Cassandra Euphrat Weston
Note to the reader: This essay includes an appendix with the full text of all the poems I discuss, as well as a video link to a recorded performance of one poem. I would like to encourage the reader to turn to the appendix either before reading my essay or after finishing the introductory section. My argument in this paper concerns the performative act of reading a poem, as well as the expansive nature of poetic language. Reading or watching these poems, and observing their multiplicity beyond what I have room to delineate in this paper, will ground my argument for the reader.
I. Introduction and Theoretical Overview
…our words, squeezed forever
beneath too much, too hot, too hurt,
burst like diamonds from coal…
– Michelle Tea, “We Are Girls” (150)
How can literature engage in resistance? The passage above paints poetry as a sudden reaction, the tipping point of a steady stranglehold. On the other hand, the rest of the poem suggests a gentler, more pervasive friction. The two are hardly incompatible: as we will see, poetic resistance entails both multiplicity and contradiction. This essay will trace several models of resistance to the “regulatory practices of gender and sexuality,” as Judith Butler terms them in her book Gender Trouble, through four poems: Lenelle Moïse’s “Madivinez,” Michelle Tea’s “We Are Girls” and “Sell-Out,” and Cherríe Moraga’s “It’s The Poverty.” In general, the poems follow Butler’s analysis of the construction and maintenance of categories of gender and sexuality, as well as the further analyses of discourse, especially in relation to imperialism, offered by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Michel Foucault, Inderpal Grewal, and Caren Kaplan. However, the poems’ resistance to regulatory practices exceeds and expands the strategies that these theorists outline. Butler points to the “relations of coherence” that regulatory practices demand, which these didactic texts – that is, theoretical prose aiming to impart a definitive point or points – seek to disassemble. Despite embracing concision and formal constraints, poetry not only tears apart the conceptual constraints of regulatory practices, but also rebuilds new connections, thanks to the multiple valences of poetic language. Indeed, the limitations of poetic form are often precisely the places where multiple meanings overlap, thus loosening conceptual restraints. However, the same ambiguity that opens up the potential for resistance beyond the limits of a didactic text also makes any poem a gamble. A poem risks more and reaches further. Poetry is hardly an afterthought to theory, but rather outstrips it, alive with imaginative possibilities.
Judith Butler’s seminal text Gender Trouble hinges on Butler’s articulation of the idea that gender is a category constituted by culture and enacted through performance. She argues for “the constructed status of gender,” explaining that “gender operates as an act of cultural inscription [sic]” (9, 199). That is, gendered significations are not innate to bodies, but rather are continually imposed upon them. Having established the constructed nature of gender, Butler famously asserts that within the inherited discourse of the metaphysics of substance, gender proves to be performative – that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed. (34)
Thus, the category of gender is not a static state, but rather a constantly repeated enactment. As we turn to literature, we find this repeated enactment mirrored in the process of reading. The journey of writing is repeated every time we read the poem: literature is also a “doing,” in Butler’s terminology, and the intimate text of a poem in particular is hardly static. The performativity of literature offers poets avenues to explore the corresponding performativity of gender, as we will see in the poems that follow.
The notion of intelligibility is central to Butler’s understanding of regulatory practices, allowing us to connect gender to other forms of intelligibility introduced in the poems that follow. She maintains that
‘intelligible’ genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire, [that is…] causal and expressive lines of connection among biological sex, culturally constituted genders, and the ‘expression’ or ‘effect’ of both in the manifestation of sexual desire through sexual practice. (23)
Intelligibility, then, requires adherence to the regulatory practices that shape gender in order to maintain alignment among their constituent norms. The concept of intelligibility will recur in the poems we consider, both in Butler’s gendered context and in a linguistic sense, as these poets question the intelligibility of individual words and of language in its entirety. Butler’s claim that gendered intelligibility entails “relations of coherence and continuity” will allow us to trace the currents of gender and sexuality that these poems navigate in their broader explorations of intelligibility. Moreover, the poems we will read revolve around various aspects of “sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire,” all of which Butler claims are implicated together in the enactment of gender. With the exception of the last poem we will consider, which enriches the notion of intelligibility from a different angle, some of the poems focus primarily on sexuality, while others invoke gender more explicitly; but they all shed light on the place of gender in shared questions of intelligibility and resistance.
Michel Foucault’s foundational conception of power relations, which Butler draws on extensively, illuminates broader patterns of resistance alongside Butler’s specific focus on gender. Butler and Foucault together suggest that disrupting the regulatory coherences of gender offers the possibility of resistance, a strategy we will see enacted in poetry as well. Foucault cautions in History of Sexuality that “[w]here there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (95). Thus, we cannot attempt to situate resistance outside this matrix of regulatory practices. Instead, Butler asks: “What interventions in this ritualistic repetition [of regulatory practices] are possible?… what, then, enables the exposure of the rift between the phantasmic and the real whereby the real admits itself as phantasmic?” (199-200). These questions point the way to forms of resistance that act from within the very power structures they oppose. The poems we will read contain just these “interventions” and disruptions in the “ritualistic repetition” of norms, together with the “exposure of the rift” that Butler describes. The poets reveal the gaps and incongruities – or “rifts” – that are already present, but are camouflaged or even caused by the strict regulatory practices these poets seek to disrupt.
