Susan Stinson’s poem “A Practical Guide to Successful Living” is very brief: “Fat girls let your shorts ride up / Lie down on the cold spring dirt / and get mud on your fat backs” (Stinson 1). Although Stinson’s poem is quite short, it is incredibly meaningful.
I am taking a Fat Studies course with Prof. Farrell, and recently we read an essay written by Joyce L. Huff about how fat bodies fit into space. In her essay, Huff unpacks and analyzes Southwest’s fatphobic decision to make fat travelers purchase two airplane seats, therefore paying double the amount their slender peers have to. Huff argues that “… this body has come increasingly to be seen as capable of adapting itself to spaces constructed to meet the needs of corporations rather than those of individuals”. I agree wholeheartedly. Our society pushes limited, standardized items, such as clothing sizes, and people are expected to figure out ways to squeeze in. When Stinson commands girls to let their shorts ride up and their bodies spill out, she is rejecting society’s want for malleable bodies that fit in. Women should not need to lose enough weight to fit into provided clothes, nor should they have to shroud their bodies in clothes that cover up what society deems unsightly.
I also think that Stinson is equating rejecting clothes that don’t fit to embracing queer identities. Much like the way fat girls spill out of restrictive clothes, queer women ‘come out’ of restrictive spaces that value heteronormativity. Moreover, Stinson also writes to “Lie down on the cold spring dirt / and get mud on your fat backs” (Stinson 1). By directly connecting naked skin and earth, Stinson is writing about retreating to nature to live a truer identity. This implies that queer, fat women will be happiest when living as outlaws from society’s heteronormative, slender values. Stinson’s beleif of finding refuge in nature reminds me of queer poems such as Song of Myself, and queer communities such as the Radical Faeries, as both urge queer individuals to grow comfortable with their identities in natural environments.
Ultimately, Stinson’s message is important: she encourages women to find happiness through embracing unique identities and refuting society’s hopes to jam everyone into a uniform space. Additionally, instead of expanding standardization, Stinson healthily encourages queer, fat women to start with identities that are closest to nature- and to accept true identities through escaping societal norms.
In Allison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, there is a brief comic strip that takes place in a Howard Johnson’s in middle America. Prior to this episode, the women are driving from a different city to Washington DC to attend an LGBT rights march. From the beginning of the vignette, it is clear that the women are uncomfortable in a rural setting. The comic’s illustrations portray the women as angry and nervous. Someone complains that the chili has meat in it, and Mo is frustrated that a child asked his mom if she is a boy or a girl. The episode gets incredibly tense when two white cowboys approach their table, and Harriet grips her fork as if she is prepared to physically defend herself by stabbing one of the men. Thankfully, the women assumed wrong; it appears that the men are a couple from Iowa who are also on their way to the same march.
Dykes to Watch Out For primarily focuses on a queer community in an urban setting, but for a brief moment, this episode focuses on queer, urbanized bodies in rural spaces. These women are clearly used to urban anonymity and ability to live in queer communities, and those commodities are taken from them once they are in a rural space. Out of defense, the women insult surrounding people, calling them “corn fed kids” and “escapees from Heritage USA” (Bechdel 17). Additionally, it is important to note that the women appear closed off and distant from everyone else in the restaurant, which is a stark contrast to Cafe-Topaz’s close-knit atmosphere. Based on these observations it is clear that these women assume that rural spaces are not only homophobic areas to escape, but are also areas that lack queerness entirely. Because they are in a rural space, these women assume they are the only queer people at the HoJos. Proof of this mindset is further reinforced after the two rural-looking men from Iowa tell the women that they are also on their way to the LGBT rights march in DC– illustrations portray Harriet and Mo’s faces as shocked and surprised before looking relieved.
The idea of rural queerness is not new to me, as I have just spent the past half a semester reading stories that illustrate these identities and communities. Yet for many people, this episode of Dykes to Watch Out For might be a revelation. Through consistently written stories of marginalization, many people believe that rural spaces are unsafe for queer bodies and should be escaped. I acknowledge that these narratives are important to read and that homophobia in the countryside is a real issue. Yet sometimes these narratives go so far to say that queerness in rural spaces do not exist, and homophobia exists because queer bodies are incredibly rare and easily singled out. I think that Bechdel does a really nice job of acknowledging the lesbians’ discomfort of spending a night in middle America AND acknowledging that the main characters in Dykes to Watch Out For are not the only queer people in the county.
Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain is chock full of natural simile and metaphor, but perhaps the most consistent natural metaphor is fire, as it represents Jack and Ennis’ romance. At the beginning of the novella, Jack viewed Ennis as “night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain” (Proulx 9). This is meant to symbolize that Jack is beginning to feel desire for specifically Ennis, and no one else. When their relationship deepens further than friendship, the bed is described as “deep enough, warm enough, and in a little while their intimacy deepened considerably… Jack seized [Ennis’] left hand and brought it to his cock. Ennis jerked away as if he’d touched fire…” (Proulx 14). It is important to notice that the bed is described as deep and warm, which are the same conditions needed to kindle a fire. Yet fire itself is only described when Ennis touches Jack, meaning that the “fire” is something that happens specifically between them.
After the first time Ennis and Jack have sex, fire imagery and metaphor broadens itself to Brokeback mountain’s environment. “They never talked about sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow…” (Proulx 15). At this point, Proulx is describing a fire metaphor that exists in natural imagery, which is somewhat broader than Jack and Ennis’s relationship. Yet even with natural imagery’s involvement, Proulx only draws comparisons to fire when Jack and Ennis have sex, meaning that Jack and Ennis are now immersed in this personal, romantic, and passionate world they had the freedom to create on Brokeback mountain.
