Thinking Out Loud, Part 3

Poem-Craft: musings on yarn-spinning, fabric selections and the like –

Now Comes the Hard Part

Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy
and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress,
then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant.
The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled
to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.

– Winston Churchill

Toy – I got glasses and breasts the same year – a development which simultaneously threw off my center of gravity and ruined my tennis game. Not that I had ever been all that athletic, really, unless mental gymnastics, imaginative leaps, or a gift for storytelling count toward athleticism. Nonetheless, prior to seventh grade, (that fateful year) my classmates and I all played football together on the blacktop at recess with blatant disregard to gender “differences,” simply because our class and our school was so small that if we didn’t organize co-ed games, we wouldn’t have had enough of one group or the other to form two complete, opposing teams for any sport, save basketball, and (believe it or not) we had no hoops.

It was the same way in my neighborhood. With respect to summertime ball games, despite all the “second-wave feminist” rhetoric raising everyone’s consciousness in terms of “gender identification and socialization,” we espoused a non-discriminatory “gender equality” policy in the alley, born of necessity, not politics.  Thinking back on those childhood summers now, the sense of mental clarity I had about the world and my role in it, before things got “complicated,” the image that kept coming back to me was the mimosa tree in our next door neighbor’s back yard and the quality of light I still associate with those carefree summers: the southern exposure alert, awake, and at the same time idle and serene.

Batting language around like a cat with a new feather tickler, I begin with a kind of “word association” in my notebook:

Mimosa tree: sweet, candy, candy-coated, sugary, delicious, honeyed, luscious, nectarous, ambrosial, aromatic, fragrant, perfumed, pure, scented…

But mostly, it’s the quality of light: southern exposure; alert, awake, aware, calm, tranquil, serene, idle (but not lazy) attentive, watchful, vigilant sky full sun stare rims

By letting the mind go into a “free fall,” I can reach a state (some call it “that liminal space where writing happens”) in which, at least for me, language seems to just bubble up to the surface. Then, I begin working consciously, trying to “freeze” the scene from my memory in place on the page:

Mistress – before I’ve even finished the first draft, a task that is more intuitive (right-brained) than logical (left-brained), the “inner critic” has gone to work, pointing out the weakness in the over-familiar “dinosaur.” I make a note to myself to look for other word choices, put the draft away, and try to ignore it. But it won’t go away, won’t shut up. Still on the tip of my mind the next morning, I go back to work, complete the first draft, and start looking for a title. In my mind, it’s the summer between fourth and fifth grade, so I calculate the year (1967) and start doing some research.

I find an event that fits the time period I want to suggest, and, even better, connects to the theme of “gender” identity: the Mariner 5 launch on June 14, 1967. Its mission: to study the inner solar system, specifically, the planet Venus.

Tyrant – Now the task becomes one that requires some skill: how to yoke the spacecraft together with my own personal experience in order to suggest the theme, or point I’m trying to get at: that is, although the feminist critics (i.e. Judith Butler, et al) may be on the right path initially, they ultimately draw the wrong conclusion about “gender identity” and “equality,” in my opinion. In her essay, “Gender Trouble,” Butler uses the phenomenon of gender impersonation, or “drag” (think: John Travolta playing Mrs. Turnblad in Hairspray, for instance) to suggest that “gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real” and further asserts: “What other foundational categories of identity – the binary of sex, gender, and the body – can be shown as productions that create the effect of the natural, the original, and the inevitable?” This line of inquiry leads her (and other feminists) to conclude that “gender” is a fiction, a social construct, a creation that is all in the mind, and is consistently reinforced through socialization.

This much, I can agree with, based on seventh grade. Seemingly all of a sudden, for no reason that was clear to us, the nuns swooped in, segregated the girls from the boys, told us we couldn’t play sports together anymore, and left us bereft of the other half of our teammates and companions. Why? “Because we said so. Because it’s sinful. Because it leads to nothing good.” Suddenly, just when we were starting to get along on the field as well as we got along in the classroom, we should view anyone of the opposite sex as an outcast? Somehow, that just didn’t seem right to me, and I remain unconvinced.

As far as I can tell, based on my own experience, the mind is ungendered, neither “male” nor “female.” While there’s no arguing about the biological differences between men and women (which begin to assert themselves prominently at puberty) I always thought that “gender” identification is indeed, a social construct. However, as the mind does not have “form” or “body,” I’ve always thought of the mental plane as more or less a level playing field, where men and women could play and compete on the same terms. That is, of course, if they can get past the (gender) biases and stereotypically assigned gender roles ingrained in them from seventh grade on.

Killing the Monster – Butler’s conclusion is that as gender is a fiction, a construct, there can be no “ideal woman” or “ideal man” in Plato’s theorized realm of forms.  Ergo, Butler concludes, if there’s no ideal “man” and no ideal “woman,” then “there is no pre-existing identity” — a conclusion she and her feminist pals use to discredit Plato’s entire theory, one of the premises on which all of paternalistic Western civilization rests.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is a bit like “throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” if you’ll pardon the cliché. Is it not also possible that if “gender” is a construction that’s all in the mind, then “male” or “female” or even “body” might also be a construction? That is, rather than the mind being “in” the body, couldn’t the “body” be all in the mind? After all, couldn’t that be what Plato was trying to suggest with his allegory of the cave?

If that’s so, then it’s also possible that we do, in fact, have a “pre-existing identity,” but that as this identity is not a body-identification, it is without form, i.e. sexless and genderless — a far more “disruptive” deconstruction, I think, than Butler’s conclusion. With that in mind, I offer up the poem, still in progress, currently in its fourth or fifth incarnation:

Mariner 5

 Because it was designed to conduct only scientific measurements, and was equipped with more sensitive instruments than its predecessor, Mariner 2, it was able to shed new light on the hot, cloud-covered planet and on conditions in interplanetary space.
On June 14, 1967, it was launched toward Venus.

– Solar System Exploration, NASA.gov

Full-sun stare, vigilant sky
rims the backyard, tickling
the southern exposure – pure clarity
sheers orange-yellow-pink pom-poms
wisping all over the mimosa. Canopied
beneath its lazy, late-morning perfume,
I imbibe forbidden novels, read gorgons
in clouds, let earth-cool grass
devour me.

I engage in espionage from a cat’s perch
up a neighbor’s tree, deploying
maple seed helicopters
on reconnaissance missions,
parachuting out after them –
tactical maneuvers from branch collar
to landing zone.

On the cusp, ungendered,
I decipher heartwood
in a time before sex matters,
before I am some

body — transfigured:

by desire, love’s wounds, the scarring
grown over –
more resistant to decay,
but feigning life.

Orbiting constant summer
in mutant twilight,
transformed again –
a traveler, incommunicado,
fixed
on a signal
from inner space.

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