In particular, of course, all poems resist through the medium of language, and the poems we will examine address the strictures, possibilities, and limits of language. Foucault offers a cautious perspective on this question with his remark that discourse is “both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy” (101). Like any resistance, discourse cannot escape the bounds of power all together, but is rather its “instrument and effect.” However, Foucault also suggests that, accepting this position of interiority, we might nevertheless consider discourse a possible “starting point” for resistance.
Though Gender Trouble does not specifically address form or other aspects of literary theory, nonetheless Butler’s application of her ideas to a literary example points to the particular resistance that poetry offers. In evaluating Julia Kristeva’s theories of poetic subversion against paternal law, Butler focuses on criticism of Kristeva’s understanding of gender, but Butler also implicitly supports Kristeva’s suggestion that poetic language rests on multiplicity. In Butler’s figuration, Kristeva argues that “poetic language in which multiple meanings and semantic nonclosure prevail… is the recovery of the maternal body within the terms of language, one that has the potential to disrupt, subvert, and displace the paternal law” (108). Kristeva’s theories of language are intimately tied to concepts of psychoanalysis, evident in phrases such as “the maternal body” or “a necessary causal relation between the heterogeneity of drives and the plurivocal possibilities of poetic language” (108-110). Butler forcefully critiques the psychoanalytic elements of Kristeva’s theory, pointing out – in accordance with Butler’s own ideas about the performative construction of gender – the “cultural construction” of the “maternal body,” and the failure of “drives” to preexist “their emergence into language” (120). However, if we omit psychoanalysis, we find that Butler implicitly concurs with the other elements of Kristeva’s ideas about poetic language. Namely, “the plurivocal possibilities of poetic language” lead to “multiple meanings and semantic nonclosure prevail[ing],” which have “the potential to disrupt, subvert, and displace.” This plurivocality does indeed allow for spaces of resistance in the poems we will read: not through psychoanalytic practices, but rather through a simple tendency towards uncertainty and multiplicity, which constantly create breathing room for resistance.
Linguistic resistance extends beyond gender, and the concept of intelligibility in particular carries important colonial implications as well, which Butler and Foucault stop short of thoroughly addressing. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in conjunction with Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan’s “Transnational Feminist Cultural Studies: Beyond the Marxist/ Poststructuralism/ Feminism Divides” together demonstrate that the demand for intelligibility reifies regulatory practices along the lines of imperialism in addition to gender. In answering the question her title poses, Spivak warns of “the dangers” in “our efforts to give the subaltern a voice in history” (296). Grewal and Kaplan illuminate Spivak’s position with their explanation that
Anglo-American feminism rejects problematizing the metaphysics of voice and experience… The intensity of the desire to extract authentic information and testimony from what is perceived to be peripheral or “other” suggests that what is necessary for Anglo-American feminism is a misrecognition of complicity in colonial and neocolonial discursive formations. (355)
Moreover, they add that “third world texts and contexts enter the Anglo-American cultural sphere… as materials central to first world subject formation” (357). Demanding a subject’s intelligibility, then, demands on the one hand adherence to constructed categories of gender, and on the other – often simultaneously – an intelligible “speaking” along colonial relations of power, confirming the “other”ness of the speaker and warping their voice to fit the bounds of supposed “authenticity.” Instead of yielding the restorative justice of “a voice in history,” the demand for intelligibility merely bolsters “first world subject formation.” That is: when we demand that cultural “others” speak, purportedly validating their voices, we are in fact demanding our own validation. In the poems we examine, the poets encounter precisely these questions: for whom are they speaking or writing? For whom are they making themselves, or their experiences, intelligible? Spivak, Grewal, and Kaplan’s ideas will help us to trace the “colonial and neocolonial discursive formations” that underlie questions of intelligibility in these poems and overlap with the questions of gender that Butler outlines.
The theoretical texts we have touched on offer frameworks for understanding the cultural construction of gender and its performativity, the regulatory demand for intelligibility along lines of gender and colonialism, and the resistant possibilities of language within these power relations, especially regarding gender. Turning now to poems, we will see that they expand and contradict these theoretical ideas in addition to confirming them, bringing to bear the unique multiplicity of poetic language through both narrative content and linguistic form.
Lenelle Moïse’s spoken word poem “Madivinez” unravels and rebuilds the title word over the course of the poem, reimagining this word in resistance to hostile discourses of sexuality. Quoting her mother, Moïse defines “madivinez” as “how… you say lesbian in Creole… but it’s not a positive word.” In the 90-second video of her performance, Moïse engages in the “interventions in ritualistic repetition” that Butler posits as a strategy of resistance, but she also reassembles new coherences to create an unexpected shelter in this unwelcoming word. By calling into question the accumulation of “relations of coherence and continuity,” in Butler’s phrasing, Moïse disrupts the intelligibility of sexuality, gender, ethnicity, and taboo that the word “madivinez” carries. In fact, Moïse disrupts the “ritualistic” and invisible repetition of norms through the conscious repetition of the word “madivinez,” removing the word from its context and untangling its implications. This unraveling culminates in the final moments of the poem, when Moïse declares: “Glamorous. Holy. Haitian. Dyke. Heart. Something I want to be.” This list of the associations accompanying “madivinez” thwarts grammatical “coherence and continuity” in its progression from “glamorous” and “holy,” both adjectives, to “Haitian,” which can function as either adjective or noun, to “dyke” and “heart,” both nouns. On a semantic level, the juxtaposition of these ideas reimagines a new continuity among the disparate ideas Moïse has introduced in the rest of the poem. The elasticity of poetic language allows the loosening of syntactical strictures, which in turn allows the rearrangement of semantic content. Together, the form and content of this poem make space for the poet to engage in both deconstructive and reconstructive resistance.
But intelligibility is already fractured in Moïse’s narrative even before she intervenes to disrupt it further. While Creole is unintelligible to her, as she relies on the dictionary and her mother to translate, she is also unintelligible to, and rejected by, Creole. Confessing that “[the dictionary’s] red cover taunts me daily; I am often too afraid to open it,” Moïse characterizes her relationship to written Creole as one filled with hostile “taunts” and fear. She later discovers that “the little red book denied my existence,” confirming this hostility, as the dictionary excludes her sexual identity as a “lesbian” – and consequently, Moïse argues, the entirety of “my existence” – from the Creole language. The equation of sexuality with selfhood recalls Butler’s argument that sexual desire is not discrete, but part and parcel of the gendered identity inscribed on each of us. At the same time, Moïse’s fear is augmented by the dictionary’s failed potential for comfort, as she first turns to the Creole dictionary when she is “hungry for familiar words that could make me feel home.” Grewal and Kaplan, however, invite us to question the notion of a dictionary, which supposes a basic equivalence between English and Creole reminiscent of the pattern that “third world texts” are corralled into “first world subject formations.” As a writer of English who also looks for “home” in “familiar” Creole words, Moïse finds herself uneasily in both categories at once and so the separation between “third world” and “first world,” or Haitian and American, or Creole and English, does not suffice. Though Moïse reaches toward Creole from the beginning of the poem, the two are mutually incomprehensible when Moïse is confined to English-language identities – after all, she looks up the English word “lesbian” – and Creole is confined to the dictionary, while sexuality proves a site of particular disjuncture. The “relations of coherence” among language and sexuality are disrupted long before the poet seeks to alter them.
In the face of this hostility, Moïse opens and expands unintelligible language to create a livable space. Instead of relying on the dictionary, Moïse seeks out new coherences in the aural or etymological resonances of the word itself. She muses: “How can cruelty sound so beautiful? Madivinez sounds so glamorous, something I want to be. Madivinez, my divine, sounds so holy.” When the word that means “lesbian in Creole” shuts her out with its “cruelty,” Moïse still finds a way to render it positive by focusing on its phonetic “sound” and emphasizing its etymological roots. Oral language proves more flexible, reinforced by the poem’s oral delivery. Moreover, Moïse moves beyond “extract[ing] authentic information and testimony from what is perceived to be peripheral or ‘other,’” a dynamic that Grewal and Kaplan criticize, and looking for the exact definition of “lesbian.” Instead, the final passage we have already seen embraces the contradictory resonances of “madivinez,” relocating Moïse’s own sense of identity rather than seeking to “extract” a single connotation from a complex Creole word. The prescriptive constraints of a definition, where words remain static, didactic, and bisected between the two halves of the dictionary, offer Moïse no refuge. Instead, she turns to the multiplicity that poetic language allows – especially orally – and refashions her own narrative, hollowing out space over the course of the poem in the word “madivinez” in which to claim “something I want to be.”