Natural metaphor has appeared frequently in our assigned readings but each element is used to describe the queer community through a different lens. Adrienne Rich uses water metaphor in her poem Study of History, as the river she writes about represents both the individual queer body and queer community (see my first blog post for a deeper analysis). However, Study of History never focuses on relationships or interactions between queer people. Fire metaphor in Brokeback Mountain seemingly fills in the gaps that water metaphor leaves behind; it acknowledges the beauty of queer connections, queer relationships, and queer romances. Bodies of water, such as rivers, seem to last as long as time; they erode and divert channels to freely flow into horizons we cannot see the end of. Yet fires are kindled in very intimate, specific conditions, and burn brightly before fizzling out. While it is important to study queerness as an individual or communal body, acknowledging the brightly burning, unique relationships that queer bodies create adds a new level of depth and beauty to analyzing what it means to be queer.
Descriptors found in “Nadine, resting on her neighbor’s stoop”, from Judy Grahn’s Work of a Common Woman, use urban language to portray a queer woman named Nadine. Metaphor and simile peppered throughout this poem indicate that Nadine is both a structure built into and a constructor of her environment. For example, the metaphor “she is made of grease, and metal, with a hard head” could be describing Nadine as a greasy, metallic machine or a construction worker, if “hard head” is meant to connote a construction worker’s hard hat. This is crucial to notice because both interpretations juxtapose one another– while machines are man-made structures that mindlessly work until they break down, a construction worker is an independent person who actively chooses to build. Nadine is soundly built into her society, yet she has influence over how she is built in.
This duality continues to appear later in the poem when Grahn writes “She is a mud-chinked cabin in the slums, sitting on a doorstep counting rats and raising 15 children, half of them her own”. Once again, we see Nadine as a structural part of society. Using “cabin” as metaphor expresses Nadine as an essential element to this community, as no person could survive without shelter. Yet this sentence also depicts Nadine’s personal contribution to the community when Grahn reveals half of the children Nadine cares for are her own. And even more importantly, half the children are not Nadine’s. Whether or not the children are biologically hers, Nadine spends her time constructing childhoods for 15 future adults. Again, there is the trope of construction and constructor.
After sifting through other queer portraits, I found that Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself greatly contrasts Grahn’s portrayal of Nadine. Whitman uses natural imagery to represent defiance of societal constructs. When he writes of animals he announces “I see them and myself in the same old law.” (Whitman 11). By associating himself to the animal kingdom, he frees himself of a rule-abiding city. Additionally, as Nadine is built into an urban setting, Whitman places himself in a land hardly colonized by urban society and cisgender, heteronormative ideology. As a result Whitman is not woven into any societal construction; he solely constructs.
Perhaps Grahn was reworking Whitman’s portrayal of a queer life through Nadine’s portrait, as Song of Myself is not realistic for the commoner. Whitman had the privilege to venture west and construct his own norms in a largely uncolonized space. Freeing and joyous as that sounds, opportunities such as that do not appear frequently. Like Grahn writes, “the common woman is as common as a nail”: meaning queer people are systematically and deeply built into colonized structures. However, it is important to recognize that queer people are then also what keeps society held together. They are essential. Grahn writes portraits of queer women that are built into societal structure, yet drawing simile to a nail both recognizes and thanks the work queer women do to strengthen and construct our society.
In her poem Study of History, Adrienne Rich first writes: “The mind of a river / as it might be you”. Rich writes this poem entirely in the second person, making the reader wonder whether she is addressing the entire queer community or a singular queer individual.
It is important to first notice Rich’s metaphor. Not only does she choose to write about water; she chooses to write about a body of water, a river in particular. This is crucial because body is a word used to represent either a collective community or a particular individual. Words and terms such as “upstream”, “below the water line”, and “which of your channels diverted” imply that this body is complex, fluid and diverse. This could represent vast diversity within the queer community, but could also be interpreted as the fluid complexity of one’s sexuality/gender.
The last line of the first stanza and the entire second stanza describe external factors that destroy the river. When Rich writes of “Lying in the dark, to think of you / and your harsh traffic / gulls pecking at your rubbish… pleasure cruisers wiltlessy careening you”, it is made clear that this river has been exploited; it is polluted and decaying. This forces the reader to not only recognize society’s general impact on the queer community, but also recognize that societal norms restrict/slow down an individual’s queer identity. Use of gerunds in the first and second stanza not only imply that this is the river’s current state, but a continuous state that will likely flow into the future.
Rich also indicates that past trauma further impacts the river’s decrepit state. The third stanza focuses more on “what was done to you upstream” (Rich). When inquiring about the past Rich asks the reader “what powers trepanned”. After a quick google search, I found out that trepanning (now very illegal) was a surgery much like a lobotomy, but instead of an ice pick through the eye socket doctors used a drill entering through the temple. Separating essential nerve endings in the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain, doctors believed this surgery would guide queer people back to an acceptable sexuality. As a community, Rich could be referring to the literal surgery, therefore reflecting on a collective, historical trauma many queer bodies experienced. Yet also, her use of trepanning could refer to the restrictive gender/sexuality norms that were metaphorically “drilled into our heads” from a young age. Homophobic ideology becomes so ingrained into our society that queer bodies are likely to suffer from internalized homophobia.
Therefore, Study of History reflects on a universal queer history, as the river represents histories shaping the collective and individual queer body.