National Poetry Month: Rita Mae Brown’s Army of Lovers

Over the past few weeks, we’ve celebrated National Poetry Month on the Ms. Blog with landmark poems from Joan Larkin, Pat Parker, Fran Winant and the anonymous authors of Because Mourning Sickness is a Staple in My Country. Now, we conclude the series with the poem “Sappho’s Reply,” from the number-one-selling book of lesbian poetry published by a feminist press in the 1970s: Rita Mae Brown’s debut collection The Hand That Cradles the Rock.

New York University Press first published The Hand that Cradles the Rock in 1971 with modest success, selling about 600 copies. In 1974, Diana Press republished the book and sold out at least two print runs, with over 4,000 copies–demonstrating the power of independent feminist presses to create hungry audiences.

When Rita Mae Brown first asked the Baltimore-based Diana Press to publish her second collection of poetry, Songs to a Handsome Woman, in 1972, the press agreed as long as Brown purchased the paper for the first, 2,000-copy print run. She did, and both Songs to a Handsome Woman and the second edition of The Hand that Cradles the Rock became bestsellers for Diana Press, boosted by the huge success of Brown’s first novel, Rubyfruit Jungle (published by the feminist press Daughters, Inc. in 1973). Rita Mae Brown’s literary achievements continued throughout the decade and to this day.

Beginning with the inversion in its title–which transforms a cliché for women as mothers into a call for a feminist revolution–The Hand the Cradles the Rock is equal parts playful and incisive, sensuous and tart, political and personal. In the poem “Sappho’s Reply,” Brown voices the Greek poet and lesbian icon Sappho as she addresses a gay and lesbian community that has “hungered in invisible chains.” With the poem’s iconic concluding line, “an army of lovers shall not fall,” Brown makes the new assertion that love, not mental illness, shapes gay and lesbian experiences.

Sappho’s Reply

Rita Mae Brown

 

My voice rings down through thousands of years

To coil around your body and give you strength,

You who have wept in direct sunlight,

Who have hungered in invisible chains,

Tremble to the cadence of my legacy:

An army of lovers shall not fail.

 

“Sappho’s Reply” from The Hand That Cradles the Rock, © 1974 by Rita Mae Brown, first published by New York University Press, reprinted by permission of The Wendy Weil Agency, Inc.

Further Reading:

Rita Mae Brown Website

Rita Mae Brown: From Lesbian Lit to Crime-Fighting Cats

Diana Press Bibliography

Poetry and The Furies

Comments

  1. The words are so vivid. I like the imagery and the connections she makes to important icons that give the message a more focused impact.

  2. Barbara Mor says:

    When this poem appeared with its memorable last line, some of us tried to remind feminists that “Armies of Lovers” HAVE LOST historically, up against Armies of Machines. Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere ‘lost’ against the superior
    techno-WarMachinery of the colonizing Europeans; just as the earlier Pagan European
    tribes ‘lost’ to the invading Roman armies. This process/paradigm has occurred all over the globe with depressing regularity whenever a highly hierarchic, rationally organized Imperial agenda has been advanced upon people living their ancient small-community based cultures in time-tested balance with the resources of their diverse environments. This process continues today, it uses the advanced imperial technological organization of the West (America in particular)as its weapon of threat, its wealth & media power as colonizing coercion, & its ideology — including religion — as its modes of overwhelming indigenous peoples’ cultures & needs with all the strong-arm propagandas of A War Machine. I think the question today should be: How does Western Feminism, including the specific urgent issues of American women (reproductive & economic rights, integral rights to education, health & safety from domestic/societal threats of violence, etc) link up to these global wars of the Huge Machine over living Human Beings. Women have Loved Women in hareems, in prison cells, in upperclass sororal groups & workingclass neighborhoods — this alone does not end the confinement within a larger patriarchal culture enforced by Law & something called ‘God.’ Women have been warrior Queens & tribal leaders & Amazonian
    fighters for their people all over the globe; this alone did not prevent their culture’s being overwhelmed & driven underground (criminalized) or brutally erased by imperial strategies & the sheer powers of a War Machine. An Army of Lovers is a beautiful image; we also need Brains full of solid knowledge of women’s history, & Fists not afraid to confront & take risks for the LivingWorld against the Powers of the DeadMachine.

  3. Six of one is probably the best love story I have ever read. Celeste was in love with ramelle and in love with Cora. Two different loves but still the same intensity. Hard to find two people that love you unconditionly. Celeste was blessed.

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