Moreover, though written language proved insufficient before, Moïse also expands the constraints of the dictionary to make room for her experience. Her choice to “write it [madivinez] into the dictionary next to kè, Creole for heart” disrupts the alphabetical regularity that has left no room for her “existence.” Instead, she creates a space for herself in the pages of the dictionary by building a new, semantic continuity between “heart” and “madivinez.” The presence of creative acts in this closing scene echoes the poem’s opening, in which Moïse describes at length her “arts altar.” Placing her “Haitian Creole-English dictionary behind the colored pencils” associates the dictionary with the generative power of art-making, anticipating her final transformation of the dictionary from constraint into canvas. Moïse’s resistance is one of creation. Her disruptive “interventions” not only break down the “relations of coherence” in the word “madivinez,” as Butler counsels, but also expand what the word can signify. The poem narrates the process of amplifying “madivinez” from a source of hostility into “something I want to be.”
Michelle Tea’s poems “We Are Girls” and “Sell-Out” also balance breaking down the restraints of gender with rebuilding new coherences. But while Moïse grounds her resistance in the narrative progression of the poem, Tea resists through poetic form, using specific linguistic devices such as metaphor, hyperbole, and sarcasm, as well as the performative quality of a literary text. In “We Are Girls,” poetic multiplicity allows Tea to expand the word “girls” into a space for linguistic survival. Metaphor, uniting both tenor and vehicle, constitutes a clear instance of such multiplicity, and this poem’s first metaphor begins the undertaking of toppling the restrictive coherences of gender. The title and second line, “we are girls,” establish the speaker’s claim to the gendered category “girls” with an unequivocal grammatical equivalence. But the image that follows, “our nipples are jellybeans,” undermines this sureness (149). Visually speaking, comparing “nipples” to “jellybeans” suggests erect, and therefore sexualized, nipples. At the same time, jellybeans belong to childhood. The metaphor suggests that the poem’s “we,” who are so unequivocally “girls,” simultaneously inhabit sexual maturity and childish naïveté. This unsettling combination calls into question the word “girls,” which the speaker so confidently claims. The layered valences of metaphor allow Tea to establish with subtlety the tension surrounding the category “girls.”
In addition to the multiplicity of metaphor, Tea employs the performativity of poetic form to reveal the performativity of gender. Most basically, the cyclical repetition of the phrase “we are girls” leads us to doubt the phrase’s literal claim, much like Moïse’s repetition of “madivinez,” calling attention in particular to the patronizing overtones of the word “girls.” Moreover, the lines “they say/ there is something inside us girls/ and we mean to find it” mark the enactment of a gendered category whose enactment is usually hidden (149). The idea that “there is something inside us girls” suggests a biologically based “connection among biological sex [and] culturally constituted genders,” in Butler’s phrasing. However, the idea that “we mean to find it” exposes such natural coherence as “phantasmic,” again in Butler’s terms. The intent “to find” spotlights the gulf between the bodies of “girls” and the cultural meanings “inside” them. Fulfilling the gendered category “girls” requires an active search for its supposedly inherent components, echoing Butler’s notion that “gender is always a doing,” a performance to maintain “the identity it is purported to be.” The ambiguous “they” of “they say” reinforces the patronizing element of “girls,” suggesting that the descriptive category and its impossible meaning have both been imposed by the dubious authority of social norms; by contrast, this theoretical girlhood falls apart when enacted by a specific “we.” By marking the moment just before the act, when “we mean to” embark on it, Tea uses the performative capacity of poetic form to resist the imposed coherences of gender and expose its equally performative basis.
The plurivocality of a poem’s language, along with its performative progression, mean that language accumulates new resonances over the poem’s duration. Tea’s final lines employ these collected echoes to engage in resistance that, like Moïse’s “Madivinez,” generates new connections to shelter the speaker as well as breaking down restrictive ones. The poem ends poignantly:
we are girls.
and sometimes we can crawl
into each other like caves, we
can curl, we can sleep,
we are girls. (151)
The lines “we can crawl/ into each other like caves” echo the ambivalent sexuality of the poem’s opening, but reimagine this ambivalence as refuge. In the image “our nipples are jellybeans,” Tea positions overt sexuality in tension with childhood. The poem’s ending also offers both sexuality and naïveté, but here the two are at peace. Tea earlier compares “cunts” to “caves,” and so the word “caves” in these final lines has accumulated an overtone of sexuality. Meanwhile, “crawl,” “curl,” and “sleep” all suggest the actions of children. But this childish innocence now combines amicably with sexual maturity, and the word “girls” widens from a site of tension to become a livable space. Because of its “semantic nonclosure,” poetic language will continue to expand indefinitely, accruing ever more meanings. Writing poetry means expanding language. And, too, living with existing categories of gender requires unfurling them until, like “girls,” they grow from restraint to refuge. Poetry, then, offers a way to navigate gender, amplifying language until we can locate a space to breathe, “curl,” and survive.
