Beverly Dahlen's "The Naming of How(ever)"

The Naming of HOW(ever)

To Frances Jaffer in memory
by Beverly Dahlen

Beverly Dahlen
photo by Camille Roy

I met Frances Jaffer sometime in the mid ‘60s when I was working at The Poetry Center at San Francisco State. Mark Linenthal was at that time the director of the center and Frances was his wife. They used to entertain visiting poets at their spacious home on Jordan Avenue. Of course, I went to those parties and found Frances a charming hostess, but there was discontent beneath the surface. What came to be called the “second wave” of feminism was well underway: Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique had been published in ’63. That was followed by many other titles, but Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex had been the book that launched the movement.

When Frances and I became friends we began to talk about this new feminism. We had seen the small periodicals that were beginning to appear—one from a group in Boston who called themselves the “bluestockings” for example, in honor of the original 18th century English group of literary women. And I recall that Mary Wollstonecraft—she who was the mother of Mary Shelley---was the author of a tract called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792)

In the late 1960s women all over the country were meeting in what were called “consciousness-raising” groups. Frances and I attended one of these groups in which women met privately to talk among themselves about their lives: everything was on the table--- frustration, fear, ambition, all the feelings which had been kept hidden, but also ideas for organizing politically. It was the beginning of “the women’s rights movement” or “women’s liberation” and it generated support for new laws, “equal pay for equal work,” among them, and campaigns for women candidates for public office. I note that it is an unfinished revolution. The proposed ERA has never been passed and Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to choose an abortion, is still being fought over to this day.

All of this was important, but Frances and I wanted to explore other aspects of feminism.

When Kathleen came to San Francisco in 1972, she, Frances and I began meeting to read and discuss our own work. Frances had begun writing poetry again after a long hiatus. Sometimes there were visitors to the group. Marilyn Hacker dropped by, Tamara O’Brien, Gloria Frym and others were members for awhile.

During this time hundreds of books having to do with the theory and practice of feminism were published. I was particularly interested in salvaging psychoanalytic theory for women and read Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate, which was my introduction to the school of French feminism. These women had embraced Freud and Lacan and their work; the essays of Julia Kristeva (Desire in Language) became important, in fact, foundational for me.

Reading and writing: they feed one another. We began to turn our attention to the “buried” women writers, particularly the modernist women like H.D., whose work was barely in print. I had read a couple of her poems which were anthologized, but knew nothing beyond that. Women writers had simply not been taught when I went to school in the mid ‘50s. By the time of our meetings many books were being published not only about the politics of feminism but the works of literary women were becoming available again. H.D.’s poetry and novels came back into print, as well as an account of her psychoanalysis called Tribute to Freud. Her book-length poem Helen in Egypt is a direct source of my own Egyptian Poems and her Trilogy, an account of her survival of the blitz in London during the Second World War, is a work that opens one to meditation on the powers of destruction and resurrection.

It must have been the early ‘80s when Kathleen suggested publishing a small newsletter to share our enthusiasms with others. We agreed, but what would we call it? We brainstormed a bit and landed on “however.” It’s the “however” from Marianne Moore’s poem called “Poetry.” It’s there, even in its redacted form:

I, too, dislike it.
     Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
     it, after all, a place for the genuine.

This is what we were looking for: a place for the genuine. A modest place for women writers who had for whatever reasons become discouraged, to turn again to thought, to interpretation, to innovation, to poetry. And for those who had never doubted, who had always written, to share their work with new audiences. Finally, it was always a pleasure to read the manuscripts of the young poets and to be able to represent them in the pages of HOW(ever).

October 2, 2011

No comments: