National Poetry Month: Yesterday (About Gertrude and Alice)

In her 1975 poem “Yesterday,” New York-based poet Fran Winant assumes the voice of Gertrude Stein addressing her lover, Alice B. Toklas. The poem animated what lesbians of 1970s knew but history often denied: the intimate and erotic connections between women.

Winant—a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front in 1969 and its sister group, Radicalesbians, in 1970—started Violet Press in 1971 in order to publish her first chapbook, Looking at Women. The press went on to print We Are All Lesbians (1973), one of the first lesbian poetry anthologies. Winant put out two more of her own collections through Violet Press, Dyke Jacket: Poems and Songs (1975) and Goddess of Lesbian Dreams: Poems and Songs (1980).

Winant’s poetry reflects the unfolding of lesbian feminist thought over the ’70s and touches on major milestones of the gay and lesbian movement. Her collections were notable for combining poems with songs and images, such as her portrait of Toklas (below). 

In “Yesterday” Winant voices Stein traveling through the French countryside with Toklas. She captures the domestic intimacy between Stein and Toklas, as well as the erotic desire.

 

 

 

 

Yesterday

(about Gertrude & Alice)

 

yesterday a lovely day

we traveled to the country

bouncing along in an automobile

the sun beat directly down

feeling it on my head helps me think

we bought melons at every town

until the car was filled

ate in a small restaurant

where the fish was excellent

fed the dog under the table

we returned at evening

to sit before a fire

smelling a fire-scent found in nostrils

not in air

pleasure swells from inside

to be made visible in things

that seem less than itself

in this way life is realized

through imagination

 

the present moment

cannot be described

without being changed

shadings of many days

make the moment that a poem is

that is why

the butter must be tasted

and the cow seen

again and again

it takes many books to equal

one taking in and letting out

of breath

 

a photograph caught us

walking our dog on a cobbled street

another caught us

standing in our garden

years later we are still there

new inventions

make the moment visible

but not in the same way as poetry

here

the curve of a melon

although elliptical

can be described as

an eternal circle

in which many rounds are represented

the curve of the sky, hills

and aspects of ourselves

can thus innocently be

handled and devoured

the sun that beats directly down

is like a certain light

that spreads from your fingertips

rearranging the world

as a painted canvas does

the smoothness of the tabletop

brings you close to me

although you are lying upstairs

asleep

the grain of the wood

is the line of your eyebrows

 

because you are always with me

it is not true

that I go off alone to write

 

“Yesterday,” copyright Fran Winant, reproduced with the permission of the author. This poem first appeared in Amazon Poetry: An Anthology of Lesbian Poetry (Out & Out Books, 1975; republished as Lesbian Poetry in 1981 ), co-edited by Joan Larkin and Elly Bulkin. It was reprinted in Winant’s Dyke Jacket: Poems and Songs (Violet Press, 1976).

Biographical Sketch of Fran Winant

Winant on GLF and Radicalesbians

Fran Winant Bibliography

Comments

  1. This is a stunning, musical, true poem, and Fran Winant’s poetry always surprises and delights me. The sensuousness and simplicity of this voice is memorable.

    The ending,

    because you are always with me
    it is not true
    that I go off alone to write

    is a profound insight about Stein and Toklas (I found Kay Turner’s 1999 collection of Stein’s and Toklas’ love notes, Baby Precious Always Shines, an illumination). But more — Winant’s poem reminds me of how, in that 1970′s flowering, women were writing to women and about women, with consciousness of and support from our connections to one another, and discovering the work of foremothers, like Stein, Rukeyser, Dickinson.

    Dyke Jacket is a great book, beautiful inside and out, and Winant deserves to be read over and over.

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