Tea’s poem “Sell-Out” unfolds the multiplicity of poetic language through hyperbole, sarcasm, and other explorations of tone. Hyperbole allows Tea to imagine absurd or impossible “relations of coherence” that nonetheless indicate the possibility of actual connections. Asserting that the word “integrity” is unintelligible to her family, she conducts an exaggerated search to contextualize this lack of communication. Comparing “integrity” to “clitoris and what else,/ labia, probably orgasm,” Tea surprises the reader with an abrupt jump from the realm of ethics to explicit sexuality. “Clitoris,” “labia,” and “orgasm” are culturally taboo words; by adding “integrity” to the list, a word which has generally positive connotations, Tea suggests that denying discourse around explicit sexuality means denying integrity as well. In further hyperbole, she suggests that “integrity” might belong to “spanish” or “german” [sic] and be therefore linguistically unintelligible, or perhaps a question of “culture,” or a matter of “regional” differences. Again, these exaggerations are factually ridiculous, bolstering Tea’s anger at her family for failing to understand a word that is indubitably part of their own language. But at the same time, the hyperbole points to a modicum of truth, as Tea’s words suggest an expansion of intelligibility along multiple axes. Intelligibility concerns not only “relations of continuity and coherence” among categories of gender and sexuality, but also along axes of “culture” and “region,” which in turn complement Moïse’s exploration of ethnicity. Both Tea and Moïse suggest that the regulatory practices of gender and sexuality entail constraint along and among a multitude of categories and relations. Hyperbole is plurivocal: it both mocks the connections it imagines, reinforcing Tea’s defiance towards her family, and introduces the existence of those connections in more moderate form.
Tea uses exasperation and sarcasm to uncover and resist demands for “causal and expressive lines of connection” among gendered attributes. She asserts that “men get away/ with writing… earnest trash about/ death and youth,” while she is encouraged to write “romance novels.” The exasperated bluntness of “earnest trash” suggests that mere “earnest” intention is sufficient guarantee of acceptance for writers who are men. Meanwhile, Tea’s equally “earnest” intention is unintelligible to her family because of its misalignment with the cultural implications of her gender; as a woman, only writing “romance novels” would uphold that alignment. The sarcastic contrast suggests that romance novels, though perhaps equally “trashy,” are not “earnest.” In order to fulfill intelligible womanhood, Tea would have to compromise the earnestness of her ambition, which she labels a breach of “integrity.” Meanwhile, the line “joke’s on them” introduces sarcasm whose multiple meanings sum up the impossibility, for Tea, of enacting gendered coherences. The “joke” lies in the contradiction that Tea must be suited for writing romance novels because she is a woman, but that she is not inclined to romance, making her bad at fulfilling the category of “woman.” Like the line “there is something inside us girls/ and we mean to find it,” this line highlights the performative work that gender must do to maintain its supposedly natural coherences. Tea is at odds with those around her because she is bad at enacting the category of woman. Her act of writing – itself a performative “doing” – disrupts the “relations of coherence” that would render her literary ambition intelligible, disruptions which Tea makes clear through sarcasm, exasperation, and hyperbole.
Alongside Tea’s striking manipulation of tone, the multiple resonances of particular words quietly reveal both the refuge Tea builds through writing, and the risk she incurs in doing so. The word “integrity,” which most literally means “wholeness,” exposes the depth of the “rift” between Tea and her family. Though her family sees her ambition as discontinuous with the practices of gender, Tea labels the same ambition wholeness, thereby redefining a new coherence through the creative act of writing. The multiple valences of language allow Tea to create an alternate gendered space. However, the suggestion of “writing for hallmark” complicates the place of family and Tea’s self-assured claim to integrity. Tea’s title and exasperated tone connect the name to corporate “sell-out,” but Hallmark also connotes a particular flavor of pre-packaged sentiment. Her mother’s association between Tea’s poetic ambition and the facile sentiment of greeting cards suggests that the latter is the only poetic expression Tea’s mother comprehends. Though Tea’s choice of the word “integrity” casts a moral condemnation over her mother’s advice, the multiple resonances of the allusion to Hallmark suggest a misunderstanding more fundamental than a difference of ethics. The idea that poetry might be unintelligible to family exposes a rift not along lines of “culture” or “region,” but along the fraught question of class. The title, “Sell-Out,” carries dual implications: Tea feels that her family is encouraging her to “sell out” her art, but by pursuing poetry, she herself becomes a “sell-out,” a class traitor in the eyes of her family. With the act of writing, Tea both forms new gendered coherences in resistance to her family’s regulatory restraints, and finds herself fundamentally separated from her family, because they cannot understand the poems she creates as shelter, nor why she would find greater shelter in poetry than in financial stability. Poetic form offers many modes of plurivocality for Tea’s resistance in “We Are Girls” and “Sell-Out.” Together, Tea’s varied modification of tones and the quiet echoes of individual words reveal that writing poetry means risk and betrayal as well as refuge.
