Creeds of a kind we’ve always had
To crouch by our dim fireside.
And here some gossiping wench arose
And the worth of some good name died
Yea, the whole stale world went rocking
To the sting of her poisoned heels,
As a sky-car mangles the stars
For lack of the guiding wheels.
Though all of us sin most fully
When hushed in our neighbourly sweats,
Yet sometimes a man goes empty
For the urge of things, and forgets.
We stick to the same old pattern,
All daubed and kissed and marred,
But I’ll use my own gray plaster
And I’ll build me a personal God.
I’ll breathe out his flaccid belly,
I’ll cup out his sightless eyes,
I’ll sob in the labour bending,
As I handle his plastic thighs.
And he shall be rash of judgment,
And slow in the use of the rod.
My God shall giggle in spite of himself,
In the way of a personal God.
He shall heed no other’s message;
He shall follow no dusty path;
He’ll believe in no written pity;
Nor yet in a written wrath;
He’ll breed no circle of platters
Nor take root in your yearly fees;
He’ll ask no patient toll of tears
Nor the terrible toll of the knees.
So, when all of you flock to your fancy,
The God that is always the same,
My God shall halt and be human
And his judgment shall halt and be lame
Yea, the devil came down your pass,
Blown in on the strength of the breeze,
And because your Gods were duplicates
He shattered you on his knees.
I’ll work my clay as I find it,
All hushed as it lies in the sod,
And he shall be built for better or worse
In the way of a Personal God.
· From The Book of Repulsive Women and other poems, some previously unpublished, by Djuna Barnes (Carcanet/Fyfield)
One of our first class discussions focused on how the identity of the author impacts our view of the piece. The Picture of Dorian Gray is read in classes like ours, simply because the author was “queer.” I will explicate this poem, and discuss its meaning for me as a queer woman.
This blog post is a loose explication of this poem, written by someone we assume to be a “queer” author, (“queer” in quotations, because even today we haven’t managed to quite figure out what that word means) and explicated by someone who is queer. I don’t pretend to know the true meaning behind Barnes’ words, and I don’t know if her sexual identity and this poem are linked.
When Professor Dierkes-Thrun first told us that all blog posts would be anonymous, I raised my eyebrows a bit. First of all, the idea of having a blog for a Comparative Literature class seemed to be a stretch, but then to give people the cover of anonymity-that was a stretch I was not willing to make. I think that if one has something that needs to be said, one shouldn’t be afraid to put a name to it. As long as no one’s life is in danger, what was the big deal?
And then I read this poem.
I feel I will be able to be more honest in this poem’s explication because my name is not attached to it, than if it were. And I hope our readers, wherever in the world they are, will read this poem and my interpretation of it and forgive my conjectures about Barnes identity and references to my own.
The first line that struck me in this poem was, “But I’ll use my own gray plaster/ And I’ll build me a personal God.” As someone who grew up in a homogenous culture, where everyone belonged to the same faith, it wasn’t until I left for college that it occurred to me that I could start exploring and creating my own spirituality, much like I was uncovering my sexuality.
“And he shall be rash of judgment,/ And slow in the use of the rod.” This line caused me to feel a sort of kinship with Barnes. “Was she upset by tales of a wrathful God as well?” I thought to myself.
Continuing on, the line “My God shall halt and be human/ And his judgment shall halt and be lame” further underscored my newly found kinship with Barnes. She lived in Greenwich Village before Stonewall, and her defined God is one who is fallible, human and approachable.
The final two lines, “And he shall be built for better or worse/ In the way of a Personal God” reflects my own personal ideas about religion, and creating it “for better or worse.” By using those words, Barnes implies her relationship to her own personal creator is one wherein she is married to her spirituality. Good times, bad times-she’s made her choice.
With this poem, Barnes reflects a current trend in the LGBTQ community. We create our community, relationships outside of a heteronormative world and our own spirituality.
As a community, we do not have to define what “queer” means. For each other, our authors or even ourselves. Queer literature, and our interpretation of it is one we create. Poems like this create the needed space to discuss our own personal experiences and create a dialogue with the rest of our community.