar forces, to the animal world (I am a pig and a poet), and to the great animating potency of desire, the very sources of her existence. What bubbles forth are her shining and gruntings, her precious and luminous poems. This sounds like ferocity of spirit to me and not the pistol-flaunting sort. Everything from the art of loving to the art of dying is explored in women’s poetry. Consider Sappho, Akhmatova, Dickinson, Mistral, Szymborska, and Bishop to name a few.

Would Katniss or Lisbeth read poetry? Would either wait in doubt, uncertainty, and mystery, in negative capability as John Keats suggested, before making a move? Does it matter? The new heroines may represent an edgy and very real cultural development in our evolving view of women, but to understand the breadth and depth of women’s lives look to poetry to reveal our multi-faceted, multi-cultural, degraded and meritorious selves.

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Dale M. Kushner DALE M. KUSHNER grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey. She has been honored by fellowships to the Wurlitzer Foundation, The Ragdale Foundation, and the Fetzer Institute as a participant of their first Writers’ Conference on Compassion and Forgiveness. Her most recent poetry collection More Alive Than Lions Roaring was a finalist for the May Swenson Poetry Award at Utah State Press and The Prairie Schooner Book Competition. In 2010 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction. Her debut novel, The Conditions of Love, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing in May 2013. Booklist wrote: “This is poet Kushner’s first novel, and her roots show; passages describing even the bleakest Midwestern landscapes are artfully drawn. A coming-of-age story that wonderfully combines literary style with heartbreaking plot twists and still manages to be uplifting…” She is on the core faculty of the Assisi Institute.

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