Bridging Moïse’s focus on narrative and Tea’s focus on form, Cherríe Moraga’s “It’s the Poverty” widens the rifts and heightens the risks of writing poetry. Though this poem does not explicitly address gender or sexuality, it closely informs our exploration of these topics. The poem is part of Moraga’s Loving in the War Years, an amalgamation of poetry and prose that deals at length with her experiences as a queer woman as well as the inseparable experiences of race, class, ethnicity, and family. The section containing “It’s the Poverty” begins with another poem, whose final lines conclude gently:
I watch [the bridges…] for clues
about making connections
We, too, might do well to follow the implication that “making connections” leads to “getting someplace.” We have seen already that poetry’s penchant for generation expands Butler’s call for breaking apart existing “lines of connection,” adding the possibility of building new ones. Both Moïse’s and Tea’s poems encourage us to form just such connections among overlapping contexts such as class, ethnicity, and family. “It’s the Poverty,” then, is situated within this tangled reimagining of coherence. The questions of intelligibility that figure centrally in this poem are inherently related to the regulatory practices of gender and sexuality.
Like Moïse and Tea, Moraga addresses the risks of poetic resistance, clarifying the paradoxes of language that the other two introduce. She asserts bluntly: “No. I lack language./ The language to clarify/ My resistance to the literate.” The taut opposition of these lines, between the search for language and resistance to its regulatory practices, echoes Foucault’s caution that discourse serves as “both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy.” Foucault suggests that this simultaneity of the writer’s complicity and resistance, by which language is “both an instrument… of power” and “a hindrance… a point of resistance,” necessarily belongs to all language. However, Foucault’s articulation of the situation remains at a descriptive remove, while Moraga finds herself in the thick of the contradiction. She states: “To gain the word to describe the loss,/ I risk losing everything” (63). The generative multiplicity of poetic language also yields uncertainty. The poem is a self-defeating gamble: if the poet succeeds in her resistance and “gains the word” to articulate the “loss” she has already experienced, she may “lose everything” in exchange. The plurivocal hyperbole of “everything” makes room for multiple versions of what the poet might be “losing,” thereby raising the stakes of the risk. Poetic language allows and requires Moraga to exist in an intimate relation to her own poem. She addresses the same paradoxical nature of language that Foucault indicates, but Moraga grapples more urgently with the contradictions, because poetry places more at stake than a didactic text.
The risk of writing leads Moraga to challenge the risks of intelligibility itself. The stanza continues:
To gain the word to describe the loss,
I risk losing everything.
I may create a monster,
The word’s length and body
swelling up colorful and thrilling
looming over my mother, characterized.
Her voice in the distance
these are the monster’s words. (63)
Moraga characterizes the words she herself “may create” as a “monster,” suggesting distance and strangeness. Indeed, the very word “unintelligible” belongs to the “monster.” Through writing poetry, then, Moraga trades one intimacy for another; as she “gains” words, her mother’s familiar voice becomes “unintelligible,” monstrous, and strange. Grewal and Kaplan suggest that “the metaphysics of voice and experience” lead to “the desire to extract authentic information and testimony from what is perceived to be peripheral or ‘other.’” The act of writing poetry about the speaker’s mother, seeking to illuminate her “voice,” places the mother in a peripheral position of “other”-ness. Grewal and Kaplan critique this quest as “complicit… in colonial and neocolonial… formations.” Moraga, too, laments this complicity, naming her own creation monstrous, but she cannot even “describe the loss” that language entails without using language itself. Moraga’s “risk” is twofold: though she risks loss through writing, she claims also that “the risk… is enough to keep me moving” and “accountable” to the stories she tells. Her writing holds her “accountable” for its creation, suggesting that she also faces a risk if she fails to write. Risk keeps her writing, despite the further risk that confront her when she does so. A didactic text – including this essay – can afford to criticize from a distance, but poetry requires intimacy, and thus places far more “at risk.” Neither Moïse, Tea, nor Moraga can resist regulatory practices through defiant demolition alone. They must brave the uncertainty of poetic language, writing despite the risk and creating from that risk a space for linguistic survival.
Moraga’s frustration with the distance of words such as “unintelligible” invites us to consider the linguistic limits of the theoretical texts we have been using. The multiple linguistic resonances that fill poetic language are present in theoretical language as well, though with different result, either contributing to or quietly undermining the text’s certainty. For instance, Butler calls for “interventions” and “exposure” as forms of resistance. Both these words connote a certain antagonism and even violence. “Intervention” carries disciplinary, military, and psychoanalytic implications, while “exposure” suggests a forcible uncovering. This antagonism involves a unidirectional certainty that poetry, as we have seen, cannot afford. Moraga’s poem encapsulates this dilemma: entangled in the same context she resists, she is wary of engaging in such absolute resistance, for fear that the violence of “exposure” might cause “loss” as well as “gain.” Instead, poetry and its echoing language allow space for interiority, intimacy, and risk. The revelations about the regulatory practices of gender, sexuality, and more in these poems are not so much exposures as invitations. The inconclusive nature of resistance in language, to language, that Foucault describes, is gentled and expanded into a livable space in poetry.
