Editor’s Note for The Gender Issue … It’s Almost Here
The phantom of the man-who-would-understand, the lost brother, the twin— [....]
the comrade/twin whose palm would bear a lifeline like our own: [....]
merely a fellow creature with natural resources like our own
I was in high school when I first read these words from Adrienne Rich’s “Natural Resources,” a meditation on gender’s complexities in the classic collection The Dream of a Common Language, itself a longer speculation on identity that I found far outside the main marketplace in the handful of books at a second-hand store. It probably cost me a quarter.
The poem dissects the definitions we accept for men and women and explores the relationship potential of women and men. These particular lines made the type of deep impression that occurs possibly only in those formative years, and I felt an immediate kinship with the figure she describes: a conceptual male—one perhaps forgotten, perhaps foreign, grappling with the sharp weights of existence and freedom—from the past, from a corrupt group version of himself and, importantly, alongsidewomen, the speaking “our.” Early on the poem served to align my vision of the world as an interplay of individuals as half-formed reflections of an imperfect culture.
“Natural Resources” was written in 1977—two years after I was born, making it all the easier connect it with my own identity. (Like the way events from your birth year somehow become a part of you, though they bear no real relation to you, so One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestwinning Best Picture in 1975 makes me feel connected to McMurphy and JackNicholson.)
In this section, Rich describes the shadowy, possible male—an inchoate figure struggling for independence among a majority of men who are crude and brutal, and the alternative slice that is passive and ineffective. A lone wolf who rejects the inhuman demands of an unfair society and doesn’t fit in wherever he goes? How could one not find it attractive? Turn the poem into a movie and you have a million dollar blockbuster starring any (male) Hollywood action star versus gender inequality.
In other sections, Rich laments the history of women as back- and battleground, where non-male concerns are simultaneously marginalized and brutalized. Rich’s tone is weary, hopeful, introspective, and communal, and always the potential for equality is played out in real, human terms with real, human lives in mind. This is what separates Rich and other activist poets: the constant recollection of life outside the lab of the alphabet.Part of Rich’s expression is an exploration of Power. Power that absorbs and corrupts. Power that disregards all names and seeks only its own advancement. It is difficult not to see the tentacles of Power exposed by those pointing out its arrogant abuses, whose resistance provokes—at least initially—more of the same as The Occupy Movement calling attention to Wall Street/cultural greed suffers from police extremism.
This amorphous creature reaches into us and lashes out of us every day in large-scale displays. But arguably, it is in no way more apparent or pivotal than in our intimate relationships, our one-no-one human dealings. How we deal with our fellow women and men as individuals; how we actively define our gender; how we promote or impede equality among the sexes: This edition of dirtcakes investigates some of those issues, interactions, and interstices between gender equality and imbalance, self-esteem and shame, tradition and institutional injustice.
As with each edition of dirtcakes to date, The Gender Issue is a concept issue. Each section is headed by a Janus figure that represents the dual gender principals at work in that section. These figures are the “found” art objects of re-envisioned Barbies: Actual products of artists Melissa Avila and Jill Wade who graciously gave dirtcakes the privilege to further their artistic presentation, the re-imagined Barbies have been photographed by Susan Greene and placed by Catherine Keefe in market projection mock-ups and advertising scenarios as part of a fictionalized new brand. As readers might guess, a Barbie that challenges ingrained social norms isn’t expected to sell well. That is why our new product research has been rescued from the garbage by the cleaning lady.
This fictional night maid is your guide through this issue. Imagine her in the background of the pages. A socially voiceless narrator prompting you with the only language available to her: a half-uttered one, translated from cast offs of the mainstream market that only needs her in the middle of the night. You may even read the poems and essays as her thoughts and reflections as she wanders freely through an institution responsible for much of our collective gender perspectives.
You may read Cristin O’Keefe Aptowitz’s “The Waiting Room of my GYN” as our guide’s gender anxiety, Jennifer Hollie Bowles’ “What’s for dinner, honey?” as the plea of a friend. Eleanor Des Prez’s tributes to her daughter Sophie could be our silent narrator thinking of her own daughter. Hannah Craig’s “Anniversary” could be the night maid’s own. And Danyul Nguyen’s playful “Adrienne” might try to capture her stream-of-consciousness self-definition or be a coincidental tribute to she who started his whole thing.
Lastly, for this issue we asked contributors to send in a symbolic self–an inspirational, actual, past, present, future, fictional, archetypal, or historical woman who represented them–to be featured on the bio page. A few of those choices are featured here.