The theoretical texts of Foucault, Butler, Spivak, Grewal, and Kaplan offer us a plethora of ideas and frameworks that can help us unravel the complex concerns of poetic texts. However, this theory also leads us to the limits of didactic texts themselves. Indeed, Butler’s own notion that “the plurivocal possibilities of poetic language” have “the potential to disrupt, subvert, and displace” delineates all that didactic texts are unable to accomplish. We have seen various avenues to developing these possibilities. “Madivinez” makes use of narrative, while “We Are Girls” delves into form, as each poem eventually professes faith in a gendered category. But this embrace of “madivinez” and “girls,” respectively, is tempered by a sizable ambivalence. The exertion of resistance in a constant “intervention” or “exposure” is a sound theoretical exercise, but for poets inhabiting the moment of a poem, it is not a tenable strategy for linguistic survival. Both Moïse and Tea find refuge and breathing room in ambivalence itself, building resistance that entails not just antagonism, but also the opportunity to rest.
Though Tea’s “Sell-Out” and Moraga’s “It’s the Poverty” disrupt relations of coherence and intelligibility more bluntly, they ultimately seek a similar space of refuge. Tea’s amplification of meanings and Moraga’s direct “exposure” of the dilemma that poetry poses stage “interventions” in language. But these tensions move beyond Butler’s theorization of resistance: they are not just dismantlings, but rather reimaginings and reconfigurations. Where theory seeks chiefly to dissect, the multiplicity of poetic language offers a simultaneous capacity to rebuild. Living gendered outside the mythical norm of perfect intelligibility requires a plurivocal consciousness and experience that poetic language is amply suited to express. These poems demonstrate that poetry is hardly a decorative or secondary medium of resistance. The performative acts of gender carry a profusion of coexistent resonances which an unambivalent, didactic text cannot easily capture. But poetry allows for the complexities, contradictions, and simultaneities of gender to coexist in language, providing similarly plurivocal opportunities for resistance. A poem demands risk, and a poem offers refuge: language spacious enough to hold all that gender must be.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. 1990. New York: Routledge Classics, 2006. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vol. 1. 1978. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. Print.
Grewal, Inderpal, and Caren Kaplan. “Transnational Feminist Cultural Studies: Beyond the Marxism/Poststructuralism/Feminism Divides.” Between Women and Nation: Nationalisms, Transnational Feminisms, and the State. Eds. Caren Kaplan, Norma Alarcón, and Minoo Moallem. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. 349-365. Print.
Moïse, Lenelle. “Madivinez.” YouTube. Video.
Moraga, Cherríe. “It’s the Poverty.” Loving in the War Years: Lo Qué Nunca Pasó por sus Labios. Boston: South End Press, 1983. 62-64. Print.
—. “Raw Experience.” Loving in the War Years: Lo Qué Nunca Pasó por sus Labios. Boston: South End Press, 1983. 48-49. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. 279-311. Print.
Tea, Michelle. “Sell-Out.” The Beautiful: Collected Poems. San Francisco: Manic D Press, 2004. 31. Print.
—. “We Are Girls.” The Beautiful: Collected Poems. San Francisco: Manic D Press, 2004. 149-151. Print.
Text of Poems
1. Lenelle Moïse, “Madivinez”
Note – I have included line breaks and punctuation as the poem’s pace suggests, but they are of course approximate.
In the apartment I share
with the woman I love
we have a bright yellow bookcase
used as an arts altar.
We shelve crayons, watercolor
glue for collages.
I keep my Haitian Creole-English dictionary
behind the colored pencils.
Its red cover taunts me daily.
I am often too afraid to open it.
I picked it up once, when I first got it
hungry for familiar words
that could make me feel home.
I tried to look up
but the little red book denied my existence.
I called you, remember?
“Mummy, how do you say lesbian in Creole?”
“Oh,” you said, “You say madivinez
but it’s not a positive word. It’s vulgar.
No one wants to be called madivinez.”
It’s like saying dyke.
But how can cruelty
sound so beautiful?
Madivinez sounds so glamorous,
something I want to be.
sounds so holy.
I thank you
I hang up the phone
to repeat my vulgar gift-word
as I write it into the dictionary
next to kè
Creole for heart.
Glamorous. Holy. Haitian. Dyke. Heart.
Something I want to be.
2. Michelle Tea, “We Are Girls”
we do not touch.
we are girls.
our nipples are jellybeans,
they are iron, they are
the steel tips of the boot
that is our body, they are fuses
and that is not always bad.
we do not touch.
we are girls.
our cunts are caves,
we turn each other inside out
to walk inside, invite each other in,
leave wet footprints on our bones,
have a house party, have a
treasure hunt because they say
there is something inside us girls
and we mean to find it, we
are oceans, deep as oceans
we are and it gets darker the deeper,
so dark we grow lights for eyes like
those sand-belly fish,
they are girls too
swimming in the shipwrecks in
the pieces of the past, broken
on coral, slick with sea.
you do not know what is down there,
you do not know.
we do not touch.
we are girls.
with an extra heart pumping double
we have too much blood
in our bodies
we drain, we
our guardian angels
are hiding switchblades
in their feathers.
those wings are muscle,
until the sun can’t hear
and whisper sweet subversions
into our ears,
they are girls too.
and we do not touch,
we shoot fear into our veins
fear fighting fear, this
is how we live, immune,
we have to be immune,
we are girls.
(and sometimes we touch like
a dream coming back, that dark
and sleeping void and you
remember, it is not empty and
safe, we are not safe and
our bodies know that,
every cell has evolved, they
grow towards pleasure always,
and if you feed them only pain, well,
and we are girls,
sometimes our voices are fingers, they
negate the need for hands,
when our words wrap like bone,
when our words, squeezed forever
beneath too much, too hot, too hurt,
burst like diamonds from coal
and cut scratches through the glass
you live in, you were warned.
we are girls.
and if we could find
the hand that feeds us
we’d bite, but we haven’t
been fed in so, so long
and we are hungry
and throwing a piece of meat
into the ghetto
you built us into
is not enough.
we have been hungry forever:
we were born hungry
through that open hungry mouth we
were born from our mothers’ hunger, we are
hunger birthing hunger birthing hunger
we grind our teeth in our sleep
we are girls.
and sometimes we can crawl
into each other like caves, we
can curl, we can sleep,
we are girls.
3. Michelle Tea, “Sell-Out”
how do men get away
with writing such truly
crappy poetry while i
beat my notebook
with my starving heart
here, in the mouth of my window
where you can always find me.
even david bowie
who I really do admire
crooning earnest trash
about death and youth
on my stereo
is it that simple
my old boyfriend advised me
to write romance novels,
stephen king, you’d be rich
he shrugged joke’s on them
and my very own mother
tried to push me
into writing for hallmark
like clitoris and what else,
labia, probably orgasm
it’s like they were spanish words,
german, something outside our
we said parlor instead of
living room, frigging
instead of fuck
but it was still a swear
and my grandfather
liked to call people
pips, an insult.
i guess this is regional
i mean, you’ve heard those words before,
4. Cherríe Moraga, “It’s the Poverty”
You say to me
“Take a drive with me
up the coast, babe
and bring your typewriter.”
All the way down the coast
you and she stopped at motels
your typewriters tucked under your free arm
dodging the rain fast to the shelter
of metal awnings, red and white
I imagine them—you two
snorting brandy in those vinyl rooms
propping your each machine onto an end table.
This story becomes you.
A fiction I invent with my ears
evoking heroism in the first
description of the weather.
my typewriter sticks in the wet.
I have been using the same ribbon
over and over and over again.
Yes, we both agree I could use
a new ribbon. But it’s the poverty
the poverty of my imagination, we agree.
I lack imagination, you say.
No. I lack language.
The language to clarify
my resistance to the literate.
Words are a war to me.
They threaten my family.
To gain the word to describe the loss,
I risk losing everything.
I may create a monster,
the word’s length and body
swelling up colorful and thrilling
looming over my mother, characterized.
Her voice in the distance
These are the monster’s words.
My family is poor.
Poor. I can’t afford
a new ribbon. The risk
of this one
to keep me moving
through it, accountable.
The repetition, like my mother’s stories retold,
each time reveals more particulars
gains more familiarity.
You can’t get me in your car so fast.
You tell me how you’ve learned
to write while you drive
how I can leave my droning machine behind
I say, not-so-fast
fast. The drone
a chant to my ears
a common blend of histories
Not so fast.
I am poorer than you.
In my experience, fictions
are for hearing about,
 At the same time, bodies cannot exist outside of gender – Butler notes this below, arguing that “the subject [cannot] preexist the deed [of gender].”
 Foucault argues that rendering particular discourses of sexuality taboo does not repress discourse; rather, discourse proliferates through apparent repression. So the silence of explicit discourse around sexuality and integrity in Tea’s family does not eradicate these concepts, but merely relocates their position in discourse. Despite these nuances, the idea of prohibiting explicit discourse remains useful here.
 Audre Lorde introduces this useful term in her essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” suggesting that each of us aspires to an impossible coherence of ideal identities, defined as the norm. Here, that “mythical norm” is the perfect fulfillment of an ideal gender through the enactment of all its attributes, fulfilling an impossible coherence.